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Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York. Website URL:

St. John Leonardi

St. John (or Giovanni) Leonardi was born about 1541 into an interesting time in European history.  The Protestant Reformation was underway, and the Church, though disagreeing with the separation that had occurred, acknowledged that reforms within Catholicism needed to be undertaken.
 
The youngest of seven children, Giovanni at first studied to be a pharmacist, but by the age of 27 had decided that his true vocation was to the priesthood.  Ordained in 1572, Giovanni soon attracted a small group of men who were also interested in religious life.  He became their spiritual director, and the communal form of life they lived eventually led to the formation of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God.
 
Becoming a recognized order did not go smoothly, however; the political pressures of the time forced Giovanni and his fellow priests into a kind of exile outside their native town of Lucca.  When they were finally approved in 1595, Giovanni sought to aid the efforts of the Church’s Counter Reformation by educating both the clergy and the laity, emphasizing the need for holiness for all.  His work laid the foundation for the Vatican department now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
 
St. Giovanni Leonardi died in 1609 of disease contracted while tending the victims of plague.  His feast day is Oct. 9, and he is the patron of pharmacists.
 

St. Faustina Kowalska

Sometimes that which seems most ordinary is, in fact, the hiding place of something truly extraordinary.  Such was the case with Maria Faustina Kowalska, who is known today as the saint through whom God chose to communicate His Divine Mercy to the world.  Her humility was such that most people didn’t realize what a remarkable soul they had had the privilege of encountering until after her death.
 
St. Maria Faustina was born Helena Kowalska in a small village in western Poland in 1905.  The third of ten children in a poor family, Helena received only three years of formal education before going to work as a housekeeper in the homes of more well-to-do families.  She had had a desire early on to enter religious life, but her parents were reluctant to give her permission to do so.  Consequently, it was not until she was 20 that she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw, Poland, where she took the name Sister Maria Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
 
The Order to which Maria Faustina belonged was devoted in particular to the care and education of troubled young women.  Although her place within the congregation was very unpretentious – Maria was a cook, gardener and porter in various houses during her 13 years as a nun – it was not long before she began to receive visions and revelations.  These she recorded in a diary which her confessors – and God – requested her to keep.
 
The essence of these messages to Sister Maria and the world was the incredible extent of God’s Divine Mercy.  It was a time when many Catholics harbored an image of God as such a strict judge that some were tempted to despair of ever being truly forgiven by Him.  What God revealed to Sister Maria was quite the opposite:  “Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world,” Jesus once said to her.  “I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart” (Diary, 1588).
 
Outwardly, Sister Maria did not seem to be anything special.  She went about her work within the order with kindness and serenity, observing its Rule and treating those around her with mercy and love.  In her heart, she grew in child-like trust in God, offering her own life in imitation of His for the good of others.
 
In the 1930’s, Sister Maria was directed by Jesus to have a picture painted of Him containing the inscription “Jesus, I Trust in You.”  The image, which she commissioned in 1935, also has a red and white light emanating from Christ’s Sacred Heart and is the portrait of Divine Mercy which hangs in many chapels and churches throughout the world today.
 
Sister Maria Faustina died in 1938 of tuberculosis.  Although she had a reputation for holiness, it would be three decades before her beatification process would begin.  Her diary, written as it was by a barely literate woman, was composed phonetically with no punctuation or quotation marks, so when a bad translation of it reached Rome in 1958, it was initially rejected as being heretical.  However, when a later and more accurate translation was undertaken, the Vatican realized that Sister Maria had actually left the world, not a heretical document, but a beautiful work proclaiming God’s love.  Called “Divine Mercy in My Soul," it has been translated into more than 20 languages. 
 
Sister Maria Faustina was canonized in 2000, and her feast day is commemorated on Oct. 5; Divine Mercy Sunday is celebrated on the Second Sunday of Easter.
 
 
 

Going home

About six years ago, I did what Thomas Wolfe said you can’t do:  I went home again.  Home, by the way, is a small town just over the “Blue Line” into the Adirondack Park, a pretty place nestled by the confluence of the Mighty Hudson and Great Sacandaga rivers.  Tourists love it here and, after many decades away, it turns out that I still do too.

 One of the things I returned to was the small, white, clapboard Catholic church I was raised in.  When I was young it was called Holy Infancy, but in 2009 it, like many other parishes, merged with its neighbor, in this case, Immaculate Conception, and became Holy Mother and Child Parish.  The name is a good compromise and most times I remember to call it that, although every now and again I slip.  No matter, everyone knows what I mean.

It still smells of wood and incense and Murphy’s Oil Soap; the Rosary Altar Society used to clean the church every Saturday morning and those fragrances were a comfort to me even then.  As the youngest member of the group (my mother always brought me along “to help”), I was the 5-year-old who exchanged the burned out votive “stubs” for new candles.  All the while I worked, the statue of Mary that watched over that side of the church kept me company.  It was all of a piece — my mother, the Blessed Mother, the candles and the quiet.  All in all, not a bad way to spend part of Saturday morning.

The votive candles are gone now, and so are those wonderful ladies who were the “grown-ups” in my young life.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; one of the biggest surprises awaiting me when I walked back into the vestibule of that church was the inescapable fact that, while I was gone, I, too, had somehow morphed into a grown-up.  I was no longer 5 years old, and there was an unmistakable sense that those ladies had been waiting for this moment for a long time.  You are home, they seemed to say, and there is work to be done.

So I would like to counter Thomas Wolfe with another writer.  “You can never go home again,” said Maya Angelou, “But the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.”  Spot on, Ms. Angelou.  It is good to be back.

Article written by Kay Winchester, Vermont Catholic staff writer.

Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs

One of the first impressions I took away from “Spiritually Able” is that it is a very hands-on, cut-to-the-chase book.  Authors David and Mercedes Rizzo, whose daughter, Danielle, is non-verbal and autistic, know that Catholic families like theirs are already very aware of what life with a special needs child is like.  That part doesn’t require an explanation.  What is needed, however, are practical, detailed suggestions for teaching the faith to these special children. This is precisely what the Rizzos set out to do in “Spiritually Able,” and they do it well.

That is not to say that they offer no narrative; both Rizzos speak very movingly about what their lives were like both before and after Danielle was born. (They have two older sons and one younger daughter.)  They are also very honest about their own struggle to come to terms with her disability: “Danielle’s autism has been our greatest challenge in life, but it has also been one of our greatest blessings,” they write.  “It has tested our faith and strengthened it, and it has taught us to trust God even when things turn our far different from what we expected.”  Indeed, readers who do not have a disabled child will still be inspired by the family’s commitment to Danielle, their faith and her religious education.

So following a brief introduction, the book moves quickly into nuts-and-bolts information, becoming a detailed, “how-to” resource for parents concerning the faith education of their special needs child.  While a great deal of that advice revolves around teaching and reinforcing concepts at home, the Rizzos are very clear that their suggestions are meant to complement, not replace, any parish religious education program.  They were lucky enough to have a special needs catechist in their own church who was able to work with Danielle, but for a while they also took advantage of a special program offered at a neighboring Catholic parish.  The rule of thumb, they advise, is for parents to seek out and use whatever resources are available to them in the parishes and places where they live.

“Spiritually Able” covers a wide range of religious topics and experiences, from familiarizing your child with the church building itself, to attendance at Mass, reception of the sacraments, inclusion in parish life, and Christian service.  Each chapter in the book focuses on one theme and follows a similar format: The Rizzos first share their story “to set the stage” and then move into two or three lessons which reinforce the concept or sacrament being taught.  Activities are adaptable and several suggestions are offered for how each can be utilized with children of varying abilities.  Finally, every chapter concludes with suggestions on how to move from the lesson to real life, plus a link to Scripture and a meditation geared toward parents.  To complement the book, the Rizzos have also helped develop special “Adaptive Kits,” which aid catechists and parents with both sacramental preparation and general faith formation.  These, like “Spiritually Able,” are available through Loyola Press.

One more important point should also be mentioned — even those without special needs children in their lives can benefit from reading this book because it helps promote an awareness of what these families encounter every day.  “Few people outside the community of children with special needs and their families understand how much of a challenge it can be,” the Rizzos conclude.  “We applaud the efforts of all parents of children with special needs as they struggle to live an authentic life that honors God and those in their care.”


About the Author:
For David and Mercedes Rizzo, the book, “Spiritually Able” and the “Adaptive Kits” that can be used in conjunction with it, are simultaneously a labor of and lesson in love.  Widely recognized in the world of Catholic bloggers as experts on the topic of working with special needs children and adults, their writing and advice have appeared on sites associated with their publisher, Loyola Press, as well as the popular parenting site www.catholicmom.com.

Although their daughter, Danielle, was certainly the inspiration for this book, they each come from a background which helped prepare them for working with individuals like her.  Mercedes, a certified teacher who has taught in both public and parochial schools, has provided support to children who have individualized education plans; David is a physical therapist who has worked extensively with both adults and children challenged by disabilities.  In addition, he has been a presenter at various religious education congresses as well as The National Catholic Partnership for Disabilities and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership Annual Conference.  

The Rizzos have been married for more than 20 years and have three children in addition to Danielle:  Brendan, Colin and Shannon.  They reside in Marlton, N.J., and are members of St. Isaac Jogues Parish there.
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