Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“It’s about the love.”

MERRY CHRISTMAS, or as we say in Italy, BUON NATALE!

Yesterday I walked around our house and counted 12 nativity scenes.  Now, remember, our house is pretty big.  And we’re religious folks.  But, still, Twelve!  And this doesn’t include individual rooms and ones that I probably missed.  And half of these were on one floor alone!  I’m beginning to think that Fr. Antonio, who decorates our house, might have a problem, ha, ha.

Last year, I traveled to Greccio which is sort of between Rome and Assisi.  It is here that in 1223 St. Francis of Assisi created what many call the first nativity scene.  After receiving permission from Pope Honorius III (Francis obviously wanted to be on the nice list), he set up a manger and brought in live animals to reenact the first Christmas.  This tradition continues today with our nativity scenes – whether they are beautiful terra cotta figurines, plastic light-up statues in the front yard, made out of a shoebox and toilet paper tubes, or a childrens’ pageant featuring more angels and shepherds than you can imagine.  All these bring to mind the birth of Jesus.

The site of the first live nativity scene in Greccio, Italy.

My nephew's nativity scene from a few years ago.
But why are we fascinated with these scenes?  And why are there twelve in my house?  St. Francis created his as a way to teach the local peasants about the Christmas story.  Many couldn’t read and nearly none understood the Latin used in the liturgy of the time.  While times have changed, the crèche continues to serve as a reminder and teaching tool of that night so long ago in Bethlehem.  But, I’ve been reflecting on another reason as well this year. 

It’s about the love. 

When we look at a nativity scene, what do we see?  We could answer this in many ways, but I think we see love.  There is Mary and Joseph who, despite a rocky start to their relationship, both said “Yes” to each other and to the wild plan of God.  There are the shepherds and magi who go to Bethlehem to see this wondrous and cosmic-altering event.  We can’t forget the angels who sing the glory of God.  There are the animals – as a child I always made sure they were pointing to the crib, each jockeying for a place so they could see the baby Jesus.  And there is Love himself, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  As we look and ponder the crèche, we cannot help but see love – Love Incarnate.  The Gospel of John reminds us that God so loved the world that God sent the only begotton son that we might have life.  Here is Love, and Love is among us.

So, I must admit that I received a little inspiration for these thoughts today.  As many of you probably know, my friend Ali passed away from cancer in 2011.  Her husband Ben wanted to recreate some of their wedding pictures as a way to say farewell to their house…using their 3-year old daughter in the place of Ali.  You can read the whole story here.  The pictures, taken by Ali’s sister Melanie, have gone viral around the world, and even landed on The Today Show (I know famous people). You can see the interview here.

So what does this have to do with Christmas and crèches?  In an interview Ben simply and profoundly stated that “It’s about the love.”   And Melanie added, “Many people have asked me how I felt while doing that photo session. What I want them to know is that this isn't a story about grief and loss and hurt. Yes, I've gone through those emotions and still do but that's not what I want people to see in these photos. This is a story about love."  Yes, it’s about healing and moving on, it’s about looking back and remembering.  But, when we come down to it (and “it” is just about everything), “it’s about the love” and the hope that comes from love.  In the case of Ali’s family, it’s about the love that is still present and the love that continues to flourish.  In our nativity scenes, too, it’s about the love that is in our midst and the love that continues to blossom.  And, that’s why we turn to our Christmas crèches and why the world was captured by these photos of Ben and Olivia – to be reminded of love and to see love, the love that is so needed in a broken world.  Speaking of the photos (and maybe even a crèche), Ben commented that “the memories of Ali don’t live in that house.  They live with us, in our hearts.”  It’s not just about love that came one night many years ago or one day during a photo shoot.  But, it’s about the love that lives on and continues to makes itself known in our midst. 

So, in the end, maybe 12 crèches aren’t enough.  Maybe we need more to remind us of the infinite love that surrounds us.  Or, maybe, we need to be a more present form of love in our families and in our communities and in our world.  May we all be as fortunate as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and magi, the angels and all the animals – to look upon Love, to see Love, and to be Love for each other.  And may we all be fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family who remind us that “It’s all about love.”  Melanie wrote on Facebook that “heaven and earth aren’t really so far apart after all.”  On this Christmas day when heaven embraced earth, perhaps truer words were never spoken.

My dear friends, may you know the joy of love this Christmas Day and beyond.

Buon Natale!  Merry Christmas!  Ciao!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Who is Mary?

Today, I was asked to offer a reflection for our community on today's mass readings.  As we get ever so closer to the celebration of Christmas, we heard the story of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38).

"Annunciation" by Philadelphia artist H.O. Tanner
Who is Mary?  Who is this woman that we seek to model and follow on our path of discipleship towards Jesus?  Who is this Mary that we vow our honor to?  Who is Mary?  

Who is Mary?  The Angel Gabriel tells us that she is a young woman, betrothed to Joseph.  She is full of grace, and God is with her.  She is the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.  She is filled with the Holy Spirit.  She has found favor with God.  When we think of Mary, all these things come to mind, and truly they are correct.

Who is Mary?  However, as I was praying with these readings, I discovered another side of Mary.  We are told in the story of the Annunciation that Mary was greatly troubled.  She didn’t understand what the Angel was saying.  She stopped and pondered.  Her reaction wasn’t an immediate response to God.  She couldn’t believe the words of the Angel, even asking “How can this be?”    Here, we find a confused and bewildered young woman.

In these ways, she is similar to Ahaz of the first reading (Is 7:10-14).  He didn’t understand the request of the Lord from the mouth of the prophet.  He, too, seemed to question God’s plan.  And, as we heard yesterday, Mary is like Zachariah (Lk 1:5-25) who was troubled and fearful when the angel appeared.  He questioned the plan of God and could not believe the words of the angel.  Three people who were asked something from God and questioned God.

But, at the same time, Mary is so very different from these two.  Whereas Ahaz refused to respond to God, and whereas Zechariah refused to believe, Mary did respond to God and she did believe.  Who is Mary?  She is the woman who, despite her fear, despite her confusion, despite the difficulty of believing, said “Yes.”  Mary is the woman of great trust and hope.  She is the woman who believed that the Holy Spirit would fill her with God’s graces.  She is the woman who courageously said “I am your servant” and in doing so, changed the world. 

I am reminded of the song "Breath of Heaven" made popular by many artists.  It expresses many of the sentiments of Mary’s “yes.”  In the form of a prayer, the refrain of the song is:

Breath of Heaven, hold me together 
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

In poetic terms, we might imagine that this was Mary’s prayer, and it is the difference that sets her apart from the others.  She trustingly prays for God’s breath to overcome her, and she knows it will.  She prays for God to be near, and she knows that God is with her.  She prayers for light in her darkness, and she knows that God will illumine her life.  She prays for God to pour out God’s grace, and she knows that God will give her the needed grace.

Who is Mary?  She is the one who trusted the love and will of God.  She is the one who could say “yes” even though she was afraid and confused.  Mary is our model of faith and trust in God.  Let us go forth this day, trying to have this same trust in God, trying to be like Mary – praying to know the Breath of heaven in our lives.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Our Lady of Guadalupe

 Last week, Decemeber 12, the Church celebrated the Memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Here at the seminary, we celebrated the day with a festive mass in Spanish.  I'd like to share some of the reflections that Bro. Nereo from Mexico offered to us.  (Don't worry, I translated it from his Italian!)
The chapel decorated for the celebration.

Today we celebrate the Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of Mexico and Queen of the Americas.  For us Mexicans, it is a very special day.  In fact, the Marianists of Mexico, their works are dedicated to her in a special way.  Having said this, I want to tell you the story of the apparitions of Our Lady.  
Bro. Nereo teaching us music in Spanish.

On Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego went early in the morning from his village to Mexico City.  He heard a voice that affectinoately called to him, using his indigenous language (Nahuatl):  “Juanito, Juan Dieguito!”  And he saw before him the most beautiful Lady coming towards him saying: “Listen, my son, my dear Juan, where are you going?”  Juan Diego responded: “My dear Lady, I must go to your house (the church) in Mexico-Tlatelolco, to hear the teachings of the Lord taught by our priests.”  

Bro. Beams leading us in singing.
The Lady then said to him: “Know and keep in your mind, most dearest of my sons, that I am the Ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God for whom we live, the Creator that is everywhere, Lord of heaven and of earth.  You will have much merit and reward for the work and the effort which I ask of you and which you will do.  See, this is my task, my dear son, go and do all that you can.”  
And Bro. Javi, too.

