Alice Gunther is a mother of nine and a columnist for The Long Island Catholic. She writes about Catholic family life at her weblog, Cottage Blessings, and is the author of “Haystack Full of Needles, A Catholic Home Educator’s Guide to Socialization.”
Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho! Joshua and the battle of Jericho! And the walls came tumbling down!”
I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye: the cafeteria of St. Mary’s School, surreal to me at night, with an assortment of neighborhood children pressing round a fortress of cardboard milk cartons. The gang of us are singing at the top of our lungs, before bolting forward with a whoop to topple the flimsy firmament at just the right moment. This simple, boisterous game was all part of “Family Night,” an event promoted in those days by a young priest named Father Daly and filed away forever in my treasure chest of joyful childhood memories. I am not sure what I knew about Joshua or Jericho at the time, yet the fun and wild abandon of the game remains with me still.
Then there was Lent at St. Mary’s Church and the 7:30 evening Mass in its dimly lit basement. My mother and our neighbor, Mrs. Maloney, would rarely miss it. Anne Maloney and I could not wait to pile into the car for the novel nightly outing, or better yet walk under the train trestle with its florescent lights and cooing pigeons, pretty sure of a soda at Alexander’s afterward, and, if we were very lucky, a piece of creamy white chocolate to split between us. How I loved those Masses with holy Father Callahan on the altar and Anne beside me. The memory of them brings a pleasing mist to my eyes even now.
Looking back on these early spiritual experiences, I see now that, although they were in some ways less than ethereal, those blessed moments are cloaked in a mantle of simple childish gladness and mirth. To this day, I love the Mass and the Church and the Holy Bible and our parish priests, and, it seems to me, the seeds of Faith and love and loyalty were sown deep, sown in the ready heart of a child and fed and fertilized with soda and smiles, war whoops and white chocolate.
In passing on the Faith to our children, it is a great hope of mine that we will allow them to form many happy associations like these. Armed with a childhood of fond religious memories, they surely will fare far better against the world’s onslaught than those tottery milk cartons in the cafeteria. With this in mind, we have begun a new tradition in our home–First Saturday Outings.
The idea was born over hot chocolates in Starbuck’s back in December. I had taken the four older girls—ages 12 to 7–to do a little Christmas shopping while Daddy watched the toddlers at home. The night was pleasingly temperate, and our spirits were so high that it made me wonder why we rarely go out together in the evening. It happened to be First Saturday, reminding me of the Fatima devotion of Mass, Confession, a Rosary, and a quarter hour’s meditation on the Mysteries for five consecutive months. I suggested we begin this practice, concluding with a pleasant monthly evening out together. The girls were at once taken with the idea and talked about the first Saturday of January for weeks. Even the wonders of Christmas and New Year’s could not dilute their eager anticipation.
First Saturday morning, the children awoke already talking about Mass and Confession and the special trip planned for afterward. January’s outing consisted of omelettes at a local diner with a walk through Border’s Bookstore afterward. Daddy and I decided to spring for a round of hot cocoa at the cafe, but, much to everyone’s dismay, they were all out of (gasp) cocoa powder. Fortuitously, the girl behind the counter offered white chocolate as a substitute, and, you will be glad to learn, the pale variety was accepted by today’s young Catholics as readily as it was by Anne Maloney and Alice O’Brien those many years ago.
We arrived home late and began the usual bustle of tooth brushing, pajama hunting, and laundry rounding (“It’s like herding cats,” quipped Daddy.) The little three were asleep in an instant, when I remembered we had not yet said a Rosary or meditated an extra fifteen minutes on the Mysteries for First Saturday. The four girls were only too happy to stay up a while longer for a cozy, quiet Rosary, and I was just about to remind them of the quarter hour’s meditation, when an idea struck me.
“Get on your coats, girls.”
Eight eyes opened wide, and even Daddy uttered a disbelieving, “Did you say ‘coats’?”
Within two minutes, we were outside under the stars–barely chilly with the spring-like weather we have been having–and singing around our outdoor Nativity scene. Everything but the creche was pitch black, and the children’s voices rose sweetly in the thin night air. Hymn after hymn of their own choosing: “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” “Adeste Fideles,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Do You Know What I Know?” “Away in a Manger”–they formed the most agreeable little quartet of carolers you ever heard, inventing harmonies and smiling toward the stable. I listened silently, my heart swelling with hope that these blessed hymns might be their “Joshua and the Battle of Jericho,” with each heartfelt note girding them for adulthood.
As we walked back to the house, I found more than one young hand had made its way into mine, and a couple of the girls walked ahead arm in arm. Nine-year-old Clair turned to me with a face as bright as the moon above our heads and proclaimed, “This was such a fun day!”
More music to my ears.
2009 Alice Gunther
Our tea kettle has stood mute since Ash Wednesday, its cheery hum hushed as if in contemplation of the season. When the girls decided to give up drinks other than water during the forty days of Lent, I am not sure if they quite realized that this would mean parting with the most cherished moment of their day, Afternoon Tea. Their sacrifice was particularly acute during the first few days, and more than once I saw a girl cast a wistful glance at that tongue-tied pot during the suddenly hollow hour of two o’clock in the afternoon.
For quite some time, it has been on my mind to surprise them with a special “Lenten Tea.” Naturally, water will serve as a substitute for our usual hot refreshment, but at least the china set will be summoned from its sudden sabbatical to grace our table once more. Plain water issuing from that lovely teapot should in itself serve as a subtle reminder of the intrinsic beauty of sacrifice offered with love.
Forgoing the usual literary selections, our Lenten Tea reading will be taken from the Gospel of St. Mark, and each offering on the menu will represent a fragment of the underlying story. The Gospel was so full of vivid imagery, that I decided to prepare two separate Teas for Lent. We will read Chapter 14 on the first day and Chapter 15 the next. As we read, the significance of each item on the table will become clear to the children, and hopefully it will create a memory they will not soon forget.
This first of two menus, based primarily on Chapter 14, might even work well for Holy Thursday:
Lenten Tea Menu
Palm on the Road
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Mount of Olives
The Cock Crows Twice
Clouds of Heaven
Saint Peter’s Tears
Recipes and Suggestions
1. “Palm on the Road” (Mk. 11: 1-11): Although this Tea was created with Chapter 14 in mind, I could not resist starting off with the story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ reception in Jerusalem. To create “Palm on the Road,” you will need:
White or whole wheat bread, thinly sliced
Hearts of Palm (canned variety available in the grocery store)
A hint of ketchup or mustard
Butter thin slices of bread (the “Road”) and cover with sliced heart of palm. Add a small dot of ketchup or mustard (if the children like it) for a flavor boost. The ambitious might try piping it through an icing bag, but a squeeze bottle or even the tip of a toothpick would work just as well. These simple savories could be cut into squares and should be served open faced.
Heart of Palm has a delicate flavor children usually like when they try it. Perhaps the symbolism of “Palm on the Road” will serve as an incentive.
For a more substantial offering, consider trying this recipe for Heart of Palm Salad instead.
Quote “And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.” Mk. 11: 8.
2. “Costly Oil” (Mk. 14: 3-9): Any type of flavored olive oil, homemade or store bought, preferably in an attractive bottle, would work well to represent the expensive oil offered to Jesus so lovingly by the woman in Bethany. It will be an appetizing accompaniment to the “Unleavened Bread.”
Quote “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mk. 14: 9.
3. “Thirty Pieces of Silver” (Mk. 14: 10-11; Mt. 26: 14-16): Any round savory suitable for teatime would do well, but I plan to serve sliced Munster cheese cut into circles with a biscuit cutter. The detail of the number thirty is not mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, so I have included an additional reference to the book of Matthew in the menu.
Quote “Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.” Mt. 25: 14-15.
4. “Unleavened Bread” (Mk. 14: 12-22): This will be warmed pita bread cut into wedges, although matzoh would work well too. Pita is perfect for dipping in the flavored oil, and this will serve the dual purpose of representing the moment of the Last Supper in which Jesus identifies His betrayer, saying, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.” Mt. 14:20. (The Munster cheese rounds could be tucked inside the pita as well.)
Quote “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to Him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?'” Mk. 14: 12.
5. “The Mount of Olives” (Mk. 14: 26): This is perhaps the simplest item to prepare. Pile assorted olives on a plate to create the perfect “Mount of Olives.” I know at least a few of my children like olives.
Quote “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Mk. 14: 26.
6. “The Cock Crows Twice” (Mk. 14: 27-31): My sympathy always goes out to St. Peter during this part of the story. He loves Jesus so much and sincerely believes he will not fail Him–what anguish he must have felt. If you are not serving this Tea on a Friday, chicken tea sandwiches could symbolize this aspect of the Gospel story and would make a perfect addition to a luncheon tea:
Cold sliced roast chicken (or sliced chicken from the deli)
White or whole wheat bread
Butter or mayonnaise
Optional: tomato, tarragon, chopped celery, or flat-leaf parsley, a pinch of salt and pepper
Cut the sandwiches into triangles and serve two to each child.
Quote “And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.'” Mk. 14: 30.
7. “Gethsemane Figs” (Mk. 14: 32-42): Dried figs would make an appealing accompaniment to the other items on the table, or, if you do not mind sweets during Lent, Fig Newtons would work well too, especially because the last few menu items happen to be on the sweet side.
Quote “And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I pray.'” Mk. 14: 32.
8. Judas’ Kiss (Mk. 14: 43-50): My children are off candy for Lent, but a single Hershey’s Kiss would work so well that I cannot help suggesting it. If you would prefer to avoid sugary treats, or if your children are giving them up for Lent, a fresh strawberry could serve as a “kiss” as well.
Quote “And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said, ‘Master!’ And he kissed him.” Mk. 14: 45.
9. “The Clouds of Heaven” (Mk. 14: 62): Once again, this is an optional sweet offering. Fresh whipped cream would go well with either the strawberries or the Hershey’s Kiss. Plain yogurt could replace whipped cream and be served with the strawberries if you are avoiding added sugars during Lent.
Quote “And Jesus said, ‘I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.'” Mk. 14: 62.
10. Peter’s Tears (Mk. 14: 66-72): This may sound ridiculous, but I plan to offer each child a couple of peppermint Tic-Tacs to represent St. Peter’s tears of regret. It will punctuate the meal, and help them to remember a pivotal moment and the final lines of Chapter 14.
Quote “And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” Mk. 14: 72.
If you have the help of an older child or a bit of extra time, it would be worthwhile to create small cardstock signs for each of the dishes featuring the short Biblical quotes in the recipe section. Agnes, Theresa, and Margaret would relish a task like this, especially if they had purple markers and perhaps stickers for embellishment. As much as I would like to surprise them with this Tea, oftentimes being included in the preparation is half the fun!
Lenten Tea Shopping List
Whole Roasted Chicken or Sliced Chicken (if you haven’t any left over roast chicken on hand)
Munster or another thinly sliced white cheese for “thirty pieces of silver”
White or whole wheat bread, thin sliced (you may need two loaves if you have a large family)
Pita Bread or Matzoh
Herbs (if needed for the olive oil)
Tomato, tarragon, celery or flat-leaf parsley (optional for chicken sandwiches)
Fresh strawberries (if you are not using Hershey’s Kisses)
Canned or Jarred Goods:
Heart of palm
Black, green, or assorted olives
ketchup or mustard (optional)
Flavored olive oil (or plain if you are making homemade flavored oil)
mayonnaise (optional if you are not using butter for the chicken sandwiches)
Dried figs or Fig Newtons
Hershey’s Kisses (if you are not using strawberries)
Heavy cream, sugar and vanilla extract for homemade whipped cream–or Cool Whip or Redi-Whip topping for convenience. Plain or vanilla yogurt would work too.
2010 Alice Gunther
One of my favorite Irish ballads, “Dublin in the Rare Auld Times,” begins:
“Raised on songs and stories,
Heroes of renown,
The passing tales and glories,
That once was Dublin town.
The hallowed halls and houses,
The haunting children’s rhymes,
That once was part of Dublin
in the rare auld times.”
As often as I have heard these lines about Dublin long ago, my mind has lingered on the opening phrase, “raised on songs and stories.” There is something romantic, yet obviously true, about the idea behind it — that children are not only entertained by tales passed from one generation to the next, but nurtured and “raised on” them as well. Family stories in particular become part of who we are, an irreplaceable birthright.
As an only child, I spent a great many hours listening to my parents. My father was famous for his stories, with a poet’s flair for language and keen sense of humor to enliven every telling. I met an endless stream of characters from his Brooklyn courtroom (Dad was a criminal court judge), all thanks to the power of the spoken word and my own imagination. My mother could recount her childhood stories so vividly, her youth seems almost as real to me as my own. Thanks to her, my grandmother will always be a young woman in my mind’s eye, with “dark, wavy hair down to her waist and cheeks as red as apples.”
Perhaps one of the blessings of family stories is that, when told by a loving storyteller, we are able to grasp something better and more real than could be conveyed by film or photograph — we see the impression etched upon a heart. If we are fortunate enough to find love and loyalty, sorrow and courage, faith and determination there, it is that much easier to find it in ourselves.
It has been reported for decades that television (not to mention the computer) has replaced the hearth as the gathering place in modern homes, yet how often do we consider that it has also replaced the storyteller? The truth is, if we do not tell the stories, someone else will. Our children’s need for story is as insatiable as any other hunger, and it will make do with a diet of cartoons or reality shows. The result is a break in a chain and an opportunity lost. When we look at our children and get the feeling we do not know them, it may be because they do not know us.
Jesus Christ, the ultimate storyteller, well understood the human need for stories and taught His people in parables, feeding them with words just as surely as He fed them with loaves and fishes. His words and the story of His life were cherished by His disciples and passed along faithfully even when the telling led to martyrdom. How well the early Christians understood and lived the teaching, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Just a few days from now, the greatest night of storytelling of the year will take place throughout the world. Our Lord, loving and perfect Father, through His bride, our holy mother the Church, will unfold the story of Himself at the Easter Vigil. He will tell His children how He created the world, kept His promises to Abraham and Moses, and rose from the dead to free us from sin and death. He will remind us of the importance of sacred story through the words the prophet Isaiah, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” and “My word shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
Years ago, my older daughters and I read about an old German custom of bringing the light from the new Paschal candle home in a lantern to symbolize the Light of Christ entering the home. We were new to our parish at the time, and I wondered what our pastor, Father Clerkin, would think if he saw us trying to take flame to light a homemade lantern. When Mass was over, we sheepishly approached him for permission, armed with a stub of candle in a plain glass jar that had lately been used to hold wheat germ. Far from looking askance at this proposal, Father not only gave us his blessing, he also lit our candle himself. This may seem like a small thing, but whenever Easter rolls around, one of the children will always say, “Remember the time Father Bob lit our candle for us?” It has become a family story, and no doubt my grandchildren will hear of it one day.
When they do, it will become a little part of who they are.
[Originally printed in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther
Not long ago, my children and I were heading westward on the Long Island Express-way, hoping to see the statue of Our Lady of America during its historic visit to New York City. This nine-foot image of our Blessed Mother had been brought all the way from the Basilica of St. Louis, King in Missouri to commemorate the sixth anniversary of September 11. On arrival, the statue was ushered through the Holland Tunnel by NYPD and Port Authority officers, conveyed by fire truck to Ground Zero, and hoisted movingly up the steps of St. Peter’s Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral by uniformed firefighters. Knowing she would be staying for only a few days at Our Lady of the Angelus Church in Rego Park, we were eager to pay a visit and attend Mass.
Now, it is often the case that the children pose their most probing questions when crowded in the car, and my 13-year-old daughter wondered aloud, “Mom, how do atheists explain away things that point to the existence of God — like incorrupt saints, for instance?” Seven children — at least four of whom were old enough to listen — lingered for an answer. “They can’t, though they may try,” I ventured, pausing a moment to add, “We should always remember that people who reject God need to have ‘faith’ in their decision. They need to ignore the stirrings of their own hearts and chalk up all the blessings He gives to fortune or coincidence.”
Our exit came at that very moment, and I left my little audience hanging, my attention diverted by road signs. I thought I needed to get on the Grand Central Parkway, but a driver persisted in the lane to my right, refusing to let me over. Just about ready to despair, I saw a sign for 108th Street and realized that this was the exit we really needed. My mistake would have taken us a half hour out of our way, at least.
“You see,” I said to the children jovially, “the atheist would call that a good piece of luck, but we see through the eyes of faith and recognize it as a blessing. Clearly, Our Lady does not want us to miss Mass!”
Buoyed by this thought, I added, “And do you know what? I have been worried about not being able to park the van in this part of Queens, but now I am going to trust that the Blessed Mother will take care of it.”
Our hulking 12-passenger van made a rather large needle threading its way through narrow one-way streets. Predict-ably, the modest parking lot beside Our Lady of the Angelus was packed, but, as we passed through, an excited cry was raised in the back, “Mommy, look, there’s our spot!” Sure enough, close by the outdoor shrine to Our Lady and quite near the door, the perfect spot awaited with open arms, wide and slanting and unreserved, so that we slipped right in to its welcome embrace.
The children tumbled out of the van, rejoicing over our parking space.
Unfamiliar though the parish was, this simple blessing made us feel a part of things, and we were no longer strangers but children coming home to our loving mother. Tucked inside our own side door she stood waiting, Our Lady of America, depicted in a gown of flowing white and bearing the lily of purity, her left hand poised delicately near her immaculate heart. We slid into our pew, quietly smiling, our hearts warm with faith and confidence, each of us with one more reason to remember that our Mother will always take care of us.
Kneeling down beside the children, I prayed they would always see Our Lady as their mother and that this tiny seed of Marian devotion sown in childhood might become a bloom to tend their whole lives long.
Pearls from the Catechism:
“(Mary) is a mother to us in the order of grace.” CCC Section 968.
“‘The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.’” CCC Section 971.
On the teachings of the Church as opposed to atheism: “‘For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart.’” CCC Section 2126.
[Previously published in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther
I was visiting my mother in intensive care when a patient several beds away began to struggle and shout. An emergency code was issued, bringing medical personnel running from far and wide, and all visitors were ushered out into the hallway to allow the staff to work.
It was already about nine o’clock in the evening, and I made my way down the elevator to the front of the hospital. The air was temperate for October, so comfortable in fact that I parked myself on an outdoor bench, opening my cell phone to update the family at home. A pair of automatic doors parted, and two men emerged from the building deep in conversation. As they shook hands to say goodbye, I heard one say to the other in the most heartfelt of tones, “Thank you, Father.”
The priest was wearing a collar, and slipping the phone into my bag, I could not resist smiling and saying, “Hello, Father” as he passed. He returned my greeting and paused a moment, as if he was used to strangers wanting a word with him. Given the opportunity, I added, “Father, I wonder if you could pray for my mother — she had an extensive stroke yesterday.”
“Yes, I will pray for her,” he said, looking sorry to hear the news.
“Are you a chaplain at this hospital, Father?” I asked hopefully, “because I know she would love to see a priest.”
“No,” he said, “I am from St. Boniface and was called in tonight because someone died, but I will come back to see her tomorrow. What is her name?”
“Alice O’Brien,” I told him, welling up at this kindness, my voice wavering a little. “She is in intensive care.”
“Alice O’Brien,” he repeated, “I will see her tomorrow,” and I thanked him heartily as the two of us parted ways.
Still reeling from the shock of my mother’s stroke, I had not yet cried over it. Alone in the car a minute or two later, the tears flowed, tears of sorrow to be sure, but also tears of affection and gratitude for this good priest. I prayed that God would bless him always and thanked Our Lady for putting one of her faithful sons in my path when he was so needed.
A great deal is often said nowadays about the environment. Americans are reminded that we must learn to be better stewards of the earth, preserving our forests and fossil fuel and purifying the air and water so that we will have something left for our grandchildren. There is something else we must also preserve, holding onto it and nurturing it for dear life, praying that we may pass it along as the most sacred of all legacies — the Catholic priesthood.
St. Padre Pio once said, “It would be easier for the world to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
St. Pio speaks with his customary clarity, offering an analogy that is both shocking and obviously true. Without ordained priests to act in the person of Christ, we would have no Mass — we would have no confession for the forgiveness of our sins — and our world would be bleak indeed. Let us treasure the priesthood as the greatest gift humanity has to offer, praying for vocations and asking God to bless our families by calling our sons to the altar.
Twenty years ago, my grandmother lay dying. My mother and I stood at her bedside with a holy priest on hand to offer her the sacraments. Now, an impossibly short time later, it is my mother who is gravely ill, and a priest was there for her (not only the good priest from St. Boniface, but also her pastor, Father Jim Mannion). Someday all too soon, my time will come, as it did for the last two Alices before me, and I cannot help but wonder: Will my daughter — another Alice — be able to find a priest right outside the hospital?
The following afternoon, I returned to find my mother sleeping soundly. A nurse came in to check her IV and mentioned off-handedly, “Your mother had a visitor here earlier — a priest.”
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few — may the Lord of the harvest send forth more laborers … and may we never find ourselves without one of these chosen ones in our time of need.
This column was previously published in The Long Island Catholic
2010 Alice Gunther
About five years ago, I was on the phone with my father when he told me about something that was bothering him. A very dear friend of his, a Catholic man he had known for many years, had recently confided to him that he no longer believed in the True Presence in the Eucharist. This friend had come to think that it was merely a symbol. “You need to pray for him,” Dad said, and I promised I would. “The minute I have some time,” he continued warmly, “I am going to have a talk with him.”
My father was a judge and a very deep thinker. Set in his ways, he loved nothing better than to research legal issues, writing his own judicial opinions and dissents by hand even after the rest of the world switched to laptops and PCs. All my life, I remember his notes, meticulously kept on large white index cards, with legal issues and points outlined in his black-inked, flowing hand. Each one of those cards formed a piece of what would become a well-reasoned decision, sound and persuasive and written down in the same black, flowing hand.
As far as I know, my father never did have that planned conversation with his friend. Dad passed away unexpectedly not very long afterward, and that minute of spare time probably never presented itself. Weeks passed, and I had the difficult task of helping my mother sort through some of his things. How well I remember sitting in his old chair, thumbing through each of those well-worn books of his, the teetering end table groaning under the weight of them.
One book in particular stood out from all the others. It was a leather-bound Bible Dad had owned at least 50 years. I probably would not have paid much attention to the familiar old relic were it not for the index cards poking out the sides. As I opened the Bible gently, the cards fell onto my lap. There in that old familiar handwriting was a “judicial opinion” in the process of being mapped out bit by bit, but this particular opinion had nothing to do with the laws of the State of New York. It was the beginning of a cogent argument, biblically based, on the undeniable truth of the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Thanks to that brief phone call so many weeks before, I understood its significance. He was preparing for the hoped-for moment, the day he would have helped his friend to see the truth and believe.
As Catholics, we believe we must always pray for the dead, remembering that our loved ones may be in purgatory — assuming otherwise does them a disservice. Still, I must say those index cards made me smile. It was comforting knowing that he went to God while in the midst of fighting the good fight and doing exactly what our Catechism teaches:
“The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1816.)
It taught me a practical lesson as well — one might call it a father’s legacy to the next generation. I repeat it so often to my children that I fear becoming the proverbial broken record: “For the rest of your lives, never worry about what to say if someone questions you on a matter of faith. If you know the answer, explain it as best you can, but even if the words do not come to you on the spur of the moment, promise to find out the truth and return to the conversation later.” We are all called to be lifelong students of the faith, and lifelong teachers as well.
Related to this is the reminder that Christ did not leave us orphans. We have an unerring source of Truth that can never and will never let us down — the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. If we remember to cling to it in daily life, especially during times of trouble or decision, our yoke is easy and our burden light. Confident assurance in eternal truth is the greatest gift we can give to our children, a compass to guide their way in an increasingly relativist world.
Thank you, Dad, for passing the compass along to us.
[Previously published in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther
No matter how many years have passed, the first warm breezes of June make me feel like a student at the close of the school year. How well I remember our final bell, the teary hugs goodbye, and a breathless run straight home past the train trestle — knowing my mother would be waiting, every bit as elated as I was. One June in particular stands apart as I recall the moment when St. Thomas Aquinas, “Angelic Doctor of the Church,” helped me when I least deserved it.
Ever since the long-forgotten beginning of the term back in September, Father Higuero — one of our parish priests — had been coming now and then as a special catechist for the sixth-grade class. Father was a devout man who spoke in a rich Spanish accent, making him all the more awe-inspiring. He did not grade or test but gave only one simple assignment: Prepare an oral report on the life of a saint and be ready to speak in front of the class whenever called upon. We students knew it would take the entire school year for each one of us to have a turn.
Now if I had been given a girl saint or perhaps a martyr, this would have been right up my alley, but instead of St. Bernadette, Joan of Arc, or valiant St. Laurence, there fell to my lot St. Thomas Aquinas — priest, philosopher, theologian, doctor of the Church. To say that he did not capture my imagination would be putting it mildly.
By the time Father Higuero returned for our next session, I had forgotten about St. Thomas — and the assignment itself for that matter. When Father began scanning the rows of children to choose the first week’s speakers, I ducked my head behind the girl in front of me, praying, “Dear St. Thomas Aquinas, please do not let him call on me.” To my great relief, two other children were chosen, and I resolved to be prepared the next time. Week after week this went on, with me always forgetting and my prayers to St. Thomas growing ever more fervent.
One warm morning, Sister Kathy announced, “Father Higuero is coming for the last time today and will arrive in a few minutes. In the meanwhile, please read these magazines quietly to yourselves.” My heart sank to hear her words, for of course this meant there would be no more postponing the inevitable. Miserable, I said one last prayer, “Dear St. Thomas, I know I should have learned about your life and didn’t, but won’t you please help me?” The girl in front of me passed back the stack of religious magazines Sister had mentioned. Imagine my delight and wonder when I caught sight of the headline on the back cover, “The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas.” “Thank you, St. Thomas, thank you!” I whispered so low that none but the saint himself could hear and began reading with the greatest interest imaginable.
Half an hour later, Father Higuero nodded approvingly upon hearing a young girl’s enthusiastic account of the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although Father never would learn the truth about what a spur-of-the-moment effort it had been, my guess is that he would have been forgiving and perhaps even a bit pleased. After all, thanks to his priestly guidance and teaching, I had managed to learn something about the life of a great saint. Far more important than that, I came to believe for the rest of my life that St. Thomas Aquinas was my friend. Now my prayer is that my own children will learn to love the saints, turning to them with confidence in times of need.
Not long ago, my oldest two daughters and I attended the monthly Holy Hour for Vocations at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. During Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, we knelt as the congregation began the traditional hymn. I fumbled by candlelight for the Latin words in the missal, but my daughters sang from memory, their voices raised in simple devotion: “Tantum ergo Sacramentum, Veneremur cernui” — the words of St. Thomas Aquinas’s most famous hymn. At that moment, I remembered and repeated the prayer uttered in joy and relief so very long ago:
“Thank you, St. Thomas, thank you!”
There are many ways for parents to remind our children that the saints are our friends:
1. Bless yourself as you pass Catholic churches, adding an invocation to the parish’s patron (“St. Paul, pray for us.”)
2. Celebrate your child’s name saint or patron’s feast day with a cake or other treat.
3. Share family stories about the saints. (As a little girl, my mother loved to tell how St. Joseph once interceded for her in an important cause.)
4. Visit the “Avenue of the Saints” at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Manorville.
[Previously published in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther
We laid my Uncle Bob Kobus to rest at Calverton National Cemetery on November 14. A World War II Navy veteran, Uncle Bob was called home by God on Veteran’s Day after a long battle with cancer.
I will never forget the quiet dignity of my mother’s sister Mary — Uncle Bob’s wife of 61 years — as she received the American flag from two young Navy sailors, who solemnly thanked her for my uncle’s service to his country. My heart went out to her and to their children, especially my cousin Ken, who, along with his wife, remains in Vietnam awaiting the adoption of a new little daughter and could not return home in time for the funeral.
It is always hard for me to say goodbye to one of that generation. Not “The Greatest Generation” of Tom Brokaw fame, but “that” generation — the aunts and uncles who still call me “Baby” or “Alice Marie.” There is a part of me who will always want to run barefoot in Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary’s waterfront yard, raiding the kitchen for white bread to feed the swans, or keeping watch for boats at the bulkhead.
As I thought about these things, my mother’s brother, Uncle Tom, stood up to tell a story:
“A few months ago, I visited Bob for the last time. We knew he was dying, and I said to him, ‘Well, Bob, you did pretty well for yourself for a kid from Astoria. You came home from the South Pacific after the second world war, got married, and had five children. I remember when you worked two jobs just to put a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs.’“
Uncle Bob’s response? “Well, I got a lot out of it.”
I got a lot out of it. What is it about those simple words that brought tears to my eyes?
Truth, uttered with profound simplicity by one who lived it, grips the heart and makes it cry “yes” in tears of recognition. The tears become that much more insistent as we are starved for truth in the public square. As conventional wisdom turns away from families, drumming it into us that raising children hampers a career, costs money, and causes inconvenience, my uncle’s words ring out above it all, trampling worldly concerns to dust.
Every year during Advent, my husband reads “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens aloud to our children. Over the years of listening to the book repeated, it has struck me more and more that Scrooge’s philosophy sounds all too familiar. We hear it every day in the voices who turn a cold eye on the unborn and the aged, declaring “if they are going to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” It clouds the expression of those who mutter in disapproval at the sight of a large family, “I’ll retire to bedlam.” It clangs in the cash registers of retailers who urge us to spend during December while observing the unwritten law of the land, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
As secularism seeps into the culture, replacing Christianity as the backdrop for our collective thinking, we are left, not with a utopian “brotherhood of man,” but with the unconverted Scrooge. Secularism and Scrooge stand alongside Pontius Pilate demanding, “What is Truth?” and waiting in vain for the answer.
Whatever the world may tell us, the faithful know that the answer is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We find it burning brightly in the beacon that is the Catholic Church. We see it reflected in the likes of my Uncle Bob, who gave to home and country without counting the cost, always with the manly recognition, “I got a lot out of it.”
And so, with a prayer for the repose of his soul, I wait with eagerness and love for another Kobus — Uncle Bob’s newest granddaughter — to come home from the South Pacific.
(Previously published in The Long Island Catholic)
2010 Alice Gunther
It was about 32 years ago, yet in some ways feels like yesterday. Pope John Paul II was visiting New York City, and my mother and I — along with our friends and neighbors, the Maloneys — had tickets to see him at Shea Stadium. Although I was only 11 years old at the time, small details from the day are etched in my memory — the rattle of rain on the roof of the #7 train, the endless crowd of faithful New Yorkers, and the good natured elbowing Anne Maloney and I gave to each other while sharing (and battling over) a big black umbrella, our excitement almost making us forget the damp and chill.
We found our seats high in the mezzanine, my mother reminding me to say a prayer for our pastor Father Callahan in thanksgiving for those precious tickets. Although it was only the middle of the afternoon, the sky was dark and dreary, hardly a day for an outdoor Mass. Anne waited in her seat, still huddled under the umbrella, her head so completely covered to keep out the rain that I felt sure she would miss seeing the Holy Father altogether.
Fans cheer and celebrate the exploits of the “Miracle Mets,” but no moment in Shea Stadium history could rival what would happen next. Just as our pope entered the stadium, the dark clouds parted and the sun beamed its warming rays upon the people so suddenly that I half expected to hear a chorus of angels singing “Alleluia” or an impromptu peal of the bells. Instead, there came a message no less uplifting or heaven sent, a phrase that was to be the theme of our young pope’s pontificate:
“Be not afraid!”
Anne and I are two representatives of a generation particularly touched by Pope John Paul the Great. When he ascended to the papacy, we were 10 and 11 years old. By the time he left us, on April 2, 2005, Anne’s eldest daughter was 10, and mine was 11. The world loved our “Papa” and mourned his passing, but somehow I have always thought that the loss was felt even more keenly by the “John Paul II generation.” He shepherded us from childhood into adulthood with the warmth of his smile, a twinkling fatherly eye, and his strong, unwavering faith, inviting us to cross the threshold of hope by his side.
Men who follow the call to vocation sacrifice the opportunity for earthly fatherhood, yet God is not to be outdone in generosity. Never let it be said that young Father Karol Wojtyla from Poland was not a spiritual father to millions, and he shares this privilege with every priest who has ever raised a chalice, absolved a sinner, or marked the sign of the cross on the brow of the dying. We may never grasp the enormity of this form of true fatherhood until we leave this world for the next, yet somehow we always felt it during the lifetime of Servant of God John Paul II.
Toward the end of his life, we knew we would need to bid our Holy Father farewell. I remember dreading the news and feeling wrung out and hollow inside when he finally passed. Still, even in times of grief, the Lord has promised we will never be left orphans. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the Church was given a new father and shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, he also came to New York to bless us with his presence, embracing all God’s people, most especially the children of the John Paul II generation, sons and daughters who will grow up loving the Church, learning her teachings, and answering the call to vocation of the future.
You may be sure my children watched much of it, awaiting the pope’s arrival as eagerly as Anne Maloney and Alice O’Brien waited so many years ago. They did not stand in line or huddle beneath an umbrella to see our new “Papa,” but the sun shone through the darkness just the same.
(Previously published in The Long Island Catholic)
2011 Alice Gunther