Monday, September 28, 2015

Papal Mass in New York City Recharges Our Spiritual Batteries

This past week was filled with excitement. After waiting weeks to get Secret Service clearance for a press pass, I sprained my foot just days before Pope Francis' visit to New York City and Philadelphia. With the help of many, I managed to attend the Mass at Madison Square Garden last Friday and file this article with Catholic news site For your convenience, here's a full re-post.

Although Pope Francis has been portrayed as a divisive figure, there was no sign of that in Madison Square Garden Friday night. The universal Church in all its variety and diversity gathers around its spiritual leader. He is encompassed on all sides by a ring of more than 20,000 people crowding into the bowl-shaped auditorium of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Hanging incongruously beneath the cabled underbelly of the stadium roof is a wooden crucifix with a carved three-dimensional figure of Jesus in his agony. Below, miniature in comparison, stand more than 40 bishops together with Francis, our joyful, humble and unpredictable Pope. Laurie Hanrahan of New Windsor, N.Y. realizes as she sits in the stands that Madison Square Garden, where she holds Rangers season tickets, has become “a sacred place.”

At the end of a long day, Pope Francis stumbles over his English, recalling the example of Pope St. John Paul II in his last, declining days, reminding us that Popes struggle, too. Despite his exhaustion, he speaks words of light, joy, and hope without fear. He tells us about the life of the Lord in the midst of the city, Jesus who walks our streets in the guise of the outcast and abandoned, and a father who waits for his children to come home.

Lay readers pray that God will pour blessings down on our Church and our nation, presenting their petitions in English, Spanish, Gaelic, Italian, Mandarin, and French. And the stadium trembles to the sound of thousands chanting in the Latin language that the Church has called her own for millennia.

Earlier in the day, lucky ticket-holders waited in lines twenty city blocks long for the chance to enter the arena. One of the lucky ones is Patricia Martin White, a Spanish citizen with a green card. She is an immigrant like the many whom Pope Francis urges our government and our Church to welcome with compassion. White sometimes feels “isolated” as a Catholic in the United States. This Mass tonight reminds her that “the Church is humongous and very powerful.”

Mass attendee Manuel Albino, a 41 year old divorced father of Puerto Rican heritage, is one of the thousands of Hispanics who comprise approximately 38% of adult Catholics in the United States. But he also belongs to a tiny minority of U.S. Catholics who prefer the traditional Latin Mass. Albino admires Pope Francis’ “pan-Hispanic consciousness” as well as his “genuine pastoral solicitude” towards traditionalists, “a segment of his flock that he doesn’t quite ‘get.’” He is happy that Francis “cared enough to make this stop” on his voyage to “recharge our spiritual batteries.”

Linda George, who like Albino is also divorced, is one of the lucky out-of-state residents to get tickets. George calls her ability to get a ticket “miraculous.” A few Sundays ago, “I was praying about seeing the Pope during Mass,” she said. Shortly afterwards, George received a phone call from her younger sister, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y.. George’s sister and her husband had won three tickets through their parish lottery, and they were calling to offer George their extra ticket. “You prayed, didn’t you?” George’s sister laughingly accused her.

George wants to be a voice for divorced people who still remain faithful to their sacramental vows. Although her seemingly devout Catholic husband left her eight years ago when their seventh child was only six months old, “I’m still married and I’m going to stay married for life,” George maintained. Stories like hers are what Pope Francis needs to hear, she said.

Pope Francis’ presence here also means a lot to young people in the Church. Laurie Hanrahan’s 13 year old son Daniel emailed and talked to practically every priest he knew in an effort to get tickets for the Mass. This Mass is “something he’ll never forget.” Hanrahan was unable to bring her 18 year old son Shane, who suffers from severe autism and would likely feel overwhelmed by the crowd. “I wish he could be in the Father’s presence,” she said, but “hopefully the blessing will come home with us.”

Twenty year old college student Emily Sheboy calls this Mass a “once in a lifetime opportunity for me and everyone in attendance.” She says that many of her friends, Catholic and non-Catholic, are attracted to Pope Francis’ zeal, humility, and joy. He “radiates the love of Christ with great passion, so that even those who may not believe see some force at work within him,” she said.

