My FOCUS Mission Trip to El Salvador

Just a couple of weeks ago for spring break I had the opportunity to help lead a FOCUS mission trip to El Salvador!

Group with Sarai

After Sunday mass at the San Miguel Cathedral, while we were still relatively clean 😉

It was such an amazing experience! I’ve had so many people ask me about the trip and everything in the past couple of weeks, but it’s so hard to put into words what I got to experience throughout that whole week. Here are some of my take away’s, as best as I can summarize them.

The trip was eye opening in so many ways. This was probably my biggest take away. I had never really left the comfortable American world until then: I’ve been blessed to be able to vacation in Mexico and Canada, but even in Mexico we didn’t need to speak Spanish because we stayed at resorts.

In El Salvador, I was immediately confronted by a different culture and way of life. Even in the Avianca section in Miami Airport, we were some of the only people who weren’t speaking in Spanish. I love learning Spanish and I hope to be fluent one day, but for now it was somewhat overwhelming when people spoke to me in Spanish expecting me to understand. I can pick up words and even understand phrases and simple sentences, but when they’re speaking so fast, I had to flag down our friendly Spanish speaking missionaries, Roxio and Mario!

A pic of our local neighborhood.

A pic of our local neighborhood.

 

I couldn’t help but notice the poverty right away. It wasn’t like there were hoards of homeless people (that I saw), but rather nearly all of the homes there made a small “lower class” home in the United States look very nice. They made those “bad” parts of Newark look normal. They did have electricity (the wealthier homes at least- oh and I did see a very modern transmission substation by a highway once) and water (kind of- we couldn’t drink it, and hot water wasn’t common).

It was such a joy to be able to talk and play with the kids! They were shy but they warmed up to us fast!

It was such a joy to be able to talk and play with the kids! They were shy but they warmed up to us fast!

A very interesting thing happened every night while we were there. Everyone got all antsy and said that they had to leave around 5:30 pm. Every single night. It was still bright out and everything, and it was early in the evening, so I was confused about why they needed to get back home so early. It turned out that the gangs have instituted an unofficial curfew over the entire country, especially where we were in San Miguel, at 6 pm. That’s when they come out and it isn’t safe to be outside of your homes. In fact, every home had bars over their windows, cement walls around their yards, and barbed wire on top of everything. There were security guards in most businesses holding guns. Gang violence is very real, and there is the legacy of the civil war that ended in 1993 as well. I was devastated to learn just how deadly the civil war was, with the government (supplied by the United States) sending death squads to local towns by the end of it. I guess that shouldn’t be too much of a shock that it came to that after the whole Archbishop Romero fiasco, which I’ll talk about later.

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This is just a random shot of some homes in El Salvador. If you look closely you’ll notice barbed wire on top, all the fences, and bars over all the windows.

 

The food was seriously out of this world. We had the most amazing deal: some of the women (mostly grandmas) in the parish cooked for us 3 meals a day, and they went all out for us, cooking seriously the most amazing food I’ve ever had (no offense to my mom and grandma!). A couple of the Americans’ stomachs didn’t mix well with the food, but I was surprised to find that my stomach was more bothered coming back to America and eating processed food. Whoops, America.

Typical Salvadorian comida: pupusas on the left, rice in the center, fried plantains on the right. Turns out that plantains go really good with ketchup!

Typical Salvadorian comida: pupusas on the left, rice in the center, fried plantains on the right. Turns out that plantains go really good with ketchup!

The faith of the people was so inspiring! Everyone loved to talk about Jesus, and sometimes it was hard to get them to stop… 😉 They loved putting Jesus stickers everywhere on their cars and every other person seemed to be wearing a rosary (public service announcement, you’re actually not supposed to wear them as a fashion symbol). One of the coolest things that we got to experience was stations of the cross with a local town (Chirilagua, I believe). After mass on that Friday evening, the whole town seemed to gather together outside of the church as we walked around the town carrying a doll/statue thing of Jesus to each station, set up right in front of houses and shops and things.

Carrying the cross for stations of the cross with the community!

Carrying the cross for stations of the cross with the community!

With the parish that we were helping rebuild their church, I was impressed with how tight knit the whole parish seemed to be, with dozens showing up to daily mass with us, many of the male parishioners helped with the construction, and many of the female parishioners helped with cooking for them all and other odds and ends jobs. Another impressive thing about this parish was how they go on house visits each week to families their local community. At each house visit, they see how each other is doing, read the Gospel for the next Sunday together, have a mini bible study, and then close in prayer. That’s an awesome way of outreach that we should try and apply back in the United States! Even more powerful than all of those experiences for me was when the community prayed for us all, with some of the leaders laying their hands on each of us and praying with such emotion for each of us.

Leaders of the parish praying over us... so beautiful!

Leaders of the parish praying over us… so beautiful!

An absolutely stunning story that the locals shared with us was the tradition of Reina de la Paz, patron saint of El Salvador. If you can read Spanish, the more in depth details are here. If not, here’s my basic summary: In 1787, San Miguel Volcano, which is not surprisingly right next to the city of San Miguel, was erupting and threatening to destroy the entire city. The entire city, or I guess town back then, being Catholic Christians, turned to God and the Virgin Mary in prayer. They had this image of Mary that they decided to bring up with them to the volcano, begging for the Virgin Mary’s intercession in saving them and their city. Miraculously, the lava actually stopped and went a different direction, saving them all! Praise God! To this day, that same image of Mary, who they call Reina de la Paz (Queen of Peace), is in the Cathedral of San Miguel, holding a palm branch from the event. Reina de la Paz is the patron saint of all of El Salvador. When we went to the Cathedral for Sunday mass, we got to see Reina de la Paz ourselves and even touch it! It was so beautiful and moving to be able to be so close to something so important to the hearts of the native people. Isn’t their faith so strong?!

The image of Reina de la Paz in the San Miguel Cathedral

The image of Reina de la Paz above the main altar in the San Miguel Cathedral

We didn’t get to personally meet Archbishop Romero, but it felt like we did after getting to know and love this holy man so much that week. Here’s a great article that summarizes why he is such a big deal in El Salvador, and admired throughout Latin America, the Church, and the world at large. Basically Monsignor Romero (as they call him, even though he was an Archbishop) spoke out against the corruption and evils of the Salvadorian government while he was Archbishop and the leader of the Church in that country from 1977-1980. By that time, the government had begun to use violence to try and keep protesters quiet, and for a while it seemed like a priest was killed every month. Months before Romero was actually assassinated, there was a different attempt on his life where there were large amounts of dynamite placed right in front of the Cathedral, which would have killed him and hundreds or thousands more. Thankfully that attempt was revealed, but it didn’t stop Romero from speaking boldly. Above all, Romero was a man of God who wished to share the Gospel and help the poor. He lived a very simple life and was for the most part a very quiet man. But he was placed in a very explosive situation and despite the fear he must have felt, he stayed true to his God and his people above all else. He was shot while saying mass by an assassin on March 24th, 1980. At his funeral mass, tens of thousands showed up, but the government didn’t want that to happen so they shot into the crowd, killing about 60-80 people according to our Salvadorian hosts. Of course, the violence by the government was only beginning at that point. While in El Salvador, we had the opportunity to visit Romero’s tomb, house where he lived, church where he was shot, and even the square where he will be beatified this May! It was inspiring to learn more about this man and he has quickly become one of my favorite saints. Archbishop Romero, pray for us!

A statue of Romero outside the Cathedral in San Salvador.

A statue of Romero outside the Cathedral in San Salvador.

Praying next to Romero's tomb. There were dozens of the faithful coming in to visit and pray by the tomb with us.

Praying next to Romero’s tomb. There were dozens of the faithful coming in to visit and pray by the tomb with us.

The vestments that Romero was wearing when he was shot.

The vestments that Romero was wearing when he was shot.

The most beautiful flowers were growing right outside the church where he was shot.

The most beautiful flowers were growing right outside the church where he was shot.

Archbishop Romero was saying mass at that altar when he was shot.

Archbishop Romero was saying mass at that altar when he was shot. Today schoolchildren come and visit daily.

As we were preparing to leave, we decided to leave our cooks, and through them the entire parish, a little sign of how much they meant to us by washing their feet. We prayed with them as we washed their feet and it was so moving to think about how much God had done through both parties. They had given up so much to serve us, and we definitely had given up some things in order to serve them as well. The sacrifices made by both parties for the sake of God and His Church was so beautiful.

Washing the feet of our amazing cooks!

Washing the feet and praying for our amazing cooks!

Though it might not seem like it, we actually did some work too! So the practical part of our mission trip was to help them build a new church, because the last one was destroyed in 2001 by an earthquake. It’s taken them this long to be able to build a new one because they don’t have the funds. Thanks to about 5 more FOCUS Mission trips to this parish, we’ll be able to significantly help them both with funds and free labor, so that they hope to have it completed in about a year. At the moment we were just working on the foundation, so most of what we did was shoveling dirt and carrying concrete by bucket. They had no back hoes, cement trucks, cranes, lifts, dump trucks, or anything that you’d expect in America. All of the labor was by hand. But it was a lot of fun! I enjoyed being able to work side by side with the locals, chatting it up with my fellow missionaries (both FOCUS and students), and enjoying that wonderful 100 degree dry heat. I swear there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all week.

Doing work!

Doing work!

Our mission trip team with the workers and Father Antonio.

Our mission trip team with the workers and Father Antonio.

One of the most important things that I’ll cherish from this trip is growing in friendship with my amazing teammates! Carly, Grace, Tess, Becca, Roxio, Elli, Sarah, Jonathan, Max, Mario, Michael, and Fr. Jeff. You guys are awesome! It was so beautiful to not really know anybody going into this week, and come out of it with 12 new amazing friends, with plenty of inside jokes to go with it. No espanol. Pwerp. Having a blast! Michael prancing away from the scorpion. Alfredo. Too blessed to be stressed! Liquiddddddd!!! Riding in the back of the pickup truck. God’s pharmacy. Shamar the rear! I saw God in you guys. Your service and selflessness is inspiring and I can’t wait to see where God leads you all! Huge shout outs to Sarah for being in charge of basically everything and being an amazing trip director and Fr. Jeff for joining us last minute and being such a great priest and role model!

Group PicIf you get the chance to go on a mission trip, you should go! It was amazing and transformative and fun! It has helped me grow in my faith, gain a more complete world view, and have some experiences that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. Check out FOCUS Missions!

“To change the world we must be good to those who cannot repay us.” – Pope Francis

Here’s a video that Mario put together of us!

 

What is Chastity and Why is it Important? An Interview with a Youth Chastity Speaker

The following is an interview with Perla, a youth chastity speaker. I have been so privileged to get to know her personally, and I hope that her story and words of wisdom on chastity inspire you as well!

Hi Perla! Thank you for taking the time to meet with me! Could you start by sharing a little about yourself? What was your childhood like?
Thanks Chris! Well, I come from a family of 5 and am the oldest sibling. I have a really close extended family where I grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico. Then my dad worked in the United States, while the rest of us were in Mexico, so we all moved to the United States when I was 10 in order to live together.

What impact did moving to the United States have on your life?
It played a huge impact on my life! It was a whole new world – I had to learn English, the culture was so different, my extended family was so far away, and we didn’t get close to many people outside of our family.

What careers and interests did you have growing up?
I always wanted to become a teacher, I love little kids. I think I even have a special charisma with kids, I loooove kids. And math. So I wanted to become a math teacher. Of course, that changed when I got to college, when my encounter with Christ happened.

What was your encounter with Christ?
I had all the big questions, like what is the meaning of life, what happens after death, etc., but I never looked to the Catholic Church for those answers. I changed my major 5 times, always searching for the answers to life. Psychology gave some answers, but not enough. For a while, I thought that maybe service was the answer, so I did a lot of service. Then next I thought that it was love, so I started dating this guy. But nothing was enough, and I was tired of looking for answers. Then one day one of my friends invited me to join a Catholic bible study. I only joined because I witnessed how much joy my Protestant friends had in their lives, and they did bible study too. So I was willing to give a Catholic one a try. The bible study was run by three middle-aged couples, who hooked my friends and I by offering us a home cooked dinner – it worked for us college kids! In their homes, we went over the scripture readings for the next Sunday mass on Monday nights. I began to learn so much! Once I encountered the truth of the Eucharist and from there the truth of the Catholic faith, I decided to look at Catholic universities to finish college. A son of one of the families that hosted bible study went to Ave Maria University and told me about it. It was the only college that I applied to at that point, and praise God, they ended up offering me a full ride to study there.

What degree did you end up graduating with? And what did you want to do when you graduated?
I majored in Theology with a minor in Philosophy. I had this deep desire to do the same thing for other college students that was done for me: maybe offering a bible study for other college students. Providentially, FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) came to Ave Maria and shared their mission with the students and I, and it lined up perfectly with what I wanted to do after graduation! I applied and got accepted!

You were a missionary with FOCUS for how long, and what was it like?
I was a missionary for three years. It was a great experience, I loved meeting students where they were at and challenging them to take their faith seriously. It was also a great adventure, especially with being open to be placed anywhere in the country. I always thought that it was very humbling to have students open up to me and give me their trust and friendship.

How did you come across your new job?
After my 3rd year with FOCUS, I felt a strong call to come back home and work within my home diocese, San Angelo in Texas. The diocese didn’t have any openings for evangelization or anything like FOCUS, so a close friend invited me to apply for a job as a prevention specialist.

What is a prevention specialist?
We work as a team of 8, most of us are between ages 23-26, and we go to elementary, middle, and high schools in Midland, Odessa, and surrounding cities. Our aim is to prevent them from falling into high-risk behaviors and be fulfilled in their good decisions. So we speak with the students about their self worth, the purpose of their bodies, the purpose of sex, sexual abstinence, the risks of the media, STDs, parenting, and how to build healthy relationships. In addition, we offer assistance for anyone who has suffered from abuse or addiction afterwards.

How long are you at a school?
We are there for three days, Tues-Thurs.

What does a day at a school consist of?
Our presentations last for 45 minutes, but our total pace can vary anywhere from 1 to 7 presentations a day. And we might travel to a few schools per week. So we are aiming to work with around 30,000 students by the end of the school year!

What is your main message to the students?
The thing that I really focus on for them is that they know who they are. We talk about how they have so many important sides to them: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and sexual. We talk about why we have certain yearnings in our hearts in the first place, so that they can see their natural good desires. A big emphasis is placed on showing what is necessary for sex: commitment, faithfulness, truly loving your spouse. Because the purpose of sex is to bond husband and wife together and for the procreation of children. Bottomline. From this understanding we can show them that sex truly belongs in marriage- fulfilling also the heart and mind because all 6 sides of the person would be truly satisfied.

Was there a moment in your life where you started getting interested in speaking about chastity?
Yes! There were major two instances. Growing up, I had the common girl dream of meeting that perfect guy, falling in love, and getting married. But what my friends were doing, what the world was offering, with hooking up and all that, it never satisfied my heart. It was never going to fulfill me at the end of the day. Even a good relationship in high school was not satisfying for me because we weren’t going to get married soon after. There were plenty of attractive guys in high school that I was attracted to, but dating and hooking up just didn’t click right even though I didn’t know why exactly. The other instance was as a missionary on the college campus, where I was seeing women fall under pressure to have sex before marriage and not live chastely. There seemed to be a missing link between their faith, the meaning of their body, and their yearning for true love. It seemed as if God had to be kicked out because all He offered where restrictions to their desires. So I spent a lot of time with some college women learning and reconciling all of these things with God’s desire for us! So we deeply understood that chastity in fact fulfills our desires. It is way more than just “don’t don’t don’t.”

We hear the world chastity a lot, but are less familiar with what it actually means. How do you define it?
I understand chastity as purity of body, mind (thoughts and imagination), and intentions. Purity meaning no stain of selfishness, lust, slavery to passions, but free to love, to choose the best for the other person with joyful selflessness.

As you grew up, did you ever dream that you’d become both a missionary and chastity speaker?
No, not at all. Haha.

What would you have thought?
I would have thought that I would have been going abroad, India or Africa. I would have never thought that I would do it here, home, with my generation. That would have seemed extremely radical.

How has it been now that you’re living it out?
It’s been a transformative experience: to see the goodness of God in how He cares for me. I’ve learned how to put others before me. I’m convicted of the truths that I’m saying as a chastity speaker, as well. It’s challenged me to live with integrity in all areas of my life and truly love everyone who is around me. I’m asking myself questions like “am I building healthy relationships myself?”

Is our culture to blame for these problems of chastity? Or would you attribute this to their youth or something else?
I think that there are many factors. Yes, I think that society plays a role, especially the media like movies, music, and TV. I think those things have a huge pull on young people. It’s also on the parents, if they are not convicted of the truth and share it. Their children need to see good examples from them so that the message will get to their hearts. A third factor is that boys and girls need to be challenged, challenged to do something better. Such as love requires you to wait, to build your character first. Many times they are told that they don’t have self-control because they are young, but they actually do. They can stand up with courage against the current. I don’t think that they hear that enough, or at all.

What is different for the youth growing up in 2015 from what it was like for you growing up?
The biggest difference is that for today’s children the internet is so available, especially on their phones. It offers them so many extra risks and distractions.

What advice would you give the parents of children nowadays?
I would affirm them that they have a big influence on their kids’ lives. They mold their kids. I would challenge them to look into the truth of all these things, to live them out, and pass them on to their kids through example. I’d also ask them to try to monitor their social media time, monitor their exposure to the internet. I’m thinking especially of the risk of pornography.

What sort of role do you think pornography plays in our culture’s battle with chastity?
It plays a huge role. It is so available, and really young people are exposed to it, even as young as 9 years old. Every heart longs for true love so there is a natural curiosity for what intimacy is, but pornography does not offer an answer it actually begins to warp people’s hearts and minds and scar them for life in a sense. It handicaps them for true love and true sacrifice.

As a college campus missionary, it’s common to hear about students “hooking up.” What would you say to someone who just wants to have some fun for one night?
If I could really talk to them, I would ask them, have you looked at the true desires of your heart? Your heart has a true yearning and desire to be loved. You won’t be satisfied until you are known and loved: hopefully by your family and your spouse in the future. That yearning is in everyone’s hearts. One night stands… there is no way to truly love a person through that or be loved. Then understand that the opposite of love is use. Sure, hooking up offers a thrill but at the end it will not be fulfilling and isn’t love. It is the use of each other- most likely girl using guy for emotional gratification and guy using girl for physical aspect. It’s seeing only the body of the person without revealing who they truly are. You in fact see less of them instead of more.

How can someone struggling with chastity start to change their habits?
If you’re Catholic, make sure go to confession. Confess it clearly, humbly, and sincerely. Ask God for healing, in your heart and mind. Go to the sacraments. Besides that, get an accountability partner/group. Most young people ARE struggling with this, in actuality or in understanding. Be honest, form a small accountability group, and set small goals to grow little by little.

Any final thoughts?
I want to stress this: know and believe that God is interested in your love life. God is not a boring God. Trust and believe that He has something beautiful planned for you, and He will not leave you disappointed.

Thank you Perla! Thank you for your very important work with the youth!

Why I Believe in God

Colorado

This sure as heck isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some very simple reasons why I’ve never struggled with belief in God:

– We live in a beautiful world

– How else could anything exist if there wasn’t something there to “bang” the Big Bang?

– Love exists

– When I pray, things happen. Not every time, and not always in the way that I want them to, since God isn’t a magic genie but rather our Father.

– The entire story of Jesus is way too crazy to fake. Starting with the 12 Apostles themselves, millions of Christians died for Him, especially those first 300 years afterwards when it was a crime to believe in Christ. Those people that died in the Coliseum? Those people were often Christians. Why die for something that you knew to be a lie?

– There is purpose and meaning to life

– Even in the darkest moments of life, we have hope

– We desire more than what this world has to offer and are incomplete without God. Just listen to Drake: “I want it all, and then some.” According to the world, he’s made it. But even he admits that he’s still missing something. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine

– The most genuinely happy people that I know are always the ones who have a close relationship with Jesus. They know that God loves them, and everyone else, and there’s nothing that this world can do that can take that from them.

– I have experienced Jesus’ peace and love in my own life, and seen how He’s worked through me in ways that I could have never expected

Discipleship in the 21st Century

When Jesus walked on Earth, He made quite the scene. If you read the Gospels, you see He wasn’t always this “hippie Jesus” that you see in media…

Jesus point

Or even “nice Jesus” that you see in Christian bookstores…

Jesus Sheep

Sometimes He was more like “God Jesus”.

Jesus Lazarus

Seriously, have you ever seen anyone rise from the grave?!?! It’s probably a heck of a lot more freaky than the bible made it out to be, but John only had a few lines to use on it I guess…

Other crazy things that Jesus did? He performed miracles, announced the Kingdom of God, scandalized people by crossing social norms, whipped people who were disrespecting the temple, and large crowds (Tens of thousands!) followed Him to the point where He quite literally had to sneak away so that He could be alone to pray. Jesus didn’t tone down His message when He was in sticky situations either- the healing on the Sabbath right in front of the Pharisees comes to mind. Needless to say, Jesus caused division in the hearts of everyone who encountered Him. It was more than just being #teamJesus or #teamPharisee, though. The stakes were a bit higher.. because He claimed to be God. This was a matter of life and death, as we can see in hindsight. The Jews and Gentiles had a tough decision to make in choosing to believe Jesus or not…

Who were the disciples?

During His years of ministry, Jesus attracted large crowds pretty much wherever He went. I don’t know how they all got the memo of His schedule without newspapers, twitter, and texting, that alone is a miracle! But out of the tens of thousands, Jesus called 12 men to Himself, the Apostles. These men were called Apostles because they were “sent” by Jesus and given His authority after He ascended into Heaven. The 12 Apostles are sometimes called the 12 disciples, but the term disciple is more broad than that. There were disciples of Jesus who weren’t Apostles, and sometimes in the Bible they are called the 70 or 72. These people weren’t specifically called by Jesus, but they still had a very important role to play in His ministry.

Have you ever thought about what differentiated the disciples from the crowds?

Take a moment to think for yourself… what made someone a disciple of Jesus?

There are plenty of great answers, but a few that I can think of are:

  • Belief that Jesus was God, the Messiah
  • Loyalty to follow Him even for days without food
  • Willing to leave home, family, jobs, and so on just to follow Him
  • Doing whatever He asked of you.. even travelling in twos to distant towns
  • Friendship with Jesus, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus

We can also be disciples!

The funny thing is, all of these things can still be done TODAY. Discipleship isn’t just for the people who were alive when Jesus was, but it is a way of life devoted to Jesus that we can live right now in the 21st century! It takes “discipline”, of course, but ultimately this way of life is sparked by an encounter with Jesus and the friendship with Him that follows.

But… Jesus isn’t here…

So here’s the interesting point. Yes, we can be disciples of Jesus, but no, we can’t do it exactly the same way that they did it in the Holy Land. When Jesus ascended, He didn’t leave us orphans: He gave us the Holy Spirit (God!) to guide us to all truth and the Church (founded on Peter and the Apostles) as our Mother. Through the working of the Holy Spirit and the Church… duh-da-da-dah! comes forth Jesus! Quite literally. We receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We receive Jesus’ mercy in confession. We hear the Word of God in the Bible. We encounter the hands and feet of Jesus when we are around other Christians.

Discipleship in the 21st century, so how do we do it?

  • Believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior
  • Go out of your way to encounter Him, at mass, in prayer, in serving the poor, in reading the scriptures, in confession
  • Live your life to glorify Him first and foremost, and then everything else will fall into place
  • Courageously share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, both in words and how you live your life
  • Become intimate friends with Jesus, He loves us more purely and completely than anyone in the world. Prayer in adoration is one of the best ways to do this

Isn’t it crazy how for each of the major ways you could be a 1st century disciple, you can become a 21st century disciple?!

Choosing to believe in Jesus isn’t a matter of life and death (on this earth) anymore, but it still is a matter of eternal consequences. We can’t just sit on the sidelines our entire lives without making a choice. Jesus is either a lunatic, or He’s God.

“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” – Jesus to the Woman at the well, John 4:10

Legacy of a Visionary: The Life of Pope John XXIII (Part II)

The following is a guest post by Brian W. Geary. The first part of this article can be found here.

Part II: “Obedience and Peace” (1958 – 1963)

Pope John XXIII wave

Obedience and peace. This phrase, while so simple, so brilliantly captures the essence of Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, “The Good Pope.” From a small mountain town, to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, France, and Venice, Roncalli was driven by a love of service to the people of God, in humble accordance with the promise of obedience he took upon is ordination in 1904. The path wasn’t clear, but Roncalli’s trust in God was, and it was this trust and obedience that must have weighed on his heart in the Conclave of 1958.

It was a rather long conclave (by modern standards). By the end of day three, only black smoke had appeared from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel (admittedly, white smoke did appear for about five minutes, but then turned black again). By the beginning of day four, the smoke was white. A pope had been elected. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the Dean of the College of Cardinals approached the newly elected candidate.

“Do you accept the election, canonically made, of yourself as pontiff?”

The words of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, written on a sheet of paper composed the previous night and during his lunch hour, are worth recounting here: “At the sound of your voice, I am made to tremble, and I fear. For what I know well of my poverty and insignificance is enough to bring me to confusion. But seeing the votes of my brothers…I bow my head and my back to the chalice of bitterness and to the yoke of the cross.”

“What do you wish to be called?”

“I wish to be called John. This name is sweet to us because it is the name of our father. It is sweet to us because it is the name of the humble parish church in which we were baptized; it is the name of innumerable cathedrals scattered throughout the world and first of all the sacred Lateran Basilica, our cathedral….But we love the name John so dear to us and to all the church, particularly because it was borne by two men who were closest to Christ the Lord, the divine Redeemer of all the world and Founder of the Church; John the Baptist…and John the disciple and Evangelist…May God dispose that both of these Johns shall plead in all the church for our most humble and pastoral ministry.”

The new pope was then taken to the traditional “room of tears” to don his new white vestments. Not present during the voting, John’s two assistants were allowed in to see him. In typical Roncalli wit, Pope John looked at them and said, “Well, you see what has happened to me.”

Those familiar with the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013 will remember the frenzy of activity and media speculation in the following days and weeks. So it was with Pope John XXIII in the fall of 1958. He had chosen a name not used since the fourteenth century (the last person to use it was the Antipope John XXIII). From the beginning he was different, and it was clear this would be a different type of papacy. I think Lawrence Elliott describes one such episode at the beginning of his pontificate the best:

[The official Vatican newspaper] flowered its every reference to the pope with such phrases as “The Illuminated Holy Father” and “The Highest Pontiff,” and prefaced accounts of his public statements with the likes of, “The chosen one, in his inspired and sublime discourse…” [The Pope] wished for an end to inflated and convoluted terminology.

“It’s the twentieth century. Let us have a style that suits the times. Wouldn’t it be better simply to write, ‘the pope said this,’ or ‘the pope did that.’?”
The stricken look on [the editor’s] face impelled John to soften his words. “I myself would prefer it,” he said gently. And, at the other’s final wince of pain, hastily corrected himself: “We would prefer it.” (256)

The papal use of the royal “we” would eventually be done away with by Pope John Paul I in 1978, but it’s clear that John had a different vision for the papacy. According to tradition, popes usually took their meals alone. After enduring several weeks of this, he remarked that he felt “like a seminarian under punishment” and did away with that. In another long-standing tradition (no pun intended), it was dictated everyone kneel when in the presence of the pope. After seeing an aide genuflect out of respect for him multiple times a day, John finally asked, “Don’t you think I believed you the first time?” He even threatened to walk out on an interview if the interviewer didn’t conduct the interview sitting in a chair, rather than on his knees. The first time he sat on his golden throne chair, the Seda Gestatoria, carried high above the crowds in public events, he sadly noted, “It’s windy up here.” He would later joke to the eight carriers of the chair that they should be paid extra, because he weighed so much more than his predecessor.

Soon, he made unannounced trips outside of the Vatican, showing up in unexpected places, and surprising the citizens of Rome from his car. He planned to make visits to every parish in his new Roman diocese. No doubt those who remember the election of Pope Francis will also remember the media frenzy he sparked after choosing to wear his own black shoes, instead of the traditional red. In 1958, every pope in recent memory had worn a set of red velvet slippers. Because of all his traveling, John broke with years of tradition, and had a new set of sturdy red walking shoes made. One gets the feeling he wouldn’t have gotten too worked up over Pope Francis’s choice of footwear.

John XXIII wasn’t one to accept what some had referred to as the “passive papal lifestyle.” Unlike Pius XII, who lived by a strict schedule, John wasn’t about to follow suit. His advisors put up a fuss about his unscheduled walks in the Vatican gardens, saying that they would not have enough time to close the cupola balcony on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, adding with a look of horror that all the tourists might see him. John, with his characteristic good humor, promised he wouldn’t do anything to scandalize them.

So then, it also came as a surprise that only three months into his papacy, Pope John called for an ecumenical council, soon to be known as Vatican II, to “let some fresh air in here,” throwing open his study windows one afternoon. For a man who spent his life in dialogue with the world, with the geographical and intellectual fringes of Christianity, standing by the pillar of truth in a world threatened by secularism, an “open-forum” council was his way of preparing the Church to reach out to the modern world. He was a man of peace to his core, and his landmark encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth), written in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, would pave the way for ideological dialogue for years to come. A young Polish priest named Fr. Karol Wojtyla would take this text to heart, and later carry on John XXIII’s commitment to peace and dialogue in the spirit of Vatican II as Pope John Paul II.

Pope John opened the council on October 11, 1962, and the Church would never be same. Sadly he never saw the council closed, and it was up to Popes Paul VI and John Paul II to close it and struggle through its implementation. Shortly before the council opened, John was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. The disease began to take its toll during the early part of 1963, and he began to suffer from internal bleeding. He spent his last days surrounded by doctors, aides, and friends. As his condition became serious, the pope was confined to his bed, moving in and out of consciousness. A vigil was held in the square outside of the Papal Apartments, and an outdoor Mass for the ailing pope was planned on June 3rd. Pope John XXIII took his last breath as the mass outside concluded with the words, “Go, the mass is ended.”

Coda: The Third Millennium

The body of Pope John XXIII was entombed in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. He was viewed as a father to millions, and an inspiration to an entire generation of Catholics. His body, discovered to be incorrupt, was later moved beneath the altar of St. Jerome in St. Peter’s, and can now be viewed by the faithful. Coincidentally, when he passed away in 2005, the body of John Paul II was laid to rest in the same alcove where Pope John’s tomb once stood. John Paul worked closely with him as a bishop at the Second Vatican Council, and in 2000 he beatified the man he viewed as a father of faith:

How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world. It was in this spirit that he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, thereby turning a new page in the Church’s history: Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the “signs” of the times. The Council was a truly prophetic insight of this elderly Pontiff who, even amid many difficulties, opened a season of hope for Christians and for humanity.

Two years later, the mission of Pope John XXIII came full circle, when John Paul made a visit to Bulgaria in the footsteps of his predecessor, presenting Bulgarian Catholics with a relic of their beloved Ambassador/Archbishop/Pope. Exactly fourteen years after his beatification, a group of pilgrims from Pope John’s home diocese of Bergamo gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica with his successor Francis. The two successors of Peter were already being compared for their warmth and humility. Perhaps the words of Pope Francis, the man who cleared the way for John XXIII’s canonization by bypassing the need for a second miracle, summarizes the life of “the Good Pope” best:

Exactly 50 years ago, at this very time, Blessed John XXIII departed this world. Those who, like myself, have reached a certain age have vivid memories of the emotion that spread everywhere in those days. St Peter’s Square had become an open-air shrine, welcoming by day and by night faithful of all ages and social backgrounds, fearful and praying for the Pope’s health. The whole world had recognized Pope John as a pastor and father; a pastor because he was a father. What had made him one? How had he been able to reach the heart of people so different from each other and even many non-Christians? To answer this question we may refer to his episcopal motto, Obedientia et Pax: obedience and peace. “These words”, Mons. Roncalli noted on the eve of his episcopal ordination, “in a certain way sum up my story and my life”. Obedience and peace.

So, maybe like me, you’ll be awake at three in the morning on Sunday to watch Pope Francis (and maybe even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) canonize John XXIII and John Paul II, two men who radically engaged the world, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, in a new way, ready to bring the light of Jesus Christ to the farthest reaches of the earth. Maybe you’ll watch it on a replay later in the day. That’s cool too. May we learn to look to both of these men as spiritual fathers, as guides, and as intercessors. As we watch these two men elevated to the rank of Saint, let us remember their legacies, so providentially intertwined, and remember the path they laid for us, and for the church in the Third Millennium.

“Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers, and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them.”
– Pope Bl. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris

Popes John XXIII & John Paul II, PRAY FOR US!

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII

Bibliography:
Elliott, Lawrence. I Will Be Called John: A Biography of Pope John XXIII. New York: Readers Digest Press/E.P Dutton, 1973. Print.
Francis. Address to a group of pilgrims from the Diocese of Bergamo. 3 June 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014
John Paul II. Homily for the beatification of five servants of God. 3 Sept. 2000. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
John XXIII. Journal of a Soul. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965. Print.
John XXIII. Encyclical Letter Pacem in terris: Peace on Earth. 11 Apr. 1963. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Tobin, Greg. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church – The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
Weigel, George. The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. New York: Image, 2010. Print.
Weigel, George. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

About the author:
Brian Geary graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Music Education degree. During his time at Illinois, Brian was involved in the Marching Illini, as well as several choirs at St. John’s Newman Center. He was an active student leader for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, as well as a retreat leader. He has a special interest in the history of the Catholic Church and the Papacy.

Legacy of a Visionary: The Life of Pope John XXIII (Part I)

The following is a guest post by Brian W. Geary

Part I: Sotto il Monte (1881-1958)

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII

Not too long from now, on April 27th, the Catholic Church is going to do one of the things it does best: throw a big party! The occasion? Two popes, arguably two of the most influential in the history of the church (and that’s saying a lot) will be elevated to Sainthood. It’s Catholicism’s way of saying they made our All-Star team.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you probably know who they are….Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) and Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). Perhaps you’re like me, and grew up in the waning years of John Paul II’s life. I can recall news reports of him waving before enormous crowds, with that huge Polish grin on his face. I remember the love he exuded wherever he set foot. Perhaps you also remember the news reports as his health began to deteriorate, and perhaps you even remember turning on the TV as I did, to learn that he had “gone to the house of his father.” One thing is certain: he electrified a generation, and if you grew up in the 90’s like I did, some would even say you were born in the tail-end of what’s now being called the “John Paul II” generation.

Well, almost ten years have passed since his death, and his face is once again all over the news, as the Church prepares for his canonization. And we should be excited! Yet, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the man who’s being canonized with him, remaining in relative obscurity in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. In fact, the Church owes an incredible debt to the man we know as Pope John XXIII. He’s been revered since his death in 1963, so much so that two of his successors (John Paul I & John Paul II) even chose to honor him when choosing their own papal names. Yet, among younger generations, his name has gotten lost. So who is John XIII, and why is he so important for us today?

When compared to the story of any other famous figure who rose “from humble beginnings,” Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli’s story could almost write itself. He was born in the shadow of the Alps, in the small, out-of-the-way town of Sotto il Monte (literally, “Under the Mountain”) in northern Italy. His family was poor, and his birth in 1881 bumped the number of family members living in their small house to thirty-two. He would eventually have nine more siblings. They were a family of pious Catholic farmers, and it really wasn’t any surprise young Angelo felt the call to the Priesthood at an early age, eventually being ordained in August of 1904. His priesthood was interrupted by a stint of military service in the First World War, and like so many other young men experimenting with their new-found facial hair, grew a mustache. He’d later describe it as a “weak moment on my part.”

Young Fr. Roncalli (Pope John XXIII)

Following the war, Roncalli became a lecturer at the local seminary, and even taught for a bit in Rome. In 1925, Pope Pius XI appointed him ambassador to Bulgaria. The appointment came out of left field, and some have speculated it was due to suspicions that Roncalli was a “modernist” (a rather vague term that grouped together proponents of a rising tide of new and possibly unorthodox ideologies), after maintaining correspondence with a friend and excommunicated priest. After he was elected pope, he settled the question once and for all and asked to see his official Vatican file. Sure enough, written next to his name were the words “Suspected of Modernism.” In anger, and yet with a twinge of wit, he took a pen and wrote on the file, “I, John XXIII, Pope, declare that I was never a Modernist!”

And so, consecrated a bishop, Roncalli ventured to Bulgaria – an Orthodox country with no real Catholic heritage, with little diplomatic experience, where the title of “Archbishop” didn’t carry much weight. And yet, it was this experience that would help pave the way for the Church in the twentieth century, and indeed, Vatican II. Let’s look at a quote from his Journal: “May my ministry be one of reconciliation ‘in word and deeds’, and my preaching ‘not in the persuasive words of human wisdom but in the manifestation of the Spirit and power’ and the authority conferred on me by the Church never be used for my own glory – used not to break down but to build up.” And that’s precisely what he did. Roncalli built relationships with the Orthodox Church, arriving unannounced at Orthodox liturgies and monasteries, breaching a thousand-year gap nobody yet dared to cross. In a part of the world where the Catholic Church was viewed as no more than a missionary outpost, where Catholics even viewed themselves as subordinates of some sort, Archbishop Roncalli brought renewed life and hope. He even sought to establish a Bulgarian seminary to train priests in the Western and Eastern Catholic rites. Sadly the dream was never realized, and the long-awaited funding from Rome never arrived.

The years went on, and he was eventually sent as a diplomat to Turkey and Greece, where he encountered new struggles. Largely ignored by the Vatican, he was at times discouraged. World War II broke out across Europe, and again Roncalli went to work, using his diplomatic skills to send aid to German-occupied areas. As rumors of concentration camps began to leak, he used his network of connections to delay the transfer of thousands of Jews to concentration camps – enough time to get them immigration certificates to neutral countries. As if he had not done enough in his life, he was sent to France in 1944, a country in crisis after the war, with a government ready to oust its own bishops. He plowed forward, working closely with the people he came to serve, fervently defending the faith against an ever-rising tide of communism, socialism, and new existentialist philosophy that threatened the Church.

Pope John XXIII as bishop

Those who knew him personally could never say enough about Roncalli’s sense of humor. For a man of his experiences, to have kept his sense of humor is a testament to his greatness. Once, after overhearing a frustrated French carpenter utter a stream of obscenities so lengthy it could no longer be ignored, he approached the man and said, “What is all this my good man? Why can’t you say sh*t like everyone else and get on with your work?” In another instance, after a microphone malfunction, the Archbishop came down to the floor of the church. “Dear children,” he said, “you have heard nothing of what I was saying. That doesn’t matter. It wasn’t very interesting. I don’t speak French that well.”

In true diplomatic fashion, he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal and appointed Archbishop of Venice, where he told a welcoming crowd at his first mass there, “I commend to your kindness someone who simply wants to be your brother.” Now in his 70’s, age and health had begun to take their toll and Roncalli hoped to finally settle down. Pope Pius XII died in October 1958, and Cardinal Roncalli came to Rome to elect a new pope with a return ticket to Venice in his pocket. It soon became clear that God had different plans for the aging Cardinal.

Check out Part 2!

Cases for the Catholic Church: Sacraments

Mass before the March for Life

About a month ago, I was talking with someone who remarked, “You know, the hardest part about living a relationship with God is that I can’t talk with or touch Him.” Obviously she’s got a ways to go in terms of developing a prayer life, the best way to communicate with our Lord (and the way that Jesus Himself talked with the Father!), but she makes a great point. Would God really just leave us all alone after Jesus ascended into Heaven?

Jesus promised that He would never leave us, saying “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Yet despite that, He ascended into Heaven, so how does this make any sense? First off, God is still with us always. Even the Father personally guided the Israelites personally in the Old Testament times, He is always loving us and desiring the best for us. In addition, the Father and Son gave the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2).

But it makes sense that God would want to give us a tangible way of encountering Jesus through the Church. Jesus gave us the sacraments as signs of God’s love, ways to physically encounter God’s grace. Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to administer the sacraments themselves, and they have continued to carry on this ministry throughout the ages in the Church.

For those who aren’t familiar with the sacraments at all, I sometimes think of them as “power ups” in real life because of the grace that they give. Baptism is like an “extra” life that you get where it initiates you into the Church and is necessary for salvation*. Confirmation is a power up to grow in your faith which gives you more gifts from the Holy Spirit. Confession is how you get “full health again” and God forgives you of your sins. Eucharist is pretty much where you win the game and get to have a meal ZIP with the creator of the game. Marriage… um I guess that one’s pretty self explanatory, I hope, haha. Holy Orders gives men special powers to act in Jesus’ place in administering the sacraments, helping everyone else get their power ups. Finally, Anointing of the Sick is a way to instantly win the game despite being about ready to die.

Ok those comparisons were pretty hilarious for me… but they show the importance of taking advantage of all of the help that we can get in our lives! In video games we try to get the most power ups that we can so that we can do the best. In real life, we should do the same! God has given us help.. the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, the Bible, so that we wouldn’t have to live our faith all alone.

Instead of doing an in-depth scriptural and general apologetics study at the end to defend each of the 7 sacraments, feel free to check out this more thorough web site: Catholic Apologetics

Dr. Peter Kreeft also defends sacraments as a whole here.

Previous posts on the sacraments:
Baptism: Why Wait?
Confession
Mass: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Why do Catholics have to go to Mass on Sundays?
Too Wise to Get Married?
Why Can Only Men be Catholic Priests?

Other Cases for the Catholic Church:
Authority
Universality