Catholic in Yanchep

Go out into the deep.


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Singing his life with his words …

Reminiscing heartMan is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.  He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.  But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ (MacIntyre, 1981)

It has become something of a cliché to talk about our ‘faith journey’, yet for most people who have lived any length of time, the journey metaphor has a way of growing in import as events unfold in our lives – often events which we could not have predicted, or which have inserted themselves as irruptions into the mental plans we might have made about how our lives were supposed to turn out.  As the Yiddish proverb has it, ‘Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht’ or ‘Man plans, and God laughs’.

For some time now, I have been following the life of one of our Perth talents, the writer, teacher, and musician, Renato Antonio.  In 2016, Renato published his first book, Into the Cloud of Knowing (Antonio, 2016), an autobiographical journey which he describes as ‘a personal quest for signs of God’s continuing faithfulness’.  In November 2017, Renato followed this up with, one could say, the musical accompaniment to the book.  His album, Reminiscing Heart, is out now on iTunes, as well as being available for purchase as a CD.

Each song in the collection has significance for Renato, as he described to me during a recent video interview.  The story begins before he was married, when he and a friend, Tim Grace, who features as the lead guitarist in the album, were contemplating religious life.  It was around the year 2001, and at that time, Renato had developed a devotion to the Divine Mercy, and had randomly opened St Faustina’s diary at a passage which inspired him to write No Need to Fear.  ‘No need for despair, no need for anguish, my heart is mercy for your soul,’ sings Renato (together with vocalist Natasha Tsouris), as the violin weaves between the harmonies.

The song Keep the Joy began during a jam session Tim and Renato were having with some friends.  During a break, Tim was strumming his guitar, and Renato, pacing backwards and forwards around the room, noticed a portrait of Mother Teresa, and began to sing the words quoted on the portrait, jokingly at first.  But as the words and music came together, the song took on a life of its own. ‘Let us keep the joy of loving Jesus in our hearts, and share this joy with all we come in touch with.’  Renato describes this song as being like a Pokemon: always evolving.  The last 90 seconds, King of Kings, was added quite recently, and a techno pop beat, inspired by the ‘Fireflies’ song, became another feature.

More to this life, (a Steven Curtis Chapman cover), reminds him of a moment when he was in Italy, listening to thunder, reflecting on his purpose and what family meant to him, and noticing spiritual realities even in ordinary, everyday things. This was during his 1998 trip to Sicily, when he was introduced to two thirds of his father’s family.

Portami a Ballare (Take me Dancing), from the San Remo festival of 1992, is sung in Italian, and is a tribute to his mother.  The death of Renato’s mother, as described in his book, was a life-changing event.  The song is about a son asking his mother to dance: Renato regrets that he never took the opportunity to dance with his mother before she died so unexpectedly.  The song beautifully captures the nostalgia, filial love and regret, and might actually be my favourite in the whole album.

Staying with the theme of dancing, Cinderella is a cover of a number by Steven Curtis Chapman.  At this point, Renato was already married, and reflecting on family life (he has five children).  He is joined in the singing by his daughter, Marie Grace, and his niece, Kiara Bonasera.  One can only imagine what a grace-filled time they all had recording it together.

Another cover (you might have guessed that Renato is a fan of SCC) is the beautiful I will be here.  Knowing Renato personally as I do, I am well aware of some of the challenges he has had in his life over the past year or two – challenges which one would have thought might prompt the de-listing of this piece from the album.  To his credit, he has retained the song which was originally recorded in honour of committed married love.

In an acknowledgement of his time as Assistant Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Renato includes Give Me Your Eyes, a cover of a Brandon Heath song he has made part of student retreats.  Another song with a social justice theme is his most recent one, I Offer You, which he wrote after interviewing Francis Leong from the Catholic Missions office about Rwanda and Zambia.  Renato describes how the tune arrived in his head before the lyrics, which eventually came all at once in less than a day.  The song is a meditation on the problem of evil, and how the only answer he has is – in the words of the Divine Mercy chaplet – offering to the Father the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

His Grace is Enough relates to a difficult period in Renato’s life, when he was visiting the grave of his mother at a time when he was struggling in his personal life (the ‘thorn in the flesh’ reference), going through a dark night of the soul, and needing God’s grace.  This is repeated in a more expressive, acoustic version at the end of the album with intricate guitar work by Dom Zurzolo, another colleague from his Aquinas College days.

Although Renato has temporarily retired from active teaching, he wants to share the faith-journey-as-story approach to the Christian walk, by producing a teaching resource from his book and album, which could be used in the Religion and Life curriculum for year 10 to 12 students.

Reviewing the journey life has taken Renato on, we are reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s words: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’.  Followers of Renato will be looking forward to seeing which direction God might take him in next.

Reminiscing Heart is available on iTunes, as well as on Spotify and Amazon.  For a complete playlist, go to YouTube Playlist.

Works Cited

Antonio, R. (2016). Into the Cloud of Knowing. Perth: Renato Antonio.

MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue: a study in moral theory. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

 

 


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When God sends someone alongside

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The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1637), oil on panel, The Hermitage, St Petersburg.

There are times in my life when I am astounded by the generosity of God.  Today’s Gospel  – the Parable of the Talents – shows God as an investor who expects us to be doing something with the gifts he gives us.  And the more we give ourselves away, the more he repays us: “everyone who has will be given more”.  Over the past year or two, I have had example after example occur in my life.

How do we become a gift to someone else?  I know I have experienced this only recently – although in this first example, I was not the gift, I was on the receiving end.  About fifteen months ago, I was at a particularly low point in my life, worse, even than when my husband died.  For that, I had been prepared – spiritually prepared even, before the cancer had been diagnosed.  But when I was at this low point, and in terrible agony of spirit, angry at the Church, angry at the passivity of others, and constantly calling on God to ask what in the world he thought he was doing, some friends invited me to a quiz night at a neighbouring parish, and I went along, still ready to tell my story of frustration to anyone who had an ear to listen.  And God sent me someone to sit next to me this particular evening and be interested in my complaint.  This was one of the deacons who was ordained to the priesthood last Friday, along with five others from the Archdiocese.

If Deacon – now Father – Mariusz is anything to go by, these new priests are a bumper crop, and I expect great things from them.  May God use them abundantly in his service.

There is a prayer we say at Opus Dei recollections, which goes (in part),

My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here; that you see me, that you hear me. 

When God sends someone alongside you, as he did in my case – over several dozen cups of long macchiato no sugar taken at Brewed Awakening  – you realise that God indeed does see you and hear you, and that the God you have spent so much time kneeling before in the Blessed Sacrament, has been looking back at you all along, and smiling, no doubt quizzically.

Since this time, I have been making more of an effort to be a gift to others, or to come alongside them.  This is what the Holy Spirit does: he is the Parakletos (παράκλητος) – literally, he who comes alongside.  This doesn’t come naturally to me as I am by nature a selfish person, but we all have to start somewhere.  Only yesterday, I was able to sit down with a woman in another coffee shop, and listen to her talking about the tremendous mental pain she and her family are in.  It sent a quiver of shock and awe through me when she described me as being like an angel God had sent to her in her time of need.  Sometimes people just need you to ‘see’ them and to ‘hear’ them.  I put those in quote marks to emphasise that I am talking about a different kind of seeing and hearing from the everyday – there is an extra dimension and it is rather like tuning in to someone’s soul.

And when you do this, giving of yourself, God surprises you with unexpected events.  Like the time I helped out a friend by paying his airfare for a trip he needed to take, and the very next day my neighbour turns up and offers me an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa because she has a spare ticket.

Of course you don’t go into this for the reward.  But virtue is its own reward, as they say.  And all we have to do is take Him seriously when he asks us to do something with whatever gift he has given us – keep paying it forward.  God is never outdone in generosity.

 


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When the Ordinary becomes Extraordinary

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Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham (The Slipper Chapel), with Fr Michael Collis and altar server, Joshua Clovis.

“That isn’t just any manky old boot, mate.  It’s a portkey,” say the Weasley twins in the film version of J.K. Rowling’s Goblet of Fire.  Portkeys, in case you don’t know, are ordinary, unobtrusive objects which have the ability to transport wizards from one place to another.  For example, the Weasleys use a portkey which to all intents and purposes looks like an old boot, to transport them to the Quidditch World Cup.  The reality is that the old boot, lying as if discarded on the hillside, is not just an old boot – in Aristotelian terms, it’s appearance or ‘accident’ is that of a boot, but its substance is that of a powerful magical object.

My point is that even children have no difficulty in distinguishing between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ – or between what something really is and what it looks, smells, sounds, feels like or appears to be on a molecular level, so let us not imagine that the concept of transubstantiation is too difficult for children to understand.  That is what today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is all about: that the Eucharistic elements are transformed truly and substantially into the most holy Body and Blood of Christ.  That is why St Paul is so clear about our needing to examine ourselves prior to reception of Communion.

Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. (1 Co. 11:28-29)

J.K. Rowling says that she was the only one of her family to attend church regularly – she herself admits that many of her themes are derived from Christian ideas.  What isn’t generally acknowledged is the Catholicity of much of her thought: think of the Patronus figures, the sacramentality of objects, the extensive use of Latinesque words, the celebration of deathdays, the belief in the power of words to effect some metaphysical transformation, the suffering hero, the immortality of personal and subsistent souls.

We Catholics have something precious many other Christians don’t have – the presence of the supernatural in our Mass.  Our churches are not just halls or gathering places.  They are physical and particular locations of Christ, supernaturally physically present in what appears to be ordinary bread and wine, either in the tabernacle or during Holy Communion.

All of our rituals are designed to bring the supernatural into our everyday life – to help our imaginations conceive of the larger reality that encompasses the physical reality accessible to our senses, in the same way that the soul is the larger reality and animating principle of the physical human body.

This calls to mind a House Blessing at which I was recently fortunate enough to be present while on holiday in England (this is why I haven’t posted for a while).  House blessings are another example of Sacramentals that bring the supernatural into the present and the ordinary.  The Blessing was of the new EWTN studios for Great Britain at Annunciation House in Walsingham, where my brother, Norman, has taken up residence as Producer.  The family live on the upper two floors, while the studio uses the ground floor and the cellar.  Walsingham is as medieval a town as you could imagine, and the destination of pilgrimages in honour of Our Lady of Walsingham, who appeared in ecstatic visions, to an English noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, during the 11th century.

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Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Basilica (Slipper Chapel).

One would imagine that a House and Studio Blessing for the largest religious media network in the world would be accompanied by pomp and ceremony – and indeed there will be an official Blessing with Michael Warsaw, the Chief Executive of EWTN, later this year.  However, this didn’t stop Monsignor John Armitage, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, from proceeding with this simple house and studio blessing – appropriately on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima during the centenary year of the Fatima apparitions.  Typically Catholic, it juxtaposed the ceremonially Sacred with the ordinary and joyful chaos of family life – indeed there were more children present than adults: all my nephews and nieces, some in their more formal church clothes, some still barefoot and dishevelled after walking the two miles to and from the Slipper Chapel (where it is said that medieval pilgrims removed their shoes on the way to the Shrine), and interrupted all through by the squeals and grunts of my newest niece, Amelie.  It was a wonderful homely scene, a reminder of the beauty of ordinariness shot through by God’s grace – and in many ways it reminded me of those homely scenes of that other chaotic but loving family, the Weasleys, with whom I started this piece. 

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The EWTN (GB) Studios at Annunciation House, Walsingham, with Norman and Amy Servais and their family.

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View over Friday Market, Walsingham, from my attic window.


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My little tale of Divine Mercy

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Divine Mercy Holy Hour, 2017, at St Andrew’s Parish, Clarkson.

What can one say about the Feast of Divine Mercy that hasn’t been said before elsewhere?  As I was mulling this question over, wondering what to write, I remembered a story of Divine Mercy that I had witnessed personally.  The thing about the Resurrected Christ is that He is alive and acting in the world; He isn’t merely a figure of historical interest.  He promised to be ‘with us always’, so if we are on the alert for His action, we will see his signs and guidance all over the place.  In telling this story, I will change the names of a few people to protect their identities.

Several years ago I came across a man – let’s call him Józef – who was of Polish heritage and had been baptised a Catholic, but had fallen away from the practice of his faith.  This man became the subject of my prayers from time to time.  I could see that he was a good man, a great contributor to the community, and heavily involved in volunteering, but it made me sad to think that he had not quite realised the potential of the Holy Spirit given to him at baptism.  If only we could understand the abundant life God offers us, we would all want to enter into his joy.  But most of us live on a somewhat superficial level, getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of life without considering the question, “What must I do to be saved?” and getting to know their Creator.  I’m not saying that most people are bad; all I am saying is that we are rather careless about our final end and purpose and this puts our souls in jeopardy.  So I used to pray that God would find a way to save Józef and bring him into relationship with Him.

Enter Divine Grace.  Grace has a funny way of showing itself.  In this case, Józef developed early onset dementia.  I know that dementia doesn’t sound like a gift from God, but when one doesn’t take the opportunities God gives as Plan A, sometimes God has to chase after us with a Plan B.  God’s aim is to help us make it to heaven, but He can’t compel us, or our free will is compromised, so he sometimes resorts to steering us by slow degrees, especially if we are assisted by someone praying for us at the same time.  I had visited Józef at his home at some point during this time and asked if he would like to see a priest, but his family declined.  In the meantime, I kept praying for him – not regularly, I must admit, but every now and then, I would dart an intercession his way.  Well, after a few years of slow deterioration at home, Józef had to be moved to a local nursing home which happened to be run by a Christian denomination.

Now the local Catholic priest used to attend this aged care facility once a week to offer Mass, and every Wednesday, the Catholic residents (and there were quite a few) would be wheeled in to the activity room to participate in the Mass  – among them Józef.  By now Józef’s dementia had progressed to a point where his former resistance to receiving Holy Communion had been replaced by an openness and even an eagerness.  Perhaps some mental barriers had been dislodged.  How much Józef understood and how much assent of the will was involved God alone knew. I remember praying at this time, ”Lord, Józef is going rapidly downhill.  Please give me an opportunity to pray the Divine Mercy prayer with him before he dies.”

Now why would I ask this?  Well, one of the things that Our Lord revealed to St Faustina during her mystical experiences, was this:

Encourage souls to say the Chaplet which I have given you (1541). Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death (687). When they say this Chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the Merciful Saviour (1541). Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation. Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he were to recite this Chaplet only once, he would receive grace from My infinite mercy (687). I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy (687). Through the Chaplet you will obtain everything, if what you ask for is compatible with My will. (1731) 

I thought, ”If only God can help me pray this prayer with Józef before he dies, there is a chance that he will be saved.”

Anyway, after some years, Józef’s mobility decreased to the point where he became confined to his room.  I am ashamed to say that he didn’t receive many visits from the Catholic Church once he was bed-bound, although the nursing home Chaplain used to visit and provide emotional support to the family.  So suddenly Józef was no longer receiving Holy Communion, and, as far as I can understand, the priest did not seem to be aware of the situation or in touch with the family.

Enter God’s grace again.  The priest was due to take four weeks of annual leave and he obtained permission from the Archdiocese for one of the parishioners to distribute Holy Communion while he was away.  The parishioner, a generous-hearted woman, together with a friend, decided to go from room to room, finding all the Catholic residents who were bedbound and not able to attend the Activity Room Masses.

It was while they were doing this that one of them decided to ring me.  ”It’s Pat here.  I’m phoning you because Father’s away and I don’t know what to do!  The Chaplain has told us that Józef has not long to live and he might need the Last Rites!”  Fortunately, I had the phone number of the Supply Priest, but – oh no – it was a Monday, priest’s day off!  What if Józef died before he’d received an anointing?  Praise God, Fr Demetri answered his phone.  And what’s more, he wasn’t having a day off; he was in between two funerals.  ”Don’t worry.  I’ll come up and give him an Anointing after the second funeral,” he said.

In the meantime I was thinking, ”Thank you, Lord, that you have timed this so that I can pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet with Józef.  I want You to stand between Your Father and Józef, like you said, not as the just Judge but as the Merciful Saviour.”  I planned to pray a Divine Mercy Novena, if possible – nine days, or as long as God might give me.  This was what my dear friend, Cathy, did with me before my own husband passed away.  So every day after work for that week, I would turn up at Józef’s room to pray out loud or silently by his bed.  His family were very kind to me, and allowed me to carry on.  But his wife was concerned about Józef.  He was not at peace, she said, even though he had had an Anointing.

I wondered what else I could do for Józef – and then I had an inspiration!  People with dementia often respond to things that strike a chord with their history from the distant past, rather than more recent times.  What about if I could get a Polish priest to come and pray for him in Polish?  It so happened that God’s Providence had placed a Polish Deacon in a neighbouring parish, someone whom I already knew, who had a devotion to the Divine Mercy and, what’s more, had just recently returned from a visit to the Shrine of St Faustina.  But the neighbouring parish was an active one, the Deacon couldn’t come straight away, and in the meantime,  Józef was sliding further downhill. I had already reached Day 4 of the Novena.  Was there anything I could do to speed things up?  Perhaps they thought I was being a bit too demanding, so I popped a thank you card with a donation in the parish mailbox (a donation which he insisted on returning, by the way) and waited to see what would happen. On the next day, when I visited for Day 5 of the Novena, Józef’s wife said that the young Deacon had been to visit.  ”I’m afraid I must have scared him because he arrived at a time when we were all crying and upset.  Józef had been so agitated through the course of the day.  But then the Deacon prayed with him, and Józef calmed right down.  He gave him peace.”

After that, Józef went into a rapid, but peaceful, decline, and he died on Day Seven of the Divine Mercy Chaplet – the number of completion, you could say.

How good was God to dear Józef! Yes, I know his last years were a struggle both for him and his devoted family – but God did these things …

  • provided a Priest to give him an Anointing before he passed,
  • brought him parishioners to give him Holy Communion in his last days,
  • gave him a Chaplain who saw the need for alerting the Catholic Church,
  • granted me my wish to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for him on his deathbed, and
  • arranged for a Deacon to pray him into peace at the last in the language of his childhood.

We just need to see the struggle with God’s eyes, and not our own.