Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

So the US Bishops have assembled again, and following a hot tip I watched the session with Bishop Barron’s report on evangelization.  You can view the whole thing here.

It is worth watching if you have the time.  I started jotting down a few of Bishop Barron’s points on post-it notes for reference as the new book goes into final edits in December, and ended up annotating the whole transcript instead.   [FYI for those tempted to create snarky hierarchy-themed bingo boards, ahem, YouTube’s auto-generated captions and transcript do some fascinating things with the words ad limina.]

There were many valuable points raised, but the one I want to talk about now occurs around the 46-minutes mark. Bishop Daniel Conlon raises the question of evangelization versus catechesis. In his comments and Bishop Barron’s reply, a thorny problem for catechists is discussed: How do we both provide the rigorous catechesis that young people need (discussed extensively earlier in the presentation), and evangelize the barely-Catholic youth in our parishes?

As the bishops’ review of the state of evangelization rightly points out, it is no good throwing a pile of commands and directions at someone who is still asking basic questions about life, the universe, and everything. But at the same time, for the young person (or older person) who has largely accepted the Catholic faith, and in a different but crucial way for the young person whose mode of grappling with the faith is headily intellectual, the hunger for theology is a survival drive.  Serious examination of the faith for some young people is life-saving nourishment.

And yet that same theologically-intensive approach to the faith would absolutely drown a different kid also sitting in the circle at the youth group ice-breaker.

So what do you do?

The present solution — parish food fight, and last man standing gets to organize the youth program along his or her favorite lines — is not a good solution.  It’s not just a bad idea because yelling at your pastor is poor form (so I’ve been told, more than once), but also because “young people” are not a homogenous lump of catechetical tumor.

The young people who attend your parish are not identical to one another.  They have differing academic abilities, differing faith backgrounds, and differing spiritual needs.

Imagine if pediatricians organized conferences where they attempted to hash out a single mode of treatment for every child. Imagine showing up at your child’s doctor’s office, and the appointment went like this:

Parent: My kid has a badly swollen knee.  It started about three weeks ago.

Doctor, nodding gravely: Ah yes.  I see.  You will definitely want to start our regimen of asthma treatments.  It’s a shame you didn’t come in sooner, but it’s not too late.

Parent: I don’t think you understand.  It’s the knee.

Kid: My knee really hurts.  I can’t play soccer anymore.

Doctor: Yes!  It’s impossible to play soccer if you can’t breathe well!  What we need you to do is come in once a week for breathing treatments.

Kid: I can breath just fine.  I don’t need breathing treatments.  It’s my knee that hurts.

Doctor: Well, it never hurts to improve your breathing.  Many children have undiagnosed asthma, and so it’s important that we focus on making sure you can breathe well first.  When you’re older there will be plenty of time to look into your knee, if that’s important to you.

Parent: But if we don’t treat the knee, isn’t my child likely to get out of shape and have a worse time keeping up?

Doctor: Yes.  Exercise is so important!  That’s why we require all patients to receive weekly breathing treatments, to make sure they can exercise well.

Parent: I don’t think that we want to do the weekly breathing treatments.  We’re looking to understand why the knee is swollen.

Doctor: I’m sorry.  With an attitude like that, obviously your child is not going to get any better.  In all my years of medical practice, I’ve found that if we don’t require breathing treatments, children with undiagnosed asthma can get seriously ill, and even die.  I’m concerned you don’t take your child’s health seriously.

Parent: Could you refer us to a knee specialist, perhaps?

Doctor: Of course!  After you child finishes college, it might be possible to find a doctor’s office with a knee program. Though honestly, most Singles Doctors and Young Adult Doctors don’t do knees.  We did have an OB-GYN who treated a sprained ankle once, though.  Knees are more likely to come up in the Seniors treatment center.

Kid: I hate doctor’s offices.  Last year I had to spend six weeks in a cast because four of the kids in our treatment group had broken wrists.

Doctor: Oh yes.  I’m so glad your group was treated for that! Many children hurt their wrists skating or climbing trees.  In any case, I doubt it’s your knee.  We have extensive research showing that breathing treatments are far more effective at keeping young people in your grade alive and healthy.  Let’s just go ahead and sign you up, and you can give it a try, and I think if you have a good attitude it will work wonders for you.  Remember, you only get out of treatment as much as you put in, right?  Big smile for me, okay?

