The Annunciation should be a bigger feast than it is.
The chocolate chip cookies at lunch were especially good, but I assure you I say this for theological reasons. I mean seriously, kids: It’s the Annunciation! It’s the re-beginning of EVERYTHING. Sheesh. Festivate!
Also: St. Ignatius is the man.
More also: We’ve got some mighty good priests in this country.
And that’s all for now, back to the feast. Have a good one!
Of course I picked the Caravaggio. I couldn’t be expected to do anything other, once I learned it existed. View the image detail, the better to feast upon. [Public Domain, via Wikimedia.]
Wikipedia, by the way, has a nice article on the word suscipe.
We are fortunate to live in a diocese where good design is flourishing. I don’t for a moment wish to naysay any of the hard work and sacrifice that went into creating these beautiful new buildings. On the contrary — I am grateful beyond expressing.
But let’s not delude ourselves: The very existence of some (not all) of this new construction should be an elegant, delightful, but shocking warning sign.
This sounds like a good problem, right? It is, in a way.
It would be more accurate, however, to say: There were too many parishioners for the number of priests.
The Catholic population in Aiken, SC, as with the rest of the diocese, has grown significantly due to retirees moving south (we get your empty church parts to refurbish our buildings), professionals moving here from other parts of the United States, immigrants arriving from around the world, a certain number of conversions, and of course old-fashioned human reproduction. Some of this represents spiritual growth; some of it is just other parts of the world sending us their Catholics.
But regardless of the cause, an unavoidable fact is now set in stone, brick, and concrete: We are not producing priestly vocations in adequate numbers.
Still, the arithmetic doesn’t lie. Some parishes are on fire with the faith. Some Catholics — in every parish — are wildly in love with Jesus and have the fruit to prove it. But mostly we have to make larger buildings because we have pewsitters who love the pews, but who wouldn’t want to get carried away with any craziness. Catholicism is legit here these days. Church-going is civilized. If you’re nicely married, it’s a wholesome place to raise the kids.
We feel good about our faith and we do good works, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really give your life over for. We pat ourselves on the back if we get the teens to Adoration for ten minutes. We’re wildly excited if a young couple gets married in the Church — the idea that most young adults would remain Catholic after high school is a rich fantasy. Some statistics, via Brandon Vogt:
79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23 (Pew)
50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today (i.e., half of the babies you’ve seen baptized in the last 30 years, half of the kids you’ve seen confirmed, half of the Catholic young people you’ve seen get married)
Only 7% of Millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today (weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important)
90% of American “nones” who left religion did so before age 29 (PRRI)
62% leave before 18
28% leave from 18-29
If you’re not even Catholic, you are highly unlikely to become a Catholic priest.
Old Warning Signs
For as long as I’ve been talking to catechists and faith formation leaders, the refrain has been the same: “The kids in religious ed don’t even go to Mass.” Some do, of course (mine, and quite a few others I know), but a surprising number of children are dropped off for CCD but never taken to Mass. The situation is so dire that some parishes have resorted to requiring children preparing for sacraments to provide hard evidence they attend Sunday Mass, such as getting a bulletin signed.
Here’s another example by way of a personal story. My daughter’s would-be confirmation sponsor is an ardent young Catholic well known by many in the local Catholic community. As we put together paperwork, however, we discovered that due to an oversight when the family purchased a new home, they are not presently registered at the parish they attend most. We’ll get it all straightened out one way or another, don’t be scandalized because there is no scandal.
But the underlying situation is this: It is now the rule that the way we “prove” someone is a “practicing Catholic” is via a set of papers and financial transactions. Get registered, turn in collection envelopes, and you qualify for a “Catholic in Good Standing” letter. The idea that one could simply be a faithful Catholic known in one’s community is utterly foreign to the present practice.
What if you trusted people when they said the godparents or sponsor were good Catholics? We have come to fully expect people would outright lie as a matter of course.
Thus we live with a different set of lies. We as a Church are so alienated from any sense of real community that we depend on bureaucratic proxies that supposedly indicate a practice of the faith, but everyone knows that they don’t. Everyone knows that teenagers go through confirmation to make their parents happy, and then drop out at first opportunity. Everyone knows that the confirmation class is composed of kids who last attended Mass at their First Communion. Everyone knows that when we teach the Catholic faith assiduously, the kids whisper to themselves, right there in class, which parts they think are bunk.
The parts they think are bunk are almost invariably the parts their parents likewise think are bunk. The Catholic Church is the stronghold of people who know how to shut up, smile, and get along.
Repeating Ourselves to Death
Any student of Church history can attest that things have always been shockingly bad. The behavior of Catholics is the incontroveritble evidence that God must be holding this institution together, because it sure isn’t us. That is not, however, an excuse to keep on behaving badly.
I write this today because I’m concerned that our beautiful new buildings will lull us into continued complacency. We will persuade ourselves that what we’ve been doing is working.
The buildings themselves cry it out. We shouldn’t have mega-parishes. We should have enough priests that when the parish overflows, we’re ready to form a second parish nearby.
The lack of priests isn’t some mystical aberration. God isn’t suddenly pleased with the idea of men exhausted from administering multiple parishes and saying half a dozen masses in a weekend and having to rely on collection envelopes to know who comes to Mass because they couldn’t possibly meet all the parishioners they are supposed to be pastoring. Nonsense.
We have no priests because we are very good at getting along and forming lovely clubs, but we are terrible at being Catholic.
If we don’t change this, St. Mary’s beautiful new building in Aiken will enjoy a brief sojourn as a Catholic Church, and then go the way of Sacred Heart across the river, no longer a church, now just a lovely but Godforsaken building.
Twice in the past month men I know, good solid Catholic men who run circles around me in the holiness business, have mentioned in passing that they’re not so sure about this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” stuff. Larry Peterson did it here, and Tom McDonald did it here. Both articles are worth reading on their own merits. These are not wishy-washy lukewarm Catholics. These are men who have counted the cost of discipleship and have stepped up to pay it.
Because the question is still being asked, I’d like to answer it as well.
What kind of relationship do you have with a person?
To be human is to have a relationship of some nature with three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, three Persons in God.
You might have an antagonistic relationship, a numb relationship, or a sorely neglected relationship, but you’ve got something. To be Catholic is to acknowledge, even if you don’t realize you’re doing so, that God isn’t some vague cosmic force or a misty feeling or a set of good thoughts. God is Personal, period. You literally cannot be baptized without acknowledging the Personhood of God.
Persons, even when it’s a Divine Person and a human person, are made to have relationships with one another. The question I think many Catholics struggle with is partly linguistic and partly practical: What should we call our relationship with God, and what should it be like?
Do Protestants own all the words?
Catholics used to be people who borrowed words shamelessly. Need a word to describe what a “Church” is? Hey, look, there’s a Greek word that we could use to get us started, grab it and run! Large swathes of the Catechism are littered with words that Catholics picked up off the sidewalk and put to work in ways those words weren’t previously used.
Like the Greeks and Romans and even those pagans who lent us the word “Lent,” American Protestants have a few useful expressions of their own. The concept of a Meat-and-Three restaurant, not to mention Macaroni is a vegetable! come to mind, but we’ll stick to theology for today. A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is a phrase used heavily by American Evangelicals, sometimes beautifully and sometimes in ways that make you suddenly remember there was another county you needed to be in right now.
But they are words that, when used rightly, do in fact sum up Catholic spirituality. They are words that we now find helpful, in this era when many Catholics do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. They are words that counteract the pseudo-spirituality that infects the Catholic Church and reduces the reality of the Incarnation to supposedly-edifying legend.
Where do I find this in Catholicism?
Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
When we speak of knowing, loving, and serving God, we aren’t speaking of rendering obeisance to some distant overlord who wants us to pay tribute. We are speaking of Someone who knows us entirely inside and out, and who wants to be known by us. Someone who chose to suffer grievously that we might again be able to walk in the garden together.
The concept of a “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is specifically about owning the Incarnation. Our Lord didn’t appear in the Heavens on His Throne and zap the world clean from a dignified distance. He took on human flesh that we might eat with Him, and care for Him, and lay His body in a grave. God seeks intimacy with us.
This is Catholicism.
Can poetic prayer be personal prayer?
It can be hard to say out loud the things we feel most deeply.
One of the hallmarks of the Catholic liturgy is that the Church gives us the words to express what we would say to God if only we knew how.
When we purchase a greeting card at the grocery store, we don’t have too much trouble with this concept. We look through the racks until we find the right words for the occasion, the words that best fit the relationship between ourselves and the recipient and the event at hand. Yes! That one says what I’d like to say! When we receive a card, we are moved by the sentiments if we know they come from a loved one who is genuine in sharing the humor or well-wishes or tenderness of the ideas in the card.
(And likewise: Nothing is more off-putting than receiving a card from someone who most certainly does not share the sentiment printed on the cardstock.)
But we live in an age with very little poetry, and which often mocks the beauty of previous generations’ rhyme and meter and melody. We can accept the idea that we might be truly expressing ourselves in the greeting card or when we sing along to a pop song on the radio, but somehow many of us have been deceived into believing that we our unworthy of higher art. We’ve been persuaded that too-beautiful words aren’t capable of being our words.
The Incarnation is Everything
The law of prayer is the law of belief, and if we pray the Our Father or the Glory Be convinced that somehow these are words too high for us, too mighty for us, we’ll come to disbelieve the Incarnation.
We’ll persuade ourselves that Bless us O Lord is the herald’s shout to Jesus on His Celestial Throne Who Can’t Be Bothered To Get Any Closer, not the simple few lines of people wishing to pause before eating to say a word of personal thanks to a Person who literally dwelt within our very bodies the last time we received Holy Communion.
This heresy is at the heart of our liturgical wars: It is it only “authentic” prayer if it’s folksy? Or is God so august that we must never approach the throne of grace with anything but fear and trembling? It’s a false dichotomy. In the liturgy I’m a child learning to say grown-up words. God the Father wants to rear me for His Heavenly Kingdom; God the Holy Spirit breathes supernatural life into my feeble attempts at prayer; and the God the Son is both there at table for me to lay my head upon His breast and raised to the great high throne in majesty.
My relationship with Jesus is personal because Jesus is a Person. I grow in that relationship the more completely I embrace the entirety of what Christ is. God humbled, God crucified, God glorified. All of it.
Today’s topic is important enough that I’ll be cross-posting it at Patheos as well. Share from whichever venue you prefer. Per my standard policy on blog posts, parish and diocesan publications have permission to reprint at no charge, please provide a link back to the original in your attribution.
God becomes Man, and the prophet sent to prepare the way for Him declares, “I am not fit to untie his sandals.” We can imagine our Lord untied his own sandals most of the time. She may or may not have been the one to remove his shoes, but we know the sinful woman did wash those feet. That woman might or might not have been Mary Magdelene, but Mary certainly did know those feet as well. The feet she saw pounded through with nails weren’t generic metal feet hanging in your hallway, they were the feet she had held and caressed and perfumed.
I have a friend who is a nursing student, and she tells me that when she has downtime working in the critical care unit, she’ll fill the hours by going around and washing the patients’ feet and massaging them with lotion. Very sick patients typically have feet in horrible condition and a desperate hunger for human touch, both.
When Mary Magdalene met the resurrected Jesus in the garden, she wasn’t like Thomas who asked to see the pierced hands and side; had she asked, it probably would have been to see the feet.
