Halloween, All Saints and All Souls

I headed out to the store because I wasn’t sure that my husband had purchased enough candy for this year’s onslaught of trick-or-treaters.  On the way, I determined that another fifty pieces of chocolate would suffice.  The sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet distracted me as I crossed the parking lot.  A couple with three school-aged children in tow added to my amusement as I approached the store entrance.  I heard the eldest child ask, “Can we look at the Halloween costumes first?”  His dad quickly responded, “Let’s get the other shopping done. Then we can take our time checking out the costumes.”  I smiled as I thanked God that I have no costume worries this year.  Still, as I headed toward the candy aisle, I couldn’t help recalling the numerous homemade Halloween costumes which my siblings and I donned so long ago…

Because we attended our parish school, we never celebrated Halloween, once called the Eve of All  Hallows, without acknowledging the saints for whom this holy day is designated.  Each year, the nuns attempted to keep us focused upon the point of our celebration by encouraging us to dress as saints for our class Halloween parties.  Apparently, this was the least we could do to repay these holy ones for this annual intake of sweets.

After complying with the good nuns’ wishes, collecting far more candy than I could ever eat and attending Mass on All Saints Day, my thoughts turned to November 2.  I focused upon All Souls’ Day (now The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed) because on this particular day my fellow Catholics and I could accomplish some serious good on behalf of our loved ones who had passed away.

Years ago, Catholics observed All Souls’ Day by visiting their parish churches as often as possible.  It was said that one soul could be released from purgatory as a result of each visit.  In an effort to ensure the eternal happiness of as many of our departed loved ones as possible, many of us visited our parish churches often on All Soul’s Day.  If this practice netted the desired results, I single-handedly secured the eternal happiness of every one of my departed family members by the time I was twelve years old!  Though I chuckle over my childhood fervor, I admit that I continue to take the journeys of those who are heaven-bound very seriously.

Purgatory conjures up a variety of images in the minds of Catholics.  The church drew the concept of purgatory and our ability to atone for sin after this life from the scriptures (2Macc 12:46): “Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”  The church believes that our prayers for those who have passed away and our prayers for the living are equally powerful.  This is indicated by another passage which tells us Job purified his living sons through his sacrifice (Job 1:5).

When we pray for the living and for those who have passed away, it is important to remember that none of us can determine the depth of or place limits upon God’s mercy.  Neither the official church nor we who are the people of God can presume to know what happens between us humans and our God during our tremendous journeys from this life to the next.  It is up to our loving and merciful God to see to our readiness for heaven.  What the church does do is to designate All Souls Day as one opportunity to recall those who have gone before us.  So it is that we acknowledge our love for those whom we have lost and we recognize their goodness.  We also recognize the imperfections in which we all share.  As a faith community, we pray for them.  We ask that their journeys to God’s embrace are swift, and we celebrate the knowledge that the potential for sainthood remains within them just as it remains within us all.

This Halloween, as we dole out candy to trick-or-treaters, we might take the moments between visitors to consider our own mortality in light of our immortality.  Knowing what will become of us one day makes all of the difference in this world and in the next.  As we pray for the safe journeys of those we have committed to God, let’s not forget God’s merciful presence in our own lives.  May each of us accept God’s forgiveness graciously.  May we extend God’s forgiveness to all who long for it.  And may we never place limits upon the unlimited mercy which God extends to us all.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Location, Location, Location? It Does Matter to God…

My husband and I traveled to France and Croatia in mid-September.  Mike handled most of the preparations for this trip as I busied myself with caring for my ailing sister.  I am happy to share that for the eleven days we were away I thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of my husband’s planning.  This trek allowed us five full days and nights in both Paris and Zagreb.  We enjoyed perfectly wonderful hotels in each city which made all of the difference in the world as we ventured out to enjoy the sights and the people in each locale.

In France, Mike and I stayed on Champs-Elysees, the Michigan Avenue of Paris.  Our hotel’s proximity to teh city’s most cherished treasures offered us easy access to everything we hoped to see.  Just outside of the hotel’s lobby, the Arc de Triomphe rested a few blocks to the right.  The Luxor Obelisk (Obélisque de Louxor) stood a few blocks to the left.

We acclimated ourselves these monuments and to all Paris has to offer through a full-day tour of the city which the hotel concierge arranged for us.  Joel, our guide, could not have been more knowledgeable or accommodating.  Afterward, I was most grateful that Mike used the same tour company when he mapped out his strategy for seeing as much as possible during our stay.  As it happened, Frederic, Simon and Agnes, the guides who introduced us to more of France’s treasures, equipped us to enjoy the rest of our stay to the fullest extent.

Mike and I walked to and from the Musée d’Orsay which houses many works by Claude Monet and other impressionists.  We gazed upon the amazing Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and other indescribably beautiful art at the Louvre.  During a walk back to the hotel, we stopped to take a closer look at the obelisk.  Gazing upon this pillar’s hieroglyphics, carved by an Egyptian more than three thousand years ago, took my breath away.  Wherever we ventured each day, we returned to our hotel inspired and in awe.

In Croatia, we stayed in Zagreb’s center.  Our hotel’s old world charm and warm welcome revived our spirits after our whirlwind stay in Paris.  I felt very much at home when we checked in because Mike, our son Tim and I stayed there six years ago when we first visited our Croatian cousins.  During this most recent trip, nine American cousins joined us to visit with the Croatian Penić Family.  Our hotel’s close proximity to the sights and people of Croatia proved to be an additional bonus.  Our local Penić cousins led us on an amazing walking tour of the area.  Though the highlights of this trek were already familiar to me, this union of our Croatian cousins and our American cousins made everything about this adventure especially memorable.

Location, location, location!  Location proved to be particularly significant during our stay in Europe.  Interestingly enough, it was the location of the people around us which enhanced our travels even more than the locations of our hotels.  Our tour guides in France opened us up to opportunities that we would never have happened upon on our own.  Our cousins from the States, our Croatian cousins and the friends with whom we reunited made our stay in Croatia an experience which will remain among our fondest memories.  There is something about being in the right place at the right time with the right people which makes all of the difference in the world to those fortunate enough to find themselves so blessed.

In his gospel (Mark 10:35-45), Mark tells us that two of Jesus’ disciples concern themselves with “location” as well.  So certain are they of their ranking among the other disciples that James and John insist to Jesus that he must allow one of them to sit on his right side and one to sit on his left side when Jesus comes into his glory.  Now Jesus is quite certain that neither James nor John understands what such close association with Jesus will entail.  Indeed, the disciples will suffer greatly if they remain at Jesus’ side through both his demise and resurrection.

Jesus is also quite certain that neither James nor John understands his message.  While Jesus’ preaches that those who wish to lead must serve, these disciples continue to think that their standing in the community is of the utmost importance.  So it is that Jesus explains once again that location is important.  To be in positions of power, we must humble ourselves in service to others.  Our proximity to those in need must be at their sides.  Only then will we be in just the right location with just the right people to appreciate the beauty of God’s world and God’s people to the fullest.  Only then will we make all of the difference in the world in the ways that matter most.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Leads Us Beyond The World’s Gifts To True Treasures

It was Springtime.  I had finally celebrated my twenty-first birthday and discarded the cast that housed my broken ankle for the previous six weeks. Perhaps it was the realization that I was only a year from college graduation, the minor incapacitation I’d just experienced, having never been away from home for more than a few days or all of the above. Whichever the cause, I suffered from an extreme case of restlessness. I couldn’t afford to backpack across Europe or travel of any kind because I was responsible for another year’s tuition. So it was that something nudged me toward the phone to seek a less costly remedy for my unrest.

I was almost disappointed when Father O’Connell answered the telephone because I wasn’t at all sure of what I was going to say to him. Happily, my uncertainty vanished as soon as he greeted me with his perpetually warm “hello”. Before I realized what I was saying, I voiced my proposal. I asked Father if there was something I might do to help out at his parish during the coming summer. I explained that I had never been away from home for any length of time and that it was about time to do so. I lived in Chicago and St. Joseph’s Parish was in Waukegan, so the distance would suffice.

Father’s excitement regarding my offer took me by surprise. He had just arranged for two nuns to spend the summer at the parish to offer a kind of “survival English” program for the Spanish-speaking children who would enter school in the fall. Since I’d studied Spanish for five years and was a teacher-in-the-making, Father determined that I’d be a natural in the program. I would stay in the convent with the sisters, so I’d have no living expenses. Without hesitation, I asked Father when I could start.

As it happened, Sister Liz, one of the B.V.M. Sisters with whom I spent the summer, was from my old neighborhood. Though she was a generation ahead of me, I found myself very much at home with her and her counterpart. We spent our first days together planning, gathering materials and setting up house in the old convent. Father provided a car which Sister Liz used to chauffeur us on our errands. Our routine included the 6:30 morning Mass, breakfast together and the walk next door to school. The children happily endured our lessons during the mostly hot summer mornings, probably in anticipation of the mid-morning snacks we provided. The sisters and I spent what remained of each afternoon planning the coming day’s lessons and visiting parish families. Afterward, we returned to the convent to chat, do a bit of housekeeping, plan dinner and relax. Occasionally, I spent the evening hours at the rectory answering the phone and door when a volunteer receptionist couldn’t make it in. It was on one such occasion that I met Mike Penich –but that’s another story…

I didn’t handle a bit of currency that summer. Father provided the funds for groceries and other necessities which Sister Liz managed. I had no need to shop for clothes because my seven outfits plus one spare lasted through each week.

Weeks later, when I left the children, my new sister-friends and that old convent, I knew I would have to work more hours at my job to make up the money I hadn’t earned that summer. I also knew that I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything. When I returned home, I remarked to my mom that it was truly freeing not to worry about myself and to concentrate on the kids. I treasured the time spent helping the children more than anything else I might have done. Though my mom likely chuckled to herself over my simplistic outlook, she shared that she was very pleased with the way I had invested my time that summer.

In Mark’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30), Jesus encounters a rich young man who has spent his life carefully following The Law. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more draw him to Jesus. Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.’” Unfortunately, Jesus’ proposal asks more than the young man is prepared to give. It is with great sadness that he walks away.

Though I cannot boast of giving up wealth equal to that of this young man, I did give of the treasure that was mine that summer. I wish I had been there to share with this young man that letting go of riches is not as painful as he thought. I wish I could have shared that when he opened his hands to let go, the young man would free himself to embrace authentic treasures; that the restlessness that drew him to Jesus would be replaced with absolute peace; that there is nothing more precious than the love we have to offer one another. Though it is a little late to share these things with the rich young man, it is just the right time to remind myself and you of the same.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Jesus Responds To Our Sorrow With Mercy and Love

My husband and I have just returned from an eleven-day stay in Europe.  Though I fret far more than necessary before such undertakings, I’m happy to report that this time around I found ways to cope with my pre-travel jitters and the lengthy flights.  Triple-checking our passports and itinerary and packing a day early alleviated my pre-flight trauma.  An intriguing bit of fiction occupied my mind for the twenty-plus roundtrip hours which we spent in the air.  Though this travel will hopefully inspire future writing, it is that bit of fiction which demands my attention today.

Several years ago, a friend and fellow parishioner shared this work with me.  She remarked that the author wove a story to fill the thirty years in Jesus’ lifetime which are overlooked in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Though the concept appealed to me, I didn’t find the time to open this book until several months ago.  I read a few pages here and there during my sister’s illness.  Distracted as I was by the care-giving that evolved into mourning, I longed to get back to this very human account of Jesus’ life among us.  Perhaps I needed to be reminded that Jesus appreciated my sister’s journey because he once walked where she walked.  Perhaps I needed to know that Jesus understands my sorrow, my loss and my frustration even better than I understand these things myself.  Though the writer acknowledged that he concerned himself solely with providing a fictional account of Jesus’ “lost years” among us, he went to great lengths to research Jesus’ life and times.  He also went to great lengths to illustrate Jesus’ divinity within the context of Jesus’ humanity.  Though the author never reveals the context of his own faith, it became obvious early on that Jesus of Nazareth and the things that Jesus stands for mean a great deal to him.

As I read page after page, I became oblivious to the limited space in which I was confined while in flight and to the duration of that confinement.  The somewhat earthy and sometimes irreverent text in my hands stirred my heart in unexpected ways.  I often stopped mid-sentence to acknowledge my own friendship with Jesus.  These reflective moments quickly evolved into deeply intimate prayer and meditation which had escaped me for a while.  I rediscovered the Jesus who expounded upon The Law when the scribes and Pharisees tested him and who expounded upon God’s love and mercy when a soul in need crossed his path.  By the time I read the last page, I felt as though Jesus and I had shared a wonderful reunion which cemented our friendship forever.  Indeed, we had!

I share this literary encounter because today’s gospel (Mark 10:2-16) references another of Jesus’ unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees.  On this occasion, Jesus’ stance seems harsh, and I want to be certain  that as you listen to this gospel you realize this harshness is directed toward the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are relentless in their efforts to trap Jesus in heresy or blasphemy.  On this particular day, they put Jesus to the test with questions regarding divorce.  Jesus’ response makes it crystal clear that he understands The Law’s teachings related to divorce.  Still, the gospels assure us again and again that this knowledge of The Law never prevents Jesus from responding with mercy and compassion to those who find themselves steeped in marital strife.  The Jesus who has blessed me with a renewed and deepened friendship offers the same to each one of us regardless of the terrible messes in which we sometimes find ourselves.

This gospel account is not offered to cause those of us who have experienced divorce to squirm or to assume guilt in any way.  The twenty-five years I’ve spent assisting people with marital issues and the annulment process have provided me a small glimpse into the pain that Jesus understands better than any of us.  Jesus acknowledges that human relationships can be sources of great joy, and he asks us to do our best to find joy within them.  Jesus also acknowledges that those same relationships can be sources of great sorrow.  When this is the case, Jesus simply asks that we address that sorrow honestly.  Sometimes, we can embrace the sorrow and return it to joy.  Sometimes, we have no choice but to walk away.  In either case, we do so before a loving and merciful God with Jesus at our sides.

©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved