Two Saints of Chastity

maria goretti tomb holy card
St. Maria Goretti, protect me everywhere!

A double saint-of-chastity day today. [Spanish]

One hundred sixteen years ago today, Maria Goretti died a martyr of chastity, before her twelfth birthday. She refused to give in to the sexual advances of a teenage boy. He threatened her life; she stood firm. He stabbed her to death. Maria Goretti made herself the young patroness of the #metoo movement over a century before Twitter got invented.

In our gospel reading at Mass, we hear the Lord call St. Matthew. Thanks to Matthew, we have “the Gospel of the Church,” a thorough compendium of Jesus Christ’s sayings and doings, written for readers already somewhat familiar with the Old Testament.

According to ancient Christian writings, St. Matthew wrote his gospel in the Holy Land, then set off to evangelize. He converted a pagan king, whose daughter Ephigenia made a vow of virginity to Christ.

A suitor then tried to persuade the princess to marry him. St. Matthew explained at Mass that Ephigenia had already committed herself. So the suitor killed St. Matthew in front of the altar.

There’s a little more… In AD 954, Christians brought St. Matthew’s remains to Salermo, in southern Italy, where they remain to this day. Your humble servant will visit the tomb next week. I will pray for you there!

caravaggio-call-st-matthew

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Messy Survival

At Holy Mass today, we hear the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

On the Mount, Lord Jesus taught us how to have a relationship with God. Christ spoke with the authority of… God.

A Christian simply obeys. Repent, beg mercy, live in Christ’s love. Not complicated. Obey Christ, live in His Church. She possesses His words, His sacraments, His heavenly graces. She is by no means perfect in every respect. But true friendship with the Creator is possible because: the Church survives through thick and thin, all over the world.

Speaking of the world: World Cup. I would root for the US, but we’re not in it. So I root like mad for our friend and neighbor, the homeland of so many of our fellow parishioners, a nation with whom we share an enormous amount of history and culture, not to mention our Catholic faith.

Sweden slaughtered Mexico yesterday, 3-0. But Mexico survived to the next round anyway. Because South Korea beat Germany and knocked them out of the tournament. South Korea is out, too. South Korea and Germany went down in flames together. But because South Korea won, Mexico survived to play another day. When you survive, there’s hope. So Mexicans around the world are looking for Koreans to befriend.

St. Irenaeus
St. Irenaeus

Anyway: St. John the Apostle gave the mysteries of Jesus Christ to his pupil St. Polycarp. St. Polycarp gave them to his pupil, St. Irenaeus. St. Irenaeus is one of the first bishops who actually grew up Catholic, having been presented for baptism as an infant by Christian parents. St. Irenaeus shepherded his flock, in what is now France, before anyone ever thought of a book called a “Bible,” before anyone ever uttered the phrase “New Testament.”

Don’t get me wrong. The little books of the New Testament had long since been written. You could make a list of them, in fact, based on the writings that St. Irenaeus cited in his preaching and teaching. St. Irenaeus gave us the idea of a “New Testament,” a “Christian Bible”–by quoting from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Sts. Paul, Peter, and John.

Irenaeus cited these writings because they expressed and deepened the teaching and the ceremonies that he had learned from St. Polycarp, which came from St. John, and from Jesus Himself. The Church’s simple Sacred Tradition.

Simple and beautiful. Except that, for St. Irenaeus, it wasn’t so simple or beautiful. It was messy, like Mexico surviving to the Round of 16. At the time in history when St. Irenaeus had souls in his care, plenty of other books circulated, in addition to the New Testament books, purporting to offer Christian, or “spiritual,” teaching. Plenty of other authorities sought to win the adherence of the people, outside the fold of the Church. Kinda like now.

So Irenaeus had to sort it all out. He had to find a way to keep the true, simple faith of the Church alive in his part of the world. By investigating, arguing, and studying the true words of Christ constantly.

Irenaeus did it. It was a messy fight, but he did it. He kept the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church alive in Lyons. For that we rightly regard him as a towering hero.

He dealt with hard, complicated things, so that we could inherit the simple, beautiful thing to which the New Testament testifies: the mystery of Jesus Christ alive in His Church.

He died a martyr 1,816 years ago today. Pray for us, St. Irenaeus! Especially for this joker who was born on your feastday. (And for his mother, who deserves the credit.)

Bright Birthday

Chapel of St John Baptist in Ars
St. John Vianney built this chapel in honor of St. John the Baptist

St. Elizabeth gave birth during the brightest week of the year, when the long days almost swallow up the night, and the sun is as close as it gets (to the northern hemisphere.) [Spanish]

The prophet Isaiah declared: I will make you a light to the nations. The Lord Jesus Himself said of his cousin John: He was a lamp, set aflame and burning bright.

The Church makes a big deal of this summer birthday of the Baptist because… (three reasons, all of which have to do with light)

One. Christ had cleansed his cousin John of original sin before birth. When the Blessed Virgin, newly pregnant, came to visit her cousin in the Judean hill country, St. John the Baptist leapt in St. Elizabeth’s womb. The coming of the unborn Christ consecrated the unborn St. John. So the Baptist started life already holy, already brightened by God’s grace.

Two. St. John the Baptist had a totally unique relationship with Christ. The cousin became famous for his preaching of the coming Kingdom of God while Jesus still lived quietly in Nazareth. John baptized repentant sinners, like Christ’s Church would later do. Then John baptized his cousin, so that Christ could give to water His holiness, the sacramental power to cleanse the soul.

In other words, St. John prepared the way for Jesus, like a torch bearer. Before Jesus did any public preaching and teaching, St. John declared the truth about Him. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and King, in the new and heavenly covenant between God and man.

baptist-greco2Three. Like no one else, St. John can teach us about what Christ’s Church is. A couple of points on this.

First: the Church is the family of all people baptized into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Baptism involves purification, consecration, and enlightenment. Through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, Almighty God redeems us from the futile servitude of the fallen human race. He rescues us from a pointless life that only slouches toward death. He gives us a new birthright and makes us His own sons and daughters. He welcomes us into the everlasting, divine household.

For us to know this—to know the love of the Father who rescues His beloved children and gives us a life of hope and love: that is enlightenment. That is interior, spiritual sunlight. Holy Baptism delivers the faith of Holy Mother Church to us, the faith that St. John declared to the world: Christ conquers evil and gives eternal life. Holding that faith fills us with interior light. And that interior light of the Christian soul brightens the world even more than the sun.

Second way that St. John the Baptist teaches us who we are as Christ’s Church: The Church must live on earth in a kind of desert.

St. John left the populated areas of Israel and lived in the wasteland near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. St. John had only one foot in this world. The other had already stepped into the as-yet-invisible world to come.

That’s why people flocked to him. They came seeking something more than what this fallen world offers. This austere man drew them, because he had no traffic with the half-truths, the mixed motives, and the mediocre compromises with vice that fill the lives of most human beings.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Church isn’t just one big monastery. We Christians live in cities and in towns. The Church lives in communities of imperfect sinners. Because that’s what we are.

But, like St. John, the Church must keep only one foot here in the world of cookouts and soccer games and gas stations. The other foot is in the process of stepping into heaven. St. John the Baptist reminds us of that. Here on earth, we have no lasting city.

Anyone know the patron saint of parish priests? St. John Vianney. St. John Vianney loved the Blessed Mother, of course. But among all the rest of the saints, he loved St. John the Baptist the most. He took the name John Baptist at Confirmation. Then, when he became a parish priest, he built a chapel in his church and dedicated it to St. John the Baptist.

So: Happy Birthday. To the cousin, the holy man, the forerunner, the Baptist of the Son of God.

Dying out of Loyalty to a Not-So-Great Pope

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“The Meeting of Sir Thomas More with His Daughter, after his Sentence of Death,” by William Yeames

St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr in 1535.

Everyone present at his execution, and everyone who knew him, would readily have granted that England had no more intelligent, knowledgeable, and cosmopolitan a statesman than Thomas More.

And everyone knew that he died for one reason: Because he would not betray his Roman-Catholic loyalty to the pope.

Beautiful. Especially when we think of the pope as personally representing everything virtuous and true.

But which popes occupied the Chair of Peter during Thomas More’s lifetime?

When Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he was not even a priest. He famously said, “Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” Leo X enjoyed the papacy while St. Thomas More was in his late thirties and early forties.

Pope Paul III Titian
Pope Paul III, painted by Titian

St. Thomas suffered martyrdom at age 57, when Pope Paul III reigned in Rome.

Certainly Paul III was a holier man that Leo X. But Pope Paul did have a number of children by mistresses he kept while he was a young priest. And he did create his 14- and 16-year-old grandsons Cardinals.

So, we have to rethink this a little. St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr, rather than betray his loyalty to the pope. And the pope in question was not an altogether awesome superman of a white-robed pope. Rather, the pope at the time was what we would have to consider a mediocre Christian at best. A mediocre Christian like me, or you.

Does that make St. Thomas some kind of patsy? Should he have betrayed his loyalty instead of dying as a martyr out of loyalty for a mediocre pope?

Don’t think so. Christ never promised a succession of saintly super-popes. He promised that the unity and integrity of the Church would endure because the papacy would endure.

In other words, the pope is the pope. The famous martyr for loyalty to the papacy, St. Thomas More, did not distract himself by judging the pope. Thomas simply kept faith with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, governed by the one and only pope there is, at any given time.

Apostolic Ministry

matthias

Our bishop will ordain deacons this Saturday, including two admirable young men who spent summers at our humble southwest-Virginia parishes in years past. Next year, God willing, Bishop will ordain these gentlemen to the priesthood. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick ordained me a deacon seventeen years ago yesterday. He ordained me a priest fifteen years ago next Thursday.

I bring all this up a propos of today’s feast. At Holy Mass today we commemorate the election of St. Matthias as the twelfth Apostle. As we read in Acts, after an election supervised by St. Peter, Matthias took the place vacated by Judas.

In the Collect for today’s Mass, we pray about the “college” of the Apostles. Jacob had twelve sons in the Promised Land, the founders of Israel’s twelve tribes. The new People of God, the Church of Christ, also began with a fraternity of twelve brother Apostles. Eleven can make up a soccer team (Go Mexico! in the Copa Mundial). But we needed twelve to start the Church.

In the Protestant world, people tend to think of a clergyman as a learned Bible scholar, qualified by his education and his natural talents to teach people about the Word of God. We Catholics would certainly agree that a clergyman ought to have a good theological education. And we preachers need to work constantly on our teaching skills.

Ecce Agnus DeiBut a careful reading of the New Testament shows that you cannot define a clergyman as a scholar of the Bible. Because the first Christian clergymen wrote the New Testament. The Bible as we know it now did not exist–until some of our Church’s original clergymen finished it and organized it.

So we have to go deeper, in order to define what the “apostolic ministry” is. The apostolic ministry has to do with the authority that lies behind a man’s words. A learned scholar speaks on his own authority. On the other hand, an apostle of Christ speaks the Word of Christ with the authority of Christ.

The Catechism expresses it like this, in para. 875:

No one…can proclaim the Gospel to himself… No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered.

It comes down to this: We have received a gift. God united the human race with Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ. Christ gave Himself to us, and that Gift of Christ Himself comes to us, here and now, through the apostolic ministry.

This gift given us through the apostolic ministry equals or surpasses in value the gift of our having been created in the first place. We did not produce ourselves; God created us. In the same way, we did not “produce” the Christ, our Savior, and the High Priest of the world. God gave us the Christ, through the apostolic ministry.

This does not mean that no one can ever disagree with a single word that a deacon, priest, or bishop says. The sacrament of Holy Orders does not preserve us clergymen from the dunderheadedness that afflicts the human race in general.

The infallibility that the sacrament of Holy Orders does give us–it is actually much, much more humbling, because it is so much more exquisitely beautiful. Anyone can disagree with a priest or bishop, except when he says: I absolve you, or This is My Body and This is My Blood. That is Christ speaking, speaking infallible truth.

The living Son of God, risen from the dead, speaking now through the apostolic ministry. He could have chosen any means that He wanted, to stay close to His people through the ages—He is God, after all. He chose the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, the silent Host.

Praying Heroes

Garofalo Ascension of Christ

Lord Jesus prepared to ascend to the Father. He gave a final benediction to His disciples, with two components.

First: I am sending you. He says that to us, also.

The Kingdom of God has one center, one “capital city,” so to speak: the human Heart of Christ. His Heart beats with love for every human being, because every human being exists by virtue of God’s divine love.

So the Lord says to us: I send you on a mission. To extend My Kingdom by extending My love. Live in My love, so that, living in love, you can love. You can love your neighbor in mercy and in truth. With that love, the divine love, you will conquer the kingdom of evil.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, wrote us a letter in March, to help us understand how we must base our lives completely on the mission that Jesus has given us. The same mission that the Lord gave to the original Apostles, as He prepared to ascend to heaven—He has given that same mission to us.

The key to our spiritual lives, the key to Christian holiness, the key to a vigorous and meaningful life in this world is: Our apostolate. Christ has consecrated us His apostles; we have a mission. And that mission involves loving our neighbors with the love of the Heart of Christ. It involves pursuing souls, to help them come home to holy Mother Church.

We have no doubt: what we receive at Mass offers the sustenance that every human soul desperately needs. So we extend the offer to our neighbors, ‘Come, share this feast with us!’ We risk contempt, rejection, all kinds of suffering. Christ went to the cross for us, out of love, and He sends us out into the world as ambassadors of His crucified love.

peter-crucifixionWhen we grasp all this, we grasp the true meaning of our lives. We grasp the true meaning of every human interaction we have–with anyone, anywhere, anytime. When we realize that we exist for the sake of our apostolate, we grasp the vital principle of reality. Because the world turns on Divine Love.

Which heroes do we admire as the most truly manly? How about St. Peter? He repented of his betrayal, and he admitted it. Jesus forgave him, and gave the first pope his mission. Then St. Peter went out and found a way to befriend recalcitrant Jews. He found a way to befriend Greeks, Roman soldiers, everyone—so that they could know Christ. St. Peter shepherded the whole flock, spread across the Mediterranean. Then he unflinchingly offered his own life, hanging upside down on a cross, on Vatican Hill in Rome.

Or how about St. Paul? What more manly hero could anyone ever imagine? Like St. Peter, a humble repentant sinner. And a tireless traveler and adventurer. St. Paul’s adventures make Indiana Jones look like Papa Smurf by comparison. St. Paul, like St. Peter, communicated with every kind of person, in all kinds of languages, so that everyone could know Christ. And St. Paul, too, offered his mortal body as a sacrifice to God on the outskirts of the city of Rome, where they beheaded the human author of half of the New Testament.

Jesus summons us today to this kind of humble, adventurous heroism. But there was a second component to Christ’s parting benediction. He didn’t just say, Go, evangelize. He said: Pray first. Pray that the Holy Spirit will come. Pray that heaven may clothe you with the power of divine love. Because you can’t do it without My Holy Spirit.

None of the heroic exploits of selfless love, undertaken by the original apostles, or by any of the martyrs and saints who have followed in their footsteps—none of these manly deeds could ever have happened, if it hadn’t been for the original Novena.

pentecost_with_maryThe original Novena involved the future heroes of Christ’s Church keeping quiet and still for nine days, trembling with fear and uncertainty about the future. Meanwhile, one person stood at the center and showed them what to do.

The Greatest Hero showed the other heroes what to do. They would all freely admit: they followed the lead of the one who quietly, unobtrusively, unpretentiously, steadily, gently prayed.

The Blessed Virgin. The Mother of the Apostolate.

Who won the Holy Spirit for us? Who moved God to pour out His fearless divine love into our unworthy hearts?

Jesus, of course. Also His Mother. For those nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, she prayed. Could the Apostles have prayed like they should have, without her? Are you kidding? They would have gone crazy with confusion and fear; they would have bickered endlessly—if the Blessed Mother had not been there to steady them and focus them on the task at hand. Prayer.

Hopefully everyone takes my point. We find meaning in life by grasping that God has consecrated us to do heroic deeds of selfless love to build His kingdom. And the greatest heroes of them all? Our mothers, who quietly taught us how to pray.

Onomástico Sermon

St Mark tomb

Our first reading at Holy Mass today, from St. Peter’s first letter, ends with, “I send you greetings, as does Mark my son.” Salutat vos Marcus filius meus. These words adorn the sarcophagus of St. Mark, in the high altar of his basilica in Venice.

Inside the stone coffin: the mangled remains of the martyred bishop. St. Peter had sent Mark from Rome to Alexandria, Egypt–at the time, the second-most important city in the Empire. After eight fruitful years there, St. Mark was captured by enemies of the faith, while he was saying Mass. They dragged him through the streets for two days, and he died of his injuries on April 25, AD 68.

Someday I hope to visit my heavenly patron at his uniquely beautiful Venetian tomb. Apparently an angel had appeared to the saint once, when his travels had brought him to Venice. The angel said, “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” Maybe the next time I go to Roselawn, I will receive the same message. (That’s the local cemetery here in Martinsville. 🙂 )

Anybody seen the new St. Paul movie? Is St. Mark in it? Maybe not, since St. Paul and St. Mark apparently disliked each other. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that they traveled together briefly, then suddenly separated. There’s a happy ending, though: It seems that they patched things up later. St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, asking that Timothy bring Mark with him to see Paul.

St. Mark and St. Paul had in common that they collaborated with the original Apostles, while they themselves had not lived with Jesus during His pilgrimage on earth. Nor had Paul or Mark seen Him during the forty days after Easter.

If we think about it, that makes their faith even more amazing. Faith in Christ unto a martyr’s death, having embraced Christianity by pure trust in the Church’s nascent Tradition.

In other words, Saints Mark and Paul entered into the Christian mystery like we have entered into it. The Nazarene about Whom we have heard—and thank you St. Mark! for writing down what St. Peter said about Him!—this Nazarene man is worth living and dying for. He is worth spending all our energies on. He is the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, the Incarnate Divine Love.

Happy Fathers’ Day

st-josephThe holy day of Lord Jesus’ foster father and our parish’s heavenly patron here in Martinsville, Va.

When St. Joseph breathed his last and died, with Jesus at his bedside, was that on March 19? Maybe not, since some ancient books say that Joseph died in July.

When St. Joseph heard the pleas of the starving people of Sicily a thousand years ago, and the saint’s intercession with God won a miraculous rainfall for the island—did the rains come on March 19? Maybe.

Regardless of how this particular day became St. Joseph’s Day, it is Fathers’ Day. In Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Bolivia, Honduras, Liechtenstein, and Andorra.

Baby Jesus did not spring from St. Joseph’s loins. But St. Joseph did save Jesus from Herod’s slaughter; did protect and care for Jesus’ mother; did teach Jesus how to speak, pray, work, and: how to follow the Law of Moses; how to ride a donkey and navigate the road of Palestine; how to show respect for others, how to live a steady life, how to walk uprightly before God.

Our dear Protestant brothers and sisters suspect us Catholics of some kind of funny business when we lavish our prayers and devotion on St. Joseph. After all, Holy Scripture does not record a single word that the man said. But let’s remember:

During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God… Jesus was obedient to his parents and he increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 531)

God Incarnate was famous for three years of His earthly pilgrimage. He was not famous for the other thirty. How could anyone claim to know Him, without rejoicing in the mystery of His “Hidden-ness” during all that time?

When Bl. Pope Paul VI visited Nazareth in 1964, he said:

The home of Nazareth is the school where we begin to understand the life of Jesus–the school of the Gospel. A lesson of silence.  A lesson on family life.  A lesson of work.

Sign of Jonah, Greatest Generation

This evil generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. (Luke 11:29)

The ‘sign of Jonah.’ A mysterious phrase, especially since the Lord Jesus Himself interpreted it in two different ways. As we read at Holy Mass today, He said at one point: Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites. On another occasion, he explained: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Mysterious. Speaking of ‘generations,’ Pope St. John Paul II, Thomas Merton, and Billy Graham were of the same generation, sometimes called “The Greatest Generation,” the generation that matured during World War II.

Billy GrahamThomas Merton entitled one of his books The Sign of Jonas. Merton reflected on the paradox of monkish solitude and universal love, on loving the world by leaving its business behind, on attaining true life by embracing the Cross.

The ‘evil generation’ wants something showy, something impressive to the eyes—a magic trick to distract us from the challenge of reality: the reality of how daggone mysterious God is, and how hard real love is. The evil generation needs the true Jonah—Christ crucified.

May Jesus’ crusader Billy Graham rest in peace. Here’s an irony that he and his friend Pope St. John Paul II might have smiled over together: Protestant Evangelical Billy Graham will benefit from a lot of Catholics praying for the repose of his soul. Mr. Graham did go so far as to say: “Purgatory may be real.”

It is, and may you get through it as quickly as possible, Mr. Graham.

Christ crucified saves. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He can resolve every spiritual conundrum, every disagreement, every apparent paradox. May He give us the grace to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, staying focused on the endless light of His Holy Face, so that we can grow in communion with the one, true God of love.

Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005), pray for us.

May Thomas Merton (1915-1968), rest in peace.

May Billy Graham (1918-2018), rest in peace.

Teenage Adventures

TP_278400_LYTT_DWILLIAMS_1
Super-Bowl-XXII MVP Doug Williams

Today we keep the 130th anniversary of the holy death of St. John Bosco. Among many other accomplishments, Don Bosco published an apologetics magazine. Catholic Readings defended Catholic faith and practice, using extensive Scripture citations. To protect and fortify the souls of teenage boys, Don Bosco became a famous media mogul. He is the first canonized saint ever to have been interviewed by a newspaper reporter.

Now, speaking of teenage boys… Today we also mark the 30th anniversary of the greatest of all the Super Bowls, number XXII, which took place under the open sky, in San Diego, California.

don bosco catholic readingsIn those simpler times, the late 1980’s, it could come to pass that a middle-class lawyer in Washington, D.C., might find himself in possession of two Super Bowl tickets, through a business connection. He might think of giving those two precious tickets to his enterprising 17- and 15-year-old sons.

Those sons might buy cheap airplane tickets with their part-time-job money. They might learn the San Diego public transit system. The boys might, with their own eyes, then behold Doug Williams the Great making mincemeat of the Denver Broncos defense, in a resounding 42-10 MVP performance. The boys might have seats right behind the very end-zone in which the Washington Redskins scored five touchdowns in the second quarter. Then, the young men might catch a bus to the airport, then a red-eye flight back east, and find themselves in school before the first bell rang on Monday morning—which was the one stipulation their mother made in order to grant her permission for the trip.

Such adventures could happen in 1988, and they did. In those days, we did not suffer from as much fear of the outdoors as we do now. I’m not sure the world was really any safer then. But dads like ours had faith in Providence, so they weren’t afraid to let their teenage sons travel clear across the country on their own, to go to the Super Bowl. Also, my brother and I were tall and big and maybe a little cleverer than most 17- and 15-year-olds.

Anyway, Don Bosco knew that publishing his magazine involved risking his life. Mid-19th-century Italy was no safe place for a well-known zealous Catholic priest. In those days, people got beat up in the streets for defending the papacy. But Don Bosco prized the souls of his young readership over his own mortal life.

Faith in Jesus’ Father can, and does, give you the kind of courage that can turn life into an adventure.

Mark White Redskins fan