A model for all grandparents

I’ve often wondered what kind of grandparents St. Anne and St. Joachim were. Did St. Anne dote over Jesus because he was her only grandchild? Did St. Joachim slip him a piece of candy when Mary and Joseph weren’t looking? Did they spoil him with gifts at Hanukkah? Did they babysit?

Grandparents play an important role in the development of every child—even the Christ Child—and although their efforts were never recorded by the Gospel writers, you can be sure Anne and Joachim did their part and can serve as an example for Catholic grandparents everywhere. After all, look at the outstanding job they did raising Our Lady.

With Baby Boomers among the growing ranks of grandparents, it’s more important than ever to step up to the plate and set a good example the way that their predecessors in the Greatest Generation did. My daughters still amuse themselves with stories about my mother and father. I only hope I can do as well, although sometimes I have my doubts.

Grandparents are fundamental to family life now that both parents are often in the workforce. I recently got stuck behind a school bus and noticed that boys and girls were getting picked up by smiling grandparents. I guess grandparents are an inexpensive resource in a competitive job market. I know from firsthand experience because my wife, Sandy, and I regularly watch our 3-year-old grandson Gabriel, although I confess it’s more work than play, and by the time we get home, I’m ready for a nap…and so is the dog.

Both my parents worked to support our family, and for a number of years I lived with my grandmother on the East Side of Bridgeport.

She was an Italian immigrant who was widowed in her early 40s. She raised nine kids during the Great Depression with no safety net, and she raised them by herself. During the years I lived with her, she would take me across the street to St. Mary Church for daily Mass, which was celebrated in a mysterious language called Latin that I couldn’t understand.

Every afternoon at lunchtime, I would lie on the floor of her apartment in front of the stove with my coloring book and crayons, while she baked two sweet potatoes, one for her and one for me. Then, she sat nearby in her rocking chair, praying the rosary. Very often, she would doze off but miraculously wake up just in time to take the potatoes out of the oven.

Years later, I still remember that simple pleasure and those moments together. And years later, I still have a devotion to the rosary because of her. Even now, in anxious and frightening times, I’ll whisper to her, “Please pray for me,” because I’m convinced of the intercessory power of her prayers. Appropriately, her name was Angelina, which means “little angel.”

Back when our children were young, our oldest daughter would stay with my parents on the weekend because four kids could be a little overwhelming for us. My mother, who was the director of religious education in her parish, would take her to Mass and make sure she knew her prayers and catechism. And every May, she had our daughters participate in the crowning of the Blessed Mother.

I confess that I could be a better power of example for my grandchildren—Lennox, Mason and Gabriel—but they tend to bring out the last vestiges of the child in me, and sometimes, it’s all about toys, candy and fooling around.

Gabriel, 3, recently told me that broccoli was his favorite food, if you can believe that—and I couldn’t. He loves broccoli so much that at a dinner party, he stole some off his uncle’s plate when he wasn’t looking. That peculiar obsession ended, however, when I introduced him to Mike and Ike candy. He would have eaten the whole box if I didn’t stop him.

Then, I asked, “What do you like better, broccoli or Mike and Ike?” His response was instantaneous—“Mike and Ike!” Hey, that’s what grandfathers are for.

I’m really proud that his parents are teaching him to say his prayers, and whenever we go out to dinner, we let him lead us in grace, to the amusement of other people in the restaurant.

Of the many things grandparents can do—from helping with college tuition to buying First Communion dresses and babysitting—the most important is setting a strong example of faith. It’s something that grandchildren will always remember.

St. Anne and St. Joachim, please pray for us grandparents and our families.

“It Was the Season of Light…”

“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” wrote Charles Dickens in his memorable opening to A Tale of Two Cities. Though meant to illustrate the dichotomy of life in the 18th century, this line has always instead reminded me of Advent. The English teacher in me loves reading this novel with my students in December as the truest and most spiritual “season of light” is upon us. Still, we cannot escape the contrast of darkness as the winter days become shorter, colder, and gloomier with those opportunities for physical light dimming even as the light of Christ’s birth grows within us.

Leaving the house each day at 6:35 am, I see little brightness other than the street lights emanating a florescent glow and the harsh beams of cars flying past me. But as I travel up the Merritt Parkway to greet those students who I hope will be as enamored of Dickens as I am, one light illuminates the darkness of each December morning in a way the others cannot. Rounding a curve near the exit to Route 8, I glance to the left and see, perched atop a rocky hill, a miniature Christmas tree, settled among a small grove of pines—a solitary glimmer, an encouraging beacon. I can’t help but smile as it awakens me.

In these darkest mornings, I watch for it as I approach that curve, ready to glimpse it and annoyed at myself on the days that I don’t—like today. Preoccupied by nagging thoughts of my mental to-do list, I missed it. Throughout my ride, I felt the absence of that momentary sight and pondered why it bothered me so. It will be there tomorrow, I reasoned, or will it? How often do we miss a chance to bear witness to those small instances that may bring us great joy? And how often do we take them for granted? Too often.

That tiny tree offers a sense of comfort that little else can at 6:35 am—not the heated seats in my Honda, not the thermos of coffee, or the carols on the Bluetooth. Maybe it’s because it was placed there by an anonymous individual, one looking not for recognition but to simply provide that glimmer, that beacon of the light that we all need to see.

Like the flickering flames of the Advent wreath and the twinkling candles in neighbors’ windows, this little glowing pine tree comes humbly in its unpretentious, unassuming form.  Despite the surrounding darkness, be it the approaching winter solstice, personal struggle, or collective strife, one single brilliance has the power to enlighten us, for as John 1:5 writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

As we wait for the truest light that is the joy of Christ’s birth, I take personal comfort and joy each morning in the welcoming glow of that miniature tree, remembering that throughout the “season of darkness,” I’ll continue to keep watch as I round the curve toward the “season of light.”