Or, in the simpler words of a Madison Square Garden employee named Derek, “He loves everyone.”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope-Watching: Best Posts from Francis' Visit to the U.S. & Cuba

The secular and Catholic media have been filled with reports on Pope Francis' first visit to the U.S. this past week. Here's a round-up of the best papal news.


Is the Pope Catholic?: This Newsweek article deserves a prize for the name alone. In-depth look into the Pope's words and the media's spin on them.

Pope Francis arrives in the US; denies being a leftist: This article by John L. Allen Jr., a reporter respected by Catholics of all stripes, gives the Pope's response to allegations that's he's more leftist than Catholic.

Visit to Cuba

Pope Francis Goes Off-Script to Deliver Passionate Homily on Poverty: In typical Francis style, the pope speaks extemporaneously about a topic dear to his heart.

Francis Hit with Tranquilizer Dart by Swiss Guard Seconds After Speaking Off-Cuff: This hilarious satire piece by the Eye of the Tiber, the Catholic equivalent of The Onion, expresses the frustration of some Catholics -- especially Catholic bloggers and journalists -- with Pope Francis' unpredictable statements.

Visit to Washington, D.C.

Hero or Horror? Junipero Serra becomes a saint: Interesting article by CNN about the surprisingly controversial decision to canonize the founder of several Spanish missions in California during Pope Francis' visit to Washington, D.C. yesterday. Pope Francis views Fr. Serra as one of the founding fathers of the United States and a special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.

Love for Pope Brings Them to the Streets, Not Necessarily to Church: Interviews of people crowded around the Pope's parade route through D.C. show that many welcome him as a celebrity, but not as the Vicar of Christ.

White House Welcoming Ceremony for Pope Francis: Watch the whole one-hour ceremony on C-SPAN here. Or fast forward to the Pope's talk, which lasts about ten minutes.

Pope Francis Challenges Congress: This morning, Pope Francis became the first pope ever to address a joint meeting of Congress. He spoke on issues relating to immigration, capitalism, the environment, religious liberty, and the traditional family.

Upcoming Visit to New York

Papal Itinerary: This post lists all the Pope's upcoming activities in the United States, including a speech to the United Nations, an ecumenical prayer service at Ground Zero, a visit to Harlem, and Friday evening's Mass at Madison Square Garden (yours truly will be reporting on the Mass for news site!).

Live Stream: For those who are not in the crowds surrounding Pope Francis, but would really like to be, live streaming coverage is available at this web site. You'll feel like you're actually there.

Monday, September 21, 2015

World Meeting of Families 2015: What You Need to Know

Even before Pope Francis' arrival in Philadelphia on Saturday, more than fifteen thousand registrants will have the opportunity to listen to an elite cadre of speakers at the World Meeting of Families beginning tomorrow. Well-known speakers include Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Christopher West, the crew from CatholicMatch, Prof. Robert George, Simcha Fisher, and other popular non-Catholic personalities like Pastor Rick Warren. Together, they represent a veritable who's who of dynamic voices on marriage and the family today.

In the 21st century, the family wears many more faces than it did in the past, encompassing not only traditional families, but also single parents, divorced parents, and stepparents, all searching consciously or subconsciously for God's guidance through a troubled world. We all want family love to last forever, but making it happen sometimes seems ever more out of our grasp.

The impact of the World Meeting of Families is meant to endure far longer than these few days in September 2015. The organizers hope to make this a teaching moment in the life of the Church, and they've asked even people who aren't attending to help spread the message.

To aid in that mission, the organizers have circulated a preparatory catechesis to explain "how all of Catholic teaching about sex, marriage and the family flows from our basic beliefs about Jesus." The organizers have issued this urgent plea:
"We encourage everyone to study this catechesis, to discuss it with others, particularly in parishes, and to pray about how the Church can serve families, and how families can serve the Church."
In response, our parish of St. Joseph in Garden City, New York, has inaugurated a year-long series of morning retreats focused on the main points of this catechesis and their practical application to our daily lives. We hope that many other parishes and individuals will join in answering the call and promulgating the good news, in ways large and small.

As a stepping-off point, here are ten things World Meeting of Family organizers think you need to know.

I. We are Created for Joy 

"We are more than an accident of evolution. We are greater than the sum of our biology. God exists. He is good. He loves us."

II. Our Mission is Love 

"We are in the world for a purpose -- to receive God's love and to show God's love to others."

III. Our Sexuality Has Deep Meaning 

"Our sexuality has purpose. Our bodies are not simply shells for the soul or sensory machines for the brain. Nor are they raw material we can freely abuse or reprogram. For Christians, body and spirit are profoundly integrated."

IV. Marriage is a Uniquely Intimate Form of Friendship 

"No marriage founded on mere sexual chemistry endures. Erotic partners focused mainly on possessing each other lack the interior skill of stepping back and making space for self-criticism, reconciliation, and growth."

V. Families Create the Future

"Children reared with love and guidance are the foundation for a loving future. Wounded children portend a wounded future." 

VI. All Love Bears Fruit 

"Not everyone is called to marriage. But every life is meant to be fertile. Every life has the power and the need to nurture new life -- if not through bearing and raising children, then through other vital forms of self-giving, building, and service."

VII. Marriage is More than Erotic Companionship

"In separating sex and procreation, contraception encourages a culture to premise marriage on emotional and erotic companionship. This reductionist, disordered view feeds much of today's confusion about what marriage really is." 

VIII. Faithful Families are Not Alone 

"Jesus taught many things about sex and marriage which were difficult to live in both ancient times and today. But we are not alone as we face these difficulties." 

 IX. The Church Will Always Preach the Gospel

"Despite her many failures, the Church cannot shirk the responsibility to preach the Gospel, and so we carry forward her mission of love."

X. We Can Fulfill Our Mission of Love 

"Catholic families will sometimes live as minorities, with different values from their surrounding culture. Our mission of love will require courage and fortitude. Jesus is calling, and we can respond."

Image: "Pope Francis at Vargihna" by Tânia Rêgo/ABr - Agência Brasil. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 br via Commons 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Journey of Love: Married Life of St. Gianna, Patron of the World Meeting of Families

As Philadelphia gears up for the influx of an expected three million people for the World Meeting of Families starting on September 21, we can all take a moment to pray to one of the meeting's patron saints, St. Gianna Molla. (The other patron saint, also dear to my heart, is Pope John Paul II.)

St. Gianna is easier to relate to than many earlier female saints who were virgins, queens, or martyrs. She was a doctor, a working mother, who was married to an engineer. Born in 1922, she experienced many of the amenities of modern life, like telephones, trains, planes and automobiles. Her letters to her husband were gathered and published in a beautiful volume back in 2002. But her letters tell only half the story. After her husband Pietro's death in 2010, his letters were published alongside hers in a book entitled The Journey of Our Love (Pauline, 2004).

The book offers us an intimate look into the private romantic life of a married saint. Rarely do we come to know another's marriage well. Behind the smiles are often tears, and behind closed lips are often unshared sorrows. The letters between Gianna and Pietro reveal their life, unfiltered, and it's an inspiration to behold.

A successful factory manager, ten years older than Gianna, Pietro had the heart of a poet. His letters to his fiancee during the time of their engagement were filled with metaphorical kisses: "a kiss as deep and sweet as the sea" and "another kiss, a long kiss, with a wish for a peaceful night like the night on these quivering waters kissed by the moon."

Pietro was dedicated to helping Gianna achieve success in her chosen medical profession. He even had the house of his parents remodeled into a clinic for her. For her part, Gianna patiently withstood Pietro's long hours and frequent business trips, although she was terrified for him whenever he traveled by plane. Sometimes, he took trains to allay her fears, even though the overland trip would last much longer. He couldn't always avoid planes, however, especially when he visited the United States. So he penned a prayer, which he shared with his wife in one of his letters:
Jesus, who created me and preserve me with graces and blessings without number: you who among the long flights of time and of today, up here in the Heavens, have given me the immense gift of a wife of gold, ...
Bless Gianna and our treasures [their children]! Change into grace their anxiety and worry over my long absence and my flights. ...
Grant that a serene and luminous atmosphere may always enfold our family, like the atmosphere in the sky through which I am flying and the purity of the clear air I am breathing. ...
Keep my family and my dear ones safe, happy, and peaceful in the way of your light, today and always until the day we will fly up, up, always higher, up to you. Amen.
In this prayer, Pietro naturally wove the smallest details of his daily life into a hymn to the divine. Gianna's sweetness and caring appears consistently in her letters, and Pietro shows himself to be a man worthy of his wife.

St. Gianna is regarded as a pro-life hero, since she died after a difficult pregnancy and childbirth in which she directed the doctors to save her unborn child first and then herself. Not everyone will be faced with such a drastic dilemma. But we can all follow the path of passion and compassion displayed in these beautiful love letters between husband and wife.

My thanks to Pauline Books for providing a free review copy.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What Would You Give for 90 Minutes in Heaven?

Two-thirds of Americans believe in heaven. Several million people claim that they have gone through near-death experiences, as many as 15% of the population of some countries. But does anyone really know what happens when we die and what heaven is really like? Most importantly, will we ever get there? A burning desire to know explains the popularity of stories like the recent movie 90 Minutes in Heaven, based on a book that sold over 5 million copies and was translated into 40 languages.

The movie grippingly depicts the path to healing of a Protestant pastor who was declared medically dead for 90 minutes and then came back to life after a passerby prayed over him. Based on a true story, the book was only published after years of soul-searching when the author Don Piper realized that the purpose of his near-death experience was for him to share it with others.

After experiencing heaven for 90 minutes, Piper had very little will to return to life on this earth. Lying in a hospital bed for months, he asked over and over why God couldn't have just let him die. The movie gave me uncomfortable flashbacks of my husband in a hospital bed recovering from his multiple brain surgeries -- only I was the one in danger of despair, not my husband. Actor Hayden Christensen (of the recent Star Wars trilogy) is believable in his utter despondency. Watching Hayden Christensen in Star Wars, I thought that the tragic role of Darth Vader was beyond his talent. But Christensen has grown as an actor, and the tragic role of Don Piper is not writ quite so large.

The surprising character of the film was Piper's wife Eva, played by Kate Bosworth (of Superman Returns). On the first day in the hospital, she couldn't even provide financial or insurance information -- her husband had taken care of everything and left her in a state of dependence. She reminded me of my Southern grandmother (also married to a Protestant minister), who neither learned to drive nor balance a checkbook. Only when my grandfather developed Alzheimer's did my grandmother have to take the reins. Similarly, in the Piper family, Don's car accident forced Eva to become the leader of the family temporarily, to the extent that she even overrode his decisions since he was in no emotional shape to make rational choices.

Kate Bosworth makes Eva's strength and determination shine through, although her stoicism at times translates into a lack of expression. It was also jarring to see a blond fashion plate (and celebrity fashion designer) like Bosworth dressed in one of the drabbest wardrobes I've ever seen. The calf-length skirts were refreshingly modest and could have been beautiful if they weren't in unrelieved shades of brown. It's as if the costume designer thought that religious Christians were opposed to beauty.

At the end of the movie, the audience gets to see a cinematic representation of Piper's vision of heaven. Obviously, nothing on the big screen can come close to capturing reality. As the hymn based on St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians says, "eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him." Whatever heaven is like, Hollywood can't recreate it. On an artistic level, I preferred the representation of heaven in What Dreams May Come, a 1998 movie with Robin Williams. But theologically speaking, 90 Minutes in Heaven makes the important point that none of us gets to heaven alone. Close friends, distant acquaintances, family members and even strangers play important roles in our salvation. We impact each other in ways that we will never know until we approach the pearly gates. The movie presents a compelling counter-argument to Sartre's wry dig that "hell is other people." It reminds us that heaven holds the communion of saints.

My thanks to Carmel Communications for providing a no-cost advance screening of the film.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Exciting New Resource for Brides-to-Be from Pauline Books!

I was so thrilled when beautiful, young bride blogger Stephanie Calis asked me to help spread the word about her new book Invited: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner, to be released from Pauline Books in Spring 2016. You can get the whole table of contents from her big reveal post here (and check out her awesome artwork):

Stephanie was one of the first Catholic bloggers I met when I started Can We Cana? in late 2012. Deeply devout and mega-artistic, she impressed me with her love for Pope John Paul II, the Theology of the Body, and planning the perfectly beautiful Catholic wedding from A to Z. Her posts at Captive the Heart: a sprightly wedding blog for the Catholic bride are unfailingly Pinterest-worthy.

Stephanie encouraged me to post a list of topics for my own marriage advice book when it was still a twinkle in my eye (that's her, mentioned in the first line of the post!). Based on our email conversations about what young brides want to know about the Catholic view of sexuality, I wrote my post on chaste sex, which is still the most widely-read post on the blog even today. And we've shared some giggles about how hard it is to write a book while taking care of babies.

So I'm honored and excited to tell you more about her book Invited, especially as it gets closer to publication. Although it was sixteen years ago, my wedding planning days are engraved upon my memory. I actually used two wedding planners -- a secular one for the details of the dress, reception, etc., and a Catholic one (with silly cartoon pictures on the front) for the rite itself. I would have loved to have everything in one book, and it sounds like Stephanie's book has it all.

The fact that Pauline Books is publishing the book makes it extra-special. As Sr. Anne Flanagan of the Daughters of St. Paul, aka nunblogger, constantly reminds me, support the sisters! How many publishers do you know who wear a full habit? Pauline is particularly well known for publishing Christopher West's early work on the Theology of the Body and Transformed in Love, a marriage preparation developed by the Archdiocese of Boston. Sounds like a perfect fit with Stephanie's book. So especially if you know a young bride-to-be in need of a wedding planner, like and share this announcement with all your friends!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day in Pictures!!

Lelia and Maria at the pool

Elisa-Maria with her Barbies

C.C. and Marga on the monkey bars

Miguel and cousins at the ball game

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Choosing Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness

Just in time for this month's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Image Books has released a book-length interview of Bishop Jean Laffitte, the current secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family. It's the Council's task to organize the World Meeting of Families every three years. This year is the first time it will be held in the United States.

The book highlights the richness of family life well-lived, as hinted at by its title, The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness. In its format, it resembles previous best-selling full-length interviews of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, including Light of the World and others.

Although the interview was conducted in 2011, the issues of love, family, and sexuality are perennial ones. The lengthy opening remarks by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Archbishop Charles Chaput, a popular conservative Catholic voice, increase the book's appeal to American Catholics today.

Bishop Laffitte touches on all the hot-button issues of cohabitation, sexuality, adultery, divorce and remarriage, and the right of the Church to make its voice heard in the public square. But he also offers advice, rich with years of experience, about fostering a love of God in individuals, engaged couples, families, and young children. The key to opening people's hearts is that "the priest must have an interest in their happiness," says Bishop Laffitte.

Marriage preparation has an essential role to play in forming strong families, and the bishop provides helpful insights to priests and anyone else involved in this ministry. Fully aware of the challenges, he is not a man with his head stuck in the clouds. "Many people demand the sacrament of marriage from the Church while totally misunderstanding what the sacrament signifies.  ...We need to be aware," he cautions. We must reawaken the desire and the hope for permanence and indissolubility that "is demanded by the nature of love," he adds. When we give love as a gift, we give it totally and forever. Anything less is merely a loan, unworthy of the name of love.

In marriage preparation, instructors can discover what the couple's expectations are of marriage and perhaps help them to see their future more realistically. It will not be all good or all bad. When the bad times come, spouses need to forgive each other, reconcile with each other, and realize that the suffering will pass -- what Bishop Laffitte calls "an ordinary practice of reconciliation."

Despite the importance of this type of common sense advice, marriage preparation operates on more than a psychological or social level -- it must be a spiritual event, according to the bishop. If a marriage minister does not "introduce the engaged couple into an experience of prayer, I do not know where they are headed! I find it insane that people are prepared over the course of months for the sacrament of marriage and ... nobody invites them to pray," he says.

Marriage itself is also a spiritual event. It is a privileged path to encounter divine love through the transforming power of human love. And God does not offer anyone a love that is second-best. Marriage ministers can communicate that beautiful truth to the couples they counsel while preparing them for the sacrament of Matrimony. As Bishop Laffitte states movingly, "The fiancés must feel loved and be led to Christ. There is then an opening of the heart that takes place, and then there can be space for the grace of Christ. We have to believe it."