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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

File:WhereRainbowRises.jpg Rainbow over mountain of cedar trees

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

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.

Instead of Mel Gibson’s Passion, Try These . . .

Simcha Fisher’s review of the The Passion of the Christ is up, and worth a look.  For many years, my husband and I have watched The Passion on Good Friday evening (not every year, but often) and have found it edifying and spiritually helpful.  It certainly takes the edge off your hunger.  Also, it is extremely violent (as was the event it portrays), and if you aren’t the sort of person who can stomach depictions of violence, there are other more helpful options.

My go-to for our kids’ Holy Week viewing has been The Gospel of John movie. We’ve tended to watch it during the day sometime during Holy Week when the kids are lounging around.  There are a few moments of artistic interpretation that I would stage differently were it my film to produce (it is not a Catholic film, FYI), but overall it’s quite good.  The crucifixion is portrayed with a deft hand, providing the necessary impact but without extreme gore.  It is suitable for children who are comfortable watching action-adventure films like The Lord of the Rings series, but obviously if your child is extremely sensitive to violence, movies about torture and execution are not a good choice — go pray the stations and leave it at that.

Taking it down a notch in intensity and adding Steve Ray’s legendary campy sense of humor, the The Footprints of God: Jesus would be a super choice for school-age kids (about 3rd grade and up, but for many kids younger) and people who want to dial back the experience, or just want to learn more.  The whole series is fantastic for both kids and adults.  I love these.  The Jesus episode is perfect for Holy Week.

This year, though, I’ve got a new favorite.  My weekly Bible study has been working through Edward Sri’s No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ’s Passion from Ascension Press.  The total study comes with access to five 30-minute videos, a book, and a workbook.  The videos stream online with no difficulty, but head’s up: There are not subtitles.  Yikes.  Sorry.  The three resources cover the same material but in different formats, and all of them are a good value. The Study Pack gets you online access to the videos, but check the details as you may need to find a partner and create a parish Bible study in order to go that route.   There are no violent depictions so far (as of the end of session 4); the video is filmed in Jerusalem and for imagery there is the sacred art at the various holy sites.  The book goes more explicitly into the nature of Roman torture than the videos do.  It is truly a Bible study, and a solid one.

Here is why this Bible study comes to mind as an alternative to watching The Passion:  At the start of the evening when everyone arrives and grabs drinks, we are the usual ladies’ Bible study, joking around, sharing news, then easing into a conversation about the reading and how the week’s lesson touched us spiritually and so forth.  That’s all good.  We’re getting some great discussion going as the group gets to know each other better.  But here’s what happens next: We watch the evening’s video.  Remember, this is a 30-minute video of a professor talking to a couple of pilgrims as they stand in front of sacred art and architecture.  No blood splatters.  Bible verses are read.  Many mosaics are viewed.  Lots of pictures of pilgrims kneeling in devotion at holy sites.  Not. graphically. violent.  Just not.

AND YET: When the video ends we are reduced to complete silence.

We after week, I turn off the TV and shut down the PC, and we who were happily chatting 30 minutes earlier have nothing to say.  We just want to walk over to the church (it’s locked, no dice) and kneel down in adoration.

***
I’d recommend No Greater Love for older kids and up.  The target audience is an informed Christian in the pews who is generally familiar with the passion narrative (you’re at church on Palm Sunday every year, you maybe have prayed the Stations a few times) who is biblically literate at least at the beginner level.  For children, the audience would be from the age when your child can read the real Bible (my 5th grade CCD classes always did) and is interested in adult non-fiction as found on PBS or at your local public library.   Though it’s designed to be a weekly study throughout Lent, you could comfortably order the series now and watch two videos a week for the remainder of Lent or one a night during Holy Week.

No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ's Passion

Artwork courtesy of Ascension Press.

Why Kids Like Sports Better than Religious Ed

I used to be one of those catechists with no patience for kids’ sports.  I believed in the value of athletics, I really did, but disapproved of the modern sports industry’s drain on society.  People who organized their lives around their kids’ games and practices were wrong-headed, period.

Then I had a kid who begged for three years straight to please be allowed to try a team sport — any sport at all, she just really, really wanted to be on a team.  That gateway drug of athletics, free summer practice, fell in our laps.  We committed to two months and no more.  And now I can explain to you why you are wrong-headed when you pit Church vs. Athletics.

Kids Want to Do Hard Things

Do you know another thing my junior athlete did? She co-founded a parish ministry.  At the end of fifth grade she sat on the church playground talking a mom of younger children in the parish, coming up with an idea for having parish families meet once a week for faith formation, academics, Adoration, Mass, and social time, faithfully Catholic but open to all-comers.

If the parents had to work the bureaucracy, it was the elementary schoolers who gave shape to the nuts and bolts of the ministry.

And for this they had to fight.  Over and over and over again my daughter saw how adults at every level of the church administration wanted to shut down a ministry that was operating under the complete supervision of the pastor, was explicitly open to every member of the parish (and got some great inter-generational participation as a result), and was in no way undermining any other parish or diocesan ministry.

Year after year my daughter tried different avenues for getting involved in parish life doing hard things.  Year after year, roadblocks came up.  Eventually she got the message: Kids who are serious about the faith aren’t welcome in the Catholic Church.

In contrast, over in the sports world, hard work and dedication was consistently welcomed and rewarded.  So that’s where she wants to be.

Kids Want to Be Themselves

When pastors and parish staff grumble about “sports,” something they overlook is that “sports” isn’t one single thing.  There are sports for every interest, body type, and personality, and leagues at every level of competitiveness.  You can be an elite ballerina or a rec bowler, and it’s all generic “sports” to the naysayers if it gets in the way of their plans for you.

Year after year my kids have listened to adults in authority tell them how beneficial it will be for them to commit two hours a week to sitting in classes they could literally teach themselves — as one honest catechist used to say with admiration to a child of mine.  These adults do not sit in the classes they so merrily foist on children whose names they can’t keep straight.  Staff time is valuable.  Children’s time is not.

The kids aren’t lazy.  They are choosing to spend their time on activities that are intellectually and physically demanding, often having to skip a friend’s birthday party or go without luxuries other kids enjoy because the family budget will only allow so much.  Trust me: If the only sport on offer was 2nd grade kickball, very few kids would be sacrificing for it.  Kids sacrifice for sports because athletics are one of the few venues where kids can take control of their formation and push themselves to make the most of their own personal talents and abilities and gifts.

Kids Want Competence

Coaches aren’t getting rich in children’s athletics.  Most are volunteers, and even those at higher levels who are getting a stipend have to support themselves with a full-time day job.  The question athletes ask isn’t, “What kind of degrees do you have in this field?” They just want proof you are a good coach.

When a team has a lousy coach, players vote with their feet.  A lousy club or league doesn’t hold onto athletes.

This is exactly like catechesis.  The difference is that because Church culture opposes personal growth and initiative (witness the resistance my daughter faced when she tried to meet with her friends to study the faith outside of the mandated religious-ed program), there aren’t “other teams” to turn to if a given program or instructor doesn’t work out for you.

Sadly, the monopoly of the local parish program’s age-mandated classing system creates incompetence.  It does this because no one teacher can be the best at meeting every child’s needs.  Just like some coaches are better at preparing future Olympic gymnasts and others are better at getting a pile of nervous t-baller’s to look at the ball, every catechist has strengths and weaknesses.  If you were told you had to meet the spiritual needs of every child in your neighborhood who was born in a certain 12-month span, you’d fail too.  It’s an impossible job.

Children Have Bodies

Do you know who is jealous of the human body?  Satan.

Humans use our bodies to express our souls.  We are unlike any other creature, having both a rational immortal soul and a physical body that will be resurrected and endure for all eternity in its glorified form.   What we do with our bodies matters, so learning to use our bodies well is important.  To hate the body is to hate the person.

This doesn’t mean the body is more important than the soul.  It isn’t.  Parishes need to up their game significantly when it comes to caring for children’s souls.  But sports isn’t competition.  We live in a society which offers few options for helping children develop physically.  The era when children grew in strength and endurance and agility by helping out with farm chores or physically-demanding skilled manual labor has largely passed.

As a teacher, I beg my restless students to go out for a sport every season, just so they can get the hours of running-around time they need so they are calm enough to sit still in class.  Kids (and adults) need physical activity in order to function well because we are made for it.

Kids Have Souls

What is the proper response of the Church to “competition” from sports?  The Church needs to do her own job.  Kids and parents don’t take faith formation seriously because parishes don’t take it seriously.

Unfortunately, at every level the credibility of church leaders has been lost.  After enough years of being told they should want to live on a diet of spiritual pablum, children quit believing their pastors.

Teenagers accuse “You don’t trust me!” and parents rightly observe that trust is earned.  Pastors must hold themselves to the same standard.  If your parish has only offered twaddle, kids and parents aren’t going to jump every time you announce a hot new thing is going to be great.  The American youth sports edifice wasn’t born in six months, and the rebuilding of evangelization won’t happen instantly either.

As good as sports are, we should be gravely concerned when parents and children neglect their souls in favor of their bodies.  It is a profound and shameful problem.

But the solution isn’t for parish staff to take children’s bodies less seriously.  The solution is to take children’s souls more seriously.

Related: Are Sports Sabotaging or Strengthening Your Family’s Faith?

File:Youth-soccer-indiana.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Manliness and a Perfect Funeral

Hathaway’s funeral was perfect.  Chanted Extraordinary Form Requiem Mass at the old but not old-old St. Mary’s church in Aiken, then procession to the graveside for a Melkite burial.  Nothing says “four last things” like a Dies Irae in the hands of a good cantor.

