Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Joy: Committing to Positive Social Media for 50 Days

Lots of people have noted with sadness the decidedly negative turn that American politics has taken - and the accompanying flurry of negative posts on social media. (I even know one person who has taken an account down in reaction to the craziness.)   Of course, negativity on social media is nothing new... and yes, I've done it.

Yesterday was Easter Day - for Catholics, the beginning of 50 days of celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating with Pentecost, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit and, by tradition, the founding of the Church. We are called to be "alleluia people" who sustain the joy of Easter for at least that 50 days.

So, what if...

What if people committed to 50 days of positive posts on social media? What if we refused to share negative humor or posts that mock people?  That doesn't mean we stop sharing news of concern, but that we make a commitment to being positive in every way we can.  What do you say?  Can we try this?  I'm going to. Who knows? It might just become a good habit.

Use the hashtag #Easterjoy if you wish.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"A fire... never dimmed by the sharing of its light ": The Evangelizing Message of the Exsultet

At the Easter Vigil, we begin by blessing the paschal candle, from which are lit the candles of all the people. As soon the paschal candle is lifted into its place of honor and incensed, the deacon (priest, or if necessary, cantor) begins to chant what is arguably the most important text of the entire church year: the Exsultet.

This is the great hymn announcing the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought into the present moment by the insistent repetition of "This is the night..." It is also a celebration of all of salvation history and the meaning of the paschal candle itself, which, while made of beeswax,"the work of the bees," is the very light of the risen Christ.

The Exsultet connects the sin of Adam with the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and this "night when Christ broke the prison bars of death, and rose victorious from the underworld."   It is the "truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wedded to earth and divine to the human."

As each person in the assembly holds his or her small, flickering candle, lit from the paschal candle, we hear of the "fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by the sharing of its light."  Finally, the paschal candle itself is offered to God, to "mingle with the lights of heaven."

So, what do we hear in the Exsultet?  The message and meaning of the kerygma, pure and simple. The Exsultet is a full review of the significance and circumstances of Christ's coming, of the way it was foreshadowed in the history of his Jewish ancestors, and of his redemptive work in saving us from the "truly necessary sin of Adam."

We come to know, through this mighty song, the essential meaning of the Paschal Mystery. We receive an exhortation to unite ourselves with that mystery, knowing that whenever we share the light of Christ with others, that light is multiplied, not diminished. Even as the paschal candle itself is shared and offered as an oblation (offering) to God, so, each believer's light should be shared and offered.

The takeaway? Our very sharing of the story and message of Jesus Christ (evangelization) is an offering to God and a necessary consequence of God's mercy in sending his Son to save us from sin and death.

So this year, don't be distracted by the lengthy chant. Listen to the message. It is an exhortation for you to discover that: "Dazzling is the night for me and full of gladness."  "Exult" indeed, then go out to spread the Good News.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

From Mass to Mission: Accessible Liturgical Catechesis for All Ages

How well do most Catholics participate in the Mass?  I have often commented in this space that as a cantor, facing the people, I frequently see the bored, passive expressions of the externally (and maybe internally) disengaged. However, Bishop Robert Barron has named an even bigger problem: 70% of our people around the world (75% in the US) do not even attend Mass!  He calls that a "spiritual disaster." How can we fix this? We need better tools.

As I have mentioned before in this space, I was privileged to be asked to write the children's portion of the new project from Liturgy Training Publications, From Mass to Mission: Understanding the Mass and its Significance for Our Christian Life.  Created for use in parish catechesis, this series  is an answer to the common issue that catechesis and liturgy are not sufficiently connected in parish life.  More than that, it is a resource that can involve the entire community in learning about and growing in their appreciation of the Mass.

From Mass to Mission from Liturgy Training Publications on Vimeo.

The USCCB put it succinctly in the National Directory for Catechesis: “in the Church’s mission of evangelization, catechesis and Liturgy are intimately connected” (§ 33)  Unfortunately, that has not often been true. Catechetical textbooks barely scratch the surface of the liturgy. Parishes simply tell families with children to bring them to Mass. Catechetical sessions for first communicants provide a brief overview of the Mass, maybe the parish leader or catechist hands parents a children's picture missal, and then expects parents to fill in the blanks.  After that, people are mostly on their own for the rest of their lives to figure out the meaning of the liturgy and of their personal participation, with very little catechesis.  Is it any wonder that older kids often tell us Mass is "boring" and that by the time they can make a choice, the majority of our people do not attend Mass regularly?

Filling a much-needed gap in updated materials since the 2011 revision of the Roman Missal, From Mass to Mission provides a vehicle for parish communities to make the explicit connection between the Mass and full, conscious and active participation, both internal and external. Too often people know when to stand, sit, kneel and say responses, but have never been instructed about the internal spiritual participation of the assembly at Mass. Participants learn to bring their own Mass intention, to offer themselves to be transformed with the bread and wine, and to make a personal spiritual connection to the Eucharist that informs their prayer and actions in daily life.

Each level consists of a participant's book and a leader's guide, accompanied by a CD-Rom containing additional handouts and activities and  6 video segments depicting what we do at Mass. punctuated by clips from interviews with clergy, catechetical leaders. liturgical leaders, children, teens and adults.

When I was invited into this project last spring, I was asked to write a 36-page resource on the Mass for kids, grades 3-6 - to be part of a series that would also include teens and adults. However, it is my conviction that children's participation and attendance at Mass are inseparable from family practice and the level of understanding of their catechists. At my urging, LTP allowed me to expand the original vision for this from a 36-page classroom-based resource to a longer one that includes preparation and reflection for the adult catechist, family activities and reflections, and two models for an intergenerational introduction of the resource to parents and children together.

There are 5 chapters, but really this is six sessions, due to the length of the section on Liturgy of the Eucharist.  There are six videos, set up to accommodate that split.

Now, that I have seen the finished product of the children's level, I can't tell you how impressed I am with what LTP did with this. The photos and illustrations are great, the accompanying videos are outstanding. The CD-Rom contains letters for parents, handouts, quizzes, a PowerPoint game for identifying seasons of the liturgical year (probably best for the older children) and the video segments.

And, though I have not seen the adult or teen levels yet, I have been told that the adult level even has an all-day retreat option built in, using all 6 videos. That sounds great!

From Mass to Mission goes far beyond existing resources on the Mass insofar as it engages the learners in age-appropriate ways beyond mere presentation of the information.

Lest you think I am giving this series a thumbs up because I will personally benefit, this was a contacted project, and I will actually not profit from royalties. I am promoting From Mass to Mission because I believe strongly in it and its potential as a way to encourage people to attend Mass because they actually understand it, feel spiritually involved, and really want to be part of their community's worship. My dream is that this helps people to know what they bring to the Mass and what the experience of the Mass has to offer them.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cantor's Diary: Never Assume...

Well, tonight was the vigil Mass for Palm Sunday - and it began with one of those memorable liturgy failures

You need to understand three things about my parish; 1.) when I came to this parish almost 14 years ago, the liturgy was celebrated well, 2.) there have been a lot of changes of personnel and abilities over the years and 3.) and I am only a volunteer. (In two prior parishes, I was director of liturgy.)  

I was scheduled to be the cantor so I arrived a little earlier than usual. The first thing I noticed was that a number of older people who had entered by doors other than the center rear one did not see and pick up palms from the table in back of church, so I went back and passed a few around.  The kids who were there for Confirmation service hours were hanging around the table, but not being very diligent about making sure palms were distributed.

The next thing I noticed was there was no priest in sight at 2 minutes past the time Mass was to begin. OK, that meant it was probably our associate pastor, who tends to run a little late. Sure enough, he appeared at the ambo 3 minutes past starting time and announced that people should go get palms. (We're already on that one, Father!)

Then, he goes to the back and after some short delay, he comes out gives me the "high sign" to start and forms up the opening procession. Wrong. I pointed toward the back, because I don't get to start on Palm Sunday, the presider does. Nothing. Not a glimmer. No book.  I dutifully greeted the people and asked them to stand. Still nothing. No book. The ministers in the back made motions for me to start.

I was a bit at a loss by now, and it was pretty obvious that we were not going to hear the preliminary gospel reading before the blessing of the palms, but knowing that the palms needed to be blessed, I finally hit on a creative choice. I  then asked "Please face the back and Father will now bless the palms." Still nothing. Then, finally, a faint hint of understanding appeared to dawn on Father and he picked up the aspersorium and with the altar server began to walk up and down the aisle to sprinkle the palms as if it were a sprinkling rite.

I looked across at my music director and we mutually decided there was nothing to be done but to start the opening song  (Psalm 122: "The Road to Jerusalem", with Palm Sunday verses.). When the presider and the server got halfway up the center aisle, it finally dawned on the lector with the Book of the Gospels and the other ministers in the back of the procession that they should probably come along too.  "I rejoiced when I heard them say we will go to the house of the Lord" - I think!

And so it began...  After Mass, I approached Father and explained that I did not know what to do at the beginning - and that I had expected him to begin with the reading and blessing, which he could find in the book. He grinned sheepishly and said, "Yes, it's in the book."  (Repeat after me, "I am only a volunteer. I am only a volunteer...")

Never. Assume. Never assume the priest has actually looked at the order of the liturgy ahead of time. Never assume the priest does not need help.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: From Mary's Heart to Yours

Whether you have a strong devotion to Mary, or are just curious as to how her experiences described in scripture can support you in your own life struggles, this set of three short presentations on Mary, the mother of Jesus, will give you opportunities for new insights.

In her latest DVD, From Mary's Heart to Yours, Dr. Mary Amore, of Mayslake Ministries, brings her keen understanding of the spiritual life to to three crucial moments in Mary's life (the unsettling life changes due to the Annunciation and her subsequent pregnancy, parenting Jesus - as a 12-year old and as an adult gone off to ministry, and the experience of his Crucifixion) and asks key questions about our own experiences to help viewers find parallels.

The reflections are thought-provoking and alternately comforting and challenging, enhanced by the reflection questions that ask us to examine our own related experiences.

The addition of three ritual prayer services, complete with both printed and video instructions, makes this an easy resource for parish leaders to use with any group of adults.

I think this could be a great small or large group experience - especially for mature adults, who will no doubt find it easy to make multiple appropriate life connections.

Monday, March 14, 2016

With a Little Help from My Friends: The Grace of Community

Yesterday, I had all those good intentions about arriving for Mass on time, to sing with our choir. I had set my clock ahead for Daylight Saving Time, gotten up on time, spent my usual morning session on the internet to wake up and catch up on what was going on, and grabbed breakfast in plenty of time, but  my body apparently did not reset its clock.

Those with celiac disease know that sometimes you just can't leave the bathroom behind in the morning, no matter how hard you try.  Add to that, it was raining, traffic was a little slow and Mass at my parish actually started a couple minutes early, which is very unusual. To top it off, the side door closest to the choir area was, unexpectedly, locked, so I had to go around and come up from the back of church.

I slipped into the choir area just after the opening song ended, actually only one minute after the time Mass should have started. However, that meant I was unable to put my pyx containing my low-gluten host on the altar as was our usual protocol. I quietly resigned myself to receiving only the Precious Blood, so as not to cause a disruption.

What I had not anticipated was that my friends in the community care about me. At the offertory (we had silence yesterday rather than a song), the choir member closest to the sanctuary offered to take my pyx up, quietly, after Father came down the steps. Gratefully, I handed it to her. But then, the usher taking up the collection on our side came over and took the pyx, saying he'd take it up with the procession and hand it to Father with the gifts.

After he walked away, one of our other choir members leaned over to me and whispered, "You are very much loved." A bit overwhelmed, all I could say was "I guess I am, in spite of myself."  Grace. It happens.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

When "Religion" is a Dirty Word

I was interested to read the following comment from an interview with actor John Goodman about his recent weight loss:
(Photo from E! News Twitter feed)
“I think you’re trying to fill a hole that can’t be filled unless it’s filled with goodness, some kind of spirituality, not saying religion,” Goodman explained. “But just a belief in something higher than yourself, a purpose. But instead of filling it with booze or cocaine or food, you just acknowledge that it’s there. You can’t fill it. And you go on and live with it.”
To me, this is really reflective of a common view that "spirituality" in whatever vague form it is imagined is better than "religion."

Religion has gotten a bad rap in today's culture. Some people have negative childhood experiences with particular church situations or leaders, some associate religion with televangelists who try to persuade their followers to send copious amounts of money, many more people have not gotten the point of religion - which in reality is simply a system of beliefs and practices that should support a relationship with the divine.  They may only see the formal structure of the community and its hierarchy of leadership, the often-negative images of a judgmental God, a focus on sin rather than mercy or blessing and conclude that formal religion is both negative and irrelevant.

In Christian terms, Goodman's comment is based on an intuitive understanding of what is popularly known as St. Augustine's "God-shaped hole."    Augustine said, “We were made for You, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Interestingly, Goodman seems to know that spirituality (however he personally defines it) and goodness are the only things that will fill that void. Also fascinating is that he seems to think that living with the hole is the only alternative, as if he is somehow reluctant to fill it with that spirituality and goodness he mentions. (I rather imagine at this point that running through his head is Peggy Lee singing a chorus of "Is That All There Is?")

"Spirituality and goodness" - what better definition for a life lived in Christ? A connection to the person of Jesus and a commitment to live according to God's commands and focus on sharing goodness with others... this is the life of a disciple. It can be a life of joy and fulfillment for those able to make the full commitment.

For me this whole thing begs the question of how Christians today can rehabilitate the concept of "religion" to make it more attractive... or to take the focus off the system that "religion" represents and put the focus on the person and message of Jesus Christ. The secondary points of religion are the gathered community and its beliefs, celebrations and practices.

We have a lot of work to do to evangelize the culture and attract those who see church as an ingrown, uninviting institution instead of a community of people sharing the joy of God's love and the grace of shared care for one another. Pope Francis' call to us early in his papacy to be people who live and express the "joy of the Gospel" should not be sidelined, but should be the priority of every Christian. We should celebrate the liturgy with joy, share stories of faith and connect them to doctrine with joy and a focus on the love of God.

While we don't need "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper stickers to proclaim our allegiance, we do need to remember that if we love Jesus - and the community of his faithful who gather together to practice faith in liturgy and teaching - that we should tell our faces, so that our faith may be inviting and attractive to others.  If people outside the Church saw us as they did in the days, when Tertullian could report that the Romans would say, “See how they love one another!” our religion and its practice would be a visible source of joy, unity and love.

And so, we should pray with the psalmist: "Give me back the joy of your salvation." (Psalm 51:12) that we may have that joy to share with an unbelieving world.