The Local Renewal of Family Life: Marriage Formation

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Some years ago, I heard John Allen give a talk in which he was asked when the bishops of the Church would institute some particular reform that the questioner found important for ecclesial renewal. Allen responded by reminding the entire audience that it is not the primary ministry of the bishops to “renew” the Church. That the body of bishops gathered in Rome at the Vatican is fundamentally a “conservative” one (for good reason) and for that reason ecclesial renewal is best accomplished through charisms of both lay and ordained Catholics, who renew their parish at the local level. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy Day were not participants in a Synod of bishops sponsored by the Vatican. Yet, their witness to holiness has renewed the Church for countless generations.

While not belittling in the least the gathering of bishops in Rome over the coming weeks, it is important to remember that the renewal of family life will not ultimately be accomplished by the Apostolic Exhortation that follows the Synod. Nor for that matter will the Synod lead to doctrinal development around marriage itself, specifically related to divorce (although reading secular media’s portrayal of this ordinary Synod, either conservative or liberal, you get a sense that this is the purpose of the entire gathering). The orientation of this particular Synod is the pastoral state of family life and marriage in the present not simply Western world. The document preparing for this Synod notes:

Today’s society is characterized by a variety of tendencies. Only a minority of people lives, supports and encourages the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, seeing in it the goodness of God’s creative plan. Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce is on the rise. People are becoming increasingly aware of the dignity of every person — man, woman and child — and the importance of different ethnic groups and minorities, which — already widespread in many societies, not only in the West — are becoming prevalent in many countries.

In various cultures young people are displaying a fear to make definitive commitments, including a commitment concerning a family. In general, an extreme individualism, increasingly becoming widespread, focuses uppermost on gratifying desires which do not lead to total personal fulfilment.

The development of a consumer society has separated sexuality from procreation. This fact is also one of the underlying causes of an increasing decline in the birth rate, which, in some places, is related to poverty or the inability to care for children; and in others, to the unwillingness to accept responsibility and to the idea that children might infringe on freely pursuing personal goals.

The Synod on the Family is concerned about ways of responding in mercy to those who have experienced divorce. But it is at least equally concerned about a crisis of commitment; about the separation of sexuality from self-gift; about the decline of marriage as a whole; and the poverty that makes family life difficult throughout the world. Bishops, though having teaching authority in the Church, can only do so much about the “crisis” of family life in this broader sense. For this reason, what is most needed is renewal from the ground-up.

Thus over the coming weeks, I will be introducing three things that a parish might do, which will in the end be more important for ecclesial renewal than the Synod itself. These three things include a renewal of marriage formation, seeing the family itself as agent of mission, and ministering to those on the margins in particular.

A Renewal of Marriage Formation

ChauvetLouis-Marie Chauvet notes that one of the consequences of the renewal of the rites of the Second Vatican Council is a clash between an anthropological reason for asking for a sacrament and the liturgical-sacramental reason presumed by the Church. He writes:

Whereas the ritual of baptism, for instance, proclaims that baptism is the sacrament of the faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, numerous people who ask for the sacraments are faraway from this faith that they have not just forgotten everything they learned in catechism but in many cases believe only in a vague deism, when they have not reached a sort of practical atheism. The least one can say is that the ‘system of the practice,’ the faith content which theoretically precedes the practice, is in disharmony, even in contradiction with the ‘practice of the system,’ the request addressed tot he church for the sacraments (The Sacraments: The Word of God At the Mercy of the Body, 175-76).

For example, it is likely that a couple approaches a parish looking to participate in the rite of marriage for reasons that include parents’ who insist that they be married in the Church; because the parish provides a proper aesthetic background for marking this occasion; because they have a vague sense that the Church should be part of this momentous occasion. And on and on. Yet, the Church’s own theology of marriage assumes (or hopes) that the couple comes to the sacrament out of faith–because the couple desires their union to become an image to the world of Christ’s love for the Church.

These are competing narratives, neither of which may be dismissed with ease. Catholicism has continually baptized “anthropological” reasons for receiving a sacrament. Still, it is ultimately dishonest to undervalue the Church’s robust sense of marriage for the sake of welcoming couples (with the vague hope that the rite will have its effect no matter what). Marriage formation requires acknowledging and purifying the anthropological reasons for approaching the sacrament, while also announcing the nuptial kerygma at the heart of the liturgical rite.

For this reason, marriage formation will have a three-fold character.

Social and Cultural Analysis of One’s Own Assumptions Around Marriage

RiteofMarriageMuch is presumed on the part of the marrying couple about the nature of the marriage that they are preparing to undertake. Their own cultural view of marriage may be informed by a nearly impossible standard of personal and social happiness that marriage brings about (“you complete me”). They may imagine that the universe has placed a single person in their lives whom they are destined to marry; and thus if they find themselves attracted to another person, then they must move on. On an individual level, they may not acknowledge how their own view of marriage is shaped (or misshaped) by their parents. They may imagine that their love is the most “unique” love in the world, such that there will be nothing in the world that would rip them apart (there is; it’s called sin).

For this reason, the first thing that marriage formation must do is to invite the couple to consider those assumptions that serve as potential obstacles to the sacrament of marriage. In fact, this cultural analysis should begin not when the couple has come for marriage but should be apart of the kind of formation for marriage that begins in adolescence. And should continue even after the marriage has taken place. Approaches to marriage formation that simply build communication skills around finance, child-rearing, etc. without dealing with these problematic assumptions is akin to building an earthquake proof structure on top of a rotten foundation.

Of course, the way to address these cultural assumptions is not to tell the couple how wrong they are. Rather, marriage formation at whatever stage should invite the couple to come to see marriage anew alongside the Church’s ministers. It must invite the couple or the adolescent into a form of apprenticeship in which well-formed families provide the counter-narrative that is ultimately healing.

In good parishes, this happens organically. When I think about the four years that we spent in Boston as a married couple, I cannot help but think about Peg and Bill LaRoche. During our first years of marriage, the LaRoche’s manifested to us what hospitality looked like; how to love one another in the midst of suffering; how to serve the poor as apart of one’s married life. These years of informal formation were integral to discerning what it meant for us to be infertile. How our infertility could become to the world as gift of love instead of a disease affecting only us. The assumptions that we had about the ease of marriage were transformed by the LaRoche’s who said little. But provided us an icon of sacrament love that was purifying.

Proclaiming the Kerygma

LoveAt present, one rarely hears the Church’s proclamation of the Good News of marriage, even in homilies for the Rite of Marriage itself. These homilies tend to devolve into a panegyric of the uniqueness of this couple’s love. That this marriage, above all others, will survive the test of time because this couple shares in common a love of hiking, of singing, of whatever was discerned during the preparation for the sacrament.

Yet, this kind of strategy is to place the focus of the rite of marriage not on God’s activity but upon the couple’s. The Good News of marriage (as in all the sacraments) is that this human relationship, this mundane reality of love, this particular history, is precisely one of the ways that God has chosen to save humanity.

O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage

by so great a mystery

that in the wedding covenant you foreshadow

the Sacrament of Christ and the Church,

grant, we pray, to these your servants,

that what they receive in faith

they may live out in deeds.

The couple is to present to the world a sacrament of divine love not simply at the moment of their nuptial consecration. Rather, they mediate to the world the love of Christ and the Church in the context of their relationship, of their family life, of their vocation to serve one another.

The family created out of this union, present already before children are born (if they are to be born), is a blessing and responsibility to the Church. It is the entire Church, particularly at the parish level, that is responsible for assisting this couple in fulfilling their vocation. The kerygma of marriage, the proclamation of Good News, means that we are responsible for one another. That we must be in solidarity with all families, especially those on the margins (a topic to be dealt with later).

The kerygma of marriage is thus not an instrument to bludgeon the couple with. Rather, it is a reminder to the whole Church that the sacrament of marriage is a vocation that each of us is responsible for. Do we open new couples into our home? Do we provide a space in our parish that acknowledges the difficulty of this vocation, rather than holding up some idealized 50s vision of what family life consists of?

The Mission of Family Life

FamiliesservingPerhaps, the area where family formation is most impoverished around the sacrament of marriage is the dearth of attention paid to the responsibility of “mission” in married life, a theme that I will treat more fully in a later piece. Marriage, like all other sacraments, is not simply for those who receive sacramental grace. Rather, marriage is for the world. As the document preparing for the Synod notes, the mission of the family is one of tenderness:

Tenderness means to give joyfully and, in turn, to stir in another person the joy of feeling loved. Tenderness is expressed in a particular way in looking at another’s limitations in a loving way, especially when they clearly stand out. Dealing with delicacy and respect means attending to wounds and restoring hope in such a way as to revitalize trust in the other. Tenderness in family relationships is the virtue which helps people overcome the everyday conflicts within a person and in relations with others. In this regard, Pope Francis invites everyone to reflect on his words: “Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.”(Homily for the Midnight Mass on the Solemnity of Christmas, 24 December 2014).

The virtue of tenderness cultivated among spouses, among siblings is very same virtue that incarnates Christ’s love for the world. A family whose tenderness moves out to the margins, to the unloved, is perhaps the most effective agent of evangelization in the modern world.

I have seen this in my own recent vocation to adopted fatherhood. In spending time with my son, I have learned the virtue of tenderness in a way that I have never known before. I have learned of the smallness of my own heart, how quickly I am annoyed by my son’s cry for attention. I have discovered how I am opened ever more deeply to prayer by watching my son kiss an icon. I am now far more cognizant of the needs of my undergraduate students, fatherhood making me more deeply attuned to the care I must offer to the sorrows and joys that make up their life.

Family life has formed me anew for Christian mission in a way that nothing else could. The pastoral care of all families, for this reason, is not simply one aspect of the Church’s mission. Rather, it is the privileged way of renewing the Church in the vocation toward self-gift, which is at the heart of evangelization. If marriage formation does not begin with this sense of mission as the end goal, then it is impoverished from the beginning.


The Spirit of the Synod on the Family

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

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This weekend, Pope Francis delivered his homily inaugurating the October 4-25 Synod on the Family. Predictably, the Synod of Bishops has generated much controversy and polarization over the past year or so, especially when it comes to what the Synod may yield in terms of Church teaching and practice regarding homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics. If my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter updates are of any indication, both Left and Right seem to be convinced that this is the sole agenda for the gathering of prelates, and that one side is poised to ‘lose’ on these two topics. The bishops will either vote ‘conservative,’ and uphold policies of ‘discrimination’ toward those who feel marginalized by the church, or they will vote ‘liberal’ – much to the dismay of the right – and announce new policy for the reception of the homosexual and the divorced and remarried.

But what our Holy Father made clear in his homily on the eve of the Synod is that those who enter into this moment in Church history through the lens described above (regardless of if one falls on the Left or the Right) has already missed both the purpose and the nature of the assembly: its purpose is not to create policy but to explore “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”;  its nature is not that of a meeting of Congress but of a “moment of grace.”

The Holy Father’s homily serves as a reminder that this Synod should not – nay, cannot – be viewed through the political lens. Its hermeneutic, Francis reminds us, is rather one of love:

“If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4.12).

This love, the foundation and telos of the Church’s mission in the world, is multidimensional. Repeating the words of his predecessor, Francis urges:

The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3).

At the same time, the Synod will be concerned with how this love can be more effectively presented to the world.

And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

This Synod on the family will be concerned with authentic love, and with how the Church can better fulfill its vocation of acting as a bridge in the world: a bridge on which the love of the Creator can pass between both Creator and created. For the Church is not in the world to burn bridges, but to build them. And this act of building bridges is a labor of love. As John Paul II said:

“Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time” (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978).

How appropriate that on the eve of the assembly of bishops our Pontifex (literally: “bridge-builder“) captures the spirit of this synod through such a simple but apt image of the Church in the world.

The full text of Pope Francis’ homily can be found on the Vatican’s website.

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What We’re Reading Today: Synod on the Family, Marriage, and Evangelium Vitae

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

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1) A helpful reminder that the present Synod is not parliament (nor Congress), but a place to listen to the Spirit:

The synod is not a convention or a parliament, Pope Francis said, “but an expression of the church; it is the church that walks together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.”

Synod members must be faithful to church teaching, “the deposit of faith, which is not a museum to be visited or even simply preserved, but is a living spring from which the church drinks to quench the thirst and enlighten” people, he said.

2) Rev. Charlie Gordon, CSC’s homily on the silent partner in a Christian marriage:

No, it isn’t reasonable. And I think that’s why people do it, because people who get married are in love, and forever is the language of love. Real lovers don’t promise to stay together, as long as it is mutually fulfilling, or until that big promotion comes through, or until someone more interesting comes along. Pick up any book of love poetry — even bad love poetry. You will read, I am yours until the stars fall from the sky, or the seas dry up, or it snows in the Sahara – in other words — forever.

3) Notre Dame announced yesterday that the Little Sisters of the Poor will receive the 2016 Evangelium Vitae Medal. Read the press release here:

University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said: “We are delighted to award this medal to the Little Sisters of the Poor to honor them for their inspiring efforts to build a Culture of Life, where every member of the human family is welcomed and embraced. They are most deserving of this year’s Evangelium Vitae Medal.”

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What We’re Reading Today: formal theology, infertility, and ‘say the black, do the red’

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

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1) Peter J. Leithart over at First Things on the spiritual dangers that comes with becoming a professional theologian:

Formal theological study is one of the most spiritually dangerous endeavors one can take on. Don’t think it won’t happen to you. The greatest danger is for those called to spend their lives studying and teaching theology. But whatever you plan to do with your study, your training will tempt you to become a Pharisee. When some superstitious old woman gently reminds you of some basic truth of the gospel, you’ll be tempted to object, “Yes, but the Greek says. . . .”

2) Erin Stoyell-Mullholland kicks off a two-part series at Ethika Politika on the Church’s often inadequate pastoral responses to infertile couples:

One of the biggest struggles that all infertile couples spoke of was a feeling of isolation. Although one in nine couples experiences infertility at some point, most couples said one of the hardest things about being infertile is feeling alone. One woman said she wished people would “recognize the social isolation that infertile couples can experience. For a while it’s okay, but pretty soon all your friends have kids and they are off doing their own thing.” Some couples said that often it can seem that they are the only ones undergoing this struggle.

