Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Work of the Holy Spirit

This morning, our parish celebrated the Confirmation of 88 young people, along with the First Communion of another 20 children. All but 3 of the confirmandi were Hispanic, as were all but one of the first communicants.  As our pastor mentioned in his homily at Mass tonight, our parish (founded as St. John's German Catholic Church) is changing. The Mass was bilingual, as are all our major liturgies.

It was a gloriously messy morning --mildly controlled chaos-- when I came in, 45 minutes before, to set up and plug in my guitar and prepare to be cantor with the bilingual choir, the place was noisily full of families, some taking photos, others checking on various things. Professional photographers and a videographer were set up. First the first communicants lined up for a group photo, then the confirmandi. Finally, at about the time the Mass was scheduled, they were finished enough to go outside and line up for the procession. The procession started about 5 minutes after the hour, and was, understandably, quite long.

There was pretty good participation in the sung parts of the Mass, and the celebration, much of it alternated in English or Spanish as usual at my parish, was a nice balance of dignity and joy. For two hours, we sustained an atmosphere that indicated clearly how seriously everyone took this, at the same time, we conveyed a sense of liveliness and celebration, at the same time, there was the constant undercurrent of noise - the tumbling water of the font, the hum of the air conditioner, and the murmuring of the babes in arms and toddlers.

The kids came forward to be confirmed as today's kids today can - some girls were in sparkly satin and sequins, some in discreet white lace. Some dresses were short and trendy, off the shoulder, and many of the girls sported clear plastic bra straps.  Others were more modest. Hair was done with care, some with masses of curls, some twisted into elaborate patterns. Boys wore suits, or nice shirt and pants, although one guy made his fashion statement in an obviously freshly ironed plaid shirt and very clean "pants on the ground". All were dressed to show that this day was important, each in their own way, sporting a homemade red felt stole with their saint's name. All were simply being themselves in one way or another, according to their individual preferences.  They came forward with their sponsors to meet the Bishop and to receive the sacrament.

The interaction between Bishop and each one to be confirmed was wonderful to watch - he greeted each young person, and asked them something, engaging with them momentarily before the anointing, blessing and handshake. This was hearty and genuine for each person.  This is what made the morning. It was clear that Bishop was at his pastoral best, showing each youth welcome, kindness and a sense that he cared about them. Their smiles as they turned to walk back to their seat told all.  Clearly the Holy Spirit was in the room... and this day will leave a mark of some kind on all these young people who reaffirmed the promise of their baptism.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Winding down the Catechetical Year

This is the time of year in diocesan catechetical ministry when things begin to slow down - and the time to pick up all the little loose ends of things that have been set aside because of more pressing priorities.  It is time to finalize details of events for next year's calendar, to review safe environment training reports, and more. 

It is also time to reflect on the ministry. In the last year, I have had many opportunities to make a difference... even though at the time, it might not have seemed that was what was happening!  In an office with limited staffing, it can seem like there are so many tasks each day that I can never hope to catch up.

I look back and the moments I remember most are those in which I made contact with people who were trying to work out particular issues: the young mother who was ready, a bit belatedly, to put her 4th grade  son in religious education and needed to hear whether the options she was being offered made sense; the man who had recently felt the call to help start adult faith formation in his small rural parish, the harried DRE who needed advice on how to prepare a baptized, uncatechized older student for First Communion.  These and many other moments were ones when it was clear that I was fulfilling my mission - the reason I am in diocesan ministry - to be the human face of the Church - to help people navigate the "system", to make their lives easier by matching them to the strategies, resources and people that can help.

I find that when I can help at least one person every day, the other, less-pleasant tasks are more bearable.  It is those moments, when the phone rings, and like Jesus, who met people along the road as he was on the way to somewhere else, and stopped to listen to what they need, I listen and try to help that person put the pieces together, that makes it all worth it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Letting Go of our Stuff... Materialism, Priorities, Memory and more...

This weekend I have been helping my mother with her moving sale - a garage full of docoratives, craft items,  a quilter's "stash" and some very nice and rather expensive small items..  and, surprising to me, a number of "As Seen on TV" items... all of which are now going for very low prices.  She is "downsizing" - moving from a full-sized multi-level house to a smaller one-level duplex. At 76, she is slowing down and gradually losing mobility, and wanted to do this while she could make choices for herself.

Carried off by some happy buyers for next to nothing, this morning went my mom's 1960's Americana punch bowl - last used at my wedding 36 years ago.  My grandmothers's food mill, which she used to make homemade applesauce, sits here, un-purchased  most likely destined for the Salvation Army with the unsold.   I know they are only things... and things I do not have room for, but they also are invested with memories.  Still, I choose to let them go, knowing it will only be a matter of time before I, too, will be considering de-cluttering my own life.

