Called to be Extraordinary

Last August, our family received an unexpected, extraordinary blessing–my husband, Peter, was invested as a Lay Eucharistic Minister (Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) at Christ the King Parish.

lay minister

My husband, the youngest in the group (also the one with the least amount of hair, go figure).

The invitation came subtlely enough–after noticing Peter in line for Confession before Sunday Mass, one of the existing ministers approached him to ask if he would like to serve as a Lay Minister. A thought he never really entertained before, Peter politely thanked him for the invitation and said he would have to check his schedule, or “try” to make it to the monthly formation sessions, or some other vague answer to mask his decline. Luckily, Brother/Kuya Robert was gently persistent, regularly texting and emailing my husband, inviting, encouraging, reminding.

As the weeks, months, wore on, Peter found himself having a change of mind (and heart) on the matter. A clincher was when Kuya Robert happened to mention in one email that one of the things that prompted him to approach Peter in the first place was the impression that he was a good father (as he would see how Peter was with the kids during Sunday Mass). This comment came just a few days after we had learned that I was again expecting, meaning that we (I more than he) were in the middle of all the emotional struggle that went along with the news of yet another pregnancy.

It was a confirmation in more ways than one.

And Peter, to his surprise, found himself blessed beyond expectations. The monthly formation sessions were more than enlightening (touching on such topics as confession, Mary, and angels, among others), and the brotherhood he found with these (mostly more senior) Catholic men is heartwarming. Just the other day, I was introduced to Kuya Jerry, and was touched when this complete stranger told me that he has been offering his daily rosary for the healthy and safe delivery of my baby.

A Holy Fraternity.

A Holy Fraternity.

As a single woman who had discerned if marriage was the vocation for me, I remember having prayed for a man after God’s own heart, one who would love Him and serve Him, one who would really lead our family closer to Christ and His Church. After 8 years of marriage, I see how God continues to stay true to His promise. And what I said to Peter all those years before still holds true today–that falling in love with him (everyday) just makes me fall in love with God even more.

I honor you, Peter, for always being grateful for the gifts God has given you; for honoring Him with your time, talent and treasure; for keeping Him at the center not just of our family but also of your career; for allowing His Spirit to move in your life, molding you into the Christian servant you are; for answering His call to give more, do more, be more; for inspiring our kids, and myself, to do the same.

What a wonderfully fitting way to celebrate the Year of the Laity!

The Year of the Laity, as declared by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, for the Liturgical Year 2013-2014

I’m sure the kids all agree with me–you are our hero 🙂

A Heart Full of Love

In the parish I grew up in, a gigantic image of Christ the King looks on lovingly from behind the altar. A design which I presume is more modern than older churches, there is only Christ: no other images of saints in retablos, no ornately gilded beams or frames (at least back in the early ’80’s; they’ve added a few things since then), just clean lines showing off the magnificent, majestic King of all kings.

the altar at Christ the King Parish, Greenmeadows

I used to love singing from the choir loft because the elevation allowed me to just gaze lovingly at His face. And standing above everyone else made me feel separate from the crowd below, as if it was just the two of us talking, loving, beholding each other.

Something I loved even more than staring at Him from the loft was walking down the center aisle to receive communion. I would usually stare up at the huge image, reverently walk on the red, sometimes green, carpeted floor, and feel giddy at the thought of receiving Him into my body. The perfect anthem for this procession was Manoling Francisco’s “Sa ‘Yo Lamang,” (Yours Alone)–

Sa ‘Yo lamang ang puso ko,
Sa ‘Yo lamang ang buhay ko.

My heart is Yours alone,
My life is Yours alone.

Each step, a prayer: I’m coming, my Love! I’m coming to receive You!

But it was during my college years when I discovered something that I loved even more. This time, I found it in the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in the campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, U.P. Diliman

I can still remember the first time I ever heard mass there. I had heard a lot about this church, boasting of having had 5 national artists collaborate on its construction and design. I was quite excited to see the Stations of the Cross encircling it, each panel a genuine Manansala. But once there, I found so much more to admire: the “open” round design, the dome constructed to facilitate ventilation (quite an important feature after walking around campus under the sun), and Abueva’s double-sided crucifix (Christ crucified and resurrected) suspended from the ceiling. All magnificent spectacles to behold.

