Monday, December 30, 2013

Rethinking My Relationship with the Eucharist: Celiac Disease and Catholics

What if you could no longer receive Eucharist in the regular way? I have learned that when it is a choice between receiving the Body of Christ in a wheaten wafer as does the rest of the community - and my health - it is a very emotional issue as well as a logistical one.

I have always been able to eat pretty much anything, so a summer of severe gastrointestinal issues came as a huge shock. Doctors tested me for the usual "bugs," but concluded it was probably one of the "between 3 and 4 thousand viruses we don't test for." In September, I had a colonoscopy and upper endoscopy, which was initially reported as clear. However, when I went back for my follow-up appointment, he mentioned that microscopic examination of samples had revealed the cilia in the lining of my small intestine had atrophied, the sign of celiac disease. I protested that I was no longer having G-I issues. His response was simply "Well, see me if you are having any problems."  End of visit.

I had heard of celiac disease, but had never known anyone who had it. (One out of every 133 people in the U.S. have it.) From what I have since read, it's obvious the gastroenterologist really had no real experience with it either. He seemed to think that as long as I was not having G-I distress it was not much of an issue. The nurse for the internal medicine doctor who had referred me to the gastroenterologist suggested a gluten-free diet, but gave me incorrect information about what I could not eat.

Since then I have learned that celiac disease is regarded as very under-diagnosed (some estimate that 95% of people who have it don't know) and that "silent" celiac disease is indeed serious, even when there are no or few digestive issues. For people like me the only noticeable symptoms may be arthritis and major fatigue. The damage to the intestine means I do not absorb nutrients from food - which can result in severe osteoporosis, liver damage and even cancer. My best strategy is to eat a totally gluten-free diet for the rest of my life. That means nothing made with wheat, barley or rye. And that means no wheaten hosts for Communion.

I was certainly aware that the USCCB has a statement about low-gluten hosts, but never thought it would apply to me. After a few weeks when the communion host was the only wheat I knowingly ingested - and a tell-tale reactive rash - I made the difficult decision to deal with it. As a diocesan employee, I frequently receive at Masses with our bishop, so I first consulted our Office for Divine Worship. I was told I needed to purchase my own hosts and pyx and bring them to each Mass. So I ordered the hosts made by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and an inexpensive starter pyx.
The early experience has not exactly been seamless.
  • I have to remember to load my pyx and bring it with me to Mass. (The hosts need to be stored frozen because the lack of gluten means they go stale very quickly, so I can't just carry around a "spare" at all times.)
  • At my parish, my pastor has been very good about it. He hands me my pyx, with the usual words "The Body of Christ." Since I am the only one doing this at the moment, communication has not been good. Other priests, communion ministers and deacons are confused and reluctant. I have sometimes had to ask for the pyx to be brought from the altar and usually they had it to me in silence. One priest insists I should just go up and take it if he forgets.
  • The first time I received the special host, it completely stuck to the roof of my mouth. Since I was the cantor, that made singing the communion song a bit of a challenge.
  • When I am handed the closed pyx, I have to open it and leverage the extremely thin wafer out with a fingernail. Sometimes it's a struggle.
  • At each of the diocesan employee liturgies something different has happened. First, the bishop placed the open pyx in the ciborium with the other hosts and offered me my host in the normal way. Next time, the deacon came down separately and handed me my host. I don't know what to expect next.
  • I attended a funeral at a local parish for a priest where there were many concelebrants - and three bishops. It was not my home parish, so I did not feel comfortable presenting my pyx at the altar. The Precious Blood was not offered to the congregation, so I did not go up for communion. 
Yes, there are logistical issues. I hope these will be worked out over time. What I was not prepared for, however, were my emotional reactions and the distraction that these can cause. These have included general sadness that this has to happen at all, uncertainty about procedure, fear that I will forget to bring a host with me, worry about whether my pyx will actually be on the altar at the Consecration, fear of causing a fuss or disruption to the communion line, reluctance to make an issue at an unfamiliar site or with new people, and sorrow when I am unable to receive.

I realize that my experience is not as difficult as it must be for people who have a severe reaction to even the tiniest amount of gluten. (There is some discussion in the Catholic celiac community about whether even the low-gluten hosts are safe.)  However, I am a highly-motivated, high-functioning, liturgically knowledgeable person. I already knew there were low-gluten hosts. I can only wonder how many people have stopped receiving communion or have stopped going to Mass altogether because of celiac disease.  

For me, this has and will continue to be a journey. It has resulted in my realizing just how important the Eucharist is in my life. I will struggle through this - because I have to, and because I have the right to receive the Body of Christ, even when it is not in the same way as the rest of the community.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Calendar Kids - "The Calendar Song" for Teaching the Liturgical Year

A reader, Brook Packard, a children's chapel minister for the Episcopal Church, forwarded me information on her resource for teaching kids about the liturgical year - "The Calendar Song."  This catchy and memorable song is a great way to teach kids the order of the seasons and what they are about. It can be used now as the new Liturgical Year begins, or serve as an Epiphany Proclamation for kids, as it is used in the video below of a mixed-age-group singing it in church.

You can learn how to obtain the sheet music to the song on her website. Brook has other resources there for catechesis as well - many are free - and since we Catholics share many things in common with the Episcopalians, almost everything "translates" across.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A New Liturgical Year: Another Chance to Get it Right

We are now in the Year of Grace 2014. Another Advent - another new liturgical year.
2014 Liturgical Year Calendar
from Liturgy Training Publications

Last night at Mass, my pastor, Herb Jones, OFM, preached about second chances - the new liturgical year as another chance to get ready to meet Jesus - at Christmas, and, by inference, when he comes again. Interesting... I had never looked at it quite that way.

As I get older, I admit I have been more likely to make resolutions each Advent than for the secular New Year on January 1st. Usually this takes the form of and intention to be more regular about prayer or something spiritual. And usually, by the end of the first month or so, those good intentions have gradually slid back to the status quo.

This year, I think I need to step back and explore being more intentional about my use of time in general. Chronically over-committed and over-scheduled, whenever I have open time my reaction is often to waste it - hanging out on social networks or watching TV shows I don't really even like. Whenever I escape the tyranny of doing things for other people and organizations, I think I over-react by doing the most irresponsible things with the open time, which leads to more stress and guilt because necessary personal tasks often go unfinished - books I really want to read are unread, there is a general untidiness about my living space, and I am often nearly or just a little late for work and events... Since I most value completion over process, the presence of such chaos is unnerving.  Changing this will not be easy, but all change begins with awareness of the problem.

