My Vocation is Love!

St. Therese at 15 just prior to joining the Carmel at Lisieux

St. Therese at 15 just prior to joining the Carmel at Lisieux

I am always delighted to see that, especially among younger Catholics, Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) is increasingly becoming one of the Church’s more “popular” saints. I am sure that many of us are already familiar with the broad outlines of her life. That she was one of five children, of Louis and Zélie (Guerin) Martin, all of whom entered the religious life. That, during a family pilgrimage to Rome, she implored Pope Leo XIII to grant her a dispensation to allow her to enter the Carmel at Lisieux at age 15; which, though not due to the pope’s intervention, she in fact did. That, after dying at the tender age of 24, her reputation grew largely due to the posthumous publication of her spiritual diary Histoire d’une Ame [Story of a Soul]. And, that she was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.

In my household, moreover, the feast day of St. Thérèse (October 1st) holds a particular significance. My wife and I, quite deliberately, selected that day on which to be married; thereby making St. Thérèse the patron saint of our marriage and family. (Just as an aside, our son was born on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. I think the LORD is trying to tell us something about the spiritual direction of our family.) One portion of St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul has always resonated with my wife and me in particular. In fact, we placed this text on the last page of our wedding programs.

Charity gave me the key to my vocation…I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places… In one word, that it was eternal (chapter 9).

St. Thérèse was prompted to write this passage based on her meditation of 1 Cor 13:1-13, and it illustrates well why she is truly a Doctor of the Church. St. Thérèse had a great desire to join the ranks of the martyrs of the Church. “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth,” she writes “and this dream has grown with me within the Carmel’s cloisters.” She also had the ambition to be a Carmelite missionary which, because of her ill health, she was not allowed to fulfill. But reflecting upon St. Paul’s great exhortation to love, St. Thérèse realized that love is the vocation of every Christian; it is the universal vocation. Much like holiness, all Christians are called to live out their particular vocations in love; whether one is called to the married life, or the consecrated religious life, or to some other particular vocation. Further, and this is one St. Thérèse’s great insights, if one lives out perfectly this universal vocation to love, one is embracing all of the particular vocations. In other words, the saint who loves perfectly is, in the realm of love, an apostle, and a prophet, and a martyr, etc. “Thus I shall be everything,” writes the Little Flower, “and thus my dream will be realized.” In a way, the Church has formally endorsed the Little Flower’s theology on this point. For, while she never left the confines of the Lisieux Carmel during her religious life, upon her canonization St. Thérèse was made co-patron – along with St. Francis Xavier – of missionary work. By doing “all the smallest things and doing them through love,” St. Thérèse lived perfectly her, and every, vocation.

And that is the great reminder which St. Thérèse gives to my wife and me as the patroness of our married life: that every particular vocation is lived through the universal vocation to love. And, in knowing this, we should all exclaim with St. Thérèse: “O Jesus, my Love…my vocation, at last I have found it…My vocation is love!”

Therese 2

St. Therese as St. Joan d’Arc in a play at the Carmel

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

More Lessons from the First Grade

Love of learning can began in kindergarten and first grade.

Yes, some of us loved school from day one. In the spring 1952, I was in first grade at Saint Teresa of Avila school in an Irish and Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn. My family had a television, one of the first in our apartment house. The Lone Ranger, Howdy Dooty, Kate Smith were among my favorites. The McCarthy hearings annoyingly interfered with my shows!

Alistair CookieOne Sunday I was watching Omnibus hosted by a young Alistair Cooke [Alistair Cookie to Sesame Street fans!]. I saw Australian aborigines dancing around a fire. The voiceover said this was how human beings lived 50,000 years ago. The next day I told Sr. Mary Charlotte that I had seen how people lived 50,000 years ago. She said it must have been an anti-Catholic show, since the world was created 5,000 years ago according to the Bible. On three counts, I knew that she was wrong (perhaps even then TV had more authority than a mere school teacher!). (1) The world was indeed older than 5,000 years [I had seen the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History[1]]. (2) The Bible did not teach that [my father, who I thought was the smartest man in the world, read me the first chapter of Genesis; we could not find any dates]. (3) The Catholic Church in which I was totally immersed could not be teaching something so intuitively wrong [years later in high school I found out that in 1952 the Church did not teach that the world was 5000 years old]! Thus I knew she was wrong on these three counts. However, I was polite and didn’t tell her. But I knew that it was an important “Catholic thing” to get it right. I think my vocation as a Catholic intellectual began right there.

My mother who did not finish the 9th grade always stressed that her six children get as much education as possible. She also tweaked her highly educated son by giving him a copy of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I told her that I indeed learned all I needed to know in the Catholic kindergarten taught by the same Sr. Mary Charlotte who taught me first grade. The lesson I learned was that I needed to learn a whole lot more. Thus even from kindergarten and first grade one can have a vocation to life-long learning.

Here perhaps is an intimation of a solution for Catholic higher education’s failure of nerve. If only we would remember our first grade and the love of learning that it inspired!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]In 1952, one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was working in the fossil warehouse of the Museum of Natural History, about six miles from where I was watching Omnibus.

Breaking News: Pope Francis Values the Sacrament of Matrimony

On Sunday September 14, 2014 Pope Francis celebrated a Holy Mass with the Rite of Marriage inside St. Peter Basilica. It also was on the occasion of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In his homily during the Mass, Pope Francis made some important connections between the feast day and the Sacrament of Matrimony, between the new life that is found through the Holy Cross and new life that is found in Holy Matrimony.

As to be expected, “the press” captured the opportunity to discuss this significant Holy Mass, especially since popes don’t regularly preside over a Mass with the Rite of Marriage. I wrestled with two different options for a topic for this article: (1) point out the errors of the media; or (2) focus on the truth of what Pope Francis stated in his homily. Certainly we must be ready to stand up for the truth and correct errors. One specific passage from Scripture comes to mind: “Always be prepared to make a defense [Greek apologian] to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15 RSVCE). But in apologetics, there is a danger of focusing too heavily on the errors of our critics and not enough on the reason for our hope: the truth that is found in Christ Jesus (cf. John 14:6).

Pope Picture at WeddingIn his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the first reading of the day, and he recalled that when the Israelites were on their journey through the desert, they became impatient (cf. Numbers 21:4). But married couples, too, as they walk together through the journey of life, can become impatient, even with each other. Pope Francis makes this exact point:

Here our thoughts turn to married couples who “become impatient on the way,” the way of conjugal and family life. The hardship of the journey causes them to experience interior weariness; they lose the flavour of matrimony and they cease to draw water from the well of the Sacrament. Daily life becomes burdensome, and often, even “nauseating.”

This is not a great frame of mind for any married person to be in. Whether you’re Catholic or not, you can recognize that married life can be difficult at times.

Because of the impatience of the Israelites, they failed to see the threat which was about to take them by surprise. “During such moments of disorientation … poisonous serpents come and bite the people, and many die” the pope commented. In married life there are serpents that attempt to attack the husband and wife. The serpents which threaten married life are seeking the death of their relationship. But the Israelites had a remedy to the serpents’ poisonous bites: they could look at Moses’ staff and recover (cf. Numbers 21:8). Likewise, married couples and indeed all people have a remedy, as we learn from our Savior:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17).

Married couples, when facing “nauseating” days and weeks, can gaze upon the Cross of Jesus Christ and recognize a preeminent sign of God’s love for His people (cf. Romans 5:8). Pope Francis expresses his confidence in the One who can bring aid:

The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment… To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

One might be tempted to think: “Of course… the Pope is going to say ‘Jesus is the answer’ and the Catholic blogger is going to agree. For those of us who are really in a troubled marriage, what can we do?” But the pope’s advice is the most real, the most concrete, advice that anyone will ever give us. If spouses try to heal their relationship on their own, they will quickly lose hope and they will fail. But if spouses entrust themselves to the living God who loves them beyond measure, they will be able to love each other with God’s love through the Holy Spirit: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). We always have hope when we trust the One who makes all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5).

Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Labor Unions and Catholic Social Teaching

My father broke his back when he was 30 years old; he had four children under the age of 9. When it became impossible for him to go to work, my parents sold the new station wagon they had recently bought (a red ’59 Chevy Bel Air—if you are old enough you may recall its fine horizontal fins) and put the money back in the bank, expecting to need it for food, mortgage and utilities.

