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Blessings Seem Distributed Unfairly
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Are Novenas Worthwhile?
Where to Turn?
Why Curse a Fig Tree?
Why Pray for the Deceased?
When Did Women's Religious Communities Begin?


Q: I am a 73-year-old married woman with three adult children. I graduated from a Catholic high school, have been a faithful wife and have always attended Mass—daily if possible. I also say the Rosary almost every day.

We live on a modest income in a small house, and I praise God every day for my blessings, although I have been through many trials and tribulations.

My 48-year-old son-in-law died of a brain tumor last year, after two years of suffering. Because my daughter and grandchild were left with only a small insurance policy, she must work at a job where she is treated unfairly by employers who live in million-dollar homes. Her job provides no medical coverage.

For six months I have been praying three daily novenas that the insurance company that underpaid her would be responsible for additional insurance. The other day we learned that the insurance company was not responsible for more than it has already paid. I guess my novenas were fruitless.

Why do so many people who never go to church live in mini-mansions, have great jobs, etc.? Does God give them more blessings than people who go to church and confession regularly—like my widowed daughter? I see many Christian actors and athletes who have huge homes, private jets and other luxuries.

I know that many people have experienced floods, earthquakes and other losses. I have sent help when I can. Today, however, after my long novenas I am very discouraged. Why is life so unfair? Please pray for my daughter and grandchild.

A: Thanks for writing. Yes, I will pray for your daughter and grandchild. The practice of praying for the same intention nine days consecutively is a very good one, but it does not guarantee that the intention prayed for will certainly happen. If it did, then God would be at our beck and call, knowing our wants and needs only because of our prayers.

One of the side effects of a novena is that people may resolve to stand up for their rights and work in various ways until those rights are recognized and respected. Your daughter-in-law can take the insurance company to court if she thinks that she has a case against them.

Are her current employers complying with relevant state and federal laws? Has she developed skills at this job that would be better compensated by another employer?

You may want to read and pray over Psalms 37 and 73, both of which were based on experiences of injustice.

In our February 2005 issue, I wrote a short reflection on Psalm 73. You can access it here.

It is very tempting to envy evildoers and feel that God is slow to trip them up, but that path leads to a dead end. God’s justice is fully vindicated only in heaven. Unfortunately, some people use their freedom in very destructive ways.

Being wealthy is not a sin—it all depends on how the money was made. Some wealthy people are also very generous to charities.

A novena made in the proper frame of mind should not end in bitterness. Please encourage your daughter to explore all her options within her present employment and outside it. Perhaps God is answering your prayers in a way you did not expect.

Where to Turn?

Q: I have several ex-Catholic friends who at one time considered returning to the Catholic Church. Because of the U.S. priest sex-abuse scandals, however, they are now looking for a Protestant group to join.

These friends say that they cannot rejoin a Church where such horrible things have happened to children at the hands of bad priests (even if they were relatively few in number) and when Catholic bishops in the United States did not prevent this. What can I say to these friends?

A: The first thing to say is that the sexual abuse of minors by anyone is a crime. It is also a sin and is made more so when a previously trusted person (like a member of the clergy) is the abuser. People who have been abused should be encouraged to report this to law enforcement and to Church authorities.

Is joining a Protestant Church the answer? Can your friends find one where sexual abuse of a minor by a member of the clergy has never occurred? Regretfully, I doubt it. Or where this is guaranteed not to occur in the future? Again, I doubt it. Sin is very real and will eventually show up among every group of Jesus’ followers—indeed, among all humans.

This does not excuse sin in general or clergy sexual abuse of minors in particular. Right now, experts in the field of child protection will tell you that, in fact, the Catholic Church is the largest group in the United States taking the sexual abuse of minors seriously.

Some Catholic bishops and others have clearly not taken this abuse seriously enough in the past. Adopting and implementing their June 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is one way of doing this now. The National Review Board, composed of lay women and men, works to ensure that clergy sexual abuse continues to be addressed seriously in every diocese and eparchy.

The challenge here is much bigger than we may think. We need to be advocates for children everywhere.

Q: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus curses a fig tree and commands it to remain barren forever (21:18-22). At first glance, it would seem that he was “having a bad day” and lost his temper when an apparently healthy tree had no figs, but there must be more to it than that. What does this story mean?

A: The footnote in the New American Bible for this passage reads: “Jesus’ act seems arbitrary and ill-tempered, but it is a prophetic action similar to those of Old Testament prophets that vividly symbolize some part of their preaching; see, for example, Ezekiel 12:1-20.

“It is a sign of the judgment that is to come upon the Israel that with all its apparent piety lacks the fruit of good deeds (Matthew 3:10) and will soon bear the punishment of its fruitlessness (Matthew 21:43).

“Some scholars propose that this story is the development in tradition of a parable of Jesus about the destiny of a fruitless tree, such as Luke 13:6-9. Jesus’ answer to the question of the amazed disciples (verse 20) makes the miracle an example of the power of prayer made with unwavering faith (verses 21-22).”

Why Pray for the Deceased?

Q: When did the custom of celebrating Masses for people who have died begin?

A: I cannot give you an exact date for the first time this happened. It was a natural step from remembering martyrs to remembering other holy people to remembering those who might need further purification. There are prayers for the dead in the Third Anaphora of St. Peter (Sharar) used by the Maronite Church today; this text dates to 431.

The Mass links us to all the living, all the saints and “all the dead whose faith only you [God] can know” (Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions).

In Book Nine of the Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo describes extended conversations with his mother, St. Monica, shortly before her death in 387. He reports that she asked him to remember her during celebrations of the Mass.

When Did Women's Religious Communities Begin?

Q: How and when did religious communities of women begin? I know there is a great variety among religious orders, communities and societies. How did that come about? These questions arose during a recent RCIA session.

A: The first Christian “sisters” were contemplatives in the desert in Egypt, starting in the fourth century. Although they lived alone at first, they soon gathered together to form communities dedicated to prayer. Because people sought them out for advice, some of these groups moved closer to urban areas. St. Scholastica (480-542?), sister of St. Benedict, is regarded as founding the first women’s religious community in the West.

All religious sisters were contemplatives until the 1300s, when groups began so that women could combine community life and work such as teaching, hospital work, running orphanages and similar apostolic work. Some groups that began as associations of laywomen later became formal religious communities.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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