Stuff can sometimes take on a life of its own... witness the weekly hit TV series "Hoarders".  When the things we own begin to control us instead of us controlling them, we have to deal with the consequences of buying too many things simply because we can. Why do we do that?  Sometimes we actually buy because we need something.  But sometimes, we buy because we are bored. Sometimes when we are lonely or upset. And... sometimes we buy to fill some perceived need, which does not actually exist,  which some Madison Avenue advertiser has created through skillful promotion. I suspect there are as many reasons to buy something we do not actually need as there are people.

Part of the difficulty in parting with things, if you watch shows like "Hoarders" or "Clean House", comes when we become too emotionally invested in them.  If an object is associated with a cherished memory (especially of someone who has died) or if we are somehow afraid that we will miss an opportunity to use an item if we get rid of it - it becomes problematic.  Attachment to material items is as old as humanity  - however, the scale on which it now exists in affluent first-world countries is no doubt unprecedented.  In the United States, it has reached the status of corporate sin, as well as individual.  The video "The Story of Stuff"  illustrates this well, showing how our addiction to "stuff" leads to harmful effects on the environment, on workers, and more.

So, what to do? (Maybe try a reverse prayer to St. Anthony to help us "lose" our stuff?)  For me, this signals a call to re-priotize.  Not sure how long this will take, but at least I am thinking about it... and that's a start.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why are you standing there looking at the sky? A call to active contemplation.

Our parish celebrated the 11:30 Mass for the Ascension yesterday with the baptism of an infant and a 3-year-old (cousins) - immersion baptisms with the whole community gathered around the font to welcome them. Embracing one another in love, baptizing in the name of the Trinity - these are important actions and appropriate affirmations of everything that Christ left us to do when he ascended to the Father.

As the children were dressed after the baptisms and the altar was prepared for Eucharist, we sang  "God is Here"  by David Haas, which is rapidly becoming a parish favorite. A great evocation of the presence of God in all that we are, have and do, one of the song's  lines is "the truth that you long for is not found in the sky" - which made it perfect for the Ascension. 

Why do so many people still stand there "looking at the sky" - hoping for help from a God who is "up there" "at a distance" remotely watching over us? This very typical American understanding makes it possible for people to live their lives independently, only remembering to praise God on Sundays or consult God when they feel a particular need.  It also makes it possible to feel that God is a lurker, watching their every move, lying in wait to "catch" them in sin.  Neither understanding is particularly helpful.

When we believe and look for in an immanent God, present in all things, as did St. Ignatius, our outlook on life is different - counter-cultural. Everything we do every day is filled with the presence of God through the Spirit. Ignatian spirituality is a very healthy one - the Spiritual Exercises, Examen and other tools for discerning our daily decisions and their effectiveness in doing God's will for us are a way to unite our daily actions with our spirituality. Ignatius, man of contemplative action, is a great model, and for me a very sympathetic one for modern life. 

When we continue to act without reflection, we run the risk of losing our  sense of God's plan for us and become more and more distant from who God wants us to be. With the help of daily reflection on the actions of our life, we are less likely to think of God as distant, and more likely to proclaim that "God is here." If you are not familiar with Jesuit spirituality, I suggest you check out the resources at .

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Let Us Pray: New E-Resource on Teaching the New Roman Missal

In the days to come, as the implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal gets closer, many dioceses are planning workshops for leadership on the changes. However, good materials to use on the parish level to help liturgical ministers, leaders, catechists and people in the pews will be needed.  I just purchased a downloadable e-resource that has a lot of potential for parishes looking for an inexpensive alternative to more expensive parish kits for implementation.

Let Us Pray: Teaching About the New Roman Missal in Your Parish by Leisa Anslinger and Bill Huebsch, with Fr. Jan Schmidt, is a creative e-resource available as a download at  for a mere $9.64.  The kit includes several complete plans for parish presentations, complete with prayer services, scripts and handouts. 

The kit includes:

  • A customizable newsletter-format handout "Changes in the Words We Play at Mass" with explanations and the old and new assembly texts side by side. This would be a great resource to send home with every family so that people can have the new texts with them for their own reflection and to get familiar with them.
  • A 15-minute explanation - a short prayer service and session general information on the changes - adaptable for all ages - including tips for catechists on helping children understand the new wording
  • The 45-Minute Parish Meeting - a longer session for a general audience of adults, with options for sharing and discussion
  • The 90-minute Full Review with Liturgical Catechesis - a deeper process of learning and reflection which makes use of three of the Growing Faith handouts - designed to be used with liturgy committees, liturgical ministers, etc.
No videos, no PowerPoints, no bells and whistles, one simple reproducible handout on the texts instead of a sheaf of costly individual brochures - this is a simple, easy-to-use, solid resource for information and opportunities for reflection and discussion. It looks like it will be a great way to help people on the parish level understand the changes and the reasons behind them.  Leisa and Bill have come through again, providing  something not only useful, but economical and easy to use.  Take a look.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Homily as performance art

This weekend, my parish had a guest celebrant, another Franciscan who is a friend of my pastor - who also happens to be a virtuoso preacher. Johnpaul Cafiero, well-known as a preacher of missions also happens to be a Wizard of Oz afficionado. He is also gifted with a dramatic flair for storytelling.  The homily, complete with an appropriate prop, did not fail to re-energize the assembly at both Masses I attended this weekend (one as a cantor, the other as a choir member) to Easter joy.

He stood in the center front of church and told a story, a bit long and a little complex, from memory, with little variation between the two homilies - about a disabled child with a terminal illness, a teacher, and an assignment to fill plastic Easter eggs with Easter symbols. Of course, the boy with disabilities shows up the next day with an empty egg, but, rather than indicating his lack of understanding of the assignment, he knows exactly why it is empty - because Jesus' tomb was empty too. 

Although I am sure I have heard this story in some form before, Father's delivery, complete with pulling a large blue plastic egg out of his habit sleeve pocket at the appropriate point, kept it fresh.  He told the story as if he had known its characters intimately.  His conclusion, the 19 empty plastic eggs on the boy's casket, was moving - and his tie-in to  the scripture on God's love and how we are called to share it made what could have been seen as trite relevant.

Now, I have heard other, less-gifted dramatically preachers re-tell a story of this caliber - often they get these off the internet.  However, the way this was packaged - with sympathy, pathos and humor - and delivered - by heart and from the heart, not read from a paper, made a difference. It seemed more real and genuine than when most homilists use a story to make a point in a more formal way, even when they are sincere.

What did I take away from this experience? That story is important. That all who preach are not equally gifted. That an entertaining homily can drive a message home.  That it is important to be in touch with and use one's God-given gifts.  When the preacher genuinely has the gift of drama, it does not seem inappropriate...  and 3 days later, other people who were at my parish Masses this weekend are probably also remembering or re-telling the story... and its message.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shrine to The Pursuit of Happiness: Reflections on Las Vegas Experience

I have been home for a week, and in that time, have been thinking about my week in Las Vegas, where the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership annual conference was held. I had gone, a little reluctantly, because I do not personally care for gambling, but very quickly found myself seduced by the atmosphere of a place which one of our presenters admitted frankly has, as its primary reason for existence, experience. Las Vegas is centered around gambling, glitz and entertainment - I certainly knew that - but what amazed me most was how centered it is on consumerism.

Never in one place have I ever seen more opportunities to spend money on stuff.  And not just your everyday stuff.  Every international design house has at least one store, and some, multiple locations - Dior, Chanel, Versace, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Cartier... the list goes on. Every major retailer whose ads grace the pages of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and other fashion magazines is represented.   The next tier down is there too: Diesel, Juicy Couture and others abound.  When one goes to the shopping malls on the Strip in Vegas, there are so many high-end retailers, that for us ordinary folks with moderate incomes, it is a real press-the-nose-up-against-the-window experience. This is obviously one of the places the jet-set, high-rollers, or whatever we call them, shop. 

So, what to make of a place that exists primarily for fun, entertainment and various ways to part a fool and his money?  It seems clear that the Las Vegas Strip is there as a national shrine, and that many people travel there to "worship" at the altar of everything America now sees as proper to the Pursuit of Happiness:  fun, experiences, and spending on consumer goods.

Vegas is the ultimate experience of fun - free outdoor venues, numerous shows, concerts, gambling and more. Big-name celebrities were the headliners: Cher, Donny and Marie Osmond... There are myriad sight-seeing opportunities, both in and nearby.  Golf courses, resorts, and a newly opened thrill-jumping opportunity (similar to bungie-jumping) offer opportunities for the outdoor types and the more-daring. Indoors, there are live panoramas and robotic shows, lavish interiors and panoramas of Paris streets, classical Rome, the Conservatory botanical garden display in the Bellagio (outdoors they have the famous synchronized fountains...) art galleries, and shopping, shopping, shopping.

In short, Las Vegas offers together in one place the most, the biggest, the brightest, and the best experiences money can buy. Coming back, I joked to friends that "everything seems so much smaller than life" after Vegas. I recognize the seduction. Las Vegas is really the Pursuit of Happiness gone mega-watt huge. Nothing else can compare. No wonder the lady in the seat next to us on the way out was going there on her 7th trip, clutching her Cher ticket, and sorting through a lap-full of discount offers. She was on her way to break the monotony of her daily life by worshiping at the shrine.