Our Lady of Guadalupe

She’s following me. Or, am I following her? Is this a dismissed coincidence or a spiritual engagement? You be the judge.

My mother many years ago gave me the prayer given to us by Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

Years later, I get the chaplain position at Alexian Village. I ask the CEO for a week off between jobs. He said, “No.” They needed me right away because of the aging priest having daily Mass. I arrive on my first day and preparing for Mass discover that it’s December 12 – her feast day. “Hmmm,” I think to myself.

More years pass and the diocese invites me to be a temporary administrator at Queen of Apostles in Pewaukee. The pastor is falsely accused of child abuse but it takes eighteen months for a mistrial. I walk into the sacristy the first day and on the back wall is a huge picture of “you know who.” No “hmmm” this time. This time it was a smile. The 2 1/2 years of waiting for a trial left the parish bereft for obvious reasons. My personality and style helped the parish through those dark months. (They even began to chuckle during my homilies.) Again, who’s following whom?” I called myself “Fr. Doorstop,” keeping the doors open for the hopefully returning pastor. It worked.

The diocese offers me your (our) wonderful intimate parish. After a few months, a parishioner stops me in the parking lot after Mass and proceeds to tell me how much Our Lady influenced and affected her family over the years. I didn’t interject with my run-ins but loved hearing her family stories. This time I walked away with a quiet, broad smile.

Here’s my mother’s handed-down prayer from Our Lady.

“Have you forgotten? I am your Mother. You are not alone. You are under my protection. Anything you need, ask me. Do not worry about anything. Am I not here – I who am your Mother? Have you forgotten? I love you, and you are under my protection.”

It hangs in my bedroom. I haven’t forgotten and I’m confident that I never will.

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Mary: Immaculate Conception

“Oh, you Catholics…” says the Lutherans about us Catholics, “Why do you worship Mary?” We answer by saying we don’t “worship Mary” but we can understand your confusion.

We are dumbfounded by this carrier of hope in our world. We are awestruck by this vessel which did not doubt but continued moving, as best she could, through this journey we call life. We are terrified that if we emulate her that we will get lost; never find our way back to ourselves, and will lose our identity forever. Yet, in finding Mary we will find our true identity.

It’s called midrash. It’s the possible back story to the story we all know and love. In other words, what happened before all the good stuff we hear about in church?

Mary told the angel, “No,” you’ve got to be kidding as she might have said to that huge winged creature standing proudly in our kitchen. Mary, not knowing the origins of her sinlessness, would still have had doubts, inhibitions; thinking ahead of what her answer would mean without knowing the impact of her answer meant. Mary would naturally have thought solely about herself and what her unknowingly “Yes” would mean. Her knowing response of “No” would have been natural. Saying “No” keeps her young life the way it is and how she plans it to be. Her sixteen-year-old mind would think, “What the heck is going on in my kitchen when I’m only trying to make supper?!”

Later, after that “Yes,” there’s supper with the husband who wants to divorce her (quietly) as Mary begins, as we say, “to show.” Joseph then has a dream and we all know the manger story.
Now there’s a two-year-old in the house and his favorite word like all two-years-old is the two-letter word, “No.” “No” to everything and anything. Keeping midrash in mind, couldn’t Mary, like any mother, teach her child what the “Yes” to the unknown means? As was her “Yes” to what the unknowns meant to her? A bit of admonishment, as any good parent does for the good of the child? Teaching a child that a “No” can often be selfish when a “Yes” leads to something greater; even if, at the time, unknown?

But that’s midrash. Made-up stuff that may be true or it may not be true.

But we know how this story ends and continues to inform and enlighten us. This vessel of love we call Mary vividly illustrates who we are as Church. A Church that possesses the wisdom and humility of all that life is. If Jesus dramatically showed us the fullness of life which is the union of human and divine then Mary shows us how it’s done and lived. Christ erased those two barriers. All the curtains and divisions that separated us from God have been lifted. And, Mary shows us how it’s done.

We have a tendency, no matter what age we may be, to add a magical dimension to our religion. (Burying poor St. Joseph to sell your home?) We have a difficult time letting go of magical thinking and enchanting intrusions into our world by the divine.

“Harry Potter” and religion can, unfortunately, have a lot in common. The magic of Harry Potter marvels us as enemies are quickly destroyed, problems solved through magic potions along with voodoo charms making people do what they would normally not do.

There’s no magic in Mary’s response. Only mystery. Her life begins and ends in simplicity. The mystery of untying our knotted lives and uniting our lives with God is the naturalness of it all. We don’t offen consider it because it was too available to us. We don’t take it seriously because it’s too much a part of our ordinary lives. We keep saying to ourselves that, “It can’t happen without thunderous sounds and ominous clouds, complete with rattling houses and dogs barking loudly at the strangeness of it all. Mary’s response is far too patient, in the quiet, through the sparse. It’s so easy and convenient to hate. It happens quickly and lingers and only grows. To truly listen to each other is natural, it’s human/divine combined. As is forgiveness. As is mercy. As is acceptance.

There is nothing of magic in uncovering what lives within us, our whole lives. The only wonder we can comprehend is why it’s taken us so long to believe it. Why its taken us so long to imitate the simplicity of the path of Mary. Scripture tells us that she “treasured many things in her heart,” and also tells us about a “sword that will pierce her heart” as any setback pierces ours.

Catholics don’t worship Mary but we do honor all of her life’s events … and our own within a spiritual context. All the events that are presented to us every day, in every situation, in each new and old face that we encounter. It is the plainness and the straightforwardness, that humbling and accepting word that Mary hesitantly but willingly whispers back to the angel’s invitation about accepting the birth of Jesus. Mary says, “Yes.” At his end, she holds her dead son perhaps thinking, “No” but once again says, “Yes.”
We say “Yes.” Or, do we? Our first impulse, like Mary’s might be to say “No. Just leave me alone.” A “No” just like Jesus boldly tells God in the garden before being arrested, “No, let this cup pass, I’m not the guy.”

Like Mary and Jesus, we say “Yes” to the divine that lives within us and wishes to become more a part of our lives. During all times of our lives but especially in those dubious and troubling times. Our “Yes” may be reluctant or freely offered to God but it is always humbly offered. Just like those two other folks we know about and honor this and everyday.

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Advent: A Poem & Sondheim

Advent: a time of renewal, reconciliation, and moving forward.

Suddenly my Lord was speaking: “My name is I Am.” He paused. I waited. He continued, “When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, t is hard. I was not there. My name is not I WAS. When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE. When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”
(Helen Mallicoat)

Mine today is a musical reflection only without the music. Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim passed away last week. Here are excerpts from four of his songs for your Advent reflection.

Sometimes people leave you, Do not let it grieve you, No one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Ask me how I know!]

No one here to guide you, now you’re on your own…still you’re not alone, no one is alone, truly no one is alone. Sometimes people leave you…others may deceive you, you decide what’s good…People make mistakes…holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistakes, everybody makes, one another’s terrible mistakes…just remember [our present society] someone is on your side, someone else is not. While you’re seeing your side maybe you forgot, they are not alone, truly no one is alone.

I chose, and my world was shaken, So what? The choice may have been mistaken but the choosing was not, You have to move on. You have to move on…

No more riddles, No more jests, No more curses, No more quests, No more feelings. Time to shut the door…just, no more. Stop worrying where you’re going, Move on, If you can know where you’re going, You’ve gone…Just keep moving on…

You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Ask me how I know!]

Running away, let’s do it, Free from the ties that bind, No more despair, or burdens to bear, Out there in the yonder, Running away, go to it, Where did you have in mind? Have to take care…unless there’s a ‘where’, You’ll only be wandering blind, Just more questions…different kind. Where are we to go? Where are we ever to go?, Running away, we’ll do it. Why sit around, resigned? Trouble is, son, the farther you run, The more you’ll feel undefined, For what you have left undone, and more what you’ve left behind.

Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day, I would know right away soon as it shows, It may come cannon balling down through the sky, Gleam in its eye, bright as a rose

Who knows? It’s only just out of reach, Down the block on a beach under a tree, I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, Gonna come true, coming to me

Could it be? Yes, it could, Something’s coming, something good if I can wait, Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, But it is gonna be great

With a click, with a shock, Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock, open the latch, Something’s coming, don’t know when but it’s soon, Catch the moon, one handed catch

Will it be? Yes it will, Maybe just by holding still, it’ll be there, Come on, something, come on in, don’t be shy

Wishes are children. Careful before you say, listen to me. [Others] will listen. Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children Careful the path you take, Wishes come true. Not free.
Careful the spell you cast, Sometimes the spell may last, Past what you can see, And turn against you. Careful the tale you tell, That is the spell…

You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Just ask me how I know!]

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Do You Believe in Angels?

“Do you believe in angels?” Simple question, often answered in a split second. Yes/No or that ever pervasive and safe “perhaps”? Intermediators from God is their commission. Perceived to be flying all over the place, especially during trying times in someone’s life; something like Batman or how many other wannabes.

Angels are called to call for a pause before a rash decision becomes a disastrous one. A calming presence is their intended purpose. Turning overcharged minds and hearts toward a quiet can enhance and enrich anyone’s life.

I don’t know if I believe in angels. I just like them. My apartment has 284 of them surrounding me. How do I know this? My precocious nephew at Thanksgiving was bothering my sister’s dinner preparations. “Go count Joe’s angels. I’ll give you .25 for each one,” was her charging challenge to the young one. Hence, the amount given to a nine-year old, under mom’s care.

They come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. The Catholic Church doesn’t fool around. Angels have a hierarchy just like, guess who? There’s Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, and of course, Arch. Then there are regular angels like Clarence who needed to earn his wings. (Name the movie!) I choose the “regulars,” it’s more like me.

It seems they are both policemen, counselors and protectors all rolled together with their mobile appendages.

I still don’t know if I believe in angels but I’m sure glad they’re around me all the time.

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Christ the King

Can you really believe that one ordinary looking man, born in a little unknown, dusty, sleepy, podunk town in Palestine, is the eternal blueprint of what God has been doing since the beginning of time “in Christ”? That is what we believe when we say we believe in both the “Jesus” from that dusty town and the “Christ” that we’ve discovered and celebrate.

From heaven you came helpless babe, Entered our world, your glory veiled, Not to be served but to serve And give Your life that we might live.

This is our God, the Servant King, He calls us now to follow Him, To bring our lives as a daily offering Of worship to the Servant King.

There in the garden of tears, My heavy load, He chose to bear His heart with sorrow when torn ‘Yet not My will but Yours, ‘ He said.

Come see His hands and His feet, The scars that speak of sacrifice, Hands that flung stars into space To cruel nails surrendered.

So let us learn how to serve, And in our lives enthrone Him, Each other’s needs to prefer For it is Christ we’re serving.

This is our God, the Servant King, He calls us now to follow Him, To bring our lives as a daily offering Or Worship to our Servant King.

We, the faithful will always face challenges. These challenges may cause doubt, suffering and anguish, testing our faith. But Jesus assures us that if we stay, no, not “if” but when we stay and remain faithful, we will share in his ultimate victory over sin and death, gaining eternal life in his kingdom. Placing our hope in his victory will help and empower us to persevere during those trial times. This hope is grounded in the sure and certain knowledge that Christ’s victory is assured and that, as members of His Body, we never ever face these challenges alone. We are anchored by the eternal Christ and buoyed by all the Jesus-faces who surround and support us every day. Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us. Sounds like Advent.

Soon, Advent will once again appear. And our collective waiting word is? I can’t seem to think of it right now. “Jesus” is the Alpha-beginning of new beginnings, renewed promises, a hope that this world cannot teach us but is patiently lived in this world. “Christ” is the Omega-ending ending in fulfillment. Offering to God ourselves with a confident satisfaction of a life worthily lived. All of these “new beginnings,” “promises,” “hopes,” and “patience” are sampled, tested and nippled upon during this earthly Godly kingdom. All of them are then ripened in God’s eternal Kingdom.

Gosh, I remember that word now. It’s joy.

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“Wisdom” Today?

In our action-pack “information” era, we need to not only understand what we are hearing and reading, but we also need to carefully process that “information.” I use quotes for information because how much of it is genuine and not that important word.

Where lies and lives the depth and width of wisdom? Hardly. You’ve read or heard the north/south stuff, but now it’s time to reflect, digest, and examine the east and the west of that “information.” King Solomon’s three books in the Bible help us. His youthful years brought us “Song of Songs,” full of love, promise, and prancing through the woods dancing with deer. He then provided us with “The Book of Wisdom,” full of life-lived advice challenging us to capture and reflect on the east/west information. His third is “Ecclesiastes,” which offers us life’s frivolous follies covered with salty sarcasm due to his long aging life.

His first and third is the easiest route to travel through life. Is our life’s responses the sure assurances of the first and those easy dismissals found in the third? How about his potent second? Now you’re a living believer. Now you’re a reflective thinker, whatever your age. Here’s a sampling of his wisdom list in attempting to define it.  

“Wisdom is a spirit, intelligent, holy, unique…subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain, not baneful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly, firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing…” Does it kinda sound like we can’t achieve it?

Once again, hardly. We can. Solomon writes, “She is the aura of the might of God…for she is the refulgence (I had to look that one up) of eternal light.” I read it over and over and thought, “Absolutely and wow.”

Wisdom is the melding of our thoughts with God thoughts. Are our thoughts and words colored by God’s? Solomon writes that wisdom is “The spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of [God’s] goodness.” We absorb and understand through our minds; that’s only the beginning. Wisdom emanates from the heart and soul only to return and live there.

In every one of our beliefs, opinions, and actions is it our mere folly or sarcasm, or does it (or, can it) “mirror” the goodness of God?  

A bakery reference to conclude: “Pie in the sky?” Hardly. We can live a faith-filled life of “having our cake and eating it too!”

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Owen the Cat and Socks

My eighth-grade nun told us, kids, often, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Being thirteen years old, we thought that meant keeping underwear in one drawer and socks in another. Not bad advice.

Being older that sentence takes on new meaning but I continue to talk about socks. My male cat decided to play hide and seek with my socks. He must have seen me take one-off and the movement was all he needed to see. Never taken in pairs which I would prefer. Just one here and one there. Supposedly hidden, but I found most of his hiding places. If it didn’t entertain him so much, I’d be frustrated. If it didn’t help us, then it’d be futile.

Missteps. Mistakes. Wrongdoings. Wrong words said out loud. Once done, none can be undone. It needs a safe place to reside to continue and hopefully improve our lives. So keeping the “sock,” so to speak, lingering and haunting us, doesn’t help anyone, especially ourselves. The damage or discord happened. We learn and become better persons from those two “M’s” and two “W’s”.

Here’s the cat part. We need to put those errors in judgment somewhere. Closet? Too obvious. Under the bed? More sleepless nights. In the trash? Too literal. Our favorite psalm provides the answer both for our mental and spiritual wellbeing. We eat with them. “You set a table before me in the sight of my foes,” says number 23. By knowing they are staring right at us while eating meatloaf, a baked potato with cream corn (my favorite meal, by the way), we take away their power to preoccupy or hurt us. What better place to learn more about ourselves and our behavior than having it all in front of us.

We all know we are sinful people, hence the “M’s” and “W’s”. We also forget that we are grace-filled people relying on our faith to see us work on our ever-growing lives through these “socks”. Sister was right about keeping our clothes clean and accessible. As adults, Psalm 23 does the same thing for Christian grownups.

P.S. Please don’t say anything if you see me with two unmatching socks. Owen, the cat, knows where the missing match is hidden.

Books by Fr. Joe Jagodensky, SDS. are available at Amazon.com

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“The Gambler”

“On a warm summer’s evening, On a train bound for nowhere,” the unknown of eternal life, “I met up with a gambler,” the Son of God, “We were both too tired to sleep, So we took turns a-starin’, Out the window at the darkness,” darkness before the dawn of faith, “The boredom overtook us, And he began to speak, He said, ‘Son, I’ve made a life Out of readin’ people’s faces, And knowin’ what the cards were, By the way they held their eyes. So if you don’t mind my sayin’, I can see you’re out of aces, at life’s wits end, I’ll give you some advice.’” The two greatest commandments are revealed along with some colorful parables.

“And the night got deathly quiet, And his face lost all expression, Said, ‘If you’re gonna play the game, boy, You gotta learn to play it right.’” Those stumbling and falling days are behind you if you decide to follow me, says the Christ.

“You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.” Multiple life choices throughout our lives but very often only two – the easy path of our self-centered culture or the difficult, but fulfilling, one of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. “You never count your money, When you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ When the dealing’s done.” Every day becomes a new opportunity to serve God through each other to the best of our abilities. Like the old days of gathering and counting indulgences, grace is never accumulated. Grace lives countlessly within us, thanks to the fluidity of the Holy Spirit.

“Every gambler knows, That the secret to survivin’, Is knowin’ what to throw away, And knowin’ what to keep. ‘Cause every hand’s a winner, And every hand’s a loser, And the best that you can hope for…” What better summary is there of our life’s Catholic/Christian/Muslim/Jewish journies?

Thank you Kenny Rogers for this musical religion lesson. And, thank you Jesus Christ for being our “gambler” – gambling your life to regain ours.

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“Emptying Yourself”

“Empty yourself.” How often I say that during Mass, and how often you’ve heard it. “One ear and out the other?” Or, just another churchy phrase whose meaning just plainly escapes us?

We were boldly told that we are special, unique with a whale’s potential throughout our entire education. Posters clutter the hallways conveying the same message. That short space above the chalkboard, again, proclaims your extraordinary presence in the world. You then go home to dutifully clean the bathroom toilet and wash the basement steps. (By nature, shouldn’t basement steps be dirty!?) By nature, how special is our specialness? I guess it’s encouraging to encourage youngsters. We all need a positive push during those developmental years.

Your parents then take you to church to hear me say those two words. If you are that special, you would wonder what the paradox is between the school’s push and the church’s pull.

The church would say, “Empty yourself of all that keeps you from being that special, once-in-the-universe child.” I wonder when a young person discovers a community not exclusively centered around one person. I hope it begins in the family and is then amplified through the church. I know people who read those posters and now live them to the disregard of others. That’s not the “pull” of the church. I can name and remember numerous others who read those “pushes” and, in faith, acknowledge and act upon those churchy “pulls.”

One of my favorite examples is a simple conversation between two people – in a coffee shop, mall, church entrance. Someone shares with you a personal story. Your interest and focus are seen in your eyes. Nothing will distract you from listening. No. It’s hearing the story from beginning to end. No interruptions. Smiles, frowns, and nods are acceptable with no audible sounds from you unless a giggle or sigh is called for. The person finishes speaking. Your presence and response are the emptyings of yourself by filling yourself with another person. A wrong exchange: “I was in Chicago last week and…” “Wow, I was in Chicago last week too and you wouldn’t believe…” That would be a sin against what ought to be the eighth sacrament of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps those always clean basement steps and those positive posters slowly taught me to be like the Jesus who then became the Christ.

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Widow’s Mite

Arrogance…self-conceit…superiority…haughty…pretentiousness…

What happened that cold, icy night? April 14, 1912. (This is where you talk!)

Titanic. Greatest ship ever built. It’s where I heard the word “steerage” for the first time describing those passengers in the lower, lower bottom of the vessel. And, I experienced steerage traveling on Southwest Airlines with their weird standing in line.

Total passengers are around 2,229…surviving? Around 700.

I love our First World culture, where I get to indulge and enjoy the lavishes unseen or unfelt by the millions of others. Our Catholic/Christian church beliefs and practices are easy to follow. You take our First World benefits and then opposite them to following the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s that easy to diagnose but all the more difficult to live while still living in our First World opulence. 

Poverty… vulnerability…inferiority…simplicity…humility…

The happiest people I’ve ever met live in Third World countries. Three visits to three of them, and I arrive home to count my suits and sport coats. Dress shirts counting continued the next day. What am I to do?

This sermon is not about guilt. I’m sure we’re all heard enough of those.

You will also be surprised that this is not about money. However, cash appears to define our arrogance and vanity. This sermon is about a widow’s mite. The essential giving from her personhood is due to her most minor giving—one-fifth of a cent.

You all thought this was all about money? It’s about living and practicing the authentic life gifted to us by God. Life is full of ups and downs, setbacks and successes. Through my “downs” and “setbacks,” I believe I’m a better person, a better priest, a better preacher. That’s taking our First World givens and those Third World’s assumptions and transforming them into the way Jesus Christ taught us to live. 

It’s about being vulnerable, powerless, helpless in life’s next moments or encounters. That’s the mite of the widow. And, that’s one-fifth of our commitment to the sacrifice of Christ.

Just recount your own troubling life of its “downs” and “setbacks.” Did they make you richer in bitterness or bless you with more compassion, love, and mercy in your encounters with others? Our arrogance will always continue to fight for first place (sin), yet our “widow’s mite” (sacrifice) is our loving return of life’s gift to God and to each other. 

On Titanic, Rose and Jack were made-up characters. The only true Titanic survivor story I know of is Molly Brown. Even in her newly-acquired earthly wealth, she never lost her humanly authentic self, the poverty of her earlier life. That’s all Jesus Christ asks of us. “Unsinkable” was the added adjective to her name. Can we be unsinkable? Can we be unstoppable in our Catholic behaviors and practices?

Poverty? Superiority? In faith and because of faith, you decide for yourselves. Jesus expects the whole of our lives, in his name, but he’ll happily settle for one-fifth.

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