The grace within passivity

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
A friend of mine shares this story. She grew up with five siblings and an alcoholic father. The effect of her father’s alcoholism was devastating on her family. Here’s how she tells the story: By the time my father died his alcoholism had destroyed our family. None of us kids could talk to each other anymore. We’d drifted apart to different parts of the country and had nothing to do with each other. My mother was a saint and kept trying through the years to have us reconcile with each other, inviting us to gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the like, but it never worked. All her efforts were for nothing. We hated each other. Then as my mother lay dying of cancer, in hospice, bedridden and eventually in a coma, we gathered by her bedside, watching her die and she, helpless and unable to speak, was able to accomplish what she couldn’t achieve through all those years when she could speak. Watching her die, we reconciled.
We all know similar stories of someone in their dying, when they were too helpless to speak or act, powerfully impacting, more powerfully than they ever did in word or action, those around them, pouring out a grace that blessed their loved ones. Sometimes, of course, this isn’t a question of reconciling a family but of powerfully strengthening their existing unity. Such was the case in a family history shared by Carla Marie Carlson, in her book, Everyday Grace. Her family was already closely-knit, but Carlson shares how her mother’s dying strengthened those family bonds and graced all the others who witnessed her dying: “Those who took the opportunity to be with my Mom during that journey have told me that their lives were forever changed. It was a remarkable time which I will always treasure. Lessons of acceptance and courage were abundant as she struggled with the realities of a dying body. It was dramatic and intense, but yet filled with peace and gratitude.” Most anyone who has ever sat in vigil around a loved one who was dying can share a similar story.
There’s a lesson here and a mystery. The lesson is that we don’t just do important things for each other and impact each other’s lives by what we actively do for each other; we also do life-changing things for each other in what we passively absorb in helplessness. This is the mystery of passivity which we see, paradigmatically, played out in what Jesus did for us.
As Christians, we say that Jesus gave his life for us and that he gave his death for us, but we tend to think of this as one and the same thing. It’s not. Jesus gave his life for us through his activity; he gave his death for us through his passivity. These were two separate movements. Like the woman described earlier who tried for years to have her children reconcile with each through her activity, through her words and actions, and then eventually accomplished that through the helplessness and passivity of her deathbed, so too with Jesus. For three years he tried in every way to make us understand love, reconciliation and faith, without full effect. Then, in less than 24 hours, in his helplessness, when he couldn’t speak, in his dying, we got the lesson. Both Jesus and his mother were able, in their helplessness and passivity, to give the world something that they were unable to give as effectively in their power and activity.
Unfortunately, this is not something our present culture, with its emphasis on health, productivity, achievement and power very much understands. We no longer much understand or value the powerful grace that is given off by someone dying of a terminal illness; nor the powerful grace present in a person with a disability, or indeed the grace that’s present in our own physical and personal disabilities. Nor do we much understand what we are giving to our families, friends and colleagues when we, in powerlessness, have to absorb neglect, slights, and misunderstanding. When a culture begins to talk about euthanasia it’s an infallible indication that we no longer understand the grace within passivity.
In his writings, Henri Nouwen makes a distinction between what he terms our “achievements” and our “fruitfulness.” Achievements stem more directly from our activities: What have we positively accomplished? What have we actively done for others? And our achievements stop when we are no longer active. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, goes far beyond what we have actively accomplished and is sourced as much by what we have passively absorbed as by what we actively produced. The family described above reconciled not because of their mother’s achievements, but because of her fruitfulness. Such is the mystery of passivity.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his spiritual classic The Divine Milieu, tells us that we are meant to help the world through both our activities and our passivities, through both what we actively give and through what we passively absorb.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website Now on Facebook

What Vatican II wanted and didn’t get

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
The first four years of my seminary career I lived at St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana, which is also home to a Benedictine Monastery. This allowed me a handful of years to experience the daily recitation of the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours in its choral form. Every day, several times during the day, the monks at St. Ben’s—like monks and nuns do every day across the world—gather in their church and chant the offices of the Church’s daily prayer which consist of patterns of psalms, hymns and readings. Most Catholics haven’t experienced this, but the daily witness of this chanted office had a great impact on my spirituality as a Catholic and now as a priest. This, especially, since every priest is bound to recite the hours of the Divine Office himself every day under pain of mortal sin. It is actually one of the main promises made at ordination—that the priest will pray all of these offices during the day, every day, for the rest of their lives.
As I continued through seminary, I began reading the documents of Vatican II (something all of us should do since so many people today claim to know what Vatican II said and yet so few have actually read the documents). What surprised me in the Council’s document on the liturgy was that the Council Fathers requested very directly and clearly that the experience I had in seminary of the chanted or common Divine Office be put into the hands of everyone. The Council teaches, “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 100).
Many years ago, around the time of the Council of Trent and before then, it is far more common to find lay people in Church when the offices were being sung. This was probably because there was less to do back then. Even in some countries today, especially in Europe, it is not uncommon to find a parish which offers some offices at least on special feast days. Many of the ancient Cathedrals such as Notre Dame, Westminster Cathedral or St. Peter’s Basilica have resident priests who every day sing all the offices in public.
But, this wasn’t a tradition which caught on that much in the United States. Of all the American Cathedrals, only St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans ever consistently had a public sung office—and this was probably because of its French roots and, sadly, is not a tradition which continues today. Still, the Second Vatican Council set it out as a goal that lay people experience this side of the worship of the Church. The daily offices of the Liturgy of the Hours make up the larger portion of the daily liturgy of the Church. Though the Mass is of course the most important, when you add all the other daily offices together you see how the Church intends to move the individual in prayer through all the various moments of the day—gently guiding us through the liturgical year.
I always enjoy when we get to Advent in the Divine Office. If you are just attending Mass, even daily, you might not get that feeling of anticipation the Church wants of us. But, the office makes it very clear. Very early on, texts start popping up such as, “Come Lord, and do not delay.” One of my favorite texts of Advent in the Divine Office says, “The Lord is coming soon, and will not be late. If he seems to delay, wait for him, for he will surely come and will not be late.”
St. Philip Neri, a favorite saint of mine, has been dubbed by Pope Francis the “patron saint of the New Evangelization.” One of the reasons he is deserving of this title is his ability to find ways to merge the daily experience of Catholics with the rhythm of the Church’s prayer. St. Philip noticed that Catholics in his day enjoyed good music and food. But, he wanted them to enjoy good preaching, too. So, Philip decided that on some nights of the week, he and some other priests would gather in the Church for the office of Vespers and would invite the faithful. But, not only that, he commissioned all the greatest composers he could find to write the best choral settings of the office. Then, once people were there for the music, albeit not the best reason, he would take the opportunity to capitalize on their presence and present a sermon which was relevant to the needs of the day—often taking a theme or an issue and expounding upon it over several weeks. Finally, everyone would go into the church square and share meal together.
The point is that St. Philip knew that the Church could find a way to weave the daily experience of the faithful with the prayer of the Church and a place that meets is in the Divine Office. How might parishes help fulfill this dream of the Council?

Time to come up with game plan

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
Albert Einstein is quoted to having said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It is easy to fall victim to this kind of behavior especially when we do not constantly evaluate goals, processes and outcomes. Without proper reflection, it easy to blame everyone else for failure. This kind of blame game perpetuates the cycle. We are, however, creatures of habit, even when those habits do not deliver the best results. I get it. We like knowing what we know, what is familiar, comfortable and what feels safe. It’s hard to do things differently when what we are doing seems to be OK, right? It is easy to get caught up in an “our way of doing things” mentality. We protest, “it’s the way we’ve always done it” when questioned about a process or method. Afterall, we have a game plan. It’s decades old, but we have a plan. We are right in saying we need a plan; after all, we need a road map to get us where we want to be. But, just like the GPS on our cell phones, often there is more than one route. The fastest route may not be the shortest route. The software of our GPS might be outdated. We might lose cell service. Despite our best efforts we can end up somewhere we had no intention of going. Or, worse yet, never leave for the journey in the first place.
It is understandable when big institutions like the Church fall into this conundrum. Especially when it comes to being creatures of habit. I mean who doesn’t want to work smarter and not harder? But is expedience and limited effort what we are really talking about? Look, I love being Catholic. I love the cadence of liturgy, the predictability of the liturgical seasons, the changes of art, environment and music. I love the universality of the Church! However, the consistency and predictability I so love can easily become a crutch. It is easy to pull out a template for catechesis, liturgy, preaching, RCIA, campus ministry or any of the activities of the Church. When we pull out the same template year after year, it can feel a little like the movie Groundhog’s Day with Bill Murray. What becomes of the “now” when we are re-living the same experience over and over again? What becomes of those moments ripe for discipleship if we are leaning on the crutch of “this is how we do it?”
For example, if someone asked you, “What do I need to do to become Catholic?” how would you respond? How many of us would refer that person to the pastor or the director of the RCIA program? Would we take the time to ask questions about the person’s interest in the faith? Would we offer to go to an RCIA session with them and introduce them to folks we know in the parish? Would we include them in our prayers for their discernment? Or would we tell them to call the Church office? They can look the number up.
In my last column I wrote about the response to WWJD? HWLF, He Would Love First. What does “loving first” look like in this example? I looked to the wisdom of Pope Francis, “In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal … On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 164)
Pope Francis often reminds us that we are loved by Jesus Christ. Not simply in a 1970’s smiley face bumper sticker way, but in an intimate, unceasing, unconditional love that is beyond our imagining. What would the world look like if we understood the love of Jesus and behaved like we are worthy of such love? How would our response to the inquiry in the above example change if all we cared about was inviting people into a relationship with Christ? Would our words convey his love for them?
`If you feel like you are stuck on the hamster wheel of “this is what we do,” you are not alone. If what I’ve described looks like faith formation in your parish, you are not alone. This is not a Jackson Diocese problem. This is an issue that catechists, pastors and bishops face all over the country. If we are to change the narrative of Einstein’s quote, the mind set for what we are doing must change. Our faith journey is not about finding the right program, DVD series, youth ministry hacks or religious education book series. Yes, we need tools to support our catechesis. But it is crazy making behavior to present the same material year after year if we are not engaging in our own relationship with Jesus and walking with those we serve as they discover Christ and his love for them. I encourage everyone to look at the ministries of your parish and ask how can we invite people to greater intimacy with Jesus?

Grieving as spiritual exercise

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
In a remarkable book, The Inner Voice of Love, written while he was in a deep emotional depression, Henri Nouwen shares these words: “The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to try to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”
He’s right; your heart is greater than your wounds, though it needs caution in dealing with them. Wounds can soften your heart; but they can also harden you heart and freeze it in bitterness. So what’s the path here? What leads to warmth and what leads to coldness?
In a remarkable essay, The Drama of the Gifted Child, the Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, tells us what hardens the heart and what softens it. She does so by outlining a particular drama that commonly unfolds in many lives. For her, giftedness does not refer to intellectual prowess but to sensitivity. The gifted child is the sensitive child. But that gift, sensitivity, is a mixed blessing. Positively, it lets you feel things more deeply so that the joys of living will mean more to you than to someone who is more callous. That’s its upside.
Conversely, however, if you are sensitive you will habitually fear disappointing others and will forever fear not measuring up. And your inadequacy to always measure up will habitually trigger feelings of anxiety and guilt within you. As well, if you are extraordinarily sensitive, you will tend to be self-effacing to a fault, letting others have their way while you swallow hard as your own needs aren’t met and then absorb the consequences. Not least, if you feel things deeply you will also feel hurt more deeply. That’s the downside of sensitivity and makes for the drama that Alice Miller calls the “drama of the gifted child,” the drama of the sensitive person.
Further, in her view, for many of us that drama will only begin to really play itself out in our middle and later years, constellating in frustration, disappointment, anger and bitterness, as the wounds of our childhood and early adulthood begin to break through and overpower the inner mechanisms we have set up to resist them. In mid-life and beyond, our wounds will make themselves heard so strongly that our habitual ways of denial and coping no longer work. In mid-life you realize that your mother did love your sister better than you, that your father in fact didn’t care much about you and that all those hurts you absorbed because you swallowed hard and played the stoic are still gnawing away bitterly inside you. That’s how the drama eventually culminates, in a heart that’s angry.
So where does that leave us? For Alice Miller, the answer lies in grieving. Our wounds are real and there is nothing we can do about them, pure and simple. The clock can’t be turned back. We cannot relive our lives so as to provide ourselves with different parents, different childhood friends, different experiences on the playground, different choices and a different temperament. We can only move forward so as to live beyond our wounds. And we do that by grieving. Alice Miller submits that the entire psychological and spiritual task of midlife and beyond is that of grieving, mourning our wounds until the very foundations of our lives shake enough so that there can be transformation.
A deep psychological scar is the same as having some part of your body permanently damaged in an accident. You will never be whole again and nothing can change that. But you can be happy again; perhaps more happy than ever before. But that loss of wholeness must be grieved, or it will manifest itself in anger, bitterness and jealous regrets.
The Jesuit music composer and spiritual writer, Roc O’Connor, makes the same point, with the added comment that the grieving process also calls for a long patience within which we need to wait long enough so that the healing can occur according to its own natural rhythms. We need, he says, to embrace our wounded humanity and not act out. What’s helpful, he suggests, is to grieve our human limitations. Then we can endure hunger, emptiness, disappointment and humiliation without looking for a quick fix – or for a fix at all. We should not try to fill our emptiness too quickly without sufficient waiting.
And we won’t ever make peace with our wounds without sufficient grieving.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website Now on Facebook

