A Herd of Hookers

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All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness (CCC).

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Five Teens for Five Months

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Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply.
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

Were you a history major? Me, too.

Remember much? Me neither.

One thing I’ll never forget though: 11/11 at 11 a.m. That memorable string of elevens marked the end of the First World War and the implementation of the 1918 armistice – hallelujah! Of course, a 1911 armistice would have provided greater numerical congruity, but you can’t have everything.

Anyway, our family marked its own imperfect string of matching numbers this past Monday – fives in our case. True, it was 12/1, and, yes, the year is 2014, but at 5:00 p.m. that day, my fifth child turned 13, and that means that we’ll have five teenagers for five months – count ‘em, FIVE! Come to think of it, one of them will turn 15 next week – pentamerous serendipity abounds!

Serendipity, yes, and joy, much joy – really, it’s true! And what a relief given all the dire predictions we endured back when our family was still growing.

The admonitions started pouring in after our fourth was born – it’s always the fourth, isn’t it? For some reason, a fourth child is routinely interpreted (by friends, family, and even total strangers) as an open invitation to make witty remarks about fertility and marital intimacy. “You know what causes that, right?” or “Just like the Duggars!” Another good one: “Why don’t you leave your poor wife alone for a change?!” (insert chuckle: here)

Like most couples in similar situations, our default was diversionary. We’d just smile, make vague references to being blessed, and then change the subject – “How ’bout them Cubs, eh?” Sometimes, though, I’d press the point, and not only stress that my wife and I had both enthusiastically welcomed our largish family, but that we had both (both, mind you) eagerly hoped for more.

Eyebrows would leap in consternation, followed by a progression of predictable responses: #1, disbelief: “Really?”; #2, dumbstruck: “I don’t know how you do it!”; finally, #3, relief: “Better you than me!” And if the eyebrow-raiser was especially annoyed by our fecund complacency, we’d also get one additional warning – usually intoned with great solemnity, as if it were a prophetic utterance: “Just wait until they’re all teenagers!”

My gosh (*shudder*), what were we thinking?! All these kids we were having? They were bound to grow into teens one day, and now that day has come!

Yes, that day has come, and know what? It’s great – really! We love our teens – all five are fabulous. We enjoy their company and conversation, and delight in their pursuits and accomplishments. They’re thoughtful, affable, and witty – not that I’m biased or anything. Still, other adults relate similarly positive impressions of our teens – that they’re well respected, appreciated, and even admired.

Yet all this is so contrary to the anti-teen oracles that I kinda’ feel like we’ve somehow cheated the system – either that, or else we’re just too ignorant to see how miserable having our teenagers really is.

I’m convinced, though, that the oracles were just plain wrong, for it seems that our teens are simply older versions of their wonderful pre-adolescent selves. When they were younger, they were affectionate, fun, and family-oriented. Now? The same holds true, only more so. Take these recent examples: Crispin teaching Nicky how to play football; Joan listening to book tapes with Kath; Meg making everybody cookies; Cecilia writing letters to Ben away at college; Ben, in turn, calling home to wish Cece a happy birthday. Things aren’t perfect, no question – tender gestures and acts of generosity are all mixed up with plenty of squabbles, squalls, and drama. Overall, though, they’re a happy lot – happy as individuals, sure, but particularly happy as a crew.

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How’d this happen? God only knows – literally. Families are crucibles for the formation of character, but they tend to be quite messy affairs, and the whole child-rearing endeavor is largely unfathomable – there are no foolproof recipes or one-size-fits-all approaches. And if we’ve been blessed with a bumper crop of amiable teens (as I’m suggesting), it’s not because of some formula my wife and I followed, but rather due to the mysterious work of grace in their lives and in the life of our family.

Nonetheless, it is possible – with hindsight – to pick out various contours in our domestic experiment that I’d like to think contributed to our kids’ amiable formation. And so, in honor of the flurry of fives associated with my teens (and following on the heels of this weekend’s opening of Top Five), here are five peaks that stick out in the topography of our experience with raising kids so far. If you have teens, you’ll probably recognize some of them as already present in your own families. And if you haven’t started a family yet? You might want to keep these notions in mind as you commence, and then see if they work for your own domestic adventure.

One caveat: All of these measures only have value to the degree which my wife and I attempt to live them out ourselves. Like so many other areas of life, what we actually do – even if imperfectly – is way more influential than what we profess.

  1. Mass is non-negotiable: My kids grew up knowing that this was not even a question. They would go to Sunday Mass; they would receive religious instruction; they would be formed in the faith. At the same time, they also grew into the awareness that they’d have to embrace the Faith they were raised in as their own in time.

LESSON: Belief may ebb and flow, but Catholic identity and formation is a must.

  1. Surround yourself with books: We’ve always tried to give priority to the written word – books, newspapers, magazines – over electronic media. Jesus was an incarnate word, and just as words become similarly incarnate in physical books, they have the potential to become incarnate in us as well. When I see piles of books around our kids’ beds, I’m reassured that they’re minds are regularly being exercised by linear thought.

LESSON: Read broadly and constantly. 

  1. The best gift is another sibling: Much better than toys or trips or gadgets, another brother or sister is an eternal treasure. Plus, parents wanting more kids is always an unmistakable affirmation of their love for children already born: “We love you so much, we want more of you!” Finally, generosity in welcoming new life in a family reinforces the idea that all human life is sacred.

LESSON: People are more important than things.

  1. College is optional: I suspect all my kids will go to college, but it will be because they want to go, not because they felt they had to. Education is vital, true enough, yet it can take many forms, and it ought not be primarily associated with getting a better job or income. Instead, we’ve tried to teach our kids that education is primarily about learning, exploring new ways of seeing the world, and acquiring new skills. Careers and money are much further down the list.

LESSON: Intellectual curiosity and industry trump credentials and grades.

  1. Laugh loudly and often: We’ve tried to cultivate levity in our home – a lightheartedness that finds humor in virtually every circumstance. It helps that my children have acquired a taste for things like Calvin and Hobbes, P.G. Wodehouse, and Car Talk – sources of amusement that avoid cruelty and crudeness, and instead elicit smiles by means of irony and self-deprecation. A robust frivolity not only alleviates stress and anxiety, but it helps makes sense of a world that often appears nutty.

LESSON: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

That last one is crucial for us as parents because there’s nothing like teens to help keep us honest and humble, especially when it comes to remembering our own foibles and shortcomings. I’m sure it’s what Pope John Paul II was referring to when he noted that parents experience their own fine-tuning thanks to their kids’ input:

Thus children, while they are able to grow “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man,” offer their own precious contribution to building up the family community and even to the sanctification of their parents.

Which leads to my one complaint about our otherwise felicitous situation: We’ll only have the five teens until next May when Ben turns 20. After that, it’ll be the departure of one teen after another in rapid succession as they continue to grow up and leave the nest.

I wouldn’t want them to remain teens for life, but they can have no idea how each of them will be missed, nor how grateful we are to them for how they’ve helped us grow up ourselves – what will we do without them?

As they go forth, I trust that they’ll cherish their roots and keep in touch. We’ve built up a heritage of mutuality and mirth – no armistice will be required.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

It Ends, It Begins: The First Sunday of Advent

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Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me.
~ St. Patrick

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An Ambassador at Our Lady’s University

Hard weekend for Irish fans – at least football-wise.

It’s been tough enough that a season launched with such promise could falter and fall so abruptly, but there was at least the hope – an assumption even – that the team would land a win for the seniors’ last home game.

Alas.

Even so, there’s more to Notre Dame than football – if you’re a true fan, you already know that. So, for all you true fans smarting from our team’s recent losses, ville.0here’s a happy story from last Saturday to ease the disappointment.

My family and I have been Irish fans long before my oldest, Ben, matriculated this fall at Notre Dame. He’s doing well and keeping busy – we rarely see him even though we’re mere minutes away. Still, we always know he’ll be in the stadium for home games, and we have fun trying to pick him out when the cameras pan the student section.

This past weekend was different because a friend surprised me with a pair of last minute Louisville tickets on Friday afternoon. “It’ll be rainy,” she said, “but not as cold as it was for the Northwestern game.”

I assured her that weather was not an issue, and I gratefully accepted her kind gift on behalf of my family.

Like I said, we’re big fans, but we don’t get to many games on account of (cough, cough) “budgetary constraints.” However, over the years, thanks to occasional splurges and the generosity of others, we’ve managed to get most of our kids to a home game or two – with the exception of our two youngest, Kath and Nick. Kath is only eight, so she’s just now at an age when she’d appreciate the game day experience – we’ve got plenty of time to make that happen yet.

Nick, on the other hand, is already eleven, and he’s the fiercest ND fan of us all (with the possible exception of my wife). He roots and hollers and whoops when we score – “GO IRISH!” he roars ferociously whenever there’s a pause in the revelry. No question: Nick was going to his first home game.

Saturday morning, we deliberated as to who’d take him. Nancy was up for it and reluctant to pass up the opportunity, but she had some work to finish up that evening. I lucked out.

“Nick, guess what?” I asked him. “We’re going to the Notre Dame game today, you and me!”1383871_10152804864518686_1764748065031248725_n

He was confused – go to the game? Like…go to the game? I told him it was true, and that we’d probably get to see his brother there as well – maybe even sideline reporter Jeff Jeffers, whom we know from church. Nick’s one word response (accompanied by a fist pump): “Yes!”

After lunch, we bundled up and grabbed a heavy woolen army blanket – just in case. Nancy dropped us off on Eddy Street, and we joined in the hoopla as we made our way to the stadium parking lot. We’d made arrangements to meet Ben at Legends, and it was a happy reunion when we saw him coming our way.

“Hey, Nicky!” he yelled. “You going to the game today?” Nick ran into his arms. We chatted a bit, and then Ben took our picture with his phone.

“Classic,” he commented.

“Be sure to send it to me,” I replied. He promised.

By then, Nick was ready for some stadium fare, so we said goodbye to Ben and headed to the gate. Once inside, it was hotdogs and popcorn and Sprite…and then another hotdog, even before we started migrating to the stands. I got a little confused about our section number, and we ended up in a line that wIMG_20141122_142633ould’ve put us in the student section. Before I realized my mistake, we approached a young woman distributing miniature gold pom-poms. “Hey, Nick,” I said as came up, “you can get a shaker for the game!”

“Sorry, sir,” she apologized, “they’re only for students” (pause, glance down at Nicky), “but I have one for him.”

Now, understand that my Nicholas has Down syndrome, and we’ve discovered you can tell a lot about people by how they respond to him – almost like he’s a character barometer. I mean, how can you look at a kid like Nick and not melt? You’d have to be pretty callous – the kid’s pure love. Maybe that ND student-worker would’ve made a pom-pom exception for any eleven-year-old making his way into the stadium, but I like to think that she was especially motivated by Nick’s particular Down’s shine.

And it was the same when we were entering the stadium and buying our grub – smiles, beaming smiles all around at Nicky. And likewise when we got to our seats: Whereas I was just another ticket holder with a bulky down coat, Nick…well, Nick was more, especially during the national anthem.

“Don’t forget to put your hand over your heart,” I reminded him.

“No, papa,” he said soberly, as he formed his fingers into a salute. “I’m a Cub Scout, so I do this.” More beaming smiles all around.

It’s like he was an ambassador, and people changed when they saw his beautiful face – they lightened, they softened, they mollified. Even into that first quarter on Saturday, when the score went lopsided against the Irish so early, Nicky helped us keep it in perspective. After all, he was so happy just to be there! He was in Notre Dame stadium, and there was the marching band, and there was #5 – Everett Golson himself! – right down there on the field.

Score? What score?

Special needs’ kids and Notre Dame have a pretty tight relationship. I know that many ND students get involved with South Bend’s Logan Center in various ways, not to mention Hannah & Friends, founded by former ND coach Charlie Weis, as well as Sharing Meadows in nearby LaPorte County. Those are all excellent programs for the students, but Nick’s reception on Saturday illustrates something beyond programs – something about Notre Dame’s culture itself. marthaartworknd_landmarks

It’s a culture that we also saw on freshman orientation weekend last August as we attended events as a family with Ben. The students, the staff, the other anxious parents, and the volunteer alumni – everyone noticed Nicky. My wife especially observed it at the picnic dinner in the South Dining Hall on Saturday. The smiles, the looks, the whispers of delight.

That says something about Nick, of course, but it also says something about Notre Dame. It’s a place that seeks to form its members to be welcoming and receptive, especially of those less fortunate – the opposite of the “throwaway culture” that prevails today according to Pope Francis. The Holy Father’s remedy is exactly what we’ve observed at Our Lady’s University, at least when it comes to our Nick: The building up of a “culture of encounter, solidarity, and hospitality” toward everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

What with the rain and the long walks up the ramps to our seats, Nick was pretty much ready to go home before the half. We said our goodbyes to those seated near us, and we headed out of the stadium to the bookstore where Nancy was going to pick us up.

“Well, Nick, your first home game experience,” I said as we walked. “What was your favorite part?”

“The food,” he replied without hesitation. “And seeing Ben.”

If you ask me, it was the smiles. I guess it’s all in the perspective.

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Cecilia: The Saint and the Song

Originally posted on God-Haunted Lunatic:

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Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches (CCC 2503).

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Of Baseball, Hotdogs, and Going to Hell

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While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them.
~ St. Augustine

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The Pig Van: A Manifesto for Sinners

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Why are you such a timid Christian?
~ St. Jerome

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Thrust, Cast, Punt

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Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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St. Crispin’s Day for Catechists

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Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst?
~ Pope Paul VI

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Extra Ecclesiam, Ecclesiam

Kerouac

All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said I am the Way.
~ St. Catherine of Siena

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