Courageous Love

Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
From Matthew 1:24

Many years ago, my dad passed away in early July. As a result, I’m flooded with memories throughout this month which changed everything for my mom and her children. Some of that change involved Bill, the second love of my mom’s life. This good and brave man became my step-dad. I’m obliged to add the latter adjective because my mother entered this relationship with us six children in tow. I’m still amazed that the six of us didn’t frighten Bill away. Bill’s willingness to persist out of love for my mother -and for us- brings to mind another brave step-father…

When Mary agreed to be the mother of Jesus, she dragged her betrothed Joseph into impossible circumstances. Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy could have caused her to be stoned to death. To protect her, Joseph intended to divorce Mary quietly until he came to fully understand her circumstances. So it was that he took Mary into his home as his wife. The couple had barely settled in when Joseph packed up his pregnant wife to travel to Bethlehem for the census. Later, after the Magi inadvertently alerted the jealous king to Jesus’ birth, Joseph fled with his family to Egypt where they would be safe. Joseph, Mary and Jesus eventually settled in Nazareth rather than returning home in order to avoid the wrath of that king’s son.

Perhaps my step-dad found inspiration in Joseph’s plight. Perhaps the six of us seemed a less daunting challenge than Jesus might have been. Whatever the case, both men inspire the rest of us to do what needs to be done to make homes in our hearts for those God gives us to love.

Dear God, give us Joseph’s and Bill’s courage so we, too, will love one another.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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A Happy Anniversary!

This weekend, I join my parish family in celebrating our 25th Anniversary. For those readers who aren’t a part of my parish, I ask your indulgence as I couldn’t help chronicling this experience with some detail…

We were in the midst of Year 1991 when my husband-the-deacon served on an archdiocesan committee charged with determining how the church could better serve northeastern Illinois. In the midst of the process, fellow committee member Father Merold shared news of a new parish to be founded in Gurnee. Father added that Carmelites would staff the parish and a certain “Father Farrell” would serve as pastor. As soon as he learned that this pastor-in-waiting resided at the monastery at Carmel High School, Mike contacted him. When he called, Mike immediately addressed the man who answered with, “Hello, Father Carroll?” In his excitement, he’d Mike had stumbled over the priest’s name. Our founding pastor good-heartedly replied, “No, I’m Father Farrell. Can I help you?” Apparently, Mike’s error didn’t bother Father Farrell as their conversation led to a face-to-face meeting shortly thereafter. The two must have hit is off as Father Farrell invited Mike to join him at the new parish if he was interested. After sharing his impressions with me, Mike reminded me that his grandparents were founding members of Mother of God Parish in Waukegan. What an honor it would be to repeat history here in Gurnee! Mike’s enthusiasm was contagious and I couldn’t resist joining him in this endeavor.

When Mike shared this news with Father Farrell, he asked if he and his associate pastor Father Phil could meet me. Fortunately, neither my cooking nor my demeanor frightened them away because they welcomed me as well. When Father Farrell inquired about my hope for the new parish, I immediately replied, “Welcome! I want it to be welcoming. Regardless of people’s stories from previous parishes or from their lives up to this point, I want them to know that this parish is a place where they are welcome just as they are.” The good news is that my new pastor, Father Phil and I agreed completely on this point and this has never changed.

Our official affiliation began with Cardinal Bernardin’s letter of December 1991 which appointed Father Farrell as pastor. Shortly thereafter, Father Farrell convinced the Woodland School District Superintendent to rent gym space to us for weekend Masses. To prevent having to tote hundreds of folding chairs each weekend, Father Farrell arranged for the school to store them in exchange for their use them during the school week. Mike also introduced Father Farrell to Father Merold who supplied us with vestments and other liturgical items to get us on our way. Sister Christine from St. Therese Hospital commissioned her master carpenter to fashion a portable altar for us. Father Farrell secured a van to transport our liturgical equipment every weekend. In an effort to manage costs, that van served as his personal vehicle as well. In February 1992, Father Farrell and Father Phil hosted a meeting at the Gurnee Holiday Inn where they welcomed everyone interested in the parish. That evening sixty-seven families and individuals registered as parishioners. Many of those present also volunteered to chair ministries which continue to serve us today. A small group also volunteered to host a “house warming” shower for the priests to equip the house they’d occupy until a permanent parish house could be built.

On the first weekend of Lent 1992, Saturday March 7, we celebrated our first Mass as The Warren Township Catholic Community. Father Farrell selected that name to welcome parishioners from throughout the Village of Gurnee and beyond. An hour before that first liturgy, Father Farrell paced back and forth. Finally he asked, “Do you think anyone will come?” Those of us who had prepared the gym for Mass responded with a resounding “Yes!” Still, I don’t think Father Farrell fully believed us until a few minutes before 5:00 P.M. when he processed into a very full gymnasium to begin.

