Let Them Know You Love Them

It was late afternoon when we boarded the Regional Line Train from Köln, Germany. Mike, our cousins and I had spent the day touring this beautiful city and we were most grateful to settle into our seats. Sightseeing had filled us up with much to contemplate. Our daylong walk had taken its toll, leaving us completely exhausted. While Mike, Stjepan and Josip nodded off, I focused on the view beyond my window. Tired as I was, I fought the urge to nap because there was so much to see as the train carried us out of the city. In the midst of my revelry, I turned away from the window in response to a yelping dog in the back of the car. Pets are welcomed by the German railways. Nonetheless, in spite of the Regional Line’s hospitality, this excitable pup wasn’t dealing well with the trip. Two women seated near the unhappy canine decided to seek refuge in the empty seats across from me. Though the show outside my window continued, something compelled me to attend to my new neighbors.

As I watched, I saw that one of the women spoke with great effort as her companion encouraged her to express what she wanted to say. I couldn’t tell if this companion was a family member or a caregiver, and it didn’t matter. It became evident very soon that her palpable kindness drew tangible joy from the special woman in her care. While many of our fellow commuters napped, this companion made the most of these moments shared. Though the special woman’s language was extremely difficult to understand, she listened carefully. She must have understood perfectly because her replies always elicited a smile from her special friend. After talking a while, the companion traced a sign on the special woman’s palm. From my vantage point, this sign seemed to be a smiling face. The special woman carefully traced her companion’s invisible strokes. She giggled happily when she realized that she’d imitated her companion perfectly. The companion went on to demonstrate a few more signs that her friend traced with equal precision, smiling happily after each one. Eventually, the pair settled back and gazed out the window. The special woman smiled most of the time, seemingly as entertained as I had been with the show outside of our windows. For perhaps a minute, she became quite pensive and then returned to her contented smile. I wondered if God took advantage of those quiet moments to assure this special friend that her smile was irresistible.

As I turned back to my own window, I considered the precious gift of this special woman’s simple heart. Many of the complications of this life escaped her. She invested her time and energy in only the most important task at hand –appreciating those in her company by listening and by expressing herself as best she could. It occurred to me that her gentle and patient companion must have seen a glimpse of what God saw in this special woman. No matter how difficult it might have been for others to understand, this companion always seemed to understand the special woman’s messages. Every syllable, sign, facial expression and shrug of the shoulders spoke volumes to this most attentive listener who never seemed to tire of her special friend’s company. Though I saw many beautiful and amazing sites in Köln, nothing touched me quite as deeply as the two women I observed on the train that day.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 23:1-12), Jesus expresses great displeasure with the scribes and Pharisees. Their arrogance blinds them to the beauty that lies in the hearts of the people they are meant to serve. They busy themselves with holding those beneath them to the letter of the law regardless of the cost, while obtaining every fringe benefit and honor that their status in the temple affords them. Though they’re in a position to serve their brothers and sisters as Jesus does, they choose to embrace the world’s fleeting riches instead. You and I don’t enjoy the scribes’ and Pharisees’ far-reaching authority over others. Still, we do control what it is that our hearts and our hands attend to. Today, God invites us to take a lesson from Jesus and from the two women I met on the train in Germany. God asks us to tune in a bit less to the world’s demands and to tune in a bit more to the people we’ve been given to love. Our purpose isn’t to secure our positions in this world. Our purpose is to secure the hearts of those around us with the certainly that they are loved.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Love Welcomes Us Home

While in Germany this past September, the elder good deacon and I stayed with Mike’s cousin, Father Stjepan. Our flat on the third floor of the rectory was across the courtyard from the Croatian Mission Chapel of Mary, the Mother of God. Every evening before dinner, we celebrated Mass in the chapel with Father Stjepan, the sisters who staff the mission and a small group of parishioners. Though the hymns and prayers were offered in the Croatian Language, those who prayed with me each day drew me in with their welcome and their openness in spite of our language differences. I felt very much at home.

These intimate liturgies roused memories of weekday noon Masses at Loyola University’s Madonna della Strada Chapel during my college years. Though I attended Mundelein College located next door to the university, those who staffed the chapel welcomed all who came to stand around the altar for Mass each day. We walked in opposite directions after Mass, each to attend classes in his or her own school. Still, while we prayed together, we were one student body. I felt very much at home.

Our evening Croatian liturgies also evoked memories of morning Masses celebrated in the early days of our own parish. Because we had no formal worship space, St. Paul the Apostle parishioners traveled to one another’s homes for daily Mass. When morning Mass numbers grew beyond our homes’ capacities, the Marsh Funeral Home staff welcomed us to celebrate daily Mass in their facility. Though we came from Gurnee’s north, south, east and west sides and beyond, we were one church, and I felt very much at home.

Our trip to Germany reminded me that our ability to form one family around the altar is essential to who we are. Father Stjepan arranged for us to visit with a priest who’d recently spent time in Chicago studying the church in the United States. Father Ludger Molitor is the pastor of St. Josef Parish, located in a middle class neighborhood in Essen. He participates in CrossingOver, a partnership between Germany and the Archdiocese of Chicago which explores the church “at work” here and applies this to the church in Germany. Father Ludger visited many very different parishes in the city and suburbs. Our German friend observed that the church in the Chicago area seems to be “about the people” -how to welcome them, how to keep them and how to best use their talents. Father Ludger expressed his amazement at the number of ministries operating among us. Father Ludger was so taken by what he experienced during his studies here that he will return to Chicago in late October with fifteen of his parishioners to learn more. Some of his parishioners studied English in anticipation of this trip so they’ll be able to understand and absorb as much as possible firsthand.

Father Ludger’s enthusiasm touched me deeply. I pondered his fervor as Stjepan drove us back to our flat. I wondered about my own enthusiasm regarding “church”. The truth is that every weekend at St. Paul’s brings something to excite or inspire me. It may be a comment from a first-time visitor or from a second grader who needs an adult ear. Sometimes, it’s good news from a person who’d requested prayers a while back. I often find myself touched by a single line in a homily, the refrain of a hymn that speaks volumes to me or a passage from scripture that God seems to have spoken to me that day. Our diligent St. Vincent De Paul Society members who will sell until the last their Mystery Dinner ticket is sold make me smile. Our hospitality volunteers who fill baskets until the last donut hole is gone always have something positive to share. The antics that convince us all to buy real or virtual pumpkins from the Lifeteen kids make my day. There are times when simply sitting quietly before the 7:30 Mass with everyone else who’s crawled out of bed early enough to join me fills me up. As I pondered Father Ludger’s enthusiasm, I realized that he’d discovered what I love best about who we are: I feel very much at home with you.

Father Ludger is right. The church is about people –how we welcome one another, how we keep each other coming back, and how we encourage each other to use our talents. In today’s gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus lays the groundwork for our success. We’ll be the people Jesus envisions if we love the Lord, our God with all of our hearts, our souls and our minds, and if we love one another as we love ourselves. The church in Germany and the church here at home will thrive for as long as love guides us.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Render to God

During our visit to Germany last month, the good deacon’s cousin, Father Stjepan, arranged for us to be interviewed by a local journalist. Cousin Stjepan had engaged in a decades-long search for his family in the United States. At the same time, Mike searched relentlessly for his family members in Croatia. Apparently, Stjepan and this journalist felt that the happy ending to these quests was newsworthy. The morning we left for home, an article and photos relating Stjepan’s and Mike’s story appeared on Page 3 of the local paper.

Remarkable as this is, I found myself more taken by the conversation we shared with our journalist friend which didn’t appear in the paper. He expressed great interest in the church in the United States, just as we inquired about the experiences of German Catholics. It became apparent very quickly that people of faith in both countries share many of the same hopes and concerns. This journalist is an extremely intelligent, well-educated man who holds a doctorate in philosophy and theology. He also possesses a passionate heart, filled with love for his country and love for his faith. He suffers the frustrations common to each of us who hopes to integrate both a good way of life and a strong belief system into his or her daily living.

When we spoke, this journalist reminded us that Pope Benedict XVI would visit Germany the week after we left. He hoped that the Holy Father would use this opportunity to offer the German people a call to action to embrace their faith anew and to live accordingly. When he visited Croatia several months ago, Pope Benedict encouraged the Croatian people to hold on to their strong faith while reaching out to the European Union to better insure the economic health of their little country. Our journalist friend hoped that Benedict would be equally assertive when he addressed the German Parliament. I voiced similar hope for a call to action here at home that encourages a union of love of country and love of God which would translate into just and honorable leadership by our public officials. When we parted ways that day, we and our journalist friend expressed gratitude for this German-American encounter. The church we share seemed a bit more universal and the world we share seemed a bit less daunting in size as a result of our meeting.

I’m happy to share that Josip, another of our newfound friends in Germany, emailed us an English translation of Pope Benedict’s address. After reading it, I guessed that our journalist friend was as pleased with the message as I. A learned man in his own right, Pope Benedict referenced human history when he invited the German people to rule in accord with what is right and just. He pointed out “…that systems of law have almost always been based on religion.” Still, Pope Benedict assured his audience that he had not come to dictate law to his homeland. He stated that Christianity “…has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society.” Rather, he asked Germany’s leaders to attend to the laws of nature and reason to find the true sources of authentic law. Benedict reminded them that long before the birth of Christ, when the work of Stoic philosophers and teachers of Roman law impacted upon one another, humankind’s efforts in enacting law focused upon nature and reason. Centuries later, the marriage of these efforts impacted the Middle Ages and the Age of Enlightenment. The same efforts reached further into the future to the Declaration of Human Rights and the German Basic Law of 1949. Benedict reminded his German brothers and sisters that it was through this law that “…our nation committed itself to ‘inviolable and inalienable human rights as the foundation of every human community, and of peace and justice in the world’”. There was no need for Pope Benedict to bring anything more to the table than a challenge to the German People to live up to what they already professed to be right and just.
When I read today’s gospel (Matthew 2:15-21), I couldn’t help thinking of my journalist friend and Pope Benedict’s visit to Germany. The Pharisees, intent upon discrediting Jesus, ask if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus condones the taxes, the Pharisees will condemn him as an idolater because the Romans consider Caesar to be a god. If Jesus disallows the taxes, they will label him as an enemy of the State. Jesus responds by asking whose image appears on a Roman coin. When the Pharisees reply that it is Caesar, Jesus tells them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus recognized that while we live in two worlds that often seem at odds with one another, each of us must reconcile his or her life within the two. During his visit to Germany, Pope Benedict echoed Jesus’ words when he maintained that it is possible to be both a loyal citizen and a loyal child of God. Like the German People, we know well what is right and just. Like the German People, our challenge is to do what is right and just as citizens and as children of God.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Invitation

When I was a little girl, my mom assured me that special blessings come to us whenever we enter a church we’ve never visited before. So it was that I joined my mom in praying for the special graces associated with such visits. Though I’m hard pressed to locate the source of my mom’s certainty in this area, I admit that I think of her whenever I enter a church that is new to me. I also admit that I dutifully respond to her urging with a prayer of gratitude for the many blessings in my life and a prayer of petition for anything those I love may need at that particular moment in time. Though I have no tally of blessings received as a result of these visits, I can attest to the sense of belonging that embraces me in the midst of my prayer on these occasions. “God’s house is God’s house,” the walls around me seem to say, “and you are welcome here.”

When the good deacon and I traveled to Germany a few weeks ago, we visited God’s house in many forms. Mike’s cousin, Father Stjepan, planned an amazing itinerary for us. He and his nephew, Josip, guided us to each stop along the way. The first was the Old Synagogue (Alte Synagoge) in Essen. This edifice is the largest and most architecturally impressive synagogue in all of Germany. Still, in spite of its looming posture, I felt the building’s vulnerability when I entered. Today, the Old Synagogue serves as a memorial to the Jewish souls lost in Hitler’s rampage and as a museum, meeting place and cultural center for those interested in Essen’s Jewish Community. Though this building seats fourteen hundred people, less than one hundred chairs rest before the Torah Ark where the sacred scriptures are kept. Though this synagogue boasted five thousand members in 1913, a far smaller faith community remains today. As I stepped past the chairs toward the historical displays, a chill overwhelmed me. I wondered how many of those who occupy these chairs today are descendents of those murdered more than seven decades ago. This sacred space prompted me to heed my mother’s words and to offer a prayer. I gave thanks, not only for God’s gifts to me, but also for the strength and grace that persist in spite of the great evil that touched this place. I absorbed as many of this building’s treasures as I could before we moved on. As we passed through its heavy doors and bade our farewell, I pressed my hand against the synagogue’s outer wall –a feeble attempt to leave my love and prayers with the souls present and the souls long since passed who occupied this holy place.

Afterward, Stjepan and Josip led us across the street and past the Essen Diocese offices. Our next destination rested just a block ahead in the midst of the city center. Essen Cathedral (Essener Münster), constructed in 1275, proudly holds its place in Essen’s postwar skyline. The cathedral’s stately presence drew me in, and its vast interior took my breath away. Though the cathedral suffered much damage during World War II, it has been restored with great care. Once again, my mom’s invitation echoed in my memory, and so I prayed. When I finished, our cousins led us to The Golden Madonna of Essen. This gold-plated wooden image of Mary holding the Child Jesus is the oldest free-standing sculpture north of the Alps. It dates back to Year 980. As I gazed into the sculpture’s eyes, I imagined centuries of pilgrims who’d done the same before me. “Good God, how do you manage to love each one of us?” I asked. As I pondered my query, a beautiful menorah caught my eye. This monument to our Old Testament heritage stood as tall as I. As I considered the importance of these common bonds to German Christians and Jews during the war, Stjepan led us to a modest, but poignant memorial. A small alcove of the cathedral is dedicated to a man who lost his life in his effort to oppose Adolf Hitler. Though the beauty of Essen Cathedral is truly a sight to behold, I found myself more touched by the close proximity of the menorah, this memorial and the sanctuary of the church. These great symbols of Judaism, Christianity and one man’s effort to love as God loves rest just a few meters from one another in God’s house. Later, when I found a menorah in Die Basilika St. Ludgerus and in every Catholic Church that we visited in Germany, I realized that the great faith of the German people compels them to love far beyond the human barriers of the past.

Indeed, I found myself very much at home in each of God’s houses which we visited in Germany. This is likely my mother’s doing, as she took Jesus’ message of welcome to heart and then passed this wisdom on to her daughter. In today’s gospel (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast to which everyone is invited. If we wish to feel at home in God’s company and in God’s house, we need to follow Jesus’ lead. We must open the doors of our hearts, just as Jesus opens the doors of God’s house and God’s kingdom, to everyone who knocks.
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved