Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sr. Faustina: Down from Pike's Peak and Up on God & Students


                                        " I just knew I wanted to do everything that
                                                            had to do with God  ."  ( Sr. Faustina Ferko )

By Robert  R. Schwarz

            She is 35 but looks years younger.  She stands five-foot-seven , has brown hair and smiling  blue-green eyes  and a cheerful disposition ,  and she prays several times during the day and evening.  She likes hamburgers without a bun ,  guitar  playing , making pottery ,  and cycling along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Et cetera, et cetera. You could call  Sr. Faustina  Ferko a kind of Catholic Renaissance  woman  but  you'd have to expand that definition to include mountain climbing. She's hiked up Pike's Peak twice and,  during one ascent when pelted with hail, rain, and snow and seeing  flashes of lightning , she thought she was going to die.
" I was praying and asking Jesus to lead my steps ," she said during our interview.  Whenever she mentioned  "Jesus" , she intoned His name as if He were  a beloved neighbor of hers whom she had known   for a long time.
            As was to be expected when Sr. Faustina Ferko was hired as the new director of youth ministry at St. James  Catholic church in Arlington Heights , Illinois, she came with  a devotion to Jesus and also to those conversion moments with students  she calls  "God  moments. "  During our hour together, she recalled one of those special  moments when a novice stationed at a Philadelphia high school : It was in a chapel there  after an " adoration "  service of prayers and singing  for freshmen .  "Everybody was getting up to leave except for a girl who remained kneeling ," Sr. Faustina said. " I asked her if she was okay , and she said ' yes , but I don't want to go. ' It was like she was saying  this is God and I don't want to leave Him . For this girl ,  it was a beautiful moment. "
   
       Sr. Faustina took a deep breath before

continuing : "That was the beginning [ of a

conversion] for that young lady , and for it to

happen at her age is so important . In that

moment they understand how much God loves

them. The younger these children can take hold

of the realization that God is real and that He

wants a relationship with them, the better. "  She related with exuberance all this to her ministry  at

St. James  by emphasizing the importance having a " good atmosphere  for the students to encounter

Christ."   Sr. Faustina has "high expectations" for the program she is developing at St. James to get

adult volunteers to teach  religious education to 9  th through 12th grade students , whether they have been  confirmed or not. "I think a lot of parents are looking for ways to better plug our teens into this parish. "
            I asked her what she would like people to say about her at her funeral . Her prompt reply: "I saw Jesus in her."
Why and How She Became a Religious Sister
How did it all begin for her ?   " The beginning seed was planted in my heart at age eight at a 2 ½ –hour charismatic Mass,"  she said. " It was very engaging. " Then I attended a seminar where I learned about gifts of the Holy Spirit. At the end, people pray over you. When they prayed over me, I felt my heart and His heart became one. At that age I didn't know what that meant.  I just knew I wanted to do everything that had to do with God .  I realized that as I  got older,  my heart was so big and full of so much love that I wanted to give it to more than just one person."
            Then came four years at Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio and a bachelor of arts degree in theology.  Now with a college debt to pay off,  Sr. Faustina spent the next ten years working as a youth director at various levels and  with  various jobs to help pay off that debt . She made rosaries, loaded  trucks for United Parcel Service, and answered telephones for a telemarketing agency. Today she is a sister ( and resident )  of  Holy Family of Nazareth in Des Plaines ,  an order formed in 1875 in Rome , which today has   1,300 sisters—not nuns, who are cloistered and whose vocation is primarily prayer. The order's work in its 13 countries  focuses on helping families.
            Asked if she ever had any regrets about choosing a religious rather than a family life, Sr.

Faustina  said with obvious , good-natured candor, " I don't think I can have regrets yet. I just made

my first vows June 15. "  We both laughed.  "I'm kind of still in the honeymoon stage. I'm totally

blown away by all that God has given me in the last three  months. So, I have no regrets. I always

knew I had a religious vocation in life but at the same time I  knew that if God brought some

wonderful  guy into my life I would be open to that . My mom was always saying  'I'm praying for

you to meet  a nice Catholic man ."  Again we shared a good  laugh. Then she continued : "So, last

June 15 I told my mom   'thanks for praying for me into the arms of Jesus . You couldn't get a better

guy than that .'  I wouldn't change my life decision now for anything, for I think God has given me

everything I've dreamed of ,  a great job and two great bosses  [ Fr. Matt Foley, pastor,  and JoAnne 

Mullen-Muhr , director of faith formation ] . "
Family Life
            All of Sr. Faustina's family  lives in  Erie, Pennsylvania .  Her father is  retired  from General Electric, where he did manual labor on train parts for 35 years. " He always put the family first, Sr. Faustina said. "If we needed a pair of shoes or pants, he'd buy it for us before himself.  Thanks to the sacrifices of my father,  I was able to attend Catholic schools all  my life. He'd put everything on the back burner to make sure that we got our Catholic education. "  She has two brothers:  Jamie, 41, a kitchen designer at a Lowe's store  , and Frankie, 43, an electrician for Verizon. 
And for   Recreation ?          
            With  full-time youth ministry and  rising at 5 a.m. for  prayers,  private adoration, and  meditation  , and later, saying  the Rosary followed by afternoon and evening prayers , one wonders  if there's any time—or energy—left for Sr. Faustina's  recreation. But there is. Sometimes she sees a movie like "l2 Years a Slave"   or  " Rise of the Planets of the Apes "—my grin at this title  was noticeable, causing Sr. Faustina to comment , "A Friend talked me into it. It really, though, was a decent movie. " 
            And there are books: " The Giver," which she thought fantastic,  " The Hunger Games, "  The Gospel  of Joy," by Pope Francis, and books by Henri Nouwen.  She exercises , which includes  long bike rides, like the 17-miles she pedaled last Labor Day  along Lake Michigan near Loyola University. What seems to delight her most is  "hanging" with her sisters at the Des Plaines convent, where she'll play and sing her guitar for them. "They are my community, " she said . " Spending time with them is really important. "
       With  two students at a Catholic Heart work camp at
 Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

            She paused for a long moment to mull over a question about what makes  her sad. Finally, she said, "When something tragic happens like  the beheading of that American journalist in Iraq.  It also made me angry. It also makes me sad that a child dies from hunger every 20 seconds, and  here I am with all this food around me and I can't get it to them."
            She was suddenly reminded of the 24-hour hunger  food fast  she is planning for all the parish high school students . " It's a 24-hour lock-in ," she explained . " They will drink water and juice and then end with a 5 p.m. Mass followed by a feast of all their favorite foods their parents will bring. "  Money will be donated for each hour the students go without food and then  given to Catholic Relief Services.
         

We ended our conversation with one last question: Was there anything she  had to learn the hard

way?   What had been most challenging for her was being unable to see her parents during her

novitiate  except for two weeks each year . Another challenge came quickly to mind: "Oh, yeah," she

mused, recalling her first days as a novice  and how she was instructed to wash dirty dishes ( she still

does this ).  " Correction is difficult when you're 30 years old and somebody is telling you how to do

something you've been doing well for years . She admitted that the  real challenge was pride.

Comments are welcome
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz


             
           

            

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Case for Re-defining the Strength of 'Weak ' People

By Robert R. Schwarz

When I am weak, then I am strong
( The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians, 12:10 )

God chose the  weak of  the world to shame the strong
( 1 Corinthians , 1: 27 )

If we should ever feel burdened by the knowledge
of our weakness…let us remember what  the Lord
told St. Paul during his time of trial : "My graces
is sufficient for  you,  for my power is made perfect
 in weakness ."
( from Conversations with God by Francis Fernandez )




Many years ago I was  saddened and  also   dismayed by the death of two friends whom I had considered paragons of human strength—emotional, physical, intellectual. As a journalist, their deaths left me  with a need to know why our society appears confused  about the core of human strength . Should we call a man or woman " weak" when , upon closer discernment , we see how strong he or she is when put to the test ; or label someone "strong" when he has over a lifetime behaved with subtle weakness  ?
 I  began to probe these  questions by recalling those hundreds  of   men and women  who, despite the brutal clubbing  and  lunges of police dog,  stayed the course of their freedom march in  Selma , Alabama ; and  of  those  peaceful marches in 1930 in India when thousands were   savagely beaten by soldiers determined to eliminate a country-wide  protest against a British imposed, harsh  tax on simple salt.  And then I read  the Wall Street Journal    article that  appeared  after  Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs . In describing  the SEAL's training  as the hardest training in the world , where only 10 to 20 percent of trainees  graduate, Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens , himself  a SEAL   in the U.S. Navy Reserve, wrote: " Almost all the men who survived [ his own  training class ] possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their  lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more that a 'fist' of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose."   
Blessed Mother Teresa
How we view indomitable human strength and pitiful, often concealed weakness became clearer  when I began to think of the lives of six   friends : a corporate vice president,  psychiatrist,  homeless man,  ex-felon,  fast-food clean-up man , and department store clerk. I have chosen one of them to write about in some depth . Hopefully, I'll someday find it appropriate  to tell you about the others . First, a brief account of two "strong" men… I have changed some names and locations.
***
 Dillon  was a college varsity wrestler and cross-country runner who later wore captain bars  as a U.S. Infantry paratrooper during the Korean Conflict. He married a smart, classy  woman who lovingly  bore him three children and saw that they were raised on a good ole fashioned regimen of American morality, work ethics , and patriotism.  Dillon  became vice president  for an international  consulting company, managing several hundred employees. 
According to Dillon , drinking with the boys  was part of the job,. "You find out what the competition is doing at the hotel bar," he once told me. He could come home at 3 a.m. , fall asleep on the living room floor  watching television, then rise  at 6:30 a.m. with  full steam for work.  "Dillon has amazing recuperative powers," his wife would say.  But after twenty-five years of riding the corporate  high, Dillon 's "powers" were not recharging so quickly. There had been a lot of nights with the boys at hotel bars. " I can stop drinking anytime I want , "  he explained in a huff  to his wife after walking out of his first—and last— AA meeting .
One afternoon ,   Dillon , his wife and I were sitting in my home making arrangements for a mutual friend's  funeral.  I knew of  the reoccurring troubles Dillon 's drinking had brought to his work and family life . I turned to him and ,  as if asking an academic question,  said: "Dillon , would you sacrifice anything  for the love of you wife?"   He thought for a moment before realizing he was being confronted  with something   off limits, in a mine field .  "Oh," he said,  trying  to dismiss my question as  unworthy of much thought,  "you mean the drinking ."  e said He  He said no more, and , unfortunately,  neither did his wife nor I .  But the unspoken point had been  made: Though you love your wife dearly, Dillon , do you have the courage, the guts to do something extremely vital to your family's happiness?  
Helen Keller
     A couple of years later, Dillon , now separated from his wife and drinking a tumbler of vodka before noon, sat down one day to assess  his situation.  Unbelievably,  the  mind that once provided leadership for cadres of managers and also  handled  the self-sacrificing  logistics of raising two daughters and a son,  concluded: Things could be better but, really, Dillon,  it's not all that bad. Right?  
He tried to rise from his chair but couldn't.   The legs  which at college could race  three miles in less than 15 minutes and which could   seize the  ground after a chute  drop from ten thousand feet up,   had suddenly become paralyzed.  Dillon— and I know God loved him-- died a few weeks later.  
My other friend  was a psychiatrist  whom I met in an interview for a series I was writing about a mental health center.  Dr. Rudy Sunburg was 42 , a tall , balding , cigar-smoking , humor-witted , North Carolina  boy with  an  I-like-people  personality . Rudy's  hearty  laugh  compensated for the barely tolerable  puns  he told to staff and patients alike. Everyone wanted to claim friendship with Rudy.   He was a fun-loving father to a Mexican boy whom  he and his wife had adopted soon after Rudy  had left a  successful general practice for psychiatry.  We and our wives  bonded  during the years Rudy and I served on  the board of a county  mental health association .
My wife and I often visited  Rudy in his home and soon learned he  was  an atheist who actually carried this ID in his wallet . This fact never seemed to bother his colleagues or patients, that is until  Rudy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Pain  now  forced him to sleep  in  a hardback chair at night, facing the back of the chair and resting  his head on  folded  arms.  A few days before  Rudy was hospitalized,  I looked for an opening to  say what I knew must be said to a good friend.  I  waded in with:  "Rudy, what if you're wrong about God and everything.  At least cover your bases and—".  I didn't know what to say next. In those days I did not articulate my Christian faith very well.  But Rudy gave me full attention  with a  polite  smile that said he had  heard it all before, most of it from his devout , Southern Baptist mother .
Martin Luther King , Jr. 
 The next week I visited Rudy at a Chicago hospital .  Still the atheist,  Rudy  joked about the morphine which had constipated him so severely that it required a nurse—a friend of his— to  give him relief by hand.   A Jewish lady chaplain entered, and we all talked and made witty remarks .  Though  Rudy  was expected to fight off his foe for several more weeks, he died— suddenly the next day.
 Later, I couldn't help but ask myself: Had my friend died with at least one  thought of God and His omnipresence, His omniscience, His omnipotence ?    Had my friend ,  before his final darkness, had any thought of a heaven , that maybe, just maybe  his atheism had let him down? Or did my friend, with his disciplined empirical certitude,  believe he was facing the absolute end of himself —forever? If so and if he saw his last days as nothing but unceasing  pain or  his  spinning in a mind-numbing cloud of morphine, then I dreaded to ask: had this  wonderful psychiatrist   yesterday written for himself  one last prescription and then  handed it  to his nurse friend. 
Then Came Philip: a Rare Breed
Philip's speaking voice belied his appearance, and you might assume it belonged to a radio announcer or a corporate CEO, for it had a mellow timbre that resonated self-control and perfect diction. Though you had never seen his face ( which  was not especially  memorable ), you'd be willing to risk an opinion that his man was kind and trustworthy. That his face hardly ever showed  any trace of any interior conflict could most likely be attributed to the stiff-upper-lip attitude of his parents of German descent.   
  The few who regularly interacted with Philip saw him as a  private ,  gentle ,  and meek-spirited man who rarely asserted himself , and when he had to, it was with utter calm and absence of any guile. I found it interesting that my friend would rather face  the occasional hoard of grasping customers at the department store which employed him  than  the give-and-take of any human  relationship. Other than an occasional wish to  be a few inches taller than his five-feet-five inches,  his ambitions were to be an honest and diligent salesperson in his furniture section and  to retain a sane and  secure lifestyle that allowed him frugality and simplicity.  
            Philip was a college graduate and had majored in business administration. Except for the 20 years of  the  live-in mutual   companionship he had given without stint to  his widowed mother,  Philip had   lived alone as a bachelor  in a studio apartment in Arlington Heights,  Illinois.  According to his sister ( whom I knew before her death ), Philip never dated except for a girl he took to his high school prom.   As best I know,   Philip had no psychological hang-ups ,  nor did he ever appear  to have any passions, disordered or otherwise ; this,  however, would  belie  his enormous empathy for other people's suffering. Once, while relating to me an incident at his neighborhood supermarket when a runaway car  struck and killed a teenage girl, Philip's eyes were wet with tears.  Though he had a low discomfort threshold for crowds,  he  enjoyed nothing more than using his innate and low-key salesmanship skills to please a customer . I always had the notion that the counter which separated Philip from his customers  served as a sort of shield that emboldened him  to come closer to people in a spirit of friendship , something his very nature could not consummate outside the  store.
            I believe that  Philip ,  whom I  had known off and on  since boyhood days, was a moral  man in all respects. Yet , except for the one time my wife and I took Philip to a church  Christmas pageant , I never knew  Philip to attend a church service. He could  not  emotionally tolerate all the human intimacy of  any church service  . " I just can't pray with other people , "  he confided to me with regret . Yet  he always took his turn at prayer at our weekly coffee 'n'  donut meetings .   
When Philip was a teenager, his  father died of a rare blood  ailment while the family was
Abraham Lincoln
vacationing out East. For years the tragedy traumatized Philip .

This incident and that of witnessing a lightning bolt kill three soldiers

marching closely behind him during his Army basic training caused him

for all time to be exceptionally prudent about anything or anyone that

could  possibly diminish his health or his modest bank account .
A Typical Day
            I well knew my friend's typical day , which never lost it structure for  decades.  Philip was up at 5 a.m.  and put on one of  two  suits, a white shirt , and  one of his  four  neckties (  each was a past Christmas  present  from a niece and or his  sister in Minnesota ).  His breakfast is  a muffin—usually blueberry—and a cup of decaffeinated instant coffee. Philip  had an aversion to cooking his own meals—something to do with a memory of  army chow and its punishing  KP duty.    He takes  many of his dinners at a McDonald's  . A physician would tell him years later that his  meal regimen  likely had contributed to his two  heart attacks . 
 Before leaving for work, he gives a worried   thought to the fragile  health of his octogenarian sister or  the expected cost of a brake job for his 14-year-old Chevy  or , and  most troublesome , the kind of person a new boss might  be . It perturbed Philip, he had  told me when he was  76  ,  not to know if he'd  be up to the challenge of again  having to adjust to a possible quirk in a new boss'  management style .  
            Philip now  descends two  flights of stairs. He drives his car out of a small  parking lot across the street and, in ten minutes, arrives at his  department store. Because his car once didn't start and he had to take a taxi to work, he always arrives at the shopping center 90 minutes  early and  sits in the car until the employee entrance  opens.  
            It  is a large and busy store, part of a national  chain.   Top management has been continually cutting back hours for  full-time employees or  firing  them upon the slightest infraction of company rules and then replacing these people with  part-time employees who , of course , work without medical benefits and whose hours are   changed  mercurially  from week to week to conform to  cash flow demands.  Loyal, hardworking veteran employees like Philip are shown no favoritism, Philip explained after I had  prodded him to divulge  few company "secrets."    
Ever  since he had   opted for a small pay-out instead of a regular company pension ,   Philip's salary had become  barely adequate for rent and food. Unbelievably, he and some other employees, hadn't  had a raise in more than 12 years. "If we complain "—Philip never would—"they find some reason to let us go,"  he told me. He talks about moving to a low- rent apartment in another suburb but procrastinates because of his short drive to work and because he has , for various reasons known only to himself, staked his life's territory in  Arlington Heights. 
         
Sgt. Alvin York 
     A year ago,  a new manager lost patience with Philip for not meeting a

 daily quota of company credit card  applications. Philip  was downgraded.

 " I just couldn't pressure people to sign up for a credit card  when I sensed

they really didn't want it,"  Philip told me.  The downgrade  stung Philip,

but he did not protest and  continued to give his best.




The change in his job description now had him unwrapping and carting   sofas and armchairs and stocking shelves .  All this physical work was obviously meant to force Philip to quit . It  was taking its toll on Philip, now  walking slower .  
            Philip after work  heads for dinner ,  sometimes to his favorite  shopping center café for a dinner of  pasta ( his favorite )  or one of those hot pork sandwiches on white bread smothered with canned gravy and a side of  instant mashed potatoes . Then it's home to his apartment—which no one has ever seen, except his sister when she helped him move in and showed him how the hideaway bed worked . For several months he has  entered by the building's  backdoor to avoid  encountering a tenant  who, for no apparent reason, hurls demented insults at him whenever their paths cross:  "Come on, Shorty, look alive !" she says.
            Once  home,  Philip does not leave his apartment until morning. Before going to bed, he'll watch a Public Television documentary or a  library-borrowed movie  from the 1940's .  On any of  his two days' off, Phillip  might spend a few hours reading the Wall Street Journal at the library    or taking the train (once a month ) to the Loop to  have  a corn beef-on-rye   sandwich at a German restaurant,  one of the very few luxuries he allows himself.  Twice, maybe three times a year he'll  have lunch  with an aging tailor  friend. Philip's wardrobe for these off days consists of no more than two plaid shirts (washed but never ironed ) and  one pair of aged, slightly baggy pants with cuffs rolled up about  three inches.  
More Coffee, Nostalgia, and Shoplifters
            When Philip's sister died, he  made a two-day trip to Minnesota  for the services.  I telephoned him the  day of his return:  "Let's meet at Caribou for coffee ," I offered. It was his favorite place; with its fireplace and knotty pine walls ,  it  reminded  him of a Northern Minnesota resort where Philip and family would often vacation and  fish .  Central in his memory was that of the convivial , nature-sage  resort owner of  Chippewa descent. 
            As usual, Philip insisted I choose where to sit. I reminded him that it was his turn to pray.    His prayer was brief , sincerely expressing gratitude for life itself and  asking blessings for my wife. He ended  it with  "we pray in His name. "  I wondered why he had made  no reference to his sister, whose death I knew had deeply wounded him . ( "I wasn't even warned , !" he had told me tearfully on the telephone upon returning from Minnesota.  )
       Our conversation eventually turned to old Hollywood movies and actors like his favorite,  Gary Grant .We talked about how the prices of new cars  had soared since the 50's, and  finally  about the very rich and famous  and how  they unwisely or wisely spend  their money—and how they died. This last topic prompted  Philip to relate  the time he found $l4 ,000 at  work. It was in a pouch  on the floor, dropped accidentally by  a cashier rushing to the security office. "It was anyone's who wanted it, "  Philip said, still irritated at the cashier's clumsiness.    "No one was in sight at the time and the cashier would never recall where she had  dropped it. When I turned it in to security, they    grabbed the pouch  from me and  gave me a queer  look . I think they might have said 'thank you. ' " 
Philip frowned
Philip always has a complaint  about the  boldness of shoplifters .This time it was a thin woman who, before she was caught, had  walked out of a dressing room   wearing two layers of stolen dresses concealed under her own dress . And  there were "customers"  who switched their own shoes with those in a  shoe box.  Philip , who once sold shoes in the store, found this disgusting.  When the topic of charity came up, it was a rare time I saw Philip get visibly angry. "I don't understand it," he said , laying aside a large  chocolate cookie. "When  we give  change back to a customer and suggest they consider dropping just  a LITTLE of it  into this box  here to help our  veterans, they make the lamest excuses. "  Philip rattled off the excuses. 
              He leaned back and  relaxed. For awhile , we drank our coffee in silence. I became impatient, and so I probed , perhaps unkindly.  "Doesn't anything ever  upset  you , Philip? I mean,  do you ever think about heaven or hell ?" 
He sensed the edge to my voice . With a confessional tone and angry with me for  invading his privacy , he shot back with:  "Look, I don't know much about where I'm going when I die. I'm just concerned about all the tragedy that's now in  the world. "  He said this with such a heavy  heart that I was embarrassed , for I had obviously assaulted my friend's dignity .
     After another long pause, Philip again surprised me with more personal candor. "I wonder why God allows good people to suffer." He had , of course, been thinking about his sister. 
            " I don't really know ,"  I answered . "I don't think anyone has been completely satisfied with an answer. "  I sipped more coffee, then said , " Maybe it's for a greater good. "                 
            A few days later,  my wife and I had  Philip over for dinner. He was totally refreshed as only a night or two of  deep, good sleep can do for a person.  My wife Mary Alice asked him how his new boss was treating him . 
            Flashing a smile that lingered several seconds, Phillip  quickly replied: "Well,   her name is Doris ,  and she's about maybe 28. A little assertive and doesn’t know how to say to her employees  ' Would you mind doing this?' or  'Why don't you… ?'   But then she's  under a lot of pressure to turn things around in our department." He always could find some good  in anyone, no matter how they treated him.
 Over dessert , he had a lot more to say about Doris. 
     "Listen to this now. I come to work early one morning, set things up in  the stock room before I clock in. I didn't know there had been a mistake in the shift schedule and that I wasn't suppose to work  that day. My new boss comes in, sees me,  says she's really sorry for the mix-up and gives me a big hug. Can you imagine.  Then she says, 'We're going make it up to you with five  extra hours of work for you  next week . ' " 
I clapped. My  wife, happy,  bit her lip.
"I'm not finished, " Philip said.  " You know that brake job I've been putting off?  Two hundred bucks less than I thought !"
We escorted Philip to the front porch.  I watched him walk into the night towards his parked car. " He's wearing that same old  shirt," I murmured  to my wife. " Be quiet, " she told me. 
Philip's walk was  slower than ever  and his back  now  slightly  hunched and his arms sort of dangling rather than swinging at his side.  How ever do  his kind mange to  survive ?  I thought. Yet,   I admitted,  though halfheartedly,  there was something to envy about my friend.
Old Store Clerks Don't  Retire ; They Just Get Forced Out
Somewhere in the late 1990's , Philip's department store became more aggressive in replacing full-time workers with part-time people  whose medical benefits then ceased  and  whose hours  managers  could now be easily  manipulated solely for company advantage. In Philip's eyes,   the employee   turnover was dizzying and shameful.  Especially targeted were employees of Philip's age—he now was 75—and who had years ago opted to take that  small cash payout instead of a pension. All pensions were soon  eliminated. Philip , whose hours had been cut to under 20 per week,  now had  gone an unbelievable 16 years without a raise .  When he told me that, I shouted   "that can't be true !" 
"It is," he said without visible emotion.   "The employee who complains too much finds his hours are drastically cut or they find some excuse to fire him."
His  45 years as a shoe , then  furniture salesman  had earned him  a reputation of unquestionable honesty and company  loyalty. Sadly—and stupidly and unethically—the company, with its often draconian rules, was doing its best to discourage  loyalty and work diligence  in their  500-plus store employees. Nevertheless, Philip remained steadfast to his code of conduct.  When I asked him why he just didn't quit, he said he  couldn't  afford to. But there was another , more entrenched reason . I knew quite well that Philip through the years had bonded with  a  predictable and work-satisfying  workday  .  This , along with a handful of coworkers,  had  become  home , and he embraced it for better or  worse. 
Near the end of 2011 , Philip's work hours were cut to five . One day a week he climbed a tall  inventory ladder to stock shoe boxes; it  gave him  back pain. On Jan 26, 2012 Philip quit.  What really pushed him over the edge, I believe ,  was the depression he had  felt  for two days after his young , ambitious , and most likely insecure  female boss had inexplicably shouted  at him . It had occurred at least twice, each time at the end of the day when Philip , as a voluntary gesture, began  working beyond his quitting time to tidy up some inventory. "She'd start yelling at me : ' What are you hanging around here for ?! …All I could do , Bob, was stand there and look at her. "
" What are you going to do now ? "  I asked .  
"I don't know.  For now, I'm just enjoying being free of her . " 
Philip's boss  was one of those humans—so I conjectured—who  are repelled by what they perceive as  inexcusable weaknesses  in people . With some alarm they  sense—but find it impossible to admit—that this weakness is coiled in themselves. The mere thought of ever becoming in the least like a Philip—despite any virtue that this "weakness" might given them —threatens to shatter their self-esteem.
The more I reflected on what Philip continued to tell me, the better I  understood my own frailties and  saw why some "strong" individuals dread and even hate being in the company of people like Philip .  I recalled  poignant, though fictional,  examples of this given by two  great novelists : Herman Melville ( "Billy Budd") and Victor Hugo  ( "Les Miserable's " ) . Holy Scripture  ( Wisdom 2: 12-20 )  , also explains the behavior of  Philip's boss .  It concerns itself with the suffering of Christians  who are persecuted and hated , the author writes,   by those who say this  Christian guy we know  is " obnoxious to us [and ] the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us…With revilement, let us put him to the test ."     
   
A week or two later, the head store manager and a few co-workers arranged a retirement  occasion for Philip in the cafeteria. There was no wrist watch or severance pay . But there were a few "goodbye-it's-been-good-to-know-you  comments from the manager . There also was  coffee and two strawberry cakes.
Mahatma Gandhi

It Couldn't Get Any Worse
When Philip told me he no longer could afford his $650 a month apartment rent, his  tribulation finally  exasperated me. Now it was me who  shouted at him : " But Philip,  you did see  this day coming, didn't you ? ! And you didn't  save for it ?!  Or look for a different job years ago?! " 
Philip  looked at me with  that calm and collected expression which again signaled  I was about to learn something .
" There was no money to save , " he simply said.  " And I told you before I tried looking for work years ago, but I guess I was too old  even then."
            With the  help of a niece who lived in Chicago,  Philip moved into a nearby , low-cost retirement home .  His Social Security check was surrendered each month to the home ; he was allowed to keep $100 of it.   His room was perhaps ten feet wide and 25 feet long; it had a bed, microwave and a small  television set . Several old and faded black and white family  photos were tacked on the wall or in frames on a small desk.  A black and white framed  etching of Jesus  was on a bedside table.
     One morning, a few months after Philip  had moved into the home , he was walking out to his 16-year-old  Chevy  when he began losing breath.  The home called a doctor , and he was admitted to I.C.U at Northwest Community hospital  . His heart , which had several years ago  required an angioplasty , was now pumping blood with only 15 per cent efficiency.  Doctors implanted a pacemaker and a defibrillator .
            Philip recovered , and within a few weeks we were again meeting for coffee.  Heeding his doctor's advice,  Philip refused to ever drive again. For five months his car remained with four flat tires in the parking  lot, until  a mechanic gave him  $500 for it. Other than the death of his parents and sister , I don't believe my friend was ever more saddened as upon surrender of   his car , his  last vestige of independence,  he claimed.
            For two weeks  Philip declined to see me. "I've got a cough , and I don't want to give it to you. "  It was a typical and  selfless consideration. He did his best not to get close to people with  whom he took his meals.  One  lady whom  he sat next to, however, had undetected pneumonia .  Philip contacted it and was again back in the hospital . There  doctors discovered he had an abdominal hernia  but could not operated because of his past heart procedures.  Instead Philip was put on a diet of pureed  food . He hated all of it.
            I visited  Philip weekly at his rehab center, where he lost so much weight that his clothes took on a clownish appearance. At first he was in a wheelchair, then shuffled along the hallways  on a walker. His nights were practically sleepless because his  partially demented roommate would wake up  screaming during the night. " For heaven's sake, " I told Philip, " try at least to talk to your roommate about it, talk to the staff. " Philip said he did not want to cause any more discomfort to  his roommate.  Nothing in his voice hinted of a  martyr's attitude nor of shyness or timidity. Would I to remonstrate with him for  what I thought was  excessive  charity,  I knew his reasons for it would be embarrassingly superior to my advice that he  assert himself.  He was too much of a gentleman to hold stock in the cliché the squeaky wheel gets oiled .
            Philip  slid into a deep depression; his face became grayish, he walked slower, talked less and less, and often  took a full minute or longer to make a reply during our conversations. When he did, it was with just a few words. Sometimes there was no reply; he'd just stare at me, wide-eyed until I felt he had lost all human perception. Other times he reminded me of  the metaphor the prophet Isaiah uses to describe Jesus:  Like a lamb that is  led to the slaughter…so he did not open his mouth.            
       
Steve Reeves ( Superman )
     When  Philip swallowed his first antidepressant , his legs froze on him the next morning. He wasn't given any more antidepressants until months later, when he was moved back to his retirement home and able to eat regular meals. Though he had  daily longed  for this return ,  Philip remained depressed. We prayed together each time I visited him , and for a few moments  Philip would come "alive" , but soon relapsed.
 During one visit, I wanted so badly  to see my  coffee buddy become a person again that  I broke the few  rules I knew about caring for a clinically   depressed  person.  I confronted Philip him about his depression , told  him to fight it ,  face it aggressively as he did during those eight weeks of Army basic training . I lectured , preached , pleaded .  I wanted him  angry, sad—anything to make him come alive, to feel.  Finally I said,   "Have  you , Philip, have you gone to your  knees and begged God to heal you ?  Have you " ? !   Of course he had.
 He nodded his head. " What the hell does that nod mean?"  I demanded.
" All I want is some friendly conversation. " 
Of course he did. Later I felt rotten for breaking those rules.
I now looked at my friend and said with a full heart,  " Philip,  I miss our friendship."
" I understand, " he said .
These  two simple words seemed   to redeem  all the  compassion missing in my strident , ill-timed exhortations.  Sounding perfectly normal for the moment, Philip  gently chastised me like a father might: "You know, people have to work out their illnesses in their own way,"  he said.
I telephoned him a week later and we went for an "outing" to a Panera Bread café .   Philip  had a cup to tea. I asked him what he wanted most in life,  hoping it was something I could help with.  
            " I'd like to get my personality back," he said barely audible. He said little more that  day. 
When leaving the retirement home later,  I reminded one of the attendants that my friend's fingernails were horribly long and if she would please cut them. She said she would. When I spoke to his niece the next day , she said Philip's physician had  recently given a negative prognosis about Philip. I asked her to invite Philip to my upcoming birthday party. Philip told her   it was too soon for that. He sent me a greeting card, and I smiled as I opened it  but then  swallowed hard when I saw his signature. It was tiny , only  the "P" in his name was legible ;  all the  letters were tightly squeezed together . It was the penmanship  so characteristic of  someone  with  Parkinson's  disease.
I shall continue to visit my friend. If Philip's final day comes before mine, I will  know his  eulogy  has already be said by Saint Francis de Sales, a great figure of the 17th Century rebirth of religious  mystical life:
                        I am a poor, frightened little creature,  the baby of the family,
                              timid and shy by nature and completely lacking in self-
                              confidence; and that is why I should like people to let me
                              live unnoticed and all on my own according to my
                              inclination,  because I have to make such enormous efforts
                              about shyness and my excessive fears….I have been
                              slighted and I rejoice: that is what the Apostles did. So to
                              live according to the spirit is to do what faith, hope and
                              charity teach us to do, whether in things temporal or things
                              spiritual….So, rest in the arms of God's mercy and fatherly
                              goodness.
                                                THE END

Comments welcome
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why They Come to Mass Every Morning


Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those
who weep. Have the same regard for one another.
(  Romans 12: 15  )
For when you meet frequently, the forces of
Satan are annulled and his destructive power
is cancelled in the concord of your faith.
( Saint Ignatius of Antioch)

By Robert R. Schwarz 


Note: This was posted originally on 
Feb. 2 , 2014. Weekday Mass 
attendance since then has 
increased appreciably. 

            It's 6:44 a.m. on a sub-zero day in January, and the St. James Catholic church in Arlington Heights, Illinois, lies in darkness . When the sun rises, it will reveal a prominent architectural feature of St.James: its sky-piercing steeple . Add this to the outside  red brick and looming white Ionic pillars , and the front of the  church might  bring  to mind a splendid  historic county courthouse . 
        
  In a minute, three or four cars will pull into the
parking lot for the  7:30 a.m. Mass. One of the cars will have the license plate, "Mom to Ten." The epithet is a tribute to the mother of ten but now deceased wife of Jim .
Mary , the altar "preparer" , enters  and   dips a finger into the holy water stoop just inside the door, crosses herself ,  then walks across the altar  to  the sacristy door .  The church has already been  lit by 96 light bulbs in eight enormous chandeliers and  by flickering  votive candles in racks  along both walls.  Faintly seen is the red glow of the "perpetual  " light high above the tabernacle.
            Mary gets to work with tasks she's been doing  here for 25 years: there are candles to  replace,  holy water stoops to fill,  two Eucharist chalices to place on  the altar,  and the   "gifts" of water ,  wine, and  wheat hosts  for two worshippers who will later carry them  up  for the priest to bless. Then there  are the pitcher of warm water for the priest  to  wash his hands before the  blessing and  the Mass cruets to fill with holy water  and wine.  Lastly, Mary walks to the  ambo ( lectern ) t0  set up the lectionary  ( book of Holy scripture to be  read this morning ) and a microphone.  As usual, she takes a second to hope the altar servers will  show  up—these young students  sometimes don't—as will  the three  Eucharistic ministers needed to help the priest distribute  the  communion wine ( Christ's blood )   and hosts ( His body ).   
          
Mary, the 'altar preparer'
Though Mary sometimes finds it difficult to get out of bed so early, if she doesn't get to Mass , she says she is "miserable for the rest of the day. " And what about those 20 or 30 same worshipers who unfailingly come here every weekday morning ? " They want to get Jesus," she says matter-of-factly.
            At the very back of the church in a pew seat that's been his for years ,  is Jim, one of the very early worshippers. He is  holding Rosary beads and praying silently .  Jim is 89 , the  father of one of the St. James' five deacons.     
            Jim: "I can't think of a better way to be with the Lord. I go to Mass as a member of  Christ's body…Life is short , death is certain , and the world-to-come is everlasting."
            A minute or two later, Duke takes a pew seat across the aisle from Jim.  Like several of the regular weekday worshippers
,  he has lost a  spouse and comes  for comfort he gets  from the church's  silence and its  sacramentals on the walls and altar.  Duke is a 75-year-old retiree from the Federal Aviation Commission. He pulls out his Rosary, one which was uniquely fabricated from petals of roses which a year ago lay here on top his wife's casket.  A nun made the beads,  having learned the  technique in Rome. Duke had 22 more of the costly Rosaries  made for family, friends, and three priests, one  of whom blessed the Rosaries.  Duke is a member of the church's grief support group.
Duke: " I come here to deal with my grief and have been coming ever since. " 
          
Jim is often in his pew before 7 a.m. 
 
The silence is broken  for a couple of minutes by  Tom's entrance with his friend  through the rear door. He is a self-appointed goodwill ambassador  and doesn't settle into his pew  with Rosemary until he has walked over to Jim and two others with a cheerful greeting  or with  one of his typical good-humored  wisecracks.   
            Tom:   "I like the people here. They       make me feel good."  
            Rosemary: " I've always gone to  Mass even when I had my eight children…I'm grateful being here with my Lord, praying with Him in the peacefulness here. "
           
On  summer mornings the church   turns golden when  the sun rises and sends its rays through the eight-foot diameter  rose window set  high above the altar. Colors of blue-violet, red-violet, green and white radiate from the 48 glass segments that make up the window's  three  concentric circles. They are the colors of the church's  religious seasons ; the red also represents the  blood of Christian  martyrs.
The Rosary Team Gets to Work
  
   At 7:10, Tom looks around for the presence of those  who have been assigned a role in reciting one  of the five Rosary mysteries to  be said this morning . He then  makes the sign of the cross and speaks so all can hear  :  "In the name of  the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."  Another worshipper  continues with the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty…"  
            During the 15-minute  Rosary recitation, several more "regulars"   enter  the pews. The parish has more than  13,000 members, including babies and children.  ( It's  quite an increase from the 18 families who, in 1904, were  worshipping about a mile away in the original St. James church. ) The 50 oak wood pews tightly hold 550 people and are regularly  filled  at  Masses  on  Sunday  and on  Saturday evening ,  Easter , Christmas,  and Holy Days of Obligation.   
 
Two happy members of the Body of Christ
    Ed comes in. If summer, he would have  has just picked a red rose from his garden and placed it in a vase  below the plaster statues  of the Holy Mother and Saint Joseph. Following advice of a priest, Ed sits in the front pew so he can focus better on the Mass.
            Ed: " If I don't go to Mass, I really feel bad and get a guilty conscience…I don't use an alarm clock . God wakes me up. I have so many things to pray for. "
            Nearly all of the regulars are in their pews  when the last Rosary mystery ends.
 Everyone appears to be praying. There is a man whose spouse has  severe  rheumatoid arthritis ; behind him are three nuns from a nearby convent; across the aisle from them with folded hands sits  a retired dentist ; there is a CPA who is an Opus Dei member,   church deacon ,  wife of another deacon,  retired newspaper editor ,     "homeless" man ,  seminary student, and a woman who ,  a few minutes ago was outside kneeling  before the Blessed  Mary statue . ( She once hitchhiked to Mexico to help repair a rundown church and later traveled to Nova Scotia to knock on doors with the Good News. )
As they   pray, some worshippers  are likely meditating on one of the many  sacaramentals that surround them , those scared signs which bear a certain resemblance to the seven Catholic sacraments , and by means of which spiritual effects are signified and obtained through the prayers of the Church ( Catholic  catechism #1667). Some are focusing on the five-foot-six-inch  Jesus crucifix  behind  the altar ,  below the rose window. For others, it's the 52-inch tall statues of Saint James  or Mary and Joseph; or perhaps one of the eight stain glass windows that beautifully dominate the walls; each is 20 feet high ,  and when light streams through each of  windows'  108 multi-colored panes and  illuminates the  birth, life,  death, and resurrection of Jesus—the effect can be transcendental even to the casual worshipper.   
Few of the younger  regulars know that the marble  stone construction of the altar, ambo, , tabernacle pillars, candle holders , and   crucifix stand  were fashioned from the communion railing that once bordered the altar.
A Few Facts about the Church's Artwork     
Yet no matter  where these worshippers' attention lie this morning,   it is framed by the  architecture designed by Charles Randig , a Benedictine monk and renowned artist in Europe who was invited  here  decades ago by his brother John, a St. James member on the church's planning  committee.   During his six-month stay  in Arlington Heights  with his brother's family , Charles managed the installation of the widows which, according to Pat Farrell,   director of spiritual formation for the St. James K-8 students , are  "irreplaceable" and likely valued  at "hundreds of thousands of dollars ."
Ionic-styled pillars in early morning light, a  hint of Ephesus 
One of 8 stain-glass windows
             designed by Benedictine monk
Charles Randig
Looking at these windows with a little imagination, the worshipper can be transported back to a Gothic  cathedral in the Middle Ages , say , in France  at Amiens, Chartres, or Notre Dame . And there is the  rounded Romanesque arch that loops above the altar and those  pointed arches that pretend to crown the windows. The arches are non-functional , of course, as is the ribbed vaulting that  crisscrosses the ceiling's center  or  the 48 Ionic, floor-to-ceiling  columns that speak of places like ancient Ephesus or Athens. Worshippers this morning are also enjoying the  spiritual ambience of the thoughtful  color scheme of muted brown walls  with white paneling below them  and by the brown oak of the pews with white sideboards.
It's 7:20 . Outside, Pastor Matt crosses Arlington Heights Road, enters the church, and strides down an outer aisle towards the sacristy as the Rosary ends with a voice proclaiming the oldest Marian prayer, Sub Tuum Praesidium  (" Under Your Protection")  : " We fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God, despise not…"
Why They Come Every Morning
Why do  these same people  come every morning  when no church rubric or tradition requires it?
Joan—she's uses a walker: "It's a good way to start the day…It's not crowded.  "  
Bob: " I get up at five-thirty and like to walk …It might be my last day."
Tracey—there with her three children whom she homeschools;  she and her four-year-old Abigail sometimes carry the gifts up to the altar: " It's a tradition.  We do it to keep centered in God. "
Grant—Tracey's  12-year-old: " Sometimes it's hard getting up in the morning, but once I get there it's really worth it, that sense of peace you get for the rest of the day."
Dorothy—"I've been doing it all my life…It is my life now. "
Peter—the  seminarian : " It's the opportunity to hear the Word of God and to receive the graces which I need for every-day life."
Regina—a young woman from Indonesia: " I need to see Him [Jesus ] and receive Him every day ."
Luis—he  often kneels on the floor behind the last pew: "I thank God for the day and ask Him for guidance."
Stan—he's there with his wife and is a liturgy reader with a voice like a radio newsman: " We get a jump start on the day."
Marilee: " I just love it ! "
Madeline—a Eucharistic minister who's been a weekday mass regular for 29 years: " To be with the community. It's the best way to start the day."
Matthew—says  he never would have survived the death of his wife a little over a year ago without this Mass: " For companionship." 
Bill—he loves to bring the gifts up to the altar:  "I've been going to Mass every morning since my wife died. You meet some pretty nice people early in the morning…You get up at six o'clock in the morning and you're showing God that you love him."
Other regulars include  three people who are unable to  kneel, a woman who sometimes  arrives late and  out of breath, at least two persons who have sought employment for more than a year, the pastor's cook and her husband, and  the guy who has asked  all these imposing questions and who wishes this 7:30 a.m. Mass began an hour later.
They Are the Body of Christ
A minute before 7:30 , there are usually 40 to 60—sometimes more—bodies in the pews. Always, there are a few  latecomers scampering in .
No doubt some of these   worshippers during  their  30 minutes of singing, praying , and hearing the Word of God  sense  they are indeed a member of what church doctrine  calls the " Body of Christ."  Though they have heard  these words proclaimed  hundreds of times,  questions naturally  remain:  What exactly is this  body ? What does it look like ?   What part am I ?
Hands together during the Lord's Prayer
The Catholic catechism says this about The Body of Christ:  In the unity of this  Body, there is a diversity of members and functions. All members are linked to one another (#806 )….The church is this Body of which Christ is the head (#807 ) And speaking  Jan. 1, 2014 from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis  said:   " We are all children of one heavenly father. We belong to the same human family and we share a common destiny. "  Also , the apostle Paul in Romans 12: 4, 5 ,  writes:  For as in one  body we have many parts, and  all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many,   are one body in Christ . 
The Catholic Encyclopedia ,  in its online page entitled  " The Mystical Body of the Church , " suggests that these St. James worshippers and all others  will  have a clearer vision if they see this mystical body as analogous to the human body and see themselves as all "knit together as though by a system of ligaments and joints. "  Or, as one Catholic theologian   wrote:  that they live in a   "universe of Catholics "  as parts  of an organism where "all the sinews of  our hearts are consecrated by the presence of  Jesus ."    In writing  to bishops ,  Pope Francis stated : "Each member of the [ church ] body reproduces  in himself the whole [ pastoral ] institution in its totality . "  [ Italics added .]
One of these St. James worshippers  might therefore wonder if a case can be made for God orchestrating  the unified functioning of millions of cells in one human body—and  linking this singular  functioning to the millions of people who function as one  Body of Christ.  Would this worshipper  then conclude that , on this January morning in Arlington Heights,  ,  all those sitting in pews around him or her  are  each other's brother and sister in a very true sense ?  Dare we not stay spiritually healthy for each other's sake, he might exhort  ?
Stan, helping all stay in tune 
A parish member  at  one  7:30 a.m.  Mass once  asked :  "How can God really hear all  the Godly  prayers being said at the same time by  millions of Christians throughout the world, in and out of church ?  I  know  He's omnipotent and omnipresent…."
There was an attempt by another worshipper  to answer her  with two analogies : One analogy  was how that master switch in  her basement circuit breaker box—with one tug—can send electricity simultaneously to any number of light bulbs that are "asking" for energy. The other analogy was how a loving touch of a mother upon her young child's body , how that touch—with the actual  speed of light— communicates a message of  joy or comfort  to many parts of her child's body—simultaneously . 
***
It's 7:30. Stan plays the refrain of a hymn.  A young girl in a white robe appears in the sacristy doorway. She pauses, gets  her cue from Fr. Matt,  then stretches an arm upward  and rings the bell over the sacristy door.  Fr. Matt comes out singing. He is joined by the Body of Christ.
The St. James ' regulars ' at 7:10 a.m.


###
A thank you to Kathy Borresen, the
St. James artistic director, who patiently
supplied much of the detailed information
about the history and nomenclature of
the architecture and sacramentals.
                                                                                                       Your comments and questions are valued. 
Please send them to:
                                                                                      rrschwarz7@wowway.com                                                                                                             

                                                                                                                            ©  2014  Robert R. Schwarz