Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Best and Worst of Catholic

The gospel choir began with a bang and kept the energy high during this celebration of First Eucharist at St. Therese parish in Seattle. A tiny girl, younger sibling of one of the seven children receiving Eucharist for the first time, carried the cross high, leading the entrance procession. Parents bounced babies, everyone clapped more or less together, and the choir poured their hearts out. I was there for my granddaughters, and as the Mass went on, thought, “This is the best of Catholic.”

A group of many ages and diverse ethnicities, our focus was on the children. All wore simple, identical white albs, so none of the emphasis on clothing that had shadowed too many of these celebrations. To them we were entrusting one of our finest treasures, and they had been well prepared. The day before, they learned to handle the chalice reverently and not make funny faces for their first sip of wine. They decorated a candle and lit it from the Paschal candle, then their parents told the children how they brought the light of Christ into their homes.

It reminded me of the day before my own First Communion, over 60 years ago. Still, I hold one vivid memory. Skipping with anticipation, I was walking across the playground with the sister who had prepared us. “Are you excited?” she asked. “Of course!” “And God is just as excited,” she happily replied.

That tone of joy welcomed my granddaughters and their group. Each child played a part, one carefully placing and smoothing the altar cloth, another bringing wine, a third pouring water. The preparation was similar to ways they’d probably set the table at home, but this time was special. Jesus was host and hostess, inviting and delighting, calling the littlest to himself, as he had always done. He would’ve liked the relaxed attitude here—no pressure on the children about not goofing up, so of course they didn’t. The pastor even included Mrs. Cleopas in his homily on Emmaus, so extra points to him!

Little here to make the heart soar; I thought longingly of Celtic spirituality which de-emphasizes the role of church and instead looks to God’s shining throughout creation. Probably a personal preference and maybe a quirk of character, but guess where I felt closer to God—St. Therese’s or St. Peter’s?


One of the most striking sentences in the first reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses the Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.

Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. Movies streamed into our homes educate us on the cultures of Iran or Korea.  Small Californians learn to eat dumplings with “cheater” chopsticks.

One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.

With whoosh of wind, the Spirit barrels through the US in the Pentecost I imagine. Just as faith leaders of all traditions once joined to march with M. L. King Jr. and enact Civil Rights legislation, so Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists and agnostics rise together as a concerted public voice for gun safety. They move past “thoughts and prayers” to concrete legislation to reduce the skyrocketing death toll. They don’t want their country to be known as the nation where guns are the #1 cause of death for children.

Hopefully, we’ll look back on these efforts and say, “So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along.” A phrase later in Acts describes a Spirit-guided way of making decisions: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). That might sound arrogant, or even cynical (If this backfires, we can always blame the Spirit). So too, we make decisions with the Holy Spirit, maybe not naming that presence or guessing that strength. But in the long run, what hope, power and grace!

Easter 7—Women as Afterthought

It’s such a toss-away line, it deserves response. This weekend’s reading from Acts names each male disciple individually and precisely, then clumps “together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus…” the anonymous female crowd. Hmmmm…let’s hear their side of the story.

“Christ risen from his sepulcher at last,

Appeared to women first

So that the news would travel very fast. “ (Filippo Pananti, “Epigram VII”)

Or as Pope Francis said, “the Apostles and disciples find it harder to believe in the Risen Christ… Not the women, however!” One of them, Salome (they did have the dignity of names), remembers finding the sweet spices, unused:

I found the jar in the

shadows of a shelf, years later. Inching

open the dusty lid, fragrance brought it all back:

the fear-filled morning, milky before

dawn, exhausted friends’

faces, red-eyed with

crying and no sleep.

“Let’s do what we can”

our inglorious resolve.

I’m still embarrassed

that we ran terrified from

one who told us not to fear.

Were we fleeing something

in ourselves, that I know now

resurrects? Was the news

too good to believe?

I swirl these tiny spice grains

like puzzle pieces, wondering:

the fact we never used them,

their scent now slightly stale,

does it prove something stupendous?

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Press, Orbis Books,, 800-258-5838

Easter 6—Kind Reassurance

“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

The context of Jesus’ promise is the last supper; the friends to whom he speaks are understandably confused and anxious. Earlier, they had questioned his allusions to leaving them. Temporarily? Or forever? He’d seen beneath Peter’s bravado (“Why can’t I follow you? I’ll lay down my life for you.”)

Under the arrogance, the needy, vulnerable child who desperately needs comfort. Jesus, not focused on his own imminent ordeal, looks fondly on his friends: bedraggled, flummoxed, sloppy, dear. And dreading more than anything, as most children do, being abandoned by those they love.