What most needs to be changed about your life? What keeps you from being ready for Jesus? What do you need to become aware of ?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Gift of Song: A Cantor's Story

A pastor once asked me what I considered  my primary vocation from God. What did I feel I did best? I think he expected something different than what immediately came to my lips. I did not mention my work as a liturgist, or as a writer or educator. "When I am a cantor," I said, without hesitation. When he looked at me in surprise, I told him that when I am at Mass leading song and proclaiming the psalm, it feels completely right, as if I am doing what God always meant for me to do. Never any question for me.

For those of you who have not heard me, I have to say that if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I had the "voice of an angel" I would be a rich woman. I say this in humility - I try not to take any undue pride in my ability. It is the gift of the Spirit - and the fruit of intentional work and a particular set of circumstances that have allowed me to tap my full vocal potential. I am conscious that when one has such a gift, it comes with a heavy responsibility to give back to God. I have done so in every parish in which I have been a member as well as at diocesan liturgies in two dioceses.

Born appropriately on St. Cecila's day, from early childhood I have been blessed with the gift of music. I had a number of years of formal voice training and experience in church and community choirs since the age of nine. By the time I joined the Catholic Church at age 34, I knew I wanted to be part of the parish choir. Becoming a cantor was a next step. I was lucky to belong to a parish with an experienced music director, among cantors who were well-trained. In the years that followed, I attended the Archdiocese of Chicago cantor school and the NPM cantor school several times. I learned, from listening to and watching the late Michael Hays, a truly extraordinary cantor, to pray the psalm deeply, with dignity, feeling and sensitivity to the prayer of the assembly.

I thought perhaps I would help those who are not part of this ministry to understand what goes into my service as a cantor. Here is my story.

When learning a new song or psalm, I practice not only at church with the other cantors, but at home as well. I try to learn the words and music well enough that by the time I am in front of people I am at ease enough with the technical aspects that I can concentrate on what is important - the song or psalm as the prayer of the people. I also study the meaning of the text and make connections to moments in my life when I knew what i am singing to be true on a deep level. As a cantor, I know the psalms well. They are an important part of my prayer life and the familiarity means I always know what the text offers to me and to the assembly.

As every Mass begins, I take my place at the music stand, greet the assembly and invite them to join the entrance song. I smile, make lots of eye contact and try never to bury my face in the book. This is about making it easy for people to participate, so I pronounce words clearly, make obvious breaths before entrances, start consonants a little early and keep a firm speed and emphatic rhythm. Having occasionally been the victim of song-leaders who stop between lines of music, I try always to make it obvious when the people are to come in on the next line.

The Glory to God is an occasion for energy and joy. Smiling as I intone the introduction, I use my arms in an inviting gesture, and encourage everyone in the room to sing by making deliberate eye contact. My current music minister and I both prefer to keep this great hymn moving at a good steady pace, to accentuate that it is a song of joyful praise.

Before the psalm, I intentionally create a short silence after the first reader sits before taking my place. At the stand, I breathe deeply, center myself, putting myself into the "mood" of the psalm - joy if it is a psalm of praise, penitence if it is a penitential psalm, gratitude for God's mercy, remembering the times when I was the beneficiary of God's help, etc.  I make eye contact with the entire room during the instrumental intonation of the refrain and then intone the refrain with particular attention to making the text a prayer, using my best enunciation, (because there is nothing more frustrating when I am in the assembly as being unable to understand all the words of the refrain.) I then turn the refrain over to the assembly, letting them own it, as I back away from the microphone a bit.

During the verses, I pay particular attention to musical tools that emphasize the meaning of the text - getting softer or louder or adjusting the tempo as the prayer seems to require, empahsizing certain words or phrases. This is largely spontaneous, according to what is in my heart at that moment. The amount of adrenaline and deep involvement in the psalm always leaves me drained for a moment as I sit down. I have poured myself and my faith into leading the prayer of the assembly. It takes a deep breath and a moment to refocus to listen to the second reading.

I watch carefully for the first signs that the presider intends to stand, then walk briskly to the music stand for the Gospel Acclamation. My intonation is meant to set the mood of  expectation for the all-important proclamation of the Gospel. I attempt to launch the people into joyful song, smiling and encouraging them to sing as the Book of the Gospels is brought to the ambo. As I sit for the homily, I often realize that I am very tired. If I have not broken a sweat during the Liturgy of the Word, I have not done my job!

During the Eucharistic Prayer, I focus on the altar and the prayer, eliminating unnecessary movement, so as not to distract, providing firm leadership for the people's acclamations. The communion song is an opportunity to help people respond in gratitude for what they have received. Normally this is a slower, more lyrical song which invites me to slow down and express sincere thanks and a sense of the beauty of the blessing of the Eucharist. The expectation is that the people sing... and many do.

At the end of Mass, I lead the Assembly to go forth singing in joy to proclaim the Gospel in the world - keeping the tempo firm and using lots of eye contact to encourage people to stay and sing.

Normally, by the time I get home after serving as cantor/song-leader, I am pretty exhausted. I have poured my entire self and all my ability into my role without holding anything back. If I do not spend myself for Christ and for the sake of his people, what good is it to have a beautiful voice? The gift is given for a purpose. I find joy in that purpose - and an anchor for the very meaning of my life. When I am too old to do this well, I pray for the patience and wisdom to know how to step down gracefully and to accept that someday, this ministry will no longer be my call. Until then,

“How can I keep from singing Your praise?
How can I ever say enough, how amazing is Your love?
How can I keep from shouting Your name?
I know I am loved by the King and it makes my heart want to sing.”
(Chris Tomlin)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gratitude... It Should not be Seasonal

Apologies for the long hiatus - some serious health issues and a very busy time at the office, plus I wrote a major article which will appear in the March issue of Ministry and Liturgy magazine. The other good part is that I found the time to add pages for all the liturgical seasons to my website The Liturgical Catechist.  I have also been blessed to be working on a series of posts for the Loyola Press DRE Connect blog on ways catechists can reinforce rituals, prayers, music and other elements of the Mass in the classroom. (A new post should be published any day now. Links to previous posts are at the end of the current post.) The next major project is a book proposal for Loyola Press for a manual for new and untrained directors of religious education.

