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.