Breaking the Second Commandment

Every so often I rent a movie to watch on my iPad because I don’t own a television. We’re not Amish. We just gave up TV when we realized the entertainment industry was undermining everything we were trying to do as parents.
With four daughters, it was virtually impossible to monitor what they were watching, so in a fit of what I like to think was justifiable anger, I pulled the cable box out of the wall and went to Walmart, where I bought a set of rabbit ears, which let them watch two channels for the news, the weather and maybe “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or “Little House on the Prairie.” No more “Jerry Springer,” no more “Dawson’s Creek,” no more “Beverly Hills 90210.” That was a while ago and things have gotten immeasurably worse.
I eschew R-rated movies although PG13 can be pretty downright vulgar too. When I’m looking to rent a film, I usually google it and ask the question, “Why is (film name) rated R?” You’d be terrified by the answers. There are generally a large number of violent acts, sex acts, deaths, dismemberments…and the requisite “pervasive language,” which in simple terms means a whole lotta swearing. They say you are what you eat. Well, you certainly are what you watch.
The other day, I came upon a few movies I thought might be appropriate and I rented what seemed like the most innocuous possibility of all—“The Bad News Bears” with Walter Matthau, a classic kid comedy that most of us have probably seen several times since it was released in 1976. Rated PG, it seemed like it would be my kind of movie, so I settled down for a predictable plot with a few laughs along the way.
Now to be sure, there was no gratuitous bloodshed or recreational sex in “Bad News Bears.” However, I found plenty of swearing and, most disturbing of all, what was once called “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” which in modern America and Hollywood is perfectly acceptable. Everybody does it, right? Well, everybody in the movie industry certainly does it.
I lost count of the times Walter Matthau took God’s name in vain or used the name of Jesus as a curse. Every time he did, I cringed and said a prayer for forgiveness.
Forgive us, Lord, for using your name as a curse, for taking it in vain, which has become commonly accepted, along with four-letter words we sprinkle throughout our conversations at work, at home, on the street, in the bar and everywhere else.
I still remember being in fourth grade when we learned the Ten Commandments from the Sisters of St. Joseph. I wasn’t quite sure what the words “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” meant, but I figured it must be a pretty important commandment if God made it number two…when murder was number five and stealing was number seven.
A few years ago, I really started to pay attention to my language and launched a major personal campaign to stop using profanity even when I was insanely angry. I got so bold that when someone used Jesus’ name as a curse, I would object. As you can imagine, I didn’t get many invitations to sports bars and rock concerts.
But this is important stuff. If we don’t tell our kids, family, friends and coworkers that we don’t like to hear God’s name tossed around like a common curse, who will?
Whenever you hear anyone taking God’s name in vain, ask for forgiveness for that person and say a prayer of reparation.
Our faith is pretty explicit on this topic. The Catechism says, “The name of the Lord is holy. The second commandment prescribes respect for the Lord’s name…and forbids the abuse of God’s name and every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ and also of the Virgin Mary.”
God’s name should only be used to bless, praise or glorify and not be abused in hateful words, false oaths, anger, reproaches or defiance of God.
Never forget the fundamentals: “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”


“In the soft light of an autumnal day, When Summer gathers up her robes of glory, And like a dream of beauty glides away.”
(Sarah Whitman, A Still Day in Autumn)
Already it is September. The sun edges south. Days shorten. Nights deepen. Summer is already a fading memory. The waning flowers are living their last days. A medieval poet said it well: “Now fade rose and lily-flower that for a while bore its sweet savor in summer, that sweet time.”
You see the changes in the way the shadows fall. Day by day, the shadows grow longer. And there is a slightly different tincture to the light—a softening. The grass looks a bit exhausted. The first dead leaves of a new autumn scrape on the sidewalks. People walk faster, and there is usually a sharper appetite.
Before the month is over, there will be the flight of geese going south for the winter. At first we hear the distant gabble. Then we see them penciled against the morning sky. They fly in their lovely wedge and always have a leader who pilots the flock. Their sound is oddly triumphant and exciting, but it is also the sound of another summer gone and the certainty of November and December.
The birds are busy. They begin to gather in restless flocks, migration on their minds. They often cloister on wires, rallying for the long trip. But mainly they are incessantly in motion, hoping, flying, alighting. You hear the change in the birds calls. There are fewer songs of ecstasy. Now they are filled with the excitement of migration time. They put on their pre-migration fat, often in grapevines and berry bushes. They will act this way for a time, and then be on their way. They may cover hundreds of miles in a day. Most of the swallows have already gone; some of the robins have left. There are those winter birds that decline to join the seasonal escape.
By the middle of the month the katydids and the crickets, which made the darkness hum and quiver, have pretty much run their course.  There’s quiet to the darkness now.
September brings back the routines and chores we have laid down during the summer. There are the old routines to take up again. There are the rituals of the new school year. Classes begin; teachers and others return to work. There are the school bus and train schedules, homework and soccer practice. Some fill the woodshed with firewood. We sink back into the old routines. For some, the changes are energizing and exhilarating, a time of reinvigoration and rediscovered energy. Parents are often relieved to have children in school again.
Now the furnace sighs and there is the sound of leaf blowers. The beaches are empty. There are the barren porches where leaves are gathering.
Even in September the year turns toward color in the woodlands. Maples turn first. Color tiptoes through its treetops, rouging a few leaves that turn yellow and red. The dogwoods turn early. The elm trees particularly look tired and begin to shed old leaves early. Then little by little the other trees follow.
September brings some of the loveliest days of the year. The sun has lost its summer fire, and days tend to be crisp and clear. There’s the sparkling freshness of a September morning. Thomas Hood wrote that in an early September morning it can be like “silence listening to silence.” There is the deep blue sky of September, and wonderful afternoons. with mild breezes and comfortable temperatures. There is that relaxation from summer heat. There are the soft September twilights, and sunsets are often brilliant and triumphant.
“Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”.
(John Keats, To Autumn)
But September knows the limitations of life. In September, one can almost hear the sound of passing time. September tells us that nothing stays, all changes. Beauty passes, however rare it be. Nothing lasts in this world. But beauty lingers in those autumn shadows.
“And time passes, passing like a leaf…time passing, fading like a flower. Time passing like a river flowing. Time passing.” The words are those of Thomas Wolfe, in September we have a sense of those words.
September is insistently a time of remembering. Each September finds me with a sweet, faint melancholy. There is a haunting sorrow for the dead, for all those who were gone and would not come again. I sigh for lost years. Van Gogh understood there’s a certain melancholy that belongs to autumn. And, of course, September warns us that winter days lie ahead.

