Monday, May 25, 2015

What if Ordinary Time Were Mission-Driven?

The liturgical year has these great green stretches of Ordinary Time - and we have just entered the longest one. Our next two Sundays will be engaged in celebrating two important "white" feasts of Christ in Ordinary Time: Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, but we really have entered the time of the green.

The general description of Ordinary Time is a time "wherein the faithful consider the fullness of Jesus' teachings and works among his people."(USCCB Website) or when "the mystery of Christ itself is honored in its fullness, especially on Sundays." (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year.)  While the green of winter Ordinary Time suggests growth and learning, the stretch we have just entered is different. Rather, because of what has just preceded it, it offers an opportunity to move toward mission. We have just celebrated the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost - all of which call us to do something besides sit at Christ's feet. We have witnessed the power of Paschal Mystery and heard Jesus ask us to preach the Gospel to all the world. This year, it sounded like this:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs. (Mark 16:15-20)
This is a pretty daring job description! I don't know that snake handling is the way I want to go, personally speaking! However, as he promised, Jesus then sent the Spirit to strengthen, equip and inspire us to do great things in his name. The alternate Gospel for Pentecost explains this best:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”  (John 15:26-27; 16: 12-15)
 I suggested in another recent post that perhaps summer Ordinary Time is really the moment to build the community and to evangelize, but that goes against prevailing American practice, which sees summer as "down time."

What would it mean if a parish were to take Ascension and Pentecost seriously and put mission on the summer agenda?  I see some interesting possibilities:
  • Summer outreach - to families of those who have just celebrated sacraments, but are not coming to Mass - to the disabled, the elderly, young adults, to inactive parishioners and to others in the neighborhood 
  • Summer faith formation - Vacation Bible School for ALL ages that lasts more than a week - Bible study, book-clubs, marriage enrichment and other gatherings to encourage adults  and teens to deepen their faith
  • Intergenerational gatherings for all ages - not just parents and children - for prayer and learning
  • RCIA Inquiry sessions begin - mid-summer - and run until the Rite of Acceptance/Rite of Welcoming just before Advent.
  • Parish service projects to help the poor - not just youth mission trips - but practical local opportunities for adults and families
  • Liturgies celebrated with joy and vigor. Choirs would not go on "summer break" - but continue (after all, most of them will still be at Mass every weekend) - perhaps with fewer rehearsals
  • Parish festivals, picnics, etc. with a faith theme - not just fun and socialization, but with meaningful prayer/paraliturgies and a call for all to sign up for service and learning opportunities

Some parishes already do some of this, but even they would benefit from being more intentional. What do you think? Do you have more ideas for how a parish can be mission-driven through the summer? How can we keep the upcoming months from simply looking like a vacation from parish activities?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

About That Third Person of the Trinity....

Over the years, I haven't had much inclination to pray to the Holy Spirit or particular awareness of the Spirit's presence. I have generally favored prayer to the Father, or to the Son because he seems more accessible. The Spirit was just kind of out there for me. Real, yet abstract, distant. Lately, however, it's been different.

Last fall, I experienced the Called & Gifted process from Siena Institute, and my relationship with the Spirit changed dramatically. I became acutely aware of where the Spirit has been active in my life. In the discernment of my charisms and what they mean, I have learned that the Spirit has been actively calling me to the various ways in which I serve through those gifts. There are, as I had always suspected, no coincidences.

Unsurprisingly, when I took the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, I learned my dominant charisms are Music, Teaching and Writing. However, in the weeks after my interview, some things opened up for me. It became clear that the moments when I heard an unmistakable voice leading me toward change and growth were of the Spirit.

Yes, I have heard the Spirit speak. Twice. Let me tell you about these moments, as evidence that the Spirit can communicate to position us where we are called to use our charisms.

The first incident was when I found myself, a Catholic for less than three years, at a national meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. Looking around the room at the professional liturgists and bishops present, I asked myself,  "What am I doing here?"  Immediately, the response came: "Because you can do this."  I responded by entering a degree program to learn more about what "this" was and to equip myself to do it. The "this" was ministry...

The second time occurred after I had been searching unsuccessfully for several years for a full-time position in ministry. At that point, I had been serving as part-time liturgy coordinator at my parish, while my day job was mostly clerical. I also had a writing job on the side for the local paper. I was restless with the patchwork of putting together three jobs to make a living - and not fully using my talents.

Over the summer, I began hearing a distinct voice in my head: "Bloom where you're planted." I was puzzled as to why this thought kept coming to me. In the fall, I made my Cursillo and during the communal penance service, on the way back to my seat after my confession I once again heard that annoying mantra: "Bloom where you're planted." This time I pushed back: "I can't bloom where I'm planted.Lord. I HATE where I'm planted!"The response was immediate and surprising: "Then, plant yourself where you can bloom!" I had never thought about leaving town. The job search led to a dual position as director of religious education and liturgy in a parish where I was a total stranger.

Over the years since those events, my progress in ministry has been more event-driven, but I learned to see the workings of God in occurrences that forced me to change or grow. I have been recently much more aware that recent requests for me to write and teach are part of the Spirit's plan for use of those charisms. (I have always shared my singing in parish and diocesan settings, because I have known for a long time that since I was born on St. Cecilia's day, the gift of my voice was God's plan and needed to be shared for God's glory and the good of his people, not to elevate me.)

Looking back, I now know that the voice I heard was that of the Spirit, because these events were clearly connected with my vocation to use my charisms to serve others. Called & Gifted made that very clear to me. As to writing and teaching, the C & G experience changed things for me in ways I never expected. I now have a greater clarity about why I have been given these gifts - and as to why, of late, writing and teaching opportunities have come to me without me looking for them. I also find a great renewal of energy to write and teach.  The Spirit gave these charisms and the Spirit continues to lead me in using them to build up the Church.

I pray that others whose charisms have not been activated may come to understand where the Spirit is directing them. The Holy Spirit is indeed "the giver of life" - a life filled with abundance of joy in using one's charisms to serve.

Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost: Celebrating Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

One of my great disappointments is that we give the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost so little enthusiasm these days. I honestly believe it's because we have allowed the school year and secular calendar to take over the liturgical year.

First Communions, Confirmations, graduations, and this year, Memorial Day all draw attention from these important moments in the church year, which means in most parishes, the Easter Season ends not with the forward momentum of being sent out, commissioned as a body of disciples sent for mission and evangelization, but with a sigh of relief and the turning of attention to the summer vacation season. Even our sacramental celebrations have the flavor of graduations.

For many of our people, this weekend, whether they come to Mass or not, signals the time to take a vacation from Mass until school starts in the fall, or, if their children's sacraments are completed, perhaps even a permanent vacation, with the perceived blessing of an added day to sleep in and enjoy family time.

How do we let this keep happening year after year?  I believe it happens because people in ministry are simply too tired and busy to maintain the joyous movement the Easter Season requires. The joy of the Gloria and the Alleluia at the Easter Vigil no longer energizes us. We implore the Spirit on Pentecost to send us fire, but too often, we are already burnt-out wicks.

The school-year model of church, which requires obedience to the rhythm of American culture, has us seeing not new life in spring, but a prelude to the "end."  In the fall, when the calendar year and liturgical year are "dying", we gear up, start new programs, coast on that momentum into the frenetic Christmas holidays, take a deep breath in January and dive in again for another few months, by which time, most of us are simply looking forward to the end of our programs and the blessed relief of the summer slow-down.

What would the American church look like if we were not dominated by the tyranny of the school year model?  If we obeyed the natural movement of the liturgical year?

Our new initiatives would begin in Advent, and carry forth the joy of the Incarnation into the months preceding Lent. The 5 weeks of Lent would be our "lull" and the Resurrection in Easter Season, our focal point. When summer Ordinary Time arrived, it would be our signal to concentrate on gathering and building up the Church as a community, hearing the Word and going forth to do it, instead of going our separate ways. We would evangelize and invite, begin meeting with inquirers to see if they truly want to join us.  In the fall, we would rest a bit, count the "harvest" of our summer labors, accept people into the catechumenate and begin again in earnest, fueled for mission by reconnecting with the Incarnate Christ at Advent/Christmas.

This model would support the intent of the RCIA process and keep the community together all through the year.  Yeah, I have a dream.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Vine, the Branches and the Eucharist

The kids in my Confirmation class were confirmed earlier today in two celebrations at my parish. (We had 115 of them, so it was necessary to split the group.) In class on Wednesday, my 22 kids and I talked at length about the image of Jesus as the vine and us as the branches, which, it happens, is the Gospel reading for this weekend. The discussion went in a direction I had not anticipated, but actually, it was the right direction. Here are a few highlights...
  • If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches on that vine, he is the only reason we thrive and bear fruit. 
  • If we are cut off (or cut ourselves off) from the vine, we will become dead branches - and there will be no fruit.
  • Jesus, the true vine, nourishes his people through his sacrifice. He offers this connection if we become his friends, which we become by doing what he asks of us.
  • We never do this alone - we are all connected - all Catholics in the parish, the diocese and around the world.
  • Initiation into full membership in the community through Baptism and Confirmation grafts us onto the vine and makes us a part of it.
  • The faith community (all the branches together) gathers each weekend to be nourished by the Eucharist, which is the chief way that the vine nourishes us
  • Therefore, going to weekend Mass, being nourished by the Word and receiving Eucharist on a regular basis, is the most important thing we can do to maintain our identity as branches on the vine. 
What I hope they took away from Wednesday's session and today's experience is a sense that they belong to Jesus Christ and to his community, the Body of Christ.  The beautiful image of the vine and branches is an organic one - the relationship is the most natural thing in the world. The branches take their very identity from the vine to which they are attached and rooted to the earth. We, too, take our identity from Jesus -and all that we do should reflect our connection to him.