If I was convinced that this writing isn’t already too long, I would happily recount the remainder of our parish history. Though the process would have given me great joy, the result would not have been as telling as the wonderful people who are St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Whether you are a vintage parishioner who registered at the Holiday Inn, a member who joined us last weekend or someone who has joined us along the way, each one of you speaks to our parish history far more eloquently than my words ever could. When I reflected upon today’s scripture passages, I found that I couldn’t have chosen a better gospel for our celebration this weekend.

During this liturgical season of Ordinary Time, the gospels feature the best of Jesus’ teachings regarding discipleship. The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel today (Matthew 13:1-23) offers a retelling of the parable of the sower and the seed. Jesus told his followers of a benevolent and perhaps foolhardy farmer who planted his seed quite indiscriminately. Some fell on a shallow path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns and some on rich soil. Now if you have ever farmed or planted a backyard garden, you know well the importance of planting carefully in rich deep soil which is free of rocks and weeds. Unlike the sower in Jesus’ parable, farmers and serious gardeners select only the best conditions for their planting.

As I consider the evolution of our parish, I can’t help thinking that our founding pastor walked in the shoes of that indiscriminate sower. Father Farrell couldn’t and wouldn’t pick and choose parishioners from among those who appeared in our place of worship each week. He welcomed each and every one with absolute faith in our ability to yield fruit. I’m certain that he scratched his head on occasion as he wondered what I and many of the rest of us were up to. Still, he allowed us to plod along and to serve one another as best we could. This is the reason some of us continue to be present around Mass times on Sunday mornings. We’re providing the welcome which Father Farrell intended for us all.

As for me, I’m most grateful for those occasions when I’ve yielded good fruit like the seeds which fell upon rich soil. Regret surfaces when I consider those times when I’ve failed to produce much at all. Sometimes, I’ve been petty and shallow like seeds planted on a path where hungry birds gobble them up. At times, I’ve wasted my effort in rocky areas which would have been better left alone. Worst of all were the times I lost myself in thorny patches which threatened to choke the life out of me. What was I thinking? The good news in all of this is that all the while my indiscriminately Benevolent Sower invested divine trust in me. Somehow, God knew that my best efforts would surface and yield good fruit once again. God knows that the same is true for each one of us.

Today, we celebrate the twenty-five year of the life of our parish family where our Benevolent Sower chose to plant each one of us with our unique gifts and flaws intact. We celebrate Father Farrell Kane who led us as best he could in the Spirit of our Benevolent Sower. We celebrate Father Phil Nessinger, Father Ray Clennon, Father, Bernie Bauerle, Father Herman Kinzler, Father Dave Genders and Father Greg Houck, Deacon Mike Penich, Deacon Bob Tomasso, Deacon Mark Purdome, Deacon Ivan Siap and Deacon Bob Birck who have walked with us on this amazing journey. Though this space allows me to thank our clergy by name, it would be impossible to list the wonderful ministry heads, staff members, religious education volunteers, musicians and volunteers of every sort who have given this parish life. It is impossible for me to list twenty-five years of parishioners whose presence has and continues to sustain our parish family in ways that they’ll never realize. Today, we celebrate our Benevolent Sower who planted the amazing garden which we call St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Happy Anniversary!

©2017 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

Easter Blessings

When I turned to John’s gospel (John 20:1-9) in preparation for this writing, my eyes filled up as I read: On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark… “Of course she did,” I told myself. A lifetime of devotion prompted this remark regarding Mary Magdalene’s behavior that first Easter morning. When my husband and I considered a possible trip to Israel, it was Magdala’s place on the itinerary which compelled me to embrace this opportunity. I couldn’t imagine a better way to become more closely acquainted with my childhood hero.

In Israel, when we disembarked from our bus in Magdala, I wasn’t disappointed. I quickly learned that this little town boasted an excellent economy in Jesus’ day. The booming fishing industry paved the way for a variety of merchants and artisans who occupied numerous shops in the marketplace. Nearby homes rested along streets arranged in grid-like fashion much like our own. Magdala’s close proximity to Nazareth likely enticed Jesus to begin his ministry there. I couldn’t hide my amazement as I looked upon the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus frequently taught. Perhaps Mary Magdalene had met Jesus there.

Scripture scholars tell us that Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who suffered from a serious illness. At the time, such afflictions were assumed to be caused by the sinfulness of their victims or by demons. That Mary maintained her stature and wealth in the midst of her suffering is a testament to her strong character. Though we don’t know the circumstances, Mary and Jesus met in Magdala and Jesus cured her. Perhaps Mary had heard enough about Jesus to lay her troubles at his feet and to trust in his intervention. Perhaps Jesus sought out the suffering Mary just as he sought out those in pain throughout his ministry. Whatever the circumstances, this encounter resulted in a lifelong friendship and Mary’s deep faith in Jesus. Mary responded by immersing herself in Jesus’ work and investing her resources in providing for Jesus’ and his disciples’ material needs.

I share all of this today because I think it was fitting that Mary Magdalene approached Jesus’ tomb so early that first Easter morning. The families of those who died visited their loved ones’ tombs three days after burial and, to Mary, Jesus was family. My visit to Magdala increased my understanding of this remarkable relationship. This encounter also revealed Mary Magdalene’s deep connection to us. Scriptures scholars call Mary an avid believer and perhaps Jesus’ closest follower. Mary Magdalene didn’t become a woman of means by hiding in the shadows. Mary’s bravery and devotion impelled her to do everything she did, including remaining with Jesus when rumblings of discontent filled the air around him. Our subsequent visit to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and a nearby church put everything into perspective for me. That room where Jesus ate his last supper induced a smile over all that Jesus had shared there. It also prompted my tears as I recalled all that followed. The nearby church featured a life-size sculpture of The Last Supper. Because this image drew me in, it took a moment for me to see the lone figure nestled in the shadows a few feet away. Mary Magdalene stood silently as Jesus extended his greatest gift to his unwitting disciples, to her and to us all.

This Easter morning, I find great hope for us in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus. I think Mary would tell us that she was as flawed as the rest of us when she walked with Jesus. Still, Jesus loved her. It was this love which gave Mary the strength to remain with Jesus throughout his ministry and as he endured those long hours on the cross. Whenever you and I ignore the rumblings around us and set aside our own troubles to care for others, we do what Mary Magdalene did for Jesus. At the same time, Jesus does the same for us. Jesus brings us strength and his assurance that we are never alone.

My experience in Israel enriched my relationship with Mary Magdalene. More importantly, it nurtured my love for Jesus. With every step, I embraced Jesus’ path more fully. With every step, Jesus embraced me with the same friendship and love he offered his friend Mary so long ago. The compassion and unconditional love Mary Magdalene enjoyed two millenniums ago are yours as well, today and always. What better reason is there for us all to enjoy a most happy and blessed Easter?

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Getting To Know You

Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it.
From Luke 10:41

This passage from Luke was written about another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It seems to have been early in their relationship that Jesus visited the home these siblings shared. Martha was very busy preparing the meal and everything else related to Jesus’ stay. Rather than helping Martha, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as soon as he settled in to visit with their guests. Beside herself with worry, Martha pointed out this situation to Jesus. Much to Martha’s dismay, Jesus sided with her seemingly lazy sister. Apparently, Mary did the most important thing anyone could do when in Jesus’ company. She listened.

It seems to me that Mary Magdalene emulated both Martha’s and Mary’s roles in her relationship with Jesus. While she tended to Jesus’ need for food and shelter, she also tended to his company. This competent and strong woman who held her own in the worst of circumstances also loved with great resolve. I feel quite certain that she didn’t miss much of what Jesus said or did.

Each year, I try to be more like Mary the Sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. Rather than storming through project after project as is my norm, I try to make the time to sit at Jesus’ feet and to savor his every word like the Marys did. It occurs to me that I did this very well while in Israel, though not so much here at home. So it is that I will begin again today…

Dear God, be with me as I ease away from Martha-mode and nestle closer to you.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Random Acts of Peace

Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.
From Luke 6:36

My words fail me as I attempt to express the life-changing and life-giving nature of our trip to Israel. Every day, the people we encountered and the sites we visited touched me deeply in indescribable ways. Even the seemingly simplest interactions etched unforgettable lessons into my heart.

Our day in Akko was no longer than any other, yet it remains with me as though I was there yesterday. A member of our tour wasn’t feeling well. Nancy, our tour-organizer, immediately attended to our friend. (I call her “friend” as we couldn’t possibly have shared so much on so many levels without also developing affection for one another!) Though “facilities” were usually conveniently available, there was nothing nearby at the time. After visually scanning our locale, Nancy decided to approach a shop for assistance. Though we were obviously tourists visiting Christian sites with our Jewish guide, this Muslim shop-owner and staff immediately responded when Nancy explained the situation. Our friend was invited to rest and to take care of her needs for as long as necessary. When she and Nancy returned, they couldn’t hide their gratitude for the warm and welcoming assistance they’d received.

Our friend enjoyed the rest of that day for good reason. Nancy had responded to her with compassionate action and that wonderful shop-owner and cohort did more than she dared to hope for. Of course she felt much better!

Loving God, thank you for the instruments of your peace who grace our paths every day.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved