Day 8 of my trip to Rome with my husband's canon law class found us at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the dicastery responsible for the beatification and canonization of saints. We sat in large, red, high-backed cushioned chairs around a large rectangular table. Life-sized oil paintings of the recent popes hung on the walls, with a large photograph of Pope Benedict at the front. Microphones lay on the table in front of each chair for whomever would like to ask a question. I hadn't used mine yet in the previous dicastery meetings. Maybe this time.
Monsignor Sarno welcomed us, and I smiled at his tri-state accent, as he sounded just like my dad. He began by saying, "God sends messages to the world through his saints." He stressed the importance of looking not so much at the pen that God uses, but the message that He conveys through that person. He warned of the dangers of getting too caught up in the extraordinary experiences and details in a saint's life, which can sometimes distract us from the importance of a specific virtue that God is showing us through the saint. I sensed immediately that I am guilty of that, as I sometimes even become despondent when I feel as though I could never live like a certain favorite saint because our life experiences are so different. I leaned back a little so the Dominican sister to my left could see.
Monsignor spoke of why saints are so important to us as Christians. He said it is through them that God gives us a concrete example in concrete history of what it means to truly live as a Christian. Our faith is one, he said, but how we live that faith can vary widely depending on an individual's place and time in history. This came as a big comfort to me, as I had always been a little bothered that I could never find "the perfect saint", the one whom I could emulate perfectly, the one who would take the guesswork out of the Christian life for me. He inferred that we're not supposed to have a perfect plan--God wants our love and trust. Interesting. I gazed thoughtfully at the pictures of the popes. Some of them looked like they had had a lot on their minds.
Monsignor explained the various stages in the process of canonization and how they look for miracles to confirm the status of venerable and blessed souls. It was his job to investigate the medical miracles attributed to the intercession of the particular soul. He told the story of his trip to Honolulu, where it was he who had to look into a miracle attributed to Father Damian. A woman there who was told by her doctor that her cancer had spread all throughout her body and even to her brain and only had a few months to live, banged her hand on the table and said, "I'm going to talk to Father Damian about this!" and was instantly cured of all her cancer. My jaw dropped as I imagined the scene and wondered at the woman's faith. Monsignior Sarno added that they look for the medical healings to be full, perfect, and lasting, "as the Holy Spirit doesn't do a half-job".
Just as I was still marveling over the healing, Monsignor again mentioned that often people get too distracted by the fancy details--the "holes in the hands", the "flying" (levitation), bilocation, or even the writings of the saint--and miss the message of holiness that God wants to send, the qualities and virtues He wants to stress to the world through a particular soul. I tried to stop thinking about the Honolulu healing and focus on what this good monsignor was saying, as he would certainly be the one to know. In just a few short minutes he had helped breathe new life into my devotion to the saints, and give me more hope and courage to look beyond the details toward the virtue in that holy person's life.
"Pope Benedict XV said that heroic virtue," added Monsignor, "is to do what you're supposed to do, when you're supposed to do it, with faith, love, and constancy." Wow, I thought. That did seem more impressive than bilocation.
Monday, April 16, 2012
God is so good.
My husband and I are in the middle of a six-hour layover at the O’Hare Airport, en route to Rome to meet up with his fellow canon law classmates for a two-week Rome trip with a decidedly canon law flavor. He’s in a suit; I’m in a skirt, stainless. The babies are with the grandparents, and we decide that we’d be happy if we never left Terminal K for the next two weeks.
I sip a latte that’s wrapped in an insulated cover which illustrates the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, and I remember that today is Pope Benedict’s birthday. I wish we would’ve brought him some cheese from our home state of Wisconsin. My husband helps himself to my coffee, and I don’t mind one bit because two days’ time will find us in the front row of Benedict’s Wednesday audience. And Wednesday afternoon will probably find me in an Italian hospital, being treated for heart failure.
Being in the same room as Christ’s vicar on earth. Descending beneath St. Peter’s to visit St. Peter’s tomb. Feeling the overwhelming presence of the saints at the Colosseum. Gazing at the Pieta. Gaping at the Sistine Chapel. Gawking at the Italians. Resisting the mighty urge to speak English with a faux Italian accent at all times. Not wearing jeans for two weeks. Drinking wine at noon. Attending Mass at the tomb of St. Josemaria Escriva. Visiting the CDF, CDW, the Rota, the Apostolic Signatura, the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Apostolic Penitentiary—what could they do?, the Congregation for Bishops and other dicasteries with my husband and his fellow canonisti. Pretending to be Nicolas Cage in the Secret Archives. Not carrying a diaper bag. Meeting my old bishop from my home diocese in his new surroundings, where he is known as Raymondo Cardinal Bur-kay. Watching the priests and religious enter and exit the Vatican with their beautiful cassocks and habits blowing in the breeze. A brief excursion to Assisi with a dear priest friend. Church hopping, saint visiting, masterpiece finding. Pasta, fancy shoes, scarves, altar pieces, statues, and cobblestone streets. Receiving the Eucharist in the Eternal City.
I might need hospitalization now.
God is so good.
I made my way to the end of the line at our suburb’s semi-annual children’s consignment sale—the Mega Hot Tot Sale!!!!—as it had been irresistibly advertised. My eyes followed the impossibly long column of women waiting to check out around the perimeter of the middle school cafeteria through the glass doors before it turned out of sight. A husband pushing a stroller found his wife in the line and asked if it was really worth waiting for an hour to save a few dollars. A fair question. But I was committed, as we had already promised the children that they could come and bring their St. Patrick’s Day money with them, so I placed the Veggie Tales movie and light saber on the girls’ Easter dresses at my feet and prayed that my husband might find some way to keep the children occupied as they all waited in a different section of the building. When I had internalized just how long I’d be standing there, I recognized it for the gift that it was, and suddenly and immensely enjoyed letting my eyes run over the winding line again. The moms chatted, admired their finds, smiled and waved to children who were far away across the building with their fathers, or gazed quietly into the consignment expanse, everyone enjoying the morning respite.
Except for the woman ahead of me. And her girlfriend. Or maybe they were enjoying themselves. But it wasn’t long before their conversation had me completely engrossed. The first woman was exceedingly animated as she described in excruciating detail just how her incompetent her husband was. He brought his dishes to the counter, and then just left them there, right on top of the dishwasher! When he cleaned the bathroom, he just sort of ran a rag over the sink—like blehbedyblah--instead of scrubbing off the grime behind the faucet. And when she was out, he didn’t even switch over her laundry, like she had asked him to. And don’t even get her started on his failings as a father. Why, she was so mad at one point, she called him at work and chewed him out so loudly that the whole office could hear, which, she reluctantly admitted later, was a little crazy, but you know? And her girlfriend did. Her husband was the same way.
A pit was forming in my stomach as I listened, guilty from eavesdropping, horrified at the open hostility this poor woman—and man—had to endure in their marriage, and so sad as I imagined the husband and wife continuing on this way until they eventually annihilated each other. I thanked God, like the Pharisee, for not letting me be like that woman, made sure to smile at all the husbands I saw during the duration of my time in the line, and smothered my husband in kisses and thanks when I emerged from the sale and found him and the kids happily playing on a giant boulder outside of the school. But later, at home, the woman’s comments stayed with me, and I had to admit that the tendency of wives to be hard on their husbands—even if their thoughts remain mostly unspoken--is a universal one in this fallen world and something to be resisted.
A few days after, I felt a desire to do a little research into the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. I found on New Advent the seven letters he wrote around 107 A.D. as he was being led to his martyrdom and clicked on the one he wrote to St. Polycarp because those are my husband’s favorite baby names. And almost immediately the mystery as to why I was reading this and not Facebook status updates was solved. In the letter to St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, St. Ignatius sends his friend fraternal encouragement and direction, and later in his letter writes, “Speak to my sisters, that they love the Lord, and be satisfied with their husbands both in the flesh and spirit” (Ad Polycarp, 5).
Oh man, I thought, the Holy Spirit is serious about this. So I thought I’d speak to my sisters about it, too.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
This past week I’ve enjoyed the company of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, thanks to Lisa Hendey’s A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul. Lisa’s beautifully arranged book provides a gentle, yet thoughtful look at fifty-two saints every Catholic mom should have at her side. Complete with each saint’s biography, patronage, and traditions surrounding his or her legacy, the book provides a heartfelt reflection on the relationship between the week’s saint and today’s Catholic mom as well as daily scriptural reflections on a theme central to the life of the particular saint and activities for moms and families to help call to mind the saint’s heroic example. I had intended to read it in its entirety last week but couldn’t bear rushing through the chapters, wanting so much to use the whole week getting to know my saintly friends better.
It was Saint Elizabeth of Portugal who had especially caught my eye and heart this past week by her most heroic love. Lisa Hendey writes that before she had even turned thirteen Saint Elizabeth, herself from a royal family in Sargossa, was married to King Denis of Portugal. Known for her charity and piety, Saint Elizabeth strove to live out her faith by attending daily Mass, praying the Divine Office, and caring for her family while also reaching out to the poor in her community. King Denis, on the other hand, while supposedly encouraging her in her efforts, repeatedly had affairs and even fathered children outside of their union.
Saint Elizabeth, ever faithful to her Lord, played the part of peace-maker in this difficult family atmosphere. Lisa writes, “Elizabeth was born into a family divided by political battles. She went on to watch the same problems erupt between her husband Denis and her own son, Alfonso IV. She was able to barter a truce between a man who had repeatedly cheated on her and fathered illegitimate children, and the son who felt his father was playing favorites with his undeserving half-brothers” (p. 52).
Truly deserving of sainthood, Saint Elizabeth “rose above the embarrassment and pain she surely felt” and cared for her children and the children born to King Denis from his affairs. She respected his leadership of the kingdom, and took care of him during the final sickness that would lead to his death. Her lifelong prayer for him was finally answered at his deathbed, when he experienced conversion.
Lisa notes that Saint Elizabeth, whose patronage includes peace, against jealousy, and brides, can be a powerful intercessor for wives who are finding it difficult to love their husbands and for mothers who are confronted with the realities of divorce or separation in the family. Lisa writes:
For those moms who face the unique challenges of pulling together new family traditions, working with other adults in cooperative parenting situations, and dealing with the stress of scheduling and interpersonal issues, Saint Elizabeth can be a special intercessor when everyday life feels complicated or overwhelming. Women facing marriage difficulties, separation, or divorce have shared with me their devotion to this matriarch whose faith saw her through domestic trials and helped her sustain her family life (53).I pray that Saint Elizabeth might be with us all during Holy Week, interceding on our behalf so that we might be real instruments of peace in our families. And I thank Lisa for the true treasure that is her book--a gentle reintroduction to our most faithful friends, the saints.