Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fun Times With the Little People

The "Daddy and the Kids" show is nearly three weeks old! Next week is our last week and then Mommy will be home for good.

It will be the end of our chaotic and freewheeling lifestyle. Rooms will get cleaned. We'll start eating things like vegetables again. Dessert portions (as well as random snacking during the day) will decrease. Kids will go to bed much earlier.

As I expected, Josefina has been in some ways more of a handful this summer. Without Mommy's presence to give her the right amount of discipline and pampering and whatever that secret thing is that only mothers can give, she has been sometimes a little wild and willful.

Yikes! The four year old is crying and screaming, "But I WANT to!!!" Daddy says, "No!" And the four year old says, "But I WANT to!!!" Repeat. Over and over again. I try to be "tough" with her, but I don't have Mommy's creative toughness. So she doesn't always buy it. She charms, she begs, she throws a temper tantrum. Stubborn kid. So there ends up being a lot of screaming, but she is not going to get her way.

Suddenly she has decided to develop a sense of fashion. "I don't wanna wear that!" Oh boy. I give her to one of her sisters and say, "just put anything on her." They doll her up and give her braids.

Today we had an afternoon out. We went to the local community gym, and the kids had plenty of room to roller blade (you can see from the picture that Teresa is just learning). Meanwhile, Josefina played in the toddler room, on one of those amazing plastic things with all the holes and doors and tubes and slides. She showed me all the things she could do.

Then we went out for smoothies. Our kids are not spoiled, so these kinds of treats are appreciated and remembered. I'm glad, because they cost a lot of money.

At night we said the Rosary. By then we were pretty snippy with each other. Everyone was tired. Although we're also snippy during the day, when we're not tired. Bearing with one another is the great challenge of the day. As the father, I should set the example. I usually remember this only after I have failed.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love of children involves attention, affection, encouragement, and discipline. To do all of that, and to do it patiently and kindly is a heroic task. And it is one that must be taken up again and again. Mercy begins at home. Jesus, make me merciful to my children.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Meaning of the Pallium

On the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Pope bestows the pallium on new Archbishops. The pallium is a portion of the Archbishop's garment, worn on the shoulders, and--like all the garments of the clergy--it has symbolic significance. Here, in his homily for the feast day, Pope Benedict XVI explains the meaning of the pallium, and its importance as a symbol of the unity of the Archbishops with the Successor of St. Peter.

The metropolitan archbishops appointed since the feast of Saints Peter and Paul last year are now going to receive the pallium. What does this mean? It may remind us in the first instance of Christ’s easy yoke that is laid upon us (cf. Mt 11:29f.). Christ’s yoke is identical with his friendship. It is a yoke of friendship and therefore “a sweet yoke”, but as such it is also a demanding yoke, one that forms us. It is the yoke of his will, which is a will of truth and love. For us, then, it is first and foremost the yoke of leading others to friendship with Christ and being available to others, caring for them as shepherds. This brings us to a further meaning of the pallium: it is woven from the wool of lambs blessed on the feast of Saint Agnes. Thus it reminds us of the Shepherd who himself became a lamb, out of love for us. It reminds us of Christ, who set out through the mountains and the deserts, in which his lamb, humanity, had strayed. It reminds us of him who took the lamb – humanity – me – upon his shoulders, in order to carry me home. It thus reminds us that we too, as shepherds in his service, are to carry others with us, taking them as it were upon our shoulders and bringing them to Christ. It reminds us that we are called to be shepherds of his flock, which always remains his and does not become ours. Finally the pallium also means quite concretely the communion of the shepherds of the Church with Peter and with his successors – it means that we must be shepherds for unity and in unity, and that it is only in the unity represented by Peter that we truly lead people to Christ.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The New Cardinal Archbishop of Milan

The Holy Spirit is at work in the Church.

Cardinal Angelo Scola has just been named Metropolitan Archbishop of Milan. After many years, he is going home.

I knew him a generation ago, when he was just "Don Angelo," and then later when he first became bishop of Grosseto on the tranquil, lovely coast of the Mediterranean. He was a professor at the John Paul II Institute, and when the American faculty was first formed in Washington, D.C. he would come to teach for a few weeks each year. He would also spend time with the Washington group of Communion and Liberation. In these contexts I got to know him and benefited from his advice both personally and in the shaping of my vocation as a theologian.

He is a simple, humble, down-to-earth man who is also brilliant, prolific, and a pioneer in the building of educational institutions that are specially suited to serve the needs of the Church today. After becoming a bishop, he became the head of the John Paul II Institute. In 2002, he became Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, and took advantage of the historic character of Venice as a "crossroad" of civilizations in order to establish institutions and periodicals and hold conferences dedicated to the increasingly intense and important encounter between Christianity and Islam. In trying to grapple with issues such as Muslim immigration and the situation of ancient Christian churches in Islamic countries, Cardinal Scola's approach is neither irenic nor confrontational. Rather, he is a realist and he is constructive. Indeed, this is his approach to every problem.

In this way he is very much like his older friend, mentor, and collaborator of many years, Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Scola is about to become pastor of one of the largest and most important churches in Europe. The Archdiocese of Milan has its own rite, the "Ambrosian rite," which differs slightly from the Roman rite in the Latin Western tradition, but highlights the antiquity and distinctiveness of this church, and its connection to the great Church Father St. Ambrose. Milan also has the only Catholic "undergraduate" university in Italy, the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. Cardinal Scola is a graduate of this institution, and no doubt it will be an important focus of his new pastoral ministry.

He is a man devoted to education and catechesis. He is arguably the foremost expert on the thought of Blessed John Paul II. He is dedicated to the New Evangelization. He has both the experience and the vision necessary to grapple with the new encounter between the West and the Islamic world. He loves the Church.

May God grant Benedict XVI many years. But eventually, there will be another conclave. The Church will look for someone to carry on the great work of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Only the Holy Spirit knows who that person will be. But I must say, I wouldn't be surprised....

Of course what matters now is the present moment. Let us pray for Cardinal Scola in his important new work, and thank God for the gift that he is to the Church.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Far From Home, Near to My Heart

Well, the weekend is over and Eileen is back in Baltimore. We had a nice (inexpensive) dinner and a walk down Main Street in the twilight to celebrate our Anniversary. And we had thoughtful, uninterrupted conversation, which is never something to be taken for granted in a house of five kids who are always expressing themselves.

I love my time with my wife. We were good friends for five years before--how can I put this?--the "opportunity" was given for us to discover that we loved each other. For a short period of that time (when we first met), we both lived in the Washington D.C. area, but then she went to Texas to pursue graduate studies at the University of Dallas (where she eventually earned her first Masters Degree in English Literature). I lived for a year in Italy. We continued to be friends even as we pursued (what appeared to be) diverse paths thousands of miles away. During the whole time we corresponded, by that ancient form of technology known as "the letter."

The New Media are great, and I know many long term relationships that have been sustained by email, and now even Skype, but this was 1990-1995, at the very end of the Age of the Handwritten Letter. And I must say that I am very glad. Eileen and I have a stack of handwritten letters from each other, which we can still read and laugh over, and the very ink and paper and handwriting bring back the times of our youth, and the words are written with a personal care that reveals a closeness that we shared but did not as yet understand.

I was a young man studying theology, with no money and no idea even of what continent I was going to live on. She was dedicated to literature and then teaching, at a school in Texas to which she seemed very committed. Then in 1995, after my first year as a professor at Christendom, Eileen's situation in Texas changed, and she decided to move to Virginia. I had a job and she was here and it took only a week for us to realize that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.

Eileen and I have been specially blessed, in that we love many things in common besides each other. We love to share things together, to look at things together, and to discuss the significance of things. We love art and literature and good food and the task of education, to which we are both devoted, and which we feel responsible to carry out in some way together. Obviously, this entails first the education of our own children, but also the profession we share leads us to look outward toward the work of forming other young minds and hearts.

Marriage is a beautiful thing, because it is more than just the grand romance of loving each other, but also the vocation of loving and building up the world together. The family is the immediate experience of this; the amazing realization that God has brought you together not just for each other, but also for the sake of these other persons who he has willed and loved for all eternity. The life of children! What a miracle!

To share an educational mission that encompasses our children and also reaches out into the community and society is a special grace and a particular path; thus, as Eileen pursues tasks in Baltimore necessary to our journey on that path, I feel--in spite of the physical distance--especially close to her.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Verbal Warfare

Sometimes I am frightened by words. We have more words today than ever before in history, and more ways of saying them. So many of our words boil down to people saying things to people about other people. We call it conversation or (bless us) "concern" for one another, or--depending on our media platform--opinion, journalism, scholarship, analysis, information, exchange of views, etc., etc., etc.

What so much of it really is, in the end, is one form or another of self-affirmation, gossip, unnecessary curiosity, detraction, calumny, or cynicism. We use words to assert ourselves, or to make war on one another. And our words express what is inside our hearts. We have hearts full of violence.

I have asked myself, "How often, when I speak or write, am I truly seeking to edify reality, to affirm what is good? How often are my words aimed at distraction, or at drawing attention to myself?" How many wasted words! And yet I have a desire to speak the truth. I have the desire and the prayer that my words might be works of mercy and instruments of peace. And yet I am always running into myself.

I think perhaps we speak foolishly because we are insecure. We seek attention with our words, even at the expense of others. Why? Because we are afraid that we are not loved. Or, rather, we have forgotten that we are loved. We are not nourished by a vital connection with the One who loves us.

We need prayer. And not just more words of prayer. We need silence.

We need to let Him love us.

O Lord, grant that we may speak from hearts full of Your love and mercy and peace.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Heart of Christ Emerges

"In this Love, the Heart of Christ emerges...and thus changes things, people and the world." The words below from Benedict XVI in his sermon for Corpus Christi go to the heart of the matter. Christianity is God's gift of Himself in love, truly present through Jesus Christ. It is this self-gift, this beauty, this presence that not only shows us the purpose of life, but also draws us and enables us to live that true life in Him. My heart longs for life beyond the limits of my failure, the limits of things, the limits of death. The Eucharist is God's gift, from the Heart of Christ to my heart. It is possible to live this way.

Everything starts, you might say, from the heart of Christ, who at the Last Supper on the eve of his passion, thanked and praised God and, in doing so, with the power of his love transformed the meaning of death which he was about to encounter. The fact that the Sacrament of the altar has taken on the name "Eucharist" - "thanksgiving" - expresses this: that the change in the substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is the fruit of the gift that Christ made of himself, a gift of a love stronger than death, love of God which made him rise from the dead. That is why the Eucharist is the food of eternal life, the Bread of life. From the heart of Christ, from his "Eucharistic Prayer" on the eve of his passion, flows the dynamism that transforms reality in its cosmic, human and historical dimensions. All proceeds from God, from the omnipotence of his love One and Triune, incarnate in Jesus. In this Love the heart of Christ emerges, so He knows how to thank and praise God even in the face of betrayal and violence, and thus changes things, people and the world.
--Benedict XVI, Sermon for the Feast of Corpus Christi, June 23, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Me and the Kids, After Two Weeks!

Mommy is coming home for the weekend again tomorrow. She'll bring a box of homework with her, but I hope that she and I will be able to sneak out at least for a nice dessert to belatedly celebrate our anniversary. Meanwhile, "me and the kids" have made it through another week of "Daddy Time," and no one seems too sad. We've had our share of fun, I would say.

The fact is, we have the easy part. Eileen has three courses condensed into four weeks, with assignments, and exams at the end, and then a paper that she will have to write by October 1. It's quite difficult. We even discussed last weekend whether it was worth doing. But we both have the feeling that it is important to take on this opportunity, even with the sacrifices it entails. It is an additional credential that the university offers, and it is included in the tuition already paid.

Eileen is fully qualified as a Montessori teacher, and does not need this additional Master's degree. Yet it could conceivably be useful at some point in the future, in some way. After all, we don't know where the Lord will take us in the next two, five, ten or twenty years. We do not know what other kinds of educational work may engage us, and it's always helpful to have qualifications.

Where will our lives go, in the next fifteen years? We've been through too much to project into the future. We try to take hold, in the present, of the opportunities that God gives to us to prepare for the future. And then we live and address the problems that confront us.

Still, I am frustrated by my own slow and uncertain progress. What does God have in mind for me?

I know that I am a husband and a father, and that I must fight to stay alive in these relationships. I must support my wife. She needs my presence as a person who stands with her and helps her to be secure in what she is doing. That is what it means, right now, for me to be a man. And the children need me; they need the person who is their father. They need my example, my conversation, my instruction, my affection, the environment of my personality as a big tree under which they grow.

There have been times in my life when I have felt very worthless to my children, because I was so unproductive. I was just here like a lump. My livelihood was taken away from me by illness. I think any father who is unemployed can probably relate to how this feels. You are tempted to feel that you are useless as a father. But our circumstances enter into the personal dynamics of family life and can be lived in a meaningful way. My Dad--whose father died when he was 9 years old--has constantly encouraged me to be with my children. "You have no idea," he says, "how much that means to them."

What matters is that these are the circumstances that I am called to live. I struggle with them, I have failure and frustration, and I continue to struggle. This is my work. This is what I give to my family as a father. This is what my children see.

And I hope they see that Eileen and I trust in God. I hope they see how much we rely on His mercy and how aware we are of our own weakness. I hope they experience mercy from us, and learn how to give it to us. The future, finally, is not an unknown. Whatever its circumstances, we know that the presence of Christ and His merciful love will be there.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Our Wedding Anniversary

Fifteen years ago today, Eileen and I got married. I won't say that it "feels like yesterday" because, well, it doesn't. So much has happened since that day. So many things I could never have imagined.

That our lives would be filled with children was something for which we hoped, but that they would be these children was something beyond any imagining. Each has come bringing his or her own unique face and character and possibilities, which continue to unfold before our eyes.

I knew marriage would not be easy and that it would require sacrifice. Eileen and I had our faith, a good relationship, and many married friends in our community for examples and support. We did not imagine the kinds of trials we would have to face. We never realized how much we would grow by facing difficult circumstances together.

We were a little older than many couples, and both had a facility for making friendships, which meant that our wedding was going to be big. Between friends and family, we probably invited close to 700 people, of which about 300 came. But I was teaching at Christendom College, so we were able to rent the large Commons and get catering from the kitchen staff for a huge discount. That's what made the big fat Janaro wedding possible. That, and the church.

Our parish at that time was still the old St. John's in Front Royal, which only seats something like 150 people (a new church was built several years later). Thank God, there was the large, beautiful church of the Sacred Heart in Winchester, where there was plenty of room both in the pews and in the sanctuary. This latter detail turned out to be more important for our wedding than for most others.

We had invited about two dozen priests and one bishop (most of them friends, colleagues, or former teachers of mine). And we extended to them the invitation to "concelebrate" along with our friend Fr. Michael Carvill, F.S.C.B., who was to witness the vows. It was a great delight to have nine priests around the altar at our Wedding Mass (the bishop, an Italian who is now Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, obviously could not make it but he promised to say Mass for us that day).

The Mass, moreover, was in Latin (according to what is today known as the "ordinary form"), with chants and hymns provided by our friends' choir. I remember how we labored in those days of primitive word processing software to make a detailed and useful wedding program (double columned in places, for Latin text and English translation). It was worth all the effort. It was a remarkable, sacred, and joyful wedding ceremony.

I should have realized then what an extraordinary lady I was marrying. In the midst of all these dizzying preparations for all these people, Eileen was making her own wedding dress. It is the dress she is wearing in the picture, which one day--God willing--will be worn by those of our daughters whom God calls to marriage, and become a family heirloom.

After the wedding came the reception and time with family and friends who had come from all around the country. In many ways this day was a symbol of our whole life together, blessed by God, lived in the Church, in the company of family and friends. At its center was the Sacrament, which has carried us through so much. And many of the companions who shared our joy that day continue to be close to us now, and continue to support and assist us on our journey.

Happy Anniversary dear Eileen! Thank God for you! God bless you and our family, and make of us gifts of love and service to one another and to the world in which we live.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Daddy, Why Don't Some People Love God?"

Before praying the Rosary tonight, Josefina looked at me and asked me in a very earnest way, "Daddy, why don't some people love God?"


How do I answer that question? She looked at me with eyes that seemed to say that there was simply no possible reason why anyone would not love God. I stammered, "well...I think some people are afraid of people don't know that God loves them...and...."

I believe in answering a child's question even if I don't think they are going to be able to really "get" the answer. I thank God that my four year old child has no experience from which to draw even the most rudimentary concepts of this; I said to her: "Some people don't love God because they are bad...."

Josefina didn't understand, and, like four year olds do, she changed the subject.

And I was struck by something. This lack of comprehension was not simply ignorance; it was a ray of the splendor of innocence and simplicity, shining from the pre-dawn light of an intelligence--the image of God--just as it begins to appear on the horizon of a human life, reason in its original openness. Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

I cannot find a way to explain evil to a four year old, because evil makes no sense. There is no real "reason" why some people don't love God; there is only a lack of reason, a failure of freedom, a turning away from truth and goodness.

Lord, nurture the innocence of children, that it might mature into wisdom. And grant us wisdom, that we might be renewed in the innocence you won for us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mental Illness Happens to "Normal People"

Tonight I am reflecting upon mental illness, but this time not my own.

It is so hard to get people to see that mental illness is real, by which I mean that it is real illness, and that it happens to people who are "regular human beings;" not just people who are in mental institutions or who have pieces of shrapnel sticking out of their skulls.

I understand the difficulty. Some good and patient people had to work on me for a long time to convince me that I was sick, and that I would only do further harm to myself and others if I didn't submit to the kind of healing processes that this illness requires. I can see why it's such a difficulty to introduce the topic in other circumstances, when people show signs that this kind of pain may be afflicting them. This is especially a problem for Christians. We Christians, I believe, are still very uncomfortable with approaching the widespread problem of mental illness in our society and among ourselves.

One reason is because Christians believe in free will and personal responsibility, and we think that pop psychology is an attempt to rationalize bad human behavior. Sadly, there are modes of psychology and even psychiatric medicine that give us reason to think this way. Lacking a proper foundation in human nature and a recognition of the human religious sense, they invent illnesses that don't really exist, overdiagnose, misdiagnose, and give poor treatment for genuine conditions so that the person is worse off than before. This fact doesn't help Christians deal squarely with the issue. Admitting mental illness appears to be an abdication of personal responsibility, an attempt to evade the effort to overcome personal weakness by moral effort. And since we are all sinners and we all do this to some extent, it makes it hard to clarify where the line is between sinfulness and affliction.

And yet afflictions and disorders of the "mind" are physiologically based, scientifically documented, and clinically verified beyond any reasonable doubt. Patterns of illness, treatment, and response/recovery are established. What is necessary is for more Christians to get involved in psychiatric medicine, psychology, and psychotherapy. Medical treatments and clinical analysis must be brought together more and more with a Christian understanding of treating and caring for the whole human person. Meanwhile, psychiatry needs to become more integrated with other medical specialties (indeed this is beginning to happen; I have found that psychiatrists often have a broader understanding of various illnesses in general than other specialists). This is important because there are so many physical factors that impact upon the emotional and psychological sphere. An integral approach to the health of the whole person is increasingly necessary in this stressful, fragmented world. The human person is so fragile on every level of his or her being.

We Christians (and, for that matter, all of us "normal" people) need to recognize that mental illness does not place a person in some strange category of rare freaks. Mental illness happens to normal people. It happens among us, in our communities, in our circles of friends, in our families. It happens to talented people and articulate people and even people who have the gift of helping others.

We must not be shocked, disoriented, amazed, or at a loss for what to do when it does happen. We must be ready to help the person in need. I encourage everyone to learn more about these things, for their own sakes and for those they love.

If you or someone you know needs help, you might try this website:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Priests are Human Beings

I have been thinking today about those particular men in the Church we call priests. As a "lay theologian" since the days when it was not so common, I have known many priests. I wrote a book about priests in 1986. I studied as a layman in an ecclesiastical faculty, where most of my classmates were seminarians and priests, and my professors were priests. A number of my friends from various periods of my life became priests. I've stayed in rectories and religious houses. I've seen priests in their pajamas (which they put on one leg at a time like everybody else). When Eileen and I got married, nine priests concelebrated the wedding. They were friends, colleagues, former professors. I know Catholic priests. They are diverse in temperament and habits. They are beautifully and sometimes exasperatingly human. Catholic priests are men.

They are also men specially set aside by Jesus as instruments of His Priesthood. Jesus has willed to continue His Presence in the world in this hidden, mysterious, but nonetheless real and concrete way that we call "sacramental." The Priesthood of Jesus flows from His once-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the Cross, which He extends out through space and time, to every corner of the world and every age of history through the sacramental mystery of His Body and Blood, made present and offered by His ordained ministers through whom He acts.

Through their ministry of the Word, it is Jesus Christ who instructs, encourages, and guides us. Through their sacramental ministry it is Jesus Christ who baptizes, who forgives sins, who administers healing. The man who is ordained to Holy Orders gives his humanity and his personality over to Jesus, so that Jesus can continue to give Himself concretely to the world. This is what matters.

The priest need not be a man of extraordinary talent or charisma. The very nature of his vocation indicates that he should strive for holiness, but he does not need to be holy in order to be an instrument of Christ's sacramental grace. Perhaps he is a sinner or even a wicked man; even in this case, as long as he performs the rituals of the Church with the intention to do what the Church does, he confers the sacraments--Christ uses him to communicate Himself and His grace.

This mystery has nothing to do with any magical power or glittering, superstitious aura surrounding these particular men. It is part of Jesus's great guarantee to remain always with His Church. Catholic priests are truly men set apart by a special sacrament that configures them to Christ's priesthood. But they remain men. They remain vulnerable, insecure, troubled, struggling human beings. We know that there have been priests who have done terrible things, and for these things they must be held accountable like any other men, and even more, because of their betrayal of their vocation and the sacred trust that it should entail.

Then sometimes we are surprised to discover that priests of great intelligence, eloquence, energy, and compassion--inspiring and courageous priests--turn out to be flawed and complex men, imperfect men with limited energy, limited patience, or men who give in to the temptations of human weakness. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by this.

Priests are human beings. We know that. And we know what human beings are. They are weak.

The priesthood is a great and awesome vocation, and it brings with it abundant grace. It also brings challenges and trials and responsibility, and the graces that make priests holy in the midst of these circumstances are linked to our prayers and sacrifices.

So let us pray for our priests.

And then let us recognize a positive need of their humanity. They need friendship. No priest should be alone. Priests, be friends with one another. Support one another. Take care of one another. Leave no one alone. Put aside envy. Put aside ecclesiastical politics. Priestly and human solidarity and friendship: essential.

And we too should extend Christian and human friendship toward the priests who serve us and who we know. There is much we can do to express love and compassion and companionship for them, as individuals, families, and communities. We are meant to be part of that experience of the "hundredfold" of sons and daughters and brothers and sisters that Jesus has promised them even in this life, because they have followed Him in this very special way, in the service of the Church. Let us look at our priest and see the person, not just the administrator or the "boss" or even the hero who must always embody our ideals. Let us see this person, this special person consecrated by Christ. And let us be a strength to him, a support in the communion of the Church, and a source of joy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How Can a Rich Man Enter the Kingdom of God?

How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

I am a rich man. Our family is rich in material possessions and conveniences, in spite of what in the United States of America would be considered our precarious financial circumstances. I could scarcely manage without all the comforts of this fully industrialized and electronically developed society. I do not know where the clothes on my back or the food I eat or the furniture in my home come from, nor what web of unjust socioeconomic relationships govern the paths they travel from their places of origin to my home. I do not know what I or my family can do about the injustice in the world, but it is a reminder to pray to God that the relationships which are within the reach of our freedom may be founded on justice, solidarity, love, and mercy. And it is a reminder that we need to ask the Holy Spirit to transform our minds and open our hearts to the creative possibilities that God gives us to contribute to the common good.

I am a rich man in other ways too. There are riches that I possess in abundance, and that are very much at my disposal: the wealth of talent, capacity for expression, education, and experience in teaching others. I would like to think that here I have given liberally, that I have shared myself, that I have poured out these riches in love. But the truth is that even here I hoard my wealth. It is with these personal riches especially that Jesus says, "Go, sell all you have...follow me."

How much of my "giving" is really self-advancement? Very much, I fear. Images from the gospels resonate with my life: I love the special seats at gatherings, and being called rabbi. I love praying and performing religious acts for people to see, and--I hope--to applaud. I love to show my misery to the world so that everyone knows that I am suffering. It's such a sweet thing to be admired.

And so I have my "reward." I remain rich. I am a fool and a hypocrite. Even this confession of pharisaical behavior right now is really something of a scam; deep down there is that part of me that craves your admiration for my candor. Don't trust me! I don't trust myself!

The flaw, the twist, the self-love, the grasping seem to be a little mixed in with so much of what I do. And so it is, for human flesh and blood. "Forgive us our trespasses," we are taught to pray every day. The assumption, of course, is that we are going to trespass. Jesus doesn't want us to obsess over our faults, but to ask for the Father's mercy, and to be formed according to His will in the school that is this life: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

So we fail, and God is rich in mercy. But there is a special way that we must ask for God's mercy, and that is with the humility of hearts that are themselves merciful. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Here Jesus sums up life. We sin. But others also sin against us. We are hurt. We are betrayed. We are the victims of injustice. We are neglected. But we must forgive others. We must be people of mercy. This is not easy. This is where I experience my powerlessness. Here I must really "sell all I have" and give it away. Here is where following Christ begins. Here is where true riches are to be found.

How can I be merciful to others? I must ask God to enable me to be merciful to others. Everything begins in the position of prayer and poverty before God. Another word for this kind of poverty is trust.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Now Peter is very perceptive at this point. He cries out, "then who can be saved?" It is more than a matter of economics, although on this level it is important to remember that there are, on the whole, two kinds of people: those who are rich, and those who want to be rich. On the personal level, however, everyone is "rich"--even if all he possesses is "himself." Because we must lose our very selves for His sake.

"For man it is impossible," Jesus says. So we can't trust in our own riches. We can't trust in ourselves!

"But nothing is impossible with God." So return, again and again, to that posture of begging for mercy, and that posture of trust because the God who does the impossible has given Himself to us. He wants to and He will transform us into people of compassion, people who give themselves away, people who follow Him and in Him discover the only true treasure, His Love.

I am a hypocrite and a fool, but I know that God's Mercy is true, and I want it, and I beg for it from God--I beg for it for myself and for the whole world. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have Mercy on me, a sinner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Day Three

Day three is over. It's time to go to bed.

Josefina kept me busy doing puzzles all evening. She invents her own games out of puzzles, but they don't quite make sense. I tried to just nod my way through, but then she would say, "NOOO! That's not right."

Then there is the task of getting her to sleep. Usually she just drops off. Tonight she wants to stay up late. She keeps asking, "what time is it?" It's not because she cares about the time. It's because she always hears other people asking that question. She's funny like that.

Her development is still a little behind; there are aspects of her that are still in transition from toddlerhood, while in other ways she is definitely spreading her wings. Her vocabulary and pronunciation need to catch up with her mind. Still we have been assured that her development is on track. She certainly doesn't lack for determination to do what she wants, and for such a little person she has tremendous vocal power to express her dissatisfaction when she doesn't get her way.

Meanwhile, the other girls have been squabbling, and John Paul is not feeling well, and the house is a wreck. Eileen says on the phone that she has a lot of work (as I knew she would). I hope she'll be able to study in this crazy house over the weekend. We'll make it happen, somehow. We are going to get this done.

Lord give us all good sleep
and heal the wounds of this day.
Refresh our spirits
and let us awake
to praise You in the freshness
of tomorrow's youth.
One day is enough for us.
One day's troubles suffice for our strength,
for we are small and weak
and wilt with the coming of night.
More than the span of a day
is beyond our power.
So take us, Lord, into Your Heart
and let us know the promise
of Your rest.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Family Life, Ecclesial Life

My own experience of family life is illuminated by the preaching of Benedict XVI, in these words taken from his recent pastoral visit to Croatia. Everywhere, the human realities are the same. Self-giving love. Commitment of persons to one another. Openness to life. Prayer. Relationship with Christ through the Church. Witness to the world. Courage to live the truth.

Living it day to day, it doesn't feel so grand. It consists overwhelmingly in grimy little things. Getting John Paul to clear the table. Making sure Josefina does her thing on the potty. The big things, like "what's going to happen to the economy?" are out of our hands. We can only take the next step, and trust in Jesus for everything.

What Benedict XVI says here is founded upon that trust.

The Christian family is a special sign of the presence and love of Christ and that it is called to give a specific and irreplaceable contribution to evangelization. Blessed John Paul II...said that “the Christian family is called upon to take part actively and responsibly in the mission of the Church in a way that is original and specific, by placing itself, in what it is and what it does as an ‘intimate community of life and love’, at the service of the Church and of society” (Familiaris consortio, 50). The Christian family has always been the first way of transmitting the faith and still today retains great possibilities for evangelization in many areas.

Dear parents, commit yourselves always to teach your children to pray, and pray with them; draw them close to the Sacraments, especially to the Eucharist...and introduce them to the life of the Church; in the intimacy of the home do not be afraid to read the sacred Scriptures, illuminating family life with the light of faith and praising God as Father. Be like a little Upper Room, like that of Mary and the disciples, in which to live unity, communion and prayer! By the grace of God, many Christian families today are acquiring an ever deeper awareness of their missionary vocation, and are devoting themselves seriously to bearing witness to Christ the Lord. Blessed John Paul II once said: “An authentic family, founded on marriage, is in itself ‘good news’ for the world.” And he added: “In our time the families that collaborate actively in evangelization are ever more numerous [...] the hour of the family has arrived in the Church, which is also the hour of the missionary family” (Angelus, 21 October 2001).

In today’s society the presence of exemplary Christian families is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge the spread of a secularization which leads to the exclusion of God from life and the increasing disintegration of the family, especially in Europe. Freedom without commitment to the truth is made into an absolute, and individual well-being through the consumption of material goods and transient experiences is cultivated as an ideal, obscuring the quality of interpersonal relations and deeper human values; love is reduced to sentimental emotion and to the gratification of instinctive impulses, without a commitment to build lasting bonds of reciprocal belonging and without openness to life. We are called to oppose such a mentality! Alongside what the Church says, the testimony and commitment of the Christian family – your concrete testimony – is very important, especially when you affirm the inviolability of human life from conception until natural death, the singular and irreplaceable value of the family founded upon matrimony and the need for legislation which supports families in the task of giving birth to children and educating them.

Dear families, be courageous! Do not give in to that secularized mentality which proposes living together as a preparation, or even a substitute for marriage! Show by the witness of your lives that it is possible, like Christ, to love without reserve, and do not be afraid to make a commitment to another person! Dear families, rejoice in fatherhood and motherhood! Openness to life is a sign of openness to the future, confidence in the future, just as respect for the natural moral law frees people, rather than demeaning them! The good of the family is also the good of the Church. I would like to repeat something I have said in the past: “the edification of each individual Christian family fits into the context of the larger family of the Church which supports it and carries it with her ... And the Church is reciprocally built up by the family, a ‘small domestic church’” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Participants in the Ecclesial Diocesan Convention of Rome, 6 June 2005). Let us pray to the Lord, that families may come more and more to be small churches and that ecclesial communities may take on more and more the quality of a family!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Me and the Kids!

My wife left me today.

If you read the previous blog post, of course, you know that she will be back Friday evening. Then she will leave again on Sunday and return the following Friday. During the weekdays of the next four weeks, Eileen will be staying at the house of Josefina's godmother, a good friend of ours, who lives near the campus of Loyola University in Baltimore. The three intensive courses she is taking, along with "a paper" (due in October) is all she needs to add a Masters of Education to her already-obtained AMI Montessori teacher certification.

For weekdays over the next four weeks, its just me and the kids!

Will we survive?

I think so. We did it last year, over a longer period of time. The picture above is old; Josefina in particular is much older and a little bigger now. Everyone is bigger, in fact. And I have already noticed that this creates a different dynamic.

These kids have little wills of their own. In many ways, that's good. Two years ago, it felt more like a bird's nest, in which I had to improvise maternal feathers to keep the chicks who surrounded me warm (a lot of the feathers were videos). Today, the kids seem more self-possessed in what they do; they have their own things that they continue to pursue even though Mommy is not here. When Mommy left this afternoon, no one even cried.

Also the kids' nurturing instincts toward Josefina are much more developed and she is more mature and responsive. This is the first time that Josefina can be, at least in some respects, "one of the gang." She can hang out with the girls and take interest, at least, in their activities. She can go outside and play with them. Right now John Paul and I are watching the Nationals lose a baseball game, and the girls are inside doing...something. I know they're not getting into trouble. They're good kids.

So that means everything runs smoothly, right. Heh heh. Not quite.

As I said, these kids have little wills of their own. That means they are more apt to disagree with one another and argue, especially now that the Police Chief is gone. How does a Dad handle disputes between girls? Each has a different interpretation of "what Mommy said." Usually, "what Mommy said" is good policy, and I know that if I use my executive authority to change it, there will probably be further problems down the road. But what did Mommy say?

Oh and Josefina gets bored. Without Mommy, I am her default perch. She's on my lap now, asking me to type some "J"s. Okay, do you want to see some Js? JJJJJJJJJJJJJ JJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJ JJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJJ. "Make a lot of Js and don't erase them!" she says. Josefina loves the letter "J" because she knows it's "her" letter.

Someone has whisked her away. I really need to finish this scatterbrained blog entry.

A household is certainly designed to have a Father and a Mother. We can manage for this time, though, because by now we understand (at various levels and in our own ways) that what Mommy is doing is part of our mission as a family. We are all working together to make this happen; we are participating in a common vocation, a design of God for our family that is meant to enrich all of us and make us a common witness to God's consistent, providential love in the midst of all our difficulties and joys. Our family is a sign of the truth that God has a plan, that His wisdom brings good fruits from out of our trials and even our weaknesses, in the measure that we abandon ourselves to Him and trust in Him.

I feel like we've been put into a position where we can hardly choose otherwise than to trust in Him. If you've read my book () you understand what I mean. I can only say, "Lord, your ways are 'strange' to me, but to whom else can I go? You have proven that You are the source of life, and that the meaning of reality becomes clear only through You. All I can do is place myself and my family in Your hands. I trust in You."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mommy's Heading Off to School! What Will We Do??

That is my beautiful wife. She is so amazing. She is definitely the heart of this family. Even more, she is the principle of organization around here; she keeps all the rest of us from going nutty. You can always tell when Mommy is out of the house: the kids are bouncing all over the furniture and Josefina is who-knows-where while Daddy is reading (or writing) and is oblivious to everything around him. Every once in awhile, Daddy looks up to make sure nobody is on the floor bleeding; otherwise he's satisfied that all is in order and returns to his work.

Well, it's not quite that bad, but....

I am very proud of this wonderful woman. She is a certified Montessori teacher and is the Directress of the Elementary Program at the John XXIII Montessori Children's Center here in Front Royal. Eileen spent three intense summers at Loyola University in Baltimore to earn her certification. She came home on weekends. We had various arrangements to keep the house from falling apart while she was gone during the week; Nana came from California when Josefina was a baby. God bless Nana!!!

But Josefina is not a baby anymore. Last year we did just Daddy and the kids, but we had the daughter of a friend come in every afternoon to make sure the house wasn't falling apart. And so, Mommy got her certification. Hooray! Last year it felt like we were all done. No more crazy summers.

Well, almost....

Mommy can upgrade her certification to a full blown Masters in Education by taking some intensive courses in Baltimore for three and a half weeks this summer (and "writing a few papers" - heh, heh!). Of course I want her to do it. My wife already has a Masters in English Literature, her certification, and her teaching position. But why not top it off with the M.Ed.? It may come in handy, and besides, she deserves it. As I said, I am so proud of my wife. She is at the vanguard of the development of alternative educational institutions, resources of learning that work in cooperation with the needs and educational choices of parents and families. In this way she can educate our own children and also participate in providing the Montessori environment as a resource for the whole community, thanks to the John XXIII Center's uniquely designed programs. [I should put a link here to their website:]

We are especially blessed, because Eileen really is the heart of our home and family, and at the same time she is able to share her talents as a professional educator with the wider community. It is also a blessing because, in our present circumstances, her income is necessary to help keep a roof over our heads. That is another reason why the M.Ed. might be useful somewhere down the road. After all, the only thing we know is that the road is leading us to a good place; we have learned in the past 15 years that it has many twists and turns. And that God is the one who is driving.

So, off she goes to Baltimore. Tomorrow.


Wait, calm down. It's only for about four weeks. And she'll be home on the weekends. All we have to do is get through the weeks. Daddy and the kids. This year we're doing it without any help. The kids are older, after all. John Paul is 14. He and Agnese can pretty much run the house. They can even cook, which is great. It means we'll have food. Josefina, of course, is four and a half. The most challenging task will be for all of us to look after her. But even she has begun to mature to the point where she might actually listen to me if I tell her not to do something.

Needless to say, we'll probably watch a lot of videos. Hopefully, there will also be plenty of playing outside.

In any case, we have to do everything we can to make sure that Eileen doesn't have to worry about things at home for the next four weeks. I expect she is going to have a lot of work to do. The kids and I are ready. We'll make it work, with God's help. But we will all miss her.

I'll be posting more on this adventure as it unfolds.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Mother of God and the Holy Spirit.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni Per Mariam.

So I pray, many times during the course of the day. It is an invocation worth pondering on the eve of Pentecost. At the very center of the mystery of salvation, there is a woman.

It was the Holy Spirit who preserved her from original sin and from all sin. It was the Holy Spirit who dwelt within her heart from the first moment of her conception, who taught her from her first thoughts to seek God's will and ponder His word, and who inspired her to consecrate herself wholly to the Divine plan. It was the Holy Spirit who gave her a sense of wonder in the presence of God, and that dedication and self-abandonment which she expressed when she called herself the "lowly servant" the "handmaid" of the Lord.

It was the Holy Spirit who came upon her in that first, secret Pentecost that occurred in her heart and in her womb when she said "Yes" to the word of the angel Gabriel, when her loving obedience overcame the selfish disobedience of Eve. The Word, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it was the Holy Spirit that sustained and deepened the "Yes" of Mary's heart all the way to the Cross, a "yes" that accompanied the redeeming love of Jesus offered for the whole human race, and therefore a "yes" that embraces each of us personally.

So it is no surprise that we find the Mother of God in the upper room with the disciples praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit and receiving Him anew in the birth of the Church. And now the Virgin Mary, reigning in glory with her Son, prays for us to receive the gift of the Spirit. We receive the grace of the Spirit because we receive Jesus Christ. Jesus became man in the history of the world through the maternal mediation of Mary, and so today He takes flesh in our lives through the maternal mediation of Mary. Jesus comes to us in the invitation to love that shapes the moments of our lives, a shaping that passes in a mysterious but deeply human, attentive, and motherly way through the heart of Mary.

Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces. Thus her involvement in our lives is not just a distant fact of the past. It is a reality of the present, a reality of this moment, a living reality for my life. Mary, my Mother, my Mother. Through her Christ makes Himself present in our lives now, and so through her, the lowly servant of the Lord, we receive the gift of the Spirit in Christ, now, each of us, in all of our many circumstances.

How can I imagine such tenderness, so extensive and yet so personal? And yet it is Love that makes it possible. And so I turn to Mary, always, with confidence. She is my Mother.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni Per Mariam.
Come Holy Spirit. Come through Mary.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Openness To Conversion

For tonight, just some words from Fr. Julian Carron, International "Responsabile" of the movement of Comunione e Liberazione, from this year's Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of CL, which I am reading in these days:

We feel no greater need than that of asking, praying for the openness to 
conversion. Each of us knows very well how we resist this conversion, how 
often our heart is hardened, how much we are unwilling deep down to let 
ourselves be attracted by Him. The more we are aware of this, of this war 
we are engaged in, and of our fragility and weakness, the more we feel the 
need to ask the Spirit that He be the One to wash what is soiled, water what 
is arid, and heal what is wounded. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Divine Mercy and the Gift of the Holy Spirit

"For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have Mercy on us and on the whole world."

I pray this prayer every day, when I say the chaplet of Divine Mercy during the three o'clock hour. According to St. Faustina, Jesus urged the practice of pausing every day at 3:00, even if only for a moment, and remembering His Passion, His agony, and His abandonment. He promised to grant great graces in this hour. He recommended praying the chaplet.

And so this time has become a mid-afternoon prayer time pause for me. I spend some moments in silence before the image, dwelling on His mercy from my heart. Then I bring my needs and petitions before Him. Then I pray the chaplet, and try to unite myself spiritually to the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, because it is through the Eucharist that I can pray the prayer at the beginning of each decade: "Eternal Father, I offer you the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world."

These prayers contain so much about the love of the Father, the truth about our sins, and our total dependence on the mystery of Christ's sacrifice. But sometimes I have wondered: where is the Holy Spirit in this prayer? Then I thought (and this is just my own opinion), that Mercy itself refers to the Holy Spirit. Through the redeeming sacrifice of the Son of God made man, the Father and the Son breathe forth the Spirit upon the world, and into the hearts of those who receive God's saving love.

The Divine Mercy focuses on the "blood and water" that flowed forth from the Heart of Jesus. But as St. John tells us, "there are three that bear witness...the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three are one" (1John 5:7-8). In some sense, can we not think of the Mercy of God as the gift of His Spirit?

Then, the prayer of the chaplet becomes a Trinitarian prayer: "For the sake of His [the Son's] sorrowful Passion, [Father] have Mercy [send Your Holy Spirit] on us and on the whole world." I don't see any reason why it cannot be understood in this way, but the more important thing is that I know that when I pray the chaplet and implore God's Mercy for me and for the world, I am begging for the grace of the Holy Spirit, by which God works the miracle of His Mercy in me. I want to lift up my heart and immerse myself in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, of the God who is Love, and who is my only hope.

And I beg for that Love to be poured out as healing mercy on a poor world that is so broken and so full of longing and suffering and deception and violence--a world that I feel inside my own heart, crying out for a love it does not know, crying out for the Presence of Christ to radiate love within it through me. Come Holy Spirit, make me an instrument of God's love and mercy.

[For information on the chaplet of Divine Mercy and the devotion made known through St. Faustina, see this link:]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A New Life in the Holy Spirit

During this week, Christians remem- ber the original "novena"--the nine days when the disciples of Jesus gathered in the upper room with Mary and prayed for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. We recall in these days the birth of the Church in all the fullness that Christ intended her to possess.

We are also urged to recall that as Christians each of us has received the gift of the Spirit, and the vocation to bear witness to Christ as members of His Body, the Church. We ask for a deeper outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit dwells in us and is at work in us.

How often do we hear these words and find only a vague significance in them?

Oh yes, the Holy Spirit. That's important. Why? Because the Church says so. On to the next "thing."

Wait. Stop.

It is very easy to think of Christianity as a bunch of stuff we have to do (or not do), because God and the Church say so, and then try to negotiate and integrate this rather burdensome collection of stuff into our lives. This week is a good time for me to ask myself: "Is this how I live my faith? Is this how I present it to others?"

The rest of the world often views Christianity as a collection of external rules that more or less interfere with real life, that is, with the part of life that interests and engages me as a person. What a grim business! No wonder people are not attracted to it.

I must beware that I do not allow this kind of moralism to become my own view of Christianity. I must remember that Christianity is a new life, a supernatural life, a life of communion with God. Through baptism, I have been given a participation in the Divine life, and through grace this life grows within me and transforms me. God gives Himself to me; He draws me into a personal relationship with Himself; He leads me to my destiny which is to share forever in His glory, to behold and to love forever the One who is the fullness of all goodness, to belong to Him forever.

Eternal glory has already begun, secretly, in the very heart of this ordinary life, because God dwells in me, and God is at work in my life. But why am I so dull and unaware? Because I need the light of the Holy Spirit to recognize the path He has laid out before me. Christianity is not external to the real concerns of my life. It illuminates them and opens me up to their true meaning. But this only happens if I live the relationship with God that He continually desires to deepen throughout my life.

And how can I live and grow in a relationship with Eternal Love except by asking for Him to change me, asking for Him to empower me to love Him more, asking Him to enable me to see the Church as the instrument of His love, and her teachings as the road of love that really corresponds to my life? I want Him to "come" into my life, deepen my relationship with Him, and make me more aware of His presence. This is why I must ask, continually, for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be renewed within me. This is why my whole heart has to be a living, loving, begging prayer for God's grace.

Come Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Summertime and the Holy Spirit

Well, it's summertime. How did that happen so fast?
Those trees were all bare a few months ago, when I was blogging in February. Now we are surrounded by lush green. It's 7:30 PM and it still feels like the afternoon.

The kids are home every day now. Montessori school is out for the summer, so they are home. Every day. All day long. All five of them. The door slams over and over. Feet flap all over the "kid highways" through the living room and kitchen. Josefina's peeping voice is always saying this or that. Mommy is in and out, still working on closing down things at the school. And I plop myself in the living room, in the middle of everything--which is where I like it best--and allow the surroundings to blend with my own research. When I pick up the internet I open a window on the whole world, right here in the living room in the midst of my children. But in a profound sense the same thing happens when I open a book. A world of understanding is contained in those pages, and something much richer than digital imagery is required to visualize it: the human imagination. I can easily get lost in these worlds, and the hubhub that surrounds me is actually congenial. I love being surrounded by people when I think. I also like being interrupted, which is a good thing because it happens plenty.

I was just interrupted now by the presentation of some crayon drawings by the "little girls." Everyone is covered with mosquito bites. Later on, maybe we'll pop out and see the fireflies.

These are the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. In the Church's prayer, there is all that wonderful expectation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It gives form to these days. How do I listen to His inspirations? I feel so dry, sometimes. Where is God? He is inside the needs and tasks of this day, in the children and their concerns, in the time Eileen and I have together, in the rhythm of my work and prayer. When I pray, "come, Holy Spirit," I am asking Him to manifest Himself; to enrich my awareness of His presence. He calls out and gives Himself through the invitation to love contained in the most ordinary circumstance. His invitations say, "Love all the way. Do not stop at your own satisfaction. Seek the Source of what attracts you, and--in affirming the goodness of whatever is given in the circumstances--allow yourself to be embraced by the Source." Often our situation seems dull, repetitive, and fruitless. Here especially we must call out to the Holy Spirit, and listen to the silence in which He whispers the secrets of Divine Love.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Where Are We From? Part III

See that map? That is the Italian peninsula. It is a collection of towns and regions that are passionate about their own identity. For the past 150 years, it has been known as the "nation" of Italy. Time has brought a certain measure of unity. Everyone speaks the Tuscan dialect (to some extent), which is the "national language." The "Italians" all unite behind the Azzuri  (Blues), the national soccer team, in international competitions. Government? Heh heh. That's, um... complicated.

When I was growing up, I proudly considered myself an "Italian American." I didn't realize that the mix of regions in my family background was a phenomenon that could only happen in America. Almost all Americans of European ancestry are an ethnic mixture. That's clear enough when one has, say, and "Italian" father and an "Irish" mother (a not-uncommon combination in the Northeast urban centers of immigration--in fact, my wife is part Irish). But it is usually true also of those who claim "100%" heritage. Ethnic and cultural heritage in Europe are very compact. The ethnic neighborhoods of America mixed peoples of these compact regions together, because--after all--in the great New World the common elements became sources of subcultural unity. As a result, the second generation saw a great deal of "intermarriage" between kids who never would have met in the old country.

It was something of a surprise for me when I went to Italy at the age of 30 to study. People asked me where my ancestors were from, and I said, "Italy!" They replied, "oh, but where are they from?" Turns out they were from a lot of different places. "Italians" are from Milano or Brescia or Roma or from a foreign country called Sicily. Nobody is from "Italy," at least, not really. Even in New York, it was quite a scandal in my grandmother's Neapolitan family when she began seeing my Sicilian grandfather. Sicilians were not paisani; they were strange, alien creatures.

It turns out that my ancestors are from all over southern Italy. Some of them were probably Greek (which might explain the odd spelling of the name "Janaro" with a "J"--although there are other possibilities; the French were in southern Italy too). In Italy I learned about the long and deep lines of my roots. For Americans, lineage often fades into a mist if we try to seek beyond the first person to land on our shores. But in Europe it is not unusual to stand in places that are over a thousand years old, and it becomes possible to think of one's self as part of a very long line. Still, it is distinctively American to be an intersection of various lines that never would have met anywhere else.

I have my roots in a distinctive historical phenomenon: the New York Italian American immigrant experience of the late 19th century. I am also third generation American born, which means that the diverse socioeconomic backgrounds of my ancestors had time to rise to the level of the middle class families of my parents in the America of the 1950s. In a sense, I am a "New Yorker," and to this day I feel at home in the city of my birth. But I have adopted a new home.

The Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia are where I have built my life. I went to school here, and then devoted my career to building institutions here. I established my family here, and it is here that I own the little piece of property that I call my home. This is the place that I miss when I am far away. This is my children's native place. And my parents have lived in this area for 22 years; here in Virginia they have become grandparents.

It is in Virginia that my history, and the history of my family, continues.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Where Are We From? Part II

So, where am we “from”?

Human beings are body and soul. Factors of time and space shape who we are. The environment we are "born" into, and the events that happen to us in early life enter into the makeup of our personal history, and shape particular features of our memory, temperament, and inclinations. At the same time, our freedom enables us to adapt to a new environment, and to develop dispositions, habits, and affections that enable our personality to embrace a "new home." This new place can become more "ours" than the land of our birth. We, in turn, become more identified with it. Great figures of our own time illustrate this. When we think of Mother Teresa, we think of India and Calcutta--her adopted home and a land that claims her as one of their own--even though her life began thousands of miles away, in the entirely different society, culture, and climate of Eastern European Albania.

It even seems possible for human beings to “belong” in a profound way to more than one place, to “contain” different places internally as elements of their own identity and of the way others relate to them. This is true of anyone who has gone forth from their homeland to establish a new place, such as the settlers and pioneers of the New World.

Indeed, various people, with varying moral qualities, illustrate this human phenomenon. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte. His life is bound permanently to the history of France, and yet he was born and grew up in the (at that time) decidedly un-French island of Corsica. Certainly, rulers (especially conquerors) often exhibit this quality, while they in turn make elements of their native culture into formative features of their adopted culture. William the Conqueror brought his Norman identity to English soil. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree from his native Austria to England in the 19th century, and from there it made its way into our homes today. I find myself inclined to consider historical personages because there is evidence of their awareness of place and their impact on other places

But on a much broader scale, all of America is a fabric woven from the experiences of other places which so many brought here with them when they came. Most of us have a varied ancestry, and grew up in homes that blended various cultural traditions. American society itself is (relatively speaking) “young,” which is one of the reasons why we are often less attached to a particular place that many peoples of older cultures, and perhaps why we are more willing to change the places where we are, as well as move about from place to place. And yet, America as a whole is “one place” (in spite of the very distinctive history and characteristics of certain locations). I know that one of the things that amazes a European visitor to the United States is its relative unity of life and culture over vast distances.

As a place, our country is still developing its identity during this epoch of mass transportation and the contraction of space that results from it. As I said, we are young. As we move about from place to place, jumping over thousands of miles, most of us carry family and cultural traditions that are only a few generations old.

By contrast, even the ordinary Italian of my generation often grew up in a region or a city or even a neighborhood where his ancestors lived for hundreds of years. I have a friend whose family has a large house in Ligouria. In its library are documents including a verification of ownership signed and sealed by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century. A place that would be a historic landmark in the United States is, in Italy, just someone’s house.

These reflections on what it means to “belong to a place” certainly suggest that a sense of one’s “place” has an impact on how one perceives the world. It’s all part of my trying to figure out how to answer the question, “where am I from?” Traditionally the question has been phrased as “what am I?” I am an American. I know that for sure (and if I ever had any doubts, a year of living in Europe cured me of them). But how much more specific can I be? Am I a Virginian? After thirty years I would like to say so, but there are many Virginians who would disagree. To them, I’m just another transplanted Yankee. Why? I don't think of myself as a "Yankee." But I was born in New York and grew up in Pennsylvania. Is there something "yankeeish" about me?

To be continued.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Roots in the Valley: The Valley League

It's late. I'm tired. I'll continue the story of where I am from tomorrow. Tonight I'll just mention briefly the event that, for John Paul and me, has signaled the beginning of summer since he was seven years old: the opening night of Valley League Baseball.

The Shenandoah Valley is home to one of several special summer leagues for college players. They are sponsored by Major League Baseball and use wood bats (which means a lot to me--a baseball bat is not supposed to go "ping"!). Promising college players from all around the country come to play in the two month summer league. It means that for two months we have a real home town baseball team right here in Front Royal: the illustrious Front Royal Cardinals. The games are fun, admission is cheap, the seats are great, and we have a nice little ballpark of almost minor league quality. And it's only five minutes from our house. John Paul and I have gone to games regularly since 2004. Mommy and the girls have come a few times, but they don't like it much. We love it.

Actually this does relate to the theme of heritage. It is a piece of this small town that is part of my son's life. It's something he will always remember. Baseball has something to do with roots, as I have learned from my own curious allegiances. We have the Washington Nationals. But this is really special: real baseball right in town. Front Royal Cardinals' season is something unique.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Where Are We From? Part I

So, where are you from?

This has become a difficult question for many of us to answer who live in the developed world. And it is especially a problem in the United States of America, where migration is part of the national tradition of people continually in search of a better life. Here it has been common for generations for people to establish themselves and make their mark upon the world in places very far removed from where they were born and raised. Historically, the movement of population in the U.S. was broadly from East to West. But the post-World War II generation saw the development of the automobile mass transportation network, passenger air travel, and mass communications. In the past 60 years our country is turning more and more into a place where everyone is from all over, and where they presently live may not be a place where they intend to set down any permanent roots.

I have watched this phenomenon develop over the course of my own life, and have experienced it myself. I have also participated in what seems to be something of an unreflective, spontaneous effort by groups of people to reestablish roots in particular places. Common initiatives and commitment to institutions often establish communities where people’s lives are invested in the place where they are. The Janaros seem to be setting down roots by living a deeper level of community with others who have come together to build or take part in the various educational institutions that have found a home in the Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia.

Today we are all very used to the idea of mobility defining our relationship to place. We hardly reflect on the fact that, in the history of the human race, this mobility is a very new kind of freedom. Nor do we give much consideration to how this affects our psychological sense of internal coherence. We are, after all, bodily beings who are “naturally” in only one place at a time, and tend to take in and appropriate (“make our own”) the environment that surrounds us. This must have some impact on the experience of people who live in constantly changing environments.

What are the potential positive elements of this impact? What creative resources are available to the human person to integrate this experience? History has always known instances of the “cosmopolitan” person, rich in wisdom and sensibility about diverse peoples and cultures with whom they have lived. But such persons, historically, were exceptional, often educated and wealthy, and without family ties. Our age is an age of cosmopolitan families and cities, with mobile populations. What this does to the human need for building sustained relationships and community is a matter worthy of further consideration.

These reflections will be continued. In the next entry, I will talk of my own experience of being born as a New York Italian American, and then being transplanted to Western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and–of all places–Italy itself. And why I think it’s important for my children to grow up with a sense that the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is their home, even if someday they live on the moon.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fourteen Years of Children

I was 34 years old in 1997. Eileen was 30. We both thought we had seen quite a bit of the world in those days, but nothing had prepared us for the adventure we were plunging into.

I had friends my age who already had six or seven kids. But this was our first. This was supposed to be a "May baby." Eileen was very big and certainly looked ready, but we waited for the mystery to happen, waited eight days. We sat up late at night on the couch, watching videos and eating chips. Labor? No, just gas.

We went to my parents (who still had plenty of spring in their step back then), which was nearer to the hospital. Nothing. We went into Washington, DC for a day of art museums and Ethiopian food. Spicy Ethiopian food. Nothing. We watched Jurassic Park II in a movie theater. Nothing. The kid just wasn't going anywhere.

Finally they told us to come to the hospital for Eileen to be induced. So much for our ideas about natural childbirth. The usual things were done. Labor brought nothing but pain. The head was not dropping down. One thing was clear: this kid had a big head.

So they were going to cut my wife's body open! My precious wife--married less than two years! While they prepped, I paced back and forth and prayed the Rosary. At 34 years old, I didn't think there were any "new experiences" left. This was really new.

I was suited up and ushered into the O.R. where Eileen was, numbed where she needed to be by the epidural but fully awake, with a screen at her chest so she couldn't see what was being done. I held onto her and the doctor and nurses went to work.

I should note that this was supposed to be a girl. We were sure. I owed a debt of gratitude to St. Agnes of Rome, at whose tomb I had prayed for a wife a couple of years before. I promised St. Agnes that I would name my first daughter after her. Eileen and I returned to the tomb on our honeymoon and renewed the promise together. So we just felt sure this was baby Agnes (at this point, we had not thought of the Italian form of the name, "Agnese"). While Eileen was pregnant we called the baby "Agnes." We had no sonogram, but still, we felt sure. And then, the baby had moved for the first time on the Feast of St. Agnes. A Heavenly Sign (NOT!).

The doctor called me to look over the screen to see my baby brought forth. The cord was wrapped twice around the baby's neck. The head was unusually large. This baby never would have made it alive through the birth canal. But modern medicine was finding a way to make everything go smoothly. And I saw the baby emerge from the swabs covering the incision, the head and neck and shoulders and chest and OH MY GOSH IT'S A BOY!

It's a boy! It's a boy!

He was a 9 pound, 4 ounces, a compact little man, screaming his head off and shaking his fists, well formed like a lightweight boxer. We were crying with joy.

And we had a backup name, just in case. John Paul, of course.

It was 3:00 in the morning on June 1, 1997.

I felt as though I had become some strange new being, as if I had been born into a new life. Later that morning, in the nearby church, I kept thinking during the Mass with a mixture of wonder and dread, "I'm a father, I'm a father." I knew he had been with us for nine months, but birth is a great epiphany. A whole new world was set before my eyes, drawing forth the most elemental instincts of tenderness and protectiveness and all the emotions that bolster a new sense of responsibility.

Much has happened in these past 14 years. His head keeps growing, along with the rest of him. John Paul was the only c-section; the girls came naturally. And after 14 years and five children, I expect new experiences every day.