As Thanksgiving approaches and we prepare to enter Advent, 2013, I want to give particular thanks for all God's gifts, particularly for my healthy, beautiful granddaughter, Emma. She is proof that there is always the possibility of new life.

I am grateful for family, friends and my parish community, as well as the support of colleagues in the diocese. There is no substitute for a community of people who care. I am thankful to have a steady full-time job and a part-time job facilitating online classes for University of Dayton in an economy where so many are jobless. I am grateful for the beauty of golden-rose sunsets as I drive home from work these late November days, and for the quiet companionship of my cats. I thank God every time I am privileged to serve his people as a cantor at Mass, and for the continued strength and beauty of the voice given to me by the Holy Spirit, which I give back in praise.

I also give thanks for the new piece of the Cross I have been handed - the challenge of Celiac Disease. When I realized that the condition is serious enough that I needed to turn to low-gluten hosts, I was hit by the realization of how much I love the Eucharist. When I have been forced to receive only the Precious Blood because a host has not been available, I had a wrenching realization of the depth of my attachment to the Bread of Life. I know that the day I find myself at a Mass unequipped with my own host and pyx where the Precious Blood is not offered will be challenging. Yet, there is blessing in these new discoveries.

 I may not give thanks for all this often enough... Thanksgiving is a reminder that I should be grateful all year 'round - as should we all.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sound Byte Liturgical Catechesis: Cardinal Dolan vs. Stephen Colbert

Well, Cardinal Dolan engaged with Stephen Colbert in some witty badinage and tongue-in-cheek liturgical catechesis about the Mass last night.

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Speaking about Pope Francis, Colbert, in character as the slightly cynical conservative Catholic, admitted:   

“I don’t care for the guy.”

“He loves you, Stephen.”

“Well, it’s unrequited at the moment. I’ll tell you why: here’s the thing: he’s too soft. He’s too soft on sin, for me, this pope. You heard what he said about atheists? He said even atheists are redeemed by Christ … If even atheists are redeemed by Christ, why have I been going to Mass every Sunday? I could have gotten another nine holes in! What do you think that means?"
“Look, you don’t got to Mass to win heaven. You go to ask God for help to get you there. You go to Mass to thank him for being such a great God that he wants you to spend eternity with him. That’s why you go to Mass. You don’t go to win heaven because you can’t earn it – it’s a gift. He wants to give it to all of us."
“I don’t always know why I’m going to Mass. But I’m usually glad that I did."
Well, the Cardinal may not have been the most nuanced in his explanation, but his contention that we go to Mass to seek for help for holiness in life to make us worthy of Heaven and to thank and praise God is not far from the truth.  Sound byte Catholicism? Maybe. But the truth is in there.  
Colbert's response is probably that of a typical Catholic in the pews. They don't always know why they go to Mass, but they are usually glad they did.  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Parish as Learning Community: Providing Learning Spaces for Adults

Going through my blog feeds this morning, under technology, I just saw this: Optimizing Informal Learning Spaces: Ten Tips for Universities - it occurred to me that just as universities are places for learning, our parishes should be as well. A parish is, according to the catechetical documents, a learning community. This should be true for all ages, not just for the children and youth. So, the idea of both formal and informal learning spaces for adult learning is one that we might consider borrowing from universities.

Certainly there are rooms where formal learning sessions for adults take place in every parish. However, what about people who do not come to "sessions?" What is available for browsing on Sunday morning, for example?  Where can people go to learn about good Catholic resources? To share and discuss faith informally?

Let's start with formal space. Some parishes do have libraries - and those are a great idea. These usually consist of a collection of books and videos, with perhaps the ability to use a DVD player. But why not add tablets populated with Catholic apps that people can sample? These could be prayer apps or news apps. The Missio app, for example, provides a daily feed of news videos from around the Catholic world, provided by the Vatican.  There are ways to attach tablets to a surface or the space could be monitored by a volunteer librarian.
Less-formal space is even better - it could involve an adult learning lounge. Why not provide a monitored open space with audio CD's, CD players and headphones, with comfortable chairs? There are many good audio learning resources. Tablets, as mentioned above, would also be a great idea. A literature rack could include a list of great Catholic apps for phones and tablets.  Magazines, a few pamphlets that can be taken home, even some of those inexpensive CD's that people could purchase might be a great idea.  Wi-fi so that people can use their own devices would be a must. Put a seating group off to the side for people to gather for informal discussion - or even consider a separate space behind a divider or in an adjoining room so that those who wish to study privately can do so without disturbance.

A great idea for the discussion area is to have a member of the parish staff present for informal Q&/A - on a rotating basis, perhaps. Or, provide table tents with the "Question of the Week" based on the Sunday gospel reading. These are available online both in English and Spanish from Sadlier and RCL/Benziger.

In the case of both adult spaces - do make them hospitable! Pleasant furnishings, perhaps some coffee and doughnuts, and a friendly volunteer monitor who knows about the collection would be a great addition.  Promote the space - put something on the website and in the bulletin regularly about the "learning lounge" and encourage adults to continue their lifelong journey of learning and growing in their faith.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Here We Go Again: 2014 "Left Behind" Movie Remake Brings Major Misinterpretation of Scripture Back

Well, here we go - as Yogi Berra once said, it's "deja vu all over again."

This time, Hollywood is not stopping at second-string - Nicholas Cage - an "A-lister" headlines the cast of a new production of Left Behind, which is currently filming. Cage replaces Kirk Cameron, who starred in the mediocre 2000 film version of the best-selling book, in a remake that promises to be big-budget and higher quality. You can read a little of the history of the film and its direct-to-video sequels here .

All of this brings up the points I made years ago when the Left Behind book series for adults and the companion series for children were burning up the best-seller list and finding their way into Catholic parishes and schools.  Left Behind, based on a faulty interpretation of Scripture that presumes there will be a "Rapture" of the "good Christians" before the second coming of Christ, is not part of Catholic or mainline Protestant theology, and is both misleading and dangerous. It is also overtly anti-Catholic. Catholics, with a few exceptions, are simply left behind in this fictionalized Rapture scenario, created by conservative anti-Catholic evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins,  published by Tyndale House, Wheaton, IL.

Now that this film is coming out, we will see a resurgence in the popularity of the "Rapture" - and misunderstanding among the Catholic faithful. Most likely Tyndale House will respond with a new edition of the book and all of this will bring this back into the national conversation. Parish leaders and catechists need to do their homework about what the Church teaches about the end times so when this new movie is discussed, they are prepared to counter it with Catholic teaching.

If you want to know more about why this movie will be a catechetical problem, read the 2003 statement on Left Behind from the Illinois Catholic Conference. I was privileged to work with the CCI on this - and the statement, as far as I am concerned, still stands. Catholics should not see this movie unless parishes provide them with the tools to understand that this is not what Jesus Christ taught.

Why We Need to Start Talking More About Baptism

The Summer, 2013 CARA report shows a disturbing trend:  baptisms are declining. Not surprising, actually, given the culture and the continuing decline in marriage.  Do today's young people, who are less likely to believe in sin and Hell, take seriously the need for baptism? Obviously not.

Certainly, as a church we need much better marketing and press to get our message out there - that the sacraments have an important role in the lives of real people - and that baptism is the gateway to salvation in Jesus Christ.  More importantly, this situation points to weaknesses in sacramental catechesis and in catechesis of the young people and adults who are already in our parishes and programs.

When was the last time you heard baptism mentioned in a homily or presentation?  Original sin?  I can't say that I remember. When was the last time you had an adult conversation about the "baptismal call" of the laity?

And then there are the children and youth.  Take a look in the average religious education text series. Baptism is taught early on, in the primary grades, as a precursor to First Communion. After that, it gets a chapter here and there, or is included in a chapter on the seven sacraments. Good, certainly, but, are our catechists up to this? How prepared are they to help kids understand that baptism helps make us who we are as Christians? Can they talk about this sacrament as the foundation of the Church? As the gateway to the Eucharist? As the very reason we celebrate Confirmation?

In the face of this, it is important to bring sacraments - and baptism in particular - back into the Catholic conversation and as a key component in any evangelization initiative. We need to stop taking for granted that people understand the relationship between baptism and Eucharist, between baptism and Christian life. We need to stop assuming that they pass this on to their children.  Obviously they are not doing a very good job at that.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Find Your Inner Iggy" Week! - Making St. Ignatius Accessible

Ever had the feeling a particular saint has your number?  I have. Somehow, in my most profound moments of spiritual awakening for me either a Jesuit or some part of the spiritual methodology of Ignatius of Loyola have been in the mix (many long stories.) I am convinced he is my heavenly spiritual mentor (maybe my spiritual gadfly?)... and I did not choose him. He found me. Probably has something to do with my extremely visual imagination - guided meditations on Scripture - an Ignatian prayer form - will "get" me every time. I think God waits for those moments when I am most vulnerable in prayer to pounce.

As someone who embraces the spirituality of St. Ignatius, I am excited as we approach his feast day on July 31st. So are others who love his spirituality. Beginning Wednesday, Loyola Press celebrates online with "Find Your Inner Iggy Week".

Characterizing Ignatius as "Iggy" makes him cool and accessible - and I think Ignatians who celebrate him by that name are on to something. Iggy, quite frankly, is very relevant to the modern world. We need to learn to read the signs of God in all things in the world, we need to embrace Scripture as saying something directly and personally to us, and above all, we need discernment, not just decision-making that focuses on our own desires, but instead on what God desires for us.

So get ready for some great helps from the Loyola Press Inner Iggy team, with help from Fr. James Martin, SJ, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Margaret Silf, and others.  Here is the schedule of online activities:

July 24: Finding God in Unlikely Places
July 25: Finding God in Our Decision Making
July 26: Finding God in Our Prayer
July 29: Finding God in Our Imagination
July 30: Finding God in Our Service to Others
July 31: Finding God in All Things

You can find out more at (which will soon take you to the main page) or by watching the dotMagis blog . You can follow it on Facebook by liking the Ignatian Spirituality page.  The search hashtag on social networks will be #FindIggy.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Saint Martha the Under-Appreciated: Model of Strong, Active Faith

This coming weekend, we will hear the familiar story of Mary and Martha, where Martha complains that her sister is too busy listening to Jesus and not helping with the meal preparation. Jesus chides her, accusing her of being worried about many things and assures her that her sister has taken the "better part" sitting at his feet. We all know that story. Martha is usually depicted as a nag, and Mary as the more spiritual member of the family. Sometimes the two have been used to represent the active and the contemplative life, with the value often falling on the latter.

Yet later tradition honors Martha.  She is patroness of those who serve - cooks, housekeepers, waiters and waitresses - and sometimes, Christian service. There is a place for those who serve and wait upon others, a place for those who prepare the table. They, too, are necessary, or meals would never get prepared or served. Someone has to feed the hungry. Jesus says man does not live by bread alone, not man does not live by bread at all.

Oddly, Martha is sometimes depicted in iconography as leading a tame dragon on a leash. The story originated in France that Martha, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus arrived there a few years after Jesus death and settled in Avignon. When the people of Tarascon, in Provencal, were being terrorized by a dragon, they called upon St. Martha, who went to the dragon, tamed it and brought it back on a leash. The people, of course, immediately converted to Christianity.

Today, that image of Marth the dragon has been perverted in some cultures to become Martha the Dominator, a kind of powerful "dark side" icon popular in voodoo and some areas of Latin America, often depicted as a wild-eyed woman with streaming hair handling snakes.

Why do these traditions see Martha as a woman of great power? Perhaps the clues lie in her forthrightness in Scripture. Martha does not fool around. She says exactly what she is thinking. She takes charge. She rushes to meet Jesus when he comes to see them after the death of Lazarus, while her sister stays home and weeps. She is unafraid to blame Jesus - "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." But then, she names Jesus outright  as Messiah, the only other to do that besides Peter:
"Yes, Lord,” she replied. “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God; He who is to come into the World.” (John 11:27)
It is Martha's active faith - as strong as Mary's spiritual bond with Jesus, that makes her worth emulating. Her belief in him is powerful enough to know that whatever he commands will happen - that, if he wills it, the dead will be raised. Belief is power. This has to be the basis for the legends that grew around her later.

So this weekend, when you hear the story of Jesus scolding Martha for asking her sister to help with dinner, remember that there is more to Martha than this story. St. John depicts her here as the antithesis of the contemplation of Christ. Yet later, he will depict her as one of the first and most faithful witnesses to his identity, unafraid to ask him for what she wants. For those of us who live in the world. Martha is worth emulating. Our faith, like hers, should be unshakable, based in common sense and service. Like Martha, we need to believe that Jesus can bring new life into even the most dire of circumstances.

Friday, July 5, 2013

New Encyclical on Faith Debuts New Look, Social Networking Links

Today, the Vatican released Lumen Fidei, the joint encyclical on faith which Pope Benedict drafted and Pope Francis completed - and along with it a new look:

This is the first major document to appear complete with PDF download and social networking buttons, signaling a willingness on the part of the Vatican to make documents more accessible. The much-maligned parchment is now a background, while the text appears on a lighter ivory. An improved, clearer font also enhances readability.

This popup when you go to the main Vatican webpage invites you to "leaf through" the document (in booklet format) or download the PDF.

Good for them! The change is very welcome and will make the teachings of the Magisterium more accessible and easier to share.

And, bonus!! There is also a separate companion site just posted by Jared Dees (Ave Maria Press) for the encyclical that includes study guide and outline.

Monday, July 1, 2013

No Turning Back: Deciding to Follow Jesus

This past weekend's readings, where several people receive calls from God and are tempted to take care of worldly concerns first - barbecuing the oxen, burying a father, etc. reminded me of a time in my life when I had that experience... and heard those readings in a very real and life-changing way. It's a tale of struggle, but one I am convinced proves that God has something in mind for each of us and is never far away. Several people have mentioned I should write about this, so here it is. It is my witness to the power of God's call.

I had received my Masters in Pastoral Studies (with emphasis in Liturgy) from Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension (LIMEX) in 1994, but had been unable to find full time work in ministry. By 1997, I was still working as secretary for a diocesan vicar for clergy (priest personnel) and part-time as liturgy coordinator in my parish, while moonlighting as a reviewer of classical music concerts for the local newspaper. I could not help feeling this was not what I wanted in the long term. A change in supervisors a couple years before had made me restless as my relationship with the new one was slightly rocky - unlike his predecessor, he did not treat me like a partner in ministry.

In the fall of 1997, I had made my Cursillo weekend, despite some severe health issues prior to major surgery - a long story, really - but during the weekend I had had an epiphany. For months before that, a "voice" in my head kept saying "Bloom where you're planted." I wasn't really blooming, just really getting by. After making a pretty routine confession at the Cursillo, I heard that voice again as I returned to my seat in the chapel. I finally rebelled - and retorted inwardly "I CAN'T bloom where I'm planted - I HATE where I'm planted!" Back at me, I heard, quite plainly "Then plant yourself where you can bloom!" That completely shocked me. I had never thought of leaving the city where I had lived for 19 years, raised my children and had my parish roots. I would never have considered it on my own.

That experience set off a job search which lasted for a number of months, with a number of false starts. However, when things did fall into place there was no mistaking that the choice to leave everything familiar and to follow that inner voice of the Spirit was the right one. Here's why:

  • Liturgically, Lent 1998 was the worst thing ever in my parish - everyone was at each other's throats and an "interesting" decision by the environment committee had unleashed a small firestorm. As the embattled coordinator, I could not help but feel that the "tail of the snake", as St. Ignatius refers to it, was slithering around every corner. I felt like it was time to leave.
  • Several job interviews were pleasant, but not successful. Nothing surfaced.
  • I had the surgery in January - the recovery was 6 weeks away from work, during which I had time to think, discern and pray. I kept the regimen of walking around the neighborhood each day. That's when it happened.
One day, after an interview during which I found out that a parish seeking a liturgy coordinator was actually looking for an organist, even though that had not been advertised, I went for that daily walk. I was sad that this had not worked out, and in conversation with God about what he could possibly want from me. As I walked, I encountered a piece of a broken dish in the alley. Since I am a cantor and the psalms are all stuck in my head somewhere, the first thought was "I am forgotten like a dish that is broken." (Psalm 31:12) Picking up the fragment, I took it home, wrote the psalm verse on the back of it with a marker and put it into a box of prayer objects. God was obviously still in the process, I thought. Unmistakable sign.

Later that day, I talked to a friend in ministry - who told me that the parish I had just interviewed with had been replacing their director of religious education, had someone, but that person had just reneged on the signed contract. I called the diocesan RE office and asked the director what were the minimum requirements for becoming a DRE: a master's degree and three years as a catechist was the answer. I had that!  I immediately wrote the pastor a thank you note for the interview. I also mentioned that I had heard they were now looking for a DRE, and that I had the minimum requirements for that position. The next day, after he opened his mail, he called me and said "We need to talk."

What resulted was the creation of a dual position in religious education and liturgy. What happened next is that I had to get ready to leave all that was familiar - to go to a town where I knew exactly no one to do the work to which the Lord was calling me. It was frankly scary.

Over the weeks prior to my departure I heard a series of readings at Sunday Mass - John the Baptist saying that if the tree does not bear fruit it needs the ax - and a version of the story we heard this weekend - with the line “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” I know God was speaking directly to me.  I left. I did not look back. My life was changed... forever.

That was 15 years ago. The journey later led me to diocesan ministry and life in a mostly-Hispanic parish. I have never regretted a thing because I have always known this was all part of the call. No turning back.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Two Resurrections: Paschal Mystery in Loss and Recovery

In today's Gospel we heard about resurrection from the dead:  
Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming,
“A great prophet has arisen in our midst, ”
and “God has visited his people.”
This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
and in all the surrounding region.  (Luke 7:11-17)
Of course, Jesus raised man who had died. What is not as clear is that he metaphorically raised his mother from a kind of death as well.

In a time and culture when a woman only had status if she had a husband or a son, to be a widow and to have one's only son die was a kind of death. Had Jesus not reversed this, her future would have been bleak.  Most likely, she would have been totally without resources. Her old life would have been gone, her new one a kind of living hell. Her future was hopeless, so when Jesus had pity on her, it was not just because of her grief, but because he knew what would become of her. The resurrection of her son meant she could live again and once more have an identity and dignity in her community. She, too, was "resurrected".

Do we have the courage not to lose hope in our times of dire loss and transition, knowing that Jesus can reverse the most negative of situations, as he did with the widow - as he did with his own death on the cross? Do we believe in Paschal Mystery - in the undying hope that Christ brought us?  Pray for the virtue of Christian hope. It does not come easy in a world sometimes so full of loss and pain.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Call for Adult Catechesis on the Real Presence: Statistics Show Half of Catholics Do Not Know!

