Sunday, June 29, 2014

Helping Young Children Appreciate the Mass

All of us have seen families who struggle to keep their young children "under control" at Mass. It's not pretty. Although this is understandable with children from birth until age 2-and-a-half, setting an early basis for a child's full participation at Mass not only helps them get through the experience with fewer tears, it can yield a big payoff when the child is older.

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I have seen children as young as three who can lisp Mass responses, sing acclamations and familiar songs, and stand, sit and kneel when everyone else does - all because their parents participate in the Mass and expect that their children will too. These are the same little ones who remain reasonably quiet during the homily, perhaps while looking at a children's Bible or board-book about the Mass or the saints or while playing quietly with a Jesus or saints doll.

Sadly, most parishes are not helping parents with this piece. Interaction with parents of young children after baptism is one of the most-neglected areas of ministry in parishes today. The basis for young children's participation and understanding of the Mass actually begins with liturgical catechesis for youth, young adults and candidates for marriage. If parents participate fully in the Mass and make the effort to teach their children to do so as well, it makes a difference - for the experience of both parents and child.

Failure to do that is possibly one of the biggest reasons families don't go to Mass. Although we tend to blame it on the culture, sports and other distractions, many parents admit it's because they don't want to fight with their kids about going to Mass. Of course Mass is "no fun" when you sit on the sidelines and only marginally understand what is going on and why. Some families go anyway, but don't seem to be fully present. As a cantor facing the assembly, I have seen quite a few families in which neither parents nor teens sing, say responses or do anything other than sit, stand and kneel, all while staring straight ahead with a bored expression. (Happily most at least do the Sign of the Cross, say the Our Father and participate in the Sign of Peace.)

More than simply helping kids to participate, though, helping then to make real-life connections so they understand the meaning of the Mass is even better. (File this under things I wish I had understood better 25 years ago!)

Dan Gonzalez, a father of two, creator of The Mass Explained app for iPad and author of The Mass Explained blog has just posted this great explanation of what he is doing with his own children. He has also posted the priest paper doll for learning about vestments, the first of 10 art and activity lessons for young children on the Mass, to which he will add to each week of the summer. 
If you think about it, Jesus didn't just suddenly walk into the Temple at age 12. He had been raised to participate in worship by Mary and Joseph. When my own boys were young, they went to Mass every week, and learned to sing and respond because I helped them follow along in the missalette and hymnal. While they may not go to Mass as often today as I would like, now that they are 29 and 31, when they do, they participate fully - because that was what was expected of them from the beginning. That's how it works.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cliff-Jumping: My Very Real Relationship with God

Ever had a vision so strong you could swear it was real? I have. More than once. I guess it's just because I am rather visually oriented... but then again, at other times, it's been a distinctly real internal auditory message. Well, God probably isn't particular about which of our senses he appeals to when he wants us to find him. In my experience, he just insists on finding me where we am, and just when I need it the most.

I first truly knew the presence of God  back in 1989, three days after my now-ex-husband walked away from our marriage. I was in my late 30's, had been a full-time mom raising my two boys, and the shock of learning that I was about to be alone and responsible for two small children with no job was huge. Not only was I emotionally devastated by the demise of my marriage, but I also had no idea how I was going to survive. Friday, Saturday and most of Sunday, I had a very strong recurring vision of being pushed toward the edge of a cliff and knowing I was being asked to jump off. I didn't want to. I REALLY, REALLY didn't want to.

In spite of this, I went through the motions of everyday life, taking care of my boys for the rest of the weekend. I dragged us all to Mass on Sunday morning, where I cried on the shoulders of fellow choir members, who comforted me, and yes, I participated in Mass. I was in a daze, attempting to sing praise and receive the Eucharist trying to stay sane under this huge load of stress. I knew I had to do something that felt like my ordinary routine.

Sunday night was when it happened. I don't really remember there being a specific catalyst, but by evening after I had put the boys to bed, I realized that I was no longer alone at the edge of that cliff - that I could indeed let go and fall off - but I knew without hesitation that God the Father was going to catch me. It was then that I realized I could go on with my life, and that I could rely on the very real presence of God. (Yes, it really took three days to "rise" again.) Looking back, I now see the connection between that turnaround with sharing the Eucharist with my community and with Paschal Mystery.

In retrospect, I realize that was one of several times in my life that God has reached out and definitively made his presence known. It was the first of two instances when it was pretty specifically connected to the grace of a sacrament. The other experience was directly related to celebrating Reconciliation and I have written about that previously. The experience I have described above is one reason I knew to trust the second one. I already had a history with God.

This relationship with God has been is a distinctly personal one, although I admit I probably don't always live up to my part of the commitment as I should. Holiness is not particularly easy for me - and I admit I struggle. But no matter how unworthy I may feel, no matter what I have gone through in terms of life difficulties, I have never for one instant doubted the love of the Father, through Jesus Christ. That is why, whenever I lead psalms and hymns that speak of God's mercy and love for those who suffer, I am genuinely praying - in gratitude for the one who "raises up the lowly."  Because I have been there - and lived to tell of the "marvelous works of God." Because "God, who is mighty, has done great things in me."

At first, for me, it was definitely a relationship with the Father. A child of divorce myself, I had always longed for the daily presence of a father figure. Later, during my Cursillo, I felt drawn to the person of Jesus, who became much more real to me through that experience. As the years have gone by, I have relied on the Holy Spirit directly during my teaching, writing and when I am a cantor. I'd have to say that which person of the Trinity feels closest is somewhat situational, but it is always a personal relationship - I never feel distance between us, though, like any relationship, there can sometimes be interference from distractions.

It saddens me when I hear that many Catholics don't think it's possible to have a personal relationship with God - or that it's simply too "Protestant" to do so. Marcel LeJeune says it's something we can and should choose. Well and good. But I suspect many people do not find themselves free to make that choice. They are perhaps too bound by awe of a distant all-powerful God and by all that keeps them rooted to the things of this world, including most especially their own "agendas" and expectations about God.

I believe the first step to making that choice is simply to be open to a greater agenda than our own - to be alive to the movement of God's grace and to be willing to respond to invitation. God is the one who reaches out to us - and he never stops. The Catechism says "grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life". (CCC 1996)

Do you want to claim your place as a child of God? Wait. Listen. Watch. Be aware. Be open. God is always near - and he has a plan for you. I can testify to that. For some of us,  it takes a mighty time of crisis. We are forced to crash and burn before we can be broken open enough to realize that the one who was crucified stands ready to take us by the hand and lead us through the darkness of human grief and despair that he himself once experienced. What I would wish for others is less drama and more willingness to not only acknowledge the existence and power of God, but to choose intimacy with him.

Review: Eucharist: A Journey of Transformation, Healing and Discipleship

How can we allow ourselves to be changed so that we may broken and shared to "become Eucharist" for others? That is one of the key questions that Mary Amore is trying to help people answer in the three talks on her new DVD  Eucharist: A Journey of Transformation, Healing and Hope.  Dr. Amore, who serves as the executive director of Mayslake Ministries has honed her presentation from her background in liturgical studies and her many retreats and parish missions.

Amore's presentations are sometimes theological, sometimes liturgical, frequently punctuated by storytelling and wisdom from life that enliven these experiences of liturgical catechesis and model how "liturgy and life are interconnected." She challenges listeners to make sacrifices, to take risks and become more than they think they can be, all through the power of the Eucharist.

In a guided reflection, she digs deeply into how listening to the Word challenges us to change, and how participating in the sacrifice of the Eucharist is an opportunity for real spiritual sacrifice as we offer all that we are and all that we love to God along with the gifts on the altar. She encourages us to enter the sacrifice and allow ourselves to be transformed  - to become consecrated and holy - the  "Living Body of Christ" (echoes of my favorite section of the Catechism, Paragraph 901.)

The Eucharist DVD consists of three 20-minute talks and a user guide for personal or group reflection:

Part 1: Eucharist as a Pathway to Spiritual Transformation
Part 2: Eucharist as an Invitation to Spiritual Healing
Part 3: Eucharist as the Renewed Call to Discipleship

Suggested uses are for RCIA, parish missions or personal reflection. I would add small communities of teens, young adults and adults as other suitable audiences - as well as parish staffs and other ministry groups. What might happen within a parish staff or pastoral council dynamic if the members honestly reflected on the Eucharist with this kind of depth?

The printable user guide sets up sessions that allow time for reflection, sharing, prayer and ritual. The questions dig deep and should provoke profound responses. Make no mistake, this is not superficial or mere "learning about" the Eucharist. Dr. Amore challenges us to become part of the power of the Eucharist that can transform the world. We do this by allowing ourselves to become like Jesus, to be disciples who are not only hearers of the Word, but doers who serve others and don't count the cost.

Bottom line: this is a beautiful resource for liturgical catechesis and I highly recommend it. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

An Ordinary Joe Writes an Extraordinary Book

The time has come, Paprocki said, to speak of many things. Of sports and bucket lists and movies, of cucumbers and the King. (Apologies to Lewis Carroll)

In Joe Paprocki's newest bookUnder the Influence of Jesus:The Transforming Experience of Encountering Christ (Loyola Press) he speaks of many things - all of which point the reader to the lived experience of finding God in everyday life.  When was the last time you read something about Jesus that mentioned THAT scene from When Harry Met Sally, Wilfred Brimley, sports teams and the Rolling Stones all in the same book?  It's all there, along with lots of other stuff, and somehow, it all makes sense.

Ignatian to the core, Joe Paprocki has definitely found God in all things. This is a book very much for people of this time and place, filled with pop culture and sports references, illustrated by life moments from a guy of a certain age, who lays out for readers a “game plan” for personal discipleship.

At times, the heavy emphasis on sports and popular movies might be a bit wearing for those who don’t really care for sports or certain kinds of movies. And yes, some of the many references are already dated, perhaps. Younger people might have to look up movies from the 80’s and 90’s, for example, but for “Boomers”, this book definitely speaks to the times of our lives. While some of the examples may indeed speak to us "older folks" the methodology - of looking to life experience for signs of the presence of God is a timeless example for people of all ages. 

The cultural references, however, take the reader right up to the present, which speaks to Paprocki's current full participation in the life of the world. This is not a book showing us how to find holiness in a quiet prayer corner, written by a hermit in a cell, but a call to live more fully who we already are as God's people in the world.

Paprocki’s main points are great, especially the chapter where he lines up essential behaviors of disciples (illustrated from the mainstream culture) with the six tasks of Catechesis. Throughout the book, he is good at distilling lists of points into memorable life strategies, and there are a number of these lists, making the book practical for people who like a point-by-point approach.

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The good news, according to Paprocki, is that “Exactly where we are is where God wants us to live as a disciple of Christ. It’s where he wants us to glow with the light of Christ so that others may recognize the kingdom in their midst.” Conversion to discipleship is, he says, about “changing while remaining who you are.” Evangelization is not pushy or “ham-fisted”, but just being your best self and living intentionally, focusing on others. “For Catholics, then, evangelization should simply be the act of helping others find God in the ordinariness of their lives.”

And that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St. Ignatius, via an ordinary guy named Joe, living a pretty normal daily life in the suburbs of Chicago, where he goes to work every day, watches TV, movies and hockey games, blogs, posts occasionally on Facebook, goes to an occasional concert and sometimes teaches children the faith as a catechist in his local parish.  If a guy like that can see himself as proud to be found guilty of living "under the influence"of Jesus, then so can any ordinary person.