An Update

Long time no blog.

I have been away from my blog for a little while now, for various reasons. As you may know, I came forward in August 2018 with my own testimony of seminary misconduct & sexual abuse. This resulted in a much-needed investigation at the two seminaries which I attended during my time in priestly formation. Since August, I have been cooperating with both investigations to the best of my ability. I received a great deal of support, for which I am thankful. One of the investigations finished, vindicating my testimony and leading to concrete changes at said seminary; the other investigation is in its closing stages. That said, coming forward was not easy, and it took a very big toll on my spiritual and emotional life. I decided to step back from blogging so I could focus on my academic work, Ph.D. applications, and overall growth.

Last month, I graduated with my Master of Theology (Th.M.) in historical-systematic theology, my thesis focusing on St. Bonaventure’s Eucharistic theology. I also accepted an offer to pursue my Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal. That’s right– I am moving to Canada! I feel much more refreshed, energized, and focused than I was this time last year. And so, am returning to blogging, tweeting, and all that stuff– but please God (literally), in moderation.

By way of personal projects, I am excited to share a few things with you.

  1. My Medium page is active. Since my last blog post on here (the open letter to Cardinal O’Malley), I have posted four new pieces:
  2. More pieces are on the way. Medium offers authors the option to publish their stories in the partnership program (which offers monetization based on the piece’s popularity & the ‘claps’ the story receives). For readers who are not subscribed, you are allowed to read three ‘free’ pieces a month. Mindful that not everyone likes to subscribe to these things, I will only monetize one out of every three pieces, so that you are not hindered from reading the things I publish.
  3. Moving on to the more academic side of me– I am currently working on editing my curriculum vitae and will post it once it is updated. You will be able to see the various conferences, presentations, and publications I have participated in.
  4. I will be posting all of my academic work on my Academia page. The goal of that profile is to share the fruits of my contemplation with a wider audience. Sometimes, if the article is accepted for publication in a journal, I may need to wait a few months before sharing it with the general public. But aside from those cases, I will publish my conference presentations/papers on there. As always, I accept constructive criticism!
  5. I have created a new Facebook page. Though I do not have a public personal page, I will use the ‘business’ page to share some of my work. My other social media handles are all the same:
  6. Lastly, and probably the most exciting part: I am in the process of recording an EP. Details soon!

An Open Letter to Cardinal O’Malley in regards to the Seminary Investigation

 

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On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary


 

Your Eminence, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley,

 

It is with a spirit of faith, hope, and love that I write this letter to you, the shepherd of all Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston. During his apostolic journey to the United States, our Holy Father Pope Francis exhorted you and all of the US bishops in attendance to be “close to people”, becoming “pastors who are neighbors and servants.” Citing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Holy Father asked that you and your brother bishops be men of pastoral sensitivity, examples to the priests under your care, so that they too may “…be ready to stop, care for, soothe, lift up and assist those who, ‘by chance’ find themselves stripped of all they thought they had (Lk 10:29-37).

As a victim of sexual abuse and misconduct, I, like the man in the parable who was attacked by robbers, found myself stripped of all I thought they had. I thought I had security and safety within the walls of an institution dedicated to forming men after the Heart of Jesus. I thought I had trust in those in power to promptly address issues of misconduct, especially seeing how past failures in this area damaged Catholics worldwide. And lastly, I thought I had a priestly vocation—something which I have now given up in exchange for a prophetic one.

As you know, news of the abusive “Uncle Ted” McCarrick caused a firestorm among the Catholic faithful here in this country. Many of us faithful Catholics find ourselves baffled how public face of the Catholic Church in America could have gone on to enjoy a very successful episcopal career despite common knowledge among the Church and media that he was a predator. Reflecting upon the way McCarrick and other clerics with power were allowed to commit abuses and cover them up, I realized that silence was what allowed additional violence to be committed against more and more victims. And so, I decided to write about my experiences of wrongdoing, first published here by One Peter Five.

