Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meet Brother Andre and His friend

Meet Brother Andre and His friend

I traveled to Montreal for work and visited Saint Joseph’s Oratory while I was there. Little did I know I would be meeting not one, but two extraordinary saints there who would become my friends.

The Basilica was far enough away from my downtown hotel that I could not walk, so I was quite nervous about how I would get there using public transportation by myself, in another country, no less. I planned my route by subway, however when I told the ticket agent where I was going, she said that the bus would be quicker. I welcomed the last minute change in plans because I trusted that God would get me there. I already felt that I was on a pilgrimage and much of a pilgrimage is in the journey itself.  

I felt excited and childlike, full of anticipation, while on the bus, knowing that I was on a journey, while most people around me were going to work or running errands, going about their everydayness. I could have skipped joyfully when I finally got off the bus and walked towards the gates of Saint Joseph’s Oratory. Ok, I may have actually been skipping. I like skipping.

I thought of Elizabeth when the baby leaped in her womb when Mary visited, because I felt my heart leaping from my chest when I looked up the hill to see the grand basilica for the first time! There were 280 stairs leading up to it, workers planting flowers all around, statues of Saint Joseph and angels below, green grass, blue sky. I knew immediately this was a special place. The size of the dome itself is the third largest in the world, almost as large as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome!

A few months before this visit, I heard a homily on Saint Joseph because it was his feast day, March 19. Saint Joseph, “The worker”, an ordinary laborer most of us can relate to, the type who was also chosen by God to be Jesus’ father on earth. One could imagine his hands were rough from work, probably a little scarred up from being a carpenter. As hard as he worked, I bet he always had time to finish up one last thing before calling it a day. Just as God chose the poor, humble Virgin Mary to be Jesus mother, he asked Joseph The Carpenter to be the husband of Mary and to raise Jesus with her as a family. And I love his humanness in that he initially was planning to quietly reject Mary when he found out she was with child. I can totally understand that. It has only happened once in history that the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin, so he probably wasn’t too open to the idea that this baby was from God. It took an angel in a dream to convince him that it was the divine will that he take the pregnant Mary as his wife. Joseph was obedient and faithful in following his Father’s instructions. He even had to move his family several times in order to protect Jesus…hence Saint Joseph is also known as “Protector” as inscripted under his statue at the base of the mount of Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.  

I was thrilled just being on the grounds of the Oratory. It was time to go inside. I was welcomed, handed a map and sent up an escalator. What caught my attention on the map was that the heart of Saint Andre Bessette was on display there. I have never seen a human heart, let alone “the heart of a saint”. That must be pretty significant if it is on display so I would be sure to see that in my short visit. 

Signatures and notes to Saint Andre adorn his Statue in the Crypt Church.
As I wandered through the different floors of the Oratory, I started to notice the presence of Brother Andre. His statues were scattered about, a short, smiley, approachable old man, who seemed very likeable. I arrived at his heart, darkly lit and encased. Special hand written prayer requests surrounded the display case, tucked here and there by pilgrims hoping for a miracle through the intercession of Brother Andre.

This must be a very holy spot I am standing in, in front of the heart of Brother Andre, I
thought. Across the way were replicas of scenes from his life and his personal items. The wax figures of him in these scenes were so realistic and I felt that I was starting to get to know him just through the glass.

This prayer was posted under his heart:
Prayer to obtain a special favour through the intercession of Saint Brother Andre

Saint Brother Andre, we celebrate your presence among us. Your loving friendship with Jesus, Mary and Joseph makes you another son in the eyes of the Father.
Compassion carries your words straight to God’s heart, and your prayers are answered with comfort and healing.
Through you, from our lips to God’s ear, our supplications are heard…
We ask to be made a part of God’s work in the spirit of prayer, compassion and humility.
Saint Brother Andre, pray for us. Amen

His friendship with Jesus, Mary and Joseph? Friendship? I want a friendship with them, I thought. Can I have that, too? How do I have a friendship with them? Immediately I wanted to be close to Brother Andre so I could learn how. I had just learned something significant about him. I learned later that his mother was very devoted to Saint Joseph and that is how, from childhood, he grew to be very close with Saint Joseph.

Had I forgotten to think of Jesus and his family as my friends? Had I neglected for so long to realize that Jesus’ mother and father want a relationship with me as well? And when it comes down to it, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are all rooting for God, rooting for us to dwell with Him, He who created us, and who follows through with His promises! The Father sent his only Son to bring us to Him. Let us approach Jesus and his earthly parents. It is through them that we get to Our Father.

Brother Andre said, “I will pray with you.” He said that to many friends on earth when they came to him in hopes of a miracle. Many healings occurred through Brother Andre’s intercession while on earth. In fact, there is a collection of canes and crutches in the Oratory that were left behind by those who were healed after making the journey to visit Brother Andre, “The Miracle Man”, as they refer to him in Canada. Sometimes they were healed immediately and they were so excited that they did not walk away, but ran, maybe even skipped away, forgetting to even give thanks!

Never did Brother Andre take credit for any miracle healings, but always gave credit to "Good Saint Joseph". He would not perform a miracle unless he saw true faith in the person. Often times, he told people to come back after they did a prayer novena to Saint Joseph, because he saw that they did not have enough faith. 

Brother Andre’s favorite devotion was the Stations of the Cross, which he invited others to do with him on the original grounds of the Oratory every Friday. He loved praying with others, and helping others believe that their prayers are heard. This is something I can attest to. Since “knowing” Brother Andre, my faith has increased. It is my miracle. He has told us that when we pray the Our Father, Gods places his ears right next to our lips. I have never believed that as much as I do since that first visit to the shrine, that every single prayer I pray is heard by God.

God has told of us His loyalty. It is we who do not have enough faith….often times not even the size of a mustard seed, if you will. And the irony is that God has to give us faith. I believe that the Saints help us with this Catch 22, at least in Saint Andre’s case. He is a social saint. His purpose in life and death seems to be to lead people to an increase of faith in prayer to God, and to turn to Saint Joseph, because Saint Joseph is our friend. He is on our side and he is on God's side. I am sure that Brother Andre is good friends with Saint Joseph in heaven now! I definitely consider both of them my heavenly friends.

On my second visit to the Oratory I experienced something I did not experience the first time. I felt Brother Andre’s presence through others. I would see “him” turn a corner, or look up and see him, just as if he was still walking around greeting his visitors. Feeling his presence made me think of how powerful he must have felt Saint Joseph's presence. 

This faith building oratory of prayer and healing is a perfect example, of how God works through us to call us to Him. Brother Andre only requested years ago to have a simple statue of Saint Joseph on top of the bare mount across the street from Notre Dame school, where he worked, to give people a special place to pray. Now today there stands a massive basilica dedicated to Saint Joseph that several million people visit every year! It was a matter of supply and demand. Several smaller structures were built to accomodate the visitors to none big enough to accommodate the continual influx of the believers. I laugh to myself because I wonder if Brother Andre realized in his humility, that his “yes” to God was the reason for the need for the sizable building. It stands to welcome the many to pray all because they heard about Brother Andre, The Miracle Man”, and Brother Andre led them to Saint Joseph, who both lead us to God. Before he died, he requested that his heart be inside the oratory in order to continue to bring people to him. 

I think about how only months ago I had never even heard the name Brother Andre. It seems like I have known him longer. I am so grateful for my first visit to the basilica because it changed me. When I see his image now, it reminds me of turning to my friend, “Good Saint Joseph”. It reminds me that when I pray, God hears me. It reminds me that God can do amazing things for the souls through just one person, even me. I pray that I say “Yes” when God asks of me. I thank God for giving us the saints, so that we can see examples of exemplary “Yesses”. It is reassuring that each saint has their own story of how they served God and how they continue to bring souls to Him. There is no one way to become a saint or be saint-like. God made us each uniquely, speaks to us individually, and calls us differently. Amen.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

First Reconciliation

I was so proud of my daughter, Sarah, on Saturday. She received the sacrament of reconciliation.

Before entering the church there was a workshop for the children and parents in the gym. Their teachers gave us a cutout of a little person to color and list on it the child's hobbies and personal characteristics. For Sarah that meant swimming and dancing as some of her hobbies, and caring and funny as some of her traits. We colored together a pink and black argyle dress onto the cutout together. Using crayons, Sarah colored in the hair yellow and gave herself pretty blue eyes and a red smile.

We then had to determine one thing that Sarah could improve on in her life lately, which we decided was to keep her room neater. We wrote this on a separate piece of paper that was then attached to the little Sarah doll. Little did we know then that the priest was going to detach that piece of paper when she went to confession and that was the one and only one of her sins that he would address with her.

Next, each parent was asked to speak into a microphone and share with the group something special about their child. What I heard the most from parents was how helpful their child was with their younger siblings. When it was my turn I said, "Sarah is very cool. She is an only child so she has had to spend a lot of time alone, but because of that she has developed a big imagination. Sarah has a tremendous faith in God." I hoped that what I said made Sarah feel special. I think it did. When I asked her if she liked it, she said I could have said that she is "fabulous". Out of everything that I said, though, the most important quality that I am grateful for in Sarah is her faith. I was the only parent in the room that day that spoke of my child's faith in God.

I thought it was a special opportunity for the parent to build up their child by sharing publicly what makes them so special. I was sad for one little boy and his dad because his dad said something to the effect of that he could say so many good things about his kid, but all he said was that his boy was a typical boy. He said he wonders what it would be like if he had daughters instead of sons. I am sure that his son is special and has many unique characteristics that he could have mentioned. I am sorry that the boy's dad was not able to give his son the gift of telling everyone why he is so special on that very special sacramental day.

Once inside the church Sarah was glowing with anticipation to make her first confession. She had been preparing for several months by learning the Act of Contrition by heart, by examining her conscience and by attending religion classes. She had a genuine understanding of what was about to occur, that God wants her to come to Him with her sins so that they can be forgiven. With a clean slate we can all be better workers in the world for God.

Sarah understands what the crucifix represents. Confession is so important that Jesus' life was sacrificed so that our sins can be forgiven. That is a reminder whenever we see a crucifix that we have a responsibility to God to give up our sins to Him and to not close ourselves off from Him by holding on to sin in the darkness of our conscience.

I have also taught Sarah something I discovered as an adult. There is an important gift we are responsible to give to ourselves, and that is to forgive ourselves of our wrong-doings in addition to asking God for his mercy. They are related, and neither are easy things to do. Forgiving ourselves, and receiving God's forgiveness make us feel good again, and that is grace.

Meanwhile the second graders recited the Act of Contrition together as a group. I could hear Sarah speak it confidently.

When it was her turn to receive the sacrament she brought with her the little person we decorated earlier, as the kids were instructed to do. She also brought along a pretty little notepad in which she had written down her sins that she wanted to confess earlier that day.

While she was in confession I thought about how profound her independence was at that moment. At only seven years old, she walked each step deliberately toward the priest, toward God, toward the light to receive a Holy Gift. It was bittersweet for me at that moment to be independent from my little girl, but she was not given to me by God as a possession, but as His Own, with me as a trusted guardian. I was overjoyed to put her into God's hands that day.

"I don't even feel like my sins are forgiven! I didn't even get to tell him my sins! He didn't even give me any penance!", Sarah said to my surprise when she came out of confession. It was immediately obvious to me that she was disappointed. Her arms were crossed and lips were pouting. Her head hanged down. She explained that the priest only talked to her about keeping her room clean and had not asked her to confess the rest of her sins.

We sat down in the empty pew and I thought for a moment. Should I try to defend the priest to her, explain how little time he had for each child because there are 76 students receiving their reconciliation that day? No. That would not make her feel special.

I then realized the church's intention of having the kids write down just one "pull-off sin" attached to their little persons. Should I tell Sarah that she got the "kid version" of confession? I could tell her, "Well, you still did it, Sarah. It is just not what you were expecting. It will be better next time." But why shouldn't I also expect her to have a full confession her first time? Why should first confession expectations be lower for kids now than they were for me or for my parents when we had ours? Seven year-olds have a developed conscience today, too.

Sarah had prepared for this sacrament with such a pure heart. She discussed often what she should be sorry about and even had something very specific that she wanted to be forgiven for. A month earlier when she observed me going to reconciliation services, she witnessed adults weeping while they were confessing their sins. She saw my tears as I told the priest my sins (confession in our church is often done in the corners of the church quietly by candlelight, not in a confessional). I think Sarah also wanted to feel so deeply sorry for her sins as to cry herself when she told God her wrongdoings. She even wanted to receive her own penance, as she wanted to be given her own "assignment".

As I contemplated how I should respond to Sarah in the church that day, I felt the Holy Spirit ask me to help her. I decided to approach a teacher to ask for permission for Sarah to go to confession a second time, and if she could go to Father Jerry, whom she preferred. Her teacher said, "Certainly, once everyone else has gone." Sarah was more than happy to wait for her second turn. I think she knew that God was also waiting patiently for her to come back to Him. God must have been very proud of her. I know I was.

When it was her turn I presented Sarah to Father Jerry in the candlelit corner. I explained that she had confession with a different priest already today but wanted another more "adult version" because she still had more things she wanted to confess. I turned my back and walked away, knowing she was about to be changed by God's mercy- by her own double willingness to walk toward Him. I could hardly wait to see the Holy Spirit radiating through her. Later on I told her that she still was required to do whatever penance the first priest gave her to make up for her sins, in addition to the penance Father Jerry had given her.

The gift I am most grateful for in my daughter is her gift of faith. On the way home in the car I asked Sarah to imagine what life would be like not having faith. I said I thought it would be very lonely. She said that would mean that you cannot even have life. She has to be right about that. We cannot truly experience being alive without having faith. We do not have life without God. He is the creator of life.

As parents we have tremendous opportunity to instill values into our impressionable kids. The most precious gift my parents gave me was to teach me about Jesus and our Church. I will do what is in my power as a parent to teach my daughter important values, but I know that I will also miss things. I also know that you can do everything "right" and that your child will still somehow turn out all "wrong". I don't know how Sarah will "turn out" (and it depends on by whose standards you are judging anyway). What I do know is that she has the foundation of faith, and to me that is the most important thing I can give her. She knows that she is never alone because God is always with her.

We are told in the bible that we are going to sin. I sin. Sarah sins. Father Jerry sins. Sarah knows now that if God can forgive her that she owes it to Him to forgive herself. I wonder, also, if one of the most important things we must all know is that God created each person on purpose. He loves no one person more than another. If He loves like this, then we must also love ourselves and others like this. We must forgive ourselves, ask God for forgiveness, and forgive others.

God is entrusting this child, Sarah, to me and I am also entrusting Sarah's life to Him. Sarah is in the middle of us and she loves and trusts us both. I have faith in that. I am also thankful that He has given us the special gift of The Catholic Church, a place where we can learn and love and be loved and be forgiven. Amen.