3) Dan Burke at the National Catholic Register writes on external orthodoxy and a properly ordered interior life:

Authentic orthodoxy does “say the black and do the red.” But it does so both interiorly and exteriorly. The interior disposition to obedience is because authentic orthodoxy is completely sold out to God. It recognizes the boundaries as acts of love that we are invited to, not merely rules to be followed out of duty. Duty is good, but it is an immature expression of fidelity that must lead to a more mature expression and motivation based on gratitude and love.Rosary and Latin prayerbook

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The Yardstick of Love: Pope Francis and Particularity

10985020_10155272738505037_4973531099242634026_o-e1441708114247-150x150Rose Urankar

Undergraduate Fellow

ND ‘ 16, Theology and American Studies

Last Thursday at 10am, I was sitting in a theology class.  As a theology major, this was not unusual.  Yet in Washington DC, history was being made as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress and rubbed elbows with some of our nation’s most opinionated politicians.  Thankfully, since I was in a theology class, we were able to watch the event live-streamed on one of my classmates’ computers.

My classmates and I huddled around the computer and watched as Pope Francis humbly addressed our dignitaries in English, albeit with a heavy accent.  As he spoke, we found ourselves imitating the listening style of some of the representatives—sitting on the edges of our seats, listening attentively, and even applauding after our favorite parts.  One snippet garnered particularly raucous applause, as he described the Golden Rule (Mt 7:12):

“This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Clapping and cheers could probably be heard down the halls of Hayes Healey as we reveled in this profound statement about serving our neighbor.  Surely, Pope Francis had spoken of this kind of compassion before—in fact, most of what he was saying was not completely new to us.  We’ve all heard him spout wisdom about the environment, immigration, peace, the dignity of life, and more in plentiful supply.

Yet amid the joy, my friend leaned over to me and asked with incredulity, “Did he just say yardstick?”

Sifting back through his comments in my head, I realized that yes, Pope Francis just referred to a yardstick while addressing a joint-session of Congress.  The word was almost indistinguishable through his accented English, but he did say “yardstick.”  How funny, I thought.  I barely even understood it.

images-1Perhaps I barely understood Pope Francis because “yardstick” is not a word or concept that would come naturally to a Spanish-speaker.  After all, yardsticks are pretty much only used in America, where the yard, foot, and inch compose the royal family of measurement.  I remember when I learned that American measurements were not the norm for the world.  While examining my grandma’s yardstick, I wondered aloud why they would even bother to put centimeters on a ruler when no one used them.  I was struck dumb when my grandma (or possibly my precocious older sister) informed me otherwise.

Now that I’m a ‘learned scholar,’ I am more comfortable with the metric system and have almost ruled the inches side of my ruler to be obsolete.  But Pope Francis didn’t use the metric system when he gave his joint address to Congress.  He used a yardstick, the tool of measurement familiar to the average American.  He didn’t use kilometers and expect us to figure out what he meant—he came to us and spoke to us in a way we would understand.

Sure, some of Pope Francis’s speeches this weekend held themes similar to ones he’s given in countries all around the world, themes like love, mercy, and peace.  Yet Pope Francis took those themes and applied them to the American experience in ways that are particular to us.  He encouraged us to love our neighbor, including people who are foreign-born.  He modeled mercy by visiting the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.  He preached peace while advocating an end to the death penalty.

His actions were not ethereal, inaccessible niceties—everything he did was tangible and intentional.  He came here not just to visit the U.S., but to visit us, his children, and address our particular needs.

May Pope Francis’s love and particularity, modeled on Christ’s, be a kind of ‘yardstick’ by which we measure our own love.

On Teaching a Three Year old to sit

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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For the past four years, I have served as a level-one atrium guide in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at my parish. Not long ago, I welcomed 12 children, ranging in age from three to five-years-old, to the atrium. Some of the children were returning for their second or even their third year. I had accompanied some of them in the atrium already for one or two years. All of three-year-olds, however, were new to the atrium environment.

The first several weeks are spent acclimating to the rhythms of the atrium the environment. Children learn how to walk in the atrium. They learn how to talk in the atrium. They learn how to roll and unroll a work rug, how to carry a worktable. They learn how to use their bodies and the things in their environment in such a way that capacitates them to work independently and peacefully in the community and that develops their inclination to contemplation and prayer.

Teaching a child how to sit is also incredibly laborious. Every year I forget what a huge work it is for a three-year-old to learn to sit with short legs, that is, with crisscrossed legs or kneeling. For many of them, it is the first time they have ever sat like this, and their bodies have no muscles memory of what it feels like to sit like this. The tucking under and in of legs and feet makes as little visual sense as physical sense. When they try to move their little legs around, children often look as though they are performing an odd seated dance—legs flailing and contorting in mid-air. Often, they need the help of an adult one, two, three . . . twenty times before their bodies effortlessly recall how to sit with folded legs. For some children, it’s a work that takes a few months of gentle reminders and assistance.

Teaching a three-year-old how to sit is hard. To be honest, I often find the tedious repetition deeply frustrating; a feeling I imagine resonates with most parents of small children.

Why is learning to sit so important in the atrium? There are at least two reasons. The first is quite practical. With twelve little bodies maneuvering materials in a relatively small space, sitting with short legs serves the very useful end of children not tripping over one another. Indeed, sitting with short legs serves the immediate needs of the community of children, allowing them to work independently and peacefully together. This seemingly insignificant work actually cultivates the child’s ability to participate in an ethical community prior to any discursive knowledge of what an ethical community is because they learn how to use their bodies beautifully and responsibly in a community persons.

The second reason though related to the first is also distinct from it. Teaching a three-year-old to sit certainly has an ethical dimension, but it is not merely an ethical exercise. In other words, the painstaking time necessary to children how to sit is not simply undertaken in order to create “good atrium citizens.”

The point is rather that as children work to inscribe particular movements in their bodies they are beginning the practice of attunement. In the first instance, learning to sit in the atrium, like learning how to walk or how talk in the atrium, has fundamentally to do with cultivating bodily practices and habits that dispose the child to the reality of prayer. Like learning to play an instrument, learning to listen to God and to partake in the prayer of the Church takes practice. Merely thinking about playing the piano will never result in the capacity to play. Indeed, the young child does not think abstractly anyhow, a trait which has lead to generations of dismissing their potential for relationship with God. Like learning to play an instrument, prayer requires bodily practice. Simply thinking about praying or the concept of prayer is not prayer.

The mundane and tedious work of teaching a child to sit becomes for me a work of profound patience and care. As I assist children in folding and tucking spindly limbs, in taking up concrete postures of openness, reception, and praise, I become more deeply aware my own bodily postures and my hunger for embodied practices of prayer—for kneeling before the Eucharist at Adoration, for sitting silently with the Book of Hours in my lap, for saying the morning offering, for signing myself with the cross before I leave for work. Indeed, for profound bodiliness of the liturgy itself—it’s standing, sitting, kneeling, smelling, listening, speaking, blessing; it’s receiving, eating, and drinking of the very Body and Blood of Christ, in whose humanity we find salvation.

St. Thérèse: Behind the Eyes

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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My daughter has a gift for noticing people and for remembering them. Several times in the last week she’s spotted a woman we met recently who begs for alms at different locations in our area. My daughter prayed for this woman, Sheila, during the intercessions of our family’s night prayer yesterday. She also remembered to pray for Chuck, whom she and I sometimes visit on his usual corner on Sunday afternoons, often bringing him a Subway sandwich. She prayed, too, for the Nigerian schoolgirls we prayed for every night beginning in 2014 when they were abducted and held for over a year, as well as for a woman who lived near us who was killed when a car crashed into her house… in 2012. There are other people—regulars and newcomers—who make their way into our intercessions, many of whom are brought forth from my daughter. The ones I listed here are just from last night. Needless to say, her prayer is full of people.

One night when I was putting her to bed a couple or maybe three years ago, she was talking about a child in a wheelchair she had seen with his family on the way to the park. I think the child had cerebral palsy and so I explained, as best I could to a four-or-five year old, that the wheelchair helped him get around and helped his family take him to the park. My daughter thought that must be hard for him and I said it probably was. Looking to the picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux hanging next to her bed, I asked her if she wanted to ask St. Thérèse to pray for that boy, to which she responded, “No, I want to pray with St. Thérèse for him.”

therese-as-a-childSt. Thérèse found my daughter first. Sure, my wife and I gave her “Thérèse” as a middle name, but that didn’t cause or guarantee the attraction. No, I think the photos started it—photos like the ones that now surround her bed. In every photo, Thérèse exudes a youthful exuberance mixed with mature confidence. I think my daughter knew to trust her before anyone ever taught her she should. Thérèse caught my daughter’s eye as a small, small child because of the way Thérèse looked at her through those photos. The longer I know my daughter and the more I get to know Thérèse, the more I see my daughter coming to resemble Thérèse. The resemblance, however, isn’t so much about the complexion as it is about those eyes that notice people and that heart that remembers them. Thérèse gathers people in prayer.

Hans Urs von Balthasar—who does not remind me of my daughter—once described St. Thérèse’s prayer life as a “festival of communion.” It started in her home, where she prayed with her mother, her father, her sisters, the maid. When she went to Carmel, her prayer drew her into communion with her religious sisters, with whom she shared the daily rhythms of the contemplative life. From home and from the cloister, though, Thérèse was also a restless seeker, searching for others whose cares she could hold and whose good she took on as her special intentions. In particular, she searched for those who were lost or suffering.

Henri_PranziniUnfortunately pertinent to our own cultural moment, one of the most well-known lost ones whom Thérèse sought out was the convicted murderer, Henri Pranzini. Scheduled for execution, this man against whom a seemingly rock-solid case was mounted remained impenitent for the brutal triple homicide he had (almost certainly) committed. His trial was big news in Paris and throughout France, and Thérèse learned of his fate and disposition through the newspaper. In this man she would never meet, she saw the tragedy not only of unspeakable violence but also of a heart hardened to contrition. Thérèse hastened to take him into her prayer. As she confessed, though, she had no power of her own that would help this man, so she offered that of which she herself was a recipient: “the infinite mercies of Our Lord, the treasures of the Church, and finally […] a Mass offered for my intentions,” (all quotes from Story of a Soul). When it was reported, again through the newspaper, that prior to his execution Pranzini kissed a crucifix before his execution, Thérèse interpreted this as the sign of contrition and claimed the man as “my first child.”

Placing Thérèse in the presence of a murderer might produce some kind of cognitive dissonance. She’s a child, after all, and this is unfit company for a child. She herself is the model of simple faith, the model of trust, the model of loving little things. She seems unfit to shine light upon state executions.

And yet, as seen from another angle, this is precisely who she was: the one whose intercessory prayer is contemplation in action. Not contemplation that yields to action, but contemplation that is an active will to suffer along with the suffering, to carry their burdens along with them, and to seek their good as her own. For the one who “resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross to receive the divine dew,” the act of allowing her heart to become troubled at the troubles of others became the theme of her witness. She sought to suffer with the suffering Christ so as to glory in the glorified Christ. And how does Christ suffer? He suffers in his little ones, who bear the wounds of history and suffer all forms of oppression, but he also suffers in those who fear, who are impenitent, who cultivate suspicion, cast aspersions, envy and mock and scourge. They, too, suffer in their humanity, and Christ seeks them. So, then, does Thérèse.

The triumph of this “little saint” was always in seeing through the malaise to find the person. In her we find one in whom the Lord’s desire to suffer for others becomes her desire to suffer in love with others, even in their place. The intercessory prayer of St. Thérèse is a startling mystery which the episode with Pranzini only begins to reveal. Behind that exuberant youthfulness mixed with mature confidence hides the willingness that was both a gift of grace and a gift of her formation to consider vicarious suffering the greatest potential for human life—that is, to suffer for another. What mother doesn’t suffer love for her child, and do so willingly?

Thérèse’s short life was lived in pursuit of sacrificing her own preferences for the sake of the will of God, who seeks to find the lost “so that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). With all its resplendence, there was also a danger to Thérèse’s spirituality, and it is a danger worth heeding. The danger for her would come in preferring her sacrifices and sufferings to anything else, for then she begins to make a performance out of fashioning a life of holiness. Even as this great saint shows us what depths sanctity holds, her own spiritual precariousness reminds us that the mission of a disciple always stands on the razor’s edge between the charity of Christ and the adoration of the self. Only as she continually learns to replace her concern for her own image with the concern of those for whom she prays does she, paradoxically, grow into the image of her beloved. In other words, Pranzini was never hers to save, which is why she unleashed the treasuries of the Church on his behalf. As my wife and I teach our daughter to pray, we continually teach her to unite these prayers to the prayer offered in Jesus’ name: Our Father

fusain-Jouvenot-guerre-1915Thérèse’s vision for and memory of the lost ones was so intense and so beautiful that, upon her deathbed, she vowed to spend her heaven doing good on earth, to continue searching within the mission of Christ the Good Shepherd. She also pledged, however, to bring a shower of roses through her ongoing prayer. It is this particular pledge that opens a portal through which we might glimpse the complex spiritual ecosystem in which Thérèse learned to thrive. During her life and in her dialogue with her Beloved Christ, she promises to strew the flowers of her small sacrifices before his heavenly throne. These flowers are the many acts of love on her Little Way, in which she accepts the concerns and need of others as blossoms in her own heart. She trusts that the littlest hearts of the poor ones—those in need, materially but especially spiritually—will become a beautiful bouquet that will please the Lord. She trusts that as these flowers “pass through Your own divine hands, O Jesus,” the “Church in heaven […] will cast these flowers, which are now infinitely valuable because of Your divine touch, upon the Church Suffering,” to heal it. The flowers that Thérèse gathers while on earth, she offers to the Lord and trusts that the saints in heaven will return them for the good of the suffering ones from whom they came. By the same logic, she pledges to spend her heaven showering roses back upon the earth. The cycle of charity between heaven and earth is like evaporation and precipitation: the particular needs of particular persons are offered as intercessions to the Lord, in whom the desire of the saints is to join him in healing others.

Thérèse never prayed alone: she was bedewed in communion. She drew those in need into her prayer because she herself was already drawn into a Sacred Heart that prayed for her, and in that Heart the company of the saints was her company. So it is that my daughter, who teaches our hearts to grow full with people in our nightly prayer, also taught me something about the confidence of joining the saints in intercessory prayer. When we take on the needs of others in prayer, we do not do so on our own, for already the saints in heaven strew flowers upon those who are suffering and we join them in that work of love. The Church celebrates one of those great saints today: the one her father called “My Little Flower”.

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.

What We’re Reading Today: leaders react, a deft touch, and homily at World Meeting of Families

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

Contact Author


1) The world’s leaders react to Pope Francis’ speech at the United Nations:

The pope ends his speech with a call for new processes, which call forth the best in people as individuals, as communities and as one human family. These processes recognize the sacredness of everyone and of God’s creation. They are processes of hope that cast a vote for the genius of people who care for each other, who overcome their fear with love, and journey forth in action with the courage that comes from a sense of the transcendent.

– Carolyn Woo, President & CEO, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Maryland

2) On Pope Francis’ “deft touch”:

But mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom — a major issue for American bishops — but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.

3) The Holy Father’s homily at the closing liturgy of the World Meeting of Families:

Pointedly, yet affectionately, Jesus tells us: “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13). How much wisdom there is in these few words! It is true that, as far as goodness and purity of heart are concerned, we human beings don’t have much to show! But Jesus knows that, where children are concerned, we are capable of boundless generosity. So he reassures us: if only we have faith, the Father will give us his Spirit.

Follow Tony on Twitter.

Liturgy and Our Longing for Narrative

unnamedThe Rev. Porter C. Taylor

Author of “The Liturgical Theologian” (Patheos)

Everyone has a favorite story. Some people, and I am one of them, have many favorites stories to which they return over and over again. Those stories have meaning, experiences, and memories attached to them. I can still remember what it felt like the first time I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; I can tangibly and vividly remember the room I was in, the smell of mid-Fall in northern Virginia, and the excitement of being captivated by a new story.

I am not alone in this. I am willing to bet my mortgage that as you read the previous paragraph you were thinking of your favorite story(s) and the first time you read/watched/heard them.

Deep down, I think we crave story and meaning.

There is something in us and about us that longs for narrative. We travel to Mordor with Sam and Frodo; we are transported to revolutionary France and walk the streets of Paris with Valjean and Javert; we can smell the surf splashing up against the boat in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. We see ourselves in other stories, as other characters, finishing other plotlines. Suddenly we are no longer reading about Harry, Frodo, the Narnia children, Katniss, or other heroes and heroines: we become them. We assume their role and participate in their stories as if we were them.Harry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_Stone

As I said, deep down, I think we crave story and meaning.

 What is it about us that craves such meaning and experience? I think that we were created to be part of a larger story, part of The Story, and we will search high and low until we finally find a place where we belong, a story that gives us significance, and a plot into which we fit. St. Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

The narratives of this world tell differing versions of the same story: you are the main character, you can do all things, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get ahead if only you try hard enough. Some stories teach that you are lousy, good for nothing, and will never amount to anything—it is simply the inverse image of the other. Either way, the stories and narratives swirling around us do not orient our lives and love toward God. We are taught to look inward, to discover our true self, and to let our own light shine into the world.

However, the story told in, through, and by the liturgy is alternative to the narratives of this world. It is not counter to these stories—as if somehow the stories of this world set the agenda—but simply alternative to other options. Dare I say that it is better than anything else on offer? It is!

Weekly we reenact, re-member, re-present, and reengage the story of God and his people. It is a story founded on and directed toward divine and self-giving love. In this story the people of God come together as a response to the divine call. This people thus becomes that which they already are: the church. She listens attentively to holy, inspiring, transformative, and normative words being read from the Book. She hears those words expounded upon in the Sermon through which she is called to a better way of life, to the Life. She responds to such conviction and challenge in the proclamation of her faith, humble confession of her sins, and she then receives God’s absolution.

This called, taught, transformed, and forgiven people then moves toward the Altar upon which are laid her gifts to God and the holy gifts of God for his holy people. Partaking of this sacred meal, of this sacrament of sacraments, she participates in the koinonia of the Trinity and the cosmic praise of all creation offering herself and her surroundings to her God. She is fed, nourished, ministered to, and then released for ministry outside parish walls.

advent.concert.212This is a story of a people who have fallen wayward from their God but he continues to seek after them, wooing them back to himself, drawing them unto his holy and divine love. This is a story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It is a story of hope, of joy, of peace, of forgiveness, and a call to action. You are a participant in the retelling of this story and you are called to go into the world to begin living that story among neighbors and strangers. You are not the main character but you also are not a bit part either: you are called to a very specific part, for a specific purpose, all to the glory of God. Collectively the Church fulfills her role as the extension of Christ’s body into this world.

We crave story because we crave God. The liturgy—as with God’s Word—teaches us to crave the right story, to direct our love toward God, and to praise and worship the Creator of all things rather than the self. The concept of story is powerful because it invites the listener/viewer into something bigger and greater than the “I.” May we continually be invited into the ongoing and unfolding story of God and may we constantly accept his invitation to play a part in his story.

The Rev. Porter C. Taylor is an Anglican priest (Anglican Church in North America) residing in Kansas with his wife, Rebecca, and two sons. He is the author of “The Liturgical Theologian,” a blog on the Patheos Evangelical Channel and is passionate about liturgy, the sacraments, and ecclesiology. He received his MAT from Fuller Theological Seminary and is part of the Schmemann-Kavanagh-Fagerberg-Lathrop school of liturgical theology.

Follow the Rev. Porter C. Taylor on Twitter.

The Prayer of Another

IMG_0798Andy Miles
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2015)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2017

Growing up as an ultra-early riser, I would sometimes awake just as the sun was coming up to catch the early hours of Sports Center for no reason other than to be able to say I woke up before my younger brother – 10 year olds can be competitive about the strangest of things.

But, I was never really first up.  My mother always beat me.

No matter how early I seemed to rosary 2rise, there was my mother, in the den off to the corner, reading from a tattered book, shuffling rosary beads through her fingers: praying.

It’s a tradition she continues to this day.  She wakes up early and prays.  And for so long I didn’t get it.  I would say my prayers, but only to clock in my time, do my duty, my penance.  I’d rattle off a few Hail Mary’s, shuffle in a few Our Father’s, and cap it off with a rushed Glory Be.  What was there in prayer that was so intriguing for my mother, so urgent and important that she would wake up early and pray?

As I got older and delved into my studies more, reading the works of the great theologians, prayer time became thinking time; I would spend my time reasoning through theological issues, trying to come to conclusions, trying to fix my problems with clean explanations.

Sometimes I would marvel at myself.  Here I was exploring the “big questions,” while I remembered the naïve prayers of my younger sister long ago as she went to bed, praying about petty things that happened to her during the day.  I thought there was no way God could be remotely interested in her minuscule problems at school, her spelling quiz the next day.  The God who created the vast space of the universe had time for that?  Certainly not, I thought.

But how wrong I was.

During my second year in college, things became much less simple.  All those problems I had always chalked up as pettiness, problems of no concern to a great all-powerful God?  They were crushing me.  A break-up.  Friends that seemed to have little concern for my problems.  Trouble focusing in class.  Trouble focusing outside of class.  Gossip.  Feeling alone.  I never spoke of these problems aloud.  I certainly never spoke of them in prayer.

I never really spoke to my mother about these things either.  I was never the kind of person who shared things.  But, after going home for a weekend, it was clear she knew something was not right.

So the next week she sent me a text.  All she said was that she wanted me to know I was in her prayers.  That each morning she gets up and prays not some strange impersonal prayer, but a prayer for me, a prayer for each one of her children.  I told her thanks and tried to move on, tried not to be affected.

alarm clockBut something about that image, about waking up to a piercing alarm, about waking up in the cold of winter long before the sun rose, about walking out into the den to pray, not for some abstraction, not to figure something out, but for me?  That haunted me.

A few nights later I broke down.  I woke up in the middle of the night and could not fall back asleep.  All that petty gossip, all those troubled friendships, they were not petty at all.  I muttered in my head all those distressing trivialities that I once thought God could care less about.

I released it all then.  Part of me appreciated the humor of it all.  The same kid who once chuckled as his younger sister muttered to God her worries about who to sit by at lunch the next day sat there distraught about a break-up and college drama.  Part of me was intent to go back to bed that night angry.  I could lie there and bring this all before God and it wasn’t going to change a thing.  It wasn’t going to be fixed.  But, as I dozed off a seed of a thought hit me that would grow into greater understanding over the coming days:  maybe I was finally learning how to pray.

There was not some grand moment of clarity, no sweeping movement of peace.  But after releasing all my concerns, I had the strangest desire to pray for someone else.  Maybe I was finally discovering why my mother could wake up so early all those years.  For the strangest reason, in that moment, the only thing I could think to do was to pray for someone else.

Over the coming days I started to think about how often I had told others I would pray for them.  I used it as a meaningless phrase to convey that they were in my mind.  But had I ever really prayed for them?  Really prayed?  The kind of prayer where you feel such care and urgency that you would wake up early like my mother has all these years?

And so a few days later, I prayed for her, my moMary mother of Godther.  I prayed that above all she could know, despite how little I ever told her, how important she was to me, how she was the model for my faith.  I prayed that for one day I could bear some of her anxieties and worries, for I understood how long she had been asking to bear mine.

I count these days as one prayer in my mind—the first real prayer I might have ever prayed.

It began in bringing forth all my petty problems to God, for there are no petty problems for him.  It began in bringing those to the Cross and not trying to fix them, not trying to figure something out.  Simply allowing them to be.  Simply being in the presence of my God.

It continued as I felt love for someone other than me.  To pray for the person I always thought I was going to pray for but never really had.  This was prayer: an experience of nearness with God that is far from alone, an experience of deep communion and love.  By giving something of myself, my deepest concerns, I began to desire to be something for someone else.  I desired to pray.

God is nearer to us than we could ever imagine, so deeply attuned to the small things, our relationships with one another, and the little pieces of our life.  Was that text from my mother not an answer to the prayer I was too proud to pray?  Though I had not prayed with that level of concern and vulnerability before, the seeds had been there, a prayer was nearly there, for that text struck such a chord in my heart and touched so many worries that I had longed to express.

The response to my prayer, the answer to my problem, was the prayer of another, a sign that I was and am loved.  All those days I was too proud to come before my God with my problems?  Well, God had placed someone in my life to pray that prayer for me.

My problems were significant to my mother, and they were significant to my God.  Absolutely nothing is unimportant to him.  He never tires of our prayers.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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