Sunday, June 30, 2013

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

Have you ever felt like quitting?  Maybe an exercise program, a novena, a diet plan, music lessons, a sports team, college, a marriage, a job, the Catholic Church, life?

Today's Gospel ends with Jesus saying, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”  And, fittingly, today's novena response is Pier Giorgio saying, "I beg you to pray for me a little, so that God may give me an iron will that does not bend and does not fail in His projects." 

We need grace, a lot of it, to persevere in life along the narrow path.  So many times,  Pier Giorgio wrote to his friends begging for their prayers.  It's beautiful, really, to see that he recognized the value of prayer, relied on it, was never afraid to ask for it.  Oh, he had plenty of excuses to be a quitter.  His parents did not have a good marriage and that made family life stressful.  He was often told that he would never amount to as much as his sister who had completed her college degree before him.  He didn't have a very strong spiritual upbringing in the home and the time he spent nourishing his soul in Eucharistic Adoration, attending Mass or serving the poor was often misunderstood.

But he was not a quitter. Toward the end of his life, he was even more determined to complete his final exams and thesis and said he would study "from morning until evening."  Aware of his own shortcomings and the things that would prevent him from attaining his goal, he turned to the sources that he knew would sustain him.  "I'm trusting in the Providence of God," he wrote to his friend Isidoro Bonini, "and also in the prayers of friends." 

God had other plans for how things would turn out for Pier Giorgio; he died before completing his longed-for degree.  Likewise, we cannot predict how our own undertakings will end. Regardless of the future outcome, our challenge is to be what we pray for in day six of the novena: "single hearted and completely, unswervingly, dedicated to proclaiming the kingdom of God here on earth."  We do that by persevering in the vocations God has given us.  We do that by being the best children, parents, students, athletes, weight-watchers, musicians, spouses, employees, Catholics, Americans, and so on.  We do that by not quitting.  We do that by relying on the Providence of God and the prayers of our friends.  Verso l'alto!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy

God's timing is perfect. And so, I should not be surprised that Day Five of the novena this year falls on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul -- one of Pier Giorgio's name days. He famously said to the family maid on this day (less than a week before he died) that he would enjoy two cigars -- one for Peter and one for Paul!

Also not a coincidence is that his response in today's prayers refers to St. Paul.  It is taken from his speech to the Catholic youth of Pollone, in which he exhorted them to embrace what he called the apostolate of charity. "The Apostle St. Paul says, 'the charity of Christ urges us.'  Without this flame, which should burn out our personality little by little and blaze only for other people’s griefs, we would not be Christian, let alone Catholic.” 

Pier Giorgio was so inspired by St. Paul's Hymn of Charity (found in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13) that he wrote it out and carried it with him. In a letter to his best friend Marco Beltramo, he wrote, "Maybe if all of us listened more to St. Paul, human miseries would be slightly diminished."  To his friend Isidoro Bonini, he wrote, "I would like you to try to read St. Paul: he is marvelous and the soul is exalted by this reading and we are prodded to follow the right path and to return to it as soon as we leave it through sin."

In addition to St. Paul, Pier Giorgio had a preference for St. Catherine of Siena, St. Augustine and Fra Girolamo Savonarola.   He made regular spiritual retreats and was often in the company of holy priests and religious. His closest friends were people whose goodness formed "a precious guide" for his whole life. "Surely Divine Providence in His Marvelous Plans sometimes uses us miserable little twigs to do Good," he wrote to Marco, "and we sometimes not only don’t want to know God but instead dare to deny His existence; but we who, by the Grace of God, have the Faith, when we find ourselves in the presence of such beautiful souls, surely nourished by Faith, we cannot but discover in them an obvious sign of the Existence of God, because one cannot have such a Goodness without the Grace of God."

May we today be inspired by the saints, especially Peter, Paul and Pier Giorgio, and strive to attain to their level of goodness until we too become "miserable little twigs" ablaze with love and mercy for the people around us.  Verso l'alto!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

A priest friend of  mine describes waking up each morning as "a mini-resurrection."  We should jump up and hit the ground running, he says, rather than hit the snooze button repeatedly.  (He's a morning person!)  And then there's that familiar cliche that puts it like this: "Today is a gift; that's why they call it 'the present.'"  But one of my favorite ways of looking at each day came from my best friend's youngest daughter who had not yet incorporated the words "yesterday," "today" and "tomorrow" into her vocabulary.  Instead, she called them, "last day," "this day" and "next day." 

How easy it is to take each new day for granted!  And yet, the breath we are given each morning is the greatest gift of all.  I'm as guilty as all of the other list makers who wake up thinking about all that needs done rather than thanking for all that has been done.  As St. Paul wrote, "in Him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17: 28)  Really, what more could we ask?

Pier Giorgio's challenge in today's novena response is to consider how we spend each day and the gifts we have been given, especially our gift of good health.  If we are not putting them at the service of others, he says, it "would be to betray that gift of God."  I doubt he could ever be accused of such a betrayal.  In fact, there is a wonderful book not yet published in English that is filled from cover to cover with works of charity that he performed.  (The book is aptly named, "La Carita" -- his charity.) 

As this novena began, many prayer intentions were submitted and are still being submitted.  If you need something to help you count your blessings, take a few minutes to read through them.  There are so many people in physical, spiritual, financial and emotional pain.  There are so many situations in the world today in need of people willing to get involved.  There are so many opportunities to stand up for life, for our Church, for our country.

If today were your "last day," how big would the book of your service to the Lord and His Kingdom be?  None of us is guaranteed a "next day."  "This day" is all we are promised.  Make the most of it.  Verso l'alto!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

I've always enjoyed the story about when Pier Giorgio's university club hired a guy to repair their billiard table and do a few other things and then got cheated by him. Pier Giorgio was in Berlin at the time and was so upset upon hearing it that he wrote to his friends back in Italy and asked them to hold off paying the guy until he returned. He wanted to "go and find Mr. DeAgostini and tell him off." His other suggestion was that he would "write a fiery letter to him personally." (Excerpts are from his letter to Antonio Severi on November 23, 1922.)

This seemingly insignificant event exemplifies why Pier Giorgio is so easy to love: he was human to the core. There are many other stories of when he got angry -- but when I consider them carefully, I can see that in almost every case his was righteous anger.

[On a visit to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, I heard an excellent homily on the topic of anger given by Father Miguel Marie Soeherman, MFVA. He thoroughly examined the difference between sinful and righteous anger which I had not given much thought to previously and, unfortunately, cannot do justice to in a blog nutshell.  But understanding the difference between the two types is something we should bear in mind as we respond to the various injustices inflicted on ourselves and others.] 

Like Americans today, Pier Giorgio lived in a very challenging time when the Church was being openly persecuted. It's hard to believe he wrote the following sentence more than 90 years -- and not 90 minutes -- ago:  "Today, after a terrible war that has deluged the whole world bringing material and moral ruin, we have a strict duty to cooperate generously in the moral regeneration of society worldwide so that a radiant dawn may break in which all nations recognize Jesus Christ as King not only in words but in all their people’s lives."*

Rather than respond with anger and violence to the chaos around him, he chose a life of charity as a means of rebuilding the corrupt society. He acknowledged that the other way might seem easier and more satisfying but said, "if we could plunge the depths of those who unfortunately follow the perverse ways of the world, we would see that there is never in them the serenity had by those who have faced thousands of difficulties and have renounced material pleasures in order to follow the laws of God."* What wisdom and restraint at such a young age!

He suggested to his friends that they could "sow peace among men"* by joining one of the many conferences of St. Vincent de Paul. "You will see," he said, "in just a little time, how much good we can do to those we visit and how much good we can do to ourselves. ... I think I can say that the Conference of St. Vincent with its visits to the poor serves to curb our passions, it gives us increasing incentives to get on the right road by which we are all trying to reach the great harbor."*

Pier Giorgio was by no means a stranger to confrontation. He took to the streets when necessary to defend the Faith and was arrested on more than one occasion. He used his fists to defend the family home from a violent group of attackers. He probably gave Mr. DeAgostini a piece of his mind about the billiard table. But the substance of his daily life was defined by Charity -- what he considered "explicit proof that the Catholic Faith is based on real Love and not, as so many would like, in order to quiet their conscience, to base the religion of Christ on violence."*  Charity, he believed, would lead to true peace, and true peace would lead to brotherly love.  In that kind of world, violence would have no place and anger would not be necessary.  Verso l'alto!

(*Excerpts taken from Pier Giorgio's notes on a speech about charity to the FUCI students. The entire speech is found in the book, Pier Giorgio Frassati: Letters to His Friends and Family.)



Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted

My mother died quite unexpectedly a few weeks before Christmas in 2002. Faithfully for nearly 11 years, my father has prayed daily at her grave. (The cemetery is not far from our house and it is his routine to stop by on the way home from Mass.) His prayer is that she be in a place "where there is no pain or sorrow, a place where the eye cannot see, the ear cannot hear and the mind of man cannot imagine what great things God has in store for those who love Him." He thanks her for the 49 years of Christian marriage they enjoyed and he asks her to pray for us. It always moves me to listen to him say those words when I am in town for a visit and drive him there.

At first glance, the beatitude for this second day of the novena calls to mind all those whom we have lost and the human sorrow that accompanies their absence. And it is certainly a good thing to pause and pray for the holy souls in purgatory and for the comfort and consolation of their families. But Pier Giorgio addressed a different type of sorrow when he wrote the words found in today's novena response. He mourned the persecution of the Church.

When he was just 22 years old, Pier Giorgio was asked to address a group of young people on the occasion of the blessing of their organization's flag. He was the honorary godfather of the flag and gave one of the most beautiful speeches that day that is so strikingly significant for us nearly 90 years later. He grieved for the Church and exhorted the young people to pray for the strength to persevere "in these times, in which the hatred of the sons of the devil is breaking out violently against the sheep who are faithful to the fold." He urged them to receive the Holy Eucharist as frequently as possible and instructed them on many ways to grow spiritually. But then he said that having the highest spiritual gifts would be nothing without the spirit of sacrifice: the willingness to give up "our ambitions, our entire selves, for the cause of the Faith."

His speech is too long to do it justice here. (If you have a copy of the book of Pier Giorgio's Letters to his friends and family, you will find it there.) Toward the end, he makes the point that we cannot be good Catholics or Christians without sacrifice. And that sacrifice had to be continual -- not a one-time thing. He accepted the situation in his country and he was able to put it into such a healthy perspective. Above all, he did not want the other young people to find sacrificing for the Faith a burden. He encouraged them to "think about what these few years passed in sorrow are, compared with a happy eternity, where joy will have no measure nor end, and where we will enjoy a peace beyond anything we could imagine."

When I read those words in Pier Giorgio's speech, I think of my dad saying nearly the same thing at my mother's grave. It strikes me that there is consolation -- great consolation -- in thinking about what lies beyond this world when dealing with the sorrows it presents to us. Again, the message of the novena is somewhat counter-cultural. Things don't always go the way we want. We may not have perfect families or live in a perfect world. People we love will hurt us. People we depend on will die. But we can and should embrace our sorrows, confront them and then give them to God who is the great Consoler.

Jesus wept for Lazarus and he wept for Jerusalem. He understands our heartache. He dries our tears. He heals our wounds. He picks us up and sets us on our feet again. And in doing so, He calls us "Blessed." Verso l'alto!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

I hope you've started the novena in honor of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati today.  Day One begins with a challenge that always stretches my faith: to be poor in spirit.  We pray today to make choices in our lives which "will show a preference for service of God and neighbor, rather than accumulating financial wealth and social advantage" for ourselves.  Stop! Read that again and really reflect on how countercultural that prayer is! We live in a society where having -- rather than being -- is the goal. Imagine if it were the opposite.

From time to time, I have confessed how difficult it is for me to persevere in this ministry called FrassatiUSA.  My closest friends and family members have heard it all too often, yet they constantly encourage me to stay the course.  And so days have turned into weeks and weeks into months and months into years.  Nearly seven years!  The financial stress and strain of running a ministry is something I cannot put into words.  But here is an example:  last year, I wrote in the annual fundraising letter that unless $49,000 could be raised for 2013, it was unlikely FrassatiUSA could keep the office doors open.  I received many emails and handwritten notes thanking me for the work being done and exhorting me to continue.  In total, though, only a little more than $12,000 was raised.  At the human level, the math is simple: in two months, the meager funds will be exhausted.  There is no way to order any additional inventory and continue to make available at such low cost the resources to promote the spirituality of Pier Giorgio.  On top of that, there has not been payroll on the books for the last four years.  That is the reality.

But here is the spirituality:  I have received notes from all over the world sharing what an impact the message of Pier Giorgio has had in the lives of people of all ages.  I have seen time and time again that when people "find" Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, they find a friend, a companion, a role model, a support, a source of inner strength, a challenge to be holy.  As Blessed Pope John Paul II proclaimed in his beatification homily, Pier Giorgio "repeats that it is really worth giving up everything to serve the Lord. He testifies that holiness is possible for everyone, and that only the revolution of charity can enkindle the hope of a better future in the hearts of people." 

Last Monday, I heard from someone who was getting married.  He and his fiance decided at the last minute to use holy cards of saints for their reception favors and they wanted to be sure they could get Pier Giorgio cards in time for their Friday wedding.  What a beautiful notion! Last year, a wonderful couple lost a beloved son after a long hospital struggle and many prayers.  Because of their love for Pier Giorgio, they incorporated him into the funeral -- even having an Italian meal at the repast.  What a powerful witness of enduring faith!

Stories like these two barely scratch the surface of how, through a little ministry called FrassatiUSA, lives have been changed, hearts have been transformed, holiness is being sought after.  God does so much with so little.  

Last year, because of the funding crisis, I had to discontinue sending materials outside of the U.S.  This week alone, I've heard from people in Canada and India asking for materials to be available for their countries.  "We have young people, too!", one note said.  These sorts of notes and requests come frequently but there isn't much I can do.

And so, when day one of the novena rolls around, I read that prayer and feel it so acutely.  I beg God through my spiritual brother Pier Giorgio that I can somehow persevere in this ministry and "show a preference for service of God and neighbor, rather than accumulating financial wealth and social advantage for myself."   I renew my resolve to serve and determine that I will put out into the deep for the next two months and see what the Lord does.  The doors will close when He closes them and not before. 

Pier Giorgio encourages me today: “The faith given to me in Baptism surely suggests to me that of yourself you will do nothing; but if you have God as the center of all your actions, then you will reach your goal.”  He encourages you, too.  Bring your nothingness, your five loaves and two fishes, and leave the math to God.  Verso l'alto!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Come and Pray...

Mountain altar dedicated to Pier Giorgio Frassati
All my life, I've loved the beach.  I love the sound of the waves and the power that emanates from them.  I love the roar and the undulation.  I love the breeze, the sun, the sand, the song of the birds.  I love the beach.

In 2006, I learned to love the mountains.  I love the sound of silence found at the top of a mountain peak.  I love the crisp, cool air you can breathe there.  I love the view of the horizon, the glacier tops, the clanking of the cowbells from the herds grazing below.  I love the exhausted euphoric feeling upon reaching the top.  I never thought I would, but, thanks to Pier Giorgio, I love the mountains.

What I experience so intensely in both places is God's presence: His greatness, my smallness.  My earthly cares drift out to sea with each wave and into the sky with each step taken upward along a rocky path.  God's assertion of His majesty to Job comes to mind:
"Where were you when I founded the earth?   ... Who determined its size? ... Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb, When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves stop? Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place? (Job 38: 4,5, 8-12)
Not one of my troubles is too big for God to handle.  Maybe too big for me to handle but not for Him.  

I am about to begin the Novena in Honor of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati that will lead up to his fourth of July feast day.  It is such a powerful novena and over the years I have seen much fruit come from it.  This year, many people have submitted petitions to be included in the novena.  It is humbling to read the burdens and cares of others, no matter what my own are.  And yet I know with certainty that not one person is outside of the loving embrace of God.  And that every prayer will be answered in His time, in His way.  Our part, the praying, is the easiest part of it all.  

Pier Giorgio once wrote to his good friend Isidoro Bonini, "I would like for us to pledge a pact that knows no earthly boundaries or temporal limits: union in prayer."  I firmly believe he will be praying with us and interceding for us in a special way in the coming days.  The graces that await us are more numerous than the sand on the seashore.  The peace to be bestowed is more penetrating than the mountain sun. Whatever you are doing, wherever you are going, don't miss this opportunity to come and pray.  Verso l'alto!