St. Faustina Kowlaska was just 19 years old when she had started having visions of Jesus. While at a dance in a park in Lodz, Poland, St. Faustina saw a vision of Jesus suffering. This vision changed her, and she joined a convent to fully dedicate herself to Christ. Throughout the rest of her life, Christ repeatedly visited and spoke to St. Faustina. Christ’s most influential vision to her was on February 22, 1931, when he appeared to St. Faustina, calling himself the “King of Divine Mercy.” Wearing a white garment with red and pale rays emanating from his heart, Christ told St. Faustina that he wanted the Sunday after Easter to be the Feast of Mercy.
An answer to what Divine Mercy is and why it is celebrated the Sunday after Easter is found in today’s Gospel. In John 20:19-31, Christ reveals himself to the apostles hiding in the locked room. When Jesus stood in the midst of the apostles, he did not admonish them for fleeing his side. These men had devoted themselves to Christ, yet they cowered, hid and denied Him out of fear for their own lives. The first words Jesus told these men were, “Peace be with you.” Christ forgave them for rejecting Him. When Thomas doubted the other apostles’ statements that Christ had resurrected, Jesus again appeared and showed Thomas the scars of his Passion to alleviate any skepticism. The message of Divine Mercy Sunday is this: We must always remember His mercy is far greater than our sins.
To fully understand the message of Divine Mercy we must apply the struggles of the apostles to our own lives. When have we doubted Christ? When have we denied Him? When did we betray Him?
The remedy for these sins is presented right in the Gospel. Jesus gives the power of his Divine Mercy to the apostles, so they may absolve our sins in His name. Through the sacrament of Reconciliation, Christ’s Divine Mercy is available to us all. The sacrament of Reconciliation proves that God loves all of his creation and wants every one of us to experience his Divine Mercy. To quote St. Augustine, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”
Even if you were the only person on Earth, Jesus would have still sacrificed himself and gone through the agony of death to save you from sin. The treasury of Christ’s mercy is infinite. We must be willing to humble ourselves and accept this grace.
By: Sandy DeTeresa, Catholic Gators Campus Minister
It’s 2018. Everyone is either posting their “new year, new me” statuses and making New Year’s resolutions, or making fun of New Year’s resolutions and the fact that so many people make them and don’t stick to them. Personally, I am both of these people this year: the idealist and the cynic. I look at this New Year as a new start, a chance to do all the things I have always said I was going to do: exercise more often, stop eating sugar, spend hours and hours in prayer, not watch as much Netflix, save more, stick to my budget, etc. I also look at New Year’s with the knowledge of past New Year’s: resolutions that didn’t even last a week, much less a month. I remember all the times I’ve said I was going to make all of these really good, awesome changes, only to remember how after eating healthy for two days I couldn’t help but feast on cupcakes at a friend’s birthday. I see the pattern, I know the pattern, I live the pattern. I go to bed thinking “tomorrow, I’m changing my life” and wake up thinking “ugh, not today.” After a lot of reflection, I may have finally found the problem.
These changes I want to make, they are not bad changes. It’s why I idealize them and want to make them so badly, they are good. They are big changes though. I go from struggling to pray a rosary once a week to wanting to pray it once a day. I want to go from not running at all to running a 5k in a week. I want to go from drinking 2-4 coffees a day to drinking no caffeine at all (what, crazy, right?). I want to go from living my life with a chaotic schedule that I don’t balance very well, poor budgeting, and a flaky prayer life, to having all of that perfected overnight. And I resolve to fix these all the time: at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the month, at the beginning of the week. Each beginning, I find myself resolving anew to fix the broken. But some of this broken is going to take more than a day to fix. And trying to fix it all at once… well, that’s impossible.
In all of these things I want to fix, there is one constant behind them: I don’t always have the willpower to make these changes. I want to be able to come in and not need coffee to get through the day without giving someone the stank eye. I want to be able to run a half marathon in a month. I want to be able to sit in the church for holy hours and not fall asleep on a regular basis or find myself checking my email. But when the time comes, these choices are really difficult, especially all at once. I have not chosen to be faithful in the small things, so how can I be faithful in the big things? If I can’t refrain from eating one cookie after having two, how can I refrain from eating any sugar at all? If I don’t even schedule in prayer time, how can I expect the time I spend with Jesus to be fruitful if it is usually an afterthought after a hectic day when I just want to decompress and watch Netflix? I do not have the strength to make these big changes…yet, but I can do the work to get that strong.
After venting numerous times to a close friend about this, she used the example of exercise to help me understand the changes I need to make versus the changes I want to make but that are too big to make all at once. She calls it “spiritual bicep curls.” When you start working out, you don’t start bicep curling with 50-lb weights (at least, I don’t). You start small, maybe 10-lb weights. And after a few sessions of using 10-lb weights, you up the weight by maybe 5 lbs. After weeks of slowly upping the weight, of making small changes, you’ve reached your goal of 50 lbs. And what’s more, you have built up slowly to that big change, which is now a permanent change because you have the strength to continue using 50-lb weights.
So, we have to start small. Make a list of small things for different areas in your life. Each year, I ask retreat leaders I work with to make a self-care plan. In this plan, they look at five areas of their life, and come up with no more than three small ways they are going to keep the balance or make changes in these areas. And the few things they put on that list? They need to be small choices. Most of the things on that list are ways to maintain balance, and no more than one thing for each area is a change. That way, they are not making too many changes all at once and setting themselves up for burn out.
I ask them to look at their spiritual life, their academic life, their physical health, their mental health, and their social life. They find the weaknesses in those areas and identify the way(s) in which they want to grow. I ask the questions: when you are stressed, what is the first thing to go in each of those areas? And how do you want to grow in those areas? For some people, with their physical health, it’s sleep that they neglect, for others, it’s exercise. In the spiritual life, for one person, they might want to spend more time in adoration, while for another, they want to increase their Mass attendance. For each person, it is different. Make a list of these small ways to maintain balance, and if you want, add one small change. Here are some examples of things I have seen others put on that list:
Spiritual life: Attend regular confession, find a spiritual director, go to daily Mass, read the Bible daily, add an extra holy hour to your week, pray the rosary one more time a week than normal
Academic life: Spend two hours a day studying instead of cramming before exams, form a study group, find a tutor
Physical health: Exercise three times a week, only eat dessert on Sundays and feast days, get at least 6 hours of sleep each night.
Mental health: Only watch one episode of Netflix a day, spend one day a week without your phone, take one day a month completely off from work, extracurriculars and school.
Social life: Call a friend and have a real conversation once a week, spend time with at least one friend outside of a studying/work/extracurricular setting once a week, sign up for a leisure class
I know what you’re thinking, it’s my frustration too: “Okay, that’s great, but won’t making these tiny changes over such a long amount of time take such a long amount of time?” Well, yes and no. You won’t necessarily see changes overnight. You might still fall asleep halfway through a rosary or keep pressing the play button on that next episode of Netflix. But you started. You didn’t press play after that episode you watched yesterday. And you won’t after you watch one tomorrow. You only checked your email once in the five holy hours you did this week. These are small steps, but after a while, the change will be more noticeable. Instead of wasting months or “restarting” your big resolutions and never accomplishing them, you will be much closer to accomplishing them after taking the first ten steps to get there. By making small changes now, at the end of 2018, you might just have made the big changes you were hoping for.
Honestly, I never understood what the big deal was about Thérèse of Lisieux, the little saint who has captured the hearts of millions of Catholics.
What was it about her that drew people to her, and to holiness?
My initial encounter with Thérèse did not go very far. I began reading a little about her spirituality, her love of Christ and intense desire to give everything she had to Him. I remember thinking, that’s great and all, but there are so many others who live the same way.
Why was she a saint, one declared a Doctor of the Church by St. John Paul II?
There had to be something more to her story. Deciding to give her another chance in my heart, I got her prayer card and set out to learn as much as I could. I asked her to pray for my path, for a way to relate to a person with whom, on the surface, I had nothing in common.
Well, the Lord certainly delivered. I learned that Thérèse’s status as one of the Church’s great saints relies on the relatability I was missing. It relies on profound simplicity, and most of all, it relies on the acceptance of Jesus into every corner of our lives, and complete abandonment of our own wants and desires. Needless to say, I got a little fired up about her. There is still so much we can learn from her. Today is Oct. 1st, Thérèse’s feast day. I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on her life and how we may grow a little closer to Christ through her guidance. St. Thérèse, pray for us!
“Desire to be unknown and counted as nothing…”
Exalted nothingness. St. Thérèse’s oxymoronic spiritual goal derived from the writings of St. John of the Cross:
“To reach satisfaction in everything, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possession of everything, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.”
Most people with an attachment to St. Thérèse are familiar with what is called her “little way.” In humility, she realized she could never match the heroic levels of many saints. She would reach heaven carried by the arms of Jesus rather than climbing the stairs with her own feet. Her faith and works, all of it came through Him:
“When I act as charity bids, I have this feeling that it is Jesus who is acting in me; the closer my union with him, the greater my love…”
Thérèse truly lived through the Gospel. She diminished herself so much that her words and actions brimmed with the Holy Spirit, overtaking every single aspect of her life. She made it a point to pray for purity of heart, so that every action she took could be consecrated to God. As she says herself, “The smallest act of pure Love is of more value than all other works together.” In fact, Thérèse believed that the smallest acts, the ones God alone knew of, were the greatest of all. How often do we do nice things for others because we’ll gain from it as well, through recognition, praise or otherwise? Thérèse reminds us to do the mundane simply out of a love for others and for God. Revel in the silence and anonymity. Sometimes being praised by man makes us feel good, but isn’t being lifted by Jesus a much greater reward?
“The world’s thy ship and not thy home…”
In the constant motion of today’s world, there is so much that we miss. I am as guilty as anyone: walking around campus with my head down, earbuds in, trying to get from one place to another. Imagine all we could enjoy if we simply took a second to appreciate God’s creation around us. St. Thérèse had a keen sense of awareness. Every thought she had and action she took was scrutinized at the end of the day. Extend your examination of conscience to include the world around you!
Think of how aware you are of your body and soul when you receive the Eucharist, or when you spend time with the Lord in adoration. What if we took that level of awareness and could translate it to all our waking moments? Imagine the good we could do, the amount of love we could share. We just have to learn to see God in all things. Thérèse understood this from a young age. She knew that it was impossible to love God if He was ignored in the things He made.
Everything in Thérèse’s life was an opportunity. An opportunity to deny herself for the love of Christ, a chance to share in His life. And all these opportunities were simply stepping stones on the path to heaven. Thérèse wanted nothing more than to get to heaven, to be with her Savior. She wanted the same for her family; when she was young she even wished her parents dead so that they might go to heaven right away. While I do not recommend telling your parents you want them to die, Thérèse’s innocent statement tells us a lot about her heart. She wanted what is best for those she loves.
Be childlike! Bring your loved ones along for your journey and don’t ever forget about them. Thérèse remembered her sister Celine’s first communion, a day that she said was “one of the most beautiful of my life.” Happiness is always around us, even when we’re going through a rough time ourselves. But we’re all members of Christ’s body, and so we must realize that the joy of another is our joy as well. Don’t get jealous. Be humble, patient, and live within the joy around you.
“Christ didn’t come down from the cross…”
So how do we accomplish that? How do we experience joy during the toughest moments of our lives? Thérèse only lived to be 24, and her life was scarred by constant suffering. She did not live with her parents for the first year and a half of her life, her mother died of cancer when Thérèse was four, and her sister and best friend Pauline abandoned her for the Carmel a few years later. Then, at the end of her life, tuberculosis ravaged both her body and soul. The crippling disease caused her so much pain that it caused her to question her faith in a period she called the darkest of her life.
But here’s the thing: Thérèse embraced all her struggles with an incredible resilience. She welcomed her deathbed with more faith and love of Christ than she ever had. Better than anything else, she understood Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and what it meant for us. Thérèse had made it a point to be Christlike in every other aspect of life, and to her there was no more noble ideal than suffering as Christ suffered.
To Thérèse, every challenge she faced was another opportunity from God. It was a chance to love, unconditionally, as Jesus loves. So, for us, we need to embrace the daily challenges that come our way. God doesn’t give them to us as punishment or because He thinks we deserve it. Instead, the tough days should bring us closer to Him. Seek out difficulty. Challenge yourself and live outside of comfort, because otherwise how can we grow?
Thérèse would spend time with the sisters of Carmel that were most unpleasant to be around for this exact reason. It’s easy to love the ones you care for. Much harder is to love the ones you don’t. Life is filled with all kinds of difficulties. When we face them, don’t shrink away! Give thanks to God for the opportunity and tackle them head on.
As his body withered near the end of his pontificate, onlookers asked St. John Paul II whether he should step down for his own sake. He responded, rather simply, “Christ didn’t come down from the cross.” Like our Savior, John Paul and Thérèse bore their crosses and didn’t put them down.
FOCUS ( Fellowship of Catholic University Students) changed my life in college. It introduced me to the person of Jesus Christ and gave me tangible ways of living a friendship with Him. That led me to want to share that friendship with others, and invite them into their very own friendship with Him. It changed the way I viewed life and love and the pursuit of happiness, which I realized was best found living close to the heart of Jesus. This proximity lead me to do some crazy things, including becoming a FOCUS missionary myself. My life in The Swamp started as I was placed at the University of Florida my first year on staff. I never could have dreamt up all the amazing things that came along with giving my “yes” to God. Each day came with another opportunity to give my “yes,” from giving my days to Him, with great devotion to prayer and the mission, to growing to be a Gator fan even in 100 degree weather.
I saw myself come alive in an environment where I was free to embrace the gift of who I am as a daughter of God, and to use the gifts I have been given to serve the King of the Universe. I came to understand and maintain interior freedom of heart. I dedicated myself to praying daily, and going to daily Mass to receive the Eucharist, my life source, every single day. The grace received in this time and in time of Adoration, on retreats or at other Catholic Gator events, allowed me to see and experience the magnificent and all-encompassing love of God. I began to not only meet Christ in the Mass and in prayer but also in the people I worked with, the missionaries and staff that I served alongside, and the students I got to journey with on a daily basis, as they too saw their lives transformed through their own “yes.” Collectively we grew strong in a community of shared faith; desire to be holy and live virtue; and resist the temptations that flood the lives of college students.
We committed to living chastity, sobriety, and excellence and strived to hold one another accountable and live above reproach. We committed to leading bible studies and discipling others, which lead to spiritually multiplying and having the greatest impact possible.
I personally served sorority women and watched FOCUS Greek grow before my eyes as more and more women gave their “yes.” By God’s grace we lived each day with great joy, which was contagious and drew people into want to know more and discover for themselves the gift that Christ can be in one’s life. Living this way, structuring my life around God and surrounding myself with people who loved me by willing the good for me, changed me. The gift of FOCUS, the relationships, memories, and experiences made these past three years the best of my life thus far.
They set a new standard for how to live life to the fullest, and how to live in the world but not of the world by loving and encountering the people of the world like Jesus would. I am moving onto a new chapter, and am excited to incorporate all that I learned and take these lessons with me into all aspects of my life. I know that I have many reasons to be considered “biased,” but if my bias leads someone, including you, to give Jesus a shot and make Him a part of your college experience, or even the center of it, then go, bias, go!!!
Take my advice: Let God love you and show you who you really are, and ALL that he has in store for you, and you too will experience what it means to be fully alive.
I think it’s fair to say every Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary enters their first year on campus with a bit of swagger in their step. For most missionaries, leading a FOCUS Bible study or discipling students was part of their college experience; many of them were pretty good at it, too! But then that first week on campus arrives, and the floodgates open. Fall outreach, meeting inherited disciples, moving to a new city (or in my case, moving literally across the country) and getting used to team life combine for one crazy start to the year. And then comes the inevitable drop-off: It happens at a different time for each missionary. For some, like myself, it came very quickly. No matter the experience level or confidence, every missionary ultimately hits a wall, and realizes that they can’t save souls on their own. Maybe Bible study isn’t going well, teammates have different personalities, or they’re simply homesick. This is the “make or break” moment for every missionary. For me, it was a giant step into a new phase of my life. Continue reading “FOCUS Series: We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are”→
After our time of reflection and prayer, our Lenten journey ends with the celebration of Easter! It is a celebration of new life where families come together to have fun by going on Easter egg hunts, dying hardboiled eggs, and munching on all that yummy Easter chocolate. But where did all these traditions come from? After all, Easter can’t just be all about the candy right?
To begin with, Easter is known as a “movable feast” because it doesn’t fall on a set date every year, Christian churches generally celebrate Easter anywhere between March 22 and April 25 every year. The particular origin of the word “Easter” is unknown. Nevertheless, some speculate that the name came from the Latin term “hebdomada alba”, or white week, which is a reference to Easter week and the white clothing worn by people who were baptized at the time. On another account, the term later appeared as “esostarum” in Old High German, which eventually became Easter in English.
Even though Easter is celebrated in one day, it’s actually a whole season in the Liturgical Year of the Catholic Church. It begins with Lent, which leads to Easter Sunday, then ending on Eastertide. Lent lasts for 40-days and is a time when Christians focus on prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It also represents the 40-days that Jesus spent alone in the desert before starting His ministry, the biblical story goes on to say that during that time He was also tempted by the devil. After Easter Sunday comes Eastertide. Eastertide is the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It is a 50-day period starting from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. Within Eastertide is also a time called the Octave which is the first 8 days after Easter. The octave is celebrated as a solemnity of the Lord.
While the day is commonly known for celebrating new life, Easter can also symbolize many other things which can be seen through Easter traditions. The egg can be seen as a symbol of rebirth, life and fertility. Eggs that were dyed red would symbolize the blood of Jesus dying on the cross. The hard shell of the egg represents the sealed Tomb of Christ, and cracking the shell represents Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Historically, Christians would abstain from eating eggs and meat during Lent, and Easter was the first chance to eat eggs again after a long period of abstinence.
In addition to Easter eggs, who can think about Easter without also thinking about the Easter bunny? However, the Bible gives no mention about any furry, long-eared creature delivering sweets to children. Nevertheless the beloved animal is still a prominent figure in the Easter holiday. But, how did this come to pass? According to History.com, the theory with the most evidence is that this story came over with German immigrants. According to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the mythical rabbit’s deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy. And since the legend of a gift giving rabbit took hold, children also enjoy leaving carrots out for their favorite bunny in thanks for all its hard work.
Finally, Easter is a time marked with happiness, prayer, and new life. While you enjoy time this year with your friends and family celebrating Easter, remember that it isn’t always about the games and candy, but about the time Jesus took in preparation to spread the gospel.
Every year as Lent begins, I close the Spotify app and make a promise not to listen to music until Easter. No, I don’t plug my ears anytime I hear music anywhere, but I do refrain from plugging in my headphones on the bus, while I’m studying, or any other time that I would be listening by myself.
I get crazy looks from my friends when they ask me what I give up for Lent and I understand them completely. For our generation, music is constant, the beats are everywhere and sometimes you just need that favorite rhythm of yours to take you somewhere else or bring you back from it. I depend on music, which is exactly why I give it up every Lent.
I want to depend on God like I do my music. While any good Catholic knows in their heart that God will always come first, everyone has had that week when they’ve replayed that Kendrick song more times than they’ve prayed.
Lent is the chance to break from that, or rather put our regular habits on pause. For 40 days, I break my bubble of beats and look up to the people around me on the bus and on the walk to class. I try to pray and ask what God wants of me this day and every day.
The first few days of my music fast are always hard. My favorite songs stream into my head unbidden and it would make me feel so much better if I could just listen to a couple seconds of a couple songs.
But every year I push through. Sometimes I stumble, but never for that long. Lent isn’t about perfect prayer, but honest effort to grow closer to the One you really couldn’t live without. For me, I need silence to hear Him. Quiet moments where it’s just Him and I, no music to run to when I don’t want to think about the hard stuff.
Despite this being the third year I have completed this fast, I’m still surprised by how much more I enjoy the music at Mass during it, because I sing in praise of Him and not in fulfillment of my desires. Even after Lent is over, I always feel less inclined to drown myself in music, too. The songs that get stuck in my head are gone, and for the most part, I find that I can think more clearly.
After my fast, it’s as if I have been strengthened in these 40 days to reach into next year, always a little less dependent on my playlist. After all, we sacrifice things during Lent not just out of duty to suffer in a small way as He suffered in a big way, but to fortify and remind ourselves of our priorities to God and to each other.
Don’t get me wrong—I still listen to music once Lent is over, and I still always need these 40 days to disconnect every year. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music regularly and I am certainly not one of iron will. I get caught in music when I’m stressed and distract myself from prayer at some point every year, so I really believe it is a blessing that we have Lent every year to break from our habits.
If you’ve only just decided to give up or begin something for Lent, it’s not too late. Start something good now, like praying a certain prayer every day, and keep going after Easter. Lent, much like New Year’s, isn’t the only time when we get a new beginning.
If giving up music altogether is unfeasible, try listening to it less or just listening to music that glorifies Him. Or better yet, pray and reflect on what it is that you lean on that isn’t related to your faith, something that might distract you often or pull you away from Him. We all have our comforts and there’s nothing wrong with that.
This Lent and every Lent I pray that my earthly comforts do not become my crutches, and that I always remember that it’s God I truly depend on.
Written by: Dolores Hinckley, Restless Heart Communications
It’s amazing to see that Saint Patrick’s feast day is celebrated internationally by many different cultures and peoples, but his popularity may not always be for the right reasons—many that participate celebrate not for Saint Patrick’s sake, but for the sake of partying and celebrating in itself. This tendency to lose sight of the reason behind the celebration dominates many American’s perceptions of the feast day of Saint Patrick, and drowns out the great history, faith, and victory that his feast day celebrates. Saint Patrick’s life offers an amazing story of how God can be a major source of relief in our lives, how He works in mysterious ways, and how He guides us to where we need to be if we allow Him; by keeping these things in mind, we can celebrate in a way that can be fulfilling.
Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain to a Catholic family, but according to his memoir, he “knew not the true God” until he was captured and placed into bondage. As a teenager, Patrick was taken to Ireland by pirates, and was forced to work as a slave by tending to farm animals. In this suffering, and in his lonesome despair, Patrick learned to see and rely on God’s love—in his memoir, The Confession of Saint Patrick, he explains how his reliance on God for hope and solace offered incredible fruit: “The love of God and His fear grew and grew in me more and more, as did faith… I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.” Eventually, after years of enslavement, Patrick had grown much in his faith, and God came to Patrick in a dream instructing him to escape and return home.
Once at home, an angel appeared to Patrick in a dream, compelling him to return to Ireland and share his faith. Trusting God’s plan, he studied to join the priesthood, and was eventually ordained a bishop before being sent to Ireland to spread the Gospel. He dedicated forty years of his life to the Church, and suffering and enduring much as he converted people, built churches, and worked miracles across Ireland. His perseverance against adversity contributed greatly to the development and prosperity of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and offers an inspiring example of dedication to spreading His word.
Although he lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, the struggles and actions of Saint Patrick can still be admired and related to our lives as Catholics today. In a lonely, unfamiliar land, Saint Patrick turned to God, and was provided with shelter from pain and distress. Likewise, when our lives move in unexpected directions, giving us reasons to despair or panic, we must try to remember that our lives and fears can be trusted to God, and that He will console us. One can imagine that Patrick was overwhelmed when he was brought to Ireland, but God used this as a part of His plan: He drew Patrick closer to Him, and then used him to reach out to and bring many to the light of His love. Saint Patrick’s life, although marked by difficulty and suffering, is surely one to be celebrated as noble and holy.
Saint Patrick’s Day offers us a time to reflect upon the life of a great man, how the Lord works in our lives, and how we can give ourselves to the Lord for His noble purposes. So celebrate: the Bishop granted a dispensation from fasting from meat this Friday* for this life lived so gloriously and graciously, so a special meal for this occasion can offer a reminder of how a life lived with Him in mind can be truly satisfying.
Written by: Alex Esperanza, Restless Heart Communications
Every few years since the age of six, I’ve gone to Italy to see my family. My mother’s side lives on that small rock, kicked by the Italian boot, we call Sicily. There, between the ages of six and 19, I visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins and cousins and cousins and cousins. This summer, I did just the same, but I was blessed enough to also experience a beautiful part of Catholic life I as an American don’t often encounter: feast day parades.
Two days into my trip, I was trucked up to a church on a peak and told the procession was about to begin. Inside, it was loud and crowded. People weave in and out of the church, barefoot and hot, under the presence of a statue of Mary, dressed in gold and jewelry. Old Italian matrons, parked in their chairs, observed the crowd while fanning themselves in big sweeps, and chatting about how “mom” is visiting us once again.
Every year on July 2 the Sicilian city of Enna in Italy celebrates the Feast of the Visitation in special way. The men of the city shoulder a statue of the Virgin Mary known as La Madonna S.S. della Visitazione, or Our Lady of the Visitation, and carry her to a church on the other side of the city. Where she visits her cousin Elizabeth, also a statue of great beauty, in celebration of the good news. As they have done so since the 14th Century after the pagan cult of Ceres was replaced with this holiday honoring Mary.
Reveling in the fun and cool air from the altitude breaking the Sicilian heat, I could only think it was Mary that could make such an old holiday new every year with youthful joy for the people of this city and its surroundings.
My experience in the celebration began in the mother church where the men stretched their shoulders and toes to prepare for the burden that was to come and while visitors began to pile to take a close picture of Our Lady before she began her journey, like I did.
The statue, covered in pounds of jewelry given as thanks for graces by devotees, is the reason the men prepare for sore shoulders and aching feet. It’s heavy beyond belief and must be carried through treacherously sloped, cobbled and narrow streets. A picturesque, but often difficult feature of Italy.
At points the men must lower the statue almost to the ground so as to pass through certain streets, and this they do barefoot, too. For these men, the bare-footedness and the burden of the journey is all to honor Our Lady and give thanks to the Lord. They carry her, with every gold necklace adorned on her and prayer attached to her, because she carries us.
It is a sacrifice these sons of Enna take willingly every year. Even in 1943, when bombs were being dropped on Italy, this procession continued. Mary was certainly there that day protecting the townspeople as they scrambled to find the men to carry her to her visiting church before sundown.
Women, too, walked barefoot alongside their sons and brothers, to offer a small sacrifice or simply as an act of thanks.
The parade offered immeasurable joy in the crowds of spirited older women with rosaries in hand and children weaving through streets, trying to catch the next glimpse of the procession.
I felt that joy like a sigh of relief. Mary is often the Untier of Knots or the Merciful. She who knows suffering at its greatest. She who is many people’s first point of empathy. I go to her like I do to my mother, often for comfort.
On this occasion, I found Mary in a way I had not been acquainted well with. In the streets of Enna, I found Mary as the vehicle of joy incarnate. A blessing of hope in the high altitude of the tallest city on the island. She is a beacon and an example.
In a place like Sicily, this joy is welcome. The people of Enna, like all of us, look to Mary for strength and constancy, in a place where its often difficult to find either. Sicily is much loved by words and little by deeds. It’s during these festivals, honoring those who draw us closer to God, that these small Sicilian towns and cities, often languishing at the lack of employment and prosperity, have purpose once again.
And individually, I have purpose, too. Watching the men carry Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. Michael, I asked myself (and still do) how I glorify God. I may thank Him and pray to Him in the silence of my heart, but do I share His joy with others?
The Feast of the Visitation in Enna is my reminder of joy when I struggle to sing in Mass or reconsider saying an uncharitable word. The deepest parts of my faith will perhaps always flourish in private, but Mary, coming to show the world the greatest joy we can ever know, reminds me that it doesn’t hurt once and a while to let that fruit of that faith show.
Written by: Dolores Hinckley, Restless Heart Communications