Blog Tour: A Storyteller’s Guide to Joyful Service

Joyful Service by Tone Agnesi

I consider myself so privileged to know Tony Agnesi both as a colleague and friend as well as to be invited to share my thoughts on his latest book A Storyteller’s Guide to Joyful Service. In our conversations with one another, we have truly been given a camaraderie in ministry. A treasured community whereby we not only speak but listen to God at work within one another’s life and in the lives of those whom we serve. Tony’s gift is that he not only recognizes God’s grace daily, but is able to convey this awareness and call to action in an engaging and relatable way.

Towards the beginning of my own call to lay ministry those around me would often ask  why. Why would you choose to use your education and talents where there is little to no pay and even less recognition? Aren’t there other ways to give of your time? Where these questions fail, however, is in their inability to assess the immense value in the unseen or to quantify the joy that servant ministry provides in a complete surrender to God.

“Joy is an abiding sense that God is in control..it is a gift that grows out of faith, gratitude, grace and love, the delight in being alive”. Tony Agnesi

The difficulty is that while many of us, as Christians, have no problem understanding the source of our gifts as God, we are still reluctant to hand over the reins to Him to use as He sees fit.  We seek happiness but fail to realize that we are not the orchestrators of that happiness. Rather, as Tony so wonderfully articulates,

“God has been using people as instruments since creation and you can participate simply by checking in for duty.”

And though undoubtedly you will still experience challenging times in your life, seeing God’s grace in the lives of others lays the foundation of trust for the work ahead in your own. This can be as simple as the witness of a silent prayerful gesture “of gratitude and humility” raised to heaven that ultimately “restores your faith in humanity”.  Or, it can be that graced awareness that God is asking to not only your gifts but your challenges to inspire change in the lives of others.

To serve and not count the cost…

A lofty dream you say? So some might very well think of sainthood. Quite often we place the saints on ornate gilded pedestals ignoring the reality of the lives that they had. It isn’t that their path was easy or that they were created with greater tolerance and fortitude. It is that they ceased to strive to do it on their own. Relying on Christ, they offered both success and failure to put to God’s use. And more often than not, it was in their own challenges and failures that God’s glory was the most beautifully revealed. For, in seeking God’s plan for your life, as Catherine of Siena is often quoted, you can fully “be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” with love and holiness. Alternatively, Tony notes, “a lack of action will cause us to be consumed in a fire of indifference” .

This re-gifting is essential in our discipleship for it demands a free will offering. Our choice- to recognize the Creator and giver of all gifts and our conscious decision to give our yes to His will in our lives and in the world. Then even those things we do in the course of our normal day, not typically viewed as ministry, become tools in the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As Tony remarks,

“We are called by Our Lord to go and make disciples of those we meet, and by example bring them into an understanding of our faith. We are called to live the faith by our words and actions.”

In doing so we may just see the difficulties we experience as the very stuff that God is using to grow us as disciples ourselves and come to know the amazing joy that God has to offer!

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: The Wonder of it All!

“Prayer is a surge of the heart; It is a simple look toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” St. Therese of Liseux

This week, I was witness to God’s mystery momentarily revealed in albeit a delightful surprising way. Ministering to those with Alzheimer’s and dementia requires patience, love, and flexibility. Some days can be challenging and cloudy, and others bright and filled with amazing clarity. Being there for both makes the glimpse of memory and sudden awareness all the more beautiful. In this brief moment of grace there is a remarkable recognition of what love really means and just who Christ truly is.

“Anna” has been a resident at a particular memory care for a bit of time now. Having lost many long term cognitive abilities, she is now completely dwelling in the present. So much so, that every sentence spoken is a story unto itself. Gathered amidst this group of Catholics, as a protestant, one cannot help but notice that she actively listens. On this day, she would also actively participate.

With the first reading, she informed me that I was needed to speak louder despite my reluctance to shout. Carrying on, I noticed her attentiveness almost as if we were having a conversation with just the two of us. With the Gospel and prayers, she remained intent on savoring each word.

“Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name. And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your spirit, that they may become the body + and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this Eucharist…The day before he suffered, he took bread in his sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father, he gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this all of you and eat of it” (Eucharistic Prayer 3)

Somewhere deep inside, God then touched “Anna’s” heart prompting a truly unsolicited but appropriately beautiful response.

“WOW!…” she proclaimed loudly, “That is quite a gift!”

Instantly a sacred stillness fell, a substantive pause and recognition by all that Christ was truly present. Here, without the explanation of consecration or a discussion of real presence  “Anna” saw and experienced this tangible reality.

How is it then that though we come to Mass, expecting the gift to be given, we could very well leave Mass unchanged?  Perhaps this gift is carelessly taken for granted, not fully understood, or we simply have become too distracted by the day’s events. Nonetheless, we then fail to probe the depth of love and mercy available not accepting of the transformation that is possible in our daily lives. The real presence of Christ then becomes an unopened gift, or one put aside for a rainy day.

Take today to seize the gift of Christ’s sacrifice and be amazed by the wonder of it all!

Peace,

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“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. And this happens though the praise of God should know no limits. Let us strive therefore to praise him to the greatest extent of our powers” St. Maximilian Kolbe

Everything for Happiness

The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created…. Gaudette et Exsulte

Instead of a half-hearted effort or begrudgingly offering a portion, Christ asks for our all. No more than what he gave on the cross and no less than what we have been given and are capable of. Still, we allocate time to work, family and friends, exercise, play, and even charity all in the pursuit of happiness. Clinging to time reserved for ourselves we resent the moments we have had to relinquish it. “It’s really not a lot of time we say..and now it is no longer mine.” Though, when we think of it where is true happiness to be found?

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Ps. 37:4

We need only turn to scripture to see clear examples of this enduring wrestling with time and resources. (John 6:9 and Mark 12:41-44) As well as, the result of giving the little we have to offer. Multiplied and utilized in the best way possible, our time and gifts suddenly become so much more than we could have ever imagined. And, we not only no longer miss what we have given but now desire to give even more. 

The irony is that the moment we chose to follow Christ, we acknowledged that all of “our” time was now His.  For, the living out of our discipleship is simply to offer back the measure of love and mercy that we have received to others. You see when we start laying claim to that which was never ours to begin with we miss the point altogether. Our Father who set the stars in the heavens and the planets in motion forming heaven and earth-conceived time. Though His time is endless-we strive to break time into parts and pieces assigning value to each.

Yet,what if we looked at the whole and rather than seeing the fleeting constrained aspect of it, saw our place as a fluid expansive invitation? For instance, have you ever began a service of love and discovered that the time spent was so very little compared to the gift received back? That what began with a time frame and a mission could now not be  quantified in time as the effects would continue to reverberate in your life and that of others? This I believe is true happiness, the experience of being fully alive in answering God’s call and will for our lives.

Reflect:

Am I holding back in my offering each day to God? Or choosing to be stingy with time for others? If so, what do I need to do differently? Think about what that day might look like.

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: Reconciled

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Not just a prettier or more approachable  version of confession, the act of reconciling is instead, a richer and more complete description of what transpires in this beautiful sacrament. For, reconciliation means“to walk together again”[1] , to reestablish a close relationship in friendship, peace, and love. Confession is just one part of this sacrament replete with mercy, grace and love.  Reconciliation then more fully represents  “what is most important, what Jesus does”. [2]

Growing up protestant, I have heard all of the following questions and consequent arguments against the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. Undoubtedly even for those having grown up in the faith, there still lies a temptation to rest on these as a means of justifying ourselves in our walk with God. However, there is also a challenge here to really consider the effects of sin, the grace that is present here and the freedom in walking humbly with our God.

1.“My relationship with Jesus is good..I can tell him anything. Why would I put a 3rd person in the middle since Jesus is the one who forgives me?  What this question begs is a heartfelt response. Yes, there is solid scriptural basis but the person asking this is seeking to know the soul benefit in uttering and entrusting their sins in this way.  They understand the need for forgiveness and may have a very good prayer life. Coming into the faith as an young adult this was a hurdle I myself encountered. I prayed often, went to church, read my bible and asked for forgiveness daily. So what does the sacrament of reconciliation really provide that is different?

  • In confessing our sins we give voice to that which we have privately carried and share it with the community in the priest who is also representative of Christ. The weight of our sins that we have carried is lifted, the slate with our sins wiped clean and we are free to begin anew.
  • Likewise, in both our sin and sanctity we are a community and are called to help one another in the journey. Our sin which has hampered and even damaged our relationships is removed and so, as a community we celebrate.
  • Receive peace and comfort by the grace of Christ to go forth to both amend our ways and to strive for greater justice and peace in our families, communities and world around us. Our penance is an essential first step to express our commitment towards this transformation.

