A most unique pilgrimage…part III

In an effort to finish this series “on time” I’ll be posting once this week and twice next week.  Since this week is also Holy Week we will not post during the Triduum, giving us an opportunity to focus on the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ. In light of that, I’ve moved my Thursday post to Tuesday. Have a Blessed Easter!

April 8 dawned and the city was abuzz with expectation and excitement. John Paul’s last words had been revealed, “let me go to the Father’s house.” Beautiful last words which captured the spirit of this man’s life.

Rumors were that 4 million people where in the city for the funeral. The friends I had been spending most of my time with in Rome, including Sara (John’s wife) and a group of seminarians from the North American College, had decided we would all camp out the night before the funeral near the basilica and piazza. A few seminarians had lined up some good spots outside the South Colonnade of St Peter’s. We got there somewhat early and settled in for a long night before the police informed us we had to move, they were no longer opening the south entrance to the Piazza. We would have to go east to the end of Via Della Conciliazione if we wanted to get into the Piazza for the funeral. We began walking down a side street, Borgo Santo Spirito and stopped there when we realized we had a great view of the Piazza and unsure as to whether we’d even be this close if we joined the end of the line by Castel San’ Angelo. The police were telling us it was a LONG line to get in to the Piazza.

Though displaced and uncomfortable, the mood was still joyful. Night prayer was prayed, rosaries were prayed. We attempted sleeping, but songs and laughter made it hard. It was like World Youth Day, and I made the comment to a seminarian friend who responded, “its JPII’s first miracle and his last World Youth Day.”

In the early hours of the night ,one of the seminarians who was with us told us he had a lead on getting into the Piazza. So a crowd of seminarians, nuns and a few lay people walked up to the gate where our friend had found a sympathetic police officer. When some of the girls who were not wearing a habit in our group began to walk through the police stopped and demanded an explanation as to why they were coming too, then I and a few other friends not wearing clerics were singled out and we were informed “priests, nuns and seminarians only.” A few of the NACers, understandably, apologized to us and proceeded down the via and on toward the Piazza, but many stayed back, including the one who almost got us in. He went to work on another side street entrance to the via and, after a bit, came back with specific directions: “Two at a time, every five minutes and wait for the police to turn their backs as the ‘all-clear’ sign.” We sneaked onto the via and made our way toward the piazza. We didn’t go in, as we ran into many other groups hold spots on the street and though outside the piazza, we were able to see straight into it and were right beneath a jumbrotron screen set up on the via.

At about 6am, the Italian Red Cross came by, giving water (con frizzante) and breakfast to us and many others on the streets and piazza. Shortly thereafter the police took down the barricades at the east end of the via and began a slow march from the river into the Piazza, arms linked and holding back hundreds of thousands of people. We found ourselves awash in a sea of pilgrims. It was a surreal experience to stand still in a crowd of thousands as they walked by.

We got to know our neighbors as we settled in for Mass, some rowdy Polaks, a group of college students from Illinois, young Italians with guitars, a grumpy mid-aged Italian priest who glared at us incessantly, especially as we sang songs, shouted and laughed. A group of seminarians began praying the rosary and I joined them. About a decade in, the singing Italians joined us and we switched from praying in English to Italian. In between decades one of the seminarians asked the grumpy priest if he wanted to join us. Arms crossed, he displayed his left hand, shaking them as if to say, “I’m already praying my own rosary” as he scowled and turned away. This dude was now irritated by us… Another decade in and the Polaks had joined us as we now prayed in Latin, for their sake. It dawned on me how awesome this was: a spontaneous rosary prayer group from three different countries, all praying together.

As we finished singing the Salve regina, the crowd roared, as the video screens showed the Holy Father’s simple wooden coffin being carried from the nave of the basilica outside to the makeshift sanctuary on the steps of the basilica. Mass began with a procession of the Cardinals. The Papal Gentlemen, serving as the pallbearers, placed of the coffin in front of the altar, the book of the Gospels was placed open, on top of the coffin. All of a sudden, the wind picked up from the East. It blew down the street and into the Piazza. The pages of the gospel began to flip back and forth in the steady breeze. I looked at a friend of mine asked, “do you feel that?” He grinned back at me and said, “The Holy Spirit’s here, man. He’s HERE!”


