AFTER THE CONSECRATION of the Archdiocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on Saturday and, following Father James’ sermon Sunday… Rosary Sunday… and a lot of Marian focus recent, here is my witness to the Rosary! I wanted to share this story of how Our Lady brings us, via herself, to Christ, holding the Cantena Aurea, the Golden Chain that is the Rosary.
I was introduced to the Rosary in 1974 or 75 by my grade school friend, Barbara, who lived next door to us. One day she was doing a craft project for school, to raise money for missionaries. She was making Rosaries with plastic beads and twine, following the instructions of the sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at the school she went to. I became interested in the craft project and started to work with her. We made rather a lot of Rosaries!
Barbara also shared the story of Our Lady of Fatima.
We were in 5th grade at this time and when she told me, a member of the United Methodist Church, how to say the Rosary I took her literally. You’d be surprised how fast the Rosary goes when you say “Hail, Mary!” ten times followed by “Glory be!” And then, “Our Father!” Barbara’s story of Our Lady of Fatima did elicit one question from me: Did this really happen? I remember that Barbara had a coloring book of Our Lady of Fatima – or maybe it was a children’s book that was done in simple line drawing I can’t remember – but it showed the story including the miracle of the Sun and it amazed me. I couldn’t imagine what it might mean that the Virgin Mary was appearing to people. And at that time less than 60 years ago! Did my grandparents remember this happening?
At a local store I acquired tiny, golden statues of Jesus and of Mary. They were about an inch and a half high. Might have cost me $5 – all of my allowance. But I put them up in a tiny little shrine, the first prayer corner I ever had and I would say my Rosary in front of them. Really quickly: took maybe three minutes. When I heard that Our Lady of Fatima at told The Visionaries they had to pray at least 3 decades if the rosary a day, I couldn’t imagine why such a short prayer was so important.
A few years later in high school I found a book in a used book store that talked about several appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and how important they were to Catholic teaching. The book discuss Lourdes, Fatima, the Miraculous Medal, La Salette, and Guadalupe. I also learned how to say the entire Rosary, really. And also about the Parents οf Mary, the Immaculate Conception, her entrance into the temple, and the Assumption. In 1979, I may have been the only United Methodist high school student in Georgia who could tell you the difference between the Virgin birth and the Immaculate Conception. The Entrance into the Temple, now, and the Assumption… why didn’t people talk about these things if they were so important?
I fear that question (and the realization of differences between Catholics and other Christians) that led to much of the rest of this journey. At that time I was also getting into a learning curve of “the Cults”. And the same people who deftly (and correctly) explained why Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Worldwide Church of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and followers of Christian Science were not actual, orthodox Christians, also explained that Catholics were a cult. Thus does Satan lie…
A retreat brought me into the “Confraternity of Christian Life”, an ecumenical community which no longer exists. I had a great profession cross given to me, actually. And I explored my first experience of community life. “Come and See”, indeed. While on retreat there, with the (Anglican) Brothers of the Holy Cross I was given an amusing mental image. One of the brothers said to me that the Wesley Brothers had been Anglo Catholics, and that John, at least, died with Rosary beads in his hands.
In hindsight, this is probably false. But even untruth can draw one out: and I was a member of the Episcopal Church within a year. And now I had a Rosary.
In that the Anglican Communion is liturgical, and that traditional Catholic piety continues in pockets (Rosary, Saints, fasting), and some places observe traditional Catholic liturgy, I mark this as my Catholic birth. The Church of St Mary the Virgin, in NYC, had full Orchestral Requiems, and Rosaries for the departed, and Cardinal Spellman was reported to have had recourse there when the Novus Ordo Mess got the better of him. Yes, it was an extreme pocket. I was told over and over by other folks, “There is no Mass in the Episcopal Church: we do Eucharist.” But when other parts of ECUSA started to fall away (eventually even this parish) from traditional piety, I had a benchmark by which to judge.
I wasn’t Roman Catholic, but I didn’t want to be. When I started that journey: ECUSA was as Catholic as I needed. And even though it was mostly a liberal mainline at a fancy dress party, there were some places that seemed, sometimes, to believe what they were saying. It wasn’t until I ran away and came back that I discovered they didn’t believe what they were saying at all. By the time I came back some folks had insisted on their right to stop saying at all what they didn’t believe. And so “The body of Christ” became “bread made holy” and what didn’t get consumed got dipped in hummus after, or sliced and passed around for buttering at the Agape feast.
I was well aware of what was going on in ECUSA was also part of what was going on in the Catholic Church: the same liturgical, theological, and moral innovations were creeping in. Liberals in ECUSA were just waiting for Rome to get on board with women’s ordination and sexual liberation. Through my college years and on into adulthood, I thought this as well. Back in the days before Internets, one could see it on the news, of course, but one really only had to go to church. The parochial vicar at our college was gay friendly and inclusive (and setting up dates) way back in 1983. My first exposure to a “clown mass” was in ECUSA, but I wasn’t surprised when I saw one in the RCC. ECUSA’s “Integrity” ministry for gays was sparsely attended: if you wanted really huge, cruisy attendance, you had to go to the “Dignity” mass at the Catholic parish uptown. And it was huge.
When I moved to San Francisco, it was the same way: both groups just as inclusive and welcoming; both groups as likely to juggle rainbow stoles and bad guitar music and call it “relevant” liturgy.
Struggling with my Rosary in a place where Mary was not called the “Mother of God” because Jesus wasn’t called “God”, I had to leave. But given what I “knew” about the Catholic Church, I couldn’t go to Rome. So I went East.
Presentation in the Temple
The Eastern Orthodox Church does do liturgy very well: eastern and western liturgies, actually. On the parish level, both are heavily redacted, but they are stately. Even the conservative places skip a verse or two every now and then, keeping most church gatherings down to under two hours. But a few get them down to 1 hour. I took me years to figure this out: to learn that what was the ever memorable and unchanging liturgy of the East was often only something done in my parish and totally different in content (not in style, mind you) from what was up the road. What they don’t do, however, is pray the Rosary.
I can’t count the number of times I prayed a Rosary on my fingers, trying to remember if I counted the thumbs right. I had a Jesus prayer rope that had beads every ten knots. I still don’t know why that was: but the odd design let me pray the Rosary! I would buy Buddhist malas because they had interesting beads and I would make Rosaries from them. I dismantled old Rosaries that were missing beads to make single-decade models. And would surreptitiously pray these in quiet ways in Orthodox churches.
Affiliating with a Western Rite monastic community, I was sad to learn they didn’t pray the Rosary, but I made do on my own. And I continued to pray my Rosaries even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to make a visualization of the thing up in my head. I was just supposed to be aware of it, so I wove in my own intercession: As Jesus was born in Bethlehem let my Sister’s baby be healthy. As Mary interceded for the married couple at Cana, accept this decade as a prayer for Anna and Mark who are getting married.
Eventually, I learned about Orthodox Liturgy what I learned about other liturgy. Although it is largely stable, there is still no “Ur Liturgy”. There is no one place to point at and say, “They Do It Right”. There’s all sorts of wonky experiments out there: revivals of older liturgies done facing the people across picnic tables parked in front of the iconostasis, open communion, altar girls. Some of these I’ve seen with my own eyes, some I’ve heard discussed by clergy who did them. Then there’s the gay stuff: bishops who support gay relationships, clergy who function as “pastoral guides” for gay couples, seminarians who run off and get married to each other (and, thankfully, become ECUSAns). It’s all the same because people are all the same. Where there’s Church there will be people.
Orthodoxy is the Church. But after 15 years, I couldn’t quite accept that she was all of it. And if Church was going to be this messed up wherever I was going, could I at least feed sme homeless and pray the Rosary?
There was one place I could go. I was, by her own account, practically, there already!
Finding Jesus in the Temple
When I first entered the parish near where my parents live in Alabama, I was, I admit, unimpressed. Later, when I heard the comment of a visiting bishop, “Is this a Church or a Pizza Hut”, I totally understood the joke. It’s not that it’s not beautiful: it’s just very… big and kinda dead. So I crept to the back right corner of the stadium seating, where the lights were low, and prayed a Rosary and waited. The preacher that day wanted everyone to pray a Rosary every day.
And fast on Fridays.
And maybe go to Mass more than once a week.
And I was hooked.
In short: What Mary had been telling me all along was here… was here. It was my pride that kept me away: my pride over my favorite sins, my liturgical pride, my cultural snobbery; but here it was still, and by a Rosary pulling me forward.
This past weekend Archbishop Cordileone preached a sermon calling all Catholics in SF to pray a Rosary once a day for peace, and once a week to pray it with their family, to Adore the Eucharist once a week (even if just before or after Mass), and to Fast on Friday, going to confession once a month. He added the 5 first Saturdays in honor of Mary’s Immaculate heart to the list. Here was again. Catholicism, even here, in the heart of the most liberal city in America. The Archbishop called us to pray for the Spirit’s revival in our Church.
When I wrote the priest that day in Alabama and said, “I want to be Catholic”, I cited the Rosary in his homily. His reply was that he can’t imagine another way how anyone could be Catholic.
Neither can I.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.