Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laudato Si and the Eucharist

As I am speed-reading through Pope Francis' new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si this morning, I discovered this beautiful section near the end on the sacraments - in particular, the Eucharist - and the importance of Sunday. This connection to Creation and to respect for the world and its peoples opens up great richness in sacramental theology.

235. The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colours are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise. The hand that blesses is an instrument of God’s love and a reflection of the closeness of Jesus Christ, who came to accompany us on the journey of life. Water poured over the body of a child in Baptism is a sign of new life. Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. This is especially clear in the spirituality of the Christian East. “Beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of a church, in the sounds, in the colours, in the lights, in the scents”. For Christians, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. “Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation”.
236. It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself”.Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.
237. On Sunday, our participation in the Eucharist has special importance. Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the “first day” of the new creation, whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality. It also proclaims “man’s eternal rest in God”. In this way, Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation and festivity. We tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity, which is quite different from mere inactivity. Rather, it is another way of working, which forms part of our very essence. It protects human action from becoming empty activism; it also prevents that unfettered greed and sense of isolation which make us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else. The law of weekly rest forbade work on the seventh day, “so that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed” (Ex 23:12). Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others. And so the day of rest, centred on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor.
This will bear some study - but there is much to consider here - in a world that has largely lost its sense of the importance of Sabbath rest. Lots to think about in Pope Francis' document... but this is the liturgical connection.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Never. Stop. Evangelizing.

There is a little controversy going around on Facebook - and in the com-boxes over a post by Kathy Schiffer over on Patheos  in which she wonders aloud why kids who sat through catechesis and received their sacraments can later not remember things they were "taught" in that catechesis, like the obligation to attend Mass and the teachings on sexuality. The comments I have seen are about the difference between evangelization and catechesis.... but I think it goes even deeper to the unity of the two.

In Schiffer's final sentence is the key: "Maybe next year, when a teacher tells them again, the Good News will fall on good soil and will stir their hearts to Faith."

The Good News, the kerygma, is the key to all of this. Young people need to hear over and over why the teachings of God/the Church matter. It's the same issue I once encountered when a 7th grade girl asked me, point blank: "Why should I do anything God wants?"

Someone who has no relationship with the God of love and mercy will not understand God's desires for our behavior. Of course they tune us out. The other messages from the culture about "me first" are much louder and more attractive than we are... but that's because we deliver our message without conviction, minus the fire of the Holy Spirit. We often teach doctrine (especially those "rules" about sexuality) as if it exists apart from the love of God. We need, as Pope John Paul II did in his Theology of the Body, to connect these things continually to the love of God and God's plan for good for each person and for the world.

We need to punctuate all catechesis frequently with the Good News that Jesus' death took away the sins of the world and offers us eternal life. This was God's greatest gift - and it deserves a response of loving obedience. Jesus' sacrifice demands our response. That response would be to believe, to participate enthusiastically and gratefully in the sacrifice of the Mass, and to live according to God's desires for us, expressed in the teachings about chastity and other issues.

Pope Francis pretty much nails it in section 165 of Evangelii Gaudium:
We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats. It is the message capable of responding to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart. The centrality of the kerygma calls for stressing those elements which are most needed today: it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical. All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.
That's the key. We don't evangelize young people a little every once in a while, at a retreat, by giving a witness talk, or providing the occasional meditative prayer or meaningful service experience. We must continually connect EVERYTHING we teach to the Good News. The Church teaches X because God loves you and wants you to have a fruitful life that builds up his Kingdom, not simply the Church teaches X: do it.

Never. Stop. Evangelizing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

10 Reasons I Am Still Catholic

Around the internet Catholic writers are responding to Elizabeth Scalia's call to let the world know why we are Catholic, in the wake of the bad news from recent demographic surveys. So, here goes.

It's complicated. Its also beautiful.

I entered the Church as a 35-year-old convert from a mixed protestant background (Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian, and a lot of self-study of non-Christian faiths in high school) and from the moment of my Confirmation and first Eucharist, I never, ever looked back or considered leaving.

I learned early on in my experience with the RCIA process that I had been a seeker my whole life. Something had been missing, and I found that something in the Catholic Church. What I found in the Church confounded my Unitarian/agnostic stepfather, who kept asking me how I could be part of a church that wanted to tell me how to think.  I finally helped him understand, at least partly, when I explained the faithful's call to cooperation with God to build the Kingdom on earth.

But that wasn't all. From the moment I joined the Church in 1987 to this day, I have found:

  1. Jesus Christ - the focus of everything. And not a Jesus for the sentimental, but a suffering servant king who offers himself to us and for us out of pure love in the sacrifice of every Mass, through the Eucharist we receive. A Jesus who calls us constantly into deeper relationship with him and his Father, with the help of the Spirit. A Jesus who offers to partner with us to carry our burdens, and who asks us to tell all we meet about his love and his invitation. This is the Jesus who calls us to be disciples and to make disciples - through his Church. I have known in this Church people who were true disciples - they made me who I am today. 
  2. Ritual and Liturgy - as I have said before, when I encountered the Mass, I felt I had come home. The consistent ritual, the Liturgical Year - these had been missing from my previous experiences of church. In the rhythm of Sunday after Sunday around the cycle of the year, I found myself constantly renewed and refreshed. I will never forget my first experience of the beauty of Liturgy of the Hours at my own celebration of the Call to Continuing Conversion. In it, I have found refreshment and peace.
  3. Community and Solidarity - blessed from the beginning to have found a welcoming community of faith in St. James, Rockford, I have always found acceptance and fellowship among Catholics wherever I go. At national conferences, in small towns and large cities, on the internet - always, even when we have occasional disagreements over some of the details - I have found that once good Catholics know that you, too, realize what is really important, there is a great deal of acceptance. This acceptance crosses lines of gender, geography, race and economic status. Deep down, we all know we are members of one flock and have One Shepherd - and that we are all called to One Table. I have broken bread with people whose orientation toward the Church is far more traditional than mine - and enjoyed it. As one body, the Church is not "me and Jesus" - it is alway "us" - together. To me, that is the greatest treasure. As a protestant child, I learned a hymn "Tell me the Stories of Jesus." As an adult Catholic, I stand in the assembly at Mass and sing "Alleluia!" as I wait for the Gospel reader to tell US the stories of Jesus, which WE love to hear - and which Catholics all over the world are hearing that day as well.
  4. Call to Mission, Evangelization and Service - This is part of what really excites me. I am part of a 2,000-year-old mission to bring the Gospel and its values to the world. As the owner of some of Christ's hands and feet on earth, I have always felt I had a place in the mission, in large ways and small. Sometimes my call is to write, teach or sing about this. Sometimes I get to serve. (Just last week, I found myself in the middle of a hot parking lot helping to feed the poor from a mobile food pantry.)
  5. Dignity of Each Person - contrary to what the world thinks it knows about Catholics, we honor the life and of each human person (we just don't always accept every person's lifestyle). We are called to be voices for the voiceless - the poor, the powerless, the unborn, the disabled and the elderly  - seeking justice and compassion for them in the name of Jesus Christ. Watching how our country has increasingly polarized into rich and poor, I speak out, and make a special personal effort to help the poor whenever I can.
  6. Work to do for Peace and Justice- though I will never have the courage of people like Martin Sheen, who has been arrested so many times for standing up against senseless violence and injustice, there is a part of me, baptized in the crucible of the Vietnam era, that jumps to attention when I see failures of justice. I want to put myself out there, to stand for the kind of world desired for us by a God who has as his goal, a time when our swords will become plowshares. However, all are not called to the same actions on behalf of this. I have found my call in how I vote and in how I teach and share with others ways we can walk in the paths God has asked.
  7. Consistent Ethic of Life -  I have grown to understand that God is truly the giver of life and it is he who numbers our days. Any attempt by human beings to "play God" by choosing the day of our own or another's death is a violation of the desires of the God of Life. Being pro-life means we all have some role in the defense of life, each according to our circumstance and talents. I never waver on the message in my teaching or in my comments on current events about life issues. 
  8. Eclectic Music and Inculturation - it's a big church. There is room for Gregorian chant, for traditional hymns in both Latin and the vernacular, for contemporary songs, and sometimes, even for rock and roll.  There is room for ethnic and "world" music. Music with well-chosen texts, often based on scripture - the style doesn't matter - I can love it all - though like everyone, I have my preferences.  There is room for the devotional practices of different immigrant groups and for the recovery of the lost practices of groups who were homogenized by the American "melting pot" of the past. There is room for the popular culture and for creativity and art - it all can find a place in our efforts to praise and glorify the God who created everything. And me, I love my bi-cultural parish - and cannot keep from singing to my God in one language or two, in traditional, modern Anglo, or Hispanic style. 
  9. The Mystical Body AND the Institutional Church - one and the same, yet different. Often inconsistent. I firmly believe that Jesus Christ meant for the Church to exist. When the People of God gather at liturgy to praise and worship the Father in the Son, through the Spirit, we become the "real Church" - the Mystical Body of Christ. It is when we join in prayer, hear the Word and receive the Eucharist together that we are most ourselves. When we go forth, we are of one mind. However, once in the world, that can break down as we are pulled apart by forces from within and without. The Church as an institution has garnered many a black eye over its history, but we can love her anyway. Like Jesus the Catholic Church is fully divine and fully human - but unlike Jesus, it is not without sin and frailty. It has helped me over the years to remember that there is an ideal, mystical Church and a human, fallible church. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes, it seems like we should celebrate "Facepalm Sunday" - but we can love this Church anyway. 
  10. The Holy Spirit and the Call to Share Spiritual Gifts - my most recent discovery about the Church is how through it, we are called to share the charisms the Holy Spirit has given each of us, for the good of the entire Body of Christ. Sure, I knew that, generically, but only recently have I discovered how that works in my life. Each of us has indeed been given certain gifts, but the community helps us discern how those gifts may be used for the good of others. One of the criteria in the Called and Gifted process for discerning a charism is that others have told you that when you do something, it bears fruit for them.  Our gifts are not our own. They came from God and belong to God's community. This, above all, is for me one of the great rewards of being Catholic: I have a purpose. I belong. I know that who I am is part of something greater, it is not for me alone.
And THAT is why I am and will always be Catholic... in spite of all those moments that could bring on this:

Monday, May 25, 2015

What if Ordinary Time Were Mission-Driven?

The liturgical year has these great green stretches of Ordinary Time - and we have just entered the longest one. Our next two Sundays will be engaged in celebrating two important "white" feasts of Christ in Ordinary Time: Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, but we really have entered the time of the green.

The general description of Ordinary Time is a time "wherein the faithful consider the fullness of Jesus' teachings and works among his people."(USCCB Website) or when "the mystery of Christ itself is honored in its fullness, especially on Sundays." (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year.)  While the green of winter Ordinary Time suggests growth and learning, the stretch we have just entered is different. Rather, because of what has just preceded it, it offers an opportunity to move toward mission. We have just celebrated the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost - all of which call us to do something besides sit at Christ's feet. We have witnessed the power of Paschal Mystery and heard Jesus ask us to preach the Gospel to all the world. This year, it sounded like this:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs. (Mark 16:15-20)
This is a pretty daring job description! I don't know that snake handling is the way I want to go, personally speaking! However, as he promised, Jesus then sent the Spirit to strengthen, equip and inspire us to do great things in his name. The alternate Gospel for Pentecost explains this best:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”  (John 15:26-27; 16: 12-15)
 I suggested in another recent post that perhaps summer Ordinary Time is really the moment to build the community and to evangelize, but that goes against prevailing American practice, which sees summer as "down time."

What would it mean if a parish were to take Ascension and Pentecost seriously and put mission on the summer agenda?  I see some interesting possibilities:
  • Summer outreach - to families of those who have just celebrated sacraments, but are not coming to Mass - to the disabled, the elderly, young adults, to inactive parishioners and to others in the neighborhood 
  • Summer faith formation - Vacation Bible School for ALL ages that lasts more than a week - Bible study, book-clubs, marriage enrichment and other gatherings to encourage adults  and teens to deepen their faith
  • Intergenerational gatherings for all ages - not just parents and children - for prayer and learning
  • RCIA Inquiry sessions begin - mid-summer - and run until the Rite of Acceptance/Rite of Welcoming just before Advent.
  • Parish service projects to help the poor - not just youth mission trips - but practical local opportunities for adults and families
  • Liturgies celebrated with joy and vigor. Choirs would not go on "summer break" - but continue (after all, most of them will still be at Mass every weekend) - perhaps with fewer rehearsals
  • Parish festivals, picnics, etc. with a faith theme - not just fun and socialization, but with meaningful prayer/paraliturgies and a call for all to sign up for service and learning opportunities

Some parishes already do some of this, but even they would benefit from being more intentional. What do you think? Do you have more ideas for how a parish can be mission-driven through the summer? How can we keep the upcoming months from simply looking like a vacation from parish activities?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

About That Third Person of the Trinity....

Over the years, I haven't had much inclination to pray to the Holy Spirit or particular awareness of the Spirit's presence. I have generally favored prayer to the Father, or to the Son because he seems more accessible. The Spirit was just kind of out there for me. Real, yet abstract, distant. Lately, however, it's been different.

Last fall, I experienced the Called & Gifted process from Siena Institute, and my relationship with the Spirit changed dramatically. I became acutely aware of where the Spirit has been active in my life. In the discernment of my charisms and what they mean, I have learned that the Spirit has been actively calling me to the various ways in which I serve through those gifts. There are, as I had always suspected, no coincidences.

Unsurprisingly, when I took the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, I learned my dominant charisms are Music, Teaching and Writing. However, in the weeks after my interview, some things opened up for me. It became clear that the moments when I heard an unmistakable voice leading me toward change and growth were of the Spirit.

Yes, I have heard the Spirit speak. Twice. Let me tell you about these moments, as evidence that the Spirit can communicate to position us where we are called to use our charisms.

The first incident was when I found myself, a Catholic for less than three years, at a national meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. Looking around the room at the professional liturgists and bishops present, I asked myself,  "What am I doing here?"  Immediately, the response came: "Because you can do this."  I responded by entering a degree program to learn more about what "this" was and to equip myself to do it. The "this" was ministry...

The second time occurred after I had been searching unsuccessfully for several years for a full-time position in ministry. At that point, I had been serving as part-time liturgy coordinator at my parish, while my day job was mostly clerical. I also had a writing job on the side for the local paper. I was restless with the patchwork of putting together three jobs to make a living - and not fully using my talents.

Over the summer, I began hearing a distinct voice in my head: "Bloom where you're planted." I was puzzled as to why this thought kept coming to me. In the fall, I made my Cursillo and during the communal penance service, on the way back to my seat after my confession I once again heard that annoying mantra: "Bloom where you're planted." This time I pushed back: "I can't bloom where I'm planted.Lord. I HATE where I'm planted!"The response was immediate and surprising: "Then, plant yourself where you can bloom!" I had never thought about leaving town. The job search led to a dual position as director of religious education and liturgy in a parish where I was a total stranger.

Over the years since those events, my progress in ministry has been more event-driven, but I learned to see the workings of God in occurrences that forced me to change or grow. I have been recently much more aware that recent requests for me to write and teach are part of the Spirit's plan for use of those charisms. (I have always shared my singing in parish and diocesan settings, because I have known for a long time that since I was born on St. Cecilia's day, the gift of my voice was God's plan and needed to be shared for God's glory and the good of his people, not to elevate me.)

Looking back, I now know that the voice I heard was that of the Spirit, because these events were clearly connected with my vocation to use my charisms to serve others. Called & Gifted made that very clear to me. As to writing and teaching, the C & G experience changed things for me in ways I never expected. I now have a greater clarity about why I have been given these gifts - and as to why, of late, writing and teaching opportunities have come to me without me looking for them. I also find a great renewal of energy to write and teach.  The Spirit gave these charisms and the Spirit continues to lead me in using them to build up the Church.

I pray that others whose charisms have not been activated may come to understand where the Spirit is directing them. The Holy Spirit is indeed "the giver of life" - a life filled with abundance of joy in using one's charisms to serve.

Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost: Celebrating Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

One of my great disappointments is that we give the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost so little enthusiasm these days. I honestly believe it's because we have allowed the school year and secular calendar to take over the liturgical year.

First Communions, Confirmations, graduations, and this year, Memorial Day all draw attention from these important moments in the church year, which means in most parishes, the Easter Season ends not with the forward momentum of being sent out, commissioned as a body of disciples sent for mission and evangelization, but with a sigh of relief and the turning of attention to the summer vacation season. Even our sacramental celebrations have the flavor of graduations.

For many of our people, this weekend, whether they come to Mass or not, signals the time to take a vacation from Mass until school starts in the fall, or, if their children's sacraments are completed, perhaps even a permanent vacation, with the perceived blessing of an added day to sleep in and enjoy family time.

How do we let this keep happening year after year?  I believe it happens because people in ministry are simply too tired and busy to maintain the joyous movement the Easter Season requires. The joy of the Gloria and the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil no longer energizes us. We implore the Spirit on Pentecost to send us fire, but too often, we are already burnt-out wicks.

The school-year model of church, which requires obedience to the rhythm of American culture, has us seeing not new life in spring, but a prelude to the "end."  In the fall, when the calendar year and liturgical year are "dying", we gear up, start new programs, coast on that momentum into the frenetic Christmas holidays, take a deep breath in January and dive in again for another few months, by which time, most of us are simply looking forward to the end of our programs and the blessed relief of the summer slow-down.

What would the American church look like if we were not dominated by the tyranny of the school year model?  If we obeyed the natural movement of the liturgical year?

Our new initiatives would begin in Advent, and carry forth the joy of the Incarnation into the months preceding Lent. The 5 weeks of Lent would be our "lull" and the Resurrection in Easter Season, our focal point. When summer Ordinary Time arrived, it would be our signal to concentrate on gathering and building up the Church as a community, hearing the Word and going forth to do it, instead of going our separate ways. We would evangelize and invite, begin meeting with inquirers to see if they truly want to join us.  In the fall, we would rest a bit, count the "harvest" of our summer labors, accept people into the catechumenate and begin again in earnest, fueled for mission by reconnecting with the Incarnate Christ at Advent/Christmas.

This model would support the intent of the RCIA process and keep the community together all through the year.  Yeah, I have a dream.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Vine, the Branches and the Eucharist

The kids in my Confirmation class were confirmed earlier today in two celebrations at my parish. (We had 115 of them, so it was necessary to split the group.) In class on Wednesday, my 22 kids and I talked at length about the image of Jesus as the vine and us as the branches, which, it happens, is the Gospel reading for this weekend. The discussion went in a direction I had not anticipated, but actually, it was the right direction. Here are a few highlights...
  • If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches on that vine, he is the only reason we thrive and bear fruit. 
  • If we are cut off (or cut ourselves off) from the vine, we will become dead branches - and there will be no fruit.
  • Jesus, the true vine, nourishes his people through his sacrifice. He offers this connection if we become his friends, which we become by doing what he asks of us.
  • We never do this alone - we are all connected - all Catholics in the parish, the diocese and around the world.
  • Initiation into full membership in the community through Baptism and Confirmation grafts us onto the vine and makes us a part of it.
  • The faith community (all the branches together) gathers each weekend to be nourished by the Eucharist, which is the chief way that the vine nourishes us
  • Therefore, going to weekend Mass, being nourished by the Word and receiving Eucharist on a regular basis, is the most important thing we can do to maintain our identity as branches on the vine. 
What I hope they took away from Wednesday's session and today's experience is a sense that they belong to Jesus Christ and to his community, the Body of Christ.  The beautiful image of the vine and branches is an organic one - the relationship is the most natural thing in the world. The branches take their very identity from the vine to which they are attached and rooted to the earth. We, too, take our identity from Jesus -and all that we do should reflect our connection to him.