Friday, September 11, 2015

The Stability of Ritual: When Your World is Chaos,Turn to the Mass

In Thursday night's Late Show interview with Stephen Colbert, Vice President Joe Biden, speaking about the role of his Catholic faith in dealing with the loss of his son, said this about the Mass, the Rosary and the comfort he derives from the regular practice of his faith:

“Some of it relates to ritual, some if relates to just comfort and what you’ve done your whole life.”

Bingo. When your whole world is sliding into emotional chaos, the familiar ritual of the Mass can be an island of calm - an anchor in a stormy sea. While Biden might not be able to name why this is so, he knows it in his heart.

I first discovered this truth while attending Mass each week during my RCIA experience, I quickly grew to love the ritual words and actions. I felt I had come "home." For an hour, I could leave my cares behind and enter into a time outside of time. It simply felt "right." Later, I stumbled into the Sunday morning choir Mass one day after my husband had asked for a divorce and received solace not only from fellow choir members, but from participating in the familiar postures, gestures, words and song of the Mass. There was definitely something healing in that experience  for me that day.

In other times of loss or transition through the years, I have similarly found relief in the Mass, most notably six years ago, when the man I loved died suddenly. For the first few months, I remember fighting tears often as song lyrics and Mass prayers caused me emotional turmoil, but I also remember a strong sense of the Mass as a trustworthy anchor in which I felt the presence of God.

The human need for ritual has been well-documented by anthropologists - and more recently, scientists. It's so strong, that even those who don't attend church tend to gravitate toward activities that involve ritual elements (such as sports) or to create "new traditions."

Yet the Mass, as divine ritual, is so much more than mere human rituals. Imbued with the very person of Jesus Christ, present in the gathered people, the person of the priest, the Word and the Eucharist, the Mass joins us to all times, places and believers, including those in Heaven. In remembering Jesus's Paschal Mystery, we discover its power among us today, and taste its future glory. We hear the words of the one who was, is and always will be the Word. We dine at the Eucharistic banquet along with angels, saints and holy ones gathered at the heavenly banquet.

The Mass is quite simply the Ritual of Rituals. It is the summit, the highest form of solemn ceremony, because its roots are in the words and actions of Jesus and his Apostles. So, when Joe Biden says he found "comfort" in the ritual elements of his faith, it's nothing to sneeze at. The spiritual consolations we receive from the Mass are real and important. They are certainly not the only reason we go to Mass, but they may be, in part, what gets people to repeat their participation.

Joe Biden, like many Catholics, rediscovers his center at the Mass, even while suffering the deep grief of a parent who has lost a child. “I go to Mass, and I’m able to be just alone, even in a crowd,”he said. While this is possibly not fully articulated, he appears to be trying to express the holiness and peace he finds, even while part of the gathered assembly. We are one with God, at the same time we are one with each other. In that, we find our deepest selves.

The Mass affords us all an opportunity to experience the dependable love of God, which like the ritual through which it is expressed, is unchanging. May all Catholics who struggle, like Joe Biden, find their peace and hope in the power of the Mass.

Colbert Opens the Door - Joe Biden Walks Right In: A Catholic Evangelization Moment on National TV

Last night, Stephen Colbert (who is not at all shy about his Catholic faith) conducted an extraordinary interview of Vice President Joe Biden - and Biden, in simple, heartfelt sincerity, shared how his Catholic faith, going to Mass and saying the Rosary, have been instrumental in his emotional survival of the death of his son Beau. It was one of the best Catholic moments on TV.
After some initial small talk, Colbert skillfully navigates the conversation to faith, knowing full well he is speaking to a faithful Catholic man. At this point, the tone of the interview takes on a quality of deep sincerity, as Biden begins by expressing humility and a sense that he is not the only worthy example. After describing briefly the role of his faith, Biden concludes: "So many of the good things of my life have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion."   Watch it here:

The second half of the interview turns to the role of the Vice President, but again back to navigating the landscape of loss...  the underlying message, however, is a strong testimony to Biden's character, to family, and indirectly, to faith.

All I can say is that this is very powerful stuff, even when sprinkled with the obligatory late-night jokes. These two talked about things that matter last night.

I find myself deeply affected. I hope that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will provide us with many more such moments where the beauty and value of Catholic faith are lifted up in a positive light. Colbert sits in a position to deliver the message in a unique and powerful way, laced with his trademark humor and fully engaging the world.  This could be one of the most significant Catholic evangelization platforms ever.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On the Air

It's been a while since I posted in this space. But don't think I have spent the summer relaxing. That would so not be "me." Actually, I've been busy. Really, really busy.

Yesterday, I was privileged to participate in a stimulating, high-energy interview with my friend and colleague Jonathan Sullivan on liturgical catechesis, in which we spoke of many things, including the importance of how catechists go about encouraging families to participate in the liturgy. You can view it here (Warning: I do tend to "get going.")

This comes at the end of a summer that also included preparing for a national webinar for Liturgy Training Publications on getting families to Mass, and completing a book and teacher's guide for children, grades 3-6 on the Mass. (publication date TBA)

Combine that with a busy summer at work and the usual gearing up at the beginning of the catechetical year, which starts in mid July and will continue until October, I hope you can see why blogging has taken a back seat to other projects. More in this space as I find time and inspiration...

Friday, July 31, 2015

Cherchez le Jesuit! Minions of St.Ignatius and Me

I like to say that many of my major spiritual and vocational shifts have had some kind of connection to something Jesuit.

A four-year cohort experience with Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension -  an unplanned invitation to a retreat with a brilliant Jesuit priest, an imaginative Ignatian meditation on scripture that knocked me out of my mental boat, a period of discernment (using Ignatian tools) that led eventually to seeking a ministry position out of town - yes, there was all that.

More recently, there has been the challenging influence of that continually fascinating Jesuit Pope...

In the past several years, there has been the invitation from Loyola Press to write first for their (now-defunct) DRE Connect blog, and more recently for Joe Paprocki's popular Catechist's Journey, all of which I truly believe has been part of the Holy Spirit's plan for me to use my charism of writing.

For a long time, it has been my conviction that St. Ignatius has somehow chosen me - indeed pursued me, on God's behalf. He has been, as near as I can tell, my appointed hound of heaven.

My personal vision of church is also very Ignatian - I am not hard-wired to be one to sit on the sidelines, but want to be practical, working and acting on behalf of Christ. In this Jesuit joke I would be with the Jesuits:
The Benedictans, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits were having a big meeting that went well into the middle of the night. Suddenly all the lights went out in the meeting room. The Benedictans immediately started chanting Psalms glorifying God, the Franciscans took out their guitars and sang songs praising all creation, and the Dominicans began preaching about the metaphysics of light and darkness; meanwhile the Jesuits went to the basement, found the fuse box, and reset the breaker.                                                                                                      (Fr. Felix Just, SJ)
So today, on St. Ignatius's feast day, I want to join my fellow Ignatian Minions and say, "Hail Iggy! Bring it on!   A.M.D.G.

Monday, July 20, 2015

OK, Young Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Please Help Us Understand You

I've pretty much been watching the recent blog thread on how the Church should embrace the gifts of younger leaders from millennials Jonathan Sullivan, Timothy O'Malley and Colleen Reiss Vermuelen from the sidelines. This has been a bit challenging to us older folks - especially those of us who were unaware we were being perceived as suspicious or non-accepting.

Certainly I agree we need to value each other's gifts - that's a given. Each person who dedicates their life and gifts to service in ministry feels a distinct call to do so, which should of course be honored. As to us letting you show you what you can do - I'm somewhat less enamored. To me, that sounds like a need to prove something, rather than simply to engage in the hard work of doing the will of God in each situation in a collaborative manner and growing organically to become a respected leader in ministry.

Believe me, acceptance was just as difficult for many of us when we started out, even for those of us who began ministry in mid-life. In the late 1980's when I started, even though I had an ecclesial degree, I had to "prove" to people of my parish that I could be the liturgy coordinator. They had never seen a lay woman who was not a religious sister in ministry. (My pastor finally had to tell people from the pulpit: "In matters of the Liturgy, Joyce speaks for me.") Later, it took me almost four years to prove to some people in the parish where I became the DRE and director of liturgy that I was not one of those "uppity" women who wanted to be ordained! More recently, though I have always been a writer, I was not "recognized" on a non-local level until about a year ago. So, don't feel picked on. This is not all about generational differences. It's actually more about being "new" to the ministerial community and possibly about the impatience of youth. (ducking!)

Here is my challenge to younger leaders. Indeed, let us learn from you - but not just about the operational points of ministry. I know for a fact you have great ideas. Instead, sit with us in the circle of community. Let us learn from you how God is calling people into lay ministry today. You have a different story to tell - and it is a necessary one to an understanding of the story of the Church in the USA. We older folks DO have a need for you to tell us about yourselves. We honestly don't know - and that's why some may have a hard time accepting you. Sherry Weddell has said the first threshold is trust. It's hard to trust someone whose experience appears to be very different.

Let me explain. Maybe I'm not the norm, but my (very) slight degree of disconnect with younger people in ministry is my lack of a frame of reference for their vocation. Pretty much every middle-aged and older catechetical leader I know tells a similar story: none of us actually planned to do this with our lives. Rather, God called many of us, from something else, through a series of situations. Those with ecclesial degrees, mostly went "back to school."  In other words, it's often been a case of giving up another agenda in favor of service to the Church.

A popular meme of many in the older generation of ministers is "This was not my plan, but apparently it was God's idea all along."  Often, there is a great deal of Paschal Mystery involved - dying to old priorities and rising to new - widowhood, divorce, unexpected request from a pastor at the departure of a previous leader.That's why local, diocesan-sponsored lay ministry formation programs, local university cohorts and online learning are needed for those who did not or could not become qualified by traditional academic experience as young people.

What I most want to hear from this new generation of leaders who chose to go to college and major in theology, catechetics, liturgy or something else ecclesial  early in life, is how does it feel to choose this intentionally as a young person?  How is this, for your generation, a divine calling, and not simply a "career choice?" I am certainly not at all suggesting it is not a divine call. I just want to know how this works when God calls a young person. I want to hear the Christ-centered theological reflections that help me understand how this is as real for you as a divine call as it is for me -and how a young person's ecclesial vocation is part of an ongoing path of conversion. (And no, you don't need to prove your authenticity - just tell me how it works!)

In my experience, some people in the "older generation," especially those with a background as school teachers who took this path as career choice early in life, have (how do I put this nicely?) an institutional bias, and may, in their later years, have developed a "staleness" and a tendency to cling to old models.  In contrast, many who have felt a strong mid-life conversion-based call to catechetical ministry are more open to new models and methods, if the impetus for these seems to be coming from the Holy Spirit. This is because, through their response to their call to the vocation of catechesis, they have been opened up to God.  Yes, these are all generalizations, but this, in some way, reflects my experience. I so want it not to be true for this new generation.

So, please tell me. How does an early vocation work? Did you grow up admiring other catechetical leaders or theologians and want to emulate them? Or, did you, too, start out doing something else and then God "yanked" you into this? When did you know this was what you wanted to do? Was all of this pretty organic? Where does the vocation of a young person come from, if not through the changes and demands of Paschal Mystery?  Help us "old folks"out.  Many of us have been sharing stories of our convoluted paths to ministry for years. This has been an important part of what the first generations of post-Vatican II lay leaders have brought to the conversation.

Millennial leaders: it's time for you to update the community story. Help us to know how you fit in. We bring the history and context, you bring the energy and the current landscape of ministry - and what is possibly a different way of living ministerial vocation. Help us discover together the continuity in the ongoing story that is the Church. Please don't just demand to be accepted and allowed to show us what you can do. In most cases we have already seen that - and it's more than impressive.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hindsight is Always 20/20: The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Over the past week since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, there have been many opinions posted by Catholic bloggers, some of the more-challenging ones are about why our own people are not convinced of the Church's teaching on marriage.  (Just look at the number of Catholics who have changed their Facebook profile pictures this week to include a rainbow in support of the Supreme Court ruling.)

I have been particularly in agreement with two writers who focus directly on the general failure of catechesis and evangelization in the U.S. - and on what must, from now forward, change. These echo my own column in Ministry and Liturgy magazine's January, 2015 issue, where I opined on the state of catechesis in the US today (available by subscription.) It also echoes much of what Sherry Weddell has said in her best-selling book, Forming Intentional Disciples. Far from being mere hand-wringing, this is necessary self-reflection on what needs to change and why.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the catechetical office of the Diocese of Springfield, IL, wrote this scathing nugget of truth:
If I'm going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction. 
What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.  [bold is original]
Anger is an entirely appropriate response. The Church has only itself to blame. We are experiencing the fruits (or lack thereof) of what I like to call "the tyranny of low expectations" in catechesis.

In a similar vein, Patheos blogger Jennifer Fitz writes of  the necessity of discipling people one at a time to form mature Catholics - and how parishes have, instead, become virtual assembly lines:
What we have instead is cafeteria-model Catholicism.  The soul-food service line consists of weekly Mass and a series of classes for designated life moments, intended to prepare us for the sacraments.  If you’ll just start where it says “enter” and followed the roped-off course, you’ll end up with something like the Catholic faith on your tray by the time you get to check-out.
...The assembly-line mentality is so deeply engrained [sic] in Catholic thinking that whenever an evangelization or discipleship problem is discussed among parish professionals, it’s guaranteed that at least one person will propose a better assembly line.  Parents presenting their children for baptism don’t know the faith?  Make them go to more classes! Longer classes! Start them sooner!  Have them fill out attendance forms!
I'm not going to pull punches here. The "blame," if any, belongs to the bishops - and the clergy in general. When a new liturgical rite is promulgated, dioceses form their clergy with workshops. They did it for the revised Rite of Christian Funerals, and for the revised Roman Missal.

In contrast, when a catechetical document is released, there is no universal expectation that the clergy even read it, much less study it or take it to heart. The General Directory for Catechesis, the National Directory for Catechesis, both of which devote much space to new understandings of evangelization and the centrality of Jesus Christ in catechesis, had virtually no study days, and few clergy resources. The USCCB document on the primacy of adult faith formation, "Our Hearts Were Burning," was ignored by most clergy and parishes, who continue to pour resources into children's programming instead of refocusing on adults who would then be better equipped to form young people.

Compounding the situation, as enrollment numbers and Mass attendance (and consequently parish collections) have declined, many parishes are responding by hiring part-time, non-degreed parish leaders to run catechetical programs  - not just in my own diocese, but, from what I hear from other diocesan leaders, across the country. The practice is more and more to hire internally, to elevate an experienced catechist or even worse, to assign a parish secretary, to the task of organizing and running children's catechesis. When they meet with our office at the beginning of their first year and we talk about the needs to refocus catechesis and sacrament preparation, evangelize parents and form catechists to be disciples and witnesses, we often hear "But, Father never said anything about all of that!"

At a time when we most need qualified, well-supported leaders to redesign parish catechesis to include the entire community, to evangelize whole families and to build teams to spread a culture of discipleship to permeate all of parish life, many parishes are instead settling for the minimum. If the status quo continues and the pastor receives few complaints, the situation is deemed acceptable. Meanwhile, well-meaning and sincere, but under-qualified leaders are over-worked, underpaid and often have little support. In short, parishes often give the least amount of attention to the area that is sorely in need of the most.

Back in January, I wrote (in Ministry and Liturgy) of this situation:
This is deep Paschal Mystery for the Church. Change will only come through God’s power to bring new life from the worst of situations. But first, we need trust, courage and to let go.  
What needs to go? Clinging to old catechetical methods. Using books and blackboards to teach children who learn everything else using technology. Catechesis on doctrine with little relation to liturgy, community, or to real life. Sending kids home to families who neither pray nor attend Mass. Failure to foster conversion and to help people rely on the sacramental life of the Church for their well-being. Failure to invite people of all ages to personal encounter with Christ.
Our own people discount our teaching because they do not know and love the Lord. They have no relationship with the Father that would motivate them to obey God's laws out of love. We only have ourselves to blame for spending decades teaching about the institution's teachings, at the cost of bringing people to discipleship in Jesus Christ. Nowhere to go from here, really, except up. 

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.