We’re Never Alone

Last weekend, we celebrated my great-niece’s college graduation. This was quite a feat since all concerned were and still are confined to our various homes. Violet worked very hard to complete her degree in stellar fashion. This effort included an internship in her chosen field of public health. Who knew that the COVID-19 pandemic would be a part of Violet’s hands-on experience? Needless to say, the timeliness of Violet’s graduation wasn’t lost on those of us who love her. With all of this in mind, Violet’s dad organized an alternative tribute to his daughter. Ralph is a consummate techie and his sister Cece is a successful art director. These two combined their talents to create a virtual celebration for Violet. This began with a request of family and friends to submit short congratulatory videos for Violet. It ended with an amazing video collage of quality moments with the most important people in Violet’s life.

On what would have been Violet’s graduation day, Ralph organized a drive-by of local family and friends. After much horn-tooting and window-waving, Violet and her immediate family went inside to view the university’s virtual graduation ceremony. It was after this that Ralph presented Violet with her video. We who contributed to this effort received a link so we could also enjoy the final product. Afterward, Ralph shared that Violet cried tears of joy throughout the entire viewing. As I watched, I understood Violet’s heartfelt response. She had received a priceless graduation gift which will remain with her forever. Actually, the relationships which made that video possible are what will remain with Violet forever.

During this stay-in-place era, our relationships with those we’ve been given to love sustain us. We can all name high school and college seniors who have been deprived of their long-awaited graduation ceremonies. My husband-the-deacon has worked with several disappointed couples who must reschedule upcoming weddings. Confirmation and First Communion liturgies for hundreds of children have also been delayed. Then there are the more difficult events which have had to unfold without benefit of the communities of loved ones we’ve come to rely upon. Those who regularly visit loved ones in nursing homes are no longer admitted. The seriously ill endure hospital stays without loved ones at their sides. Even grandparents who often stop by to give Mom and Dad a break must remain at a distance. Those whose loved ones have moved on to the next life have had to bid their farewells with only a handful of family at their sides. Yes, our relationships with those we’ve been given to love are extremely important these days, just as they’ve been since the beginning of time.

When I turned to today’s scripture passages, I found that the followers of Jesus experienced much of the fear, loneliness and uncertainty which we experience today. The first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) celebrates the happiness and contentment of those who embrace the opportunity to live with one another in loving community. The second reading (1 Peter 3:15-18) assures all concerned that, even when our lives take devastating turns, God provides more of what we need than we might ever have expected. Though this is very good news, I found the most consolation regarding life in this COVID-19 assailed world in the gospel. Jesus addressed the worst of our despair when he promised, “I will not leave you orphans…” John’s gospel (John 14:15-21) is arranged a bit differently than those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John gathered what he felt were Jesus’ most important teachings and placed them where no one could miss them, at the Last Supper. It was then that Jesus assured his friends that he would never leave them alone in spite of their abandoning him during the worst of his suffering.

You know, Violet’s unconventional graduation celebration underscores the significance of Jesus’ promise never to leave us orphans. In everything he said and did, Jesus illustrated God’s love for us. Every one of his interactions demonstrated just how important our loved ones are to us and how important we are to them. Even in the midst of this pandemic, there is no doubt in Violet’s mind that she is loved. Her dad, Aunt Cece and the rest of us saw to that. A typical graduation party wouldn’t have provided the opportunity for so many of us to share our feelings with Violet on such an intimate level. Because of this pandemic, she knows! The same is true regarding all of our hardships these days. We wouldn’t know the depths of our capacities to love and to care for one another if we hadn’t been challenged as we are. Our greatest consolation is that we truly are in this together -with those we’ve been given to love, with those who love us, and with God! God never leaves a single one of us an orphan.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Walk With Jesus

I use the calendar on my desk to track my writing efforts. When I complete my Sunday reflections or a daily post, I make a notation on the date it will be published. A calendar page filled with such notations from the first to the last day of the month elicits my best smile and a sigh of relief. I truly enjoy writing, but time crunches often bring more challenges than inspiration. This is the reason my calendar gave me reason to gasp last week. Without warning, the dates changed from green to purple. When I looked more closely, I read Ash Wednesday. I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. I’d helped to plan our Lent activities with our pastor and our liturgy team. I’d also helped to finalize Lent schedule cards we distributed last weekend. Yes, I was very much aware of the onset of Lent. Still, Ash Wednesday? So soon?

