Monthly Newspaper • DIOCESE OF BRIDGEPORT

“My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent is struck down and borne away from me; You have folded up my life, like a weaver who cuts off the last thread” (Isaiah 38:11-12). I long dreaded these words, and prayed God to permit the thread to continue spinning.

I grew to love it here and thought the world radiated a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive. There was much to enjoy in this world. At many times in my life, I’ve had exhilarating feelings of life. I could be in wonder at the daily miracles of life: the light of a new day, a simple meal, watching the day slowly turn into evening. There was a kind of delight in being a human being.

Time taught me that life was not always benign. As Psalm 116 put it, “They caught me, sorrow and distress.” Trouble can always find us. Life is not always gentle. The world does bad things to us all. I had to wonder, is it the sort of life I would want to go on indefinitely? We are all preys to time, and everybody learns how awful the world can be.

According to St. Augustine, life is both a grace and a crippling burden. Life often ceases to be a joy and becomes an affliction. There are the infirmities, the protracted illnesses, the humiliating failure of the flesh that belong to the long process of aging. Life ceases to be a joy and becomes a burden. The world we once trusted hurts us. We become men and women “of sorrow and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). They are part of the package.

As I see it, the elderly generally grow lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life. They can give you a list of all whom they have loved and lost. There is so much loneliness in living, so much unredeemable loss. Many find themselves alone like Elijah under a broom tree saying to God “it is enough” (“sufficit” in Latin), now, O Lord, take my life” (1 Kgs. 19:4). People are haunted periodically by the thought that keeping on is not worth the struggle. Elderly people generally don’t put up much of a fuss about dying, and death usually gentles them out the door.

I sometimes wonder how I will do at dying. I hope to go off quietly—no doctors, no hospitals, no fear, no pain, giving as little trouble as possible—an “easeful death” as Keats called it (Ode to a Nightingale). Here are some comforting expressions about dying by some famous people:

“I thought dying was harder” (Louis XIV).

“It is so simple to die” (Carl Schurz, French dramatist, died 1660).

“Is this dying, is this all? Is this what I feared? Oh, I can bear this, I can bear this” (Cotton Mather, American Puritan preacher, died 1728).

“I’m not afraid to die, honey. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to it” (Ethel Waters, American blues singer, died 1977).

“My work is done” (John Stuart Mill).

I’m comforted by a common scene depicted in the burial chambers in the catacombs of Callistus, in Rome. Seven youths are pictured gathered around a table, enjoying a convivial meal. The table is laden with two platters of fish. Seven large baskets brimming with loaves of bread stand on the floor beside the table. There is a flask of wine.

Early Christians held meals on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. These banquets were considered illustrating and parallel to the heavenly banquets the deceased person was enjoying in Paradise. The moral is that for all eternity the deceased will rejoice, never to know sorrow again, “and the days of your mourning shall come to an end” (Antiphon, morning prayer, Tuesday, week II of Advent).

I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. The Almighty Creator who called things from nothingness into being can also call humans from death into incorruptible life (Rom.4:17).

I believe death is the doorway to reunion with loved ones. The ties of love and affection which knots us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.

I hope to meet with God’s “well done.” And I will experience gratitude for the grandeur and vitality of my human life. I will give God thanks for the road I travelled, thank him for “my story.”

I’ll end with two stories of death-bed experiences in which I was involved. One involved a lady I knew for many years. There was silence for a long time. I held her hand. Eventually she said “I guess I’m going to leave.” I said “I know.” With a slight smile she said “I never died before.” I said, “I know.” In a whisper she said “I think we’ll make it. Tom.” Then she said “I want to pray a bit.” She whispered “My Father, take me home because of Jesus, and Father, take care of this good guy here. He has given me love, and he has been my friend. Amen.”

The second death-bed story involved a man I knew since high school. With his final words he said not “good-bye” but “forgive me.” It was the most profound good-bye I ever heard.

I’ve already made plans for when I get to Heaven— even though I’m not sure when that will be because these things can take time. Nevertheless, there are a few people I want to meet, so I’m penciling them in on my calendar.

Sure, there’s God and Jesus and the Blessed Mother, not to mention St. Joseph and my guardian angel, who’s done a lot of heavy lifting, with more to go.

I also want to give a shout-out to some saints who’ve helped me along the way, like St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, St. Margaret of Castello, St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Ann and St. Joachim, Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo, and St. Joseph Barsabbas.  He’s the guy who didn’t get the job when the Apostles had to fill the opening left by Judas. We certainly can all relate to the guy who didn’t get the job.

Let me not forget St. Martha, who’s one of my favorites. All my life, I’ve lived with Marthas. Even though it’s been a bit annoying, they always step up to the plate when there’s work to be done.

Who can’t love Martha? When her brother Lazarus was sick, she sent word to the Lord, and after he died, she went out to meet Jesus as he approached Bethany. She told him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask, God will give you.” All of us need a saint like that on our side.

When I get to Heaven, I also look forward to meeting people we hear about but know so little about. I’d love to sit down with them and talk about life, and the afterlife over a latte, assuming they serve lattes in Heaven.

I really want to meet the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit. St. Mark tells us that she fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to help, but he rebuffed her and said, “It’s not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Hearing that, anyone else would have crept away, but she came right back at Jesus with her famous retort: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus wept, but they never say Jesus smiled. I’m convinced he smiled that day when he told her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.”

I’d also like to meet the woman who was hemorrhaging for 12 years and gave all her money to doctors, who couldn’t cure her. She pushed her way through the crowd to get close to Jesus so she could touch his tunic, thinking, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” She did and the flow of blood stopped … and then mayhem erupted.

“Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who has touched my clothes?’ But Peter said to him, ‘You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and you ask, ‘Who touched me?’”

Jesus looked around, and the woman realized she’d been exposed. “She approached in fear and trembling,” the Gospel says. “Then, she fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth.”

“Daughter, your faith has saved you,” he said. “Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” I suspect he smiled again.

I’m also making plans to enjoy a cappuccino with the Good Thief (I’ll buy). The Good Thief was there during Jesus’ darkest hour, when he felt abandoned and was reviled as he hung on the cross between two criminals.

The Good Thief rebuked the other, who was cursing Jesus and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the Good Thief told him: “ Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? We have been condemned justly … but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then, he said the words that gained him Heaven: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus uttered a reply that will be remembered for all eternity: Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

All of them were people whose lives went from ordinary to extraordinary when they encountered the Son of Man … who also happened to be the Son of God.

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

Refresh. Renew. Reflect. Umm, rebirth! What about revive? Return? Redo. I bet you didn’t get this one—redeem!”

Whoever thought that ninth graders could become so competitive over a grammar lesson about prefixes? I scrambled to keep up with them, writing each re- verb on the board and finally pausing after that very enthusiastic “redeem.”

Most of them probably didn’t realize it, but as they brainstormed these words, they managed to create a roll call of Lenten themes.

These 14-year-olds certainly understand the power of making something better and of starting again. I often hear them say, “Would you let me revise my last essay so I can improve it?” “Can you repeat the directions?” “I’m going to redo the assignment after school.” There seems to be an infinite desire for another chance, and not only for high schoolers. How nice it is to refresh with a cold drink on a summer day or recall a memory from childhood, to restore an old photograph or renew a wedding vow. The act of doing over and coming back offers us a unique opportunity for a new start.

Now, in the midst of Lent, I think of the times this season I have followed through on all those verbs my students tossed out—and the times I haven’t. My older daughter, a college freshman, encouraged me to join her in reading the Lenten reflections that her school emails each morning. I started off strong, spending time during the week after Ash Wednesday enjoying passages before the busyness of the day began. We shared our thoughts later on through a quick text or phone call, but then, as sometimes happens, I missed one, and then another, and so did she, preoccupied by worldly distractions. Soon a week had gone by. Frustrated, I then realized that I just had to start again. Like my students, I needed to “redo my assignment.”

And the first passage I read the next day could not have been more fitting, one from Isaiah that ended with “Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”

With God, there seems no limit to the opportunities he gives us to rebuild and restart, and I feel that so often during Lent. Though I missed out on those days of reflection, he invited me back, aptly saying, “Return to me.”

Though my students make mistakes, they see an opportunity to do better. For us Catholics, that message is compelling, applicable to our relationship with God during Lent and to all segments of our lives throughout the year.

Just as I was finishing this piece, I received an email from a student who had been struggling over the winter and had fallen behind.

“Spring’s rolling around, soon flowers will be blooming,” she wrote. “New beginnings I guess. I’m excited. See you tomorrow.”

With spring indeed upon us and Easter approaching, I remind myself to reflect and revise, keeping in mind the power of that little prefix and knowing Jesus’ resurrection gives us all the chance to start anew.

Who among you delights in life?” (Psalm 34:12).

In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders of our country boldly stated that everyone possessed the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. We have an inalienable right to be happy.

Happiness is an active area of research, and what has been discovered may surprise you. For example, all established writers who speak of happiness conclude that happiness doesn’t last. They come to see happiness as perilously fragile.

One finds statements like: “I do not believe that any human being can be really happy for long; True happiness comes and goes” or “I don’t think happiness is a lasting thing. I think it’s moments.” Alice McDermott (author of The Ninth Hour) stated that “All happiness is thin ice.” There’s a Chinese proverb that states “We are never happy for a thousand days; flowers bloom for a hundred.” Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, concluded that “nothing can keep us steadfastly happy, we can experience happiness only for brief periods of time.” Freud went so far as to state that “one feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of creation.” Aristotle said that happiness is like a butterfly which appears and makes us happy for a time, but soon flies away.

Here’s a number of ways people define happiness, answer the question what does it mean to be happy? These are some definitions I relate to:

Thomas Aquinas said that making others happy is the best Happiness. Happiness may be defined as the certainty of being needed. Happiness involves the absence of worry. Happiness is when your plans are going well.

The ancient Greek definition of happiness was to develop one’s powers to achieve excellence in the performance of skilled work, and then have one’s contributions recognized and you take enormous pride in work well done. This implies that happiness takes energy and discipline.

There are many other definitions of happiness.

Friendship is a chief source of happiness. I often asked my classes at Sacred Heart whether or not they thought the people around them were happy. Invariably they answered no. They typically spoke about the lack of meaningful relationships. Everyone around them seemed to be consumed with their success, and fame and fortune.

An interesting question is: what time of life was among your happiest? My young years were among my happiest. I was an excited and happy boy. On summer mornings I couldn’t wait to get out of bed and start going for the day. I used to waken with a burst of joy. And at night I hated to have to sleep again. How I remember the jubilation of the last day of school. All the happiness behind me. Many people locate their happiest days in the past. When I asked a friend what was his advice for a happy life, he said “Don’t grow up.”

Plenty of research bears out something I’m personally convinced of- namely that happiness generally will not be sensational, but filled with small delights. The truly happy person is one who realizes the happiness of the moment, savors the simple joys of daily life, finds happiness in passing moments. This is the teaching of the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth (the Teacher) concludes that true happiness is not possible except in brief snatches that should be treasured as gifts from God. Eccl. 5:17: “Here is what I recognize as good; it is well for a man to eat and drink and enjoy all the fruits of his labor under the sun during the limited days of the life which God gives him; for this is his lot.” These words run like a refrain throughout the book. True happiness lies with the small, the expected, the familiar. How little we actually need in order to be happy. The columnist Andy Rooney wrote: “Life is best when it is filled with small pleasures. The big ones don’t last.” There are the daily quiet joys, the small, the expected, the familiar. We find happiness in passing moments.

Here’s one of my moments. It was dusk and I was pulling my younger sister on her sled. There were kindly lights from neighboring houses. I can still hear my sister’s laughter. I felt so wonderfully alive.

When it comes to happiness, one size does not fit all. We are not specifically happy like everybody else. It must be in our own way. People experience happiness in different ways. For me, happiness involves the books, the recliner, the occasional hot tea, and the sound of rain in the background.

Happiness is primarily an inner state, an inner achievement. Marcus Aurelius (the last Good Emperor of Rome, reign 161- 180 AD) wrote “to live happily is an inward power of the soul.” Abraham Lincoln said: “Most folks are about as happy they make up their mind to be.”

God alone can make us truly happy. Life apart from God lacks genuine joy, and no amount of self-indulgence can be a substitute. C.S. Lewis asserted that the primary purpose of our lives in this world is to establish a relationship with God who placed us here. Until that relationship is established, all our attempts to attain happiness will fall short, that certain longing will never be satisfied. Obedience to the will of God makes someone happy. To seek God brings happiness. It is for this we were called into being. The human soul is drawn to God. True satisfaction is found in spiritual things. There’s the famous statement by Graham Greene, “he knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.” (The Power and Glory, p. 210)

Finally, I’m afraid it’s true that we can’t have happiness without sorrow; they are inseparable.

Luke 6:21: “Blessed are you who weep now, you shall laugh.”

My new friend Ann tells me a joke every time I see her, and at 95, she could do standup comedy. She’s always rushing off to some adventure, including the exercise class she leads at the Senior Center. She’s perpetually upbeat, and I often wonder where all that smiling, laughter and cheer come from. Whenever I see her, I’m convinced that getting older might not be so bad after all.

Before Mass, while I was sitting in the pew, saying my prayers, she walked up behind me, handed me a paper bag and said, “This is for you.”

It was a vintage cribbage board that she and her late husband played on. She knew I collected cribbage boards and wanted me to have it.

At Christmas, she wrote me an email that said, “So, my friend, I always like to say I met five new people that I really like in 2022 and you are on the list. I hope I can replace the ones I lost during 2022 with five new friends. … Keep it simple. Ms. Ann.”

What a great goal for the new year—meeting new friends. I admit I’m not good at that. Rather than socialize, I prefer to hide in my bedroom, lock the door and sit in solitude, reading a book and listening to music.

For me, meeting new people is work. Nevertheless, Ann insists it’s something I have to do, and whenever she sees me, she interrogates me about people I’ve met who’ve brought meaning to my life.

People I’ve met? Hmmm, let me think. Well, there was the pharmacist at CVS who gave me my flu shot. Nice guy, but I won’t see him again until next year. Then, there was the young woman at Quest who drew blood for my cholesterol test. (I don’t want to see the results.) We had a great discussion about her new Apple Watch, and she explained how the last one got ruined because she wore it when she went swimming.

Then, there was the woman whose grandson was diagnosed with leukemia and the woman whose marriage was falling apart because her husband is addicted to drugs. I’ve been praying for them ever since I met them. Never underestimate the power of your prayers for a person in pain.

Despite my antisocial tendencies, I’m sure of one thing. Every day God puts people in our path we’re supposed to meet. They’re people we may not even want to meet. They’re people we meet for reasons Jesus will explain when we see him in heaven and he pulls the curtain back on our lives. They’re people who need us, they’re people we need … and they’re people we’re supposed to help, sometimes without even realizing it.

They come in all shapes, sizes, colors—and temperaments. I often think that it would be wonderful if I only met people who think I’m a nice guy, an inspiring writer, an engaging professor and a great conversationalist. Fat chance of that happening. I’ve met people who think I’m a fraud—and I’m not discounting that possibility.

I’ve met people who didn’t like me as soon as I introduced myself. I’ve met students who think I cheated them out of an A when I gave them a B, even though they deserved a C. And, sad to say, I’ve met people who are so overcome with anger that they project all their negativity on everyone else because they’re hurting inside from a painful past. Some of them are hurting because they’ve been betrayed in marriage, others are hurting because their children neglect them. And still others are angry with God because someone they loved died.

Be prepared for the people Jesus puts in your path.

If you’re committed to doing God’s will, you can be sure you’ll meet new people. Doing his will always comes with a Things to Do list, and every day he’ll tell you what you need to do. Ann was right. As much as I’d like to stay sequestered in my room, there are places to go, people to meet, as the song says.

Jesus sends them to us for a reason, so when they cross your path, keep an open mind and look beyond the exterior. You have friends you haven’t even met yet.

On the morning of December 31, I took down our family calendar from the past year and tacked up a new one, running my hand over the clean surface with only the 31 numbers of January printed in bold. It begged to fill—with appointments, activities, birthdays, and plans. At the moment though, I just wanted to absorb its possibility, the newness and fresh start we hope each year will bring, part of which usually consists of a resolution or two.

I was never much for those new year’s resolutions. It’s not that I didn’t think my life needed improvement. Over the years, I’ve made collective goals with friends and family to exercise more or visit more often and personal goals to get more sleep or stay more organized. Though I’m game for trying something new, the pressure to always do “more” hung over me, ready to fizzle out soon after I began. I hated to say, “why bother?” but such resolutions rarely endured on the daily or weekly basis as I hoped they would. There was never a concrete reason why. I guess I’d become distracted, complacent, too busy, too overwhelmed— just like many others. The motivation I felt for that resolution on the first of the month was not always sustainable on the 31st. Oh, well. Maybe next year, I’d think.

Now I wonder how many “next years” there have been.

That evening, after I put up the calendar, as we listened to our priest’s homily at the New Year’s vigil, he had resolutions in mind as well. His advice? A single word.

“Try,” he said. “Try to make a renewed commitment to faith. Try to see the grace in others and be the light for those in darkness.”

Try. Yes, that I could do.

Not only was his advice meaningful, but it also took the pressure off. Though making such a commitment was very personal, it was not about what we could do for ourselves but what we could do for others—and for God. Placing him at the center of a resolution shifted my focus and showed me that this was not a goal with a tangible outcome nor one for which I could measure success—at least in a traditional way. This was not something I could tally up like the extra mile on an afternoon run or how much more organized the kitchen cabinets were. But it wasn’t mine to tally anyway, and this renewed commitment wasn’t a resolution set aside only for the new year. It’s one I could make every day. All I had to do was try, and I knew I’d see the opportunities God had for me.

That was my attitude as I went out the following morning. Leaving the grocery store, arms weighted down with bags, I hesitated in the parking lot until a stranger smiled and waved me on. I delighted in the simple kindness of another, for maybe she had made a “renewed commitment” that day too, a sustainable one that would not fizzle out.

Oh, the joyful possibility of a new year.

While gentile silence enveloped all things and the night was in the midst of her course, your almighty Word leapt down from heaven, from your royal throne (Wisdom 18:14).

Shortly after a Christmas day, John Updike wrote, “I experienced happiness so sharply I tried to factor it into compartments. The first cause of the happiness was that the Christmas season was over—the presents, the parties— and that was a relief.”

For many people, it is a relief when the Christmas season is over. One can hear people complain that Christmas was too commercial. Christmas had become one big advertising campaign. Unbelievers use it to make money. There’s the crowds of shoppers, the piped in Christmas music, the necessity of finding presents and wrapping and sending them, the lines at the post offices.

Christmas, for some, is a season to be endured. People speak of needing a holiday from the holiday. A friend of mine speaks of “the tyrannical holiday,” and points out that the suicide rate is especially high at Christmas.

The Catholic League is troubled by Wal-Mart’s aversion to the word “Christmas” and by how nativity scenes are kept out of sight so that no one is offended. I never go to Wal-Mart or Costco looking for religion. I do hope to hear offered from the pulpit something more satisfying than the annual lament about “the secularizing of Christmas.”

The magic of Christmas remains. There are the abiding themes of Christmas. Christmas is a feast of joy and hope. Into this world of fear and worry, among people with their troubles, comes the proclamation of great jo —“To you is born this day a savior” (Lk. 2:11). The first words proclaimed by the angels are “Do not be afraid” (Lk. 2:10).

The time is fulfilled, and in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Lk. 3:1), eternity enters into time. In the baby of the manger, we see our God made visible. God Almighty, the Eternal One, Creator of heaven and earth, takes on humanity, becomes a tiny infant cared for by two poor and simple people. The All-Powerful one takes on new life with hands and feet, eyes and ears, blood, nerves and bones, fingernails and lungs. God pursues us into our time and into our flesh. Dante speaks of “the love that moves the sun and the stars.”

God tries to arouse in us a feeling of trust and confidence in him. The famous theologian Karl Rahner speaks of Christmas as the time when God tries to press his love upon us as persuasively as he can. He asks us not to be afraid of him. H does not desire to hurt us. He comes to us as this helpless child. He is a God of pity dwelling amid our sorrows and labors. St. Therese asked, “How could anyone be afraid of a God who becomes a child?”

The gift of time is perhaps the most important gift we get and give. The true gift of the Magi was not the myrrh and frankincense and gold, but the time and trouble they took to bring them.

The modern-day equivalent is the hours spent in crowded stores finding presents, the care and effort it takes for wrapping and sending presents, the time spent at the post office. When one thinks about it, all these are appreciated as much as the gift itself. They are an expression of affection and esteem. And there’s the simple fact of being remembered, the affection that presents symbolize.

Our feast of Christmas was set to coincide with the winter solstice. In these shortest, darkest days of the year, the sun turns its course, climbs the sky again, and daylight begins to lengthen into another spring and summer. Christmas is about the coming of the light into our darkness: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” At Christmas time, I love to drive on night roads and see a single candle in the window of a house. How mellow and inviting the candle looks. The light seems to have warmth and feeling: “The winter’s night that was so deep, when the world in solemn stillness lay.”

For many, Christmas is a memory of other days. Indeed, Christmas time is a special hell for those who have suffered the loss of an especially dear one. Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not at home. We are surrounded by the reminiscences of Christmases past. Memories of the dead person pervade our minds and hearts. We ache for the one no longer with us. Jolly Christmas often isn’t jolly.

For many people the Christmas of their childhood has vanished. The circle of their childhood family is gone by death and scattered by distance. There are those who sit cheerless and alone on Christmas, thinking of better times and remembering the faces of those who are dead.

May something be born in each of us this Christmas. May we all; experience a birth of hope. As Titus 3:4 puts it, may we recognize it as a time “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.”

May we sense the confidence and joy that shines from the manger. At the heart of reality is mercy. May Christmas revive us. Let us try our best to express our love, to grow closer. May there be an upsurge of friendship.

Let us all have fun this Christmas day,
Let’s play and sing and shout hooray.

Here’s a holiday suggestion. After you take your children and grandchildren to see Santa, take them to see Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. You’ll be surprised at what happens, and Jesus will be very happy to see them.

After all, if Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist, wouldn’t you expect him to do things we do? To talk, to listen, to love, to show compassion and enjoy a visit from little children.

Ever since Marie Moura started watching her grandson Johnathan several days a week, she has taken him to Eucharistic adoration at the chapel of St. Joseph Church in Shelton, where she conducts the Holy Hour for the Dying on Fridays at 1 pm. (Also at Our Lady of Fatima in Bridgeport on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at noon.)

Johnathan, who is 2-1/2, has developed a special personal relationship with Jesus. They talk to each other, they pray together, and sometimes they just stare at each other lovingly.

“I’ve been taking him to the chapel from day one,” she says. “I just love watching Johnathan looking at Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament so intensely. I’ve learned so much from watching this little boy’s face.”

When they go there, they talk to Jesus in soft voices, pray and sing songs.

“He loves to be close to Jesus on the altar and look up at him,” she says. “Last time he got rosary beads from the table and went to kneel where Jesus was on the altar. He looked up and showed him the rosary and said, ‘Jesus, I’m praying the rosary! I’m praying. I’m praying, Jesus.’”

