God’s Persistent Love

This reflection is very long as it’s my best attempt to welcome our new pastor who will be installed today. If you take the time to read, please know that God is as persistent in loving and guiding all of us as God is with Father Chris…

Today, our parish family celebrates the installation of our new pastor, Father Krzysztof Ciastoń! Now I realize Father Chris has been with us for three months and that it has become quite ordinary to see him around the parish. Still, I can’t help thinking that his arrival as our pastor is actually quite a feat. I don’t think it is an accident that we hear Jesus’ Parable of The Persistent Widow today. It seems to me that Father Chris’s presence among us is the result of his persistence and that of many who’ve shared the path with him along the way.

My research for this writing began months ago when I first heard our new pastor’s name. I did an online search which revealed that Krzysztof Ciastoń grew up in Muszynka, Poland on his parents’ dairy farm with his sister and four brothers. He went through a rebellious stage when church was not his favorite place to be. He completed culinary school and worked as a chef at a prestigious resort. I also found that he is a very good writer. Father Chris authored an excellent article about Casimir Pulaski for his former parish’s website. Interesting as all of this is, I wanted to know more. Shortly after Father Chris was named pastor, he visited St. Paul’s to attend a parish staff meeting. As a result, my dear husband had the opportunity to meet him. Because I wanted to get to know him as well, I convinced the good deacon to attend Mass with me at Father Chris’s parish…

When we arrived that Sunday morning, Mike and I sat in the midst of the congregation to avoid detection. After the opening hymn, Father Chris welcomed us all with a warm smile. Though I immediately felt very much at home with our pastor-to-be, I wondered about his preaching. A few words into his homily, I realized that Krzysztof Ciastoń had been raised by a wise mother. Father Chris shared a story from his childhood. A light bulb had burned out in their home. His mother sent him up the stairs to his father with a new bulb. On the way, young Krzysztof dropped that bulb which broke into a million pieces. Upset with himself, Krzysztof ran to his mother to tell her what had happened. Though there was only one bulb left, she entrusted it to her son. Poor Krzysztof wanted no part of this errand because he feared he would drop that last bulb. Still, his mother persisted in her faith in her son and urged him on his way. Happily, Krzysztof safely delivered that light bulb to his dad. Father Chris used this story to illustrate God’s persistence in offering us second chances. Father Chris insisted that, just as his mother had given him a second chance, God gives each one of us a lifetime of second chances.

I wanted to hear Father Chris preach because I wanted to know where he would lead our parish family. When he spoke of that lifetime of second chances, I knew Father Chris would lead us all to the God who has persistently loved me all of my life. God has remained with Father Chris as well. Though I’d already read about Krzysztof’s rebellious stage, I didn’t know about his persistent brothers. During one of his first homilies here, Father Chris shared that his brothers had tired of his rebellion. So it was that one Sunday they simply picked him up and carried him off to attend Mass! I can only imagine his father and mother smiling all the while!

Some time later while still in rebellious mode, Krzysztof headed off to work. It was a very cold morning, so he stopped in a church. This wasn’t to be a prayerful visit. Kryzsztof simply wanted to warm up before walking on to his job. He was alone in the building until three woman joined him. Though the church was empty, these three sat in Krzysztof’s pew right beside him. Astute young man that he was, Krzysztof didn’t dare to say a word. As he told us, “If I had said a thing those three would have told me exactly what they thought of me!” It was then that our persistent God took the opportunity to urge Kryzsztof on just as his mother had during that light bulb incident. Perhaps God was engaged in a light bulb adventure as well for it was then that a light shined on Krzysztof’s life. With those persistent women at his side and his persistent God within his heart, Krzysztof decided that he had much more to do than to rebel and to cook. Not long afterward, he enrolled in the seminary.

If you have any doubt about God’s persistent presence in each of our lives, read on… Chicago’s Cardinal George visited the seminary in Poland where Krzysztof was studying. When he spoke with the seminarians, he invited them to consider pursuing their vocations in Chicago. While there was a surplus of priests in Poland, we were already suffering a shortage in this country. Much to our good fortune, Krzysztof responded to yet another nudge from our persistent God. It was August 2003 when he packed up his things, bade farewell to his much-beloved family and entered Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary. Our thanks to the Ciastoń Family for sharing your son and brother with us!

Krzysztof spent his first year here acclimating to American Culture and the English Language. Obviously, Father Chris accomplished both. Imagine telling a joke in another language! Delivering a meaningful homily in that second language is far more than I would dare to do! That year, he also became known as “Chris” to his fellow seminarians. Throughout his seminary training, Chris persisted in his studies and his relationship with God. It was 2006 during Third Year Theology that Chris began his association with Father Joe Curtis. While Father Joe served as pastor at St. Mary of Vernon Parish, he also served as Chris’s supervisor and mentor. As we’ve discovered, Father Joe did an excellent job sharing his pastoral and leadership experience with Father Chris. I’m quite certain that Father Joe persisted in providing his encouragement as well. Thank you, Father Joe! Father Chris completed his studies and was ordained in 2007. He has served at St. Tarcissus, St. Raymond and St. Anne Parishes where he continues to be missed.

In today’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus speaks of a persistent widow. The poor woman doggedly haunts a dishonest judge for a fair ruling in response to her complaint. Though the judge cannot care less about the woman’s troubles, he truly fears her. This judge rules in the woman’s favor to prevent her from doing him bodily harm. Jesus uses this story to illustrate God’s persistent love for us. Jesus insists that if an unscrupulous judge can be pressured to respond to that widow’s needs, God will certainly respond to our persistent prayer. Jesus seems to be telling us to open our eyes and to recognize God’s persistence when it comes to each one of us. Father Chris’s parents emulated this persistence in their love for their son. Father Chris’s brothers carried him off to church because they knew God had a place for him there. Those persistent women who huddled next to that cold young man in church that day left just enough room for God to persist in calling Kryzsztof to do something more with his life.

I believe that God envisioned only the best when God breathed life into us. I also believe that God follows through on these creative efforts by hounding us just as that persistent widow hounded the judge. God remains on the path with each one of us, loving us and encouraging us all the while. Today, we celebrate God’s persistent call and persistent love for Father Chris. Welcome and congratulations, Dear Pastor! May God bless you with the persistence you need to minister to us and may God bless us all with persistence enough to remain at your side for many years to come!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Good Enough in God’s Eyes

The other day, I turned our house upside-down because I’d lost my widow’s mite. When my dear husband and I traveled to Israel last February, this was the only souvenir I purchased. My two thousand-year-old coin is preserved in a simple locket which I wear often. Though it was worth less than a penny in its day, it is very precious to me. The scriptures tell us that while visiting the temple one day Jesus observed a widow making an offering. Though others gave riches far beyond her means, Jesus considered this poor woman’s offering to be far more generous because it was all that she had. In spite of her coin’s minimal value in the grand scheme of things, Jesus found it to be most precious. This woman had given from her want, not from her surplus. In Jesus’ eyes, her offering was far more than good enough.

This woman’s story spoke to me because I often wonder if my efforts are good enough. My little coin has been a constant reminder that, if I’ve done my best, it is absolutely good enough in God’s eyes. This is the reason I was completely crestfallen when I realized the locket was missing. This is the reason I searched for over an hour until I finally located the necklace. It was lying on the clothing in my top dresser drawer. I must have knocked it in there while grabbing my watch and wedding ring that morning. I admit that the prospect of having lost this coin elicited some tears. I also admit to doing a bit of a happy dance when I found it.

In his gospel (Matthew 22:15-21), Matthew tells us that the Pharisees attempted to test Jesus with a coin of the same era as my widow’s mite. Their hope was to trick Jesus into saying something which would make him appear to be a trouble-making insurgent. The Pharisees were prepared to do whatever was necessary to discredit Jesus before the people and before the governing Romans. They wanted to be rid of Jesus once and for all. On this occasion, they posed a question regarding taxes: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus advised them not to pay what the Romans demanded, he would place himself in political jeopardy. If Jesus told the people that they must pay their taxes, he counseled them to offer homage to the Roman emperor who considered himself a god. Once again, the not-so-crafty Pharisees underestimated Jesus. Jesus requested a Roman coin of them and then asked: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When the Pharisees answered, “Caesar’s!” Jesus told them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God…”

You and I “repay to Caesar” every day. We go to work and tend to the tasks at hand. We file our taxes, vote and serve as jurors. We obey traffic laws and adhere to the tenets of common courtesy. We buy groceries, gasoline, clothing and homes. We manage the nitty-gritty of life as required by the order of things. At the same time, we pursue the things which matter to us: our significant others, our families and the things we love to do. In the process, we tend to the task of repaying “…to God what belongs to God.”

As crazy-busy as life can be at times, our circumstances sometimes force us into reflection. There are times when we must stop long enough to make sense of the world around us and the world within us. The loss of a loved one is a prime example of such an opportunity. Those left behind wonder how they’ll function without these special people at their sides. The same occurs at varying levels whenever unforeseen tragedy, violence or change touches us. I can only imagine what those who’ve been affected by the hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires continue to endure. Those touched by the shooting in Las Vegas mirror what so many victims of violence must overcome. Even Jesus stole away when he was overly pained. Jesus reflected in order to reconnect with who he was and we must do the same. The good news for us all is that these moments of reflection often morph into prayer.

As I consider the events of today’s gospel, I wonder when the Pharisees lost sight of rendering to God. When was it that they sacrificed their efforts to be good for the assurance that they would keep their wealth and their power over the people? When did they decide that being good simply wasn’t enough for them? At the same time, I wonder about my own efforts. When I was a little girl, my parents, teachers and favorite adults smiled in response to my doing my best. As we mature, these reassurances seem to lessen with each passing year and we learn quickly to question our efforts. This is the reason my widow’s mite is precious to me. Every time I look at it I hear, “It’s good enough, Mary. You’re good enough!” You know, God offers the same message to each one of us. Though we or those around us sometimes question are efforts, God smiles and urges us on. Perhaps rendering to God isn’t as difficult as we sometimes think. After all, whenever we do our best, God says, “It’s good enough!”

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Persistent Us… Persistent God!

A month ago, the elder good deacon and I drove to St. Louis for a wedding. We happily made this trek to celebrate with our friends whose daughter was the bride. Because Mary Beth and her groom asked Mike to witness their vows, we attended the wedding rehearsal so all concerned could prepare. When we arrived at the church, I took a seat in the back so I could relax and enjoy the festivities.

I’d never been to the Catholic Student Center at Washington University, so I allowed myself a visual tour of the worship space. In the process, I noticed a beautiful painting resting on an easel in the sanctuary near the altar. Since the murals in the church dome and on the side walls were somewhat modern, I was surprised by this Renaissance-like depiction of Mary with two very little boys. I guessed that the children were Jesus and his cousin who grew up to become John the Baptist. Though Mary seems to be attending to the toddler on her right, I felt quite certain that the toddler on her left was Jesus. Before I could consider the painting further, the groom and the priest who would preside at the wedding began to adjust its position in the sanctuary. As I watched, someone in the bridal party told me, “You know, Lee painted that picture!” Lee is Mary Beth’s groom. This information amazed me because I would have believed that this was a bit of artwork borrowed from a museum for this event. I would also have believed that it was the work of a Renaissance Master. Yes, the painting is that good! For the remainder of the rehearsal, I studied that wonderful image of Mary, her nephew and her son and I wondered what inspired a young techy to create it.

At the rehearsal dinner, I learned that it had taken Lee five years to complete this work. Mary Beth was the driving force who encouraged Lee and saw to it that he took the time to finish it in spite of their very busy schedules. When Lee and Mary Beth made their way around the room to thank their guests, I asked Lee about the painting. After providing a three-minute review of Renaissance Art, Lee explained that he was actually inspired by Raphael’s work. Though these tidbits were interesting, I jumped at Lee’s offer to see the progression of the painting’s completion. Lee pulled out his phone and brought up the file which chronicled the painting’s evolution. What I saw took my breath away. This mini-presentation began with a gray-colored shadow on a plain white canvas. The figures of Mary, Jesus and John would eventually fill this space. Each subsequent frame revealed a minor addition until the three figures became discernible. Though I found all of this quite remarkable, it was the face of Mary which drew me into the process. As I watched her hair appear and her facial features evolve, it was as though the room emptied and only God and I were present. I asked almost aloud, “Is this the care you take in creating each one of us?” Though Lee’s final rendering would be the centerpiece of his and Mary Beth’s wedding the following day, the process which came beforehand became the centerpiece of my renewed appreciation of God’s persistent affection for each one of us.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus offers the Parable of the Persistent Widow. The poor woman doggedly haunted a dishonest judge for a fair ruling in response to her complaint. Though the judge truly couldn’t have cared less about the woman’s troubles, he was concerned with his own safety. He eventually ruled in the woman’s favor before she could do him bodily harm. Jesus used this story to illustrate God’s benevolence toward us. Jesus insisted that if an unscrupulous judge could be pressured to respond to a lowly widow’s needs, God will certainly respond to our persistent prayer.

I realize that I have no business putting words into Jesus’ mouth. Still, I can’t help myself. Though Jesus certainly invited us to pray with passionate persistence -something which I do at an annoying level- I think he also invites us to recognize God’s passionate persistence when it comes to us. Just as one young artist meticulously attended to every detail of his painting, I believe God attends even more so to every detail regarding you and me. Lee envisioned Mary, Jesus and John with every stroke and God envisioned every detail of you and me when God breathed life into us. Lee got it right and so did God. God always gets it right!

So it is that God’s complete and persistent love transforms our prayer from a laundry list of requests and worries into a song of gratitude. Just as that painting took my breath away, our efforts to deal with this life as best we can take God’s breath away every time. God models the widow’s persistence and so should we!

Jesus, I hope you don’t mind that I found enough persistence in that widow for God and for the rest of us!

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

In God We Trust

As I read Matthew’s gospel (22:15-21), I wondered what the Pharisees were thinking as the scene unfolded. Once again, they attempted to trick Jesus into saying something which would make Jesus appear to be a troublemaking insurgent. The Pharisees were prepared to do whatever was necessary to discredit Jesus before the people and before the governing Romans. They wanted to be rid of Jesus once and for all. On this occasion, they posed a question regarding taxes: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus advised them not to pay what the Romans demanded, he would place himself in political jeopardy. If Jesus told the people that they must pay their taxes, he counseled them to pay homage to a false god -the Roman emperor- by offering this monetary sacrifice. Once again, the not-so-crafty Pharisees underestimated Jesus. After he asked to see a Roman coin, Jesus posed his own question: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When the Pharisees answered, “Caesar’s,” Jesus told them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God…”

Some time ago, I visited an exhibit which featured ancient coins from more than a thousand years before Jesus’ time. In spite of the coins’ age, the images etched into them were still visible. I could certainly appreciate the workmanship of the artists who fashioned them. It amazed me that three millennia since their creation, the artists’ touch remained. This entire collection of ancient artifacts gave me reason to pause. Brothers and sisters unknown to me used these coins throughout their daily lives just as I use the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that linger at the bottom of my purse today. I wondered what museum patrons three millennia into the future might think of the coins we will leave behind. Unlike the ancient coins I observed at the museum that day, our coins display both images and the words, “In God we trust.” I wondered if the letters will be visible even a few hundred years into the future. I wondered if evidence of our faith in those words would remain intact as well.

We humans are an irascible lot. We continually find ways to dull the images which give us direction in this life, especially when those images lead us to destinations not of our own choosing. The Pharisees offered Caesar’s coin to Jesus in spite of the fact that they resented Caesar’s tyrannical rule. The Pharisee’s preferred being in league with Caesar’s pagan regime to aligning themselves with Jesus. Following Jesus’ teaching would have turned their world and the temple hierarchy upside down, and the Pharisees simply weren’t ready for this. Because they wanted to remain “in charge” and in power, they let go of the very God who had once inspired them to pursue their life’s work. When things don’t go as I hope, I find myself impatiently wringing my hands and fretting as well. Because I want to make things right when things go amiss, I struggle as the Pharisees did. I can’t to let go of my need to be in charge, so I fail to align myself with the words etched into my coins: “In God we trust.”

As I consider the events of today’s gospel, I recall another reference to an “image” in the Old Testament. Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” If only the Pharisees had remembered that the God of Jesus is the very God who created them in the Divine Image and who inspired them to serve in that image just as Jesus did. If only I would remember the same when I find myself entrenched in worry, fear or sadness. These troubles and more will touch all of our lives at one time or another. It is at those times that we must remember that we, too, are created in God’s image. It is the image of God etched upon us and within us which gives us reason to trust.

Loving God, the image you impressed upon us so long ago is worn and hard to recognize these days. So it is that we ask you to renew your handiwork and to impress yourself once again onto our hearts and our souls. Make each of us a shining image of you. In God we trust, Lord. In everything, we trust in you.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God Welcomes Our Prayer

I have been talking to God for as long as I can remember. I hold my parents and teachers responsible for this ongoing conversation in which I assume that the Lord God listens to my every word. My parents taught me about prayer when they ushered me down the street for Sunday Mass, prayed grace before meals and gathered our family for the rosary when serious illnesses threatened those we loved. When my uncle lay dying, my dad instructed us to ask God to take him to heaven where he would be healthy and happy again. When she tucked us into bed, my mom reminded us to tell God we were sorry for what we did wrong and to ask God to take care of those who needed God most. The good sisters and priests of our parish added their own lessons in prayer which increased my ease in talking to God whenever I was not talking to someone else. When my dad passed away, I spoke my first words of grief to God.

In sixth grade, I finally recognized myself in the Parable of the Persistent Widow. I wondered if God had listened all those years simply to quiet me. In Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus offers this parable to make a point about prayer and God’s absolute attention to our needs. Jesus tells us that this widow feels very strongly about her case, and she refuses to allow a disinterested and dishonest judge to deprive her of justice. She accosts him at every turn. This judge has little interest in justice. Still, he wishes to rid himself of this troublesome woman. He realizes that he had better do so before this widow strikes out at him and gives him a black eye. (Yes, this is the precise scriptural translation!) So it is that the judge rules in her favor, offering the widow all that she hopes for. Jesus goes on to explain that since God cares for us exponentially more than any judge ever could God will see to our needs with exponentially greater love, compassion and efficiency than any judge ever would. All that God asks is our faith in Divine Love in good times and in bad times.

This past week, a somber anniversary reminded me of the importance of that faith. Five years ago, bad times took hold of our family unexpectedly and brutally. My husband and I were on our way up north when his brother called. As soon as Mike responded, “Oh no! No! No!” I knew. Mike’s youngest nephew, Sergeant John Penich, had lost his life in Afghanistan. No words can dispel the sorrow that overwhelms a parent who loses a child, and there was nothing more Mike could say to his brother than to share tears in unison. In a bout of uncharacteristic speechlessness, I muttered weakly, “Help them.”

I cannot forget the sorrowful pall that weighed heavily upon those who love John. I also cannot forget the knowing glances and the firmness with which we hugged and held one another’s hands as we gathered to mourn him. These simple gestures said all that needed to be said. Unexpected consolation came in the friends and comrades who attended John’s services. Each one indicated that John’s presence had made a remarkable impact upon him or her. Though tears continue to flow at the mention of John’s name, our faith in the depths to which we are all loved brings peace. After all, John has known that love first hand for five years!

Jesus teaches us through the persistent widow because we have much to learn from her. God knows more than we do the imperfections of life on this earth. None of our loved ones leave us at just the right time, and it is difficult to accept that any child is meant to leave this life before his or her parents. Suffering sometimes seems to be the most consistent condition in this world. Nonetheless, we join the persistent widow with our hope and our dreams for better things to come. The persistent widow believed that she would eventually move the judge to rule on her behalf. This is the reason she pushed on day after day. Perhaps the lesson we learn from her is not a lesson in persistence, but a lesson in faith that all will be well in the end.

Jesus tells us to pray always, and, indeed, this is what we must do: Pray with absolute faith. Know that we are heard. Know that we will be answered with great love.

©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved