Want to help Mideast Christians?

Then don’t forget to pray, says bishop

Karna Lozoya

Christians in the western world sat helpless as they watched 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Their blood confesses Christ,” Pope Francis said in response to the atrocity in February.

Calling the murdered “martyrs,” the pope urged that the deaths stir ecumenical unity, saying, “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians!”

On May 15, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver and Maronite Catholic Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, 30 other clergy and 200 laity heeded the pope’s call with an ecumenical prayer breakfast to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians and rally aid.

The event was organized by Maronite Father Andre Mahanna, director of ecumenism for Our Lady of Lebanon Eparchy and pastor of St. Rafka Church in Lakewood, where the service was held.

It included a procession—with Orthodox and Lutheran bishops and pastors, a Mormon stake (deanery) president and a Baptist minister—and testimony about the plight of victimized Christians.

“Lebanon is a land of 4 million people, and over 2 million refugees,” Bishop Zaidan said about his birthplace, which borders Syria, adding that the need is overwhelming both the government and the Church.

Christian casualties in Syria, which has a population of 22.9 million, according to the United Nations, include 1.5 million displaced, more than 6,400 killed and 10,000 abductions. Entire villages have been destroyed, countless numbers of children orphaned and Christian women taken as sex slaves as ISIS expands it’s self-declared Islamic state.

Archbishop Aquila exhorted the audience to build awareness of the atrocities.

“The fact that (Christians) put their faith in Jesus Christ is the only reason (they) are being killed (by ISIS),” he said. “It’s especially important for people in the United States to speak out against this.”

Among the suggestions speakers offered is urging elected officials to take action and donating to humanitarian relief efforts.

“Never forget your (persecuted Christian) brothers and sisters,” Bishop Zaidan emphasized. “Never forget to pray for them. We underestimate the importance and power of prayer.”

The program also highlighted the heartening reunification of two refugee children from Iraq who were close friends but separated when they were uprooted from their homes. One of them, Miryam, said she forgave her aggressors the same way she and her friend, Sandra, forgive each other.

“This is the greatest story,” Father Mahanna said, translating for refugee workers Skyping from Lebanon. He said he aims to reunite the friends in person and bring them to the United States to serve as ambassadors for peace.

Carmelite Brother David Johnson, 34, a native Denverite who is a monk at St. James the Persian Monastery in Qara, Syria, shared an uplifting experience of God’s providence amidst the terrorism.

He told of being abducted from the monastery, which is surrounded by mountains filled with ISIS fighters, on Easter Monday three years ago by Syrian militia who thought he might be a spy. While being held hostage, Brother Johnson told his captors that although he is American, Jesus taught that one’s true home is with God the Father in heaven, and he sang an Easter hymn to them in Arabic.

“‘I’ve never heard that before, why don’t you sing that again,’” Brother Johnson recalled one of the soldiers saying. “So I sang again, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’”

Drawing laughter, he added: “The guy said, ‘Let’s turn around the car. We’re taking him back to the monastery.’”

Fellow monk, Carmelite Father Daniel Maes, a 50-year priest from Belgium, stressed the importance of protecting Christianity in the lands where it started, noting that its disappearance there would bode ill for all Christians.

“When the roots of the tree are cut off,” he warned, “then the tree outside will die also.”

TO HELP

Donate: Make check payable to St. Rafka Church, mail to 2301 Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood, CO 80214; indicate in the memo line: Middle East Refugee Aid

 

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.