He has been visiting the Blessed Sacrament with his “Vovo” since he was one year old, and when he walks into the chapel, the first thing he does is spread his arms wide and say, “I love you this much, Jesus!”

It’s also a powerful lesson for adults about the True Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and an important reminder for all parents and grandparents never to miss an opportunity to tell children, from the very youngest age, about the greatest gift of our faith —the Holy Eucharist.

“Jesus wants us to do this,” Marie says. “I want Johnathan to know how important God is in our lives and to know how important the True Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist is. Just seeing his face in prayer and hearing him talk to Jesus has taught me so much.”

When Johnathan is looking at Jesus and taking to him, he tunes out his grandmother. During those moments, if she says something, he doesn’t respond, perhaps because he’s already in a conversation with Jesus.

“You could tell he’s in the presence of the Lord because he’s so focused on Jesus, and it’s amazing to watch,” she says. “I learn so much from this little boy who has so much love for Jesus, just watching him praying and blowing kisses to Jesus. I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for giving me this opportunity to bring Johnathan here to know about you and for us to pray together and love you. And I pray he has this love for you the rest of his life.’”

One of the spiritual gifts her parents from Portugal gave her, her sister and brother, was to stress the importance of this fundamental teaching of our faith.

“That’s something my parents taught me,” she said. “I come from a religious family, and I was very blessed. I think the greatest gift they gave me was to teach me to love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”

It’s a lesson every parent should share with their children. “They’ll be surprised by the response because children aren’t afraid to show their love for him,” she said.

After all, it was Jesus, himself, who said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And what better time to start than Christmas?

The leftover turkey and stuffing were barely put away after Thanksgiving when my daughters asked, “Can we decorate now?”

For Christmas? Already? Whatever happened to the patience and waiting for Advent? But with my older one heading back to college after just a few days and my younger one already searching for the best holiday tunes on Pandora, I gave in. After two difficult Christmas seasons for us all, I too was excited to “deck the halls”—or at least the family room.

We carted from the basement boxes of mini trees, ceramic Santas, and all the other Christmas mementos a family could possibly collect. The last box, labeled “Nativities,” was the first one we opened.

Carefully unwrapping each figure, we placed them in their respective scenes around the house. There was the one we received for our first Christmas with Mary and Joseph’s expressive faces and flowing robes, and the one which we bought for the girls when they were little with the Holy Family portrayed as young children, smiling sweetly. We laughed at the “Peanuts” figures, comical but cute with Snoopy dressed as sheep. The other small creches and mother and child ornaments would be placed around the Christmas tree later in the week.

Though the rest of the house was in disarray, at least the Nativity scenes were set, with each tiny Baby Jesus safely tucked away until we placed him in the manger on Christmas Eve. For this, I always said, we would be patient. And for this, they agreed, we would wait.

Like the Blessed Mother, looking longingly into an empty space, filled only with bits of straw on a side table, we know the best parts of Christmas can’t be rushed. Whether she is a traditional Mary kneeling solemnly or one played by Lucy with a bright blue veil, she waits without complaint of frustration for the birth of her son. Such lessons she can teach us.

The spirit of Advent is present in each Nativity scene that is missing its Baby Jesus—whether in our home, at church or event in the giant plastic display glowing on the neighbor’s lawn.

We must wait, though so often at this time of year, we hear others— and ourselves—say, “Oh, I can’t wait for …” The holiday break to come. The guests to arrive. The Amazon delivery to get here. Or, as the 4-year-old next door says, “For Santa!”

Through all this anticipation, what we really desire is the coming of Christ. The empty space is that visible sign of all we wait for and, indeed, all we hope for.

With patience, I pause daily beside the Nativity on the side table, knowing that soon, the babe will lie in that manger among the bits of straw. Even if the holiday break is shorter than we’d like, or if the guests arrive late, or if the Amazon delivery gets lost, we know for certain that each tiny Baby Jesus will be placed beside his mother when the angels proclaim, “For unto us a child is born!”

“A human being requires meaning, a reason for being; something that gives direction to his life. A human being must be able to answer the question ‘Why?’ or ‘What for?’” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Second Vatican Council’s writing Veritatis Splendor speaks of “the obscure riddles of the Human Condition” (50). There are questions that tend to close in on one with the years: Why did God bother to make the world? How does the world function? To what purpose do we exist in that world? What are we here for? What’s the story about? Does it have a plot? Does it all make sense? Does it have any ultimate meaning? Why am I me? Is there an intelligent plan behind all the pieces of my life? Do I have a value beyond time? As we grow older, these questions become more persistent.

One can be audacious giving answers to these questions. One might consider how it sounds for any human being to claim to know God’s will. For a believer, one would be more accurate to admit what St. Paul says about the ways of God being inscrutable: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33)

There’s the way Isaiah puts it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9).

We want to think that our lives mean something, count as something more than just a momentary blip in the universe. We want to think that there is something more to life than randomness. We want to make sense of our own world.

Here are some negative views offered by some well-known people:

John Paul Sartre: “All existing things are born for no reason, and die by accident. It is meaningless that we are born, it is meaningless that we die.”

Leo Tolstoy: “The more intelligent we are, the less do we understand the meaning of our life, and the more do we see a king of bad joke in our suffering and death.”

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “We have not to rejoice, but rather to mourn at the existence of the world, its non-existence would be preferable. It is something which at bottom ought not to be.”

Clarence Darrow: “Life is like a ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.”

There’s Shakespeare’s MacBeth: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There’s Beckett’s characters waiting, waiting endlessly for the never-appearing Godot. And there’s Sisyphus condemned forever to the pointless pushing of that rock.

We want to make sense of our own personal world. There is the fundamental role that an individual plays in making meaning for himself. Frankl called us to realize that life expects something of us. John Henry Newman said: “God has commanded some work of me.” Confucianism places great emphasis upon “knowing the mandate of heaven”—a sense of being chosen to fulfill some transcendent command. God expects something very definite of us.

