An occasion worth celebrating

Mary Beth Bonacci

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  Hebrews 12:1

I love being Catholic in November. I like to think of this as the month that the Church reminds us that we’re not alone. Those who went before us are still, in a very real way, with us. We can pray for them. And, once they have entered into glory, they can and do surround us and see us and pray for us.

We think of the saints, rightly, as role models. They have walked in our shoes. They’ve faced trial and temptation and suffering, just as we do, and they have finished the race.  But sometimes, we stop there. We can emulate them, we can ask them to pray for us. But the relationship is pretty one-sided. It’s us looking up to them — literally and figuratively.

But I have found that there’s a lot more to it. The saints want to do more than just passively wait for us. They want to be part of our lives. They want a much more direct, two-way relationship.

A couple of years ago, I told you the story about how my friend, the late Father Michael Scanlon, TOR, reached out in a very real, concrete way to let me know that he is praying for me. That incident was stunning in its clarity. It left me no doubt that he, although no longer in this world, is aware of and interested in what is happening in my life, and that through his prayers he has become an active participant.

This November, I want to tell you about a different and somewhat more subtle experience I had.

Everyone who knows me knows about the tremendous impact St. John Paul II had on me. His Theology of the Body quite literally derailed my life. After I discovered it during my senior year of college, I was determined to share its message as widely as I could. Which turned out to be far wider than I could have ever imagined. Instead of marrying and having children, I spent the next 20 years traveling around the world, speaking on the Holy Father’s vision of love and marriage. I earned a Master’s degree from the program he founded, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. I wrote two books based on his message.

I never really met him during that time. We spoke at the same events a couple of times. But while I eagerly listened to every word of his addresses, he was not sitting in the audience during mine. I “met” him during a papal audience once, but he was very ill and it was kind of a “department store Santa Claus” set up where we had our pictures taken with him, but no real introduction or conversation happened. I was told at one point that he knew who I was and was familiar with my work. But that’s about as close as we ever got.

Nine years after his death, I traveled to Rome for his canonization. The way that trip came about was really nothing short of miraculous and gave me the distinct impression that “somebody” wanted me there.

While in Rome, I was praying one day at the church of Santo Spirito, the Divine Mercy shrine. It’s a beautiful place, with a side chapel with a large, beautiful picture of St. John Paul II. While I was praying there, I suddenly had what I can only describe as an awareness of his presence. I felt, as strongly as ever, my love for this man who so beautifully radiated Christ. And I heard, in my heart, his deep Polish voice saying “Now I choose you.” I knew, I just knew, that he was telling me that he knew me, and that he was choosing me to be his spiritual daughter — to pray for me, and to help lead me to Christ.

I wept. A lot. It was beautiful.

Could it have been my imagination? Sure. But I don’t think so. And even it if was, I know what St. Paul told us — that our departed brothers and sisters in Heaven are not far from us. They surround us. And thus, the man who influenced my life so profoundly is still real and still present and active in the world, and in my life.

This is not just about me. He influenced thousands of us — perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands. I’m sure many others have had similar experiences, and many others would if they remained silent long enough to hear him

All of us who were touched by his life are his spiritual children, and they are my spiritual siblings.

And what do we do when we’re family? We celebrate important milestones together, of course. And there’s a big one coming up. My spiritual father’s birthday is coming up. St. John Paul II was born on May 20th, 1920. Next year will be his big 1-0-0. And I want to celebrate it. With all of you.

I will be leading a pilgrimage to Poland, “In the Footsteps of St. John Paul II,” next May. We will visit the major sites of his life, and those of other Polish saints like Maximilian Kolbe and St. Faustina. And, best of all, will be in Krakow, the center of so much of St. JPII’s life in Poland, on the date of his 100th birthday.

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. For me, and for everybody who loved him.

I would very much like you to join me. If you’d like to learn more, go to https://rtijourneys.com/in-the-footsteps-of-st-john-paul-ii.

Because family should be together on special occasions.

Featured image by Lucía Ballester/CNA

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.