Friday, July 31, 2015

Cherchez le Jesuit! Minions of St.Ignatius and Me

I like to say that many of my major spiritual and vocational shifts have had some kind of connection to something Jesuit.

A four-year cohort experience with Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension -  an unplanned invitation to a retreat with a brilliant Jesuit priest, an imaginative Ignatian meditation on scripture that knocked me out of my mental boat, a period of discernment (using Ignatian tools) that led eventually to seeking a ministry position out of town - yes, there was all that.

More recently, there has been the challenging influence of that continually fascinating Jesuit Pope...

In the past several years, there has been the invitation from Loyola Press to write first for their (now-defunct) DRE Connect blog, and more recently for Joe Paprocki's popular Catechist's Journey, all of which I truly believe has been part of the Holy Spirit's plan for me to use my charism of writing.

For a long time, it has been my conviction that St. Ignatius has somehow chosen me - indeed pursued me, on God's behalf. He has been, as near as I can tell, my appointed hound of heaven.

My personal vision of church is also very Ignatian - I am not hard-wired to be one to sit on the sidelines, but want to be practical, working and acting on behalf of Christ. In this Jesuit joke I would be with the Jesuits:
The Benedictans, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits were having a big meeting that went well into the middle of the night. Suddenly all the lights went out in the meeting room. The Benedictans immediately started chanting Psalms glorifying God, the Franciscans took out their guitars and sang songs praising all creation, and the Dominicans began preaching about the metaphysics of light and darkness; meanwhile the Jesuits went to the basement, found the fuse box, and reset the breaker.                                                                                                      (Fr. Felix Just, SJ)
So today, on St. Ignatius's feast day, I want to join my fellow Ignatian Minions and say, "Hail Iggy! Bring it on!   A.M.D.G.

Monday, July 20, 2015

OK, Young Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Please Help Us Understand You

I've pretty much been watching the recent blog thread on how the Church should embrace the gifts of younger leaders from millennials Jonathan Sullivan, Timothy O'Malley and Colleen Reiss Vermuelen from the sidelines. This has been a bit challenging to us older folks - especially those of us who were unaware we were being perceived as suspicious or non-accepting.

Certainly I agree we need to value each other's gifts - that's a given. Each person who dedicates their life and gifts to service in ministry feels a distinct call to do so, which should of course be honored. As to us letting you show you what you can do - I'm somewhat less enamored. To me, that sounds like a need to prove something, rather than simply to engage in the hard work of doing the will of God in each situation in a collaborative manner and growing organically to become a respected leader in ministry.

Believe me, acceptance was just as difficult for many of us when we started out, even for those of us who began ministry in mid-life. In the late 1980's when I started, even though I had an ecclesial degree, I had to "prove" to people of my parish that I could be the liturgy coordinator. They had never seen a lay woman who was not a religious sister in ministry. (My pastor finally had to tell people from the pulpit: "In matters of the Liturgy, Joyce speaks for me.") Later, it took me almost four years to prove to some people in the parish where I became the DRE and director of liturgy that I was not one of those "uppity" women who wanted to be ordained! More recently, though I have always been a writer, I was not "recognized" on a non-local level until about a year ago. So, don't feel picked on. This is not all about generational differences. It's actually more about being "new" to the ministerial community and possibly about the impatience of youth. (ducking!)

Here is my challenge to younger leaders. Indeed, let us learn from you - but not just about the operational points of ministry. I know for a fact you have great ideas. Instead, sit with us in the circle of community. Let us learn from you how God is calling people into lay ministry today. You have a different story to tell - and it is a necessary one to an understanding of the story of the Church in the USA. We older folks DO have a need for you to tell us about yourselves. We honestly don't know - and that's why some may have a hard time accepting you. Sherry Weddell has said the first threshold is trust. It's hard to trust someone whose experience appears to be very different.

Let me explain. Maybe I'm not the norm, but my (very) slight degree of disconnect with younger people in ministry is my lack of a frame of reference for their vocation. Pretty much every middle-aged and older catechetical leader I know tells a similar story: none of us actually planned to do this with our lives. Rather, God called many of us, from something else, through a series of situations. Those with ecclesial degrees, mostly went "back to school."  In other words, it's often been a case of giving up another agenda in favor of service to the Church.

A popular meme of many in the older generation of ministers is "This was not my plan, but apparently it was God's idea all along."  Often, there is a great deal of Paschal Mystery involved - dying to old priorities and rising to new - widowhood, divorce, unexpected request from a pastor at the departure of a previous leader.That's why local, diocesan-sponsored lay ministry formation programs, local university cohorts and online learning are needed for those who did not or could not become qualified by traditional academic experience as young people.

What I most want to hear from this new generation of leaders who chose to go to college and major in theology, catechetics, liturgy or something else ecclesial  early in life, is how does it feel to choose this intentionally as a young person?  How is this, for your generation, a divine calling, and not simply a "career choice?" I am certainly not at all suggesting it is not a divine call. I just want to know how this works when God calls a young person. I want to hear the Christ-centered theological reflections that help me understand how this is as real for you as a divine call as it is for me -and how a young person's ecclesial vocation is part of an ongoing path of conversion. (And no, you don't need to prove your authenticity - just tell me how it works!)

In my experience, some people in the "older generation," especially those with a background as school teachers who took this path as career choice early in life, have (how do I put this nicely?) an institutional bias, and may, in their later years, have developed a "staleness" and a tendency to cling to old models.  In contrast, many who have felt a strong mid-life conversion-based call to catechetical ministry are more open to new models and methods, if the impetus for these seems to be coming from the Holy Spirit. This is because, through their response to their call to the vocation of catechesis, they have been opened up to God.  Yes, these are all generalizations, but this, in some way, reflects my experience. I so want it not to be true for this new generation.

So, please tell me. How does an early vocation work? Did you grow up admiring other catechetical leaders or theologians and want to emulate them? Or, did you, too, start out doing something else and then God "yanked" you into this? When did you know this was what you wanted to do? Was all of this pretty organic? Where does the vocation of a young person come from, if not through the changes and demands of Paschal Mystery?  Help us "old folks"out.  Many of us have been sharing stories of our convoluted paths to ministry for years. This has been an important part of what the first generations of post-Vatican II lay leaders have brought to the conversation.

Millennial leaders: it's time for you to update the community story. Help us to know how you fit in. We bring the history and context, you bring the energy and the current landscape of ministry - and what is possibly a different way of living ministerial vocation. Help us discover together the continuity in the ongoing story that is the Church. Please don't just demand to be accepted and allowed to show us what you can do. In most cases we have already seen that - and it's more than impressive.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hindsight is Always 20/20: The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Over the past week since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, there have been many opinions posted by Catholic bloggers, some of the more-challenging ones are about why our own people are not convinced of the Church's teaching on marriage.  (Just look at the number of Catholics who have changed their Facebook profile pictures this week to include a rainbow in support of the Supreme Court ruling.)

I have been particularly in agreement with two writers who focus directly on the general failure of catechesis and evangelization in the U.S. - and on what must, from now forward, change. These echo my own column in Ministry and Liturgy magazine's January, 2015 issue, where I opined on the state of catechesis in the US today (available by subscription.) It also echoes much of what Sherry Weddell has said in her best-selling book, Forming Intentional Disciples. Far from being mere hand-wringing, this is necessary self-reflection on what needs to change and why.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the catechetical office of the Diocese of Springfield, IL, wrote this scathing nugget of truth:
If I'm going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction. 
What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.  [bold is original]
Anger is an entirely appropriate response. The Church has only itself to blame. We are experiencing the fruits (or lack thereof) of what I like to call "the tyranny of low expectations" in catechesis.

In a similar vein, Patheos blogger Jennifer Fitz writes of  the necessity of discipling people one at a time to form mature Catholics - and how parishes have, instead, become virtual assembly lines:
What we have instead is cafeteria-model Catholicism.  The soul-food service line consists of weekly Mass and a series of classes for designated life moments, intended to prepare us for the sacraments.  If you’ll just start where it says “enter” and followed the roped-off course, you’ll end up with something like the Catholic faith on your tray by the time you get to check-out.
...The assembly-line mentality is so deeply engrained [sic] in Catholic thinking that whenever an evangelization or discipleship problem is discussed among parish professionals, it’s guaranteed that at least one person will propose a better assembly line.  Parents presenting their children for baptism don’t know the faith?  Make them go to more classes! Longer classes! Start them sooner!  Have them fill out attendance forms!
I'm not going to pull punches here. The "blame," if any, belongs to the bishops - and the clergy in general. When a new liturgical rite is promulgated, dioceses form their clergy with workshops. They did it for the revised Rite of Christian Funerals, and for the revised Roman Missal.

In contrast, when a catechetical document is released, there is no universal expectation that the clergy even read it, much less study it or take it to heart. The General Directory for Catechesis, the National Directory for Catechesis, both of which devote much space to new understandings of evangelization and the centrality of Jesus Christ in catechesis, had virtually no study days, and few clergy resources. The USCCB document on the primacy of adult faith formation, "Our Hearts Were Burning," was ignored by most clergy and parishes, who continue to pour resources into children's programming instead of refocusing on adults who would then be better equipped to form young people.

Compounding the situation, as enrollment numbers and Mass attendance (and consequently parish collections) have declined, many parishes are responding by hiring part-time, non-degreed parish leaders to run catechetical programs  - not just in my own diocese, but, from what I hear from other diocesan leaders, across the country. The practice is more and more to hire internally, to elevate an experienced catechist or even worse, to assign a parish secretary, to the task of organizing and running children's catechesis. When they meet with our office at the beginning of their first year and we talk about the needs to refocus catechesis and sacrament preparation, evangelize parents and form catechists to be disciples and witnesses, we often hear "But, Father never said anything about all of that!"

At a time when we most need qualified, well-supported leaders to redesign parish catechesis to include the entire community, to evangelize whole families and to build teams to spread a culture of discipleship to permeate all of parish life, many parishes are instead settling for the minimum. If the status quo continues and the pastor receives few complaints, the situation is deemed acceptable. Meanwhile, well-meaning and sincere, but under-qualified leaders are over-worked, underpaid and often have little support. In short, parishes often give the least amount of attention to the area that is sorely in need of the most.

Back in January, I wrote (in Ministry and Liturgy) of this situation:
This is deep Paschal Mystery for the Church. Change will only come through God’s power to bring new life from the worst of situations. But first, we need trust, courage and to let go.  
What needs to go? Clinging to old catechetical methods. Using books and blackboards to teach children who learn everything else using technology. Catechesis on doctrine with little relation to liturgy, community, or to real life. Sending kids home to families who neither pray nor attend Mass. Failure to foster conversion and to help people rely on the sacramental life of the Church for their well-being. Failure to invite people of all ages to personal encounter with Christ.
Our own people discount our teaching because they do not know and love the Lord. They have no relationship with the Father that would motivate them to obey God's laws out of love. We only have ourselves to blame for spending decades teaching about the institution's teachings, at the cost of bringing people to discipleship in Jesus Christ. Nowhere to go from here, really, except up.