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Today we celebrate a great and extremely interesting Saint, Mary Magdalene.  Maria_Magdalene_crucifixion_detail

A woman of considerable mystery and controversy, her exact identity is not clear.  Is she the same as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus?  Is she the unnamed sinner who anointed Christ’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair?  Was she a prostitute?

Her name brings to mind repentance, conversion, and liberation from evil.  One of the few clear statements about her in scripture says that she was exorcised of seven demons, and after that she followed Christ on His journeys.

We also know with certainty that she was present at the Crucifixion and that she was the first person to receive and announce the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection.  Dominicans regard her as a patroness of our Order, for she was the preacher to the preachers and the apostle to the apostles.

Even with such scarce evidence, we can conclude that St. Mary Magdalene had a remarkable and dramatic spiritual journey, a profound conversion.

While some might take umbrage with identifying her as a great sinner, the mention of her possession by seven demons suggests that for some period of time her life was far from saintly.  As a woman who has in the past has lived dangerously close to the demonic, I have long identified closely with St. Mary Magdalene.  When talking about my experiences with fellow Catholics, I have occasionally been met with appalled and scandalized responses, a very un-Catholic recoiling from my past as if it were still my present and my future, as if there were no such thing as repentance, conversion, and salvation of sinners.  And I have to admit that I am sometimes the most appalled of all, nearly tempted to doubt my own salvation.

But just as St. Mary Magdalene cannot be defined by her past errors, neither can I be, nor can anybody who turns their face to Christ and opens their heart to His saving grace!  The only sense in which we are defined by our past is that the great darkness which is behind us makes the transforming light of Christ gleam all the more radiantly!  Where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more, as St. Paul said.  And as St. Augustine said, every Saint has a past, and ever sinner has a future.  (Sts. Paul and Augustine should know very well, for they too are well-known as repentant and converted sinners.)

What greater grace could there be than to encounter the resurrected Christ in person?  And what greater future for a sinner than to announce that Good News for the first time in human history?  Those are the reasons we honor the great Saint, Mary Magdalene, and because she who was once Satan’s possession became Christ’s, preacher to the preachers, apostle to the apostles, and a glorious model of hope, repentance, and conversion for all of us sinners.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

The name Francis likely reveals what will be the main themes of this papacy.  I’ve heard confirmations that the Holy Father chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, as opposed to St. Francis Xavier or St. Francis de Sales.  However, all three of these great saints have important things in common: all three of them were great evangelizers, and all three pursued a mission of building, or re-building, the Church in very difficult times.

The image of St. Francis of Assisi has often been softened in modern times into some kind of medieval hippie.  But the truth is that he–like my father, St. Dominic–lived in a time when the Church was on crusade abroad, while falling to heresy and internal weakness and corruption at home. It is said that Christ Himself charged St. Francis to re-build His Church, which was falling into ruin, while Pope Innocent III had a dream in which he saw Francis physically holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran. St. Francis also ventured into the camp of the Sultan of Egypt near Damietta with the intent of either converting him or dying in the attempt. He kissed a leper and bore the wounds of crucifixion in his own body.  He had a boldness and toughness that he often doesn’t get credit for today.

St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits who studied with St. Ignatius of Loyola, was a fervent and fearless missionary to distant lands such as India and Japan–lands in which Christianity was pretty much unknown.  He is said to have converted more people to the faith than anybody since St. Paul.  He died just within reach of mainland China, which had been his ultimate goal.

St. Francis de Sales had close ties and working relationships with both the Jesuits and the Franciscans.  As the bishop of Geneva, he strove to re-convert and re-evangelize those around him who had left the Church for Calvinism.  His gentleness and intellect won many of them back.  He also served as a spiritual director to many, many Catholics from all walks of life to strengthen, reassure, and instruct them.  We are blessed that many of his letters and writings have survived; they are just as relevant as ever.  (In fact, I give St. Francis de Sales credit for helping me to come back to the Church.)

We are again living in very difficult times.  Traditionally Catholic and Christian nations are falling to radical secularism and so-called liberalism which is anything but liberal-minded.  The Church is imploding due to internal weakness, divisions, corruption, and scandal.  Generations of Catholics have been poorly formed and catechized and have all too easily drifted into the secular world or into other Christian communities or other religions.  Meanwhile, new generations of Catholics in places like Africa and Asia, as well as very ancient communities in the Middle East, are striving amid enormous adversities, often striving for their very lives and yet nonetheless thirsting for the Gospel and the Church, and longing for the love, support, guidance, and reassurance of their brethren and the Holy Father.

In short, traditionally Catholic and Christian lands are in dire need of re-evangelization and re-conversion, the Church is in need of re-building and re-forming from within, and Catholic communities both old and new in other parts of the world are in need of building up and support.  These processes have been begun by previous popes.  They have laid the framework and the kindling.  I believe our current pope, true to his namesake(s), is going to light it all on fire!

For myself, I can say that Pope Francis has already inspired me to greater humility, greater prayer and spirituality, and above all, greater simplicity and poverty of spirit.  All the good intentions I had for this Lent, all the disciplines, all the penances, have just been kicked up to the next level.  And believe it or not, this Jesuit with the name and heart of the great Saint Francises, has inspired me to live out more fully my Dominican spirituality.  Of course, Dominicans always have, and always will, play an important part in any form of evangelization and building up of the Church.  Dominicans, like Franciscans, are a mendicant order.  I think we may get back to those roots under the influence of Pope Francis.  And when the Dominicans get back to their roots–not only the spirit of poverty, but the very important roots of prayer, study, and preaching–great things are bound to happen!

As my sister St. Catherine of Siena said, “When you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!”  I think Pope Francis is going to help all Catholics everywhere to be what we should be–disciples of Christ!  May it be so–amen.

Today is one of my favorite feast days, that of the Holy Archangels!

While there are undoubtedly a multitude of archangels in God’s court, there are only three that we know for certain by name: Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel.  Their identities have been passed down by holy scripture and tradition.  God has given us these three to turn to in confidence, and they each have a unique role and mission.  Michael is the mighty general and standard-bearer of the heavenly host; in fact, he is called the “Prince of the Heavenly Host.”  Raphael is known as a healer, a close companion, a guardian and guide.  Gabriel is the messenger of God’s word and God’s will.

There has been a tendency in modern times to “soften” or to “humanize” the holy angels in general–as, indeed, there has been a modern tendency to soften and humanize so many things.  Some of it is harmless sentimentalism–the dewy, innocent, and gentle aesthetic of the last couple of centuries.  Some of it is rooted in more sinister things–the atheist’s casting of all spiritual things as mere fluffy fairy tale made in man’s own image, and on the other hand, the occultist’s desire to be superior and dominate all things, including spiritual things.

Granted, it is not just a modern thing to portray angels as beautiful, somewhat androgynous, human-like creatures with wings and halos.  But I think we’ve lost our sense of what that representation originally intended to convey.  That angels are beautiful signifies their holiness, their goodness, their purity, their perfection, their closeness to God who is truth, beauty, and goodness.  Likewise the halos, brimming with ethereal light and power.  That they are androgynous signifies that they are not corporeal and not human.  The wings further emphasize this, signifying that angels are not bound by space, time, or anything physical. That they are human-like signifies that they are persons, individuals with intellect and free will–not objects or lower types of creatures such as animals or plants.

Consider a traditional religious icon.  Notice first that there is nothing white or fluffy or soft or comfy.  These are noble, dignified figures, robed in splendor like princes and carrying staffs which show authority and power.  They are very human-like, youthful, and beautiful, but they are imposing figures, nonetheless, evoking some degree of reverence.  At the same time, they are not the true center of this image, of course–Christ is.  St. Michael and St. Gabriel look at Christ, while St. Raphael looks at us as if to say, “You must follow our example.  Make Christ your center.  Look to Him, adore Him, love Him, and serve Him.”

That is part of the mission of each of these special angels: to help us and show us the way.  And we are meant to turn to them respectfully and trustingly.  We don’t need them to be soft or too human–we need them to be the strong, tireless, incredible beings that they are.  We need them to be mighty enough to stand against Satan and all of the evil angels who are out for our destruction.  We also don’t need them to be “nice” to us.  They have something far greater than niceness–they have perfect charity.  They love God perfectly and completely, and because of that they also love everything and everybody that God loves–and that includes God’s children above all!

So, just because they are greater than us by nature in many ways, we need never fear to call to them.  God revealed their names to us for a reason–so that we can call upon them and talk to them in a personal way.  I do so pretty often.  Whenever I feel in danger, whenever I feel pulled toward evil, or whenever I behold danger and evil in the world around me, I call upon St. Michael to protect and guard me and the world.  I pray Pope Leo XIII’s prayer to St. Michael after every Mass, and whenever else I need to.  Whenever I feel lonely, lost, tired, doubtful, depressed, or in any way ill or in pain, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, I call upon St. Raphael to strengthen and guide me.  Whenever I am uncertain about what God is calling me to do or who God is calling me to be, either in my whole lifetime or in very specific circumstances, I call upon St. Gabriel and ask for help in hearing, following, and obeying God’s voice.

In every case, I have always found the holy archangels to be very effective and dependable in their aid and in their understanding of what I need.  I often look back later and realize that, in fact, they were providing exactly the help I needed before I called upon them.  But it is good to call upon them and to build a relationship with them anyway.  Give it a try, if you don’t do it already.  I think you will find your life wonderfully enriched.

A blessed Feast of the Holy Archangels to you!

As I wait to receive my patron Saint for 2012, I have also looked back at 2011 and my patron, St. John Berchmans. In my post last year, I hoped that St. John might help me find greater simplicity and holiness in everyday life, and that his youth might help me stay in touch with my own youth.

I have to say, I have not been a very good companion this year. I have not devoted myself to cultivating my relationship with my patron as much as I would have liked. And yet, being the Saint that he is, St. John has been faithfully present with me, working behind the scenes, gently steering me toward where I need to go. This past year has been fraught with difficulty, and yet I have come through it with a simple grace that I cannot attribute to myself alone. In fact, it has sometimes been in the midst of difficulties that I have come to understand the great value and necessity of simplicity and of childlike faith and humility before God.

Although I cannot pinpoint any specific lessons, I can definitely say that I have learned a lot over this last year. That is often how God and the Saints and the angels work in our lives. They rarely come upon us like flashes of lightning. Rather they gradually kindle a flame in us, nurturing it to a lasting glow. Eventually, we come to see that our lives and the world around us have taken on a new color, a new clarity.

I thank God and St. John Berchmans for being with me this year, speaking softly to my soul and helping it grow.

 

I have only recently begun praying novenas regularly. But thanks to the wonderful site, Pray More Novenas, I have been kept up to date on all the novenas of the day.

The next one up is one I cannot miss: the St. Jude Novena.  It begins this coming Wednesday, 19 October.

St. Jude is, after all, the Patron of Hopeless Causes and Desperate Situations–of which I have a few at the moment, God help me.

So, this novena is starting with marvelously good timing!

I have begun reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which you can read online via Google Books.  It’s a wonderful telling of St. Joan’s story, beginning with her life in Domremy.  Although not a Catholic, Mark Twain had a very deep and fond admiration for Joan and spent 12 years researching her story, reading all of the original transcripts of her trials and other sources.  He considered it one of his own best and most important works.

Twain originally published the story anonymously so that readers would not have any preconceived notions about it or expect it to be similar to any of his other works.  He wanted people to take this story seriously, and they did; the readers of the story when it was originally serialized believed that they were truly reading a contemporary man’s personal recollections of Joan, recently translated into modern English by a fictional translator named Jean Francois Alden.

The narrator is a childhood friend and faithful companion and confidant, Sieur Louis de Compte.  Below is an excerpt that I found particularly beautiful, vivid, and haunting.  Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one reposing in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost in thought, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions—a robed form, with wings—and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of the lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one can look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, perceiving that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.

Another strange thing. The wood had been silent—smitten with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid; but now all the birds burst forth in song, and the joy, the rapture, the ecstasy of it was beyond belief; and was so eloquent and so moving, withal, that it was plain it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low and crossed her hands upon her breast.

She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.

The shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant habit was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.

Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her; and standing so, all drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen—but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant, and then clasped her hands and lifted them high, imploringly, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say:

“But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be comrade with men?—soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rude usage, and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?—I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it. . . . Yet—if it is commanded—”

Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God—and what might my punishment be? I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know.

Many thanks to Jennifer Bitler of Doxology Design for creating my beautiful new custom blog header!  She has been a joy to work with, and her creativity and skill are plain to see.  She really listened to what I wanted, and also gave helpful expert advice.  She was very patient too, and provided many different options and possibilities to choose from.

SO–I highly recommend contacting her if you need a new blog header or any other Web or print design work!  :D

The lady saint in the image is St. Rose of Lima, one of my Lay Dominican sisters.  I was thinking about what kind of image could sum up the essence of being a practicing Catholic, and what came into my head was the very common holy card image of a saint adoring a Crucifix.  Adoring–not shunning–the Crucifix is something at the very heart of authentic Catholicism, and something that sets Catholics apart from many other Christians.  This image of St. Rose captured perfectly the love and devotion of a soul in worship and adoration of our Lord Crucified.

The splendid, majestic background image of St. Peter’s rotunda represents the “overarching” Church to which we each belong.  I wanted to have these images blended together as a way of making the point that there is no division or opposition between the individual’s private worship and personal relationship with Christ, on the one hand, and on the other, what some refer to as the “institutionalized Church.”  They are both part of the Catholic experience.

I threw all these ideas out there, and Jennifer took them and captured them in one beautiful image!  I never could have come up with it on my own.  So again, my gratitude goes to her!

About the same time that I received St. John Berchmans as my Patron Saint for 2011, Pat McNamara posted the story of the miracle that finalized his canonization!  A stunning miracle it was!  It happened in 1866, in a tiny rural town in southern Louisiana called Grand Coteau.  The recipient of the miracle was Mary Wilson, a young Catholic convert who had entered the convent at the Academy of the Sacred heart.

Here is an excerpt from Mary’s testimony:

I do not think I had eaten an ounce of food for about forty days. During that time I had taken nothing but a little coffee or tea, which for a week before I recovered I could no longer take. And for two weeks no medicine had been administered. The doctor said it was useless to torture me more. So, he stopped giving me any. The last two days I was unable to take even a drop of water. I endured the pangs of death. My body was drawn up with pain; my hands and feet were cramped and as cold as death. All my sickness had turned to inflammation of the stomach and throat. My tongue was raw and swollen. I was not able to speak for two days. At each attempt to utter a word, the blood would gush from my mouth.

Being unable to speak, I said in my heart: “Lord, Thou Who seest how I suffer, if it be for your honor and glory and the salvation of my soul, I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health. Otherwise give me patience to the end. I am resigned.” Then, placing the image of Blessed Berchmans on my mouth, I said: “If it be true that you can work miracles, I wish you would do something for me. If not, I will not believe in you.”

I can say without scruple of fear of offending God: I heard a voice whisper, “Open your mouth.” I did so as well as I could. I felt someone, as if put their finger on my tongue, and immediately I was relieved. I then heard a voice say in a distinct and loud tone: “Sister, you will get the desired habit. Be faithful. Have confidence. Fear not.”

I had not yet opened my eyes. I did not know who was by my bedside. I turned round and said aloud: “But, Mother Moran, I am well!”

Then, standing by my bedside, I saw a figure, He held in his hands a cup, and there were some lights near him, at this beautiful sight I was afraid. I closed my eyes and asked: “Is it Blessed Berchmans?” He answered:” Yes, I come by the order of God. Your sufferings are over. Fear not!” For the glory of Blessed John Berchmans, whose name be ever blessed! I deem it my duty to declare here, that from the moment of the cure I never experienced the slightest return of my former ailments.

It is exciting that this incredible story took place not too terribly far from my neck of the woods.  I will have to try to get down there for a visit!

I read at that St. John died before he could be ordained a priest.  So it is not surprising, and indeed it is wonderfully fitting, that he would obtain a miracle for another person who was facing death before entering religious life.  It’s a powerful and reassuring reminder of the bonds that exist between the Saints and us.  Let us thank and praise God for giving us the Communion of Saints!

Thanks to Mr. McNamara for sharing this story, and to the kind reader, Mr. Bertrand, who sent me a link to it!

It always delights me when Pope Benedict talks about Dominicans.  This week, he spoke of St. Albert the Great, the Doctor Universalis.  Among other things, he was the professor of St. Thomas Aquinas, and is the Patron Saint of the natural sciences and of scientists… as well as of philosophers and theology students.

This article summarizes the speech: “Albert the Great: No Contrast Between Faith and Science”.  Here is an excerpt:

“Above all, St. Albert shows that there is no opposition between faith and science. … He reminds us that there is friendship between science and faith, and that scientists can, through their vocation to study nature, follow an authentic and absorbing path of sanctity”, said the Holy Father.

“St. Albert the Great opened the door to the complete acceptance of the thought of Aristotle into the philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages, an acceptance that was later definitively elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas. This acceptance of what we may call pagan or pre-Christian philosophy was an authentic cultural revolution for the time. Yet many Christian thinkers feared Aristotle’s philosophy”, especially as it had been interpreted in such a was as to appear “entire irreconcilable with Christian faith. Thus a dilemma arose: are faith and reason in contrast with one another or not?

“Here lies one of the great merits of St. Albert: he rigorously studied the works of Aristotle, convinced that anything that is truly reasonable is compatible with faith as revealed in Sacred Scripture”, the Pope added.

I wonder how many people realize that we have a Patron Saint of natural sciences and scientists?  Remember this the next time you hear or read somebody claim that the Church is ignorant of and/or hostile toward science.

At a recent general audience, Pope Benedict was speaking about the Church’s ability to constantly renew and reform herself and the society around her in every time and place, and he used the example of the Mendicant Orders that arose in the 13th century: the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Aside from my joy that the Holy Father spoke about Dominicans, it also gave me great joy to hear him speak about the Medieval Church and Medieval Saints.  It was a very different age, of course, and yet I always find that it resonates with me.  I don’t think it was as different as we may think today.  The word “medieval” has a connotation today that is far more negative than it deserves.

In fact, the Medieval Church was dealing with some of the same issues our modern Church faces: issues such as the role of the laity, the universal call to holiness, the relationship between faith and reason, and the necessity of the Church’s voice in the academy and in society at large.

Not a few lay faithful, who lived in greatly expanding cities, wished to practice a spiritually intense Christian life. Hence they sought to deepen their knowledge of the faith and to be guided in the arduous but exciting path of holiness. Happily, the Mendicant Orders were also able to meet this need: the proclamation of the Gospel in simplicity and in its depth and greatness was one objective, perhaps the main objective of this movement. … They dealt with themes close to the life of the people, especially the practice of the theological and moral virtues, with concrete examples, easily understood. Moreover, they taught ways to nourish the life of prayer and piety. … Hence it is not surprising that the faithful were numerous, women and men, who chose to be supported in their Christian journey by the Franciscan and Dominican Friars, sought after and appreciated spiritual directors and confessors.

Thus were born associations of lay faithful that were inspired by the spirituality of Sts. Francis and Dominic, adapted to their state of life. It was the Third Order, whether Franciscan or Dominican. In other words, the proposal of a “lay sanctity” won many people. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, the call to holiness is not reserved to some, but is universal (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 40). In every state of life, according to the needs of each, there is the possibility of living the Gospel. Also today every Christian must tend to the “lofty measure of Christian life,” no matter what state of life he belongs to!

Ha, did you see that? He linked the 13th century with Vatican II! One of the things I love about being a Lay Dominican is that I am indeed part of a tradition that traces itself all the way back to the 13th century, and yet it remains incredibly relevant and up-to-date. I do sort of wish that the Holy Father had mentioned that these religious third orders still exist and still provide a powerful means for people to seek out the “lay sanctity” that has been talked about so much since Vatican II. We hear lots about “lay sanctity” today… but not nearly enough about the religious third orders. I think we need to work on that.

The greatest thinkers, Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, were mendicants, operating in fact with this dynamism of the new evangelization, which also renewed the courage of thought, of dialogue between reason and faith. Today also there is a “charity of and in truth,” an “intellectual charity” to exercise, to enlighten intelligences and combine faith with culture. The widespread commitment of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Medieval universities is an invitation, dear faithful, to make oneself present in places of the elaboration of learning, to propose, with respect and conviction, the light of the Gospel on the fundamental questions that concern man, his dignity, and his eternal destiny. Thinking of the role of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages, of the spiritual renewal they aroused, of the breath of new life that they communicated in the world, a monk says: “At that time the world was growing old. Two orders arose in the Church, from which it renewed its youth, like that of an eagle” (Burchard d’Ursperg, Chronicon).

Through the example of the great saint scholars, the Holy Father is calling us to bring our faith into the academy, to “combine faith with culture.”  I can’t help but think that this is a much taller order today than it was in the Medieval period.  I constantly struggle with it.

As a Catholic, and particularly as a Lay Dominican, I consider it my duty and also my right to carry my faith wherever I go–to carry it as a lantern that casts its light around me and before me and upon everything and everybody I come in contact with.  If I did not do so, I would risk not only losing my way, but also losing myself.  And yet there is at least a little part of me that has been manufactured by a very secularist society and a secularist educational system.  And a little voice that always tempts me to keep my faith shut up in a box… to keep my lantern hidden away, my light beneath a bushel basket.

I’m sure the Medieval scholars had their own struggles and challenges–although I can’t imagine that secularism was one of them.   No, secularism is the great challenge of our era.  The challenge for the future Saints now living among us.  Facing it will come down to heroic virtue.  To conviction and to courage.  To God’s grace transforming that little part of us that has been manufactured by our society.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the full address.  The Dominican Province of St. Joseph (eastern U.S.) has a full translation at their blog.

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St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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