A similar situation is described by the marvelous poet Ross Gay in his 2022 book Inciting Joy, which traces the dance between sorrow and joy, the first carving space for the second. His family, gathered around his dying father, leaves the hospital briefly for “a somber dinner…a pallor over us, edging toward the world without this person we loved.”

Like Jesus, his dad has been more focused on his loved ones than his liver tumor. A week after his own diagnosis, his son Ross gets sick. Dad cares for him, bringing a cold rag for his feverish neck, making lightly buttered toast, and when he feels up to eating more, a plate of supper he’s kept warm in the oven.

Ross doesn’t gloss over the fact that like most dads and teen-aged sons, they’d had a rough patch during his adolescence. But their relationship as adults shows “because I live, you also will live.” They share a love for playing basketball, cooking, and smelling lilacs. “He would close his eyes to breathe [the fragrance] in, and I would do the same without noticing I do it, too.” Ross recognizes in himself the same bluster his dad shows when he’s “insecure, threatened, small, dumb, or not enough, which is not exactly infrequent.”

During their last goodbyes, Ross notices his father’s freckles, “like a gentle broadcast of carrot seeds… through my tears I saw my father was a garden… And from that what might grow.” A striking parallel to Jesus, who rises in a garden, bringing spring life. And how are we, maybe without even noticing, like him?

Easter 5–A Roomy Home

In today’s gospel, Jesus leads his listeners from a visible, tangible reality to the spiritual world it represents. When he speaks of his Father’s house, we may think of our own homes—places which may need repair and cleaning, but where we are our most authentic selves. At home we drop the masks; there we laugh, cry and love freely. We are as intimate with God as with those who live in the same house.

Jesus’ promise that God’s house has many rooms reassures those who worry whether they’d fit into the celestial palaces often portrayed in art. We’re too earthy or grimy to hobnob with angels on golden floors. “Ah no,” smiles Jesus. “If your idea of heaven is a mountain cabin beside a flowing trout stream, that’s what I’ve prepared. So too for those who want the English Tudor in the rolling hills, or the beach cabana.”

It’s a feast for the imagination and a comfort to those whose loved ones have died. How sweet to think of them happy in the home they’ve always wanted, carefully prepared by their Creator. Jesus’ promise stems from the marriage custom of his day. After the betrothal, a young man left to build a room onto his parents’ extended family dwelling for himself and his bride. Before he left, he told her, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be too.” Imagine Jesus speaking these wondrous words to us. 

Easter 4—Good Shepherd

Jesus as Good Shepherd may seem a difficult concept for readers whose experience is primarily urban. But the more I think about it, the richer it seems. Never mind that shepherds say the critters they tend are stupid and smelly. No odd aromas nor slow wits deter Jesus. He simply says, “I know my own,” placing no blame.

On Easter Monday, the gospel mentions the women running from the tomb with a cocktail of emotions, “fearful yet overjoyed.” “And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them” (Mt. 28: 9). No matter how meandering our ways, through grocery stores or gyms, offices or schools, retirement centers or prisons, Jesus, eager to see us, meets us on each unique and personal path. We needn’t be running a marathon or ascending to an altar—he’s there waiting, arms open wide.

I recently observed Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, where Emmy, aged seven, her glossy dark hair escaping from the braids where it had probably been neatly placed earlier in the day, was asked what the Shepherd does. One strap of her overalls was unfastened, but she was clear in her response. Softly, she said, “He takes care of us.” All we need to know for security and confidence…

In a relevant tangent: The shrine of Our Lady of Aranzazu, Spain was built on the site where Rodrigo de Balzategui, a Basque shepherd, found a statue of the Virgin Mary nestled in a thorny bush with a cowbell in 1469. Stunned, he asked, “You? Among the thorns?” Exactly where a shepherd might seek the lost, in brambly wild places. St. Ignatius visited the shrine in 1522 on his way to Montserrat. Some suspect the experience must have influenced his signature quest for “finding God in all things.”

Third Sunday of Easter—Emmaus

Jesus’ disclosure of himself in Luke’s gospel to those who are “on the road’ comes as good news to people who are often in motion. While some may criticize the frenzied mobility of our era, Jesus joins the journey.

I like to think of Cleopas’ unnamed companion as Mrs. Cleopas, since if the person had been male, he would’ve been named. In a parish where I suggested this possibility during a retreat, the following year the lay homilist had his wife join him for a dialogue about their journey—perhaps edging closer to the original?

There are striking parallels between Jesus’ actions and contemporary thought on how to help people overwhelmed by tragedy or stuck in trauma. In Images of Hope, William Lynch, SJ  suggests that the imagination proposes “boundaries of the possible [that] are wider than they seem.” Luke records that the two companions stopped short, immobilized by sorrow. When Jesus invites them to talk about the Crucifixion, he places the events in the context of a larger story. He “frees the imagination to fight its way out of the dreary cage of the instant.” As they begin to answer his question, they resume their walk. Furthermore, they journey into recognition and elation.

It’s especially appealing that they recognize Jesus not in formal worship or a church setting, but at the kitchen table, breaking bread. Christian ritual began in a home, growing from a long Jewish tradition of domestic prayer. Jesus thus affirms that the household is holy ground. Furthermore, he demonstrates that our most ordinary routines can be sacramental, that we can move beyond despair, that our times and spaces are sacred.

Excerpt from Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Press,, 800-258-5838.

Second Sunday of Easter–The Important Role of Doubt

Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.

Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.

Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.

The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.

Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.

To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.

Easter in Us

I’ve long believed that we come to understand the “capital R” Resurrection only through understanding “small r” resurrections—the stuff of daily life, like sun after a long stretch of rain, a restored relationship, an accident avoided, health after illness, energy after inertia, seeing a problem that seemed intractable in a positive light, starting a difficult venture late in life. A woman who suffered terrible migraines saw resurrection in the miraculous effects of the right medication, and a nurse described how a dehydrated child, when hydrated, comes alive: skin glowing, energy restored.

In that spirit, we search signs of resurrection this season that are fresh, maybe not expressed in religious language, but still filled with liveliness. One of the most hopeful I’ve found is an “On Being” podcast recorded March 23, 2023. In it, Janine Benyus discusses biomimicry, based on her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

“It’s a design discipline that takes the natural world as mentor and teacher, exploring the ways nature solves problems… relentlessly creating conditions conducive to life.” As Benyus says, “we are surrounded by geniuses.” “It’s an innovation practice where the people who make our world, the designers, engineers, architects and construction workers, when they go to solve a problem, say, “What in the natural world has already solved this problem?”

Take, for instance, abalone. “The mother of pearl on the inside of an abalone shell…is twice as tough as the high-tech ceramics in jet engines.” I won’t attempt to describe the chemistry that produces this material, but to sum up: what’s already in the seawater gets pulled in and coaxed into form, to self-assemble it. Designers learn from that how to create a glass that is extremely tough, layer-by-layer, transparent. The interesting thing about it is that no fossil fuels are burnt to create this glass.

So too people can learn about solar cells by looking at leaves. Material scientists study spiders and rhino horns, seeing how life makes things without kilns. They work in “a reverential state,” awed by the genius of the natural world, sounding like pragmatic, contemporary St. Francises. The compass statement for Benyus’ company, “muddy knees and epiphanies” came from a trip desalination engineers made to the Galápagos Islands. Benyus recalls,

“I walked by this guy named Paul, looking at a mangrove, a pretty buttoned-up engineer, and he was crying. Had tears streaming down his face. I stood next to him looking at the mangrove, and I could get that. It’s a pretty spectacular thing. And he said, ‘How is it that in my education, I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, 40 years, I’m a desalination expert. I filter salt from water, and this plant has its roots in saltwater and it’s solar powered and it’s desalinating. I’m crying because it’s beautiful and because no one ever told me.’”

Once, people made snowshoes by modeling the footprint of a snowshoe hare. Or they designed a chisel by looking at beavers’ teeth. Asking, “What would nature do here? What wouldn’t nature do here?” is a different spin: not learning about nature, but from nature. After 3.8 billion years, life knows how to live. God’s creation shines with marvels we’ve barely begun to explore.

I don’t understand it fully, but I’ve ordered Benyus’ book. And “attending to original vitality,” like St. Hildegard’s “viriditas” is a life-giving, resurrection theme. This vital research reaffirms that we’re made for the garden, not the tomb. God’s life penetrates ours, lighting the dark corners, bringing hope and spring beauty.

This only skims the surface. For more, see

Passion/Palm Sunday

Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives?

Why do high hopes sometimes smash against rocky reality? Recently, floods in California had a devastating impact on farmworkers. When the levee near Pajaro broke, they were awakened in the middle of the night and told to evacuate immediately.

Subsequent research showed that a more affluent county north of the dam had invested far more money in maintenance than the one south of it, which flooded. Meanwhile, those who picked strawberries as their primary income were afraid to go to shelters because they worried their immigration status might be questioned. In the week after, they wanted desperately to return to their homes, but the community had no potable water, sewage or electricity. If the crop was destroyed, as many feared, they’d lost their jobs and source of income. They must’ve asked, “why?”

The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer such unanswerable questions. He enters into them. He’d be right there with the farmworkers, bewildered, vulnerable and defenseless. After his arrest, he can’t act as he has before. He’s rendered passive—and from that stance, saves humanity.

Seeing his hopes unravel and his plans destroyed, Jesus plans a last meal. His concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a last, poignant gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to crushing betrayal by pouring out love.

To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but One goes before us who lives through them, endures.