“Not all who wander are lost”

Sister alies

By sister alies
“Not all who wander are lost.” I’m not sure who said that but it fits well into my life and perhaps yours. Deep in the psyche of each person is a wanderer, someone who travels, someone who is on the move. In our faith-life we also wander, partly as we mature and partly by circumstances bringing us great joy or difficulty!
Pilgrimage, wandering, on the road again is a very ancient image and is certainly formative in our Catholic Christian tradition. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years over terrain taking only 11 days to walk! Monks or prisoners sitting in their cells wander many miles each day as they pray. Francis, Dominic and their mendicants wandered all over meeting the poor, never quite sure how they might make ends meet. Today a great number of sisters and brothers, refugees, wander from place to place, country to country, looking for a place of safety and welcome, a chance to start again.
Having just celebrated the feast of St. Teresa of Avila we might be reminded of other sorts of prayerful wandering … into ‘interior castles,’ ’mansions’ or ‘a palace where God dwells.’
What of repentance as a sort of wandering … since the word reminds us to ‘turn around?’ As we follow a path not set for us, God will intervene in one way or another to suggest that if we continue to go in that direction, things might not work out so well. Angelus Silesius in Cherubinic Wanderer, says on page 47: “Go where you cannot go; see what you cannot see; hear where there is no sound, you are where God does speak.” Mysterious and koan-like. The path of this wanderer would seem to be the exact opposite of what one might think is ‘right.’
Or another example, an anguished path when one is experiencing fear connected to death … how does one keep going and where is that going to? We might say quite easily, when we’re not afraid, that the path leads to heaven and we can by faith, hope it does. This path, sunk deep in our interior, has to be followed carefully and faithfully, looking at Jesus and not the fear. Remember the “devil prowls around …” (1 Peter 5:8).
“Death is our constant companion, and it is death that gives each person’s life its true meaning. But in order to see the real face of our death, we first have to know all of the anxieties and terrors that the simple mention of its name is able to evoke in any human being,” says Paulo Coelho in his book, The Pilgrimage. Imagine the winding path through Gethsemane … the path up to the Cross … the walk toward the tomb. Here is the human experience, an experience of diminishment or of apparent folly.
As the autumn falls around you, look around and see all the winding paths nearby. See the roads or the tiny traces through the under bush. Look for the flight patterns of the raptors or the few hummingbirds still around. As the leaves color and fall, one sees the mighty trees and the little paths into them, as squirrels and other little critters hide their goods for the winter. What have we put aside that will nourish us when our journey becomes difficult? What have we hidden deep in the recesses of our hearts that will help us when all seems lost? What actually matters? What gives meaning to life?
One of the classics that helps remind me of some answers to those questions is in the The Way of a Pilgrim, (translated by H. Nacovcin), a 19th century Russian work. The story is about a young Russian peasant-pilgrim with a deep question in his heart: how does one pray constantly? The text and the one that follows it, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, both challenge one to reflect on just how serious our pilgrimage is. Indeed, he travels a lot, has a spiritual father and discovers some answers. Father Walter Ciszek, S.J. wrote the forward of this edition and says: “The Pilgrim was most receptive to this valuable knowledge about prayer (the Jesus Prayer), for he had earnestly been searching for as method of prayer that would satisfy his longing for uninterrupted communion with God … he spared no effort …”
Here is the real answer … he spared no effort. If we want to discover that deep joy, establish a real faith life, live out of a hope carved in the soil of our hearts…then we must spare no effort. All who wander aren’t lost if the wandering is a search for the Living God … isn’t this the longing of every pilgrims’ heart?

