Early birds gets quiet time with God

Picture this: a warm midspring morning, predawn. Nobody is awake. The birds chirp. The trees gently rustle. The air is fresh. The world is coated with a light morning dew. The phone is off and put away. You don’t have to be anywhere. You just need to be still.

Mornings have a beautiful, inherently prayerful rhythm. In the spring, the birds sing hours before the dawn. As I listen to their voices, I meditate on the blessings in my own life and sing my own songs of praise to God (inside my heart, that is—don’t want to wake the neighbors).

Light begins to illuminate the sky, slowly but effortlessly taking previously dark shapes and creating clouds, trees, houses, and other forms. As each moment passes and I can see more clearly, I try to silence my heart and spend the time until sunrise in silence, listening. What does God want from me today? Where in my life must I decrease so that God may increase?

I have always been a morning person. I am more productive, energetic, happy, and enthusiastic in the morning. I realize that sentence might horrify many readers—my wife included. Some people just don’t like mornings.

I do, though, even before my mandatory morning cup of coffee. Waking up early is a prayer practice for me.

Since my job as the digital media director for a diocese keeps me bombarded with stimuli (mostly digital) at all hours, my best moments are when the TV is off, the book is closed, the coffee is hot, and I can just be still.

At first, this quietness started out of pure necessity. As the eldest of four, I was often the first child awake in the house and have been known, on occasion, to be . . . loud. Now that I am married to someone who is decidedly not a morning person, being quiet in the morning is a survival mechanism.

My grandfather used to say that “life is all about the little things.” While I would never have presumed to correct my grandfather when he was on Earth, I don’t think he would mind me now adding “and the quiet moments.” Watching the world wake up every morning deepens that sage advice even further. To find God, all you have to do is be still.

I am reminded that the practice of “watching and waiting” is embedded deeply in our Catholic tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures, we hear again and again in the psalms that morning is a special time—“In the morning you will hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch” (Ps. 5:3)—and are promised that “joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly tells us to “stay awake” because we don’t know when he will come again.

The church devotes an entire season to waiting: Advent is defined by the joyful anticipation we celebrate. And before communion at every Mass, the priest prays that God in God’s mercy “keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The attention to detail that flows naturally from this posture of watching and waiting may be a portal to a deeper spirituality, whether it is Thomas Merton writing in his hermitage of the litany of our saints or Catholic poets praising the inscape of God in all creation. That recognition is born in silence.

Merton says it beautifully in The Monastery of the Heart: “The simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen) we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations.”

Some days my silence lasts longer than others, but it always ends when the sun rises. The moment that the sun crests over the horizon and the entire world is bathed in golden light and warmth is always dramatic. Nature responds with a chorus of noises from all animals. The trees and grass seem to stand taller in its presence. “This is what the resurrection must feel like,” I think to myself.

I know my prayer time is coming to an end when I start to see and hear humans stirring. Conversations between couples out for an early walk, dogs barking, the hum of a garage door, a car engine, or a lawn mower remind me that my time of stillness is over and I must face the day. But even that is a lesson from God—we are not meant to remain still in the face of all the work that must be done in the vineyard! I close by offering up whatever I am set to do that day for God’s glory and thank God for the spiritual recharge that I just received.

Some days are better than others. Sometimes I don’t make it outside. Some days I hear my phone vibrating aggressively, cutting my time short. In the winter when it’s 20 degrees outside and the sun does not come up until 6:45 a.m., it’s much harder for me to “be still!” Yet even on those days, I take 5 or 10 minutes to sit down with my cup of coffee and give time to the Lord.

I wake up early to watch the world wake up. The first hour or so of the day sets the tone for how we will approach the day’s many ebbs and flows and how receptive we will be to the small ways the Holy Spirit will move in our lives.

Each and every morning is an experience of renewal, a celebration of the gift of life for another day, and an encounter with God’s promise of the resurrection. When you start the morning in wonder and thanksgiving, you build a strong spiritual foundation for the rest of the day.

Although each morning is different, there is a process in how the world wakes up. It is that process that lends itself to prayer and gratitude.

By John Grosso | U.S. Catholic

Saints accompany, intercede for Christians in prayer

Christians are never alone in prayer but instead are accompanied by myriad saints who protect them and seek God’s intercession, Pope Francis said.

Whenever men or women open their hearts to God, they will always be in the “company of anonymous and recognized saints who pray with us and who intercede for us as older brothers and sisters who have preceded us on this same human adventure,” the pope said April 7 during his weekly general audience.

Continuing his series of talks on prayer, the pope reflected on the connection between prayer and the communion of saints who are “not far from us” and are a reminder of Jesus Christ because they have also “walked the path of life” as Christians.

“In the church, there is no mourning that remains solitary, no tear that is shed in oblivion, because everything breathes and participates in a common grace,” he said.

The tradition of having graveyards around churches is a sign of that sharing, he said. It is “as if to say that every Eucharist is attended in some way by those who have preceded us. There are our parents and grandparents, our godfathers and godmothers, our catechists and other educators,” who have not only transmitted faith but also “the way of praying.”

The saints, he explained, are “witnesses that we do not adore — that is understood, we do not worship these saints -– but whom we venerate and who in thousands of different ways bring us to Jesus Christ, the only Lord and mediator between God and human beings.”

Departing from his prepared remarks, the pope said the lives of saints also serve as a reminder that “even in our lives, though weak and marked by sin, holiness can blossom.”

“In the Gospels, we read that the first ‘canonized’ saint was a thief and he was ‘canonized’ not by a pope, but by Jesus himself,” he said. “Holiness is a path of life, of encounter with Jesus, whether long or short, or in an instant, but always a witness” of God’s love.

The pope also highlighted the need for Christians to pray for one another, which is “the first way of loving” others.

In times of tension, he said, “one way to dissolve the conflict, to soften it, is to pray for the person with whom I am in conflict. Something changes with prayer; the first thing that changes is my heart, my attitude. The Lord changes it to make an encounter possible, a new encounter, and prevents the conflict from becoming a war without end.”

Pope Francis said the first thing people must do in times of anguish is to ask “our brothers and sisters, the saints above all, to pray for us” because they will “give us hand to obtain from God the graces we need most.”

Christians who “have not reached the breaking point” and persevere in times of trial perhaps owe it to the intercession of the saints who are not only in heaven, but also the holy men and women here on earth, the pope added.

“They don’t know it, neither do we, but there are saints, everyday saints, hidden saints or as I like to say the ‘saints next door,’ those who live in life with us, who work with us, and lead a life of holiness,” he said.

By Junno Arocho Esteves | Catholic News Service 

Stamford Advocate talks Easter with the Bishop

I requested time to talk with Diocese of Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano without really knowing what I wanted to talk about.

The second Easter during a global pandemic is enough of a reason.

Without questions, I had no expectations. Sometimes, that’s the best place to find answers.

“Oh my gosh, what a year it has been. It has been, in a way, almost a parable of Christian faith,” he says, picking up a cue from my invitation to contextualize Easter and the pandemic.

“The suffering was all around us, the promise of new life was being offered, but you didn’t quite see it,” continues Caggiano, who lives in Stamford. “Now we’re beginning to see it. It’s almost like a Holy Saturday experience. The suffering is done. But the resurrection is not quite in front of us. And it’s a very difficult position to be in for many people. But Easter gives us a promise that life will come. And this Easter we are in a much different place than last Easter.”

Suffering, doubt, renewal. The meaning of each has intensified over the past 12 months.

Our conversation feels like the partner bookend to one we had a little more than a year ago, in the early chapters of this epic. At that time, Caggiano was contemplating how to address gatherings as well as rituals such as Holy Communion.

The ensuing pages have hardly been light reading, but Caggiano’s voice has relaxed considerably from its grim tones of March 2020. His trademark energy never seemed to waver, so while it comes as a revelation when he mentions we are chatting on his birthday, I’m hardly surprised that he seizes this new stage of life with passion.

“I’m officially a senior citizen today! Sixty-two years old!” declares Caggiano, who was born on Easter Sunday, 1959. “And I say to myself, one of the gifts God has given me is good health.”

I’ve never known anyone to be this enthusiastic upon achieving senior status. A pandemic and time are hardly slowing Caggiano, who continues to launch initiatives in the diocese.

His observations about navigating the church through this “menace” (his word) mirror those of many Fairfield County executives. When your business is people, it’s difficult to be isolated.

But this newly minted senior citizen has learned to recognize the potentials of tending to parishioners virtually.

“Think of the services online. Who would have thought (he frequently speaks in italic) of that as a regular means of worshiping?”

Priests often hear from older parishioners who struggle to sway younger family members to join them at church. But Caggiano says he is encouraged by data suggesting almost every new person who was offered web links to services opened them.

He is also candid about the experience of meeting donors at fundraisers. While a traditional one might draw some 70 people, he has come to appreciate the value of conversing virtually with 20 people at a time. Rather than create distance, it has been a more intimate experience, while inviting instant feedback he says has been “extremely relevant.”

While schools are anxious to return to the old normal, the church is poised to move forward with a hybrid model. Caggiano appears thunderstruck at the notion that the coronavirus has delivered him fresh ways to communicate with followers. He concedes that the Catholic Church’s struggles can cause a feeling of inevitability that “things can never change for the better.”

COVID, of all things, has shaken that mindset. He sees a potential turning point.

“So, all of this suffering will have some grace, some good for the larger community, and I’m excited to do that.”

It’s not just about technology and doing business differently. At one point, I attempt some Journalism 101 misdirection to lure Caggiano back to his high school years at Regis on East 84th Street. He counters with Jesuit pedagogy and suddenly I’m back in Catholic school as he says things such as “We’ve reduced truth to fact. Truth is much richer than fact.”

The pandemic, he reasons, inspired the kind of soulful reactions that can lead the flock back to church.

“Because everybody had to address the basic questions of life, right?”

“Who am I?”

“Why am I here?”

“Where am I going?”

Caggiano laughs. Then he offers what can only be a prayer that events in painful chapters of the last year will inspire a revival of dignified discourse.

“Can we dare to hope we can have dialogue again?” Caggiano posits, whispering “dialogue” as though the word and concept might otherwise become further splintered.

I try again to lure him to the past, asking what his beloved mother would have made him for dinner on a childhood birthday in Brooklyn, New York.

As he grew older, he favored (and still does) Italian Wedding Soup. As a boy, it would have been ravioli, manicotti or lasagna, because they all contain ricotta cheese. He pronounces “manicotti” and “ricotta” precisely as an Italian kid raised on Van Sicklen Street in the 1960s should.

Then we look to the future. I invite him to share an Easter message with readers.

“It’s just one of encouragement,” Caggiano replies. “For people to persevere. We see signs of hope, but we should not be foolish.”

Suffering, doubt, renewal. The third cannot be realized without enduring the first two.

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time.;

A Way of the Cross for Life

Despite the chilly wind and even a few flurries, over 30 people gathered outside the Planned Parenthood facility at Commerce Park in Bridgeport to pray “A Way of the Cross for Abortion Victims” on Good Friday morning. Organizers led the group in a decade of the rosary as cars sped down Main Street, many tooting their horns in support.

To commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and rededicate themselves to the fight against abortion, these members of the Pro-Life Action League recited a special narrative of the 14 Stations. Holding detailed images of the Passion of Christ, individuals were assigned to read the scripture for each station and a brief prayer, followed by a pro-life reflection.

“It seems fitting that we solemnize Jesus’ suffering and death in connection with the pro-life ministry He has entrusted to us,” said organizer Tina Kelly who coordinated the event with Lenore Opalak, the team leader of 40 Days for Life.

Vigil: For Freedom to Live

HARTFORD – Members of numerous faith communities will hold a “Freedom to Live” candlelight rally Wednesday April 7th starting at 6:00 p.m. at the Minuteman Park, adjacent to the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

The rally, which is open to the public, will feature speakers on various issues concerning the attacks on free speech, religious freedom, and the freedom to live. The event is sponsored by the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference (CCPAC) and the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC).

“This is a critical moment when people who treasure life take a stand against the culture of death,” said Christopher Healy, Executive Director of the CCPAC. “We hope our elected leaders hear the truth that life is not something to be legislated away.”

Speakers will be addressing opposition to Aid in Dying House Bill 6425 – which allows those who are given an arbitrary prognosis the ability to receive deadly drugs to take their lives – and Senate Bill 835 – An Act Concerning Pregnancy Care Centers – which allows the state to effectively close its operations.

“Doctors should not prescribe suicide as a treatment and the legislature should not grant legal immunity to people who help you kill yourself,” said Peter Wolfgang, Executive Director of FIC. “Nor should it legislate viewpoint discrimination against pregnancy centers.”

Those who attend are asked to wear masks and follow social distancing during the duration of the rally.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Chris Healy (860) 966-8468
Peter Wolfgang (860) 548-0066
April 2, 2021

The triumph of the cross: The hope of Holy Week

In his passion, Jesus’ sufferings were unequaled. For the Son of God offered himself as a sacrifice for all. No one, not even the saintliest person, can take on the sins of all people in every time and place. Only God can, and did.

Pictured: This is a detail of a painting by Matthias Grunewald entitled “The Small Crucifixion.” Christ’s emaciated face and bowed head evoke his unbearable agony. Under a piercing crown of thorns, the scarred face of Jesus bleeds. (CNS photo/Samuel H. Kress Collection via National Gallery of Art)

It is this gift of faith, at the heart of our Lenten journeys, that Matthias Grunewald, master German painter, brings to life in a vivid painting titled “The Small Crucifixion.” We are invited to reflect not only on the historical event of the Lord’s crucifixion, but the redemptive meaning of Jesus’ suffering love, poured out for all humanity and for each of us.

Grunewald’s image is particularly poignant in these challenging pandemic days as we walk the via crucis, the path of Jesus’ paschal journey from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Grunewald’s best-known masterpiece, the “Isenheim Altarpiece,” was commissioned for the high altar of the church of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Alsace. There, patients suffering from the plague were treated.

In that large altarpiece, Grunewald depicts a crucified Christ whose body is scourged with plague-type sores. Patients bearing the pain of their physical afflictions found spiritual comfort as they gazed on the crucified Jesus and found consolation in the mystery of his suffering.

“The Small Crucifixion” was, most likely, a personal devotional image, intended either for a domestic setting or a private chapel. Here we are drawn into the reality of Jesus’ passion. Color, line, form and composition convey, with remarkable expressive power, the depths of Jesus’ abandonment and the extreme physical suffering of a crucifixion.

His gaunt body is racked with scars of torture. His emaciated face and bowed head evoke his unbearable agony. Under a piercing crown of thorns, the scarred face of Jesus bleeds. His tattered loincloth gives evidence of the depravity of his tormentors. Few artists have conveyed the scene of the crucifixion with the intense realism that Grunewald brings to his composition.

Jesus’ crucifixion is set in a bare landscape painted in an unusual greenish blue color, evoking the Gospel detail that, at the hour of his passing, the sun darkened and creation itself groaned.

Visitors who stand in front of this painting in its museum setting cannot help but notice that the small panel bends outward into the viewers’ space. Grunewald leaves no room for one to remain a passive bystander or objective onlooker in the face of Jesus’ sufferings.

From the center radiates the Lord’s outstretched arms with twisted hands and contorted feet stretched over the cross. His hands and feet convey the divine anguish over human alienation from God. Obedient even to death on a cross, Jesus’ self-offering rises as a perfect oblation through his gnarled fingers that strain upward to the heavens.

His ankles, twisting beneath the brute force of the nail that pierces his feet, evoke the chains of human alienation. The crossbeam strains downward not only under the mass of his wounded body but from the full weight of divine mercy that takes the form of crucified love.

On either side of the cross are Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the beloved disciple, St. John the Evangelist. Mary’s robed head is bowed with her hands clasped in prayer, as she shares uniquely in her son’s suffering. John conveys the agony of this faithful disciple. Kneeling in anguished meditation at the foot of the cross is St. Mary Magdalene.

Their perspective is meant to be ours as we contemplate Jesus’ passion. Grunewald’s vision allows us to glimpse the relentless mercy of God as it takes the form of suffering love on the cross. We are invited to receive the gift of divine crucified love poured out on the world and on each one of us.

Good Friday is good news in that death no longer has the final word on the human condition. As we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross, we are filled with hope in the victorious power of God who will raise him from the dead.

And as we journey from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, Grunewald’s image evokes our vocation to live the new life of the risen Christ.

We know and believe in faith that the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion will most certainly give way to the radiant glory of his, and our own, resurrection. And so we pray, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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Jem Sullivan, educator and author, contributes a Scripture column to Catholic News Service and is the author of “Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism.”