Advent Woman — Bringing Hope and Comfort Throughout the Year

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Joyce Pfaffinger wasn’t used to receiving collect calls at the ordering line of the In the Arms of Mary apostolate bookstore. But something told her to accept one.

It turned out to be from Allen M., an inmate at the State Correctional Institution. He spoke haltingly. “I’m standing here, holding this picture that a nun gave me,” he said.

The picture was of Our Lady of Guadalupe embracing St. Juan Diego, kneeling before her holding up empty hands.

Allen would be released in a few weeks and didn’t know what would happen to him. But he needed to speak with the people whose phone number was on that picture. Allen said it was the first thing that had given him a ray of hope in prison.

Joyce breathed a quick prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe: “I said, ‘Okay, Mom, this is your son. What should I say?’ Then I told him, ‘That’s you in the picture, she’s covering you with her mantle.’ I also promised to send him one of our books, The Gift of Faith, so that he could learn more.”

Christmas joy can be elusive when one’s troubles, great or small, loom large.

The burdens of illness, family problems, financial difficulties or even guilt over past sinful behavior can weigh heavily during the Advent season and Christmas.

In the Arms of Mary, a small lay apostolate in Fort Collins, Colo., is trying to spread the word, both at Christmastime and throughout the year, that God really can lighten our burdens, especially when we hand them to his mother.

And although the foundation distributes books and educational materials by the hundreds, its members have learned that in many cases, a picture is worth a thousand words — one very special picture.

The pastel-and-watercolor painting based on the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, revealed to Juan Diego 475 years ago Dec. 12, shows the Indian saint as a sorrowing child seeking a mother’s comfort. Beneath the picture are the words Mary spoke to him during the fourth and final apparition:

“Listen. Put it into your heart, my smallest child, that the thing that frightened you, the thing that afflicted you is nothing: Do not let it disturb you. … Am I not here, I who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more?”

Healing and Hope

Those words can help women who have had abortions and repented of them, and Clarissa Cincotta of Trumbull, Conn., who runs Rachel’s Vineyard retreats for post-abortion healing, places the holy card on each woman’s pillow.

“I felt the picture would be very healing for the women attending the retreat,” she said.

Artist Rosemary Mertz of Huntington Beach was simply following the instructions of In the Arms of Mary’s president and directors who commissioned her to do the painting. But as a year of preliminary sketches and discussions went on, Mertz found herself transformed by the image’s message.

“I was more and more coming to understand that even though I’m a sinner, God loves me with a love that is endless, so awesome, tender, and joyful,” Mertz said. “To know our Blessed Mother is always there, loving perfectly — it’s just beyond words. This picture definitely came by God’s grace. I was just the brush.”

Some Catholics are looking for ways to share that sense of joy and hope at Christmas. The In the Arms of Mary holy card, enclosed with Christmas cards or gifts, could be one way to send a message of the unconditional love of God. Both Spanish and English versions are available. A donation of $5 for 100 cards is suggested to cover shipping costs. A larger version, suitable for framing, is also available. The apostolate has numerous books on the spiritual life, all with ecclesiastical approval.

And, as the war in Iraq continues, the website has a way for people to send a Bible, prayer book or holy medal to a soldier. Military chaplains have registered with this online Catholic store, listing soldiers’ requests. Items range in price from Divine Mercy holy cards (55 cents each) to Sterling Silver medals ($42). The most requested item is a pocket New Testament ($6).

Then there’s a kind of giving that can be a gift to two persons at once. Catholic Relief Services, the international relief and development agency founded by the U.S. bishops, has a “Work of Human Hands” catalogue with produce and products from farmers and artisans in third-world countries. When someone in America purchases coffee from Ethiopia or terra cotta Nativity sets from Peru, he can help disadvantaged artisans, farmers and farm workers in undeveloped and underdeveloped countries receive fair compensation.

Food for the Poor, based in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and Heifer International, in Little Rock, Ark., also have gift catalogues. But instead of ordering products to give to friends, donors send money for projects or animals to benefit the poor. The gift-giver makes the donation in honor of a friend or loved one, and the agencies send gift cards stating that a donation was made in that person’s honor. The gifts “keep on giving, as in the case of wells and water pumps that Food for the Poor installs in villages, or farm animals that Heifer sends to poor families.

Daria Sockey is based

in Venus, Pennsylvania.



A Way
to Give Christmas Hope

In The Arms of Mary Foundation