Saturday, May 26, 2012

Who Creates & Gifts You? A Pentecost Reflection

The graphic below, presenting a quotation from George Bernard Shaw, is currently making the rounds on the internet - among those who are either atheists or "spiritual but not religious".  A quick search shows that it is quoted frequently in blog posts by atheists and in self-actualization posts.  It certainly portrays the heart of the post-modern sensibility:

From what I could find, no one can pinpoint the exact source of this quotation in terms of when Shaw said it - but since it involves a sense of  human potential and progress a look at the history of his spiritual life would most likely put it after he rejected atheism at age 30, when he became a "mystic" who believed we evolve as humans because of a mysterious "life force."

Why is this quotation so compelling? Because it pretty much sums up secular humanism, the prevailing outlook of our culture, based on the absence of God in our lives and the full responsibility of humans for ourselves.  It is attractive, because it puts the power of who we become in our hands.  It is also frightening, because if we fail, then it is simply our own fault, despite the circumstances of our life which might make "creating yourself" difficult.

However, for Christians, this outlook denies the action of the Holy Spirit, who bestows on each of us specific gifts and talents. If we take credit ourselves for all that we become, we miss that this really involves blessing - the God who knew us before we were in our mother's womb (Jer 1:5) and created us each as a uniquely gifted person.  Paul recognized this when he acknowledge in Galatians 1:15 "But when God, who from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through his grace..."

Certainly, it is up to each of us to reach the potential for which God created us - but WE certainly do not create ourselves. We cooperate with God's grace to become all we can be, using our gifts to build up the Kingdom of God in the world we live in, sometimes referred to as "co-creation"- but this is not our human work alone, nor is it equal partnership with God - rather it is submission of all that we are to the purpose of God.  It is not about who we become as independently empowered individuals, but about who we already are, through our unique giftedness in the Spirit, ratified in baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. We accept the action of sanctifying grace in our lives and allow IT to "create" us. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1999-2000).  The CCC further explains how this works:
Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit. Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church. (CCC 2005)
Certainly our purpose in the world is to become more and more holy - more like Christ, through exercise of the virtues. We can work on developing the "human virtues" of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, but these are the result of the "theological virtues" of faith, hope and charity, which are actually not our human work, but the work of God, in whom they originate. "They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive and object." (CCC 1812) You cannot by your own effort, make yourself have faith, hope or charity. Your job is to be open to them as gifts offered by God for you and for others.

This Pentecost, give thanks to God for the unique gifts with which the Spirit has filled you, pray for discernment on how to use those gifts to become more who God intends you to be. You cannot "create" yourself. You can only live in cooperation with your giftedness, call and destiny. God already knows who you can become. Let go of your egocentric clinging to self-empowerment and allow God to "create" who you will become.  In seeking his will, you will discover who you really are.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Year of Faith: Deepening Encounter, Understanding, Celebration and Witness

As most of you know, Pope Benedict has called for the universal church to celebrate a "Year of Faith" to begin October 11, 2012 (50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II) and end November 24, 2013 (Solemnity of Christ the King).  My friend Joe Paprocki recently wrote this great explanation and summary in his blog

The bottom line is that the goals of the Year of Faith are basically two: evangelization and catechesis.

The Pope is calling upon all levels of the Church to foster an encounter with Christ through faithful witnesses and to promote a deeper understanding of the faith. So how should diocesan and parish leaders prepare for this celebration? Read the pastoral recommendations from the Vatican, to start.

However, busy parish and diocesan ministers might benefit from the "Cliff's Notes version."   Here is a quick summary of the major themes on all levels of the Church:

  • encounter with faithful witnesses (Saints as witnesses)
  • understanding and renewing use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 
  • understanding and celebrating Vatican II
  • renewal of the Sacrament of Penance
  • intensification of celebration of the Eucharist 
  • general renewal of and commitment to Catholic faith
  • ecumenical dialog
  • renewal of personal efforts to communicate faith (evangelization)

FAITHFUL WITNESSES: I have mentioned the concept of "faithful witnesses" before in this space (most recently in my post on how to choose new catechists).  I cannot emphasize this enough. My own journey to faith in Jesus Christ and full engagement in the Catholic Church has been nurtured in the RCIA process and ever since by a number of faithful witnesses - and the memory of those people, living and deceased, is always with me every time I reflect on my faith journey. Their effect on me then and now has been to ground me in the beauty of a living relationship with Christ. Parishes might do well, in preparing for the YOF, to start discerning who the faithful witnesses are in their community - and scheduling opportunities for them to speak to the parish about how faith has impacted their lives.  Catechesis about the Saints is also a great way to help people connect with examples of those whose very lives are remembered because they were all about witness to their faith in Christ.

CATCHISM: Making the CCC,  the Adult Catechism, YouCat or the Compendium more available to parishioners by selling them at parish events or in the back of church to kick off the YOF might be a strategy. Other ways to do this would be to have speakers or sessions on the CCC, or engaging in group studies, such as Why Catholic?.  Parish websites, blogs and social media pages should reflect on and post quotations and links to where to purchase these resources. Remind catechists that it is there for them to use in faith formation sessions... and show them how to use it. The point is to bring the CCC out of the shadows and remind - and teach - people to use it.

VATICAN II: Focusing on the history and some of the outcomes of the Council through presentations, study groups, preaching, websites, blogs and social media, and general discussion is also a good strategy.  Twenty-Third Publications has a great group of inexpensive resources to do this in parishes.

PENANCE:  The revised Rite of Penance suggests a renewal of catechesis on the sacrament - always the elephant in the room for Catholics.  Parishes would do well to plan to provide catechesis through presentations, preaching, and ample resources on blogs, websites and social media... and ample opportunities for celebration. Busted Halo has a great video that would be good to embed on a parish website and/or direct people to from a social media page, for example.

INTENSIFICATION OF CELEBRATION OF EUCHARIST: OK, it's the dead horse we all love to beat:  parish liturgy is the best thing we can offer people - and if it stinks, many people go away. Any energy a parish puts into improving celebration of the Mass is never wasted. Better training for ministers, better preaching, better music, more intentional liturgical planning... you all know the drill. We can never slack off on this.  Liturgical catechesis through homilies. presentations and the bulletin on the Mass - many of us did this for the new Missal implementation. We really should never stop - this is a full-time initiative.

RENEWAL OF FAITH:  Plan those parish missions now!  Get the best, most inspirational speakers - and make this not just an opportunity for people to show up and listen.. but to engage actively in further discussion, small faith-sharing groups, and more.  Be more intentional about adult faith formation - and more active in promoting it.

ECUMENICAL DIALOG: While this is the ongoing responsibility of the Vatican on a universal level, raising awareness of the ongoing dialogs and initiatives - and helping people claim a spirit of ecumenism is an agenda item for all in the Church.  The very least thing parishes should do is to pray for unity among Christians on a regular basis. Catechists and leaders need to be formed about the ecumenical teachings of the Church. (More on that in subsequent posts in this space.)

COMMUNICATING FAITH:  Encourage this by example through parish blogs and social media and public events and service in the community that invite others to experience the love of Christ.  Teach those who take communion to the sick to spend time talking about Christ.  Teach your parish food pantry minsters to give people a blessing and express to them that Jesus loves them, even though (especially because) they are poor. Talk about faith and the workplace in homilies, bulletin articles and presentations...  the possibilities are endless.

Every diocese and local parish can all come up with ways to make the Year of Faith a good and effective experience of renewal of the Church.  Don't waste the opportunity. Start planning now.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Liturgical Spirituality On the Beach

Yesterday, I had the enviable opportunity to spend 2 hours on the beach at Laguna Beach, on my way to a conference in San Diego. It was a glorious moment - the blue of the sky and the crash of the surf, combined with the cries of gulls - a chance to dip my toes in the Pacific for the first time and to wander the kelp-strewn beach looking at the rocks, the surf, and a few tiny mollusks and hermit crabs in stolen shells in the tidal pools. There were seagulls and a few people to watch as well - families with children, couples, older folks, a couple of enterprising surfers... but it was rather uncrowded, so there was plenty of room for introspection.

As I wandered, I found myself humming - snatches of psalms, bits of praise songs, they rose up from the musical archives in my brain unbidden... It was a time to appreciate the glorious beauty of God's Creation - in all its beauty and power. Call me a church geek, but as a cantor and psalmist, the psalms are my native  prayerbook... and the naturalness of this is a side-effect of 25 years of being steeped in the Catholic liturgy, and being part of a Franciscan parish for the past 10 years.  There is no finer soundtrack to the beauty of nature. Praise the Lord. His works are marvelous!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mother Dolores Hart's Love Story Teaches the Power of Vocation

When I heard that a short film about a cloistered nun had been nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year, I was fascinated, as were many people, that such a thing could be true.  Now that I have finally had the opportunity to see it, I can tell you it was well-deserved.

God is the Bigger Elvis is a poignant look at what it means to be totally swept up in relationship with God. Not only is it a great human-interest story, it is a powerful explication of the concept of vocation - and can certainly serve as a way to catechize about what it means to hear  - and have the courage to obey, in spite of the temptation of other attractive options - God's voice in the circumstances of life.

Watch it. You will be moved. Share it and use it. The film is a gift to all.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Choosing Catechists for Next Year: More Than Just Filling Empty Slots on the Roster

As the catechetical year winds down, catechetical leaders may find they have a few openings for catechists for next year when some who have been helping step away from the ministry. What is good to keep in mind at this time is that this is much more than just finding "warm bodies" - or even the most willing volunteers -to fill the empty places on the roster. Rather, quality is definitely more important than quantity when it comes to choosing and recruiting catechists. Being choosy will definitely pay off when you find the person who is willing to make the commitment and who has real ability to spread the Gospel well.

Unlike the message suggested in the poster to the left, maybe the "selling point" is that when a person becomes a catechist he or she has an opportunity to use his/her talents to be part of something really big and important - the effort to further the apostolic mission of the Church. It is NOT, however, primarily a matter of the personal satisfaction of the catechist. It is, in fact, the result of a specific charism. It is a ministry of service that should only be performed by those who are qualified by a genuine call and the gifts to carry it out.. Satisfaction may be, in fact, a nice side-effect of service, but it is not the reason to serve. In fact, the vocation of catechist is a holy and important one, which arises from one's baptismal call to evangelize.

The Guide for Catechists (Vatican, Office of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, 1993) has this to say about choosing catechists:

Absolute precedence must be given to quality. A common problem is certainly the scarcity of properly trained candidates. The character of the catechist is of prime importance, and this must influence the criteria for selection and the program for training and guidance. The words of the Holy Father [John Paul II] are illuminating: "For such a fundamental evangelical service a great number of workers are necessary. But, while striving for numbers, we must aim above all today at securing the quality of the catechist". (5)

This short document contains much useful wisdom for the parish leader regarding the choice and training of catechists. It names as key qualities of the spirituality of a catechist: openness to God, openness to the Church and missionary openness to the world", "coherence and authenticity of life", as well as devotion to Mary, who is "living catechism" "mother and model of catechists". Also named are attitudes, such as service, attentiveness to the poor and the aged, ability to play an active role in inculturating the faith for those they teach and "a spirit of ecumenism."

In Part II, Choice and Formation of Catechists, the document goes further:

Importance of a proper choice. It is difficult to lay down rules as to the level of faith and the strength of motivation that a candidate should have in order to be accepted for training as a catechist. Among the reasons for this are: the varying levels of religious maturity in the different ecclesial communities, the scarcity of suitable and available personnel, socio-political conditions, poor educational standards and financial difficulties. But one should not give in to the difficulties and lower one's standards. (17)

The Guide also says this:

Some criteria concern the catechist's person. A basic rule is that no one should be accepted as a candidate unless he or she is positively motivated and is not seeking the post simply because another suitable job is not available. Positive qualities in candidates should be: faith that manifests itself in their piety and daily life; love for the Church and communion with its Pastors; apostolic spirit and missionary zeal; love for their brothers and sisters and a willingness to give generous service; sufficient education; the respect of the community; the human, moral and technical qualities necessary for the work of a catechist, such as dynamism, good relations with others, etc. (18)

So, who do you look for? Don't just take the person who volunteers for everything. Don't "guilt" someone into doing it. Don't strong-arm parents into teaching so they can "follow their kids" through the program. Parents, in fact, may or may not be the most suitable catechists. Instead, look for the "living witnesses" in your community - people with a faith story to share - who are adept at telling that story. Look for those who have authentic lives, who live the teachings of the Church, who have that sense of "apostolic zeal" the Guide refers to. These are your true catechists.

The Guide for Catechists is a hidden gem, well worth the time spent studying it - it explains selection, formation, and standards for catechists, including a key point: "authenticity of life" - the requirement that the catechist does not live one kind of life for church and ministry and another, for their personal fulfillment. It has much wisdom and perspective to offer. If you are in catechetical ministry, put it on your summer reading list.