Saint John Paul II added a new title to honor Saint Joseph. As “Guardian of the Redeemer” Joseph’s dream set us on a path from spiritual exile to Divine Mercy.
Out of my sometimes inflated separation anxiety, you may have read in these pages an oft-mentioned thought. From behind these stone walls, I write from the Oort Cloud, that orbiting field of our Solar System’s cast-off debris 1.5 light years from Earth out beyond the orbit of Pluto. It was named for its discoverer, the Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrick Oort (1900-1992).
There are disadvantages to being way out here cast off from the life of the Church. I am among the last to receive news and the last to be heard. But there is also one advantage. From here, I tend to have a more panoramic view of things, and find myself reflecting longer and reacting less when I find news to be painful.
It’s difficult to believe, but it was just four years ago this month that we had news from Rome that, for many, felt like an earthquake in our very souls. I wrote a series of posts about this in the last week of February and the first few weeks of March 2013. The first was “Pope Benedict XVI: The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love.”
Like most of you, I miss the fatherly Pope Benedict, I miss his brilliant mind, his steady reason, his unwavering aura of fidelity. I miss the rudder with which he stayed the course, steering the Barque of Peter through wind and waves.
But then they became hurricane winds and tidal waves. Amid all the conspiracy theories and “fake news” about Pope Benedict’s decision to abdicate the papacy, I suggested an “alternative fact” that proved to be true. His decision was a father’s act of love, and his intent was to do the one thing by which all good fathers are measured. His decision was an act of sacrifice, and the extent to which that is true was made clear in a post I wrote three years later, “Pope Francis and the Lost Sheep of a Lonely Revolution.” Benedict is firm that he was guided by the Holy Spirit.
For some, the end result was a Holy Father who emerged from the conclave of 2013 while silently in the background remained our here-but-not-here “Holier Father.” Such a comparison has always been unjust. A TSW reader recently sent me a review by Father James Schall, S.J., in Crisis Magazine. “On Pope Benedict’s Final Insights and Recollections” is a review of a published interview by Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI: Last Testament.
The word, “final” in Father Schall’s title delivers a sting of regret. It hearkens back to that awful March of 2013 when the news media pounced on Pope Benedict’s papacy and delivered news with a tone of contempt too familiar to Catholics today. The secular news media is getting its comeuppance now, and perhaps even finding a little humility in the process. Even the ever fatherly Pope Emeritus took an honest poke at its distortions:
“The bishops (at Vatican II) wanted to renew the faith, to deepen it. However, other forces were working with increasing strength, particularly journalists, who interpreted many things in a completely new way. Eventually people asked, yes, if the bishops are able to change everything, why can’t we all do that? The liturgy began to crumble, and slip into personal preferences.” – Benedict XVI, Last Testament, 2016.
Benedict the Beloved also writes from the Oort Cloud, but it is one that he cast himself into. I have always hoped I might run into him out here one day and I think I just did. His testament ends with these final, surprising words:
“It has become increasingly clear to me that God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force, rather He is love, and loves me, and as such, life should be guided by Him, by this power called love.”
CARNAGE IN THE ABSENCE OF FATHERS
In the winter of a life so devoted to a dialogue with the deep theological mysteries of our faith, it seems surprising that Benedict XVI would choose this as the final message he wants to convey to the Church and the world. My own interpretation is that he chose not the words of a theologian, but those of a father, an equal partner in the ultimate vocation for the preservation of life and the sake of humanity: parenthood.
Fathers who live out the sacrifices required of them are an endangered species in our emerging culture of relativism. In his inaugural address to the nation, President Donald Trump spoke of the “carnage” that our society has failed to face, and he has been widely ridiculed for it. But he was right. I see evidence of that carnage every day in the world I am forced to live in here, and I would be a negligent father if I did not write about it.
So, I did write about it, and it struck a nerve. “In the Absence of Fathers A Story of Elephants and Men” has been shared over 10,000 times on social media and reposted in hundreds of venues. It seemed to awaken readers to the wreckage left behind as fathers and fatherhood are devalued into absence in our society.”I am a daily witness to the shortsighted devastation of young lives that are cast off into prisons in a country that can no longer call itself their fatherland.”
We breed errant youth in the absence of fathers, and those who stray too far are inevitably abandoned into prisons where they are housed, and fed, and punished, but rarely ever challenged to compensate for the great loss that sets their lives askew. Prison is an expensive, but very poor replacement for a caring and committed father.
I saw this carnage in a young man I once wrote about, but to whom I never returned because I wanted to shelter readers from the truth of what befell him. A light-hearted post two years ago – “Return to Downton Abbey: A Feast for Ordinary Time” – included some of the culinary creations of other prisoners who greatly delighted in seeing them in print. One of them was a young man named Joey who made us all laugh with his recipe for a concoction called “mafungo” and his weird instructions for making it.
Joey descended into prison at age 17 as the result of a simple high school fight with another student who was injured. While in prison, he discovered the plague of opiates that is fast consuming a nation in denial. The extent to which drugs have consumed life in this prison was recently the subject of a Concord Monitor article “As drugs surge, inmate privileges nixed” (Michael Casey, Associated Press, Feb 27, 2017).
Joey reached out to me repeatedly throughout the ordeal of his imprisonment As a member of a small group of prisoners tasked with negotiating over prison conditions, I argued for treatment over punishment when Joey’s addiction kept disrupting his life. The interventions were simply too little too late. At age 23, after six years here, Joey left prison with a serious problem that he did not come in with. Just two months after his release, Joey fatally overdosed on the street drug, fentanyl. He became a statistic, one of hundreds of overdose deaths of young adults in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire last year.
It was the same drug that caused a series of prison overdoses, violent episodes, and a crushing impact on the quality of life in this prison that I described recently in “Hebrews 13:3: Writing From Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.” If this is what our President meant by “carnage,” we must face the reality that we are tightly in its grip, and the absence of fathers has been a devastating risk factor.
NOW COMES JOSEPH, PATRON SAINT OF FATHERHOOD
I do not think it is mere coincidence that in the midst of this cultural crisis of fatherhood and sacrifice, our Church and faith are experiencing a resurgence in devotion to Saint Joseph, Spouse of Mary. His feast on March 19th (moved to March 20th this year since the 19th falls on a Sunday) was established by “sensus fidelium” over a thousand years ago. He was declared Patron of the Universal Church by Pius IX in 1870. In 1989, he was given a new title, “Guardian of the Redeemer,” by Saint John Paul II. This title beckons fathers everywhere to live their call to sacrifice and love so essential to fatherhood.
I had barely given Saint Joseph a passing thought for all the years of my priesthood, but in the last two years he surfaces in my psyche and soul repeatedly with great spiritual power. It haunts me that he shares his name with my young friend, Joey, who personified a life in the absence of a father, sacrificed to drugs and the carnage of our culture of death.
And it is not lost on me that he shares his name with Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who now bestows upon the Church a summons to Divine Mercy. The winter of Benedict’s own life spent in silent but loving witness to the Church reflects the life of Saint Joseph in the Infancy Narratives of the Gospel, silent but still so very present. I suddenly hear from readers constantly with a growing interest in Saint Joseph. During Advent, I wrote what I consider to be a most important post for TSW, and a prequel to this summons to Divine Mercy. It was “Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah.”
It’s a post about love, fidelity, and sacrifice, the hallmarks of fatherhood and the foundations of Divine Mercy. The Gospel reading for Advent (Matthew 1: 18-24), which was at the heart of that post, is the same one the Church assigns to the Feast of Saint Joseph.
It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that the invitation I extended in my post, “Consecration to Divine Mercy: 33 Days to Merciful Love” begins on March 20th, the Feast of Saint Joseph. If you have obtained Father Michael Gaitley’s book in preparation for this journey, then read the Introduction on the Feast of Saint Joseph. Ponder the short but potent readings for each of the following 33 days, and you will finish on the Eve of Divine Mercy, ready to pray and ponder the powerful Consecration Prayer of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux after Mass on the vigil or day of Divine Mercy Sunday.
Does it seem strange to you that I would follow an account of confusion in the Church and carnage in our prisons and streets with a summons to Consecration to Divine Mercy? When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The Letter to the Hebrews describes faith as “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). In every age of the life of the Church, movements have risen up to prepare us for spiritual battle and survival in a time of great crisis. Father Michael Gaitley describes the consecration undertaken by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as an “Offering to Merciful Love,” and “the most powerful form of consecration to Divine Mercy.”
Divine Mercy is God’s summons to accept the gift of a charism that will transform this age. It’s a point I have made before on These Stone Walls “Conversion is not evil expelled. It is evil transformed.”
ADDENDUM: “LOOK BEYOND THE PRISON LIGHTS!”
I have recently seen another hint of what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the evidence of things unseen.” A number of TSW readers have written to me with questions and comments about something I wrote in my post, “Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah” during Advent. I began that post with an account of a mystical dream of my own. It occurred early in the morning of October 2, the Feast of the Guardian Angels.
I hope you will re-read and share “Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah” and the strange and mystical dream I recounted. It may not have any real meaning. I know that the imagery in dreams may be no more than a psyche’s attempt to provide meaning and substance to random thoughts.
But sometimes “randomness” just doesn’t hold up. In that dream, I was shown a vague and distant constellation out my prison cell window. It was composed of three stars forming a triangle. “Look beyond the prison lights” came the instruction from my guide to the distant scene. Of course, no such constellation is visible out my cell window, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. A little research proved that it is in fact there, and it is called “Triangulum.”
In the dream, my guide had me look deeper still, and I was able to see light emanating from within the constellation. “It looks like neon,” I said in the dream. Then the guide said something very strange, “Michael dwells within the light.”
I discovered later that several years ago in the dim distance behind the Constellation Triangulum was found the furthest object ever seen by human eyes or instruments. It is the most distant galaxy ever discovered at 12.2 billion light years away. It looks onto the very aftermath of the Big Bang and the emergence of the created Universe. I was simply in awe of this.
Then a reader sent me a photograph of Triangulum taken in a “Deep Field” long exposure image by the Hubbell Space Telescope. It is strikingly close to what I saw in my dream when I was bidden to look deeper still. Does it mean anything? I’m not sure. But this is the more panoramic view of things that I wrote of earlier in this post. This photo gives me comfort and hope at a time when the carnage is growing all around me, and I wanted to share this image with you. It is simply remarkable! Whether it has any significance is a matter of faith, but even here, in the midst of destruction, there is some to be found.