The semester of a lifetime

14 Apr

My friend Jenny is hosting a link-up of favorite John Paul II stories, and I thought it would be fun to jump in.  This is actually my first official link-up.  Crazy, huh?


Anyone who knows me, has heard me speak, or has read my blog for awhile knows my John Paul II story.  It’s not just a moment, it’s three months of moments, beginning on February 2, 2005, when 29 juniors in college boarded a plane for Rome to study abroad.  John Paul II had just been admitted to the hospital the day before, but I’m not sure any of us fully comprehended what might await us that semester.  Certainly none of us dreamed our last Sunday in Rome would be the installation Mass of our new Holy Father, Benedict XVI.

I remember seeing John Paul II for the last time.  It was Wednesday, March 30, and a group of us were leaving for Paris the following day.  In the last months of his life, instead of his large General Audiences in the Square, John Paul would come to his window and greet pilgrims at 11am.  I knew we needed to be there that Wednesday.  When 11am came and went, rumors began spreading that he wasn’t coming.  We had seen him a few days earlier, on Easter Sunday, but none of us realized how sick he was.  I think we were so used to seeing him suffer and had witnessed so many false alarms, we hadn’t fully comprehended that his health was really failing.

When he came to the window, he couldn’t even speak.  I looked at the television screen and saw the anguish in his face, and it was as if I was seeing the suffering for the first time.  He was preaching his last homily, proclaiming his last encyclical, addressing his last apostolic exhortation.  It was silent. It was the Cross.

Two days later, I was in Notre Dame Cathedral kissing the crown of thorns, unaware that my Holy Father was on Calvary for one last time.

Our first night in Paris, we stayed at the convent at Sacré-Coeur.  Spartan living arrangements were embraced enthusiastically for a few euros and the opportunity to pray in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the basilica in the middle of the night.  For some reason, however, the Sisters said we could only stay one night in the convent.  While we were upset at the change of plans, if we hadn’t been forced to find other lodging, we never would have had access to CNN — where we saw on Friday night for the first time that John Paul II was dying.

Saturday evening we headed up Montmartre for Compline and 10pm Mass.  We were going to be late for Compline, and for a feeling I couldn’t explain, I knew I had to be at Compline. We raced up the steps, and as we entered the darkness of the basilica, my legs were weak, I was sweaty, and I thought I was going to faint. I glanced at my watch.  9:35. We had made it just in time.  We made our way through the basilica and knelt in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament.

Two minutes later, John Paul II died.

We didn’t know, of course, nor did anyone else in the basilica.  Instead, the city of Paris- the youth, the businessmen, the married couples, the families- all gathered together in that beautiful basilica and celebrated the vigil of Divine Mercy together, praying for our beloved John Paul II.  When we returned to our hotel, the other girls ran up to our room to turn on CNN.  I stood in the lobby, my eyes transfixed to the television screen.  He was gone.

The next week was a blur. When we returned to Rome the day after he died, we headed straight to St. Peter’s.  Although morning Mass was long over, the Square was packed.  No one wanted to leave, as if leaving his window meant leaving him.  People were singing songs, praying the rosary, sharing memories.  We said the Divine Mercy chaplet and then headed back to our house.

The next afternoon, knowing the crowds were only going to multiply, a group of us headed to St. Peter’s to pay our respects to the only Holy Father we had ever known.  That night was completely surreal.  Standing in line for hours, passing makeshift shrines with candles, signs, and intentions, watching clips of John Paul II on the jumbotrons that were set up in the Square and all the way down Via Conciliazione.

Although it’s two football fields away, Bernini’s Holy Spirit window was clearly visible as we walked up the main steps of St. Peter’s and straight through the main doors.  The whole way up to his body lying in state, that window was in front of our eyes, lit up despite the darkness outside.  The theme from World Youth Day, Jesus Christ, You are my Life, was playing. To this day, it’s hard to hear that without weeping.

But the overwhelming feeling was not sadness.  It was triumph.  The music swelled, and we entered the bright basilica, still staring at the Holy Spirit window.  His suffering was over.  The victory was won.  And the Holy Spirit would take care of us now.

 “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.”
John 1:4-9



Blue Hole

13 Apr

Just a few pictures from the weekend.  We were teaching in the Tri-Cities, which is a far piece – well, the farthest we travel to teach.  After a day of teaching in Johnson City (cue Wagon Wheel, because it was in my head every time someone said Johnson City…) we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather to find some mountain beauty.

We ended up taking a chance on a waterfall that Sister had found in a brochure and I had found online.  It was a good risk.

IMG_7655You take pictures like this before you realize what’s coming next.  This waterfall, “Blue Hole,” is really four waterfalls.  This isn’t one of those four.  But it’s the first thing we saw, and it was beautiful.  But then we kept walking down the hill…

IMG_7661These pictures don’t really do the whole thing justice.  It was magic hour, so the sunlight was perfect.  It was off the beaten bath (and there wasn’t a single sign announcing the waterfall’s presence), so there was no one else to be seen for about a mile.  After a long day of teaching, it was exactly what we needed.

IMG_7664The more we walked, the neater the waterfalls became.



That waterfall required some additional, off-the-path climbing, but once Sister and I made our way down (roots make the best foot holds), we were rewarded with a significant temperature drop (it was stunning to feel the cool air pouring from the falls) and a beautiful view.

Then the last fall…


This is the “blue hole” that gives the whole waterfall complex it’s name.  After making it’s way down the mountain, this waterfall pours right into a deep, blue hole. : )


This view was much more majestic in real life.  I took this from the top of one of the falls, looking down at Sister Mary Sharon, who was sitting by the Blue Hole.  Behind her is a giant rock face that is much higher and more stunning in person.

It was definitely worth the trip.  Then we rewarded ourselves with pizza and calzones back in Johnson City.

On Saturday we taught in Kingsport, then headed back across the state home.  In two more weeks, the spring travel schedule will be over.  Just to give you an idea of the life of a traveling catechist – I will have slept in my own bed one Friday night between March 7 and April 25.  But I’m not complaining.  Have Bible, will travel. It’s an honor to preach His Word.





Along for the ride

12 Apr

A few days ago I was exiting the grocery store from picking up lunch, and I was walking towards the escalator to the parking garage when a uniformed young man and his non-uniformed friend got on the escalator in front of me.  From the back, it looked like the uniformed man was a policeman – he was all in black with a gun at his hip, his pants tucked into big black boots.  Perhaps he was a security guard of some sort.

We rode down the escalator – yes, rode - because he and his friend were content to lean against the side and take their time getting to the bottom,


I’m okay if the elderly, mothers or fathers with small children, people with their hands full, ride down escalators.  But able-bodied young men – especially one who is theoretically employed somewhere to protect me?  Not only do you not let me go first down the escalator (which, since we were approaching it from opposite sides, at the same time, I kind of expected), you ride it down at you leisure?

Sorry, sir, but your big black boots and your gun are clearly compensating for something.

Your chivalry.

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a sucker for a guy in a uniform.  But a lazy guy in a uniform?  No thanks.  Perhaps I’m getting too used to the chivalry of Detective Murdoch, the main character in the series to which I’m now addicted, thanks to my mother.  He lived in a different era, to be sure, but he would do anything for anyone — women, children, the weak and helpless.  I can’t see him riding down an escalator.  He had important things to accomplish.

Just some random musings.

Sister Act

10 Apr

I am beginning to get a reputation in my family for the unusual opportunities I discover around Nashville.  One night when my brother called me, he was surprised to actually reach me.  “You don’t a book signing to attend?”  No.  “The opening of a convention center?”  No.  “A festival of some sort?”

That’s one of the reasons I love this city.  There are a lot of opportunities for fun, culture, and randomness.  Sometimes they find me, sometimes I find them.

A few weeks ago one found me.


I was on a panel before the traveling Broadway show Sister Act.  

All in a day’s work, right?

The organizer of the panel, Kristin (see above picture), contacted me about the panel because she and I share a hairdresser (and love her.  I have the greatest hairdresser and share her with many other great people).  Kristin organizes a community outreach event, Arts Appetizers, before the Wednesday performance of any Broadway show that visits Nashville.  For a small price, you can come before the show to enjoy appetizers and a panel of cast members and community members with some connection to the show.  For Catch Me If You Can, for example, the panel featured someone from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

For Sister Act, they wanted… Sisters.  It all came together in the end, but it was touch and go for awhile.  Kristin had also asked me to come and speak about Aquinas’ role in the community.  For awhile, it looked like it might just be me.  So I made sure to wear a non-Sister outfit so no one would get confused. (hence the bright yellow sweater and the black boots.  When someone asked me at work why I was dressed like a bumblebee, I responded, “This is my ‘I’m not a nun’ outfit.”)

But in the end, two of the Sisters were able to join the panel!  The other members of the panel were two cast members, both playing “nuns” and understudies for the Mother Superior  and the main character.  They were thrilled to meet “real, live nuns” and had so many questions for the Sisters.  The panel discussion was awesome — everyone loved having the “real” Sisters there, and the Sisters were really able to preach the truth, clear up any misunderstandings, and witness to the joy of their life.  One of the cast members aptly commented that the Sisters manifested the joy that the nuns in the show only manifest at the end.  It was truly a New Evangelization moment.

There were plenty of funny moments too — like before the panel, when the Sisters were in line for food and my friend Manda overheard a husband and wife debating about whether the “nuns” were “real” or were in costume.  “It’s just a costume,” one of them insisted.  “Look, they’re wearing high heels.”  Some of the Sisters do wear lace-up black shoes with a bit of a heel (a solid one, like you might dance in), and sure enough, these two were wearing those shoes.  When we told them about it later, Sister laughed and commented, “I’m glad I wore my really high ones tonight!”

The two Sisters on the panel both were theatre majors in college, so they were the perfect ones to tell their story.  I think they might have joined us for the show if circumstances had been different… : )

Afterwards my friend Manda and I saw the show from pretty sweet free seats.  All in all, not the best representation of convent life or the Catholic Church, but it could be far worse. One of the final songs, “Sister Act,” was actually a pretty good lesson learned about community life.  (The show is a little different from the movie and has different songs, due to copyrights and whatnot.)

It was fun seeing the fellow panelists in action, too.  All in all,  a fun night.


Embracing Lent

9 Apr

Do yourself a favor and remind yourself why you’re doing all this penance.

I’m glad this guy is my friend, otherwise I’d be a little jealous of his talent.  Succinct, accessible, orthodox, and hilarious.  I bet you didn’t even realize you were learning something.

Carpe diem

8 Apr

I often run into the staff of the condo building as I leave for work – usually one of the facilities guys.  This morning Frankie was changing a lightbulb as I exited the elevator.

After greeting me, he said, “Let’s have a fantastic Tuesday, Miss Watson.”

I thought about his words as I walked to my car with a spring in my step.  Yes. Let’s have a fantastic Tuesday.  There was something different in that farewell than the usual, “Have a good day.”  Why did this adieu motivate me?

Whether he knew it or not, Frankie was giving me a mission.  It wasn’t just a wish or a hope.  It was a reminder that I could choose whether to have a good day.

Things were going to happen today that I had no control over.  I couldn’t determine what my day was going to bring me.  But I could determine what I was going to do with what it brought me.

This sounds far more dramatic than my Tuesday ended up being, but the lesson was there.  Some days are better than others.  But even the worst days are waiting for our response.

Let’s have a fantastic Wednesday.


“Life is ten percent what happens to you
and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
Lou Holtz


Great Suffering, Great Love

6 Apr

The Sunday Gospels in Lent for Year A are particularly poignant and reflective; there’s a reason they may be read at  the weekday Masses as well, particularly during Years B and C when they aren’t proclaimed on Sunday.  The Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favorite of Jesus’ encounters, and I would love to develop a retreat just around that reading.  The story of the man born blind last week gives rise to many questions and points to ponder, especially as these Lenten days approach the darkness and light of the Triduum.

The drama of today’s Gospel seems to rush us even faster towards the holy days, as we experience a glimpse of the hope Jesus has come to give us, as the darkness gives way to light, the despair of death is conquered by the faith of the resurrection.

As I drove to Mass this morning, I was thinking about an aspect of the Lazarus story I had never really thought about before: that Jesus allows Lazarus to suffer.  I had always known that Jesus delayed going to his friends at Bethany so that He could show the glory of the Father and do something far greater than heal Lazarus: He could bring him back from the grave.  But I don’t think I had really stopped to think about what this meant.  It meant He stood by and allowed Lazarus, Mary, and Martha to suffer.

He had the power to alleviate their suffering, and He did nothing.

We don’t know what caused Lazarus’ death – perhaps it was something particularly painful.  His sisters had to watch him die.  They had to bury him.  They had to face life without their loved one.

Jesus could have stopped it.  He could have prevented the pain.

Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?

It is not because He did not love Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  They were his closest friends outside of the Apostles.

He chose to allow their suffering so that He could show His love is even greater than death.

Suffering is a great mystery.  We know that it is evil, it is a result of sin.  But we also know that God allows us to suffer so that we can participate in the mystery of the Cross.

Sometimes we see God allowing people to suffer in our daily life, but we look at the Gospels and only see the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections.  Jesus walked this earth and gave men back their sight, gave women back their sons, healed lepers, raised paralytics from their mats.  Why does He stand by and allow my loved ones to suffer?

Lazarus was one of his dearest friends.  He allowed him to suffer because he loved him.  It’s a great mystery, but one we will face every day.

With the greatest suffering comes the greatest love.


26 Mar

I’m humbled and honored to be part of two great conferences this summer.  Honestly, I don’t deserve to be on the same website as these people.


In May I’ll be speaking here in Nashville at the Glory Conference.  My name follows “Mike Aquilina,” which I definitely don’t deserve.  Is there a nicer, classier, humbler guy than Mike Aquilina?  It’s an honor to be at Glory with him.  Yours truly will be speaking about Pope Benedict and Beauty in the New Evangelization.



In July, I’m joining the dream team.  Not just Mike, but Scott Hahn, John Bergsma, Brant Pitre, Curtis Mitch, Jeff Cavins, Michael Barber, Matt Leonard… and more.  I know, right?  I nearly hyperventilated when I saw my picture was even close to these guys.  I’m going to be working with the St. Paul Center again (so excited) and teaching in the Journey Through Scripture Presenter Training Track.  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to make it on the website, and I’m still picking myself off the floor over it. I’m not presenting, but I’m doing what I love most- teaching.  And again, it’s just an honor to have my picture under the same URL as these guys.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.



A good day.

24 Mar

I’m sure everyone is tired of listening to me talk about my days, my eating habits, my randomness.  Although I suppose if you were really tired of it, you would have abandoned this blog by now.

All I really wanted to come here to say is that I had a good day.  Not only did I accomplish a handful of things that really needed accomplishing (laundry; cleaning; the old seasonal-clothes-switch; running to Goodwill, the bank, the postoffice…) but I celebrated my accomplishments (and the eve of the Solemnity of the Annunciation) with my friend Manda at Happy Hour.

IMG_7544Where I had oysters for the first time!  yay!  We went to The Southern, which besides having a really awesome brunch also happens to be an oyster bar. We were just there to sit at the bar and have a nice conversation over a nice cocktail.  But then Manda was eyeing the oyster menu, and they were shucking them right in front of us… so then one of the nice guys shucking them asked us if we wanted oysters, and Manda was on the fence, and I admitted I had never had an oyster.

“You’ve never had an oyster?” he asked incredulously.  I admitted that they scared me.

He shook his head, told me there was nothing to be afraid of, and promised he would coach me through it.

So on the house, he gave me my first oyster.  Prepped it for me. Coached me through it.

And it was wonderful.

It wasn’t something I would probably crave, like I do a good steak.  But it was so fresh, so tender, so… real.  So when Manda suggested we split a half dozen, I was game.

It was as if we were experiencing food the way we were supposed to experience it.  It weirded me out at first, knowing I was eating something that wasn’t that far from life.  I like my meat cooked and my food to look differently than when it did when it was living.  But yet there was something about being closer to the food, being closer to the way God created it.

They were cold oysters, and my new friend told me I was worried about them being slimy or chewy because I was thinking of warm water oysters.  These were really tender and not nearly as slimy as I thought they would be.

Manda and I had a fantastic conversation, and I left on a high.  Friendship, fantastic service (which we are beginning to value even more than the food and drink itself, but The Southern delivered on both), a highly productive day, and a solemnity tomorrow. What more could this girl ask for?


21 Mar


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