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?

LIFT Links: Summer Break Edition

Catamaran at Camp Lebanon, Summer 2014

Today was the final parish school Mass of the year, in which Fr. Richards and Fr. Nathan collaborated on the homily/skit to underscore to the students that we do not take a vacation from God. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few ideas to keep growing in faith during these months of summer leisure.

The Basics

  • Make Sunday Mass a priority all summer long. Especially for those of us who like to escape to the cabin or lake, or who plan trips during the summer months, it can be tempting to skip out on Mass, or to plan to attend the last possible weekend Mass and miss accidentally or arrive late, hungry, harried, and distracted. But Mass and the Eucharist are central to our Catholic faith — the closest encounter with Christ and the most powerful prayer we can offer! Wherever you are headed, take time to find a Catholic Church along the way and make sure you make it to Saturday evening or Sunday Mass. (We once stopped at the Catholic Church in St. Ignace on the way back from Michigan, and the kids were invited by the priest to help with the May Crowning of Mary!) If you have kids, let them look online and help you pick which church you attend, then check out the stained glass, statues, Stations of the Cross, and such — and see what you can learn about that parish’s patron saint.
  • Make Confession a priority. Most of us don’t sin less during the summer, so Confession is no less important during vacation. Get it on the calendar now, so you don’t forget — and if you do happen to miss weekend Mass, make it a priority to do penance and receive absolution before the next weekend, to ensure you receive all the graces of the Eucharist when you receive Jesus again!
  • Don’t forget prayer and spiritual reading. Some of us relish our down time, and look forward to those quiet moments on the deck, in the the sun, on the water, or in the garden. Before you turn on the Twins game or grab the latest paperback thriller, take a little time for quiet prayer or spiritual reading. Give to God from the top of your time, and He will give you so much in return! Also, don’t overlook the blessings of the Road-Trip Rosary: kick off any long drive with a family rosary and see if the trip doesn’t go more smoothly!
  • Check out daily Mass or Adoration. It’s easy during the summer to run ourselves ragged and need a spiritual recharge. Daily or weekday Mass offers a great opportunity for quiet time to pray and to receive a daily dose of scripture and the Holy Eucharist. Often weekday Mass is early or late in the day, providing a nice bookend to whatever else you have planned, and most weekday Masses are only about 30 minutes long. Or for more flexibility, check out the nearest Adoration Chapel, and spend one-on-one time praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Bring your Bible or current spiritual book and see what Jesus has to say as you dig deeper into the words on the page!
Spiritual Vacations
We are blessed in our parish and area to have many opportunities for deeper spiritual recharging for Catholics of all ages — here are just a few options:
  • Sign the kids up for Vacation Bible School (VBS). This year’s VBS offering is Cathletics: Training to Be Champions for Christ! VBS is open to children from four years old through those who have just completed 5th grade. Registration forms and more information are available on the parish website, at the parish office, or in Gathering Space.
  • Take the family to Camp Lebanon for faith-filled fun on the water! Enjoy lakeside cabin and lodge style camping near Upsala for families from St. Albert and St. Michael parishes, coming up  August 14-16 – swimming, fishing, zipline, paintball, fireside rosary, Mass, and more. Information is available on the easel in the Gathering Space.
  • Register for our free series on meditative prayer. Local Catholic teacher Angie Lambert and local Catholic speaker Michelle Steele will be offering two evening sessions on meditative prayer: what it is and how to grow in it–including a little time to practice. They will also be discussing contemplative prayer, a higher form of prayer beyond meditative prayer, toward which meditation leads, as well as the virtues that lead us to a deeper life of prayer.  We all know the key to happiness and peace is a life of prayer. These sessions are free and open to all ages; they will be held at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, on Monday, June 22, and Monday, June 29, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Please RSVP by June 17 at or call Monica at the parish office at (763) 497-2745 to sign up.
  • Go on an actual retreat! We have great opportunities for Catholic retreats in this area, including King’s House in Buffalo, Pacem In Terris in Isanti, and the Jesuit Retreat House (Demontreville) in Lake Elmo. For a more complete listing of Catholic retreat centers around Minnesota, visit
Recommended Reading
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a few conversations about books that might help rekindle our love for the Catholic faith in our families. I’ve done some reading myself and have asked around a bit — here are a few recommendations that don’t require a theology degree to read and enjoy:
  • Consider getting one of the publications for kids that explore the weekend Mass readings and discussing them before Mass. Not only will this provide a great and simple opportunity to share scripture and your faith, but it will also deepen their Mass experience, since they will be hearing the readings for the second time! Either Magnifikid! or Celebrating Sunday for Catholic Families are good options.
  • My bride and I are part of a couples group that is just finishing Jason Free’s Parenting on Purpose, an easy-to-read refresher on why Christian (specifically Catholic) parenting matters, with simple, practical ideas on how parents can raise children who catch and keep the faith.
  • For parents of teens, our youth minister, John O’Sullivan recently recommended Blessed are the Bored in Spirit: A Young Catholic’s Search for Meaning by Mark Hart. I’m just reviewing this now, but it appears to be geared toward teens who may just be going through the motions and those who care about them
  • I also know several families who swear by reading about the lives of the saints as a great way to inspire children and teens to lead holy lives. There are lots of books on the lives of the saints, saints of the day, etc. — or you can pick biographies of particular saints that might appeal to specific children. The book we gave away at the parish this past Christmas, Jason Evert’s Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, is a wonderful and inspiring read for young Catholics and older alike — and I’m sure I have an extra copy of it if you missed out.
Many blessings on your summer — and for those of you traveling, Our Lady of the Highway, pray for us!

The Sacraments Keep Us Catholic

“At last the most wonderful day of my life arrived, and I can remember every tiny detail of those heavenly hours … How lovely it was, that first kiss of Jesus in my heart—it was truly a kiss of love.” – St. Therese of Lisieux, describing her first Holy Communion

Last month I was blessed to witness nearly 140 young people from our parish and school receiving their first Holy Communion. They were, by and large, reverent and excited—and those I spoke with personally understood at least in concept that they were receiving Jesus’s Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine. I hope at least a few of them remember the day with the same deep joy and devotion as St. Therese expresses above.  I’m almost certain, unfortunately, that a few have not been back.

Our approach to preparing children for First Confession and First Communion in recent years has increasingly fallen on their parents. In one sense, this is as it should be: the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that, through marriage, “parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children” and “should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith.”

On the other hand, many parents do not feel equipped to share those mysteries, being uncertain themselves about the Church’s teachings on Reconciliation and the Eucharist. And while we provide families with workbooks to help them teach their children, these are poor substitutes for the level of love and support young Therese had in the months leading up to the sacraments. Her desire to make a good confession and to receive the gift of the Eucharist consumed her completely, and everyone in her family and community fueled her understanding and love for the Lord in whatever way they could.

As a parish, we can certainly do more. Beginning this fall, First Reconciliation and First Communion students will have an extra class or activity (in addition to LIFT) each month dedicated to sacramental preparation and a deeper understanding of the great gifts of Christ’s love and mercy we find on the altar and in the confessional. But this is no substitute for the evangelizing witness of parents leading a sacramental life in which their Catholic faith is a top family priority.

This is true for two reasons. The first is this: because children naturally observe and imitate their parents’ actions and interests, parents don’t have to have all the right answers, but it helps if you do the right things. Secondly, the sacraments are defined as outward signs instituted by Christ to give us grace—in particular, sacramental grace, which strengthens us to live according to our faith and state in life. The sacrament of Matrimony, for example, confers upon the spouses the graces needed to live in union as husband and wife, come what may.

The same applies to the sacraments of Confession and Communion. They strengthen us to resist temptation and seek communion with God, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to love sacrificially—in short, to be holy men and women of God. Each time we receive them, we are changed for the better. And when our children imitate us, so are they. What better way to ensure our kids remain Catholic?

Blogger’s Note: This article appears in the Sunday, May 24, church bulletin.