Monday, November 23, 2015

How to Have Happy Holidays with the In-laws

When I asked fellow Facebookers to share their stories of holidays with the in-laws, I never expected to find such great advice and so many hilarious misadventures. My favorite one involves a sheep slaughtering in an apartment kitchen (my husband Manny can't figure out why that one tickles my funny bone so much). Here's a collection of best tips for having happy holidays with the in-laws and extended families. And take heart! You're not the only one struggling.

1. Don't Seek Perfection

Holidays are about the love that's in your heart, not the food that's on the table. Frequently, at holiday time, I'm so stressed out about preparing the meal and cleaning the house that I'm downright surly to the guests that show up at the door. How completely backwards! Accept that something will go wrong -- the turkey won't be hot by the time everyone sits down to eat, guests will spill gravy and red wine on the tablecloth, and you will be publicly reminded about the last dust bunny that escaped your notice by hiding in the corner. None of this is important. What's important is opening your homes and your hearts to your families.

2. Keep a Chocolate Stash in Case You Have to Cry

One newlywed wife returned to her house after running holiday errands to find out that her visiting mother-in-law had reorganized the entire kitchen because "it was all wrong." Just what you need before cooking a big holiday dinner for, like, the first time. The poor wife ran upstairs, locked the door, and ate a chocolate bar. Surprisingly, it worked pretty well at cheering her up.

3. Delegate Chores Ahead of Time

A lot of people assume that the guests will automatically help the host and hostess clear the table and wash the dishes after a big family gathering. But that's not everyone's custom. One man told us that he and his three brothers celebrate holidays with their parents but leave their wives at home, because the sisters-in-law refuse to speak to one another. Once, eight years ago, the whole extended family celebrated Thanksgiving together, and one sister-in-law didn't help clean up afterwards. The resentment has continued until this day. Talk about a long-term grudge! If you're the hostess, send an email before the event asking people to help out afterwards or even delegating specific chores. Tell them you just can't do it without them! If you're a guest, help out as much as you can -- or at least make the offer.

4. Prepare Ye a PowerPoint Presentation

Satire site The Onion spoofed: "In an effort to ensure a smooth and enjoyable dinner with their relatives, siblings Jason, Alyssa, and Leslie Conroy reportedly sat down together Tuesday evening for a PowerPoint presentation covering all of the conversation topics that will be off-limits during the family’s Thanksgiving gathering." Nobody wants to get into a heated argument over the turkey and sweet potato pudding. Unfortunately, heated arguments can be more likely in large family gatherings because (1) everybody knows everybody's business, (2) everybody makes it their own business, and (3) everybody is more sensitive to feeling unloved or criticized. So, you can either prepare a PowerPoint presentation of all the painful family secrets that must not be discussed, OR you can ask everybody what they're most grateful for and then focus on rejoicing with them instead!

5. Don't Be Afraid to Skip the Alcohol

The more alcohol, the more chance for heated arguments, of course. One Facebooker wrote, "Problem: Holiday drunkenness. Solution: ???" You can be hospitable without having a fully stocked liquor cabinet! A few bottles of wine at dinner is not likely to get anyone snookered. You can even go gourmet and serve mulled wine, which is cut with several cups of apple cider and is still delicious. If the celebration is usually at someone else's house, you might want to discuss the problem with the hosts ahead of time or even volunteer to hold the gathering at your house this year.

6. Think to Yourself, "At Least It's Not a Sheep Slaughter"

One Facebooker revealed: "My mother-in-law once slaughtered and butchered a sheep. In my kitchen. When we lived in a sixth floor flat of an apartment in the middle of the city. ...Wow, Mom. All I got you was new kitchen towels." Another lady spoke for all of us when she responded, "YOU WIN." It's tough to beat that story in the annals of legendary in-law exploits. No matter what happens to you this Thanksgiving, it's probably not going to be worse than that.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Christ the King: From a Crown of Thorns to a Crown of Life

As the Feast of Christ the King approaches this weekend, it's worth asking ourselves what kind of kingdom Christ promised us. We know his kingdom is not of this world, and his crown is made of thorns. Will our sacrifices and suffering be worth it? What awaits us after death?

The Book of Revelations tells us that the kingdom of heaven will surpass all our expectations (Rv 21:19-21). In beautiful poetic verses, it describes the New Jerusalem that awaits us:
The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel;
the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.
And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
The Bible promises us that in heaven, "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rv 21:4).

Worshiping Christ the King reminds us that we have a share in his kingdom. We are the sons and daughters of God, a people set apart, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). He has already crowned us, weak and frail though we are, with the glory and honor of his divinity (Ps 8:4-5).

Whether we know it or not, the kingdom of God is already among us (Lk 17:21). Each time we pray to him with love, each time we seek to do his will, each time we accept trials with calm hearts, we are living up to our royal vocation. Each time we stand up for what's right, proclaim the truth, and hug the hurting, we are building the kingdom.

We have been given an honorable birthright and a glorious crown. At times, we must wear a humiliating and painful crown of thorns. But we look forward with hope in God's promise: "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rv 2:10).

Image by Ralph Hammann (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Discern Whether Adoption is Right for You

In honor of National Adoption Month, here's my review of Jaymie Stuart Wolfe's excellent discernment guide, Adoption: Room for One More?, from Pauline Books & Media.

A few years ago, between babies #3 and #4 (or #4 and #5), my husband and I contemplated adopting a baby girl from China. We were moved by stories about baby girls being either aborted or warehoused in orphanages because of the cultural preference for male children. We decided to ask St. Therese to tell us whether we should adopt by showing us a rose -- a red rose for yes and a white rose for no. The next rose we saw, blooming outside our kitchen window in the dead of winter, was off-white with scalloped red edging around the petals. We didn't get an answer, or at least not a very clear one.

We would have been better off discerning with the help of Jaymie Stuart Wolfe's new book Adoption: Room for One More?.Wolfe's book is a series of 38 short chapters containing a spiritual reflection, a personal story, and practical descriptions and advice regarding the adoption process.

For anyone discerning the call to adopt, I'd recommend reading this book at a rate of one chapter per day, taking 24 hours to pray about each facet of your decision. Wolfe's hope is that many more families will consider whether it's God's will for them to adopt a child. As her personal story proves, having adoptive and biological children doesn't have to be an either/or choice. Wolfe and her husband had seven biological children before deciding to adopt their eighth child, Yulia (now Julianna), from a Russian orphanage.

My husband and I are not adoptive parents (so far), but we know many couples who have adopted internationally or domestically, some through the foster system. Even though we've listened to our friends recount their adoption stories, Wolfe's book gave us a much clearer picture of the struggles and blessings of the adoption process. The questions at the end of each chapter include three for potentially adoptive parents and one for friends and family of adoptive parents. Reading over those questions made me realize how much more support we could have given our friends who chose to adopt.

Just as Kimberly Hahn's book Life-Giving Love taught readers what to say to women suffering from infertility and miscarriages, Wolfe's book teaches us how to talk to adoptive parents. There is an entire chapter entitled "A Language of Love," explaining how adoptive mothers are "real" mothers and adoptive children are the parents' "own" children. Wolfe is definitely fluent in this language of love, and she provided immensely valuable advice to me and my husband when we covered the subject of adoption in our own book on Catholic marriage.

There are a few things I was left wanting to know after finishing Wolfe's book, mainly because I'm insatiably curious. I wanted to know who watched their seven children while the Wolfes traveled to Russia numerous times to adopt Yulia. And I badly wanted to hear the story of Yulia's baptism and how they reassured her that God had always loved and cared for her even during her traumatic early years in Russia. But as a wise editor once told me, an author always has more words to write. I suppose those stories will have to wait for another day.

Click here to buy online from Pauline Books & Media. My thanks to them for providing a free review copy.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pope Francis' Annulment Reforms are an Act of Mercy

A lot of prominent canon lawyers have expressed concerns about Pope Francis' recent annulment reforms. On behalf of, I interviewed the people on the ground about how the reforms will actually impact annulment procedures in the United States. Read my interview of the Judicial Vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York and the Director of the Diocesan Tribunal of of New Ulm, Minnesota.

Some accuse Pope Francis' self-initiated annulment reforms as likely to lead to "fast, cheap, drive-through annulments." But the reality is that the Pope is caught between a rock and a hard place. The recent Synod on the Family debated the issue of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried for three weeks, with one camp trumpeting the truth that sacramental marriage is indissoluble and the other camp pleading for mercy for the divorced and civilly remarried yearning to receive the Eucharist again. The annulments process is the obvious bridge between truth and mercy in this difficult situation. If a marriage is declared null by the Church, then the divorced and civilly remarried can have their union blessed by the Church and they can receive Holy Communion.

The annulment reforms will come into effect on December 8, 2015, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the first day of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared. The Pope may be signaling that he sees the annulment reforms as an act of mercy.

Greater access to annulments may help many people to reconcile with the Church. No system is perfect, including the annulments system, because it's made up of human beings with their weaknesses and failings. But I have spoken to canon lawyers across the country who are dedicated to their jobs, the system, and their faith. One judicial vicar whom I called declined to comment directly to the press because of diocesan policy, so we prayed together instead. These men and women are striving to do the best they can.

Pope Francis' annulment reforms highlight more of what's right with the U.S. system than what's wrong. The reforms geared at increasing the speed of the process will shave off only a few months here, as opposed to years in other countries. (The widely reported "45 day annulment" is a myth.) Fees here will generally be lower, but most U.S. dioceses were already shouldering the lion's share of the cost and did not turn people away if they couldn't pay.

I talked about the annulment reforms at length with Fr. Richard Welch, the judicial vicar of the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York, and Aldean Hendrickson, the Director of the Diocesan Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota. Following are their thoughts.

1. Will the reforms meet Francis' goal of improving "the speed of the processes, along with the appropriate simplicity" and encouraging recourse to annulment procedures by "the enormous number of faithful who ... are too often separated from the legal structures of the Church due to physical or moral distance"?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): In some dioceses, in some countries, perhaps. But not here. Typically, in our Tribunal, by using the ordinary process and following all its steps, a case is finished between 5 and 7 months. I know there are countries in South America, where the process could take 5 to 6 years. That's not our situation. The process is completely and easily available to anybody in this Archdiocese and in most dioceses in the United States. And the cases actually go through fairly quickly. We have 20 staff members employed at the Tribunal because of the generosity of the Archdiocese, so we can keep cases moving - without cutting any corners, of course.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): In my estimation, the general sense of the faithful right now is that the process is too much trouble to bother with, so if these few reforms encourage new numbers to at least approach their tribunals with cases, then I think that will be a great blessing to those members of the faithful, and to the Church as a whole.

2. Has the episcopal conference set a uniform fee for all annulments in your region? 

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The Conference has not yet made a pronouncement. But the decision is always ultimately the bishop’s. So, Cardinal Dolan has determined that fees will cease by December 8. I agree that's a good decision at this time.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): I have not heard of any discussions yet by the episcopal conference to address the question of a uniform approach to tribunal fees. Certainly the trend among individual bishops over the past year has been to announce, with great media fanfare, that they are doing away with fees in their respective tribunals, and I would expect that trend to continue.

3. What were the fees before, and how much of tribunal expenses did the fees cover?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The typical fee was $1,200, if the petitioner could pay. No one's case was expedited or slowed down because of monetary concerns. The Archdiocese always subsidized three quarters of the costs of the process. Now, the Archdiocese will subsidize the process in full. It's not free because somebody's paying. For the ordinary process, I would estimate the cost to be at least $5,000. As of December, petitioners could make a donation to the Archdiocese, not payable to the Tribunal, if they are inclined to do so.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): At a very rough estimate, salaries alone multiplied by the hours of work involved would put the cost of a case in my tribunal in the vicinity of $3,000. Simply dividing the tribunal budget by the number of cases in a year would, at the moment, give a cost between $8,000 and $9,000. We are a small diocese with a very small shop and considerably less overhead than I imagine could be the case in a larger diocese. The point being that, no matter how you slice it, the cost of a cause of matrimonial nullity is not insignificant. Our diocese has never had such a fee at the outset of the case, but does ask for a "donation" from the petitioner ($500 is suggested) after the case is completely finalized in the petitioner's favor. Only a very few petitioners each year make any response to this solicitation.

4. Pope Francis' reforms also eliminated the need for mandatory appellate review of annulment cases. Do you feel that this eliminates an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle, or do you have concerns that the reform takes away important oversight that ensured just and accurate results?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): Eliminating the automatic appeal can remove a significant amount of time from the process. After we finished with a case in first instance, sometimes the case would stay many months in the court of second instance because they don't have the staff we do. I am concerned about taking away oversight and have been for some time. But the reality is that the Interdiocesan Tribunal of New York has 9 dioceses, and they don't have the staff to hear the hundreds of cases that may come before them in a year. Of course, the right to appeal any case remains intact.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): There are strong opinions on both sides of this question. I absolutely believe that sufficient care can be given in the first instance without an appeal: I am just not sure I believe that it will be.

6. The Pope's reforms allow a shortened procedure in cases where nullity "is supported by particularly clear arguments" and where there are difficult circumstances such as an extremely brief marriage, persistent adultery, or violence. Who in your diocese will decide which cases merit the shortened procedure and how will they reach that decision? Does the motu proprio give clear enough guidance?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The decision is left to the judicial vicar alone. As the judicial vicar making this decision, I do have enough guidance. First, it is required that it has to be absolutely clear that both parties consent to the grounds in the petition. It is not common that both parties agree to the grounds. The second requirement is that the documents must manifestly prove the nullity of the marriage or at least lean heavily in that direction. I can't remember too many cases like that. The third requirement is that the bishop himself -- and he cannot delegate this to anyone because the new norms charge him personally-- Cardinal Dolan has to sit down in a session, watch the case being presented, weigh the proofs and the facts, and make his determination. There is no 45 day annulment, as the press has reported. That count is only for a middle stage within the entire abbreviated process, and when all the stages are counted we calculated that doing the brief process would take an estimated minimum of 7 months. For us and the way our Tribunal operates, the ordinary process is going to be shorter than the "brief" process.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): I would expect that our judicial vicar would be making that assessment. Whether there will be some mechanism for the sponsoring pastor to nominate the case for the shortened procedure has not yet been discussed at our tribunal (at least not in my hearing).

7. Do you feel like the shortened procedure is a useful form of triage, or do you see a danger that certain marriages will be presumed invalid instead of valid?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): It could be beneficial, if the conditions are met, in dioceses where personnel and resources are restricted. That 's not the case in this archdiocese or, I imagine, in most dioceses in the United States. I don't see the abbreviated procedure being beneficial here in the Archdiocese of New York, precisely because the ordinary cases are handled in such a complete and expedient way. Now, if the parties request the brief process and they meet all the requirements, we will consider giving it to them, with the prior warning that it could last longer than the ordinary one

Hendrickson (New Ulm): Like any human process, including the version currently in force, this new shortened procedure will be susceptible to misuse or abuse. The tribunals that have been working hard to carefully serve the faithful with a ministry of justice guided by faithful observance of procedural laws and jurisprudence will continue to do so, and those tribunals who have long been accustomed to live by the adage that almost any marriage can be declared invalid if they try hard enough, will continue to follow that course.

8. On a practical level, do bishops have the time to oversee the shortened procedures personally?

Fr. Welch (N.Y.): The Cardinal Archbishop of New York is a very busy man. That's why he has a Tribunal, that's why the judicial power and the work are delegated. I can't imagine a number of cases going to the Archbishop on a monthly basis, where he has to sit down reading and hearing them for hours and hours. These procedures might be more applicable in dioceses without tribunals, and in very remote areas with few or no canon lawyers.

Hendrickson (New Ulm): From my brief experience in diocesan work, no. Of course, the bishops will make time to meet the needs and concerns of their flock, however.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Saintly Marriages: The Good, the Bad, and the Holy

Since November begins with All Saints Day, it's a great month to reflect on the intellectual and spiritual richness that saints bring to the Catholic faith. As an Episcopalian-turned-Catholic, I find the saints to be one of the most inspiring gifts of Catholicism. It's like having instant access to hundreds of excellent role models who want to be your best friends here and in heaven -- the original BFFs.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on some of my favorite married saints for the Catholic Digest special issue on the World Meeting of Families that took place in Philadelphia. Several readers have asked for the text, and it's finally available online! You can read the beginning here, and click through to the Catholic Digest site to read the rest.
The saints are our cheering section in heaven, rooting for us to finish the race and win the victor’s crown. They can show us how to be better people, better Catholics, and better husbands and wives. Although many saints come from the ranks of the priesthood and the religious life, there are more than 100 married saints and blesseds who show us how to live up to the beautiful but difficult vocation of marriage and parenthood.
Some saints had great marriages, and other saints had dreadful ones. But in every one of their life stories, these men and women reached sainthood through the grace-filled choices they made as spouses and parents.

Read more here. 

Image By Selbymay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons