Thursday, April 28, 2011

Laying the Blame Where it Belongs

A Facebook friend posted this video today from on what the Pope has to say about the state of Catholic faith in the world today.  While the Pope makes some really good points about the need for re-evangelization of our own people, the RCTV commentator chooses to interpret the fault as lying with bishops and priests who allow abuses in the Novus Ordo liturgy... a typical attack stance among those who see the Latin Mass as the cure for everything that ails the Church.  Take a look. The Pope's comments, sifted out from his Holy Week homilies, are worth hearing:


Now, taking the Pope's comments at face value, we hear that his fear is that many Catholics are lukewarm in their faith and either unable to discern evil when they encounter it, or simply able to dismiss evil.  That sounds like the malaise of a post-modern, self-centered, consumeristic culture, not just a failure to celebrate the Mass well. Certainly good celebration of the liturgy is a factor that helps transform people and the Eucharist of itself has the power to convert. But, if Catholic adults are poorly catechized and do not participate in opportunities to be formed in faith other than the Mass, the majority are not going to experience conversion through the Mass alone.

A chicken and egg issue, you say?  Sort of.  Does deep conversion happen because you celebrate Mass well, or do you celebrate Mass well because you are deeply converted? Both. (Lex orandi, lex credendi and all that!)  But just as necessary is good faith formation and re-evangelization of people who already think they are Catholic, but who in reality never learned what faith has to do with real life. We need to reach them with a sense that Catholic faith is not just a one hour on Sunday factor in their lives, but an entire lifestyle.

One answer is not simply eliminating "liturgical abuse", in the sense that it is usually thought of. Better, more inspired liturgical celebrations that lead people to a sense of the sacred is certainly called for.  If "lukewarm" liturgy is an abuse, however, it is not just endemic to the Novus Ordo.   Better liturgical formation of both clergy and of the laity is one possible and needed solution. The General Directory for Catechesis listed liturgical catechesis as one of the "doctrinal lacunae" in the content of catechesis.  If people do not truly understand the Mass in all its depth, how can they be open to conversion by celebrating it? The current implementation period for the new Roman Missal is certainly a ready-made opportunity to renew our understanding of the Mass and its potential.

However, even beyond renovating our celebrations, we need to focus attention on providing good overall catechesis and opportunities for conversion of Catholic adults.  Too many remain in a child-like understanding of faith because they have had little or no formation since they were children. Jonathan Sullivan of the Diocese of Springfield, IL explores that dynamic very well in this recent post on where adults really are in their faith development.  Another underpinning for the converted life is good experiences of scripture study and prayer (thanks to Marc Cardonella.)  

If parish communities were to provide good adult faith formation that speaks to where people actually are, leading them to a lived understanding of what Catholics believe (Creed) good liturgical understanding  (Sacraments), a knowledge of how Catholics should make decisions and treat others (Life in Christ), deep experiences of prayer methods and practices  (Prayer), underpinned by experiences that enable them to develop appreciation and love of Scripture, it could change Catholic adults into functioning passionate disciples of Jesus Christ....  Well, doesn't that sound familiar?  This is, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, supported by Bible study - the basic content of all catechesis.  Adults with a full understanding of how the content of faith relates to their lived experiences turn around and celebrate that well by fully and deeply participating in the Mass... which can lead them to deeper conversion through the Eucharist.

So, yes, the Pope is right to be concerned. However, the answer is not as simple as going back to the old Latin Mass or eliminating "liturgical abuse" by clergy and laity in the Novus Ordo parishes. What we have, my friends, is a failure to catechize.  We have, as I have often said, failed to help people discover why faith matters.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Leaving the World Behind (mostly) for Three Days

This year, the powers of darkness and distraction were especially hard at work in my life as I prepared to enter the Easter Triduum.  I was struggling with the remains of a significant sinus infection (always scary for a cantor approaching these all-important and very strenuous liturgies).  On Tuesday, my home computer suddenly and unexpectedly stopped connecting  to the Internet. Add in a long, tiring rehearsal Monday night,  the disappointment that the Hispanic instrumentalists and most of their choir would not be able to join us due to work conflicts, a few financial challenges and a lingering general exhaustion (probably a legacy from the upper respiratory thing - as well as an unrelenting schedule), throw in a pinch of flare-up of arthritis from the cold rainy weather that had persisted for over a week and I felt especially challenged.

However, all of this seemed to disappear on Thursday afternoon, after I spent some unexpected extra time in the office that morning because of lack of home internet access.  I went home and discovered that my normal joy and anticipatory excitement about the Triduum was beginning to return.  Last year had been a huge challenge for me, as the first Easter after the death of the man I had planned to marry.  Face it - it's hard to see Paschal Mystery through to Resurrection when you are in the depths of grief. Then I had been a bit "off" on the guitar and the Spanish verses of the songs and was frankly struggling to get through things.  I really don't remember much from that year, except that it had been considered to be too muddy to have the Vigil  fire outdoors... and the failure to have the fire outdoors started me off on "the wrong foot" that night.

This time, I discovered that the lack of the computer (on which I am accustomed to spending quite a bit of time) was in fact, a blessing.  Having only my smart-phone available to keep light tabs on email and Facebook, freed me up to focus my energy elsewhere... and by Thursday night, I had enough of said energy to devote to the celebration of the Mass of the Lord's Supper.  I even managed to do a passable job on a psalm on I had never sung Spanish verses before.   So deeply involved was I in the music that I found myself surprised later by praise from several about that psalm.  I  had simply prayed it, as I normally do (with added concentration on the new parts)... without any particular awareness of the musicianship.  It was the same for all of Thursday... concentrating on doing my best... yet deeply aware of the beauty of the celebration.

The evening ended with me spending some time in quiet Adoration, but also with an unexpected call to assist our new deacon with the solemn stripping of the altar. He had been assigned this but had no help and no real preparation. For me, since I had done this for years at previous parishes, it was like coming home to a familiar task.  The slow, reverent movements of removing flowers and candlesticks from around the altar, the careful removal and folding up the of the layers of altar dressing, deliberately calculated to be the least disturbing to those gathered to keep vigil with Jesus in the Eucharist - these, I found unexpectedly soothing. They pulled me into a different mental space - one of servanthood and nurturing. I have always associated this moment with the work of the women who, as the sun set on the day of Crucifixion, helped remove Jesus from the cross and carefully wrapped him in his shroud as they laid him in the tomb. (In one of my parishes, several women would join me as we removed our shoes, knelt in adoration before the Eucharist and then carried out this faithful, necessary work.) It seemed a good ending to the day.I drove home without my accustomed car music, humming strains of some of our songs from that night.

Friday, I went in to rehearse the Exsultet with my pastor (who was chanting the Spanish parts) and the music director, then readied myself for the afternoon celebration of the Passion. Since I would only be there in my role as choir member - no instruments, no vocal solos - I could relax into it. The celebration was simple and heartfelt - and went well.  I found myself deeply moved at the simple, solemn proclamation of the passion, and the people's sincere reverence for the cross. A few minutes breather afterwards and a second rehearsal for our bi-lingual Exsultet and I could go home.  A quiet evening, but with a growing sense of anticipation for what was to come. In rehearsing, I had peeked ahead into what was yet to come... and I wanted to be there.

Saturday dawned a little drizzly at first, but clearing and windy later. I woke with an irrepressible smile as I thought of the night ahead. I breakfasted and drove down to the church to help prepare the space for the great liturgy of the Vigil. Again, I had no desire for driving music - I realized that fasting from all other music was in fact, focusing me on the dynamic movement of the Three Days. By 11 a.m. we workers had re-dressed the altar, put out candlesticks, flowers and plants, decorated the stand for the Paschal candle, put out the towels for the baptisms and prepared the small candles for the people.  Home to rest, prepare an early dinner, dress in my Easter Vigil best, and get back down there...

Shouldering my guitar, equipment bag and my bodhran (Celtic drum), I drove over to pick up my friend Judy, who does not drive, and we headed back to church.  The darkened room hummed with quiet anticipation as I connected the pickup on my guitar and set everything in place.  As we began, we processed out to the bonfire in the courtyard of the friary, to witness the blessing of the Easter fire.  I scooted in ahead of the returning procession to be ready at the cantor stand -- and as the Easter candle entered and spread its light throughout the room, echoed in lit candles held by the assembly, we began my favorite moment of the liturgical year - the solemn chanting of the Exsultet - the proclamation that THIS is the night when Jesus rose from the dead - which Christians everywhere gather to celebrate with great joy.

The Vigil was in motion... and I was swept forward on a wave of Easter joy.  Somehow, every note, every Spanish word, every guitar riff fell into place of its own accord over the next 3 hours and 7 minutes... exhaustion, arthritis, lingering illness and the bitter-sweet dregs of great grief at what could never be - all forgotten for the duration. The great, galloping flamenco-style psalm that follows the Exodus reading required and received every ounce of me - blazing out in what had to be my best rendition ever. It was as if it were no longer I that was doing the work of the musical celebration, but that Spirit-inspired joy was pouring though my lips and my fingers as I played, sang and accompanied our bilingual choir. As the catechmens were baptized and they and several others were confirmed, as we celebrated the Eucharist of paschal triumph, and sang our way out to "Jesus Christ is Risen Today/El Senor Resucito" my feet almost did not touch the ground the entire night.

Scurrying to my car to avoid the downpour of rain, I took my friend home, then spent another two hours winding down before I could go to bed. Was it hard work? Yes. Did it take all my resources of skill and energy? You bet. Was it worth it? Of course! Living the pinnacle of the Church Year is not supposed to be easy. In the spirit of liturgy as "work of the people" it calls us to give our utmost and finest effort - to invest ourselves fully by leaving our worries behind for the great Three Days and giving back the gifts we each have to offer to the community's celebration.

What I have written here was my personal story. Yet each person present during the Three Days brought their own story to the celebration. In return, the celebration not only affirms who we are in Christ and what we believe as his baptized disciples, it has the potential each year to change us for the better.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Entering the Narrow Gate: Following Jesus in Holy Week

Today begins another of those moments in the liturgical year when we step out of our own time and into "God time."  Celebrating Jesus' Passion on Palm Sunday is one of those past-present experiences - it happened 2,000 years ago, but it is coming to life again among us as we hold our own palm branches and hear the great story of his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem.  Our own song of triumphant entry rings out as the ministers process to the altar for our celebration.

As we settle into our celebration, we hear of the Suffering Servant in the first reading and in the poignant responsorial psalm. From the writings of St. Paul, we hear that Jesus is given the "name above every other name."  As the Passion is read, we watch as Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, washes their feet and gives them the great gift of the Eucharist. We listen in sorrow as he is arrested, tried, scourged and nailed to a cross - and with those who were at the foot of the cross so long ago, we feel their pain and loss. Then we go home to finish the final days of our Lenten journey and to prepare for the Three Days.

For me, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of Holy Week are always an interesting mixture of anticipation, interior preparation, and a sort of background focus on what is to come, in spite of the ongoing business of everyday life.  Inevitably there is a major rehearsal for us musicians - where, unlike most people in the pews, we get a foretaste of everything that is to come, from Gesthemane anguish to Alleluia joy.  However, in the liturgical year spirit of  "already-not-yet" we know the time has not yet arrived - at the same time we also know we will be ready when it does.

So, how does having heard the Passion this weekend prepare us for the great Three Days of the Easter Triduum?  I think we do this today so we can carry the story in our hearts and ponder it until we hear it again, beginning Thursday night. This is not an ordinary week - and we enter it so that we will not be ordinary people, but extraordinary ones, transformed by this annual celebration of Paschal Mystery.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Jesus, I Didn't Do This to You!"

We tell people that Jesus Christ died for their sins.  However, I wonder how many of them realize their own responsibility for Jesus' suffering and death - as members of the human race.  This moving and powerful new 5-minute video from  Eric Groth (Outside da Box) envisions what happens when the reality of responsibility and the possibility of conversion collide.

Watch it.  HERE.

You'll want to watch it more than once. Then ask yourself: do you sound like "Mom" or like "Big Brother"?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Catechetical Problem of Being "Too American"

This morning is NOT a happy catechetical moment for me. In fact, I have to admit I am feeling downright crabby.  In the wake of yet another heated discussion on Facebook with other Catholics where I encountered refusal to accept the teachings of the American bishops based on dislike of the USCCB,  I have to admit I am becoming increasingly tired of those who stubbornly do not accept the fullness of Church teaching - who reject or discount the statements and teachings of bishops duly appointed by Rome to lead us in America because they disagree with the "politics" or the make-up of the USCCB. That body may not be "perfect" but these are bishops the Holy Spirit has chosen for us.  In a hierarchical church, the reality is that these are our shepherds, like it or not. For a significant portion of the Catholic population, however, these leaders are not only discounted, they are downright disrespected.

Consequently, I am going to step out on a limb here and make a statement of faith.  This is important - because as I see it, this is one of the issues that sometimes becomes a significant stumbling stone to adult catechesis.

As an educated, thinking human being in a democracy, I admit I don't always immediately agree with every teaching of the Church either, but I never close the door to what is taught.  I especially do not close the door because I don't like the "messenger." I continue to study the issue and to pray on it - with a view to finding out why my spiritual leaders have asked this of me - to discovering why God is asking this of me.  As a disciple in the Catholic Church, I know my teachers and leaders have been sent by the Spirit, even when I find it difficult to agree with them. Yes, they are human, but they are the ones sent in the name of the Church. I have a duty to listen to them in humility, even when I disagree.

Call me idealistic, but I find it sad that I have been mistaken in assuming that Pope John Paul II's accusation that Americans were "Cafeteria Catholics" was insulting and incorrect. Apparently, it is still very much in vogue, even among those who say they have a great attachment to all things Roman, including the Pope and the Latin Mass, to pick and choose what teachings and which shepherds of the Church to follow.  Sadly, these Catholics often accuse others of the same thing, depending on the issue. Maybe I am not "normal", but I thought that being Catholic calls us to rise above petty, personal and political beliefs to assume an attitude of humility and obedience to those assigned to our spiritual care and guidance - and to work together to make this a better world.

To be Catholic means to accept even Church teachings we find difficult - or to be open to finding our way to acceptance. These discussions have shown me just how closed the minds of some Catholic adults are. As a catechetical minister of the Church, I tell new catechists that no matter what their personal opinion, they must always teach from the "center" of Church teaching or when speaking publicly. Last time I checked, the USCCB was part of the Magisterium - the engine within the Church that interprets the teachings of Rome for those of us who live in America. We may indeed hold private opinions, but in discussion in public - even on Facebook among "friends", it is not wise to air them - that, frankly, is damaging to the unity of the Body of Christ. It is also hurtful.

Sadly, what divides Americans along political lines (liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Coffee Party and Tea Party) often divides us spiritually as well.To be an adult Catholic in America is not just to be "anti-abortion" in our political beliefs. It is also to follow the teachings of the Church - from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the statements made by the Pope and by bishops around the world, most particularly those assigned to our spiritual care here in this country.  American bishops have issued  teaching statements about the right to health care, fair treatment for immigrants, preferential treatment for the poor, the definition of marriage, and consistently urge our nation's legislators to adopt public policies that promote preservation of families and justice for all - not just for those who are like us.

To be Catholic is is not just to think spiritual thoughts when we are at Mass and to spend hours in Adoration of  Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament working out our own salvation. It is also to rise above self-interest and cooperate as the Body of Christ with the grace of God to build a better world - one in which the vision of Mary's Magnificat approaches reality: when the poor will be fed and the rich sent away empty. In that world, there will be no room for politics, no tolerance for bigotry or lack of charity.  I find that this agenda  is too disturbing for some Catholics. The idea that we are called to a life in the world consistent with the teachings of the Gospel seems to them to be a radical "liberal" agenda.  If so, then Jesus and  Mary were among the most radical liberals of their time. It's no wonder the authorities felt it necessary to crucify him. In their name this morning, I pray that my brothers and sisters in Christ may be guided to find their way not just to personal piety, but will be outwardly directed to charity and love for all people, including immigrants, the poor, and those much-despised bishops of the USCCB.

And no, in the interest of the unity of the Church I will not engage in verbal fisticuffs in the comments. Go ahead - disagree... but in the memorable words of Darth Vader: "Search your heart. You know it to be true." Un-friend me if you must, but you know I have a point.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fifth Sunday in Lent: The Discipleship of Love of Neighbor

Here is the last installment of our parish bulletin series for Lent - taken from RCIA 75:

 We have been, through our journey together this Lent, looking at how baptism calls us to be disciples who give a good example to those learning the faith from us: the adults preparing for baptism and the children who were baptized as babies.  Our final element is one of the most important for Christian life – after the example of Christ, we are “to practice the love of neighbor, even at the cost of self-renunciation.”  (RCIA, 75)   A true disciple gives until it hurts. We are asked to love even those who may not love us, who are not our friends or family, who are strangers – whenever they are near us and in need, they become our “neighbor.”  How do we do this? We are called to die to our own desires, so that we may do the right thing for others when they are most in need. Like Lazarus, we will then live.  

This concludes our Lenten exploration of our baptismal call to be disciples.  Next week, we follow Jesus through his Passion to the Cross, the grave, and to the Resurrection at Easter.  When we renew our baptismal promises at the liturgies of Easter, may we be more truly disciples of Jesus Christ – and may those who are baptized and formed in faith in St. John’s community always see the fruits of our discipleship and learn from us.

Joyce Donahue, for the St. John’s Liturgy Planning Committee

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Ambitious Video Project - Mystagogical Preparation for the Easter Triduum

Want to experience the Easter Triduum differently this year?  Looking for a unique way to do in-depth preparation?  Timothy O'Malley, Director of University of Notre Dame Center for Liturgy has embarked on a 20-segment video series on the new blog Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization.  He promises to provide a guide to mystagogical reflection on the Easter Triduum, so that by learning how to read the symbols embedded in the Three Days we can better access the mysteries that are so much a part of that great celebration of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection.

In Episode 1, O'Malley says "we don't do mystagogy well, because we do mystagogy wrong".  He points out that too often we limit mystagogy to reflection on the rites the catechumens have experienced at the Easter Vigil.  What if, he suggests, we thought about it as "the spiritual theology necessary for an adult formation into faith" -  if we saw liturgical catechesis as a way of helping people see the world sacramentally? As a way of revealing the mystery of the triune God? Take a look at his opening episode - here

O'Malley's hope is that this approach will make a difference to how people experience the Easter Triduum.  Join him every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the remainder of Lent - to participate in this project - and to see how it affects your experience of Triduum this year.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Discipleship of Christ-like Deeds

Here is the installment for the Fourth Sunday of Lent that will appear in my parish bulletin this weekend:

As baptized disciples of Jesus, we should be good examples of mature Catholic faith for adults preparing for baptism and children baptized as infants learning faith from us. We do this whenever we follow “supernatural inspiration” in our deeds. (RCIA 75) What does that mean? It means whenever we face a choice of how to act, we think first about what God would want us to do.  A popular expression describes this as “What Would Jesus Do?”   How do we know what God wants, or would Jesus would do in any situation? Our conscience tells us, sometimes quickly, sometimes after some period of prayer and discernment.  As Christians, our actions should never be ours alone. They should reflect the moral teachings of Jesus, Tradition and the teachings of the Church.   

We are called to be different – to go against the culture of the world in making decisions that are best for God’s plan, not just for “me” right now.  Jesus said it best:  “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)   
This is a call to see as God sees, not as man sees, as Samuel saw the potential king in the young David in the first reading this week. As disciples we need to have a well-trained conscience, know Scripture and Church teaching, and pray for God’s guidance in all we do - to see the right choice – God’s choice, not our human one.

Joyce Donahue, for the St. John’s Liturgy Planning Committee