Wed., March 6: Ashes to Ashes

Okay, here we go. Lent starts today, and for 40 days I am committed to going to Mass inside a church and posting afterward. This was supposed to have been the challenge for the whole year, so I shouldn’t complain. In February, I got caught up in life and spent a lot of time listening to church in the car, which is fine. But being there really makes a difference.

So here’s to 40 days of giving and giving up, and hopefully to learning new ways to grow in faith.

Sun., March 3: Katharine Drexel

Oh, the irony. We traveled to Philadelphia to take a look at Drexel University, and as we entered the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City, we discovered it was the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel. And St. Katharine’s remains just happen to be inside the basilica. (I learned after our visit that they were moved from a site in Bensalem, Pennsylvania to a tomb within the basilica last year.)

This presented a great chance to learn about Katharine Drexel because, truthfully, I did not know much about her. Katharine was born into a well-to-do Philadelphia family in the 1850s, but eventually took a vow of poverty and became a nun. In 1891, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and she devoted the rest of her life to helping Native Americans and African Americans. Among her contributions to education, Katharine established Xavier University of Louisiana, the first African American Catholic university.

What can we learn from Katharine Drexel? When you believe in helping others, you can make great things happen. Not all of us are able to devote our entire life to a cause. And how many of us would actually do so if we had the time? I guess if we all just have a portion of the goodness of people like Katharine, we could make a positive impact in this world.

By the way, Drexel is a really cool school.

Feeling Spacey

Honestly, I am too lazy and tired at this moment to go back and count the days since my last post. How pathetic is that? Pretty pathetic.

Most of the weekdays have had me listening to Mass in the car or on my phone at work (at lunchtime; I’m not shirking my workday responsibilities!) As always, these do not have the same oomph as being at an actual Mass. With Lent coming next week, part of my “sacrifice” will be to get to as many Masses in person as possible.

While I always seem to find something inspirational in the daily readings or the homilies, I received my greatest dose of happiness this week not from a Mass but from a BBC news story I was listening to on the radio. The story was about the first Apollo mission; more specifically, it centered around the crew members’ Christmas Eve broadcast.

The astronauts knew that this would be a momentous occasion, and they spent a lot of time thinking about the best words to capture the moment and what they were feeling. On December 24, 1968, this is what they said:

William Anders:

For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you”. 

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Jim Lovell:

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman:

“And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the late John Glenn:

“But to look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is, to me, impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”

It’s interesting to note that the founder of American Atheists sued the U.S. government over the words said by the Apollo 8 crew. She was unsuccessful. I can only imagine how amazing space must be to strengthen the faith of those who travel there. Perhaps if the American Atheists founder had been invited on a mission, she might have found religion.

Day 53: I Think

This is the first day this week (except for Sunday) that I actually went to church in a church. Logistics have made it difficult, impossible actually, to make it to lunchtime Mass. And so it has been church on wheels, listening to EWTN on the way to work.

As convenient as it is, listening to Mass on the radio can be off-putting. First, there’s the obvious fact that you can’t receive communion. It seems illogical as a Catholic to attend Mass and not take the Eucharist. So there’s that. Secondly, and I apologize a thousand times for being so petty, but if the priest’s radio voice is raspy or nasally or just somehow off, my feathers get completely ruffled. “Oh my, please Father, please don’t talk like that,” I find myself saying out loud. Then I turn the volume down a bit and tell God I’m sorry for having to miss part of the service, but it feels like someone is running fingernails down a chalkboard in my head.

Needless to say, today I am thrilled to be back at the Cathedral in Cleveland. I take a seat near the middle and wait for Mass to start. The organ music is beautiful. The priest is energetic. It all feels really good.

And then the lector starts the first reading.

It took me just a couple of seconds to realize who her voice reminded me of: Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is.” If you’ve never heard the song, Peggy talks through part of it as she reminisces about sad moments in the past.

“I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is?”