The Virgen asked Juan Diego to go to the Bishop of Mexico City and to tell him her desire that a church be erected in her honor in the place where she met Juan Diego. It would be a place in which Our Lady can give her love, compassion, help and protection to all people. The Bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, refused the request many times.


Juan Diego told the Virgin what had happened to him, describing the disbelief of the Bishop and asked her to send another messenger other than himself. But she insisted that he try again. According to the instructions of Our Lady, Juan Diego returned the next day to the Bishop who asked him for a sign of the veracity of his words. Finally, roses would be the sign on December 12. Mary asked Juan Diego to climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill where he would be able to gather some flowers to take to the Bishop. Juan Diego obeyed immediately, and found some beautiful roses of Castiglia, something unexplainable in the season when winter was just beginning.
Fr. Pachi getting into the spirit with Bro. Nereo.

Juan Diego rose to pick them up and gather them into his tilma (a cloak made ​​of rustic vegetable fibers). He quickly went to the bishop's palace. In front of the bishop, he opened his cloak and to the amazement of those present, the image of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on the tilma. Today, after 482 years, the image remains on the tilma of Juan Diego in the cathedral of Mexico City.
The sombrero was very popular...with Bro. Bosco and Bro. Jinu.

Our Lady of Guadalupe gave to Juan Diego a beautiful way to elevate the status of his people – the dignity of every man and woman. Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to guide us to Jesus. The miracles obtained from the Virgin are so extraordinary that one can’t help but exclaim: “The power of God is here.” The omnipotent God is pleased to pour out God’s gifts through her in that God chose her to be the mother of Jesus. The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before her children as the Mother of the Creator. She comes to her people because she wants to welcome all with her maternal love. Mary always sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit exalts in God my savior.”

And even Fr. Andre!

The words from the Book of Sirach are appropriate today: "I am the mother of beautiful love and fear, of knowledge and of holy hope.  In me there is the grace for every path and there is truth, in me there is every hope for life and virtue."

Painting by Bro. Brian Zampier called "Guadalupe Breakthrough."  One of my favorite pieces of his.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


A few weeks ago we celebrated ThanksPleanno.  What?  You've never heard of ThanksPleanno?  No, it's not Festivus.  It's when you celebrate American Thanksgiving Day with Bro. Gautier's Birthday (compleanno in Italian) in Italy.  Really, trust me, it's a holiday here......yeah, that's it.

I'll just let the pictures do the talking.  Hope you enjoy them.

Of course, we had to start with Antepasto.  After all, we're in Italy.  The next course was ravioli.  Doesn't everyone have ravioli at Thanksgiving?

Fr. Pachi getting in the spirit.

Fr. Antonio showing off his Chaminade tie.

Our wonderful cooks.  They thought I looked good in the hat.

Ahhhh, now we're getting to the good stuff.

Bro. Mike, also known as our baker.

Celebrating and Toasting the birthday of Bro. Gautier.

The "American Table."

Others joining in the celebration.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

How many priests does it take to dress a bishop?

How many priests does it take to dress a Bishop?  (keep reading for the answer)

It's funny how, in one weekend, many unrelated events can come together to you teach a lesson. 

Uno: Friday evening, several of us went to a talk on "What it means to be a priest with Pope Francis."  Now, I must admit that I didn't understand much - The Bishop who talked had a strong Roman accent and even Fr. Loris (an Italian and one of my Italian teachers) looked at me afterwards and said, "He used some really difficult words!"  But, I did take away a few things, namely that we must "go out of ourselves" and be with people in an attitude of sympathy.  We can't stay closed in within ourselves.  (Okay, good advice with any Pope and for non-priests as well!)
Not really a picture of the talk, but it was near Santa Maria in Trastevere.  So, here's where we were.

Due: Saturday morning, we celebrated a festive mass and lunch here in our house for the culmination of a weeklong conference for "New Leaders" of our Marianist Units.  Most of the leaders came from Africa, India and Asia.  Afterwards at dinner, we sang songs in all our different languages.  The face of the Society is definitely changing, and there is a richness that comes with this.

Mass with the New Leaders

Fr. Romolo leading us in an Italian song.

Tre: Saturday afternoon, the local parish in which we live consecrated its new church building.  It's not your typical Roman church in that it's quite simple (no frescoes or mosaics) and it was full of people and a lot of noisy kids!  As holy water was sprinkled, incense burned and chrism-oil smeared, it struck me that, yes, these things make the place holy.  But, maybe even more so, it is the people who make the place holy.  Those who come to pray, to celebrate the mysteries of life, to celebrate the daily dying and rising to new life. 

Quattro: Saturday evening, I had dinner with a friend who will be leaving Rome to go onto newer pursuits.  He often teases me about my blog, so I have to include him here.  So, as I was telling him about the Church dedication, he suggested that I start with the question posed at the beginning.  To consecrate an altar is messy business.  Chrism is spread over it and the Bishop rubs it all around.  So, he has to take off his cross and outer vestments.  It made me laugh when a swarm of priests surrounded him to do this.  So (spoiler alert) you're not going to like my answer to the question (keep reading), but it's a way to say goodbye to a friend.

Cinque: Also on Saturday evening, the Marianists in Dayton gathered to say goodbye to our Novitiate building.  Soon, it will be torn down and a new, smaller, more economically-feasible building erected.  There are many memories of this 100+ year building.  It's where many of us received our initial formation - there was a lot of laughing and some crying; there was a lot of praying and much frivolity; there were lessons learned, both in the classroom and out.  In an odd way, for those of us who lived there, I think it always felt like home, a place where we could return and be embraced.
The Novitiate

Sei: Sunday morning, we hear the following in our Gospel reading for mass:
While some people were speaking about the temple...Jesus said, "All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down....But not a hair on your head will be destroyed.  By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

For those really paying attention, I left out the "gruesome" parts...impending persecution, hatred, earthquakes, destruction.  But, I think these passages quoted above, have helped bring some sense and order to all these seemingly random events of this weekend.  Things change.  Popes are elected and then move on (either to another world or a monastery in the Vatican.)  Directions change and we must go to new places.  Buildings are built and eventually will crumble.  Friends come and go.  We never know where this crazy adventure we call life will take us.  And yet, in the midst of all this, God is constant, watching even the hairs on our heads.  Stone upon stone will be thrown down, but our lives (and evidently our hair) are secure in the hands of God.  And it is here that we find our true security and stability. 

At the start of our mass on Saturday, we read a letter from our Superior General who is recuperating from cancer surgery and couldn't be with us.  The following words regarding his absence touched me:

We make plans as if we were the lord and master of our own time, but every now and then, God dismantles these plans in order that we may see that we are only "useless servants;" that God is the true and only Lord; and that our time, as with all things in life, is his.

Sette:  That's seven in Italian.  I'll say that's the answer to the question.  Seven priests to dress a Bishop.  I don't really know the answer, but the scene during the dedication just made me laugh :)  And in the midst of all this change, we sometimes just have to sit back and laugh and remember that God is in control.  And so I'll leave you with pictures of the Brothers enjoying pranzo together - smiling and laughing all the time.

And a little champagne never hurts, either.


Friday, November 1, 2013

All the Saints

I have a confession to make (that should get your attention.)
Picture inserted for dramatic pause.  Notice the visitor at mass today.

This feast of All Saints is one of my favorite Church celebrations during the year.  And it's not because here in Rome we get the day off of school (but it sure helps).  No, it is because today we pause to honor ALL the Saints, and this includes a whole bunch of folks we might not typically think about.  Anyone who has read this blog will know that I enjoy the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Anthony of Padua and even St. Thomas Aquinas.  Being in Rome, it's kind of fun to run around the city "looking" for them, and, also as readers of this blog will know, occasionally finding their arm, or head, or whole body.  These are the saints of whom we see pictures and know their stories.  And that's all fine and good.
Celebrating All Saints with St. Sebastian at the Catacombs.

But, today, we celebrate ALL the Saints.  It is a day to pause and celebrate all the saints, both known and UNKNOWN. There are many, many holy people out there who will never be formally canonized by the Church.  Most of them lived holy lives in very ordinary ways.  Most probably never had a mystical experience or wrote a theological dissertation, and they probably didn't found a religious order or do missionary work in foreign lands.  But, in their own ways, they lived the Gospel message of love and peace and charity whether they were bakers or teachers, musicians or engineers, or whatever they did in life.  And these are the folks whom we honor and remember today.  I would suspect that each of us could come up with our own list of saints (that would be good homework for you!  Maybe an extra credit project.)

