Monday, December 30, 2013

Did You Keep Your 2013 New Year's Resolutions?

Don't just forget last year's New Year's resolutions. Evaluate them and use them as a guide for this year's resolutions. For 2014, you can renew the good resolutions from 2013, revise the okay ones, and ditch the impossible ones (or the ones you've fulfilled). Most of all, ask God for his help in setting and achieving these goals. He wants us to be better people with stronger wills, and he wants us to keep our promises to ourselves. So don't give up. Every new year is a second chance to accomplish good things and become the people God wants us to be.

With that back-drop, let's see how I did on my 2013 New Year's Resolutions. I'll even grade myself. You can do the same for yourself, if you like. I made one resolution for each member of my family, and I definitely achieved greater success with some than with others.

Resolution #1: Help to manage my 12-year-old daughter's ADD. Grade: B

We managed to find a kind and empathetic child psychiatrist, who put my daughter on a medication that worked for her. But the end goal is for her to do well without medication, so we tried the first trimester of the new school year without it. The results were disappointing, so we're going back to the medication regimen again. Action: Renew It!

Resolution #2: Study more with my 10-year-old son. Grade: B-

We tried studying at 9 pm, after the other children had gone to bed, but we were both too tired to accomplish much that late at night. Weekends or immediately after dinner might work better. Teaching him strategies for studying on his own is also key!  Action: Revise and Renew It!

Resolution #3: Show more love to my 8-year-old daughter. Grade: A-

When my daughter asked me to show her more love, it nearly broke my heart! What meant the most to her was my singing her a Spanish lullaby every night. She told me I was doing a great job keeping that resolution. But ... now she wants me to spend less time on the computer when she and the other kids are home. Action: Mission accomplished! New resolution: No computer usage from 3 pm to 5 pm when the kids get home from school, and limited computer usage until they go to bed.

Resolution #4: Help my 7-year-old daughter to read better. Grade: B+

My 7-year-old struggled a bit in kindergarten, but she's doing much better in first grade. She told me, "Nothing is really that difficult for me any more." Sometimes time and practice do the trick. She asked me to help her with backbends and other moves from her gymnastics class instead. Action: Mission Accomplished! New Resolution: Help with gymnastics goals.

Resolution #5: Teach my 5-year-old daughter how to read. Grade: C

With my older kids, I tried to teach them to read in the summer before kindergarten or definitely in the first trimester. Classroom teaching never sufficed -- they had to learn one on one. My 5-year-old knows her letters and letter sounds, together with a few sight words, but she can't read even a simple book yet. She always reminds me that we need to study her sight words, instead of me reminding her! I could definitely work harder and help her more here. Action: Renew It!

Resolution #6: Teach my 3-year-old daughter how to talk and use the bathroom. Grade: C for talking and A for potty training

My littlest one can pee like a pro now, but you still can't understand a lot of what she says. Her nursery school teacher recommended that we seek free speech services from the county, but pre-school services are pretty inconvenient. Before age 3, the speech therapist will come to your home, and after age 5 the speech therapist will go to your child's school. In between those ages, you need to go to the speech therapist's office twice or sometimes three times a week. With my other children's needs and extracurricular commitments, plus my husband's health issues, we simply can't devote that amount of time. Which means it's up to me. There are videos like Your Baby Can Read and iPad apps that help with annunciation, all for home-based learning. The older kids can even help, so we're going that route instead. Action: Drop the potty training resolution, and renew the resolution to help with her speech.

Resolution #7: Get the kids to pick up their shoes. Grade: D-

This was all my husband asked from me, and it was a pretty big fail. He hasn't noticed a bit of difference in the water level of mismatched shoes strewn around every room in the house. Action: Renew It! Really, really renew it!

Resolution #8: Pray more. Grade: B-

This resolution fell into the classic trap of way too vague to ever motivate real change. So, let's get down to specifics. Once upon a time, I could fit in 10 minutes of mental prayer and 10 minutes of spiritual reading every day, plus at least one decade of the rosary with my husband. I should be able to do it this year, too. Action: Revise and Renew It!

May God bless all of our resolutions in the new year and make them fruitful. Not for our own glory, but for the good of the family and the greater glory of God!

Photo Credit: bjornmeansbear via Compfight cc

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Gift Ideas: Book Edition

Just in time for Christmas, here are some awesome book suggestions for nearly everyone on your list.

For Married or Engaged Couples

For Better... Forever!: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage, by Greg Popcak. This modern Catholic classic has been offering helpful advice to couples for more than a decade. Give a gift that helps love grow all year long. Click here for my review.

For Moms and Dads

Growing Up in God's Image, by Carolyn J. Smith.  One of the biggest struggles parents face is teaching their kids a healthy outlook on sexuality. You can start laying the groundwork when your kids are very young by teaching them respect for their bodies. Then, it's much easier to talk to them as they get older. Learn how in this helpful book. Click here for my review and link to buy.

Catholic Family Fun, by Sarah A. Reinhard.  The family fun can last all year round if you use the ideas in this clever book. Imagine always having something wholesome to do that will keep bodies and minds active and electronic devices off. With this book, you'll never be at a loss thinking of things to do. Click here for my review and link to buy.

Big Hearted, by Patti Armstrong and Theresa Thomas. Do you have a big family? Is someone close to you always asking questions about why you made that choice? Big Hearted answers a lot of those questions by providing intimate portraits of big families in their joys and in their struggles. Click here for my review and link to buy.

Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan. Laugh through the pain of parenting, and then share it. My husband bought this book as a Christmas gift for nearly every dad in the family. Guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. Click here for my review and link to buy.

For Kids through Teens

Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel, by Karen Kelly Boyce. For third- to fifth-graders, this charming tale has ghosts, animal chases and, best of all, the cutest habit-wearing nuns since The Sound of Music. Inspire thoughts of a vocation in the little girls in your life!

St. Francis and Brother Duck, by Jay Stoeckl. Eight- through twelve-year-olds will love this comic book rendition of the life of St. Francis and his fictional sidekick Brother Duck. A great way to bring fun and excitement to learning about this inspirational saint. Click here for my review and link to buy.

Garden of Souls, by Chéri Vausé. An Indiana Jones-style romp back to where it all began. Evocative imagery and non-stop action won't fail to please the teens and action-lovers on your list. Click here for my review and link to buy.

Praying with Your Five Fingers, by Pope Francis. Pope Francis likes to use this helpful prayer method, which is good for kids and adults, too. Buy several of these laminated cards and use them instead of gift tags for all the kids on your list this Christmas. Click here for my review and link to buy.

For the Romantic

Anything from Full Quiver Publishing. All the romance and none of the bodice-ripping. This small publisher run by Ellen Gable Hrkach specializes in Catholic romances where respect is the name of the game. Click here for their web site.

The Rose Ring, by Anne Faye. A romance in the style of Nicholas Sparks, this book is a true tear-jerker. Exploring deep themes of forgiveness and second chances, The Rose Ring will warm your heart! Click here for my review and link to buy.

For the Theology Buff

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, by Christopher West. This is the latest offering from popular Theology of the Body expert Chris West. Learn how to aim your desire according to God's design so you can arrive at your destiny -- totally blissful union with Our Lord and Savior forever in heaven. Prayer, participation in the liturgy, and reception of the Eucharist can take you there. Click here for my review.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Twelve Tips for Sharing Advent with Your Kids

Since it's too soon for the Twelve Days of Christmas, here are twelve tips for celebrating Advent instead. These tips include what you should do, what you shouldn't do, and what you can get away with (I'll promise never to tell).

**What to Do this Advent**

1. Explore other cultural traditions: Learn how the custom of Christmas stockings evolved from the German tradition of slipping treats into shoes or slippers that kids leave near the chimney in the days leading up to St. Nicholas' Day (December 6). Celebrate the Feast Day of the Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on December 12 at the nearest parish with a large Hispanic community. On Christmas Eve, you can serve twelve fish dishes the way the Italians do. Experiment by adding shrimp cocktail or baked clams to the menu. Dilled salmon steaks garnished with lemon always taste great. Sushi platters or bouillabaisse combine many types of fish in one dish. See how many you can add to your Christmas Eve menu!

2. Pray to St. Nicholas every night: Cant' decide between Santa and St. Nick? You don't necessarily have to kick the jolly old guy in the red suit to the curb. Just remember to pray to St. Nicholas every night at bedtime. After all, he's the patron saint of children. Praying for his intercession during Advent is especially appropriate.

3. Make an Advent Wreath and share pictures on CatholicMom: There's an almost unlimited number of ways to make an Advent wreath. With pillar candles on platters, taper candles in candlesticks, or in special Advent candleholders that have places for four candles arranged in a pretty ring. Check out all the different ways to get inspired and then display what you made on the CatholicMom link-up!

4. See the Radio City Christmas Show: In this era of "winter" concerts and "holiday" tree-lightings, Radio City Music Hall and the famous Rockettes stay almost defiantly Christian. The show starts with a "Ho-Ho-Ho, Merry Christmas" from Santa, and ends with a living Nativity scene narrated with quotes straight out of the Bible. If you live too far away from New York City or the show does not fit your budget this year, rent a video of past shows from your local public library. You won't regret it.

**What Not to Do this Advent**

5. Don't display garden gnome plastic Santas on your front lawn: Please, I beg of you, don't display giant, inflatable Santas that resemble scarily cheerful garden gnomes on steroids. They have nothing to do with the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. Somewhere St. Nick is crying. I know I'm crying. Maybe the garden gnomes are even crying.

6. Don't spend more than 20 hours stressing about the upcoming road trip when it will only last 19: Nothing is worse than anticipating a horror and then actually living it. It will only double your pain. So what if you will have to stop every half hour or so to nurse the baby or take the toddler to the bathroom or get something to eat or walk around to prevent bloodclots and varicose veins. Think of it like labor and childbirth -- you can stand anything for 24 hours, right?

7. Don't whine more than your kids about chopping down your own Christmas tree: This is fun, darnit. Moreover, it is very manly (maybe only for your husband, but so be it). Cold toes, cold fingers, and a maddening level of indecision which is resolved only by finally buying the tree least likely to fit in your house will only add to the joy. Think how much you will laugh about this ten years from now. Okay, twenty.

8. Don't fight over the rules for Secret Santa: I so totally do not do this every year. Just ask my relatives. If the suggested price is high enough to give you nosebleeds or low enough to restrict you to a pack of pencils, don't shout or gripe about it. Just say no thanks, maybe next year.

**What You Can Do & I Promise Not to Tell**

9. Listen to Christmas carols: I know it's not liturgically appropriate to listen to Christmas carols during Advent. But unless you hang out at the mall a lot with your kids, you're not going to hear Christmas carols anywhere except home. We've tried to avoid playing or singing Christmas carols during Advent in the past, and the only result is that our kids don't really know that many Christmas carols, which is a rather horrifying cultural gap. So let it ring!

10. Watch "It's a Wonderful Life": The movie presents a completely incorrect theology of angels -- "every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings" -- really? But it's such a feel-good movie about how everyone's life, even if it seems insignificant and utterly unimportant, makes a huge difference in the lives of others. So watch it with your kids. And maybe explain real angels to them, too.

11. Go to a solstice party: We just got invited to a solstice party, which I think is kind of cool. The winter solstice is a real astronomical event, not just a pagan invention (it also happens to fall on my birthday). Plus, if you go to a solstice party, then you're not really going to a Christmas party during Advent (which is a little dicey) and you're not attending a "holiday" party, either (and turning a Christmas party into a "holiday" party really annoys a lot of people). So, celebrate the solstice and wish me happy birthday while you're at it.

12. Offer your kids a big Christmas gift as a bribe for good behavior through Advent: My son Miguel has adopted a type of behavior that he calls "iPod behavior." He'll set the table without being asked, say please and thank-you, and generally act like a pleasant human being. Then he will point out that this is the type of behavior I can expect to continue if he gets an iPod Touch for Christmas. Works well for me!

What's your favorite Advent tip? Please tell us in the comments! And if you have other tips, please let us know!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Happy Anniversary to Can We Cana!!

On December 2, 2012, I started the Can We Cana? blog on a wing and a prayer, hoping to provide support for Catholic marriages and families. Thanks to you wonderful readers, the blog reached its 1000th pageview in less than two months. By its one-year anniversary, the blog has attracted more than 30,000 pageviews from readers in all 50 states and in countries around the globe.

Blogpost topics have included everything from sexuality and the Theology of the Body to staying married through sickness and health, unexpected pregnancies, first-year disillusionment, and the pressures of raising a big family. There are parenting tips, household tips, and reviews of awesome Catholic family resources. I've even included discussions of difficult issues like marital abandonment, abortion, annulment, virginity, and rape. Thanks to the support of some amazing on-line friends I've made, Can We Cana? posts have also appeared on,,, (Australia), and

Here's a run-down of the posts you liked the best, and a request -- tell me what else you'd most like to read about here!

Top 5 Most Popular Posts

1. Chaste Sex: Not What You Think It Is (more than 1200 views)
2. The One-Year Itch
3. When Sex is Too Much Bother: Japan's Troubling Celibacy Syndrome
4. Pope Francis Makes Me Ashamed
5. Letting Your Child Go with God: A First Communion Story

Most Popular Guest Post

Why We Still Use NFP When We're So Bad at It by James B of

Post with Highest Critical Acclaim

Theology Professor Endorses My Book

Post with the Most Comments

The Terrors of the 7th Grade Dance

Many blessings on all of you for helping this Catholic marriage support community grow. If there are any topics you'd like to hear more about, please let me know in the comments!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Dad is Fat, and Other Big-Family Belly Laughs

"You know what's funny? Catholicism!" proclaimed the Washington Post recently. More and more Catholic public figures cheerfully crack jokes as they evangelize, including stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan, Stephen Colbert of the Comedy Central television network, and even Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

The new book Dad is Fat, by Irish-American comedian Jim Gaffigan, is a perfect blend of hilarity and wisdom about parenting a large Catholic family. Gaffigan hides parenting advice amidst the jokes in the same way some moms try to hide pureed zucchini in their chocolate-chip cookie recipes -- and he's probably way more successful. Gaffigan says it best in his own words, so following is his advice on everything from home birth to bedtime. Enjoy!

1. On how to handle five kids. "Many times people say, 'I don't know how you handle five kids. I have one kid, and I can barely handle it!' Well, guess what? One kid is a lot. I could barely handle having one kid. I guess it's kind of like that science experiment with the frog in a pot where you slowly turn the heat up on the water, degree by degree, so the frog doesn't figure out what's happening until he's boiling and it's too late. Well, I am that frog."

2. On home birth. "I think most people's apprehension about home birth is the absence of the doctor. I mean, could you imagine if there was no doctor at Jesus' birth? That could have changed the course of history."

3. On welcoming a new baby into the family. "I try to be a compassionate dad. I always sit our other children down and explain that the new baby does not mean we love them any less, but we will have to let one of them go."

4. On leaving the house. "It is probably easier to land a quadruple jump in ice-skating than to get my five children to depart our home in a timely manner. Everyone knows leaving anywhere with a large group is extremely difficult. I don't know how Moses did it. 'Does everyone have their shoes on? I wanted to leave Egypt for the Promised Land two days ago!'"

5. On going to church. "Kids are way too noisy for church, and everyone reminds you of that while your children are acting up by turning their head around to look at you. This in turn makes everyone else turn their head around to look at you. As if looking at you is somehow going to make your kids behave instead of just making you feel horrible. No matter how much talking or singing there is at church, kids always find that brief moment of silence to make a loud announcement. 'Michael did a poop in his diaper!'"

6. On finding the right babysitter. "In any small business, like parenting five children, it is necessary that you place the right people where their assets can be most useful in order to run a successful operation. Sometimes all the training a babysitter needs is having been a good mother herself. I don't care if some early childhood education grad student has taken twelve infant CPR classes, it will never replace the experience of a sitter who has raised her own well-adjusted children."

7. On bedtime. "With five little kids, there is no ending to bedtime. There is always one awake. Like they are taking shifts. I imagine they have scheduling meetings. 'All right, I'll annoy Dad from midnight to two. Who wants the three-to-six-a.m. shift? Now everyone lie down and practice kicking Dad in your sleep.'"

8. On sleep training vs. attachment parenting. "There are two philosophies when it comes to getting young children to sleep. There is 'sleep training,' which basically involves putting your kids to bed and listening to them scream all night, or there is 'attachment parenting,' which essentially involves lying down with your kids, cuddling them, and then listening to them scream all night."

9. On spilling drinks at the dinner table (this one is mostly for my mom and dad, who think it's so cute when one of my six kids does this). "A little kid spilling a drink at the dinner table is as reliable as the female lead falling down in a romantic comedy. It's inevitable. The moment you forget about it or think it won't happen, it happens. To be fair, one time our two-year-old went for an entire dinner without spilling her drink. She spilled mine instead."

10. On having a fifth kid. "All of a sudden, four kids seemed a lot more normal. We immediately started getting compared to people with absurd numbers of children. 'My great-great-aunt had sixteen kids.' Well, tell her I said hi. 'Are you trying to catch up with the Duggars?' Yes, we are. We only need fourteen more children and we will win!"

To the readers who are also parents of big families, you are all winners. Especially if you are able to see the humor in the big family life that God has given you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Heart is in Your (Four) Hands

On November 24, the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI will be brought to a close by Pope Francis. During this past year, I discovered enough love in my heart for both of these very different men. My reflections on the two popes and the encyclical they wrote together appeared on the site, a ministry of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana, as part of their month-long retrospective.


The papal encyclical The Light of Faith was one of the crowning achievements of this Year of Faith. Started by Pope Benedict XVI and completed by Pope Francis, The Light of Faith quickly earned the nickname “the encyclical written by four hands.” The Year of Faith, too, was begun by our former pope and is being ushered to a conclusion by the current one. Over the past year, I had to learn to say good-bye to Benedict and to welcome Francis into my heart. The encyclical they both wrote is like a bridge leading me from one Holy Father to another.

The light of faith helps us to see in the darkness of this world, states the encyclical. Faith illumines our vision and sends our hearts soaring upward to seek God. In the rich imagery of the Song of Songs, God is the lover, and our soul is the beloved.

Read more here...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Victory over Death, and other Small Successes

The biggest small success of the week happened when my husband lost consciousness on the commuter train home. He most likely suffered a seizure, which is a known complication from the many surgeries he's undergone to remove recurring brain tumors. The doctors will probably not allow him to drive a car for six months to a year. But he's alive, and that's a victory. The seizure didn't happen while he was driving our six kids to the park. It didn't happen while he was crossing a crowded city street or when he was waiting on a subway platform, the scene of more than one tragic accident where someone falls to their death on the tracks. He was just a strap-hanger who let go of the strap and fell in the midst of caring strangers.

Someone called 911, and the police took my husband to the nearest emergency room. After a battery of tests, he'll be discharged. His doctors will come up with a plan of treatment, and we'll go on with life as close to normal as we can. Every morning will be a little Easter, a taste of Christ's victory over the grave. Every moment of routine ordinariness will be a triumph, because these moments are the building blocks of a life lived together, a life aimed at eternity.

In an intense spirit of gratitude for little and ordinary things, I am thankful that my husband took me to the movies recently to see the film based on my favorite book (science fiction, naturally):

I am thankful that my son doesn't have chicken pox, but instead has some unidentified and unidentifiable virus-that-causes-a-rash that will eventually run its course.

Could this be a possibility?

And I'm thankful that, after a brief tussle, I convinced the kind folks at Word of the Vine not to put my online speaker bio in Comic Sans font, so these scary people don't come after me (I know there must be some Catholic techies in this group because I've seen what you say on the interwebs):

So couples go to the movies, and zombies try to take over the world, and certain website designers make the world safe from offensive typefaces. Life goes on. And that's the best kind of success there is.

Part of the CatholicMom Small Success series.

Zombie Itch Photo Credit: artnoose via Compfight cc

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Pope Francis Can't Fix Marriage in 5 Easy Steps

As preparations heat up for Pope Francis' 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family, it's a good time to revisit some ideas for fixing what's broken about the marriage preparation and annulment process in the United States. Catholic author John Zmirak recently asserted that we could fix Catholic marriage in five easy steps. But can we?

Although thought-provoking, Zmirak's proposals underscore the need for more thorough education about the annulments process among Catholics today, say some canonists. Let's take a look at Zmirak's five proposals and see what might work, what might not work, and what's already being done.

1. Make NFP a non-negotiable part of marriage prep. Great strides have already been made in this area. Nearly all dioceses include a discussion of Natural Family Planning in their marriage preparation guidelines, according to a 2010 USCCB report. 43% of dioceses responding to the survey require an introductory session, usually lasting an hour or more. Seven dioceses require an entire course. Many more are strongly considering putting such a requirement in place. The problem is severe budgetary constraints. Most diocesan NFP ministries operate on less than $10,000 per year. "If not for lay volunteer teachers most dioceses would have no NFP program" at all, stated the report.

2. Require a Catholic prenuptial agreement. Zmirak suggests that all Catholic spouses should be required to sign a prenuptial agreement binding them to lifelong marriage, renouncing divorce and remarriage, and awarding all community property to the "wronged party" in a civil divorce. But some canonists view an agreement like this as unnecessary and even dangerous.

"First of all, there is no need for a prenuptial agreement binding persons to a lifelong marriage. The very nature of marriage itself ...binds the parties in this way," explained Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, a canonist with five years of experience at the Diocesan Tribunal of Colorado Springs. "Obviously a great many people live as if this were not the case, or they conveniently forget as soon as they get bored with their spouse, but that does not alter the fact that what Zmirak proposes on this point undermines the ritual exchange of consent between the parties rather than strengthening it," added Aldean Hendrickson, canon lawyer and Director of the Tribunal of the Diocese of New Ulm.

Awarding all community property to the "wronged party" is especially problematic. "It is not always possible to identify one spouse as the sole guilty party in a divorce," reasoned St. Louis-Sanchez. That's also not the task of the marriage tribunal. As tribunal director Hendrickson stated:
I don't see that "fault" (in the sense of culpable, "it's your fault!" blame) has relevance in the context of tribunal decisions. To put it another way, a marriage nullity case is not a question of who is right and who is wrong, nor is it a question (strictly speaking) of who is "at fault" for the failure of the marriage in question. What a marriage nullity case is about is the allegation, usually by one of the two parties to the marriage in question, that their marriage was [at the time of the wedding] invalid.
The Church isn't and shouldn't be an arbiter of fault or the judge of property disputes between couples. That's the job of the civil law. "It is a bit of a derail to use that sort of language in discussing what is right and wrong with the marriage nullity process," stated Hendrickson.

3. Annulment should come before divorce, not vice versa. Canon law doesn't require spouses to obtain a civil divorce before seeking annulment, but U.S. tribunals do. Primarily, the civil divorce provides proof that there is no hope the spouses will reconcile. If reconciliation is possible, a tribunal won't consider a petition for annulment. Secondarily, if the Church granted an annulment stating someone was free to marry when civil law would still not allow it, it might cause a conflict between Church and State. Some states have “alienation of affection” laws under which the Church could be sued for causing a separation of the parties before a civil divorce was obtained, explained St. Louis-Sanchez.

Hendrickson agreed that reversing the common practice in the way Zmirak suggests would be "an enormously confusing move" and might "encourage spouses to challenge the validity of their existent marriage."

4. Canon law should be applied more strictly. Zmirak's suggestion of tougher application of the canon law was welcomed by Hendrickson, who stated that invalidity due to psychological reasons had been expanded so far that it justified annulment on the grounds of  "a vague poor judgment that seems likely to affect 9/10 of the population."

St. Louis-Sanchez, on the other hand, argued that "canon law should be applied justly and equitably, not more or less strictly." He added that "a just and equitable application of canon law may or may not lower the number of annulments that are granted," since many couples fail to accept the sacramental requirements of marriage when they enter into it. Zmirak mockingly called these types of weddings "scandalous farces" -- where the spouses see no problem with divorce when things get tough. Zmirak also derided Catholic marriage prep over the last 40 years as "abysmal" and unfit to teach Catholics what marriage really means. But here, hope is clearly on the way. Numerous new pre-Cana programs based on the teachings of Blessed John Paul II are developing and growing in popularity, hopefully leading to more valid marriages and fewer annulments.

5. The at-fault party should have to wait 3-5 years to remarry. Determining who is at fault is problematic, as mentioned in #2 above. But a hard and fast prohibition on remarriage for a fixed time is also overly punitive. Tribunals have the power to impose a "vetitum" on particular individuals, keeping them from remarrying in the Church until they can demonstrate they are capable of doing so, but such limits are applied on a case-by-case basis. Preventing an entire class of people from remarrying for a specific period of time, not tailored to their individual circumstances, seems arbitrary and unjust to St. Louis-Sanchez. A vetitum "certainly should not be used as a coercive alternative to a fundamental revival in marriage catechesis," affirmed Hendrickson.

So if Zmirak's proposals can't fix marriage in five easy steps, what else can be done? The answers don't lie in changes to the rules and procedures. As Hendrickson stated, "I don’t foresee that there is any magic switch to the procedural structures we have that can achieve" a solution to the crisis in Catholic marriage. "Ultimately, marriages fail because wounded persons marry other wounded persons," said St. Louis-Sanchez. "The way to fix marriage is [for the Church] to walk with couples and facilitate their healing – from before their engagement until their fiftieth wedding anniversary." This is not an easy fix. But few things are, especially when the issue matters so much to so many.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Terrors of the 7th Grade Dance

Me to my 7th grade daughter: "You can go to the school dance, but you can't slow dance with any boys."
My 7th grade daughter: "The principal said we're not allowed to say no."

This conversation, naturally, almost shocked me into a full-blown panic attack. Then it got worse.

Me: "Are you sure that's what the principal said?"
My 7th grader: "Yep! And she said she wouldn't tell anybody who we dance with. The teachers can't tell either."

I think I actually felt my heart hiccup. Because we all know who "anybody" is, don't we? Paranoid parents like me. Why would the principal ally herself with the students as the one who knows their secrets and won't tell? I had to know.

The principal explained that making the girls say yes to the boys was an anti-bullying technique. She didn't want the boys' feelings to be hurt, and she especially didn't want all the girls to say no to the same boy. I get it. But.

"Why would you ever teach a girl she can't say no to a boy?" I asked. "There are girls who say yes when a boy asks them on a date so they won't hurt the boy's feelings, even when the girl isn't interested at all."

"Oh, that's wrong," answered the principal. "They shouldn't do that."

But that's exactly where hypersensitivity to a boy's feelings can lead to, and of course there are other things that girls feel pressured to say yes to. The principal insisted that she never meant to give that message and that the kids were far too young to infer that meaning from her comments anyway. Hmmm.

In the end, we agreed on "no harm, no foul," -- no one asked my daughter to slow dance so she never did. And apparently none of the kids danced any closer than three feet apart. "You could have fit three teachers in between those dancing kids!" the principal laughed. Plenty of room for the Holy Spirit, as they say.

So what about the principal's promise not to tell anybody who the kids' dancing partners were?

"This is a step in their independence, a part of growing up. We believe in the innocence of our children and the protective environment of the school and home," said the principal. "Besides, the girls need to learn not to be afraid of touching a boy" -- wait, what?! Since when were schools teaching girls that?

As I began to peel myself off the ceiling, the principal elaborated, "We don't want them to stay stuck in the stage of boys are icky." Okay, true, we don't want them to act like six-year-olds forever. But that seems to be a natural evolution in perspective, and teachers shouldn't feel the need to hurry the kids along.

My 7th grader is my oldest child, so we are venturing into the uncharted waters of the pre-teen and teen years for the first time. I don't want to give her any complexes, but I also don't want anyone -- teacher or otherwise -- to push her into doing something that she isn't or shouldn't be ready for.

I welcome the thoughts of other parents on this -- parents with older kids, paranoid parents like me, progressive parents, and parents who know their kids will face this issue some day. What do you think? Is there any reason to be afraid of the 7th grade dance?

Photo Credit: jonstead. via Compfight cc

Monday, November 4, 2013

Woman Marries Bridge in Catholic Ceremony

I'm only half-kidding. Australian woman Jodi Rose did in fact marry Le Pont du Diable bridge (also known as the Devil's Bridge) on June 17, 2013. The union was not blessed by a Catholic priest, however. It was blessed instead by the mayor of the neighboring town. For those who are wondering, here are five reasons why the Catholic Church would never have allowed marriage between this woman and this bridge.

1. The bridge never consented. 

Ms. Rose took advantage of the bridge's inanimate nature and married it even though the bridge could not possibly express its consent to the marriage. (Catechism, sec. 1626 )

2. The bride never agreed to be faithful.

"He understands that I love other bridges -- and men -- ours is a love that embraces the vagaries of life, as materialised in the swirling currents of the river that flow beneath his magnificent body," stated Ms. Rose on her blog. She clearly refused to pledge herself solely to her spouse. (Catechism, sec. 1646)

3. Their union can never be fruitful.

The wedding between Ms. Rose and the bridge is lacking the mutual complementarity of man and woman, husband and wife, human and ... human. Moreover, Ms. Rose has "yet to explain how she determined the sex of the bridge," according to the newspaper report .(Catechism, sec. 1652)

4. They never consummated their marriage.

The couple never joined together as one flesh. Ms. Rose explained, "he is a workaholic so couldn't leave the river banks. I left him with a loving kiss and my friends joined me in helping to celebrate the union with a swim in the River Tech which flows beneath him." (Catechism, sec. 1627)

5. They never received the Church's dispensation for marrying out of cult.

If a Catholic wishes to marry a baptized non-Catholic, the couple must apply for and receive express permission from the Church. To marry a non-baptized person requires a special dispensation to overcome the impediment of disparity of cult. Built by Benedictine monks in the 11th century, the Devil's Bridge does appear to be Catholic. Ms. Rose, on the other hand, is not. She expressed her religious views as follows: “While I respect those whose romantic and sexual feelings are oriented towards objects, mine is a symbolic affair, a pagan / animist view of the spiritual vibration in everything.” It is quite possible that this pagan/animist woman was never even baptized. Quite an impediment! (Catechism, sec. 1633, 1635)

So, if you ever find yourself experiencing yearnings like Ms. Rose's, don't cross that bridge when you come to it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

If You Drink My Blood, You Will Live Forever: Vampire Edition

Ever wonder why vampires enjoy such eternal popularity? Let's see. They are immortal. They have supernatural powers. And if you drink their blood, you will live forever. Sound like anybody else you know? The legend of vampires seems like an incredibly twisted version of Jesus and the Eucharist. But it hooks into people's deep longing for immortality. No folk tale, fairy tale, or great work of literature can punch us in the collective gut and grab our attention for centuries unless it bears at least some resemblance to the greatest story ever told. The legend of vampires does this with a vengeance.

The dark difference is that drinking a vampire's blood will only give its victim eternal physical life, whereas partaking of the Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist will give your soul eternal life in heaven. And drinking a vampire's blood puts you on the fast track to damnation. A vampire is like an anti-Christ.

Bram Stoker played on this gruesome parallel in the 19th century novel Dracula, which launched the modern fascination with vampires. Dr. van Helsing, the Catholic hero of Dracula, placed crushed consecrated hosts around the doorjambs of houses to keep the vampires from entering, and the vampires could not pass. In this literary allegory, Christ in the Eucharist vanquishes the anti-Christ.

The author also put Biblical words on the lips of his anti-hero, similar to Satan quoting the Bible to Christ during Jesus' temptation in the desert (Mt 4:1-11):
Dracula, Bram Stoker’s creation, told Mina when he forced her to drink his blood in the pivotal scene in his novel, “And you, my best beloved one, are now to me flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin; my bountiful wine press for a while; and shall be later on my companion and my helper” (Dr. Seward’s Diary ch XX1).
Dracula's words are an eerie echo of the Book of Genesis, where God makes woman as a helpmate for man and Adam responds, "This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23).

For centuries throughout the world, vampires were recognized as the worst of monsters. The folk legend of Lilith, supposedly Adam's wife before Eve, depicted Lilith as the blood-sucking Queen of Demons. In ancient times, even Satan was regarded as a quasi-vampire.

So how did vampires' image change from the most hideous of paranormal serial killers to the ultimate hotties? In the popular modern-day Twilight series, it's hard to tell who wants to drink the other's blood more -- Edward the vampire or Bella the human. From almost the beginning of this bizarre romance, Bella begs to drink Edward's blood. Her desire is met when Edward must bite her to save her from dying while birthing his baby. The potential for parody is vast.

We live in an age when grey is the ruling color. Evil has lost the capacity to shock us, and the conversion of evil to good has become trite. It seems as if a good person now has to embrace evil in order to be loved. This is the worst kind of despair. Because outside of the pages of a novel exists the real world, where a bargain with evil can't lead to everlasting love.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

When Sex is Too Much Bother: Japan's Troubling Celibacy Syndrome

"45% of Japanese women aged 16-24 are 'not interested in or despise sexual contact'. More than a quarter of men feel the same way," reports a recent article in The Guardian. In addition, 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 are not in any kind of romantic relationship, and a third of people under 30 have never dated at all. The Japanese government has labeled this phenomenon the celibacy syndrome. Combined with an already-falling birthrate and a rising number of elderly, the celibacy syndrome adds further fuel to the fire of Japan's oncoming demographic collapse.

Why does this celibacy syndrome exist in Japan? The number one reason given by the Japanese singles interviewed for the Guardian article was mendokusai, which translates roughly to "too troublesome" or "I can't be bothered." Such a negative attitude towards sex is almost incomprehensible to us here in the United States, where we readily believe the false rumor that men think about sex every 7 seconds. (It's actually more like once an hour).

Permissiveness and Porn

What makes the celibacy syndrome even harder to understand is that Japan doesn't exactly give off the vibe of a sexless nation. Porn in Japan is a $20 billion industry, producing $6 billion more in annual revenues than the U.S. porn industry despite the country having less than half the population of the U.S.. Pornographic comic books in anime style are widely available, and businesses exist to cater to just about every kink imaginable.

Perhaps Japan's very permissiveness is what has led to a rebound of sexlessness. One commentator has asserted:
Pornography in Japan has been legal for centuries. Yes, I said centuries.  Back in the days of woodblock prints, the Japanese were making 'floating world' prints often depicting sexual activity along with other dramatized depictions of hedonistic conduct. ... Children are now openly featured in Japan's pornography industry as it struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for more over-the-top materials as viewers gradually become 'tolerant' of the 'old-fashioned' straight, heterosexual porn.  ...What is happening in Japan is that excess has led to the opposite extreme of repression. Normal sexual desires for another person have been replaced by porn, and in turn this allows people to avoid normal sexual relationships.

Economic Pressures on Women

The author of the Guardian article places the blame instead on the economics of marriage and childbirth. Japanese corporations no longer offer men permanent job security, and the tough economic climate has made children seem unaffordable unless both spouses work. The catch-22 is that married women are frowned upon in the workplace, as explained by one of the women being interviewed:
Tomita says a woman's chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries. "The bosses assume you will get pregnant." Once a woman does have a child, she adds, the long, inflexible hours become unmanageable. "You have to resign. You end up being a housewife with no independent income. It's not an option for women like me."
Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world's worst nations for gender equality at work. 
This description of a nearly impossible work-life balance for women in Japan matches my personal experience. I worked as an in-house lawyer for Mitsubishi Electric's Tokyo headquarters in the late 1990s. Only two women in the department were married. None of the female lawyers I knew who worked outside the big corporations were married, and they didn't seem unhappy about it, at least not on the surface. The position of bengoshi, or lawyer, in Japan commands so much respect that marriage and family might not hold much of a candle to it.

In America, the same types of economic and professional pressures on women have instead led to widespread contraceptive use. Educated women are getting married later or not at all, and the number of childless marriages is on the rise. But our nation hasn't succumbed to a widespread distaste for sex. Japan may rely less on contracepted sex because it was historically less available. The birth control pill, in particular, was not legalized there until 1999. But more than ten years later, the Japanese culture does not seem to be going the way of the American one.

Buddhist Views on Sex

Japanese traditional religious beliefs about the value of sex and marriage may point the way towards an explanation of the celibacy syndrome. Birth records identify the vast majority of Japanese people as adhering to Shintoism, Buddhism, or both, even though 70%-85% of Japanese people regularly claim in polls to have no religion at all. Only 1% profess to be Christian. (See more here.)

Despite the secularization of Japanese culture, Buddhism still exerts a pervasive influence. In Buddhism, sexual desire seems to be somewhere between a neutral force and an active deterrent from reaching Enlightenment. One Western Buddhist writer, M. O'C. Walshe, explained that "Sex is a powerful force in us all. In itself it is neither good nor bad." But attachment to sexual pleasure is problematic, since it represents an inner craving. And "as long as there remains even a latent craving (including that for sex), according to the Buddhist teaching rebirth will inevitably continue to take place." These cravings for sex would then keep the individual from reaching Nirvana. Buddha's First Sermon calls the pursuit of sensual desire "low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble and unbeneficial." It will likely lead to "suffering, vexation, despair and fever, and it is the wrong way." In this context, for a Japanese person to express no craving for sex would in fact make them appear further along the path to Enlightenment.

Marriage also holds no special place in Buddhist thought. Marriage is seen as a secular rather than religious act. According to Walshe,
In Buddhism, marriage is not a "sacrament," as such a concept does not exist. And it is not any part of the functions of Buddhist monks to join lay people together in holy wedlock (or deadlock). If it is occasionally done today in Japan, this is just a modern idea in conformity with a general tendency among Japanese Buddhists to imitate (often perhaps unwisely) Christian institutions. 
Procreation similarly lacks a strong religious component. "Buddhism has no analogy to the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply." Therefore, while most lay Buddhists do get married and have families, renunciation is still seen as the ideal. Japan's current celibacy syndrome seems to fall right into line with Buddhist thought, particularly if sex, marriage, and procreation are seen to cause economic hardship or suffering.

This Buddhist perspective is of course completely different from Catholic thought, which imbues sex, marriage, and procreation with deep religious meaning. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church --

Sex: "The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable .... Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure." (no. 2362)
Marriage:  "Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: 'It is not good that the man should be alone.' The woman, 'flesh of his flesh,' his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a 'helpmate'; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." (no. 1605)
Procreation: "Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: 'And God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply.'" (no. 1604) 
Or, as popular Catholic theologian Chris West puts it in his recent book Fill These Hearts, we should aim our desire (for sex) according to God's design (for marriage and procreation) to reach our destiny (heaven). If these principles caught on in Japan, perhaps the current celibacy syndrome would become a thing of the past.

Photo Credit: pjan vandaele via Compfight cc

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Annual Mani-Pedi and a Trip Through Outer Space

The pedicurist recoiled in horror when she beheld the extent of my callouses. "Callous cream," she sternly recommended, and then proceeded to chatter excitedly in Korean to the pedicurist next to her, presumably describing my icky feet in gory detail. After rubbing the magic callous removal cream into my feet and scraping, scraping, scraping, the pedicurist triumphantly raised the scraper with the incontrovertible evidence of my appallingly negligent foot care. She must have thought I had been herding yak barefoot over the Russian steppes all last summer.

But, with six kids, I don't have time for weekly or even monthly visits to the nail salon. And I made a bargain with myself not to get that annual mani-pedi until my husband and I revised the proposal on our marriage advice book and sent it off to the publisher. As soon as I pressed the send button on the proposal, I hustled down to the local NAILS NAILS NAILS! for their Monday through Wednesday $19 mani-pedi special. Score! Then I made my kids take lots of pictures to preserve this mani-pedi for posterity in case the next yak-herding season destroys my feet again before I can make it to the salon.

Since my adrenaline was soaring pretty high after I sent that book proposal, I also motored through about ten science fiction/fantasy books in the space of a week -- my time-honored method of stress release since high school. Most of them were free on Kindle, and all of them were pretty good. If you're interested in checking them out, here they are:

1. Divergent, by Veronica Roth. About to be made into a movie, this has been called the next Hunger Games. Great coming-of-age teen story. The author's accompanying free e-book, The World of Divergent: The Path to Allegiant, says that many readers ask if she made up words like abnegation, candor, dauntless, and erudite. The author cheerily responds that she likes these unusual, older words because their definitions are more precise. Unusual?! Older?! It's English, people. Aaaaaargh.

2. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth. The next book in the Divergent series, it wasn't nearly as good as the first. *SPOILER ALERT*: The end included a typical, they've been fooling you all along, you're only a social experiment plot twist. Here's hoping that soon-to-be-released book number 3 in the series, called Allegiant, will be better than book number 2.

3. Forbidden Forest (The Legends of Regia), by Tenaya Jayne. A paranormal romance between a shape-shifter and a vampire. Mild exploration of sexual abuse and recovery. Uplifting.

4. Forest Fire, by Tenaya Jayne. The sequel to Forbidden Forest. Some nice ruminating about the meaning of marriage in contrast to what the vampires call a life-bond, which has a hard-wired physical and mystical component.

5. The Book of Deacon, by Joseph Lallo. The main character Myranda tries to stop a war that two countries are perpetuating for their own nefarious interests regardless of the good of the common people. She teams up with a warrior who is half-fox and has been abused and despised by humans since birth. The half-fox is chosen to save the human world, but he doesn't think it's worth saving.

6. Guardians, Inc.: The Cypher, by Julian Rosado-Machain. Similar to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. A teenage boy gets a job in a library with connections to other worlds. The boy's special inborn ability to translate ancient other-worldly languages leads him to a quest to, you guessed it, save the world.

7. The Descent Series, Books 1-3, by SM Reine. A demon hunter and her witch protector try to prevent the take-over of earth by a death goddess. Strong female lead and great action scenes. But the third book in the series strayed into heretical territory, painting the demon-hunter as a Mary/Eve figure who was imprisoned by an abusive God in the Garden of Even. This "God" is obsessed with getting her back, and her fate is to kill him. Ick.

8. The Last Praetorian, by Mike Smith. Handsome soldier saves sexy princess, who becomes president of the new democracy after her father's interstellar empire collapses. Good Star Wars-style romp.

9. The Mind Readers Series, by Lori Brighton. A teenage girl who can read minds discovers that there are many others like her. Allegiances shift quickly and dramatically as she encounters different groups of people who use their extraordinary talents for radically different purposes, all claiming to have right and justice on their side. Very entertaining.

10. Origins (Spinward Fringe), by Randolph Lalonde. A group of armchair heroes hack into flight training simulations and beat the most skilled pilots in the fleet. When they're caught, they're drafted into the fleet and sent across the universe on missions only they can accomplish. Themes of loyalty, leadership, and sacrifice take center stage as the new captain pits himself against the profit-driven space-faring corporations.

So, how did my husband take my sudden obsession with nail polish and spaceships? First, he promised to take me to the opening weekend of the blockbuster sci-fi movie Ender's Game, based on the book by Orson Scott Card -- a book I've adored since childhood. Then, he attempted to make acceptable comments about my toenails. "The color is unusual. Unexpected. Very noticeable!" I informed him archly that the color was gunmetal grey, an undeniably fashionable and attractive nail color. "You have no idea how sexy my nails are," I said.

"Your sexiness isn't in your nails, it's in you!" he replied. Awwww..... Best. Hubby. Ever.

Photo Credits: Lelia & Miguel Santos

This post is part of the Small Success Thursdays link-up on My small successes were (1) sending the revised book proposal, (2) getting those gorgeous nails, and (3) reading a digital mountain of books. Go check out the other links!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Don't Turn a Blind Eye to Marital Abandonment

What should we do when people in our social circle abandon their marriages? When they're openly, even scandalously, unfaithful? Kristin Gomez has encountered this situation one too many times, and now she's speaking out about it. A graduate of the University of Virginia and former Spanish teacher, Kristin is now a homeschooling mother of 6 in Manassas, Virginia. She's part of a core team of couples at All Saints Catholic Church who are using the Alexander House resource, Covenant of Love, to help create "a marriage minded community." Best of all, she's married to a Colombian and living la vida loca, Catholic style!

Abandonment is when one spouse leaves the other despite the other's pleas for counseling and healing of the marriage in the hopes to restore love and stability to their family. (I'm not talking about the legal definition of abandonment here, just the common-sense meaning of the word.) Check the stats, but surprisingly this is MANY, if not MOST of "divorces" one hears about. Divorce is more of a mutual decision to legally get un-married. The kids still suffer (as do the spouses), but it is by and large a mutual decision. This is less common than flat-out abandonment.

I totally understand having to legally live apart when there is severe abuse or addiction. This is not about that. This is about one or both spouses feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in the marriage. I have never met an honest married couple that did not go through this once or many times and is still happily married.

So when I tell my friend that Joe has abandoned Jane for another woman and Jane and the kids are in agony and we must help in some way - please do not tell me "these things are complicated/there are always two sides/I do not think it our place to get involved/this is a private matter."

It takes two to make a marriage unhappy and two to heal it. I absolutely agree with that. However, it only takes ONE person to abandon the marriage and destroy the family. ONE.

In case it is still unclear: if I were to say to you, "Hey, Joe is beating the crap out of Jane and the kids - have you seen her? She has a broken nose, two swollen eyes and bruises all over the place. The kids are just as bad - tufts of hair missing, swollen lips, black heart is breaking - we have to help in some way - we need to reach out to them ALL.....And we need to be there for the hurting ones in the meantime."

My guess is you would agree. You would not tell me it is complicated or private or takes two to fight or yadda yadda.

Well, when a father (and it could easily be a mother) abandons their spouse and family - the abandoner causes EXACTLY this much pain - but it is emotional...EMOTIONAL!! If you could SEE the pain of an abandoned spouse and the children - THIS IS WHAT IT WOULD LOOK LIKE - make NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT. Brutal, agonizing, constantly aching.

Emotional pain caused by spousal abandonment is worse than physical pain in some ways, because physical pain you can see and you can measure and it can evoke the proper response of urgency and assistance from family and friends and even the community. Emotional pain is considered too private. Too hard to gauge. Too easy to avoid involvement because you can pretend it isn't there. But deep down, you know it is. And we will be judged accordingly when the time comes.

So don't treat the abandoner as if life were going on as usual while he takes his paramour out for a night on the town and leaves his weeping wife and children huddled in a collective ball on the floor. He is committing emotional abuse and it deserves to be called that. We are called to love the abuser as much as any other human being. But Christian love of an abandoner or abuser comes in the form of consistent, gentle yet clear naming of his actions for what they are, and calling him to stop and ask forgiveness, and love again.

We need to stop ignoring the plight of these families, pretending that everything is okay in Catholicland, when it isn't. The worst pain is truly as Mother Teresa said - to be unloved.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Switching it Up: Changing Kids' Wardrobes from Fall to Winter

While kids are merrily jumping in piles of fall leaves, moms of many are getting buried in piles of last season's clothing. Denim shorts and fluttery sundresses get ever so gently yanked out of clutching hands to be stored away for younger siblings. Executives of Rubbermaid and other containerizing companies must grin ear-to-ear at this change of season. Because, really, is it possible to have too many plastic storage tubs? Not in my house.

So last season.

In the picture above, you can see three of my daughters sitting in a sea of last season's clothes. (That's actually more like a week's worth of laundry, but you didn't think I would dump it all out, did you?) How do you turn that into this:

Pretty in pink.

and this?

One wall of our attic storage facility.

The answer to your clothing nightmares is plastic tubs, giant Ziploc bags, labelers, clipboards and lots of elbow grease. First, organize the clothes by size and gender. Boys' size 8, for example, or girls' size 4T. Then, pack the clothes away in giant Ziploc bags -- one for summer, one for winter, and one for the transitional seasons. Mark the bags with a Sharpie, and toss them in the properly labeled tub. Use clear shoeboxes with sizes labeled on the side to collect gently worn shoes.

If you don't have time to switch all the kids' wardrobes at once (and who does?), it's important to write down what you have done already on a legal pad or list attached to a clipboard. That way, two months later, if someone claims not to have any long-sleeved shirts, you can easily see if that kid's wardrobe never made it out of the attic. Otherwise, you could waste a lot of money in unnecessary emergency shopping.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But good household management takes time and effort. There's no way to avoid it. Ultimately, keeping your house in order is like keeping your soul in order. The work is never done. If you neglect it, it will just keep building up until it starts causing real problems. So, as you get your kids' wardrobes in order, why not get your interior self in order as well? Examine your conscience to see where you've been lax, where you can improve, and go tell your sins to a priest in confession. Air your dirty laundry, so to speak. I promise you'll heave a sigh of relief knowing you're prepared to face what the next season has in store.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Following the Rules Won't Get You to Heaven

I like rules. They make me feel safe, give me a proven roadmap for success, and instill me with purpose. So when Pope Francis takes potshots at little rules and by extension those who follow them, he unsettles me. Another direct hit to the center of my comfort zone. Here's exactly what the Pope said in the now famous America magazine interview:
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. ...
The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. ...
The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. 

In other words, sanctity does not consist in following the rules, and successful evangelization doesn't depend on convincing others to do likewise.

The Pope's comments angered a lot of people. But they don't stray far from Biblical precedent. Jesus constantly battled against Pharisaical rules. For example, in Jesus' time, the command to keep the Sabbath holy had been interpreted to forbid thirty-nine distinct types of work on the Sabbath. But Jesus ignored these prohibitions and healed a man on the Sabbath anyway, saying "It is lawful to do good on the sabbath" (Mt 12:12).

St. Paul stresses over and over again that Christianity is superior to the law, by which he means the old Jewish laws. He proclaims to the new Church, "now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom 7:6). But being free from the law doesn't mean being free to do evil or to do whatever we want without constraints. It means being freed to do good, a greater good than before. Following the law and the commandments isn't bad. On the contrary, it's the bare minimum of decent Christian behavior. Following the rules won't get you to heaven because following the rules just isn't good enough.

This lesson shines forth crystal clear in the story of the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus, a story so important that it is recounted almost word for word in all three synoptic gospels. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the young man asked Our Lord. "Keep the commandments," Jesus responded. The young man eagerly affirmed that he had followed the commandments since his youth. But then Jesus asked for one more thing. "Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, ... and come, follow me." And the young man walked away sad, for he had many possessions (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 10:17-22; Lk 18:18-23). He went away sad, when he thought he would go away justified. Jesus is not satisfied when we dot the i's and cross the t's. Our God, our jealous God, wants all that we have to give.  He wants more than obedient slaves or rule-following automatons. He wants adoring, grateful heirs to his glorious Kingdom.

To all those who cherish the rules, I understand your shock at Pope Francis' comments. I feel it, too. But as Scripture says, to whom much is given, much is expected (Lk 12:48). We have been given our faith, our docility to the rules. Is this more than a lot of self-identified Catholics or ex-Catholics have? You bet. So, much more is expected of us. More charity, more mercy, more understanding. Go, descend into the dark night without being lost, fascinate people, attract people, set their hearts on fire for Jesus. Don't be the one to walk away sad.

Photo Credit: Vicki & Chuck Rogers via Compfight cc

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is Your Marriage Exceptional, Conventional, Shipwrecked, or Deadly?

While researching the marriage advice book I'm writing with my husband, Manuel P. Santos, M.D., I started reading Greg Popcak's For Better...Forever!: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage. Popcak's book asks where your marriage is on the Relationship Pathway: Exceptional, Conventional, Shipwrecked, or Deadly. My husband and I didn't fit perfectly into any of the categories, but it was interesting to see how we measured up. Why don't you try it?

1.  Exceptional Marriages: At the top of the relationship food chain, these marriages exhibit high longevity and high satisfaction. Exceptional spouses are:

  • Committed to life-long love.  That's an easy one! Manny and I definitely consider life-long love as one of our top goals, and you probably do, too.
  • Equally skilled at communication.  Manny has a slight edge on me here. As a lawyer, I'm a pretty good talker, but as a psychiatrist, he's by far the better listener. Fortunately, a lot of educational and professional training programs stress communication. Transferring these skills to your marriage will provide a big boost in satisfaction.
  • Never doubt the value they bring to the marriage. Here's where my insecurities come roaring to the fore. Intellectually, I know being a stay-at-home mom has great value for our marriage and our kids. But I struggle all the time with feelings of unimportance -- that anyone could do the menial labor which dominates my working hours, and that almost anyone else could do it better. Many Catholic moms are way past me on this one.

2.  Conventional Marriages: These marriages, the most common kind according to Popcak, have moderate longevity and moderate satisfaction. I could definitely see our marriage fitting into this category in some ways, too. Conventional spouses:

  • Have good communication and relationship skills. Their skills are not great, but not that bad either. Their skills are sufficient to give them a "good-enough marriage of a good-enough Christian."
  • Have work that's meaningful to them. The husbands usually can provide for more than their family's basic needs. The wives are mostly happy with the work they do, whether it's at the office, in community volunteering activities, or home with the children.
  • Sometimes value their work more than their family. This is a real temptation today, given how much people identify with "what they do." Materialism can also cause people to place a higher value on time spent earning money than time spent with family. Dissatisfaction may drive these spouses to seek deeper answers. To grow, these couples need to invest more time in the marriage and in helping each other to achieve their highest calling.

3. Shipwrecked Marriages: These marriages are only quasi-healthy, but can recover with help. Spouses have often suffered from deep traumas in their lives prior to getting married. I recognize some of these characteristics in people I know. Maybe you do, too. Shipwrecked spouses:

  • Value economic security and a stable family life more than anything else. Men may be workaholics, and even functional alcoholics. Women are often dutiful and lonely, but may act out their unhappiness in compulsive shopping binges. The couple at best pays lip service to a system of religious beliefs.
  • Don't argue because they don't communicate. These couples will do anything to keep the peace, even sacrifice a chance at growing closer and understanding each other better.
  • May be more attached to their kids than each other. In the past, Popcak says, these couples might stay together because of a societal taboo against divorce and for the sake of the children. Nowadays, many of these marriages will end unless the spouses learn to look past their immediate needs and focus on bettering themselves as individuals and as a couple, often through therapy.

4. Deadly Marriages: According to Popcak, this is the only category of marriages in which divorce may actually be the better course. Sad to say, I've seen this type of marriage also. These spouses:

  • Seriously abuse drugs and alcohol. Domestic abuse and a violent home atmosphere are common.
  • Have little or no work ethic. They can't get a job or hold a job. They don't care about their work and rarely set goals for themselves.
  • Don't expect even the basics of life. With this criteria, Popcak limits these marriages to a lower socioeconomic level. 

Popcak cautions against canonizing yourself and demonizing your spouse -- don't assume you're an exceptional spouse while relegating your spouse to the deadly category. He even asserts that most people in your social circle have marriages in the same category as your own. But, in my experience, the lines are more blurred than Popcak implies. Problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse cut across socioeconomic categories. Mental illness can impact anyone, regardless of how good a communicator they are, how advanced their professional life is, or even how often they pray and visit the sacraments. Severe traumas like sudden job loss, chronic illness, and grief over miscarriages or past abortions can threaten to shipwreck any individual and therefore any relationship. So, in my opinion, Popcak's categories aren't perfect. But they help to identify the bright spots, the danger zones, and the room for improvement in almost any marriage.

Do you recognize any of these characteristics in your own marriage or the marriages of people you know? Do you think Popcak's categories provide a helpful way of evaluating a marriage? Please let us know in the comments!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Introducing Your Kids to Two Francises -- the Pope and the Saint

"Don't forget the poor," whispered Cardinal Gomez of Brazil to Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina at the moment of Bergoglio's election to the papacy. These words inspired the new pope to take the name Francis in honor of the saint who loved Lady Poverty. As St. Francis of Assissi's feast day approaches on October 4, now would be a wonderful time to introduce your children to the two Francises through some great new releases from Paraclete Press.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck1.  St. Francis and Brother Duck, by Jay Stoeckl, is a charming presentation of the story of St. Francis of Assissi in a graphic novel format. Francis' constant companion is the fictional Brother Duck. Great for comic relief, Brother Duck makes the story of St. Francis come alive for young kids. It also allows parents to use their best Donald Duck voices. The Paraclete Press web site has an adorable video trailer in case you need some practice rediscovering your ability to quack. So unleash your inner comedian, and have fun with Francis.

Praying With Your Five Fingers
2. Praying With Your Five Fingers, by Pope Francis, is an 8 1/2 x 11 laminated prayer card. Pope Francis used this method of praying often in his ministry as Archbishop of Argentina. True to his humble nature, Pope Francis recommends praying for yourself last (on the pinkie, your littlest finger), because once you have prayed for everyone else you will be able to see your own needs in the proper perspective. Although the prayer method is available for free from other sources, the laminated card is easy to find and hard to damage -- perfect for kids.

So take the family pets to be blessed at your local parish according to this great feast day's tradition, and then gather together at home to learn a little more about the two Francises!

Thanks to Paraclete Press for providing free review copies.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pope or Protestant Televangelist?

A lot of people have heard about Pope Francis' recent interview with America magazine, but not everybody liked it. In response to the Washington Post's claim that Pope Francis is setting a new direction for the Church regarding sexuality in particular, one commenter complained:
God save us from Pope Joel Osteen [a popular Protestant televangelist]. 
...His Holiness sounds not so much like the leader of a 2,000 year institutions with a deeply complex theology so much as yet another politico bending with the trendy way the winds are blowing.  
 ...He can have it. If the Pope does not believe what his Faith teaches, why should I? If the Pope thinks it is all just nit-picky details, we can start picking all the nits to pieces until there is nothing left of the garment. Which is where this trendy and vapid Pope is headed.  
...The pope is NOT changing dogma, but in effect what he is offering is "have your cake and eat it too theology." Yes, we have all these rules, but we just won't talk about them if they get too inconvenient. The problem, of course, is that the rules are not an adjunct to, but rather are an integral part of, the Faith. 
Is Pope Francis really preaching the "God wants you to get rich" gospel of Joel Osteen or even the "God wants you to have great sex" gospel of Christopher West? Is this really a Pope who sees Christianity without the Cross?

Let's see what Pope Francis' interview actually said:
“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.
The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further. “Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
Aren't we all, at heart, sinners whom the Lord has looked upon? Faith is a gift. Grace is a gift. Those of us who presume to be more Catholic than the Pope might want to ponder that. I'm not advocating papal idolatry here. The Pope isn't more important than God. But neither are our own preconceptions.

I've written previously about the disheartening battles between self-styled liberal and conservative Catholics in America. I did not convert from Protestantism expecting to enter a Church divided. Not all liberals are heretics and not all conservatives have forgotten God's mercy. We are simply blind men touching different parts of the elephant, unable to comprehend the whole without each other's help.

Pope Francis took a typical liberal approach when he said in the interview, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. ... It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” And yet he also reiterated the conservative position: "The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church."

Ironically, out of a more than 12,000 word interview, these comments about the "pelvic issues" have been reported on more than any others. This meme states it perfectly:

So, I encourage you to read the whole interview and form your own conclusions apart from anyone else's commentary.  And then fasten your seatbelts, folks, because we're in for a wild ride.