ABOVE: Three of the community children celebrated their First Holy Communion together—Mary, Angela and Faith. The community prepared for the Sacrament by praying a novena with them and for them, and were brought to tears by their sweet hearts and souls that were so ready to receive Christ.
“You can attend Mass, or you can live Mass.” – a Friend of Medjugorje
Growing up in a big, Italian family, a Friend of Medjugorje recalls that some of the most fun he had as a kid was at family funerals. The whole extended family would be there, and especially plenty of kids to play with. Laughter and tears were mixed together as memories of so many different family events were remembered. This shaped a Friend of Medjugorje’s views on death and along with piercing the mysteries within Our Lady’s messages, an understanding formed in him of how to live and celebrate the sacraments in the Community of Caritas.
They have become something that has life and gives life to the individual, to the family and larger community, and to those who are touched through the mission of Caritas.
For many in the church, sacraments are something on a check off list of obligations to fill. Sadly, the grace given during each of these milestones of the faith doesn’t lead to a fuller life with Christ for which the sacraments were intended to do. Under a Friend of Medjugorje’s direction, sacraments in the community are a great celebration of faith and what it means to be loved by God. The reception of every sacrament is etched in the memory of not only the one who received it, but among the entire community. They are full-day celebrations, reminiscent of an earlier time in the Church when entire villages would shut down to celebrate special feast days. Sacraments are not a one-time event, but instead are a way to live.
The Catechism teaches that a sacrament is an external sign of an invisible grace. Just as the sacraments are a sign, Our Lady has said in Medjugorje what She desires of us:
“…I desire for you to be my sign, my living sign…” June 25, 2010
When a sacrament is “lived,” we become the external sign, the witness of an invisible grace.
What is meant by living a Sacrament?
Our Lady of Medjugorje said on August 6, 1982:
“…Monthly confession will be a remedy for the Church in the West…”
Because the hearts of those in the community have been set afire and burn to follow the direction given straight from Heaven, monthly confession has become part of “a way” that Our Lady has led the community. By confessing at least once a month, we are made more sensitive to our sins and weaknesses. We become more watchful over our hearts, and conscious of our oft repeated sins; we become more sensitive to the impulses of the Holy Spirit to work on those weaknesses that are the easiest to succumb. And so, it is not just “going” to confession, but beginning to “live” each day reflective of one’s behavior. One begins to “live” the sacrament.
Through the Divine life dispensed by the “living” of monthly confession, one becomes more aware of and convicted not to approach Holy Communion to receive Jesus if they are not in the state of grace. Grace begins to flow freely from one sacrament to another, therefore when the number of people going to frequent confession rises, belief in the True Presence will rise. As the community began to answer the call to monthly confession, their desire and respect for the Holy Eucharist rose. As a result, they understood that “living” the Mass goes well beyond just attending it. Our Lady said,
“May Holy Mass, little children, not be a habit for you, but life. By living Holy Mass each day, you will feel the need for holiness and you will grow in holiness.” January 25,1998
The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. To “live the Mass” is to live a sacrificial life in union with Christ’s suffering; as His broken body is lifted up in offering to the Father for the sins of the world, our little sufferings in our days are also to be lifted up and offered for the salvation of the world. When we are impatient, overburdened, filled with worry, anger, or temptations; have been disappointed or betrayed; have failed or have fallen – it is “living the Mass” when we turn to God and with acceptance and surrender of whatever the situation, offer our sufferings to Him. A Friend of Medjugorje has always said that being a daily communicant doesn’t guarantee anyone anything. One must change one’s life to become more and more like Christ. If you go to daily Mass but still harbor bitterness towards your neighbor, still lack forgiveness in your heart for someone who has hurt you, still make no effort to lead souls to God, are selfish and self-centered, are complainers, use foul language, etc., then though you attend Mass each day – you do not live the Mass. Living the Mass leads one to conversion and a change of life and mentality.
Our Lady desires to weave our lives together through the “living” of the sacraments, to become living signs to a world in great need of seeing grace alive. In that way, being a witness to God’s love, Our Lady says we will change the world. So, one can see that the sacraments have life and become life.
What is different about the celebration of the sacraments in the Community of Caritas?
Each sacrament in the Community of Caritas is prepared for through prayer and seeing the witness of the community through the years. Novenas are prayed not only by those receiving the sacrament but also by the entire community.
Each soul conceived in the community is immediately consecrated to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. A Friend of Medjugorje and his wife began a holy tradition when they became involved in Medjugorje, to seek from God the name for their children. They did not want to “peek” early to find if they were having a girl or a boy, realizing that they cheat themselves out of the surprise of the moment of the baby’s birth. Their 3rd child, who was also their 3rd son was born during the first apparitions of Marija in their home in 1988. Having prayed many prayers leading up to the birth, Our Lady gave amazing and clear signs what his name should be, and they had to wait patiently for the signs to come. But through that experience, a Friend of Medjugorje knew Our Lady was leading him to make this the way of the community.
The parents pray several 54-day rosary novenas leading up to the name of their baby praying for the intention that God will name their baby. Every child, since 1988, who has been born in the community, has a special story of how the parents discovered or were led to the name given to them by God. When the name is finally confirmed, the parents first share the story with a Friend of Medjugorje and his wife, and then the whole community is gathered and told the story. It is such a beautiful way of welcoming a new member into the community. There is mystery in each name as only God knows He gave the child that particular name, but one realizes that there is something of the purpose and the spirit of the child that is captured in its name.
All of this is in preparation for this child to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, to become a child of God. By giving the right of God to name their children, the parents are already recognizing that this child is a gift that belongs first to God, created to fulfill the desires and plans of God in their lives. Often elaborate Christening gowns are made for the little community babies—for the first Sacrament, or first “wedding” of their souls to God. Rarely in the community has there been a baptism for just one child, as the mothers are often pregnant at the same time. During the Baptism, the siblings of the babies are encouraged to get up close and watch what the priest is doing when he pours the water over the baby’s head and anoints his head, hands, and feet with holy oil. A beautiful mystery. The reaction of the babies to suddenly being doused with water always brings smiles and laughter to child and adult alike. Through those simple actions, suddenly this child is marked with a sign, “Made for God’s Kingdom.” A beautiful mystery.
A lovely meal is home waiting for everyone, with sweet decorations in pink or blue (or both) with pictures of the newborn babe displayed around the room, and blankets already stitched with their God-given names – the future saints of the church.
Sacraments of First Holy Communion & Confession
In anticipation and preparation for First Holy Communion, the children are eager to write their own novena prayer that is then shared with the rest of the community who joins in and encourages their excitement as they approach the time of receiving Jesus in their heart. They have accompanied their parents, older siblings and other adult members of the community to monthly confession since they were infants, so they understand that confession is a necessary and important part of the life of believers. They have listened to the community pray novenas all through the years asking God to purify their hearts. They grow up fasting twice a week in their homes on bread and water. They have climbed mountains to expiate for sins and to offer sacrifices for Our Lady’s intentions. They have walked on their knees around Our Lady’s statue when asking for special needs for the mission—and seeing the prayers of the community answered time and time again after such sacrifices. They have done these things all before their First Holy Communion and Confession. When they approach the altar rail for the first time, dressed in beautiful, often homemade, dresses, or white suits, they truly know that Jesus is coming to them in their hearts. Their young faith, pure and innocent, deeply touches and fortifies the faith of the whole community.
Sacrament of Confirmation
For Confirmation, the youth spend time in prayer and reflection before deciding upon a saint who they take seriously to be their example and intercessor towards holiness. These saints that are chosen become part of the daily prayers of the community leading up to the sacrament. Some youth have offered nine days of fasting preceding Confirmation and/or nine days of hiking to the Cross. In the old catechism, it was taught that in Confirmation one becomes a soldier for Christ. Warfare is a common topic of discussion in the Caritas Community. The community youth study the lives of Navy SEALS,(all inappropriate content is edited out) the hardships, the battles and the victories of soldiers and the lessons of warfare are applied to the spiritual life. Our Lady says that all wars start in the heart, and eventually manifest in physical war if the heart is not healed. Therefore, all wars are based in the spiritual and must be combated spiritually. The living Church used to be called the Church Militant and Catholics were raised to know that the evil one was always on the prowl and the Church membership must be always diligent in combating the attacks of the devil. The devil never sleeps, they were told. Our Lady’s coming has reminded the Church of this truth. Before the community was founded, a Friend of Medjugorje would often question his young sons that if they were ever in a situation where they were asked to deny their faith, what would they do? They would respond, we would not deny the faith. The next question—what if they threatened to kill you? They responded we would rather die than deny the faith. All of the generations raised in the Community of Caritas receive the same formation. Yet, they understand that one must depend upon the Holy Spirit to receive such power of self-denial. The Sacrament of Confirmation then becomes the necessary armor for anyone entering into spiritual battle. Knowing this, the Caritas youth enter into serious prayer to receive this gift. The power of the Holy Spirit descends down upon those receiving the sacrament to empower them to live a strong witness in Christ. Our youth know that this witness could one day mean laying down one’s life for the faith and for them they know it would be an honor and a privilege to be a martyr for the faith.
