Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Revised Roman Missal: Who Will Explain this to the Children?

In the flurry to set up catechetical materials to help adults understand and accept the new translation of texts of the Mass, there is nothing yet available for children and youth, nor, when I asked publishers about it, are there any plans in place yet to provide them. The assumption is, apparently, that we work with the adults and they, in turn, get to the kids. However, I personally believe that catechesis of adults is going to be a long process and that kids will just be confused if no one talks or teaches directly about this on their level. After all - how many 3rd-6th graders do you know who understand "consubstantial" and "incarnate" or who won't wonder whose roof God wants to be under, or why?

Catechists and Catholic school teachers may mean well, but my experience in working directly with average catechists/teachers while facilitating online courses on liturgy and sacraments has been that for most of them, their own understanding of the current liturgy is rather weak. To expect them, and parents who may only marginally be connected to church to instruct children in an age-appropriate manner without good materials is not going to work.  If these materials are not now in production by publishers, their availability in time for next school year, when such instruction should really begin, is in doubt.

After all, we have taught children the current texts in good faith as they prepared for First Eucharist - if they actively attend Mass, these words are a part of them, just as they are a part of adults.  Even if their families only occasionally participate in the liturgy, these words would be familiar. We owe them age-appropriate explanations for why their responses and the priest's words are changing - for why the words to familiar musical settings are changing, or those settings having to be replaced  entirely with new music.

Dioceses should now be mounting massive campaigns not only to catechize leadership and the general adult population, but to instruct catechists and parents about how to form their children for the changes to the Mass - and to prepare or assemble age-appropriate materials to be used with children and youth.  That will be one of my personal goals for our diocesan office. If there is no path, I feel strongly I will just have to make one!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Pope on Blogging the Faith - WWJD?

With TV news commentators smiling this morning at the Pope's Message for the 44th World Communications Day asking priests to use blogs, I cannot help but admire Benedict's progressive and sensible contention that priests, especially, should respond to the challenge to spread the Gospel by using the "new media" as tools for evangelization. He urged priests to go beyond a simple presence on the web to a more active presence, blogging and posting videos, to engage and bring the message of Christ to those who are now getting their primary communication from these media, especially young people.

"Thanks to the new communications media, the Lord can walk the streets of our cities and, stopping before the threshold of our homes and our hearts, say once more: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20)."

But this message must be alive and made real to be effective: "God’s loving care for all people in Christ must be expressed in the digital world not simply as an artifact from the past, or a learned theory, but as something concrete, present and engaging. Our pastoral presence in that world must thus serve to show our contemporaries, especially the many people in our day who experience uncertainty and confusion, that God is near; that in Christ we all belong to one another.” says the Pope.

So, in response to this, will our pastors all be running out to create their own blogs?  Will we soon hear homilies in which they refer to something mentioned in a comment to one of their posts? Hmm - if Jesus were on earth today would he have blogged? Would you follow a blog called "In My Father's House"?  Would a YouTube video of the Sermon on the Mount go viral?  Have to wonder!

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Explosive Prophetic Corporate Prayer" - Evangelizing Liturgy

Just back from a routine medical test, and while I waited, I happened to pick up a local independent weekly newspaper and notice an ad in the church section. "Explosive prophetic corporate prayer" proclaimed the small headline, and gave an address for a church in Chicago. Whoa! Now that must be some worship service! (Check out that particular church's web page.)

I am not sure I have ever participated in a Catholic Mass that could fit that description - and I have been to some lively, faith-filled celebrations, such as Cursillo closing Masses and youth Masses where it seemed like we raised the roof with our enthusiasm. But, when you think about it, isn't that 4-word description what we are to be about at Mass?  Well, it IS prayer, but what about those powerful adjectives?

Explosive - something that combusts nearly instantaneously. Are we ready for that? If we don't want to burn,  why do we sing "Send Down the Fire" and "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love"?  If we really experienced that at Mass, would we not "explode" into the world at the dismissal, on fire with the mission to spread the Gospel?  What would it take to make us that bold?

Prophetic - are we not, by definition, partakers in the role of Christ as prophet? (see CCC 904-907) This not only speaks to our mission to evangelize the world and to call it to accountability - but to our call to speak out, when grounded in competence, to leaders of the church (yes - it's in there - read paragraph 907)  On both counts - what would it take to make us that bold?

Corporate - we proclaim that we are One Body in Christ - but operationally speaking, are we? Do we truly have solidarity with all Christ's people no matter who they are? Or are many Catholics perhaps complacent, parochial and individualistic?  How do we get people to park their egos not only at the door, but to lay them aside when they go forth to live the mission of the Church?  What would it take to make us that bold?

Well, perusing the website of the church that inspired this post, I am not sure they do much better - so is this just so much good advertising? Or is it a description of what should be happening for all Christians each Sunday? Food for thought.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Eucharist and Justice: How the Cry of the Poor Affects our Worship

This weekend, around the nation, parishes are being encouraged to take up collections for the disaster victims in Haiti, and no doubt, people will be generous, even in these uncertain economic times. It is also an opportunity to strengthen people's understanding of the connection between Eucharist and the extreme suffering and poverty of people in poor areas of the world. In  Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict calls Eucharist the Sacrament of Charity and "Food of Truth and Human Need." He underlines the connection between Eucharist and social justice for the poor of the world:

"We cannot remain passive before certain processes of globalization which not infrequently increase the gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. We must denounce those who squander the earth's riches, provoking inequalities that cry out to heaven (cf. Jas 5:4). For example, it is impossible to remain silent before the "distressing images of huge camps throughout the world of displaced persons and refugees, who are living in makeshift conditions in order to escape a worse fate, yet are still in dire need. Are these human beings not our brothers and sisters? Do their children not come into the world with the same legitimate expectations of happiness as other children? The Lord Jesus, the bread of eternal life, spurs us to be mindful of the situations of extreme poverty in which a great part of humanity still lives: these are situations for which human beings bear a clear and disquieting responsibility... The food of truth demands that we denounce inhumane situations in which people starve to death because of injustice and exploitation, and it gives us renewed strength and courage to work tirelessly in the service of the civilization of love. From the beginning, Christians were concerned to share their goods (cf. Acts 4:32) and to help the poor (cf. Rom 15:26). "(90)

One could hope that homilists around the country, and indeed the world, will use the opportunity created by people's natural sympathy and horror resulting from this disaster to show the reality of Benedict's wisdom and connect it to the social teaching of the Church.

"The mystery of the Eucharist inspires and impels us to work courageously within our world to bring about that renewal of relationships which has its inexhaustible source in God's gift. The prayer which we repeat at every Mass: "Give us this day our daily bread," obliges us to do everything possible, in cooperation with international, state and private institutions, to end or at least reduce the scandal of hunger and malnutrition afflicting so many millions of people in our world, especially in developing countries." (91)

As we receive Eucharist, may we do so in solidarity with those who suffer in Haiti, especially the 80% of Haitians who are Catholic and will be longing for Eucharist themselves. Since so many priests were  killed and churches destroyed, celebrations of the Mass will, no doubt be few - even if they could find bread and wine. What they need is our help, our prayers, and our solidarity - ongoing - which, as the suffering poor,  they should have had all along.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Liturgical Catechesis: Taking the Pulse of What the Average Catechist Understands about Liturgy

As I begin another cycle of facilitation of University of Dayton online courses, I have been dismayed that in the Sacraments course only half the students even mentioned liturgy when answering a question on their own memorable experiences of the "liturgical life of the Church." Instead, half referred to their catechetical ministry, to service experiences, or other elements of parish life. They seemed to evade the question of liturgical experience altogether and focused instead on the general life of the Church.

What was it about the word "liturgical" that made it so easy to ignore? Did they perhaps find it disconcerting?Is the term "liturgy" no longer common coinage for people who are not directly involved in parish liturgical ministry?  In the opening discussion board, a question on "liturgy as the work of the people" has revealed that initially most of them understand that to be the work of liturgical ministers - readers, musicians, altar servers, etc...and it has taken some coaxing to get them to talk about the "work" of the Assembly - the people in the pews.
And these are people who are forming children in religious education and Catholic schools and are teaching them about liturgy! The sad thing is that I am not sure this is not a pretty average sampling. Of even greater concern is the reality that very little liturgical catechesis of adults takes place in most parishes. The average parish director or coordinator is poorly equipped to deliver this kind of formation. It was not part of their own formation - and the fullest forms of liturgical catechesis are not normally a part of parish programs.

While faith formation textbooks for children or youth certainly have chapters on liturgical seasons and the meaning of the Mass, there is little available for the catechist to guide students through the unpacking of the actual experience of liturgy. Since parish catechists normally do not have the opportunity to take children or youth to Mass, this leaves them to wring their hands about families who do not take children to weekend Mass. (I have watched that discussion surface a number of times in the online courses.) Even Catholic school teachers, who do take kids to Mass, often focus on discussion of Mass etiquette and participation of children as ministers at Mass - not on the primary ministry of the Assembly in the pews - the work of all the people. Catechists, parents, and others still seem to understand that role as that of a mildly participational audience rather than part of the primary ministers of the Mass.

Liturgical catechesis at its heart is experiential, rooted in the actual celebration of a ritual or experience of a symbol  - and based in mystagogy - the consideration and discussion of what was experienced and what it means in the lives of participants. Our best diocesan workshops for parish leadership on the topic over the past few years have provided such experiences. My concern is whether the participants understand how to move from their experience at a workshop to actual practice when they go home. 

While there are a few good resources out there to assist leaders and catechists to conduct liturgical catechesis for families, my sense is that these are not being widely used. Textbook publishers need to provide such resources as part of programs - perhaps even embedded int he grade-level texts - so that good liturgical catechesis -good mystagogy - becomes normal in catechesis of children, youth - and adults - and not the occasional exception.

Failing that, this is a call to parish leaders to not let textbook publishers design their parish programs.  The text is merely a tool, part of the program. The program of catechesis in the parish needs to be created to fit the needs and culture of the parish, and when there is something lacking, should go beyond a "canned" published program. More than that - since the General Directory for Catechesis names the catechist as the primary resource for catechesis, this is clearly a call for better liturgical formation of catechists.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

NINE - Pop Culture Meets a Catholic Sensibility

OK, I have to do it. Normally I would not do a movie review, but since I have not seen a decent Cathololic review of the film "NINE", I offer some thoughts, because I found beneath its glitzy veneer of slick burlesque production numbers, a thoroughly Catholic sensibility, with something profound to say about the human condition and the search for meaning.  If you look past the glamour, this is actually a moving story of sin and redemption - of a tormented genius fighting to regain his art and his very soul, as well as a celebration of the joys and sorrows of life and therefore, it deserves analysis. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

Certainly, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), who grew up Catholic in early 20th century Italy, is a hardened sinner - he engages in frequent (non-graphically portrayed) adultery and can't keep his mind off of women to whom he is not married, but somehow they all pale in comparison to his obsession with his mother, played by Sophia Loren, who is a serene, reassuring Madonna-like presence, (inevitably wearing a cross necklace and a beaming smile among a sea of lit candles) who never really left his life when she died. It seems he is looking, in all the other women, underneath the sexual desire, for someone who will soothe his soul as she did - and his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) - when she is willing to do it, serves in the same capacity. It is Luisa who he phones for help when he cannot pull together the many conflicting threads of his current film project.

Although the Church is portrayed in the movie in a less-than flattering light there is no doubt that Guido considers himself Catholic.  One priest in a cardinal's entourage frankly admits that while the Church condemns Guido's movies, all the priests secretly love them, and that the cardinal would appreciate an autographed photo of Guido's sexy star Claudia (Nicole Kidman). There is also an unpleasant flashback to Guido as a child being beaten by a monsignor/headmaster at his school for consorting on the beach with a prostitute (Fergie) However, despite the hypocrisy and the unpleasant memories Guido's faith is so much a part of him that he can't shake it off.

Before he prepares to make love to his mistress (Penelope Cruz) he removes the crucifix from over the bed - a comical indication that he believes Jesus might be watching.  He seeks out the visiting cardinal to consult about his troubled life, but in a scene in a hot-tub when that cardinal responds to his cry of despairing confusion with platitudes about virtue instead of meaningful conversation, Guido sinks beneath the water, remembering the episode that led to the childhood beating. It is as if he is immersed in the very baptismal waters of what it meant to grow up Catholic in that time and place, and for him, those memories are not pleasant.

When Guido's life finally falls apart, even his star, Claudia, who has tried honestly to confront him with his reality, abandons him, he shuts down production and basically engages in what amounts to a 2-year penitential retreat, walking around Rome, leading a lonely, celibate, thoughtful life. His shaking off of the fast-paced sex-obsessed lifestyle and return to his original, more sincere artistry as a film-maker (probably what attracted people to his earlier, more successful movies) is a sign that he has engaged in a process of reconciliation. While it would have been more interesting to see Guido walking into a church rather than just pacing the streets, it is clear that his upbringing has led him back to his real self, and that he has found the relationship between virture and good creativity in his art.

Ultimately, Guido's love for his wife triumphs over all his other relationships - in the closing sequence, friends and lovers quietly take a literal place in the background of his life, and the film ends on a hopeful note of some kind of possible reconciliation. As his wife drifts into the rear of studio, she sees Guido, raised aloft with the cameraman ready to direct his new film, with his own child-self seated in his lap, and she smiles ... and if that isn't a moment of redemption, I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Baptism of the Lord - Jesus's "Job Description" - and Ours

If God asked you today to participate in a "performance evaluation" of whether you are fulfilling your baptismal call, how would you measure up?  This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord - an opportunity to reflecta again on the meaning of our own baptism as we listen again to the familiar gospel reading from the 3rd chapter of Luke about John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, in which we hear the voice of God saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 

Notice that the first reading (first choice) from Isaiah fleshes this sentiment out even more fully: 
"Thus says the LORD: Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.  I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness." (Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7)

This seems, in fact, to be in fact a "job description" for the one God is sending. The elements of this job description are clear: to bring forth justice, teach all over the world, be a sign of the covenant, be light to the nations and to the blind, free prisoners, and do all of this quietly, faithfully, inevitably, without shouting on street corners. Notice that the form of address in the Isaiah text changes in mid-stream - from proclamation to the world of who the chosen one is, to addressing the chosen one directly, calling him to the fullness of his mission.

And, when we were baptized into Christ Jesus' life and death, it became our mission too. So it is that the quiet heroes often are the ones who are raised up by the Church as saints and holy ones. St. Therese of Lisieux with her "Little Way", St. Damian of Molokai, who worked to free the lepers from their darkness and suffering, Mother Theresa, who picked up the sick and dying from the gutters, and many others whose lives were quiet, faithful, but other-centered.

For the rest of us, we participate in the mission when we evangelize by word or deed in the midst of our daily lives. We participate when we work for justice, teach others about faith, and offer our hand to help lead someone out of a dark place. For most of us, it is a lifelong effort to live up to this calling, but it is a worthy effort, because it asks of us that we give our best in service of others - even at the cost of self  (Paragraph 75 of the RCIA names that as one of the attributes of the kind of disciple the process is aiming to create.)

So, this weekend, as you hear the readings, listen - really listen - and then ask yourself how you would measure up if you were asked for a performance evaluation. Maybe it's as simple as the Ignatian examen: ask yourself when you have cooperated with God, and when you have failed... and resolve, with God's help, to do better.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Domestic Religious Art – Gateway to Mystery or Kitsch?

In the previous post, I noted Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists, in which he requests that Christian artists go beyond functionality: “…you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.” My question in this post is whether the visual art we are exposed to on a regular basis accomplishes that.

Catholic homes have long been filled with objects intended to remind the home’s occupants of the truth and beauty of the faith. While sometimes these can be quite beautiful when well-chosen, but quite often they fall into the realm of cliché or Catholic kitsch – inexpensive plastic statues, overly sentimental images of Jesus, the Blessed Mother or the saints, piously rolling their eyes toward heaven. I have a collection of vintage religious objects that includes seashell religious diorama TV lamps, a molded plastic light-up altar (with monstrance) that plays Ave Maria, and more. As I mentioned previously, I have the proverbial plastic Jesus for my dashboard (pictured.) These objects make me smile, they give me a warm feeling about the period of time they are associated with, but they never illuminate anything about mystery.

It is not just vintage items that participate in this kind of mass-merchandising version of the faith. Open any current religious goods catalog and browse through pages of plastic and resin statues, crucifixes, plaques, candleholders, magnets, visor clips, framed art and note cubes with images and “inspirational” quotes – you will find little of mystery and only very occasionally beauty. Mostly what you see is merely marketable cuteness or an unimaginative literalness, of which John Buscemi, in his article in the current issue of Today’s Liturgy says “being too literal in our images constrains the imagination rather than freeing it.” When was the last time you saw a wall crucifix that actually pulled you into the heart of Paschal Mystery?

However, some quality domestic art not only delights the eye but teaches in a memorable way. I’d like to share in this space a few glimpses of an artist not very well known here in America. A friend gifted me a while back with a set of vintage children’s religious prints of the Beatitudes by a Belgian illustration artist named Jean Gouppy, popular in Europe in the mid-20th Century. I was entranced by the bright clear colors and obvious charm of the art. While these might possibly be seen by some as the 1950’s equivalent of Precious Moments, there something sincere, simple and luminous about these prints and other art by Gouppy that I have since collected.

These images speak of a simpler time. Gouppy, whose images decorated countless posters and holy cards depicting sacraments, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, Christmas scenes and the everyday life of a Catholic child, depicted a time when priests carried the monstrance in the street and children dropped to their knees reverently as it passed.

Gouppy’s wonderful image of St. Nicholas, journeying with a donkey full of toys, accompanied by one of the small cherubs in pajamas that always appear in Gouppy’s pictures, bespeaks a saint filled with reverence toward the Christ Child he celebrates as he carries out his act of charity. Here, at least, is a gateway into an unsentimental view of the saint. The toys, donkey and angel are sweetly rounded and charming. The saintly Bishop Nicholas is not. His obvious holiness as he leans into his journey speaks of strength and resolve.

This is not great art, but it is good art. It speaks of the holy - not loudly, but in a quiet whisper. Art in our homes would do well to speak this softly of mystery, hope, piety, holiness and joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Work of the Artist - Incarnating Beauty and Truth

On this feast of the Epiphany, I am taking an opportunity to begin an exploration the role of art and the artist in expressing the beauty and truth of faith and its relationship to how that expression enhances or impedes catechesis. Translating abstract truths into a reality that can be perceived through sight or sound, when done well, creates not only a sense of delight, but expresses something about the grace of God. It is a form of incarnating reality which can reveal, in beauty, an epiphany of perceptible truth. 

 All of us can no doubt think of examples of art which is bathed in a sense of divine mystery. One of my favorites is the sensuous and enthralling Bernini St. Theresa, at left.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, relates the artistry of God in the incarnation of Christ to what the human  painter, sculptor, architect, musician, poet, dancer, dramatist and film-maker does:

This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.

This short but well-crafted letter is well worth the read.  He goes on briefly to explore the relation between art and the expression of mystery and the history of art in the church. He also says:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

The Pope concludes with an appeal to artists and craftspersons to rediscover the nobility of art and to go beyond the mundane to the genuine expression of spiritual truth:

I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.

Bringing the two mysteries together - God and man. This is what the Incarnation of Jesus did - and it was revealed to the world in the Epiphany. Good Christian art expresses mystery. At its worst, functional becomes pure kitsch - the plastic Jesus which I have on my dashboard is the classic example (although my friends often find it not only amusing, but an intriguing object that reveals something about the nature of the driver.) While I admit I have a personal weakness for religious kitsch (see photo - a treasure from my extensive collection) I also recognize that domestic art that is done well does express the beauty of spiritual truth.  More about that in upcoming posts.