If a single snapshot is able to capture the image of a lifetime, it would be this of Judy Wells: I would occasionally walk unannounced into my parents’ bedroom to find my mom in the afternoon’s half-light, kneeling alone by her bed, praying the Rosary. She’d look up with hesitant eyes that told distinctly different stories: her self-consciousness in being caught up in the raw nakedness of prayer, and her hope that I’d kneel beside her. That open hearted look hangs forever in my mind like a ghost of warm remembrance.
Mom died too soon of cancer, and in these lonesome days I keep thinking of her. Like birds building a thick winter’s nest straw by straw, Mom joined Dad in fortifying her eight children with reminders of both the horror and reality of the cross. I would encounter my own crosses down the line, she knew, so without my knowledge, she burned Catholic relics into my soul.
Monthly confessions, bedtime prayers from my boney knees, daily Lenten Masses, and nightly dinner-time spirituality were the ubiquitous and reassuring rhythms escorting me through trouble-free days. I could cry now; it seems a lost Catholic world.
Countless times my dad has asked me a single question: How have my siblings and me stayed faithful Catholics; all of your spouses are Catholic, all the grandkids are being raised this way – how could this be?
I don’t think my answer has changed.
“We prayed the Rosary, Dad.”
What has filled those years—those years since Mom and Dad handed me my first rosary and began to teach; began to spiritually parent me. Infertility, failed brain surgery, money-depleting adoption scams, a grotesquely murdered priest-uncle, encounters with the demonic, a failing body, a twisted right knee that mostly no longer works.
What is it that’s filled these wide gaps of both delight and terror, of complexity and plainness, of virtue and sin? What has remained with me throughout my valleys of locusts and occasional tides of consolation? It is an echo from the mid-’70s: from a childhood raised in a Levitt-style blueish-gray corner Colonial home in Bowie, Maryland: Kevin, a relationship with God simply cannot happen without prayer.
As the tide of time has pushed on and sin has pushed me from the dock of God’s will, it’s been my parent-formed conscience that’s pulled me in. I was “ordered” by my parents. They never quit sowing Catholic heirlooms into me. While my soul was still in a mostly pure state, they went to work. When my guilelessness began its inevitable drift, they worked harder.
The rosary, prayed alongside my siblings, is the long-stretching nautical rope that has always pulled me back to reason.
When I’ve lost myself in the continuity of time, when the darkness of my sin has put me in a pit core-drilled far down into the darkness of the earth – when only teams of demons seem to surround me—I’ve reached out with a single tinny, inaudible word—Mary.
A light shines, and a voice calls out from very far away, from above:
Oh, Mary. your heaving tides of lament and supplication that spoke in La Salette, Fatima and Akita; they still have not reached fully my ear. Dare I ask you: work harder now (if it is possible) to hold back God as just judge in this time of spiritual drift. This piecemeal shutdown of your Son and the sacramental life does not bode well for your children – the confused tween, the rebellious teenager and the self-assertive college-aged young adult – they are submerged in dangerous waves this Holy Thursday morning.
It seems we cannot fix our will on anything anymore. And during this profoundly downcast span of time, we cannot even fix our gaze on your Son. We cannot taste Him at tonight’s Mass. Do not let us slip away. Mother us back from this (perhaps) deserved exiling. Amen.
The Mass is irreplaceable. And due to its absence, many are starving now for this unequaled channel of God’s grace—but there are other channels of grace. A news source reported that thirty dioceses have suspended outdoor confessions and last rites, only allowing them in case of “extreme emergency” while witnessing sacramental marriages has been suspended altogether.
Citing the physical safety of his flock, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori has made the sacraments virtually impossible to receive. Churches have been shuttered, even as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has made allowances for the Catholic laity to safely receive the sacraments.
Bishop Mitchell Rozanski was the first American bishop to suspend the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in his Springfield, Massachusetts diocese. The sacramental Anointing of the Sick is conferred upon those Catholics who are in danger of death.
But at this moment I am thinking of those wearied American Catholic parents who week in, week out agonize in getting their kids to CCD, youth groups, to pray as a family or even attend Sunday Mass. Perhaps over the years they’ve wondered Sunday in and Sunday out:
Why doesn’t Father address pornography and the secular culture that reaches into the spiritual abyss of my son? Why won’t he enter into the spiritual grind of my poor boy? Why is he muted on the heroic pursuit of virtue and of the manner in which saints worked in darkness to overcome habitual demons? Is Father absent-minded or just indifferent to the pained soul before him and of the parents who want that child to go to Heaven.
Why does Father not preach on the spiritual necessity for absolution in the Sacrament of Confession? Perhaps, parents might have considered over the years, that it’s directly related to his allotted time in his schedule for his confessional, which is opened for just 45 minutes each week.
Television shows, cartoons, commercials, news items, classmates, close friends and even some priests have normalized and ennobled perversions. Why does Father not speak with the prophetic voice given him at ordination? Why must this runaway train of heretical Modernism keep racing past the soul of my child? Why can’t it begin to be derailed by the bold prophetic voice from Father behind the ambo?
I am thinking about what’s been building this past decade. Mom and Dad have repeatedly paid witness to what’s filled the void of the lost prophetic voice: a new kind of geneflection. Kids in masse are lowering their heads to Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and pornography to distract themselves from unspoken confusion, torment and hidden sin.
Many of these families will not have their children with them at Mass when the virus finally is under control. Although parents will insist on participation in the sacraments and the Mass, many teens will stay home. The Church will have lost them.
If a grace is to be found during this quarantine, it could be this: Catholic parents may be beginning to war like Guardians Angels, standing watch over their children like pacing Bethlehem shepherds. Perhaps some are rising from bed earlier these days, lighting a candle and discussing, as spouses must, ways to harness those noonday demons that now stretch into entire days.
Alert parents are aware of the byproducts of their children’s cell phones—whether what is offered is relatively harmless or grotesque. They understand that those phones are a tool of Satan’s relentless spiritual war for young souls. So these wearied, but committed parents may be stepping in like never before—because they know of the many who’ve stepped out.
Some, I think, probably reached for their rosary this Holy Thursday morning. I imagine many are entering this isolated Triduum as Judy Wells may have when she walked from room to room for her children and called in her baseball-playing sons from the side yard.
She was calling us in for the family Rosary; when she took us from the world and placed us with Mary. These were the times when the world was peaceful for a while and a Mother’s gentleness poured like a grace into that blueish-gray corner Colonial in suburban America.