Thursday, December 31, 2015

Improve Physically, Intellectually, and Spiritually in the New Year

A new year is like a bright, shiny package waiting to be opened or like that moment when you take a deep breath and prepare to ask the all-important question or sing the well-practiced song. It seems anything is possible, if we just have the will to see it through. God has plans for us, plans for good and not for evil. What dreams does he want us to dream? What good works does he want us to accomplish? How much closer can we get to heaven in the next 365 days?

New Year's resolutions are a call to self-improvement, but for Christians they are also a reminder that the main architect of our improvement is our God and not ourselves. Reforming ourselves does no good unless we're also conforming ourselves to the will of God.

As a wife and mother, I know that serving my family is my path to holiness and happiness. So, for 2016, I've resurrected my old habit of making each family member's resolutions my own and helping them to achieve their most important goals in the next twelve months. We all decided to concentrate on three areas: the physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual. You can do the same for your family and then see how far they've come by the end of the year. It's a great way to measure the seemingly unquantifiable goals of family life.

The Santos Family's 2016 New Year's Resolutions

1. Me: My physical health suffered a setback when I sprained my ankle just before Pope Francis' visit to the United States in September, and my lack of exercise has weighed heavily upon me (literally as well as figuratively). My prayer life has also been crowded out by the increasing demands of writing and speaking. And I haven't helped my kids with their homework as much as I'd like. Resolved: Weekly exercise, daily prayer, more homework help for the kids.

2. Manny: My husband fought a major battle to limit his commute time last year, and he won. This year, he should have time to make it to the taekwondo classes that he signed up for but can rarely attend. Because he's now home for dinner more often than not, we can try once again to institute a Spanish-speaking dinner hour so he can teach the Santos kids the language that befits their last name. Although the two of us already pray the fifth decade of the rosary pretty regularly at bedtime, we could make a firmer commitment to it. Resolved: Weekly taekwondo classes, Spanish-speaking dinner hour, daily couple prayer.

3. Lelia (14): A lot of things changed when our eldest daughter entered public high school, and surprisingly most of them were good! She'd like to join the school kickline (think teenage Rockettes) or the color guard. She's gotten out of the habit of praying before lunch in school -- in her parochial elementary school, they piped lunchtime prayers in over the loudspeakers, and of course they don't do that in public school. She's also gotten into the habit of watching TV on her smartphone (accursed gadget) instead of reading. Resolved: Prepare for kickline and color guard auditions, say grace before lunch, read more.

4. Miguel (12): This almost-teenager is already starting preparations to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in the next school year. He needs to choose a saint's name and a service project. He also needs to learn how to hold fast to his faith when he follows his sister Lelia to public high school in  a few years. With more practice and study, he will probably earn his black belt in taekwondo and at last be permitted to audition for the traveling soccer team. Similar to his older sister, he's been spending more time with his favorite technology, in his case video games, than with a good book. Resolved: Prepare for Sacrament of Confirmation, start travel soccer, read more.

5. Maria (10): Maria will probably also receive her black belt this year, and she's just started piano lessons. She wants to learn Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but I told her that Fur Elise was a more realistic goal. She'd like to take an online course through Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth and learn to use the microscope she got for Christmas. Also, she's committing to ten minutes of daily mental prayer. Resolved: Learn to play Fur Elise, take online course, 10 minutes daily prayer.

6. Marga (9): Marguerite would like to win more first place medals in her gymnastics competitions this upcoming year -- five would make her happy. She's also worried about doing well in the New York State standardized tests for fourth-graders. She rooms with big sister Lelia and they frequently say bedtime prayers out loud together, but Marga would like to add more mental prayer to that. Resolved: 5 gold medals, pass the state tests, add mental prayer to bedtime prayer.

7. Cecilia (7): Cecilia wants to win as many gymnastics medals in 2016 as Marga did in 2015, so she's aiming at fifteen to twenty. She's also preparing to receive her first confession and First Holy Communion. And her mother would like to finally find a school subject that flips the switch on and gets C.C. really interested. C.C.'s last book report said she wouldn't recommend the book because it didn't have enough tragedy. Huh. Resolved: 15 to 20 medals, prepare for confession and communion, discover academic interests.

8. Emma (5): Our cutiest still has trouble saying words like "straw" and "strong" and sometimes she can't pronounce letter sounds well when she's trying to read. Her report card was not, um, what a kindergartener's report card should be. Plus, everybody says I spoil her. What!? Resolved: Better speech, more fluent reading, no spoiling.

What are your family's New Year's resolutions? Can you help them achieve their goals for 2016? Would love to hear from you in the comments.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Merry Christmas from Our Family to Yours!

Our family has been through a lot of changes in the past year! Manny switched jobs from Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn to Mercy Hospital, part of Catholic Health Services of Long Island.

Lelia started high school this year in the Garden City public school system. She is on the honor roll and in the art honors program. She has lots of friends and has grown to be even taller than her mother.

At almost thirteen years old, Miguel is a few tests away from getting his black belt in taekwondo. Maria is not far behind him. Maria also took the School and College Ability Test for fourth and fifth graders, and her scores qualified her to take online courses with Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

Marguerite and Cecilia are both competitive gymnasts. Marga is USAG Level 3, and C.C. is Level 2. In their first meet this year, Marga won medals for floor, vault, and uneven bars, and C.C. won a medal for bars also.

Our sweet Elisa-Maria (Emma) is the littlest one at only five years old. She just started kindergarten at St. Joseph’s School, and she’s very excited about learning how to read. We hope that 2015 was good to you and that 2016 will bring you many blessings!

With love from Manny, Karee, Lelia, Miguel, Maria,

Marguerite, Cecilia, and Elisa-Maria Santos

PLUS, BONUS VIDEO of Lelia singing O Holy Night in a stairwell.
Because ... stairwells.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Walk Softly, Pray Joyfully

Every year I try to limit my Advent commitments, and every year I don't succeed as much as I'd like. So when asked to review Teresa Tomeo's Walk Softly and Carry a Great Bag: On-the-Go Devotions, I did exactly what the author recommends and tucked it in my purse to read whenever I could grab a few moments.

Each chapter of this charming book is a two-to-three page meditation on growing closer to God through prayer and laughter. Sometimes the chapter titles say it all:

  • Don't Just Do Something -- Sit There!
  • All I Want for Christmas Is a Good Night's Sleep
  • Don't Cry Over Spilled Perfume
  • Little Prayers Mean a Lot
By the time I finished Teresa's book, I felt like I'd found a new best friend. I felt cheered up, encouraged, and motivated to keep fighting the good fight.

Walk Softly includes some great advice from Pope Francis that speaks straight to my soul. I have a tendency to get down in the dumps. Aristotle aficionados would say I have a melancholic temperament. Fans of A.A. Milne would just say I'm a bit like Eeyore, the gloomy donkey. But here's what Pope Francis has to say about grumpy Christians:
Sometimes these melancholy Christians' faces have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.
Or as one of my spiritual directors once said, "Smile! We're on our way to heaven!" In response to Pope Francis' words about pickled pepper Christians (aka the Saturday Night Live Church Lady caricature), Teresa urges the reader to pray "that I can be a good witness by living out my life with a smile on my face and a real pep in my step as I proclaim and preach about your Son."

She also advises us to turn our misery into ministry. Our greatest hurt can intersect with the world's greatest need. A mother whose child was killed by a drunk driver started the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). A father whose son was abducted and killed cofounded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Teresa and her husband began a marriage ministry based on their struggles to overcome difficulties and challenges in their own marital relationship.

Turning misery into ministry allows us to make sense out of suffering. Deep in the thick of struggle, no one wants to hear "Everything happens for a reason." But once we reach the other side, we can discover that the lessons we've learned are not for ourselves alone. Sharing our knowledge with fellow strugglers does give purpose to our pain, even retroactively.

I know that the struggles our family has faced because of my husband's four brain tumors have tested my fortitude and my faith in God. As a newlywed, I had a tendency to idolize my husband and put all my hopes for a happy future in him. But he's not in control of whether tumors invade his brain, and obviously neither am I. God is the senior partner in our marriage, the majority stockholder, so to speak. God is in charge of our marriage and our future.

The bedrock of a successful sacramental marriage is a willingness to turn the reins over to God. It will take more than just the two of us, my husband and me. It will take trust in God -- which is why all the practical marriage or relationship or communication tips in the world won't do a darned thing without solid spiritual formation. So the yoking of the two -- the practical and the spiritual -- has become the ministry that has grown out of the misery that my husband and I suffered during his sicknesses.

Like her meditation on misery and ministry, Teresa has included many nuggets of deep wisdom worthy of long reflection in Walk Softly. Read it and see which one speaks most clearly to you.

Many thanks to the author for the free review copy of this book.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

12 Gifts that Keep Christ in Christmas

I love giving religious-themed gifts at Christmas. It's a great way to evangelize and keep Christ in Christmas. And if some people on your gift list are your godchildren, then giving a religious-themed gift helps you fulfill your promise to educate them in the faith. Here are our top picks from the past several years.

1. Vatican Videos: The Vatican has come up with a list of great movies in the categories of religion, values, and art. We're giving a bunch of them as Christmas presents this year. Many of the films are on the older side (great for classic movie lovers), and some are more recent like Schindler's List, Gandhi, and The Mission (a personal favorite!).

2. Mass Bag for Little Kids: If someone on your list has toddlers and is new at the parenting game, they may not know about the Mass bag trick to keep their kids quiet in church. One Christmas, we bought all our kids these awesome Quiet Time Church Kit bags, easy to carry and filled with wooden rosaries, a prayer bear stuffed animal, holy cards, and a tiny kids missal to follow the liturgy. The kids loved carrying around the bright red bags and we did get some quiet moments out of them!

3. Donation to Charity: For the person who has everything, you can donate to a Catholic charitable organization in their name. My dad suggested that we buy a sheep for an African family (yes, that's a thing). But we have a local group, run by a friend of mine, which sends money to children in Kenya to help them get a private Catholic school education. Since my dad is a professor, we figured he'd like it if we helped poor children get an education instead.

4. Icons: One year, we bought icons for every kid in the family, since they were all named after saints. The artwork is beautiful, and kids are amazed to see their name on a gilded plaque with a picture of a supernatural super-hero. Icons can provide a cultural education as well -- one of our nephews belongs to the Coptic Orthodox church even though he's named after a popular Spanish saint, St. Francis Xavier. When we gave him his icon, he realized that the East and West both have a tradition of iconography.

5. Rosary Rings and Bracelets: Little girls (and big girls!) love jewelry, so rosary rings and bracelets are a great gift idea. You can include a tiny pamphlet on how to pray the rosary.

6. American Girl Doll - Catholic Edition: As each of our daughters got old enough,we bought them one American Girl doll from the historical collection. We bought our daughter Maria the Native American doll named Kaya, and Maria promptly renamed her Kateri after St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. There are also many other dolls on the market meant to resemble certain saints in the first place (no renaming required).

7. The Princess and the Squire books: Author Jennie Bishop wrote a beautifully illustrated book called The Three Gifts of Christmas about a spoiled princess who took Christmas gifts for granted until she learned that it's better to give than receive. The same author wrote excellent modern fairy tales for both boys and girls about guarding our love and remaining pure. The books are also available in Spanish, and some come with an audio CD. Although they impart Catholic values, they do it in a very non-obvious way, so they're a good choice for non-Catholics on your Christmas list.

8. Gifts from the Holy Land: One Christmas (probably the same Christmas we gave rosary jewelry) we gave all the boys on our list  gifts from the Holy Land. You can find carvings from olive wood, or vials of dirt and water from different places in Israel -- believe me, boys love dirt. Buying these gifts supports Christians in an often-violent area of the world, where they are frequently persecuted and struggling to survive.

9. The Weight of a Mass: The Director of Religious Education at our parish always recommends this book to First Communion parents. Similar to the Princess and the Squire books, it's a fairy-tale-like story, this time about the value of the Holy Eucharist. Spoiler alert: at the end, all the baked goods in the kingdom couldn't balance the baker's scales when a tiny scrap of paper with a Mass intention was placed on the other side. You can give the book together with a Mass card from your parish or a religious order.

10. Saints Biographies and Movies: Ignatius Press has a huge selection of saints biographies and movies. Besides plenty for adults, there is also a terrific series of saints biographies for children and cartoon movie versions of classics like Ben Hur and the life of historical figures like St. Bernadette and Christopher Columbus.

11. Gift Subscription: My husband Manny has an adult goddaughter named Helen, who converted when she was older. When Helen moved out-of-state, still as a newly-minted Catholic, we wanted to find a way to keep her grounded in her faith. So we bought her a subscription to the weekly newspaper, the National Catholic Register. You can also buy gift subscriptions to publications like the Magnificat, which has prayers and readings for every day of the month, or MagnifiKids, which is what it sounds like -- the Magnificat for kids.

12. JPII Paraphernalia: Thanks to Kendra at CatholicAllYear, I just found out about the JPII shop at Printable Prayers. It has quotes from St. John Paul II as framed artwork and on t-shirts, keychains, mouse pads, and even drinking glasses. I haven't gotten anyone something from this shop yet. And no one's gotten me anything from this shop yet, either. Ahem. Anyone?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Taking Baby Jesus on Retreat

"I feel strange," I told my husband as he dropped me off at the station to board the train bound for my annual three-day-long silent retreat.

"I know," he responded, smiling. "You don't have a baby with you."

For practically every silent retreat during the past fifteen years, I had been either pregnant or nursing. I had gotten used to rearranging the furniture in the tiny retreat house bedroom, so the baby could nestle safely between my body and the wall while we slept at night. This year, my sixth and youngest child had already turned five years old. I wasn't sure what to do with myself on retreat without a baby.

To my astonishment, I could barely keep my eyes open for the whole three days. I nodded off during the lectures, dozed through the Rosary, and snoozed at Mass.

"Give your tiredness to God," advised my spiritual director. "He is happy with whatever we give him."

So I imagined sleepily cuddling with the Baby Jesus. I thought of how much loving care a baby takes, and how constant care can turn into constant prayer.

Many times in the past, feeling sorrowful and broken, I had imagined myself held on Blessed Mother Mary's lap, like the body of the adult Jesus in Michelangelo's famous sculpture, the Pieta. But this time, sinking again and again into rejuvenating slumber, I wrapped my arms around the Baby Jesus and invited him into my maternal heart.

This post appeared first on

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Loving through Suffering like Mother Teresa

I took the plunge last week and consecrated myself to Our Blessed Mother on her Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). Together with other bloggers from CatholicMom, I prepared by using the book 33 Days to Morning Glory by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC. Here's my reflection on Day 31, which summarized the Marian approach of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, better known as Mother Teresa.

33 Day_logo

Today's Reflection:

Today, we review the three elements of Blessed Mother Teresa's devotion to Our Lady: 1) thirst, 2) heart, and 3) covenant. A good way to sum up what Mother Teresa beautifully expressed is: "Jesus, I yearn to satiate your thirst for souls with all the love and suffering of my heart, through the total gift of myself to your beloved Mother." Our Lady knows better than anyone how much her son thirsts for souls. If we let her, she will inspire us to love Jesus with her own perfect love. If we give her our heart, she will give us her own. If we give her everything and become wholly hers, she will possess, protect, enlighten, guide, and transform us.

Mother Teresa is famous throughout the world for her good works with the poor. But very few people knew, until her death, that she labored cheerfully through an intense spiritual darkness that caused her immense interior suffering. Cheerfulness does not come easily to everyone. Most days, I would rather growl than smile. It is hard for me to serve anyone when I am suffering. I would rather curl up into a ball and cry bitter tears far away from any prying eyes. The strength to serve others the way that Mother Teresa did in the midst of her own suffering is truly strength from God.

We know that Our Lady, Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows, found the strength to stand -- not collapsed in grief and pain, but upright on her own two feet -- at the foot of the Cross that bore her son, crucified, bloody, and dying. By consecrating ourselves to her, we receive her ability to pray, to love, and to serve despite suffering, sadness, and worry.

To Ponder:

Do I sometimes allow my own sadness to prevent me from serving those whom I love?

Let Us Pray:

Our Lady of Sorrows, give us the same strength that you displayed at the foot of the Cross and that Blessed Mother Teresa displayed throughout her ministry to the poorest of the poor. Teach us to satiate the thirst of Jesus with the total gift of our hearts.

Monday, December 7, 2015

How 15 Minutes of Prayer Can Change Your Life

Gary Jansen's book on Ignatian prayer hit the number one spot in its category of Hot New Releases on Amazon within the first week of publication. It was my privilege to interview this fellow Long Islander and senior Penguin Random House editor on behalf of Catholic news site Due to word count limitations, the interview on Aleteia needed to be shortened. Here is the original, extended edition.

In The 15-Minute Prayer Solution, author and senior Penguin Random House editor Gary Jansen shows how a commitment to fifteen minutes of daily prayer can awaken a relentless desire to place God at the center of everything. Just as you don’t exercise one day a week and expect to see results, the same is true of prayer. Forming a habit of daily prayer can transform our lives, but many of us need help in developing or deepening that habit. Enter Jansen’s book.

I recently interviewed Jansen about the distinctive Ignatian or Jesuit approach he takes to progressing in the interior life.

1. How can fifteen minutes of prayer a day make a difference in someone's life?

At the heart of the book is a simple premise: there are 1,440 minutes in a day. One percent of that time is 14 minutes and 24 seconds, so roughly 15 minutes. What would happen if you dedicated just one percent of your life every day to God? Would it change your life? I asked myself those questions a few years ago and the answers revolutionized my life. Though I’m Catholic and spend a lot of time in church, I’ve always had a difficult time focusing on prayer. But once I made a deliberate commitment to daily prayer, almost instantly I felt more peaceful, more patient, more aware. Within a short period of time I found that one percent turned into two percent and then three percent and then I would find myself praying throughout the day. I would wake up and the first thoughts I had were about God, thanking God for the morning. Then something else exciting happened. The more time I gave to God, the more I felt God giving me back time. I seemed to have more time to do the things I needed to do in my life, not less. So this book is about deliberately setting aside time, getting back to the basics of prayer and being consistent. You don’t exercise one day a week and expect to see results. It needs to be a daily commitment. The same holds true for prayer.

2. Why did you decide to focus on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola?

What I love most about Ignatius’s teaching was the simple idea of searching for God in all things. How can I find God in nature? In my family? In adversity? At work? On the streets? I loved the idea that God was very close and not far away, that I could enter a cathedral of everyday living and be in the presence of God at all times. I focused on the Exercises because I truly love the idea of finding God in all things…in another person, in a paper clip, in science or even in a tattoo.

3. Do you think there's an increased interest in the Jesuit approach to prayer because of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit ever elected to the papacy?

I do. There is a lot of Ignatius in Pope Francis and how he stresses discernment and looking for Jesus in the eyes of the poor and those who struggle. In addition, many people have already been introduced to Jesuit spirituality in the U.S. because of Father James Martin and his books like The Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything and My Life with the Saints. He’s a terrific writer, he’s funny, and he has a gift for taking difficult concepts and making them very easy to understand. And he has sold a lot of books. He’s probably the bestselling Catholic writer in the U.S. today.

4. How much does your book draw on your personal prayer life? 

The short answer is a lot. Even though I went to Catholic school for 12 years, I don’t think I ever learned to pray much more than the Our Father and Hail Mary. But some years ago I decided to try a number of different prayer techniques including lectio divina and praying with the imagination (a favorite of Ignatius). How I prayed and what I prayed made its way into the book because of the profound effect on my life. Moreover, I’ve given workshops on a number of these prayer types and received very positive feedback.

5. Have you ever attended an Ignatian retreat? 

Yes, I’ve been on maybe 20 Ignatian retreats over the last 15 years.  When the Jesuits sold St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset  to land developers in 2013, I lost my home away from home. Those retreats brought me closer to Ignatius, Mary and ultimately Jesus. As I like to say: to Jesus through Ignatius, to Jesus through Mary, and to Jesus through all of creation.

6. As a senior editor with Crown Publishing at Penguin Random House, you have edited books by some of the best Catholic authors in existence, including Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Bishop Robert Barron, George Weigel, Colleen Carroll Campbell, Scott Hahn, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop Chaput, Christopher West, Mike Aquilina, and many others. How has this experience informed your writing style?

I feel blessed to have worked with so many great, thoughtful, and intelligent writers, and I learn something new with each book I edit. An editor is a guide, like a shepherd helping to move the book through the wilderness of publication, pointing out when a writer might go astray, being his or her advocate and coach. My style developed through a combination of influences from various great writers, from the simplicity of Pope Francis’s prose to the poetry of Colleen Carroll Campbell’s writing to the logic of Bishop Robert Barron’s arguments. Each book is an education, and I’m so thankful to have been a shepherd for all these authors.

7. Is your book mainly for beginners in prayer or can it also help those looking to deepen their spiritual life?

It’s for both. My desire was to write a modern book about a traditional topic. I had two readers in mind when I wrote it, the beginner and the reader who has been praying all of his or her life. One of my favorite books growing up was The Little Prince, so I tried to write like that -- simply but in a way where the prose has layers of meaning. My hope is that no matter where you are on the spiritual path you’ll find something to make you ponder. For me the book is about returning to the basics, about putting first things first. I offer this book as a prayer to help others on their spiritual journey.

Karee Santos is the founder of the Can We Cana? blog and also has written for Catholic Match Institute, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and Together with her husband Manuel Santos, M.D., she co-authored The Four Keys to Everlasting Love: How Your Catholic Marriage Can Bring You Joy for a Lifetime (Ave Maria Press, 2016). The Santoses designed and taught a pre-Cana marriage preparation course, and they write a monthly marriage advice column on called “Marriage Rx.” They also contribute to FAITH magazine’s “Your Marriage Matters” advice column. The couple live in Long Island, New York, with their six children.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Men and Women Are Not Made to Be Alone

Our parish's monthly morning retreat for mothers continues to explore Love is Our Mission, the preparatory catechesis for the 2015 World Meeting of Families. The following reflects on Chapter 4, Two Become One. Last month's talk was on The Meaning of Human Sexuality.

"We are not made to be alone. Human beings need and complete each other," stated the organizers of the 2015 World Meeting of Families. Friendship and community both fulfill our human need for connectedness, but marriage "is a uniquely intimate form of friendship," they recognized. Like all long-lasting friendships, marriages need work to survive.

Before getting married, most of us construct fantasies around our future marriage and family life. Whether it involves building the best careers while raising the brightest kids, or peacefully creating the perfect home, these fantasies all contain some element of unreality. The danger is that when reality intrudes, as it inevitably must, we feel tempted to blame our spouse or our marriage or even marriage itself without acknowledging that bumps along the road are an inescapable part of life. So, what's a married couple to do?

First, make a conscious effort to let go of resentment. Resentment and disappointment fester and become bitter. Let it go! Be the one to break the stalemate. Say sorry first. Realize that clinging to resentment gives it power over you. Reconcile with your spouse. Admit that you're not perfect either. Get mad again, throw a plate or two (as Pope Francis is fond of saying), and reconcile again.

Second, have hopes rather than expectations. Expectations create an attitude of entitlement. I went to an Ivy League school, therefore I deserve a six-figure salary. I'm smart, therefore I deserve smart kids. I've prayed faithfully to God all my life, therefore I don't deserve this tragedy or that suffering. Hopes are different than expectations. You can hope for a high salary, a relatively trouble-free life, and brilliant, beautiful, and well-behaved kids. But don't feel deprived of less than your due if you don't get them all. Strive for St. Paul's peaceful sense of acceptance: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. ...I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need" (Phil. 4:11-12).

Third, be grateful so you can be generous. It's hard to give when you don't feel that you have received enough. It's hard to give when you feel depleted and empty. Look hard at your life and fill yourself with gratitude. Do you have good health, a job, a house, children, an education, faith in God, someone to hug you? All these things are gifts, and not everyone has them. Realizing how much we have to be grateful for allows us to be generous with our spouses, our families, and our communities.

The Church wants to help married couples through their struggles. "In response to ... possible worries and fears, the Church offers Jesus, the sacraments, and the support of her own members in mutual fellowship," WMOF organizers stated.

Pope Francis said, "The Sacrament of Matrimony ... takes place in the simplicity and also the fragility of the human condition. ...The important thing is to keep alive the link with God, which is the basis of the marital bond." Jesus makes the impossible possible! We just have to ask him and trust in his response.

Christ himself works through the sacraments of Matrimony, Eucharist, and Penance and Reconciliation. Mass and confession are ever-flowing sources of grace. "The Holy Spirit is a fire in the sacraments," explained WMOF organizers. The sacraments can rekindle a burning desire to love one another, to accept whatever the present brings, to hope for a better future, and to be grateful for all God's good gifts.

As Christian spouses, we are blessed and beholden to accompany other married couples on on this pilgrimage through life. Building a marital relationship is like building a house, and "we build a house together, not alone!" said Pope Francis. Especially during this season of Advent, awaiting the coming of Our Lord, we can reach out and draw closer to our fellow pilgrims, sustaining them and being sustained by them, together in faith.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

This Lent, Join Thousands in Learning About Mercy in Marriage

My husband Manny and I are excited to join several stellar speakers for a February 2016 online event called Faces of Mercy, produced by CatholicConference4Moms. Over 4,000 Catholic women registered for last year's event. Manny and I will be speaking on Mercy in Marriage and the power of forgiveness to make your marriage strong, long-lasting, and joyful. Other presentations cover a wide range of topics such as teaching children how to forgive, overcoming evil through showing mercy, lessons on Divine Mercy from St. Faustina, and the role of mercy in combating pornography addiction.

This year's amazing line-up of presenters includes:

  • Jennifer Fulwiler, Sirius XM radio show host & author of the best-selling conversion memoir Something Other Than God;
  • Simcha Fisher, speaker at the World Meeting of Families and author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning;
  • Kimberly Hahn, Bible-study author and wife of theology professor Scott Hahn;
  • Mike Aquilina, author or editor of more than 40 books and host of several television series on EWTN; and

Conference organizer Tami Kiser has brought to life an extraordinary way of entering into the meaning of Christ's mercy during this Year of Mercy, starting on December 8, 2015, that Pope Francis has declared for the Church. Pre-recorded talks from the Faces of Mercy conference will be available to registrants on demand all throughout Lent. Plus, on February 20, 2016, Jennifer Fulwiler will be hosting live in the morning, and moms can gather virtually in the afternoon for live stream praying of the Divine Mercy chaplet.

A special option available this year is for parishes to host the talks as a Lenten retreat. This is a great way to rejuvenate faith and trust in God during the cold winter months before we celebrate Christ's resurrection! The CatholicConference4Moms website has all the information for parish participation here

Please consider registering either as an individual or on behalf of your parish, if you're a catechist or religious education director. May Christ shower his mercy and blessings upon you!

Monday, November 23, 2015

How to Have Happy Holidays with the In-laws

When I asked fellow Facebookers to share their stories of holidays with the in-laws, I never expected to find such great advice and so many hilarious misadventures. My favorite one involves a sheep slaughtering in an apartment kitchen (my husband Manny can't figure out why that one tickles my funny bone so much). Here's a collection of best tips for having happy holidays with the in-laws and extended families. And take heart! You're not the only one struggling.

1. Don't Seek Perfection

Holidays are about the love that's in your heart, not the food that's on the table. Frequently, at holiday time, I'm so stressed out about preparing the meal and cleaning the house that I'm downright surly to the guests that show up at the door. How completely backwards! Accept that something will go wrong -- the turkey won't be hot by the time everyone sits down to eat, guests will spill gravy and red wine on the tablecloth, and you will be publicly reminded about the last dust bunny that escaped your notice by hiding in the corner. None of this is important. What's important is opening your homes and your hearts to your families.

2. Keep a Chocolate Stash in Case You Have to Cry

One newlywed wife returned to her house after running holiday errands to find out that her visiting mother-in-law had reorganized the entire kitchen because "it was all wrong." Just what you need before cooking a big holiday dinner for, like, the first time. The poor wife ran upstairs, locked the door, and ate a chocolate bar. Surprisingly, it worked pretty well at cheering her up.

3. Delegate Chores Ahead of Time

A lot of people assume that the guests will automatically help the host and hostess clear the table and wash the dishes after a big family gathering. But that's not everyone's custom. One man told us that he and his three brothers celebrate holidays with their parents but leave their wives at home, because the sisters-in-law refuse to speak to one another. Once, eight years ago, the whole extended family celebrated Thanksgiving together, and one sister-in-law didn't help clean up afterwards. The resentment has continued until this day. Talk about a long-term grudge! If you're the hostess, send an email before the event asking people to help out afterwards or even delegating specific chores. Tell them you just can't do it without them! If you're a guest, help out as much as you can -- or at least make the offer.

4. Prepare Ye a PowerPoint Presentation

Satire site The Onion spoofed: "In an effort to ensure a smooth and enjoyable dinner with their relatives, siblings Jason, Alyssa, and Leslie Conroy reportedly sat down together Tuesday evening for a PowerPoint presentation covering all of the conversation topics that will be off-limits during the family’s Thanksgiving gathering." Nobody wants to get into a heated argument over the turkey and sweet potato pudding. Unfortunately, heated arguments can be more likely in large family gatherings because (1) everybody knows everybody's business, (2) everybody makes it their own business, and (3) everybody is more sensitive to feeling unloved or criticized. So, you can either prepare a PowerPoint presentation of all the painful family secrets that must not be discussed, OR you can ask everybody what they're most grateful for and then focus on rejoicing with them instead!

5. Don't Be Afraid to Skip the Alcohol

The more alcohol, the more chance for heated arguments, of course. One Facebooker wrote, "Problem: Holiday drunkenness. Solution: ???" You can be hospitable without having a fully stocked liquor cabinet! A few bottles of wine at dinner is not likely to get anyone snookered. You can even go gourmet and serve mulled wine, which is cut with several cups of apple cider and is still delicious. If the celebration is usually at someone else's house, you might want to discuss the problem with the hosts ahead of time or even volunteer to hold the gathering at your house this year.

6. Think to Yourself, "At Least It's Not a Sheep Slaughter"

One Facebooker revealed: "My mother-in-law once slaughtered and butchered a sheep. In my kitchen. When we lived in a sixth floor flat of an apartment in the middle of the city. ...Wow, Mom. All I got you was new kitchen towels." Another lady spoke for all of us when she responded, "YOU WIN." It's tough to beat that story in the annals of legendary in-law exploits. No matter what happens to you this Thanksgiving, it's probably not going to be worse than that.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Christ the King: From a Crown of Thorns to a Crown of Life

As the Feast of Christ the King approaches this weekend, it's worth asking ourselves what kind of kingdom Christ promised us. We know his kingdom is not of this world, and his crown is made of thorns. Will our sacrifices and suffering be worth it? What awaits us after death?

The Book of Revelations tells us that the kingdom of heaven will surpass all our expectations (Rv 21:19-21). In beautiful poetic verses, it describes the New Jerusalem that awaits us:
The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel;
the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.
And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
The Bible promises us that in heaven, "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rv 21:4).

Worshiping Christ the King reminds us that we have a share in his kingdom. We are the sons and daughters of God, a people set apart, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). He has already crowned us, weak and frail though we are, with the glory and honor of his divinity (Ps 8:4-5).

Whether we know it or not, the kingdom of God is already among us (Lk 17:21). Each time we pray to him with love, each time we seek to do his will, each time we accept trials with calm hearts, we are living up to our royal vocation. Each time we stand up for what's right, proclaim the truth, and hug the hurting, we are building the kingdom.

We have been given an honorable birthright and a glorious crown. At times, we must wear a humiliating and painful crown of thorns. But we look forward with hope in God's promise: "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rv 2:10).

Image by Ralph Hammann (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Discern Whether Adoption is Right for You

In honor of National Adoption Month, here's my review of Jaymie Stuart Wolfe's excellent discernment guide, Adoption: Room for One More?, from Pauline Books & Media.

A few years ago, between babies #3 and #4 (or #4 and #5), my husband and I contemplated adopting a baby girl from China. We were moved by stories about baby girls being either aborted or warehoused in orphanages because of the cultural preference for male children. We decided to ask St. Therese to tell us whether we should adopt by showing us a rose -- a red rose for yes and a white rose for no. The next rose we saw, blooming outside our kitchen window in the dead of winter, was off-white with scalloped red edging around the petals. We didn't get an answer, or at least not a very clear one.

We would have been better off discerning with the help of Jaymie Stuart Wolfe's new book Adoption: Room for One More?.Wolfe's book is a series of 38 short chapters containing a spiritual reflection, a personal story, and practical descriptions and advice regarding the adoption process.

For anyone discerning the call to adopt, I'd recommend reading this book at a rate of one chapter per day, taking 24 hours to pray about each facet of your decision. Wolfe's hope is that many more families will consider whether it's God's will for them to adopt a child. As her personal story proves, having adoptive and biological children doesn't have to be an either/or choice. Wolfe and her husband had seven biological children before deciding to adopt their eighth child, Yulia (now Julianna), from a Russian orphanage.

My husband and I are not adoptive parents (so far), but we know many couples who have adopted internationally or domestically, some through the foster system. Even though we've listened to our friends recount their adoption stories, Wolfe's book gave us a much clearer picture of the struggles and blessings of the adoption process. The questions at the end of each chapter include three for potentially adoptive parents and one for friends and family of adoptive parents. Reading over those questions made me realize how much more support we could have given our friends who chose to adopt.

Just as Kimberly Hahn's book Life-Giving Love taught readers what to say to women suffering from infertility and miscarriages, Wolfe's book teaches us how to talk to adoptive parents. There is an entire chapter entitled "A Language of Love," explaining how adoptive mothers are "real" mothers and adoptive children are the parents' "own" children. Wolfe is definitely fluent in this language of love, and she provided immensely valuable advice to me and my husband when we covered the subject of adoption in our own book on Catholic marriage.

There are a few things I was left wanting to know after finishing Wolfe's book, mainly because I'm insatiably curious. I wanted to know who watched their seven children while the Wolfes traveled to Russia numerous times to adopt Yulia. And I badly wanted to hear the story of Yulia's baptism and how they reassured her that God had always loved and cared for her even during her traumatic early years in Russia. But as a wise editor once told me, an author always has more words to write. I suppose those stories will have to wait for another day.

Click here to buy online from Pauline Books & Media. My thanks to them for providing a free review copy.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pope Francis' Annulment Reforms are an Act of Mercy

A lot of prominent canon lawyers have expressed concerns about Pope Francis' recent annulment reforms. On behalf of, I interviewed the people on the ground about how the reforms will actually impact annulment procedures in the United States. Read my interview of the Judicial Vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York and the Director of the Diocesan Tribunal of of New Ulm, Minnesota.

Some accuse Pope Francis' self-initiated annulment reforms as likely to lead to "fast, cheap, drive-through annulments." But the reality is that the Pope is caught between a rock and a hard place. The recent Synod on the Family debated the issue of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried for three weeks, with one camp trumpeting the truth that sacramental marriage is indissoluble and the other camp pleading for mercy for the divorced and civilly remarried yearning to receive the Eucharist again. The annulments process is the obvious bridge between truth and mercy in this difficult situation. If a marriage is declared null by the Church, then the divorced and civilly remarried can have their union blessed by the Church and they can receive Holy Communion.

The annulment reforms will come into effect on December 8, 2015, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the first day of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared. The Pope may be signaling that he sees the annulment reforms as an act of mercy.

Greater access to annulments may help many people to reconcile with the Church. No system is perfect, including the annulments system, because it's made up of human beings with their weaknesses and failings. But I have spoken to canon lawyers across the country who are dedicated to their jobs, the system, and their faith. One judicial vicar whom I called declined to comment directly to the press because of diocesan policy, so we prayed together instead. These men and women are striving to do the best they can.

Pope Francis' annulment reforms highlight more of what's right with the U.S. system than what's wrong. The reforms geared at increasing the speed of the process will shave off only a few months here, as opposed to years in other countries. (The widely reported "45 day annulment" is a myth.) Fees here will generally be lower, but most U.S. dioceses were already shouldering the lion's share of the cost and did not turn people away if they couldn't pay.

I talked about the annulment reforms at length with Fr. Richard Welch, the judicial vicar of the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York, and Aldean Hendrickson, the Director of the Diocesan Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota. Following are their thoughts.

1. Will the reforms meet Francis' goal of improving "the speed of the processes, along with the appropriate simplicity" and encouraging recourse to annulment procedures by "the enormous number of faithful who ... are too often separated from the legal structures of the Church due to physical or moral distance"?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): In some dioceses, in some countries, perhaps. But not here. Typically, in our Tribunal, by using the ordinary process and following all its steps, a case is finished between 5 and 7 months. I know there are countries in South America, where the process could take 5 to 6 years. That's not our situation. The process is completely and easily available to anybody in this Archdiocese and in most dioceses in the United States. And the cases actually go through fairly quickly. We have 20 staff members employed at the Tribunal because of the generosity of the Archdiocese, so we can keep cases moving - without cutting any corners, of course.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): In my estimation, the general sense of the faithful right now is that the process is too much trouble to bother with, so if these few reforms encourage new numbers to at least approach their tribunals with cases, then I think that will be a great blessing to those members of the faithful, and to the Church as a whole.

2. Has the episcopal conference set a uniform fee for all annulments in your region? 

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The Conference has not yet made a pronouncement. But the decision is always ultimately the bishop’s. So, Cardinal Dolan has determined that fees will cease by December 8. I agree that's a good decision at this time.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): I have not heard of any discussions yet by the episcopal conference to address the question of a uniform approach to tribunal fees. Certainly the trend among individual bishops over the past year has been to announce, with great media fanfare, that they are doing away with fees in their respective tribunals, and I would expect that trend to continue.

3. What were the fees before, and how much of tribunal expenses did the fees cover?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The typical fee was $1,200, if the petitioner could pay. No one's case was expedited or slowed down because of monetary concerns. The Archdiocese always subsidized three quarters of the costs of the process. Now, the Archdiocese will subsidize the process in full. It's not free because somebody's paying. For the ordinary process, I would estimate the cost to be at least $5,000. As of December, petitioners could make a donation to the Archdiocese, not payable to the Tribunal, if they are inclined to do so.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): At a very rough estimate, salaries alone multiplied by the hours of work involved would put the cost of a case in my tribunal in the vicinity of $3,000. Simply dividing the tribunal budget by the number of cases in a year would, at the moment, give a cost between $8,000 and $9,000. We are a small diocese with a very small shop and considerably less overhead than I imagine could be the case in a larger diocese. The point being that, no matter how you slice it, the cost of a cause of matrimonial nullity is not insignificant. Our diocese has never had such a fee at the outset of the case, but does ask for a "donation" from the petitioner ($500 is suggested) after the case is completely finalized in the petitioner's favor. Only a very few petitioners each year make any response to this solicitation.

4. Pope Francis' reforms also eliminated the need for mandatory appellate review of annulment cases. Do you feel that this eliminates an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle, or do you have concerns that the reform takes away important oversight that ensured just and accurate results?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): Eliminating the automatic appeal can remove a significant amount of time from the process. After we finished with a case in first instance, sometimes the case would stay many months in the court of second instance because they don't have the staff we do. I am concerned about taking away oversight and have been for some time. But the reality is that the Interdiocesan Tribunal of New York has 9 dioceses, and they don't have the staff to hear the hundreds of cases that may come before them in a year. Of course, the right to appeal any case remains intact.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): There are strong opinions on both sides of this question. I absolutely believe that sufficient care can be given in the first instance without an appeal: I am just not sure I believe that it will be.

6. The Pope's reforms allow a shortened procedure in cases where nullity "is supported by particularly clear arguments" and where there are difficult circumstances such as an extremely brief marriage, persistent adultery, or violence. Who in your diocese will decide which cases merit the shortened procedure and how will they reach that decision? Does the motu proprio give clear enough guidance?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The decision is left to the judicial vicar alone. As the judicial vicar making this decision, I do have enough guidance. First, it is required that it has to be absolutely clear that both parties consent to the grounds in the petition. It is not common that both parties agree to the grounds. The second requirement is that the documents must manifestly prove the nullity of the marriage or at least lean heavily in that direction. I can't remember too many cases like that. The third requirement is that the bishop himself -- and he cannot delegate this to anyone because the new norms charge him personally-- Cardinal Dolan has to sit down in a session, watch the case being presented, weigh the proofs and the facts, and make his determination. There is no 45 day annulment, as the press has reported. That count is only for a middle stage within the entire abbreviated process, and when all the stages are counted we calculated that doing the brief process would take an estimated minimum of 7 months. For us and the way our Tribunal operates, the ordinary process is going to be shorter than the "brief" process.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): I would expect that our judicial vicar would be making that assessment. Whether there will be some mechanism for the sponsoring pastor to nominate the case for the shortened procedure has not yet been discussed at our tribunal (at least not in my hearing).

7. Do you feel like the shortened procedure is a useful form of triage, or do you see a danger that certain marriages will be presumed invalid instead of valid?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): It could be beneficial, if the conditions are met, in dioceses where personnel and resources are restricted. That 's not the case in this archdiocese or, I imagine, in most dioceses in the United States. I don't see the abbreviated procedure being beneficial here in the Archdiocese of New York, precisely because the ordinary cases are handled in such a complete and expedient way. Now, if the parties request the brief process and they meet all the requirements, we will consider giving it to them, with the prior warning that it could last longer than the ordinary one

Hendrickson (New Ulm): Like any human process, including the version currently in force, this new shortened procedure will be susceptible to misuse or abuse. The tribunals that have been working hard to carefully serve the faithful with a ministry of justice guided by faithful observance of procedural laws and jurisprudence will continue to do so, and those tribunals who have long been accustomed to live by the adage that almost any marriage can be declared invalid if they try hard enough, will continue to follow that course.

8. On a practical level, do bishops have the time to oversee the shortened procedures personally?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The Cardinal Archbishop of New York is a very busy man. That's why he has a Tribunal, that's why the judicial power and the work are delegated. I can't imagine a number of cases going to the Archbishop on a monthly basis, where he has to sit down reading and hearing them for hours and hours. These procedures might be more applicable in dioceses without tribunals, and in very remote areas with few or no canon lawyers.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): From my brief experience in diocesan work, no. Of course, the bishops will make time to meet the needs and concerns of their flock, however.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Saintly Marriages: The Good, the Bad, and the Holy

Since November begins with All Saints Day, it's a great month to reflect on the intellectual and spiritual richness that saints bring to the Catholic faith. As an Episcopalian-turned-Catholic, I find the saints to be one of the most inspiring gifts of Catholicism. It's like having instant access to hundreds of excellent role models who want to be your best friends here and in heaven -- the original BFFs.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on some of my favorite married saints for the Catholic Digest special issue on the World Meeting of Families that took place in Philadelphia. Several readers have asked for the text, and it's finally available online! You can read the beginning here, and click through to the Catholic Digest site to read the rest.
The saints are our cheering section in heaven, rooting for us to finish the race and win the victor’s crown. They can show us how to be better people, better Catholics, and better husbands and wives. Although many saints come from the ranks of the priesthood and the religious life, there are more than 100 married saints and blesseds who show us how to live up to the beautiful but difficult vocation of marriage and parenthood.
Some saints had great marriages, and other saints had dreadful ones. But in every one of their life stories, these men and women reached sainthood through the grace-filled choices they made as spouses and parents.

Read more here. 

Image By Selbymay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Meaning of Human Sexuality

Our parish church offers a monthly morning retreat for mothers. This year's talks are based on Love is Our Mission, the preparatory catechesis for the 2015 World Meeting of Families. The following reflects on Chapter 3, The Meaning of Human Sexuality.

As the concept of gender grows ever more fluid (you can pick any one of 58 gender options on Facebook), it's worth asking why God created humans as male and female. Bacteria have no gender and reproduce mostly by dividing their cells. Some species of fish are sequentially hermaphroditic, changing genders throughout their lifetime. Angels, who are beings of pure spirit, have no gender. Angels can't reproduce at all, since they have no bodies. But when God made human beings in his own image, he gave us male and female bodies. Why, and for that matter, why give us bodies at all?

One reason God gave us bodies was to help us know, love, and serve him. With our bodies, and particularly through our five senses, we can experience the glory of the world around us, a world created by God. St. Augustine challenged:
Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky ... question all these realities. All respond: "See, we are beautiful." Their beauty is a profession (CCC 32).
As the Psalms say, all creation proclaims the glory of God (Ps. 19:1, 66:4). Our bodily senses help us to learn about the majesty of God and his amazing Creation.

The physical world, everything we can see and touch, is like God's beautiful gift to us. It is an overflow of his goodness. As it says in the Book of Genesis, God looked at the world he created and saw that it was "good" (Gn 1:25). And when God created humans, he looked at us and said that we are "very good" (Gn 1:31). It's as if we were all loved into existence. Or, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "creatures came into existence when the key of love opened [God's] hand" (CCC 293).

Knowing that the entire physical world, including our bodily humanity, is God's gift to us, we are obligated to take care of it and tend to it.  The Book of Genesis explains: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Gn 2:15). This caretaking responsibility is called stewardship.

We hear a lot about becoming good stewards of the earth or good stewards of our money. But we are also called to be good stewards of our bodies, our sexuality, and our fertility. This brings us back to the question of why God gave us our sexuality and our fertility. The complementary division of humanity into male and female actually images the Holy Trinity. Within the Trinity, the love between God the Father and God the Son is so strong that it actually is another person -- God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Within a marriage, the love between a husband and a wife takes on flesh in the person of their child. That love, that sexual love, creates another human being with an immortal soul, destined to become a saint. Cardinal Mindszenty enthused:

The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God’s creative miracle to bring new saints to Heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature; God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation.

Our bodies, our sexuality, and our fertility are all God's gift to us. They are "very good," but we need to learn how to take care of them. Parents teach their children how to take care of their bodies and keep them clean and healthy. We teach kids to control their impulses in order to avoid behavior that's bad for them. We pass on basic principles like people who eat whatever they want whenever they want, or jump off high places regardless of the danger, will eventually harm their bodies. Out of control sexuality is similarly harmful. That's why we tell teenagers about the benefits of sexual abstinence and warn them about the difficulties of pregnancy outside of marriage.

The virtue that allows us to moderate our bodily desires is called temperance. Chastity is a subset of temperance, and the virtue of chastity helps us to moderate our sexual desire in a way that's good and healthy for us. Even married people are called to be chaste, to respect our own sexuality.

The Church gives us guidelines for how to treat our sexuality respectfully. It recommends not resorting to physical methods of birth control that literally place barriers between the spouses. It recommends against chemical forms of birth control that have numerous health risks. And it discourages the use of in vitro fertilization, which can result in the destruction of many human embryos as a normal part of the process.

The Church doesn't say that we should have as many children as physically possible. It encourages us to exercise responsible parenthood in deciding how many children are best for our family. It advocates Natural Family Planning (NFP) as a healthy way to accomplish that goal. NFP can be used to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It does not introduce any harmful chemicals into the body or put any unborn life at risk. It does require sexual self-control to abstain during the wife's fertile times. But, as we've seen, sexual self-control is a way of being good stewards of our bodies.

In using NFP, our sexual lives may seem to go through periods of feasting and fasting. But the natural world works that way, too, as fall turns to winter, and winter turns to spring and summer. The Church's liturgical year also follows a cycle of feasting and fasting. During Advent and Lent, we wait and pray. During Christmas, Easter, and Ordinary Time, we celebrate. Through it all, we give glory to God.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Feathers in the Wind: Scandal and Sharing Online

St. Philip Neri once told a woman that as penance for her gossiping, she should scatter a pillowful of feathers into the wind and then walk about the town collecting every feather. The task was impossible, of course, and it emphasized that we can't take back our words once they've been uttered. That's especially true online. But in the age of social media, we reveal more rather than less, constantly chattering about parts of our lives that we used to consider too private or too inconsequential to share. Just went to the doctor? Post on Facebook. Enjoyed our lunch? Tweet about it. Oversharing has become commonplace.

What's more, the tell-all has become the new teaching tool. A recent article entitled "I Donated My Eggs, and I Regret It" from the Verily Magazine website got more than 2,000 shares. An article entitled "I Use Natural Family Planning as My Birth Control" on the Cosmopolitan Magazine website got more than 6,000 shares. These articles speak the language of emotional connection in an era when statistics are less convincing than heart-felt personal witness. The articles make good points, such as Natural Family Planning is effective and worth trying, and egg donation harms women. But is the medium overshadowing the message?

Mary Kochan of CatholicLane argues that it is, and she focuses particularly on marriage-related posts and articles that women write in the hopes of giving helpful advice to others with the same vocation. Kochan recently wrote:
We can give our public assent and recommendation to Catholic and biblical principles without inviting every passerby into what should be our private conversations. ...Among faithful Catholics, there is too much public disclosure on Facebook, on blogs, and in articles, of the details of marriages. Intimate matters, about which we ought to be reverently reticent even with close friends, are being made the subject of online discussions with strangers.  The weaknesses and foibles and even sins of spouses are being held up to public scrutiny.
One reader strongly disagreed with the article, commenting on Facebook:
I think most Catholic bloggers are real and honest about marriage and we need more of that. ...I always ask my husband before sharing things about our marriage but we've struggled because we had to learn everything on our own coming from divorced parents and getting no marriage prep so I share hoping to save people some heartache. 
How do we draw the line between scandal and sharing, between gossip and helpful advice? According to the Catechism, scandal is more than surprise or shock. Scandal "leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter" (CCC 2284). So, depending on your perspective, an article about someone's reproductive system might seem disgusting or extremely helpful. But unless it tempts someone to sin, it's not scandalous.

Gossip can be sinful if it amounts to calumny -- that is, harmful untruth -- or detraction -- that is, public disclosure of another's faults and failings for no good reason (CCC 2477). Our words have the power "to destroy the reputation and honor" of others (CCC 2479). Most of us who blog or talk about our marriages online probably aren't deliberately spreading harmful untruths about our husbands or our families. But we might be inadvertently harming their reputations or our own. So it's important to ask ourselves what our spouse or kids might think if they read what we say. It's an even better idea to do as the reader above suggested and ask our spouses first before sharing certain details of our married lives.

When it comes to watching our words, no area is fraught with more difficulty than sexuality. Catholic teaching on sexuality is wildly misunderstood. Even the clearest statement, like "contraception is a sin," can require volumes upon volumes of explanation and still leave the modern mind unconvinced. Personal witness can turn the tide.

Not everyone is called to evangelize on the issue of sexuality. But a full picture of the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage has to include it. The Catholic marriage advice book that my husband Manuel Santos M.D. and I wrote includes a whole section on fruitfulness, with one chapter devoted entirely to married sexuality. The chapter wasn't easy to write. The first draft was self-consciously stodgy, since we didn't want to cause scandal.

Our editor was not happy with the way that we essentially hid behind the dry words of doctrine. "But everybody always yells at me when I write about sex!" I protested. My very few blogposts on sexuality had drawn ire or at least expressions of concern from my husband, my father, my spiritual director, and even other Catholic authors and bloggers. My first post on the topic sparked a pitched battle across the Interwebs between those who felt I was buying into the Main Stream Media's Cult of the Orgasm (is that a thing?) and those who felt I was offering important information that young Catholics couldn't find anywhere else.

From the high number of Catholic patients seeking my husband's psychiatric advice with respect to their married sex lives, we knew that we needed to give the best and most forthright advice we could. So, in our book, we tried to follow the general guidelines developed by the coordinators of the Archdiocese of Newark marriage prep program, God's Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage. The guidelines state that in teaching couples about the Catholic view of sexuality:
Personal witness ... can be a powerful gift to help them relate, learn, and feel unjudged. Stay relevant, minimalistic on details, and veiled. Personal witness and example can be too explicit and go to a level that causes them to be uncomfortable, shut down, and tune out.
In my opinion, these guidelines provide a great roadmap to discussing the Catholic view of sexuality in any forum, including online. Kochan's CatholicLane article argues, to the contrary, that advice should be given in private:

There are people who are qualified to do marriage counseling and who, through training, are equipped to help other couples apply general principles to their own situation. They can be very helpful, both in strengthening solid marriages and bringing healing and restoration to troubled marriages. But this is personal and confidential work
Not everyone can locate or afford a Catholic psychiatrist or psychologist, however. Devout Catholics have gone through their own modern-day diaspora. It's hard to find anyone who understands our perspective, much less someone living close by. Social media gives us a safe space to express our fidelity to ideas that our family or next-door neighbors may never understand. We talk on social media because here are the people who speak our language.

Although we definitely need to avoid gossiping or scandal, my opinion is that people who blog or post in support of Catholic marriage offer a much-needed support network. As one lady blogger declared on Facebook, "Write on!"