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Denver, Colo., Apr 22, 2019 / 03:00 am (CNA).- Jenna Guizar grew up without any sisters.

But these days, Guizar relishes having a "sisterhood" of digital and physical communities of Catholic women around the world.

Guizar presides over a growing international women’s ministry, Blessed is She, which will mark its fifth year in September. The ministry began as a web-based devotional for Catholic women based on the day’s Mass readings.

“I loved what some of the Protestant women’s ministries were doing with Scripture study, inviting women to spend time daily in the Word. I wanted that for Catholic women, too,” Guizar, 35 and the mother of four daughters, explained.

“I saw an opening for this kind of content for women, and a hunger in the Church. I was hungry for it, too, and I didn’t see it happening in the Church, but I never thought of going elsewhere, I wanted to be fed in the Catholic Church.”

Now Guizar, along with a small staff and a national team of writers, whose contributions are vetted by theological editors, is feeding more than 60,000 women around the world with a daily email that delivers reflections on the Mass readings, along with a link to the readings themselves on the USCCB website.

On social media, tens of thousands follow along in regional Facebook groups, forming virtual communities that have morphed into hundreds of physical communities around the world.

On Blessed is She’s Instagram account, which has more than 100,000 followers, retreat director Beth Davis hosts a popular segment called ‘Teachable Tuesday,’ where she gives instruction different Catholic methods of prayer, wisdom from the lives of the saints, and deeper dives into Scripture.

Participants pop on at the beginning of the segment and announce their geographical locations: Ireland, Australia, Tanzania, Mexico, and the United States.

“Basically my whole adult life has been spent working for the Church,” says Davis, “but I’ve never experienced what we experience with these women every day, on retreats, on Instagram, in regional groups.

“There’s almost too much to choose from, she said, when asked for stories about her experience. “[We have] stories of women coming home to the Church, of becoming Catholic, of encountering Jesus for the first time in spite of years of knowing Him on an intellectual level.”

“What makes Blessed is She different is that it’s not about one person, there is no cult of personality. It’s all focused on Christ.” Davis explained, and Guizar agreed, when asked what she thought was driving the ministry’s growth.

“We’re just here walking alongside the women we serve, as women who are experiencing deeper conversion in their own lives,” added Guizar, explaining that she doesn’t see herself as doing anything extraordinary, apart from being available and willing to answer a need to which she herself felt drawn.

“My own personal, daily conversions happen in large part because of Blessed is She. I feel a great responsibility and honor to be given this ministry by the Lord. I feel a great responsibility to draw closer and closer to Him so that I can be the leader and woman He wants me to be,” Guizar said.

Guizar recalls one of the first times she realized Blessed is She might become something bigger than she’d envisioned:

“It was getting close to Advent during our first year, and I thought I’d like to make a little prayer journal and offer it to our subscribers. I had no idea whether it would sell, I just created it in a computer program and self-printed them. But we ended up with more than 800 presales. That’s probably the first time I started to realize this was going to be a lot bigger than me.”

Both Guizar and Davis said that working for the ministry has deepened their spiritual lives.
“I get to come to work every day with someone who prays with me, asks me about my prayer life, who really lives an example of personal holiness,” said Guizar of Davis, “it’s so good for me.”

She continued, “My spiritual life has changed dramatically through the discipline of prayer. I feel drawn to live a life of integrity. If I'm asking a woman to do something in her life, I better be doing it as well... like I have to be living this out in order to talk about it.”

Guizar recounts growing up in a dynamic youth group in the Diocese of Phoenix: “After youth group there was nothing to fill that void of community in my life as an adult. We had good friends and we had a good parish, but we didn’t feel like we were growing in our faith, and we didn’t feel like our relationships were really rooted in Christ.”

“I needed this community for my own conversion” Guizar said.

She recalls feeling a growing sense of isolation as a young mother, struggling to find her place in the Church.

“I wasn’t homeschooling my kids or doing liturgical crafts. I was fascinated by that experience when I read about it, but it wasn’t my life. I felt like I had more questions than answers. I didn’t have any wisdom or experience to offer.”

That’s when Guizar conceived of a daily Bible devotional modelled after some of the Protestant women’s ministries she admired. “I knew of all these Catholic bloggers, women with a deeper knowledge of Scripture and with more formation than me, so I reached out and invited them to contribute.”

That was back in the fall of 2014. The first Blessed is She devotion went out on September 1, 2014. By the end of the year, more than 200 women had signed up to receive the emails. By 2015, that number had increased to more than 2,000 women. And by early 2019, that number had risen to more than 60,000.

50% of Blessed is She participants are millennials - or younger - falling between the ages of 18 and 35. Women between 36 and 65 make up another 35% of the demographic.

Blessed is She brunches and retreats now make up a significant portion of the ministry’s focus, with more than 400 member-hosted brunches logged in 2018. So far in 2019, more than 500 women have attended a Blessed is She retreat somewhere in the US or abroad. Still to come this calendar year: retreats in Nashville, Texas, and Ireland.

If you ask for stories of how Blessed is She is impacting women’s lives, the answers come back to a common theme: community.

Oliva Spears, a Blessed is She writer who manages the site’s blog content recounts “dozens of messages” from women who are coming back to the Church through their involvement with Blessed is She:

“Faithful Catholic women who are lacking community in real life and who’ve felt like they’re the only Catholic left on the planet” are finding out they’re not alone, and being encouraged by other women who are following Christ.

Nell O’Leary, Blessed is She’s managing editor, remarks on the community built in the regional Facebook groups that becomes “real, in-the-flesh friendship.”

O’Leary said, “One older woman had prayed specifically for a young mom who was moving to her city to find the perfect house. When those two met at my Blessed Conversations group, they embraced like old friends. The bonds of sisterhood transcended age, location, and even the internet."

Bonnie Engstrom, another contributing writer, told the story of re-watching an old ‘Teachable Tuesday’ recording on Instagram with her small group in her parish:

“Beth talked about how God’s not finished until He is finished. She specifically said that to older moms whose children have left the Church and there were so many grandma’s present who felt so reassured by that. These are women who are in church every day, praying for their children. They felt heard by God through Beth’s words.”

Guizar touched on the theme of community repeatedly in an interview with CNA, emphasizing its significance to the heart of the ministry.

“I want women to know that the Lord loves them right where they’re at, and that He wants to bring restoration and healing, that He will bring it.”

When asked about how her four young children fit into the mission, Guizar acknowledged the tension between being open to life and leading an international ministry,

“Mike [my husband] is great about it, he is always saying, ‘If the Lord wants it right now, it’s going to happen.’ We don’t shy away from having more kids, because we want more kids to know the Lord, to live as missionaries in a secular culture.”

Guizar says she doesn’t have a plan for Blessed is She, but is just trying to be faithful.

“The Lord gave me Blessed is She to save my soul every day,” she said. “I really believe it was as much for me as for the women who we serve.”

“I have no idea where Blessed is She will be in five years. I had dreams at the beginning that I think have evolved now, into an acknowledgement that even if I had a plan, He would surprise me anyway. So I'm just along for the ride.”

 

 

Editor's note: In addition to her work at CNA, Jenny Uebbing is a periodic freelance contributor to Blessed is She.

 

Denver, Colo., Apr 20, 2019 / 03:00 am (CNA).- Twenty years ago, two teenagers opened gunfire outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Their massacre was premeditated and devastating; the boys also unsuccessfully planned to bomb the school with homemade explosives. They murdered 13 and wounded more than 20 others; finally they shot and killed themselves.

Twelve students and one teacher died the morning of April 20, 1999. The victims included at least four Catholics.

It was the most devastating school shooting in the United States up to that point, and would remain so until April 2007 when a gunman killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, now of Philadelphia, was the shepherd of Denver at the time. More than 1,000 mourners turned out for the first three students’ funerals, over which Chaput presided.

"[Chaput] was very prompt in understanding the need to get to the scene and get to the families, the Catholic families, to provide them with support," Francis Maier, who was archdiocesan chancellor and special assistant to the archbishop at the time, told CNA in an interview.  

The massacre happened at a time when school shootings were relatively rare, Maier emphasized. Columbine is in an upscale neighborhood, he noted, and it was a place where no one anticipated something like that could happen.

Maier said both secular and Church officials responded well when the shooting happened, but there were some moments at the beginning when people asked: "What do we do? How do we respond?"

“[Chaput] was engaged immediately. [The shooting] caught everyone by surprise, obviously, but he responded very promptly."

The archbishop stayed in touch with the parents of at least one of the victims for years afterward, thanks to the relationship forged in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Maier said he thought the archbishop was prepared by having been a pastor in the diocese before he was its archbishop, which he had been for 2 years in 1999.

"He had a long-lasting linkage to the event and the families that were involved," Maier said.

Maier said after the tragedy the Church was often asked how the shooting could be reconciled with the idea of a good and merciful God, and how the perpetrators— two kids— could do something like that?

"Delivering that message of God's presence and God's continuing love, obviously, was the archbishop's task,” Maier said.

“And in the funeral homilies that he preached, the counseling he gave to the families— a lot of counseling in a situation like this is just being present. Because what are you gonna say, you know? You can't say 'I know how you feel?' because you don't. And I think the archbishop understood that his presence and the presence that it represented as the Church's concern.”

The Columbine shooting prompted a national conversation about gun control and school safety.  

Chaput testified before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on May 4, 1999. He addressed violence in media and popular culture— a widely-discussed topic in the wake of the shootings.

“The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink, and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up or drags us down. It forms us inside,” Chaput told the committee.

He noted that “The Matrix,” a film in theaters at that time hugely popular with teenagers, featured a great deal of firearm violence. Chaput wondered if the shooters had seen the film; and if so, he mused that “it certainly didn't deter them” from committing their violent act.

“People of religious faith have been involved in music, art, literature, and architecture for thousands of years, because we know from experience that these things shape the soul, and through the soul, they shape behavior,” Chaput said.

“Common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere. It goes straight into the hearts of our children, to bear fruit in ways we cannot imagine until something like [Columbine] happens.”

Chaput emphasized his view that tragedies like Columbine emerge out of a culture in which people are not being taught to value human life.

“When we build our advertising campaigns on consumer selfishness and greed, and when money becomes our universal measure of value, how can we be surprised when our sense of community erodes?” he wondered.

“When we multiply and glorify guns, are we surprised when kids use them? When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the State’s seal of approval on revenge.”

“When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother’s womb, and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born, the body language of that message is that life is not sacred and may not be worth much at all.”

Maier agreed with Chaput’s diagnosis of the problem.

"Young people are not being formed properly in the dignity of life, and older people, adults, are deeply into self-satisfaction and license."

"The disease needs to be addressed, not the symptoms,” he said.  

“Fixing it is not going to be removing one particular way of committing an evil act. People will find other means to do those things if they are committed to doing evil things. So I think the underlying culture that produces Columbine is still with us, and, if anything, it’s worse."

Denver, Colo., Apr 19, 2019 / 10:53 am (CNA).- I’ve been married for 13 Easters now. I’ve been a dad for seven of those.

And every year, Easter sneaks up on our family. It shouldn’t. Lent is a long and penitential season, and the fair warning the Church gives us that Easter is coming. But a few weeks into Lent, it becomes normal- the sacrifices and penances become part of our routine- and I begin to forget that Easter is coming.

And then, it’s the Triduum.

Then it’s Good Friday, and we’re kneeling in the Church, and processing forward to kiss the cross.

Then it’s Holy Saturday, and some years we’re putting the kids in pajamas to let them sleep in the pews during Easter Vigil.

Then it’s Easter, and we’re celebrating with our family, and cooking a roast, and drinking champagne.

And every year, I find myself wondering if I’ve led my family well through Lent. Every year, I see the ways in which I might have invited my wife more often to prayer. Every year, I ask if I’ve taught the kids enough about Jesus and his sacrifice, if I’ve opened the Scripture often enough in our home.

Every year, I conclude I haven’t done enough. I haven’t really lived the Lent I should have, I decide. I haven’t really lived for Christ.

But all of that is folly.

We’re called, of course, to order our lives and homes and families to Jesus Christ. We’re called to be his disciples. We’re called to place him above all things.

But Easter reminds us that we’re also called to let him- and him alone- accomplish the transformation of our lives.

Not one of us can conquer death. Not one of us can atone for sin. Not one of us can transform a heart, ordering it to the unreserved love of God and neighbor.

Only he can do that.

We can put ourselves in his presence. We can offer ourselves to him. We can try to follow the examples of the saints. We can try to put the sacraments at the center of our lives.

But after that, we need to trust him. Easter tells us that we become saints through the work that he, and his grace, do in us, and through us, and for us. We are participants, but he is the source of life.

“We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,” St. Paul tells the Romans, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

Our newness of life comes through him. And it takes time to be fully manifested. And we have to trust.

Pope Francis has rightly pointed out a kind of Pelagianism among many practicing Catholics today. A sense that we can do it ourselves: that if we manage to carry the burden of moral perfection, and apostolic life, and evangelical zeal, that we might get ourselves to heaven.

But we won’t, and we can’t. That’s not sufficient. The doors to heaven are open to us because he loved us enough to be scourged at a pillar, to hang on a cross, to be buried, and to conquer sin and death.

And in baptism, he makes us a part of his life, death, and resurrection.

The evil one wants to make us think we can do it alone. And when we fail, he leads us to despair.  But an empty tomb will always be beyond our own powers and abilities.

This Easter, I’ll give thanks to the Lord for the ways I’ve grown closer to him this Lent. I’ll ask him to help me follow him more closely. I’ll repent of my sins, and confess them. I’ll continue to walk with him on the lifelong journey to holiness.

This Easter, I’ll try to remember that alone, I can’t be good enough, strong enough, or powerful enough to be free from my own sins, or from my impending death.

And I’ll celebrate that, because of what he did for me, I don’t have to be.