It’s not a party until someone counts the shingles

We had a nice little party. Invited some friends. Among our guests were the Freshies and the Frazzles.
The Freshies are a couple who are older than my wife and I by about a decade. The Frazzles are younger than us by about the same amount. We are all at different stages of the game. My wife and I enjoyed the glimpse that hanging with them gave us of days gone by—and days to come.
The Frazzles, as their fake name is meant to suggest, are still in the early stages of what social scientists call “family formation.” They have two children, ages four and two, and expect to have more. They are exhausted all the time. Nothing adds up and everything seems harder than it needs to be.
“Thank you so much for inviting us,” a sincere Mrs. Frazzle told me while bending over to reattach her two-year-old’s velcro sandal strap. “What a treat it is finally to be, you know, talking with adults.”
She laughed, but I knew she really meant it. As I topped up her red wine I remembered just how desperate it was in the early days. The daily routine of bottles, naps, snacks, strollers, diapers, bedtime stories and midnight pharmacy trips felt like it would never end. And then miraculously it did.
Our youngest is now in big-boy pants and (mostly) sleeping through the night. Our oldest squeezes in volunteer opportunities between texting her school friends and studying her Latin and biology. It feels like we’ve closed the book on that first chapter of family life—the one that leaves you feeling constantly frazzled.
Don’t get me wrong: The current chapter has its challenges. But they’re different. And we’re better-rested.
The Freshies, as their fake name implies, are extremely well-rested. Their skin glows and their clothes are without stain. They appear to get regular haircuts. Mr. Freshie took delight in circling the outside of our house, remarking on its construction.
“I like the shingle work on your roof,” he said, sipping a can of flavored sparkling water and shielding his eyes from the sun with his free hand. “Oh wow, you got three layers on there. That’s unusual. A lotta towns don’t allow that.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I envied his interest. Shingles and roofs must be the kinds of things that really grab your attention when you no longer have to do two hours’ worth of dish washing every night after dinner.
Two of the Freshies’ three children have flown the coop. Only their extremely mellow 16 year-old still lives at home. They have nearly run their race. They have kept the faith.
“Do you miss your older sisters now that you’re alone with your parents?” I asked young Ms. Freshie, the sole nesting daughter.
“Uh, no,” she said. “Not really.”
“You aren’t lonely?”
I turned to Mrs. Freshie, who was munching on a fruit plate.
“What about you?” I asked. “You must really miss having the older kids banging around the house.” She wrinkled her nose and wobbled her head in the signal for “yes and no.”
“Of course I miss them, but let’s just say we’ve adjusted to their absence,” she said. The Freshies rested at noticeable ease, as if all—or most—of their troubles were behind them.
Gosh, I nearly forgot to mention the Fratties—the four young singletons we invited to provide what my wife called “age balance.” The only thing weighing on them was where they would go for dinner. Yet they seemed charmed by us midlife people with our alien concerns. One day, perhaps, the Fratties will grow up, get married, and invite me to their own houses. Perhaps I will comment on their roof shingles.
After the party broke up my wife and I convened for the after-action report.
“What fun,” she said. “The little Frazzle kids are so sweet. I could eat them up.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to sit back and enjoy a party as thoroughly as the Freshies did?” I asked.
“Probably,” she said. “Though it’s hard to picture.”
I agreed. Then I got to work. All those dishes weren’t going to wash themselves.

What does our heart look like?

I recently moved to a new apartment and it taught me a bit about furniture, which taught me a bit about people.

I never had to buy my own furniture, so the process was a bit lost on me. My focus was on finding the best price. What I didn’t realize is that quality is also a big factor.

I figured that wood was wood. But as my friend, my sister and I tried to build a piece of furniture that I ordered online and the “wood” split, I realized that there might be a big difference between what is real and what is fake.

In contrast, I had also ordered a few pieces of furniture that were older, but refurbished. The original pieces were solid wood, but they were painted in a way that made them look beautiful.

This brand new piece looked nice on the outside, but it was made of something fake on the inside. While the older pieces may not have looked as nice on the outside, they were true, solid wood on the inside.

This made me think about our tendencies as humans to want to put on a façade to the world. If we follow all the rules of the Church and we say the right prayers and look like we’re doing what’s right, then people will think we are good. But what does our heart look like? Is it real, solid and genuine or is it fake, pliable and easily broken?

In contrast, maybe our sin is visible on the outside. We’re not proud of it, but we openly admit that we have failings. Maybe we struggle a bit with the rules; maybe we don’t always get it right. But our heart is solid, we genuinely love God, do our best and strive to do what is right every day.

I don’t know about you but I would rather go with the second option. When we acknowledge that we are human, we can make genuine connections through our openness and vulnerability. When our hearts are in the right place, versus looking “right” to the rest of the world, that is when true love of neighbor can occur. When we reach beyond the things that seem important to the real heart of the matter, true change can occur.

I think of Mary Magdalene. Others knew of her sin, looking down on her for it, calling her unclean. But she was so very close to the heart of Jesus. She knew very much what it was like to be human, to have failings, and yet she was so very close to the Divine. She may not have been welcome at the temple, but she knelt at the feet of Jesus. And he loved her, ate with her, welcomed her and called her his own when others would have turned her away.

In a February 2015 homily, Pope Francis spoke to a group of Cardinals, referencing Jesus’ act of healing a leper: “Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (John 10).”

The Pope continued, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners’ (Lk 5:31-32).”

This is the way I desire to be, the way that he calls us to be. The kind of open vulnerability that requires us to acknowledge our failings enough to be able to meet others where they are and accompany them on their path to Christ. I don’t want to just look like I’m doing what is right on the outside. Rather, I want my heart to reflect that of Christ’s, like a piece of furniture with inherent value.

Come, Follow Me

He was eighteen. He was just eighteen. He was outgoing and generous, an athlete, a scholar and a volunteer. He could have been my child, my student, my neighbor. He was someone’s child, student, neighbor. And he was my daughter’s friend.

When the news flew over social media of the senseless accident that had killed Chris, the anguish I saw in my daughter’s face was profound. “How could he be gone?” she said in disbelief, remembering shared smoothies with their friends, endless card games and hours of volunteering. “He was just here.”

There were no answers I could give for this shocking loss, no comfort other than endless consoling and a presence to listen. At the memorial, some comfort, she said, came from seeing a photo of Chris with a cross around his neck, convincing herself that he must be in Heaven, though the image of a strong, healthy eighteen-year-old in Heaven was almost impossible to comprehend. Even the hope that he was at peace could not ease all the grief. Never before had she faced such a tragedy. At four, she barely remembered her grandfather’s funeral, and when her great aunt passed away last year, her death at eighty-eight seemed somehow easier to accept. But eighteen? He was not ready, everyone said. Or was he?

She was ninety-one. She was a steadfast ninety-one. She savored a good lobster roll and treasured her sunflowers. She was a loving wife, patient grandma, dedicated choir member – and my good friend’s mother. When her body and mind waned irreparably, she surrendered them in her usual quiet manner. The family undeniably grieved, but she was ready, my friend said, having had her fill of all life could offer: the joys of marriage and children, the fulfillment of gratifying work, the abundance of pleasures and sorrows that naturally encompass close to a century of living. The news that Theresa had died came just hours after the news about Chris, but our reactions were as different as the people themselves – and their deaths.

Two lives, well-lived and well-loved. While we accepted one passing with understanding, we struggled to process the other. With Theresa’s came a sense of peace; with Chris’ a sense of devastation. As I sat at Theresa’s funeral, her pastor consoled the family by recounting her great strength throughout the many challenges of her life, reminding them how that strength came from her love of God who now welcomed her home.

And, I realized, Chris had been welcomed home too, though it appeared to us all that he was not “ready” in the sense that Theresa supposedly was. How are we ready? I wondered. When are we ready? Will we be ready when God chooses to welcome each of us home too? Though a teenager tragically taken as his life is just beginning lives a far shorter time than an elderly grandmother submitting to dementia, is one any less ready than the other? And how can anyone make that determination when it’s God’s choice to call us when He alone decides? As Catholics, while we enjoy our own smoothies and card games, lobster rolls and sunflowers, we keep God at the forefront of it all, guiding us to our own readiness and helping us to become worthy of His call, whenever it may come.

As the choir eased the congregation from Theresa’s funeral with the lyrics “Be not afraid, I go before you always, Come, follow me…,” I was reminded of the similar message from Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In that moment, I sensed that both Chris and Theresa had found their rest. Eighteen. Ninety-one. Two lives, well-lived and well-loved who both heard a call from God to come, follow Him.


A saint like the rest of us

I still remember the time I didn’t get the job. Well, actually there were a few times I didn’t get the job and I don’t like to remember them. Then, there was the time I didn’t get the girl or the promotion or the mortgage or the college acceptance or (fill in the blank).

Life is full of disappointments, and I suspect if we sat around cataloging every time we were disappointed, we wouldn’t want to face another day. Sometimes you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again, as the song says.

My typical response to a major disappointment is to raise my eyes to heaven, shake my head and ask, “Why, God, why? Why did this happen? Why didn’t you prevent this?” But disappointment is a fundamental fact of life that we can’t escape, and it has always been that way. As they say in 12 Step programs, “You are not alone.”

One of the most painful scripture readings for me is in the Acts of the Apostles, and we hear it every May 14 on the feast of St. Matthias. Although he wasn’t one of the original apostles, Matthias got the job after they voted to replace Judas.

St. Luke recorded: “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas—who was also known as Justus—and Matthias. Then, they prayed, ‘You, Lord, who knows the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.’ Then, they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the apostles.”

Joseph Barsabbas didn’t get the job, and he was lost in the shadows of history, eclipsed by someone else’s success. Did he go home and brood? Did he complain to his wife and family that he was better qualified than Matthias? Did he walk away from Christ like so many others and return to his Jewish faith? Was he angry and resentful?

To my thinking, none of our disappointments can compare with not being named one of the Twelve Apostles. That’s the kind of disappointment I don’t think I could have survived … without Jesus. I’m pretty sure the same was true of Joseph Barsabbas, now known as Saint Joseph Barsabbas, who stands as an example for all of us who’ve suffered disappointments in life. He didn’t let his disappointment defeat him.

St. John Chrysostom writes, “The other candidate (Joseph) was not annoyed, for the apostolic writers would not have concealed failings of their own, seeing they have told of the very chief apostles, that on other occasions had indignation, and not only once, but again and again.”

Joseph was one of the disciples, who followed Christ from his baptism in the Jordan to his Ascension. He served Christ faithfully until the end. He became a bishop, and tradition says he was martyred at Eleutheropolis, a city in Judea, southwest of Jerusalem.

During the first century, it was a village called Betaris, which Roman forces under Emperor Vespasian attacked in 68 A.D. to quell Jewish rebels. Among the 10,000 who were killed was Joseph Barsabbas, who refused to renounce his Christian faith. There’s a relic of him in the chapel at the University of Notre Dame, and his feast day is July 20.

In our success-obsessed culture, we typically consider the guy who didn’t get the job as unworthy, or worse, a failure. God, however, doesn’t have a corporate mentality. With God, worldly titles and honors count for nothing. He’s not interested in short-term gains at the expense of long-term goals. He sees the entire picture, or more accurately, the eternal picture. And here’s a secret: We find Jesus in our greatest disappointments.

Even though God’s will is inscrutable, I like to think he knew Joseph could deal with the disappointment. I also like to think Joseph wasn’t less worthy, just that God had a different plan for him. He was a humble man, and Jesus surely considered humility one of the greatest virtues. (Let’s not forget the other St. Joseph, who was a humble man of quiet, courageous accomplishment.)

Even though he hasn’t been designated the patron saint of a particular cause, Joseph Barsabbas should be the patron saint of the disappointed. St. Joseph Barsabbas, pray for us, that we see God’s will in our disappointments.

Where mindfulness meets Catholicism

I am one of those people who reads about four books at once because I can’t decide on one. So one can imagine my joy when we receive books in the mail to our office. Something I am doing this year is keeping track of all the books I read to count up the grand total come 2020—so I am always interested in adding another to the list.

Every so often, though, one of the books on my growing list will make a profound impact on the way I think. I recently read The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment At A Time by Dr. Gregory Bottaro. It was a book that seemed to find me at the exact time I needed it, call it Divine Providence, if you like.

A parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford with his wife Barbara, Dr. Bottaro formed the CatholicPsych Institute in 2012 to connect Catholics around the world with therapists trained to integrate the faith with the practice.

He has given many talks in the diocese and has worked directly with our bishop on a number of initiatives. He is currently serving on a newly formed committee for ongoing priestly formation in the diocese.

Being a strong advocate for mental health awareness, I had heard of and read about the practice of mindfulness before but never in the context of my own faith. When I can combine my other interests and passions with my faith, the fruit that is yielded seems to be exponentially more.

In The Mindful Catholic, Dr. Bottaro presents mindfulness teaching alongside hundreds of years of Catholic spirituality, evidence which shows that these techniques have huge potential for enhancing our health and wellbeing.

Dr. Bottaro’s advice helps the reader to become more mindful and teaches one how to pay attention to the full scope of life in order to have a greater sense of freedom, joy and peace.

Of the integration of mindfulness and Catholicism, Dr. Bottaro says, “This is a natural integration that comes from the recognition that something about mindfulness actually works.” Dr. Bottaro makes the distinction between Catholic-based mindfulness and Eastern-based meditation, saying that many meditative practices seek to empty the mind, while Catholic mindfulness views the mind to be full of reality, allowing one to see thoughts and situations for what they really are.

Having fallen in love with the Catholic view of the human person through the work of Pope St. John Paul II, Dr. Bottaro read Love and Responsibility and later more of his philosophy and saw these writings as essential manuals to understand how we’re made and what we’re made for. “This foundation provides the perfect stability for building an infrastructure of therapeutic intervention to help people flourish,” he says.

Personally, I had been using mindfulness to combat my own negative self-talk. I would find myself falling into patterns of self-deprecating thoughts, letting them lead me down a path that God never intended me to go.

In The Mindful Catholic Dr. Bottaro writes, “God made you with the highest dignity possible and with a destiny for greatness, but we can all be tempted at times by the thought that we aren’t that good. This sense is at the very root of why our minds turn against us in so many ways.”

Many of the exercises that Dr. Bottaro presents in his book are aimed at bringing healing toward these thoughts and patterns.

He writes, “Thoughts and feelings happen, but they don’t have the authority to lay claim to truth. Just because they happen doesn’t mean we have to obey them, respect them, or let our lives be run by them.”

By learning to focus on the thoughts and feelings that are coming in a particular moment, one can be made more aware of oneself, letting the thoughts and feelings lead them to the discovery of truth.

One of my greatest challenges, and a topic that Dr. Bottaro deals with extensively in The Mindful Catholic is seeing myself as God sees me. He writes, “Learning how to practice mindfulness in a Catholic context is a way to recognize the dignity God created you with and take care of yourself accordingly…your happiness is directly connected to you becoming more of who God made you to be.”

Dr. Bottaro explains that mindfulness is ‘awareness of the present moment with acceptance and nonjudgement,’ and that applies to our view of ourselves. The author describes the merciful gaze of God, saying, “This is the foundation of the gaze with which God looks at us. This is the gaze we need to look at ourselves with.”

Changing my negative self-talk is something I have to work on every day. But with practices like mindfulness and the roots of my faith, as Dr. Bottaro writes, I can “step out of the thought stream, watching the negative thoughts float by as if you are sitting on a riverbank watching leaves float by on the water.”

(For more information on Dr. Bottaro and the CatholicPsych Institute visit:

Dad will cry if he wants to—or not

Among the harder things to prepare for as a parent is the raw emotion that pushes up like an oil strike during big family moments. Our Clara’s confirmation got me good.

We earned our stripes with Clara. She is the oldest of our five. My wife and I could teach a masterclass covering all-night fevers, tick removal, car-seat vomit, tween drama, sideline pep talks, technology interventions, pop-star crushes, groundings, un-groundings and the rest.

You’d think 15 years of this dad business would’ve toughened me up. You’d be wrong.

Clara is the pioneer—first to do everything. And at every sacramental rite of passage I’ve had to fight off the ugly cry. At her baptism. At her first Holy Communion. When she made confession.

How could I possibly hope to hold it together at confirmation?

The Hennesseys are on a treadmill. The conveyor belt never stops: work, school, study, banjo, soccer, lunch, dinner, bed, up again, out the door, head count, back home, don’t forget, wash your hands, tie your shoes, go go go go go.

The questions are future-focused. How are we going to get these kids through high school? What about college? When will the mortgage be paid? Will the car make it another year?

So transfixed by what’s ahead. The past gets blurry. Sometimes the present does too. What day is it?

Treadmills break down. Without the conveyor belt moving beneath us, we go at half-speed. For a man of my emotional makeup this is the moment of danger. Call me a mush.

I knew I was in trouble during the procession. The candidates wore white robes, hands clasped like praying angels. The robes were for me what students call a “trigger.” White is the color of baptism. It’s the color of the cloth draped over the coffin.

Birth. Life. Love. Death. Mom. Dad. Eternity. The rush came fast. It gets me every time. Oh, goodness, it gets me good.

It wasn’t my first Holy Spirit rodeo. I knew the pot was boiling over. I took a deep, trembling breath. And another. Our Patrick, age 10, sat next to me, stonefaced, none the wiser, probably his mind was off in the Marvel universe.

For much of the mass I was mostly fine. Bishop Caggiano told us to remember to slow down, to make one good choice at a time. The right message, compellingly delivered. Teenagers, in my experience, want to get to Heaven but live in a world of easy pleasure and cruel temptation.

Well, we all live there.

I stole a look at our Clara while the bishop homilized. She looked so adult it frightened me. I imagined her vulnerable, the way dads do. The wolves will come. She’ll be a target. I’ll won’t be able to keep her safe.

Then, suddenly, she looked young again. So innocent. To be 15 is to feel like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. She handles it well. I saw her in that moment as a walking, talking miracle, the way dads do.

Along with another young lady, our Clara took to the lectern to read the prayer of the faithful. In her long white robe she was beautiful, self-possessed, her voice clear and steady.

That’s my girl, I thought as the treadmill came to a dead stop. That’s my little baby girl.

I should have been ready for what happened next, but of course I wasn’t. The boil was roiling again. Throat closed. Eyes welled. It was coming strong, coming fast. I had to act.

I made a noise as if clearing my throat. Patrick glanced. I pulled a tissue from my jacket pocket and blew. Fooled you, Iron Man.

“What’s the big deal if the boy sees you cry? It’s a happy occasion. It’s 2019. The Great Depression is over. You don’t have to be such a stoic. Dads aren’t like that anymore.”

To which I say, go pound sand. I can do what I like, when I like. I’ve earned my stripes.

The Divine Healer

In 2002, a prison chaplain contacted Father Larry Carew about working with an inmate who had been sexually abused by a priest. When Father met Tom, he had unruly hair and a long beard and seemed like “a wild man” consumed with anger.

He counseled him several times and shared a few minutes of prayer. Then, after a month, he decided it was time to engage in deeper healing prayer. As their session began, he told Tom to invite Jesus into the places where he hurt and give the Lord permission to remove whatever needed to be removed, including his self-consuming anger.

Even before Father finished his instructions, he saw an immediate change. “Tom’s face took on this peace,” he recalled. His eyes were closed and he was out of touch for 15 minutes. When he finally came out of that deep prayer, he said, “Jesus spoke to me in my heart and told me, ‘Tom, everything is going to be OK.’”

They continued to pray that the Lord would liberate him from despair and anger and infuse heavenly hope in his heart.

“The next time we met, I told him to let Jesus free him from the inner wounds that the abuse caused, from lies he came to believe about himself, such as he deserved what happened or that he didn’t deserve to be happy like other people or that maybe he brought it on himself,” Father said.

Once again, Tom immediately went into deep contemplative prayer for 20 minutes. For a second he opened his eyes and momentarily looked over his shoulder. When he came out of this state, he told Father, “My eyes were shut, but I could see us praying together. I could see us holding hands and I could see something else—I could see Jesus standing right behind me. He had his hand on my shoulder and he was praying, too. He was praying that I would be healed.”

Father explained, “That was why Tom had opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder … because he wanted to see with his earthly eyes what he was seeing with his spiritual eyes.” He wanted to see Jesus in the flesh.

Within a few months, this angry, wounded, depressed man changed. He smiled, he cracked jokes and he interacted with the other inmates and staff.

“It was such a clear example that the Lord wants to heal these wounds,” Father Carew said during a homily he gave at a Mass of Hope, Healing and Reconciliation at St. Joseph Church in Danbury. In his prison work, he witnessed other dramatic instances in which Jesus intervened to heal those who had been sexually abused.

“These stunningly powerful stories of how Jesus healed tragically traumatized victims of clergy sexual abuse catapulted me into a whole new level of faith in what our risen Lord is willing and able to do in the present,” Father said. “It is not enough to believe in what Jesus has done or even what he has promised to do for us in Heaven. When he proclaimed himself to be the Resurrection and the Life, he wasn’t just talking about a future reward of being raised from the dead on the last day, he was saying, ‘Get in the habit of asking me—The Resurrection and The Life—for resurrection surprises in the here and now.”

That is a message for everyone, Father says. “All of us need healing from this tragedy. Anytime we sense the weight of his kind of discouragement, we need to invite the Lord into places within us where this darkness has descended. Then, we need to give him permission to replace it with a fresh hope, a peace and a courage.”

Tom later wrote a message for the people who were taking Father Carew’s healing workshops for abuse victims titled, “Disregarding the Shame, Reaching Out for the Joy,” which hundreds have attended.

His words offered testimony of divine healing, and his message simply said, “Stay open to Jesus. He will get you past the abuse you suffer. There is no sin of mine that he hasn’t forgiven. I had to let him help me forgive my abuser. He will do the same for you.”

Timeless Moments

They seem to bob into consciousness without announcement or connection—images of people and places. A multitude of figures and scenes, fragmented recollections, show up at unexpected moments. There are faces of strangers I sat beside on a train and exchanged a few words with; the face of someone I took shelter with under the same awning in a rainstorm; there’s the haggard face of an alcoholic panhandler; there’s the quiet girl who sat at the next desk in the fifth grade. Thomas Merton referred to this phenomenon and suggested that these images are of people who are in some kind of trouble and we are being called to pray for them. Interesting.

So many images suddenly flame to life and insinuate themselves in my life. They are fragmentary recollections. Lost times and forgotten scenes suddenly return: my mother pulling down the blinds at sunset; suddenly for a moment I’m back in my Aunt May’s kitchen. There are so many images from the past that pass through my mind and show up at unexpected moments: a seagull with a broken wing, frost on a windowpane, the look of a street at twilight, a scene of Manhattan weather. I’m carried back to the dead people I knew. Momentary recollections like these seem to dot my being.