A most unique pilgrimage…part II

On April 2nd, 2005 I was on my way to Paris, France, by way of the Cote d’Azur. For my Christmas present in 2004, my parents had given me a three-week EuroRail Pass to use after my semester abroad in Florence, Italy. I was exactly one day into my three-week travel plan. We had night-trained to Monaco and leaving the train station that morning, we found the news reporting the impending death of the Pope. My travelling companions and I stopped in a Church outside the station and said a prayer for His Holiness. Upon reaching our hotel that night in Nice, France,  we turned on the BBC which boasted the subtle headline, “John Paul Death Watch.” I suggested that instead of watching the Bronze Doors and the light in the papal apartment, we ought to pray a rosary for the pope. Despite being the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, we prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries.

Watching the “death watch” after the rosary, a news piece had been released. The Holy Father had been informed by those at his bedside that many young people were gathering outside his window and beginning to fill the piazza to keeping vigil with him, wishing to be close to him at this time. John Paul the Great responded, “I searched for you, and now you have come to me. I thank you.”

Exhausted from a sleepless night on a Trenitalia “sleeper” car and a day of sightseeing, I fell asleep only to be awoken minutes later. The look on my friend’s face told me all I needed to know, I rolled over and looked at the TV as the news reported John Paul II had died. As if on cue, the Swiss Guard closed one of the doors leading to the Apostolic Palace… the head of the household was away. All I could muster was, “I know where I’m going on Monday.” Back to Rome.

I had one small courtesy I had to extend. My mom and dad had spent good money so I could travel. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore Europe so I called them first thing Sunday morning and explained, “I really want to go to Rome, but no one knows yet when the funeral will be. If you prefer, I will continue my travels.” My dad said he’d be more disappointed if I didn’t go than if I did. That sealed the deal and Monday morning I was off on the first east-bound train. Providence looked favorably upon me as I happened to catch the first unscheduled train (of many more to come) from Genoa to Rome and arrived in The Eternal City early that evening.

I met another friend of mine after supper. The Pope’s body had been moved from the papal apartments as was now lying in state in St. Peter’s, open to the public for viewing. My friend and I agreed to meet at a certain street corner at 8pm.  Looking back now, I think JPII’s first miracle was managing to have the two of us actually find each other and meet in the midst of tens of thousands of like-minded pilgrims. To put it in perspective, a good priest friend of mine and John’s future bride, Sara, were also in the crowd and we were all within a few dozen yards of each other, we all made it to the basilica around the same time and never once saw each other.

Seeing the body and bidding farewell to this giant of holiness and history was a moving event. JPII got to see his Mother for the first time since he was eight – I imagined Our Lady greeting him and then turning him over to his own mother and father. I imagined them introducing him to the sister he never met and a joyful reunion with his brother. I stopped at the altar near the back of St. Peter’s which bears Pope St. Pius X’s earthly remains and thought of the long line of apostles, priests, popes and doctors of the Church who surely were rejoicing at his arrival and, of course, The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit who, I imagine, could only have said something like, “well done, my good and faithful servant!”

The next few days were days of prayer, but also of celebration. Though one of the biggest funerals in history awaited the city of Rome on Friday, the city, now overflowing with people from all the ends of the earth, was joyful, not at all in mourning. Stories were shared of JPII, favorite quotes were shared, impressions of his hallmark, “be not afraid” were practiced, posters reading “Santo Subito” (“Sainthood now”) and pictures of JPII were all over the city, Vatican flags, Polish flags and rainbow “Pace” flags flew in the streets. Pilgrims sang songs as they walked, or chanted “JPII, We Love You!” or “Karol Wojtyla!” punctuated with clapping.

It seemed as though half of Poland was in the Roman streets, and 75% of its military, in full uniform! I remarked to a seminarian friend that this was the week to invade Poland if anyone had plans to do so. In an Irish Pub one night, the TV began showing an Italian TV documentary on John Paul II. When this came up on the screen the crowd in the bar began chanting and clapping, “Giovanni Paolo!”

This was going to be a funeral to remember, a true celebration of hope and of life…

Unworthy but Thankful

So. Last night our friend Aaron arrived with one…two…three giant boxes, stuffed to the brim with food. “Where did all this come from?” I asked. “I don’t know who did it all,” he responded. “There were women in my house, cooking all day.”

So I started to get things into the freezer: meatloaf, peachy chicken, teriyaki chicken, chili, peppered steak…etc. All for us. I’m tearing up as I recount this to you.

What we really received from our friends, however, was the gift of time. With my wife on bed rest, I get home, high five whoever spent time with her and the girls that day, and get to cooking. We eat, I clean up, help the girls pick up their toys, we pray, I get on their PJs, and get them to bed. There have been days like that earlier in our lives, of course, but the one thing bed rest has done is destroyed family time. I was stacking these meals up and thinking, “Here is a trip to the park. Here is a trip to the library.”

So, if you have a free moment, please join me and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for these hands and feet of Christ who reached out to help us in our time of need.

A most unique Pilgrimage…part I

John is really good at these serials, and so now I’m going to attempt one. With the impending canonization of Saint John Paul II (or the Great) around the corner, I’d like to share with you my experience at his funeral. I’ve spent 9 years trying to process my experience of that morning and the days leading up to it. Perhaps its just a good story, and if nothing else – I’d like to share it with you.

I’m not sure where to even start this story, because funerals aren’t held for their own sake. They’re held in remembrance of, honor of and hope for another person and so it makes little to no sense to go to a funeral for a person who means nothing to you.

Blessed John Paul II meant something to me. Fearless in the face of two of the most totalitarian states in history, he was a radical. He’d seen the culture of death taken to its (il)logical conclusion and still believed in the intrinsic worth and value of every human person. A victim of an attempted assassination (most likely done at the behest of one of the aforementioned tyrannies), he still forgave his would-be assassin. He was truly a witness to hope.

I first saw JPII in person in Toronto during World Youth Day 2002. He was hobbled by Parkinsons Disease, hard to understand, but his enthusiasm for the hundreds of thousands gathered in Toronto was palpable. “I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. You are our hope, the young are our hope.” When he told us, “JPII loves you!” it wasn’t a rock star, giving a clichéd response to the crowd. It was real.

At Toronto, when the public authorities said we should be given prophylactics and birth control, that we couldn’t control ourselves, JPII said give them confessors and rosaries, and believed in us.  When sex abuse scandals rocked the Church, he had hope that the youth would rise from the pain and heal the broken body of Christ, he trusted that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Barque of Peter. And though the dark days of totalitarian regimes were over, there was still darkness to come in suffering that led many to call for him to step down, many Catholics I know were embarrassed by his disability, yet he suffered in communion with Christ. In a world of quick fixes and pleasure seeking, he gave a silent example of how to die with true dignity. In those last days, we had a Pope whose chin needed to be wiped of his own drool, who couldn’t walk and could barely utter a word.

That’s the condition John Paul II was in on March 30, 2005, when I last saw him. Four days earlier Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Mass in his place at St. Peter’s Basilica because the pope was too sick to celebrate Easter Vigil Mass. The following morning, unable to celebrate Easter Mass, he could only appear from his apartment window, overlooking the piazza. Someone else read the Urbi et Orbi message. “Stay with us,” he pleaded to the Lord.

On Easter Wednesday he appeared for his last audience and I was there with a friend. The rest of our group had given up on being present and there were only a handful of pilgrims in the piazza with us. A short message was read, he painstakingly raised his hand to bless us and whispered the words into the microphone, barely audible. To the crowd’s great joy he raised his right hand so as to “work” the crowd, as he was so fond of doing. He leaned toward the microphone and tried to speak again, but couldn’t. He gripped the podium in front of him laboring for his body to do what his mind commanded. Visibly frustrated, he sat back in his wheelchair and opened his hands to the crowd as if to say, “I’m sorry. I tried.”

A Dio, Papa I said between my tears, “to God…”

In Time of Trial

Lately it is hard for me to think of anything but my dear friends Sara and John, and the trials they’ve been going through in their pregnancy. I know that everyone who reads this is already praying for them, but I just want to remind you to storm heaven for this beautiful family!

In reading about one of my favorite saints, St. Gianna Molla, I was struck by the similarities I see between her and Sara; Sara’s selfless courage in doing everything she can for these babies mirrors that of St. Gianna. But courage and virtue don’t just show up in a day, they take a lifetime of cultivation. Just like St. Gianna, Sara has lived her life up until this point in a way that has prepared her for these trials. She and John are prayerful, humble, loving people. They put God first in their lives, always striving to grow closer to Him and to each other.

It is tempting for me to let thoughts of “It’s not fair…” drift into my head, but that’s not how God works. There is no way to know why some people suffer more than others, but we DO know that our God is a God of compassion and mercy. His ways are not our ways, but He hears our prayers!

So please, pray every day for Sara, for John, for their babies, for their two little girls, for the doctors that are working with them, for their extended families who have dropped everything to help them. There is no such thing as too much prayer.

Prayer Request

Hello All:

As some of our readers know, my wife and I are expecting twins in August. Late last week we got word from our doctors that they would like my wife to go on bed rest a full four months before our due date. We have been down this road before, but with two older children, ages four and two, it’s a much different ballgame. Family and friends have already been offering support, which we have been gratefully accepting at every opportunity. For us, bed rest means lost income and a host of other difficulties, so if you could stand with us in prayer over the next few months, it would be greatly appreciated. May you be blessed for your willingness to lay our intentions at the feet of our Lord!

Turning Off the Radio

Although this weekend’s Gospel tells the story of Christ healing a blind man, giving him the gift of sight, it is also important to remember how the other senses can bring us closer to Jesus.  In particular, the sense of hearing is one worth focusing on during this Lenten season.  Are we spending time during prayer just listening?  Are we prepared to hear to what God has to tell us?  Are we willing to silence the distracting noises that swirl around us for a few moments each day?

All too often, I find that I am quick to turn on the radio to listen to the news or to music as I drive from my home in St. Paul to and from the Catholic elementary school where I work.  It’s not a long commute, but I realized recently that I almost always reach for the radio, so that I can have something to listen to.  However, for many days this Lent, I’ve simply left the radio off.  While I would like to say that all this time in silence is spent in deep prayer, the reality is that my thoughts often wander.  But when I am focused on maintaining silence and clearing my head, I know that I am more open to hearing what God has to tell me than I would if I had the radio blasting.

It’s hard for most of us to find the time to be silent and listen.  Perhaps we don’t have the time to go on a silent retreat.  But, like me, I would bet that many of you spend time in a car each day.  This might be an ideal time to leave the radio off and focus on listening.  After all, if God has something to tell us, how else are we going to hear it?

Editor’s Note: This is Mike’s first post on MFA.com, so make sure to welcome him in the comments!


The little things

Its been a while since I’ve posted and I’m sorry for that, but I see John has yet to post today and, though busy too, maybe I can beat him to the punch…

I was just getting irritated in my office at an annoying rattle, then by chance a story came across my Twitter feed about an “everyday” miracle. Thanks to science and medicine, a 40-year-old woman, deaf since birth, recently received cochlear implants. The woman’s reaction to hearing for the first time in her life was recorded by her mother, and the reaction was pretty moving:

http://www.youtube.com/v/UyECCMdlVFo?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=UyECCMdlVFo&width=480&height=300&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep4850″

Puts things into perspective – I  was getting annoyed by a rattle I hear daily, and this woman had just heard for the first time. How happy would she be if she even heard my annoying rattle? What else do I take for granted that may be a small miracle for someone else?

Almost halfway through Lent, this helps shape the end-goal of our Lenten discipline too. I have a hard time giving up little pleasures and conveniences, but its nothing in light of what Christ gave up for us.  This woman’s joy in hearing for the first time must convey something like Mary Magdalene’s joy in seeing the risen Christ on Easter morning, the Apostles finding him back in their presence in the Upper Room, and one day, God willing, our own reaction when we rise with Him and see and hear what eye has not seen and ear has not heard

Heart of Fire, Heart of Bronze

To live in the midst of the world
Without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family,
Yet belonging to none;
To share all suffering;
To penetrate all secrets;
To heal all wounds;
To go from men to God
And offer Him their prayers;
To return from God to men
To bring pardon and hope;
To have a heart of fire for charity
And a heart of bronze for chastity,
To teach and to pardon,
Console and bless always.
My God, what a life;
And it is yours,
O priest of Jesus Christ.

-Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire

Pray for our priests! Pray for our seminarians! Pray for an increase in vocations!

Pray for them every day!

That is all.

Ready for the Harvest

The woman left her water jar
and went into the town and said to the people,
“Come see a man who told me everything I have done.
Could he possibly be the Christ?”
They went out of the town and came to him.
Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”
But he said to them,
“I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
So the disciples said to one another,
“Could someone have brought him something to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me
and to finish his work.
Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’?
I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.
The reaper is already receiving payment
and gathering crops for eternal life,
so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.”

-John 4

My wife and I are very busy these days as we prepare for the birth of our twins. That’s my way of apologizing for my short posts lately. But I thought I would kick off the week with Sunday’s reading. I’ve underlined two verses which stuck out to me this weekend. When Jesus tells the disciples, “Look up…” they are surrounded by the Samaritans who have come out to the well to see Jesus. It’s just a beautiful moment. Jesus is saying to them, “Look at these strangers who are thirsty for eternal life.” The townspeople are the crops, and Jesus is asking the disciples, “Minister to them, that you and I may rejoice together after they have been saved.” Lovely!