Out of courtesy, I declined to disclose the names of these seminaries I attended and faculty members guilty of misconduct, preferring to focus on the troubling issues themselves. However, as my story spread across social media, former seminarians spoke out publicly and confirmed that I was telling the truth—and went so far as to give the name of the seminary itself. It is now public knowledge that my tragic experiences took place at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary from 2010-2011, and Saint John’s Seminary from 2014-2016, the latter of which is directly under your care.

Please allow me make a few important distinctions which can hopefully help the investigation. First, my complaints regarding Saint John’s Seminary were not specifically about sexual abuse; they were about general misconduct, scandalous behavior by faculty and students, and an overall unhealthy seminary culture. Of course, such misconduct includes former seminarians engaging in sodomy and a “sexting” scandal which disturbed many of us in the house. However, should the investigation focus exclusively on the issue of sex and sex abuse, it will be a relatively easy case to dismiss. On one hand, the two seminarians were rightly expelled—but on the other hand, the sexting scandal was improperly addressed by priests on the faculty and outside the faculty alike. These two instances are not enough to address the many issues plaguing Saint John’s. Sexual misconduct is not the main problem—it is symptomatic of larger issues regarding boundary violations, immorality, and accountability.

Secondly, as I have consistently stated, my motivation for speaking out was out of a sincere love for the Catholic Church. I am not a “disgruntled seminarian”, nor am I someone who is a seminary “failure”. I received a positive vote to advance in major seminary both years; it was my free and honest decision to leave the toxic environment. I, along with others, have seen the way silence in the face of sin has allowed it to spread more pervasively. I have heard whispers that my story was “slanderous” and “dishonest”. Let it be known that I have corrected multiple news outlets in their erroneous reporting of important details to this investigation, which should testify to my claim that I care only about truth and justice—not sensationalism and embellishment. Should anyone doubt my honesty, I urge you to note how part of my testimony has already been confirmed through Pennsylvania’s recent grand jury report. Moreover, I have proof and witnesses of the misconduct at Saint John’s. In speaking the truth, I sacrificed everything– my name, my reputation, my family, my friends, potential future jobs, connections, and more. I now understand what Our Lord meant when He said “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Mt 16:25)

Thirdly, this investigation must address the disturbing reality that these allegations were only brought to the public eye precisely because they were previously ignored. As I mentioned in my story, I went through the proper channels in my attempt to address the misconduct. I brought my concerns to both my formation advisor and vocation director multiple times. There are only two options in regards to my allegations about the culture at Saint John’s Seminary —either the seminary faculty were so obtuse that these complaints went unnoticed, or worse, those in power are lying about their ignorance of my allegations. Either of these options are damning; in either scenario, those entrusted with proper leadership failed in their duty to uphold (in your words) the “moral standards and requirements of formation for the Catholic priesthood”, whether by sins of commission of omission.

I hereby request that the investigation focuses on three major areas:

  1.  Immoral and unprofessional misconduct by faculty and students alike, including, but not limited to:
    • “Private parties” where certain faculty members would invite an exclusive clique of seminarians into their room late at night
    • Widespread alcohol abuse, including a bachelor party hosted at the seminary in which a faculty member, drinking with seminarians until 2 a.m., fell out of his chair.
    • Allegations of grooming and its subsequent cover-up
    • A mismanagement of seminary finances
  2.  A toxic culture of fear, intimidation, and discrimination at Saint John’s Seminary
    • Bullying by certain faculty members
    • Threats of a lawsuit against those exposing the misconduct
    • Certain faculty members seen as “untouchable” and who survived over a decade of credible allegations
    • Fear from seminarians, priests, and laity of speaking out
  3.  Subsequent cover-up of such misconduct and unhealthy culture by leadership
    • The fact that my complaints—and others’—went ignored and mishandled
    • The insistent denial by leadership regarding the basis of these allegations

Since this is an open letter, I sincerely hope that anyone who is reading this who has experienced, witnessed, or heard of misconduct in regards to Saint John’s Seminary come forward—publicly or anonymously—so that additional light may shine on the darkness that has been hidden. Since coming forward, I have received dozens of messages from seminarians, former seminarians, and Catholic laity across the country. Some of these messages include their own experiences of abuse and misconduct at the hands of the Catholic Church; others include their own suspicions about Saint John’s Seminary which my testimony confirmed. Many, including priests, are afraid to speak publicly because they are afraid of the possible repercussions. Such is the culture of our Church today—those who speak truth to ecclesial power find themselves ostracized and hated.