Carl Jung coined the expression Noogenic Neurosis which involves a loss of the feeling that life is meaningful. The individual sees no purpose in his life. Many people have lost a sense of purpose in their lives. Many realize that they have taken the wrong road. Jung also stated that such a person needed to regain a religious outlook.

I think almost everyone lives for something and wants to belong somewhere, wants to make sense of reality. I expect everyone seeks a cause or purpose to give his life meaning. Almost everyone has an interpretation of human existence. The Existentialist philosophers teach that we create our own meaning; there are no absolutes. There is the miracle of our own personal existence, and each of us plays a part in creating meaning for ourselves. One multi-billionaire stated that his goal was to die with more toys than the next guy.

A friend told me that for him, the meaning of life was to get through life with as much dignity and satisfaction as he could, doing as little harm as possible. Secularists have a materialistic view of human life and try to dodge religious questions.

One of my convictions is that what the earth gives us is often beautiful, but is too poor to satisfy us fully. We are all trying to get from this world more than she can rightly give (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II). Something is missing.

We have all experienced this to one degree or another. Even in our most satisfying times, we are aware of limitation. No matter how happy our lives are, this feeling of incompleteness or discontent never fades out. Nothing finite ultimately satisfies us. People are hungering for more than this world offers. Various worldly things are offered to give us that fundamental satisfaction, but they never keep their promise.

I think everyone knows what I mean. Everyone carries about inside himself a certain emptiness—a sense that something is missing. Chesterton said, “Even at home, I am homesick.”

C.S. Lewis asserted that the primary purpose of our lives— the reason for our existence on this planet—is to establish a relationship with the Person who placed us here. Until that relationship is established, all of our attempts to attain happiness—our quest for recognition, for money, for power, for the perfect marriage or the ideal friendship, for all that we spend our lives seeking—will always fall short, will never quite satisfy the longing (Armand Nicholi, Jr., C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, p. 104). When 66 years old, the atheist Sigmund Freud spoke of a “strange longing,” thinking there might be a life of quite another kind.

A mother once said to me, “Children are one of the great sources of meaning; they are gifts of God. The only trouble is they’re not God, they are only children. So I became restless again.” As for myself, my Christian religious faith has it that the ultimate structure of reality involves a redemptive participation in the sufferings of Christ, and that we are destined to participate in the divine nature. Our final fulfillment is found in what is called the Beatific Vision of God seen by our risen bodies.

“The glory of God is man fully alive, but the life of man is the vision of God” (St. Irenaeus, cf. Signs, Superstitions, and God’s Plan: The Human Quest for Meaning, Brian Schmisek, Paulist Press).

Istill remember the first time I met an atheist. I wish I could say it was as memorable as the time I met Henry Kissinger or Mike Love from the Beach Boys, but it was just upsetting.

I was 13, and until then, everyone I knew believed in God even if they didn’t go to church. My uncle invited me to dinner with their neighbors, and during the conversation I mentioned God—this was back in the days when you could talk about God without being assaulted—and the fellow immediately informed me: “There’s no God. This is all there is, and when it’s over, it’s over.”

That combative, self-assured statement startled me. I tried to debate him, but like most atheists, he had all the answers. To make matters worse, he was a lawyer, and I was a teenager struggling to punch up and relying only on the Baltimore Catechism and what the Sisters of St. Joseph taught me. Nevertheless, I clung to my beliefs based on faith, and he clung to his based on intellectual pride.

Since then, I’ve met scores of atheists in the most unlikely places. A growing number are college students, who fancy themselves too smart to believe in God. Consider Harvard University, where a reported one out of three students is atheist or agnostic. That same mentality exists in Hollywood, where it’s trendy to deny God’s existence, and the entertainment industry typically portrays believers as immoral ignoramuses.

I’ve discovered that disbelievers share common characteristics: They’re too smart for God. They blame God for the pain in their lives. And they’re too proud to believe there’s a God more intelligent than they are.

I’ve also encountered another species of atheist I classify as “the lazy atheist” or “the indifferent atheist.” They don’t care whether God exists because they’re obsessed with more important matters like the pursuit of pleasure, prestige and possessions. Some were never given the tools to find God and grew up in families that didn’t care whether God existed.

I remember the time my friend’s 5-year-old son came home from school, confused and anxious, and asked, “Mommy, who’s God?” I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember thinking, “How did it ever come to this? Her priorities are all messed up.” From the beginning, kids should have a relationship with God even if they don’t study the Baltimore Catechism—although it helps. Remember these foundational principles:

“Who is God?” God is the Creator of Heaven and Earth and of all things—that includes you.

“Why did God make you?” God made me to know him, to love him, to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.

Pretty simple stuff. Pretty profound stuff, actually.

Today, there is a growing number of militant anti-theists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens—author of “God is Not Great”—along with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the angriest of all, novelist Sir Philip Pullman.

Their thinking is often based on the premise there can’t be a God because of the way his followers behave. While our behavior can be abominable, it doesn’t disprove God’s existence. It only proves we don’t live up to the ideal.

When it comes to atheism, the basic ingredients are always anger, pride and intransigence. Vicka Ivankovic, one of the reported seers at Medjugorje, offered this insight:

“Blessed Mother says that those people who are in hell are there because they choose to go there. We all know there are persons on Earth who simply don’t admit God exists, even though he always tries to nudge them onto the path of holiness. They just say they don’t believe, and they deny him. They deny him, even when it is time to die. And they continue to deny him after they are dead. It is their choice. It is their will that they go to hell. They choose hell.”

Pray for them. It’s their only hope. Anyone who doubts God’s existence has a simple recourse, as a Sister of Mercy once told me: all you have to do is ask. If you ask with a sincere and humble heart, God will give you all the proof you need. But you have to ask.

When night falls earlier, days grow cooler, and we all begin to snuggle into our homes as winter approaches, my thoughts turn to what radiates comfort and warmth. It’s not the pellet stove whirring in the family room or my mother’s crocheted afghan or our cat curled against me on our sofa. My thoughts turn to soup.

I grew up humming Campbell’s jingle, “Soup is good food,” in my head while I sipped my bowl of alphabet soup and, in college, I devoured the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, taking both inspiration and nourishment from the simplest pleasures. I remember the fable of “Stone Soup,” marveling at the traveler’s ability to feed so many with so little.

Whether it’s a get well wish for a sick friend, a light meal to break a fast, or a quick supper when we’re running late, few could deny the healing, comforting qualities of soup, aside from its obvious deliciousness. What’s better than a cup of clam chowder or a pot of beef barley simmering on the stove? And when it’s a pot as large as the one my grandmother handed down to me, it begs to be shared.

With that in mind, we decided to host a soup exchange party with the neighbors last week, gathering everyone to share their favorite recipes and break bread—truly—over steaming bowls, enjoying the meal, the stories, and the laughter that come from easy companionship.

When friends arrived carrying crockpots filled with spicy chili, tomato soup, lentils, and white bean and kale, the aromas enveloped the house. Oh, which to try first? We cupped bowls in our hands, felling the warmth. Ladles were dipped, salads were tossed, and drinks were passed, nourishing us and countering the autumnal chill. “We hunger and thirst, not just for a tasty soup or the pleasure of companionship but for the joy that comes from them.”

In a worldly sense, a good meal unites friends who enrich our lives and bring us together while the food we consume sustains us. We hunger and thirst, not just for a tasty soup or the pleasure of companionship but for the joy that comes from them as well. When partaking in a different meal, though, one that nourishes not our bodies but our souls, we are enriched in a greater, more sacred sense.

At Mass, God provides spiritual sustenance through the Eucharist and reminds us that he is “the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” Whether through bread or wine, soup or salad, we remember that it is God himself who nourishes us.

With the crockpots emptied and take-home containers filled, the neighbors left, promising to share all the recipes, so the warmth and comfort could continue as the weeks turned even cooler. Through the spicy chili and white bean and kale were so much better than the alphabet soup of my childhood, I was reminded that yes, in its many forms, soup is good food.

“There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his worth” (Sirach 6:8)

Author John Cuddeback, in his book True Friendship: Where Virtue Become Happiness, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2021) tells how the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle and Plato, wrote a good deal about friendship. Aristotle taught that there were three kinds of friendship. He called the first “pleasant friendship,” where friendship is basically about having a good time together, socializing together. This friendship is particularly found in young people. The second kind of friendship is “useful friendship,” in which each person receives some benefit from the other. The third kind of friendship Aristotle calls “virtuous friendship” in which the other person is loved because of who he is himself. “Virtuous” friendship can grow out of the first two kinds. But in the “pleasant” and “useful” friendships, persons are not loved because of who they are in themselves.

Aristotle was convinced that human happiness, requires human friendship. Aristotle thought that a happy man must have developed a true friendship. He described virtuous friendship as “the crowning gift of happiness.”

Aristotle held that “virtuous” or “true” (Cuddeback) friendships were rare. The ancient Greeks in general thought that true friends were few. This was so because virtuous persons are rare. Another reason is that true friendships take time and sustained effort to form. To grow in friendship, we need to give time to it. True friendship unfolds gradually. It requires seeing the other person in various circumstances of life and seeing how the person responds to various situations. The friendship does not simply happen. It takes a long time for two people to truly get to know each other We can really go deeper with only a few people. It should be noted that for Aristotle true friendship exists among people who are truly good people.

The following are recognized as characteristics of true friendship: there has to be some equality, some sameness. According to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, any friendship consists in some kind of equality. And the more we are like another, the more we can really understand and enter into the other’s life. Aristotle points out that where there is great difference, it is difficult to be friends; the more difficult it will be to enter into each other’s life and understand each other.

Values match up, friends have the same likes and dislikes. True friends like to do the same kind of things. They share a vision of what life is all about. True friends experience each other as being part of themselves in some profound way. They are what C.S. Lewis calls “kindred souls.” A true friend wants what is best for the other person. True friends rejoice over the blessings for the other. One’s friend is more excited about one’s success than his friend is. As John Cuddeback put it, during the most difficult times a true friend will be Simon of Cyrene for the other. Someday when we come to stand before the judgment throne of God, our true friend will argue on our behalf. Good friends engage in good conversations. They can also enjoy sitting in silence with each other. They pray for and with each other. They may discuss theology. There is loyalty and trustworthiness. One’s true friend is one’s confidant, one’s conscience, one’s cheerleader. A true friend is your compagnons de voyage. True friendship involves a love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing.

Kyler Shumway (The Friendship Formula) offers some what she calls “Friendship fortifiers.” Some of them would be:

Gratitude, words of thanks; even saying thank you as part of your goodbye.

Notice the small things a friend does for you.

Say “I’m proud of you” for something the friend may have accomplished.

Empathize with the friend’s situation.

Find good opportunities for self-disclosure.

Shumway claims that one of the ways to deepen a friendship is to make a journey together.

There is a depth and beauty to true friendship that you don’t find anywhere else. True friendship recognizes true goodness in the other person. It is rooted in true knowledge of another person. And one needs a true friend to help one see one’s self. “Ubi amor, ibi oculus” – “where there is love, there is the power to see.”

There are limitations on one’s ability to share one’s life with other people. We can really go deeper with only a few people. Hence, as Aristotle thought, true friendships are rare.

There are relationships that go by the name “friendship” but are not truly true friendships.

We form “acquaintances” or “attachments.” We are friendly, we chat and have laughs and enjoy one another’s company. We trade favors. However, we are not truly close, are not invested in each other’s lives.

There are many people who say they have never experienced a significant, enduring friendship. Researchers speak of an epidemic of loneliness in our society.

In the end, it is probably true to say that we do not make a true friendship happen – it is an unmerited gift that we receive. These relationships are not by pure chance. It is not an accident that two people come together. True friends are a gift. They are not manufactured. One true friend in life is an amazingly huge gift. In the end, as John Cuddeback claims, true friendship is a gift from God. There is more going on than meets the eye. A secret Master of Ceremonies is at work.

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he that has found one has found a treasure” (Sirach 6:8)

(Dr. Hicks runs two Bible Studies on the second week of the month: one on Tuesday mornings, the other on Thursday evenings. Anyone interested send your email to bergCarole@yahoo.com or MariJopanettieri@charter.net, or thicks@snet.net)

When I was at daily Mass recently, the Gospel recounted the time Peter goes up to Jesus with a trick question. Let me quote from the account so I don’t get accused of making this up or perpetrating fake news, or even worse, fake Bible stories:

Peter: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother (or sister) who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Sometimes I wonder whether St. Matthew recorded everything exactly as it occurred because I suspect he left out a portion of that exchange, which might have gone something like this:

Peter: “How many times should I forgive?”

Jesus: “Seventy-seven times.”

Peter: “Easy for you to say, you’re not married.” To which I would add, “And you don’t have kids.”

We know Peter was married because Jesus cured his motherin-law of a fever. However, there are no accounts of his wife saying, “Aren’t you spending a lot of time with that fellow Jesus and your friends?”

Plus, we have no record of whether there was a Peter Jr., who took over the family fishing business when Peter left it all behind to follow Jesus. (Raising kids is a challenge unlike any other.)

When I asked my wife about forgiving 77 times, she insisted she’s reached at least the 777 mark … and enough is enough.

Who can forgive the same person that many times? In marriage, you’re with the same person so much it comes down to either forgiving and moving on or harboring a grudge that only festers and turns into a resentment that can inhibit the spiritual growth of your relationship, which I’ve been told is what marriage is all about, even though it can be difficult to make progress on some days.

Marriage reminds me of the line alcoholics in AA often use: “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” To which my spouse would probably respond: “Then progress a little faster please.”

One of my friends had grandparents who were notorious for bickering, and when they celebrated their 60th anniversary, she asked them, “What’s the secret to staying married so long?” Without looking up from his newspaper, her grandfather grumbled, “Giving in.” Wiser words were never spoken.

My friend Ann, who was married 70 years, when her beloved husband Paul passed away, has often told me there’s a simple dynamic when it comes to marital disputes: Someone has to give in first. Of course, if both people refuse to give in, there will be a worse stalemate than the U.S.Soviet relations during the Cold War.

Remember that tremendously popular tear-jerker “Love Story” with Ryan O’Neal and Allie McGraw back in the 70s, based on the bestseller by Erich Segal? It popularized the smarmy line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It sounds very profound, but I have my doubts.

Pope Francis turned that logic on its head when he told married couples the three most important words in any marriage are “Please, thanks, and sorry.”

(Of course, that’s easy for him to say. He’s never been married. At least St. Peter knew what he was talking about.)

Nevertheless, the pope’s advice is valuable for anyone who wants their marriage to last. He also wisely advised them never to go to bed without reconciling.

Another piece of AA wisdom that’s worth remembering is the slogan “A day at a time.” With marriage and parenthood, it’s the only way. The quarrel that had you angry with each other one day you probably won’t even remember in a month.

The Gospels never tell us whether St. Peter had kids. I like to think he had a son who took over the family fishing business when Dad left to follow Jesus. Imagine this exchange between father and son:

Peter: “The catches are down since you took over. I have a church to run, and I can’t keep my eye on you all the time.”

Peter Jr.: “Dad, I’m working as hard as I can. I never asked for this. Show a little forgiveness, will ya?”

Peter: “Forgiveness? I’ve been counting. You’re way past 77 times.”

Peter Jr.: “I am? Well, all I can say to you is ‘What would Jesus do?’”

Gratitude and pride. Anticipation and worry. Excitement and hope. These were just some of the feelings I experienced in the days leading up to moving our older daughter to college last month. Throughout the summer, we shopped for the essentials and packed all the boxes. She chose her classes and FaceTimed her roommate. As move-in day drew closer, the preparation seemed complete—at least the physical preparation. We didn’t know how to prepare emotionally for the day when we’d arrive on campus with four of us in a packed car and then leave with only three in an empty one.

But arrive we did, and Abigail settled in quickly. The rest of us were busy too, helping to arrange the room, plug in the fans, unroll the rug, and hang up the clothes. The whirlwind of activity kept ourselves—and our minds—occupied, until we finally paused late in the afternoon and took a seat for Mass, just outside the college chapel, and reality hit. We’d be saying good-bye in less than an hour.

Fighting a range of emotions, I made myself focus on the entrance hymn, but it was the words of the chaplain’s prayer that caught my attention: “God of new beginnings, as we open this academic year, we ask that You bestow on these students . . .” This truly was a new beginning for all the young people, a beginning to be celebrated, even for the parents about to leave and return to their routines, minus one. And who better to leave them with than God?

As Mass continued, my mind wandered back to the chaplain’s words, and I remembered how God had been with Abigail during all her other “new beginnings.” He walked beside her on the first day of school. He swam and played with her during the weeks at sleepaway camp. He was in the backseat of the car during her first excursion on the highway. He sat next to her on the airplane when she first flew alone. Even when we couldn’t be there to protect her, God was, and I knew He would continue to be.

That is what I held onto as Mass continued. Still, I wondered where she would go and what she would do once we were back home. We couldn’t imagine all the excitement and challenges she would experience in the next days, weeks, or months, only God could, for He said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Following Communion, families stood, and the chaplain conferred a blessing on members of this incoming class. As the three of us placed our hands on Abigail’s shoulders, I knew that we would miss her, but I also knew that we were leaving her in the right place and in the presence of her God of new beginnings.