Monday, May 30, 2011

What if We did Theological Reflection on Using Technology in Worship?

Father Paul Turner, whose address to the 9th liturgical congress at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome I mentioned in my last post, asks some provocative questions of the Academy about culture and liturgy, including about the potential use of technology in worship: 
We could also use some theological reflection on the uses of technology. St. Peter’s Square has introduced big screens for papal celebrations. Should we be imitating these in our parishes? Is video projection a natural outgrowth of our adoption of microphones and electric lights, which replace acoustically sound buildings and the play of candlelight? If so, then what does this say about the incarnational theology that has made the Catholic Church one of the greenest assemblages of believers around, encountering God in bread and wine, water and ash, palm branch and olive oil, perfume, bare feet, the phases of the moon, the rising of the sun, the music of the human voice, and the hallowed place of pipe organs? Is there a theology of technology that would help develop our liturgies? Would there be fewer concerns over the printed translation of the third edition of the missal if we used electronic readers instead of hardbound books? Is the controversy over the missal ultimately homage to the printing press? What if we got updates to the translation as frequently as our hard drives downloaded updates to their software? How might that change the authority within the church and the prayer of the people of God?
Definitely food for thought.  The large-screen thing maybe not so out there - we do that at large diocesan events already, such as our Youth Leadership Conference, and some parishes already use screens for the words to the songs. I suspect that may be a practice that will gradually spread - especially in large parishes, where visibility in a huge worship space can be poor for many.  In our diocese, for example, new churches must be built to seat at least 1100.  When spaces are full for Easter and Christmas, remote TV screens don't really seem that out of the realm of possibility.

Using a reader and not a book, however, will probably take longer to catch on.  Perhaps less so for the Missal than the Lectionary, which of itself, is a symbol.  (I cannot imagine the priest or deacon reverencing an e-reader by kissing it, or holding it up for the Assembly to see!)  However, there have already been stories in the news about a few priests using readers at the altar, which most reporters treated as a gimmick rather than a sensible alternative.  It would definitely require priests to do some pre-Mass setup with his choices of prayers ahead of Mass, but would certainly be easier for a younger altar server to hold a reader than the heavy new Missal!

What Father Turner proposes in his paper, is not simply about the use of technology.  His entire address is calling for a truly updated engagement of liturgical practice and current culture (including ethnic multiculturalism, attitudes about marriage and more).  Since our use of technology is becoming the hallmark of today's culture, it is appropriate that we ask these questions.  Thanks, Father Turner, for having the courage to "go there."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Confirmation: The Sacrament in Search of Pastoral Practice

Today, in my mostly Hispanic parish in inner-city Joliet, we will celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation with 80 or so young people.  As one of the parish catechists, I have walked with 21 of them this year.  As a parish musician, I will have the privilege of helping them celebrate. But for many of them, I suspect, this is simply the end of a process that was pretty much pasted onto their teenage years. Despite my best efforts, I am betting  most of them will simply go through the motions of the ritual and then go on with their lives as if it never happened.  It will be merely a memory in a photo album of a day they got dressed up, went to church and then had a family party.

I know there were a few moments of evangelizing catechesis this year, but that may not make up for an entire life already spent in minimal connection to the Church and to faith. Of the 21 teens, only about 3 acknowledged regular Mass attendance. For the rest, it was occasional, or never, even though we talked about it at almost every session. Trusting in the grace of the sacrament today, I know this is for their good and part of God's plan for them somehow, and I can only hope that at least some will experience further conversion later in life and come to the practice of their faith.  I'd like to think that something I said or did will remain in their memory and someday come to fruition. However, as a catechist, I can truly say, this was not my problem, but a problem with how the Church has presented Confirmation.

The text of a recent speech by Father Paul Turner to the 9th liturgical congress at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome (posted over at the PrayTell blog) tells part of the story:
The utter absence of consistent pastoral practice around the world reflects a theology of confirmation in disarray. A sacrament applied to various somewhat related circumstances, confirmation continues to frustrate parents whose teens refuse to attend catechesis, children who think it has everything to do with the bishop, and bishops who enjoy visiting parishes but would prefer to spend their time in a broader exercise of pastoral leadership. Confirm a child of catechetical age at the Easter Vigil, and many parents will wonder how a non-Catholic kid younger than their own can get confirmed, but theirs cannot. The Academy has provided some helpful elucidation, but not enough to effect changes. Parishes struggle to make sense of confirmation, and the best we can do is to reassure parents that the frustration is not their fault.
I suspect that teen participants in the preparation process are similarly confused. The insistence that teens re-memorize formal prayers and Mass responses they have forgotten because they never use them, that they suddenly engage in "service hours" and attend a mandatory retreat, along with the requirements to pick a saint they may have never heard of before and to connect on faith issues with a sponsor can make this entire process a foreign country from which teens are glad to receive their exit visa (the Confirmation certificate).

When we insist that teens attend two years of religious education prior to Confirmation (common in my diocese and supported by policy) and make that two years seem like a review of everything they should have learned, because we are pretty sure none of them will come back ever for further catechesis, we shoot ourselves in the foot.  We get what we expect: teens who see this as their last catechesis... because catechesis is something in which they are forced to participate.  Like mandatory day-school attendance, this can seem like a "sentence" to time served, enforced by parents, until they grow up and can make other choices for how to spend their time.

While there is some pastoral wisdom out there (I recently heard Sr. Gael Gensler advise a group of parish DRE's that a sponsor for Confirmation should be someone embedded in the parish community life and should be chosen at the beginning of Confirmation preparation instead of near the end), I suspect that by-in-large, we have not made much progress in making sense of Confirmation.  Instead of a relational, community-immersed apprenticeship in the life of Christian discipleship, most parishes continue to present classroom-model instruction that is minimally formational and does not provide opportunities for spiritual conversion beyond the obligatory retreat.

I know I cannot fix this by myself. Next year, faced with another group of teens, I will struggle valiantly to supplement the program with whatever I can to evangelize them, but I fear I will always fall short for most of the teens - because of the insufficient structures and systems the Church has continued to provide and the limited resources of my one-DRE-with-no-assistance parish.  I can't change the world, but maybe, just maybe I can change a heart or two.  I pray that today, at least a few of "my" kids will receive the sacrament with hearts open to God's grace.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rapture, Revisited

Wow - all the scuttlebutt on the blogs, Facebook and Twitter about 89-year-old Rev. Harold Camping's claim, based on some arcane numerology involving scripture,  that the Rapture ("Judgment Day") will occur on May 21 (tomorrow) has me reminiscing.  There was the Millennium thing - when many people thought it would happen at the stroke of midnight January 1, 2000.  Then, with the popularity of the Left Behind book series, there was a resurgence of interest between then and 2003. The thing that frightened me then was that so many Catholics were reading these books or absorbing the message that Scripture says a Rapture is part of the end-times scenario. 

After an experience with a catechist who was teaching kids that there was a "Rapture," I was privileged to "ghostwrite" the CCI (Catholic Conference of Illinois) "Statement on Left Behind Books and Videos" - and during the process came to the conclusion that better catechesis about what the Church really teaches about the End Times is part of the solution. The bishops agreed:  We, the Catholic Bishops of Illinois, call upon those responsible for faith formation to provide planned, coherent, and informed catechesis to all age groups about Church teachings on the end of the world, based on scripture and tradition.

While there has been some minor progress - at least one book and an article in a major national magazine was written in response to the statement -  I am afraid the information has not filtered down to the average Catholic. Still, it is heartening that most people are joking about tomorrow because they realize that Rev. Camping is a crackpot and that his private revelation, based on the numbers, predicting tomorrow's non-event is just one more in a series of dire predictions about the end of the world and is nonsense.

Tomorrow night, as I join other members of National Association of Catholic Media Professionals (NACMP) at their evening social before the NCCL annual conference in Atlanta, I will lift a glass with the others, celebrating the Rapture that wasn't.  We will not know the day nor the hour of Christ's coming.  It is a clear case of MYOB and don't worry about it. Jesus will come when he gets here. And he is only making the return trip once.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Does the Silence Have to Teach Us?

Today I was privileged to participate in a Mass in our Pastoral Center chapel to welcome our new Bishop-elect, Most Rev. R. Daniel Conlon, who will be installed as Bishop of Joliet on July 14.  Much  shorter than our tall auxiliary, Bishop Siegel, he entered almost unobtrusively at the end of the opening procession, took his place at the presider's chair and began the Greeting in a confident, resonant voice.  Impressive.

Delivery of the prayers - excellent. Homily - short, pithy and totally appropriate.

Even more impressive, however, was his observance of significant periods of silence during the Mass.  Even more than what he said, was the space he left around the words. When he said "Let us pray," he actually allowed enough silence for all present to bring a thought to mind - something few presiders bother to do. He did this several times during the Mass.

I came away with a clear impression that Bishop Conlon cares deeply about the celebration of the Mass - but even more deeply about the ability of the faithful to be part of it. Good qualities to be sure.

Why is the experience of silence during Mass essential?  Pacing, rhythm and space have as much to do with good liturgy as the spoken parts.  In the silences, we can either gather our prayers into one, or just wonder when the presider will continue.  In the silences, we can either meditate on the proclamation of the Word that we have just heard, or gather wool - our choice.  What makes the difference?  Good catechesis on knowing why we have silence in the liturgy at all.

In the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#45), we are told, “Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times.”  It is "sacred" because it is in the silence that we meet the holiness of God - and discover the depths of the holiness of our relationship to God and to the Body of Christ.

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship 118 fleshes out this wisdom about silence during liturgy:
118. Music arises out of silence and returns to silence. God is revealed both in the beauty of song and in the power of silence. The Sacred Liturgy has its rhythm of texts, actions, songs, and silence. Silence in the Liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated. Ministers and pastoral musicians should take care that the rites unfold with the proper ebb and flow of sound and silence. The importance of silence in the Liturgy cannot be overemphasized.
During the Mass, we are to have silence at these five times:
• at the Act of Penitence (to reflect on our sins and God's forgiveness)
• after the priest says, “Let us pray” before the Opening Prayer (to allow us to gather our intentions for prayer - which is why it is also called the Collect.)
• after each reading from Scripture   (to reflect on what we have just heard)
• after the homily  (to reflect on what we have just heard)
• after all have received Communion  (to allow time for people to pray privately in thanksgiving to Christ in the Eucharist.)

This last silence is perhaps the least practiced and the least understood.  During the Communion procession and song, we are all actually to be singing, lending our voice to the thanksgiving of the assembled Body of Christ. It is only after that, when the presider sits after the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle, that it is time for personal prayer.

The final "Let us pray" at today's Mass spoke volumes. We were being given permission to add our own prayers - that this new bishop, newly appointed and sent to us - will be a channel of God's Grace for the Diocese of Joliet.  Somehow, I think he will.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

End-of-the-Year Reflections on Confirmation Catechesis with Hispanic Kids

It was with mixed feelings of regret and relief that I finished up my final class yesterday with 21 confirmandi from my parish. They have been great kids - and I wish them well.  The next time I see them will be at the celebration of Confrmation in a couple of weeks, when they join 60 other parish teens to receive the anointing that will complete their initiation into the Church.  I live in hope that for at least some of them, I made a difference this year. I like to think I saw some glimmers of understanding and engagement, however.  I also hope they know how much I care about each one of them.

While teaching has normally been a bit "like falling off a log" for me, I have to admit this was a hugely challenging year.  These children of immigrants, who live in the cusp between the Hispanic culture and the mainstream American one, were largely a closed book. They were reluctant to participate in class, though I used story, was often personally revelatory in an effort to model how faith sharing is done,  asked questions that related to their lives, some one-on-one sharing activities, and more. I even used that ice-breaker "beach-ball" with the questions on it that students are supposed to answer when they catch the ball. Sadly, the only time they seemed to be fully engaged all year was during the final two classes - and the engagement was not around the lesson, but was about the pressure they felt as they were being asked to complete the recitation of their required memorized prayers. Not exactly my highest catechetical priority, frankly - but individual accountability apparently hit them where they live.

I have to admit I had some sense of relief a few Saturdays ago when an experienced retreat leader, my friend John Donahue-Grosssman, admitted to me during a break in the Confirmation retreat that he had trashed his plan for the day and was re-tooling his approach - because the kids were not responding to the usual ice-breaker activities. We had arrived at nearly the end of the morning and the kids were still stiffly sitting there giving each other very minimal answers to the faith-sharing questions.  It was not just me, apparently. These kids ARE hard nuts to crack.

I shared with John the wisdom I had received at the beginning of the year from the diocesan leader for Hispanic youth ministry - that the greatest issue for these kids is self-esteem.  I mentioned that the parish catechists, in their mid-year meeting, had expressed a concern that they did not understand these students - and wanted help in learning who they are.  That, for John, affirmed his sense that he needed to do some values-clarification and affirmation exercises with them.  His afternoon with them was more successful, but he admitted this was hard work.

Why were these Hispanic teens (from a recent immigrant population) difficult to catechize?  First, obviously, is that self-esteem issue. Most were reluctant to share personal thoughts or feelings on any topic, even when I worked overtime to help them feel "safe" in our group. It wasn't even peer pressure in the normal sense - since these kids went to a variety of different day schools, and were at several different grade levels and only a few knew each other outside of class.  A few of them were less reluctant to participate, but even their example was not enough to galvanize the rest of them into participation.

They have one foot in each culture - and each child has a different mixture of elements. Some were familiar with traditional Hispanic devotional activities because their families still practice them. Some regularly attended Spanish Mass. For most of the others, however, this was not true. Activities in catechetical texts often assume the students have full familiarity with elements of American culture. That, frankly, was not true for my group.  Also, as a musician, I like to use music in the faith formation classroom - but I never knew which church music to use to illustrate a point with these kids, because they attend Spanish Mass when they do go - and  I only know some of the bilingual music - which was not familiar to them.  Liturgical catechesis - on the symbols of water, oil etc. worked a little better than some other things - but largely throughout the year, the only signs of  understanding were pretty much non-verbal: the widening of the eyes and leaning forward, the sudden abandonment of the typical bored-teen facial expression and body language.

Did I reach them? Did I make a difference?  I hope so. I know I planted a lot of seeds. I hope they know know that God made each of them a unique, valuable person and loves them unconditionally, that Jesus came to save them and to be their friend, support and nourishment, and that their parents had them baptized (and confirmed) because they care.  I hope they understand the importance of the sacramental life and that these initiation sacraments call them to participate in the celebration of the Mass and in active engagement with the Body of Christ - the faith community.  I hope they know that the community of St. John the Baptist - and indeed the Catholic Church - cares about them and can serve as support and a home-base that will be there for them in their deepest hour of need. I hope they know that I care about who they are and who they will become - and about their faith life, present and future.

I will be praying for them between now and Confirmation and beyond.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How DO We Reach People with the News that Faith has Something to do With Life?

Something I have been struggling with for the past couple of years is a sense that the Church is not doing a very good job of reaching many of its people in ways that truly foster a living faith.  It is a great source of frustration that catechetical ministers try harder than ever, but somehow we still  seem to be losing ground with many of the families that bring children pretty much only for formation for sacraments.

When we see classrooms full of students preparing for First Eucharist and Confirmation  who seldom, if ever, attend Mass - and who have difficulty articulating just why it is important that they prepare for and receive the sacraments - that tells us that many people reach adulthood without understanding the big "why" of faith and its practice and that they pass on this cluelessness to their children.  There seems to be a pervasive belief that sacraments are like diplomas that parents should make sure their children receive - so there is evidence that they were good parents and did all the expected stuff on the "good parenting list."  There is little sense that Sacraments of Initiation have anything to do with commitment to the Church and the faith community.

Even worse, some parents seem to think they can "custom-order" sacraments to fit their expectations - like the woman who screamed at me on the phone recently because she had just found out that her daughter would not be confirmed by a bishop. (This year, in our diocese, since we are waiting for a new bishop and our auxiliary cannot possibly do all Confirmations, pastors were given permission to Confirm in their parishes.) Obviously this was not the ceremony the woman felt she had paid for with her daughter's tuition and sacrament fee.  The obligatory photos with the bishop would not be available for her daughter's album.  Her tone and anger were the same as if she were scolding the florist for her daughter's wedding because she had heard there would be no roses available for the wedding bouquets.  It was as if this experience for her was simply a commodity - something to be purchased to provide her family with an expected experience and the expected memorabilia. She is far from alone in that attitude.

So, how DO we reach the kids while we still have them in formal catechesis - and the adults who need "remedial" formation?  By the authentic proclamation of the story of faith and true welcome into the community.  We have baptized and initiated people who have not necessarily experienced the kind of life-changing formation that leads to conversion.  We have failed to pass on the story. Frankly, if the Church is to continue, we need to do better.

By the "story" I actually mean, the stories. The BIG STORY of Jesus Christ, his revelation of the Father to us through his teachings, his life, death and resurrection - plus the authentic stories of people in the community who have a living faith. We need to proclaim the kerygma again and again, until people hear it.  The community of faith also needs to tell its stories.  The RCIA process, during which an adult is drawn into the embrace of the community through story, witness and an apprenticeship of relationship to community members willing to share their own faith is a perfect model of how this works.

In my own experience as a convert 24 years ago, I most remember the stories.  There was my sponsor, Don, who was schooled by religious sisters who instilled in him a living sense that God loved him.   There was Jerry, who as a protestant spouse of a Catholic dutifully attended Mass for 11 years with his wife, until someone finally asked him why he was not a Catholic... so he was one of the first to go through the restored RCIA. There was Sarah, who had been a faithful Catholic all her life, raised a large family, and had been active in liturgical ministry for years.  There was the dedication of Sister Theresa, who led the RCIA and enabled people to share their stories of faith and relationship to the Church.  As we studied various formational topics and broke open the Sunday scriptures, I not only heard the story of Jesus Christ and his Church, but I heard many stories from the life experiences of those on the RCIA team.

These stories and others, I remember, along with the loving welcome of the community of St. James parish in Rockford, where after the Rite of Acceptance, I was given a warm personal welcome by many individuals that I still treasure to this day. The connections I developed over the next few years were part of what helped make me truly and deeply Catholic, and propelled me into ministry.  I may not remember much of the specific doctrinal items that were presented during my RCIA process, but I clearly remember the stories, the people and the relationships.

So, how do we reach the people on the margins of the Church who need this experience of the faith stories and the welcome?  Another chicken-and-egg conundrum, I am afraid.  How does the community reveal itself to people who seldom if ever come to the parish - and then only to drop their children off?  If they do come to Mass occasionally, that is only slightly better - because they at least hear the Gospel.  However, the likelihood of them experiencing the witness of the community or any connection to it is slim.

That puts a huge burden on those "captive audience" moments - the parent meetings and other experiences when they are present.  Directors of Religious Education, Youth Ministers, and those who lead these kinds of experiences need to be authentic and powerful proclaimers of the Good News in scripture and story. We don't get many chances to reach people - so we had better not waste the opportunities we have.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Arrogance of Interpreting God's Will According to Our Own Desires

This morning the news media and internet are buzzing with reactions to Osama Bin Laden's death in Pakistan. Images of waving American flags are everywhere, and Irving Berlin's classic "God Bless America" seems to have found its place as the anthem of the moment, as people literally dance in the streets all over the country.  President Obama has raked in his political hay, claiming this is an example of how "Americans can do anything if we put our mind to it."

Why does this feel so jarring?  All I have felt ever since learning of Bin Laden's death has been a pervasive sense of sadness.  A human being died. An act of righteous retribution has been carried out. Is the world a better place? Will terrorism cease? Not necessarily - all that can be assured is that many people feel this act of revenge has been long overdue.

Greg Kandra over at The Deacon's Bench blog has reminded us of Jesus' command to love our enemies - and how hard this is in this situation.  My own son, in the Air Force, has admitted he found it hard not to have mixed feelings as his base exploded into celebration last night.  It is not wrong or unpatriotic to feel conflicted. It is simply Christian.  If we believe that the merciful will receive mercy, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, that the peacemakers are the children of God, we should feel somber and reflective. 

No doubt there is a sense that justice has been done. Yet Osama was a man who also saw himself as fulfilling the wishes of his God. Jihad, however misinterpreted by extremist Muslims, is holy war - conducted to cleanse the earth of unbelievers. On the flip side is the sentiment that, as one woman told a TV reporter, that Osama is burning in Hell and deserves it.  Both Muslim extremists and Americans, in effect, see themselves as having carried out the will of God.

However, whose will is all this?  Did God want thousands of innocent people to die in the twin towers? Osama and other militant Muslim extremists would say yes.  Did the America carry out the will of God  in killing this human being for what he did in masterminding this event?  Most Americans would say yes.  Both, however, cannot be right.

What we have here is two different views on the will of God.  However, based on the words of his Son, neither is necessarily correct.  An "eye for an eye" is an Old Testament concept.  "Love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" are Jesus's revision. Which is God's will in this situation? This is one of those questions to ask when we finally see God face-to-face.  No doubt some will hear God say "That wasn't what I had in mind at all." Maybe all of us will hear that.  In our human arrogance, do we dare act as if we know the answer?