Sunday, May 22, 2016

It's Simple: If Parents Want Kids to Be Catholics, THEY Need to be Catholics!

Marc Cardonarella boils it down to its essence: kids are disengaged and leave the Church after Confirmation because many parents are doing it wrong. Expecting the local parish religious education program to turn their kids into lifelong Catholics in one hour a week (or a Catholic school to do it when the parents don't practice the faith at home) is futile.

In his new book,  Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making it Stick, Cardonarella, a parent and religious educator who himself was missing from the Church between Confirmation and late young adulthood, lays it on the line for parents:  "Your actions are an education for your children. How you live your life will significantly influence who and what  they become. So, if you want them to be religious, you need to be religious yourself."  This is the heart of what we need to say to parents.

Cardonarella doesn't stop with saying it. He leads the reader through a process of self-evaluation of relationship with God, prayer life, liturgical life - and more - and lays out a plan for parents to learn and grow in the faith.

His analysis of how typical catechesis is failing to engage young people, based on the wisdom of Cardinal Newman, hits at the heart of how that, too, needs to change. In Chapter 3, he notes:
Teaching that come solely from a textbook creates a merely notional assent, passive involvement, and a distanced and indifferent religion. Thus, students' lives are never touched by the real and personal. They remain unchanged by their religion because the religion they experience is bland, weak and unspectacular....Human persons are moved to action not by intellectual abstractions, but by personal influence and powerful example, as well as by engaging their imagines with the concrete realities of life. When we interact with others personally, we open ourselves to deep encounter and change. Without that engagement and interaction, Catholicism is just a bunch of words and listless actions. To some, it will be logical, reasonable, even interesting, but will remain just one theory among many. Faith itself becomes notional - abstract and distant - rather than real.
 So, beyond laying out a path for parents, he challenges religious educators to reconsider how they are delivering the faith.  Recently he presented a webinar on just that topic:

Keep Your Kids Catholic is a real page-turner, filled with stories, personal witness and a concrete plan for change. It is must-read for parents, but also for religious educators.  Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy at no charge in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sacrosanctum Concilium: The Renewal of the Liturgy has a Long Way to Go

Last night, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Timothy O'Malley of the University of Notre Dame Center for Liturgy speak on "The Work of Our Redemption: A Liturgical Theology of Sacrosanctum Concilium" wherein he noted that this Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was aimed not so much at "reform" but "renewal" of the liturgy.

He noted two important things in particular about that infamous "full, conscious and active participation" mentioned in SC that I will have to spend more time with: that the combined voices of the people at Mass are the voice of Christ, lifting up the prayer of the Mass to the Father and that the people are there to offer their lives, along with Christ, to the Father with the sacrifice of the Mass - to become a sacrifice of "self-giving love," as O'Malley emphasizes in his book.

Certainly, neither concept is new to me. However, in reflection on what I heard last night, I am even more convinced that these are two areas in which we have almost completely failed  in typical parish catechesis. Many of our young people leave behind  practice of the Mass after Confirmation (current stats are that only 22% of young adults regularly attend). Why? They think Mass is boring and repetitive. They don't see the point in going. This is not just true of young people, but of many in previous generations as well. Even those in the pews tell me that they really don't fully understand the role of the Assembly (the people in the pews) at Mass.

Most parish catechesis does a reasonably benign job of helping people understand the missional actions of love which Christ calls us to - those works of mercy expressed so well in the words of St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
What's missing from this equation?  Christ has no voice but yours - no voice to lift his sacrifice of praise to the Father. We don't teach people that their voice, in word and song at Mass, is integral to their identity as members of the Body of Christ.  Why else would people attend Mass passively, not singing or responding, only mimicking the postures and gestures of everyone else in the room? (Yes, I see that - as a cantor, facing the people. I see parents not participating and kids beside them, learning by example not to participate.)

Parish leaders and catechists think that preparation for lifelong participation in the Mass is complete after they prepare someone for their First Eucharist. We have, often, a congregation of people who have not progressed a whole lot in their level of appreciation or participation beyond a second-grade level. They sit, stand and kneel on cue, and most at least stumble through the Creed and say the "Our Father" but may do little else. Why?  Because they have never seen their "job description" for full participation in the Mass. This needs to change. Want to look at that "job description?" This might help.

That second point, offering their lives to God at the Mass, is key, but it, too, has gotten little attention. When I tell people about paragraph 901 in the Catechism, it is often the first time they have heard that when the bread and wine are offered on the altar, they are to offer their lives:
 "Hence the laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvellously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit - indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born - all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. and so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives."  (CCC 901)
That consecration of the world is the real goal of the work of the people that is the liturgy. Growing in holiness themselves through participation in the sacrifice and taking it beyond the church doors to sanctify the world through their actions of self-giving love - none of that happens if they are simply sleepwalking through the Mass.  We have work to do!

If you have been reading this blog or know the book project I just completed with Liturgy TraininPublications, you know it has long been a passion of mine to help people understand their role in the Mass. What I heard last night confirmed that this is crucially important work - something all church leaders need to be about. If we continue to fail to help people see why the Mass is important to them - and they are important to the Mass, we will continue to see a decline in the Church. The time to wake up to the need for good liturgical catechesis at all age levels in parishes is now. The very life of the Church depends on it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Special Community: All Are Welcome to Celebrate in Their Own Way

Yesterday, in my role as diocesan contact for disabilities, I had the privilege of joining one of our local parishes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of their special needs religious education program and the first communion of three young people in the program. Rarely have I felt such a sense that everyone at a Mass belonged to a large and diverse family, all united by one goal - the love of special children. This unity of purpose certainly permeated the celebration of the liturgy.

The opening procession was a delightfully messy affair that included all the children in the program and their parents. Some kids walked in on their own, others with the help of a parent's guiding hands firmly on their shoulders. Some even wore noise-canceling headphones because of their sensitivity to noise.

As the choir and the rest of the assembly sang the opening "Song of the Body of Christ" the children and young adults shuffled, marched and were gently prodded into place in the pews. "We come as your people. We come as your own, United with each other, love finds a home." Indeed.

The pastor preceded his formal greeting with a shout of joy.  "Whoo-eee!  Fifty years! That's a long time!" What followed was a beautiful, sincere celebration.  The liturgy was simple and heartfelt and those who took roles in the ministries of the Mass were competent, or assisted in whatever ways they needed to be competent. There was no hesitation. These are people who do this often, and they do it well.

The altar server performed his duties reverently and admirably. The first reader signed as the interpreter read.  Those who read intercessions did so with little prompting or need for assistance. The petite young woman with Down Syndrome who served as an Extraordinary Ministry of the Eucharist was competent and confident.

Everything was interpreted in sign language for the benefit of the deaf, who sat in a special section. There were only a few children who shouted out or got away from their parents.  On the contrary - all of them knew exactly what to do at Mass. (In fact, most were better behaved and more engaged in the Mass than typical children their age!) The three who received their First Communion had obviously been well-prepared.

Special young people indeed. These live with Down Syndrome, Autism and many other varieties of disability, but there was no lack of ability to celebrate the liturgy. Those who could sing did. The deaf signed their responses.  Applause, when called for, was expressed by waving their hands in the air.  "Alleluia" was two index fingers crooked and twirled in the air. At the end of the Mass, all the young people gathered in the sanctuary to offer their own praise by joining in gestures to an upbeat version of "How Great Thou Art"

Through it all, there were the parents. From the moment they firmly guided their children into church, it was clear that not only did they love these kids and want them to be a part of the community of faith, but that they shared their lives of  joy and challenges with this community. There was a sense of purpose and solidarity. None of these families have an easy life, but it was not hard to believe that dealing with their challenges together has made them stronger. This is a beautiful community with staying power. Yesterday, they brought all that to the altar and offered their thanks and praise to the God who sustains them, It could not have been more powerful.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Joy: Committing to Positive Social Media for 50 Days

Lots of people have noted with sadness the decidedly negative turn that American politics has taken - and the accompanying flurry of negative posts on social media. (I even know one person who has taken an account down in reaction to the craziness.)   Of course, negativity on social media is nothing new... and yes, I've done it.

Yesterday was Easter Day - for Catholics, the beginning of 50 days of celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating with Pentecost, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit and, by tradition, the founding of the Church. We are called to be "alleluia people" who sustain the joy of Easter for at least that 50 days.

So, what if...

What if people committed to 50 days of positive posts on social media? What if we refused to share negative humor or posts that mock people?  That doesn't mean we stop sharing news of concern, but that we make a commitment to being positive in every way we can.  What do you say?  Can we try this?  I'm going to. Who knows? It might just become a good habit.

Use the hashtag #Easterjoy if you wish.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"A fire... never dimmed by the sharing of its light ": The Evangelizing Message of the Exsultet

At the Easter Vigil, we begin by blessing the paschal candle, from which are lit the candles of all the people. As soon the paschal candle is lifted into its place of honor and incensed, the deacon (priest, or if necessary, cantor) begins to chant what is arguably the most important text of the entire church year: the Exsultet.

This is the great hymn announcing the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought into the present moment by the insistent repetition of "This is the night..." It is also a celebration of all of salvation history and the meaning of the paschal candle itself, which, while made of beeswax,"the work of the bees," is the very light of the risen Christ.

The Exsultet connects the sin of Adam with the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and this "night when Christ broke the prison bars of death, and rose victorious from the underworld."   It is the "truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wedded to earth and divine to the human."

As each person in the assembly holds his or her small, flickering candle, lit from the paschal candle, we hear of the "fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by the sharing of its light."  Finally, the paschal candle itself is offered to God, to "mingle with the lights of heaven."

So, what do we hear in the Exsultet?  The message and meaning of the kerygma, pure and simple. The Exsultet is a full review of the significance and circumstances of Christ's coming, of the way it was foreshadowed in the history of his Jewish ancestors, and of his redemptive work in saving us from the "truly necessary sin of Adam."

We come to know, through this mighty song, the essential meaning of the Paschal Mystery. We receive an exhortation to unite ourselves with that mystery, knowing that whenever we share the light of Christ with others, that light is multiplied, not diminished. Even as the paschal candle itself is shared and offered as an oblation (offering) to God, so, each believer's light should be shared and offered.

The takeaway? Our very sharing of the story and message of Jesus Christ (evangelization) is an offering to God and a necessary consequence of God's mercy in sending his Son to save us from sin and death.

So this year, don't be distracted by the lengthy chant. Listen to the message. It is an exhortation for you to discover that: "Dazzling is the night for me and full of gladness."  "Exult" indeed, then go out to spread the Good News.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

From Mass to Mission: Accessible Liturgical Catechesis for All Ages

How well do most Catholics participate in the Mass?  I have often commented in this space that as a cantor, facing the people, I frequently see the bored, passive expressions of the externally (and maybe internally) disengaged. However, Bishop Robert Barron has named an even bigger problem: 70% of our people around the world (75% in the US) do not even attend Mass!  He calls that a "spiritual disaster." How can we fix this? We need better tools.

As I have mentioned before in this space, I was privileged to be asked to write the children's portion of the new project from Liturgy Training Publications, From Mass to Mission: Understanding the Mass and its Significance for Our Christian Life.  Created for use in parish catechesis, this series  is an answer to the common issue that catechesis and liturgy are not sufficiently connected in parish life.  More than that, it is a resource that can involve the entire community in learning about and growing in their appreciation of the Mass.

From Mass to Mission from Liturgy Training Publications on Vimeo.

The USCCB put it succinctly in the National Directory for Catechesis: “in the Church’s mission of evangelization, catechesis and Liturgy are intimately connected” (§ 33)  Unfortunately, that has not often been true. Catechetical textbooks barely scratch the surface of the liturgy. Parishes simply tell families with children to bring them to Mass. Catechetical sessions for first communicants provide a brief overview of the Mass, maybe the parish leader or catechist hands parents a children's picture missal, and then expects parents to fill in the blanks.  After that, people are mostly on their own for the rest of their lives to figure out the meaning of the liturgy and of their personal participation, with very little catechesis.  Is it any wonder that older kids often tell us Mass is "boring" and that by the time they can make a choice, the majority of our people do not attend Mass regularly?

Filling a much-needed gap in updated materials since the 2011 revision of the Roman Missal, From Mass to Mission provides a vehicle for parish communities to make the explicit connection between the Mass and full, conscious and active participation, both internal and external. Too often people know when to stand, sit, kneel and say responses, but have never been instructed about the internal spiritual participation of the assembly at Mass. Participants learn to bring their own Mass intention, to offer themselves to be transformed with the bread and wine, and to make a personal spiritual connection to the Eucharist that informs their prayer and actions in daily life.

Each level consists of a participant's book and a leader's guide, accompanied by a CD-Rom containing additional handouts and activities and  6 video segments depicting what we do at Mass. punctuated by clips from interviews with clergy, catechetical leaders. liturgical leaders, children, teens and adults.

When I was invited into this project last spring, I was asked to write a 36-page resource on the Mass for kids, grades 3-6 - to be part of a series that would also include teens and adults. However, it is my conviction that children's participation and attendance at Mass are inseparable from family practice and the level of understanding of their catechists. At my urging, LTP allowed me to expand the original vision for this from a 36-page classroom-based resource to a longer one that includes preparation and reflection for the adult catechist, family activities and reflections, and two models for an intergenerational introduction of the resource to parents and children together.

There are 5 chapters, but really this is six sessions, due to the length of the section on Liturgy of the Eucharist.  There are six videos, set up to accommodate that split.

Now, that I have seen the finished product of the children's level, I can't tell you how impressed I am with what LTP did with this. The photos and illustrations are great, the accompanying videos are outstanding. The CD-Rom contains letters for parents, handouts, quizzes, a PowerPoint game for identifying seasons of the liturgical year (probably best for the older children) and the video segments.

And, though I have not seen the adult or teen levels yet, I have been told that the adult level even has an all-day retreat option built in, using all 6 videos. That sounds great!

From Mass to Mission goes far beyond existing resources on the Mass insofar as it engages the learners in age-appropriate ways beyond mere presentation of the information.

Lest you think I am giving this series a thumbs up because I will personally benefit, this was a contacted project, and I will actually not profit from royalties. I am promoting From Mass to Mission because I believe strongly in it and its potential as a way to encourage people to attend Mass because they actually understand it, feel spiritually involved, and really want to be part of their community's worship. My dream is that this helps people to know what they bring to the Mass and what the experience of the Mass has to offer them.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cantor's Diary: Never Assume...

Well, tonight was the vigil Mass for Palm Sunday - and it began with one of those memorable liturgy failures

You need to understand three things about my parish; 1.) when I came to this parish almost 14 years ago, the liturgy was celebrated well, 2.) there have been a lot of changes of personnel and abilities over the years and 3.) and I am only a volunteer. (In two prior parishes, I was director of liturgy.)  

I was scheduled to be the cantor so I arrived a little earlier than usual. The first thing I noticed was that a number of older people who had entered by doors other than the center rear one did not see and pick up palms from the table in back of church, so I went back and passed a few around.  The kids who were there for Confirmation service hours were hanging around the table, but not being very diligent about making sure palms were distributed.

The next thing I noticed was there was no priest in sight at 2 minutes past the time Mass was to begin. OK, that meant it was probably our associate pastor, who tends to run a little late. Sure enough, he appeared at the ambo 3 minutes past starting time and announced that people should go get palms. (We're already on that one, Father!)

Then, he goes to the back and after some short delay, he comes out gives me the "high sign" to start and forms up the opening procession. Wrong. I pointed toward the back, because I don't get to start on Palm Sunday, the presider does. Nothing. Not a glimmer. No book.  I dutifully greeted the people and asked them to stand. Still nothing. No book. The ministers in the back made motions for me to start.

I was a bit at a loss by now, and it was pretty obvious that we were not going to hear the preliminary gospel reading before the blessing of the palms, but knowing that the palms needed to be blessed, I finally hit on a creative choice. I  then asked "Please face the back and Father will now bless the palms." Still nothing. Then, finally, a faint hint of understanding appeared to dawn on Father and he picked up the aspersorium and with the altar server began to walk up and down the aisle to sprinkle the palms as if it were a sprinkling rite.

I looked across at my music director and we mutually decided there was nothing to be done but to start the opening song  (Psalm 122: "The Road to Jerusalem", with Palm Sunday verses.). When the presider and the server got halfway up the center aisle, it finally dawned on the lector with the Book of the Gospels and the other ministers in the back of the procession that they should probably come along too.  "I rejoiced when I heard them say we will go to the house of the Lord" - I think!

And so it began...  After Mass, I approached Father and explained that I did not know what to do at the beginning - and that I had expected him to begin with the reading and blessing, which he could find in the book. He grinned sheepishly and said, "Yes, it's in the book."  (Repeat after me, "I am only a volunteer. I am only a volunteer...")

Never. Assume. Never assume the priest has actually looked at the order of the liturgy ahead of time. Never assume the priest does not need help.