The church bells chimed today

Hey there, and thanks so much for being here if you’re new. You saw my last post, Proud to be Catholic? and I hope and pray it filled you with hope. Writing it helped me gain strength, momentum, and hope for forward movement in the Church following the release of the Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania. I received countless comments, private messages, and over 600 reads in the first 48 hours following my post. A few days have passed, and while the pain felt by so many should not be undermined or forgotten, I spoke with some Catholics who feel that we are ready for change; ready to move forward.

And then came today, a rainy Tuesday, and terrible news of another crime in the Church was released right here in my home Diocese. In fact, this young Priest grew up down the road in my hometown. He is a good friend of my good friends. He was supposed to be at their wedding. The news has left many of us without words. (My husband thinks it’s a comedy that I’m without words for once in my life.)

Hope will return. It is with me permanently; tattooed on my foot, in fact. But for now, it is okay to mourn.

 

The church bells chimed today

I was surprised by how much they had to say.

You’re noisy, I thought, won’t you pipe down?

The clanging seemed to make the most awful sound.

 

Yesterday, I had hope, “Perhaps a light is near!”

Today, the news is closer to home; we are all filled with fear.

 

Days that are sunny, snowy, or filled with clouds,

The church bells are a constant, bellowing from the mountains, proud.

I couldn’t believe they still rang; How could they?

So many are filled with shock and dismay.

 

Tomorrow, a new day will come.

We will fast, we will pray, and we will mourn another brother’s crime as one.

And for now, it’s awfully hard to see the way

But the church bells still chimed today.

 

 

 

 

 

Proud to be Catholic?

I almost took the bumper sticker off of my car this week. “Proud to be Catholic,” it proclaims, in black and white boldface font, nothing ambiguous about its message. My dad has a matching one on his van, sitting parked a few miles away. Despite my husband thinking the sticker is “a bit much” and “perhaps even prideful,” we leave it on. The stupid magnet has been a conversation-starter in parking lots near and far. Sometimes people stare as they pass me on a local highway, and I imagine they are expecting to find a man dressed in a habit, but really it’s just me, sipping my coffee and formulating my next excuse for being late.

This week, “proud” was not a describing word near the top of many Catholics’ lists. Embarrassed, ashamed, straight-up pissed off, disgusted, discouraged, and fearful may have made top-ten lists following the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. But proud? That one’s nowhere to be found.

But there was Mass today, and I showed up.

This Sunday, I showed up and played the keyboard with my parish’s contemporary music ensemble. We sit in the balcony of the church, and I sit closest to the edge, making for a perfect view. It’s like sitting out at the end of a peninsula, as the rounded ceiling above me feels almost close enough to touch, the stained glass windows are even more beautiful from such a height, and the crucifix behind the altar, though farther away, is a focal point to be admired from off the ground. I am typically in a daze, playing familiar chords and absorbing the sights around me.

Today, however, what struck me the most… were the people. The sanctuary was particularly packed. With summer winding down and a new school year just around the corner, students are still with their parents before vanishing to their collegiate homes, families have returned from summer vacations sporting fresh tans, and the older folks are happy to be out and about in the warm weather.

I watched family after family file in. The family who’s loved one recently passed away, the family with the daughter in her wheelchair, the family with one child, and the family with eight. They came, one after another, finding their pews, bowing in prayer, chattering with one another. They showed up. I looked down directly below me to find a mom, wrestling her two-year-old daughter to stay in the pew while she dug for her checkbook for the weekly collection. My eyes moved to the pew next to hers, and I found an older couple, arms linked, hands intertwined. They showed up.

Not far from them, I found a mom with her arm around her daughter, and I thought about the emotions they must both be feeling as she heads off to college for the first time this week. I saw a man sitting alone, a young couple preparing for marriage, and my favorite – a mom and dad walking with their young son, each holding one of his hands as he walked, unsteady on his feet, down the center aisle.

“Why?” I asked myself. “Why are they here?” They could’ve given up long ago. Because their family member died or the diagnosis was just too much or the two-year old was just having a bad morning. They could’ve stayed home.

And then this week! We all could’ve stayed home. The truth is, I almost stayed home. As this past Wednesday was a Holy Day and a work day, I had to wake up earlier than normal to make it to Mass, in a different parish, the day after the Grand Jury report was released. Yeah, I had little interest in showing up.

And back to today: each of those individuals, those families, those children… they all showed up. In a very real way, they held doors for one another, they held hands with their beloved, they missed the homily because they were taking the kids to the bathroom again. They said the prayers, they sang the songs, they said the responses. They showed up, seeking answers, seeking truth, and seeking Jesus.

Despite them being the same people I see Sunday after Sunday, watching them today brought tears to my eyes and an electric current to my heart. Suddenly, it was difficult to see if my sheet music wanted me to play a G chord or a C, because my eyes were blurry and my head was with them. The show-er-uppers. The faithful. The body of Christ.

We can be angry. We can be humiliated, ashamed, discouraged. We should be. Some of the very men who were supposed to be showing us the way were too busy committing the most heinous of crimes, the most sinful of acts. We should demand answers, seek truth, move into action. As I sit and write my small contribution here, my husband is composing a letter to a Cardinal. We shouldn’t stop until these crimes are unheard of, a distant memory.

But what do we actually do? Many are asking the question. I am asking the question. Watching those faithful ones today, for one fraction of a second, I felt that I caught a glimmer of the answer. We show the hell up. This is not the time for Catholics to sleep in, to skip Mass, to walk in shame, to strip their cars of their bumper stickers, or to hide and remain silent. This – today – is the moment to show up. Show up wherever you are. Saint Theresa of Calcutta said that “to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Be so patient and kind with your husband that he’ll wonder what chore you’re trying to get him to do. Hold the door for the weird-looking dude behind you, introduce yourself to the new family at Mass, find what sets your heart ablaze and go do it, step out when you’re afraid, write the letter, open your mouth. Show up. Be so on fire for Jesus and His Church that others will say “wait, you’re Catholic?” Let them know who you are. And most importantly, let them know who He is.

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” – St. Teresa of Avila

Following Philomena: (Final) Incident Seven

I found out I was pregnant REALLY early on. I was about four weeks pregnant when the tests were positive, and about four and a half when the pregnancy was confirmed with blood work. I loved knowing so soon, and I loved having such a big secret in the form of something (someone, rather) so tiny. After the initial shock diminished and the consumption of occasional alcohol beverages halted, I did what any basic pregnant millennial would do: I downloaded The Bump app on my phone. I entered my due date, and now, a few weeks later, I was seven weeks pregnant. The Bump educated me about the size of the baby by comparing the seven-week-old nugget to a blueberry. The name stuck. Despite transforming into a raspberry by week eight or a cauliflower by week 27 or a watermelon by week one-hundred-and-thirty-freaking-nine, we called the baby… blueberry. There was something about blueberry that was sweet, and tiny, and seemed like a good nickname for our baby with the unknown gender. A few times when I was frustrated over what on earth we would name a girl, I joked that we’d just call her blueberry.

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Note in the “about you” section, an encouragement from our nurse: “Come on, baby blueberry!”

By this point, I was pretty far along. The date was February 28th, and sometimes in the evening, I was restless. I think I’ve mentioned before that our home is next to our church, and just down the street there’s another big Catholic church. The advantage to the one down the road is that there is a 24-hour perpetual adoration chapel. What does this mean, the non-Catholics ask. This means that inside of a room in the church, the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist is out in the open 24 hours a day, so that visitors from far and wide can come to spend some time and sit with Jesus. It was a cold Wednesday evening, and when Darren invited me on a date to the adoration chapel, I happily obliged.

We arrived, I sat for a while in silence, debated the struggle of removing my coat and snow boots, felt the baby move, experienced back pain, and oh shoot, only 12 minutes had gone by. I wanted to get out of the house. I was now out of the house, and not any more comfortable. The bookshelf in the next room popped into my brain. “Maybe some good theological reading will help me pray and relax,” I thought. I scanned the bookshelf, filled from side to side on all three rows, I’d guess with anywhere from 75 to 100 books in total. Theology of the Body caught my eye (nothing like some light reading), and I quickly snagged it from the shelf. I made my way back to the chapel, sat down next to Darren, and grunted as my belly got in the way of anything and everything.

This is the part where I say that I had some deep thoughts about pregnancy and human life (because well, I’m sitting in an adoration chapel reading Theology of the Body), or that I experienced the presence of God in some contemplative prayer, but I’ll be honest, the only thing I was contemplating was how much longer I could bear to sit there in that uncomfortable chair. I read the foreword of my selected reading material, and made a mental note that I would read the whole enormous thing during my maternity leave (ask me how that went). After the foreword, I had had enough. My eyes darted over to my husband (who actually was deep in some contemplative prayer, I am sure), hoping he would soon be ready to leave. At that point, I closed the book with a thud, probably for effect, and a small card fell out of the paperback. This time, I think my grunt was audible. “Am I REALLY expected to pick that thing up?” (Can I get an Amen from any woman who has ever had to pick anything up from off the floor while pregnant?)

I bent down, and planned to shove the loose card back inside of the book without much thought, but the picture on the front caught my eye. It was a woman, beautiful, and the light above me illuminated the gold edge of the card. And then… no, no, NO. This could not be. Philomena six times before, but not this. This would be far too much. I was sure I was hallucinating as my eyes found the letters that spelled “Sancta Philumena,” translated, Holy Philomena. It was a prayer card of Saint Philomena. I flipped it over to find a prayer. My heart raced, and I clutched the card so tightly in my hands that by the time I finally found the strength to hand it over to Darren, it was damp with sweat from my palms. He looked at me, looked at the card, looked back to me, smiled, shook his head in disbelief, and went right back to praying without a word.

 

This was incident seven. I remember trying to decide what to do with the card. At first, sticking it in my purse seemed like the right thing to do. After all, it was the seventh and final sign; I should have this card! Philomena was halfway to my purse when something deep within me said “No! Put the card back. Put Philomena back. This is not just for you; she will be a sign to many.”

We left the chapel in silence that night. It was 10 pm before we opened the door, the cold air stinging our faces and Darren taking my hand. Finally, we spoke.

“Philomena.”

 

Following Philomena: Incident 6

In the last part of the story, you may have noticed that while quite ironic, instances four and five happened as a result of our mentioning Philomena first. For example, the name didn’t fall from the sky on a piece of paper at random (until one day it did; more on that later). Both individuals mentioned, both our friend Dale and Father Dave, reassured us about Philomena after we had already brought it up. So how would we know if Philomena was really supposed to be Philomena, or if my overly active imagination was running away with this story?

So far, Philomena had made herself known to us five times. I had heard of her at Mass, saw her on a page of first grade illustrations, found her on a maternity t-shirt, and had spoken of her with two different friends. And yet, I doubted. Truthfully, my own doubt exhausted me. But what if it’s not a girl? What if that’s not what her name should be? If it were not a girl, why would all of these Philomena incidents continue to occur? The questions lingered on and on, with no answer to be found.

Until one Sunday. My husband attends monthly meetings at a Franciscan Friary about an hour away from our home. He’s been doing this for a few years, and over time, I’ve attended meetings with him. I’ve attended regularly enough to get to know some of the secular Franciscans, and my personal favorite is a woman by the name of Dorothy. The first time I saw Dorothy enter a room, I thought she was perhaps Barbie stuck inside of a sixty-something-year-old’s body. Dorothy wore stilettos, a pencil skirt and matching blazer, and a tiny little hair accessory in her long, pin-straight blonde hair. I was amazed. Until I saw Dorothy again. Same style, different color, different day. Simply put, the woman looked great. We made small talk some times, and I got to know a bit more about her. She waited until after we’d met a few times to drop this bomb: SHE HAS SIXTEEN CHILDREN. I’m the first to be annoyed by all capital letters, but I really feel here that this point needs to be emphasized. SIXTEEN! I asked some questions, many of which she assured me she has been asked precisely one thousand times. This woman glowed. She spoke with a calm confidence, as if nothing she was saying was absolutely absurd.

We got to know Dorothy better. In fact, she attended our wedding (and tore up the dance floor, I might add). Shortly thereafter, I told Dorothy I was pregnant. She was, of course, elated for our little family, but truthfully I felt as though my news was a bit lame. After all, it was my first pregnancy, not my ninth or eleventh or SIXTEENTH. I talked for only a few minutes, about pregnancy symptoms and how far along I was. I spoke in a very general sense, and Philomena was far from my mind. I told her that yes I felt great and yes we were excited and… Dorothy interrupted me.

“Yes? Excuse me?” Dorothy took my hand.

“Sarah. Ever since you started telling me about your pregnancy, I have been feeling like God wants me to tell you about my fourteenth child.”

The statement stopped me abruptly, and truthfully, I found it incredibly strange. Why would this woman tell me about her fourteenth child? Why not her first child? This is my first go at this, after all. Maybe she hasn’t heard anything I’m saying. Maybe she thinks I…

“My fourteenth child. Her name is Philomena.”

As the blood rushed from my face, I had to ask Dorothy to please excuse me while I took a seat.

Following Philomena: Incidents 4 & 5

Wow, has it been a while. I’ve promised myself for months that I would write (and finish) the story of Philomena’s name. After an almost-two-month hiatus, I am back, and determined to finish this thing (mostly so that my child can someday read the story of how her whacky parents picked her whacky name).

Please, if you have the time, and if you find this interesting, start at Part One. That’s what I’ve done over and over in order to write this story and remember all the details. After this part (four and five), there will be two more. Thanks for reading – it means so much to me. Leave a comment to let me know you were here!

***

As the Christmas season closed in upon us, my belly grew, and so did my fondness of Philomena. It was a strange feeling, and even stranger to put into words, but I’ll do my best.

Philomena became more than a name. She became a concept, a feeling. An old friend that was with me, who understood, and who walked with me through my days. She was comforting, and she just… fit. Along with all of these warm fuzzy feelings came moments of glaring doubt, and that feeling you get when you misjudge how far down the step off of a sidewalk is. You know, that sensation that makes your belly jump higher than your throat for a second? I’d be driving down a familiar road or speaking to a friend or thinking about the weather and whoosh, a moment of “ARE YOU CRAZY!?” would overtake me. I’d think “I can’t possibly name her Philomena. I don’t even know a Philomena. People will think we’re trying to be trendy, or different, or just plain nuts. And our last name. That’s too long too! This poor kid. I wonder what people will think…”

These thoughts and feelings only grew stronger as I mistakenly told an acquaintance our name choice. Up until this point, we had only told our parents and a few extra-close friends about Philomena: the name, and the experience of how she came to us. But on this day, I let it slip. I mentioned Philomena, and as soon as the word slipped past my lips, I held my breath for an almost-stranger’s reaction.

“Oh, honey! Where did you come up with that? That’s different. It’s nice how people these days just make names up!

First of all, honey, I’ve never been the kind of girl that does well with… terms of endearment. I think it’s genetic. When I was in middle school, a southern belle in sweet Kentucky told my father to “just pull that there lever, honey,” when pumping gas down there in the foreign land where peaches grow. We still joke about it today. My husband and I don’t even do honey. If you want the real story of what goes on in our house, we call each other “stinky.” “Stink,” in a hurry.

Second of all, I didn’t come up with it. Don’t give me so much credit! And third, please don’t classify this honey as a “people these days.”

But she was right. It was different. It is different! And I think that is precisely why God graced us with Philomena in abundance, keeping the signs flowing freely from Himself.

One of those signs is a fairly new, constant gift in my life, and it comes in the form of a woman named Dale. She’s sort of like my concept of Philomena: she brings continual feelings of hope, warmth, and truth in love to anyone privileged to spend a moment with her (and this is precisely why she and her husband are Philomena’s Godparents today). For the last two-ish years, Dale’s made the favorites list of my phone. Anytime a spiritual-emotional crisis arises in my life (or at least what I think is a “crisis”), Dale’s the one getting the call. And for a woman who does it all, she always answers. Not only does she answer; she is armed with an answer. Her answer usually comes in the form of a patron saint followed up by a text with a prayer or a recipe or a “come over for tea.”

And so, I called Dale. I told her of Philomena. She was calm and unmoved, almost as if she had heard the story before. “I have an aunt Phil(omena),” she stated. “It’s perfect.” The reassurance lasted a few days, until I needed it again.

I mentioned previously that we live next door to our church. Living in this little neighborhood provides ample opportunities to: wake up to the chime of church bells, get annoyed about parking on Sundays, and have our Priest over for dinner on occasion. As seconds of lasanga were served and the wine flowed during dinner one evening, the story of Philomena made its way to the forefront of conversation.

“Ah, Philomena! That’s my mother’s name! And, the parish secretary, her mother was Philomena too. We had a Mass for her back in September.”

…Philomena had come full circle.

 

Following Philomena: Incident 3

Maternity clothes. A sometimes fun, sometimes dreaded aspect of pregnancy. I was surprised by how early I needed to venture into this unfamiliar territory. My jeans stopped buttoning at 11 weeks, and I could talk about my…undergarment…sizes, but I’ll stop now, in case any male readers find themselves here. Thankfully, I had friends willing to part with, or at least share, some cute tops and dress pants – enough to make it through the work weeks. What I didn’t realize, however, was that comfy things, like favorite t-shirts and yoga pants, would also get a little snug. I remember shopping with my mom for some essentials, but they were plain t-shirts, you know, boring things.

Then one cloudy fall day, one of my favorite Catholic Instagrammers posted that she was about to launch her fall line of products. These products included clothes, and specifically… her first maternity t-shirt. YES! I was all over this. Before she even posted a preview of the top, I emailed the link to Darren, requesting it as an early Christmas gift. I knew that whatever Brick House in the City designed, I was sure to love.

Meanwhile, Philomena was always in the back of my mind. I was a bit shaken by our two back-to-back encounters with the name just weeks before. I continued the baby name search, clicking on every email from The Bump that hinted it contained new ideas. Soon, I found myself surprised that every name started to pale in comparison to Philomena. No no, I’d tell myself. Four syllables, that’s a bit excessive. Once, in the middle of the night, the name woke me up, and I spent the subsequent minutes falling asleep trying to talk myself out of it. Eventually, I gave up and told myself it would be a boy.

The days passed by. I did some research on St. Philomena, and again, tried to move on. The launch of the aforementioned fall products approached, and I remember my anticipation of the maternity t-shirt reveal. Darren was ready for the preorder discount. The shirt, I remember reading, was going to be filled with names of patron Saints of pregnancy and motherhood. Makes sense to me. Well, you guessed it: there she was. The white, bold-faced letters jumped off of their black background, creating the same reaction in me as the very first time the name appeared. Hello Philomena, we meet again.

Following Philomena: Part Two

This post is a continuation of Following Philomena, Part One, found by scrolling down, or clicking here. Hope you enjoy this continuation of my favorite story of all time.

Friday morning came, September 22nd, and I woke up feeling tired after a long workweek. I was off for the day, and I was planning some errands and a trip to the grocery store. I was feeling a bit cranky and groggy, and I thought that attending daily Mass next door might be a positive way to start the day and get out of my waking-up funk. My husband and I live next door to our parish, St. John the Baptist, and 9:00 am daily Mass sometimes calls to me through the stained-glass windows of the marvelous sanctuary and into my cozy bedroom, urging me to get out of bed on days off. This day, though, I remember not feeling like it. I thought it would be a good idea to head on over, but I didn’t necessarily want to. I got dressed, drank some orange juice, again contemplated the possibility of not going, and ultimately walked in the Chapel doors at 8:59.

“Good morning. This Mass is in memory of Philomena Carol.”

To be honest, the baby’s name was the farthest thing from my mind, but the melodic and long-winded four-syllable word drew my eyes up from my folded hands to the Priest who spoke it in one-half second. “Philomena,” I thought. “That’s beautiful. I’ve never heard that before. But that’s so weird. I would never name a child Philomena.” Nonetheless, I pulled up the trusty Notes app on my phone, you know, the one that tells me to call the dentist and pay my Macy’s bill, and wrote “Philomena.” Incident number one.

The day passed by. Groceries were purchased, paychecks were deposited, errands were run. Philomena remained with me throughout my day, lingering on the back burner of my mind. Darren arrived home after work, “thank God it’s Fridays were exchanged, and the kitchen timer alerted me that my trusty Friday Aldi’s frozen pizza was ready.

“Hey, I went to Mass today,” I mentioned, casually.

“Good.”

“I heard this name. Philomena,” I said, in an attempt to sound equally as casual and also impartial. I wanted my husband’s opinion.

“That’s nice,” he said.

“I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Me either.”

Friday passed, and Saturday came. Philomena remained.

Darren and I teach first grade religious education for our parish. This class of rambunctious 6-7 year-olds meets weekly on a Sunday morning, and Darren and I typically rush out the door, spilling cheerios as we try to beat our students to class. Each week, we learn about Jesus, the Bible, our Catholic faith, and everything in between. There is also a weekly drawing or picture that corresponds with our lesson. Because this particular week in late September we did not prepare our lesson in advance (whoops, what was our excuse this time?), I hadn’t looked at the lesson or its corresponding picture until Sunday morning.

I flipped the book open to our pages for the week, and quickly looked for the right words to say about our picture lesson. I found the picture, and more than that, I found the picture’s illustrator. Her name, you ask? Philomena. I couldn’t tell you what the picture was of, or what the artist’s last name was if you asked. I was too frozen, paralyzed by the word on the page that seemed to be glaring at me in neon letters. Philomena. It was all I could see, and all I could manage to think of when our first student arrived to tell us a story of yet-another-missing-tooth.

“Darren! Look at this. Look at this name!” I couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

“Huh. That’s….”

“The name. From Mass.”

“…Weird.”

Incident number two.