Your Eminence, it is my sincere hope that you continue to take seriously these allegations and guide the investigation accordingly. Admittedly, I am a bit perturbed that you appointed a former member of the seminary faculty (who was on the faculty during my time at SJS) to lead this investigation. The Catholic faithful has seen how bishops policing themselves and conducting internal investigations can jeopardize the objectivity so desperately needed for the pursuit of justice. That stated, I trust in your judgment, as I know that Bishop Mark O’Connell is a true shepherd, and a man of integrity.

Although I witnessed and experienced improper behavior by those entrusted with forming men to the Catholic priesthood, I pray that others may not have a similar experience. You have my utmost support and prayers during the days ahead. May this investigation result in the light of truth and the freedom that only Truth Himself can give.

In the Sacred Heart,

John A. Monaco

The Solemnity of the Most Sacred– and not “Most Anxious”– Heart of Jesus

“O Heart of Love, I place all of my trust in You. Although I fear all things from my weakness, I hope all things in Thy goodness.”

— St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690)

 

 

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Tonight begins the novena (9-day prayer) to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Usually, I would write a whole long post on the importance of this devotion & its significance for me, but for the first time in 7 years, my energy is sapped. As I gradually get back on medication, resume therapy, & return to spiritual direction, I am honestly so exhausted. I am tired. I am broken. – Every night, before I go to sleep, I go to this little side 'altar' to the Sacred Heart. I pray. I ask for God's mercy, for His love, and lately, for His presence. I am completely numb, empty, depleted. I wish I had "words of wisdom". I wish I could piously say "I'm offering it up!" But honestly, this sucks. Mental depression, spiritual desolation, anxious obsessions– all of it sucks. But faith isn't contingent upon feelings. Faith is a trust in God even when God feels so far absent. Faith is an intellectual assent to Divine Revelation, a "Yes, Lord, I believe", even when I do not understand. There are no easy answers to suffering. There are no magic solutions to getting out of a psychological & spiritual darkness. _ All I have is His promise: "I will be with you always, even until the end of the age." (Mt 28:20) And right now, that's enough. You're all free to join me in praying a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in preparation for the Solemnity on June 8th. Pray as you are able. If you want to use the novena I'm praying, shoot me a message. _ Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all of my trust in You.

A post shared by (@inflammateomnia) on

 

I am convinced that one of the greatest evils in the world is the misrepresentation–the painting of a false image– of God.

If a man breaks his arm, he will surely be in pain. The pain may be quite severe, but hopefully, given the advances in medicine and technology, he will be on the path to recovery. During this time, this man can pray to God and ask for healing.

If a woman loses her father following his fight with a long illness, she will certainly be in sorrow. The pain and emotional grief may be quite serious, but hopefully, given a supportive community and counseling, she will eventually experience joy and happiness again, even if there is still a wound in her heart for her father. During this time, the woman can pray to God,  ask for His presence and for Him to mend her broken heart.

Tragedy enters. Someone commits evil. Natural disasters strike. In all of these, we turn to prayer, sometimes weakly, sometimes fervently. But what happens when the very essence of our fears is… God? How does someone pray to God when he or she is completely frightened by Him? Who does a person turn to when their image of God is so distorted, so grossly-misshapen, so twisted?

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From the very beginning of human history, attempts were made to separate God and His children by way of fear. Our first parents, Adam and Eve,  were deceived by the serpent, who tricked them into thinking that God was selfish, jealous God who didn’t want Adam and Eve to become like Him (Gen 3:4-5). In the Book of Job, Job’s friends wrongly tell Job that his suffering is due to his sinfulness, and that God is waiting for Job to repent before He offers relief. Perhaps no attempt to distort people’s perception of God was more ambitious than that of the Jansenist heresy from the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and the Low Countries. Among the numerous heresies of the Jansenists, one of their chief beliefs was that Christ did not die for all, but only for an elect few. This false belief was symbolized in the crucifixes found within Jansenist churches, that of Christ on the cross with His arms stretched only narrowly. The Jansenist heresy spread like wildfire across Western Europe, distorting the faithful’s image of God as loving, gracious, patient, and kind. The Jansenist rigor also resulted in people abstaining from receiving Holy Communion– even when they were in a state of grace!

jansenist

 

It was during this terrible time that the Lord revealed Himself to a Visitation nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In contrast to the cold and distant image of the Jansenist “god”, Our Lord revealed Himself to St. Margaret Mary in a tender, loving, and merciful manner– by pointing to His Sacred Heart. He emphasized the importance of frequent reception of Holy Communion, especially on the first Friday of the month. He lamented the fact that so many reject His love and mercy, and stated His desire that Christians make acts of reparation for the ingratitude shown to the gift of the Eucharist. He offered twelve promises to those who hold a devotion to His Sacred Heart:

 

The Promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary

  1. I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
  2. I will establish peace in their homes.
  3. I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
  4. I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.
  5. I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings.
  6. Sinners will find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
  7. Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
  8. Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
  9. I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
  10. I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
  11. Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart.
  12. I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.

 

 

 

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There are some people in the world who are simply scared of God. Whether it was because of family upbringing, a poor Christian education, or simply because of mental and emotional conditions, the fact remains that a number of people have a distorted and unhealthy fear of God. Nowhere is this more painful and burdensome than in the hearts of those who suffer from scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For them, their “image” of God in their mind has been tainted by obsessive thoughts, fears, and darkness. God is seen as a ruthless overlord, casting down hyper-specific blueprints for this person to follow, and if they do not follow it, their soul is doomed to eternal damnation. Phrases like “God’s will” carry within it crippling anxiety, as if God’s will is the exact opposite of their deepest, holiest desires. The very act of prayer is in itself an act of faith– an assent to divine truth that, even though they do not feel Him, they believe that God is listening to them. For the scrupulous, the sacraments only brings some relief. For example, some scrupulous persons will go to Confession, and then ask themselves, “How do I know that my sins are truly forgiven?” “What if I forgot some sin?” “What if I wasn’t truly contrite?” They are in a state of grace, yet they fear that their reception of Eucharist is a sacrilege. Healthy, awe-like fear of the Lord is replaced with a nervousness the Lord would never, ever demand from them. For those who suffer from OCD, it is not enough to simply reassure them, “No, God is a God of love!” While that is true and may bring momentarily relief, the “thoughts” return with a vengeance. And so, for scrupulous and for all of those who suffer from emotional crosses, it cannot be emphasized enough that they should seek the help of medical professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, and even medicine. As the Catholic bishops in California wrote in their recent letter, Hope and Healing: “Mental illness is neither a moral failure nor a character defect.  To suffer from a psychiatric disorder is not a sign of insufficient faith or weakness of will.  Christian faith and religious practice do not immunize a person against mental illness.”

The image of a God who is constantly anxious, writhing his hands, screaming internally at every move we humans make is simply a false image of God. And yet, this idea remains locked in the brains of many innocent faithful. This is one of the reasons why today’s Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is so important. The idea that “God will love me when…” is erroneous in and of itself. God already loves us. Think of the greatest love a person here on earth has shown to you. God’s love for you is infinitely greater. The same God who created you, redeemed you, and sanctifies you, cares deeply for you. This is not mere sentimentalism– this is the Catholic faith. We believe that Christ loves us, despite our weaknesses and sinfulness. He offers Himself to us at every Mass, offering His very life to our body and soul as nourishment on this life journey. In the many images of the Sacred Heart, Our Lord points to His Most Sacred Heart, as if to draw our attention to the fact that, yes, He truly loves us with a human and divine love united in His divine person. His love for us precedes, and leads us to, our love for Him. As Pope Pius XII states so eloquently in his encyclical, Haurietis Aquas:

And so we can easily understand that the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men. Or to express it in another way, devotion of this kind is directed towards the love of God for us in order to adore it, give thanks for it, and live so as to imitate it; it has this in view, as the end to be attained, that we bring that love by which we are bound to God to the rest of men to perfect fulfillment by carrying out daily more eagerly the new commandment which the divine Master gave to His Apostles as a sacred legacy when He said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you… This is My commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, 107.


 

Today, on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, I want to express my thanks to you all, many of whom have graciously prayed for me over the past few weeks since my return to Boston. I am happy to tell you all that I am doing a bit better, and it appears as if the worst has passed. All I can say is this– if a priest or any religious authority tells you to get off your medication (medication approved by multiple medical professionals and your spiritual director), do not listen. The Church does not reject the good that comes from medicine and technology. Again, as the California bishops write“Clergy and health care professionals, families and mental health advocates should work together to encourage a “both-and,” rather than “either-or” approach to psychological and spiritual healing.”

In many ways, I still feel weak and tired. But that’s okay. Because even in our weakness, Our Lord loves us. In many ways, our weakness becomes strength, because it is when we are weak that we rely more and more on God. The majority of my prayer the past 9 days has been in front of an image of the Sacred Heart. I prayed the novena, softly and slowly. Every night, upon finishing the last of the prayers, I would just sit with Jesus. I didn’t feel the need to say anything, and in many ways, I was afraid to. I just rested upon His breast, trusting that He knew what I needed. Anytime my mind wandered or anxiety spiked a negative image, I would just stare at the Sacred Heart, breathe deeply, and let it go. The Sacred Heart has, quite literally, saved my life. When all else fails, when my worries consume me, when I feel like a failure, and yes, when the very idea of “God” triggers a spike of anxiety in my mind, I turn to the Sacred Heart, and take refuge in Him.

God is good. God is loving. God is faithful. God’s love for us is unconditional, and essentially unfathomable. The Sacred Heart is both the symbol and the channel of God’s abundant desire to be one with us, as we, moved by grace, strive to be one with Him. For those who suffer from scrupulosity or any other mental illness, perhaps the image of the Sacred Heart will help.

It certainly has helped me.

What two saints and a pope named Francis can teach us about living the Gospel online– an America Magazine exclusive

I am happy to share with you a piece I wrote for America Magazine. Happy feast of St. Francis of Assisi!

 

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/10/03/what-two-saints-and-pope-named-francis-can-teach-us-about-living-gospel-online#

 

 

8 a.m. Amtrak Thoughts

As I depart Philadelphia for Boston (actually made my train, this time), I am reflecting upon the great experience I had at the Society for Catholic Liturgy’s annual conference. Presenting a paper and discussing theology with numerous scholars is always fun and exciting, but this conference went a bit deeper.
I am not a stranger to Philadelphia; as many of you know, I began my undergraduate experience at a college seminary down there. After leaving seminary formation in 2016, I have been wrestling with the question: “How am I now to serve God, the Church, and the world?” This conference helped confirm a lot of what I have learned since leaving the seminary.
Between my time at Boston College and living with the Assumptionist community in Brighton, I have come to realize that the future of the Church is largely dependent on a collaborative effort between ordained/consecrated religious and the laity. Yes, we need good & holy priests and consecrated religious… but we also need holy laymen and laywomen. But here’s the thing– they already exist.
At BC, I have met a ton of folk who are far more spiritually advanced, mature, and self-sacrificing than I am… and most do not wear a priestly collar. That’s not to discredit the many holy priests and bishops I know of, but in my experience, I always viewed “holiness” as something belonging to the clerical/religious state. Yet, since I have been at BCSTM and even by attending the conference, I am blown away at the many devout Catholic men and women who serve the Church in numerous ways. At the conference, I met Catholic theologians both on academic/pastoral tracks, musicians, architects, artists, and parish employees/volunteers, all who are striving for holiness, living out lives of love of God and neighbor in the various roles they have. Some were mothers/fathers of 5 children, others were single lay parish volunteers, but all were on fire with the Holy Spirit and were single-minded in their mission to make Christ known and loved, especially through the Sacred Liturgy.
The most impressive example of this, however, is in the hospitality and kindness shown to me by a former seminarian brother of mine, Brian. Brian and his roommates throughout the years have not only provided me shelter when I have been in Philly over the years, but they have put forth an amazing example of what it means to ‘be’ Church in 2017. Brian, especially, has proven to be a good example of how to live the Gospel. Whether it’s in his work with the underprivileged and needy, his efforts on the streets to help those most in need, or even just living a life of faith, hope, and charity, Brian and countless others have demonstrated that following Christ takes on many forms.
I am still unsure of the future (who isn’t?) and what I am meant to do in life, but I feel rejuvenated and inspired by the numerous folks I met these past 2 years, including this past weekend. I am thankful that this conference provided me not only with an opportunity to present a paper in an academic forum, but also to show how the Christian life takes many shapes and forms, and one needs not to be in the clerical state to make a difference in the Church.
Anyhow, I am thankful for all of your prayers and support over these years, especially to those who have been very patient with me even when I have been a jackass! I’ll close by sharing this poignant passage from Lumen Gentium.
“The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished.
Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal”. (LG, #33).

A Reluctant Rosary

 

IMG_20170319_185634-01I have a confession: I don’t pray the rosary. I know, I know. A Catholic who doesn’t pray the rosary? That’s like an American who doesn’t eat apple pie (a point of contention somewhere on the Internet, I’m sure). But yeah… I don’t pray it. I think, in the past two years, I have prayed the rosary six or seven times- of those times, I prayed it because I was at a pro-life event, participating in a parish retreat, or at a voluntary gathering with seminarians. Don’t get me wrong- it’s not like I don’t pray– I certainly do and make every effort for intentional daily prayer… but the rosary? Ugh… just not my thing.

For those who don’t know, the rosary is quite an honorable Christian practice- arguably dating back to the 13th century. The concept is simple: as Christians, we hold the Virgin Mary in high esteem, and thus are warranted to honor and venerate her among the highest of heavenly friends.  Mary is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, etc. and so pray that she intercedes for us, leading us ever closer to her Son, Jesus.

Why I wasn’t I into the rosary? I’m not too sure if there was one strong reason besides the fact that I just found it repetitive, noisy, and too structured. My ideal type of prayer is sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament in silence, speaking to God from my heart, and allowing His Presence to fill my soul. Sometimes I use words. Other times, I read Scripture and meditate. I have a little prayer corner in my room, filled with images of my favorite Christian devotion- the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

But the rosary? I avoided it like the damn plague. Until today… today was different.

 

Sunday Morning Blues

I direct/teach RCIA at a parish in the North End of Boston. Usually, I take an Uber. Also “usually”, I get to the church for mass like, five minutes before it begins. Today was different- I surprisingly woke up with plenty of time, so I requested an Uber, who got me at the church for 8:24 a.m…. when the mass didn’t start until 9 am.

I got out of the Uber and was greeted by a cold blast of wind. It felt like it was in the low 20s this morning. Hurriedly, I stepped inside the church.

When I walked in, there were only three other people inside. Two of them were older Italian women, conversing quite loudly in their native tongue. One man, probably in his 60s, was sitting in a pew with his head down.

I dropped my jacket and backpack in the classroom adjacent to the sacristy, and checked my phone. 8:26 am. Stomach growling, I figured this would be a good time to grab coffee/light breakfast at one of the nearby North End breakfast joints. Then, I realized two things- the first being the mandatory one-hour fast to be observed by Catholics prior to mass, and the second being the fact that it was pretty darn cold out. Disappointed, I went back into the church and slinked into a pew. I couldn’t exactly pray in my ideal way (silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament) because those elderly Italian women kept chatting. I looked around. The older man was just staring at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Begging for time to have flown like an Air Force One, I checked my phone for the time- 8:29 a.m.

I consigned myself to the fact that I, a techie/noise-obsessed Millennial who couldn’t even pray in his ideal way, was going to spend the next thirty minutes hungry, annoyed, and prayer-less.

Suddenly, the chatter stopped. The man picked his head up. I then heard the sound of pew kneelers clunking on the ground. In one motion, they all knelt. “In the name of the Father…”

“Great,” I thought, “now I’m stuck with the rosary.”

An Unexpected Gift

I’m not sure what happened next. Maybe it was the statue of the Sacred Heart in front of me. Maybe it was my Catholic guilt at not wanting to participate in such a “Catholicky” devotion. Whatever it was, I pulled down my kneeler and knelt in solidarity. After all, I didn’t want to look like an ass.

“For an increase in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity…” – “Hail Mary…”

Praying for an “increase” of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity implies that all three of these theological virtues can be an area of spiritual growth. I thought to myself, “How am I lacking in any (or all) of these?”

I started to think about my experience of the past week. I had a lot going on between school, work, family, and relationships. I got pissed and swore at a friend (-5 points in charity). Hope? With everything going on in our country, I confess that I haven’t been as receptive to this theological virtue whatsoever; I haven’t truly viewed heaven as my true home and this life as a pilgrimage. Faith? Hm.

My internal questioning continued. Was there any time during these past 7 days when I lacked faith? Hope? Love? What were my attitudes, actions and behavior- both good and negative- pointing to?

I was musing on my responsiveness to God’s grace so deeply that I completely missed the fact that we were on the Second Sorrowful Mystery- the “Scourging at the Pillar”: Our Father…

I put my head down. Among the many images of Jesus, Him being scourged at a pillar is not one that I am very fond of. I can even tolerate the image of Christ Crucified more than I can stand His scourging at the pillar. The cross is such a common image- people have it around their necks. It’s found in every single Catholic church. Heck, even my home city has a massive cross which illuminates the night sky.

But the scourging is different. The scourging reminds me that Jesus was actually tortured. His very flesh was torn and ripped apart by a whip with leather thongs, bits of sharp bone attached to the tip of each one. No one has an image of this around their neck. Urban Outfitters cannot sell a shirt with this image as a design. The scourging reminds us of Jesus’ actual pain and suffer-

“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins…”

Holy crap! We just hit the Fatima Prayer. “What have I been doing all this time?”, I wondered. Then, silence filled the church. My head was still bowed down, but my curiosity got the best of me, so I picked my head up and opened my eyes. One of the older ladies who was leading the rosary was walking towards me, smiling. When she got to my pew, she asked, “Would you like to lead the next one?”

“Sure,” I responded. (Meanwhile, I’m kneeling here wondering if I even remembered the structure of the rosary so that I didn’t commit any devotional faux pas)

“Do you have a rosary?”

Looking down at my bare hands, I shook my head ‘no’.

“Would you like one?”

I stared blankly at her, painfully aware that I was wasting her and the other two people’s time. But I felt… stuck. I mean, what the hell else am I going to say to a 70+ year old Italian lady in church on a Sunday morning? “No, I don’t want you dumb rosary?”

“Uh… sure,” I reluctantly responded.

She handed me this plastic rosary which looked like it was held together only by a flimsy string and hope.

Clearing my throat, I began.

“Hail Mary…”

Mary, Prayer, and Me

The Hail Mary is such a lovely prayer. The opening line echoes the Angel Gabriel who came to a teenage Mary to announce God’s plan of salvation. We begin the prayer by greeting this woman who is so “full of grace”… a woman who is blessed above all others, for she was the one chosen to bear God’s Son, Jesus.

Then, we pray for her to lead us to her Son. We implore her intercession for us to model her radical discipleship, her loving submission to the will of God. Then, finally, we ask her to watch over us and pray for us both at the current moment, and during our last breath.

Each “Hail Mary”, I prayed as if Mary herself was standing in front of me. I acknowledge her strength, her dignity, her beauty, her special-ness before God. I acknowledge her Son, who saved me from my sins. I ask her to pray for me and those around me.

Eventually, my turn ended, and it went to someone else to finish the 4th and 5th Sorrowful Mystery. By now, though, I was in the ‘zone’. I was comfortable, at least as comfortable as someone who had avoided the rosary like an annoying inconvenience could be. It was nice. Peaceful. It required a certain discipline on my part (remember, I was hungry and a techie-obsessed Millennial)… but anytime I started drifting in my thoughts, I felt a bit restless… as if someone was in the room and I wasn’t giving he or she my full attention. “I can eat & play with my phone later,” I reasoned. Now, I’ll offer this to God. And onto the next prayer, and the next, and the next. I began to see time as a gift, the debit card in my wallet as a gift, my loving family friends as a gift- everything became seen as a gift, a gift that was given to me by God and given to me so that I can return it all back to Him. How could I give so little to my Lord? Where am I in these meditative scenes of the Sorrowful Mysteries? Do I actually believe He suffered and died… for me? Me, insignificant John, was in the presence of God and His Mother, offering my time and energy to meditating on the mysteries of salvation as mediated through the life of Christ and the intercession of His Mother. This is why we have the rosary- not to simply rattle off a “to-do” list of prayers, but rather to participate in a rhythmic  hymn of petition, veneration, praise, contrition, hope, and healing. As a student of theology, I of course “know” about God, Jesus, Mary, the saints, and the like. But now more than ever, a quote by Padre Pio rings true: “Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds him.”

About ten minutes later, we finished up with our last “Hail Mary”. Making the Sign of the Cross, I picked my head up, only to find the once-empty church now filled with congregants. I got up from my pew, and went into the sacristy to speak with the Franciscan pastor before mass began. On my way there, I greeted that older woman who gave me the rosary. I thanked her, and she smiled. She invited me to help lead the rosary next week- same time, same place. I’m not sure what happened this morning, but I’ll say this- that little, plastic rosary is now hanging on my car’s inside mirror, a reminder for me not to be so reluctant about talking to Mama Mary.

Cramming for Christmas

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I’ll admit- I’m not ready for Christmas. It feels like just yesterday I was stuffed from eating turkey  & mashed potatoes with gravy, laying on my living-room couch back home in Connecticut, watching the Detroit Lions play football. Then, it seems that I drove back, had some classes and papers to do, and here I am, with Christmas staring me in the face. Yes, I went to mass every Sunday, and yes- I heard the readings & prayers. But to be honest, Advent flew by in a whirlwind, and somehow I ended up here. I am, in fact, cramming for Christmas.

All of those Advent devotional books I was given went unread. Those prayer services went unattended. The discipline of daily mass, the Divine Office, and a daily Rosary loosened. While I did the bare-minimum of  attending mass weekly, it was largely at a different church depending on the week, and I cannot tell you what the homilies were about. I woke up, went to class, read books for class, wrote papers, submitted proposals, ate like trash, did my nightly “scroll on the phone until midnight”, and woke up the next day. My schedule (both work and school) intensified this past month, and while I kept up a (minimal) prayer life, I can say with certainty that I am not ready for Christmas.

What does one do when a liturgical season flies by without any real, tangible experience of God? How can I celebrate Christmas when I barely prepared the “way of the Lord”? Do I simply shut myself in my room and listen to Handel’s “Messiah” on repeat until December 25th?

I think my experience of Advent can be likened to the way the people of the Old Testament “prepared” for the coming of the Lord. When reading the OT, it seems like it’s a game of “Icy Hot”. For every person “on fire” with the Lord, preaching the coming of the “Messiah”, there’s a dozen instances of people whose hearts grew cold- they are asleep at the wheel, going about their daily activities, breaking the covenant God had established with them.

For me, it’s too late to “catch up” with those seasonal devotional books. No amount of Advent Hymn Pandora can make up for lost time. I am less than a week away from Christmas, and I am going to have to celebrate it with what I have. I long for Christ but this past Advent, my longing has been interrupted by things which I placed before the Lord. Thankfully, the Church has something that can be a spiritual buoy for me these last few days of the Advent season: the “O Antiphons”.

As the USCCB writes,

“The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.”

And here they are:

 

December 17

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

December 18

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

December 19

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

December 20

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

December 21

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

December 22

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

What if I used these as my prayer each day until Christmas Eve? Do not these antiphons, which uses ancient expressions of messianic expectation, speak to my heart today? I desire salvation, order, life, and light. Who else can save me, besides the Key of David (Dec. 20th), who opens the gates to eternal life? Who else can order my life in the way of God besides the Wisdom Incarnate (Dec. 17), who orders all creation? (Proverbs 8:30, c.f. John 1:3)

Or, in an academic comparison, if Christmas is a final exam, then these “O Antiphons” are my SparkNotes. I will pray with them and reflect on what the coming of Christ means- and how it has consequences for my life, my priorities, my relationships, and my worldview.

Come, Lord Jesus, and be gentle on grading me!