Now I am truly convinced we need better and more sacramental catechesis for Catholics of all ages.

Over on the Nineteen Sixty-Four CARA blog, Mark M. Gray presents evidence of the failure of religious education - literally half of adult Catholics in the American Catholics in Transition survey are unaware that that Church teaches Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. Just look at the graphic:

Gray makes the point that actual "Knowlegeable Doubters" are very few, but that half of adults don't even know the Church teaches about Real Presence.... yet this is quite simply the most important of all Church teachings about the Eucharist! He points out what the statistics mean: "Now we know that lack of belief in the Real Presence is more a problem of religious education than of doubt."

What's the problem? Why has catechesis failed with literally half our people? What are we doing wrong? Well, let's think about it.

When do we normally catechize people about the Real Presence? When they are seven years old, preparing for First Eucharist.  Yet, at that age, are people even ready for the concept that Jesus Christ, body and blood, is really fully present in that bread and wine?  We can tell them, but it may or may not make sense. Real Presence is not only an advanced concept, it is simply MYSTERY... and something demanding of lifelong reflection.

Most catechetical texts have a chapter on the Eucharist in succeeding years - if children go through continuous age-appropriate catechesis - which is becoming less and less the norm for families. At any rate, there is a brief review of the concept in the upper grades, during the time teens are preparing for Confirmation.  Yet, does a 12-year-old have the ability to "get" the concept/mystery of Real Presence?  Apparently only about half the time.

After that, most adult Catholics do not receive any sacramental catechesis at all - except for the occasional parent meetings for sacrament preparation for their children. (OK, pastors and directors of religious education - now do you see why good catechesis at those meetings is crucial?)  In rare cases, adults may hear a little sacramental catechesis about the Real Presence in the homilies at Mass... but I suspect these moments are the exception rather than the rule.

So, what can parishes do to change this?

  • We can stop taking for granted that people "get" this just because they are Catholic.
  • Priests can preach about Real Presence - without assuming everyone already knows what is meant.
  • The catechesis provided to adults on the Eucharist must be part of all "captive moments" - it should be part of marriage and baptism preparation and parent meetings for child sacrament preparation.  Why? Because all other sacraments flow from and are in relationship to the Eucharist.
  • Religious educators can provide more opportunities for adult catechesis on the Eucharist - either through offerings for adults only or intergenerational gatherings.
  • Parishes can start Eucharist study and prayer groups. We have Bible study groups for the Word - but so do other Christians who do not regard the Eucharist as a sacrament or the "source and summit". There are good books/videos out there for such groups. (More on that in a later post) 
  • And yes - Adoration. Parishes that do not do it at all should start.
The information from this survey is a call to action. If we want to help people know Catholic faith in a way that engages them deeply and keeps them from looking elsewhere, we have to start helping them to develop a Eucharistic understanding and a Eucharistic spirituality - now!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Trinity: Present at Every Mass

As we celebrate the great feast of the Trinity this weekend, it's good to review just how the Trinity is present at every Mass through the year. That presence is integral to the act of celebrating Mass. It is mysteriously  multi-faceted and continually shifting in focus.  

Gathered into one voice by the Holy Spirit, the Assembly, led by the priest celebrant, prays the entire Mass through the Son to the glory and praise of the Father. The clues are in the prayers of the Roman Missal.

We sing the Gloria to the almighty Father, the only begotten Son, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of the Father. The formula which ends the Collect and other orations "..through our Lord Jesus Christ our Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever" pretty much defines the nature of the Trinity.

Christ the Word, and the Holy Spirit, the active active agent of God's Word and will for the hearers, are active during the Liturgy of the Word, according to the Introduction to the Lectionary, challenging those who hear to be open to the will of the Father.  We hear the Old Testament narratives of the Father's history with his people, respond, using psalms written in praise and supplication to the Father, followed by the New Testament letters interpreting the meaning of Christ and his teachings. We then hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and respond in praise to him. The homily should help us sort out what God is saying to us in our time, and it, too, is influenced by the Spirit.

As the bread and wine are offered to the Father, the priest calls the Spirit upon them to change them into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharistic Prayer is offered to the glory of the Father through, with and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. That prayer is punctuated by the Sanctus, sung to the Father ("Lord, God of Hosts"), acknowledging and praising his sending of his Son - "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" - the words of the heavenly host of angels and saints gathered at the heavenly banquet..

The faithful say Amen, pray to Christ the Lamb and receive the Eucharist assenting to becoming more like Jesus. They are sent forth in his  name, following his Cross into the world, to glorify him with their lives.

In short, the language and movements of every Mass are permeated with the dynamic presence of the Triune God. We celebrate that in particular this Sunday, but it is by no means the only time we should be aware of the presence of the Three-in-One God.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Necessary Losses: The "Missing" 7th Sunday of Easter

This weekend, in many dioceses around the world, Catholics will celebrate Ascension, which was moved in the late 1990's from Ascension Thursday  to the following Sunday. This was done because most people were not going to Mass on Ascension Thursday, even though it was a Holy Day of Obligation.

Certainly, the Ascension of the Lord is a major feast - and it is worthy of the additional attention it gets by pre-empting the Seventh Sunday of Easter. However, what we lose is also something important: our opportunity to hear Jesus' final discourse and his prayer for the unity of his church:
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
Jesus prays for his believers - and says that the world will understand the Father better if believers are "one". Over and over he says the word "one".... emphasizing the importance of Christian unity to the coherence of the message of the Gospel.

This is the reading from which Blessed John Paul II drew the title of his great document on ecumenism: Ut Unum Sint ("That They May be One").  It is an important reading because it provides the biblical basis for Catholic ecumenical dialogues with other Christians. It is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 820 as the basis for an understanding that the Church is ONE.

Recently, I gave a talk on Catholic teaching on ecumenism at a regional parish event in an adjacent diocese.  A number of people in the audience confided that before my talk, they had never even heard of the word "ecumenism".  It is true that the subject has gone out of fashion in many dioceses. All the sadder that we lose the natural opportunity to hear preaching on the necessity of Christian unity for effective evangelization when this gospel is replaced by the one for Ascension.  When cultural practice (not attending Mass on weekday Holy Days of Obligation) necessitates a change, but we are far away from a time when the Lectionary will be revised to reflect that, we have a necessary loss... and sadly, an important one.

Monday, April 22, 2013

On Earth Day: Stewardship for Future Generations

Happy Earth Day!  I remember the first one, April 22, 1970 - the "teach-in" heard around the nation.

Today, let's remember that the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts care of the earth in the context of not harming God's creatures and not stealing from future generations.  CCC 2415-18 and 2456 says:  
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.
2416 Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
2417 God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly...
2456 The dominion granted by the Creator over the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be separated from respect for moral obligations, including those toward generations to come.

Respect for Creation. It's what we are called to.  Pray for the planet today - and do what you can to preserve and respect it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Seeing Tragedy Through the Eyes of Catholic Faith

In the wake of the unspeakable act of violence in Boston Monday, our hearts are broken. When we see photos of the carnage, hear the testimony of those who were there, we find it difficult not to be very sad. It is only natural that both children and adults will ask questions.

Catechists and catechetical leaders have a special role to play in helping children and adults understand and deal with this tragedy through the eyes of faith.  Because of our Catholic faith, we see the "Problem of Evil" differently.

We should remind them of our beliefs about evil:

Yes, bad things do happen to good people. Look at Jesus and the martyrs. None of them deserved their suffering and deaths. Indeed, their suffering was redemptive. We should unite our sufferings with the suffering of Christ. (A nice explanation of the Pauline theology of that can be found here.)

God does not cause evil or suffering. Evil occurs because some people do not listen to the voice of God but instead make evil choices.  This is because God gave us free will -and because he respects us he permits us to choose. Sometimes, because of sin, we choose evil.  Free will is a gift, but it comes with the responsibility to form one's conscience, through reading scripture and study of moral teaching, and to seek to follow not our own will, but the will of God.

Good will overcome evil - but not always right away. For some things we may have to wait until Jesus comes again at the end of time. All we can do for now is pray regularly in the Our Father: "deliver us from evil..." Meanwhile, we are called by our baptism to  make the world a better place. We should never give up our fight for justice, to right things that are wrong, or to defend the poor, the helpless and the innocent.

Good can come from evil. The Resurrection of Jesus depended on his suffering and death. Sometimes we have to suffer pain or loss before we can accept the call to something better. As St. Paul wrote "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)  The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. As an Easter people, looking toward resurrection, we should never succumb to despair.

Lastly, we need to pray for those who were killed or injured and their families. We also need to pray for peace and an end to violence and hatred.  Even more than that, we are called to pray for whoever did this, since Jesus told us to pray for our enemies - and indeed prayed from the Cross for those who hurt him.

For older students and adults, you might want to call their attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 309-314, the section on Providence and the Scandal of Evil.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter Season Resources: The Liturgical Catechist Web Update

Resources for the Easter Season are now posted and available on The Liturgical Catechist site!  Check out the videos and links to liturgical, catechetical, spiritual, musical and family traditions that can be used in faith formation sessions and by families - as well as for individual reflection and renewal.

Suggestions are always appreciated, too!

I Know My Redeemer Lives: Songs to Share with Kids for the Easter Season

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!  For the next 50 days, we are challenged to remain an Easter people - our hearts filled with joy, our gatherings full of celebration.

Catechists might want to make more conscious use of music during faith formation sessions to help set the tone of celebration.  Here are a few suggestions from several musical genres that might be somewhat inviting to children and teens:

And for a little humor:

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: We Prepare...

Holy Saturday. The people will arrive tonight at sundown, experience the lighting of the new fire, the proclamation of the Exsultet, the Vigil readings in the dark, the lighting of the altar and revelation of the beauty of the flower-decked altar and sanctuary... and this morning, small, dedicated groups of art and environment ministers and volunteers will put all those pieces in place so that the great liturgy can happen.

26 years ago, I came into Full Communion with the Catholic Church - and for 25 years, have participated, and even sometimes directed, the preparing of the liturgical space for the Easter Vigil. The tasks are many - ironing and placing a new altar cloth, placing the flowers in the sanctuary, font and vestibule - preparing the congregational taper candles for distribution at the door,  preparing and decorating the candlestick for the Easter Candle - and for some, the preparation of the materials for the Easter fire.

This year we have no adult baptisms, for the first time in memory, but normally, preparation of the font, placement of towels and preparing the dressing rooms also is a part of the task list. We will miss having a baptism, but even that cannot dampen my spirits.

Always, on this particular morning, I find myself gripped by a sense of excited anticipation....In a short while I will leave for my parish church to be part of these important preparations. We prepare the space for the people - and for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who will reveal himself in the light of the new fire as the sun sets tonight.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pope Francis at Chrism Mass: Priesthood Not About Itself, but Action

Pope Francis, in his homily for the Chrism Mass, pretty much laid it on the line: he has little patience for empty trappings or for priests who do not preach - or live - in ways that matter and galvanize their people. He called for priests to go out, to act, and to spend themselves in order to find their own fulfillment and blamed a failure to do that as the reason some priests are unhappy and "lose heart."  To illustrate his message, he focused on two sacramental symbols of priesthood: oil and vestments, both of which are received at ordination.
Connecting his message to the  Chrism oil used in anointing at ordination, he named the role of the priest as one who shares his oil and "anoints his people."  Priestly vestments, too, are sacred symbols, he noted, but are not as important as the action and activity of the priest and the effect on his people. In fact, he noted, the people should "feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments." Speaking to vestments and holy oil:
From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. The ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.
A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith.
He notes the importance of the priest "going out" - and of not staying in a "self-help" mode - instead, spending what little they have for others. In that, he said, a priest finds his true satisfaction.
A priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, our people take our oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men...
Clearly, living among the "smell of the sheep: is how he himself has lived his priestly ministry - spending himself tirelessly for his people - and he will continue to do that as Pope.

Our role as the laity? " close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart."
I will appoint for you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently. (Jeremiah 3:15)
All of what Pope Francis has named - proclaiming the Good News, going out to those who need to hear, spending one's self for the good of the people - these are all signs of that good shepherd. May our priests continue to be inspired by the Spirit, under the new leadership of our Pope, to become more like Christ, the ultimate Good Shepherd, who emptied and humbled himself even unto death on a cross to do the will of the Father.

Read the full text of his homily here.

Why Do the People Get A Candle at the Vigil? It's Not So They Can Read the Worship Aid!

At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, after the blessing and lighting of the new Easter Candle, the flame from the candle is used to light the tapers held by members of the assembly.  Typically, most people use these as a   reading light for the missalette or worship aid. Many people may not see much in the candle besides a useful light in the dark church.
However, there is a deeper symbolism - this is their share of the Light of Christ, shared from the Easter Candle, blessed in the name of Christ. With the spreading of the light to every corner of the room, we enact the very words of the chanted Exsultet hymn: "Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad,knowing an end to gloom and darkness."  We are literally "standing in the awesome glory of this holy light."  It is "a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light."

The sharing of the light with believers is symbolic of our unity as the Body of Christ. It is the light which we are each asked to carry  into the world to make it bright with the Light of Christ. Even though we extinguish these at the end of the Exsultet, we re-light them at the baptismal promises - a symbol that we are called by our baptism to bear that light.  

In Matthew, Chapter 5 Jesus says:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.  Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
This was echoed for each of us at our baptism when we received (or our godparents received for us) the lighted candle:

Parents and godparents,
this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.
This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ.
He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light.
May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart.
When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.
(Rite of Baptism)

Back to the Easter Vigil. Near the end of the Exsultet, we hear these words:
May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
The message of the lighted taper to each of us is that we are stewards of the Light, bearers of Christ into the world - and that when he returns, he will want to see that we are still treasuring and sharing that light.  When we renew our Baptismal Promises at the Vigil and are sprinkled with water throughout the Easter Season,  we are reminded that part of what we promise is to be light-bearers in Christ's name, carrying our baptismal candle flame into the world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An End to Gloom and Darkness: Recovering the true meaning of the Exsultet

Tonight, I get to rehearse the Exsultet. (Big smile.)

As a cantor for the past 25 years, I have been privileged to take part in the great opening chant of the Saturday night Easter Vigil, the  Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, sometimes as a choir member, sometimes as one of those who chant the verses of whatever arrangement that parish used. In the semi-darkness of a church lit only by the new Easter Candle and the pinpoints of light from the small candles held by each member of the assembly, this has always been my favorite moment of the entire liturgical year.

My first exposure to the Exsultet was in the late 80's through the much-beloved Everett Frese arrangement from OCP, now out of print, which began with a pedal point on the organ's lowest pipe that rumbled and shook the dark room as the light of the Easter Candle was shared with the people's candles. It then moved, after the candle was set in its socket, into a glorious and dramatic chant for two cantors punctuated by choir and assembly. The mystery and majesty of the Exsultet in the years I spent in the parish where we used that setting is still something that lives on in my memory. In later years, I encountered the unembellished chant version sung by either cantor or deacon right out of the Sacramentary. Not as dramatic, to be sure, but still wonderful.

During the past few years my current parish has begun using a bilingual version by Pedro Rubalcava,  also from OCP, with our pastor chanting the Spanish verses and me taking the English ones. The challenge, of course, when we go back and forth, is that the people 'lose" half of the text on both sides of the language "divide." Ideally, I suppose, we should do the whole thing in both languages, as we do the Easter Gospel, but length pretty much prevents that. Still, this represents an attempt to honor both cultures, and the text can be read in the missalette . It is the proclamation itself that is the point - and the soaring refrain for the people emphasizes the importance of the moment: "This is the night, this is the night, this is the night! Esta es la noche, esta es la noche, esta es la noche!" 

As we begin to use the new Roman Missal translation, however, I am conscious that we in the English speaking world had been "robbed" for 40 years of part of the meaning and purpose of the Exsultet. It is not, as it formerly appeared, only a proclamation of the Resurrection, so much as it is a hymn of praise to the Light of Christ and the candle that bears it.

Contrast the old opening to the current section in the new Roman Missal and you see the difference.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!  Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ, our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
(You can see a side-by-side comparison of the full texts, along with the Latin original here.)

Notice that the opening of the new version does not use the words "Jesus Christ... has risen" specifically, but merely references his "triumph." And throughout, the emphasis is now on the Easter Candle itself, the work of the bees (always present in the Spanish translation). This entire section was left out of the former translation, leaving us with an imperfect understanding of the true purpose of the chant:
Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.
Much has been made, among liturgical experts, of the "return of the bees." In this key passage, we see the definition of the Easter Candle (and our divided flames on the assembly's candles) as our earthly offering of praise to God the Father, joined to the glory of the light of Christ. This understanding makes even clearer the opening blessing of the candle, during which grains of incense are embedded along with the description of Christ as Alpha and Omega.
As we begin the procession into the church, the presider says: "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds."  Now,  with the meaning of the Exsultet restored,  that makes more sense. It is the risen light which is emphasized here - and by implication, the person of Christ. The chant that follows is in praise of that light.

So yes, the Exsultet is a great paean to the Risen Christ, but in the form of the return of his light, out of the darkness of the grave - not so much directly to his person. It is our offering of the Easter Candle to the Father, returning the work of the bees to its author and Creator, symbolizing that the Resurrection takes place among us each year at the lighting of the new fire.

And now we know.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Pope Francis on Palm Sunday: "A Christian Can Never be Sad"

In his homily for Palm Sunday today, Pope Francis reminded us:

"Do not be men and women of sadness. A Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus."

This is a message much needed in a world where, for many people, happiness is measured by how many possessions they have - or do not have. That message, promoted constantly by the media, has become so much a part of the culture that some people who do not have much struggle to fill their lives with "stuff" instead of what they really need. It is a symptom of the pervasive consumerism that has taken over our culture, telling us that happiness is rooted in how much we have. Pope Francis, who has captured the world with his obvious joy and commitment to the way of the Gospel, while spurning the trappings and material perks of the papacy, is certainly a man who understands that true happiness comes from something deeper - walking with Jesus Christ and imitating his example by being counter-cultural.

His message certainly hits home for many of us - and today, as we accompany Jesus to the Cross, we might do well to reflect on the connection between submitting to God's will and our own priorities, especially if those priorities include the accumulation of  inanimate objects. 

A dear friend of mine used to remind me when I said that I loved something that you should "like" things, not "love" them. Love, he insisted, should be a feeling reserved for other people - and God - but never things. Pope Francis would say that in that lies happiness - in understanding that when we encounter Christ, we are in relationship with the one who suffered and laid down his life at the will of the Father to show us that evil can be overcome. The great evil of the Cross was transformed, at the Resurrection, into the joy of everlasting life.

That is what Pope Francis means when he says "A Christian can never be sad." Today, as you reflect on what Jesus did for us on the Cross, consider trading your sorrows - for the joy of the Lord.