It’s not an uplifting song! But Peggy roars through it in a throaty, dramatic tone, and it’s hard not to at least be intrigued. And so, instead of concentrating on the first reading and the responsorial psalm, I keep wondering if this is how Peggy Lee would sound if she was the lector, and of course if she was still alive.

The point is, it’s unfortunately not all that hard to be distracted in church, even when you’re in an actual church. And when you finally catch yourself and snap back into the present, you feel kind of bad that you’ve wasted time and not paid attention.

As always, God has put people in place within His church who are not perfect and who still inspire us to be good people. Today is the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, commemorating the moment that Jesus told Peter that he would one day lead the mission.

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Keep in mind that this is the same Peter who later on will deny knowing Jesus. And yet Jesus wants him to be in charge, warts and all. My thinking has always been that if Peter could let Jesus down like that and still be allowed into His graces, there is hope for me and everyone else! It’s not that we’re supposed to be perfect — we can’t be — but that we shouldn’t let our mistakes completely throw us off course. We can always get back to how we’re supposed to be living.

Now, let’s talk for a moment about members of the clergy who were supposed to be leading the faithful but who chose to take advantage of their position. The sexual abuse scandal continues to cloud the name of Catholicism around the world. I’m fairly certain that most priests keep their vows, and I know for a fact that other faiths have battled their own scandals. (The recent news about sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Church is one example.) Still, it can be downright disheartening to think that these men, supposedly with a calling from God, could do something evil.

I think about the story of Peter denying Jesus three times, and Peter eventually hanging his head in shame. He knew what he had done was wrong, and he was sorry for it. I would give anything for just one priest to admit what he had done and to apologize for the suffering caused. The chances are slim. Many of the priests who have been accused over the last 15 or so years have died. For those who are still alive, it is probably not encouraged to admit guilt. It would be refreshing, though, if at least one of them did. A confession would never take away the hurt that victims endured, but it would signal to the laity of the Church that even in the midst of horrible sins, forgiveness is possible. I guess I won’t hold my breath, but I remain hopeful.

Days 44-45: Happy V-Day

Not much is known about St. Valentine. He apparently lived in Rome during the third century and was martyred. The Catholic Church celebrated his feast day on February 14 until 1969, when he was replaced with Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Can you imagine if we bought cards and wished people “Happy Saints Cyril and Methodius Day”? It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

For the secular world, Valentine’s Day is still a thing. We buy chocolate, make cut-out hearts and, if we’re lucky enough to have one, swoon over our significant other. I’ve heard some really wonderful stories today that had nothing to do with the romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day, although they had a lot to do with love.

One of my Facebook friends leaves the house on February 14 with a bunch of Valentine’s Day cards in her purse. She hands them out to random people. Today, she gave one to a woman at the hair salon, who cried and was so appreciative because her loved one was deceased. This evening, I read about Valentine’s Day cards that had been left at a shelter. They were given to children who have been facing homelessness.

These two stories are so heartwarming, and yet they make me a little bit upset with myself. I think about all the years when I didn’t have someone with whom I could celebrate Valentine’s Day. What did I do? I probably went to a bar and drowned my sorrows or stayed at hom and sulked while watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

Think about what I could have been doing all that time. I could have been handing out valentines to strangers, visiting sick kids in the hospital, giving Hershey kisses to people at nursing homes. Instead, I spent probably 10 Valentine’s Days consumed with self-pity. Stupid hindsight.

Well, there’s no way to redo those years so I’ll have to move forward. Maybe next February 14, I can think about other people who might need a heart and a hug more than I do. Maybe I can wish them a “Happy Saints Cyril and Methodius Day” and bring extra happiness into their lives.

Days 34-43: Summed Up

Too much of life going on to blog every day right now so I’m focusing on the most meaningful homily I heard over the last several days. It is simple and yet somewhat haunting, especially at this time.

Without faith we have nothing.

This ordinarily would be a rather benign statement for me, something I would silently nod to and move on. But the words the priest said during his homily were all I could think about the rest of the day and several days afterward. Without faith we have nothing. 