Let us invite others to know Jesus

Deacon John McGregor

By Deacon John McGregor
Over the past 50 years, the Catholic Church has placed an extraordinary emphasis on the laity’s role to evangelize their everyday environment. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Evangelization in the Modern World, writes that “she [the Church] exists in order to evangelize.” (14) Clearly, the renewal of the missionary impulse can be seen in the documents flowing out of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequent to the Council.
However, lay Catholics often feel inadequately prepared to evangelize and in fact confuse evangelization with certain forms of apologetics, which in fact, may be useful for winning arguments but not very useful in bringing others to Christ. And bringing others to an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ is precisely the work of evangelization. Still, many lay Catholics, themselves, have never been evangelized, making the work of sharing one’s faith in a pluralistic culture extremely difficult or nearly impossible, especially one that is largely populated by a non-Catholic prevailing religious ethos and an increasing number of secularists. The old saying, “you can’t give what you don’t have” comes to mind.
So, if evangelization is about bringing others to an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ, then maybe what is needed is a means of inviting others into a neutral environment where they can deeply consider, possibly for the first time, the real meaning of life, the real reason we are here, how to begin anew after all that has happened in their life, and how Christ provides the answer to all of life’s enduring questions.
To this end, of creating a neutral place where a person can honestly ask questions and voice disbelief, all without anyone judging them, our parish at St. Jude Pearl has begun using the Alpha course. Our first Alpha, earlier this year, included about 34 guests, most of whom were members of St. Jude. However, our second Alpha has over 40 guests and more than a dozen are non-parishioners. Additionally, St. Jude is running a Youth Alpha with over 30 young people participating.
Alpha was developed in the 1970s by the Anglican Church as a way to help those who were unchurched or who had simply drifted away from the church to hear the fundamental message of salvation – the kerygma. Alpha has had wide success throughout the world and has been used in over 100 countries, is available in 100 different languages and has been experienced by more than 24 million people. Alpha has found great success in the Catholic Church and is lauded by such renowned Catholic figures as Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, Father Mike Schmitz, who regularly produces podcasts for Ascension press and by many bishops and archbishops in the United States and worldwide.
So Alpha is Catholic and ecumenical, precisely because it focuses on the fundamentals of the Christian faith: God loves you, unconditionally; Jesus is the human manifestation of God; and Jesus’ death and resurrection has reconciled the world to God.
So how does an Alpha work? It begins with a meal, followed by a short video (less than 30 minutes), followed by table discussion and sharing (for about another 45 minutes). There is never any force applied, nor coercion used. Guests attending Alpha are invited to share whatever they think, to be heard without being judged and to be invited to encounter Jesus, where they are, as they are. Alpha can be run in a parish center, at a university meeting room, in someone’s home, almost anywhere. And all of the videos, discussion materials and training materials can be downloaded absolutely free at
Alpha provides a framework and a neutral environment for inviting people to encounter Jesus Christ. Lay Catholics, who feel uncomfortable witnessing to others in their everyday environment may feel a lot more comfortable simply inviting their friends and coworkers to an Alpha. “What’s an Alpha?” they may ask. One can reply, “It’s simply a place where we share a meal, watch a video and discuss life’s most important questions, all in an environment where nobody will judge you or criticize you for your answers.” In this environment, one’s friends or coworkers will have an opportunity to encounter the Person of Jesus Christ and in doing so, we will be actively participating in the Great Commission given by Jesus to the whole Church, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)

(Deacon John McGregor of St. Jude Pearl is the director of the permanenat diaconate and director of operations for the Diocese of Jackson.)

A baby, Archbishop Sheen and a miracle

Melvin Arrington, Jr.

