By John Rieping | Published 18 Dec 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Look up the noun “advent” in the New Oxford American Dictionary and you will read: “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” The roots of the word in Latin mean “to come” or “coming.”
In short, “advent” looks forward, and so does the Christian season of the same name.
My family took the weeks of Advent seriously in my childhood. The season has long been a time to happily prepare for Christmas — not celebrate it beforehand.
No Christmas decorations, music, or television specials were allowed in my childhood home before Christmas Eve except for Advent carols, an Advent calendar, an Advent candle wreath, and a nativity (a tableau of events surrounding the birth of Jesus).
We set out wooden statues of shepherds and their sheep first, and a stable with only an ox. Later Joseph and Mary would arrive with their donkey. Across the room, figures of gift-bearing wise men would lead a camel.
Before our evening meal, we’d pray and then light the number of colored candles for the current week of the season. I hoped to be chosen for that task. I loved the liveliness of fire dancing upon the wick. More importantly, the candles counted down to Christmas.
Sometimes we’d go to a “posada,” which is a nine-day Spanish and Mexican custom reenacting efforts of Jesus and Mary to find lodging in the town of Bethlehem. Although Hispanic, I didn’t know Spanish. Yet I understood the simple theater, music, and tasty refreshments in those homes.
On Christmas Eve or so, my father would buy an evergreen tree for us to ornament. We could finally play my parents’ Firestone Tires collection of recordings with uncommon Christmas songs and singers such as Perry Como and Nat King Cole. The exoticness delighted me.
On Christmas Eve night, my family would worship God at Mass and marvel. Back home, a figurine of a baby Jesus would be passed around and rocked in our hands as we sang. After kissing it, we’d place it between the forms of his earthly parents in the stable and sing the “Happy Birthday” song.
Then we sang posada carols in Spanish, which signaled that a plate of treats would soon be in my greedy grasp.
Next the gifts, if any, would be distributed. Sometimes we followed an older tradition of both Mexico and Germany and receive presents not on Christmas Eve, but on the holy day of Epiphany (aka Little Christmas, the 12th day of Christmas, etc.), which traditionally falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany celebrates Jesus being revealed to non-Jews, such as the three magi whose figurines at last arrived at the nativity stable.
I initially believed Santa Claus visited our house to reward good children, but a friend destroyed that illusion early on. Since I was the youngest in my family, the charade didn’t continue, but my mom instead labelled my gifts “From: Baby Jesus.”
I’m not the easiest person to buy a gift for. One Christmas, my mother gave me “horrible” generic toy robots instead of the expensive brand name “Transformers” toys I asked for, and my eldest brother gave me an “Erector” construction set I loved.
To spare her feelings, I exclusively played with the robots I despised. My mother pulled me aside to urge me not to ignore my brother’s offering. With the cruel honesty of a child, I explained my deception and never played with the unloved robots again.
I have been unappreciative of so many gifts I’ve received in my life. Of them all, however, God is the best present I ever received from my parents, and I am thankful.
My mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, will probably be convalescing away from home this Christmas after an unplanned stay in Madera Community Hospital this week. She is not likely to join in singing any carols or even be aware of what day it may be.
Yet her gift of faith remains. She offered it to her children by the witness of her own life. By God’s grace, I hope and trust it will one day carry her on to a far truer life than this one, a life where the celebration will never end.
In the meanwhile, this life we believers lead is just another Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of our God. “Happy birthday” the angels may sing when our journey ends.
By Mark Smith | Published 13 Dec 2014 in The Madera Tribune | Used with Permission | All rights reserved |
Flurries of rain hours before sunrise didn’t keep the Guadalupanos Society of Madera and others from traditional Mexican songs and prayer Friday, Dec. 12, during the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
More than a thousand Maderans waited inside St. Joachim’s Catholic Church as the Guadalupanos carried a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe across 4th Street before 5 a.m. as heavy rain continued to fall.
Carlos Rodriguez, the group’s president, said the traditional ceremony served to honor the “Virgen de Guadalupe,” — a title for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ — and her “birth” into Mexican culture in 1531 A.D. via an unusual image, one well known across the world as a miracle.
Across four days in December of 1531, Rodriguez said Mary appeared from Heaven to 57-year-old Juan Diego, a widower, farmer and weaver belonging to the native Chichimeca people and the first Roman Catholic saint of the Americas. She allegedly asked him to have a new church quickly built on the outskirts of Mexico City.
As she spoke in his native Nahuatl — aka Aztec — language, Diego became convinced she was truly the mother of Jesus. He spoke to Mexico City’s archbishop Juan de Zumarraga, who asked Diego — a convert to Christianity — for proof of her identity.
On the final day she appeared to Diego, Dec. 12, Mary told him to gather flowers atop the city’s Tepeyac Hill. There he found a swath of Castilian roses in bloom out of season and out of place — the plants are native to Spain, not Mexico.
Mary arranged the roses in Diego’s tilma, a sort of cloak or poncho, before he went to the bishop. When Diego opened his cloak before him, the roses fell to the floor and on his tilma was the image of a pregnant Mary standing on the moon and in front of the sun. Some interpreted this as a sign that her child Jesus was superior to the Aztec moon and sun deities.
After the building of the requested chapel, Diego lived as a hermit in a small hut nearby and shared his story to those who came to see the tilma until his death in 1548.
Rodriguez said recalling that powerful image, as well as the love provided by the Virgin of Guadalupe to her people, was a worldwide tradition and one celebrated in Madera, California, since the Guadalupanos chapter was formed in 1927.
“Friendship, love, and unity is what she gives us,” Rodriguez said. “The whole continent celebrates this date. It’s like being a family. We feel like a family with this. She has a lot to give all of us.”
Once the group entered St. Joachim’s with the statue of Mary upheld, the audience rose to sing many songs such as “Las Mananitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, before they prayed for the “blessed mother” and participated in a Catholic mass service.
After that, free breakfast was served to hundreds in Holy Spouse’s Hall across the street from St. Joachim’s, as they celebrated past sunrise with more music and dancing.
Normally, without the heavy rain that spent most of Thursday and Friday drenching the state, the Guadalupanos would walk from Clinton and Tozer streets to St. Joachim’s with the statue of Mary and sang to Madera as its citizens woke.
Because of Friday morning’s stormy weather, however, the group instead carried Mary across 4th street from Holy Spouse’s Hall to St. Joachim’s in a shorter, but powerful procession.
That joined eight previous days of rosary prayer by Guadalupanos members in front of the Catholic church to honor one of their most holy figures, members said, as strongly as the group could each year.
“Every year, whether it’s rain or shine, we celebrate her birthday every single time,” said Adrian Medina, a 20-year-old Guadalupanos member who helped set up the event. “Even with the rain, everything is for our blessed mother, Juan Diego, and for our community to represent who we are.”
For information on the Guadalupanos Society of Madera and the events they hold all year, call 559-647-5200.
By John Rieping | Published 8 Nov 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
My thanks to those readers who called last week. Samuel of Tulare, California, asked for a list of books about Rev. Miguel Pro, SJ, who died for his faith in Mexico in 1926. I haven't read any -- just many articles. But one highly rated on the website www.goodreads.com is "Blessed Miguel Pro" by Ann Ball. Another book to consider would be "La Cristiada: The Mexican People's War for Religious Liberty" by Jean Meyer.
On Wednesday, someone online asked others to share their worst experience leading a tabletop role-playing game. The niche hobby combines elements of a board game with the storytelling of a game of "let's pretend." One person often acts as a kind of referee.
A few years ago I stepped up to lead one such game after one of our playmates moved away. But I decided to majorly re-invent the game we were playing. I worked for weeks writing about a new world of my own invention and filling it with peoples and mysteries.
Eventually the game began, and the adventurers portrayed by my real life friends found themselves in a foreign world they did not understand. I had imagined it would be, metaphorically, like a sandbox in which children can invent their own fun. So I gave them no guidance or help.
I realized they weren't having fun, so I planned during the week and even recorded a silly song to aid the storytelling.
We played a week later and this time I wasn't hands off. I used a forest fire in the story to try to force the lost adventurers into an ambush I thought they could handle. Instead my silly song scared them and they chose to nearly burn to death rather than face unknown foes.
That game session ended in a real life argument.
The third session went even more badly, and by the fourth week only one of my friends bothered to even show up to the scheduled game. The rest never offered an excuse.
The story had died.
Both before and after that experience, I've led enjoyable role-playing games for others. Yet that failed one is one I've pondered most in hopes of not repeating my mistakes.
And I see myself in the characters played by my friends.
When I lack guidance or direction, I too flounder. I want God or others to clearly point out where to go or what to do. Yet I'm not docile. If afraid, I rebel. If pressured, I rebel. If bored, I rebel. If uncomfortable, I rebel. If offended, I rebel.
But the divine creator of this world, unlike my fictional one, is trustworthy.
I suspect a frequent unspoken prayer is "God, lead me where I want to go and help me do what I want to do. Grant me adventures without serious danger, and heroism without prolonged hardship. I will taste the cup of suffering before me, then hand it back. Not your will, but mine be done."
Can you imagine a movie or book featuring a hero with that attitude?
Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong."
He explained that some want a faith that is compatible with their social life, with practicality, with science, and so on. Yet they would be social, practical, scientific, and so on even without religion.
"They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already," he continued. "They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it. It is a very different matter when a religion, in the real sense of a binding thing, binds men to their morality when it is not identical with their mood."
God, grant us grace to be bound for glory.
By John Rieping | Published 31 Oct 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
This Saturday, I will start a new “lectio divina” (“reading God”) group from 11 a.m. to noon at St. Marello Bookstore, 211 N. J St., Madera, California, on “Learning to Pray in Scripture.”
All who respect the Bible will be welcome as I (and I hope others) look at how people in the Bible prayed and what we can learn from them about prayer. Contact me about it at my website (wambly.weebly.com).
Viva Cristo Rey
Less than a century ago, my grandfather left Mexico with a price on his head, set by the state of Jalisco. His homeland’s atheistic government wanted to cripple the church and had no pity for one who stubbornly taught his creed and assisted priests.
Yet the United States wouldn’t be entirely welcoming, and he never abandoned Mexico in his heart.
Higinio Lozano first worked as a cook for a railroad line crew in the South. Once, he received a strong dose of poison oak while carrying water to wash the pots and pans. That evening his younger brother Natalio, seeking medicine, walked miles along train tracks to the nearest town.
Natalio arrived at a drugstore cold and wet from a storm. As he scraped off his muddy shoes, someone yelled, “What do you want?! Don’t you get on my floors. You wait out there until I’m ready!”
Natalio waited as a customer loitered. Eventually the pharmacist came to the door and took his order for calamine lotion. A sign in the window explained: “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed Inside!” The experience soaked in as Natalio made his way back to camp in the dark.
The brothers now spoke often of heading west.
By the late 1920s, they did so. Though lacking strength and agility, Higinio worked in the fields of San Fernando, California. But he applied his mind to his church and community. He volunteered with the Catholic Association for Mexican Youth, and wrote, directed, and performed in religious dramas.
The execution of Rev. Miguel Pro, SJ, in Mexico City on Nov. 23, 1927, inspired one such drama. My grandfather portrayed the priest. A young Maria del Carmen Najar played another role. This led to a relationship, marriage, and my own existence.
But the truth behind that play deserves repeating.
Born in Mexico of a mining engineer, Miguel Pro joined the Jesuit order Aug. 14, 1911, at age 20. Three years later he left his homeland due to its revolution. He fled to Texas and California before studying in Spain, teaching in Nicaragua, and learning theology in Belgium, where he was ordained a priest Aug. 31, 1925.
He wrote: “How can I explain to you the sweet grace of the Holy Spirit, which invades my poor miner’s soul with such heavenly joys? I could not keep back my tears…”
Though he had a serious side, Pro loved quips and pranks. As a seminarian, he’d amuse with tricks, stories, American English slang, and by singing random lines of popular songs.
He ministered first to Belgian miners. But his superiors let him return July 8, 1926, to Mexico, in hopes the food and climate would ease his chronic stomach problems. Despite the nation's deportation of many Catholic priests, no Mexican authorities bothered to check his passport or bags.
Pro created “Eucharistic Stations” throughout Mexico City to secretly distribute Holy Communion to hundreds daily. He aided the sick and poor. He even impersonated a prison guard to pray with prisoners and hear confessions.
He once met policemen guarding a house at which he’d planned to offer Mass. He strode up, opened his vest as if showing a badge, and declared, “There’s a cat bagged here.” Hoodwinked, they saluted and let him in.
Another time, police invaded a home while Pro celebrated Mass. He rushed everyone into other rooms, hid the Eucharist in his suit pocket, and then joined police on their fruitless search for a priest. When Pro left, he told a guard posted at the door he’d have helped longer but he had a date with his girlfriend. He later wrote, “I returned to the place, but, somehow or other, the priest had not yet appeared…”
He would be jailed repeatedly, which aided his prison ministry.
Finally, the Mexican government had enough. A few days after a bomb injured former president Alvaro Obregon, Pro and his brothers were arrested on false charges of attempted assassination. A trial was set for the next day, but morning brought a firing squad.
President Plutarco Calles had requested the execution six months beforehand, and photographers had been hired to document a cowardly death. But instead Pro forgave his guard, prayed, and blessed his executioners. He refused a blindfold and with arms outstretched yelled, “Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King.
By John Rieping | Published 1 Oct 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
The hot and sunny summer of 1793 had been good for the harvest in France, a country troubled by foreign and civil war, but tough for the millers, who lacked water to power their trade.
Hunger and fear met in the metropolis of Paris when news came of the surrender of the port city of Toulon to the British. Many were frustrated. More than four years of liberal revolution had not conquered poverty or inequality as promised. Parisians protested, occupying the hall of the French National Convention on Sept. 5 and petitioning for emergency measures.
The legislators responded and a “Reign of Terror” began that day to “protect” the nation and bring “salvation” to the people. When the campaign against accused traitors ended on July 28, the Revolutionary Tribunal had formally executed about 16,594 people in France and another 25,000 without even a fair trial, according to Dr. Marisa Linton of Kingston University and Donald Greer of Cambridge. Others died in custody or were lynched.
Criticizing the government once, if overheard by an informer, could send a man and his family to the then state-of-the-art guillotine for beheading. The accused were not allowed to say a word in self-defense. Most who died were common people, not aristocrats or the wealthy. Some were fellow revolutionaries.
“If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless,” said French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in a speech February 5, 1794, justifying the government’s tactics. “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible...
“It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed.”
France would be liberated, equal and fraternal — whatever the cost.
Particularly targeted was an institution considered an enemy to enlightenment and progress — the Catholic Church. On July 12, 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy closed the last legal loopholes for church property and monastic orders, legislating them out of existence. It also reduced the number of bishops from 135 to 83 and required clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the government.
Only five bishops and half of the clergy agreed.
Violence grew against those who went to Mass and nuns who would not abandon their consecrated life. Reaction was not always peaceful. Some believers didn't turn the other cheek. The campaign escalated.
Priests who would not swear loyalty were banned from preaching in February 1791, and all such priests were considered suspect and arrested after a Nov. 29th decree. Countless priests died of harsh conditions in chains on prison ships in French harbors.
In 1793, the government replaced the days and months of the Gregorian Calendar, such as Sunday, with a new calendar featuring a 10-day week with a day of rest and festivity at its end.
By the time of the Reign of Terror, the government would establish an atheistic and human-centered Cult of Reason and a deistic Cult of the Supreme Being in attempts to de-Christianize the nation. For a nationwide Festival of Reason, churches across France were transformed into Temples of Reason.
Far worse happened at the docks of Nantes.
From Nov. 1793 to Feb. 1794, around 4,000 or more Catholic priests, nuns, and families — including women and children — were drowned in the Loire. Or as Jean-Baptiste Carrier, member of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, called it: “vertical deportation.” More than 2,000 were also executed by firing squad at a nearby quarry.
Ten months after it started, the government would end its bloody Reign of Terror. Five years later, it would fall to the dictatorship of military genius Napoleon Bonaparte, who dreamt of empire. With his defeats, the revolution at last lost its final champion.
Yet, despite it all, Christianity remained.
“During a frustrating argument with a Roman Catholic cardinal, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly burst out: 'Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?' The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: 'Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.' ” (Ross Douthat, New York Times, March 28, 2010)
By John Rieping | Published 4 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“ ‘I wish life was not so short,’ he thought. ‘Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.’”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
Time travel can be lovely sometimes.
I learned in April that my grandmother, Carmen Najar Lozano, had written a letter dated in the year 2000, eight years after her death in 1992. She had left it with my late aunt, missionary nun Sister Conception (nicknamed “Conchita”), to be shared after my grandmother’s death.
It was discovered in the belongings of my aunt after her own passing in 2013.
“Esteemed and dear children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” it began in Spanish, which I here poorly translate. “For all without exception a greeting from your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who always prays to God with the Virgin Mary for your protection. Now, a great wish that will make me very happy, is that you are always united in not doing less for any member of the family.
“Help the brother who you encounter in need, aiding, that you may be rewarded [by God] a hundredfold and none of you will be lacking. My children, do not forget that I ask this of you, the same as I ask you do not forget your sister Conchita. All of you receive the blessing of your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.”
In a way, her letter could be considered her last will and testament, though it distributes blessings rather than property. She wanted her progeny to remain united in love, mercy, and prayer to God — and wisely saw those three as a source of divine blessings.
She is not the only one to leave a spiritual testament of sorts.
In August, the Islamic State executed freelance journalist James Foley, 40, in Syria after two years of captivity in an attempt to pressure the U.S. to halt its air strikes. His mother would write on Facebook, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim, he gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Less than three years before, Foley’s alma mater — Marquette University — published an essay by Foley on his previous imprisonment for reporting in Libya. Foley, a Catholic Christian, shared how prayer sustained him at that time, convinced him he “wasn’t alone,” and delivered him.
He concluded, “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
His words echo beyond the grave to offer a glimpse into his heart, where surrender to God offered him the surest shelter amid storms of death.
Not all records of our life evoke pride however.
This week the world learned that hackers of Apple’s iCloud (a computer file storage service) had been finding, trading, and selling explicit and private photographs of more than 100 female celebrities for months before a collector known as “OriginalGuy,” and possibly a later copycat as well, posted many online.
A third of the images were reportedly doctored and faked, according to Business Insider on Wednesday, and some of the others had already leaked to the public beforehand. But the lack of respect shown by the involuntary exposure caused shock and an FBI investigation.
Less recently, private contractor Edward Snowden revealed how the U.S. government had already been infringing upon the privacy of users of communication technology.
As we live, traces remain of how we lived and what we lived for. It has ever been so, but we can have short attention spans and quickly forget about it. Yet how do we want to be remembered? What words should we have shared? What deeds should we have done? Who do we want to be?
Such questions rise most readily at the ends of roads we walk, whether the end of school, a job, or a life. Yet it is now, as we are in the middle of our unfinished living, when we can make the greatest difference with the answers. There is no time machine we can use to undo our past.
May we turn not to government or celebrities but to God, and decide anew who we want to be, how we want to live, and what we want to live for. For it is only with God’s help that we will be able to do it well.
By John Rieping | Published 19 July 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“I grew up in church. As a child, going to church felt natural. But recently, Christianity has been a hard ‘thing’ to swallow, if that makes sense. I noticed that you're probably Catholic ... Have you always been very spiritual, or did you have ‘bumps in the road’? How did you come to believe?” — An online reader
British author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap... When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”
Our very lives as young children rely on whether those who care for us are trustworthy, and whether they are or not we want them to be so. They may tell us God or Santa Claus exist and some of us accept this as truth initially, for we may not know either divinity or Santa personally but we know our parents. So we believe.
But times come when our child-like faiths quake, because we have learned the imperfection of our parents, ourselves, others, or life itself. A contradiction or unsatisfied question births one doubt or many. If no remedy is sought or found, our trust in what or who we’ve believed wavers or dies.
All who live beyond childhood must pass through this in some aspect of our beliefs. This is not because of lost innocence and ignorance, which are commonly blamed. Rather it is because children accept a world handed onto them by others and are not held responsible for what they’ve received. It is not so for adults.
The world may exist before us no less than for kids, but our understanding and response has become something we pay the price for. There is always a cost for convictions, and a higher one for having none at all.
As a child, was I interested in spiritual topics like angels, miracles, and so on? Yes, as well as equally fantastical ones like magic, unicorns, elves, dragons, and more — not to mention androids and alien life forms. Children tend to have a hunger for both clarity and possibilities.
Did I ever question the existence of God? I did. Repeatedly as a young child I’d imagine God did not exist and linger dizzily on the edge of that cliff staring at the ramifications. Yet I never jumped off.
Franciscan friar William of Ockham, England, proposed that, in the absence of certainty, a solution with the fewest assumptions should be favored. This “razor” of his remains popular with scientists to this day. And I have never leapt into atheism because I believed then and now that God is both the most rational and the simplest explanation for so much I have encountered and learned of existence.
Whether hard to swallow or not is irrelevant. In my experience, it is the simplest truths that are the most difficult to embrace. We often create complications instead as a labor-saving device.
My first major crisis of faith came around age 10 when I decided I didn’t want to join my family for Sunday morning Mass. I locked myself in the bathroom — the only lockable room.
My mother and sister pled with me through the door to no avail. So my dad said to leave me be. John may not be going that day, he said, but that didn’t mean the family wouldn’t. He herded my family out the door and I could hear our automobile start up and go.
At that moment, I reflected. I did not want to go to church. I had other activities I wished to persist in instead. But did I believe in God? I searched my depths and I did. Yet whether or not one believes in God, the consequence of that belief remains a choice. Thus came a point of decision: did I love God?
I did, and realized then I wanted to worship God — not because of family but out of love. So I unlocked the door and ran into the street, chasing after my family.
That would not be my only such rebellion, but resolving them has always involved a sincere search for answers, whether within or outside, and the choice to respond to what I uncovered.
The word “crisis” comes from the Greek word for “decision” (krisis) or “decide” (krinein). A crisis is a healthy and normal opportunity to grow in one’s convictions. Fear not.