Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers
Advent’s Pilgrimage of Light
When Sister Ave Clark was a special education teacher, her students made her an Advent wreath. Only it wasn’t round like the store-bought ones. It was noticeably crooked. Sister Ave still uses that wreath all these years later. Why? Because, as one student told her, “It’s not perfect, but it sure was made with love.”
In her latest book “Advent ~ Christmas: A Pilgrimage of Light,” Sister Ave looks at ways that each of us, imperfect as we are, can help the light of God’s love be born again in our hearts during the four weeks of Advent. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, she noted that the candles on our Advent wreaths represent hope, peace, joy, love, and, ultimately, Jesus: “Make time each day to take that pause and to feel the light within so that we [can] carry it better into the world.”
Taking a pause might seem difficult in a season of shopping and parties, but Sister Ave sees opportunities for stillness everywhere. She said, “You can be still at a red light in the car...Just say, ‘Lord, thank You for this moment.’ Stillness can happen in a shopping market, when you’re waiting on line. Stillness can happen at home when you carve out 10 to 15 minutes. But stillness isn’t just sitting in a chair. It can be taking a walk, looking out your window. It could also be listening to somebody on the phone telling you some good news—or some news they’re asking for prayer [for]. Stillness comes in a variety of ways.”
Sister Ave relishes the moments when God shows up in unexpected people and circumstances. She also admits that seeing God in times of darkness takes effort. That was the case when her car was hit by a runaway train 20 years ago, and she endured a year of recovery and rehabilitation. She reflected, “Do I wish it didn’t happen? Yes. But it brought different lights into my life: of understanding pain and having to adapt your life in a way you never thought you would...I said, ‘I wonder what God wants me to learn along this way?’ I remember my first Christmas after that accident, not being able to go to shops. I said, ‘You know what? A phone call to somebody means a lot. A little note means a lot.’ Maybe the best gift we could give each other is that light of caring: the kind word, the extra listening, the forgiving, too.”
Sister Ave has a special place in her heart for those who are infirm or homebound, especially her fellow Dominican sisters. Several of them are now in their 90s and 100s, living in Amityville, NY. “They used to be principals, nurses, college teachers, religious ed,” she explained. “Now, they’re sitting in their rooms.” After receiving “Advent ~ Christmas: A Pilgrimage of Light,” the sisters were taken by a quote on the back cover: “How will you be a Christ-bearer of the holy lights of Advent ~ Christmas time?” They decided to read the book as a group, reflect on its questions, and share the answers in prayer. In other words, even though they aren’t physically active, they remain spiritually active.
Sister Ave observed, “My Dominican sisters are the light of love...Christ took on humanity so that we would know God’s love. So, we have to take on each other’s humanity, the glory of it, and sometimes the frailty of it...God holds up each person’s humanity, and that’s the wonderful gift of the baby in the manger.”
Sister Caroline Tweedy Feeds Bodies and Souls
People who struggle with homelessness, poverty, or food insecurity can be thankful for Sister Caroline Tweedy, RSM. In fact, even those of us who have a roof over our heads and food on our tables should be grateful that this Sister of Mercy reflects the best of Catholicism to all those around her. As the Executive Director of the St. John’s Bread and Life food pantry program, Sister Caroline and her team provide four and a half million meals a year to 25 communities in Brooklyn and Queens, New York.
From where does this selflessness come? During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Sister Caroline recalled her family teaching her, “As a Christian, your mission in life is to do good. Whatever road that takes you down, everybody has something to offer.” In addition, she helped out in her grandmother’s restaurant and bakery. Sister Caroline told me, “At the end of the day, my grandmother would give whatever was left to whoever was there, whoever needed it. She never turned anybody away.” (St. John’s Bread and Life has never turned anyone away either.)
Though her first reaction to someone suggesting she join the Sisters of Mercy was, “Oh no, I’ve got other fish to fry,” the idea became more appealing because of the order’s mission, work, and the idea of living in community. Sister Caroline went on to hold various jobs at Mercy Home for Children, which cares for developmentally disabled children and adults, both in residential programs and respite care programs. It was a life-changing experience that allowed her to view the world through God’s eyes. She said, “You see the face of God in those that are most fragile, those who don’t have a voice. You become their voice. You take a stand for them.”
That experience proved to be the perfect foundation for Sister Caroline’s current work at St. John’s Bread and Life. Not only do they provide hot meals to those who need them, they have a state-of-the-art digital food pantry, which gives people a sense of being able to shop for what they want instead of simply being handed a bag of food.
When we refer to “the poor” or “the homeless,” we can depersonalize these groups of people. But Sister Caroline and her team are meeting them face-to-face as children of God. She explained, “You are putting a face on someone who is in need of a service, who might be in crisis. And when you look at that person, you see the face of God. If you’re doing this work, that’s really what we’re doing. You can learn about…religious life and service in the Church by reading it or watching somebody else. But until you actually have that interaction with folks and you see progress, that’s when you’ve made a significant difference. For all of us, it’s very important to have that one-to-one relationship. We could walk through the neighborhood, and everybody knows who you are.”
Out of St. John’s Bread and Life’s 35 staff members, 10 are former clients who were able to get back on their feet with the assistance of the program, which also includes counseling on government benefits that can help them through a hard time. And food for the soul is always available to the guests who come there through the compassionate interactions of the staff. Sister Caroline concluded, “For me, personally, I think the greatest gift is to know that you’ve helped someone.”
What We Remember Will Be Saved
November 5, 2023
In August 2014, the terrorist group ISIS attacked the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, leading more than 40,000 people, many of them Syriac Catholics, to flee their homes and country. They became part of a larger exodus of refugees fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq, desperate to find safety for themselves and their families. Author Stephanie Saldaña, a Syriac Catholic herself, has now collected the stories of several of these refugees who managed to take small pieces of their homelands with them as they embarked on their journeys of survival. Her book is called “What We Remember Will Be Saved,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”
In 2004, Texas-born Stephanie moved to Syria to study as a Fulbright Scholar. She learned Arabic, met the man who would become her husband, and made many Christian and Muslim friends. When Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, she was no longer living in the country, but knew many people who were. And in 2014, she empathized with the plight of Iraq’s Syriac Catholics who fled their homes. Stephanie traveled to Amman, Jordan, where many of them had resettled, and attended a Mass, where she was moved by the beauty of the choir singing in their homeland’s language of Syriac, “a liturgical form of Aramaic.”
Afterwards, Stephanie met many refugees, including Hana, who had created a dress unlike any that Stephanie had ever seen. Hana had extensively embroidered Qaraqosh’s history, traditions, and people into an article of clothing that could have hung in a museum as a work of art. Stephanie explained, “For [Hana], this is a dress for her, but also…for her town, for her family. It’s an act of memory. ISIS was engaged in the project of destroying memory, intentionally targeting religious shrines of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis. So, the people who were affected set out on this incredible act of…resistance…of saying, ‘You don’t have the power of destroying our memories, of destroying our pasts.’”
Though it would be understandable if the refugees in “What We Remember Will Be Saved” might lose their faith in God because of the horrors they endured, the opposite is true. The Syriac Catholics find comfort and unity in their faith. Others, such as Syrian pharmacists Adnan and Gharir, who are Muslim, put their trust in God. And Qassem, who is Yazidi, “talks about the power of preparing his prayer of offering himself for others.”
Another aspect of Middle Eastern life featured in the book is the prominence of interfaith friendships. Stephanie noted, “I have lived in the Middle East for nearly two decades, and that’s certainly a deep part of my life: my relationships with people of other faiths, how we take care of each other during holidays, how we give each other gifts.” As an example, Stephanie recalled meeting Munir, a Muslim, in the refugee camp Moria in Greece: “He lived in a mixed neighborhood in Mosul: Muslim and Christian. He tells the story of how Christians in his neighborhood were targeted beginning in 2003, and how he went systematically and protected his neighbors.”
Despite the horrors of war and genocide in “What We Remember Will Be Saved,” Stephanie believes it is ultimately a hopeful book filled with “extraordinary human beings” who have managed “to remain good and to remain kind and to love…I hope [readers will] come to see refugees not as victims or as threats, but as gifts, as people who have a lot to teach us.”