GUEST Column
By Melvin Arrington
In one of the most famous sports calls of all time, Al Michaels, counting down the closing seconds of the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team’s upset victory over the mighty Soviet Union team, shouted at viewers, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
Well, of course, Catholics believe in miracles but, unfortunately, our modern culture does not. Those who subscribe to the prevailing secular philosophies of our day believe the natural world is all there is: no heaven or hell, no angels and certainly no miracles. In short, our culture pounds it into us on a daily basis that the miraculous simply does not exist and anything remotely considered supernatural is nothing more than superstition or a fraud.
Enter Bonnie Engstrom, popular Catholic blogger and speaker from central Illinois and mother of eight. She and her husband Travis beg to differ. In her recently published volume, 61 Minutes to a Miracle: Fulton Sheen and a True Story of the Impossible (Our Sunday Visitor, 2019), Engstrom relates the gripping facts of how her son James, who was delivered stillborn, suddenly came back to life 61 minutes after his birth.
All the while James was cold and blue and without a pulse or a heartbeat, Engstrom continually invoked the name of the famous Catholic radio and TV evangelist Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) and asked for his intercession for her son. Sheen, a native of central Illinois whose cause for sainthood is currently moving forward, went to school in Peoria and was ordained to the priesthood there one hundred years ago.
The long, winding road to Sheen’s canonization began in 2002 with the opening of his “cause,” at which time he was given the title “Servant of God,” the first step along the way. Then, in June of 2012, following years of investigation into Sheen’s life, writings and broadcasts, Pope Benedict XVI declared that the Archbishop had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and named him “Venerable” (Step two).
Since the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Pope have already given their approval for the cause to go forward, at some point in the not-too-distant future, God willing, the Diocese of Peoria will celebrate Sheen’s beatification, at which time he will be declared “Blessed,” leaving him one step away from sainthood.
Engstrom’s personal devotion to Sheen developed slowly. Oddly enough, her first impression of the pioneer Catholic televangelist was not a positive one. On one occasion when she was back home from college watching television in her parent’s living room, she came across a rerun of one of Sheen’s programs. There was something mesmerizing about his overly dramatic style, his long, flowing cape and the penetrating gaze of those deep-set eyes that led her to ask her mother, “Who is that man? He looks like a vampire.”
However, as Bonnie and Travis uncovered more information about Sheen and watched his videos, they became fascinated with this future saint who was born and grew up only twenty miles from their house. When choosing baby names, the one they settled on for a boy was James Fulton.
This book is difficult to put down, not only because of Engstrom’s captivating, fast-paced narrative but also because of her brutally honest account of her thoughts and emotions. Especially poignant is the chapter where she reveals a deeply troubling dream, she had eight months into her pregnancy, a nightmare that would soon become reality.
During the 61 minutes and the aftermath, when the doctors told her that, if James lived, he would be severely handicapped, she experienced moments of questioning and doubting her faith. But through it all she remained steadfast in prayer, asking for Archbishop Sheen’s intercessory prayers. Meanwhile, James began to reach his developmental milestones. When an MRI showed that the child had no brain damage, it was clear that a second miracle had occurred. And now, at age nine, he is a happy, healthy boy.
Engstrom provides many spellbinding details that add to the compelling nature of this story, details that, because of space limitations, must be omitted from this brief review. And those are what make reading 61 Minutes to a Miracle so enthralling. Because of Sheen’s upcoming beatification, this is a timely read but its subject matter of a miraculous healing is timeless.
And so, each reader, after finishing the book must answer one question. It’s the same question that everyone sooner or later has to answer: Do you believe in miracles?

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)

Imagining grace

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Imagine this: A man, entirely careless of all moral and spiritual affairs, lives his life in utter selfishness, pleasure his only pursuit. He lives the high life, never prays, never goes to church, has numerous sexual affairs and has no concern for anyone but himself. After a long life of this, he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and, on his deathbed, tearfully repents, makes a sincere confession, receives the Eucharist and dies inside the blessing of the church and his friends.
Now, if our reaction is, “Well, the lucky fellow! He got to live a life of selfish pleasure and still gets to go to heaven!” then (according to Piet Fransen, a renowned theologian on Grace) we haven’t yet, at all, understood the workings of grace. To the degree that we still envy the amoral and wish to exclude them from God’s grace, even as we count ourselves in, we are the “older brother” of the prodigal son, standing outside the Father’s house, heaven, in envy and bitterness.
I teach in a seminary that prepares seminarians for ordination. Recently our professor of Sacramental Theology shared that he’s been teaching a course on the Sacrament of Reconciliation for more than forty years and only in the last few years have the seminarians asked: “When do we have to refuse giving someone absolution in confession?”
What’s betrayed in this concern? The seminarians asking the question are, no doubt, sincere; they’re not trying to be rigid or hard. Their anxiety is rather about grace and mercy. They are sincerely anxious about perhaps dispensing God’s mercy too liberally, too cheaply, too indiscriminately, in essence, too unfairly. Their fear is not so much that God’s mercy is limited and that there’s only so much grace to go around. Not that. Their concern is more that by giving out grace so liberally they are being unfair to those who are practicing faithfully and bearing the heat of the day. Their fear is about fairness, justice and merit.
What’s at stake here? That grace is not something we merit. After the rich young man in the Gospels turns down Jesus’ invitation to leave everything and follow him, Peter, who watched this encounter and who, unlike the rich young man, has not turned down Jesus’ invitation and has given up everything to follow him, asks Jesus what those who do give up everything are going to get in return. In response, Jesus tells him the parable of the generous land owner and the vineyard workers who all arrive at different times, wherein some work for many hours and some for virtually no time at all, and yet they all receive the same reward, leaving those who worked the full day and bore the heat of the sun bitter with sense of unfairness. But, the vineyard owner (God) points out that there is no unfairness here since everyone has in fact received an over-generous return.
What’s the deep lesson? Whenever we are protesting that it “isn’t fair” that those who are not as faithful as we but are still receiving the full mercy and grace of God we are some distance from understanding grace and living fully inside it.
My dental hygienist knows I’m a Catholic priest and likes to ask me questions about religion and church. One day she shared this story: Her mother and father had both, as far as she knew, never attended church. They had been benign enough about religion, but not interested themselves. She, their daughter, had begun practicing as a Methodist, mainly through the influence of friends. Then her mother died and as they talked about plans for a funeral, her father revealed that her mother had been baptized as a Roman Catholic, though she had not practiced since her middle-school years. He suggested they try to arrange a Roman Catholic funeral for her. Given all those years of absence, it was with some trepidation that they approached a priest at a nearby parish to ask whether they might have a Roman Catholic funeral for her. To their surprise, the priest’s response was non-hesitant, warm and welcoming: “Of course, we can do this! It will be an honor! And I’ll arrange for a choir and a reception in the parish hall afterwards.”
No price was exacted for her mother’s life-long absence from the church. She was buried with the full rites of the Church … and her father, well, he was so touched by it all, the generosity of the church and the beauty of the liturgy, that he has since decided to become a Roman Catholic.
One wonders what the effect would have been had the priest refused that funeral, asking how they could justify a church funeral when, for all these years, they weren’t interested in the church. One wonders too how many people find this story comforting rather than discomforting, given a strong ecclesial ethos today wherein many of us nurse the fear that we are handing out grace and mercy too cheaply.
But grace and mercy are never given out cheaply since love is never merited.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website Now on Facebook

