An occasion worth celebrating

“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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.