In my absence from the internet, another Catholic food fight has broken out over the question of what people should do with themselves during Mass. The latest round concerns the direction priests point their feet. Where your feet go, you go.
Because humans are body and soul both, what we do with our bodies at Mass matters. The Mass can’t happen if the priest stands in a corner and prayerfully wills it to be so. Human wills express themselves in bodily action. In carrying out the actions of the Mass a priest makes the Mass happen — it can happen no other way.
The other sacraments are the same. Thus the question of feet is important.
We Catholics get fervent in our opinions about what everyone should do at Mass because we know deep in our souls that our bodies matter so very much. Thus we’re fifty-some years in to a massive Catholic food fight over how we laypersons might best carry out “active participation” in the sacred liturgy as mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Says the Church:
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.
It’s a food fight that typically devolves into two questions: Who else can we put a cassock on, and how do we persuade Catholics to sing more?
So I want to tell my story about active participation in the Mass, and singing, and the feet of Jesus.
I like words. I am the person who pays attention to the words of all the hymns we sing at Mass. I like to sing at Mass, because I like having all those words about God and to God moving through my body and coming out of me. I was pretty happy at St. Populus, my home parish, where every Mass was a folk Mass in the best meaning of that term: We served up a four-hymn sandwich sing-along every Sunday, always and every time meant to be that part of the Mass when everyone joined in with gusto.
The actual amount of gusto varied. But that was the goal. It was a goal that I loved.
Then my husband reverted to the Catholic faith (good) and I discovered that he could sing (interesting) and he became a cantor at St. Populus (variable). There wasn’t another bass available to help him with his cantoring skills, so he drove down to Our Lady of Classical Choirs and pestered the choirmaster until they got tired of his badgering and agreed to teach him to sing. One thing led to another, and I ended up with 50% of my family in the choir loft at not-my-parish.
The trouble with OLCC, in addition to being not-my-parish, was that half the time you couldn’t even understand the words they were singing — even if it was English. The sound bounced off ancient plaster mercilessly. Furthermore, whether you could understand it or not, the bulk of the Mass on any given Sunday was done in the style of Not a Sing-Along. I was aware that the whole thing was purported to be exceedingly beautiful, but couldn’t we all just have four nice easy hymns to sing together as a group? Please??
Then some things happened. One thing was that I was now living with three people who played this strange, purportedly beautiful, music around my house all the time. I got to know the music better. It was no longer weird sounds bouncing around a tall building, it was something my ear understood and could make sense of.
Another thing that happened is that over at St. Populous we had a little Latin club going on Friday mornings for about a year, long enough for we ignorant laypeople develop to a working familiarity with the meanings of the words that tended to bounce around during the Gloria and Sanctus and all those other things that were Not a Sing-Along down at OLCC.
I am persuaded that I am the Bread of Life is all the proof anyone needs that ordinary people aren’t quite as stupid as our betters pretend. If you can teach we slobs in the pews to memorize the key points of John chapter 6 in an irregular, non-rhyming, voice-cracking, genre-less song, than we slobs can probably learn all the other, much easier, supposedly-too-hard-for-us stuff as well.
The final thing that happened to me was decrepitude. OLCC became an appealing parish to me for two reasons:
There was a wall I could lean against.
No one would try to speak to me.
Not-my-parish for the win.
I remember this night at Mass when active participation ceased to be about marching around or singing along. I was at OLCC, sitting in the pew because standing was not on my to-do list (decrepitude), it was some feast or another, and the Gloria was going on forever, and ever, and ever. The choir would sing some line of the Latin, and then sing it again and again in fifty different variations of hauntingly beautiful soaring tunes. Then on to the next line.
Not a Sing Along.
It was a Pray Along.
I finally got, for the first time in my life, a chance to pray the Gloria with something that felt like justice. No more wincing at the splendor of tu solus sanctus then quick keep moving, time for the next big idea. Each idea, one at a time, washing over the congregation, swirling around in a whirpool of words, seeping into our thoughts and wetting the soul’s appetite for the next line of the prayer.
It isn’t that they don’t ever do hymns or plebeian Mass settings down at OLCC. Nor do I have any less love for a good rousing Sing Along Mass. Singing is good for you. It’s good for all the parts of you, and it would be a strange and disastrous thing if we pewsitters all gave it up and used no other part of our bodies than our ears at Mass.
Curiously, the part where feet come into it was during a Mostly Sing-Along Mass down at OLCC.
Because I am decrepit, I can’t always sing, or can’t sing the entirety of a Sunday’s pewsitter parts. Because I am a word-person, lately sometimes I do the very weird thing of standing there with the hymnal open, mouth shut, eating up the words with my mind while the congregation sings them aloud.
This past Sunday, though, I was unusually decrepit even for me. I found a seat against the wall, and didn’t even bother trying to lip sync the Our Father. I was pretty happy to just be standing-along during the bulk of the standing parts. I was secretly pleased that the side aisles were relatively empty and all I had to do was wave to a couple people several rows behind me during the Sign of Peace, and then I was freed to go back to my still, silent bubble.
I didn’t know, on Sunday, that Internet Catholics were busy arguing over which way priests point their feet. The readings were not exactly about feet, except that they were. The Law living within us, He is the image of the Invisible God, the parable of Mercy-Made-Flesh.
11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  . Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.
It means that when our Lord comes to us, we recognize Him and respond accordingly.
The carrying out of those laws governing valid and licit celebration aren’t the stones of an empty tomb. The carrying out of those laws is the business of our bodies doing what our bodies are made to do. What do our bodies do? Our bodies are the means through which ours souls express themselves.
Went confession last night, and sneaked over to Mass this morning. Happy happy.
Kids were off here, there, and everywhere, so SuperHusband sneaked me over to a very good (not expensive, just good) restaurant after confession, and I lasted 2/3rds of dinner before I was ready to go lay down or something. The poor waitress was mortified, because, sure, the service was slow. But it wasn’t that slow.
A little PSA . . .
Today at Mass, the lady in front of me just wouldn’t kneel. She sat through the entire Mass! Leaning against the wall! And she hardly said anything out loud, at all! It’s like she was really tired or something. There was a big open space in my pew, so I could have scooted over, I suppose, if I wanted to kneel. But it seemed like a much better idea to insist on kneeling right up against her — personal space is so, so, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, isn’t it?
Please tell me I did the right thing.
Pious but Clueless
Personal space is not contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel. Consider scooting over one space in the pew if the person in front of you is not kneeling for some inexplicable reason.
Meanwhile, over at the blorg . . .
More meat talk. Because even in America, you can do this abstinence from meat thing all year round.
Giving up the Sunday Work Habit. Which is not as simple for Catholics as it is for everyone else, but still, it’s something you are supposed to do, if you can.
This morning as I stumbled down the hall, coffee in hand, the fourth grader handed me A Bridge to Terabithia.“Mom,” she warned me, “don’t let anybody read this for school. It is terrible. It has very foul language.”
“Oh?” I had read it way back in elementary school, but hadn’t looked at it since. I couldn’t really remember what was in the book.
“Yes. They use the d-word. And the parents say things like ‘crap’ and ‘crud’ and ‘you stupid’. And that’s just in one chapter.”
We’re so used to seeing our own children, so used to the idea that they’re under our care, that we sometimes forget that the angels rejoice when a young person goes out into the world armed with truth and love, instead of going forth with their hearts cramped and crabbed by an acceptance of abortion. This is where the battle is fought: in individual hearts. Each abortion is a tragedy because it ends an individual life—but each heart that is taught how to love is a true and eternal victory.
Yes, raising our children lovingly is commonplace, a duty, nothing new. So what? It’s still a big deal. It’s still the way to save souls. This is the great thing about being part of the Culture of Life: everything counts. You don’t have to save your receipts! Your good works have been noted, and they will not go to waste.
2. Bearing reminds me, I’m not the only mom who got paid to go to graduate school, in order to prepare for a rewarding career in the ultra-non-profit sector. I don’t typically feel guilty about this. Back when I was applying for fellowships, I assumed I’d ultimately end up in some kind of field that was a natural extension of my start in accounting — maybe moved out of staff and into operations, or teaching accounting 101 at the community college, or who knows what — who can really predict how a career will turn? I also knew that I wanted to be a mom, and that I was intentionally picking a field that lent itself to momness. Ditching it all in order to stay home and raise kids? If only I could be so lucky.
At the fellowship interviews, I was asked, “What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?”
I answered honestly. “Solving problems.”
Which is what I do.
3. This week at the Catholic Writers Guild blog I’ve been shuffling around the schedule to get all the mundane writer-talk posts pushed off until after Easter. I didn’t want Holy Week to be chit-chat as usually. But Sarah Reinhard’s post for today, even though it’s sort of a blogging post, it’s really a Holy Week post: Remember Your Priorities.
–> Hey and real quick please pray for Sarah’s very urgent prayer request for a family member with a scary, likely life-threatening diagnosis on the way. Thanks.
5.Holiness versus Weirdness. It’s a constant battle. I spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how to live life. I feel stupid about this, because, well, not knowing how to live your life has got to be one of the marks of stupidity, right? But at the same time, I live in a culture that doesn’t know how to live life, so I remind myself it’s not exactly shocking that my adulthood be devoted to figuring out what I ought to be doing instead.
And I’m not alone. Which makes reading Catholic Lifestyle Lit of a decade ago so amusing, because the holiness-fads of years gone by shout out like a pair of parachute pants. Which is why my children in ten years will be laughing about this over Thanksgiving dinner:
When I wrote about fasting from artificial light in the Register a while back, I got a ton of interesting responses. One of my favorites was from a dad who told me about this family tradition that they’ve been doing for 30 years:
We turn off the light when we leave for Holy Thursday Mass and don’t turn them on again until we return from the Saturday Easter Vigil at around midnight on Saturday.
We got the idea when our parish turned off the lights and had us exit in silence on Holy Thursday. And we entered at the Easter Vigil in darkness which continued until the Gloria. And, of course, Good Friday services were held during the daytime so lighting was not a main focus. So we got the idea to practically “live” this period when Jesus the “light of the world” was taken away from us.
I think we might try this this year. Anyone else going to give it a shot?
6. But listen, weird isn’t all bad. My garden is awesome. If by “awesome” we mean: I like it. And I was sitting in it this spring, and realized that Margaret Realy’s book about Prayer Gardens had come true. I read it, followed the instructions, and wow, it worked. Highly recommended if you want a little quiet garden-y oasis, and need some ideas about how to make it work.
And with that I’ll cut out the rest of the chit-chat and go be all vocational. Have a great week, and I’ll see you back here come Easter or so.
Which means: I gave somebody a little bit of wrong information. Nuts. But I also gave a lot of correct information. For example, you would have found it in this book – p. xxvii. And others like it.
But you know, if you google the words Sursum Corda + Pope Benedict, you get a lot of hits. Is it my fault I spend too much time on the Internet reading this stuff until it becomes one giant jumble of confused trivia? Wait, don’t answer that.
You may have noticed that adolescent boys don’t necessarily google these same topics. Which is why I have begun a massive print propaganda campaign, in which I subscribe to the publications I think my child should read, then leave them on the bathroom counter for him to discover when he’s hiding from his math homework.
Might I add that Catholic Answers, Envoy, OSV and The Register run some seriously good articles? It is as if all the stuff you read for free online is not the very best of contemporary Catholic writing, and that there is value to be had in paying writers for their work. I never guessed.