Dorothy, Peter, and the Man at the Back of the Church

Growing up in the “Coal Regions” of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a special experience – especially for a Catholic family. My small town had so many Catholic churches, it seemed like there was one on every corner. Growing up Eastern Catholic was easy, too, because all of my friends knew “who we were,” and could visit one of the three Byzantine Catholic Churches in town. I appreciate that aspect of my hometown more now, living in the heavily German/PA Dutch region of Central Pennsylvania. There are Catholics here, and the local diocese is thriving. But it’s still so different from the coal town of my childhood. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have a Catholic Church (with an Adoration Chapel) close to my home. A quick visit with Jesus, or partaking in daily Mass are blessings easily taken for granted. Any opportunity to be in the Lord’s House, and experience His real, Eucharistic presence, should inspire both gratitude and humility. Note the emphasis on humility, as it’ll be important in a moment.

I’m really good at judging books by their covers. No, I’m not talking about an ability to size up a Barnes and Noble display and produce reviews worthy of the New York Times. That would be a noteworthy talent! What I mean is that I am quick to judge others, based on impressions formed without having a conversation, let alone getting to know them. It’s not that I do this all the time – but more often than I’d care to acknowledge. With some honest self-reflection perhaps others might also admit of this “talent” for reaching quick conclusions based on appearance alone. Business gurus tell us the first impression means everything. The Gospel tells us our personal impressions don’t tell the whole story, since angels – and God Himself – sometimes come in strange disguises (cf. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25:35-45). I was challenged by this lesson at Mass one Fall morning.

In the chapel of the church where I often go for daily Mass, a group of “regulars” fill the pews. Though it isn’t my parish church, I’ve been incorporated into this group of retirees, stay at home moms, and others whose schedules are as flexible as mine. There is a man who often sits in the last pew of the small chapel. In appearance, he’s kind of scruffy and unkempt. He mostly keeps to himself, sharing in the Sign of Peace, but otherwise sitting silently through the Mass. He looks – for lack of a more polite term – like “a bum.” I notice that people generally avoid sitting near him, if they can help it. One or two women seem to look out for him, smiling warmly, exchanging a few words, and even chauffeuring him to the store. But for the most part, people keep their distance, unsure of sitting near someone who is so…unlike the rest of us.

Recently I saw this man at the grocery store, wearing the same clothes I see him in every time he comes to Mass. He pushed his cart along, catching wondering looks from the few shoppers attentive to those around them. My grocery list fulfilled, I made for the checkout line and paid for my items. As I placed the last package in my cart and started for the door, I heard someone shout “Hey!” just behind me. It was him. The man said, “Don’t you go to the parish?” “I’m not a parishioner,” I replied, “but I try to get to daily Mass.” His face wore the smile of someone who’d run across a friend for the first time in awhile as he said, “I thought I recognized you. I see you at Mass. Will you be there Friday?” I said I hoped so, and he said, “Good. I like to see you there.” Smiling back at him, I said good bye and God bless, and went on my way.

The encounter in the grocery store really made an impression on me, and made me examine my tendency to not only make snap judgments about people, but to let those judgments take pride of place over love; to believe I know it all rather than taking the time to know a person. It also reminded me of a story I remembered reading about Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker Movement. You can read about Maurin here, and I recommend learning more about this saintly man. Peter Maurin was an… “eccentric.” He cared little for possessions or position, happily identifying with “the man on the street,” while endeavoring to emulate the saints. When he met Dorothy Day in 1932, she couldn’t have realized a movement would be born of their friendship; a movement inspired by the Gospel to regain a sense of community among people, in which the race “to have and to do” would be replaced by the desire “to give and to be with.” One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Maurin (and Day) would experience if they saw the shape 21st century consumerism has taken – not to mention the sight of so many people walking down the street, meeting for dinner, or riding the bus with heads down and fingers typing, tapping and swiping. Having seen the brutal assaults on humanity wrought during the Second World War, they may have been overwhelmed by the sophistication with which we now perpetrate crimes against human dignity: from terrorism and torture, and attacks on human life at its beginning and ending; to the more “subtle” discarding of those we find undesirable by “swiping left” – or avoiding them at Mass because they “look different.”

Peter Maurin was an authentic radical; not what we think of today as a violent extremist, or a political rabble-rouser. He believed that societal/cultural change for the good was only possible with a radical (at the root) shift in our thought and behavior. Only by getting back to the roots of the Gospel and Jesus’ example can we see God in each other, and thus be inspired to follow Jesus’ mandate to love each other with His own merciful love (cf. John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:43-48). Maurin believed that if there is to be a “revolution” that changes the world, it will be accomplished in the radical return to love of God and neighbor (community), performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy (action), and sharing Christ in and through the ordinary aspects of daily life. Maurin worked toward and prayed for such a revolution by developing relationships in which the love of Christ could be shared over a meal, in a “round table” discussion, or as he worked side-by-side with other men and women in manual labor. He shared Christ with anyone who would listen, and offered both spiritual and material comfort and aid for those whom others would not so kindly describe as “eccentric.”

Dorothy Day relates many stories about Peter and his radical plan for changing the world, but the one I remembered when I met the disheveled man from daily Mass at the grocery store continues to move and to challenge me. Peter was to give a talk for a women’s group and Dorothy herself saw to it that he made it on the train. When hours passed and he hadn’t arrived at his destination, one of the women called Dorothy, distressed that there was no sign of him at the station. Everyone who’d arrived on that train was gone, save for one man, “a bum” asleep on a bench. Immediately, Dorothy knew that was Peter. Peter Maurin, the Catholic thinker with the radical idea that we should live the Gospel boldly and faithfully, who was sought after for his intellect and ability to teach, and advocated for a return to the Christian ideals of community and hospitality. Peter Maurin was overlooked as “a bum,” insignificant, undesirable, and ignored because his appearance didn’t meet expectations. He might just as well have been the unkempt, quiet man sitting in the last row of the chapel in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Books have covers, but they don’t reveal the story inside. For that, we must take them in hand and open them to discover the story for ourselves. People are a lot like books in that way. We may think we have all we need to know about a person by looking at “the cover.” It’s only in humbly approaching another person with wonder, and with the patience to discover what’s inside, that our expectations are shattered, freeing us to share in their story. And that can have radical consequences for both of us.

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

~Peter Maurin

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Why Attending Mass is the Most Important Thing You Can Ever Do

Dr. Scott Hahn is a well-known Catholic speaker and author, and he’s a professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  But Scott Hahn was very anti-Catholic in school and in his seminary days.  He even gave out anti-Catholic literature, ripped apart a rosary and tore up a Catholic prayer book.  After his seminary training, he became the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.  He also became a part-time instructor at a local Presbyterian seminary.

The first course that Scott was assigned to teach was the Gospel According to John.  While he was preparing his class for chapter six, something happened to him.  He began to question what he had been taught – and was now teaching others – about the Eucharist: that it was only a symbol of Christ’s body and not the real Body of Christ.  This questioning was the start of a journey that led him into the Catholic Church.

The first big step on that journey came when he persuaded his wife to go with him to study at Marquette University in the 1980s.  He wanted to learn firsthand about the Catholic Theology of the Eucharist.  The more he learned, the more he became convinced that Christ is really present in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity.  Then, one weekday, Scott decided to something that he never dreamed he would do.  He decided to attend a Mass in the weekday chapel on the campus.

He got there early and sat in the back pew as an observer.  He didn’t want anyone to notice him, and he made sure that there was an easily accessible escape route in case of an emergency.  As he observed, he was amazed at the number of people arriving and with their sincere devotion.  Then the Mass began….and, as he listened to the readings, he was struck by how they took on a special meaning in the context of what was about to take place: the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Scott wrote in his book, called Rome Sweet Home, that all of a sudden he realized that this was the setting in which the bible was meant to be read.  …….Then came the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Scott said that when the priest held up the Host, after the words of consecration, all his doubt about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist vanished completely and forever.  Later he wrote, “With all my heart, I whispered, ‘My Lord and my God.’”  He concluded by saying, “I left the chapel not telling a soul where I had been and what I had done.  But the next day I was back, and the next, and the next…I don’t know how to say it, but I had fallen in love with Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Justin the Martyr is one of the very early Church Fathers.  He lived at a time when the Roman Senate was very suspicious of the Christians.  At that time, the Romans saw the Christians as a sect that grew out of Judaism, and the Jews had revolted against Rome in the year 70A.D.  The Roman Emperor wanted to make sure that the Christians were not conspiring against the Roman government.  He asked Saint Justin to submit a list step-by-step of exactly what Christians did when they meet on Sunday mornings.  Here’s the list:

  • Christians gather on Sunday
  • Writings of the Apostles and prophets are read.
  • The presider challenges the hearers to imitate these things.
  • All then offer prayers of intercession.
  • They exchange the kiss of peace.
  • What is gathered is given to the presider to assist those in need.
  • The gifts of bread and wine (mixed with water) are brought forth.
  • The presider prays for a considerable time as he gives thanks. (Eucharist)
  • At the end all say “Amen”.
  • The deacons give the “Eucharistized”  bread, wine and water to all present and take some to those absent.