Disaster.  But before you lay into the “doctor” in this situation, keep in mind the doctor is only doing what we’ve asked. We’ve spent generations now commanding youth ministers and faith formation directors to develop a single program that somehow effectively treats every patient in the pediatric hospital for sinners — and then we heap on the blame when an overworked, underpaid staff member isn’t able to magically cure all the youth of the parish in that sacred hour a week of instructional time.

There’s an alternative to this approach, and your pediatrician is already doing it, and interestingly it’s the same thing the Church prescribes: Parents as primary educators, passing on the faith in the domestic church.

What would happen if we abandoned the orphanage-model of faith formation and operated the hospital for sinners more like a good doctor’s office?

We’d quit scolding and start educating parents.   When public health professionals notice parents aren’t getting their kids treated, they don’t rely on general admonitions to “Take your child’s health more seriously!”  At my doctor’s office there are posters on the wall and racks of pamphlets explaining common medical problems, and signs to look for, and treatments to pursue.  Does your parish educate parents on the common spiritual illnesses of youth, and how to prevent and treat them?

We’d give parents realistic ideas for how to educate their children in the faith, and expect them to follow-through. At the annual well-visit, the nurse runs through a list of age-appropriate potential concerns.  The advice that goes with is concrete.  Not a vague: Are you protecting your child from head injuries? but Does your child wear a helmet when bike riding?  The best doctors take into account the family’s resources and limitations, and the child’s true needs, and work with parents to find solutions when, say, the kid won’t eat fruits and vegetables, or constantly unbuckles in the car. [Duct tape? Not kidding.]  Parents usually will rise to expectations if the medical team can find a solution that the parent can reasonably hope to carry out.

We’d focus heavily on helping parents instill everyday spiritual health habits, but train parish staff in the diagnosis and treatment of serious problems.  Our pediatrician is an excellent cook as it happens . . . but it’s not her job to feed our family.  That’s my job.  Do I sometimes slack on that job?  You bet.  But even on days when my kids have popcorn and ice cream for dinner, it’s better that our doctor focus her time on becoming as knowledgeable as she can on detecting and treating (either herself or via referral) the serious problems.  Most appointments will end up with our doctor prescribing a simple course of treatment at home; every now and then, one of the kids will need more advanced care.

What would happen if we didn’t divide-and-conquer this way?  I’d probably have a dead kid, thanks for asking.  My pediatrician would be so bogged down with the weight of attempting to somehow feed our family a balanced diet (and do it in one weekly dinner twenty-five nights a year) that she’d never have the time and energy to stay current in her specialty and schedule one-on-one appointments.  She’d never have discovered, in a routine five-minute check-up before a vaccine, the thing that could have killed my child.  But because she specializes in treating the hard stuff, and leaves the day-to-day to me, when we need her expertise, she’s able to give it.

But the parents are neglectful! We lament.  Well, yes.  The parents are dropping like flies themselves, and Bishop Barron’s presentation addresses that.  You can’t care for someone else when you yourself are dead.

Build Better Orphanages! is not the solution to the spiritual death of the adults in the congregation.  You cannot bypass the parents.  There are not enough youth ministers in the world, and never will be, because that is not God’s plan for the human family.  Evangelize the parents, catechize the parents, and deploy the parents to do likewise for their children.

This is a constant, all-at-once process.  Our pediatrician is effective because she assumes the goodwill of parents.  We parents might know nothing at all about medicine, but we do love our kids.  That’s all she needs for a start.  If a parent is coming to your parish, that parent is ripe for the Good News.  Who doesn’t want eternal life for themselves and their children, if only they know it’s attainable?

The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You

Here, enjoy this book cover.  I am. Last round of edits starts in December, speak up at the blog discussion group if you have any final requests.

Smart Rosary Helps Users Overcome Distraction, Excuses, Family Harmony

ConspiracyPress – COLUMBUS – When Kaden Zimmer received the Vatican-promoted “Smart Rosary” from his confirmation sponsor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, he wrote a polite thank you note and promised to use it every evening when his parents lead a family Rosary.  “I figured it would announce the mysteries and help you keep from slipping into the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostles Creed by accident.  I had no idea what we were in for.”

Heather Zimmer, Kaden’s mother adds, “Father Scott, our parish priest, is always trying to reach out to young people.  So Kade’s uncle was excited to get a coupon code for a parish discount on this new product that was supposed to help liven up our prayer life.  We all downloaded the app for our phones. Little did we know.”

The family was enjoying the meditations on world peace and concern for the poor.  “Basically it was just like being in religion class,” Kade says.  “I’m pretty good at writing short-essay answers for that.  I figured I was set.”

Then one evening Kade begged out of the evening family Rosary.  As Joel Zimmer, Kaden’s father recounts, “It was a Thursday night, and Kade had been at practice until seven, and he told us, ‘I’ve got all this homework to do, and also we had the school Mass today, and Father always leads a Rosary while the choir is practicing.'”

“That’s when my phone began buzzing,” Heather recounts.

“Giant PANTS ON FIRE icon lit up,” Joel says, shaking his head sadly.

“We were horrified.  Needless to say, Kaden was grounded,” his mother says. “We told him that behavior was unacceptable, and he’d be marching straight to confession Saturday afternoon.”

Mr. and Mrs. Zimmer report that while they were disappointed in their son, they were pleased that the Smart Rosary’s honesty-detector had prevented spiritual disaster.  The family privately shared with close friends how the accountability functions were bringing about renewal in their spiritual life.  “We were excited.  We encouraged other families to purchase the Smart Rosary and download the app.”

Then came what the couple now refers to as their spiritual u-turn.

“We’d all gathered in the living room,” Joel says, “and I remember Heather had such a peaceful, prayerful expression on her face.  But we began to pray, and the Smart Rosary kept re-starting us at the Second Joyful Mystery.”

“We thought it was a glitch,” Kaden explains.  “I told my parents to restart their phones.  But when they did . . . it updated.”

“We were just launching into the second ‘Hail Mary’ when the notifications started,” Heather recounts.

Mr. Zimmer shows screen shots of the messages the Smart Rosary app began displaying:

RESTART PRAYER: Stop making grocery list.

RESTART PRAYER: Quit replaying final three minutes of yesterday’s game.

“It was a little too smart for them,” Kaden says, recounting the feeling of victory he experienced at his parents’ comeuppance.  “I asked them, ‘Do I need to ground you, too?’ And that’s when my phone buzzed.  CONFESSION ALERT: Violation of 4th Commandment.

With no way to go back to the older version of the app, the Zimmer family quickly uninstalled the Smart Rosary features, and turned off Alexa and Siri just to be safe.  Unfortunately the damage was already done: Father Scott at Our Lady of Good Counsel had already been copied on the notifications.

An exhausted Father Scott describes how the scheduling feature of the Smart Rosary quickly overwhelmed parish life.  “In the early versions, there was just an option for the Legion of Mary to get their weekly meeting announcements sent out.  Perfect.  With the second update, we were able to share parish prayer requests, and with the third update, Smart Rosary would make suggestions on, say, remembering to pray for Joyce Hirschel’s cancer surgery during the Sorrowful Mysteries.  It was great.”

Unfortunately, the CONFESSION ALERT feature was designed to coordinate with the pastor’s schedule.  “Next thing I know, my calendar’s showing six hours of Confession on Saturday afternoon.  Six hours!”

Father Scott admits he fibbed to parish staff. “I told them I’d just go ahead and make myself available in the confessional, and use the downtime for prayer and Bible reading.”  What he failed to mention: “It’s possible I took breaks between prayer sessions to check a few headlines on my phone. Next thing I know, the bishop’s calling, because Smart Rosary is blowing up his phone with notifications.”

By Sunday morning, Our Lady of Good Counsel parish had officially banned Smart Rosary. “Sure, it’s fine if the Vatican wants to promote this thing,” Heather Zimmer says.  “But from now on, we’re using those cheap plastic rosaries you get from the table by the brochure rack.”

Electronic Rosary bracelet and phone with app

Photo courtesy of clicktopray.org, where you can learn about the real product, which cannot read souls and will not examine your family’s conscience for you.

Mind Your Narratives!

Here’s an article with a fascinating finding on ancient European social patterns that also showcases a modern western social pattern.  What DNA and isotope sampling from ancient German cemeteries has found is that it was customary, four thousand years ago, for adult sons to remain with their family of origin, but for adult daughters to leave home and marry into family groups elsewhere — groups that were far away in distance and distinctive in culture.

This is a pretty interesting discovery, because: Who does that?  Right?  Neat.  Lots of fodder for thoughts on what that ancient society might have been like.

Sooooo . . . where should our imaginations head?  We could take it any direction we want, and in so doing we’d learn more about our imaginations than we would about ancient societies.

Notice how the otherwise objective and informative article subtly adopts the narrative of poor, oppressed, rejected adult daughters.  We see the illustration of that sad, lonely girl looking back in misery as she’s pushed out of her home and forced to march towards an unknown fate.  The text tells us that the girls are “sent away” and that “you have to give away all your daughters.”

Well, that might have been true.

Or: Maybe girls looked forward to the adventure that awaited them?  At seventeen I was pretty happy to hit the road and see the world.

Maybe women were considered more capable of the emotional and social task of cementing extended networks of relationships across distant tribes?

Maybe wealthy young women (the social class that traveled, per this set of findings) appreciated not being stuck in the expectations of their family of origin, who would always remember their childhood foibles, and were privileged to be able to forge for themselves an adult identity uniquely their own, among a people who expected the new daughter-in-law to bring with her distinctive customs and perspectives, and who valued the combination of innovation and energy that an older teen brought to the community?

Maybe, because she was likely joining a society that was not completely unfamiliar, as there would have been older women in her own community who came from the culture she was traveling to, it could have been best-of-both-worlds?

Or maybe not.  Maybe it sucked being a teenage girl in early bronze-age Europe.  Maybe you got buried with all your arts and crafts from your native tribe because your nasty father-in-law didn’t want too look at your ugly foreign figurines one minute longer, and you were counting the days until you were dead and buried because your mother-in-law resented you for being part of this vast cultural norm that caused her to lose her beloved daughter and get you instead, and also you overcooked the cabbage every. single. time.

We don’t know.

In the study of history, we have to be careful not to foist our own narratives on the blanks in our limited trove of evidence.

File:Desenka meadow 2016 G1.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???

If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department.  Change is hard.  Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.

And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem:  What the heck is Confirmation???

For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament.  A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s).  My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.

(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.”  It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements.  If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things.  But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)

For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.

Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community.  If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant.  If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation.  Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.

Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service.  They are sacraments that commission a vocation.  While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.

What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is.  We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service.  We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.

This is not what the sacrament is.  Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation.  Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine.  We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills.  You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.

Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit.  Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.

Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication.  You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities!  Show yourself able and worthy!  To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!

This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest.  Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ.  First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received.  Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.

Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?

File:Brooklyn Museum - God the Father with Four Angels and the Dove of the Holy Spirit - Giovanni Francesco da Rimini.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pricing People Out of Parish Life

Over at the blorg I put up a quick note about something that caught my eye: Best Practices in Evangelization = Unintended Lesson in Homelessness.  The trouble with things you dash off, as a friend so tactfully put it in a comment, “I need to be awake to really see what she is saying clearly.” Ha.  What I say is:

  1. Hey look! The Archdiocese of Baltimore is doing something awesome.
  2. Notice what their missionaries need to live on?  What does that tell us about living wages for families?
  3. And that reminds me of a fresh new rant I’ve cultivated lately . . .

Allow me to tell you about #3.  Recently someone posed the question: What do you think of holding abc parish ministry at xyz commercial venue?  The primary concern was that the venue might be suitably excellent for the ministry, or maybe the nature of the location was potentially problematic for some participants.  Charitable discussion ensued.  The one small thing I had to add:  Is it possible for people to attend without having to pay for the privilege?

I find with surprising consistency that among American Catholic parishes there’s an expectation that people who love Jesus will cough up money for dinner or drinks or babysitting so that they can participate in parish life.  There’s an assumption that if your child desires a sacrament, you will be able to get free from work and find transportation on a day and hour of the week chosen for you without consulting you — nearly always an hour when service workers are expected to be on the job, and when special-needs kids are melting down after a long day of pretending to be normal.  My rant reaches its peak when friends tell me about their parishes where mandatory sacramental prep costs the equivalent of a month’s rent on affordable housing.

The assumption is that most participants will have the money, and if you really cared you would reorganize to find the money and clear your calendar; in the unlikely event poor persons should want to do the parish thing, then the poor persons can beg the proper authorities so that a patron steps forward to pay their way.

Now let me be clear: I am not against Theology on Tap.  I am not against Ladies’ Night Out at the local restaurant.  I totally get that someone’s got to buy the books and craft paper and the new boxes of markers for religious ed.

But let me also be clear: When we make the decision to center parish life on pay-to-pray events, we are making the decision to exclude the people who don’t have money for that.

What with it being Mother Theresa’s feast day yesterday, and what with the Gospel reading this past Sunday, it is more and more on my mind how much our default mode of operating in the American Church is to center parish life on the needs and abilities of an affluent, able-bodied, main audience.  People who can’t keep up with that lifestyle are often an afterthought and an exception.

The article I cited caught my eye because in the midst of explaining a ministry that is exactly the opposite of all this — true evangelization of the poorest of the poor — there was a sobering reminder that yes, the cost of living is high.  Take a look at some income charts from the Census Bureau.  A very rough statistic is that about 1/3 of American households earn the same or less than what it costs to sponsor a healthy, single young adult with no children living as a missionary in church-provided housing.  Here’s a short discussion of the prevalance of credit card debt among Americans (Money tip: If you can’t pay off your credit card bills, you can’t afford to go out to dinner at the restaurant).

I think we should change this.  I think I am as bad as anyone about building my life around my comfortable little middle-class bubble.  But the Gospel says what it does, and to paraphrase my pastor yesterday, “Things go better when you do what God tells you to do.”  So I’m thinking the US Church in general needs to reorganize parish life so that people who are resource-thin are the center, not the periphery, of our faith community.

 

File:"Men working together" - NARA - 515004.tif

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Lord Have Mercy, There’s a Baby in My Church

Reminded by a fellow mom who got the dread e-mail today: Ma’am, I couldn’t fail to notice but you brought CHILDREN to Mass yesterday!!!

If this happens to you, there’s a music video for that:

Also useful for those moments when someone says your neo-traditionalist* self, “I prefer contemporary music at Mass,” and you can say, “Me too!  Listen to this one!”

Music Credits FYI: It’s the Kyrie from James Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, performed by the choir at St. Peter’s Basilica, Columbia, SC, conducted by organist and choir director Mark Husey, circa 2014, recording by Jon Fitz.  Recording was during a Mass with the congregation, hence the infant soloists, who remain anonymous to this day.  Typo in the opening credits is mine, my apologies to  Whitbourn-with-no-e.

File:Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.jpg

Art: Jacob Jordaens, courtesy of Wikimedia.

*My neo-traditionalist self is just one small part of a self that likes any decent music, and will both enjoy and complain about nearly any Mass you set before me.

Need Evangelization Skills for the Absolute Beginner? Book Free through Labor Day

Nancy Ward, author and general editor of Sharing Your Catholic Faith Story: Tools, Tips, and Testimonies passes on the news that the Kindle edition is available free through Labor Day.  I was delighted to be asked to contribute my own conversion story, and Nancy did a super job of herding me and many others through the process of getting our mini-chapters ready to go.

Having skimmed through the final product, I would especially recommend this book for parish groups at that just-getting-going phase of the missionary life, where you want to share the joy of Jesus with other people, but honestly you don’t know where to start or what to say.  Nancy is gentle, encouraging, and fully in touch with the world of the everyday Catholic.

Since the Kindle sale is apparently running through the whole long weekend, if you can get your group members to quick download it now, you can all have it ready to go when the time for your next book club launches.

Sharing Your Catholic Faith Story: Tools, Tips, and Testimonies by [Ward, Nancy]

Cover art courtesy of The Word Works, via Amazon.com.

When Did We Flip? A Plea for Love & Reason When LGBT+ is a Catholic Family’s Reality

Editor’s Note: This essay is an anonymous contribution from a faithfully Catholic parent struggling with the giant black hole in the Pride Month Social Wars that gapes where sanity ought to reside.  The author asked to be completely anonymous, but this person is a friend I respect immensely, whose long and complex experience is worthy of your consideration. -JF

I can’t wait for this month to be over.

When did we flip? When did Pride month become something other than a just reaction to deadly harassment that led to the Stonewall riots, that defiant protest that all people have human dignity? When did Pride parades become a subculture’s visible face that allowed and even lifted up a public, campy hypersexual acting out? Where, at least sometimes, children were widely applauded for dressing in drag? (Mind you, this in a wider culture where only 10 years ago, we were outraged that little girls were forced to dress provocatively by big box retail selections.) When did these new Pride parades become a local event where people everywhere said “c’mon, and bring the kids!”?

When did we flip? When did we move from people saying rightly “he’s my son and I may not understand or agree, but I love him,” an honest and loving response that honors the dignity of all involved and the bonds of family….when did that change to a deluge of older folks having their own “coming out” this month, saying “my adult children are gay, or lesbian, or bi, or transgender, and anyone who disagrees can shut up and go to hell”? (I saw this three times in one week.) Yes, I hold the Catholic position that acting on same sex attractions sexually is wrong, although I wouldn’t dream of holding forth on that with everyone I know. I may share that if invited to, or possibly with others with whom I am in a close relationship. But this “flip” I’ve found this month is as vocally hostile and vicious, even much more so, than anything I have seen from the other side. I know LGBT+ folks have died as victims of prejudice, and suffered every form of harassment leading up to that. But I spent two decades of my life in an extremely LGBT+ friendly environment in a deeply fundamentalist Christian part of the country, with many friends who identified as LGBT+, and I rarely saw anything as widely or openly hostile as this.

When did we flip? When did love and friendship demand interpersonal agreement on this issue? When did human rights demand an ideological assent? When did friends begin worrying that teaching the Catholic position on sexuality in a Catholic educational institution as kindly and gently as possible would get one reported to a human rights board? When did sexual ethics move from the realm of revelation, natural law, prayer, and conscience to simple mob rule?

When did we flip? When did a majority of the people of the Catholic Church, hierarchy and laity, decide to give up on this issue? Because very few are saying anything akin to a nuanced distinction between inherently good human dignity, a neutral stance toward sexual orientation, and right and wrong sexual activity defined by intent and purpose. We’re losing most of a generation (or two) because they do not agree with the Catholic position on sexual activity reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, Instead, they see all things LGBT+ as a new civil rights movement. And of course, there is a partial truth here–we are called to defend all basic human rights (life, food, shelter, decent work, education). When people who identify as LGBT+ lose those human rights, we must fight that loss.

But something has happened here that goes beyond the real need for defending human rights. Many are buying the line—indeed, the hook, the line, and the sinker–that a life without sexual intimacy is not a life worth living. That human dignity can be won or lost, gained or dismissed, through sexual performance or lack of it. Some of what we’ve seen the past five years goes beyond Kinsey’s wildest and twisted imagination.

Seriously, when did we flip? Was it at Obergefell? Was it when we had a rainbow projected on the White House? Was it when Will and Grace made everyone laugh? When courts began closing religiously affiliated adoption centers? Was it when we had a sexual abuse crisis in our own Church and tiptoed around the homosexual abuse? Maybe, drip by drip by drip by drip, combined with friends who are gay, family who are lesbian, and more…we just wanted the ongoing struggle to define sexuality rightly to end by folding our cards and saying, “I can’t do this anymore”?

For a movement that argues it is all about love, there sure seems to be a whole lot of hate going on this month. Yes, on both sides–historians in the future will not look on this decade kindly as any model of civility. But all over the place this month I have increasingly seen a movement whose motto is “love is love.” And too many turn that phrase as, of all things, a rallying cry to shut out and shut down those who ask “but what is love anyway?”

As I said, I basically lived the ally life for two decades, from the beginning of the AIDS crisis until around 2005. Most of my friends for many years were LGBT+, and people I both loved and love. I went to a graduate school that was a bit of a hotbed of LGBT+ activism. I was thrilled I would have LGBT+ friends who would be like uncles and aunts to my own kids, when I had them. I read Judith Butler. I read John O’Neill. I went with gay friends to their bars. And I thought the Catholic Church would eventually come around to seeing that there was nothing wrong with homosexual unions. So many things were changing, like the use of contraception–surely this would as well?

But then a number of things happened. I read Theology of the Body and thought, to my surprise, hmm…that’s actually quite beautiful. I read Humanae Vitae and thought, to my surprise, hmm…that makes logical sense. I married and had a baby—and realizing that our love actually could result in a new human being had a bigger material and spiritual impact on our marriage than I expected. The first ultrasound of my firstborn still counts as one of the most unexpectedly profound spiritual moments of my life.

Later, I practiced contraception for about a year—and for something that was “no big deal” according to everyone else, I was quite unhappy. Then, simultaneously, the experiences of my LGBT+ friends from graduate school began to show signs of wear. I had a friendship with a gay man where he betrayed my friendship badly, which caused me to step back from being so involved in the ally life. Another friend who suddenly identified as bi realized, after coming out of a major depression, she was happier with her ex-husband (and rejoined him). All my other LGBT+ friends broke up with their long term partners. (Did some of my straight friends do the same? Sure. Did ALL of them? No. I realize this is anecdotal, but I am simply sharing my experience here.) Finally, I met a priest who I got to know quite well, who dealt with same sex attraction, but was chaste, and found a way to affirm church teaching as a wellspring of truth that led his challenges into a call to holiness.

It dawned on me that choosing chastity–regardless of sexual orientation–and being genuinely joyful was possible. It also dawned on me that given what I had seen, the people conforming with Church teaching (or at least trying to) were in general much happier and content people. So while I got to this place in a backwards manner–I have come to hold the fullness of the Lord’s teaching, communicated through the Church, on matters of sexual identity and expression. Perhaps I should have gotten there through obedience, a generous listening to the teaching of the Church. But by God’s grace, I did get there. God got me there.

So I look at every pro-Pride advertising campaign, every Facebook post, every virtue-signal tweet, every rainbow flag on my street, every “Love your neighbor—no exceptions” yard sign with a mixture of emotions. The most positive reactions are askance—because I see in a lot of people where I was years ago, wanting to support friends and family with or without reservations. And some of the civil rights issues are real. The persecution of LGBT+ people in many regions of the world is undeniable and sometimes brutal and deadly. This must be denounced and fought on human dignity grounds in the most full-throated manner possible.

But my most negative reaction is horror, because one of my children, a child I love so much I would die for him or her, says he/she is bisexual. And while he/she is Catholic, and seriously so, this child also sees no one—literally almost no one—encouraging him/her to lead a chaste life, showing him/her it can be possible, fruitful, holy, even…happy. At one level, he/she wants to hear this. He/she needs a mentor. But he/she cannot even claim the LGBT+ label without a flood of people demanding him/her to come out and join a movement that, at least in some corners, foments increasing bloodlust for anyone daring to step in and ask “but…what is love?” A movement that flipped somewhere to badly misunderstanding what human dignity is, and where it comes from.

So help me, I have found myself in a place where I can argue that this sexual activity is intrinsically disordered, and even if he/she simply does not understand that it is wrong, it has a real and negative impact on a person’s spiritual life: a living “out of order” that may be well-intentioned, but which acts as a barrier to full communication with God. I don’t question anyone’s good intentions. I question whether the act matches their intentions, and if the act doesn’t hurt a person more than they may realize. After all, this isn’t me saying this. It is God, through his scriptures and through natural law theory. And salvation may not be a fashionable word these days, but it is the heart of what Christianity is about. I worry that our silence as a Church refuses people the narrow (but walkable) path that leads to salvation.

It seems that no one in the Catholic Church in America knows the pain of watching a teenaged child stepping on stones through a whirling river moral lava. No one seems to know of my child’s struggle to chart a path that leads to true freedom this month. Or, much more damnably, doesn’t care.

Once this month ends, could we step back from the mob roar and actually talk about what it means to live out what is right and what is wrong? How to love through disagreement? How guaranteeing human rights doesn’t include forcing a state-regulated ideology? Could we stop brandishing rainbow colored social media swords and admit this is a bit more complicated than “whose side are you on?” Or if we have to choose a side, let’s call it the side for human dignity that is rooted first and foremost in being sons and daughters of the Father?

I can’t wait for this month to be over. But I suspect the reckoning is for more than 30 days.
–anonymous

ps. I prefer to own what I write by signing it. But this essay is anonymous for the sake of my child, and giving him/her space to make decisions based on faith and experience. I have an advanced degree in theology, so if your first thought is “if he/she only knew the right biblical interpretation of x,y,z etc., or truly understand natural law”–trust me, I’ve read it all, thanks.

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Rainbow photo by Wing-Chi Poon, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 2.5

Need Your Help: Stories of Equal Access

I need your help with getting a door unlocked.

I’m a parishioner (and at last check parish council member) at a large and historically-significant parish.   Thanks to renovations over the years, there are three wheelchair-accessible entrances feeding the parish church.  Unfortunately, since November of 2017 all three of those doors have been locked.  The only way to get into the building during Sunday Mass or Saturday Confession is to either walk up a short flight of stairs (seven if I counted correctly) or wait around on the sidewalk hoping to flag someone down who will go unlock an accessible door for you.

Unfortunately, the pastor of the parish doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t okay for someone with a disability to have to make advanced arrangements in order to be able to get inside the building for Mass or Confessions.  He’s otherwise a fairly stand-up guy, but he seems genuinely shocked that I would be angry about this issue.

I’m not above launching a massive public shame-storm, but that’s a weapon of last resort.  What I’d like your help with is attempting to show Father (and I tell you again: he is otherwise a pretty sane guy) that equal access matters.

Here is a form where you can share your story.  Can you share with him an example (or multiple if you’ve got them — fill out as many entries as you’d like) of how equal access, or lack of it, has affected your life?

My plan is to pass on to him your stories so he can see, person by person, just how painful it is to be the one stuck out on the sidewalk wondering how you’ll get in.  I’ll also put in a Mass intention for the collective intentions of those who share their stories (so Father L. gets to pray for you, cause that’s his job), and of course I’ll pray for you individually and I think he will too.

I’m not looking for angry.  He’s gotten plenty of angry from me, and believe me, I’m not as nice in regular life as I am on the internet.  I’m looking for your personal story of how being able to participate in parish or community life made a positive difference for you or someone you love, or how being excluded by needless barriers did the opposite.

The reality is that barriers keep people out.  After a year and a half of locked doors (in a previously accessible parish), the only regulars with disabilities are the few who are okay with the new status quo as second-class citizens.  Everyone else has disappeared.  If you showed up as a tourist (the parish receives many out-of-town visitors at weekend Masses), you’d follow the signs to a locked door and maybe succeed in waving someone down, or maybe just give up and move on.  As a result, Father L. no longer sees the people who are most affected by his decision: You’re all gone.

I need you to make yourself visible to him again.

Thank you so much.

I’ll post updates as I get them.  Also: If you choose to let me share your story (and only in that case — opt in or your story remains completely private), I’ll pick a few to post here and elsewhere, so that your voice gets heard far and wide.  Thank you!

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Image: No Accessibility Icon, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

Towards an Authentic Spirituality of Confirmation

I wrote to the DRE at the start of the school year, explaining that my teen wanted to be confirmed but that I was in the middle of a new job that was requiring 70-80 hour work weeks, so I really *could not* be the hand-holding parent going to a bazillion meetings and all that.  I requested that the parish come up with a formation program my teen could complete without parent attendance, and what with it being she, not I, getting confirmed, it seemed reasonable.

Despite the steady nagging of teens to become “adults in the faith,” the parish struggled intensely with the idea of working directly with a teenager.  I can get this, because I work directly with young persons, so I know that they are not universally organized and conscientious.   Teaching children to become adults requires risk-taking and persistence.  DRE’s thus tend to have an Augustinian wish: Give these teens responsibility, oh Lord, but not yet.

***

Over at the Register, Jason Craig writes “Why Confirmation is Not a Mere Rite of Passage.”  I give it a hearty amen in part because  I have shown up to a couple parent Confirmation-prep things lately, and apparently the indoctrination at religious ed on the “becoming an adult in the faith” is so strong that when I whispered to my teen a corrective to the presenter’s assertion that the sacrament of Confirmation was about you as a teen confirming you wanted to be Catholic, she whispered back, surprised, “It’s not??” I let the deacon feel my ire.  The mother is not amused by pseudo-theology.

The mother is, however, grateful.  If you’re going to lay into the parish staff for their irresponsibility, you have to be willing to do the work to offer something better.  We came home from that dreadful formation meeting with a challenge: What is the point of Confirmation?  It’s all well and good to say it gives you the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but what does that mean?  How is it different from Baptism and the Eucharist?

A few days contemplation bore much fruit.  My husband and I, and hopefully the kids as well, found ourselves moved very deeply as we considered with awe the reality of this sacrament which, described imprecisely, is for your relationship with the Holy Spirit what the Eucharist is for your relationship with Jesus Christ.  That intimate union, that indwelling, that receiving of life . . . to speak of the action of the Trinity is risk material heresy, but whoa!  You want to shake a few shoulders and shout at the bishop with his well-meaning video for teens DO YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS YOU ARE FAILING TO TELL THESE KIDS?!!  Tithing and church service are great, and yeah I’d like more priests too (though I want to find out if there’s a trustworthy seminary first), but seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, guys!  Confirmation is one of the seven great mystical things, and you are missing out terribly if you think it is just a glorified membership drive.

Fortunately, the sacrament doesn’t wear off.  Even if your parish has hidden the glory of the Holy Spirit under the table cloth of mandatory service hours, and your teen’s formation program consists of Catholic-brand career-counseling, God in His humility is waiting, like the preschooler behind the door calling out “I’m hiding come find me!”  Ignore the distractions.  Go into the quiet room where God dwells and find Him there.  He wants to live in you.  He wants to make you His home.  He wants to make His life your life.  You were made for this.

***
The children are taught to list the Gifts of the Holy Spirit when asked what it is they receive at Confirmation.  You’re supposed to say that, instead of “Green light for my quince,”  or “To get my parents off my back,” when they ask why you want to be confirmed.  There’s an awful lot of talking about the gifts, and using the gifts, and of course you had to work hard attending classes and doing service projects and writing papers in order to be allowed to have the gifts.

It is so much noise.  Blather.  Idiocy.  Too smart for your own good.  Ditch the growing-up talk, because it is a childlike faith that our Lord requests.  Children, unsophisticated, believing, accepting, are unafraid to ask for what Confirmation is: I want the Power of God to live inside me.

That’s more than enough.

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Photo by Richard Bartz courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 2.5.