From Misery to Ministry

Agnesi book coverAfter discovering Tony Agnesi through his book A Storyteller’s Guide to a Grace-Filled Life, I’ve looked forward to his newest project. It’s here: A Storyteller’s Guide to Joyful Service: Turning Your Misery Into Ministry takes a look at dealing with tough times, be they simple disappointments or deep griefs, and using them as opportunities for growing in service to other people.

“Lord, if you had been here…”

In an informal style, Mr. Agnesi shares small stories exploring painful situations and ways of responding to them. He is writing for a Christian audience, assuming that his readers have some familiarity with both faith and disappointment. He knows that Martha’s words to Christ in time of bereavement – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – reflect a deeply human reaction to loss. Where to from there?

Tony Agnesi

Tony Agnesi

One step at a time, responds Mr. Agnesi. He has confidence that in small ways, a day at a time, anyone experiencing major or minor miseries can be equipped for ministry to others. His words might not reach someone in the grip of immediate and profound grief, when looking ahead seems like too much to bear. For anyone capable of reflection, though, Turning Your Misery Into Ministry can be thought-provoking and inspiring.

Small Steps: A Path to Service

The author’s own experience with serious illness makes this a book written for other people, not at them. His descriptions of the ministries in which he’s personally involved enrich the book. His message on every page is I can do this; so can you.

The actions he advises seem obvious, but it’s precisely when challenges are oppressive that solutions are obscured. Pray, even briefly; look a stranger in the eye and say hello; give the gift of listening; do simple things for one’s spouse: page after page is filled with reminders of the little things that draw one’s attention outward, discouraging self-absorption.

That’s not to say he advises forgetting about self-care. He knows that he and his readers need healing and grace and time for themselves.

Grace in the Virtues

Virtues in action are basically habits developed over time. Mr. Agnesi packs his small book with short suggestions for ways to develop those habits. His book concludes with a section called “Grace in the Virtues,” which may seem an odd subject to consider when dealing with miseries large and small. After all that precedes the closing section, though, his reflections on grace and virtue make sense.

Each little step he advises is underpinned with encouragement towards the simple virtues of gratitude and humility. Without them, no one can be equipped for ministry. No formal training or credential can replace them. With them, anyone can begin to offer authentic service to others. Wherever authentic service exists, there is ministry.

Turning Your Misery Into Ministry ends with an exhortation to be passionate, unafraid, and joyful. With the voice of a neighbor, Tony Agnesi invites his readers to join him.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Thoughts After Rome

This post originally appeared at DaTechGuy Blog

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica seen from Gianicolo Hill, Rome. Ellen Kolb photo.

When an opportunity for me to visit Rome came up unexpectedly not long ago, I dropped everything, including blogging assignments. I will probably never have another crack at a trip to Italy with my husband. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I wanted to go.

I figured I might be able to write along the way. Surely there would be time. That’s not how it worked out. No one warned me of the overload of sights and impressions I’d be experiencing, and the deep contrasts I’d be witnessing. They packed an emotional punch. Perhaps the biggest contrast that hit my Catholic sensibilities was the one between churches as places of historical interest and churches as places of faith.

Rome is a city of church domes, not skyscrapers. Vatican City’s crown jewel, St. Peter’s Basilica, holds a commanding position. A walk through Rome reveals other churches that catch the eye: architectural marvels, places of art and beauty, accessible to believer and nonbeliever alike. One could be forgiven for valuing them simply as museums and artifacts of a certain period in history. That might be what brings someone through the doors for the first time.

Yet these aren’t mere artifacts of a lost time. They are places of worship. It’s odd how I felt that so strongly in St. Peter’s, thronged as it was with tourists. In the little side chapels within the nave, people were kneeling. Maybe one in twenty of the people in the vast church was there for prayer. Yet that five percent made the difference between a museum and a church. I asked where daily Mass was said, since obviously the “main” part of the church was occupied by tourists from all over the world. A guide pointed me to one of the side chapels, set apart only by a quiet attendant welcoming to the pews anyone who wanted to pray.

A few years ago, on another unexpected journey, I made a pilgrimage to St. Mark’s in Venice. The main doors, the big ones, were designated for tourists, of whom there were many. Who could visit the city without taking in that stunning edifice? For those wanting to pray, there was a smaller door off to the side: not to shunt anyone aside, but to guide pilgrims to a quiet area devoid of cameras and chatter.

In both Rome and Venice, I recognized those little side chapels as powerhouses, even if my Italy guidebook didn’t.

I came home to my little parish church, where the architecture is far more modest and draws no tourists. No one would ever confuse it with a museum. I came home to neighbors as appalled as I by the news of yet more abuse, more episcopal failures, more reminders that if my faith in God relies on anyone’s miter and staff then my faith is doomed to shatter.

Tough news to come home to after Rome, for sure. Yet in a way, my journey had set me up to face tough news. Rome was a challenging place for me. Beautiful and vibrant, yes. But around every corner and under every dome was that contrast and tension: museum, or house of worship?  I think that as long as those side chapels are occupied by people at prayer, the tension resolves in favor of worship.

I think that these days, both in Rome and at home, prayer is not only worship of God but also an act of defiance against people who need to be defied: all those who would weaken others’ faith, break bruised reeds, betray trust. A dangerous attitude, that. Prayer without humility and love becomes the clanging cymbal of which St. Paul warned us. Yet abandoning prayer altogether leaves the field to the museum-goers. I’m not prepared to do that.

Rome and Vatican City were a revelation to me. Nothing I studied prepared me properly for all the food, sights, history, and the accompanying  sensory overload. Yet quite against my will, elbowing its way into all my other memories is that sight of people praying off to the side in St. Peter’s. One in twenty, giving soul to the church, quietly pushing back against all that would render it a mere museum.

Photo by author: dome of St. Peter’s seen from Gianicolo hill.

Someday’s here; now what?

My neighbors’ generators hum in the background as I rummage through a pile of work assignments in search of one I can perform without benefit of internet. The power’s out, after an overnight storm. As a freelance writer and researcher, I find the lack of internet access nettlesome. Even cell service is affected today.

It’s quiet as I select the files I can work on. Only a few billable hours in there, but that’s better than nothing. I can work without distractions. The only device at hand is a pen.

As I realize that, it occurs to me that I’ve spent much of my life wishing for days like this. I was sure that if I only had more peace and quiet, less need for structured time, I could…fill in the blank: pray more, study more Scripture, read more devotions, study Church history. I’d go on retreats. I’d have time for more than a morning offering before diving into the day.

I am blessed with children, and grateful for them.  I was blessed to be their “stay-at-home” mom. My husband made that possible. Parenthood never ends once launched, but my kids are now grown. The intense day-to-day five-kids-at-a-time whirlwind is behind me. I distinctly remember thinking in the midst of that whirlwind that someday, things would slow down. Someday, I’d have quiet days to work on other things.

So what am I doing this quiet day? Setting up to work, that’s what. No work, no pay. The power outage nonetheless leaves me a few hours of open time. What to do?

Draft a pitch to a client. Cull no-longer-useful files. Practice a presentation I’m scheduled to give in a few weeks. The to-do list lengthens.

The quiet day I used to call “someday” is here, and I’m finding all kinds of things to do besides the Mass and prayer and study I was sure I’d spend my somedays doing.

The very intensity of today’s quiet – no phone, no apps, no flickering screen – is forcing me to pay attention to what I’m doing, which quickly leads me to what I’m not doing.

I pick up my rosary, trying to put aside thoughts of clients and presentations and when might I get electricity back.

This “someday” stuff is hard. I thought for sure it would be easy, maybe even come naturally. Here I am, though, alone in silence but for the hum of generators down the street. I’m pacing and praying aloud in an effort to turn my attention to God and turn away from the to-do list.

Someday, it turns out, is a matter of intention. Anything less is merely a wish.

As I recite another Hail Mary, a voice inside me is mocking me for ever thinking that someday, all I’d want would be time to live my faith more fully.

Stripped of intention, left to my own undisciplined habits, my spiritual life keeps receding into one someday after another.

What was it St. Paul wrote to the Romans? The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.

Any resemblance to present company is purely coincidental.

I doggedly finish the Joyful Mysteries. I stop pacing. I sit down, pick up pen and paper, and resume work. That comes easily. The prayers didn’t.

Maybe that was the best reason to see them through.

An Advent Thought

If I had sworn off Twitter for Advent, I’d have missed this from Cardinal Dolan. Great example of the three basics that I teach when I’m introducing people to social media: clarity, charity, brevity.

Veni Emmanuel!

“The world says ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’. Advent reminds us that the world, and our lives, are a mess. We need something – *someone* – to make us whole. We need our Savior! Our lives are like the empty manger awaiting the birth of Christ!”

A Treat for Advent: Northeast Catholic College Polyphony Choir

Enjoy a few short sample recordings by the Northeast Catholic College choir, available on the college’s web site. Then, if you’re lucky enough to live in New England, watch out for their upcoming Advent tour.

Having enjoyed music from NCC students both at their campus and at various New Hampshire events, I can say you’re in for a treat if you attend one of the Polyphony Choir’s upcoming performances.  All these events are open to the public.

Saturday, December 9: Enfield, NH, Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette, 5:15 p.m. concert: “Carols to Light Our Way” followed by 6:30 p.m. Mass

Sunday, December 10: Manchester, NH, Ste. Marie Church, 9:30 a.m. Mass

Sunday, December 10, Nashua, NH, St. Aloysius of Gonzaga Church, 6:00 p.m. concert: “From Advent to Christmas: a Concert of Carols”

Monday, December 11, Stockbridge, MA, The National Shrine of the Divine Mercy: Mass at 2:00 p.m.; concert TBA (contact NCC for further information as the date approaches; 603.456.2656)

Tuesday, December 12, Baltic, CT, Academy of the Holy Family: 1:00 p.m. concert: “From Advent to Christmas: a Concert of Carols”

Tuesday, December 12, Bridgeport, CT, St. Augustine Cathedral: 6:30 p.m. concert: “A Concert to Honor Our Lady,” followed by 7:00 p.m. Mass

 

The Mandate Takes a Hit. That’s Not Enough.

Crossposted from Leaven for the Loaf.

Nine months after taking office, five months after assuring the Little Sisters of the Poor that they could quit fearing fines, the Administration of President Donald Trump has announced a rollback of the HHS contraceptive mandate. (See here for my earlier coverage of the mandate.)

From Fox News:

The Trump administration on Friday announced a major rollback of the ObamaCare contraceptive mandate, granting what officials called “full protection” to a wide range of companies and organizations that claim a “religious or moral objection” to providing the coverage. 

The mandate, which has been the subject of multiple legal challenges, has required employers that provide health insurance to cover contraceptives. Under the existing policy, churches and houses of worship were exempt, while religious-affiliated groups that object had to allow a third-party administrator or insurer to handle birth control coverage. The 2014 Hobby Lobby decision expanded exemptions to for-profit “closely held” corporations.

But under the new policy unveiled Friday, the Trump administration is expanding the protections to any nonprofit group, non-publicly traded company, or higher education institution with religious or moral objections — and making the third-party provision optional for groups with “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

 (Full Fox News post here.)

I’m pleased that the President has followed through on a commitment he could have carried out his first day in office. Better late than never. Maybe he has no roots on this, and it took time for the people around him to put the ducks in a row. Notice the arm’s length language of the news report: Trump administration did thisofficials said that

I’m grateful. That’s simple courtesy and a measure of positive reinforcement. But I’m not going to grovel for recognition of my rights of conscience and religious liberty that should never have been abrogated in the first place. It’s not as though the President is doing me a favor.

Actually, today’s action does sound like someone thinks there are favors to be dispensed. The news coverage speaks of exemptions, protection, and rollback. Selected entities are added to the list of exempt organizations. No mention of the First Amendment, at least in the initial breaking news update. It’s the First Amendment that’s at issue, which is something the mandate’s supporters have ferociously denied since 2012.

Why does the mandate stand at all? Why is there still anything from which to be exempted?

The contraceptive mandate came out of Obamacare’s definition of birth control for women as “preventive care.” In a manner beyond anything the rankest sexist could have dreamed, Obamacare made it government policy that women are broken and need to be fixed. The normal functioning of a woman’s body was something to be “prevented.” Contraception was shifted from being a matter of choice to being a matter of public policy, forcing employers who chose to offer health insurance coverage to be involved in employees’ birth control decisions. Nothing ever put employers into employees’ bedrooms quite like the contraceptive mandate.

It’s to the everlasting credit of the American Catholic bishops that they recognized the mandate’s threat to religious liberty. Among other things, they knew that the Catholic health care system – which provides care to more women than any other provider in the nation – could be fined out of existence by the mandate.

The mandate originally came with exemptions for some politically-favored companies and organizations. Hobby Lobby and other plaintiffs later earned a Supreme Court victory that was extremely narrow, releasing closely-held companies from the mandate. President Trump told the Little Sisters of the Poor earlier this year that they could consider themselves free from fear of being fined for not wishing to pay for insurance coverage for employees’ birth control. At least fifty other lawsuits are pending against the mandate; I don’t know how many just became moot.

Today, the mandate took a serious hit. It’s still staggering around, though. The only way to kill it is to abandon the policy that gave rise to it in the first place. Stop treating the suppression of women’s fertility as “preventive care.” Stop expecting “free” contraception. When “free” means compelling financial support from people with religious objections to contraception, then “free” is too expensive.

Today’s action from the Trump Administration is long overdue. It’s the biggest hit on the mandate since Hobby Lobby. The mandate’s foundation remains in place, though. For religious resisters to the mandate, First Amendment rights are still at risk. May today be a spark to renewed assertion of those rights.

Undermining the First Amendment in the Name of “Health Care”

Short memories make for bad public policy. I can’t help but reflect on that.

As I write this, Congress is about to take a vote on doing something-or-another with Obamacare: repeal, replace, whatever. I’m not sure they know what they’re doing, despite good intentions all around. In all the tinkering, I am not hearing much from Members of Congress about what made the “Affordable Care Act” utterly unacceptable to so many Catholics, including me: the contraceptive mandate. Continue reading