I was asked to give a reflection about faith and family at my parent’s church, for Lent. It’s not Lent, but, I did finish writing this (I have a few deadlines faaaast approaching. Enjoy!)
This is the story of my mother, and my mother’s grandmother, and also my mother’s granddaughter, generations of faith.
Which is to say, then, that it is also the story of me, and of my mother’s mother, all of us, connected, like the builders of a great cathedral.
The great cathedrals of the world, the ones we traverse oceans and land to pray in and selfie in and kiss in, too, usually took about 100 years to build, some more, some less. The great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, took 600 years to build. What does this mean? If we had a cathedral, grand opening Mass today in 2019, perhaps the first shovel of dirt for the foundation would have been made in 1919 or perhaps 1819, or perhaps 1419, plans drawn by a lovely architect who knew…he would never see his plans finished.
And the stonemason who picked the whitest marble, cut it with care, somewhere around 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, maybe he never met the original architect.
And the man who celebrates the first Mass in it, today, never met that stonemason, never met that architect, but…here he is…today. And the babies who will babble into the echos of this Cathedral, and the couples who will be wed in it, and those who light candles and mourn…will never know those who proceeded them, either.
But this is not about those fictitious men, that fictitious cathedral, this is about my mother’s grandmother, Stephania, who was born in central Poland, with its colorful churches and dances and costumes of bold florals mixed with stripes.
She left her homeland, Poland, and came here, to Detroit. For reasons I don’t know–maybe need or want or, maybe, love– and she married a widowed alcoholic with three small children, here in Detroit. With love, she raised his children–Chester and Vicki and Bernie. With love, she had one child of her own, Leon, who would one day my grandfather, and Stella raised these four children in the crowded neighborhoods of Hamtramck, far, far from her homeland.
I don’t know much about her, but I know enough about Polish culture to know that, when faced with difficulty, the two places of comfort tend to be either alcohol or Jesus, and she wasn’t a drinker. She was a woman of faith. Every child received their sacraments, every child was loved like they were her very own. Leon, my grandfather, grew and married my grandmother, Cecelia, and had my mother shortly thereafter. She, like me, was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and they treasured her, rejoiced in her, as babies should be.
If you ask my mother what her favorite memory from childhood was, she will consistently answer that it was spending the night and going to Mass with her grandmother, who lived across the street from the church, a tiny church, called “Transfiguration,” with altar rails and hard pews and images of blessed Poland.
One day I asked my mother, “Could your grandmother speak English?”
My mother said that she could not.
I asked her, “Then how did you communicate?”
And my mother, who speaks little Polish, did not remember. All she remembers is the house, the table where they ate, and the church where she learned of a deep love story that she nearly forgot when she was a young adult.
As a young adult, my mother left the church. She would still visit her grandmother from time to time and her grandmother would say, “I’m praying for you,” and she was praying that my mother would come back to the faith that sustains. This meant little to my mother, but it meant a lot to heaven, and, through every grace, my mother did come back. She met my father here, at Shrine. She married him here. They had five children, most baptized here, at Shrine.
Her grandmother, who prayed her back, never met any of my mother’s children. Stella died before my oldest brother was born.
That brother was the one who first told me the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when he visited Mexico on short-term mission. Our Lady of Guadalupe–Mary, but she appeared as one of the natives, speaking in the native tongue, Patroness of the Americas and of the Pro-Life movement.
I once heard a homily by Msgr. Easton, on a Marian feast I have long-since forgotten. He said that, the more any of us learns about the Marian apparitions, the more we adopt them as our own, and I see this is true. I’ve always said that, if I were to get a tattoo, I would have a full-color, full-arm sleeve on my left arm of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, but on her face, the scars of Our Lady of Częstochowa, Patroness of Poland.
That brother met a good woman and they, too, were married in a beautiful church in Detroit. Building their family was a trial of doctor appointments, tears, endless novenas, and paperwork…until one day they received a call from a social worker who said that that paperwork was approved and they were qualified to foster and, also, there was a baby-girl, micro-preemie, at the hospital, not yet five pounds, would they consider loving her? And this consideration has been the easiest one of our lives, to love a tiny child with her fierce fighter spirit and her soft little afro.
I made a pilgrimage to Poland as she was fostered, prayed in front of the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, sometimes called “The Black Madonna,” for her dark complexion. Our Lady belongs to Poland, and Poland to Our Lady, skin color regardless, and that’s how the baby fit into our family, too. Faith sees no bounds in families, and love can extend so much further than we can imagine, can’t it?
My mother is now that baby’s grandmother, and to two other children as well. My mother made the little girl a baptismal gown, out of the other-grandma’s old wedding dress. Today, my niece visits me at the church where I work, and yells, “I LOVE JESUS, AUNT DANIELLE!”
St. John Paul II once said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus.”
My great-grandmother is not the sum of her weaknesses and failures, raising four children in poverty in the midst of the abuses, betrayal, and heartbreak of a spousal alcohol addiction.
She is the sum of her Father’s love for her, and her real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus, which she did, for my mother, with a boundless love which drew my mother back to the arms of the church, her faith, the truth.
Where are the mamas tonight? I will tell you this, speak this truth into the places you feel you fall short every day–my mother is not the sum of her weaknesses and failures, she is the sum of her Father’s love for her, and her real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus, as she blessed our foreheads each night, claiming us for God with the ancient words and ritual, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
My family is not the sum of its weaknesses and failures, it is the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus.
Your family is not the sum of its weaknesses and failures, it is the sum of the Father’s love for you, and your real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus.
My pastor will say that the two things that the evil one will try to steal from us are our identity and our destiny.
The whisperings of our weaknesses and failures will always haunt us.
Remember who you are, mama, remember what you build, because no architect of any great Cathedral, for all their colored windows or soaring stone or hand-carved wood, would dream hold a candle to what you build. The cathedrals will crumble. The souls of your children will last forever. When the final grand building has been forgotten, the laughter and dance of heaven will only be beginning. With the spark of God’s creative power, you have marked eternity.
We are all of us involved in this great work of construction, bringing about the reign of Jesus.
Are we the end? Maybe. We pray for that day.
Are we the middle? Perhaps. So, we must work well for the generations of faith who will follow after us.
Maybe you are the beginning in your family, setting a vision for a faith that can preserve for generations. Dream bravely.
Let’s teach the prayers and songs that have sustained us.
Let’s remind of the faithful heroes who have gone before.
Let’s show the art, the captured beauty made available in love.
Let’s travel to the places, here, where we have known God, here, where God has dwelt.
Let us tell our stories, how we ourselves have known the saving hand of God.
One of my favorite spirituals repeats the line “Over and over again.” “He’s blessing me,” the song says, “over and over again. He’s blessing me, right here where I stand…”
So I ask–How many times has He blessed you?
Over and over again.
How many times has He comforted you?
Over and over again.
How many times has He healed you?
Over and over again.
How many times has He saved you, mama?
Over and over again.
This, this we hear at Mass, this is our faith, and we are proud to profess it.
Your children may not be the end of this line of faith. We may still be at the beginning. Remind them who they are, where they go. Bless them. Send them. Don’t be afraid.