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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday: The Pilgrimage of Conversion

By Susan Fox

On Ash Wednesday, I went on an unexpected pilgrimage, trying unsuccessfully to go to confession.

The churches were packed.

I went to Mass at my parish at 2 p.m. It was packed, and it was only one of six Masses on a day, which is not a Holy Day of Obligation. In Catholic talk, it was not a day in which we are required to attend Mass, like a Sunday.

I drove 30 miles to another church for confession at 4 p.m., but they had cancelled it due to the 5 p.m. Mass. At that parish, I lit a candle in reparation for my sins in front of the Jesus, Divine Mercy statue. Little things like that please God, who is Little Himself, and promised "Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.".

Then I was going past another parish, and I remembered they had confession at 5 p.m. So I got in line there behind a lady who had already gotten in line three times this week for confession, but she had been unable to get in. We were the last two standing when Mass started and again we couldn’t go. But waiting in line was a joy and an adventure in itself.

As I left, there was hardly any standing room left, and people were still pouring in, illegally parking and asking me why I was leaving with ashes already on my forehead.

The ashes we get one day out of the year at the start of a season of penance called Lent. They make us Catholics look like we were working in the garage and forgot to wash our faces. But they are supposed to remind us that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.

Years ago, I met a very young man who didn’t believe in God. I pointed to his flower bed, and told him someday he and I would be buried under that. “And where will you be then?” I asked. He had trouble wrapping his mind around that concept. But it’s good to remember that this life is not the end of our pilgrimage. And I hope that someday both the young man and I will be with God -- not under the flower bed.

The New York Post reported on the crowds at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that it was “the largest Ash Wednesday congregation in recent memory.” We had the same feeling standing in line for confession at St. Thomas the Apostle in Phoenix. It felt like the whole world had come to Church to put on sackcloth and ashes -- to change their lives.

This is a great sign of hope. Maybe it took a recession, a huge and wasteful stimulus bill and an administration absolutely bent on death to shake us out of our complacency. Whatever it is, Father, keep bringing it on. You know when Jonah preached to Nineveh, the whole of the people from the king on down put on sackcloth and ashes and repented of their sins. The promised destruction never occurred and Jonah actually had his nose out of joint. My husband knows a deep theological reason for that (He was a Jew and the people of Nineveh weren’t), but personally I think he thought he looked a fool when the promised destruction didn’t materialize. Regardless, as Christians, I hope we will always rejoice when people turn their hearts to God.

If you are a person who regularly goes to church, people sometimes think that you think you are better than they are. But in fact, the opposite is true. Pope John Paul II talked about this in his encyclical called, “On the Mercy of God.”

People coming to Church on Ash Wednesday are seeking God’s mercy, His charity. They recognize that something is wrong and they want to change. This isn’t a one-time deal like accepting Christ and then being saved forever. We have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

“Authentic knowledge of the God of mercy, the God of tender love, is a constant and inexhaustible source of conversion, not only as a momentary interior act but also as a permanent attitude, as a state of mind,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “Those who come to know God in this way, who ‘see’ him in this way, can live only in a state of being continually converted to him. They live therefore in statu conversionis; and it is this state of conversion which marks out the most profound element of the pilgrimage of every man and woman in statu viatoris (in a state of pilgrimage).”

That’s how we who go to church regularly live – as sinners constantly trying to change our lives for the good. We don’t sit in the pew complacently thinking, “I’m saved. I don’t have to do anything.” We go to Mass. We confess our sins frequently. We do acts of charity for our neighbor. We pray. We read the Scripture, seeking a deeper relationship with God, a deeper love and knowledge.

And unlike other denominations, we have the richest, the choicest of helps in this pilgrimage. After Baptism, we have a divine encounter with Christ in which we can personally deal with our faults. “It is the sacrament of penance or reconciliation that prepares the way for each individual, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love that is more powerful than sin,” Pope John Paul II added.

Many people have reported that they feared to discuss their sins in confession especially if it is their first confession or they haven’t been to confession in a long time. But what they don’t realize is that “It is precisely because sin exists in the world, which ‘God so loves . . . that he gave his only Son,” the pope wrote. God, who is love, cannot reveal Himself other than as mercy. “This corresponds not only to the most profound truth of that love which God is, but also to the whole interior truth of man and of the world which is man’s temporary homeland.”

So as we were standing in line waiting for confession Wednesday, we were all congratulating ourselves because we knew we were sinners. And we weren’t alone in that condition. St. John said if there is one among you who says he is without sin, he is a liar. Not only that, we knew that today we might overcome one fault, but tomorrow we would recognize 20 more. God doesn’t reveal all one’s sins in a basket. We couldn’t bear it. First he lays the foundation, the basement, and then by baby steps adds the first and second floor. By the time you reach the attic, you realize you have been working all along on Faith, Hope and Charity. He shows it to you lovingly over time as you go on your pilgrimage of faith to the Father’s house.

I dearly love standing in line for confession. I feel very close to Christ because Jesus did the same thing when he approached the River Jordan to be baptized by St. John the Baptist. The Pharisees wouldn’t go in. They stood on a hill nearby and watched because entering the river for baptism was an admission of guilt.

The unblemished Lamb of God humbly entered the river with the other sinners, but to a different end. He wanted to gather us sinners up close to His Sacred Heart to make us perfect like Him. Jesus – the sinless One –plunged us into the rivers of Baptism and Repentance -- His own life, death and resurrection. So as St. Paul says, because we have died with Christ, we shall LIVE with Him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"My Kids' Dad" or Why the World Needs Our Father

“The Lord is my Light and my salvation; whom do I fear?” (Ps. 27:1)

by Susan Fox

I was standing in line in the Apache Junction Post Office when I heard the sad story of “my kids’ Dad.”

He was not really a husband, nor a father, but a biological Dad, who left the teller of this story 17 years after he began a relationship with her that ended in … divorce? No, not really divorce, the relationship – whatever it was – simply came to an end. They could never have been married, or she would have identified him as her ex-husband, not “my kids’ Dad.” They were related by kids. He was the father, and she was the mother.

She was a pretty girl and told the story to an interested young man in a neck brace.

It was a story of how she moved to this small town in Arizona because her kids’ Dad brought her. Now he was abandoning her and his kids in the same town. And the economy is bad, and after 17 years, she is going to have to figure out how to earn a living to support the kids.

The young man in a neck brace looked at her with anxiety and compassion.

I mentally added her to my prayer list. It was a long line, so at least 20 other strangers heard her story. I don’t know their response.

It’s funny the Democrats all think that poverty needs to be solved by printing more money (which by the way makes things cost more), or by robbing from the “so-called” rich (people who work for a living) and giving to the “poor” (people who don’t). (I do think people who work should voluntarily and privately help those who can’t.)

But the Pope has correctly identified the true cause of poverty. It’s sin. It’s eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That wasn’t fruit that Adam and Eve were snacking on in the Garden of Eden. It was arrogance and pride, a belief that man himself can control his own destiny outside of a relationship with God and His law. The people who suffer from the fruit of that pride are helpless women and children, who live in poverty. Good marriages make for happy, cared-for children. Our world has forgotten that and abandoned its Christian roots. And so the image of the father is so badly scarred that man has forgotten his dignity as a child, a child of God. What kind of father would abandon his children and their mother?

Yet “even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in.” (Ps. 26:10)

You know that God already sent His Son into the world so that we might have life and have it abundantly. You know that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. He still dwells among us in the Holy Eucharist.

St. Teresa of Avila used to become very impatient with her nuns, who sighed and wished they’d lived during the time of Christ so they could walk and talk with Jesus. She reminded them of what every Catholic should know, but many have forgotten. If you have the Word Made Flesh under the appearance of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist, you have Jesus Christ Himself really present now in every Catholic tabernacle in the world and re-presented at every Catholic Mass daily.

I love the part of the Holy Mass before the Consecration, known as the Sanctus.

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

“He Who comes in the name of the Lord” is Jesus Christ riding meekly into Jerusalem -- as foretold to the prophet -- on a colt of an ass on Palm Sunday. (Matt.21:9) And so He rides again every day into the presence of the people of the Way in the Holy Mass.

One man, who belonged to a non-Christian religion, heard that we had God in our Churches, and he said if he truly believed God was present in the Catholic Church that he would be on his knees every day in front of the tabernacle and he would never leave. But many of our churches are even locked up during the day. Jesus is a prisoner and sometimes it seems like the people cannot have Him.

Even God the Father is frustrated with this state of affairs.

For in 1932, he appeared to Mother Eugenia Elisabetta Ravasio.

And He said, “I cannot give My beloved Son another time to prove My love for men! I am now coming among them in order to love them and to make them know this love, assuming their image, their poverty.”

And then he put down His crown and His glory and took on the appearance of an ordinary man. He took the globe of the world and held it to His Heart, and then He sat down next to Mother Eugenia. One can almost see Him doing the same thing in the Apache Junction Post Office, taking off his crown, his glory to put His arm around a young lady standing in line and pouring out her heart to a stranger in a neck brace.

The Father said He came to banish the fear that men have of Him, to bring hope to all nations, and to make Himself known just as He is. “I have but one concern: to watch over all men and love them as My children.”

He said the same thing in 1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has bestowed on us in letting us be called children of God!

The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized the Son. Dearly beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light. We know that when it comes to light we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who has this hope based on Him keeps himself pure, as he is pure.”

We cannot “see” the Father until we are like Him. That’s why Jesus prayed that we would be “perfect” as His heavenly Father is perfect. Many of us struggle with that path of perfection, and therefore fail to realize that God IS our Father. But for those who persevere in a relationship with God through daily prayer and Scripture reading, the understanding that they are indeed His child will act like a bolt of lightening in their lives. One cannot really understand the words “Love your neighbor as yourself,’ until you understand that God is OUR Father and God is Love. Then you can see the tiny stranger in the womb, the elderly woman dying in the nursing home or the annoying co-worker as your sister or brother because they are also God’s children. This is a very special gift of God. We in the Catholic Church call it piety or filial (family) relationship with God.

As the men and women of our time come to an understanding that they are indeed the beloved children of a Loving Father, then scenes like the one I witnessed in the Apache Junction post office will become less frequent. For if you KNOW you are God’s child and you KNOW that your spouse and child are also His children, how can you abandon them for your selfish convenience?

When I was four years old, I was in a car accident with my mother and father. I remember being pulled from the back seat by a stranger, while seeing my mother knocked out with blood on her forehead and my Dad getting out of the car with blood at his throat.

I screamed, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” And then I threw up, but nobody let me have my Daddy, who was rushed to the hospital and died.

But I tell you this solemnly that God the Father heard my cry. He gave me Jesus in the Eucharist three days later when my mother and Grandmother walked me down the hall of the hospital to the Catholic Chapel. They pointed to the tabernacle and told me that Jesus was present there, and that I should pray for my Dad, who had died. Since then, walls, locked doors, illness, ill-treatment -- nothing can separate me from the love of my Jesus, the love of my God.

(Mother Eugenia’s vision of the Father is approved by the Catholic Church and contained in a little book called “The Father Speaks to His Children,” available through Mary’s Call at (816) 942-9783 in the U.S. (862)362682 in Italy and (905) 893-9649 in Canada.)