I habitually give a good deal of thought to Lent. This year, I began thinking about Lent in mid-January when my husband and I returned to the Holy Land. Our trip preparations had immersed me in Lent. When I studied our itinerary, Jesus’ life unfolded before me. When we disembarked from our plane at the airport in Tel Aviv, the wonders which lay beyond the terminal had already captivated me. While Mike hurried to luggage claim with our tour group, I began a mental journey through Jesus’ homeland. We began this tour in Jerusalem and I was immediately immersed in Lent’s imagery. Though I looked forward to revisiting Nazareth, Capernaum and Magdala, it was the hustle and bustle in Jerusalem which occupied my thoughts. When Jesus rode into that city on what we call Palm Sunday, crowds surrounded him from every direction. By the following Friday, many of those hurrying to get home before Sabbath began likely didn’t take notice. They were too busy to attend to the bleeding man who carried that crossbeam. Crucifixions were frequent in Jesus’ day. Wise citizens who wanted to avoid trouble kept their distance when those less fortunate dragged themselves toward Calvary and certain death.

Though scripture scholars and archaeologists aren’t absolutely certain of Jesus’ birthplace, they can tell us where he grew up and where he began his ministry. We can name the towns where Jesus made friends, preached and touched the suffering. In Jerusalem, I wondered how Jesus was able to hold the people’s attention in the midst of the bustling crowds. In Capernaum, I wondered what it was that drew Peter and Andrew from their fishing boats. In Magdala, what was it that inspired Mary Magdalene to trust this itinerant preacher with her friendship? Everywhere Jesus walked, something drew the suffering from their pain just long enough for them to catch a glimpse of him. All of my life, I’ve asked, “What was it, Jesus, that caused so many to turn to you?” Every Lent, I revisit Jesus’ journey among us to find his response. Never have I been disappointed in what I’ve learned…

Lent 2020 provides us an opportunity to walk with Jesus and to find our own reasons for turning to him. I’ll begin by telling Jesus what I’m up to. “You’ve changed everything for me,” I’ll say, “and I’m going to use these forty days to thank you. In the process, I’ll get to know you even better.” How can I not be drawn to this one who revealed God’s love for us through the parables and lessons he offered? How can I not be drawn to this one whose message found its power in the way he lived? Jesus’ generosity, acceptance, forgiveness, patience, compassion and self-sacrifice left no doubt about God’s love for us and the joy to be found in sharing that love with others. Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that the intensity of my joy and the depth of my sorrow are the direct results of my proximity to Jesus’ message and to God’s love. When I live with Jesus’ words and example in mind, I live my best. When I live with the knowledge that God loves me, I live with joy. I’m certain the same is true for you.

Let’s walk together on this Lenten journey. We can begin each day by inviting Jesus to walk with us just as we do our best to walk with him. Think about all that happened in Nazareth, Capernaum and on the Sea of Galilee. Think about Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem. With all of this in mind, let’s do our best to love as Jesus loved at every opportunity. Maybe my husband and I can fill the Rice Bowl we took home to support the needy. Maybe we can join in supporting our recent mission appeal. Check your schedule. Do you have the time to pray and to do a bit of of good over the coming weeks? I’ll use that calendar on my desk to keep myself focused, not on my writing progress, but on my loving progress. My husband and I will look for Jesus in our photos from the Holy Land. Let’s all look for Jesus in those God has given us to love. This Lent, I really will get to know Jesus better and so will you!

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Servants All

That is my joy and it is complete.
God must increase within me and through me.

Inspired by John 3:29-30

Several weeks ago, missionary sisters visited our parish to make an appeal for our prayerful and financial support for their work. I was touched by the sisters’ selfless efforts. Their presence conjured up memories of my dad’s sisters and my mom’s aunt who were also nuns. These sisters brought to mind my own aspirations in this regard as well. From the time I realized what a nun was, I wanted to enter the convent. When I was a little girl, I often asked my mom her opinion of the “sister names” I’d come up with. She smiled in response, always adding, “Well, I have five daughters and I think it would be nice if one of them became a nun.”

As it happened, I spent a lot of time with the sisters over the years, including an entire summer during college. Still, I never joined them. Oddly, it was during that summer away that the sisters encouraged me to accept a date with a young man who volunteered at the parish. Though this puzzled me at the time, their counsel proved helpful. I happily invited these sisters to our wedding the following summer!

Over the years, it has occurred to me that God’s call to service has less to do with ones marital status than the status of ones heart. In one way or another, God asks each of us to make God’s work our own. Wherever we find ourselves, there lies an opportunity to brings God’s loving presence to this world.

Dear God, light our way as we look for ways to serve you by serving those we have been given to love.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

My Walk With Jesus

We left for Israel just three weeks after Christmas Day. As I prepared for this trip, I questioned the wisdom of our timing. We found ourselves scrambling to dismantle our Christmas decorations at home and to help with the same at church. January sales made shopping for last-minute necessitates economical, but the crowds who joined me contributed to my time-crunch. I finally breathed a much-anticipated sigh of relief when I zipped up my suitcase and found that it weighed only thirty-one pounds. “I hope this is a good omen,” I told myself. The following day, when we met our tour-mates at O’Hare Airport, I determined that our timing was perfect after all. Suddenly, I morphed into a pilgrim who could hardly wait to begin her walk through the land of her ancestors. Even the dozen-plus hours I’d spend in flight failed to dampen my enthusiasm. Last year, during our first trip to Israel, I fell in love with this country which I couldn’t help identifying as my homeland. This year, I looked forward to rekindling my love for the place Jesus called home so long ago.

I admit that this time around our tour seemed to fly by. To be certain that I didn’t miss a thing, I prepped for each day by focusing upon what I wanted to experience most. Though I enjoyed everything, some sites touched me deeply as a result of the events which occurred there two millenniums ago. Mary’s home and a neighbor’s home in Nazareth framed Jesus’ childhood and his young adult years. Activity within Jesus’ family home, on the streets of his neighborhood and at the synagogue had much to do with Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus allowed John to baptize him on the shores of the Jordan River, Jesus offered a glimpse of the direction in which his ministry would lead us. The excavated streets of Magdala and the nearby ruins of the synagogue there served as the backdrop for the friendship which developed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In each of these places, I breathed deeply to draw in the air which gave Jesus and his loved ones life. I knelt to touch the soil on which they walked. I dipped my fingers into the waters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee which nourished Jesus and his people in body and spirit. I found it impossible not to immerse myself in these eerily familiar places.

It was in Jerusalem that I experienced perhaps the most profound of the treasures I sought. In a small monastery chapel located near what is called The Upper Room, I sat before a life-sized sculpture of Jesus’ last supper. The images took my breath away just as they had a year earlier. Still, though it was difficult to look away from this extraordinary artwork, my eyes searched for the lone figure I’d discovered during my first visit. There, nestled into a niche just large enough for her to hide in the shadows, I found Mary Magdalene. With her arms wrapped around herself, perhaps in an effort not to distract from the drama unfolding before her, Mary stood and watched. I imagined her eyes filled with love and her heart filled with sorrow as Jesus’ last hours began to unfold before her. Like Mary, I found it very difficult to move from my place in that holy setting…

I share this aspect of my journey today because this is the First Sunday of Lent 2018. I specify “Lent 2018” because this is our only opportunity to live this particular block of forty days as best we can. As I write, I return to the feelings of ambivalence I experienced when trying to prepare for my trip to Israel. It was the eve of Ash Wednesday when I realized I had only a few hours to determine my Lent 2018 plans. Much to my good fortune, I wasn’t in danger of packing inappropriately or missing my plane. Regardless of the luggage I carried and my tardiness at departure time, Jesus welcomed me with a cross of ashes on my forehead to join him for the journey ahead. On this First Sunday of Lent 2018, Jesus repeats his invitation to me and to all of us who need to hear his welcome once again. Jesus will repeat his welcome every day of our Lenten journeys and every day thereafter. It is up to us to determine how we’ll proceed today, tomorrow and on every day we’re given.

As for me, I’ve decided to repeat my Holy Land effort to make the most of each day. Every morning, I’ll prep myself by focusing upon what I want to experience most. If you are like I am, you have a bit of character-reshaping to tend to. If your corner of the world is like mine, numerous areas can be improved with some effort on our parts. We can also change our focus a bit by turning to the world-at-large. Though I cannot alleviate poverty everywhere, I can give up a personal luxury in order to fill my Sharing envelope or my St. Vincent De Paul envelope or my Rice Bowl more generously. Though I cannot see to world peace alone, I can certainly add joy to my little corner of our world by loving my way through the moments at hand. My Holy Land trek reminded me that, wherever Jesus was, he embraced every opportunity to do good. We’ve been given Lent 2018 to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

What You Do Matters

Three weeks ago, we celebrated our granddaughter’s First Eucharist. Grandpa and I left home quite early that rainy Sunday morning to be on time for this special event. As it happened, we arrived at the church before everyone else. We were most grateful for the extra time which allowed us to settle in after that hour drive. Not long afterward, our granddaughter Lauren and the rest of our family arrived. We had just enough time to hug and to take advantage of a few photo ops. Ten minutes before Mass began, Mike and Lauren’s pastor vested. The altar servers stood ready with their candles and the processional crucifix. The First Communicants and their parents lined up to process in as well. While we waited, the religious education director welcomed us. She congratulated the children and families involved. She also thanked all who had prepared the children, the liturgy, the music and the church for this very special day. She ended with a few final directions and a request that we silence our cell phones and stow our cameras until afterward when there would be plenty of time to take more memorable photos. This woman’s warm delivery coaxed even us doting grandparents to comply with a smile.

How sweet it was to watch as Mass began with the procession of altar servers, proud parents and their First Communicants, Father Don and Grandpa Deacon Mike. From that moment, everything unfolded beautifully. All the while, I marveled at the little children who had done their best to prepare for this day and the multitude of adults who had helped along the way. Though the preparations and worry which precede such events can be daunting, there was no sign of this on the faces of those involved.

Last weekend, my parish celebrated First Eucharist with one hundred eight of our parish children. Because of the great number, this occurred on Saturday at two special Masses. Our wonderful religious education staff, our teachers and our parish parents worked very hard together this entire year to bring the children to this momentous occasion. Our priests and the parish staff supported this effort as well. In spite of the work involved, I’m certain everyone concerned would repeat his or her effort if asked to do so. Yes, bringing our children to God’s table is that important and that joyful!

On this Sixth Sunday of Easter, the scripture passages we share continue to celebrate the disciples’ efforts to proclaim the good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They preached tirelessly to all who would listen regarding God’s merciful love and the new life which awaits us all. This was a team effort which required all concerned to do their parts. Preaching, praying together, healing and caring for those in need were equally valued. Each action contributed to the well-being of their faith community. Though the tasks at hand weren’t always easy, every one made an important difference to someone. Perhaps these early believers drew their inspiration from the same source I do. In today’s gospel (John 14:15-21), John offered one of Jesus’ last messages to his disciples. It was just after their last supper together when Jesus told them, “I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” Jesus reminded his friends that he and the Father were with them every step of their way. This message echoes through two millenniums to you and me as we struggle to make our way in this world. How much easier this struggle becomes when we acknowledge that we do what we do in God’s loving company!

My granddaughter’s First Eucharist brought much joy to all concerned because of the many people whose efforts brought her to the altar that day. The First Eucharist celebrations in my parish did the same. Our Confirmation liturgies, weekend Masses, Holy Week observances, weddings, funerals and every gathering during which we pray together are the result of the efforts of innumerable people. Add to this list our many ministries and organizations which enrich our parish family. Each of our parishioners who joins us week after week is a gift as well. You offer kind words on your way in and out of church. You smile encouragingly at parents struggling to keep their antsy little ones in the pew. You thank our servers and compliment our priests and deacons who deliver homily after homily week after week. Your response to our many requests on behalf of those in need is awesome and inspiring. Above all, when you leave church, you put your best foot forward as you carry God’s love wherever you go. Everything of value which occurs for any of us is the result of the efforts of those whom we meet along the way. From what I can see, God’s work has been placed in very capable hands. Thank you for all you do!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

The Way of Love

A recent encounter with our little grandson unexpectedly set the tone for my approach to Lent 2017. Though Danny is just eighteen months old, he’s quite knowledgeable regarding the use of the word “no”. When Danny has had enough of his lunch, he announces, “All done!” When I ignore his assertion and ask if he’d like more of something on his plate, he shakes his head back and forth while uttering, “Nnnnnn! Nnnnno! No.” My response is always the same: “Okay, Danny. You don’t have to eat any more. Just say ‘No, thank you.’” With that, we move on to our play until nap time. All the while, I marvel at how much I love this little boy.

When our older son Mike was born, I received a glimpse of God’s love. I couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than I loved that little boy. When we discovered his little brother was on the way, I wondered if I could love another child as much as I loved Mike. When Tim arrived, I answered my own question with a resounding “Yes!” Danny and our granddaughters and their parents draw more love from me than I thought I had to give. So it is that as I journey through Lent this year I can’t help focusing on love. After all, if this humble heart of mine can love so completely, imagine the depth of God’s love for you and me. God’s love for each one of us leaves me awestruck and it seems appropriate for me to spread a bit of that awesome love to others.

God’s love for us and our ongoing attempts to love one another also inspire my parish’s Lenten activities this year. Though we habitually think of these forty days as a time of penance and contrition, there is far more to this holy season. While we all have reason to feel regret and remorse and to improve ourselves, we also have reason to rejoice as we focus on Jesus’ own journey toward Easter. In all that he said and did, Jesus made it crystal clear that we are loved and cared for by our gracious, forgiving and merciful God. Jesus celebrated this reality whenever he stole away to spend quiet time in conversation with his Father. Jesus did the same in the relationships which he shared with his closest disciples and with all whom he met along the way. Jesus’ great love for all of God’s people was no accident. Jesus chose to personify God’s unquenchable affection for each one of us in his every encounter.

Throughout Lent 2017, we can apply Jesus’ lessons in love through the happy and challenging journey which lies ahead. In addition to our personal efforts, my parish will engage in opportunities which will guide us on our way to Easter. We received cards on Ash Wednesday to serve as reminders that we’re all disciples who walk at Jesus’ side. Today, after hearing the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, we will take home bags to help us to prepare for our own encounters with goodness and evil as we journey through Lent. These bags will be the “luggage” which carries us through Easter. Next week, after we hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, we will be invited to pick up a card on which we’ll record one thing about ourselves that we hope to transform during Lent. On the Third Sunday of Lent, we will listen to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus peered into the woman’s heart and filled the void there with love. That week, we will express our love by returning with our bags full of food for the hungry. The Fourth Sunday of Lent will bring the gospel of the man born blind whom Jesus healed. Though this physical healing was important, Jesus made whole the man’s spirit as well. That weekend, we will help to heal the bodies and spirits of our needy elderly by contributing to support services to the elderly in our area. The Fifth Sunday of Lent, we will celebrate Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. We will respond by selecting a card which will remind us to enrich someone else’s life that week.

Whatever we choose to do this Lent will hopefully draw our attention back to the reason for this season. Lent is our opportunity to make the time to savor God’s love and to deepen our relationships with God and with one another. This is our opportunity to acknowledge God’s amazing love for us by sharing it generously with all of those whom we meet along the way.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved