Motherland of Mercy, Part 3: Pope St. John Paul II

Blogger’s Note: This is the third of three posts along my path to the Sacred Heart about the three Polish saints whose loving example pervaded World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland.

Pope St. John Paul II

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” — Pope St. John Paul II

jpiiBorn Karol Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920. Suffered the loss of his family, freedom, and country by the time he was 21 years old; risked his life under the Nazi regime to promote Polish cultural  resistance and study for the priesthood. Recognized as a gifted theologian, pastor, and bishop; elected pope in 1978 and brought the Good News to 129 countries. Instrumental in the fall of dictatorships and Communism; wounded critically in an assassination attempt in 1981; credited Our Lady for preserving his life and met with and forgave the assassin. Served as pope until his death in 2005, despite declining health due to Parkinson’s and old age. One of the most recognized figures of the 20th century.   View a more complete biography here.

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My photo of a saint, taken at World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002.

Unlike yesterday’s saint, Faustina Kowalska, St. John Paul II is the Polish saint I know best. I’ve read countless articles and two biographies: Witness to Hope by George Weigel and Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves by Jason Evert. He was the pope during my return to Catholic church and for more than half my life so far. Additionally, he is the one (known) saint I’ve had the privilege of seeing and hearing in person, at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Continue reading

Love In the Present Tense

Already last night’s timeline is incomplete: today I was reminded that my first real, in-depth exposure to St. Faustina and Divine Mercy came in February 2016, five months before we left for Poland. Fr. Chris Allar of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, keepers of the Shrine of Divine Mercy here in the United States, came to St. Michael to lead our annual parish retreat, and despite having a full agenda, managed to infuse the occasion with enough about St. Faustina, the Divine Mercy image, and the revelations of God’s boundless love and mercy that my curiosity was sparked.

His message seemed almost to good to be true: God loves us and wants us all to be saved. To do so, we must A) ask for His mercy, B) be merciful to others, and C) completely trust in Him.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Hope swells in the heart at the thought it might be that simple, doesn’t it? (Too simple, some would argue–where’s the judgement and justice in that?) Of course, trust in God is not always easy, nor is humbling ourselves to ask for mercy or extend it to others. Continue reading

Airedale Chronicles: My Lord and My Dog

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Bruno underfoot…

One of the best and most trying aspects of owning an Airedale “puppy” is Bruno’s relentless desire for affection and affirmation. In our household we joke that I finally have someone else who shares my primary love languages: physical touch and words of affirmation. If that’s true, I know now why I drive my wife and children as crazy as I do. As a little pup, this constant desire to be in contact with us and praised by us was adorable—less so when a fifty-pound dog (however young) piles into the back of your knees on the stairs, when he circles your feet while you are carrying groceries or sits on them while you are walking.

And sometimes I get impatient, forgetting he is not quite ten months old, and wish he would “move!” “get back!” or “go lay down!”

A week or so back I came home from work, and Bruno was waiting at the top of the stairs above our split-level front door, sitting lopsided on one hip with his big front paws on the first step down so he could better see who was coming. As I came up, he came down, making it nearly impossible to pass, and I told him to get back. He followed at my knee, nosed my hands as I sat to take off my shoes, then licked my pant leg. Continue reading

‘You Wicked Servant’

Yesterday’s gospel reading was Matthew 18:21-35, in which Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. “As many as seven times?” he says naively, thinking that would be plenty.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants…”

Thus begins the parable of the wicked servant, in which the Lord lays out in stark terms our duty to forgive.

You probably remember the story: The king calls to account a servant who owes him a huge amount of money. Since the servant has no way of repaying it, the king plans to sell him, his family, and all his belongings.  But the servant begs for mercy, promising to repay the debt in time. And the king relents—not only does he decide not to sell the servant and all he has, but he forgives the loan altogether in response to the servant’s humble plea.

The first servant then seeks out another servant who owes him money and seizes and chokes him, demanding immediate repayment. The wrath of his master is immediate and severe: The first servant is handed over to the torturers until he repays his entire debt to the king.

Consider for a moment the fact that we’ve already been told the servant had no way of paying back the money. How, then, will he ever escape the torturers?

Continue reading

Chains of Memory

The past couple of days I’ve been plagued by memories: guilty recollections of past sins, glimpses of images I never should have seen, bits of off-color or debauched “humor,” lyrics to songs that should not be sung.

Beginning in college, this was my rebellion. I looked at, listened to, and watched whatever I wanted. And in short order, I proved the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” During much of my college years, I swore like a sailor; I told dirty jokes to old friends and new acquaintances, and I made excuses for my behavior—to others and to myself.

“It could be worse,” I said, and I knew I was right. I had a vivid imagination, and worse played out in my mind if I lingered too long on any impure thing.

Thanks be to God, over the first ten year of my marriage to Jodi, I weeded these things out of my life. Little by little I dropped the jokes, kicked my swearing habit, left porn behind, stopped watching racy movies, and cleaned up my taste in music. And beginning with one no-nonsense confession with Fr. Siebenaler, in which he politely but firmly questioned my resolve to actually amend my life and advised me to open myself to Jodi and ask for her help, I left off making excuses, and began instead to apologize.

So here we are, more than a decade later, and the Enemy is at work again: I find myself mindlessly mouthing the music in my head, only to realize it’s some obscene gangster rap fantasy or metal mayhem I laughed at as a younger man. In my mind’s eye I see images I haven’t looked upon in years, like a sin scrapbook I can’t help but leaf through, gazing at memories best forgotten.

That’s the first point of this ramble: you can’t forget. What your brain takes in is filed away for later reference. Every image, every word, is there, tying you to past experience. And those things you subject yourself to again and again, out of desire or habit? Your mind naturally assumes they are important, forging shorter, stronger connections so they can be easily accessed.

I can’t recall yesterday’s discussion with my bride, but I remember every detail of my past sins, with a clarity that repels the spirit and tempts the flesh anew. The Accuser seeks to set me against myself—but I know now I must seek every day, every moment, to purify both body and soul.

That’s the second point: The struggle against sin is noble and never-ending, to be sure, but all struggles are not created equal. The struggle of the rabbit in the snare speeds its demise; it kicks and thrashes against the noose, which only tightens against its efforts.

That was me, in the confessional all those years ago—declaring sorrow for my sins but unwilling to even attempt to remove my head from the strangling wire. The death brought about by sin cannot be escaped by panic, emotionalism, or bodily struggle. It is a spiritual struggle, requiring prayer, persistence, and genuine love of neighbor and of self. At some point, all the plans, safeguards, and accountability measures boil down to a decision: Am I going to stop doing these things or not?

How does one become a saint? Will it.

Finally, the third point: We don’t have to remain bound in these chains of memory, because God’s love is mercy.

This is not the first time I’ve struggled with recalling past sins and feeling old remorse and new temptation. The last time I remember it as strongly as this, our pastor, Fr. Richards, advised that I repeat the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

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At the time he told me this, it didn’t click with me that these are the words of the inscription at the bottom of St. Faustina’s image of Divine Mercy. (“Jezu ufam tobie” in the original Polish, above.)

Jesus, I trust in you. I trust in your mercy. I trust that you have forgiven these past, confessed sins. I trust that you continue to forgive me. I trust that you love me.

We are washed clean in the blood and water that flow from His Sacred Heart. We need not linger in darkness or doubt. He loves us. He forgives us. He saves.