Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Benjamins of Providence"

This morning I celebrated Mass at Mount St. Joseph, the care center run by the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in Lake Zurich, Illinois for people with developmental disabilities.  My retreat with a dozen of the Sisters ends today and I celebrated Mass not only with them but with the residents, some of their families, and some of the staff.  As Providence would have it, the readings were perfect.

In the Gospel (Mark 9: 30-37), Jesus is on the road with his disciples, teaching them and preparing them for what is going to happen--that he is going to be handed over and killed and then will rise from the dead.  They are confused.  How could this man, so successful that crowds follow him to hear his every word, come to such a bitter end?  How could this man who has healed so many be rejected in such a way?  They are afraid to ask him for an explanation.  Better to let it pass.

Jesus knows their lack of comprehension and he walks ahead of them.  They begin a discussion that turns into an argument over which of them is the best, which is the greatest apostle, which of them is Number One.  When they arrive at the house in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about.  They fall silent, ashamed.  They know Jesus doesn't approve of such talk.

So once again Jesus begins to teach them about greatness.  He tells them that God sees things in a very different way.  God turns worldly values upside down so that the least are the greatest, the last are the first.  He tells them to be servants like he is.  Because he is the servant of all and because he will be despised and rejected and discarded, he will be raised up to be the greatest and the source of salvation for all. 

Then Jesus hugged a small child, one who in that world was considered unimportant, and said: "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me."  These words echo another Gospel--the judgment scene in Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we do for one of his least brothers and sisters, we do for him. 

This is true wisdom.  Wisdom is not knowing a lot of things, knowing how to make a lot of money, becoming wealthy and powerful.  The Second Reading from the Letter of Saint James (3:16-4:3) says that this worldly wisdom leads to envy and conflicts.  True wisdom "from above" is, according to James, "pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits."  True wisdom is knowing what's most important--God and the heaven he has prepared for us.  In the Gospel Jesus shows us true wisdom, the way that leads to our ultimate goal of heaven.  It is to care for one another.  It is to care for God's "good children."  It is to serve all those who are in need and whom God places in our lives. 

That's what I told the congregation this morning.  The expression "good children" is what St. Louis Guanella, the founder of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, used when speaking about those who had developmental disabilities.  There they were in front of me.  The world thinks of them as the least and the last, as people lacking wisdom because they cannot read or write or care very well for themselves.  Many were in wheelchairs and movable beds.  Fr. Guanella had another expression for them--"the Benjamins of Providence."  Remember: Benjamin was the last son of Jacob.  After the disappearance of the second youngest son, Joseph, Benjamin became Jacob's favorite.  It is a mystery of Providence that some people are born with disabilities.  They are seen by the world as the last, but in God's eyes they are the first and the favorites.  They are given to us so that we may have the opportunity to love God by loving them.  What a privilege it was for me to celebrate Mass with them today.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fr. Guanella and the Daughters

On December 15, 1912, Fr. Luigi Guanella boarded a ship to take him across the Atlantic to the United States.  He was 70 and the winter seas were rough.  He spent most of the time sick  in his cabin and as the ship was tossed around he probably thought about another ship named "Titanic" that tried to make this same journey only eight months earlier.  He was on his way to Chicago where the archbishop had asked for the help of a community of Sisters which he had founded.  He carried a letter from his friend, Pope Pius X, which read:

"Fr. Guanella undertakes this journey to explore the possibility of beginning a foundation directed by his Sisters to assist the mentally and physically disabled of every age and social background in order to care for them and look after their needs.  We bear witness that these dear Sisters here in Rome and anywhere else are very appreciated because of their committed ministry and obedience to the holy charism of their institute.  They perform miracles of true charity."

On December 23 the ship carrying Fr. Guanella docked in New York.  Over the next one and a half months he visited Boston, Providence, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Utica, New Haven, Baltimore, and Washington, as well as Chicago where he laid the groundwork for the first Sisters to follow him.  He would have liked to have gone to Genoa City, Wisconsin where some of his relatives had lived and died, but he did not have time to make that trip.  He left the U.S. in early February and arrived back in Naples on February 22, 1913.

Who are these Sisters about whom Pope St. Pius X spoke so highly?  In 1871 two sets of siblings, the Bosatta sisters and the Minatta sisters, came together with the encouragement of their pastor to care for the orphans and the sick in their village.  They were called the "Pious Union of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate."  In 1881 Fr. Guanella was sent to take the place of their deceased pastor and in time they changed their name to what it is today--the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.  From this small beginning they have spread throughout the world in order to create, in their words, a "culture of charity," by caring for the poor and abandoned, the elderly, and especially the developmentally disabled. 

One of the original four, Clare Bosatta (1858-1887), was beatified in 1991.  Fr. Luigi Guanella, who was himself beatified in 1964 and canonized in 2011, was amazed at her deep spirituality and took it upon himself to read St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite mystics and doctors of the Church, in order to be a better spiritual director for her.  He wrote the following about her.  His words are a reminder to us that because the Son of God united in himself a divine nature and a human nature, and because he said that whatever we do for the least of his children we do for him, our own longing for God is partially satisfied on earth not only in prayer but in our service of our least brothers and sisters.

"Clare wanted God; she wanted to be able to hug Him physically and see His face if she could, but not being able to do that, she extended her hugs to the creatures who could attract her to Him and from whom she could draw a drop of water that could quench her heart which was always thirsty for God."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mount St. Joseph

I'm in Lake Zurich, Illinois these days, at a place called Mount St. Joseph.  It's a care facility for developmentally disabled adults that is run by the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.  I've written about them and their recently (October 23, 2011) canonized founder St. Louis Guanella in other blog posts.  I'm giving a retreat to a dozen Sisters from various parts of the U.S., using their small community chapel where we meet for Mass, adoration, prayers, and my talks.  I was happy to find that they include the Daily Offering in their morning prayers and even explicitly recite together the pope's monthly intentions. 

On Tuesday afternoon I took a walk around their spacious grounds and entered the large church that serves the care center.  I didn't go beyond the vestibule because I didn't want to distract or disturb the residents who were praying the rosary together.  I couldn't help thinking how pleasing to God are the prayers of these people whom St. Louis Guanella called "good children." And how powerful they are!

The world doesn't understand the developmentally disabled.  Through testing and abortion it wants to rid itself of any "imperfect" human beings.  But I have found--through my high school classmate's Down Syndrome sister, through my work as a Jesuit novice at Cambridge State Hospital in Minnesota, and through Andy, the son of one of our volunteers--that the disabled, the mentally and physically challenged, are gifts from God.  All life is a gift and these particular gifts are given to us so that we may have the opportunity to love God by loving them in their weakness.  As God told St. Paul when he asked that his particular weakness might be removed so that he would be a better and more effective apostle: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."  (see 2 Corinthians 12:9.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Holy Name of Mary

Today's feast of the Holy Name of Mary was first celebrated in Spain in 1513 but was extended to the whole Church as an act of thanksgiving by Pope Innocent XI. What was he thankful for? The victory of Christians forces over the Turkish army which had besieged the city of Vienna for two months. Pope Innocent XI had appealed to the leaders of Europe to come to the aid of Vienna and on August 15, 1683, King Jan Sobieski of Poland, answered the call and brought together their armies. On the way to Vienna, he and the army that began to gather, stopped in Czestochowa and prayed before the image of Our Lady that is there. Marching toward Vienna, the army prayed the rosary and the king gave them for their battle cry "In the Name of Mary: Lord God, help!"

Here is a description of the Battle of Vienna from Adam Zamoyski's book The Polish Way.

They reached the heights of the Kahlenberg just before nightfall. From this vantage-point the king and his generals surveyed the great plain stretching into the distance, cut across by the winding course of the Danube. At their feet lay the city of Vienna. Only the occasional flash of a cannon from its battered ramparts and the distress-rockets rising periodically into the evening sky from the tower of St. Stephen's Cathedral confirmed that after sixty days of siege the garrison was still holding out.

The proud Habsburg capital was dwarfed by a larger city, a sprawling encampment of many thousand tents which pullulated with a quarter of a million soldiers, slaves, camp-followers and houris; with horses, camels and buffalo. ...

"He's badly camped--we shall beat him!" said the king, turning to his generals. Few of them shared his confidence, but they trusted his experience, his reputation, and the renown of the strange-looking regiments he had brought with him. A beacon was lit on the heights to inform the defenders of the dying city that help was at hand. This signal did not unduly worry Kara Mustafa. He had over a hundred thousand fighting men securely entrenched with plenty of artillery, and he was convinced that no serious threat could come from the Kahlenberg: a large army would have chosen a longer route through the plain. His own army did not fear the solid but slow-moving Austrian and German troops, their unadventurous generals or their pusillanimous emperor, who had abandoned his capital. The only Christian general they held in awe was Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland. But he, Kara Mustafa believed, was still hundreds of miles away in Krakow.

Just before dawn on the following day, 12 September 1683, the King of Poland attended Mass in the ruins of an old convent on the Kahlenberg. ... Only about one third of the 68,000 troops were Polish--the rest were Germans, Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Scots and Irishmen. ... The king felt tempted to put off the decisive battle to the following day, even though this would give the Turks time to turn the heavy guns bombarding Vienna to face his army. ... Instinct made the king change his mind....

Zamoyski goes on to describe the battle in which the Polish cavalry or Husaria, with eagle feathers on their backs rising above their heads, cut through the Turkish encampment and sent the Turkish army .

Then, he continues:

This battle, which was crucial to the future of the whole of Europe, had not been hard-fought, and the casualties on both sides were light. It had been won principally by the prestige of Jan Sobieski and his army. In 1683 Poland was the largest state in Europe....

As Pope Innocent XI recognized, there was another reason for the victory. Grace came to the aid of nature and that grace came through the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our secularized world tends not to see it that way and so today we tend to rely more on human than heavenly means in the battles we face. Today's feast is a reminder to seek and to trust in heavenly help, especially the help of her whom the first book of the Bible prophesied would crush the serpent (see Genesis 3:15).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Spirituality of Work

Since today is the day after Labor Day, I thought that a good topic for discussion on Relevant Radio's "Inner Life" show would be "The Spirituality of Work." 

The pain and frustration associated with work is the result of sin.  These are often the result of our own sins and those of others, but also because of Original Sin, which resulted in difficulties and pain in work, for God said: "Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat..." (Genesis 3:17-19).  But this pain was not part of God's original plan.  Made in the image and likeness of God, humanity was created to work with God in caring for creation.  A chapter earlier in Genesis we read: "The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (2:15). 

Jesus, the model human, shows us the beauty of work.  We often think of his work of redeeming humanity only in terms of his three years of active ministry when he taught, healed, raised the dead, and then suffered, died, and rose.  But each of the years and minutes of his "Hidden Life" was redemptive.  When he worked as a boy and adolescent side by side with Joseph, he was saving the world.  When he did his chores around the house, he was saving the world.  All this was done in obedience to the will of the Father and as an act of love for the Father, thus undoing the rebellious sin of Adam and Eve. 

Jesus declared that through work we imitate God the Father.  He said: "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (John 5:17).  He made it clear that he worked in union with God the Father when he said: "I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me" (John 5:36).  If, as Jesus says, he can do nothing on his own but does everything in union with the Father, how much more is it true that we can do nothing on our own.  After telling his disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches, Jesus says: "Whoever remains in me
and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). 

With this in mind, everything we do can play a part in the ongoing conversion and salvation of the world.  When we pray a Daily Offering prayer at the beginning of the day, we ask that everything we do may be done in union with God's will and may give glory to God.  Chuck Neff, the host of the "Inner Life" show, shared that one work he particularly dislikes is mowing his lawn.  He said that as he mows he thinks about various people that he wants to pray for or has promised his prayers to and he offers his work for them.  I
added that praying a version of the Jesus Prayer--"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"--can be another way of uniting prayer with our breath and our work. 

We can also see work as an opportunity to practice and grow in the virtues.  Take the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  We can make our work an act of faith by surrendering it to God and trying to see how it can give glory to God.  We can acknowledge that God is always present and we can ask, "what are you trying to teach me through this work, through this event?"  When our work becomes especially burdensome and we are tempted to get down and to despair, we can exercise the virtue of hope, recognizing that our true home is heaven and that this--whatever it is that causes us pain or struggle--this too shall pass.  We exercise hope by substituting positive thoughts for the negative ones.  And we can exercise the virtue of love, telling God that the work in which we are engaged is being done as an act of love for him.  Especially when we are dealing with people who frustrate or upset us, we exercise love by praying for them, willing their good, and expressing that love in the way we treat them.  In this way work becomes a very practical way in which we grow in holiness.

One of the last questions we addressed involved rest, balance, and overwork.  In Genesis God rested from the work of creation to show us the importance of balance.  We too must rest, for in doing so we practice good stewardship of ourselves, our bodies.  But it is also a way of exercising trust.  When I am tempted by overwork it is usually not only because I want to give glory to God.  There is often a good bit of ego involved in the temptation to work too much or too hard.  It involves the fear of saying "no" and displeasing others.  It involves the desire to look good and to be successful.  God wants us to do good work and to follow St. Paul's advice to the Colossians: "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others..." (3:23).  In that way we can seek God's glory at all times and not our own. 

An audio of the program can be found here, on the Relevant Radio website.  Just go to the calendar and click on September 4.