Blog updates and Apologies

Dear friends and family,

Apologies for the long delay in updates. We had basically no Internet access in Assisi, and have had many long days here in Rome, making it difficult to update. Watch in the next day or two for our posts from the past week.

To give you a little insight into what is happening with us, today we went to the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. I heard estimates that up to 150,000 people were in attendance to see Pope Francis. St. Peter’s Square was jam packed, but we were blessed to be very near the holy father, about 8 rows back from the front. After that, we had an appointment for a Scavi tour, which took us through the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica, right to the tomb and bones of St. Peter himself. It was an incredible and moving experience, encountering both our first Pope and our current Pope all in one day.

Please know that we are praying for all of you daily.

Day 20 – Paray-le-Monial, Cluny, Ars

Today we took a trip to Paray-le-Monial. It is a small town a little ways away from Ars that has an important significance to us: it was home to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. St. Margaret Mary was a Visitation Sister to whom Jesus appeared over the course of seven years to reveal His Sacred Heart. It was from St. Margaret Mary that the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was first revealed and spread. Today, the incorrupt body of St. Margaret Mary lies in a glass tomb in the Church where she received the visions. Paray (as they locals call it for short) is also home to the relics of St. Claude de la Colombiere, a Jesuit priest who was the confessor and spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary while she was having these apparitions of our Lord.

Here is Chaldean Seminarian Bryan Kassa to talk about his experience in Paray.

When I was reminded yesterday that we were going to have the honor of visiting the Visitation order, which St. Margaret Mary Alacoque belonged to, I was extremely excited! I had read her autobiography before I entered seminary, not because I had a huge devotion to her or the apparitions that Jesus communicated to her regarding His Sacred Heart, but because Patrick Setto, another seminarian, called me one day while I was discerning the call to the priesthood and read a page to me over the phone one night directly from her autobiography. What he read to me gave me great comfort and helped me realize that I had something in common with this great Saint and that I needed her intercession over the next several months as I transitioned into seminary life.

What was it that I had in common with St. Margaret Mary? The disapproval of her vocation from her mother. I read in the autobiography that her mother told her if she entered the convent, that her mother would die and that Jesus hold her responsible for her mother’s death. This brought great pain and suffering to the great Saint, but she responded that she must be loyal to Almighty God rather than her mother’s wishes of getting married and starting a family of her own.

Her courage was supernatural and I knew that it was the Holy Spirit who was working through her to be able to make such a bold decision! It gave me great comfort when I read this and knew that I needed her intercession as I made the same decision of answering God’s call even though I didn’t have the support of my mother. St. Margaret Mary became a sister and friend who helped me through the this very difficult transition! “Oh how the Saints always wait in anticipation to intercede for us during difficult moments” – I once heard a priest say this during a homily, and boy was he right!

Now that I have filled you in on why I had a devotion to St. Margaret Mary, I had never really given it much thought as to what it was that Jesus communicated to her over seven years and why it was important. Then I heard Monsignor Trapp say on the bus today that Jesus revealed to St. Margaret Mary that it was through Jesus’ Sacred Heart that all of humanity will come to understand how much love Jesus has for us! What a powerful message! Jesus appeared to her over seven years to continue to communicate to me and you a message of love, mercy and more love! St. Margaret Mary suffered a lot during these seven years because people did not believe the visions that she was having (not even a priest). But Jesus told her that He would send one of His great friends who will believe her.

Jesus did what He said He would, He sent St. Claude de la Colombiere, who was a priest and who became her spiritual director and confessor! St. Claude knew how to determine if the visions she was having were authentic or not. To determine if the visions were coming from Jesus or the evil one, he told St. Margaret Mary that the next time she has the vision, to ask what was the last thing that he had confessed in his last confession. St. Margaret Mary did just that. The next time she had the vision, she asked what was the last thing that Father had confessed in his last confession. She received an answer and went back to St. Claude and said, “I received a vision yesterday and I have an answer for you. I asked Jesus what it was that you last confessed and He said, ‘I forget.’” From that moment forward, her director knew that the visions she was having were authentic because the devil cannot enter the sacraments!

Today, we had the opportunity to visit the Church which held the relics of St. Claude! I prayed in front of his tomb asking him to help me in my own vocation since he himself was a priest! I knew he was listening to me as I knelt down in front of him because, as I mentioned earlier, the Saints anticipate our invitation to intercede for us! Next, we headed over to the Visitation Church where Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary! We had Mass where the actual visitations took place and then it is when it all hit me, “Jesus communicated His love for us over seven years to St. Margaret Mary through His Most Sacred Heart, but He has been communicating His love to us over 2,000 years through each and every Mass through the most Holy Eucharist!” Also, how Jesus awaits to forgive us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation! His Sacred Heart is bursting with mercy and cannot wait to be reconciled with us!

I leave you with two questions to ask yourself as you read this:
1) When was the last time you’ve been to confession and received God’s mercy?
2) Are you allowing Jesus to share His Sacred Heart with you by receiving Him in the Most Holy Eucharist?

Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
St. Margaret Mary, pray for us!
St. Claude, pray for us!

Your brotha from the same motha (the Blessed Virgin Mary),
Bryan Kassa

After Mass at the Visitation Church, we took a break for lunch, then made our way to the Basilica of Paray-le-Monial. This beautiful church is important historically as it was connected to the famous Abbey of Cluny. Indeed, it was designed as a smaller version of the Abbey Church in Cluny. This church used to be connected to a monastery on this site that was eventually closed during the French Revolution.

Today it is a parish church and is a beautiful example of 12th century Romanesque architecture as it began to get larger (most romanesque churches were small) and transition into the gothic style that is so prevalent throughout Europe. We spent some time here getting a tour and explanation of the church and then in prayer before moving on to our next stop, Cluny itself.

Cluny was an important location for the Church in the 10th-12th centuries, as it led a great reform (known as the Cluniac Reform) of the monasteries and the church in general throughout Europe. In response to corruption in the church of the day, it called for a return to the charisms of benedictine life of simplicity, prayer and holiness, and caring for the poor. They founded many ‘daughter’ abbeys throughout France, England, Spain, and Italy, which spread their reform across Europe.

The great church of the Abbey of Cluny was almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution, with only one tower still standing. But you can still walk through the foundation and see where the church once stood. There is a museum there now, and we were able to learn more about not only the abbey, but the architectural wonder that this church was. In its day, it was one of the largest churches ever built in its day, and represents a high point in this style of Romanesque architecture.

It was a good place to visit not only for the historical and architectural standpoints, though some of us greatly enjoyed learning more on that. But also to see some of the ramifications of the great wars that raged through this part of the world. In our Church History class this past year, we learned about the French Revolution in the 1700′s and the “Wars of Religion” in the 1500′s, and the thousands of priests and religious who were exiled or killed. But to see the destruction firsthand and stand where these great churches once stood, or where these great saints were once buried (as in the case of St. Irenaeus a few days ago) truly made the history real. I’m glad we stopped there.

After returning to Ars we all relaxed and dried off. (did I say it rained all day? It did.) Some of us went to the basilica for Evening Prayer in French, while the rest of us met up to pray together in English. We then had our dinner and enjoyed the rest of the evening on our own.

Tomorrow is another day of prayer in Ars.

Day 19 – Ars

Today’s blog entry comes from Detroit seminarian James Houbeck:

When you get on a bus at six in the morning and arrive at your destination twelve hours later, you might react in different ways: frustration; exhaustion; elation; thanksgiving. When our bus pulled up to the little town of Ars, my first thought was: “Wow! What a beautiful little town!” Now, I think it is natural to think that anything is beautiful after sitting on a bus for twelve hours, but truth be told, I was instantly charmed by Ars. Now, since we got in so late yesterday and still had to celebrate Pentecost Sunday Mass, we did not get to tour much of it. Fortunately, Msgr. Trapp designated today (Monday) as a Day of Reflection, and so I would like to share a few thoughts about the town itself and a powerful experience I had during one of my Holy Hours.

First of all, Ars is the kind of place that when you drive through it, if you blink, you’ll miss it! It is an incredibly quiet town, and most of the shops, the restaurant, and other attractions close by or before 7 pm. The most prominent establishment is the Basilica here: it is a fairly small building on the outside, but it is marvelous inside. The entrance of the Basilica was once the parish itself where St. John Vianney served as the parish priest for 41 years. Inside there are several side chapels (including the confessionals where he heard Confessions for many hours a day), the main altar (in the added-on portion), and most importantly a chapel with the incorrupt body of the Saint.

  • The first time I laid eyes upon him, I was reduced to silence. Although he died in the mid-1800s, there he laid in state, completely intact from what I could see. You can see his facial features, his hands, and the elaborate vestments he was buried in. This was the first time I had ever seen one of the “Incorruptibles,” and I was filled with tremendous joy. We then celebrated Mass right there in the chapel, the altar placed right under the coffin that bears his body. When Msgr. Trapp elevated the Lord’s Body and then the Chalice with His Blood, it was one of the most profound moments I have experienced in my life. This Saint, a man wholly devoted to the Eucharist, was right there in our line of sight, and it gave me an even deeper appreciation of the Sacrament.

Second, and returning to the Day of Prayer, I decided to do my second Holy Hour outside of the Basilica and right in front of the bronze Crucifix in the square. I realized that my prayer might be disrupted or interrupted, but I decided to spend time with Christ in this manner anyway. And so I sat down and began to reflect on several different Scriptural passages, all of which point toward or concern themselves with the Lord’s earthly ministry. I focused especially on Isaiah 40: 1-12, and what stood out to me was the ministry that I am called to do: prepare the way of The Lord and make the hearts of His people ready for Him. As I meditated on these, I began to think about how I could engage in this ministry: the people of God desire The Lord Jesus, not James Houbeck, and so how can I bring Jesus to them. Interestingly enough, my Holy Hour was then disrupted three times.

  • First, as I was gazing at the Cross, a man and his toddler son slowly passed by me. I quickly glanced down at the boy, smiled at him, and the boy returned a kind smile to me. I was caught off guard: normally the little French kids either reeled in horror when I smiled with them or they turned away! Then as I continued to pray, this same little guy got on a little bike with training wheels and continuously rode around the circle where I was praying, looking up at me and smiling each time. Every now and then I would look down and smile, saying “Bonjour!” a few times, but I would then look back up at the Cross. After a few minutes of this, he ran over to his parents and they departed.

  • Second, near the latter part of my hour, a brother Seminarian approached me and asked if he could talk with me. Even though I was at prayer I agreed and set aside my thoughts. We then proceeded to have a very powerful conversation for a few minutes, and as he walked away I was left in awe, amazement, and gratitude.
  • Third, this same brother led to the most profound encounter: he greeted a middle-aged lady pushing a stroller by saying, “Bon Soir,” but it was only 3:25 in the afternoon! She kindly corrected him in French; I translated for him in English. At this the woman (Veronique) came up to me and began to converse with me in French. I mentioned where I am from, where I study, and that I am studying for the priesthood. After we introduced each other, I looked toward the stroller and saw that a blanket covered it. The woman very graciously pulled back the cover and proudly displayed an absolutely gorgeous one-month old baby girl (her granddaughter, Marie). I was breathless: she was absolutely wonderful to behold. We spoke a little bit about the baby, and Veronique mentioned that she wanted to have the baby baptized at the Basilica soon. Just then her daughter (I did not catch her name) approached, and Veronique explained who I was and how I will be a priest in a few years. The daughter was kind, but did not say too much. We chatted for a few more minutes, and before they left I promised them that I would pray for them; they said they would pray for me. I then spent a few minutes in prayer thanking The Lord for this incredible encounter.

What stands out most for me from this prayer experience is this: the Ministry of Presence. The Lord placed in my life people that needed something, even just a little bit of my time. In regards to the boy, all I did was offer my smile and attention, and that is all he needed. He did not want to talk; he just wanted attention. My brother Seminarian needed someone to listen to him, and I did; I sacrificed my prayer time, and we both benefited. Veronique was curious to know who all these Americans running around Ars were, and because I sacrificed my time, I not only informed her about who we were, but we had a tremendous conversation. Later on, as I reflected on the experience, I received a phenomenal gift from Veronique: she invited me into the intimate relationship between her and her granddaughter, Marie. She had no idea who I was; I was a complete stranger to her. And yet, she was gracious enough to show me this adorable child, and all I could do was marvel at such a beautiful work of God. One may argue that this is a typical grandmotherly act: showing off her baby. Nevertheless, she did not have to show me Marie, let alone stop and bother to see who I was. But, because I was available, The Lord rewarded me with this incredible gift (and the other two gifts of encounter as well).

And so, even though we have been in Ars only a few days, I am happy to say that the time has already helped me. If I am to prepare the way of The Lord and make ready the hearts of His people, I need to be present to them. I need to continue to develop my prayer and constantly seek to be in Christ Jesus, but I also learned that I cannot be so rigid so as to ignore the needs of others, little or great. St. John Vianney certainly showed us a shining example of how to be present to God’s people, and if he could work such wonders in this little town (and beyond!), can I not do the same wherever The Lord calls me to? Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Jim Houbeck

Day 18 – Lyons and Ars

As I mentioned yesterday, we had an early departure time to leave Lourdes. Breakfast was at 5am, and the bus left at 6am for an 11 hour bus ride across France. It was a long day, but many of us slept for at least the first few hours, so that was a blessing.

We stopped along the way in Lyons, France. Lyons is a good size town, with about a million people, and has some historical significance. During the Roman days Lyons was a larger and more important outpost than Paris, and so has a lot of connection with the early church. We received a tour of the Basilica of
Notre-Dame de Fourviere. It is a relatively new church, built only about two centuries ago, but there has been a shrine to the Blessed Mother on this spot since at least the 12th centuries, and it has long been a place of pilgrimage.

We also visited the Church where the remains of St. Irenaeus are located. Irenaeus was the second Bishop of Lyons at the end of the second century, when he was martyred by the Roman Empire. He was a great apologist and one of the early Fathers of the Church. We studied St. Irenaeus in our Patristics class earlier in the year, so it was a great experience making a connection with this saint. Unfortunately, Irenaeus’s tomb was destroyed in a war with the Huguenots in the 1500′s, and his remains were mixed in with a bunch of other remains and destroyed tombs. So we know he is here, though not exactly which grave site or tomb he is in. But we can still pray to him.

After our rainy tour of Lyons, we travelled the final hour or so to Ars. Ars is a tiny farming village in this region that was home to St. Jean Vianney, the CurĂ© d’Ars. Fr. Vianney was sent here to be the pastor at the tiny little parish here, in a town that, as he was told, had no love for God. He spent over 40 years of his life as their priest, reaching out to them, admonishing them to pray and live lives of virtue. He did many penances on behalf of his people, eating tiny meals of only potatoes and sleeping only a few hours each night.

He worked tirelessly for the people. They did not like him at first, and actually circulated a petition saying that he was unfit to be their priest (which this saintly priest signed as well). But ultimately they came around and came to love him.

Over the years, word got out about this holy priest, and people came from all over Europe to see him and have him hear their confession. By the end, he would spend 16 hours a day hearing confessions.

He is entombed here in the Church of Ars (which has been added on to with a beautiful basilica) above a side altar in a glass tomb. His body is incorrupt; it has not decomposed in the 150 years since his death. Today, he is the patron saint of all priests, making him a very important saint for us. As Msgr. Trapp told us, he is not a priest of another age, he is a model for all pastors. He said the prayers his parishioners would not say, and did the penances they would not do. We can all learn from this holy man.

After checking in to the hotel, we celebrated Pentecost Mass at the altar of the tomb of St. Jean Vianney. Such an incredible experience, being in the presence of this holy saint, this great example to us. We will have Mass here several more times in the coming days, as well as plenty of time to pray here.

After Mass was dinner, and then off to rest after a long day of travel. Tomorrow we have a day of prayer here in Ars.

Day 17 – Lourdes

Today was our second full day in Lourdes, and like yesterday, we had the day mostly free for prayer. We started off with Mass at 9:45 in the Grotto Chapel, which is the spot where the apparitions actually took place. We joined a group of Irish pilgrims from Ferns and Dramour who come here annually, with Mass celebrated by their bishops. It was a great to join them for this Holy Mass.

We prayed in a special way for the men back at home who were being ordained today. Three men were ordained priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit today, and four seminarians were ordained as transitional deacons in the Diocese of Lansing. While we wish we could have been with our brothers on this day, they can be assured we were praying with and for them here in Lourdes.

Today was also our last day with Fr. Burr. It has been great being here with Fr. Burr and we were sad to see him go. Some of the men joined him for a goodbye lunch before he departed to the airport. We pray that he has a safe flight and makes his connection.

As I said above, most of the day today was free for men to go about and pray where they’d like. Some of the men waited the two and a half hours to go in the baths, some of the men explored the village, visiting the house where Bernadette and her family lived.

Walking about in my free time, I was able to reflect a bit upon this holy place. One thing that struck me about Lourdes was all the infirmed, sick, and handicapped people who have made the difficult journey to come here with the hope of healing. As mentioned in previous entries, there are a lot of miracles associated with the spring waters of Lourdes. Almost immediately after Bernadette opened up the spring, people started washing in it and received miraculous healing. As the years have gone on, more and more people have come to Lourdes with great faith and hope in the healing power of our Lord. About 5,000,000 people come here annually.

Lourdes is a place that really draws you out of yourself and leads you to pray for others. You can’t help it, as you are surrounded by people of every level of handicap and infirmity, people on crutches and wheelchairs, the old and the very young. You feel for them, definitely. But I was also inspired by them and their faith. In talking to the people I met, I never got the sense that they were coming here out of superstition, or saw the water as some kind of ‘magic healing potion’. The people at Lourdes don’t advertise it that way, and I think most of the people here understood that. They come here to pray, they come here with faith and hope, but it’s about more than just wanting some outward physical miracle. The waters of the bath help connect them to God. It’s a reminder of the cleansing waters of baptism and it’s a reminder of Christ’s mercy for us, of the blood and water that poured from his side at the crucifixion. It’s more than a physical healing they want, but a spiritual healing, and opportunity to grow closer to the Lord. And that is a beautiful site to see.

While waiting in line for the baths today, I had the opportunity to speak with a man named Harry who was with the Knights of Malta (the Knights of Malta were everywhere here, as one of their ministries is bringing people to Lourdes for healing). Harry was 89 years old, and he has been coming to Lourdes to volunteer at the baths for 45 years. He spends 3 months out of the year here. He said he has seen many miracles with his own two eyes. And while he said it is always incredible to see someone receive that miraculous physical healing, the bigger ones were always the spiritual, the emotional, the psychological. It happens all the time here, and it was a true blessing to be here to witness it and take part in it firsthand.

Many of us were curious what to expect at Lourdes, and were comparing it to our experience a few weeks ago in Fatima. The two places are drastically different. Msgr. Trapp told us that Fatima is a place of conversion, Lourdes a place of healing. And that is absolutely true.

After our great free day off, we all met back at the hotel at 6:15 for evening prayer. We then had our final post card party tonight. We decided to buy the last few hundred post cards we needed and get them all done here. As much work as it was writing out the hundreds of postcards as we did, we are all very thankful to our benefactors who made it possible for us to be here. So we were happy to spend the time connecting with everyone in this individual way. To all of you, please know that we are praying for you and your intentions every day, as we truly appreciate all you have done for us.

That was it for the day, as we have a very early wakeup call tomorrow to depart Lourdes. 5am breakfast comes early… Next stop, Ars, home of the patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean Vianney.

Day 16 – Lourdes

We started off our first full day in Lourdes with Mass in the chapel of St. Anne, at the basilica. From there, Fr. Burr led us in praying the stations of the cross. There is a path going up a hill with beautiful life-size stations right across the street from the basilica.

At this point, we were free until the evening for lunch and personal prayer. Many men took advantage of the reconciliation chapel (which was more of a huge, two story building), where confessions are heard in many languages, including several confessors who speak English.

Many of the men took advantage of the opportunity to bathe in the spring waters, which Lourdes is famous for. When Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette, the Blessed Mother asked her to dig in a particular spot, from which water started bubbling forth. Bernadette was told to drink the water and wash in it. After that, many people followed St. Bernadette’s example, and continue to do so today. Here is Detroit seminarian Dominic Macioce about his experience in the baths:

Today our pilgrimage journey finds us in Lourdes, France. It is one of the biggest Marian apparition sites in the world and has over 5 million pilgrims visit each year. It is a beautiful place, and one of my favorites that we have visited so far.

Today I was truly blessed to be able to visit the cave where our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette. At Lourdes the place our Blessed Mother appeared is relatively the same today as it was in St. Bernadette’s day, which made prayer very fruitful for me.

However, I would have to say the best experience I have had here at Lourdes is at the baths. Pilgrims are given the opportunity to be fully immersed in the healing water that flows from the underground spring. By the grace of God, the water here has been famous for healing. People come for all kinds of healing — physical, spiritual, emotional, psychological, etc. — and there have been countless miracles of healing over the years. I approached the water in faith, hoping to experience its healing effects as well.

The pilgrims are asked to wait in a large outdoor waiting room, where we are given a chance to enter into a spirit of prayer and form our intentions. Then, in small groups of five to ten people, we are moved into a smaller waiting room and set before the different baths. One by one the pilgrims are lead into an inner room, pray to the Blessed Mother for their intentions, and helped down a few steps into the baths. The pilgrim is then asked to sit down in it and offer a short prayer.

When I entered the water my breath was taken away, not because of spiritual ecstasy, but because the water was FREEZING! I offered my prayer and shivered my way out. Afterwards, I offered another prayer and asked for the intercession of St. Bernadette. I gathered my belongings and went to the large outdoor waiting area.

Reflecting on the whole experience I was overcome by God’s grace washing over me. I was struck by a deep consoling warmth, and purity of heart. I felt completely wrapped in the mantle of Mary, and was overcome with gratitude. Interestingly, I was dry after 5 minutes without drying off. The people at Lourdes used to attribute it to a miracle, but I was told that the water has such a high mineral content it dries very quickly.

On the way back to the hotel we passed by the Marian Grotto where Mass was being offered. I took a moment to acknowledge our Lord and thanked Him for giving the Church such a wonderful guide, His Blessed Mother. It was truly an amazing experience.

After our afternoon of prayer, we returned to our hotel for our final Theological Reflection. Our article, appropriately enough, was on the Blessed Mother and her connection to the Church. It led to a great discussion on suffering, healing, and Mary, an especially relevant discussion here at Lourdes.

After dinner most of the men returned to the basilica for the rosary procession once again. We have one more full day in Lourdes, so we’ll write more about the experience in our next blog entry.

Day 15 – Andorra and Lourdes

We departed Montserrat early and said adios to Spain so we could make our way north into France, with our next destination in Lourdes.

Along the way, to my great delight, our route took us through the tiny country of Andorra. Andorra is a little kingdom that sits in the Pyrenees mountains along the border of France and Spain. It is the sixth smallest country in Europe, and is known as a tourism spot today, with plenty of shopping centers and ski resorts.

To our great surprise, as we made our way higher in the mountains of Andorra, we started to encounter snow. By the time we stopped for lunch there, it was a full on snow storm, with snow accumulating all over. Some of us took a lot of joy from the snow, and more than a few snowballs were thrown.

After lunch we continued on our way into France, and made it to Lourdes a little after 5pm. At this point we said goodbye to our bus driver Jose, who was leaving to go back home to Portugal after he dropped off us. Jose was both friendly and professional and took good care of us so far, so we made sure to show him our appreciation.

We had enough time to drop our stuff at our hotel, and made the 5 minute walk to the basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes, built right at the site of the apparition. We celebrated the Mass of Our Lady of Lourdes in the chapel of St. Gabriel.

After Mass, Msgr. Trapp gave us an overview of the area and told us about how the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette. From there, we went back to the hotel to get situated in our rooms and have dinner.

We were given the option to return to the basilica for the 9pm rosary procession, which a number of us decided to do. It was a beautiful experience, with thousands of people participating. The rosary was prayed in a number of different languages, and everyone was carrying a candle. After each decade of the rosary, everyone sang a marian hymn to the tune of “Immaculate Mary”. During the “Ave Maria” part, everyone raises their candle into the air in honor of Our Lady. It was beautiful to see so many people share their devotion to our Blessed Mother this way.

We are at Lourdes for the next few days, so we’ll talk more of our experiences in the upcoming blog entries.