I have many recollections of scenes that belong to childhood. As I get older, my childhood self seems to become more accessible to me. The recollections are usually delicious moments, for example, the shore where childhood played. They are bright memories of kind people and lovely places. They are remembered with love and with a longing for a happiness I wish I could regain.

For oft…they flash upon that inward eye…
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils
(Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud”)

A frequent recollection is myself, a small boy, crossing a street, alive and going somewhere.

But there are also dark memories of old unhappy far off things. There are the sudden remembrances of things that made me feel scared and lonely, old failures and old hurts.

These sudden fragments that float in and out of my mind can both brighten and darken my life. There are recollections of sounds: feet on a stairway; a clanging bell; the clip-clod of a horse; a train whistle; the calling of a voice through the autumn dark; a voice calling from the foot of the stairs; the barking of an old dog. When I was little my older brother often followed me and kept shouting “Tommy wait!” I often recall that. All these recollections stir something in me, vague and tender.

There are fragmentary memories of fragrances, for example, the sweet, dry fragrance of talcum powder that clung to a girl. There are fragmentary memories of touch. After all these years I can still remember, and almost feel, the pressure of my father’s hand on the small of my back, guiding me across the street.

As someone said, the night is never alone, it remembers. It is often at night that peculiar memories pop up out of nowhere.

It is extraordinary the things I remember—so many seem like trifles. It puzzles me that I remember these impressions. Why were these things stirring to be remembered? Why do these scenes revive, or are awakened? Why are they remembered when they are? Why are some things engraved in memory? Do they arrive from “deep down”? Are they there for some purpose? I expect psychologists might have some answers.

In a way, they can evoke in me a sense of reverence. St. Augustine wrote about the religious significance of memory. Maybe these unbidden memories that suddenly form and dissolve mark places in one’s life where we were to hear the “more” that runs through it all. Life is holy ground. It is possible to see the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday. One can find meaning in the briefest and most unexpected moments. Maybe there is something like playing jump rope going on. You can miss the split second where entry is possible and you’ve flubbed up everything. Maybe we keep missing entries.

Do some of these memories involve moments of transcendence? There are holy sparks in every occasion. Are these recurring memories calls to listen to our lives? The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, expressed it this way: “Life gives us moments.” There are moments of illumination, when the most ordinary objects and commonplace events shed the shackles of matter-of-factness and enter the realm of mystery. T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding of “the timeless moment.”

Can I Twirl?

When the thermometer inched past 60 degrees last week, everyone seemed to catch a bout of spring fever. Though the warmth was fleeting, it held a promise of renewal we hadn’t felt in months, sending everyone into a frenzied mode of cleaning. My daughters brushed cobwebs off their bikes and took to the road, my husband found a rake to tackle our dormant lawn, the neighbors swept leaves out of their fire pit, and I … well, I retreated indoors to an area most in need of attention: my 14-year-old’s bedroom closet.

I was ready to purge—with her permission—the piles of too-small T-shirts and shoes that were trendy no more, along with forgotten stuffed animals, ripped drawstring bags, a pair of crushed Mickey Mouse ears, and several granola bar wrappers. As I sorted and folded, stacked and arranged, the opened windows welcomed in mild breezes, seeming to refresh and purify all that surrounded me, confirming an instinctive need for renewal. This to Goodwill, that to recycling. I was on a roll. The piles of donations grew while the piles of clutter shrank …until the last hanger made me pause.

Pushed to back of the closet, encased in a plastic dry-cleaning bag hung my daughter’s First Communion dress, still as white as the day she wore it. Oh, should that go too? I wondered, weighing my sentimental attachment with my practical need to pare down possessions. A consignment shop would love this. Fingering the tiny pearls and embroidered florals stitched near the hem, I pictured her, not only on the steps of the altar or near the cherry trees with her friends, but in front of a mirror at JCPenney, taking a short gasp at her reflection and whispering, “Can I twirl?” And twirl she did, with all the innocence of a seven-year-old, poised to continue on her faithful journey, one which she had reaffirmed just weeks ago in another white dress at her Confirmation.

What needs to go as we shed the inessential weight of our lives and aim to declutter? And what must stay because it’s an undeniable part of our past? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit,” Psalm 51 advises, but at that moment, my spirit was not as steadfast as I wished it could be. The symbolism of spring and renewal was not lost on me as I held this dress in my hands, contemplating its future. While breezes gently stirred my heap of castoffs, I felt the importance of the past and the knowledge that we don’t need to let go of everything all at once to start fresh—just that burdensome excess like the piles of leaves in the yard or the old pair of Converse in its box. This cleansing of our lives is cyclical and ongoing, whether from the depths of a teenager’s closet or in the refreshing of our souls.

I placed the dress back on the hanger, behind the now orderly rack of shoes. Shedding cobwebs, tossing wrappers, and raking leaves I could handle. But that symbolic purity of youth needed to remain—at least until the next 65-degree day.

Not all prayer involves saying prayers

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, arrived at the conclusion that there is one God who made all things. He further concluded that this God was a self-actualizing, eternal and immaterial Person. However, Aristotle concluded that this Supreme Reality did not care in any way about his human creatures. Relating to us would lessen God; it would be degrading to him.

Here is a quote from Aristotle: “God is self-sufficient and has no need for the service of others, nor of their affection…God cannot have any need of human friends, nor will he have any”

(Eudemian Ethics, VII, 1244B). Aristotle spoke of his friendship involves equality. Accordingly, there can be no friendship between humans and God.

This generally was the view of the Greek philosophers. For example, Epicurus stated that “it is absurd to think that the gods should concern themselves with the affairs of humans. This would upset their serenity and peace. Thus, the gods take no interest in human affairs and have no need of human worship.”

The Biblical God is presented as Someone Who knows and loves us in the uniqueness of our person. The Scriptures say He calls us by name and numbers the hairs of our head. He made human beings in order to offer His friendship. We are taught to speak of God as a “Father.”

Prayer is best defined as a search for God. It is an attempt to develop a relationship with the Ultimate Mystery. In his famous Rabbit novels, John Updike presents his protagonist, Rabbit, as someone who nothing he experiences is quite enough. He remains incomplete and searching. Toward the end of the novel Rabbit is Rich there is a scene that takes place at the end of day when Rabbit always felt most at peace, “the moment of the day when the light dims and the weeping cheery glows in the dark.” Rabbit insists to himself that “somewhere behind all this, there is Something or Someone that wants me to find Him.”

The writer C.S. Lewis spoke of prayer as seeking a relationship with “that unnameable something behind the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

There is something in us that longs for God. Many experience a hunger for a deeper prayer life. The Lord was explicit and blunt in directing us against wordy prayers. “When you pray do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them” (Matthew 6:5). We are cautioned against wordiness. St. Augustine wrote: “To pray at a deeper level is not the same as to pray by multiplying words…God does not seek human words” (Letter to Proba). The mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “People make a goat of God, feeding Him on word-leaves.”

We can grow tired of words. Sometimes one can feel that our church services are awash with words, verbosity. This can lead to such monstrosities of language as “Mother inviolate” and “singular vessel of devotion.”

Not all prayer involves saying prayers. Jesus spent whole nights in prayer. “In those days he departed to the mountain to pray and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). It is unlikely he spent the night uttering words.

It was John of the Cross who stated that “silence is God’s first language.” Prayer often involves wordless attention, just being there, quietly gathered in God’s presence. “Stay quiet before the Lord, and wait longingly for Him” (Psalm 37:7). We need to build times of silence into our lives. Without silence there can be no interior life. We need to fast from too much togetherness and enjoy more solitude and silence. Solitude and silence are the sine qua non of contemplative prayer. Isaiah tells us to “be still and know that I am God.” The way of contemplation is found in all the great religions. It is practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism, among the Sufis in Islam, and is part of the Hasidic movement in Judaism.

If someone has a true experience of contemplative prayer, nothing else really satisfies anymore. Many people these days are experiencing a hunger for something more than a spirituality of devotions. Life causes one to examine one’s ideas of holiness. One tends not to see it as bound up with merit and reward; that’s part of the childhood of the spiritual life.

Close contact with worldly people often arouses a longing for the spiritual. We feel at times a certain weariness with the world.

A truth of the spiritual life is that “no one can come to me unless the Father draw him/her.” God takes the initiative. We do not get to God by our own efforts; God comes to us. John of the Cross stressed that no two people travel the exact same route to God. God has varied ways and methods to draw people to Himself. In the end, an individual is found by God.

Lately it has dawned on me that God is seeking me. For the first time, I truly believe this to be so. I look over my past and have a sense of God’s persistent pursuit. A mature spiritual life eventually feels much more like Someone has found you.

Back to college … defending the faith

Melissa decided to go back to college. After 25 years.

Things had changed and she had the misfortune, or dumb luck, of taking a course titled, “The Sociology of Marriage and Family,” which is a difficult topic for an orthodox Catholic in the hookup culture. Our views are countercultural on a lot of topics, but especially marriage and the family.

She found herself in a crowded classroom of young people and she wasn’t prepared for the tempest.

The first assignment the professor gave them was to write their definition of sex … and things went downhill from there. He called on an outspoken 20-something fellow who fancied himself the next Jimmy Kimmel. The young man stood up and gave a personal definition that included himself and his girlfriend and went something like this: “Sex is when …(content not suitable for a family publication, Catholic or otherwise.)

The class erupted in laughter, while Melissa sat seething in her front-row seat. Then, throwing caution and political correctness to the wind, she raised her hand and even before the professor could call on her, she blurted out, “That’s disgraceful!” The class was stunned.

“So what’s your definition?” asked the enlightened professor.

She was quick to respond:
“Sex is an act created by God that is love giving and life giving inside of the sacrament of marriage.”
“Where did you get that?”
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Before anyone could snicker, she jumped out of her chair and pointed to the jokester in the back of the class and began upbraiding him with the vengeance of a district attorney assailing Harvey Weinstein:
“Do you have a sister???”
“Yes,” he responded sheepishly.
“Well, what would you think if …”

And so it went. During her soliloquy about respect for women, she noticed the girls in the class nodding in agreement. From that point on, students began calling her “Church Lady,” after the Saturday Night Live character. But Melissa didn’t object because she was proud of her Catholic faith.

They laughed but they listened and little by little, week after week, she noticed a change especially in the girls, who came to appreciate her views, which set her apart in a permissive and abusive society. So many young people are wandering in darkness, but when they’re shown the Truth, they’ll respond positively.

Marriage and the family are under constant assault after decades of social indoctrination that came out of the sexual revolution, which ultimately degraded the meaning of love and promoted exploitation, recreational sex and loveless relationships. Our challenge is to make sure young people understand the difference between the cheap substitute that society and celebrities promote … and the real deal.

We have to tell young people that despite what secular society says, true love and marriage are not what is portrayed in popular culture, celebrity lifestyles … and Saturday Night Live. The Catholic Church Lady wasn’t afraid to do that.

In an address John Paul II once gave to young people, he said things that are outlandish by today’s standards: “Do not let yourselves be carried away by sexual excitement, for this puts genuine human love at risk and leads to the breakup of the family.” Which is why, he said, “so-called ‘free love’ is morally unacceptable.”

George Weigel, biographer of St. John Paul II, said the pope recognized one of the most urgent questions of our age involved love and the family. As Archbishop of Krakow, he played a central role in drafting the encyclical Humanae Vitae and eventually developed the Theology of the Body, which restores a sense of sacramentality to the body, making visible the spiritual dimension of the human person.

Fundamental to John Paul II’s theology, Weigel says, is the belief that “Our love is a truly human love when it is a gift of myself to another … and not the use of another, which is the type of exploitation that characterizes the modern world’s view of sexual relations. We need to ask, ‘How do I live a life of sexual love that conforms to my dignity as a human person?’”

Sexual intimacy is sacred. That’s a truth that society, and many Catholics, have forgotten.