This summer, as I was in Spain, I "met" one such saint.  Now, I should say that there is a process currently taking place to get him canonized formally.  But, what struck me about his life was that he seemed "normal" - he didn't try to do anything extraordinary but just tried to live what he thought was a good life, and he tried to pray the rosary when he could (also not a bad homework assignment for you and it will get you extra credit later on).

His name is Faustino Perez-Manglano.  He was a student at the Marianist high school in Valencia, Spain. He liked soccer, camping and just being with friends.  He lived from 1946 to 1963, just 17 short years.  But during those years, he decided to live with and for God in his own way.  This summer, we were able to meet with Marianist Father Jose Maria Salaverri who knew Faustino and is working on his cause for Beatification. 

Fr. Jose Maria Salaverri.  I'm not sure who will be canonzied first: him or Faustino.
From his talk, two things remain for me.  The first is that Faustino was, by most accounts, a normal kid.  Yes, he seemed to have a somewhat heightened sense of the sacred, especially in the writings of his diary.  But, at the same time, his diary contains a hodgepodge of soccer results, recess games, favorite television shows and when he prayed the Rosary.  The second impression was that Faustino said he wanted to be a missionary.  At an early age, he decided to join the Marianists.  However, Hodgkin's Disease would never allow this to happen.  But, as Fr. Salaverri told us, he is now a missionary, our missionary, in heaven.  And this is so true in that many groups and individuals have become inspired by Faustino's steadfast faith and trust in God.  You can read more (a lot more!) about Faustino here.

With Fr. Jose Maria and Faustino.

A close-up of Faustino's tomb which was transferred to Our Lady of the Pillar Marianist School in Valencia some years ago.

In the Preface to a book about Faustino, Marianist Father Jose Maria Salaverri sums up what today celebrates:
Can a person become a saint in barely 17 years?  The reply must be "yes."  If God wants everyone to reach holiness, God must give the means.  To be a saint is to love God and our neighbor to the best of our abilities.  A person who lives 17 years can achieve this in 17 years.  Each person achieves holiness according to his or her way of life, age, character, and daily affairs.
At least there's one saint in his picture.
From the class picture in the school.

Happy Feast of All the Saints!  May we celebrate the saints in our lives, and may we strive to become a people of saints ourselves!


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sagrada Familia

Today in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis celebrated mass for "The Day of the Family."  Now, in all transparency, I did not go.  I heard that they were expecting 150,000 people and I then heard that more than 200,000 actually attended.  I'm still recovering from all the people during the Pope's election!  However, thanks to the internet, we can all read his homily!  He spoke about three features of the family: prayer, faith and joy.  He ended by saying, "Dear families, always live in faith and simplicity, like the Holy Family of Nazareth!"
The Holy Family at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

In order to celebrate the Day of the Family, I would like to share some pictures of the Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona.  I was able to see it while I was in Spain this summer.  Construction began around 1882 under the architect Antoni Gaudi...and it is still not completed.  They think it will finally be done in the mid 2020's.  The only word that can describe it is breathtaking.  As I was choosing the pictures, I realized that they really do not do the church justice.  But, it will give you a taste of what it was like.  If you ever get to Barcelona, make sure to go and see it for yourself! 

What the completed church will eventually look like (from a poster)

Inside the Church.

The columns and ceiling were made to look like trees.

The ceiling

The front of the church at night.

There are several scenes all around the outside of the church.  Here we have the Marriage of Mary and Joseph.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

In the daytime.
The Way of the Cross.

The Crucifixion

Each Apostle gets a statue and a column

Jesus in Gethsemane (This was one of my favorites)
The windows were spectacular and the light inside was always changing.

The front door with the "Our Father" in all different languages.

The columns and ceiling again

The Nativity

The Annunciation (wooops, out of order)

Jesus and Joseph

The pictures really don't let you know how big the place is


Really, this doesn't capture it

While in Barcelona, we stayed with the Marianist Sisters.  They spoke no English, and we spoke no Spanish.  Luckily one sister knew Italian, so we were able to get by.