Sounds like the Mass, doesn’t it?  But the year was 145 A.D.!!!

But there’s more……. The Roman Senate was satisfied that the Christians were not conspiring against the government.  But they wrote back to Justin and said, “We don’t understand how you are using this word Eucharistia.”  This Greek word normally meant to give thanks, but he was using it in another way.  Here’s what he wrote:

“We call this food Eucharist.  And no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined.”

This one paragraph could sum up our Eucharist today.  And the year is 145 A.D.!!!  The Church has believed that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity from the very beginning, from the lips of the apostles themselves!  And don’t ever let anybody tell you anything different!

Scott Hahn calls Holy Communion Covenant Union.  It is union because in it we are intimately united to Christ and to one another.  It is a covenant because Jesus declared that what we are doing at Mass is the “New Covenant in his blood.”  

This is the covenant that all of the previous covenants of salvation history were leading up to, beginning with Adam, Noah and Abraham, continuing through Moses and King David, and finally fulfilled in Christ.  It’s the ultimate covenant; it’s an intimate and sacred family bond between God and us, and each of us with one another.  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

So when someone holds the Sacred Host out in front of you and declares that “this is the Body of Christ” and you say “Amen,” don’t take it lightly, because it is at that very moment that you are renewing your part of the covenant.  You are pledging your commitment  to live in loving union with God and with your neighbors.

When we receive Holy Communion and renew our commitment  to Covenant Union with Christ and with one another, when we hear what he says and do what he does, when we walk out of Mass as a sacrament, as a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, when we are what we are called to be as Catholic Christians, that is when we are what we are called to be.  If every Catholic knew what you know now, we could change the world.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.

Why Consecrate to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?

In celebration of 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, several bishops across the country have decided to consecrate their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  This act might leave some people scratching their heads, wondering “What good will that do?” or shrugging their shoulders saying “That’s nice. What’s the NFL schedule that day?”

But if our eyes and hearts are opened to God’s wisdom, we will see that this consecration is the most powerful aid that a diocese could receive.  Marian consecration makes all the difference in the world!

“My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God.”  This is what Our Lady said to Lucia dos Santos, one of the three seers of Fatima.  The Blessed Virgin told Lucia that Our Lord wished Lucia to spend her life promoting devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary so that humanity could avoid turmoil and suffering on earth and, more importantly, be guided to everlasting salvation in the arms of Christ.

But why would Our Lord request consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?  What does it all mean?

To consecrate yourself to someone is to give yourself, or, as St. Pope John Paul II would say, to “entrust” yourself entirely to someone.  Strictly speaking, we can only consecrate ourselves to God because we are His.  However, when the Church speaks of consecration to Mary, it means that we are giving ourselves to God through Mary.  St. Louis de Montfort, who was arguably the most famous promoter of Marian consecration (and the person from whom St. Pope John Paul II took his motto, Totus Tuus, “Totally Yours”), coined the phrase, “To Jesus through Mary!”

Mary’s relationship with her Son and with us is unique.  She is the woman who said “Yes” at the Annunciation, giving herself without reservation to the Father so that she could give her humanity to the Son, and she is the mother who stood at the foot of the cross, heartbroken, but freely offering her only beloved Son to God for all the world.  In return for this great sacrifice, God extended her divine maternity to include all of His adopted sons and daughters.  She is now Queen of the Universe, our Heavenly Mother and Advocate.

Mary’s life and Jesus’s life are uniquely intertwined for all eternity.  Her will is His will and, as mother of all God’s adopted sons and daughters, she has been entrusted with the formation of souls.  The Son entered the world through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and the world is drawn to the Son through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Does it seem strange that God would choose to draw us to Himself through a creature?  While I would not pretend to be able to explain the great mysteries of God’s wisdom, I would point out that this seems to be the way that God works throughout history.  He comes to us through prophets, saints, objects like the burning bush, and the material elements of the sacraments.  We give ourselves to Him through the manmade words of prayers and hymns, acts of corporal and spiritual mercy, and reception of the sacraments.  God has always used the material realm to commune with His children who are of the material realm.  When we consider this, it does not seem so strange that He would commune with us through the Son’s Beloved Mother.

God created Our Lady with her special motherhood in mind.  This is why she was and is the Immaculate Conception—the one born without sin, who was, is and always shall be in communion with the Holy Trinity.  She shows us the glory of God’s plans for humanity and she is His greatest instrument for making those plans happen.

If our earthly parents, priests and teachers can form us in the faith, how much more can our Heavenly Mother whose heart and mind are perfected and whose life has always been so intimately intertwined with her Son’s do for our salvation?

This year, many are choosing to consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  To the extent that we entrust ourselves to her motherly care and conform to her immaculate example, we will receive great graces.  We enter this consecration knowing that it is not magic.  There will still be times when we will falter and fail.  But we will persevere in faith, remembering that Our Lady of Fatima promised, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Maura Hearden Fehlner teaches Mariology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She and her husband Deacon John Fehlner are the founders of Light of Truth Ministries, a Catholic radio station broadcasting at 98.3 FM in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Book Review – The Story of a Soul, by St Thérése of Lisieux

Today we celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Thérése of Lisieux. So, I thought it appropriate to share a bit of what I learned about this beloved saint by reading her book, The Story of a Soul. From the title alone, we garner a peek at this beloved saint’s humility, as if the story could be about any soul – very non-descript. Yet, Saint Thérése of Lisieux was anything but non-descript!

Thérése will grip your heart from the very beginning, right up to her last breath, as she tells you the story of her life – her “little way.” She lived for only 24 years, but in that time, she accomplished so much. Thérése made the quality of her life, a gift to God; in thanksgiving for His creation of her. Raised in a devout Catholic home, in France, in the late 1800’s, Thérése seemed to intuitively understand, at a very young age, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s teaching that we are to love God for God’s sake, not our own. I found this attribute of Thérése to be awe-inspiring. How many of us, today, can say that we truly love God, for God’s sake, and not our own?

As Thérése grew from child to adult, she remained small in stature, and humble in nature. She dreamed of one day becoming a Carmelite nun. Her desire to give back to God, in service to Him, out of love for Him, was born from her sufferings and challenges. She lost her mother to breast cancer at the age of four. Then as her sisters grew to adulthood, each one of them entered the convent, leaving her behind to live without them. So, she suffered much loss, but found great solace in her friendship with Jesus. Even as a child, she was astute enough to know

…that in order to become a Saint, one must suffer much, always seek the most perfect path, and forget oneself (p. 24).

With that in mind, Saint Thérése grew up wanting to enter the convent, like her sisters. She saw that as her perfect path to sainthood. She was so adamant, that she pestered her father and uncle to get the Bishops’ permission for her to enter before the minimum age. When their efforts failed, she took it upon herself to speak to the Pope about it, when her father took her on a trip to Rome. Eventually, Thérése won out, and entered the Discalced Carmelite convent at the young age of 15.

Throughout her life. she never lost her sense of humility; always seeing herself as small. She equated her sense of humility to God’s garden. Thérése saw herself as one of God’s little flowers.

He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets, flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection (p. 4).

What a beautiful way to depict our souls – full of color, variety, and size, in God’s garden! Saint Therésé of Lisieux would place herself in the violet category. Yet, we all know that she is one of God’s roses, as she has been declared a Doctor of the Church. She is also considered one of the most beloved saints to modern man. Many people pray to Saint Thérése for her intercession. These same people ask for a sign that she has heard their prayer and will pray for them. That sign is a rose. I know, because it happened to me! One day I prayed, asking Saint Thérése to pray for me, and I asked for a sign. I told no one of this prayer. A few days later, my husband walked in the door with a yellow rose – my favorite! Apparently, the sign on the Florist Shop said that if today your name is Nicholas, you get a free rose. So, he stopped in to get one, and brought it home to me. I knew Saint Thérése was praying for me, and that filled my heart with joy!

As Saint Thérése of Lisieux lay on her death bed, she declared that she felt that her mission was only beginning. She vowed to spend her eternity doing good on earth. Her mission is to help us love God for God’s sake, as Thérése loves God, with complete trust and absolute self-surrender. Oh, what was that prayer I prayed to Saint Thérése for which I received the yellow rose? I asked her to show me how to love God for God’s sake, with complete trust and absolute self-surrender. She has been teaching me every day since. I am seeing my trust in Jesus grow. My self-surrender increases day-by-day.

Saint Thérése, please pray for us! Help us all to love God for God’s sake, to trust in Him completely, and to give all of ourselves, in service to Him, for the love of God. Amen.

If you would like to read The Story of a Soul, and learn how to become a Saint, then click here to get your copy.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.