Inside the Head of a Missionary

A year ago I left my friends who became my family. I left the comfort of college life and everything that was normal to me. I left Norman, my home away from home, and moved to a small town in East Texas where I knew three people and had no idea where anything was. My world was flipped upside down.  I was filled with self-induced anxiety to perform well as a first year FOCUS missionary. In a span of three months every aspect of my life had changed.

Within this discomfort I knew I had to hold on to the truth of my mission. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus claimed all authority in heaven and on earth and said, “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…and behold, I am with you always.” My mission: to lead others to Christ and to rest with him. We are all called to this. We must rest with him in order to lead others to him. Just like we become like those we are closest with, we also become like Jesus the more time we spend resting in his presence. This was, and is, my strength.

What seemed impossible was now possible. Going to meet disciples for the first time, sharing the message of the gospel with someone I barely knew, or starting a bible study didn’t seem so overwhelming when I saturated it in prayer. In moments of confusion, doubt or desolation I sought rest at the foot of the cross with the comforting hand of our Blessed Mother. Making disciples wasn’t so difficult when I truly understood that this was Jesus’ mission, not FOCUS’s. He was doing the work, not me. All he was asking of me was to be open to his divine will and be faithful. The rest would fall into place. The degree to which I was open to him was the degree to which I was able to be fruitful.

This held true for more than just making disciples. Jesus wanted to enter into every part of my life. The more I trusted in his will with fundraising my salary the more he provided for me. When I invited the Lord to enter into a conversation about chastity and purity he provided the words that lead to a fruitful conversation. The more I did this, the more peace I was able to live with. My year started in anxiety and ended with freedom.

The Lord desires to know us, but he wants to be invited in. He’s the perfect gentleman. He will never force his will upon us. Let him into your heart. Tell him about the crosses you carry. St. Francis de Sales says, “The true value of crosses does not depend on their weight, but on how they are carried. At times it takes more virtue to carry a cross of straw than a heavy one.” Strength to carry our crosses comes from resting in his presence. Talk with our Lord. Trust that he is listening to every word you say. This is the most important relationship in our entire lives.  It’s worth suffering and dying for.

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Amanda (right) with one of her students at SFA

 

Blog post written by Amanda Graves, 2016 OU graduate and current FOCUS missionary at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX

 

Life and Faith after STM

I may no longer be in Norman and at OU, but STM has been and always will be an important place for me. I attended STM for the last 3.5 years, up until December, while I was a graduate student. During most of that time I viewed mass as something that I needed to attend every week out of obligation, and it just happened that singing with the choir was an additional bonus for me. My prayer life outside of attending mass was almost non-existent and I never attended any church activities.  Back around the beginning of August 2016, I came to the decision to leave graduate school at the end of the semester. I did not take this decision well at all and it caused me so much suffering, it felt like my life was over. Over the months following my decision, I became more and more involved with STM which helped me put my life back on track. The last months that I spent in Norman, at OU, and more importantly as a member of the STM community have been the most important and influential in defining how I am choosing to live my life post-graduation and will be the focus of the remainder of this post.

I mentioned earlier that in the past my prayer life was almost non-existent and it really was true; I would only pray while I was at mass. Honestly, I felt like I had no idea how to pray. When I was in my darkest hours, I feel that God really pushed me to start praying the Rosary, and whenever I did, it would ease my anxiety and depression. I truly believe that it was God speaking to me in those moments because before last fall I could only remember praying the Rosary once, and that was when Pope John Paul II died. There is almost never a day now that I don’t carry my rosary beads with me in my pocket. During the semester I also fell in love with Eucharistic Adoration. I still remember the first time that I attended adoration, it felt so awkward to sit in silence, I felt like I was doing it wrong. As the semester progressed I found myself looking forward to being able to pray during adoration, I was able to find peace in my soul during those hours in prayer. Now, I like to take time out of my week and spend some time praying in front of the blessed sacrament where I am always able to find a moment of peace within my soul.

Another thing that I carried on with me from my time at STM was my new-found passion to grow closer to God by studying the Bible. Up until last September I almost never opened the Bible, but during my last few months at STM I joined Bible studies where I was able develop a better understanding of scripture with some great men. During the months that I was in the Bible Studies I was    able to fall in love with studying scripture and since moving back to Chicago, I try to do a study of my own everyday with a little bit of written reflection on everything that I study. I never realized how much I could learn from the Gospels until I started working my way through them.

Back in October I attended the first Oasis retreat, I learned so much about my prayer life that I incorporate into my life post-grad school. The most important of those things was what I learned about confession. In the past I would only go to confession twice a year (once during Lent and Advent) but during the retreat I learned how beautiful the sacrament is and I always feel so free and uplifted afterwards. Now I try to go to confession at least once every two weeks when possible.

In the last few months I have also joined two groups in my local parish that I used to be involved with at STM: choir and the Knights of Columbus. For those of you who will be graduating in the near future, depending on where you go afterwards you may no longer be at a parish that has quite as many people that are near your age anymore, but don’t worry because that should not deter you from being involved. Shortly after I moved back home I realized that the average age of the parishioners in my area is above 40 and when I joined the Lake Zurich Knights of Columbus (KoC) I became the youngest active member by probably 15 years (around 60 years younger than the oldest); even the choir has a high average age. I know that some of you may experience similar situations when you graduate but although it may feel a bit intimidating due to the age difference, I am sure you will be welcomed as warmly as I was into both the choir and the KoC. These groups have become like family to me and I have been able to share wonderful stories with these people and gain some wisdom from their experiences.

The past couple of months have been a whirlwind of changes with graduation, visiting family in Poland, starting my career and now moving out and into a new house. I know that I am still working on developing in my faith, learning to give up control of my life to God, and discerning what God is calling me to do in my life. I’ve realized that change is difficult to deal with and can lead you to struggle emotionally and spiritually, but through prayer and trusting in God’s will, we can get through it while becoming stronger and wiser. I know that eventually all of you will graduate (if you have not already), you will face challenges in “the real world” and things will be much different than they are at OU or even at STM. I hope that once you all reach that point, you will continue to grow in your faith, and I want you all to know that I will be praying for you and I hope that you will pray for me as well.

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Blog post written by Krzysztof Bielak

 

Faith and Five Thousand Miles

Want to know a way to test your Catholic Faith? Try moving 5,000 miles away from your friends and family to a country where you barely speak the language. Well, that’s what I did when I decided to pack up and move to Graz, Austria for a semester abroad.

It can be hard to keep faithful while in a new place. I left the comfort of my family that I would go to mass with every Sunday, I left my friends who motivate me to become closer to God, I left the only church I have ever really known, and traded it for a city where there is a church on every corner but no one to motivate me to go.

Here are some ways that have helped me keep my Faith while I have been abroad.

Being involved with FOCUS while abroad:

Long after I decided where I was going to study abroad, I found out that FOCUS’s first international campuses are in Austria. One is in Vienna and one is in my very own city of Graz! You could say that God knew that I was going to struggle and decided to put some people in my life that could help! The missionaries here have helped me in more ways than I could imagine. On my first day in Graz, one missionary showed me and two other girls from OU all around the city. From where our dorms were, to where to buy a good pair of boots, to how to work the Tram system and everywhere in between. They have invited me into their homes for girls nights or bible studies. Beyond all of that, they have helped me meet other Catholic students studying in Austria and help me develop a community while I am here for the semester. It’s also really nice to have some Americans around who totally understand how overwhelming it can be to be in a German speaking country when you speak minimal German!

Attending Mass even when I have no idea what is going on:

Mass is very tricky to understand when everything is in German. Most of the time I am completely lost during mass because even though all masses are celebrated the same, the words that are said are completely different. I probably look super American when I am just standing there quietly instead of saying the parts of the mass or when I have a super confused look on my face during the homily. The most exciting moments are when we say something in Latin and I actually know the words or when there is a random English song sung. I may be completely lost during most of the mass but when it comes to the consecration, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, we all recognize what happens on the altar and the importance of the Eucharist.

Sharing my Catholic Faith with others:

There are two girls from OU who I am pretty close to because we left Oklahoma City at the same time and took the same flights all the way to Vienna. Once in Vienna, we struggled to pull our luggage for a mile through the snow to our hostel and then navigate from Vienna to Graz. Let’s just say we have a bond that can never be broken. In that time, it kind of came up that I was Catholic, probably when it was our first Sunday in Graz and I was getting up at 7am to go to mass. I’ve been able to introduce them to my faith, been able to invite them to mass and I even had one friend join me at an Ash Wednesday service. Even if nothing ever comes of me sharing it, the fact that I am so proud to be Catholic provides me with strength to keep God in my life.

I feel like every moment that I have experience since starting my adventure abroad has been because God put me here for a reason. I not sure what he has in store for me this semester, but I know all I have to do is have faith in him and He will guide me on this journey.

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Two of the FOCUS missionaries in Graz, Tina and Taryn!

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My OU friends that I traveled with, Clancy and Abbey!

 

Blog post by Lauren Schrank

 

For It Is In Giving That We Receive

“For it is in giving that we receive.”

I think it was during that yet impressionable age during high school when I first heard a statement about our obligations to the Church that has stuck with me ever since. I don’t even remember who said it, but the important thing was the implication that it held for me as a member of the Church Militant and the lifelong decision to which it led me.

Before we get to that, it is important to know that I understood a simple distinction between justice and charity. Justice is giving to each one what is his or her due. The Gospel verse that comes to mind is the one from Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'” Basically, justice was something we are already obligated to do. Then there is charity, in the sense of loving our neighbor without counting the cost. You can think of it as going above and beyond.

Above and beyond what? Justice.

So with these concepts in mind, here is what I heard: “Giving ten percent of our income to the Church is justice. Giving more than that is charity.”

Wow.

At least for me at the time it was something of an accusation – I don’t think I had ever put anything of my own into the collection basket! Of everything that I had received what had I really given back to the Church? I didn’t deserve a pat on the pack for every dollar that I gave either, but had an obligation to support the Church. I made the decision that from then on I would keep track of any money I earned and give a percentage of it to the Church. The Church gave me spiritual life, fed me with sacraments and grace, so it only seems part of spiritual maturity that I should now fulfill this obligation towards her. I know there are other, more spiritual obligations we have, but as I’m sure Fr Jim will tell you, the parish doesn’t run on prayers alone. The Church has a presence in this world, and that requires material goods.

When I was working for a year at a Catholic school in the Dallas area, I had the grace of meeting one of the top benefactors who happened to be a jeweler. He told us how, before he had really given anything, his wife asked him to consider making a sizeable donation to some priests. Talking about it one night they agreed to make the donation, even though it was going to stretch them. The next day, he sold a piece to a buyer for $100,000, which was more than any sale he had made up to then. And from then on he continued being generous and his business continued doing well. He said he discovered his vocation was to just make money and give it to the Church. Now, not all of us will have this vocation, but we do all need to aspire to giving until it hurts a little, believing that God cannot be outdone in generosity.

Why am I writing this here, on a blog for university students?

You all are well aware of the constant accusations we get of being impecunious. But even if we do have very little, Jesus sees our sacrifice and is pleased as he was with the widow who gave the mite (cf. Mk 12:41-44). But most of all, I am doing it because the more good habits you can form while you are young, the better!

I will leave you with a challenge: since Lent is upon us this could be part of your Lenten almsgiving, but really if you start now I hope it becomes a fulfilling lifelong discipline. Decide on a percentage, and the next time you receive money for yourself – if you work it could be a paycheck, or if not maybe money you get on your birthday, or whatever – set aside that percentage to give to the church, even if it is only a few cents.

If you have not given to the Our Faith Our Future capital campaign, this would be the perfect opportunity to do that as well.

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Blog post written by EN Barnett

The Duty of Ecumenism

In 1995, Pope John Paul II released a Church document entitled “Ut Unum Sint” (That They May Be One) to lay the groundwork for ecumenism and embolden each Catholic in their pursuit of unity in the Church.  He stated with firm conviction that “the Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love.”  Working towards unity with our separated brethren is not optional: it is a duty.  Completely arrested by the finality of JP2 mandate, I decided to dedicate Lent 2016 to pursing a deeper understanding of Church unity.  As one who did not grow up in a Catholic family, I have experienced first-hand the sting of disunity: going to Christmas Eve Mass by myself, not being able to share in the Eucharist with my parents, the clash of language.  However, my posture had always been one of evangelization, not ecumenism.  My impulse was to defend and convert, to wield my sword of truth.  The ache originated from my own pride which manifested itself as a desire to be right, not as a desire for unity.  It is a subtle but important difference.

In his genius, JP2 anticipated my reaction and general attitude towards non-Catholics and argued that ecumenism can in fact become a form of examination of conscience.  Our disposition towards others reveals our own poverty and inadequacy in carrying out truth in love.  Witnessing Christians living out their faith differently than ours arouses feelings of self-righteousness, when in reality, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (John 1:8-9).

I witnessed this quite vividly last Lent, when I decided to visit a Protestant church each Sunday after Mass until Easter.  I believed that worshipping with a different group of people might be a gesture of good measure in my pursuit of ecumenism.  What I found instead was my complete inability to worship: I was distracted by all that was different from my own parish, I silently criticized the music, the sermon, the prayers.  My own fractured heart was incapable of admitting that I could receive something from Protestants that I couldn’t receive from Catholics. Again crept in the lie that I was a better and more authentic Christian because of my Catholicity.  An examination of conscience indeed.  I returned to Ut Unum Sint and discovered that the Church suggested antidotes for this very issue: prayer, worship, and dialogue.

When we pray with non-Catholics, we turn to our common Lord Jesus Christ and orient our hearts towards unity, a fuller and more vivid icon of the Church, His Bride.  As one speaker said, Jesus is returning for a bride, not a harem. Jesus’ Bride is more beautiful to Him when she is united and seeking reconciliation.  Common worship accomplishes the same goal, by inviting others to sing with us to God, we are a prophetic witness of Heaven when all of God’s children will sing to Him with one voice.  Finally, sincere and open dialogue is a manifestation of an interior disposition; “the capacity for “dialogue” is rooted in the nature of the person and his dignity” (JP2). When we engage in dialogue, we uphold the dignity that God has instilled in each person.  Thus, withholding dialogue is a negation of that very same dignity.

A year later, as I prepare for another Lent, I am even more eager to continue the work of unity and convicted of my own limitations.  It is significant that in His High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, Jesus prays four times for unity (John 17). It is one of His last pleas.  I encourage each one of you to pray the same prayer this Lent, that we be one with our non-Catholic friends just as Christ and the Father are one.

 

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Cardinal Bergoglio being prayed over by Pentecostal leaders in Argentina

 

Blog post written by Katherine H.

 

Additional resources:

 

Ut Unum Sint

Talk by Matt Maher on Ecumenism

Panel at an ecumenical Catholic-Protestant conference on Church unity.

Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian mission in the third millennium by First Things

Ecumenism Without Compromise by Peter Kreeft

St. Bernadette, Our Lady of Fatima, and Me

I like to think that St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima are friends of mine.

When I was little, I had CCC videos about St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima that I watched on repeat (you’ve probably watched a CCC video in catechism or religion class; they’re animated videos about the life of a saint, and there are about 12 of them).

Those two CCC videos led to a devotion to Saint Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima. I didn’t know it as a little girl, but those two holy women, St. Bernadette especially, would come to play a much larger role in my life later on.

Two weeks before Christmas in 2011, my grandmother, whom I call Nana, was diagnosed with cancer. A pill like that is hard to swallow no matter what, but she was in her 60s, and although chemo was possible, it would be hard on her body and there were no promises.

I remember praying to my patronesses as soon as I heard the news. St. Bernadette is the patron saint of bodily illness, and I pleaded for her intercession for my Nana. Not long after, my prayers were answered.

Months before she’d been diagnosed, my Nana had signed up for a pilgrimage, which everyone had forgotten about following the news of her diagnosis. She decided she wanted to go through with treatment regardless of the physical toll it would take on her – but only after she returned from her trip.

And where else would that pilgrimage take her but to to Fatima and Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette?

If you didn’t know, many people have been miraculously healed after bathing in Lourdes water, and seeing as how she had just been diagnosed with cancer, this pre-planned trip to Lourdes was a miracle in itself.

She left in January and was scheduled to be abroad for three weeks, visiting France, Spain and Portugal. The trip got off to a rough start – my Nana and the group got stranded in the Chicago O’Hare airport for two days because of a blizzard, which meant that their pilgrimage was cut a few days short.

But she still got to go to Fatima and Lourdes, and at Lourdes, she got to bathe in the holy spring, even though it was the middle of winter and extremely cold. In spite of the temperature, my Nana said the water was not freezing, and she was perfectly comfortable in it.

She was not immediately healed, but when she returned to the US and started treatment, her body responded better than the doctors had anticipated. And even in the middle of horrible, awful chemo, you never would have known how much she was suffering – another miracle.

Her cancer has now been in remission for about five years now and she’s as healthy as ever. She’s more active than I am (she does yoga, Pilates and goes to the gym five days a week) and spends her free time volunteering at her church. My Nana is planning to go on another pilgrimage soon, this time to Mexico City to visit the Guadalupe Basilica – and maybe if I’m lucky, she’ll take me with her.

Another little miracle: When it came time to choose a confirmation name, I was stuck between “Fatima” and “Bernadette,” but my confirmation teacher made the choice for me – I was told I had to choose the name of a saint, not Our Lady, so my confirmation name is Bernadette.

And who was my sponsor? None other than my Nana, who I believe was healed by St. Bernadette’s intercession.

St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima are friends of mine.

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Blog post written by Ann Marcelli

A Valentine’s Day Reminder

Today is Valentine’s day, a popular holiday with its source in the feast day of the bishop and martyr Valentinus. However, this blog isn’t going to be about St. Valentine, but about something greater. Today, we’re going to focus on the Mass, the main way that God reveals His love to us.

Every time we celebrate the Mass, one of the things we say is “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  Every sinner in the church has experienced the truth of that statement. It’s easy for us to think of the Mass as a once-a-week obligation, an old formula we do just to stay Catholic, but when we pay attention to the prayers of the Mass, that illusion is rapidly shattered. How much love is there in this sacrament, where the “Lord God of Hosts” comes to us unworthy sinners; that He wishes to enter under our roofs to make us able to better love Him!

He who formed time itself cared enough about you to make you, knowing that time and time again you would turn away from Him. He cared enough to pursue you relentlessly, to send His Son to be tortured and to die for you so that you could be reconciled with Him. But even this was not enough to satisfy His love for you. He instituted His Church and gave you His Sacraments so that He could nourish you and invite you into His life daily through the Mass. He who is outside of time gave us the Mass, gave us His Word and Flesh, so that heaven might intersect earth, and made this gift available to us daily. How great is His love for you!

It can be easy to let your mind wander during Mass, heaven knows. Many of the words are the same every time. The responses can feel stale, even in the most vibrant gift. Nevertheless, “I love you” said a thousand times is still “I love you”. He has written us a great love letter, the Scripture, and in the Mass He shares not just His letter, but His very self in the Eucharist with us, and gives us the chance to answer and enter into His love through the liturgy. Every word of the Mass is part of this missive of His love, and when we choose to ignore the love of this gift, we are robbing ourselves as well as ignoring Him. Yet despite all the times we have slighted His gifts, still He pursues us. He humbles Himself, allowing His heart burning with love to become our food that we may learn to love as He does.

Today, if you can, come to Mass. Pay attention in honest prayer to all the words said. Today, the King of Love wants to give you a Happy Valentine’s Day with Him.

P.S. This is one of my favorite Valentine’s day poems, if you care to read it. It’s about Our Lady.

A Blue Valentine, by Joyce Kilmer.

Monsignore,

Right Reverend Bishop Valentinus,

Sometime of Interamna which is called Ferni,

Now of the delightful Court of Heaven,

I respectfully salute you,

I genuflect

And I kiss your episcopal ring.

It is not, Monsignore,

The fragrant memory of your holy life,

Nor that of your shining and glorious martyrdom,

Which causes me now to address you.

But since this is your august festival, Monsignore,

It seems appropriate to me to state

According to a venerable and agreeable custom,

That I love a beautiful lady.

Her eyes, Monsignore,

Are so blue that they put lovely little blue reflections

On everything that she looks at,

Such as a wall

Or the moon

Or my heart.

 

It is like the light coming through blue stained glass,

Yet not quite like it,

For the blueness is not transparent,

Only translucent.

Her soul’s light shows through,

But her soul cannot be seen.

It is something elusive, whimsical, tender, wanton, infantile, wise

And noble.

She wears, Monsignore, a blue garment,

Made in the manner of the Japanese.

It is very blue—

I think that her eyes have made it more blue,

Sweetly staining it

As he pressure of her body has graciously given it form.

Loving her, Monsignore,

I love all her attributes;

But I believe

That even if I did not love her

I would love the blueness of her eyes,

And her blue garment, made in the manner of the Japanese.

 

Monsignore,

I have never before troubled you with a request.

The saints whose ears I chiefly worry with my pleas are

the most exquisite and maternal Brigid,

Gallant Saint Stephen who puts fire in my blood,

and your brother bishop, my patron,

The generous and jovial Saint Nicholas of Bari,

But of your courtesy, Monsignore,

Do me this favor:

When you this morning make your way

To the Ivory Throne that bursts into bloom with roses

because of her who sits upon it,

When you come to pay your devoir to Our Lady,

I beg you, say to her:

“Madame, a poor poet, one of your singing servants yet on earth,

Has asked me to say that at this moment he is especially grateful to you

For wearing a blue gown.”

 

 

Blog post by Jessica Hastings