Be a Blessing from the Lord
Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. In today’s world, we often seem to fall short on both counts. It’s almost as if we need daily reminders to get in touch with the “better angels of our nature,” to use Abraham Lincoln’s term. While there are various ways to do this, I’d like to add one more to the mix: Volume 58 of The Christophers’ annual “Three Minutes a Day” book, which features stories, Scripture verses, and short prayers for each day of the year.
What kinds of stories are featured in the book? Here is one example: In 2021, Gean LeVar of Glendale, Arizona, lost her husband of 58 years when he passed away in their home. To make matters worse, the police—after entering the house and seeing how unlivable the conditions were—had no choice but to condemn it. Gean lost her husband and home all in the same day, and she had no family members to help her.
That’s when her neighbor, Carmen Silva—who barely knew Gean at the time—stepped in. As reported by CBS News, Carmen told Gean, “Don’t worry…We’re going to fix it.” Carmen invited Gean to live in her home. Although Carmen’s small, three-bedroom house with eight children was already full, the family eagerly made room for one more, treating Gean like an “adopted grandmother.” Carmen explained, “I’ve always taught my kids to take care of their elders.”
In another expression of neighborly kindness, the nonprofit group Operation Enduring Gratitude, which helps Arizona veterans and their families, heard Gean’s story and rebuilt her house, making it livable once more. Gean now plans to share her new home with her adopted family. The Scripture verse that goes along with this story is the obvious choice: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The actions of Carmen toward Gean reflect a divine selflessness that each of us can choose as well. Or, we can emulate the generosity of someone like the subject of this other “Three Minutes a Day” story: For approximately 10 years, on the first of every month, Alabama farmer Hody Childress secretly performed a good deed. He would walk into Geraldine Drugs, a pharmacy in his DeKalb County community, and give a folded up $100 bill to owner Brooke Walker. His instructions? Use the money to help people who couldn’t afford their prescriptions. And if anyone asked where the money came from, he told her to say, “It’s a blessing from the Lord.”
When Childress began experiencing medical problems, he sent a relative to deliver the money to Walker, never telling the relative what exactly it was meant for. His acts of kindness were only revealed after Childress passed away at age 80 in 2023. Walker told AL.com that she used the money “to help children needing Epi-Pens for allergic reactions, families in between insurance coverages, and people just leaving the hospital.” Childress’s family and friends are working to establish a fund in his name to continue the practice.
Each of us can be “a blessing from the Lord” for others. Of course, sometimes we need blessings ourselves, and “Three Minutes a Day” also contains numerous stories about people dealing with the challenges and tragedies of life with help from their faith.
So, consider buying copies of “Three Minutes a Day: Volume 58” as a Christmas gift for yourself and others for $10.
The Gift of Aging
Marcy Cottrell Houle spent many years caring for her aging parents as they endured numerous health problems. But it wasn’t until recently that an accident brought her face to face with the reality that she was getting older herself—and in order to do so with a minimum of complications, she needed to prepare herself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That epiphany set Marcy on a path to research and co-author a follow-up book to her Christopher Award-winning “The Gift of Caring.” This latest work is titled “The Gift of Aging,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”
Several years ago, while rushing from the Kroger’s parking lot towards the store’s entrance, Marcy tripped on a drainage gate and broke both her arms. This left her virtually helpless for several months, unable to do things like cut her food or tie her shoelaces. Thankfully, Marcy’s husband was able to take time off work to care for her, but the experience left her depressed. That led her to contemplate the infirmities many people face as they get older—and whether there were ways to stay healthy. She approached her “Gift of Caring” co-author, Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, who agreed this was a topic rife for exploration.
In meeting people who still thrived in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s, Marcy learned that a key factor to aging well is having a sense of purpose. While retirement and having fun sound appealing, human beings need more in order to thrive. “People who are doing the best,” Marcy said, “they’re the ones who are not just living for themselves. They’re living for the people coming after us, and they recognize our earth is hurting and people are hurting. You can find such joy if you get out of yourself a little bit, get out of your aches and pains and say, ‘How can I make life a little better for someone else?’”
One example is 97-year-old Rabbi Josh Stampfer. When Marcy met him, he was in a wheelchair, accompanied by a caregiver. Rabbi Stampfer had spent his life helping Jewish people suffering in countries such as Russia and China. He had lost his wife in recent years and obviously suffered from some health issues. Yet he also still worked as a teacher and gave sermons on the radio. How did he accomplish all this at 97? He said he had learned that life needs a higher goal than joy.
Quoting Rabbi Stampfer, Marcy said, “In all of us, there is an innate need for happiness, but happiness is not just based on good health. Not everyone has that…What I have found…[is that] the way to be happy is to be good…When people do a good deed for others, they enjoy life more…Bringing happiness to others is the quickest way to have it yourself.”
Another factor shared by many of Marcy’s interview subjects is the practice of faith, which offers guidance to people in general and helps them move through life’s most difficult seasons. As an example, Marcy quotes the words of 102-year-old Lucille, who offered this bit of wisdom: “Remember, death itself is just another phase of life. I’ve been lucky. I’ve enjoyed a long-lasting faith that provides a supportive community and a guide. I’m not sure what follows this precious life on earth, but my faith gives me not fear but a grand sense of wonder about it. In life and death, we have only to do one thing: simply let love in.”
Cancer, Creation, and the ‘Waiting Rosary’
In early 2023, when author Lisa Hendey should have been celebrating the publication of her latest children’s book, she was met with troubling news: a diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. The following months brought both physically draining treatment and spiritual support. With the worst now behind her, Lisa is promoting her book about caring for God’s creation, titled “I Am Earth’s Keeper,” as well as sharing her cancer journey.
After a bout with breast cancer 15 years ago, Lisa has been devoted to self-exams every month. While doing one recently, she didn’t feel any lumps, but something looked amiss. Her instincts told her to check things out, even though she wasn’t due for a mammogram for several months. The mammogram didn’t reveal any problems, but an MRI did: invasive lobular cancer, which spreads on a cellular level. “By the point that we intervened,” Lisa told me, “it was quite large, and I ended up having a double mastectomy, reconstruction, and radiation...So it was really good that I listened to my gut on this.”
Lisa’s recovery was painful and slow. She will take medication for the next five years. Thankfully, she had tremendous support throughout her ordeal, support which included the Paulist priests at her Los Angeles parish providing her with Anointing of the Sick, Confession, and prayers. Lisa added, “One of the most beautiful spiritual moments following surgery was to have my husband [Greg]…[bring] the Eucharist home to me. He was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. I cried big, fat, happy tears to have my husband bring me the body of Christ.”
There were times Lisa could barely muster the strength to pray. But she felt the intercessory prayers of others giving her strength. And when she was able to pray herself, the rosary was her choice. Lisa said, “If you’re undergoing the kind of radiation treatment that I had…every day you’re in the same place surrounded by people who are very ill...I decided…to use that time praying for my fellow patients. I started praying what I would call a ‘waiting rosary.’ I would count 10 heads in the waiting room and intentionally try to…pray in that moment for their intentions.”
With the hardest parts of treatment behind her, Lisa is focused on “I Am Earth’s Keeper,” which was illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. It finds its inspiration in St. Francis of Assisi's “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” Pope Francis’s call to care for God’s creation, and a photo taken by Lisa’s friend in Mississippi. “One morning, [he] was out on the pond near his house,” she said. “It was at sunrise, he took this beautiful photo where the sun or the sky was reflected in the stillness of the water...He shared it on Facebook and said, is the sky up or down? Something about that photo and the majesty of that moment jumped into my heart. That day, I sat and wrote the poem that would eventually become this book.”
Everything she has endured this past year instilled Lisa with a deeper appreciation for St. Francis’s view of the world. She concluded, “St. Francis...reminds us that the natural creation around us is not just put there for us to use at our will, but that we’re called to live in union with everything around us. One of the gifts of being called to slow down because of illness is that it caused me to stop and see the little details that, perhaps in my haste, I may have been missing.”
Called to Put Beauty into the World
In her career, Sarah Hart has written and recorded thousands of songs for worship, for liturgy, and for Christian music stars such as Amy Grant and Matt Maher. Her work and her worldview are so imbued with the spirit of God that she relates most to St. Catherine of Siena who, at the age of seven, told her mother, “I see God in all things and all things in God.”
The seeds of Sarah’s faith were planted during her childhood. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, she recalled, “Vatican II was new, and there was folk mass and community. I grew up in southeastern Ohio, and there were potlucks and people who gathered to sing and to pray, so I grew up a very free spirit in the church. My experience of faith as a child was that I was deeply loved and that there was freedom in faith and beauty in faith.”
Even the best church experiences, however, don’t prevent someone from questioning and wandering as they get older. When she went to college, Sarah wanted nothing more to do with “church,” until she later found a non-denominational fellowship that she stayed with during her young adult years and where she met the man who would become her husband. A few years into their marriage, Sarah felt called back to the Catholic Church and has chosen to serve God through her music.
Sarah believes God used her time away from the Church to make her better. She explained, “There are things that all of us have to learn from other faiths, other religions, other cultures, and other peoples. So, I really bless that time because I learned so much, and it made me embrace my faith all the more when I came back.”
One of Sarah’s strong points is that she doesn’t view the sacred and the secular as separate. She cites Thomas Merton’s experience on a street corner in Louisville when he suddenly saw clearly “the face of Christ in all people, and how all things are interconnected.” In our polarized world, Sarah hopes more people have this kind of revelation, and she hopes her music can enlighten others in this respect. She said, “Everybody has this universal sense of sadness, happiness, joy, sorrow, of everything in between…All I want to do is put beauty in the world…And that is how we all can help God…Whatever we choose to do in our lives, we can choose beauty and good and kindness and light and mercy. To do anything less, I think, is to do a disservice to the Lord.”
Sarah’s latest way of bringing beauty into the world is through the devotional booklet “How Sweet the Sound: Lyrical Reflections Based on Amazing Grace.” Her first reflection involves listening for the sound of grace in our lives. It’s something we all must learn to do based on our individual circumstances. “Because of the busyness [of my life],” she said, “I’ve learned to adjust my prayer life and my conversations with God accordingly. My life doesn’t afford me [time] to go to the adoration chapel every day. What I’ve learned to do is, tend to the adoration chapel in my heart, and take moments throughout the day where I’m talking out loud to God, or God is whispering to my heart. I’ll say that at this age in my life, I’ve never been more comfortable with God. I’ve never felt like we’ve had a sweeter or a better relationship than right now.”
Dementia Caregiver Helps Others Like Her
Elizabeth Humphreys was first introduced to caregiving at age 10 when her brother, Michael, and her mother, Madelyn, were both diagnosed with different forms of cancer a few days apart. While Madelyn survived breast cancer, Michael succumbed to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Years later, when Elizabeth was 27, she noticed changes in her mother’s behavior that included excessive drinking of alcohol, loss of empathy, and an inability to stay on topic when having a discussion. It took three years before Madelyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Though Alzheimer’s and dementia are often portrayed as memory diseases, there is more to them than that. The patient can also suffer from hallucinations, agitation, and illogical anger. Elizabeth faced this situation with Madelyn, all while also being a young wife and mother. As a result, she felt traumatized in both her regular life and her spiritual life. During a Christopher Closeup interview, Elizabeth explained, “I was angry with God, so I didn’t lean on Him at all.”
That was how Elizabeth lived as a caregiver for nearly six years before finally admitting she needed help. She contacted the Nashville chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and was connected with a young woman who recruited her to be a fundraiser for them. Elizabeth soon thrived at the job, while also finding healing by being part of a movement that brings support to the six million people in the U.S. who suffer from Alzheimer’s/dementia and their 11 million caregivers.
Elizabeth’s efforts became so successful that she felt called to do even more. That’s when she created her own nonprofit, Mind What Matters, through which she financially assists caregivers for dementia patients in their difficult work. People who apply for caregiving grants through the website WeAreMindWhatMatters.org use it to hire a professional aide to provide a few hours of respite care, or to offset medical or pharmaceutical costs. Grant recipients are appreciative for whatever Mind What Matters sends them, and Elizabeth acknowledges that giving money to the needy is “what Jesus called us to do.”
One thing that helped Elizabeth move forward spiritually was discovering a speech Madelyn had written years ago for an American Cancer Society fundraiser, shortly after her son died. “She found herself at a museum in Connecticut…staring at a picture of Mary holding Jesus lifeless in her arms,” Elizabeth recalled.
Madelyn wrote, “I was drawn to Mary’s face and then to her eyes, which looked out at me with the unmistakable anguish of fresh grief. And as my gaze met hers, I felt a rush of recognition and comfort. I knew this pain. I began for the first time to understand my son’s death…as a universal event which could therefore be communicated and shared with others. In sharing our experiences and connecting with others, we’re able to attach meaning and find a level of insight not otherwise available to us. And this is how we survive the most difficult of tragedies in life’s hardships. We find the strength to move beyond them with community.”
These insights, along with Elizabeth’s experiences, improved her relationship with God. She reflected, “I think it is acceptance of the tremendous sorrow that accompanies life. I think this is where faith comes in. This is where, if you don’t have it…the darkness can eat you. But to the extent you give [your suffering] over, [you can] say, ‘I’m never going to understand this, God. I just know that I trust You, and that You’ll carry me through it.’”
Luke Russert Finds Healing in Communion of Saints
August 27, 2023
Eight years after his father Tim Russert’s death in 2008, broadcast journalist Luke Russert still had not processed his own grief at this tremendous loss. So, he took to traveling around the world on a quest to discover who he was apart from his father. As he shared during a “Christopher Closeup” interview about his memoir “Look for Me There,” Luke experienced numerous spiritual epiphanies along the way. For instance, he became more aware of how God was working in his life because he started to pay closer attention to the people and signs around him.
During his journeys, Luke also came to a new appreciation of his Catholic faith, experiencing elements of it like never before, especially pertaining to the communion of saints. A friend suggested to Luke that he could still talk to his father, even though he wasn’t physically here anymore. That sounded odd to Luke at first. Eventually, he said, “I got to a place of a deep, meditative peace through prayer and understanding that you can communicate with your lost loved ones. You can have these deeply spiritual, impactful meditative sessions where you can imagine conversations…There’s a real component of that in the communion of saints, and there’s a reason why it’s so prevalent in our faith.”
Luke’s travels did not just bring spiritual epiphanies, but ones about humanity and the world in general.
While it might seem Pollyanna-ish to say we are more alike than we are different, his experiences confirmed that belief. Luke said, “I traveled to over 67 places, and I didn’t have any bad experiences…And I went to places where America, at least in their government stance, is not an ally. It’s not liked…You’re always going to run into mean people…But I would say the vast majority, all they’re looking for is a semblance of respect. If you give off respect and kindness, it’ll come back to you. I’ve lived it and I’ve seen it.”
In light of his travel experiences, Luke has discovered the peace he was looking for by finally coming to terms with the loss of his father. He knows that Tim’s message to him would be akin to, “Don’t be angry. Do good. Live life to the best of your abilities. Be happy. Don’t be sad. And go forward living.”
“It took me a long time to get there,” Luke noted, “because [I] felt like I had to ask permission to be my own person and not directly fall into his footsteps. But what I realized after a lot of prayer and meditation and an epiphany in the Holy Land was [that] our lost loved ones would not want us mourning them all the time, especially now, 15 years after my father passed.”
Luke hopes that people who read “Look for Me There” find similar hope in processing their own grief or struggles. He concluded, “Your grief journey is your own. There’s no perfect way to go about it…You may never move on, but you can move forward…We reach crossroads in our lives where we’re trying to figure out, ‘What’s the best path for me? Maybe I need a minute to sit back and try to understand things.’ It’s okay to do that. Make that time for yourself, and make that time for prayer, for meditative prayer and thinking. So, my goal through all of it is that if folks can read the two parallel themes of self-discovery and processing grief, they come out of it feeling a little less lost.”
Luke Russert’s Road Through Grief
August 20, 2023
Two days before NBC News legend Tim Russert’s death in 2008, he was on vacation at the Vatican with his wife, writer Maureen Orth, and son, Luke. They attended a prayer service with Pope Benedict XVI before Tim returned to the U.S. for work, while Maureen and Luke remained in Rome. That’s where they received the tragic news about Tim’s fatal cardiac arrest. Because Tim was a public person, Luke had the eyes of the country on him as he experienced his own grief. That had its positives and negatives, he recalled during an interview on “Christopher Closeup” about his memoir “Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself.”
