Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Dreamer

Today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, St. John Bosco. When I was growing up in Milwaukee there was a high school named "Don Bosco" and I always thought "Don" was his first name. Years later I learned that "John" or "Giovanni," as he would have been known in his native Italy, was his name and "Don" is a title that is often used for priests in Italy.

One of the amazing facts of his life is that he had supernatural dreams. Of course the Bible is filled with stories of holy people who had supernatural dreams--the prophet Daniel, Joseph the son of Jacob and St. Joseph the husband of Mary--and the prophet Joel, speaking the word of God, foretold:

"...I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions;
Even upon the servants and the handmaids,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (3: 1-2).

So it should not be surprising that God would continue to speak to Spirit-filled people in their dreams.

But what I find amazing is that for St. John Bosco, this began when he was only nine years old.

Writing about this in his "Biographical Memoirs," St. John Bosco said that around 1824 when he was nine he had a dream in which a group of children were playing in a large field near his home. Some of them were cursing and he was so shocked by this that he jumped in, shouted at them to stop, and started swinging his fists. A man dressed in white with a glowing face appeared and told him to become the leader of these boys, saying, "You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful."

John Bosco asked how he, a mere boy and the peer of these other boys, could talk to them about religion. At that, the boys stopped cursing and fighting and gathered around the man in white who told John to ask his Mother for help. Then he saw a beautiful lady next to the man who showed him that the boys had disappeared and instead he was surrounded by different wild animals that turned into gentle sheep. John asked her to explain all this and she promised that in due time she would. At that point he woke up.

The next morning he told the dream to his family. His brothers laughed. One of them gave this interpretation: "You are going to become a shepherd and take care of goats, sheep, and livestock." Another said, "You might become the leader of a gang of robbers." His mother said, "Who knows? Maybe you will become a priest." His grandmother, whom he described as "very religious" and "illiterate," offered the last word on this dream: "You must not pay attention to dreams."

St. John wrote that he felt the same way but the dream stayed with him and years later, in 1858, when he met with Blessed Pius IX to talk about founding the Salesian congregation the pope asked him to write the dream down.

Today people often wonder about the nature and value of dreams. Most of us will probably not experience mystical dreams as St. John Bosco did, but it may be helpful for us to give them some attention.

First, dreams seem to be the way that our minds process and deal with the events of our day as they affect our emotional lives. Thus, people who are stressed out during the day will commonly have anxiety dreams. God can use such dreams to get our attention and reflecting on them can help us deal in a healthy way with the stress.

Second, it's a good idea offer our sleep to God and to pray for good dreams. We can pray as we lay in bed that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and bless our dreams so that they help us and give glory to God. As Psalm 127: 2 says: "for he gives to his beloved in sleep."

Monday, January 23, 2012


One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith and of life is Providence. Because it's a mystery, people over the centuries have debated the relationship between God's will and what happens in the world, between God's will and human freedom. Mysteries aren't problems to be solved and so we must humbly say that there are no definititive answers to the questions that arise when we consider God's Providence. In the end, though, and at every moment, we are faced with the questions: "Where is God in this?" and "What is God asking of me in this?"

I thought of this recently because of correspondance I've had with a friend named Tom who recently underwent open heart surgery. Before Christmas, as he was preparing for surgery, I wrote him the following:

"I often think of things like what you're facing as ways that God calls us to grow in particular virtues. Courage is one I see here and also surrender in trust. We always pray, in the Our Father, "Thy will be done," but we often say that out of habit and not really meaning it, not really thinking that God's way is the best way. Easy for me to say from this distance and not being in your shoes, but if all this (our lives, our faith) makes sense, then it has to be true."

I also recommended that he read about a man who tried to find God's will in something he never expected--being a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. The man was Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., and the book he wrote about his experience was "He Leadeth Me." After Christmas and before surgery Tom wrote me the following:

"I just finished reading He Leadeth Me........I am writing to express my thanks to you for recommending it. My daughter bought it for me as a Christmas present and I read it right away. What an amazing story it is! The faith he describes in the book is beyond my ability to describe but I am sure you have read it and know what I mean, I have asked Fr Ciszek to pray for me that I have a fraction of his courage & faith and if it is God's will, healing...."

Then, after his surgery and in the midst of recovery, Tom wrote me the following:

"It has been 10 days since the open heart surgery , which is hard to believe. I have been home since Sunday convalescing....The most difficult part is the pain management, at times I feel very good and cut back on the meds ,oxycodone, each time that has been mistake.....pain management & healing go hand in hand and when the pain returns it is very challenging....the surgery & subsequent wound healing has proceeded pretty well....I get vey tired and ,as I said occasionally have some very intense pain in my upper torso....Fr Jim of all the memories I will have about this whole experience and there have been many, the book He Leadeth Me is one I will never forget.....being aware of the Providence of God and its unbending goodness is such a comforting thought that i will continue to exclaim it the rest of my life."

Here are the significant passages from Fr. Ciszek's "He Leadeth Me." Though we may never understand the ways of Providence while we're on this side of eternity, that lack of understanding doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Somehow I think it was Providence and not coincidence that Tom and I met at a retreat house in Minnesota ten years ago.

“What I have tried to show in the pages of this book is how faith has affected my life and sustained me in all I experienced. That faith is the answer to the question most often asked of me (‘How did you manage to survive?’) and I can only repeat it, simply and unashamedly. To me, that truth says that God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence for all those he has created. God cares for each of us individually, watches over us, provides for us. The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by him. Let the theologians argue about how this is so, let the philosophers and sophisticates of this world question and doubt whether it can be so; the revealed truth we have received on God’s own word says simply that it is so. But maybe we are all just a little afraid to accept it in all its shattering simplicity, for its consequences in our lives are both terrible and wonderful.

“It means, for example, that every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may see in itself, has a dignity and a worth beyond human understanding. No man’s life is insignificant in God’s sight, nor are his works insignificant—no matter what the world or his neighbors or family or friends may think of them. Yet what a terrible responsibility is here. For it means that no moment can be wasted, no opportunity missed, since each has a purpose in man’s life, each has a purpose in God’s plan

Friday, January 13, 2012

St. Louis Marian Conference

Last weekend I gave a retreat at White House, the Jesuit Retreat House in St. Louis. There were 77 men on the retreat, most of whom were alumni of Jesuit high schools and universities. After the retreat I moved to Bellarmine House of Studies, five houses near St. Louis University where the Jesuit scholastics live and study philosophy and theology after their novitiate. It's been a quiet and hospitable setting for me. I had all sorts of plans to visit people I know in the area but unfortunately that didn't work out.

On Wednesday I gave a talk at the local Serra Club, a group that works and prays for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. I spoke about the spirituality of offering that the Apostleship of Prayer promotes and how this can create a vocation-friendly environment in families and parishes. Ann Moloney, mother of nine who hosts a weekly radio show for moms on the local Catholic station (Covenant Radio), invited me to do an interview with her. We talked more about the spirituality of offering and how it can help busy Moms (and all of us) in the midst of daily activities which often seem to have no importance in the bigger picture but which, when united to the perfect offering of Jesus, have eternal significance. I was also able to record a 30 second spot to promote the Hearts on Fire retreat for young adults which is coming to St. Louis Feb. 24-25. Fr. Phil Hurley and the Jesuit Mission Band just returned from the Bahamas where over 50 people participated in a Hearts on Fire Retreat. They got rave reviews in the local paper.

Today the annual St. Louis Marian conference begins and I'll be giving three talks. Tonight I'll be speaking about "Fatima: the Call to Prayer and Penance." Tomorrow afternoon it will be "Pope John Paul II's Eucharistic Amazement" and on Sunday morning I'll talk about "Living a Eucharistic Life." I'm looking forward to the interaction that invariably follows giving a talk at a conference and meeting people at the table I'll have set up.

On Sunday afternoon I'll return to Milwaukee where I hear winter has also returned.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Sacred Heart in Joliet

I haven't been able to keep up with writing because of some extra responsibilities that came up during the holidays. I'm now in St. Louis (where the weather is sunny and 70 degrees!) giving a retreat to 77 men at the White House Jesuit Retreat House. On my way down I stopped to have lunch with a good Jesuit friend, Fr. John Belmonte, who is the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Joliet.

The following is from a letter he wrote informing the Diocese of a special initiative for this year:

Perfect Friendship: The Diocese of Joliet Sacred Heart Project

To teach children the Catholic faith that we ourselves have received and invite them to a lifelong friendship with Jesus Christ through His Church is our privilege as Catholic school educators. This year our diocesan schools have the opportunity to participate in a project to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The goal of this project is to introduce the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to our students, develop the devotional life of children and adults and create leadership opportunities for students and teachers.

The project will begin on Monday, October 17th, the Feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and conclude on Wednesday, February 15, the Feast of St. Claude La Colombiere, both saints of the Sacred Heart. ... Bishop Conlon will conclude the project with a Mass with students at the Cathedral in which he will consecrate the diocesan schools and our students to the Sacred Heart.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a most effective means of our students living always in the company of our Lord who they meet in the Eucharist.

Last month I met with Fr. Belmonte and two of the teachers, Kathy Scholz and Ryan Wolcott, who produced a manual for this project. Their manual, which they hope to publish someday, is filled with many good age-appropriate materials for grade school students. One of the ideas was for students to create holy cards with an image of the Sacred Heart. Scattered throughout this post are copies of some of those laminated cards.

Another part of the project was to have eighth graders teach the younger children about the Sacred Heart. The following is from a story that St. Scholastica Grade School student Sonja Kukulis wrote about that experience. It appeared in the Woodridge Triblocal news website.

The main message taught was that Jesus is "all heart," and that He loves us and wants us to love Him too. We showed the students a picture of the Sacred Heart and explained it to them. Jesus is holding His heart, which is bleeding, has thorns around it, and a cross on top. All of this symbolism reminds us that Christ was willing to suffer and die for us; it also is on fire to symbolize God's light and Christ's love for us. We asked these students questions to make sure they understood what we were teaching them, and answered their questions as well. ... Each week the middle school students write one of the twelve promises that Christ gave to St. Margaret Mary. We explain how we can follow it in our lives. Students in the lower grades write about or color pictures that explain the twelve promises. At the start of every school day, we say the prayer to the Sacred Heart together. This is a great project because it teaches us about church history and helps us to grow closer to God and stronger in faith.

I'm sure that the Diocese of Joliet is going to be richly blessed by this Sacred Heart Project. May those blessings spread far beyond and touch the hearts of all!