We’ll Always Have Poland

Poland Family

Last Sunday we were blessed to host a party of sorts. What started as my attempt repay the “Poland daughters” who took me out to dinner for my birthday last fall  turned into a mini-World Youth Day reunion, with many of the teens and a couple of the adults from our trip to Krakow a year ago.

We visited, prayed together, and shared a meal: grilled kielbasa and pierogies, pasta and sauce and salad, cookies and root beer floats. We shared our favorite memories and laughed and laughed. We talked about future plans—many of my Poland daughters are starting college this year. And I think we all longed to go back to visit the Motherland.

The next morning I thought I should re-share the post I wrote after the pilgrimage—only to realize I never wrote a recap. I thought about doing a standard Top-10 list, but no matter how I counted or grouped things together, I had too much to share.

So I’ll keep this to three moments that stand out to me above the others. Continue reading

More Than Meets the Eye

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible. — the Nicene Creed, emphasis mine

Each time we pray the Creed at Mass, we acknowledge—in fact, we profess our sincere belief—that there is more to this world than meets the eye. We believe in saints and angels, heaven and hell, the devil and his minions. We believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist. We believe in the power of prayer and redemptive suffering.

Practicing Catholics proclaim this belief in the invisible world and spiritual realities at least once a week. But do we live daily as if we believe heaven is for real? Continue reading

So Grateful Tonight…

Yesterday morning we loaded the Suburban, picked up Bren’s girlfriend Olivia are 7:45 a.m. Central time, and headed to Bismarck to fetch our eldest from University of Mary. Olivia rode shotgun (five bucks who can explain why I decided to call her “Coach”) to the campus, and we played the letter game, the license plate game, talked, sang along to the iPod, and ate Hardee’s for lunch in Jamestown, N.D.

We reached UMary and Gabe and Olivia retrieved Bren from his dorm. He came out with a box, a backpack, a duffle bag, a cased guitar, an uncased mandolin, and his heavy Carhartt jacket. We had room for the duffle bag and the guitar–but we stuffed it in, crossed the river into Mandan, and headed south by southwest to the Dennis Ranch in Red Owl, S.D., for supper. Bren and Olivia held the guitar at bay with the backs of their heads. At dusk the deer were moving along the roads; darkness fell quickly, and fog rolled in, so we lost time peering in the the gray-black, watching for movement.
We finally rolled up to Robert and Cindy’s new log house around 6:30 Mountain Time. The whole clan was there, waiting, including Fr. Tyler, who escaped his parishes for a Thanksgiving with his folks, his brothers Tate and Chance, and their families. Cindy, Hope, and Cass finished dinner, wrangled kids, and entertained Jodi, Emma, Trevor, and Olivia, while Bren, Gabe, and I help Robert and his sons move in a massive plank table edged in natural bark just in time for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed burgers and hotdogs, chips and salads, carrot cake, and Emma’s best oatmeal caramel chewies, and good beer (90 Shilling , picked up in Mandan). 
We visited and laughed together until around 9:30 or so, while Lily and little ones explored every corner of the  then rearranged the gear in the Suburban and loaded up for the Venjohns. Gabe needed night driving hours, so he took the wheel, with me navigating. The fog was thick, cutting our speed in half at times, but we rolled into Black Hawk and the house on Suzie Lane at 11:30  or so.  The adults were asleep, but cousins, greeted us. (Such is life: these days the adults turn in early, and the kids stay up to greet the latecomers.)
I woke this morning at 3:30, then again around 5 or so. Dozed until a little after 6, then showered and came went upstairs. Grandma Venjohn was next up, then one by one the rest of the family rose: everyone here but Jason and Carmen, who were hosting her family in Sioux Falls. Carmel rolls and coffee (and a little orange juice) for breakfast. Chris and Tally ran a Turkey Trot in Rapid City. Grandma, Matt and Brenda, and Brad and NaCole worked on snacks and dinner and watched the parade on TV, while Grandpa and our crew headed to 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Black Hills.
Their regular priest, from Poland, was sick; the old priest who celebrated Mass looked familiar, and his deep baritone and easy humor called to me from the past. Finally, halfway through the Mass, Jodi whispered, “I think that’s Fr. Bob from Wall,” meaning the priest who was at the Catholic church in Wall, S.D., when we first met and she first lured me back to Mass. I knew as she said it she was right.
He’s on oxygen now, and didn’t stand for his homily. He reminded us we are a thanks-giving people, and that Eucharist means Thanksgiving–then he told the story of a Thanksgiving day in the service, spent in the shadow of an armored personnel carrier in the Mojave Desert, eating MREs. The men were hot, the food (pork and beans) was crummy, and guys were already scarfing it down when their leader asked Father is he would bless their meal. So he did–and it struck him that we expect to feast on Thanksgiving, and to give thanks for all we have, but some people don’t have. He ended the petitions the deacon led with “For all those who only have pork and beans today, we pray to the Lord” and then, “For those who wish they had pork and beans today…”
During the sign of peace, I never more sincerely wished peace to those around me–and I’ve never felt more blessed to receive the Eucharist. We spoke to Father afterward. He didn’t remember us, of course, but knew we knew him, and (I hope) felt the love we have for him.
We got home just in time to watch the Lions-Vikings game. Gabe, Emma, and Trev were wearing Honolulu blue and were heckled by the bulk of Jodi’s family, who are diehard Vikes fans. It was a good game; Lions won a bit before dinner, and we prayed together over the food.
Not pork and beans, but turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and squash. We ate, we played games, visited more, and some of us dozed. When the girls finally decided it was time for pie, we called Brendan upstairs to sing to him–he turns 19 today. Five different pies (apple, pecan, cherry, pumpkin, and pumpkin cheesecake) and real whipped cream. Brendan got a fleece blanket in UMary colors, three books, a capo and electronic metronome for his guitar, cards, and money. Some of us took a walk, others played Shut the Box and other games. At one point I went downstairs to find Bren, Olivia, and Gabe starting a rosary, so I joined in. Such peace–and such joy that they do this by choice.
We ate a little more a little while ago. Now most of the family is playing cards: Phase 10 in the dining room; Texas Hold’Em in the kitchen. I’m surrounded by voices and laughter and love. Such joy. So grateful tonight.
And we’re here ’til Sunday.
Friends and family, I love you and am grateful for you. God bless you tonight and always.

Our Faith Is Not Genetic

Last month I wrote about the power of family— in particular, parents—in keeping their children Catholic.  It’s sobering, then, to learn that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is losing members faster than it is gaining them, and that, for today’s teens, religious identity is no longer reliably inherited. In other words, Millenials aren’t likely to stay Catholic simply because their parents and grandparents were Catholic.

What does it take to keep our young people in the faith? According to a 2012 Canadian study, young adults who choose to remain Christian have four main characteristics:

  1. They have experienced God’s presence and have witnessed answered prayers.
  2. They can ask and openly discuss their real spiritual questions in their Christian community.
  3. They understand the Gospel at a deep level.
  4. And they have seen communities of faith and older adults living their faith.

Numbers 1 and 4 have to do with experiencing God, both personally and in community. Numbers 2 and 3 involve grappling with spiritual truth. Young people who have the opportunity to know and personally experience God and are encouraged to explore that knowledge and experience are more likely to choose for themselves to remain faithful to Christ and His Church.

Is that the environment we are fostering at St. Michael Catholic Church? In our homes and our schools?

Unfortunately, Catholics have a reputation—earned in many cases—for not spending much time delving into sacred Scripture and for not sharing firsthand experiences of the very real and personal God we hear about in the Bible and the Catechism. And while our Masses may be well attended, a faith that is manifested for an hour on Sunday is not the same faith that made evangelists, world travelers, and martyrs out of a dozen unknown Galileans. Their faith changed lives—their own, first and foremost. If church doesn’t change us, we’re not doing it right!

Eventually everyone makes a choice for or against Christ. So maybe it’s a good thing that we can no longer rely on birth and blood to pass our Catholicism on to the next generation.  If we acknowledge that even cradle Catholics need conversion; if we share our faith not just with those outside the Church, but with each other; if we pray for, and come to expect, God to act in our lives in personal and tangible ways, through answered prayers, spiritual gifts, vocations, and more—we will “become a people living for Christ” in every generation.

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, Nov. 15, parish bulletin.

The Flitter-Flutter of Tiny Wings


For the past several days, we’ve had just two kids at home, Trevor and Lily. The elder three were at Extreme Faith Camp, Brendan as a leader, Gabe as a member of the prayer team, and Rose as a camper. Their return, I think, was bittersweet for the younger ones — although bored and (allegedly) overworked at points, they enjoyed having Mom’s and Dad’s full attention. Lily got in trouble for interrupting far less, because there was far less to interrupt. And Trev got to go to Culver’s and Jurassic World with just Jodi and me.

We parents, on the other hand, missed our teens. It took only a day or so for me to stop and calculate that we are just six years from potentially being a permanent four-person household, and eight years from Lily being alone with us, At some point unmarked in the past, the pitter-patter of tiny feet was drowned out by the flitter-flutter of tiny wings as the fledglings prepare to leave the nest.

This, I’m discovering, is going to be harder for me than the fact that I, too, am aging and yet still feel like I have much to learn — in fact, my own feelings of inexperience in this world only magnify my anxiety for my offspring. Have a taught them what they need to know to survive? Will they thrive? Will they avoid the pitfalls and snares in which Jodi and I have become entangled over the years? Have the courage to be faithful in public? To remain Catholic, with all that entails?

We see encouraging signs from each of them. Bren, now 17 and approaching his senior year, has changed his views on a military career, primarily due to moral concerns. He takes his faith very seriously: donates to Catholic causes, joins his friends for weekday Mass on Wednesdays, joins his girlfriend Olivia in the Adoration Chapel in our church. Gabe, nearly 15 and a coming sophomore, still has his eyes on the priesthood, joins his brother and friends at Wednesday Mass, and just last night asked where he could find the Divine Office that priests commit to praying daily — hinting that he’d like to take it up, but that he’d rather not do it alone. Thirteen-year-old Emma came home from having been deeply impacted by Eucharistic Adoration at camp, trembling with emotion before the Blessed Sacrament and alternating between sorrow and joy (ending on joy) as she prayed.

Yesterday I came home from the church for lunch, and popped in a DVD that would not play in my work computer. The video came up immediately, and featured Fr. Robert Barron tackling common Catholic apologetics questions in short video clips. I began cherry-picking a few that might be interesting, and Trev, who will be 11 in few days, sat down to watch. For more than an hour, we watched and discussed the rational foundations for our Catholic faith. It’s amazing to see what he absorbs in such a short time, and I pray the same has been true for the others.

Lily, of course, is only three. She knows Jesus by sight, likes to pray (the Angelus and petitions, in particular, and especially for her friends and for babies) most evenings, and is at home in our church, if not fully engaged by the Mass yet. As I continue in my job as faith formation director, planning the coming year’s program, I realize how much more we could be doing with our parish youth, and by extension, how much more I could have done with my own children. Lily will benefit from that realization — and yet when I look at her four older siblings, I wonder how much I should do differently. But how can I give anything less than my all for my family when the stakes are so high and the implications, eternal?