Second Sunday of Advent:   Embracing What Comes


Mary models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?

First Sunday of Advent: Crying Need

The candles on the Advent wreath can be a measure of the season, a way to mark its stages reverently, so that nothing gets lost in the rush. The wreath itself speaks without a word: evergreen as God’s unchanging care, circular as love, the ring without end.

Time moves forward in measured ways, as we light each subsequent candle. Love grounds and endures: fragrant green boughs anchor us and promise life even as the landscape outdoors may look snowy or barren. The wreath custom began in central Europe, when wintry roads became impassible. Wagon wheels were precious constructions, brought inside for safekeeping and hung from the ceiling. So for us now, during these four weeks, frantic rushing halts. We wait.

One candle may seem alone, frail in the darkness of December, during the shortest days of the year. But it speaks powerfully of our acute need for God. The solitary flame which could so easily be extinguished by a gust of wind or a careless hand reminds us of our own vulnerability. As the Leonard Cohen song says, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In many areas we know nothing or blunder badly, though we may bluff or pretend arrogantly. This Sunday reminds us: it’s time to turn to God.

When we wait for anything important, we are powerless. The recovery of a loved one who’s ill, a change in the economic climate, an acceptance to a school, a promotion in the hands of a boss, a long-desired pregnancy: all are beyond our control.  Recognizing we can’t fix everything may be a first step of Advent; acknowledging our own failures a realistic second step.

The prophets and John the Baptist remind us of our terrible culpability. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We have betrayed our dearest loves, tried to solve complex problems with stupid violence, placed our own interests above everyone else’s. And time is short. When will we heal and transform into the dream God had for us at our conceptions? The season’s tone is stark, definitely not sweet or soothing!

As Thomas Merton wrote in NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: “Those who do not want mercy, never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.” (21-22) It might make us more comfortable with our chronic, nagging problems if we see them as the entry point to dynamic growth.

To prepare a place in our hearts for a small Christ child, we must dispense with any arrogance, pride or falsity—sharp prods to tender skin. In the “Magnificat” Mary says God comes into her lowliness, not her great virtue. The Creator of galaxies and oceans nestles into the arms of a young girl, rests in a little straw.  The adult Jesus came to those who needed a physician, not those who were smugly self-righteous. No matter how cruelly we’ve sinned, God enters our worst failures and calls us friends.


Dorothy Day—d. Nov. 29, 1980

While Day’s cause for canonization was introduced in 2000, she believed that “there are many saints, here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” At the same time, she “didn’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

She probably didn’t do it consciously, but it was almost as if Dorothy Day found the notion of sainthood had grown tarnished and irrelevant. Briskly, practically, as she did everything, she dusted it off and made it serviceable. In a world of violence, social upheaval and war, she called for saints who would disarm the heart.

A casting director looking for saint material would’ve rejected her on multiple grounds: a leaning towards Communism, multiple relationships with men, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. With tongue firmly in cheek, she summed up the gossipy accusations against her in a 1936 letter: “I’m supposed to be an immoral woman, with illegitimate children, a drunkard, a racketeer, running an expensive apartment on the side, with money in several banks, owning property, in the pay of Moscow, etc.”

Stir into the mix the narrow-minded church of her day, whose leaders wouldn’t dream of listening to “radical” lay women. The vast majority of Catholics then saw their role as following the rules, and were content to pay, pray and obey.

Early in her career during her first visit. to the south, Dorothy was shocked by the poverty in Arkansas. Never one to dither, she telegraphed Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, also a lady who got things done. Mrs. Roosevelt contacted the governor, who—unsurprisingly—stonewalled.

No amount of brisk bureaucratic subterfuge could stop her for long. The Catholic Worker newspaper she edited and wrote skyrocketed from 2500 to 35,000 copies printed in its first six months. By 1938 they’d reached 190,000 copies. Ever the writer, she first proposed houses of hospitality in print, but didn’t actually begin one until a desperate young woman told her she’d been sleeping in subways with a friend, who in desperation, had thrown herself in front of a train. Gradually, Dorothy and her staff rented other apartments and houses for the homeless. It was all rather ragged, with no one drawing a salary. Yet in those first five years, more than thirty houses of hospitality were founded beyond the shaky, original New York beginning in Dorothy’s apartment. Today 227 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless. (

Even a few excerpts from her letters are enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that sainthood is a sunny stroll through a flowery meadow. She knew that when the Catholic Worker failed, it was often because of her explosive judgmentalism.  Like the rest of us who recognize bundles of contradictions within, she regretted parts of her early life, and what seems to have been a constant impatience with others.

One of her favorite quotes was Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s, “the world will be saved by beauty.” She tried to live out Ruskin’s “duty of delight.” Throughout her life, she loved reading, opera, films and nature. The sea brought her peace and strength; wisely, she visited it often. Even a half-hour ride on the ferry brought the taste of salt spray, the wheeling arcs of gulls, sunset, silence, refreshment. Living with neediness, congestion and often chaos, she turned to nature for quiet space.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015,, 1-800-858-5450

The Songs of Sanctity

Sometimes when I give talks or retreats about the saints, I ask group members to nominate a saint from our century. Varied responses have been fascinating: Sr. Dorothy Stang, Pope Francis, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Fr. Mychal Judge, the ASC martyrs, first responders. I’ve been mightily impressed by Kaitlin Roig, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook school, who hid her class in a bathroom when she heard shots. She told an interviewer, “I was thinking… we’re next. So I told them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much.’ I wanted that to be the last thing they’d hear, not gunfire.”

Recently, through GIVE US THIS DAY, the superb monthly collection of readings, reflections, and saints-of-the-day from Liturgical Press—888-259-8470, (truth in advertising: I write for them), I’ve met a new nominee: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. An Irish pastor explained  that he’s not well known outside of Ireland, but he should be. Born in Cahersiveen, CO. Kerry, also the home of my great-grandmother, he grew up playing golf, because his father was steward of the Killarney golf club.

That skill would help when he arrived in Rome the same year as Mussolini, 1922. Fellow golfers would later give him high social standing, which he would use eventually to rescue over 6500 Jews, US and UK escaped POWs and downed airmen. In German-occupied Rome, he set up and coordinated the “Rome Escape Line,” an ingenious underground of homes, convents and other hiding places which operated beneath the noses of the Nazis.

His arch nemesis was SS Lt. Col. Kappler, head of the Gestapo, who painted a white line around the Vatican, daring O’Flaherty to cross out of safe territory and be executed. In the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” (1983) Gregory Peck playing O’Flaherty jokes with typical Irish wit: “Colonel, do I get the idea that you’re tryin’ to put a crimp in my social life?” Undeterred, he simply mastered various disguises to evade the Germans when he left the Vatican on rescue missions.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story is that when Kappler was sent to jail for life, he invited the priest to visit him—which he did once a month, laughing, “after he put a 30,000 lire bounty on my head, now we’re sort of pals.” Courageously, O’Flaherty advocated fair treatment of Nazi prisoners, which must’ve been excruciating when Kappler had killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, in revenge for 33 German soldiers killed by the resistance—one of the war’s worst atrocities. Eventually, O’Flaherty received his old enemy into the Church. He died in Ireland in 1963; the Israeli government planted a tree in his honor ten years later. Poet Brendan Kennelly wrote of O’Flaherty:

There is a tree called freedom and it grows

Somewhere in the hearts of men

Rain falls, ice freezes, wind blows

The tree shivers, steadies itself again.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Continuing the month of saints, let’s focus on the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?

Feast of All Saints

“I don’t much like the saints,” admitted an eighth grader. “They’re too perfect.” Isn’t it high time our young folk met the real saints, who are just as filled with flaws and quirks as any other human beings? But many of them would’ve been really interesting to hang out with!


We in the U.S. are fortunate to brush elbows with many saints–both officially canonized and not quite there–who grew and flourished here. It’s intriguing to imagine them sitting down together at a heavenly banquet, unbounded by the usual human constraints. Their shared values, hopes, beliefs and actions are strong membranes connecting them beyond time and space.


Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and  Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.


Lest anyone consider them superheroes, let’s remember that saintly people walk with all the longing and limitation, reluctance and resistance of ordinary human beings. They share (and have documented in their letters and journals) the failures, fears and frustrations, effervescent joys and stinging pains of all humanity. Looking way back in church history, the fifth century Council of Carthage insisted that saints remain sinners who rely on God’s mercy. If not, they’d be too distant to imitate. And isn’t that the point?


A question which arises naturally in this context is, what makes North Americans unique in the larger communion of saints? Typical of our nation’s settlement and growth was a fluidity, vitality, and sense of possibility previously unknown in Europe. Historian Daniel Boorstin comments: “By the early 19th century, in crowded, pre-empted Europe, ‘No Trespassing’ signs were everywhere; control by government covered the map. America offered a sharp contrast.”[1]


Old World nations knew clearly defined boundaries. But the sense of geography in the U.S. was vague at best. “The map of America was full of blank places that had to be filled.”[2] This unique mix of hope and illusion became fertile ground.


Few clucking rulers murmured, “it can’t be done.” Call it, if you will, less of a “wet blanket effect.”   Americans often seem happiest when on the move, and this was certainly true of John Frances Neumann or Frances Cabrini—who began as immigrants, and served their new country by difficult journeys through it.


The frontier has always been vital to the North American experience. So let’s broaden the idea of frontier to unexplored realms of holiness. In the North American context, the quote from Revelation 21:5, “See, I am making all things new” takes on richer meaning. Our saints went into what some would term North America’s “hell holes”: the raw frontier, the leper colony, the squalid slum. They were “explorers” in many realms: civil rights, science, education, health care. There they brought the vigorous, transforming energy of the Resurrection.


Shouldn’t our young people have heroes like Marianne Cope, Pierre Toussaint, John Neumann, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez and Mychal Judge? Don’t these pioneers have more to teach the soul than a sports or film hero? Let’s read their stories, model their actions, praise them like honored family members!




Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015,, 1-800-858-5450

[1] Daniel Boorstin, THE AMERICANS: THE NATIONAL EXPERIENCE (New York: Random House, ’65), 65.

[2] Boorstin, 223

Feast of Five Martyrs

“In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” — Thomas Merton

Their story isn’t well known, but it should be. On Oct. 23, 1992, three Adorers of the Blood of Christ were killed in Liberia, after two others in the order had been shot three days earlier. They were innocent victims caught in the craziness of civil war.

When I gave retreats to this community, both in Ruma, IL and Wichita, KS, I was impressed by a spunky-wonderful bunch of women. As I learned their history, that first impression turned to awe. One background note among many: in 1985, the Adorers of Ruma became the only Catholic organization in the area to defy the law and offer sanctuary in their houses to Cuban and Central American refugees.

In limited space, it’s impossible to write about all the martyrs (see When the Saints Came Marching In for the fuller picture.) But here are brief cameos of two:

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra was a nurse who wasn’t above bribery. At her clinic, she discouraged the common practice of driving off evil spirits by placing pepper in a newborn’s mouth, (which caused blisters) and mud on the umbilical cord, causing tetanus. She encouraged  parents’ cooperation with baby clothes donated by friends in the U.S. Eventually, she cut infant mortality from 80% to 20%, from two deaths a week to two a year.

Sister Shirley Kolmer loved Liberia because the gap between her front teeth was considered a sign of beauty there. A Ph. D. in Math, she taught it at St. Louis University, and first went on a Fulbright to the University of Liberia in 1977-1978. As provincial, her vision was of “loving the comfort, but ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice–women who dream dreams and continue to promise.” In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s rebels had recruited child soldiers as young as 10, and revived ancient practices of torture and mutilation. So Shirley started a counseling program for boys pressed into war, both perpetrators and victims.

Asked, “what made them tick? Why would they return to Liberia after a dangerous escape a year before?” the sisters who knew them well respond: “If there were five martyrs, there were probably eight motives.” The words “pious” or “prissy” never come up. “Bold” and “tenacious” are more likely to surface. They had practical work to do: teaching poor, illiterate, powerless women, staffing medical clinics, counseling, feeding the hungry. (By 1990, 40,000 civilians in Monrovia had died of starvation.) Over and over, one hears of a love for the Liberian people, the drive to meet their needs and share their lot.

Their persistence also characterizes an ASC sister who, as principal of an East St. Louis school, got garbage collection where there had been none, and celebrated as merrily as the neighbors on the day the trash cans arrived. Let’s praise and celebrate and honor women such as these.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015,, 1-800-858-5450