Why Big Parishes are a Bad Sign

In the past few weeks I’ve gotten to visit two of the Diocese of Charleston’s newest parish church buildings.   St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg and St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken are both well worth a look.  (Our Lady of the Rosary is still on my sightseeing wish-list; meanwhile, for something fun, go see the stained glass at St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach — there is more information about those windows available at the church when you visit.  If you’re off the beaten path, Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood is charming and bright — the photos don’t do it justice.)

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.

The Myth of the Flourishing Parish

Let’s look at St. Mary’s as a case study.  The original St. Clare’s chapel, now devoted to perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, was succeeded by the first St. Mary’s Help of Christians parish church early last century.  You can read an insightful history of Catholicism in the region — dating back to the 16th century — here.  The historic St. Mary’s parish church is still in use.  It wasn’t replaced because it was no longer habitable.  It was replaced because there were too many parishioners to fit into the building.

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.

A Faith Not Even Worth Living For

The Diocese of Charleston has a good vocations program going.  There’s always room for taking any initiative to the next level, but over the past twenty years the diocese has gotten conmendably serious and hard-working about reaching out to would-be seminarians.  We do have vocations flowing.  We have some superb new priests, and more on the way.  Fr. Jeffrey Kirby didn’t receive the state’s highest civilian honor for nothing.

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.

It isn’t.

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.

File:Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia (8342846689).jpg

Artwork: Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library (Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia) [CC BY 2.0, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

5 Ways We Keep Christ in Christmas at Our House

I was asked two related questions by parish friends this week, and I answered incorrectly:

  • What things do we do to help our kids “Keep Christ in Christmas”?
  • What are we doing for Advent?

I thought the answer to both was: Nothing.  This year, anyway.

I was sorely mistaken.  Since both these are going to be discussion topics for our Family Fellowship group this week, here are my notes so I can keep my facts straight.  These are things we do, and which have held together through the years, and which I think are probably helpful.  Some are easy for anyone to do, some of them maybe not.

#1 Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ

When the SuperHusband and I first became Christians, I was a little disconcerted to notice how little our extended family’s observances of the feast involved any particular worship of Christ.  It had not bothered me before, but now somehow it seemed wrong to gather together for a meal and gifts and not much Jesus-ing.  A lot of years later, I’m not bothered.  Those of us who are Christians get plenty of Jesus-ing all year long, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we don’t need every single moment of every single feast to have a little cross tacked on it.

(For the record, there is a very Christian grace before the big extended-family supper Christmas Eve and plenty of Christian-household backdrop going on.  We’re not celebrating Festivus or something.)

My point is this: When every day and every week of your life is built around the worship and service of Jesus Christ, there’s not a need to make sure your wrapping paper has manger scenes on it.  Both the “Christ” and the “Mass” in “Christmas” are patently obvious.  Forgetting that Christmas was about the birth of Christ would be like forgetting what your own birthday was about.  It’s unlikely to be problem.

#2 Dang I Love My Parish

My DRE has a passion for keeping Advent, and the pastor’s completely on board.  (Yes, it unrolled in that order — she predates him on the staff roster.)  Rather than rushing to quick celebrate Christmas with the kids before the break, there are Advent events throughout Advent, and Christmas is unleashed on — get this — Christmas.  The religious ed classes host Christmas parties the first class back after the break, while it’s still Christmas season.

This is not just good for holding onto Catholic liturgical order.  This is good because it causes us all to be keenly aware we are out of sync with the wider culture, and therefore aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  It also gives me a little bit of ammo in my effort to keep things purple around the house, though admittedly that’s push-and-pull.  Yes, in fact we do have the best Advent Lights on the block.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I would say the biggest help we get in terms of the parish enthusiasm for observing Advent is that it completely prevents our brains from equating what we do as Catholics with that merchandising event going on at the mall.

#3 We’ve got a great Advent calendar.

The one we happen to own is the Tony Wolf Advent Calendar, which I reviewed when I first got it years ago. Each day from December 1st through 24th there is a mini boardbook ornament that contains a Bible story, prayer, hymn or carol.  All put together you get the highlights of the story of Christmas from Adam and Eve forward.  There is no Christmas Advent tree up yet this year, so I told my ten-year-old to hang the ornaments on the hooks on the mantel where our stockings will eventually go.

She loves this.  She loves reading aloud the day’s mini-book, singing along if it’s a hymn, and keeping all the ornaments organized on their hooks.  The other kids are older now, so the ten-year-old’s the chief user. I remember myself having a little mini-book Christmas ornament and how much I liked to read it (mine was The Night Before Christmas).  Bite-sized books are captivating.

There are other similarly good options, it doesn’t have to be this exact product.  I remember growing up that my best friend’s family had a homemade Advent calendar with pertinent Bible verses for each day — same principle.  I think the takeaway here on why this concept works so well is that kids like to open a new thing every day, so they bring the momentum to the daily observance, and the day’s thing isn’t just a piece of chocolate or a picture from a snowy village, it’s a piece of the Good News.

#3.5 We Stink At Advent Wreaths, Forever and Ever Amen

For your amusement, here’s a photo from a glorious Advent past:

 Monstrous silver Santa and Reindeer Candlebra with clashing candles in various shades of purple.

I would have kept the thing, but it was too bulky to store easily.  This year we’ve got an assortment of mismatched white candles with purple or pink ribbon tied around the base.  We never remember to light them.

I’m completely in favor of Advent wreaths.  I have happy childhood memories of lighting the candles at dinner every evening.  We just aren’t there.  Sorry.

#4 But We’re Good at Caroling!

Way back before we had kids, the SuperHusband and I started up hosting an annual caroling party.  It’s easy and fun and you can do it too.

As we dropped the ball on this one in recent years, some friends have picked up the relay.  Mrs. A who first started hosting an Advent tea party every year (most years) when our girls were little has merged that tradition with a potluck supper and caroling party afterwards.  It’s a good event.  We stick to classic Christian carols (Silent Night, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, etc.) plus We Wish You a Merry Christmas.  We only plague neighbors who show evidence of celebrating Christmas, so we’re not foisting our zeal on innocent bystanders.  The response has been 100% positive.

We’re up to 4/6ths of the family now singing in some choir or another at church, so the kids get a strong dose of sacred music there as well.  We go to one of those parishes where the songs are all about Jesus, which is a big boost.

#5 Jesus Fairyland

Or Bethlehem, as you prefer.  Way back at the time of our first caroling party (before kids), I didn’t have a nativity set, so I made one out of Lego bricks.  Since that time we’ve added humans to the family and all kinds of toys.  Playmobil. Fisher Price.  Little Woodzees.  All that stuff.  Thus we have evolved an annual tradition of creating not just the manger scene but a good bit of Bethlehem and environs.

We’ve had years that featured Herod’s castle and a Roman circus (the better to eat you with, my dear), though the best was during the preschool years when we had the big red barn with the door that mooed.  A traditional nativity set can sometimes look too much like Camping with Baby Jesus — Pass the S’mores.  The circumstances of the Incarnation hit home more soundly when you’ve got a neighborhood of cozy cheerful dollhouses, and then the Holy Family camped out in what truly looks to modern eyes like a place only fit for farm animals. 

This year, having just pared back the toy collection, we’re focusing on the unrolling of the historic events day by day.  Right now the angels are all up in Heaven, at the top of the bookshelf in front of the vintage Hardy Boys collection, waiting for the big day.  (That is what Heaven is like, right?)  Mary and Joseph are in a caravan headed towards the city of David. The Wise Men are still home watching the sky.  The stable is busy being just a stable, though the innkeeper — you might remember this from your Bible study — likes to come by every day and visit with his pet bunnies.  St. Ignatius Montessori, pray for us.

Animal-Human Embryo Ethics Simplified

A hot newish thing in scientific research is combining human and animal genetic material in order to do something-or-another.  Here’s a quick rundown of the moral issues involved, including “What if there were Cat-People?”

Principle #1: If it directly kills an innocent person, don’t do it.  Some of the procedures under scrutiny involve removing genetic material from human embryos (for whatever purpose, noble or otherwise), and thus killing the embryo in the process.  A human embryo is a human being.  A very tiny, very young, very immature human being, but a distinct human person all the same.  Just because your friends can’t drive or hold down steady jobs doesn’t mean they’re disposable.

Don’t kill the innocent humans.  That’s a hard-and-fast rule.  Therefore, any procedure that requires the direct killing of any innocent person is a no-go. Always and everywhere.

Principle #2: Human beings have eternal souls. Now let us imagine you acquired your human genetic material through some moral means.  A question that then arises is: Does our use of that human body-part cause a new human being to enter into existence?

We have situations in which no such thing happens.  You can donate your kidney and liver and heart and all kinds of stuff to some other person, and the recipient remains one person, the same person as before, and you remain the other. (You might be dead, but you’re still you.)  No new human is created via organ donation.  We can conceive of situations in which the use of human genetic material works in a similar way — the donated body part does what it does, but it doesn’t cause a new human person to come into existence.   In such a case, as long as other criteria for moral action are met, there’s not a problem.

We have, likewise, situations in which the pro-creation of a new human person does or could happen.  It is not necessary for us to analyze the state of science at this very moment.  All we need to know is that if a new human being is made via cloning, genetic donation, or what have you, we’ve violated a moral law.  It is immoral to procreate outside the bonds of marriage.  But, like all the other immoral ways people procreate, we also know that every human person is endowed with inherent dignity that comes from being an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God — regardless of the circumstances of conception.

Therefore, though it is patently wrong to create new humans via cloning, IVF, rape, adultery, and whatever else science might devise other than the marital act, the new humans so-created still must be treated with all the same rights and privileges the rest of humanity is owed.

Principle #3: When in doubt, err on the side of protecting the sanctity of human life.  People are stupid, though, and sometimes evil. We can envision, therefore, some dreadful situation in which scientists create part-animal-part-human hybrids.  Is this new creature a human being?

Well, that would be hard to know, wouldn’t it?

We could be quite certain that if, say, you donated a human lung to a pig, the pig is still a pig.  We know that because that’s how it works when you donate a human lung to a human.  The recipient remains what and who the recipient always was.  There are moral problems with donating human tissue to animals, for example: Why was a perfectly good human lung wasted on a pig?  Those issues must be dealt with, but they are different from the question of whether the pig just became a human person. The pig is still a pig.  Not one you want to barbecue, though.  Ick.

In contrast, let’s say we created an embryo in-vitro (don’t do that, it’s wrong), but rather than using 100% human genetic material, we used some portion of non-human tissue as well.  The resulting being might be obviously “human” or might not be.  But here’s the rub: You could not count on appearances alone to know whether you had a human person.  Does it look mostly like a human, but really it’s a dog-soul animating a modified dog-body, more like the animal recipient of human organs?  Or, in contrast, does it look mostly like a dog, and lack many of the characteristics we take for granted as being “human” but in fact it’s a human soul animating a damaged human body?

It is quite probable that we might find ourselves in the situation of having to say: Who knows?

And in that situation, the moral response is to assume it’s a human person until proven otherwise.

Conclusion: Baptize the Cat People.

Should you create human-animal hybrid creatures? No!  You shouldn’t be procreating humans in the laboratory at all, unless it’s you and your spouse up late going at it the old fashioned way.  But in the event that hybrid-creatures are produced, we would be obliged to treat them as if they were human, no matter how miserably inconvenient that turned out to be.

 

Related: 

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Artwork: The Ball of Yarn (1854) by Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Best Practices: Getting Parents Involved in Kids’ Religious Formation

Last week was our parish’s first week of religious ed, and my 7th grade daughter came home with an example of ordinary catechists in a traditional classroom program doing a great job at supporting parental involvement in their children’s faith.

There were three parts of the memo-from-the-teachers that made me swoon with gratitude.

1. Invitations (lots of them) for parents to come join the class anytime.  

I’ve known our DRE for many years and she’s always had a very warm and open attitude towards parents’ involvement in their children’s formation.  But to have the teachers repeatedly invite parents to come sit in class any time at all communicated an important message: They want us!  They’re happy to have us.  They’re happy for us to see what the kids are learning and take an active part in weekly faith formation.

Inviting parents to class does change the dynamic.  It takes confidence and good teaching skills to be comfortable working with an audience.  (And the reality is that watching people teach religious ed isn’t always the most exciting way to spend an hour.  It can be, but sometimes you’re maxed out on sacrament charts and so forth.)  But I love that my daughter’s teachers want me to know I’m not getting in the way.  Me showing up and being involved is a good thing, not a hindrance.

That’s a rightly ordered relationship (even if I never take them up on the invitation), and I think their understanding of that relationship is why they did such a stellar job on the other two very simple helps they added to the class.

 

2. Weekly bring-back-to-class assignment: Noticing God’s action in our lives.

I’m sure the day is coming when we all bring in mini-tubes of toothpaste for the homeless, or spare change for missions, or whatever other project it is the kids are undertaking this year.  Corporal works of mercy are good.  But those works have to spring from a lived relationship with God, or the Catholic faith becomes just another option for Ways to Be Kind to People.

So every week, the teachers are asking the kids to report back one instance when they became aware of the presence of God in their lives — whether in prayer, in the created world, in the action of others, whatever it be.

Does this sound too Spirituality Lite?  Let me offer firm correction:  This is an age-appropriate way for kids to start crossing the bridge from an inherited faith to personal ownership of their faith.  It is an age-appropriate way for the kids to become comfortable with talking about their relationship with God.  It is an essential exercise, because awareness of God’s action in our lives is the foundation of the spiritual life.

Not Lite at all — it’s rock solid stone.  The beautiful twist on this assignment is that by getting the parents involved, my daughter’s teachers are handing us, like a weekly subscription to the spiritual goldmine, an easy way for we parents to get comfortable with talking about discipleship with our kids.  If you actually take the teachers up on this opportunity for the next twenty weeks, they’ll have helped you the parent build a habit of discussing the faith in a profound, personal, and non-adversarial way with your teenager.

This is the catechetical mission lived large: Genuinely assisting parents in their role as the primary teachers of the faith.

3. Weekly do-at-home assignment: A question for parents.  

But that’s not all!  Our catechists are taking it one deeper by sending home a second discussion question as well, which will change every week.  Week One’s question was about promises: What promise have you made recently, and what was the outcome? What was something someone promised to you, and what was the outcome?

I liked this question a ton because it fits totally with the topics that came up in class (vocations and sacraments), it fits with questions about the moral life, and it’s not a “religious” topic even though it’s a religious topic.  It’s not a question that has a “right answer” for the kid to parrot back.  It’s a question, though, that hits a big tender spot in the faith.  If you habitually break promises, or the people who are forming your faith (Mom and Dad) are flagrant promise-breakers, you’ve got a cracked foundation you’re building on.  There’s repair work to be done.  Healing work.

In contrast, if the question reveals you’ve got a solid foundation, then look what’s coming: We need to keep that relationship of trust strong through the next five or ten years.  Further, for you my child who’s preparing for confirmation in the next few years? We need to think about what it is your baptismal promises mean, and what they entail.

That’s a lot impact for a discussion that took about five minutes in the car when I happened to get a snatch of time alone with my daughter for uninterrupted conversation.  Twenty of those through the course of the year?  The possibilities are breathtaking.

Inviting the Parents to be the Parents

The beauty of these assignments is that they help us parents do the part of the job that only we can do.  Catechists can review facts and fill in gaps in the kids’ knowledge, but discipleship is parent-work.  (We were also gently encouraged to get our kids to Mass regularly — another job that only a parent can do.)

I was very impressed by our first week because I felt like my daughter’s catechists understand what’s important and how this all works. When I went by the classroom, they were visibly happy to meet me and get to know me.

As far as I know, my daughter’s teachers are just a couple of ordinary catechists — goodhearted people who love God and love the kids and want to give it their best, but just normal people.  And that to me is a very hopeful thing: Normal people are out there doing smart, simple, easy things to help me raise my child in the faith.

File:Cobh St. Colman's Cathedral South Aisle Window 4 Detail Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain 2015 08 27.jpg

Photo by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Inside My Apologetics 101 – Faith, Evidence, and Objective vs. Subjective Truth

Today I was subbing for my daughter’s apologetics class, and thought I’d share the letter I sent home to parents, since it covers topics that come up online a bunch.  You blog readers don’t get to see the whiteboard photo referenced below because it has students’ names on it from a chart we made at the top of the hour, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to blur them out of the image.  For your viewing pleasure, I’ve posted completely different photos at the bottom.  Close your eyes and imagine a whiteboard of illegible black scrawl instead, and you’ll know everything you need to know.

Dear Parents,

Attached is the photo of the whiteboard from apologetics at the end of class. Parents, the kids were starting to get the general concepts we went over, but were still having a hard time articulating the key ideas and applying them. It might be helpful for you to have them go through the picture with you and tell you, as best they can, what it is everything refers to. For your convenience I’ve written all the text in slightly illegible lettering so that students have to rely on their memory to fill in the indecipherable bits — you’re welcome.

None of this is in the book, since I was subbing for our regular teacher (Mrs. K) and just working off notes from a different apologetics class I taught a few years ago. But it’s all important stuff and well worth mastering if you enjoy life as a sane person.

Key ideas to draw out of your child:

1) Objective vs. Subjective truth. In apologetics, we need to be able to listen and identify when the person we’re talking with doesn’t understand the difference between unchangeable truths and those facts that are genuinely a matter of opinion, experience, etc. We need to be able to *explain* the difference between subjective and objective facts to friends who don’t realize there is a difference, or don’t realize when they are treating an objective matter as a subjective one. We need to know whether a given statement is a matter of subjective opinion or objective truth.

2) Types of evidence. There are different types of evidence for different types of things. Scientific laws, or laws of nature, are discovered and proven using the assorted tools of science to verify repeatable tests and observations. The facts about historic events and persons are established using the types of evidence that apply to persons and facts. You can’t, for example, do a series of scientific tests to know that Christopher Columbus existed — but you can collect historical evidence for that fact. We need to be able to know, therefore, what *kind* of evidence is suited to proving which kinds of facts. Because God is a Person, and because God acts in history, the types of evidence we are looking for are the sorts of evidence we use for determining historical events and the existence of persons.

In apologetics we need to be able to identify when someone we are listening to has the notion that God is a force of nature that should be subject to scientific evidence, and clarify and explain that God is a person and therefore a different type of evidence is valid. We want to be able to walk our friend through the rational, evidence-based types of proof that one would use in determining whether or not a person exists or an event took place. A useful tool is to walk the person through the types of evidence for or against their own existence.

Not on the board, but an important idea which we discussed in class: Faith is the action of taking the evidence we’ve gathered and using it to come to a conclusion. I can gather all kinds of evidence about the existence of gravity or the existence of Christopher Columbus, but ultimately if I believe in either of those, it is an act of faith. My faith isn’t separate from and certainly not opposing evidence and reason; rather it is the follow-on to gathering evidence and using my reason. Think of it as the third step: Evidence + Reason (logic) + Faith = Belief.

I might be a person who comes to faith easily, requiring very little evidence and logical analysis before I take the leap of faith. For example: I believe in asteroids even though I’ve never had any personal experience with one, and know almost nothing about them. I have an even stronger faith in the existence and power of tornadoes, which I’ve also never seen, because I’ve got even more evidence and experience and knowledge about them — even though all my knowledge is second- or third- hand. Ultimately, though, if I wanted to disbelieve in their existence, I could. Faith is the leap I make to assert that I do in fact believe in these things.

I might, in contrast, be a very skeptical person. Imagine if I decided I would only accept a belief in tornadoes after extensive study and firsthand experience. All the same, even if I were very skeptical, if I’m a rational person there will be some level of evidence that is eventually sufficient to allow me to make the leap of faith and affirm that yes, tornadoes do exist. I can be very skeptical — that is, be a person who requires large amounts of evidence and long periods of logical analysis (reasoning) prior to coming to faith, but still make a decision to affirm or deny a fact. Faith is the act of affirming or denying facts.

[I didn’t use tornadoes or asteroids as examples in class, so that’s new fodder for you in chatting with your child.]

We acknowledged as well, in class, that there are people who simply refuse to accept any level evidence. In class we imagined someone who might, for example, dismiss my (Mrs. Fitz’s) existence, even if they met me in person, on account of how perhaps it was a hallucination, or an actor was paid to pretend to be me, or some other thing. Likewise you could imagine someone explaining away the existence of tornadoes by offering some alternate theory of why they thought they saw a dark whirlwind and heard loud noise right before their possessions were blown away. In apologetics it’s important that we distinguish between someone who is simply looking for more evidence to work through rationally prior to coming to a conclusion, versus those who would never be satisfied with any level of evidence, because they have made a decision in advance about the truth of this or that assertion.

(We didn’t practice this, but a good method for finding out where someone stands on this is just to ask them. Listening is the #1 skill in apologetics.)

Finally, a point that came up in class a couple times is that in apologetics we must be very precise. Please assure your students that in class it’s good to be brave in discussing ideas even if you aren’t sure of the right terms or facts; we will simply pause and clarify definitions as necessary. We learned the word omniscient, and affirmed that none of us humans are omniscient, so it’s okay if you have to acknowledge you don’t know something, and it’s okay if your friends help you clear up any misunderstandings you have.

Have a great weekend!

Jen.

File:Líneas de Nazca, Nazca, Perú, 2015-07-29, DD 46.JPG
 Eerily apropos photo by: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s a tornado, because: I’m a believer.  No tornado-deniers at my house.
File:F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007.jpg

Photo by: Justin1569 at English Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Parish Communal Life – When Dysfunctional is Normal

So here’s a weird story that was a wake-up call for me:

I was getting the high school kids signed up for youth group, and one of the forms was a bit of information from the parents — contact info, are you available to chaperone, does your kid have dangerous food allergies, etc.  Necessary stuff.  Now right after the parent email and phone number lines was:

Preferred method(s) of contact: ____________________________________

Because I am a bad person, I answered the question honestly.

Preferred method of contact: In person.

Now allow me to say right now that I don’t actually expect our youth ministers to personally hunt down me and every other parent of a student in the program just to let us each know that they need someone to bring plastic cups this week, thanks.  I do live a little bit in this century.  (And I solemnly promise to clarify that on the form before I turn it in tonight.)

But this lapse of mine got me thinking.  Why was my writing that answer such a radically crazy,  even potentially offensive or alarming thing to do?

Let’s review the facts:

  • The youth ministers and our family attend the same parish.  We’re part of the same Christian community.  (We even show up at the same Mass most Sundays — which defies the odds, but we’re lucky that way.)
  • The youth ministers are taking on the task of mentoring our children through their final years of Catholic youth.  Next stop is full-fledged adulthood.
  • These are the years when kids make tremendous decisions about their vocations, their relationships, and even whether they’ll continue practicing the faith.
  • For the next few years, it’s quite likely that after my husband and myself, the kids’ youth ministers will be the other set of practicing Catholics with whom my children have the most frequent and most significant contact on a regular basis.

This is a big deal.

What youth ministers do — their role in the work of the Church — is huge.

But our concept of communal life in the Church has become so watered down that I feel brazen for even suggesting that such significant persons in our children’s lives should speak to my husband and me in-the-flesh as an ordinary, habitual mode of communication.

***

We’re used to this.  In my years as a catechist in a traditional religious ed program, I typically met my students’ parents one- to -three years after the school year ended.  (Format: I’d run into the kid at a parish event and ask, “So are these your parents?” and that’s how we’d finally meet.)

Once I had the chilling-but-fortunate experience of being in the room while a parent explained to the DRE about a problem in my religious ed class the previous year.  [Sadly: A problem I could have fixed if I’d known about it, but it was the sort of thing you can only know if the parent or student tells you.]  The reason the mother felt so comfortable laying out her problem right there in front of me is that she had no idea I had been her child’s teacher.

Not knowing people is the norm in parish life.

***

This is wrong.

There are many causes of this problem and only one complicated, difficult solution:  We Catholics need to spend more time living with each other.

That’s all I know for now.  If our youth ministers hadn’t posed that foolish question, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it, I’m so used to living with this problem, and so used to treating it like normal life.  But at least now I’m more deeply informed of what’s not happening, and can start looking for ways to change my tiny part in all this.

File:Bosque de Piedra, provincia de Varna, Bulgaria, 2016-05-27, DD 73.jpg

Photo: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What is this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” Business?

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.

Both articles ran on Aleteia (which site I recommend — loads of good stuff), where Judy Landrieu Klein answered the question back in April with an unequivocal Yes: A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is indeed an authentically Catholic concept.

Because the question is still being asked, I’d like to answer it as well.

File:Christ the Pantocrator by Jovan Zograf (1384).jpg
By Metropolitan Jovan Zograf [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

May I recommend you purchase a copy of the old four-volume edition of Butler’s Lives of Saints?  The writings and lives of the martyrs and mystics are soaked through with the intensely personal nature of a well-formed relationship with God.

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.

 

File:Coter Pruszcz Polyptych.jpg
Colijn de Coter (fl. 1493-1506) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Related: Don’t miss Judy Landrieu Klein’s recent post: “Is God good all the time? Or only when we feel blessed?”

 

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.

On Meeting the Rich Young Man

This past Monday the Gospel was from the story of the Rich Young Man. We read it this year in Mark chapter 10, but you can find the account in Matthew 19 and Luke 18.

A week in, I still want to write about it, so I will.

MK 10:17-27
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

A lot of people are recorded in the Gospels asking our Lord questions, or asking Him for other stuff. The first thing I notice here is what the question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now it’s possible that the man is just trying trip Jesus up or start an argument. But there’s evidence to follow that this is the thing he wants to know. Asking this is commendable, because I think a lot of us just don’t even care about the question or the answer. We assume we already know the answer – whether eternal life is possible, and if so, what it’s like and how we obtain it. But here’s someone who isn’t presuming.

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

This initial answer has obvious rhetorical bearing on the fact that Jesus is God. But for we mere humans, the question of goodness comes around at the end, back to the question of eternal life.

Our Lord proceeds to lay out what goodness looks like:

You know the commandments:

You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”

Now here’s this shocking answer that I don’t think shocks enough:

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

How many people can you say this about? Some, I’m sure. But most of us? I don’t think so.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Catch that? I infer from this exchange a series things:

  1. The man was telling the truth. He really had been keeping the commandments.
  2. He knew that it wasn’t enough. That’s why he approached Jesus and asked the question: He’d been keeping the commandments, and was stirred by a sense that there was something greater for him. That being satisfied with his (impressive) observance of the law was not the way to eternal happiness.
  3. Jesus isn’t about to go all table-flipping. What follows isn’t a rebuke. It’s the next thing. Here’s someone who wants the next thing!

and [Jesus] said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

So this is the next thing. The man’s reaction isn’t all zip-a-dee-doo-dah:

At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

This is the moment when people love to hate the rich young man. But really? Have you done this? Have you done something close to this? Because if you’ve freely given up everything you owned and all your security and all your safety, you’re in rare company. You probably don’t read this blog, and you probably do know that it’s a big thing.

I don’t mean it was taken from you. I mean you gave it up freely.

Everything?

Even the women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples from their wealth didn’t give up everything – hence that wealth. The Apostles still had their livelihood to turn back to. After Jesus died, they went back to fishing.

I would hazard that most serious Christians disciples whom I know personally are already feeling the pinch just by taking a bit of risk, or choosing to live a little more simply, or choosing to give a little more generously.

Now think about the man’s reaction from another angle: Why did his face fall?

Because the man took Jesus at his word.

He didn’t convert the command in his head to something less – something easier to live with. Nor did he take it to mean, “Here’s a suggestion, but you might have other ideas and those could work too.”

The Gospels tell us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what decision he made. What we do know is that when he left, he was actually wrestling with the decision. He was taking it seriously. He was counting the cost.

It’s really easy to follow Jesus when you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a lot harder to convert when it means necessarily giving up things you’re not sure you can live without, or not sure you want to.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”

This comment should scare you. You probably have things left to lose.

The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Even the disciples had things left to lose, at that point. Eventually they’d get down to nothing, but that was later.

Meanwhile, back to that question of goodness:

Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Sooner or later, we reach the limits of our human perfection. Some of us are sufficiently bad that we hit the wall early and hard. Some, like the rich young man, have to be squeezed to find out where the faults lie.

Christianity isn’t the worship of our human goodness. It’s the worship of the Goodness that comes to rescue us when ours is fresh out.

File:ChineseJesus.jpg

Artwork: Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) – 1879, Beijing, China [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

What’s a Parent to Do When the Parish isn’t Following Virtus Requirements?

Here’s a question forwarded to me by Simcha Fisher, because she knows I sometimes write about this stuff.  If it sounds like your parish, it’s probably not.  Anecdotal evidence from parents and catechists suggests this happens pretty often.

Updated: Here’s the link to the US’s Virtus program, for those not familiar with the concept.  Since every diocese sets its own additional policies, for the purpose of this Q&A, just think, “safe environment practices.”

This is my question: What is a parent supposed to do when the Virtus requirements aren’t being followed in his or her parish?

This is an actual problem in my parish right now . I don’t have any reason to suspect anyone of any wrongdoing, except for the lack of judgement being shown by our young priest who runs the youth groups. The problem is lack of chaperones. It’s a two-fold problem because (1) no parents are volunteering to chaperone the regular meetings, and (2) he holds the meetings anyway, even when no parents show up and he is the only chaperone.

All the advice I’ve been getting from the various people I’ve asked is to work with the priest to get chaperones. I’ve been trying to do that, but it doesn’t sit quite right. Obviously, if there’s abuse, you’re supposed to report it to the police. Hopefully we all know this by now. But is there an actual protocol or reporting structure that’s supposed to be followed for a problem like this?

Some opening thoughts:

The first thing to keep in mind is that the number one reason people ignore rules is that they don’t think there is a problem.  It’s possible Father Lackadaisical is up to no good, but other explanations are more likely.

Second thing: There may or may not be a strict requirement of more than one adult in the room.  With older students, alternate accepted practices may include:

  • Adult avoids being alone with students — at least three people in the room who are able to speak for themselves, but that might consist of one adult and several students;
  • Door stays open (only works if there are other people in the building);
  • There is a window into the room, and other adults in the vicinity who could look in at any time;
  • Event is entirely in public, such as if the leader meets the youth at a restaurant and is never alone with a student.

Your parish or diocese may have specific guidelines, or your pastor or program director might be given some latitude in assessing the situation and making a judgement call.

Even if none of these alternatives are accepted standards in your diocese, and in fact there is a strict requirement that two Virtus-trained, background-checked adults be present at all times, the most likely explanation (not the only) is that the youth group leader feels he is nonetheless creating a sufficiently safe environment, and therefore would rather not cancel an important program for lack of other volunteers.

How to Intervene

There are some basic standards for addressing safety violations of any kind, and after running through the list we’ll talk ramifications below.  Assuming there’s no reason to believe anyone is in actual danger (you’d call the police), your primary option is to run up the chain of command.  Who does what, where, and how will depend on your parish and your diocese, but it’s something like this:

  1. Talk to the youth group leader directly (which you’ve done).  Offering to help out is excellent.
  2. Bring the issue to the attention of the next higher-up in the parish.  This could be a parish Virtus coordinator, the director of faith formation, or some other administrator.
  3. Bring the issue to the attention of the pastor.
  4. Bring the issue to the attention of the diocesan administrator responsible for implementing your Virtus program.  This could be the diocesan director of  youth ministry, a diocesan child-safety coordinator, or some other person.  Ask around.
  5. Write the bishop.

FYI, experience speaking here, it’s easy to do this wrong, or to do it right but still end up not getting anywhere.  You may accidentally be referred to the wrong person, or to the right person but who doesn’t know what they’re doing.  It happens.  Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Some Things that Might Happen

Depending on your situation, this could all turn out any number of ways.  Here are some possibilities:

Your intervention is received with gratitude.  Some people know they are overwhelmed, and appreciate all the help they can get. Some people are conscientious enough that when they unwittingly err, they are thankful that others have their back and save them from disaster.  This is the ideal, and you have to act with the charitable assumption that it will be the case.

If this is the case, what you can expect is:

  • Father Naive will make an effort to reform his ways;
  • He will still some times screw it up, unless a superior (not you) manages to instill some serious fear into him.

Just keep patiently helping him out.  People who want to be helped will generally let you help them.

However, be aware that this might not be the case.

You unleash a nasty wave of gossip and backbiting.  If your parish or diocese is dysfunctional, you may already know this is coming, or you might be stepping into the mire for the first time.  If you happen to have a great parish, you might get away with just some temporary unpleasantness and then the restoration of good relations.

One or more administratively incompetent persons persist in carrying on as they’ve always carried on.  Of all the spiritual gifts, the gift of administration is the one talked about least but needed most.  Consider a novena to the Holy Spirit — no I am not joking.

You discover the joy of working with psychopaths.  If this happens to you, you’re basically out of luck.  If you were good at dealing with amoral, self-centered people who were masters at manipulation, you probably wouldn’t have written to strangers on the internet for advice.  Assume the psychopath is going to convince everyone that you’re the crazy one, done.

–> If there’s no crime taking place, once you’ve done your part to bring the problem to the attention of those in authority, you are free to move on.  You will probably want to find some other activity for your family.  You will definitely want to share your experience with a trustworthy, clear-thinking person who can help you sort out whether or not you’re the crazy one.

It turns out the youth group leader is a predator and there is in fact an abusive situation in the works.  This will make you dream of the joys of working with garden-variety psychopaths.  Expect a messy, long, painful ordeal that completely changes your life forever — and since you’re only the bystander, you’ll count yourself lucky.  This is, statistically speaking, pretty unlikely. But if it is happening in your parish, as much as you don’t want to be the one who has to get involved, thank God you’re there.

And finally, prepare yourself for one very likely outcome, regardless of how well or poorly everyone else responds:

You don’t handle the situation with grace and aplomb.  You’re an ordinary mortal with a limited set of gifts.  If you don’t happen to have that perfect combination of patience, wisdom, fortitude, diplomacy and pixie dust, there’s a good chance you’re going to at least partly screw this up.  Cut yourself and everyone else a little bit of slack.   When the other people who end up involved in this don’t handle it as well as you’d like, remind yourself they are mere mortals, too.  If you haven’t done so already, cultivate an abiding love of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

 

Best wishes.  Readers, in your charity please take a moment to say a prayer for all those who have to get involved in confronting problems of this nature.  Thanks.

File:Herman ten Kate The Chaperone.jpg

Artwork: The Chaperone, Herman ten Kate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Welcome Knights and Columbiettes!

I had a great weekend with you, thank you for having me!

If you’d like to continue the quest of bringing your family, friends, and community back to the Catholic Church, the book you want is Return by Brandon Vogt.  You can read my endorsement here.

Here’s Brandon’s quick article on Seven Steps to Bring Any Young Person Back to the Church.

This works.  Do this.

Cover art courtesy of https://helpthemreturn.com/game-plan.