The Four-Year Consecration Leading to the Choice of Vocation
Entrance into married life is a serious decision in community. But before two people even enter into such a time of discernment, they must first discern in their hearts if God is calling them to give their life as a missionary to the community and mission of Caritas. That is the first marriage that one must seek their answers from God, as well as see if they can live the way of life of the community. Through Medjugorje interior locutionist, Jelena, Our Lady requested of those in the prayer group that they commit four years of their lives to God, and wait before deciding on their vocation in life:
“I ask you for a commitment of four years. It is not yet the time to choose your vocation. The important thing is, first of all, to enter into prayer. Later, you will make the right choice.” October 20, 1983
This way of Our Lady would become the way of the Community of Caritas as a Friend of Medjugorje grasped the wisdom of Our Lady in how She was guiding the youth. For new possible vocation coming into the community, the same four year commitment is asked of them in giving time to discern a future life with the community. Four years gives them ample time to experience and digest every aspect of the community life – from the work schedule, to learning how to manage children, the early mornings and late nights, the fasting two days a week, and periodic 9-day fasts, to living in peace and unity with their community brothers, all the while managing to keep up on their prayer life. A promise of time is made first for one month, then three months, then one year, and then for the four years. Each promise fulfilled fills them with greater confidence that they can be successful in living the way of Our Lady in the Caritas Community. The promise of the four-year commitment is made in front of the entire community in a formal ceremony.
Once the four-year commitment has been fulfilled and God has given them an assurance of their vocation in the community, at that time they may begin to seek from God what their vocation is – either marriage or to remain as a single consecrated. Some of the strongest single-consecrated came into the community, thinking they would someday marry. Having gone through the four years, they began to realize God’s will for them was to serve Our Lady for life and to remain as a single-consecrated. Four years brings clarity against one’s wants as opposed to what God wants. Those “consecrated for life” are contented and fulfilled by the fruit of their state in life.
Sacrament of Matrimony
There is no dating in the Community. Dating is replaced by courtship after clear discernment and prayer has led one to this calling. Couples spend their courtship together in work, prayer, and play right alongside the married couples, the single consecrated, the youth, and the small children in the community. The couples that enter into a courtship pray multiple 54-day novenas before finalizing their decision about marriage. The whole community joins them in praying their last 54-day rosary novena, which ends two days before their wedding day.
Courtship does not necessarily mean that the two will marry. It is a time in which they both seek from God His Will for their future. A Friend of Medjugorje councils the young couples to pray that God will separate them during their courtship if it would be better for them not to join together. He tells them that this is the time for divorce – not after they are married. They pray at the same time that if it is God’s Will for the two to join in marriage, that during the courtship they would be blessed with a profound unity of heart and anything that would be the cause of division would come to light in this time of discernment. They learn to pray and work together and what it means to grow in grace together. The reason this time is taken so seriously is because through the Sacrament of Matrimony, marriage is forever. Divorce is not an option in the future. Therefore, the time preceding the wedding is for the purpose of weighing carefully the decision they are entering into. But, the beauty of the life lived in the community is that it prepares individuals for marriage, if that is their calling. Many of the things that cause division between couples do not exist in the community.
Marriage, of course, is not easy and no one can predict what will happen in the future that could create circumstances that would lead a couple to begin to take a path of separation. But even this, Our Lady gave insight into how to divorce-proof marriages in the community. A Friend of Medjugorje learned of a common practice in the wedding ceremonies among the Croatian people that he transformed and greatly enhanced for the community weddings. In Medjugorje, those who marry make their vows to each other while holding a crucifix in their hands. The crucifix was chosen by the couple before their wedding and after the ceremony when they start their new life together, they hang the Crucifix over their bed. Their tradition follows that whenever they experience disagreements, anger, sorrow, difficulties, misunderstandings, etc., they are to kneel together before the Crucifix and ask Jesus for the graces they need to heal their hearts. In the Caritas Community, a Friend of Medjugorje went further in that he established that each future husband would actually make the cross – finding a tree in the woods, cutting it down, fashioning a cross from it and either carving a corpus or buying one to attach to their handmade cross. Each cross is unique to each couple and in performing such a task, it impresses upon the man what Scripture states: that he is to lay his life down for his future wife, just as Jesus did for His Bride, the Church. And for the woman, she is no less responsible for giving honor and respect to her husband. While so many in the world give the highest importance to the “compatibility” of the couple, the cross is a witness of the deep love of Jesus upon which a marriage must be based. Through this witness of Christ, the couple is able to transform this sacrament into “life”.
Another beautiful addition to the Wedding ceremony also came through the heart of the Founder of the community. Typical weddings are a frenzy of activity, especially on the very day of the wedding. Instead of being able to enter into the solemnness of the sacrament, the couple is often filled with distractions and even anxiety in wanting everything to go perfect. The Founder wanted something better for couples who would marry in the community. Through prayer he conceived a beautiful “pre-marriage” ceremony. But to make it work, to keep the Bride and Groom from seeing each other before the breath-taking moment when the Groom first sees his Bride walking down the aisle towards him, the“Tents of Solitude” were created. These tents are set up inside the Church on either side of the altar on the wedding day, one for the bride and one for the groom. The tents have a see-through veil in the front so that they can see the altar, but only the altar. They cannot see each other or any of those in the Church. An hour before the wedding, the couple enters their separate tents for a special hour of adoration of prayer and sacred music. They cannot see each other, nor anyone in the Church. They are alone with their God. A Friend of Medjugorje explains what this hour is meant to be for the couples:
“The white tents viewed on both sides of the church are called tents of solitude. They are where the Bride and Groom will spend their final hour in the state in life from which they were born. The couple, separated, will spend one last hour alone, quiet, without wedding preparations, distractions, closed off to everyone, focused only on the mystery of Christ, His Holy Family and of the three elements, ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and the ‘living sacramental union’ which is about to be birthed.
One hour of silent adoration of our Savior that He will walk with them their whole lives…One hour of reflection of their whole lives, their childhood, adolescence, to this present hour…To recollect their souls and ready it in prayer and contemplation in adoration of God before their departure from the only state of life they have ever known…Into a new state formed by God as a holy way of living…Family.”
Though all alone in their tent, they are among their family and friends who are praying for them and their future life together. This hour of adoration before the wedding ceremony has been a profound blessing for all the married couples. Through the grace they receive in Adoration, their souls united to Jesus in peace and solitude, they can experience the grace more deeply when Christ then unites their hearts to each other at the reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is breathtakingly beautiful and becomes an “outward sign of an invisible grace” of what the final wedding of our souls with Christ will be like at the end of our lives.
When holy marriages come through the “living” of the Sacrament of Matrimony, vocations will come. With a greater clarity, people will be able to receive the call to the priesthood and religious life. Good, strong families are the support for Priests to live out their vocations and so again the grace begins to flow from the “living” of one sacrament to another – families supporting the priest and the priest administering the source of grace to the people.
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick & Last Rites
There are many who wonder how one can live a life of obedience, work, service and prayer day after day, year after year. A Friend of Medjugorje often says there is no sacrifice made in this life that at the hour of death will ever be regretted. The Caritas Community has experienced this personally through the loss of several members of the community over the past 25 years. What a comfort it is to gather around a dying member of the community, knowing they have given their entire life to Our Lady for the fulfillment of Her plans for the salvation of the world and help them in their final journey towards Heaven. There is no dread, no worry for that soul; there is only the sorrow of knowing life must continue without the comfort of their physical presence. But, far greater is the joy of knowing one of their own made it to the finish line and ran their race well.
God so ordained it that the first member of the community to die was the sixth son of a Friend of Medjugorje and his wife.The child was a baby who died in his mother’s womb at four months. But with this death, came “life” in that it made the way for the community to have its own cemetery; a cemetery in which community members pass through each day, stopping to say a prayer to all those buried there, knowing one day they will be laid beside them in the ground, remembered by all the future generations of the community. The connection of the heart continues after death, and even deepens as the community brings their worries and concerns to these cherished members for their intercession and guidance.
As with all the sacraments, the sacraments that prepare the soul for death, the Last Rites, have fertile ground in the hearts of members of the community because of the way in which they are lived in community. When one becomes sick to the point of being in danger of losing their life, the grace of the anointing of the sick opens their heart to embrace and surrender to God’s Will. But how beautiful it is to be surrounded with a community who takes on the responsibility of tending to all the needs of that individual and their family – the physical, spiritual and emotional. This makes it possible for the dying member to fully prepare themselves for their final journey, sheltered in the embrace of the community who is also praying for the Will of God – believing in the miracle power of God, but also surrendering that life into His hands if God decides to bring that soul to Himself.
Living the agrarian life, they have already become acquainted with the dying of cherished animals. Just as a Friend of Medjugorje always gathers the community together to watch the birth of a cow or horse, he also gathers them together at the end of their lives. They kneel beside the animal and offer their thanks to God for the gift given, and the joy the animal gave to their lives. Depending on how closely attached the community is to an animal, there are tears of sorrow in saying goodbye, and there is the witness of the adults to the children that everything has its time and through memories that beloved animal lives on.
Because of the abandonment to the Will of God, death has been one of the most beautiful parts of life in the Community of Caritas. Instead of sheltering the children from the reality of death, they are right alongside the adults as they preside at the bedside of the dying. From the beginning, the founder wanted to establish in the community that they die in their own home, rather than in a cold hospital room. Everyone is called to be around the bed when the time of their death approaches. The rosary is prayed, and the community sings songs of prayer to help usher the soul into the hands of God, their Creator. The hands of the community are stretched out and laid upon the body of the loved one in prayer to give strength in the final moments of life. Parents guide the hands of their little ones to reassure them in the midst of so many tears being shed. Last goodbyes and kisses are given. The founder and his wife, in a final benediction, give back to God what was entrusted to them as the first witnesses of the community. In the midst of this scene, the Priest is present to administer the Last Rites, and as Priest, offers to God the prayers of the whole community on behalf of this soul.
This was only the first goodbye of the community. As with every Sacrament received in the community, death is the final celebration of the life of grace given by God. Having the understanding that a wake and funeral of a loved one are more for the living than for the dead, a Friend of Medjugorje desired to make of the community funerals an opportunity for conversion and grace while celebrating the life of the loved one, born to Eternal Life in Heaven. As Our Lady was teaching the community “how to live” through Her messages, A Friend of Medjugorje was just as keen on “learning how to die.” A newly ordained priest from the parish church of the community, who presided over the wake of a community member, said there was just one other funeral that was just as beautiful as this one, in a small cloistered convent. He said, “This one was even better. You do funerals the way they should be done.”
Becoming a Sacrament
The physical preparation for and celebration of the sacraments is an important part of turning them into “life.” Living in community, the life of unity precludes individuals “standing out” from the group, as the community works together for the glory of God and the fulfillment of Our Lady’s plans. However, there are times when individual lives are celebrated in the community—special birthdays, anniversaries, graduations are obvious days; but the Sacraments are truly feast days—from the food to the clothes to the decorations. Whether it is the infant becoming newly baptized, the child receiving his First Holy Communion, the youth celebrating their Confirmation, the Bride and Groom joining their lives together, or the final goodbye of a cherished family member and friend, these days are truly heavenly days of grace. Scripture states,
“…No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him…” (1 Cor 2:9)
The veil between Heaven and earth seems to lift a bit on these days of the Sacraments, and one receives a glimpse of that eternal glory in Heaven. Our Lady says:
“…Be my sign…” June 25, 2010
When the sacraments are seen in their proper light, grace enters not only the individual, but the entire community, and the community itself becomes a channel of grace for the world; an external sign of an invisible grace—a sacrament.