Thank You!

One of them, realizing that he had been cured,
came back praising God in a loud voice.

Luke 17:15

My sister Rita puts the “spirit” in “family spirit”. She’s consistently seen to it that we continue with family picnics and birthday celebrations. She reminds us when it’s been a little too long since we’ve gotten together. She also spent months compiling our written family history which was a truly painstaking, but much appreciated effort. All of this is amazing in light of Rita’s role in that history…

My dear sister is the eldest of us six siblings. She was only fifteen when our dad passed away. The rest of us were 14, 8, 6, 5 and 3. Since our mom had to go to work to support us, Rita assumed a good deal of responsibility for the rest of us. Looking back, I realize that this changed what might have been my sister’s carefree teens into a much more difficult experience. Much to her credit, Rita didn’t share in only our mom’s workload. She also shared in our mom’s efforts to keep our family’s “special occasions” special. Rita helped our mom to select and wrap our Christmas gifts. She also pitched in for our birthdays and Easter. As soon as she could, Rita began to use the few dollars she earned each week at her job to supplement our mom’s gifts to us.

The scripture passage I selected above is an excerpt from Luke’s account of the healing of the ten lepers. Though all were made whole, only one took the time to return to Jesus to thank him. In an effort not to repeat the mistake of the other nine lepers, we need to do the same. Thank you, Rita, for all you did for us!

Loving God, thank you for empowering us to enrich this life with our kindness and gratitude toward one another.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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The Body, Blood and Heart of Jesus

I’d been running most of the day. By mid-afternoon, I realized that I needed to sit for just a few minutes to relax and to regroup. My heart ached under the weight of a long list of woes which needed attention. People around me were suffering in varying degrees and there seemed to be little that I could do for any of them. Though I’d kept my promise to pray for each one, I felt the need to do more. So it was that I decided to share this bit of quiet time with The One who understood completely. Before voicing my petitions once again, I wondered, “How many more of God’s kids are suffering today?” My Friend from above didn’t need to respond. I already knew that God’s family teems with broken people.

“The human condition is tough,” I whispered to myself and to God above. As I contemplated this reality, a hymn we’d sung at church the previous Sunday came to mind. When I was a child, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name often. I found comfort in Ignaz Franz’s Eighteenth Century lyrics because each verse acknowledges God’s greatness and that, indeed, God is in charge. Though it isn’t one of my favorites, this hymn truly touched me that day. In the midst of my worry, it helped me to focus upon God’s wonder and my smallness. I became less regretful regarding my inability to end the suffering around me because God is in charge and presenting God with all of these needs was the most productive thing I could do at the moment.

After arriving at that bit of wisdom, I recalled how I’ve relied upon Matt Wessel’s Be With Me to lift my spirits over the past several months: “Be with me when I am in trouble. Be with me when I am afraid. Be with me when I am alone. Be with me, Lord, I pray.” Years ago, these words filled my car every time I drove from Gurnee to Glenview to visit my dying mom. They were the mantra which carried me through my sister’s passing as well. Matt’s lyrics touch me deeply because they dare to be as familiar with our God as Jesus invited us to be. Just as our children ask Daddy or Mommy to linger a bit longer at their bedsides while they travel off to Dreamland, we ask God, our loving parent, to linger with us through tough and frightening times. What is most consoling is that we needn’t end our prayer with “Be with me.” Matt’s lyrics urge us on to invite God to remain with us for the long haul: “Stand beside me; walk beside me; give me comfort; make me stronger, and raise me higher.”

Before returning to all I had to do that day, I considered one more favorite. On Eagle’s Wings has been sung at almost every funeral I’ve attended for the past several decades. “Perhaps I won’t cry if I sing the words to myself,” I thought. So it was that I quietly voiced Michael Joncas’ lyrics to myself and to God above. The thought of soaring toward the sky on an eagle and then nestling into the palm of God’s hand assured me that my prayers were well-placed. With that and a full measure of peace in my heart, I took a deep breath and embraced the remainder of the day.

Though some of those for whom I prayed that day aren’t yet out of the woods, it is with a lighter heart that I celebrate today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Though Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t have these familiar hymns in which to find comfort, Jesus gave them far more tangible means to do so. Jesus offered the gift of himself through every moment of every day he walked among them. Though we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s gospel isn’t a Last Supper narrative. Rather, Luke’s gospel (9:11-17) recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. While the disciples missed the significance of what occurred, early Christians came to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ blessing, breaking and sharing of that bread and fish. Offering nourishment to the hungry provided a poignant example of God’s call for us to do the same. Jesus echoed that call through the meals he shared with outcasts of every sort. Jesus echoed that call when he healed the leper, the blind man and the Roman’s Centurion’s servant. Jesus echoed that call in parables like The Prodigal Son which revealed God’s unlimited love for us and our amazing capacity to love one other. Jesus echoed that call in every look, touch and in every accepting and healing embrace. When we celebrate The Body and Blood of Jesus, we celebrate this Jesus who gave his body, his blood and his loving heart in service to us all.

On this very special day, we consider the way of life with which Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Just as Jesus encouraged his contemporaries to do, Jesus urges you and me spend ourselves, our bodies, our blood and our own loving hearts, in service of those we’ve been given to love. While we cherish the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to share this gift through our relationships with one another as well. Those wonderful hymns reminded me that Jesus shared his body and blood every time he responded to the needs of others. Jesus asks only that we try to do the same. When we do, we will transform this world and relieve the suffering of God’s family as only we can. We will truly partake of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ loving heart, one act of kindness at a time.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, text by Ignaz Franz 1719-1790; translated by Clarence Walworth 1820-1900

Be With Me, text and music by Matt Wessel. ©2003 Matt Wessel

On Eagle’s Wings, Text and music by Michael Joncas, text based upon Psalm 91. Text and music ©1979, OCP.

Share The Word

He said to them, “Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Mark 16:15

Before we celebrated our first wedding anniversary, my husband and I purchased a puppy. We’d both grown up with dogs so this seemed a wise choice at the time. After inadvertently spoiling Ernie and failing “doggie kindergarten”, we were about to give up. Much to our good fortune, a wise friend stepped in to help. Judy had an extremely well-behaved dog of her own. When she told us that her four-legged friend sat up on a chair so she could wash the kitchen floor, we laughed. We also realized just how miserably we’d done with our poor dog. After Judy spent a few sessions with Ernie, our embarrassed laughter morphed into pure admiration. Ernie never quite measured up to Judy’s dog because he lived with us. Still, he behaved far better than he might have thanks to Judy’s intervention.

A few year’s later, another friend counseled us as we awaited the birth of our first child. As it happened, we applied both our mistakes with Ernie, Judy’s advice and Peggy’s good counsel to our adventures as first-time parents. How grateful we are that we learned our lessons well! Our son did, too. Raising his little brother was a piece of cake as well thanks to Mike’s endurance. Both have grown into amazing men.

It seems to me that preaching the gospel is much like sharing our wisdom with a friend, a spouse, a child and even a pet!

Generous God, thank you for the good people who share their wisdom with the rest of us.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

God’s Listening!

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray,
and he spent the night in conversation with God.

Luke 6:12

The other day, I ran into a friend who’d been part of my husband’s and my last RCIA class. Paul had decided to become a Catholic in order to share the same faith with his wife and children. He told me that he was grateful that he’d journeyed through RCIA with Mike and me. I admit that I walked away with a smile as memories from that year together filled me up.

My favorite topic was prayer. Though we introduced commonly known prayers first, we also shared our own preferences. Mike and I agree that we do our best praying when we simply talk to God. Jesus spent his life among us convincing us of God’s unconditional love, acceptance, mercy and concern for each one of us. If we take these teachings to heart, we realize just how intimately God wishes to be connected with us. In my case, I share my deepest concerns only with those by whom I feel accepted and with whom I feel comfortable. It seems to me that God tops this list of my most precious friends.

You know, talking to God is as natural as talking to one another. So is listening. When I share my deepest thoughts or worries with a friend, I fully expect a response. Sometimes, this comes in a knowing smile, a pat on the back or a similar story from his or her experience. Sometimes, we simply sit together, knowing that each of us understands the other. The same is true in our conversations with God. Though I’ve never heard a word spoken from God’s lips, I have received God’s message in the quiet of the moment, in an unexpected remark from someone I know or a forgotten line in a favorite book. Sometimes, God speaks in the autumn breeze and sometimes I simply know what God is telling me.

Whenever we take the time to talk with God, God finds a way to respond.

Loving God, once again I say, “THANK YOU!”

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Generosity… Practice Makes Perfect!

Last weekend, I shared that I’d gone through two boxes of photos from my childhood while looking for a picture for my sister. This encounter with my past elicited numerous memories which have filled me up ever since. I’m happy to report that each one has warmed my heart in unexpectedly amazing ways. Over the past several days, I’ve looked upward often to thank God for this life of mine. At the same time, I admit to looking into the mirror and thinking that I must be getting old. After all, I’ve been celebrating the good old days an awful lot as of late. Oddly, someone looking in from the outside might question my use of the word “good” regarding my childhood. I grew up in a family which would be considered among the working poor today. Still, though life wasn’t perfect, it was certainly more simple than it might have been as a result of our humble circumstances. Our most precious commodities were the people around us. Though they didn’t have many material goods to offer, they were generous in sharing the gift of themselves. As I read today’s scripture readings I couldn’t help thinking of these giving people who made all of the difference in the world to me.

The reading from Kings (1 Kings 17:1016) tells us that a great famine had devastated the land. A poor widow realized that she had only enough flour and oil left to prepare one more tiny loaf of bread. After consuming this final ration, the woman knew she and her son will surely die from starvation. Still, in spite of her impending demise, the widow responded to Elijah who’d happened by as she gathered sticks for a fire. Though she had no reason to help him, the woman listened to Elijah’s request and his promise of nourishment. With that, she gave Elijah the last of her bread. In the end, Elijah, the widow and her son weathered that yearlong famine. Just as Elijah had promised, God rewarded the woman’s generosity with a jar of flour and a jug of oil which never emptied.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) introduces a second widow in the temple who was completely unaware of Jesus the Teacher’s presence. At the same time, the woman was very much aware that she stood before her Creator. It was with great reverence for her God that she reached deeply into her meager treasure to retrieve all that she had, two coins worth just a few pennies. Though meaningless in the shadow of the mountain of money contributed by the wealthy, this offering meant everything to the widow because she had nothing else. Though she might have traded those coins for bread, she handed them over to the temple, perhaps to assist a stranger whose need was even greater than her own.

The widows in today’s readings tug at my heartstrings because I’ve lived most of my life in the company of women like them. The widows in my life answered to Mom, Grandma, Ma Mere, Auntie and a host of given names. Over the years, I found that their generosity wasn’t measured in any single event in their respective lives. These precious people placed the needs of others before themselves on an ongoing basis. Since I witnessed her generosity most closely, I’ll tell you about my mom. She ran our household on a tight budget. At age thirty-nine, she’d joined the ranks of the widowed with six children in tow. A monthly death benefit from my dad’s job, my mom’s position at Sears, my sister’s pay from her receptionist job at the parish rectory and my brother’s pay from delivering groceries allowed us to eke by most weeks. Unexpected expenses such as doctors’ visits and outgrown shoes sometimes taxed our resources beyond capacity. Still, my mom dropped her weekly envelope into the collection basket and sent each of us to church with a quarter in our children’s envelopes. My siblings and I each donated one can to the holiday food drive and we sold wrapping paper with everyone else in the neighborhood to support our school. When our sales failed to meet their quota, our mom purchased items enough to allow them to do so. If one of my mom’s sisters found herself short of funds during a given week, my mom offered what was needed to help her sister to get by. Through all of this, my mom taught me her greatest lesson: To be generous.

Now I don’t mean to imply that the only remarkable examples of generosity come through the efforts of the widowed among us. Generosity flows from varied and sometimes unexpected people. What I mean to suggest is that generosity is a habit developed over a lifetime; generosity comes easiest to those who practice it most; and nothing rivals the joy that comes from giving in spite of our own need. My mom embraced these truths because she was convinced that she would be taken care of. She was certain that God’s generosity would always outdo her own. In the end, she was right. When my mom left this world, she didn’t leave behind many material riches. What she did leave is this dutiful daughter who will tell you what my mom found when she entered the hereafter. She found everyone and everything that she’d ever hoped for. It seems to me that our challenge today is to begin to develop our own varieties of generosity and to practice our unique version of this virtue at every opportunity. Though I can’t actually hear her voice, I know my mom is urging me to tell you that you won’t regret your efforts in this regard.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

We Find Our Treasure When We Let Go…

In mid-September, my husband-the-good-deacon and I enjoyed an eight-day tour of Puglia. This quaint Italian wonderland is located on the southeast side of the big boot. After eating, exploring and eating even more, Mike and I questioned the wisdom of adding four additional days to our travel. Happy as we were with the tour, we were tired and wanted to go home. Still, while our fellow tourists boarded that plane back to O’Hare, Mike and I settled in on the smaller aircraft which would take us to Palermo, Sicily. Though the flight lasted less than an hour, fatigue dug in its heels. When our luggage appeared an hour after we landed, we were convinced that we were doomed to four days of misery. With that, we pulled our bags out of the terminal and headed outdoors. Amazingly, it took only a second to spot the young man who was waving and smiling broadly as he called our names. In an instant, our fatigue faded. Mike and I bubbled with joy as walked to Francesco and the four memorable days which awaited us.

Mike met Francesco a few years ago via Facebook and a recommendation regarding his work. The two have communicated all the while via private messages and WhatsApp chats. During this time, Francesco completed a genealogy search for us. Francesco’s enthusiasm suggested that he was as pleased as we were with the results. It was as though Mike’s Sicilian family had become Francesco’s long lost relatives as well. Throughout our time together, this impression proved accurate. Amazingly, while our hopes regarding this visit to Mike’s grandparents’ village were abundantly fulfilled, it was an unexpected encounter in a nearby town which best illustrates the tone of our time in Sicily and the amazing friendships which have resulted.

We spoke about this impending trip with our friends Mary Lou and Dave. Mary Lou shared that her aunt and uncle live in a town close to Mike’s grandparents’ home in Altofonte. On a whim, Mike asked for their address thinking that we might find the time to greet this elderly couple and their daughter. When we mentioned the possibility to Francesco, he promised to make this happen. While Francesco confirmed the directions to Casteldaccia, Mike called Mary Lou to ensure that we’d be welcomed and that we wouldn’t frighten her family. With that, we made our way into their neighborhood. We soon discovered that the house numbers had recently changed and that the address we had was no longer accurate. Fortunately, it was early evening and many of the locals were sitting outdoors. When Francesco asked a gentleman if he knew where Paolo and Maria lived, I noticed a woman a few doors down. She poked her husband and said, “Paolo e Maria?” Sure enough, we’d found Mary Lou’s family!

While Francesco explained our presence, I pulled out my cell phone and retrieved a photo of Mary Lou, Dave and their kids. Before Francesco could complete his explanation, Maria jumped up to greet us. After I shared the photo with her, Maria ran (Yes, she ran!) into the house to get her daughter Angelina. Francesco explained for us that we were so close, we simply had to bring our greetings, smiles and hugs to Mary Lou’s family. Though we were a little nervous about this encounter, it took only seconds for Mike and me to feel that we were among family. We smiled all the while as we shared news regarding Mary Lou and Dave, Valerie and Ryan. Francesco documented this visit with photographs and a video of the hugs I collected for Mary Lou and her family. As for me, I’ve fulfilled my promise to bring those hugs and a full account of our time together all the way home to Gurnee.

I share our Sicilian adventure with you because it gets to the heart of the young man’s problem in today’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30). This rich fellow spent his life carefully adhering to The Law. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more drew him to Jesus. Jesus recognized the young man’s goodness and he invited him to give his wealth to the poor and to follow him. This generosity of spirit was beyond the young man’s comprehension. He couldn’t imagine himself without his wealth in hand.

You know, fatigue almost kept Mike and me from embracing the joy we found in Sicily. Mary Lou’s family might have allowed fear to keep them from welcoming us into their home. Rather, it was without hesitation that they embraced us as their own. Their love for Mary Lou compelled them to do nothing less. That truly poor rich man had busied himself so completely with calculating The Law’s dictates and his own profits that he couldn’t imagine opening himself to a different way of life. His material concerns kept him from the joy which awaited him in Jesus and in all of those he’d meet along the way. I wish that young man could have joined us in Paolo and Maria’s home. They would have shown him that when we open our hands to let go, we free ourselves to embrace the best of this life. What we have at the moment is not nearly as valuable as what we will have when we open our hearts to one another.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved