Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Pope on Love

During the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the media dubbed Cardinal Josef Ratzinger "God's Rottweiler."  But when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he showed his softer side.  At Christmastime, he appeared to pilgrims in the Vatican as "Santa Pope," a jovial figure in a red Santa cap (called a camauro).  In his youth, little Josef wanted a teddy bear every Christmas, according to his brother's memoirs.  This is the side of Pope Benedict XVI that I want to remember, a gentle man who was a champion of faith, hope, and love.

On this last day before Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, I want to share with you some lessons he taught me about the passionate, eternal love we all long for.  Couples coming to be married in the Catholic Church (and already-married couples, too) should realize and revel in the depth of learning the Church can offer on love.  The first encyclical issued by Pope Benedict XVI -- on Christmas Day, as it so happens -- was on the subject of love.  Its Latin name was Deus Caritas Est, or God is Love.  Here are just ten things I learned from it.  If you read it yourself, you could learn many more.

1.  God is madly in love with us.  God's love, as described in the Bible, is passionate, forgiving, and "boldly erotic."  Read the Song of Songs, if you don't believe it.  Should our love for our spouse be anything less?

2.  True love between a man and a woman brings ecstasy.  This ecstasy is not merely a moment of intoxication, but a journey towards authentic self-discovery and, ultimately, the discovery of God.

3.  Love is greater than sex and greater than instinct.  When human beings love, we love with our bodies and our souls.  Any lesser idea of love reduces humanity to the level of animals or even objects.

4.  "Love promises infinity, eternity."  God has written in our hearts a longing for his eternal love.  As a reflection of God's love, love between a man and a woman provides "not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude [in heaven] for which our whole being yearns."

5.  Love directs us toward marriage.  The intensity of our desire for each other mirrors the intensity of humankind's desire for God.  We cannot be satisfied by a love that is temporary or partial.  Lifelong marriage fulfills the deepest purpose of human love, unity between one man, one woman, and one God.

6.  God's love is an inexhaustible source of good will towards others.  By receiving God's love in prayer, we become motivated and empowered "to attend constantly to other people's sufferings and needs."  These other people include our spouse, our children, and our neighbors  -- those who are close by and those who are far away.

7.  We are obligated to share with others the love that God lavishes upon us.  "Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself."  Extending our love beyond our own families, we must offer people in need not only material help but also refreshment and care for their souls.

8.  For the Church and for each individual Christian, works of charity are not optional.  Charitable works are not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others.  They are a part of our nature, and indispensable expression of our very being. 

9.  Care for the poor and needy cannot be left up to the government alone.  "There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.  ... There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help.  There will always be loneliness."  Who have you consoled today?

10.  Love is never finished.  It just keeps getting better.

We love you, Papa B.  Pray for us!

Monday, February 25, 2013

New Resources Section (News and Notes)

Thanks to Tara, who suggested telling readers about other Catholic marriage-related resources on the web.  Based on her suggestion, I'm creating a new resources section with links and reviews.  Below is a list of links to websites that seem worth checking out.  I'm planning to post full reviews of these sites later.  If you know of other helpful web resources, please leave a comment telling me about them!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Vivian's Story: Why I Fast for Marriage (Pray-Cana Post)

I’m excited to introduce you to Vivian, who has pledged to join the USCCB Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty, along with more than 500 other people (you can join here). Vivian is a painter of sacred icons, whose work can be viewed at  Some of her most recent works include a series of the Stations of the Cross.

1. Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Vivian Imbruglia, and I’m 54 years old.  I came from a very devout Catholic home where I was one of eight children. My husband and I have three children.  Our son, Nathaniel, is married and has given us three grandchildren whom we absolutely LOVE!

Eight years ago I fell in love with iconography (the creation of sacred images).  It consumed me.  After having worked in the outside world for over 30 years, I told my husband I just want to write (paint) icons every day. When I read this quote from Blessed John Paul II, I knew what I had to do: 

“Artistic talent is a gift from God and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.” -- Blessed John Paul II


My goal is simply to serve HIM, and touch as many lives as possible with my work.  

2. Why have you responded to the bishops’ Call to Prayer? Why do you believe in the cause of life, marriage, and religious liberty? What do you believe that fasting and prayer can accomplish both in your spiritual life and in the world?

I try to GROW in my faith and therefore try to be open to new ways to do that.  I recognize a value in fasting overall, and I am VERY concerned about the causes pointed out by the bishops.  Life, marriage, and religious liberty are all causes that tie together, and are so important that the very survival of our country is at stake. Fasting for me is a way to develop discipline, but also a means of channeling focus toward God.  I believe God does hear and answer our prayers, like it says in 2 Chronicles 7:14 – “then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins and will heal their land.”

3. Was it difficult to fast on Ash Wednesday and then again on Friday?

I actually looked forward to beginning my fast on Ash Wednesday, and had a beautiful day planned out. I drove out with three lovely ladies from our parish to spend the day with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Alhambra, California.  A unique bond between the four of us became even stronger that day, as we attended a one-day Lenten retreat led by Father Andrew Apostoli, CFR.  We said the rosary, Stations of the Cross, Adoration, confession, and ended with Mass. I hardly realized I was fasting, probably because I was so full of the Holy Spirit.


The day after Ash Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. My husband surprised me with an overnight trip, and the next morning we walked to a quaint little restaurant and had a wonderful breakfast. It wasn't until that afternoon that I realized it was Friday!!!  I was supposed to be fasting!!  I felt horrible but then realized our God is a forgiving God, and He knows my intentions.  I decided to fast on Saturday instead.

 4.  What is the top reason you think that other people should answer the bishops’ call?

I turned on the news this morning to hear a twenty year old shot his girlfriend, then hijacked two cars and killed two more people. The news is filled with these types of stories almost every day. Our country and our world is filled with hurting and desperate people. God is disappearing from too many lives. We need prayer.

For more posts in the fasting series, click here: Fasting and Marriage, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Artwork by Vivian Imbruglia

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Financial Lent (Post-Cana Post)

My husband and I have been scraping the bottom of the financial barrel lately.  It couldn't have happened at a better time.  Lent is about sacrifices, after all, isn't it?  Some sacrifices are voluntary, but some are imposed from the outside.  Cheerfully accepting the sacrifices we haven't asked for is as valuable as imposing mortifications of our own choosing.  Cheerful acceptance, of course, is easier said than done.

For many prosperous years, I watched our finances obsessively, fearfully, hawk-like.  It finally dawned on my that what I feared was my own mistakes.  Was I guilty of money mismanagement, stupidity, greed, wastefulness?  As our family grew, our belts got tighter.  No matter how we budgeted or planned, we always seemed to hit the financial skids at least once a year, usually in January.  This January was no exception, except that it was worse than usual.

We've experienced a series of financial whammos lately, including multiple car accidents, starting medical treatment to control my eldest daughter's attention deficit disorder, braces for what seems like every child, and-and-and.  But, for once, my fragile hold on peacefulness has not been broken.  The fault for these financial calamities cannot be laid at my door.  Calamity is like "Our Lady's caress," as Pope John Paul II famously called the assassin's bullet that wounded him.  Who can lose their peace when Our Lady is just introducing us to the kind of life she lived?  Even temporary poverty gives us a glimpse of the absolute trust that Our Lady must have placed in God to provide for her family's daily needs.

Besides, God has showed his care for me in so many dramatic ways these past few months.  Week after week, my mission to spread the Church's good news about marriage and family has received a surprising boost.  Chance meetings with chancellors, unexpected offers by editors, unanticipated invitations from publishers, all adding up to an overwhelming overload of blessings.  The blessings aren't financial right now, but that's okay.

In this amazing season of Lent, I feel like I'm body-surfing through surging spiritual waters, rocketing up, plummeting down, can't breathe, rushing faster-than-fast, but dry land waits ahead for me.  When I'm thrown on the sand, God will be there to pick me up.  He has numbered the hairs on my head.  He knows what I need, what my family needs, and he will provide.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Happy Valentine's Sunday (Post-Cana Post)

When I was single,  Valentine's Day was miserably lonely for me.  The pressure to jump into a relationship (or hold onto one) was enormous, but I never seemed to get my timing quite right.  I never got the bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolate that I thought everyone else was getting.  The most memorable Valentine's Day gift that I received was a giant red amaryllis flower in a pot of very unromantic dirt.  The fellow I was dating at that time apparently did not know me well enough to realize that I had the blackest of black thumbs, and a potted plant would probably die faster than cut flowers in a vase.

It was disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that my husband Manny frowned upon Valentine's Day as a secularized, Hallmark holiday (even though he has no objection to Santa -- a secularized symbol if I ever saw one!).  "Why should I be demanded to prove my love on one day of the year more than any other?" he grumped.  We celebrated Valentine's Day a deux for the first few years of our marriage.  But then the volume of  school Valentine's Day celebrations began to crush me.  First one kid, and then another, and then another, became obligated to write sixteen or more Valentine's Day cards for all their classmates.  That meant I had to look up sixteen or more classmate's names (per kid) and either supervise the kids' writing them, or write them myself for the kids too young to do it for themselves.  Handling 50 or more Valentines every year for my six kids soon sucked the joy out of the holiday.

Then came the question -- do we give the kids gifts for Valentine's Day?  Should they give us gifts?  Should they give each other gifts?  We finally sought the advice of our friend Connie, who has ten kids.  Connie and her husband turned Valentine's Day into a holiday for the kids more than for the parents.  My husband and I excitedly jumped on board.  So every year for the past couple of years, we have taken the kids ice skating on the weekend before or after Valentine's Day.

This year, on the Sunday after Valentine's Day, we drove into New York City to ice-skate for free at the rink in Bryant Park.  Since it was Sunday, we didn't even have to pay for parking.  And we didn't have to worry about Valentine's Day being too celebratory for Lent -- we saved our celebration for Sunday, when the obligation to do penance doesn't apply.  Like every other year we've celebrated Valentine's Day as a family holiday, we had a blast.  And when my husband toddled our two-year-old around the rink and then held my ice-skate-clad foot in his lap to undo my laces, it was as romantic as a girl could wish for.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday Ambassadors (Pray-Cana Post)

We bear on the brow the seal of Him who died.

“So we are ambassadors for Christ . . . .

We beseech you on behalf of Christ,

be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20)

May You and Your Family Have a Blessed Ash Wednesday!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Do Moms Really Need to Do Lent? (Post-Cana Post)

One young mom of many caused a stir a few years ago by asking, "Do moms really need to give up anything for Lent?"  Lest you reject the question out of hand, let's look at the sacrifices required of a young mom of many, who is either pregnant or breastfeeding (or both) pretty much all of the time.  No sleep, no caffeine, no alcohol, no makeup or fancy clothes, no waistline, no alone time, and very little adult conversation.  Is there anything left to give up? 

The answer is a resounding yes, according to posts like 100 Things To Do For Lent.  Even when your body is giving its utmost and your time is is filled to the minute, there are always bad habits you can get rid of for Lent.  Gossiping, complaining, sarcasm, negativity, self-pity, general snarkiness?  We're all guilty of at least one of these, at least some of the time. 

A cheerful smile, especially when you don't feel like it, can be the best sacrifice of all.  St. Therese of Lisieux advised, "Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”  A mom's cheerful smile can lift the spirits of her entire family.

Lent is actually the perfect time for cheerfulness.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, "when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men.  Truly, I say to you, they have their reward."  (Mt 6:16)  Lent is the perfect time to ask ourselves how much we really sacrifice with a smile.

 Photos by Maria Santos, age 8

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

JPII-Style Pre-Cana

Thanks to a reader, Stephanie, for asking to hear more about the pre-Cana book I'm writing.  Here's a short explanation of what the book covers and how it was inspired by John Paul the Great.  Let me know what you think!

Concerned about the ever-larger numbers of shattered families, Blessed Pope John Paul II strongly urged the Church to improve the quality of pre-Cana programs being offered to engaged couples.  He stated, “the Church must therefore promote better and more intensive programs of marriage preparation, in order to eliminate as far as possible the difficulties that many married couples find themselves in, and even more in order to favor positively the establishing and maturing of successful marriages.” (Familiaris Consortio, no. 66)

Inspired by the Pope's call, my friend Peter McFadden started a new JPII-style pre-Cana program for couples in Manhattan.  (See his website here.)  My husband and I developed the initial curriculum for Peter and taught the first few years of courses before we moved away to the suburbs.  What we couldn't find was a book to go along with the curriculum, so I started writing one.  After years of work, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel!  Here's a summary of topics covered in the book.


1.  Theology of Marriage

2.  Openness to Life

3.  Parenting Special-Needs Children

4.  Educating Your Children

5.  Communicating with Your Spouse and Your In-Laws

6.  Families Serving Other Families

7.  Stewardship Over Your Finances

8.  Finding Meaningful Work

9.  Prayer and Imitation of the Holy Family

Each chapter of the book contains an explanation of Church doctrine supported by passages from the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and various papal encyclicals.  The chapters also include real-life examples from my own experience, and the experiences of my friends and family.  The book is intended to be accessible enough for individuals to read on their own, and informative enough to work as a text for a class.

Let me know what you think!  Are there any topics missing?  Did your pre-Cana program cover these topics in a way that you particularly liked (or disliked)?  I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Renew Your Resolutions (Post-Cana Post)

As I stated in an earlier post, New Year's resolutions are a lot like Lenten resolutions -- well-intentioned, but hard to keep.  During Lent, my failure to keep my Lenten resolutions often tops my list of things to confess.  One priest, after hearing such a confession, responded in a thick Spanish accent: "It is a good resolution." Then, rolling his "r" dramatically for emphasis, he advised, "R-r-r-enew it!"  New Year's resolutions need renewal, too.

I made eight New Year's resolutions, one for each family member, which is rather a lot.  And they all need renewal.  So instead of updating you on all eight resolutions, this post will focus on the highest and lowest performers, so to speak.

Most progress

And the winner is ... teaching two-year-old Elisita how to talk!  Little Elisa's vocabulary at the beginning of 2013 was limited to single words mostly from the A section of the dictionary, like agua, abre [the Spanish word for open], and A-a-amen.  She has progressed all the way to two-word sentences --"Meanie Mama!" -- and even to simple sentences strung together -- "Marga crying.  Miguel did it."  It's an improvement from a linguistic standpoint, at least.  Now we just have to give her more positive topics of discussion.

Least Progress

Sad to say, I've made the least progress on personal prayer.  Years ago, I was quite rigorous about praying, reading a spiritually uplifting book, and even reciting the rosary nearly every day.  Then a new spiritual director recently advised me, "Don't worry so much about keeping to a strict prayer schedule.  What I want you to do is both very easy and very difficult.  Think of Our Lord every moment of the day."  When I expressed surprise, she said, "I know you can do this, because you are deeply in love with Our Lord."  The problem is, I'm not.  I very much want to be.  But my heart is just a few sizes too small.  Duty inspires me more than love; it always has.

My kids have even picked up on this.  One day in the middle of an argument, my seven-year-old daughter, Maria, shouted at me, "You don't really love us!  You just love us because you have to!"  Stunned, I began reciting by rote that love is not a feeling, it's a choice, a decision, a commitment.  All true.  But.  Do I really appear that way to my own children?  So cold?  Am I that cold to Our Lord?

I asked my spiritual director if she could order me to return to my previous prayer schedule, and check up on my progress every time we met.  She refused.  I explained that imposing a specific rule on me would probably produce great results.  She refused again.  The impetus for prayer must come from inside of me, she insisted.  Her approach resembled the advice of St. Francis de Sales, who said: “All that we do must be motivated by love and not force. We must love to obey rather than fear to disobey.” 

Where inside me can I find this kind of love?  I do not have the heart of saint, a heart like a burning furnace of charity on fire with love for God and others.  All I can do is pray that God will grant me one.  This is a great resolution.  I will renew it.