WWJD? He would love first

By Fran Lavelle
I was in Vicksburg several weeks ago and was asked if I knew what the acronym HWLF stood for. I did not. I was told that it is the response to the question, “WWJD? (What would Jesus do?)” The answer, “He would love first.” In the weeks since that brief graced moment, I have had several reasons to remind myself HWLF.
On Catechetical Sunday the Gospel was the parable of the prodigal son. It is a reading that has the power to speak to us in a myriad of ways depending on where we are in our own spiritual journey. The parable lesson is one I have visited and revisited on several occasions. I don’t know if you are ever at Mass and something is said that strikes you to the core of your being, but that is exactly what happened to me that Sunday. Father Cosgrove was talking about the two sons and he simply said, “The father loved them both. You know what I mean? The father loved both of his sons.” Yes, He Would Love First. Loving first means we welcome home those who have strayed and loving those who can no longer see the belovedness of the other.
All of this got me thinking about two unrelated deaths of men who were likewise loved by God, Father Al Camp and a high school friend of mine, Mickey. Father Al and I had several things in common; of great importance was our Ohio roots. When ever Father Al saw me he would say, “Hey, hey there Buckeye.” To be clear, Buckeyes are the nut bearing state tree of Ohio and Ohioans are known as Buckeyes. While I hold no hostility to the large state school in Columbus, Ohio I am not that kind of a Buckeye. I could always count on a flash of Father Al’s cheeky smile and his easy-going disposition, but I knew that below the smiles and salutations was a deeply faith filled man and true servant of God’s people. Hearing stories about Father Al at his memorial Mass underscored for me the importance of living an intentional life of authentic service. I was also reminded not to sweat the little stuff and to laugh. Father Al had a wicked dry sense of humor and loved to laugh.
Later the next week I found out that a guy I went to high school with had died a few weeks shy of his 54th birthday from an overdose. Mickey was a brilliant man with Kennedy-esque good looks. He was the only child of a well-known, well to do family in town. Mickey went to law school and spent most of his career as a prosecuting attorney. About a year ago, Mickey was indicted for federal tax fraud. He spent the past year in federal prison. On July 1, Mickey got out of prison and was sent to a halfway house. A few days after returning home from his year-long incarceration, Mickey overdosed and died. His long battle with addiction ended Mickey’s life just as his friends were hoping he would have a new beginning. I read the eulogy that one of his closest friends gave at Mickey’s funeral. It was filled with the sadness one expects when a life so full of promise tragically ends.
I found myself reflecting on these two lives, both in how they lived and how they were memorialized. The stark difference in their lives seems so apparent, one an 87-year young servant of God’s people and the other a gifted 53-year-old who struggled with addiction. But they also shared many things in common. Both were smart and handsome. Both were raised Catholic. As with all of us, both men lived with the consequences of their choices. I thought about God’s love for Father Al and Mickey. I felt a profound gratitude in knowing that they were both beloved sons of God. They were loved first.
That understanding is exactly what our broken world is in most need of. To know we are loved. Loved by God. Every single one of us. That is the central message of all catechetical formation. It is easy to fear that our catechetical programs, RCIA sessions, adult faith formation classes are watered down by relativism. It is easy to get too far into our heads and look at rubrics and rules and make black and white determinations about who is and who isn’t worthy of this or that. We want to “give them” the truth, not mince words, tell it like it is, but when we approach formation like an academic endeavor, we can turn out people who know the faith but have not experienced it.
We all have the responsibility to share the love of God and the gift of faith. We cannot approach love the same way we approach learning, although we do learn by loving. Now more than ever it is critical that we inspire others to see the belovedness of one another.
In those moments when we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” may we respond, “He would love first.” And do likewise.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Holy garments for glory and for beauty

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
People are always complimenting my vestments after Mass. Kids at the school recognize the certain vestments that I only pull out on big feasts. Parishioners like to tell me which vestment is their “favorite.” When I was preparing for ordination, I gave some time to consider what sort of vestments I was going to order or who would make them. I noticed a lot of my classmates buying matching vestments in each color from various catalogue producers—the church equivalent of off-the-rack clothing companies. I just wasn’t too excited about the idea of spending a large amount of money on standard vestments which everyone else had and honestly weren’t too impressive. So, I began to consider the directives of the Church.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “sacred vestments should contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself” (335). This is further developed in a later paragraph reading, “It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment derive not from abundance of overly lavish ornamentation, but rather from the material that is used and from the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that evoke sacred use, avoiding thereby anything unbecoming” (344).
So, from this we learn that the intention of the Church is that the vestments used at Mass are themselves beautiful—but that their beauty is derived not from being elaborate or lavish but their material and design. This is further explained by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “[Bishops], by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.”
Thus we see the Church desires a glance between sumptuous/gaudy vestments, but also vestments that are noble and beautiful. Now, God is beauty itself. St. Augustine praises this in his Confessions. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient ever new.” If vestments are beautiful, it is because they reveal to us the beauty of God. And, here we find the purpose of church vesture at all. We use vestments in the liturgy not to honor the minister, but to honor God—or, more explicitly, to reveal God’s beauty to humanity.
And, this was the approach that God himself used in defining the vesture and ornamentation of the liturgy in the old covenant. In commanding Moses to make vestments for Aaron, God declares, “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2). Later in the same chapter, God described each vestment in detail—which threads will be used, which colors, how they are ornamented (cf. Ex 28:31-38).
When you consider the prescribed design of these vestments in light of the whole of the Old Testament, it’s easy to see why God demanded these figures. The colors, fabrics, styles and ornaments are all evocative of the Garden of Eden. The same was true of the decoration on the walls of the temple itself, which included designs of trees and flowers. The whole purpose of these ornaments was not “art for the sake of art,” but so that the worshiper would be drawn in to the act of worship by the beauty surrounding him, and even more so, to be taken back to the Garden—to the paradise of God.
In a similar way, the Church exhorts us to build beautiful churches, have beautiful music and wear beautiful vestments not simply because it makes the Mass more dignified, but because this beauty is meant to invoke in our minds a longing for the beauty of heaven.
Regrettably, in recent years it has not been uncommon to find sacristies which once housed beautiful and historic vestments now filled with simple and mass-produced polyester counterparts—often equally or even more expensive than vestments purchased from sellers who today are using truly noble fabrics and designs such as silks or damask fabrics with patterns of flowers, angels, crosses and crowns.
Often these catalogue vestments are bought because of a myth that they must be cheaper than the custom option. The reality is that most of the mass-produce sellers use very inexpensive fabrics but overcharge. My most expensive vestment, which was custom designed by a one-man company in Poland, was less expensive than the average vestment sold by the largest vestment seller in America—a Belgian-based company that exclusively uses factory-made artificial fabrics, many of which are simply plain polyester with printed designs, if any.
I remember one of my professors at the Liturgical Institute was speaking about the need for beauty in the liturgy today. He proposed the question of whether, in a society with such poverty, we should invest in beautiful churches or vestments. He said, “The poor today live under concrete bridges, and in parks, and see ugliness all around them both in their surroundings and in how they are treated. But, the riches of the Church are their riches. There’s a reason you find the poor at churches and not a government buildings. Everything at the church is theirs and they deserve something beautiful.”
Nobility is not the enemy of beauty. We can have beauty without becoming ornate and extravagant. “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2).

(Father Aaron Williams is the Director of Seminarians and Parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish)