Thursday, July 29, 2010

Online Community - Connecting With People of Faith

Over the past 15 months, since I joined Facebook, I have had a very positive experience of community.  Using it for a combination of ministry and personal connection, I have connected more deeply with people I already know, reconnected to a "long-lost" relative, stayed in touch with people I only see infrequently, maintained connection with a few people from my past, and met some very interesting people I didn't know before. Most are Catholic, some are not. It's been an interesting experiment - and one that has been a good fit for me.

I have had the opportunity to see what interests people, to support and join with others in praying for them in times of challenge, to debate politics and immigration issues, to play a social game (Farmville) with them, and to have a quick, reliable way to reach people through the messaging interface when I don't have an email address handy.  It has, in many ways, "greased the social wheels" of ministry. When I see colleagues in person with whom I have a regular online connection, there is a deeper quality to the relationship - the beginnings a friendship (admittedly a superficial one) - that gives us a more easy basis for working together.

I also have met a few people through social gaming that I have no other connection with. Some have turned out to be Catholics, others represent other faiths, including Buddhism and Islam. Some have no overt religious connections. A few have gone beyond the level of just being fellow gamers to the level of casual acquaintance.  It's been good to get to know them. To play the games, they must also see all my other posts, including the overtly Catholic ones. No one has complained yet.. and it has allowed the ones who are Catholic or sometimes even other Christians, to react and comment.

At the same time, for the past two years I have facilitated online courses for University of Dayton Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation. Although the learning groups are temporary - lasting 5 weeks for a regular course, 3 weeks for a seminar. In this case, normally, I am connecting with strangers. This summer, having an experience of facilitating a seminar composed of catechetical leaders and catechists from within our diocese, I am having the interesting opportunity to connect on a higher level with people I already know.  In observing the sharing on the message boards about deep-level faith questions (in this case, about their understanding of the Eucharist and its call to service) I have new respect and admiration - a window into the faith journey of people with whom I have had varying degrees of connection, from casual to good friendship.

As to other social media, I recently joined  Twitter and have found even more people to connect with, although Twitter provides a much more limited sense of connection. It serves more as a communication tool and source of news and information to direct me to blog posts or to find other people on Facebook.

Reading Catholic blogs has also enabled me to gain insights into other people and share opinions about faith, the Church, and other issues. The blogosphere is an intriguing place - certainly opinions about liturgy, the hierarchy, and other hot issues vary widely.  I read and comment on blogs representing a variety of "theologies" - even those with which I disagree, because I find it helpful to hear what others are saying.

All these experiences underline for me the gift that social media can be for forming community. I know, at any time, I am not alone in what I do. I can go to my computer and find people, share what interests me - links to videos, blog posts and information of all kinds, read the wry comments of some of my wittier friends, see what's up with those who walk daily with illness or whose elderly parents are doing that, catch up on what's what in the Church and the world, and in general, have an engaging window on what is happening in some other lives. As a single person living alone, I find it not just useful, but a kind of lifeline - social media lets me know I am never alone. There are other faith-filled people out there and I am glad to connect and support them and grateful for their support of me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is Spanish Mass More Exciting? Perceptions from Inside the Community

Ran into interesting statistics today from the Pew Forum on how Hispanics see the typical Catholic Mass in the US. In a 2007 report, 61% of those who have left the church for evangelical denominations say that they do not find the Mass exciting enough, although only 36%  of that group say that was the primary reason for leaving the Church.  In another survey of the general population of Hispanics from 2006, 56% of all Hispanics, including Catholics and non-Catholics alike say the Mass IS exciting. In that same poll, 31% said it is not exciting.  While these statistics are not totally conclusive, it shows that somewhere around a third of Hispanics perceive Mass in the US as somewhat less than exciting - and apparently, among those who leave, twice as many have that perception.

This is interesting, because frankly, my limited experience of Spanish Masses is that it is normally more exciting than the typical English Mass.  There is frequent hand-clapping during the songs and a sense of hearty and total participation at my parish.  While I sometimes see that level of participation at English Mass, it is definitely more sedate!  What I would really like to see is a poll of those who attend English Mass for comparison. (Anybody know of any such statistics?)

It also explains, if there is a sense of dissatisfaction by that many Hispanics with the Mass, why some parishes also have some kind of Spanish charismatic para-liturgical prayer event. Our Tuesday-Night Prayer Group, featuring inspirational speakers and music, apparently speaks to that gap for some Hispanics. it draws Hispanics from all around the area, beyond our parish.  A few parishes in other areas of our diocese also have such gatherings.

Since there are few parallel substitutions in the English-speaking community, one has to wonder where those who perceive English Mass as not exciting, but keep coming to Mass anyhow, do in order to feel fed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

philosophy: New Age Skincare for the Spiritual, but not Religious

Ever since the first time I saw a bottle of "amazing grace" facial cleanser on the bathroom counter at my mother's house when I visited, I have had an uncomfortable relationship with the products from philosphy, an upscale cosmetics company whose products all seem to promise more than just nice skin. In fact, they seem to promise love, grace, hope, and even miracles, in most cases for a substantial pricetag.  The marketing is brilliantly aimed at those who are "spiritual, but not religious."

Each scented product comes with a "philosphy" - a New Age, vaguely poetic and often spiritual inspiration (always, like the product names, in lower case only) that somehow thoughts associated with using this product will create a larger sense of well-being.  With fragrance names like "eternal grace," "amazing grace," "inner grace," "pure grace", "be somebody", "unconditional love", and their anti-aging line: "hope in a jar," "when hope is not enough" and "miracle worker,"each product comes with a script and an air of promise.  

"inner grace", for example, claims to be "...a still, quiet voice that connects us to places that live inside our hearts and places beyond this galaxy and the next. to live in inner grace is to be embraced by the deepest, sweetest peace you will ever know."  All the texts use spirituality "buzz-words"  such as "stillness", "well-being", ":embrace", "soothe," "transcend," "connect" and more. References to long walks, yoga, and other forms of self-care are interspersed with a persuasive rhetoric promising wonderful things and spiritual fulfillment.

Here is some of the company's own rhetoric about itself:

philosophy's promise is to bring its customers products that inspire them to live a better life by being better to themselves. our products care for your skin and your overall well-being.  what makes philosophy unique:

•we take a mind, body, spirit approach to personal care and believe only when you feel good can you truly look your best.

•our products are formulated with scientifically-proven ingredients and technologies

what is "in" philosophy jars and bottles can give you better skin. what is "on" philosophy jars and bottles can inspire better days. we believe in miracles, and we believe in the beauty in everyone.

So, are you unhappy? these products give you self-help ideas to remedy that.  Done something you don't feel so good about?  How about some "purity made simple" with its invitation to recover innocence?  Think these are not trying to be spiritual?  Take a look at the first half of the text found on "unconditional love": 

"the divine journey the the highest and best parts of who you are and why you are here begins with the experience of being loved unconditionally...."

I have a sense that lonely, unfulfilled women searching for something to fill the "God-shaped hole" in their lives are being targeted and seduced into purchasing expensive products. The marketing is not subtle. The texts are aimed to pull at the heartstrings of those seeking fulfillment.

If you tune into the QVC shopping channel with any regularity, there is an entire culture of seduction built around the Philosophy segments.  These products, when on special,sell quickly as thousands of women, hungry for the promised luxury, peace and well-being offered by these products, snap them up by phone or internet ordering.  Some products are so popular women purchase them in huge containers, and have them automatically replenished several times a year.  Obviously, at $40-$80 per item, money is no object in the search for true inspiration!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Long, Dog Dayz of Summer

No, dear readers, I haven't fallen off the edge of the world. It's just a combination of the hot weather (which I do not handle well) long days at work, and the begining of facilitating two online courses... it all adds up to a sense of hammock-days laziness as my brain shifts into low gear. Multi-tasking all day on many high-priority projects has a way of draining me to the point where playing Farmville is an exhausting pursuit!

As I personally value my own reading time on other blogs, I would not waste your time on low-quality but high-quantity posts. More when I have a breath of inspiration in these lazy hazy days of summer. In the mean time, enjoy a little seasonal heat on me from the queen of all things Cole Porter...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Summer We Spent Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

There has been a peculiar atmosphere in the Church this summer, as we wait for the expected finalization of the new translation of the Roman Missal - it has rather been like the proverbial "waiting for the other shoe to drop", as they say.  The "final" approved version of the newly re-translated Missal was handed to Pope Benedict in April, and ever since, we have waited for Rome to give back their final version and the go-ahead to begin implementation. 

Restlessness and rumor have set in, as the months go by. There is a sense that the finalization is overdue, complicated by rumors of "10,000 changes" being made by the Vatican, or the implementation date being moved from Advent, December 2011 to Pentecost, 2012.   Reports from last week's annual convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) were that discussions related to the new translation domininated the event. Publishers of music and missals, such as WLP's Jerry Gallipeau, who has exhibited an even-handed attitude up to this point, has begun, in his blog to indicate more than a slight sense of unease with the length of the process.  Over at Pray Tell, Fr. Anthony Ruff has been keeping track of the rumor-mill  -- his latest is that somehow ICEL (International Committee on English in the Liturgy) may not survive this process.

It's true that Rome has all the marbles at this point in the process. All we can do is wait to see what comes out the other end - and when. All our speculation, itchiness and in some cases, downright dread about what is to come ist to no effect.  It has truly been a summer to learn the virtue of patience and to meditate on what Jesus said in Matthew 6:27 - "Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?"

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ministry Blues: How much can one person possibly do?

A little down tonight. Kind of a rough day at work. I found that I am even further behind than I had believed... discovered an uncompleted large project, got several additional projects that seemed, like rabbits, to take on a life of their own, reproduce and generate even more tasks, got a few things done, had a bit of a venting fest with someone I work with, got out of the building long after everyone else was gone... well, it wasn't exactly a great day.

OK, Ms. Perfectionist here doesn't like discovering I have missed something. The unfinished project should have been completed last summer... but I am trying to be charitable with myself, realizing that last year at this time, I was pretty much non-functional, in the early throes of grief at losing the person dearest to me - and that the additional responsibilities for our diocesan Year of the Eucharist have tied me up for months.  However, it goes beyond that, to the question  - in this time of shrinking ministry resources and reductions of staffs on all levels of the Church, how much can we be expected to do?  Do we drop our daily standards or do we try to uphold them until WE drop?

I have a picture in my office that my friend Jim had given to me - of the Cat in the Hat juggling an umbrella, fishbowl and several other objects while balancing on a beach ball...  and many days I feel that really is what I must look like. Paste that smile on my face, act like I am having fun, when unlike the Cat, I am really just trying to make it through without falling off the ball or dropping anything. (Well, anything important, maybe!)

I remember parish ministry - it really was no different. In my last position, as director of religious education and directory of liturgy, I pretty regularly put in 60-80 hour weeks. I simply did not have a life. I hear the same story from most other parish ministers.  It always, for me, was that there were tasks to be done, and it was a priority to get them done - and there often was no one else to do it. If I had a nickel for every night after RE or an adult faith formation session that I was the last one in the building, cleaning up and locking up, I'd have my retirement savings in good order! 

With the much-touted "bad economy," our office has, over the past couple of years, watched parishes let full-time, qualified people either retire or ask them to leave, and replace them with part-timers who do not need benefits, or simply eliminate the position.  For those left to do the work, it becomes doubly hard - parishes are relying on them to do more, with less. Everywhere we gather with other diocesan leaders, it is the same as our situation. Once we were a very large office. Now, there are two of us in ministry and two support staff people. Certainly, we are able to do less. Yet many tasks do not disappear just because we cannot do them - and these stack up and the guilt is allowed to gnaw away at us.

Scripture (and the familiar old song) point out "the harvest is plenty, laborers are few". And how!  But lately, even the plentiful harvest seems to elude us, as Mass attendance and parish involvement continue to decline. One disturbing trend, directly attributable to the drop in parish and diocesan income/stewardship is for business managers to take the lead in decision-making that affects ministry, without really having any solid knowledge of what ministry entails. Instead of boldly going forward, trusting God will provide, ministry personnel are cut, hours are cut, or much-needed resources are reduced.

This happened a while back at my own parish - and now, in a parish that is actually growing because of the increasing population of Hispanic immigrants (but whose income is not keeping pace), we are asking, even though the diocesan finance office has affirmed our cuts as being instrumental in creating financial solvency - are we shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting back on ministry services?

Where are these trends going? How many people will be burn out on the way back to sanity - or will we even head back there at all.? Or, was it really ever sane? Is the answer just to trust and plan great things and do as many of them as we can? Not sure. I do know that a lot of God's people are very tired - and tonight I am one of them!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Catechesis with Hispanics: Plan With the People, Not For the People

OK, my discernment about stepping up to the commitment to volunteer as adult faith formation coordinator in my mostly Hispanic parish is coming to a conclusion... and I have just found affirmation for my gut feelings.  Tonight I read through both the 1987 National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry and the 2002 update Encuentro & Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry. There is much wisdom in these two short documents - but for me they are also a source of some frustration that this vision seems largely unrealized in my own diocese. I suspect this is true in many places, however. Anyhow, I am always an advocate for working to change what I can and moving on from that over which I have little or no influence.

In my reflection about whether I would accept the challenge at my parish of following through in organizing adult faith formation, I came to the conclusion on my own that I could never do this as a "lone wolf" - as an Anglo imposing events and programs on the Spanish-speaking community- but would need the cooperation of a team from the Hispanic community.  A statement in Encuentro & Mission literally jumped off the page tonight:  number 4 under Pastoral Responses and Principles for Hispanic Ministry:  "Plan With the People, Not For the People."  The document urges grassroots consultation, saying "it is an effective tool for responding to the pastoral challenges found in parishes throughout the country." (44)

The biggest part of the pastoral challege in my parish? In the past, when we have offered something planned and sponsored by the parish and invited the community to participate, only a few have responded.  One year, I attempted to deliver a Lenten afternoon of reflection bilingually - but when we started, no Hispanics were in the room.  About 45 minutes a handful of Hispanic young people wandered in and I asked our Spanish-speaking DRE to take the outline in and work with them on the discussion questions. The event was disappointing. But several years down the road, I see in part why.

Similarly, a year and a half ago, during Lent, we offered an English parish mission and a simultaneous Spanish one on a similar topic. While we got participation from probably about a fifth of the English-speaking community, for the first couple of days attendance at the Spanish one was mimimal - the last day, the group was respectable, as word of mouth got out about the quality of the experience.

Our failure to "plan with the people" most likely meant that the offerings in both cases were not seen by them as relevant to their very community-and-family-based faith. Instead, these were something imposed from outside. The fact that the second event grew in participation was due to community members inviting each other personally - which is apparently the way it works best.

Inter-cultural communication, I am learning, is not easy. It takes hard work, commitment, perseverence, and above all, love. I only hope I can be worthy of this service. I am spending time this summer trying to formulate a vision and some strategies - one more document - I want to browse through the 2007 Concluding Document for the V General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Carribean at Aparecida - the sections on catechesis and evangelization could be helpful.

At the last Pastoral Council meeting at my parish, when I indicated I would consider serving as adult faith formation coordinator, one of the Hispanic members of the council came up to me after and offered to find me some people from their community to work with me.   I think, all in all, the Holy Spirit is in charge of this one, not me - since the pieces seem to be trying to fall into place.

My 100th Post - Blogging Renaissance

This is my 100th post. To the small audience of followers (and lurkers who may follow in a feed reader or through the Facebook connection) thanks for reading!  You may have noticed a small blogging renaissance over the past weeks.  July 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the day  life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt, with the death of the man I loved and had planned to marry - and all the enthusiasm and good intentions I had when I began this blogging endeavor got derailed as my brain literally locked up due to the grieving process. Recovery to any kind of normalcy, to any kind of enthusiasm for life or clarity of thought has been a slow, painful process.

While I now know that one never really gets over the loss of someone so close, I have finally begun to recover a sense of who I am as a lay minister in the church and a writer. I find I have recovered, finally, the sense of inspiration that led me to start this blog.  In fact, I was writing in my sleep this morning. A strong cogent sentence woke me up this morning:  "Can you reformat reality by changing the lens through which you look at the world?"  Hmm, maybe.

Thanks, everyone, for bearing with me. I hope to provide increasingly more insightful posts for your reading pleasure!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Exponential Times - the Pace of Change in Our World and its Effect on Liturgy

The world as we know it is changing as you read this. It's actually moving much too fast for any of us to understand.  Is there a relationship between the speed of change in our world and the inability of people to connect to the Mass or any other traditional worship format?  Recently, I have been reflecting on why many find the Mass boring or unengaging - so much so that some presiders and liturgy committees feel compelled to add what Archbishop Chaput refers to as "novelty" - or even "fascination" (see my previous post) in their quest to engage themselves and others in the celebration of the liturgy.

I have found a related set of concepts in the video of a keynote at the recent ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Denver. Education technology futurists Lee Crockett and Ian Jukes detail the scale of change in our culture. They call what we are experiencing "disruptive innovation" - change that is the result of rapid technological innovation and has repercussions across the entire cultural landscape. (The first 25 minutes of this video will change how you look at what has happened in the last 50 years - well worth the time investment.)

Crockett and Jukes claim we are now living in "Exponential  Times" - "times that are literally beyond our ability to comprehend."  Disruptive, explosive change warps our social lives, "upends longstanding cultural tradition and messes with just about every aspect of our lives: the way we work, the way we play, the way we view our fellow citizens, and particularly how we view the world."   Change in our lifetimes, the presenters posit, has accelerated even more in the last 10 years. And, it's not just gadgets that are disruptive, but how they have affected the way we do things - how we communicate, travel, purchase items, access and use information... and...

"Disruptive innovations," Jukes says, "have repeatedly replaced the existing paradigm of life with something new." When that happens, he says, "the impact and value of what has gone on before has been reduced."  In many cases, that "previous paradigm has simply disappeared."  This means young people are growing up in a world that barely resembles the reality of their parents, which has repercussions for how they see the world, how they should be educated, and  more.

So, what does this have to do with liturgy? Several things, I believe - because of the ways people look at the world now:
  • Ritual and repetition can be perceived as foreign in a world where everything else is constantly "new" and there is no expectation of stability
  • If we now regularly conduct most entertainment,  business-world meetings and learning virtually, gathering with others in a physical space that we have to travel to may seem an increasingly irrelevant activity.
  • The habit of multi-tasking may make sitting in one place focusing and participating in one activity seem "boring" - leading some to the pursuit of "novelty" or "fascination" in liturgy (see my previous post for explanation)
  • We expect to control and customize all of our experiences, because in most venues, we can.
  • Some people may see the ritual nature of Mass as a refuge and an island of stability in a world that is uncomfortable to them because of the pace of change (primarily older people, but some younger ones as well)
What are the effects of this?
  • Parents and catechists, raised in a different paradigm, may have difficulty helping young people see the point of liturgy (note the rise in the acceptance of the use of technology for catechesis - but not liturgy)
  • Presiders and liturgy committees seek ever more exciting and innovative additions to the liturgy to try to keep themselves and others engaged and not bored.
  • The Church has become increasingly divided between those who want it to be modern, current and "relevant", and those who want to emphasize tradition and its unchanging nature to keep the Church as the one thing that remains stable in their lives - to keep it grounded in unchanging Truth.
  • Go boldly forward and embrace the new future.  Some few parishes are "reformatting" church - (visit this Australian parish for an example) - is their Catholic Worship and Teaching Service as an alternate to the traditional Mass the ultimate "gimmick" or is this a viable solution? (The Bishop of Perth approves, apparently)
  • Go back and renew and retrench.  Some, like Archbishop Chaput are calling for evangelization and renewal of understanding of the meaning of the liturgy - back to the core of its meaning and let it speak for itself by doing it well.
  • BOTH? Or something somewhere in-between? (What would that look like?)
Which way would you choose? Are there other options? I have a feeling if we remain in denial and do nothing, we will continue to see a rapid drop in the participation and engagement of young people in the Church.  I haven't got the answer - or at this point even a preference between these two - I am just naming the issues. Thoughts anyone?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"It was Fascination, I Know..."

A couple days ago, I commented on Archbishop Chaput's talk at Mundelein - specifically regarding his remarks about the integrity of the liturgy being hindered by the quest for "novelty." Nick Wagner, commenting on my post, was kind enough to point me to one of his own previous blog posts where there is a more nuanced term for what I was talking about: "fascination". (No, I am not talking about the song made popular by Jane Morgan!) Nick used the term  mysterium fascinans "fascinating mystery" from theologian Rudolph Otto.

I think our culture, in which we are primed by advertisers, the concept of planned obsolescence, the media's constant quest to latch onto the new and unique, has us wired to seek fascination. (It's that soap-opera culture thing I mentioned in my comment back to Nick in the earlier post.) Just this last week a young man who appeared on "America's Got Talent" was lionized on all the news shows and the internet as "another Susan Boyle."  Not. While the young man was unexpectedly talented for his shy demeanor, it was nothing like the ugly-duckling unexpectedness of what happened with Boyle. You simply cannot artificialy create the thrill of a moment like that hers. Close, but no cigar. 
(Actually, as I write this, I have the Oprah show on in the background - and it is incidentally the "That's Incredible!" episode on the greatest, fastest, tallest, biggest, best, etc. - another manifestation of our fascination with what makes our jaws drop.)

In terms of the liturgy, what I see happening in at least some average parishes is, since presiders and liturgy committees often do not readily sense the mysterium fascinans of God, or understand the simple power inherent in the Mass to evoke it, they try to create artificial fascination by inserting gimmicks, adding symbols and practices that seem "nicer" or "more exciting" than what is in the rubrics. They feel the the repetitiousness of the ritual - which is part of the core of liturgy - is simply not fascinating enough to engage people. And it is not, if it is done with mediocrity.

Nick, in his comment, defended professional liturgists. I agree. These things don't normally happen in those parishes. However, the majority of parishes in my area do not have professionally trained liturgists. They may have excellent professional musicians who have, from years of experience and self-study, come to a good understanding of the liturgy, but it is a rare parish, even in my affluent neck of the woods in the Chicago suburbs, that has someone with an actual degree in liturgy on staff.

We also suffer in our area (outer southern/western suburbs of Chicago) from the memory of a liturgy planning process made popular in the 1980's that seemed to indicate that a seasonal "theme" is always required. Now a "theme" is not of itself a bad thing if it arises from the readings, prayers and the activity and identity of a parish - or is integral to the rite. It is how that theme is illustrated that can become "gimmicky" - a novelty.  It's the difference between putting a literal picture with a verbal caption on a banner and creating an abstract fabric accent that points toward some essential reality without naming it.  It is the difference between adding an artificial action or gesture to the liturgy and  incorporating one that grows from the heart of the spirituality of a season, or the words of the Mass or directly from our baptismal call to service. Occasional good enhancements to the liturgy are not wrong. It is the mediocre ones and the downright inappropriate ones that call undue attention to themselves and qualify as "gimmicks" - which their creators no doubt hoped would attract and fascinate us. In fact, we remember these things for themselves, not for how they enhanced our experience of a celebration.

I have been watching, as you may note from my posts, the national obsession this week with LeBron James, the self-styled "King James" - who, by playing hard-to-get created a fever of speculation and an epidemic of people holding their breath to see where he would play basketball next. The excitement was planned and was all artificially created .. and the media and most people ate it right up. The effect of all this will be gone in a few days - after they stop talking about why he decided to go to Florida.

Temporal fascination is short-lived. The true fascinating mystery of God is eternal. That is the crux of the difference. We only try to create excitement in the Mass when we don't see what is already there... or are unable to appreciate it for what it is. (More about that in an upcoming post.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"The King" vs. the King of Glory - Star Power, Cultural Priorities & Evangelization

Yesterday, I blogged on the metoric rise in popularity over the past week of sports figure LeBron James, who will apparently end the suspense about which team he will choose soon, in a 90-minute prime-time TV appearance. (No doubt the ratings for that ESPN show will be huge.)  LeBron's showing on Twitter (over 150,000 people signed up to follow him in the first 7 hours he was on that vehicle yesterday) is symptomatic of our obsession in this culture with "stars" - people who garner the attention of most of us because of their talent.  ABC News actually just referred to LeBron as "the King." (Hmm - the last guy they called this was known as "the King of Pop.") LeBron's search popularity has skyrocketed on Google as well.

In the case of sports figures, this national obsession lasts as long as does their top performance.  It's about what they do and achieve, not who they are.  I live in the Chicago area, and when the Blackhawks were in contention for the Stanley Cup, team mania rose to fever pitch. When "Lord Stanley's Cup" came to Chicago, people flocked to see it, to celebrate, and to have their picture taken beside it - the actual trophy itself became an object of obsession even more than the players who had won it.  Now that the fever has subsided, things have gone back to normal, and the street-corner winning team t-shirt vendors are offering their wares at half price. 

Star-power -- it's hard to measure. Some stars persist in the national consciousness long after their deaths Elvis ("The King"), Marilyn Monroe ("the Blonde Bombshell"), and now Michael Jackson ("The King of Pop"). Notice the gender disparity. Women can be "Queen for a day", but no female star has ever been crowned on a permanent basis. Hmmm.

Other people, whose achievements are less lasting are a mere flash in the pan - the "one-hit-wonders" who occupy the center of our attention briefly and then fade back into obscurity - or at least into the background. These are the Susan Boyles.  Artist Andy Warhol once referred to this as a person's "15 minutes of fame." No one calls them "king." There will come a time when we will ask "whatever happened to ____?"
In contrast, we have among us the lasting memory and legacy of someone who has been revered for 2,000 years not only for what he did, but for who he was and IS. Jesus Christ, the one with "the name above every other name"- the King of Glory, who was, is and will always be.  How much attention does He get on an average day?  Has he ever topped the Google search statistics? 

Unfortunately, Jesus, for many in our culture, is "old news" instead of the "Good News."  He even makes a comparatively poor showing when put into the same "time slot" as sports/  When the Bears play football at noon in our area, attendance at my parish's 11:30 Mass is even thinner than usual. (In previous parishes, presiders were known to "rush" Mass so that people could run home to see the game.)  And these are the good people who do bother to go to Mass. They actually have a desire to squeeze their faith into their life priorities. I suspect this is true for every region of the country, no matter which team is popular.

Our challenge, as believers, disciples called to go out to the world to preach, teach and draw others to Christ, is to renew our own enthusiasm for the faith so that we can evangelize our culture - to help people see that Jesus Christ is the true "Superstar" - the one who is not just a flash in the pan - whose message is for all time, not just for the moment of our current attention span.  However, until we are excited, we will not excite anyone else. If the fire of conviction and devotion does not show in us, we have no hope of setting anyone else on fire. For whom are YOU on fire today?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

LeBron - more popular than... well, that guy John Lennon got in trouble for mentioning

Another American icon has skyrocketed to the top of the popularity charts. LeBron - he only needs one name - a potential professional basketball star much sought after by all the big teams, has in the first 7 hours on Twitter achieved over 150,000 followers, making him instantly more popular than the redoutable Bill Gates. (Brawn has always been more attractive to the general public than brains, let's face it!)

In the past week, LeBron James, by staying silent about his intentions while all the major teams woo him for a professional contract, has suddenly become the most sought-after of celebrities. In a stroke of public relations genius, he opened a Twitter account today - with no posts - and everyone is piling on as fast as they can to see if he will make his announcement of intent on Twitter.

This overnight sensation will have a lot to live up to as an athlete - and once he joins a team everyone who follows such things will be watching to see how he does. One can only hope that he is not the embodiment of Abraham Lincoln's adage "Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

It rather reminds me of the Beatles, who John Lennon once declared were more popular than Jesus... and famously got into great trouble when that part of a longer quote was printed out of context. What he actually said was somewhat true:  "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."  Was John wrong? As attendance at church and church affiliation continue to shrink world-wide,  one cannot help but wonder.

At the moment, it appears that for the general populace LeBron is indeed more popular than Jesus.  If Jesus in his own time, had set up a Twitter account, how many followers would he have had back then? Probably not more than the first 12 guys  (OK, 11 of them) and a few more - mostly tax collectors and sinners.  If the same thing happened today, would Christians rush without question to follow Him?  Would they even recognize Him? Or, would most be scandalized that he would make use of Twitter - where a lot of the people hang out today? Would they instead waste time arguing about his identity, nature and mission? Isn't this exactly what John Lennon was complaining about? Jesus, because he spoke and taught about the who, what, and why of it all, has engendered endless controversy and schism.

Notice, no one complains as long as LeBron is silent. Once he speaks his choice, there will be endless discussion about why he made his choice and what it means. Until then, silence is golden. Makes you wonder what Jesus would say to the world on Twitter in His first tweet... and what would be the reaction.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Liturgy, Relevance and Paschal Mystery - No Gimmicks Need be Applied

In his recent address to the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein, Archbishop Chaput decried attempts to make the liturgy conform to the culture: "Trying to engineer the liturgy to be more 'relevant' and 'intelligible' through a kind of relentless cult of novelty [italics mine], has only resulted in confusion and a deepening of the divide between believers and the true spirit of the liturgy."  While I am no fan of liturgy that is so distant from the reality of worshipers as to be without connection to familiar elements of their culture, I have to agree that in my experience, the predisposition of some communities and presiders toward liturgical "gimmicks" HAS inhibited the ability of the people to develop a liturgical spirituality that focuses on Christ and the Paschal Mystery and not on their own self-sufficiency.

What the Archbishop is saying is that in our post-modern culture, the proper dispositions needed for a true liturgical spirituality are in fact extremely counter-cultural. They run against the grain of a world-view focused on the individual, empowered by science, knowledge and technology to such a degree that we feel we no longer depend on the help of God.  We no longer identify ourselves and all we are as belonging first to God, but as belonging to our nation, our family, identified by our personal relatioships, talents, possessions and jobs.

Chaput continues: "We need to discover new ways to enter into the liturgical mystery; to realize the central place of the liturgy in God’s plan of salvation; to truly live our lives as a spiritual offering to God; and to embrace our responsibilities for the Church’s mission with a renewed Eucharistic spirituality."

In my experience, only about twice have I heard a homilist even mention "Paschal Mystery" - yet it is this mystery - of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection - that is central to every celebration of the Eucharist. If the average Catholic understood that the primary reason we celebrate the liturgy is NOT to satisfy our selves with the opportunity:
  • to gather with friends they only see every week in church (getting the satisfaction of socialization)
  • to keep from going to Hell (fulfilling obligation)
  • to feel good (being "uplifted")
  • to be impressed or astounded by the musicians, the decor, or the preaching (being entertained)
  • to "get something out of it" (gaining something of value)
Archbishop Chaput's fourth and final point speaks to one of the most important attitudes that for many people is missing: "The liturgy is a school of sacrificial love. The law of our prayer should be the law of our life. Lex orandi, lex vivendi. We are to become the sacrifice we celebrate." 

He connects the spiritual sacrifice that we should each make to our baptismal call to "the priesthood of all believers." He suggests that people need to understand their role in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that is the Mass -and indeed the essence of Christian life. The sacrifice should not merely be that of the bread and wine, (or indeed of the monetary gifts we give) but of the very lives of those offering worship. (See also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 901)  Essentially, we need to offer and alllow to be consecrated our very selves for the life of the world and the work of God in it - sucesses, failures, gifts, burdens- all that we are - along with the bread and wine. And this not just during the liturgy but in every area of daily living as we are sent forth "to love and serve the Lord."

"All that we do -- in the liturgy and in our life in the world -- is meant to be in the service of consecrating this world to God," says Chaput. "...The liturgical act becomes possible for modern man when you make your lives a liturgy, when you live your lives liturgically -- as an offering to God in thanksgiving and praise for his gifts and salvation."

So, what happens when presiders, liturgy committees, musicians, art and environment committees try harder and harder to be "unique" or "relevant" or "less boring?"  When they turn the focus on trying to amaze, entertain, or distract by continual novelty of seasonal "theme," music or "gimmicks", they are actually committing abuse.

I have heard of priests dressing in costumes representing "Bert and Ernie" (both at the same time!), Santa or Barney (the purple dinosaur), of one who preached a Fathers' Day homily reclining on a lawn chair, of one who demanded that seasonal music for Christmas, Lent and Easter be "new" every year in place of the familiar "boring" stuff. I have seen a church build a huge "wall" in the sanctuary out of cardboard boxes, labeled with sins for Lent.  In many parishes, it is common for the choir to sing a well-rehearsed "showpiece" every week to show off their talent, without being burdened by the need for the people to sing along - a "stop and listen to us" moment.  No doubt most readers can think of at least one time when some new height of entertaining novelty was offered at Mass.  Our refrain as an American church has often been "Let me take you higher - and higher!" or "Let me Entertain You" - instead of  "Take, O Take Me as I Am."

The worshiping assembly has a right to understand what is truly important.  The focus and core of the liturgy is one thing, and one thing only: the Paschal Mystery- the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ - which is the model for our own sacrifice. This is true both at Mass and as we are sent out into the world. This is NOT boring. It IS, however, counter-cultural in a world that values individual rights and power and measures the value of persons in dollars, possessions and position. Instead of gaining something, the liturgy actually asks that we lose something - our very selves -  becoming no longer an individual man, woman or child, but a member of the Body of Christ.

In our worship and in the world we should never lose the courage to be different - to walk in the humble, dusty, blood-stained footsteps of Christ and not those of the financial wizards past and present, the popular entertainers of music and film - the rich and famous "somebodies" who have become the idols of our culture.  To live a liturgical spirituality, we need to become "nobodies" in the eyes of the world - which translates to being beloved children of God, living in awe, worship, relationship and obedience - emptying ourselves like Christ (kenosis) - even to the point of death - on the crosses of our own sacrifice. When we are able to do that, we, like Christ, will be raised on high and have the glorious name of "Christian".

Thanks, Archbishop, for the inspiration.

On the Lack of Critical Thinking in the Blog-o-sphere and Social Networking

Just encountered a great site from a Cuesta College in San  Luis Obisbo, CA on critical thinking and recognizing propaganda and faulty logic... and it occurs to me that these are important skills for those writing blogs, commenting on blogs, and re-posting without thinking through opinions not their own on Facebook or Twitter. (Thanks to Ian Jukes of the Committed Sardine for pointing out the site.)  The site is very good - as are the associated materials on anlayzing and evaluating information and opinoins.

It has been pointed out by others that there is often a lack of civility among those using these Web 2.0 tools, but more annoying than that, I find, is the frequent tendency to be illogical, uncritical, to engage in name-calling or other inappropriate strategies,  and often to have a knee-jerk response to re-post someone else's bad thinking - especially in the conservative political sphere. Most notable is the hostile rhetoric of the "Tea Party" advocates (or should I just call a spade a spade and name them as Anti-Obama-ites? That's not even name-calling - it's what they are.)  Some of the same behaviors are common to people who support without qualification the new Roman Missal (Mass text translation, for those of you who might not be Catholics.)

I have seen so many posts on Facebook or responses in com-boxes to blogs or to posts on Facebook that cause me to grind my teeth - not just because I do not necessarily agree, but because I am offended by the name-calling, "glittering generalities" and "card-stacking" - errors in logic and strategies that do not contribute to civil conversation or the pursuit of truth. I have occasionally called a friend or two to task - asking them to think things through before they post - but I see this over and over. Polls that give a choice that seems reasonable, but is in fact a half-truth or distortion, do not present a fair choice.  For example, on Memorial Day, there was a poll going around that made it appear the President was "skipping" the honoring of fallen veterans because he was not going to be at Arlington National Cemetery. Left out of the equation was the information that he was going to be at another national cemetery (and that half of the last 8 sitting presidents also "skipped" Arlington at least once) - so it did make it appear there was indeed something to criticize.

Regarding responses to the debate about the New Roman Missal - unqualifying advocates tend to beg the question, to make it look as if the choice is between faithful obedience to the church or rejection of that, when the questions are more subtle - whether or not people will understand what they or the priest are saying, for example.  These are NOT equivalent arguments - it is not a choice (or should not be ) between just these two alternatives.  We can be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church while questioning if people will be able to understand the words at Mass.  These are not mutually exclusive.

It becomes impossible to have a civil discussion on an even playing field when some participants simply want to judge others badly for having an opinion that is contrary to their own, and resort to tactics that hinder open discourse. In all cases, I know I am just voiding my bladder in the wind to ask these folks to think it through before they jerk their knees up to their chins and post or respond.... like civil discourse, logical thinking has become a lost art for the majority in our culture.  I think Ian Jukes is right - we are failing to teach it to our kids -  it died along with the priority for a good liberal arts education.