But none as memorable as the experience of receiving communion there. A circular building, there was no center or main aisle leading to the altar. Pews emanate out from the central altar like spokes on a wheel (thus the double-sided crucifix makes sense because one can see either one of the images, or the profile of both, depending on where you’re seated). I began to wonder, where do people fall in line to receive communion? I was seated facing the crucified Christ, meaning I would have to walk a considerable distance to the “front” side of the church.

The altar at the center and the communion rail encircling it.

Then, as the priest made his way down the elevated platform, mass-goers started kneeling around the periphery of the altar. The railing wasn’t just a fence bordering the altar, it was a communion rail (the church was built in the 1950’s, therefore, pre-Vatican II). The priest then made his way around the platform, giving communion to parishioners waiting patiently on their knees.

As the communicant in front of me stood up, I knelt down and took my place. Just as I usually did, I stared up at the cross, praying and preparing to receive Jesus. But as the priest’s outline entered my peripheral vision, I once again started getting giddy with anticipation. But this time, He was coming to me. He’s coming! My Lord, my Love is coming to me!!

A giving love, a sacrificial love. Sometimes, I marvel at the way it is so easy to draw near to Him, being so full of His love. Indeed, the most logical response to experiencing such overwhelming love is to love Him completely and with abandon. Other times, when I feel that my sin has taken me so far from His grace, and I cannot bring myself to take that walk towards Him, He is the one who comes forward, meeting me where I am, loving me there, holding me there.

O Sacred Heart, O Love Divine.

What a giving love this Sacred Heart has for us! It will never be outdone in love, in sacrifice, in giving of itself. Even if I were to give my whole heart, my whole life, His Heart would still have given miles beyond what I have to offer.

To the Sacred Heart of our Lord, Jesus Christ, I give myself and I consecrate my person and my life, my actions, pains and sufferings, so that I may be unwilling to make use of any part of my being other than to honor, love, and glorify the Sacred Heart. (from the Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus)

Sa ‘Yo lamang. Yours alone. Always, forever.

Are you ready for Conclave?

With just a few hours left till 115 holy men garbed in crimson will lock themselves up in probably the most historical and currently most watched chapel in the world, the question that must be asked of every believer surfaces and lingers in the air: Are you ready for Conclave?

Me? I’m not a cardinal, what do I need to prepare for? It’s not like I’m casting a ballot or anything.

Of course I’m ready! The sleeping bags and pillows are on deck in front of the TV, I’ve got my microwave popcorn stocked up, I’m already tuned in on the Vatican news coverage this early. As soon as that white smoke billows out the chimney, my gadgets are charged and ready for my Facebook and Twitter frenzy. Habemus papam!!

One, two, three…just like counting sheep, er, shepherds.

While the duty to elect a pope lies on the shoulders of the College of Cardinals, this period of waiting, praying and celebrating belongs to all of the faithful. In my 34 years of existence, this is only the 2nd conclave I’ve lived to see. And as I was airborne during my 1st one in 2005, this is my first real chance to dive into this beautiful, holy tradition.

So what can we do? Quite simply, we can join the Cardinals, and the rest of Church, in a solemn spirit of prayer.

Last night, I caught a discussion being aired over EWTN about the preparations for Conclave. Some of the more interesting details that I learned included the availability of confessors for the Cardinals throughout the process. And for sure, put together 115 Cardinals in a room, you can be certain that the Eucharist is celebrated. With such a monumental task ahead of them, the Cardinals realize with humility that they will need all the help they can get. So they turn to the sacraments which, according to the Diary of St. Faustina of the Divine Mercy, possess infinite value as miracles of mercy. As if pleading in behalf of the whole universal Church, the Cardinals are praying “Lord, have mercy on us,” teach us, guide us, be with us, as we take on this task of choosing the Vicar of Christ. If you haven’t yet for this Lenten season, go to confession. And try your best to go to mass in the coming days. I don’t doubt that these acts of unity with the Church will ready our hearts to rejoice when the new Pope steps out onto that balcony.

Perhaps the reason why they were so holy.

Another detail that surprised me about the Conclave was that the actual casting of ballots was to be conducted mostly in silence. All speeches, discussions and points to raise have been said during the pre-conclave meetings. And now, having already heard what human lips have to say, it is time to listen intently to what the Spirit’s still, small voice is whispering to each heart. As much as we can, let us join in this spirit of silence as well–not so much by ignoring all those trying to converse with us, but to maintain an atmosphere of prayerful silence every chance we get: turning off the radio while stuck in traffic, perhaps even lessening the amount of “idle” surfing on the net. The less we let in from the noisy, busy world around us, the more room our inner self has to be filled with grace.

And if we were to bring emptying ourselves even further, I would make this suggestion: start a fast. Allow yourself to feel that hunger and dependence on God (with regards to this election, and with everything else) not just internally, but physically as well. Just as any bride and groom who ritually avoided seeing each other right before their wedding day will testify how absence does make the heart grow fonder, after all this you can certainly look forward to a feast in every possible sense of the word.

All of the above–sacraments, silence and fasting–are ways and means to equip us for what we all really should be doing: prayer. To pray for the Cardinals, that they may approach the Conclave with humble, reverent, listening hearts, that they may be protected from all physical and spiritual harm. To pray for the Church, that we may put aside whatever agendas or personal hopes we have, and raise above everything else God’s hope for us. To pray, just as Jesus did, that we may all be one as He is with the Father. To pray for the new pope, whoever he may be, that he may embrace this call to be servant to the servants of God.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus!

With just a few hours left, prepare yourself to watch and wait with our whole Catholic family. Beg for grace, be silent, be hungry, and pray. And be part of the rejoicing that is imminently to come on earth, as in Heaven.

Worship: Our Heavenly Occupation, Part 2

(Read Part 1 of Worship: Our Heavenly Occupation here.)

Weeks ago, while getting ready to sing for mass, a sister from community and I were chatting about the guidelines for liturgical music of the Archdiocese of Manila, particularly at this time of transition into the new English translation of the Mass. As we were discussing rules that would affect us music ministers most of all (just like that, more than half of our regular roster has been deemed unacceptable), someone in the group commented in frustration how such rules were overly rigorous, missing the point of heartfelt worship. Scrap the “ooh-ing” of this song, don’t let the tune go up higher on this word or that–as long as you’re singing from the heart, therefore in essence praying twice (to quote St. Augustine), what does it matter if you sing “sins” or “trespasses,” “test” or “temptation?”

Beautiful!! But…we can’t sing that anymore.

Yesterday, I caught the finale of the first ever Asian version of the Next Top Model franchise (and just in case some are curious, no, I don’t faithfully watch the series…although I won’t deny that when I chance upon the show while channel surfing, I, er, linger). Tyra Banks flew in to be present for the final episode, and as part of her critique of one of the finalists, she lectured that she had to model H2T–from head to toe. Whether she was walking down the runway, or posing for the camera, every inch of her body had to know, feel, that she was modeling. The arch of each toe deliberate, every step and sway packed with meaning.

Since I’ve started using the Daily Roman Missal last year, I’ve come to appreciate even more how the celebration of the Eucharist is worshiping H2T–standing to take part in community prayer and professing our faith, kneeling down to show reverence for the Holy Presence that comes and gives Himself to us, bowing our heads as we acknowledge our sinfulness, striking our breasts as we own our sin (through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault!). Every pregnant pause, hands raised and hands clasped, hands making the sign of the cross. Jesus desires that we worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24), and as our spirit resides in a body, so must the physical engage fully and completely in worship. Each gesture and “Amen” deliberate, every note of every song bursting with meaning. Head. To. Toe.

Liturgical guidelines such as those set for music are meant to involve every element of the mass in our offering. Our bodies, our songs, even our attention to details are brought to the altar, that as we pray for God to accept the gifts that we bring, we may know in our hearts that we bring nothing less than everything, nothing less than our best.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.

Not to justify getting lost in the details (where the devil is, after all). Sacrificing passion for protocol is the temptation we must guard ourselves against, the very same trap Christ warned the Pharisees about millennia ago. Is getting rid of or outright ignoring these rules the answer to avoid falling and failing in this regard? If something’s got to give, what must change: the rules, or our hearts?

Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. –Matthew 5:17

We involve our body in worship. And we do it together because we are One Body–coming before our God who deserves so much more than we can ever give, even the best we have to offer.

Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.

Accept our sacrifice, our efforts, our hearts, and in so doing, may we be ready to receive You–Body and Blood, in Spirit and in Truth. Amen.

This is my Body, which will be given up for you.

No Greater Love

Years back, I was ruffling through some old files when I came across this picture:

My First Communion, 1988

After getting over the initial “awww” moment, I was surprised (pleasantly so) to note the date of the event written at the back of the photo: February 14, 1988. How fittingly perfect that the Lord chose to give Himself to me for the first time on Valentine’s Day! The day of hearts, of love; for that is what the Eucharist, (more than any other Sacrament, I believe), is all about: the Greatest Love.

Just this week, I experienced something that brought the truth of sacrificial love closer to home. My two kids and myself had somehow caught a really bad intestinal bug. My eldest son fell ill first, with vomiting and tummy ache, but quickly recovered after a day or two. Then mother and daughter developed symptoms almost at the same time: our 1-year-old was vomiting all over the place, and I was going to the bathroom every 10 minutes, first with really bad watery diarrhea, then later that evening I was vomiting as well. We both couldn’t hold anything down, fluid or solid, prompting us to bring ourselves to the ER. As we both somehow stopped vomiting once we set foot in the hospital, we were sent home on instructions to continue taking oral rehydration salts as needed, to be taken in sips only, as not to trigger another vomiting episode. On our way home, I was lamenting what an exhausting, weakening ordeal that was (going to the bathroom >10x in one night can do that to you). My husband Peter reached out to hold my hand and said, “It’s over, you can rest.”

It wasn’t, and I couldn’t.

As soon as we got home, our baby girl was vomiting again. We were careful to give her sips, which was much harder than I thought. By 3AM, my little angel was hysterical, begging us to give her milk, or even the electrolyte drink we were giving her (in tiny, pitiful sips). The whole time I was holding her, trying to calm her down, I was trying not to feel the tingling sensation in my arms and legs, myself very weak from all the fluids lost (I was still going to the toilet frequently well into the next morning). I was crying myself, and praying so hard for God to take away whatever was distressing my baby. Please make her better, please make her okay…and the whole time, I was willing myself to overcome my own aches and pains. I couldn’t afford to feel sick, not when my baby needed me so badly. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, take on the sick role, no matter what I was feeling. All I could think of was that I needed to be here, with her, and not sick in my own bed.

“No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 

The simplest way to explain the Eucharist is to say that it was done, given, in LOVE, the greatest love, of the Shepherd for His flock. All of us are weak; we get hurt, we experience despair. Becoming human, Jesus subjected Himself to the same, and yet, the night before His Passion and Death, He didn’t allow Himself to be consumed by the injustice, the agony of it all. His mind and heart was filled with love for His disciples, how He didn’t want them to feel alone. He needed to be with them, in the closest, most intimate way, dwelling inside them not just spiritually, but physically as well. His love told Him, tells us, that this is where He needs, wants, to be: with us, filling us, keeping us.

Blessed Eucharist, Blessed Love

I’ve said more than one time that should the thought of joining any other Christian church enter my mind, I need only think of the Eucharist, and immediately those thoughts are dismissed. I cannot leave the Church, because I cannot leave the Eucharist.

And years before I could even begin to understand the immensity of this gift, God already knew the language He would use to speak to me–that of love. Which is why on Valentine’s Day, 1988, for the very first time, I received Him, Body and Blood. And every communion I’ve received since then is me coming before Him, telling Him I need and want Him, in my weakness and in my despair. And Him giving Himself to me, telling me my heart is exactly where He wants to be.

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28