Do we have faith these days? Have we put our faith in money or pleasure or people, and left God out to dry? Do we say we have faith, but then live our lives in some sort of “me first” way that has little to do with faith? 

It just feels that, with all of the weirdness going on in our world, with shooting sprees and drug overdoses and laissez-faire attitudes, we’re losing our faith not just in God but also in humankind. Can we even get back to the type of faith we’re supposed to have? Or maybe I shouldn’t be looking at everyone else collectively, but instead just look at myself. Do I have faith? 

This has been occupying a lot of my thoughts. I know when I’m in church I have faith, but I need to do a better job of showing it when I’m outside of church. Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow and a slightly lighter theme: Valentine’s Day.

Day 33: St. Blaise

Today, we celebrated the feast of St. Blaise, the patron saint of throat diseases. On this day, the priest places two blessed candles on either side of your throat and says, “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Blaise is also the patron saint of wool combers. If you are a wool comber, first of all, I am impressed, and second of all, you can pray to St. Blaise to help you do your best.

Days 28-32: Saints Preserve Us!

What have I been doing all week? Huddling under the covers. Curling up beside the space heater. Listening to Mass on the radio while driving to work in my toasty warm car.

It’s been cold, and once again I am thankful for church on the radio. This is a nice way to spend time in the car on the way to work, although I will say that listening to Mass while you’re driving does not necessarily make you a more patient driver. At least twice this week I have apologized to God out loud for swearing at a careless motorist. At first, I was worried that that would negate the good I’m doing by listening to Mass, but then I decided that if I prayed for the bad driver immediately after swearing at him, I could actually be doing a good deed.

By the way, St. Frances of Rome is the patron saint of automobile drivers. So if someone cuts you off or slows down in the passing lane, this is a good saint to pray to for their conversion to smart driving. St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers and drivers so he’s probably a good one to pray to if you’re a passenger in the car of a terrible driver. St. Christopher is also the patron saint of sailors, which means you should be in good shape should you decide to join the navy or maybe even take a cruise.

The idea of patron saints is intriguing and often misunderstood. You’re not really praying to the saint to help you; you’re actually asking the saint to add extra prayers to God for your help. That means that when I’m asking St. Anthony to help me find my glasses for the 45th time in a month, he’s sending up prayers to God that I will find them and finally set them in one particular place.

St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists.

Patron saints got their start when the first Catholic Churches were being built in the Roman Empire. The edifices were built over the graves of martyrs, with the martyrs acting as intercessors for worshippers. The church would then take the name of the martyr. Eventually, saints that weren’t martyrs were also used as namesakes for churches. And somewhere down the line, saints became not just patrons of churches, but also patrons of professions, illnesses and special causes.

You can find a patron saint for just about anything, as long as it’s something good. St. Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists; if you’ve got an upcoming root canal, you know who to contact. St. Bede looks after historians and English writers; St. Cecilia has musicians covered. If you’re an undertaker, you’ll want to ask St. Dismas for guidance; St. Gregory the Great is there for teachers.

If you’re an ice skater and you’re feeling like you’re all alone on the ice, rest assured that St. Lidwina is gliding beside you. In the kitchen, St. Martha will look after your cooking, but if you’re a pastry chef you’ve got your own personal patron in St. Philip. Many saints multitask, serving as patron saints of more than one thing. For example, St. Ursula is the patron saint of archers, orphans and students. St. Theobald of Provins has his hands full with farmers, winegrowers, shoemakers, beltmakers and charcoal-burners, although the number of charcoal-burners has certainly dwindled through the years.

Here’s one patron saint who could be especially helpful to those of us who just lived through the polar vortex: St. Dimitar, patron saint of winter, cold and snow. I’ll bet he’s getting an earful right about now.

Day 27: A House Divided

Today the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas. This morning, the priest gave a very nice homily about him. But there’s something else that feels very pressing at the moment.

Every morning, I am greeted by an email from Bishop Robert Barron’s. I mentioned him in a previous post. In these emails, Bishop Barron recounts the day’s gospel and then expounds on its meaning. His words are always very proactive and inspirational, and sometimes they feel eerily timely.

In today’s gospel, some scribes are in a lather because Jesus is casting out demons. (Mark 3:22-30) “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” one of them says.
“By the prince of demons he drives out demons,” says another. Naturally, Jesus aims to explain to them that he’s actually working with the faith, not against it.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand,” Jesus replies to the scribes. “And if a house is divided against itself, 
that house will not be able to stand.”

As Bishop Barron explains it, while satanic demons try to break up good things, Jesus’ aim is to put things back together.

It really feels these days like we’re trying to divide ourselves into groups, create division and focus on the negative. If you don’t feel that way, you’re probably staying away from social media and the news, and good for you!

A house divided cannot stand. We really should get back to being a united front. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree on everything. That’s never going to happen. But we can respect each other’s opinions and maybe even find common ground.

It’s times like these when the gospel provides especially great guidance, and Bishop Barron helps to drive that home. And, if I may quote one more inspirational person: In the immortal words of the late Rodney King (and I apologize for taking them out of their original context), “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all just get along?”

Days 25 & 26: Carpe Diem

If we were to have Mass in the original Christian language, it would be in Aramaic. Once Christianity began to spread, Mass was offered in other languages, although Greek was predominantly used. Fast forward to the 500s AD, and Latin makes its way into the liturgy, with several Greek phrases remaining.

The Mass evolved over time, beginning with priests who extemporaneously put together a service for congregants. Through the early centuries AD, a pattern of prayers began to form. In 1570, the Roman Missal was created, establishing a mandatory format for the Mass. The Latin Rite, or Tridentine Mass, would be the primary form until Vatican II in 1962 when Masses began to be said in the vernacular.

If you were born after 1962, the Tridentine Mass typically does not play much significance in your life. Maybe your parents talked about it, or you saw versions of it in old movies. Vatican II brought a sense of freedom to the Catholic Mass, a sense that the service belonged specifically to you because it was in your native tongue.

Not everyone liked having that freedom, however; in fact, some Catholics missed the Latin Mass so much that they longed for the day when they could attend once again. Even some Vatican II-era Catholics found the traditional Mass to be more connected to Catholicism.

Believe it or not, there is a growing interest in the Tridentine Mass. I would not have believed it myself had I not been taken to a Latin Mass one Sunday 13 years ago. Little did I know that I would still be attending on a fairly regular basis to this day.

The priest’s back is almost always facing the altar and away from the congregation.

This has not been easy. I love my Vatican II Masses! I was led kicking and screaming into the Latin Rite (only a slight exaggeration there). I resented not hearing the beautiful hymns and saying the familiar prayers in English. I didn’t like wearing a veil. I was given a book that was supposed to help me follow the service, but it was confusing and in small print and it gave me a headache. I professed to whoever would listen that I “got nothing out of the Latin Mass.”

Here’s the question I ended up asking myself just a year or so ago: What am I supposed to “get out of” going to Mass? (Keep in mind that I said the exact same thing in my 20s when I stopped regularly going to Mass in Engish.) Why do I insist that there has to be something in it for me? Was Mass created so I could feel really good about myself? I don’t think so. My priorities have been kind of mixed up!

While I am still partial to Mass in English, I will say that I’ve gained an appreciation for the Latin Mass. It’s quiet, especially if you attend a Low Mass (no singing). It’s focused. It’s reverent. It’s always the same. And you can be in your own zone without much interaction if that’s your thing. (That’s usually my thing in church.)

There were good reasons for changing to the vernacular. Even by 1962, Latin was not a popularly studied language. The spread of Catholicism to Africa and Asia meant there were Catholics whose native alphabets and languages were completely unrelated to Latin. Still, it wasn’t to everyone’s liking. That’s why we have churches that still offer Mass in Latin, and you will find me in one of those churches on many Sundays. And now, for the most part, it’s minus the kicking and screaming.