For instance, Tim’s wake in Washington, D.C. drew thousands of mourners. “It had the full ensemble of the American quilt,” Luke said, “meaning President Bush stopped by, as well as the short order cook who is an immigrant from Sierra Leone from the diner near NBC. It was a beautiful thing to witness.”
Luke ended up staying at the wake for nine hours to shake everybody’s hand. He said, “I felt…I was bringing comfort to people. But then, I was also getting some strength from people as they walked through.” Looking back on that period, Luke realizes he was being strong for others, but he never processed his own grief. He took a job with NBC News shortly thereafter, partially because it helped him stay connected to his father. It wasn’t until Luke had an unexpected encounter eight years later that he reconsidered what he was doing.
One day, Luke got called in to meet with the Jesuit-educated Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Luke thought he was going to get chewed out for some negative coverage, but instead Boehner told him, “You’re doing a great job, but you could do this job in your sleep. I’ve seen people that are here 20, 30, 40 years in the cycle that is American politics…There’s always the next election, a bill that has to be done, banquets to attend…You might benefit from having some time to learn a new skill or get out of Washington to see how the rest of the country lives, the rest of the world lives. Just do something that affirms that you actually want to be here for the long term and [that this] is the right decision for you.”
Boehner’s observations became a major eye opener for Luke, who said, “I believe that God has messengers out there. And I think in that case, [Speaker Boehner]…[offered] worthwhile advice, and it ended up being a catalyst for me to do some self-evaluation and decide that maybe I needed to take a step away to figure out, who am I independent of all this and what am I about?”
Luke decided to travel around the world, mostly by himself, on a voyage of self-discovery. Though he believes in the power of community, he compared his need for aloneness to “retreats in our own Catholic faith, especially silent retreats. Or Jesus, 40 days and 40 nights…There is something to be said about taking a moment for yourself, whether it’s meditative or just being off of social media…and being perceptive, thinking about what the Jesuit Examen [says]: What did I do well today? What did I do bad today? What did I learn today? Where do I see myself fitting in today?”
Those questions led Luke to some spiritual epiphanies and revelations about life.
A Renewed Practice of Sabbath
July 23, 2023
When we look at religious history, God introduced the concept of Sabbath to humanity thousands of years ago in the 10 Commandments, telling us we need to set aside one day a week to disconnect from our work and instead to connect with our deeper selves, our families and friends, and with God himself. It’s a practice many have let slip away, but it’s one we need to look at with renewed interest in light of our stressful, always-achieving, constantly-tech-connected lives today. Christopher Award-winning documentarian Martin Doblmeier explores that topic in his latest film, “Sabbath,” which is available to view for free at JourneyFilms.com and on various PBS stations.
In the film, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, calls Sabbath—or Shabbat—a “revolutionary concept” introduced to the world by the Jewish people. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Doblmeier explained, “If you go back 3,000 years, there was no sense of a rhythm [to life], a day off. It was the first time in human history that there was a mandated day off. And in the Hebrew tradition, the Shabbat is the day of rest. That, in some ways, transformed humanity.”
Doblmeier joined a Jewish family for its celebration of the Shabbat meal on a Friday evening, which begins with the lighting of candles. He notes that the atmosphere in the room changed immediately afterwards to one of peace, rest, and putting worldly cares out of everyone’s mind. Civil rights activist Abraham Heschel’s daughter reveals a similar family tradition, noting that her father never discussed politics on Shabbat. Doblmeier observed, “I thought that was refreshing because it’s one thing to say, ‘I’m not going to go to work today, but I’m still going to talk all day long about the culture wars.’…Not just the body, not just the mind, but the soul in some way needs that relaxation, to stop for 24 hours and say, ‘I’m not going to think about these kinds of things because they infuriate me…Today is my day of disengagement. I owe it to myself and I owe it to God.'”
Doblmeier also wondered what it would be like to practice Sabbath in a place already removed from the wider world and focused on prayer. That’s why he visited the Trappist monastery St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The monks, grounded in the concept of “Ora et labora” (prayer and work), labor on the land to produce the crops they need to make the jams and beers they sell. They also pray seven times a day every day. So what makes they’re celebration of Sabbath special?
“St. Benedict, 1,500 years ago, gave a prescription for what Sabbath was supposed to be like for the monks,” said Doblmeier. “Not only did he want the brothers to stop work for that particular day, but he also wanted them to study, to actually use the time for sacred reading….Lectio Divina, sacred reading, winds up being the focal point of why monasteries going back centuries were the place of education. The rest of the world was not literate, monks were literate. And why was that? That was because they had the insistence of St. Benedict that Sabbath in particular was the day that was set aside for sacred reading. You have to learn to read and then you have to be able to share that with others. So, it gave us another dimension to the whole Sabbath story.”
Celebrating Family Life and Guardian Angels
July 9, 2023
Though Kathleen Davis and Gary Jansen each tell different stories in their respective Christopher Award-winning children’s books “Feathers From Above” and “Remember Us with Smiles,” the one common theme is love. Kathleen explores the love of God that gave us each a guardian angel, while Gary (and his wife and co-author Grace) reflect on the profound love of family. Both authors joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup.”
Real life served as Kathleen’s inspiration for “Feathers From Above” when her four-year-old daughter started finding feathers in the house or outside and saying, “Mom, look, my angel must be nearby.” Though Kathleen had taught her children that God gave them guardian angels, she had never said that angels leave feathers as their calling cards. Her daughter came up with that idea all by herself. Kathleen said, “She would have different colored [feathers], and we would talk about them…We did it so often that I thought, ‘What a beautiful message that she has and what beautiful imagery it’s creating.’ I wanted other children to understand that [they] have an angel.”
For Gary, a father of two, “Remember Us with Smiles” began as a love letter to his wife Grace that recalled some of their memorable experiences as a family. The couple realized that it could be reworked into a children’s book, focusing on the extraordinary ordinary experiences of family and spending time together. This was especially important to Gary, who revealed that while his parents were wonderful people and hard workers, there was a lot of “brokenness” in his family when he was growing up. Creating fun and memorable experiences with his kids became one of his goals as a dad. He noted, “We all have plenty of bad memories we can focus on, but accentuating the positive and looking back—for me and for our family too—is a deeply spiritual experience.”
The spirituality in “Remember Us with Smiles” is implicit rather than overt. Gary explained, “Years ago, a friend invited me to go on an Ignatian retreat, and I didn’t know anything about St. Ignatius. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school but…faith wasn’t a big part of my life...[On that retreat], I got my first introduction to St. Ignatius and this idea of finding God in all things…So, there isn’t religion in the book per se, but each spread has a deliberate spiritual idea behind it.”
The faith element of “Feathers From Above” is more obvious, but it also introduces children to a complex idea in an age-appropriate way. Specifically, it points out that having a guardian angel doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen. Kathleen said, “I know most people who have had anything terrible happen to them grapple with that.…Why would God let this awful thing happen? Kids, I’m sure, also are wondering this…I wanted [the book] to be honest and true to life. I believe that God doesn’t stop bad things from happening. God helps you when those bad things happen.”
Regarding his hopes for children and families that read “Remember Us with Smiles,” Gary said, “We want the book to open people’s hearts and for them to have an emotional experience and connect with the people that they love.” Kathleen’s goal with “Feathers From Above” also revolves around love. She concluded, “My hope is that kids will realize that they’re not alone in life, that there is somebody who is with them and they are loved…Life is going to be hard, but God is with you.”
Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers
June 18, 2023
Dad Improves Inclusion of Special Needs Children
This Father’s Day weekend is the perfect time to remember 96-year-old baseball great Carl Erskine, a dad who improved this country for special needs children. Erskine had already modeled a humble Christian life by the time he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, become a close friend of Jackie Robinson, and promoted more racial inclusion in baseball. But there was another chapter of Carl’s life waiting to be written, a chapter chronicled by filmmaker Ted Green in his Christopher Award-winning documentary “The Best We’ve Got.”
On April 1, 1960, Carl’s wife Betty gave birth to their son Jimmy, who had Down syndrome. This was not a welcoming era for people with intellectual challenges. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Ted explained that the Industrial Revolution led to factories being built and competition becoming king. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was blamed for pulling society down. That attitude led to the eugenics movement, which said people with intellectual disabilities “need to be eliminated or not allowed to have children. Otherwise, they’ll be like bad cattle who infect the herd.” Eugenics became popular and gained support from the highest levels of government. In 1907, Carl’s home state of Indiana passed the country’s first compulsory sterilization law for people with intellectual disabilities, and other states soon followed suit.
The eugenics movement in the United States lost steam during World War II because it was similar to what the Nazis were doing. However, that’s when parents were told they should institutionalize their “defective” children (the term used at the time) so their family wouldn’t be held back from an affluent lifestyle. “That is what the doctors were saying to everybody,” explained Ted. “That is what they said to Carl and Betty.”
But the Erskines pushed back. When Betty’s doctor suggested sending Jimmy to an institution, she responded, “No way. I’ve been carrying this guy for nine months, and he’s coming home with me.” Carl and Betty were not the first to make this choice. They became part of what was called “The Parents’ Movement,” in which moms and dads raised their own disabled children, highlighting that the best treatment for them is love and respect.
The Erskines, however, took it a step further by taking Jimmy everywhere they went and building a community with other families of children with disabilities. Both Special Olympics of Indiana and The Arc of Indiana cite Carl and Betty as being at the epicenter of improving inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When Jimmy was born, doctors predicted he would only live to age 35. Well, Jimmy turned 63 a few weeks ago. He worked at Applebee’s for 20 years, competed in Special Olympics for 50 years, and has even moved out of his parent’s home to live by himself (with some outside assistance). He is living a rich and full life, thanks to his parents.
Regarding the totality of Carl’s life, Ted believes he is worthy of the term “hero.” And he believes Carl’s is the best kind of heroism because it is attainable by anyone. “You don’t need to be able to dunk a basketball or memorize Beethoven’s fifth,” Ted concluded. “We all have it in us to put others first and to look out for others ahead of ourselves.” To view “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story,” you can visit the film’s website at CarlErskineFilm.com or check your local PBS station.
Baseball Legend Models Love of God and Neighbor
Carl Erskine may not be a household name anymore, but he deserves to be. During the 1940s and 50s, he helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series against their crosstown rivals, the Yankees. But Carl’s legacy exceeds anything he accomplished on the field. Long before the word “inclusion” became a mainstay in our national conversations, Carl modeled an attitude of welcoming to others who were different from him throughout his childhood, as a teammate of Jackie Robinson, and as the father of a child with Down syndrome. His story is now being told in the Christopher Award-winning documentary “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story.” Filmmaker Ted Green joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to talk about Erskine’s remarkable life.
Carl’s earliest memory was visiting the site of a lynching. He was four years old in 1930 when his father took him to Marion, Indiana, to see the aftermath of what had happened the day before. The elder Erskine’s goal was to demonstrate to his son that this was “hate at its worst.” Thankfully, Carl’s parents lived their Christian faith in a way that was courageously enlightened for the times. They taught him to love God and love his neighbor—and they included people of all colors in their definition of “neighbor.”
A defining incident occurred when Carl was 10 years old. He was playing buckets one day in an alley in his neighborhood when Johnny Wilson, a nine-year-old African American child, saw him and watched shyly from the side. Carl walked up to Johnny, held his ball out, and asked, “Do you want to play?” Ted observed, “It seems like the simplest thing in the world,” but it flew in the face of the prevailing worldview that white and black kids should stay apart. Carl and Johnny went on to become great friends, and Johnny was welcomed into the Erskine’s home many times.
Fast forward to 1948. Carl became a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers and a teammate of Jackie Robinson, who had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier just one year earlier. Robinson faced racism from many people, but he and Carl became fast friends. In fact, Jackie was amazed at how naturally Carl accepted him and his family. For instance, on a day when he wasn’t pitching, Carl walked over to a section of Ebbets Field that was fenced off for the players’ families. Fans were nearby too, reaching through the fence to get autographs.
“Carl steps out there, and he notices an [African American] woman and her young son standing all by themselves and nobody is talking to them,” said Ted. “Carl walks up, starts a conversation with Rachel Robinson, roughs up Jackie Robinson, Jr’s hair. The next day, Jackie made a point to approach him and say, ‘Carl, I just wanna thank you for what you did yesterday…You went out of your way to make Rachel and Jackie Jr. feel accepted in front of all those people. That means a lot.’ And Carl is befuddled. [He said], ‘That’s the most natural thing in the world.’”
Ted added, “Carl shows how easy it can be if you put decency first, if you put others before you. In fact…I believe that Carl is the perfect embodiment of what’s etched onto Jackie Robinson’s tombstone: a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
In my next column, we’ll look at how Carl Erskine created a more welcoming country for children with Down syndrome.
For free copies of the Christopher News Note WALKING IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: email@example.com
God and the Padres Bring Light to Reporter’s Life
Two things were staples in Marie Coronel’s home when she was growing up: Catholicism and rooting for the San Diego Padres. You could make the argument that one is an extension of the other, but regardless, they both remain integral parts of her life. Admittedly, though, the practice of faith took precedence, guiding Marie as she pursued a career as a broadcast journalist. More importantly, it served as her foundation through her father’s diagnosis with a rare progressive neurological disorder, as well as her own medical crisis. Marie joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss her life and faith.
As the daughter of Filipino Americans, Marie grew up in a home where the Catholic faith was as integral to life as eating and drinking. Her father was an usher at their church and a member of the Knights of Columbus and Holy Name Society. He always made sure the family got to Mass on time, and he encouraged his shy daughter to be a lector at her Catholic school’s Masses. In addition, San Diego Padres games, either on TV or the radio, served as the soundtrack in their home. Father and daughter would always enjoy them together.
When Marie left home to attend college, it was the first time she was truly on her own with the freedom to make her own decisions. She recalled, “It was up to me to decide, ‘Hey, are you gonna get up early Sunday morning and go to Mass? Are you gonna make sure you’re there for the holy day of obligation?’ And shockingly – I think it was just because I was raised in that – the choice was pretty easy. I knew I had to go. I credit my parents because if they didn’t instill that foundation in me, I don’t know if I would’ve been, as a college kid, 18 years old, spending [my] Sundays at church…And being Filipino has helped in terms of keeping my faith alive.”
Marie’s early days in broadcast news took her far from San Diego, so she followed Padres games from afar to give her a taste of home. After several years, she was grateful to land a job at ABC 10 News back in her hometown. Life continued on the upswing when Marie met the man she would marry. But her joy came to be intermingled with sorrow when her father was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurological disorder that “affects body movements, walking and balance, and eye movement.”
Doctors didn’t think Marie’s father would live to see her wedding, which was just two months away. Mr. Coronel, however, had other plans. She said, “My dad…was a fighter, and there was nothing that was going to stop him from being there for his daughter’s wedding. But a big part of that, again, he relied on his faith…Then, after that, they didn’t know if he was going to meet his first grandchild. Eventually at the end of this, he met all three of his grandsons.”
During this time, Marie juggled her career and her own growing family, with being a caregiver for her father. She admitted it was a lot to deal with physically, mentally, and emotionally. But again, she turned to the lessons she had learned in childhood and relied on her faith for strength.
What she had endured so far, however, was nothing compared to what was to come when a tree fell on her and broke her neck. That part of the story in my next column.
A Light on an Angel Wing
When she needed it the most, Sister Ave Clark believes that a stranger brought the light of an angel into her life. It happened nearly 20 years ago, when she survived a debilitating accident in which a runaway train hit the car she was driving in Queens, New York. After a year of hospitalization and rehab, Sister Ave was finally able to return to her work giving talks and retreats as the founder of Heart to Heart Ministry, which offers hope and help to suffering people. One day, she was giving a talk in a parish when a man approached her and said he was glad she was doing well. She didn’t recognize him, so he revealed that he was a volunteer ambulance worker who was on the scene of her accident. The paramedics told him that she was in shock and her blood pressure kept dropping, so he needed to talk with her to keep her spirit going so she could fight for her life. He kept telling Sister Ave, “I’m with you. You’re not alone. You are going to be alright.”
Sister Ave believes that message registered in her subconscious because she survived the experience. She now sees that man as having been “a light on an angel wing,” which is also the title of a book of reflections that she’s co-authored with Paula Santoro. It’s a phrase she coined to reflect the people who bring “hope, comfort, and encouragement” into our lives.
Another term for these types of people are “peace givers,” whom Sister Ave and Joe and Peggy Clark write about in another book titled “Peace and Compassion…Holy Threads.” During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Sister Ave told me, “Peace, to me, is [experiencing] God’s love no matter what you’re going through. Peace is an extension of God saying, ‘Love one another into life.’ Does that mean we’re going to disagree [sometimes]? We can, but I think we need to disagree in a much better way without this harshness, cruelty, putting people down…The whole idea of peace and compassion, you can’t have one without the other, because when you’re compassionate, you either give or receive peace…That doesn’t mean all your problems or worries are gone. Maybe we learn to carry them better and be that little beam of light in the world that we can be.”
As an example of living that truth, Sister Ave points to a formerly homeless man named Albie. He lived in College Point, New York, and made sure that his homeless friends all had a bench to sleep on. If there were any homeless women around, he made sure they got “the safe bench” and that everyone looked out for them.
“One of my [fellow] Sisters helped Albie,” Sister Ave continued, “and he’s now in an apartment in Brooklyn. But Albie was just diagnosed with cancer. [The Sister] put him in New York-Presbyterian Hospital getting care. All the doctors there say, ‘This is an extraordinary man.’ Now who is Albie? He’s the man that was on the street that drank vodka a lot. But who is he? He’s a peace giver. See, sometimes we think you have to have it all together in your head, [but]…if you have it together in your head and it doesn’t move down to your heart, [that’s a problem]. I think you start with your heart first. That’s where compassion is born, because then, not only do we transform the world, we’re transformed too. We get better and better.”
Sometimes Mercy Precedes Repentance
On the weekend that the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8:3-11. We’ve all heard this reading at Mass over the years, but I recently noticed an aspect of the story that had never caught my attention before.
As John recounts, the scribes and Pharisees caught a woman committing adultery and brought her before Jesus to see if He would endorse stoning her, as the law of Moses commanded. They were really hoping to catch Jesus contradicting the religious law so they would have a reason to persecute him, but He was too shrewd for them. Instead of saying anything, Jesus started writing on the ground with His finger. When they asked Him again, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
That answer sure turned the tables on the scribes and Pharisees! They all left, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
A lot is made of Jesus telling the woman, “Do not sin again,” but what occurred to me is that we never hear the woman acknowledge doing anything wrong or asking for mercy. We can safely presume she doesn’t want to be stoned to death, but we don’t know if she was sorry for what she did or just sorry she got caught. Regardless, perhaps Jesus granted her mercy without her asking for it in the hopes that mercy would lead her to repentance.
It reminds me of the scene in the book/play/movie “Les Miserables,” in which the character Jean Valjean, who has just been released from 19 years in prison for stealing bread to support his family, finds food and shelter with a kindly bishop. The next morning, the destitute Valjean steals some silverware from the bishop’s home, but is soon apprehended by the police, who return him to the bishop for identification. Instead of condemning Valjean for his theft, however, the bishop tells the police he had freely given Valjean the silverware so he could get money to build his new life. And the bishop even gives him a couple of extra silver candlesticks!
Again, we have a situation where someone is guilty, but receives mercy rather than condemnation, even though he did not specifically ask for forgiveness. The bishop is insightful enough to know that the crime committed against Valjean by the government was far more egregious than the theft of the silverware. And so, the bishop prays that his mercy to Valjean will lead him to a new life—and the story proves out that it does.
The ideal situation, of course, is that when we commit a wrong, we acknowledge it, then ask for forgiveness. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and everybody’s story and psyche are different. For the woman caught in adultery and for Jean Valjean, maybe they have so little experience being on the receiving end of goodness and kindness that they need to experience it before they can find their way to the light. In these cases, mercy can precede repentance—be the motivator for repentance. And practicing that kind of mercy is certainly divine.
‘Compassion Walks the Road to Calvary’
“Compassion walks the road to Calvary.” It’s a timely observation as we enter Holy Week, and it’s one that Sister Ave Clark has personally experienced. As the founder of Heart to Heart Ministry, Sister Ave holds retreats and personally counsels those enduring dark times, including domestic abuse, the death of a loved one, PTSD, disability, and more. As she recalled during a “Christopher Closeup” interview about her books “Peace and Compassion…Holy Threads” and “A Light on an Angel Wing,” her experience with these types of situations goes back many years, to a time when she was a second-grade teacher. One of her students, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with cancer and wouldn’t be able to make her First Communion with the class.
Elizabeth’s parents asked if she could receive her First Communion in the hospital, so Sister Ave arranged for a priest to come and hold a small service there. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s health continued to go downhill, so Sister Ave brought her a little angel doll to hold on to for comfort.
Some time later, Elizabeth’s parents called Sister Ave to say the end was near and asked if she could come with them to the hospital. Despite feeling emotionally devastated herself by this news, Sister Ave mustered up the emotional and spiritual strength to accompany them because she realized that “compassion walks the road to Calvary.” During the car ride over, Elizabeth’s mother quietly held Sister Ave’s hand. Upon entering Elizabeth’s room, they saw she was holding her angel doll. Her mother broke down in tears, so Elizabeth told her, “Mom, don’t cry. I’m going to go to heaven, and you said it’s the best home I could ever have.”
Elizabeth’s mother hugged her, and her father told her, “You’re our little angel,” then they both left the room in tears. Elizabeth turned to Sister Ave and said, “Sister, I don’t need the doll anymore because I’ll have all the angels in heaven. You take it, you give it to someone else.”
Sister Ave agreed. Elizabeth passed away an hour later. Sister Ave recalled, “I never forgot it, Tony…When they drove home, the mother said, ‘Sister, your being with us gave us peace.’ Did it take away their sorrow? No. But our presence can [bring] peace.”
Think about those words again: “Our presence can bring peace.” When we reflect on Good Friday, perhaps the presence of His mother Mary and the beloved apostle John brought Jesus some peace as He was dying on the cross. It must have been devastating for them to watch Him die, but their love and compassion led them to bear the suffering so they could be there with Him. Little did they know that three days later, their hearts would rejoice at the resurrection. But would knowing that have eased their pain at the time? Maybe not. The suffering was right in front of them, while the hope was only in the future.
The little girl Elizabeth’s parents were believers, who taught their daughter about Jesus and heaven. And Elizabeth obviously came to believe and passed into the next life with a strong faith. The parents’ faith, however, didn’t prevent them from feeling intense pain at the loss of their daughter. But it did give them the hope that they would someday be reunited with her again.
If your compassion leads you to walk the road to Calvary, pray for the strength to keep that same hope alive in your heart during the darkest times.
Encountering Jesus in the Confessional
After she began converting to Catholicism in 2010, Leticia Ochoa Adams engaged in a lot of hard work and therapy to deal with the aftereffects of being sexually abused as a child. At the time, she developed a rosy, victorious outlook on her suffering, believing, “Those were just the things I had to go through in order to be this awesome Catholic.” Leticia realizes now how prideful she was back then because when her son Anthony committed suicide in 2017, none of those beliefs made any sense.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about her memoir “Our Lady of Hot Messes: Getting Real with God in Dive Bars and Confessionals,” Leticia told me about this difficult period of her life and how she eventually moved toward healing.
Filled with anger at God for months after Anthony’s suicide, she went to Confession to Father Jonathan, the parish priest who had been a supportive friend to her family throughout their ordeal. Aware that the priest in that moment is standing “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ), she unloaded her fury and pain and “let him have it.” At the end, Father Jonathan simply responded, “It broke my heart, too.”
Leticia observed, “I already knew Father Jonathan’s heart was broken, losing Anthony. So, the only reason he would say those words to me is because it was Christ talking to me, and it broke His heart, too…Of all the heartbreak I have, I don’t love my son the way God loves him because God made him. And I don’t grieve my son the way God grieves him because God was there and witnessed it from beginning to end and couldn’t stop it. That changed everything for me…I went on a mission to grow my relationship with [God], and not with this idea of Him that has to do with politics or this lifestyle or that lifestyle or this Mass or that Mass. It had everything to do with the God who made the heavens and earth.”
Leticia’s walk through suffering has changed her. She admits the mistakes she made raising her children, accepts responsibility for the harm some of her choices caused them, and is working toward repairing those things. She also realizes that just because you have faith in God doesn’t mean your heart will never be broken. Noting that Jesus Himself experienced grief and wept, she said, “We don’t have to mask these hard feelings by spiritually bypassing the suffering.”
As readers of “Our Lady of Hot Messes” will discover, Leticia’s view of God has also been changed by selling the house she and her husband used to live in and moving to the great outdoors. She said, “We moved to raw land about 17 months ago, which means there’s no electricity, no water. We’ve had to build from scratch, and my current understanding of God is so much bigger than a fairy in the sky who just makes your wishes come true. There’s no lights on our street, there’s no light pollution out here. So, when I look up at the sky and see the stars, I’m in awe. The sunset, the sunrise, the weather patterns. It’s so much different than living in a city…I can see the allness of God, and how much everything He creates is beautiful, and how much He delights in that beauty. And that includes us. So, the person I can’t stand, God finds delightful and gorgeous and beautiful. That’s really changed how I see Him now.”
A “Hot Mess” Finds Healing
Leticia Ochoa Adams’ life has not been an easy road. She endured repeated sexual abuse as a child—and she lost her son Anthony to suicide a few years ago. It took a long time for Leticia to acknowledge the traumas she had endured and the poor life choices she made as a result. But after becoming Catholic and slowly forging a healthier relationship with God, she has been able to move toward healing. Leticia shares her story in her raw, honest, sometimes funny memoir, “Our Lady of Hot Messes: Getting Real with God in Dive Bars and Confessionals.”
Though the designation “Our Lady of Hot Messes” may seem an unusual one for Mary, the mother of Jesus, it is grounded in the lifelong reverence Leticia holds for her and the belief that Mary was always loving and guiding her, even when her life was a hot mess. Growing up, Leticia’s aunts and mother all had pictures or statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe in their homes. And following Anthony’s suicide, Leticia always found herself sitting next to a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Mass.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, she recalled, “At some point, I realized there was a shift in my idea of Mary, that I didn’t have to be perfect to come to her—and I never was. She’s always seen me exactly for who I was…So even in those moments where I’m the messiest, she’s there and patiently, lovingly praying for me. That’s where the title came from. [I’m] trying to convey the message that just because Mary was sinless doesn’t mean she expects us to be perfect…So, when we come to her in this idealistic version of ourselves that we [think we] need to present to her, we’re kind of lying, and we’re not trusting that she loves us as we are.”
In order to be honest with Mary, Leticia first had to be honest with herself. The sexual abuse she suffered from the ages of five to nine left her feeling “angry at the world,” yet wanting to be liked by everyone. As a protective mechanism, she rejected people before they could reject her, thereby projecting her own low self-esteem onto others’ views of her—and even onto God’s view of her. Leticia started attending a Baptist church when she was eight years old and interpreted all the sermons herself. “As a kid, all I heard was, if you’re not good enough, then God won’t live in your heart and your life won’t [have]…manifestations of material goodness, wealth, happiness, all these things,” she recalled. It wasn’t until she began converting to Catholicism that she came to see God in a different light, though even that took time, as well as therapy.
Leticia admits that facing her own demons involved hard work. She explained, “I think Catholics can tell the Protestant prosperity gospel, but sometimes we have a hard time seeing the Catholic prosperity gospel, where it’s like if you just pray the rosary, you don’t have to go to therapy…Sometimes we forget that healing also comes from doing the hard work of looking at ourselves, which is why Confession is a healing sacrament. But if you just go in there and list your sins without truly looking at yourself and why you’re making these choices to fail to love, which is what sin is, then we’re not getting the healing. We’re getting the absolution, but God can only give us what we ask for.”
The Way of the Wounded Healer
Feb 26, 2023
When actress Nikki DeLoach initially read the script for her Hallmark movie “The Gift of Peace,” she didn’t realize it would be the exact project she needed to help her deal with the recent painful loss of her father to dementia.
Nikki’s father died in July 2021 at age 66. During an interview, she told me, “We knew it was going to happen, but you’re just never prepared for the loss of someone you love so much. And much like Tracy, my [widowed] character in ‘The Gift of Peace,’ I was coming into this movie very stuck in my life. I was…getting everything done, but there was no joy. There was just a deep sadness and heartbreak that was layered over everything.”
In the movie, Nikki’s character Tracy resents God because she prayed for her husband’s healing and absolutely believed it was going to happen. But he died anyway. Hallmark movies don’t usually deal so overtly with matters of faith, but this production handled the matter honestly and well.
As a person of deep faith herself, Nikki was the perfect person to star in this movie. She noted, “One thing we touch upon in the movie is that commentary of, why did God do this to me? Why did God take him? [The truth is], God doesn’t take anyone or anything from us. That’s not how God works…But what God offers is a way to get back to the joy, the peace, the love, to hope. That is what God offers inside of the pain, inside of the grief.”
That’s exactly what happened to Nikki: “Life imitated art, and something opened up inside of me. I started to find the joy in my life again.”
In the movie, Tracy begins to find healing after she connects with a grief support group in her church. In essence, the members all help each other carry their pain, making it easier to bear because of the shared burden. This ties into one of Nikki’s core beliefs about how we can all be wounded healers.
Nikki also did her best to serve as a wounded healer on a personal level to her co-star Brennan Elliott, whose wife is enduring a difficult cancer battle. She noted that everyone’s heart has been broken at times—and if it hasn’t been yet, it will be someday. Though these cracks in our hearts can’t be fully healed, they can become stronger in the broken places.
“The transformation happens in allowing God to emanate through the cracks,” explained Nikki. “Because when that light comes through the cracks and all of the broken places, that’s where you’re able to begin to be a healer. I don’t mean that you will one day wake up and not feel the pain…What I mean by that is that you get to be there for other people. You [develop] empathy and compassion and a humanity that you never had before. It allows you to sit with other people and see them when they’re in pain. And it allows you to be merciful with your own pain and what you are going through. We’re all on the road to healing. We’re all trying to find a way to…get rid of [our pain]. But what we need to pivot to is to learn how to carry it. I think the road of the wounded healer helps you to understand that is a beautiful thing. That’s not a terrible thing. It’s a beautiful road to walk.”
“General Hospital” Star’s Reawakened Catholic Faith
Fans of ABC’s “General Hospital” have embraced actor John J. York for 32 years and counting, as he plays police detective and family man Mac Scorpio. In real life, the actor is devoted to his family, as well as the Catholic faith he had drifted away from many years. So, what led him back?
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, John recalled growing up in Chicago, where his mom and dad made sure that he and his five siblings were grounded in the faith and received a Catholic education. After going to college, however, John’s faith became less important to him. He eventually left college to pursue an acting career in Hollywood and met people who guided him towards different opportunities that allowed him to fulfill his dreams. He also met and married his wife Vicki, with whom he had a daughter, Schyler.
Years later, after Schyler began attending Notre Dame High School, she asked John, “Dad, what do I have to do to receive Communion? We have Mass every day and everybody’s going to Communion, but I can’t go.” Though John was culturally Catholic enough to have had Schyler baptized, he never followed through on any of the other sacraments. He explained that she had to go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) in order to officially join the Church, so that’s what she did.
John said, “We still [weren’t] going to church every Sunday. Then, she went to college in Boulder…I did say at one point, ‘You’re a Catholic now. Going to college, there are going to be a lot of parties…and things like that going on. But go find a church…and continue with your faith.’ She did that…She had an encounter, and she became deeply immersed in her love for Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith—and she brought me along with her. So, I was just following her, following Him.”
In finding a new passion for his faith, John looked back on his life and the people who helped him with a divine perspective. He said, “A series of hands [were] always reaching out for me…As I reflect back on it, it’s the hand of God, it’s the hand of Jesus that was…pulling me along.”
John has also been paying close attention to his prayer life in the years since then. He started by praying the rosary every morning, then discovered an old St. Jude prayer card in his drawer and began saying that as well. Over time, prayers to the Blessed Mother, St. Philomena, St. Therese, and many more have been added to his morning routine. He said, “It focuses me on trying to do good things…Start your day in a space of gratitude, a space of humility, being thankful for what’s around you.”
John’s journey of faith has also helped him see the image and likeness of God in the people he encounters every day, whether they share his beliefs or not. In fact, simply praying, “Help me to see the face of God in the people and experiences of my life,” allows him to stay focused. And while being a person of faith doesn’t prevent John from experiencing dark times, his perspective on dealing with them is different than it used to be. He concluded, “Even if I’m by myself, I’m not alone. For me, Jesus Christ is right there with me. The Holy Spirit is right there with me, and that’s who I talk to. That’s what gets me through…He’s the light in my life.”
Father Ed Dowling’s Ministry to Alcoholics
January 29, 2023
Many people know the story of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. Much less is known about Father Ed Dowling, the Catholic priest who served as his spiritual sponsor. In the early-to-mid 20th century, Father Ed embodied the love of Christ not only to alcoholics, but to anyone who was suffering or marginalized: from African Americans to those with mental health issues to married couples in need of counseling. Author Dawn Eden Goldstein has done a deep-dive into Father Ed’s life to explore the personal suffering which grew his compassion—and the deep faith that motivated his work. Her book is called “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”
When Father Ed was 19 years old, before he entered the Jesuit seminary, his younger brother James died because of the 1918 flu pandemic. To make things worse, Father Ed suspected he might have given the disease to his brother, with whom he shared an especially close bond. Dawn said, “When you have a wound like that—whether it’s grief or another kind of trauma, particularly trauma that hits you when you’re young—it can make you question, ‘Does God exist? Does God care about me?’”
As Father Ed’s faith grew deeper over the years through the practice of saying daily Mass and meditating in front of a crucifix, he believed that Jesus brought him a level of healing from his emotional wound. He also came to see the “suffering Christ in his suffering brothers and sisters” and made it a part of his mission to reach out to them. When Father Ed first encountered the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, he felt God’s hand at work. The 12 Steps were based on Bill Wilson’s achievement of sobriety after a spiritual experience. He devised the Steps so that alcoholics could recognize “that they’re powerless over alcohol and that only a higher power can relieve them of this great thirst for alcohol.”
“Then,” continued Dawn, “what Bill discovered—and what he passed on through the Steps—was that he could only maintain his sobriety through…helping other alcoholics. I think Father Dowling must have recognized that this is also a very Christian idea: that our salvation is not meant only for ourselves…Every Christian has a mission. This is part of the message of the Second Vatican Council. We have a mission to be Christ among others and to spread that fragrance of Christ wherever we go.”
As he got older, Father Ed experienced an ever-worsening arthritis that was turning his body to stone, as others described it. Getting around became quite painful, yet he always exuded joy amidst his suffering. Dawn interviewed several people who spent time with him and their recollections confirmed this point. She said, “What I picked up from them was that Father Ed…so loved people that he could not be unhappy when other people were around because he was interested in them. Even when they were going through difficult times and he was suffering with them, he felt honored that they were sharing their lives with him…Every person he encountered, whether it was the drunk just off the street or the high society person, they each felt that they were the most important person who Father Dowling saw that day.”
In closing, Dawn hopes that Father Ed comes alive for readers of her book, explaining, “If I could ensure that they encountered Father Ed, then…they would encounter Christ through him and Christ’s healing.”
Don’t Give Darkness Power Over Light
January 15, 2023
In my previous column, I shared parts of my interview with Joy Marie Clarkson, author of the book “Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life.” She revealed how a period of suffering led her closer to God and a greater appreciation for the joys we can experience if we open ourselves to them. But getting to that point was not a straight line for Joy, who admits she has struggled with doubt as well.
She doesn’t see doubt as a bad thing, though, noting that she feels a kinship to two characters in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” because “it portrays someone who, with the best intentions of their heart, cannot believe in God—and someone who, with the best of intentions of their heart, chooses to [believe] anyway. I always have felt like I had both of those within me. A part of choosing to believe…is saying that my life is more sensible, more endurable in faith—and the consolation that comes with faith can’t come from the outside. I have to take the step into faith to be able to receive its consolations. Having that story in my mind has helped me know that God is faithful to me even when I waver in doubt.”
Among the consolations of looking at life through the eyes of faith is the belief “that at the heart of reality is goodness, is joy, and that in choosing to cultivate happiness, we are speaking to that reality.” Still, there are people who view the world through a darker lens, seeing only its hardships and sufferings. While acknowledging that we can’t be happy all the time, Joy believes that view gives the darkness too much power over the light.
She explained, “There’s a great quote by Jack Gilbert, the American poet, who says, ‘To only attend to evil would be to praise the devil.’ So, attend to what is good and beautiful and true, but not in a way that ignores all the difficult things of life…There can be this idea that if…someone in the world is suffering, you’re being selfish because you’re being happy…It’s like, ‘If I’m sitting around being cynical and unhappy, I’m more righteous than everybody else because I’m more knowing.’ When in fact, you’re probably making life for everyone around you more unpleasant. It’s not helping anyone on the other side of the world, it’s not helping anyone around you, and it’s not being attuned and thankful for what is in front of you.”
When Joy encounters problems nowadays, she tries to follow The Christophers’ approach of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. She concluded, “I always start with the practical…What I try to do is I… eat something healthy, I’m going to sometimes literally light a candle. It’s amazing to me how much pleasure…lighting a candle can be. Then…I try to be intentional about reaching out to friends. Sometimes when I’m encountering difficulties, trying to give kindness to other people helps me feel better, because it also reminds me that I’m not just a victim to the rest of life. I can be an agent of positivity.
“Then, I [rest] in God. There are times for shaking one’s fist at God and doing all the Psalmist activities. But I think also [about] trusting in God’s love for me, no matter what happens. Sometimes that takes the form of prayers and listening to a beautiful song and knowing that God made beautiful things in the world.”
How to Cultivate Happiness
January 8, 2023
If you’d like to be happier in the new year, Joy Marie Clarkson has some insights to share from her own life. In fact, she considers herself “aggressively happy,” which is also the title of her book, because, “In this world that is so pervaded by cynicism…[and] difficult things…to have some kind of joy and happiness does take an act of at least assertiveness, if not aggression.”
At the same time, Joy is a realist who never descends into toxic positivity, which she describes as “an inability to deal with the actual griefs and heaviness of life.” In fact, she notes that her name, Joy Marie, means “joy in a sea of bitterness or sadness,” which, again, accurately reflects her personality.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Joy explained, “I am a person of extremes to some extent. So I’ve always felt…a deep enjoyment of life…and I’ve also felt very keenly the heaviness of the world, whether it was my own struggles with mental illness, or the people that I loved [who were] suffering, or just looking at the vast fragility of the world…So happiness for me has been…a cultivated thing or a habit. It’s not that you can just make yourself be happy. It’s that you slowly but surely till the ground of your life. You pull up the weeds. You water thankfulness every day. So that was part of what the book is wrestling with and, hopefully, models a bit as well.”
Ironically, “Aggressively Happy” was inspired by an extended period of hardship for Joy, a period from which she emerged with wisdom and clarity about life and God. At the end of December one year, she had a mystical experience that told her the coming year would be one of suffering. Initially, she wrote it off as OCD or intrusive thoughts, but she soon learned this was a message meant to prepare her for what was to come.
“I feel like that period of my life was one of the first times I woke up to the fact that Jesus says, ‘In this life, you will have tribulation, but take heart for I have overcome the world.’” said Joy. “Having that sense of preparation made me feel like I wasn’t alone in it, that I was being guided through it. It helped me…get in touch with reality, which is that there will be difficult things. Then [it ushered] me into a posture towards life, which I have to learn again and again: to not be surprised by suffering and to know that it doesn’t undo the joy and beautiful things we experience. Also, to let it become something that softens you and makes you open to others and other people’s pain, and aware of God’s love in the midst of life.”
The comforting aspects of Joy’s faith did not just occur in the spiritual realm, but through tangible ways. It’s not just about sitting in church trying to make yourself “believe harder,” she said, but rather about a sacramental experience of God’s grace.
Joy continued, “We experience these specific graces in the Church, but also as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ So from poetry to the beauty of nature to the comfort of the sacraments, those were all things that helped me know that God was with me, that I was never alone in suffering, and that the suffering was never the fundamental thing…It didn’t have the final word in my life.”