2. “So, where is the need for reconciliation in the bible?

  • “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
  • Parable of the lost sheep- Jesus’ story of the shepherd and the 1 lost sheep among the 99. Jesus leads us to reconciliation with God and others (Matthew 18:12-14)
  • Prodigal Son explores the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, and helps bring this forgiveness into our daily lives (Luke 15:11-32)
  • Great Commandment- Jesus’ teaching about loving God, ourselves, and others (Matthew 22:36-40)

3. “These priests are human too, how can they hear and absolve my sins, aren’t they just as prone to sin?”

  • As Catholics we believe that Jesus intended to give authority to his apostles to guide, teach, forgive and heal the followers of Christ to come. And, that they in turn in succession handed down this authority.

” And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19.

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:21-23

  • Yet, this question also points to the need for forgiveness for all of us, as a result of our human condition and our inclination to sin. St. John Paul II went to reconciliation frequently as did newly sainted St. Teresa of Calcutta who is noted for going 2-3 times a week for even venial sins.

“It would be an illusion to seek after holiness, according to the vocation one has received from God, without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and reconciliation.  Those who go to Confession frequently, and do so with the desire to make progress, will notice the strides that they make in their spiritual lives.” St. JP II[3]

4. Finally, “Didn’t they just go to reconciliation? So why are they still  (*mean, rude etc.) ?

First obviously this question implies a bit of judgement of others rather than looking at our own walk of faith. Yet, to address the intended issue, does this sacrament have the grace and power to effect true and lasting change? Yes, but again we have a propensity and inclination to sin and our sins are not always exactly the same. Reconciliation is a sacrament that is intended to be received again and again throughout our lives either individually or with the community. So, it does not “end with the words of absolution”, but “in order to achieve it’s purpose it must take root in their whole lives”.[4]

In Reconciliation we are giving the opportunity to experience and celebrate God’s grace, love, mercy and forgiveness in our lives and in community. God isn’t as concerned with the “mistakes” but with repairing the relationship that has suffered.

Think for a moment about your relationship with your best friend.

If you think about your relationship with God, how could this be better? Have you made time for your friendship with God in prayer, answered his calls of love and grace? Have you said sorry when you realize that you have chosen to act unloving?

Remember, our choices not only hurt ourselves but effect our relationship with God, and so many others that we encounter daily. Mercy and forgiveness are waiting-take time today to be reconciled.

Peace,

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[1] McKenna, Meagan. (1997) Rites of Justice. New York. Orbis Books

[2] Richstatter, Thomas. O.F.M, S.T.D. (1990) “Ten Tips for Reconciliation: The Gift of Reconciliation”. Catholic Update. Ohio. Catholic Update.

[3] Pope John Paul II,  Conference of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome. March 27, 2004.

[4] Kane, Thomas. Healing God’s People: Theological and Pastoral Approaches.Rite of Penance 7b.

Worth Revisiting: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

What is a church to be? Is it a place for the faithful who gather on a given Sunday, who come to offer up their private prayers and praise and then go their separate ways? Or rather, is it to be a home, a collective community who together in Christ is much stronger than its individual members? Throughout our life we witness numerous understandings of what it is to be church. Deep down we know and desire more  for our time together and yet we settle for less.

As a young child some of my earliest memories are from my time spent in God’s house, among those that both had a clear grasp of what it was to be church and those that clearly had no idea. In a small town of approximately 5,000 people my grandmother’s church, though one of the largest, certainly wasn’t without competition in this strongly church going community. So then, what was it that drew the faithful young and old on Sunday, and kept them returning throughout the week? Well, quite simply it was the way they embodied Christ and tangibly conveyed the reality of family.

Donning a handmade sundress and black patent shoes, I excitedly got ready to make the 30 minute drive to my see my grandma, attend church and enjoy lunch together afterwards. Walking in the doors, though not a member, I wasn’t considered a stranger but instead welcomed as family. Each man, woman, or child standing there wasn’t doing so out of obligation but considered it a privilege to get to know each person that came in for worship that day. Each time was an inclusive acceptance of my presence, without judgement or expectation.

Contrast that with the church that I would more often attend in my own hometown at the tender age of 6. Significantly larger, it had become a numbers game with numerous cliques that would gather in different sections to discuss politics, events, and also one another. While my mother and I were members, we truly didn’t feel as if we ever were. Rather than welcoming us in, as a divorced single parent, my mom suffered the judgmental stares and awkward silences . So while we came hoping for community what we experienced instead was far from it. Our Sunday experience became a time for us to privately pray and praise though surrounded by a multitude.

To varying degrees, you may have witnessed either of these examples. More often than not, we may attend church and glimpse snip-its of community wondering how to connect. Here, where the desired relationship is not immediately accessible we ourselves may have to reach out initially. Perhaps conscious of my own experience, I have made a point of introducing myself and my family when we attend Mass at a different church, even though I am just visiting. It isn’t though I expect to be treated differently, but I am modeling what community should be for everyone.

This understanding of community even extends to our common interactions in the supermarket, gym, and local coffee shop. Keep in mind, your  “Hello, how are you today?” might just lead to someone reconsidering returning to or feeling a part of church that Sunday. Just the other day, when picking up my morning brew, I was given such a gift of conversation with a parishioner whose face I thought I had seen but never met. Now I know his name is Alex… and it all started with “So good to see you again!”.

Reflect:

As I look around my own parish, where could we be better representatives of the body of Christ? How am I extending a welcoming presence at church, and within my community?

Peace,

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Necessary and Indispensable

“Three things are necessary for everyone: truth of faith which brings understanding,
love of Christ which brings compassion, and endurance of hope which brings perseverance. ”  St. Bonaventure

Given the recent turmoil in the church, these last few weeks have been challenging to say the least. Conversations ensued revolving around what hasn’t been done, what should be done and who’s to blame in this crisis. Wounds that had healed in part have been reopened and the hurt and broken trust now visible once again. Especially in a community that went through the worst of it in 2002 with two of the most notable priests having led the flock.

Even personally, I had questions too. How could we not have learned as the universal church from hard fought battles of the past? If you, as leadership, witnessed the effects of what transpired in Boston, Ireland and elsewhere why wouldn’t an investigation within each diocese occur?  Sins incurred do not go away simply because we close our eyes and change cannot occur if cannot face the truth. Shameful and egregious wrongs  must be addressed for healing and trust to return.

Am I angry? Absolutely! This is the church that I love- it is the faith that I chose and that also chose me. Yet, my faith does not rest solely on the actions of man, even holy men, but on Christ.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Cor. 3:5-9

As such, it cannot be shaken for my hope is in God knowing that he has called each one of us to witness to his truth and love in this broken world. We are not, however, left alone. With his Word and Spirit to guide and the Eucharist as our strength together we walk onward allowing God to rebuild us as a people. We need only look to thousands of years of tradition to see that this would not be the first time. Yet, this begins today and with each one of us.

What can we do?

Pray. I cannot emphasize enough how important this first step is. For how can we be the body of Christ in the world, his holy church, if our actions are not discerned and directed by prayer? And by prayer I mean not just tossing up a “God please fix the present circumstances”, but continually spending time with God to learn His ways rather than relying on our own. Consider adoration. It is an incredible time to listen to what God has to say, and to allow him to move your heart, mind and soul to the work ahead.

Fast.  Why fast you may ask, when the sins committed were not ours personally? First, fasting is both a way of expressing our sorrow and also to seek clarity. Secondly, our faith is not a solitary one. Every sin or injury to the body of Christ is felt by the whole. We also take responsibility in calling one another to holiness beginning with each one of us. God will raise holy men and women to be saints- and the time is now.

Work. No place to sit on the sidelines here. We are being asked to step into the messy and difficult tasks ahead. This may be to listen to a friend, co-worker or family member who simply needs to vent or is seriously considering leaving the church. It could also be explaining to others why you choose to stay. Maybe, you feel called to write to your pastor, bishop, cardinal or Pope Francis to speak to this issue requesting further measures be taken as I have done. Yet whatever you do- please do not despair. For, though “We are hard pressed on every side, (we are ) not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:8-9

Today I pray, fast, and work albeit willing to fight for this Church that I call home. Join me and countless others!

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: Catechesis of Mercy 2

Continuing from the previous week , we go deeper to the underlying principles of a life steeped in and committed to mercy..

There are four core principles in the Catholic Church’s social teaching: respect and protection of the dignity of the human person, the pursuit of the common good, the value of solidarity, and subsidiarity—that matters are if possible to be handled at the lowest level, by those most affected. With each pope in succession, through  papal encyclicals—and most notably in the Second Vatican Council, there has been a reaffirmation of these teachings..  This is why an essential element of a catechesis of mercy involves service and active works of mercy.

Look around your community, are there service learning projects that are already available in your community that you might participate in with your child or if they are old enough that they can join in themselves? There is no need to reinvent the wheel, if a suitable service activity is already up and running. Yet, if none of these seem fitting, consider developing a new service based project. What are needs in your area that aren’t being met? What are some possible solutions? What are the resources that you might can tap into?

There are several types of service..

Direct (whereby the participate is in direct contact with the person/s they are working with. Examples include volunteering at a nursing home to read or visit, doing yardwork or chores for the elderly, or working at a soup kitchen.

Indirect (Involves fundraising, or drives to assist people in need) An example would be a toy drive for a local children’s hospital, clothing drive for a homeless shelter, or making cards or placemats.

Promotion or advocacy (Getting the word out about a cause, and working to convince the government, or organization to make a change in behavior. ) Maybe you have a gift of telling or motivating others to get involved in a cause. If so then this might be where you feel most helpful.

Whatever you choose to do, reflection is a very essential part of service learning both in deciding what to commit to as well as what was taken from the experience. This is where a trained group leader is very beneficial, both to guide the questions but to show the diversity of the experiences.

What did you expect this experience to be like?
Was there anything different from this expectation?
Did you find anything challenging and/or surprising?
Was there an opportunity to talk with those whom you were helping? If so, did you learn anything new?
What is the relationship between your service and your faith?
How does your participation in this activity affect a situation or create change in the lives of those you are with?
Is it important for you to stay involved with this activity?

Remember that it is never too early to begin a catechesis of mercy, and that your child already has that divine love within and the capacity to show that love to others. We have been given a freedom to choose love and goodness in the world, to avoid what is destructive or harmful, and to make these choices quite early in life. And though not always easy choices, it is these moments that help shape us, form us and continue to define us as we grow in our Christian discipleship.

Reconciliation

As mentioned earlier, reconciliation is indelibly linked to mercy. God is loving and forgiving, God is merciful. God forgives us when we have done wrong, when we come wishing to forgiven, and desire to be in relationship once again. If your child is old enough to have celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation before, take the time to discuss its continued importance in the life of the individual and the church.
1. Discuss how to make a good confession and examination of conscience http://www.thelightisonforyou.org/confession/

2. Set aside a time to go to reconciliation as a family. Allowing your child to glimpse the importance of reconciliation for you is an essential way for him/her to see its importance in their own life as well.

3. Reflect on how God’s love and mercy is always present and calling us into relationship.
Look at the broader understandings of reconciliation within the community and world. For ideas visit St Vincent de Paul.org, Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and the Childrens’ Missionary Association which is part of the Pontifical Society.
Discuss the importance of and ways to work for peace both locally and global

Mercy is like a small seed that requires our active participation in the planting and growing, allowing God to be the master gardener and harvester of the fruits.[1] To extend this analogy, we cannot plant that which we do not see or understand. Likewise, how could we then tend to the requirements necessary for its growth? Therefore, it is clear that first we must become aware of the poor, and the marginalized and desire to walk with them to understand their journey. Then our hearts and steps are to be guided towards recognizing our own need to take responsibility, and the essential right to a greater voice and participation in society of the least of these. Together, as a people of faith, we can then “water” those seeds planted to witness their rooting within the hearts of individuals, and the communities in which we live. While fully aware of the resistance of many for change, a catechesis of mercy relies not solely on our own efforts. But rather on the power of God for strength, and guidance to accomplish the realization of all efforts. Hope then is what our trust in God provides, it is faith that God’s love and mercy are unfailing, and that we are part of his divine plan for the world.

Peace,

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[1] Brady,Bernard. Essential Catholic Social Thought. Orbis Books, 2008.