Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spiritual Not Religious: All the Ashes, Without that Pesky Commitment to Church

Oh, you know it had to come to this.   And this.

Check out the reasons why people are liking drive-through ashes, or ashes given out on the street.  No time commitment, no need to be embarrassed about going into a church... Oh my.  Although I personally abhor the Catholic practice of distribution of ashes without Mass, which is only slightly better. At least with that, however, people darken the door of a church.

God IS certainly available on the go - but once a year, wouldn't it be nice to make one's self  available to God?  Wouldn't it be helpful to hear the Word of God, challenging us to spend 40 days reflecting on inner change? Better yet, to hear that AND receive the Eucharist, which is the nourishment which will strengthen us to keep our 40-day commitment to change.  Only then are we fully ready to claim in the ashes our sinfulness and our identity as belonging to Christ, marked with his Cross.

Ashes are NOT simply a blessing, as these Protestant churches imply.   Rather, they are a visible sign of our commitment . Might be nice to have some (commitment, that is). Just sayin' - this is what happens when a symbol gets a divorce from its accompanying ritual. It loses much of its original meaning and becomes something vaguely about "encountering Christ", devoid of its original connection to a concept of repentance. Postmodern reinvention, I guess. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Opening the Door for God’s Grace through the Sacrament of Penance

Sometimes, if you open a door, God will walk into your life and change it. I had that experience 14 years ago: I went to confession and a huge blockage in my life was resolved. Actually, the confession itself was nothing special, but what happened immediately afterward was. In fact, it changed the course of my life and was a clear sign for me that God is alive and active – and that all you have to do is open the door and let God in.

As a convert, I came to the Church initially because I felt my two sons needed me to help them understand the faith they would be learning about. My experience of the RCIA and of the parish rapidly became for me much more than that. I was soon an active volunteer in music, liturgy, catechesis and an active part of a very vital community.

Several years later, I was divorced. I had been out of the workforce for several years raising my children and the only job I could find was working as a secretary in a diocesan office, even though I had an M.A. in English and two additional years of graduate school. After a few years, with the support of the priest I worked for, I began studies for a Masters in Pastoral Studies, emphasis in liturgy. After graduation, it should have been easy, but jobs for liturgists who don’t play the organ are few. In addition, an unfortunate change of supervisors drove me to apply for any job that looked reasonable, secular or church. Although I had several interviews, nothing worked out. I was underemployed, disliked my job situation and was experiencing severe financial stress. Frankly, I became depressed.

Then I began to hear a voice in my head: “Bloom where you’re planted,” it said – at random times. Now, as a former English major, I abhor clich├ęs – and never use them willingly. I knew instinctively that voice was not mine. I was frankly annoyed, but the voice was rather insistent.

About that time, I had an unsettling experience. Unexpectedly, I was asked to provide music for an Ignatian retreat for diocesan deacons, but when participating in one of the guided reflections, I saw the faces of three people who had recently died, and for whom I had a lot of unresolved grief. That upset me greatly and prevented me from going forward with the meditation. God, the retreat master explained, was apparently trying to tell me something through these people. I needed to journal, pray and listen, he advised. A month later, I made my Cursillo, out of a strong sense that I really needed to be there, despite the fact that I was having some major health issues

It was during the weekend that it happened. We had a communal celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. I made my confession to an elderly retired priest whom I knew very well, who occasionally assisted with Masses at my parish. Father Richter was a fine priest of the old school, kindly, but not particularly creative with the sacrament. My brief confession was pretty much pro forma – I remember vaguely expressing regret for my bad attitude and asking for God’s help. He assigned me three “Our Fathers and a Hail Mary” for my penance.

After absolution, I started to walk across the chapel back to my seat. Halfway there, that annoying voice again in my head: “Bloom where you’re planted.” For the first time, I confronted the voice: “I can’t bloom where I’m planted, God! I hate where I’m planted!” I thought. “THEN PLANT YOURSELF WHERE YOU CAN BLOOM!!” I was stunned. It was so obvious – yet I had never even considered looking for work outside of the city where I had lived for the past 19 years, where all my friends – and my sons – lived.

What followed was an intensive job search. Eventually, a job opened up – a parish that was seeking a liturgy director unexpectedly also needed a director of religious education and it turned out I was actually qualified for both, so a joint position was created. I had found my way and I knew that it had not been on my own.

Would it have happened without that moment when the grace of the Sacrament allowed me to open up the door to God? Probably. God will always find a way. However, now I know better than to dismiss the notion that sacraments do what they say they do. By removing what was blocking my vision and forward progress in that moment, God had provided me with a way through that allowed me to follow His plan for me.

I used this story in parent meetings for First Reconciliation when I worked in the parish. It is my witness to the gift that sacrament can be in our lives. I know that God will sometimes use the openness and vulnerability that we can experience through Penance to open us to His will.

That day as I celebrated the sacrament, I had unlocked a door in my heart and left it open, just for a moment. God took that opportunity and walked in – not to fix the problem (I still had a lot of searching, discerning and waiting to do) but to allow me to hear God’s will for my life: “Leave your country and your people and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) I may not have found the promised land, but I found my vocation, through the grace and guidance of God.

This is a Catholic Blog Day post. Please visit this page to see links to other posts for today on the topic of Penance.

Rick Santorum: Why We Need Adult Catechesis on Social Justice and Stewardship

Rick Santorum, Catholic Republican candidate gets the pro-life part (well, at least the anti-abortion part).  That is undeniable - and why many Catholics lionize him. Well and good.   What he does not seem to understand, however,  is the social justice teachings of the Church, or the teachings on stewardship of the earth. His recent remarks on the latter lead me to think that either he was the victim of inadequate catechesis (very probable, given his age and what was going on with catechesis) or he was simply asleep when his catechists talked about these things. This is a good summary of what he said - and his explanation afterward.

In effect, he sees the earth as something here for humans to dominate for their own needs... and thinking about what that might do in terms of damage to animals or to future generations is something he does not consider important. By calling this "theology" he implies this is somehow biblical. Since he touts his Catholicism, it rubs off on the Church when he is wrong, because people hear him and think that's what it means to be Catholic.

I'm going to ignore the "phony theology" line, since that has already been much discussed.  But the explanation of  why he thinks President Obama is wrong about the environment is telling.  Santorum, frankly, needs to re-read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which not only talks about "dominion" over the earth, but about "respect for the integrity of Creation:"
2415 The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
Please, Mister Santorum. Read your Catechism before representing Catholic teaching. Go ask your pastor or your local director of religious education for a good summary of  Catholic teaching if you don't have time for the whole Catechism.  You are frankly an embarrassment to the Church when you mis-state theology to promote your agenda.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why John Stewart is Wrong About Catholics

This picture is making the rounds of the social networks this week, showing a recent remark made by John Stewart of the Daily Show.  While Stewart may think he is being funny,equating the recent dissatisfaction of the Catholic bishops about the HHS mandate with a child's temper tantrum, his quotation is being posted by various atheists and Catholic haters as evidence that the Church is wrong.

What this ignorant remark misses is that for Catholics, our mission, given to us by Jesus Christ and carried out through the apostolic mandate of the Church for the past 2000 years, is to change the world to make it reflect Christ's teachings, not simply to accept injustice or things that are morally unacceptable and walk away. We are, in fact, sent into the world from every Mass to bring the truth of the Gospel into that world.

If the "society" Stewart speaks of is wrong or unjust, we Catholics have a missionary mandate to work to change injustice in that society.  In this case, the injustice is in the government attempting to force Catholic and other religious  institutions to provide access to birth control (including abortifacient drugs) as part of insurance plans, which in the case of Catholics, is simply directly against the teachings of the Church. The core of the teachings about birth control and abortion is that we are always in favor of God's action through human reproduction to create new life. We simply believe that the prevention of, or the ending of that new life for our own personal convenience is against God's will - because life is always the will of God.

Far from being about "getting everything we want", this is actually more about getting what God wants. Genesis 1:28 says "be fruitful and multiply."  The fifth commandment says "You shall not kill."  Put the two together and you have the reason why Catholics reject both birth control and abortion (including any drug that causes abortion). Regardless of the personal belief of individual members, many of whom, influenced by the norms of American society and desire for their own personal convenience, dissent from these teachings, the Church continues to teach that all sexual relations between a husband and wife must be open to the creation of new life. New life, once conceived (defined as an egg fertilized by a sperm, even before implantation) must never be ended by human intervention.

Agree, disagree, it does not matter. It is simply what the Church teaches. The constitutional right to religious freedom in the United States demands that this teaching be honored. While the Church can wish that all Americans would abide by this,  that is not even the point. Catholic institutions have the right to follow the Church's teaching, and by the principle of religious freedom, no government can ask them to do otherwise. Why the Obama administration believes that this matter is even negotiable for the bishops is simply beyond my ability to understand.  I will not mention here all the various arguments about the particulars or the wider moral implications of that mandate or of the so-called "modification", as the USCCB and numerous other Catholic bloggers have certainly done that.

However, I want to make the point that those who are spreading this quotation in apparent agreement don't have any idea who we are as Catholics, why for the majority of faithful, practicing Catholics this government mandate is a challenge to our very identity, or why we simply will never back down. It is not that we are childishly objecting to not having our own way. It is quite simply that any government attempt to force Catholics to do something against the teachings of the Church is never going to be acceptable.  Ever.  Doesn't even matter if individual Catholics personally support that teaching. Most Catholics do, however, support the right for our Church to have that teaching, for the right for that teaching to apply to us as American citizens, and for the right of our institutions to make decisions about health care that are consonant with that teaching.  John Stewart is simply dead wrong to imply we are having a temper tantrum.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

So, Where is the Wow When YOU Talk About Faith?

Just watched an interesting video, from the marketing perspective by Tom Peters, a noted writer on business and management practices, best-known for In Search of Excellence (co-authored with Robert h. Waterman, Jr.) In this video, Peters basically says that the language we use matters when we are trying to put out a message.  "If you want an energetic place, use energetic language," he says.
What does that have to say for the way we speak in church and about our Catholic faith? Do we express the "Wow"?  Or, do we express that we are the tired, the overworked, and the somewhat discouraged?  Do we have an affect that invites, or one that puts off? Do we tell our faces we have the joy of the Lord?

Father James Martin, famously in his latest book , Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life  and his presentations on it, urges Catholics to drop the sad-sack attitude and realize that our faith is filled with joy. He reminds us that Jesus was all about joy.
So, if Jesus was about joy, why DON'T we show it more often in parish ministry? Are we too bound up in worrying about whether people learn to follow the rules? Are we feeling vaguely discouraged in our ministry because of overwork, lack of sufficient staff, low salary and lack of affirmation? Most likely many of us are the latter these days. Still, there is no substitute for helping people find the joy of a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the main part of our job description. We were not hired merely to see that the trains run on time, but to be part of the mission of the Church. "The Church," as we are told in Evangelii nuntiandi 14: "exists to evangelize."

So, how do we do that well. Father Robert Barron, in a video just posted this week, points out that too often Catholics present our faith as being all about morality and sexual ethics... and we fail to remind people often enough that first it is about Jesus. In doing so, we hamper our efforts to evangelize.
So, knowing all this, how do we put the "Wow" back in our message? I would say it must be a conscious choice.  It all goes back to the FISH Philosophy  which originated from watching the fish-throwing folks in the shop in Seattle:

So, today, can you make a pact with yourself and the Lord to choose YOUR attitude?  To find ways to express the "Wow" that is the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Father James Mallon Presentation

The full podcast of Father James Mallon's presentation in the Diocese of Joliet on December 8 can now be found here:

 "Rooted in Christ, Trusting in the Spirit: Building for Parish Renewal in 2012 and Beyond..."

These are about an hour long each.  Be sure to look at the PDF of his proposal to his diocese, posted on the bottom of the page.

(See my previous post on the topic of renewing our methods for engaging non-involved families who seek sacraments in our parishes, HERE. )

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sacramentalizing the "Casual Catholic" Family - or Evangelizing Them?

Most parish directors of religious education are actually pretty creative people. They are continually devising new strategies to try to get barely-connected families to be serious about their involvement in their children's faith formation. (Often against their will.) Many in our diocese make use of annual pre-sacrament  parent meetings to urge parents to get involved by bringing their children to Mass on a regular basis, praying and reading Scripture at home and talking about their faith with their children. They give inspiring talks, show videos, facilitate group process, and send home family projects. Some use various formats of intergenerational gatherings to involve the entire family on site at the parish.  They spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to get parents to step up to their responsibility for their children's faith formation.

While these are certainly good practices, and certainly they have some effect, how difficult it is to reach these folks meaningfully with the good news of Jesus Christ becomes painfully apparent when most of them disappear from the parish after the last child receives that all-important Confirmation certificate. They pretty much have what they came for. Now they can move on. They will come back to church for weddings, baptisms, and funerals, and perhaps on Christmas and Easter... or not. Some even blithely tell parish leaders that they promised their teen that after Confirmation they no longer have to come to Mass.  These are the "casual Catholic" families. They really only want to know how much the sacrament will "cost" them in terms of money and time. They will mostly give as little of both as possible.  A few may have enough good will to volunteer for ministries while their children are in formation, but even many of these do not remain after the Oil of Chrism is dry on their child's forehead.

What's missing and why don't these strategies work very well.? Simple. Many parents quite often don't have much faith themselves to share with their children. They may have a conventional sense that faith is important, but they really don't have a strong relationship with Jesus Christ.  While intergenerational programs offer more opportunity for engagement, they are missing something very important: opportunities for the parents to experience real and meaningful  conversion of their own. 

Enter Father James Mallon. Father Mallon, the Canadian priest behind Catholicism 201 (the follow up to Alpha for Catholics) and Dogmatic Theology. He is a man with a plan. When he spoke in our diocese on December 8, he described his method... and proposed some models.  (The full presentation can be heard HERE .)

What Father James proposes is that we stop spending the bulk of our energy on those who are not serious about their faith. Not that we abandon those barely-connected families, but that we no longer tolerate the status quo by enabling them to get those sacraments they want from us for a minimal temporary commitment.  He is convinced that people make lots of promises in the course of sacrament preparation they never intend to keep. He spoke of it as "ritualized lying".  We set people up for this when we allow them to celebrate sacraments and make promises within that celebration, knowing full well they are not really ready and have no sense of commitment to those promises.

Father Mallon explained, as an example, how when a couple comes to him seeking a church marriage, before he sets up the preparation and the wedding date, he first asks them to start coming to Mass on a regular basis to get to know him and the community, and to go through the Alpha Course for Catholics, a small-group evangelization process.  Some will balk at this, a few will go away, but many decide to go through this.  So do many parents who bring children for baptism, or children for other sacraments. Those who do engage in this process, apparently, stay and become a part of  St. Benedict in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a very growing and lively parish, which has been described as the "Willow Creek" of Canada.  Everyone in the parish is considered to be on an active faith journey... they are truly a parish that has become a "learning community." Everyone in the parish is asked in some way to participate in the stewardship of time and talent -  and time is not just time spent in service, it is also time spent in prayer and developing one's spiritual life.

What about the families who are already engaged and active and lifelong members of the parish?  Father Mallon says you need to stop lumping them in with the inactive people and treating them all the same. That might mean you offer something deeper for those who are ready - a separate track, as it were... small groups, perhaps, but using resources that acknowledge they are further along on their journey of faith.

So, what difference would it make in your parish if everyone were asked to become part of a small-group evangelizing process before they or their children receive sacraments? If they were helped to see why God and faith and the Church really matter (in a program such as Alpha for Catholics) If they were all expected to be and assisted to be on a faith journey? If they were all tapped for time and talent? 

Do you think parents might stop telling their kids that after Confirmation they never have to go to Mass again?  Do you think they would be more engaged and active in the parish?  What would YOU do if you could, to evangelize and engage the disconnected folks who only seek us out when they want sacraments?  Can you start thinking differently about the focus of your efforts with parents - to change from making it about their children's faith to making it about their own faith?