LinemanAt that point my father had been working for ATT (back when it owned all of the regional telephone companies) for only six years, but he belonged to a labor union. The contract negotiated with ATT by the Communications Workers of America provided him with the surgery and other medical care he needed as well as a salary during the months he could not work. The back surgery was a success, and after a few months the body cast came off and he continued to work for the telephone company for another twenty-eight years. The contracts that allowed him to keep his job while recovering was a good thing for both the employees and the corporation: the extensive education in electronics that my father received from ATT, for example, continued to benefit the company for almost three decades.

That was 1960, when labor unions were more common and more socially acceptable. Today, because of the war on unions and the poor in general, things are different. In a recent Labor Day editorial, Howard Hubbard, retired bishop of Albany, noted that “union membership is down, representing 11 percent of the overall workforce and 7 percent of private sector workers in 2013. In 1983, unions represented 20 percent of the overall workforce.” In Washington, “for-profit corporations outnumber those representing labor unions 50 to 1. About 72 percent of all expenditures on lobbying originate with organizations representing businesses.” Bishop Hubbard insists that “[i]t is imperative, therefore, that we promote workers’ organizations that defend their rights and ward off those forces of capitalism that can be exploitive and dehumanizing.”

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Here in North Carolina an interfaith “Labor Sabbath” was organized in an effort to encourage ministers to mention the importance of unions and worker rights from the pulpit. Of course, Catholic Social Teaching supports the dignity of labor and the workers’ right to unionize, but occasionally it needs to be reawakened from its complacency. In the United States, the legacy of the great labor priests such as John Ryan, Paul Hanley Furfey and George Higgins lives on in Bishop Hubbard and many others. But as John Dilulio Jr. has recently written in America, “without a rebirth of the American Labor movement our nation’s interwoven economic and political inequalities will only become more sizable—and more sinful.”

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Does Reunion Include Dissolution?

Vatican IIThe Second Vatican Council met in the autumn months between 1962 and 1965. Therefore, some fiftieth anniversaries have already come and gone: the Council’s opening, the death of Pope St. John XXIII, and the election of Paul VI. Saint Joseph’s College has contributed its own recognition. This year and next, though, will mark the real fiftieth anniversaries—the passing of conciliar documents like Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. When you hear or read somebody comment “Vatican II revolutionized the Church,” these documents provide the sparks for that change. We do not suffer a shortage of accounts detailing the changes of Vatican II and their impact throughout the Church. As many of us know, conciliar enthusiasm has not swept everybody off their feet. Perhaps that is why these fiftieth anniversaries of the Council are so important. We are still, as Peter Huff has said, “on the sacred mountain,” seeking to make sense of the Council and its legacy.

Another conciliar document witnessing its golden anniversary this November is Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council’s decree on ecumenism. St. John’s Gospel includes Christ’s prayer to the Father that all His followers may be one, just as He and the Father are one (17:21). So, after the Church’s self-assessment (Lumen Gentium) but before turning its attention to the modern world, the Council duly considered the readily evident fact that Christianity stood torn asunder, represented by many churches instead of one, true, unified Church. Addressing and correcting this sad reality figured among Pope St. John XXIII’s inspiration for the Council. While he did not live to see its promulgation, Unitatis Redintegratio aptly addressed Pope John’s hope.   Non-Catholic Christians were recognized as possessing some, but not all, elements of the Gospel (#3). Furthermore, the Catholic faithful—lay and clergy—are called to “recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part” in ecumenical work (#4). Honestly studying the beliefs of other Christians is no longer the purview of a specialized academic few, but now expected of everybody (#9).

Each conciliar document poses so many questions and new avenues of discovery, and Unitatis Redintegratio does not disappoint. A simple one might be: Do we thus give up everything for the Council’s vision? Out with the old, in with the new? Within twenty years of the Council’s conclusion some Catholic theologians called for a complete reorganization of the Church’s perception of itself and other churches and religious traditions. From now on, the argument went, being truly Christian meant de-emphasizing uniquely Christian elements and eschewing many proudly Catholic expressions. So it seemed that Roman Catholic Christian renewal involved dissolving oneself, or at least one’s ecclesiology and theology.

True to form, though, Unitatis Redintegratio contains answers to the very questions it has prompted. The Council fathers made very clear that while common prayer might foster unity, common worship services could often give the wrong impression. Catholics should remain Catholic, while Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals attended their own affairs (#8). Common concerns such as feeding the poor and serving those afflicted by disaster, though, demonstrated to the world that unity for which Christ had prayed (#12). Finally, almost twenty years ago Pope St. John Paul II addressed the Council’s call to ecumenical dialogue. The papacy, so long a visible obstacle to Protestants, still could serve the pursuit of unity. Some critics seemed dismayed that Catholic intransigence had, once again, reared its ugly head. But John Paul’s reaffirmation of the Council should not have surprised many. Unitatis itself had declared: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (#6). That call included the realization that God alone can bring about true Christian unity (#24). Therefore, the road to reunion runs right through the heart of the Church itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Mary’s Prophetic Witness as Our Model

100_0107(rev 0)This work week begins with our September 8 liturgical celebration of the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We may echo the words of her divine Son in the Gospel of John (18:37) and apply them to His Mother: the Virgin Mary came into the world to bear witness to the Truth, to Jesus Christ. All who are on the side of truth listen to His voice—this is Mary’s directive to us, also: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

The Virgin Mary and her prophetic mission really resonate with today’s September 10 readings. The first reading from 1 Corinthians begins with St. Paul’s reference to virgins and ends with his assertion that “the world in its present form is passing away.” The Virgin Mary’s detachment from worldly attractions, and her focus on “what is above” (Colossians 3:1-2)—on embracing God’s will (Luke 1:38)—underscore the transiency of this world. Today’s Responsorial Psalm, drawing from Psalm 45, addresses the “king’s daughter.” The high Christological tone is obvious: the king above kings is God, and His God has anointed Him (45:7-8). The name of the king’s daughter will be renowned through all generations (45:18): Mary’s Magnificat alludes to this—“from now on all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).

The Blessed Virgin certainly embodies the teaching of Jesus in His Sermon on the Plain, imparted through the Gospel reading according to St. Luke. Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” Mary is blessed by being poor—materially poor, yes (e.g., Luke 2:24, offering the poor person’s sacrifice), but more importantly, spiritually poor, or humble. She demonstrated her humility so profoundly by embracing God’s will in all things, including accepting the humbling, humiliating, and devastating circumstances that befell her.

Mary of Nazareth had to place her newborn Son in a manger because there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn. She lived in the Nazarene community in which citizens—some of whom Mary probably knew quite well—rejected her only Son and disdained Him enough to try to hurl Him down the brow of the hill upon which Nazareth was built. (Luke 4:29). Not too long afterward, the leaders of His own people delivered Him to betrayal, torture, and execution. Mary was there. She felt His pain and shared in His rejection.

The Virgin Mary fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy: “And a sword shall pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35). Simeon seems to prophesy about Mary in continuity with and in partial fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10: “And I will pour out on the House of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a first-born son.” [This is my own translation from Biblical Hebrew into English. Notice, from the Hebrew translation, the identity of the object pronoun—“they shall look upon me”! Many translations change the pronoun from first masculine singular to third masculine singular.] As Jesus, the first-born and prophesied Shepherd (Zechariah 13:7-9) is struck and pierced by the sword/lance as a sign of contradiction, so too Mary’s soul is pierced by the sword, metaphorically. Her pain, in union with her Son, is emotional and spiritual.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude and insult you…on account of the Son of Man…your reward will be great in heaven!” The Blessed Virgin exemplifies this blessed and exalted one of whom Jesus speaks. Her fidelity and obedience to God’s will in her life is our standard for authentic discipleship and prophetic witness. With the Virgin Mary’s example and powerful intercession for divine grace, we may be light in darkness, love in a world gone cold, setting the earth ablaze by the love of Christ!

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Reflections: On the Waterfront

Won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director=Elia Kazan, Best Actor=Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actor=Karl Malden, Best Story and Screenplay=Bud Shulberg. Musical Score by Leonard Bernstein

As a follow-up to Labor Day, and to prevent us from being piously maudlin about it, it might be appropriate to consider On the Waterfront, which the American Film Institute considers the 8th greatest American movie, and which is included on the Vatican’s list of 45 greatest films.

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront is a stirring film about justice in the workplace and about liberation from oppression. It is certainly more than just a period piece about the late 40’s. It is built around the life of Fr. John Corridan, S.J., a labor priest played by Karl Malden. Marlon Brando plays the main character, Terry Malloy, a down and out ex-prize fighter and corruption’s accomplice who turns to struggle against union corruption along the New York waterfront. Malloy’s battle takes him all the way to the witness stand, where he finds himself testifying against corrupt union leaders. The film ends with Malloy being brutally beaten, but nonetheless leading the longshoremen in a way of the cross to unload a ship, victorious over the corrupt union bosses. In real life, however, there was no such victory.

The film was director’s Elia Kazan’s response to his own decision to turn in the names of his Hollywood contemporaries during Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communism hearings. He features Terry Malloy as the justified informer. Malloy’s conscience awakens to the stark reality of union corruption. Malloy is influenced by Fr. Barry’s powerful sermon applying belief in the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. It is Christ who has just died again in a slain longshoreman. “Boys, this is my Church. And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming.!” In John May’s view, Malloy is a Christ figure through whom, as we experience his suffering, we experience resurrection. Think of Malloy’s girlfriend, Edie, as a “Beatrice” who leads him through hell and purgatory.

An estranged friend of Kazan and Shulberg’s, Arthur Miller, presents the same political milieu of the early 1950’s as a time of hysteria in The Crucible. Only the fact that Marlon Brando agreed to play the lead enabled the film to be produced at all since the Hollywood community was blacklisting Elia Kazan. Blacklists were working several different ways. The script was turned down by 8 Hollywood studios. Another film to compare On the Waterfront to is John Ford’s The Informer with its incredible final words: “she forgives me.”

Question: should not Kazan and Shulberg have ended the film with Malloy’s death? On his deathbed, Fr. Corriden, who was the special advisor on the set, said that during the filming of the entire film there was an indescribable feeling among those present that a curious force was helping to direct the film. When the film was shown to longshoremen, the one thing they said that did not ring true was that not one of them would have thrown garbage at a priest!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

The Heart of Marriage

It takes three to make love, not two: you, your spouse, and God. Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another. Lovers who have nothing else to do but love each other soon find there is nothing else. Without a central loyalty life is unfinished.

Fulton J. Sheen, Seven Words from Jesus and Mary: Lessons from Cana and Calvary


My husband and I in Venice December 2013

My husband and I in Venice December 2013

This week, September 1st mixed the sacred and the profane in a special way in my life. It marked Labor Day and my 24th wedding anniversary, and so, I have the hard labor of marriage on my mind, a labor of love.

I often think back about seven years ago when a priest offered me life-changing counsel in response to my confession of impatience with my husband and worse, resentment towards him for a bad business decision and its terrible and lingering effects. Father reminded me that my crosses are also my blessings – and it is within my marriage and family that I will receive my greatest blessings and crosses.

It was as if a crushing weight was lifted off my shoulders and I understood anew the sacramentality of marriage, of my marriage. I had forgotten that Cana is hallowed through Calvary: love is inseparable from the cross of Christ. Indeed, love waxes greater through our participation in His redemptive suffering. I could not change past decisions and their material effects on my family’s life, but with the grace of God, I could change. I recognized that as I had allowed my bitterness to increase, the presence of God had decreased. I had sidelined Him; thus I had sidelined my marriage.

The late Catholic book publisher Frank Sheed used to say to his wife when he went away on a business trip something to this effect: Whenever you find yourself missing me, just look to the pierced side of Christ, and there I will be. Christ was the center—the heart—of their marriage, and that very heart was pierced for the sake of love. Paradoxically, when Sheed’s wife placed the pain and longing of her heart inside the pierced heart of Christ, she found her love. She was united with her husband in the most profound sense of the word, however far from her “in the body” he may have been. This is the love that does not cover over feelings of pain and longing, but draws out their deepest meaning.

Saint Bernard Church stained glass, Burkettsville, Ohio.

Saint Bernard Church stained glass, Burkettsville, Ohio.

Christ lives in the heart of a sacramental marriage. For husband and wife, then, their marriage is their road to sanctity. It is a road strewn with blessings and crosses, and when traversed with Christ as the center, both blessings and crosses are embraced as if there is no distinction between the two, and indeed there is none.