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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Faith Helps James Foley Find Freedom...

"... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.  Amen."

That is the last line of the Hail Mary and may well have been the last words in the heart of American journalist James Foley, who was horrifically murdered by the Islamic terrorists group ISIS, while a camera captured the barbaric beheading.

Foley was no stranger to turmoil and violence.  He had been reporting on the atrocities and casualties of war from the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, almost from the time he left his teaching career to become a journalist and graduated from Northwestern University's Merrill School of Journalism in 2008.

He disappeared in Syria, near the Turkey border, in November of 2012, a year and a half after being abducted and held hostage for 44 days in Libya, in April 2011.  Family and friends had feverishly organized prayer vigils and a worldwide campaign for his release ever since.

Shortly, after Foley was released in Libya, he credited his faith with helping him get through the ordeal.  In a letter to Marquette University's staff and students, the Catholic Jesuit school he had graduated from with a degree in history, before attending Merrill, he wrote:

"I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused."

Foley continued, "If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us.  It didn't make sense, but faith did."

Foley was the eldest of five children.  His parents are very devout and parishioners of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, New Hampshire, where a Mass was celebrated for family and friends Wednesday morning.

In an article I came across on the shock in Foley's hometown, the writer, Maeve Reston, points out that Fr. Paul Gausse, the family's parish priest, said to the grieving congregation, "There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity.... We are not just praying for us and the Foley family, but praying for those who perpetrated this kind of evil.  These people need prayers... This is being done in the name of God.  How insane can that be?"

Fr. Gausse told reporters that when he visited the Foley family Tuesday night, James' mother Diane asked him, "Father pray for me that I don't become bitter.  I don't want to hate."

Outside their Rochester home, Foley's mom spoke about how proud they were of him because of his great compassion for the suffering in Syria.  Breaking down in tears, she said, “We just thank God for the gift of Jim.”

Foley's father, John added, "He was courageous to the end and I think he accepted his situation and I think he accepted God's faith in him and his faith in God... We believe he was a martyr; a martyr for freedom... It's difficult to find solace at this time, but we know Jimmy's free.  He's finally free.  And we know he's in God's hands... and we know he's in heaven."

I can't imagine the pain and horror Foley felt as the brutal executioner slashed his neck but hopefully, within his many Hail Marys and the prayers of countless of other people over the past 20 months, as his father said, he found that innermost freedom that can only be ascertained through faith, hope and trust in God...

"Pray for us, Oh Holy Mother of God now, and at the hour of our death. Amen."  











[photo credit: Steven Senne/AP]


Friday, August 15, 2014

A Great Sign in the Sky...

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.... 
Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offsprings, those who keep God's commandments and beat witness to Jesus.  (Rev. 12:1-6, 17) 

Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

On November 1, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII proclaimed ex cathedra, i.e., using the gift of infallibility handed to Peter by Christ, the Assumption of Mary as a dogma of the Catholic Church.  It was the second of two times, Roman pontiffs have ever used that authority; the other being the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

In the pronouncement, Pope Pius stated, "We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven."

With that, an ancient tradition, first recorded in the 4th Century but believed from the time of her passing, became Catholic doctrine and the Assumption was declared a truth revealed by God...




  


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, Suicide and Catholic Guilt...

A good friend once shared that he understood well how a person could commit suicide.   

He had been there himself; engulfed in that pit of darkness and despair, where hope is lost, life has become meaningless and desolation permeates every cell and molecule of  a person's being. 

It is the type of feeling that prompted the psalmist to write, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," which Jesus recited while taking his last breaths on the cross.

My friend couldn't sleep.  He couldn't eat.  He couldn't concentrate.  In fact, just reading a full sentence was a challenge.  Therefore, he obviously couldn't work.  He had what doctors call clinical depression, which afflicts millions of Americans every year.

And, it wasn't because he wasn't successful.  My friend was a professional with a plush high rise office, making more money than he ever imagined and the envy of many of his friends and associates because of his youth, rising success, good looks and prowess with the opposite sex.  But, he was miserable.  He was in a bottomless funk and couldn't dig his way out; no matter what he tried.

He says the only thing that kept him from taking his life was Catholic guilt.  It was the thought of spending the rest of eternity in hell (Let's take a quick sidebar here.  Although, the Church teaches that depression is a serious mental illness and suicide is something that only God can judge, many still view it as the taking of a human life, which only God has the right to do).

It's a good thing my friend saw it as the latter because, admittedly, it saved his life.

I was reminded of my friend's words this week, as the story of Hollywood actor Robin Williams' death captured the headlines of every major news outlet, both locally and nationally, across the country.

It's ironic.  For me, Robin Williams was not only an incredible talent as an actor and comedian but he represented a sense of energy, enthusiasm and spirit of happiness that was unrivaled by any standard.  In fact, he appeared to have everything the culture tells us makes people happy; fame, fortune, influence. 

Unfortunately, it seems, there was also lots of sadness, internal conflicts and darkness.  It was severe enough to make him take his life at the age of 63 and still in the prime of his career (having just shot four movies that are yet to be released).

Williams was raised Episcopalian and often referred to his faith, especially in helping him get through drug and alcohol addictions, broken marriages and open-heart surgery.  He once joked, "I'm an Episcopal; that's Catholic Light. Same religion, half the guilt!"

I couldn't help but think of my friend.  Maybe, just maybe, a little more Catholic guilt could have helped Williams' as well...










[photo credit: Reed Saxon/AP file]
     

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Maximilian Kolbe and the Conflict Within...

 


“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”


-- St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan Friar and martyr, who volunteer to take the place of a stranger selected to die in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

Known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary, because of his profound devotion to the Blessed Mother, after having received a vision of her in his childhood, in which, he would later write she offered him two crowns; a white one for persevering in purity and a red one for martyrdom.  She asked if he was willing to accept either of the crowns and he accepted both.  He was devoted to her since and, after becoming a priest, started the Militia Immaculata, or the Army of Mary, that intended to convert the world through the intercession of the Virgin Mother.

In early 1941, while operating a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, two thirds of which were Jews, with several Franciscan friars, Fr. Kolbe was arrested after writing the words above ("No one in the world can change Truth...") in a newspaper the group published.  He was sent to a prison in Warsaw, where, seeing him with Franciscan habit and rosary, he was regularly beaten and challenged by the S.S. guards to denounce his faith.

In May of that year he was sent, along with 300 prisoners, to Auschwitz, where, as most people know, over four million people; men, women and children, including St. Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun, were put to death. 

There, Fr. Kolbe was put in striped prison garments and branded with a number (#16670) like everyone else, and again prompted the ire of the guards, who wanted to break him but couldn't.  Eye witnesses who survived said that prisoners would often gather in secret to hear his words of encouragement and faith.

In late July, three prisoners escaped.  The guards chose ten men to be starved to death as a deterrent to the others.  One of the men was a husband and father, who cried out, "My wife! My children!"  Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place. 

After two weeks of enduring the agony and torment of starvation, he was put to death by lethal injection on August 14, 1941 and thus, fulfilling the martyrdom promised to him by Mary. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Well, it is obvious, Fr. Kolbe demonstrated great love.  He was Beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

During his canonization, Pope John Paul wrote, "Men saw what happened in the camp at Auschwitz.  And even if to their eyes it must have seemed that a companion of their torment "dies," even if humanly speaking they could consider "his departure" as "a disaster," nevertheless in their minds this was not simply "death." Maximilian did not die but "gave his life...for his brother." In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love." 

Therefore, in the internal conflict of St. Maximilian Kolbe's soul, as he once wrote, he chose love over sin and good over evil and his victory went beyond any on a battlefield.  It was a victory of the eternal "crown of righteousness," as St. Paul wrote, that can only come from God...

The Church celebrates his feast day on August 14th.





For more on St. Maximilian Kolbe (see here)...

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rocky Balboa, Sainthood or Hell...

Getting Strong Now...
"Either we become a saint or we go to hell!" I quoted Fr. Larry Richards at a recent meeting of my parish men's group.

"In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect," I continued.

I could sense a bit of apprehension in the room, sort of like the discomfort you get in your shorts after spending all day sitting at water's edge on the sand in the beach, as the ocean tide cascades off, in and around your body.  (It may feel good initially but after a while the abrasiveness of the rocky particles inside your pants really start bothering!) 

One of my friends tried to soften the blow for the newer guys, "Now, when you say saints, you don't mean that we have to become saints, like John Paul II, but that making it to heaven means we're saints, right?"

I knew where he was coming from, since Fr. Larry's comment was received with the same enthusiasm as an eskimo being told that the desert of the house is ice cream, as he meant it to, when he said it to over five hundred men at an Archdiocese of Miami conference I attended.

If you think about it, it would have been a cruel joke for Jesus to have played on His disciples if He told them to be perfect like the Father, knowing their human inclination to sin, and not given them the grace to do so.  And, that's where the Sacraments come in.

Every time, we receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession, we are cleansed, like the heavenly hosts described in the Book of Revelation, who washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and filled with God's grace to be perfect, which is why the first thing Christ did after the Resurrection was give His Apostles the power to forgive sins and why the popes go to Confession weekly! 

Each time, we, in grace, receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are perfected in Him.  We encounter the same Jesus that walked the face of the earth, performed miracles, was crucified and resurrected two thousand years ago! And, we become One with Him, like a bridegroom with his bride in the union of their two bodies.  This is some deep stuff, here!

However, many of us can't imagine becoming saints or achieving the perfection that God calls us to.

In his classic, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes on a conversation he had with a friend on the topic.

"I can't be a saint," I said, "I can't be a saint."  And, my mind darkened with confusion of realities and unrealities.  The knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say they cannot do the thing that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach:  the cowardice that says, "I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin," but which means, by those words, "I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments."

It reminds me of the infamous man of debauchery turned saint, St. Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet."

We all have the greatness and ability within us.  We just have to want it.

When St. Thomas Aquinas, who is one of the greatest minds in Christian history, was once asked by his sister, "What do I need to do to be a saint?"  He answered, "Will it."

Gonna Fly Now..
And, I could just imagine the bells ring in the background, like when Adrian came out of her coma in Rocky II and, after seeing her newborn baby, tells Rocky, "There's one thing I want you to do for me: win! Win!" and Mickey yells out, "What are we waiting for?"

But, then comes the hard part; Rocky has to get disciplined, train, mentally prepare, and, like St. Thomas Aquinas stated, will himself to victory.

Fr. Larry is right, we either become saints or we go to hell.  The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start training and preparing for the ultimate victory... 

     


Friday, July 25, 2014

Jesse Romero: Fighting for Souls...

A right cross to the chin...
Jesse Romero is a fighter.

He was raised in the tough, and often violent, streets near Los Angeles, where yellow police tape and crime were part of the daily landscape.  He was an undefeated amateur mixed martial arts competitor and boxer with over 60 matches under his belt, and he served as an LA Sheriff Deputy, arresting thugs and gang members for over 15 years.  And now, he's fighting for souls.

The first-generation Mexican-American Catholic speaker, apologist and radio host, whose passion, zeal and enthusiasm for the faith would rival the most fervent in-your-face televangelist you might see on the Christian Broadcasting Network or Trinity Broadcasting (Come to think of it, he reminds me of the old Robert Conrad Eveready commercial, where he put a battery on his shoulder and said, "Go ahead.  I dare you to knock it off," and you wouldn't even want to try), is on a crusade to energize and inspire Catholics, former Catholics and other Christians to know and love God, the Bible and the Church that Christ founded upon Peter the Rock.

His enthusiasm is so contagious and moving that several years ago, while listening to the first CD of his I heard, called Church Beliefs, I remember wanting to jump up, like the theater audience at the original Rocky movie, and start yelling, "Get 'em, Jesse!"

In any case, this is from a man who readily admits that, while culturally Catholic in his upbringing and having attended Catholic school, he was a secular humanist, who thought Catholicism was a religion for women and who considered martial arts his pseudo-religion growing up.

"Fighting was my life," he says. "I simply loved the thrill of competition and contact sports."

He had a conversion experience in his mid 20's, several years after getting married and starting his law enforcement career, at the prompting of an evangelical Christian officer, who challenged his faith, and a parish priest.

He was also deeply influenced, at around the same time, by his parents' "reversion" after attending a Cursillo retreat to help their marriage and his father's subsequent abrupt turn from alcohol and to his faith (Up until that point, Romero says his dad, who was a construction worker, and his mom, who cleaned houses, were un-engaged Catholics, who didn't practice their faith much, outside of going through the motions).

Romero has been on a mission to save the world ever since and, after a hip injury forced him into early retirement as a police officer (at the age of 37), he went back to school and got a Bachelor's Degree and then a Masters Degree in Catholic Theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville.

Several months ago, I had a chance to listen to him speak in person at a Catholic men's conference at St. Mark's in Southwest Ranches.

In one of his talks, on the battle of David and Goliath, he was discussing courage and told a poignant story of his childhood that may have shaped the man he is today.

All cleaned up...
He said that one Sunday when he was about seven or eight, after his family had gone to Mass, and as customary for them, gone to lunch at a local restaurant, they were walking to their car through a back alley and they came across a man trying to rape a woman in another car.

He says the woman was screaming hysterically and, although people must have heard her calls for help, nobody seemed to want to get involved.

It was a violent and terrifying scene for any child to witness but what left a profound impression on him, even at his young age, was watching his father take off his shirt, tell his mother to take him and his four siblings to safety and to call police and then go into the car to take the bigger and muscular man off of the woman, as punches flew, and restrained him until police arrived.

He pointed out that the Bibles states "Do not be afraid" (St. John Paul II's motto) over 360 times and, paraphrasing Shakespeare's Julius Cesar, said, "A coward dies a thousand deaths but a man of courage dies but once."

That example of mettle and standing up for the victimized by his father may have planted a seed in Romero to take up martial arts in his teens (Although, he would say watching Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon played a role as well!) and later to become a law enforcer and defender of the weak and marginalized.

During one of the discussions, he also said something that really struck me.  While speaking off-the-cuff about living in Los Angeles and how the city was morally deteriorating around him, he asked rhetorically, "I don't know why I still live there?" Then, pausing briefly, he answered, "Yes, I do.  It's because I'm the lone conservative voice on Spanish language media and the only one the media turns to for a different Latino perspective on moral issues."

Immediately John the Baptist came to mind; the voice crying in the wilderness.

Working in Spanish TV news myself, I could relate to what he was saying.  In more than twenty-five years in the industry, I've seen how Spanish language media has slowly influenced the traditionally conservative Hispanic culture, which was generationally devout, family oriented and pro-life, to being more and more skeptical about their faith and, in the process, socially indifferent or, worse, permissive.  As Romero puts it, many are "drinking the cool aid."

It gave me an idea for this blog and, during a break, I introduced myself and asked if he was willing to explore the topic further at a later time.  "Absolutely," he said and graciously gave me his personal cell number to call him for an interview.

A couple of days later we talked and, because of busy schedules and time differences, arranged a written interview.

Yours truly with Jesse Romero...
Aside from a little background on him, I started by asking about something I heard him say in one of his CDs, which is really telling of the type of person he strives to be.  

In the talk, he said he would often go before the Blessed Sacrament at the end of his shift to fill out his reports to make sure everything he wrote was honest and benevolent.  

Romero: "I had a conversion experience in 1988; I fell in love with Jesus... It totally changed the way I related to people.  I was formerly just a law and order type of cop... When I opened my heart to Jesus, I now had empathy and compassion for people.  I realized how dark life is without Jesus." 

I asked him how he got involved in public speaking and evangelizing.

Romero:  "I began teaching at my parish once I got fired up about Jesus.  My parish priest told me that I had a gift for teaching and preaching.  He told some other priests about me... I began getting invites to speak at other parishes... and the Lord just kept opening bigger doors."

Then, I got into the crux of the interview and asked about his comments regarding being the lone conservative voice in the Spanish media in his area and why he thought there was such a liberal slant in the mainstream media.

Romero:  "Because the devil runs the world (1 John 5:19).  He uses "lukewarmness", "sloth", "indifferent-ism", "liberalism" as his weapon to put people under a coma... Most Latinos are socially conservative, however, as Latinos go to government schools, they become quite secular after one generation... In addition, all the Latino media outlets are leftist and liberal.  There is no conservative voice in secular media.  Latinos get a constant diet of moral relativism and secular humanism from Spanish media."

As you see, he doesn't pull any punches.  I then asked him about Pope Francis and how some in the media have attempted to take backdoor jabs at Pope Emeritus Benedict (and the Church) by contrasting him with Francis.

Romero:  "This media is trying to coop this pope and make it appear as if he is going to change the moral teachings of the Church and catch up with modernity.  The media is trying to confuse Catholics by trying to pose a false dichotomy by saying Benedict was a bad pope; he was too conservative.  Francis is a good pope; he is more liberal.  This is a narrative that the media wants all Catholics to believe."

Did he ever get discouraged?  I asked.

Romero:  "Well, the forecast for the near future doesn't look good.  However, the forecast for the long term looks great - Jesus wins; complete wipe-out.  We just have to trust in Jesus everyday, one step at a time... St. Dominic Savio said that at the end of time, the Church would be attacked through propaganda of print and media - it's happening right now."

At the end of my questions, I asked if there was anything else he might like to add.

Romero:  "Let's not forget, we are the Class of 33 A.D. and our 'Class Reunion' is coming soon. Catholicism is 2000 years of Christian Tradition and still under the same management... In the end, we have the certainty that Truth will triumph over lies, light over darkness and good over evil.  So stand firm Catholics and rush to the battle lines with Jesus in your heart, a rosary in one hand and a Bible in the other.  No matter what happens, no matter how this battle turns out, we know that Christ the King wins the war - Alleluia!"

Now, with odds like that, it's no wonder why Romero keeps fighting, this time however, it's not against flesh and blood, as St. Paul writes, but "against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness." (Eph 6:12)  

You can say (in keeping with the following verse in Ephesians), he has put on the "armor of God" and is trying his best to get all Catholics to join him in the public arena.  Therefore, to use the words of famous fight announcer Michael Buffer, "Let's get ready to rumble."...





For video and more on Jesse Romero, check him out at On Fire Evangelization.





Thursday, July 17, 2014

Despite Buffeting Waves, Stay the Course...



"In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life's different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course." 


-St. Boniface was an 8th Century Benedictine monk and evangelist, who is called the "Apostle to Germany," for his tireless work in spreading Christianity and converting pagan Germanic tribes.  Known for his orthodoxy and fidelity to the pope, he became a bishop and reformer of the Catholic Church in Germany, establishing hundreds of churches and monasteries in the process. 

Boniface took pagan superstitions head on and a legendary story of his prowess was when struck down a pagan sacred oak tree with an ax in the presense of a tense crowd on Mount Gudenburg.  Donar's tree was split into four pieces.  The people were shocked and waited for the gods to strike Boniface dead but soon realized their gods were powerless and eventually nonexistent.  He used planks from the tree to build a chapel.

He was martyred on June 5th, 754, along with over 50 companions, who were massacred in Dokkum, Frisia.