The coronavirus, the cross and our vocation


Illustration of the coronavirus (Pixabay/Thor Deichmann)


I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.

I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.

But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

On Being Everywhere I Go


“No matter where you go…there you are,” stated the character Buckaroo Banzai in the 1984 cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. This troubling truism has become a bit of a mantra for me as I stumble through life.

I frequently have too much going on. In the flurry of activity, a nagging voice hums in the background, I can do this better, I could be more efficient, I should do this, I ought to do that.

One of my greatest sins is to put more faith in my ideas than I do in God. Recently, I did this when I believed if I changed a few parts of my life—the setting, my workload, my stress level—then….

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the PageContinue reading here.]

Ugandan faith lesson #2: make time for the Lord

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.

Ugandan choir
Ugandan choir

Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)

Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.

A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.

Martha: host family cousin
Martha: host family cousin

And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.

During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.

So … What’s my excuse?

For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.

Staring At My Pile of Dirt: The cost of growing the kingdom of God in Chicago

I am glad to share this recent post from Daily Theology with all of you. It is written by one of my friends, Dannis Matteson from Catholic Theological Union, who writes from the messy trenches of Gospel living in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. Let us hold their ministries in prayer and do all we can to support them!

Daily Theology

The reign of God. God’s rule. The household of God. God’s dream for the earth. Basileia tou Theou. The justice of God…

The kingdom of God is the core content of the synoptic gospels. In fact, the kingdom of God appears 122 times in the New Testament. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to participate in building the kingdom of God. But there is always a cost…

A life dedicated to growing the kingdom ensures great adventure, as my husband and I have found. The glamour of giving it all up, living counterculturally, and letting go of socially acceptable life plans, all of which is required when you give your life to building the kingdom, can appear attractive. At the Hope House (1), an intentional community my husband and I have worked to create, along with Molly and Kevin (our core community members), we live each day in anticipation…

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The conundrum of kids at church

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a rant about mothers who show up late to and leave early from Mass.  He stated that he has more respect for people who don’t bother coming at all: “Either be all in or all out.”  Others chimed in with “Amens” and further complaints about the entertainment and food that parents bring to church for their children nowadays.  Having arrived 10 minutes late to Mass that morning, library tote full of Dora books slung over one shoulder and a diaper bag with emergency snacks hanging on the other, I felt at once embarrassed and defensive.


Part of me wanted to dismiss his vent outright: clearly, this was the naïve and uncompassionate perspective of someone who’s not yet a parent. He just doesn’t understand the monolithic venture that is Getting Out the Door with Little Ones, I thought to myself. After all, I had spent my entire morning trying to get to Mass on time… but two blowout diapers and a child who is absolutely determined to put her shoes on all by herself had conspired to neutralize my good intentions. Let’s see him do it any better, was my rather un-Christian reaction.

Still, his words gnawed at me, probably because I have wrestled with the conundrum of kids at church since my daughter was born two and a half years ago.

The fact is, children at Mass are distracting – to those around them and, most especially, to their parents.  Prayerful reverence is not easily practiced with a fussy baby in your lap and a squirmy preschooler at your side.  There have been multiple occasions in which, nerves frayed and feeling far less peaceful than I did before the start of Mass, I wonder if it was even worth it to attend.

Yet something inside me always answers “Yes!”  I believe there is value in attending Mass with kids… Even when it means enduring the walk of shame up to the only open pew (at the very front of the church, naturally) during the Gospel Alleluia, or spending the entire hour shushing and chasing my two-year-old, or willing myself not to engage in a glaring war with a man who disapproves of nursing in church.

We as a family are rarely (if ever) “all in” when it comes to Mass: we are late or agitated or exhausted or impatient or poopy or hungry or a catastrophic mix of all these – but I have to believe that God appreciates our presence there despite -indeed because of – our very conspicuous deficiencies in piety.  We are the Body of Christ: messy, flawed, unfocused… and beloved.

My daughters may not be able to understand or participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration, and their lack of volume/impulse control may detract from others’ ability to pray as they would prefer.  Still, they are vessels of a special kind of grace, and I believe that the Mass as a whole is better, not worse, because my girls are present.  Their faith cannot be anything but childlike, and so it ministers in a way no polished homily can.  Once, as we shuffled in line to receive Eucharist, my daughter proclaimed loudly “Mama, there’s Jesus on the cross, and Jesus in Comoonin [Communion], and Jesus in my heart!”  I know I’m not the only adult whose mind, in that moment, was called away from wandering thoughts and into reflection upon the sacred Mystery of Christ.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  I’m pretty sure He knew exactly what that implied for parents, and so on Sundays like this last one, I presume an addendum to Christ’s directive:  “. . .even if they are ten minutes late and their shoes don’t match.”

Nicole Steele Wooldridge attends Mass with her daughters in the Seattle, Wash. area; she apologizes if, while doing so, her baby has recently spit up on your rosary or her two-year-old has scribbled in your prayer book.  If it makes you feel any better, she probably hasn’t had a shower in a few days.


The sacrament of matrimony

By guest blogger: Steven Cottam

On September 29th, my wife and I will celebrate our first wedding anniversary. In honor of that occasion, I’ve prepared some reflections: what I’ve learned within the sacrament of matrimony. To be fair, it’s quite possible I’ve learned nothing. A year ago I was pretty sure I had the whole thing figured out but now … I’m not so sure. However, it’s possible—just possible—that my horizons have broadened a bit and these reflections represent the most important ponderings of that broadening. I hope you find them edifying.

9-26 Cottam Anniversary pic 2
Photo credit: Eric Leise

1) Reconciliation and forgiveness are paramount

When I was single and preparing for marriage, I thought too many people emphasized the importance of forgiveness. I thought, “In a lot of marriages I’ve seen, this emphasis on forgiveness is just an excuse to be hurtful or careless–I’m not going to be mean to my wife. I’m going to work to serve her well so I won’t have to apologize very often. What a perfect plan!

I still do believe that all too often, we use the principle of forgiveness as an excuse to take our closest loved ones for granted. We know they have to forgive us because we’re family after all! However, I didn’t account for how often I’d end up unintentionally wounding my wife. Sometimes, I’m just a little careless or thoughtless: not mean, just not careful enough. Sometimes, we just miscommunicate. Sometimes, I think I’m doing something really great and it comes off all wrong. Simply by sharing a life with someone, we are bound to hurt them. We bump into each other in all sorts of ways. For that reason, we need to be quick to forgive and intentionally verbalize that forgiveness. Even if we’re careful to never commit mortal sins against the relationship, venial sins are inevitable. They add up if you ignore them; they need to be dragged into the light and healed.

2) What “love is a gift” really means

When I was preparing for marriage, everyone kept telling me that it’s a sacrament: our love for one another is a sign and manifestation of God’s love for us. Well yeah … of course! Every Catholic third grader knows that! Looking back, my understanding of what that meant was pretty juvenile. I thought “God loves me and because of that he gives me good gifts.” My wife is a good gift and thus a sign of his love for me. In this particular theology, my wife is like a really nice birthday gift from God; like a cool new video game. Thanks Big Guy, you always know just what to get me!

That’s pretty shallow though. Looking back, I didn’t realize even partially how my wife’s love would be a conduit for and expression of God’s love. Most importantly, she loves me even when I’m not particularly lovable. Since my wife hangs around me so much, she sees a lot of what I do that others don’t. Like in the car when someone cuts me off and I curse. Or when I receive an email asking for help with a service or ministry I don’t feel like doing and I groan and whine and complain. She’s seen me after I’ve had too much beer and (what’s worse) too much coffee. Or too much stress. And the thing is, she doesn’t stop loving me. She loves me in spite of the fact that I do bad things (like, all the time). She knows I’m a sinner and she loves me anyway. Just like God. And I’m not being trite here: if you reflect on this, it’s amazing. Having someone love you when your hair is slicked back and you’re in a tuxedo at the foot of the altar (and I look really good in a tux, after all) isn’t worth a second thought . Having someone love you when you’re cursing or nursing a hangover is something else entirely. It’s grace and it’s a gift; not because it’s something you want (although it’s that too) but because it’s unearned and it’s freely given.

3) I finally understand St. James (a little)!

Catholics are notorious among our Protestant brethren for being bad at grappling with the whole faith and good works thing. I’m especially bad at it. I believe in faith, of course, but when I read St. James’ “Faith without good works is dead,” I know what part of that verse I’m underlining in my head. You need good works!

However, I’ve noticed that when I’m with my wife, I often do good things for no other reason than I love her. For example, in any place I’ve lived, I’ve always done my fair share of the dishes. If you asked me why, I’d say “Fair is fair.” I do my share because it’s right to do your duty. However, with my wife, I often find myself doing them just because I don’t want to make her do them. I do the dishes when it’s not even my turn! I find myself wanting to avoid looking at other women, not out of abstract devotion to chastity (good in its way) but because it would hurt me to hurt her. This is how we are called to live out our relationship to God. We follow his good laws not because they are “the laws” but because our love of our neighbor and God compels us to do so. We don’t want to hurt those valuable relationships. It’s not good works or faith; it’s good works because of faith, because of hope, because of love. Being married has taught me more about the connection between faith and good works, between love and the law, in one year than a whole lifetime of study.

You can perhaps see these things don’t apply only to the married; while I have learned them from marriage, I imagine that any faithful life of discipleship might impart the same lessons. And in that vein, what I’ve learned the most is that I’m blessed beyond measure.

9-26 Cottam Anniversary pic 1
Photo by Eric Leise

To my wife, when she reads this, I love you! I can’t wait to see what I learn from you next year!