15 Years Ago Today

Fifteen years ago today, the world saw John Paul II for the last time. He came to his window at the time of his usual Wednesday Audience to greet the crowd. I was there. And these were my thoughts, published shortly after in our diocesan newspaper:

After joining the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi blessing on Easter Sunday, I returned to the square on Wednesday hoping to see him again.

As we headed into the piazza, we all agreed that we would be very blessed if he would come to his window, especially since the following day we were leaving for Paris for the weekend.  Since his hospital stay, the Holy Father’s public appearances had been suspended, but he still continued to come to his window on Sundays at noon for the Angelus and on Wednesdays around eleven (at the time of his usual large public audience in the square).  When we entered the square, the large televisions had a message in Italian that the Holy Father would come to his window at eleven.

Around five after eleven, the Holy Father’s window opened and the crowd erupted in cheers.  His arms seemed to be moving fairly freely, and he was blessing the crowd and waving.  It wasn’t until I looked at the television and was able to see his face that I realized how much he was suffering.  His appearance was short and everyone left in tears.  His pain was evident, but he still came to his window to greet his flock.  After years of telling us to “be not afraid,” he clearly did not fear death nor suffering.  He wasn’t afraid to show his suffering to a world that has condemned suffering and forgotten the blessings attached to pain.  

[On April 2], although I was in Paris while some of my classmates kept vigil in St.Peter’s Square… we were all tied to what was happening in the papal apartments through prayer. When the Holy Father passed away, I was gathered with hundreds of others in Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, where they have perpetual adoration.  After a prayer service for the Holy Father, we celebrated the vigil for the Feast of Divine Mercy– less than twenty minutes after his death.

Every time I saw the Holy Father this semester, I told him goodbye in my heart.  Each time, I never let myself hope to see him again.  This Wednesday, we saw him for the last time.  But I didn’t have to tell him goodbye.  As hard as it is to accept, he is closer to us now than he ever was before.  While he was alive, we all felt like he knew us individually.  Now he does.  


A Story Still Being Written

This spring, four of my friends and I had a mini-reunion. We have all gone our separate ways since college, and it usually takes a wedding to get us all back together. That was the case this time.

As we were all traveling by car or plane to the wedding destination, one of my friends reminded us via group text about the liturgical feast that weekend: Divine Mercy Sunday. Thirteen years earlier, we had spent Divine Mercy Sunday in Paris. Now, the exact same five of us would be spending it together again, for Sarah’s wedding. Where some would see coincidence, I only saw Providence.

How much had changed in thirteen years… and how little had changed. As we stayed up talking into the wee hours of the night before the wedding and danced the night away at the reception, you might have thought nothing had happened in the past decade. Sarah still danced the same, albeit now she was in a big white dress. We still had the same inside jokes, the same laughs, and the same memories. But now there were husbands and babies for some, various careers and professional successes for others, and additional degrees for all of us. There were heartaches and losses, crosses and triumphs, lessons learned through mistakes and maybe a few regrets. The grey hairs poking through and the first signs of wrinkles were signs that the five girls sitting up at 1 am talking about doughnuts had wisdom which the five girls in Paris did not (although we had probably discussed doughnuts then, too). But our friendship had been forged in Christ, and there was a resulting eternal feel to it, despite maybe our own failings here and there.

None of us could have predicted life and its twists and turns. And that’s a lesson not only to look back with, but to look forward with as well.

We are in the midst of the story.

We all have a story, and part of knowing God is knowing our story. But we can’t forget that the story is still being written. Ultimately, it is being written by Him, although looking back we can probably all see the smudges where we tried to take the pen all by ourselves.

As long as we take in breath, that story is in the middle, not the end. And that must give us consolation. Not every story looks like a fairy tale – in fact, contrary to what that grass looks like on the other side of the fence, none do. And no story is the same. But even when the light seems dimmest, the road seems to lead nowhere, or we think we messed up the story – it’s still being written.

And perhaps in those confusing times, looking at the previous chapters is most necessary. Because we can be reminded that just as the joys might be passing, so too are the sorrows. Whenever the present moment seems too heavy, we can look back in the story and remember that no story is stagnant. And every story has marvels that only He could write.

Thirteen years ago, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, the five of us were standing in a hotel room in Paris, staring as the world news on a tiny French TV told us the only Pope we had ever known had died. We headed back to our home in Rome the next day, knowing our lives would be forever forged by the experiences we were about to have.

Some days, those experiences and graces are forgotten. Other days, they are my life preserver. Did I know in Paris what life would look like 13 years later? Of course not.  I don’t know what the next 13 years will look like, either. And that’s okay. Because if I look hard enough, I see a beautiful story, marked with God’s grace, that is still being written.

Whether you worry about your own future or the future of a child or grandchild; whether it’s a spiritual struggle you’re experiencing or a more earthly need; whether you’re in a joyful time right now or a particularly dark one; the story is still being written.

It was fitting to be reminded of it that weekend, because it’s one of the greatest reminders of God’s mercy. Wheat and weeds are growing side by side right now, the cross and the resurrection seem to be coexisting. But all God asks for is love, hope, and perseverance. Trust Him – He’s still writing the story.



This post was originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Thank you, Bishop Choby.

“Are you Joan Watson?” asked the man sitting near me in the pew when I sat down.  After I affirmed his suspicions, he told me he enjoyed my blogs and the work I’ve been doing. Then he said what will (hopefully) stay with me for a long time:

“I know you’re able to do what you’re doing because of him.”

He looked ahead at the bishop, lying in repose in the front of the Cathedral.

I nodded. And then I cried.

There is much that can be said about Bishop Choby. This week has been full of reminiscing and memories, and everyone has a story to tell about him. I spoke to one of his brother bishops on the phone yesterday and he told me what I think most of us took for granted for many years: Bishop Choby was a great bishop. “He’s leaving behind shoes enormous to fill.”

There are many things to be thankful to Bishop Choby for, but for me, it boils down to one important thing: Bishop Choby believed in me. Little Joannie Watson.  A girl, only 30 years old, with a dream and a love for the same people he loved: the people of Nashville. How many Church leaders would listen to a young lay woman sitting in front of them, who had just come to them with the wild idea to create a brand new position at the diocese for adult formation, and trust them enough to put them totally in charge of the new office? How many leaders would listen to a young lay woman, not in a habit, with no initials behind her name except a little “MA”, only armed with some Church documents and a mere six years of teaching experience, and support her crazy dream? I’ll tell you a secret: not many.

But that’s exactly what he did on February 20, 2014. He encouraged me and supported me then, and again on July 3, when he formally offered me a position at the diocese. And again every time he met with me after I began working for him on October 13. He never failed to show his support and his trust in me.  In fact, that was one of the last things he said to me when I had the chance to see him in the hospital on May 26, a week before he died. He repeated his support for me and the Office of Adult Formation. For a young lay woman in the Church, to have that trust and respect was the greatest gift Bishop David Choby could have given me.

He was a shepherd who loved his flock.  He was a priest who never wanted to be bishop, who laughed when he was told he had been elected diocesan administrator. He was happiest when he was with his people.

I remember going out to breakfast with him on July 3, when we were meeting to discuss the possibility of me coming to the diocese. We met at the Cathedral and he drove me over to Loew’s Vanderbilt hotel to eat breakfast. Every single person working there knew him by name, but what’s more impressive… he knew them. He greeted everyone, stopped to talk to all them, even the doorman. Towards the end of our breakfast, he pulled the waiter into our conversation, introducing the two of us. After we chatted for awhile, the waiter asked the bishop if he would baptize his firstborn son.

Imagine that. Asking the bishop of a diocese to baptize your baby. Maybe not the thing most of us would presume to ask a bishop. But he did presume… why? Because that’s the way Bishop Choby treated us all. He just wanted to be a pastor, and everyone felt like he was theirs. And you know what? The bishop didn’t think twice. He said it would be his honor to baptize the man’s son.

For Bishop Choby, it was all about the people. Everything he did, right or wrong, prudent or imprudent, whether we agree with his decisions or not – was because he loved people. And that was one of the last things he reminded me, as I stood by his bedside at St. Thomas Hospital. “Never let your work get in the way of your time with your family and relationships.” The way he looked me in the eye as he said it, with such clarity and honestly, made me want to record the moment. “I don’t mean you can goof off all the time,” he added with a sparkle in his eye. But it was clear he wanted me to remember: people are most important.

That is why I made the very difficult decision to miss his funeral. I was already scheduled to be in Kansas at the baptism of a dear friend’s daughter. I know it’s not necessary to be present at a baptism to be a baby’s godmother, but I thought back to the message Bishop Choby chose to give me that afternoon. What would he want me to do? It wasn’t an easy decision. But I think it’s the right one, so I’m boarding a plane today.

Last night, I knelt at the Cathedral and watched the people stream up to his casket to kneel down, whisper their thank yous, and pay their respect to a man who gave so much to so many. I couldn’t help but think of the quip he often gave when I told him it was good to see him, particularly after he was gone from the office on trips or due to sickness.  “Better be seen than viewed, Joannie.” The man joked about his death and his funeral a lot. We just never wanted it to become a reality.

You will be missed, Bishop Choby. I am not missing your funeral because I don’t love you, but because I’m obeying that last piece of advice you gave me.

Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for supporting me. And thank you for your love for the people of Nashville.


Rest in Peace, Father Scanlan

Another pioneer in Catholic education has gone to his much-deserved reward. News came this morning that Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., President Emeritus of Franciscan University, has passed away.

I’d hazard a guess that the feelings of the Franciscan University alumni and friends over the next few days and weeks will be similar to the feelings of the Christendom College alumni and friends after we lost our founder, Dr. Warren Carroll, in July 2011.  Father Scanlan may not be the official “founder” of Franciscan University, but in a real sense, he founded what Franciscan is today.

I remember going to visit Steubenville when my older sister was in high school and looking at colleges.  While on her Catholic college trek across the Midwest, we stopped to visit my great aunts, who lived their entire lives across the river from Steubenville in Wellsburg, WV.  They knew of the college from its very beginning in the 1940s, but were not aware of the dramatic change that had happened since Father Scanlan became president in 1974.  I remember my great aunts’ reaction to my sister looking at Franciscan:

“Steubenville?  Why Steubenville?”

Really, in a lot of ways, that answer could be boiled down to: Why Steubenville?  Father Michael Scanlan.  What that man did to that college has not only changed that community, but also the American Catholic Church.

Both Dr. Warren Carroll and Father Michael Scanlan gave the Church gifts that far surpass the institutions for which they are responsible. Pope St. John Paul II told Dr. Carroll, “You have done a great work for the Church.” I’m sure he told Father Scanlan the same thing.  Even people who never read a word these men wrote, never heard them teach or preach, never shook their hand, or perhaps have never even heard their names, have been touched by the work of these two men.  Graduates from Christendom and Franciscan are spread across the globe and are active in their communities.  While the schools are small, I rarely find myself in a Catholic setting where there isn’t a fellow Christendom or Franciscan alum.  And sometimes it’s in a non-Catholic setting — such as the time when I was on a jury in Nashville, TN, and one of the 12 people left on the jury with me — in the buckle of the Bible belt — was a fellow Christendom grad.

This is a new era for Franciscan, an era that Christendom had to enter in 2011.  The loss of a founder inevitably leaves a gap in an institution – really, in a family – that can never be filled. When Dr. Carroll retired, there was a fear among the students and alumni that Christendom would lose what had made it so special.  He still visited campus, giving an occasional lecture, but there was an understanding amongst those who knew him that future students would not have the same relationship with their founder that once was a hallmark of a Christendom student.

Alumni are always fearful of a change to their alma mater (“It’s not the same as when I was there!”), and I don’t think this is unique to Christendom or Franciscan.  I think it is a concern for any alumni who has a deep connection to the place that gave them so much. Anyone whose alma mater nourished them will be fearful when they sense that mother might be changing.

While neither Father Michael nor Dr. Carroll were in the state of health to be present on campus in the last years of their lives, just the fact that they were living made Franciscan and Christendom different.  To have a founder that is still living is a great gift.  You know who to look to for inspiration and for mission.  So naturally, when you lose your founder, there is fear that you will lose your identity.  Even in the last years, when they were not around on campus, their physical presence on this earth gave us a peace that the ship was sailing in the right direction.

It’s a natural human fear, especially when these special places are run by men and women and not angels, but we must trust that the places these men have built and the legacy that they have left will be safeguarded by those who knew them and were formed by them. As long as these schools remain true to the Magisterium, remain rooted in faith and reason, and are staffed and run by people who are close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, they’re not going to lose the Faith.  And that’s what is most important.

I know the coming days and weeks will be filled with memories and stories of Father Scanlan.  I attended Franciscan after he had already retired, but I was blessed to attend Mass with him many times.  I remember the treat it was when you realized he would be the homilist for the day.  And most of all, I remember him sitting in the pews of the chapel during Confession times, ready to hear our sins and be the priest he was ordained to be.

Both of these men are and will be missed by those of us they have left behind, but both men go to their Maker knowing they changed millions of lives.

When I heard news of his death this morning, I was reminded of the words of Mr. O’Herron, one of the founding faculty members of Christendom and my freshman year doctrine professor.  He gave us plenty of wit but also plenty of wisdom, and I remember him telling us, after we were lamenting the death of a holy priest: “No, we’re better off now that he’s dead.”

Perhaps not the warmest sentiment on this morning, but a theologically correct one, and a good reminder to us.

Father Michael Scanlan’s work has just begun. Even though the act of turning that school – and that city — around is an enormous miracle, God will be able to work far greater ones through him in heaven.

Father Scanlan, Rest in Peace.