As our line of cars, lights on, hazards flashing, police escort, ambled down US 1 towards the cemetery, traffic of course made way.  But this is a land where funerals are still taken seriously, and even on the four-lane highway where there was no practical need to do so, most vehicles coming the other direction pulled to the side, stopped, and put on their lights, paying their respects.  You have no idea of it, I thought as I passed driver after driver putting life on hold for two minutes of stillness in honor of a complete stranger, but you are witness to the funeral of one of the world’s great men.

***

John’s daughter asked (shortly after his death) if I could speak at the funeral meal.  After the perfection of the funeral homily and the solemnity of the mass and burial, what I had prepared seemed woefully inadequate.  It also was not very gentle, but fortunately there was a line-up of nice friendly people to follow, including a dear friend with the gift for coming across as a big, chummy teddy bear while he reminded the audience of the value of redemptive suffering and the need for masses and holy hours of reparation.

I’m sure most people did not like what I had to say, but the one person it was written for thanked me for saying it.  Below is the text, with most of the typos removed.

***

When we try to explain the difference between men and women, we tend to resort to stereotypes.  We know that men possess, on average, more physical strength than women, so we use examples of large, muscular men performing heavy manual labor.  We know that men have an inborn, undeniable vocation as providers and protectors, so we reach for clear examples of those.  When we think of providers, we might give the example of a successful business owner, or an accomplished professional; or we might think of an ordinary workman or farmer putting in long hours at physically grueling labor in order to provide a simple but decent living for even a very large family.  We know that men are created to be protectors of the family and community, and thus we look to the sacrificial life of men who have careers in the military or as law enforcement officers.  These are not bad examples.  But they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a man.

John Hathaway had the rare and excruciating vocation of showing the world what it means to be a man.

You could not look at John and think “typical big strong muscular man.”  (Though at times he astonished me at how strong he was.)  But what is a man’s strength for?  It is for serving God and serving his family.  John Hathaway used every ounce of his physical strength in fulfilling his vocation as husband, father, and Christian.  I remember him telling me the story of literally crawling to Holy Communion one time, so determined he was to receive Our Lord despite whatever parish he was visiting not noticing he needed the sacrament brought to him in the pew.  John was a wealth of medical knowledge – if I had a difficult medical question, he was on the short list of people I’d go to with such questions – because he was utterly focused on husbanding his strength, as the expression goes, so that he would be as strong as he possibly could be in order to serve his wife, his children, and God.

As a provider, John fell in the terrible predicament of those who are extremely talented but not in financially lucrative ways.  He was an English professor in a nation where adjunct professors sometimes literally live out of their cars because they cannot afford rent.   Many men find themselves in this position, willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families, but thrust into overwhelming circumstances beyond their control.  The despair this can cause men is at times deadly.

John Hathaway deployed extraordinary determination and perseverance and ingenuity in figuring out, day after day, year after year, how to provide for his family.  And he did provide.  He absolutely embodied what it means for a husband and father to be a provider.

As a protector I want to talk about John’s role in defending his children’s very lives.

We live in a time when it is legally and politically and socially acceptable to say that John and Allie and Gianna and Josef and Clara should simply be killed.  They should never have been allowed to be conceived, for fear they not measure up to some ideal standard of human health.   Allie, the same Allie who has been a pillar of strength and a fount of practical help to Mary over this past harrowing week; the same Allie who is delightfully talented and devoted to sharing her talents with the community . . . is someone that even Christians will sometimes say, “it would have been better if she’d never been born.”

I would say John’s life work was one steady, undying protest against that evil.  He tirelessly spoke and wrote and worked to persuade the world that his children deserve to live.

This vocation of his was painful.  It was physically and spiritually exhausting. He deployed every spiritual and physical weapon at his disposal against the constant and at times overpowering despair and darkness that descended on his life.

I can recall at times literally thanking John for still being alive.  I thanked him for the depths of the agony he endured by dint of continuing to pursue medical care in order that he might, for as long as possible, be present in this life to his family.  I thanked him selfishly: I knew that death would be easier and more pleasant for him, and I knew that when that time came I would feel his absence profoundly.  John was a delightful person to know and to talk to and to be with.

In closing I want to commend Mary for her choice of a husband.  She has faithfully withstood no end of criticism for marrying a man who lacked the superficial traits that are idolized by our society.  But she has known what others don’t see: That she married a man who truly embodied manliness to its fullness.  He cherished her, he sacrificed daily for her and the children, and gave his life and every ounce of his strength to providing for and protecting his family.  He made his own and by extension their relationship with Jesus Christ his number one priority.  He was everything any man could ever aspire to be.

File:Iglesia de La Compañía, Quito, Ecuador, 2015-07-22, DD 149-151 HDR.JPG

The pale and fleeting beauty of the Shadowlands, as seen in the Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

Nature Builds on Grace

So imagine for a moment that in the space of two weeks you learn that your kid has a potentially life-threatening (but otherwise probably benign) tumor in her heart, and then you travel out of town to get it removed via open-heart surgery, and then you come home after and basically you’re done.*  In two weeks.

That’s crazy.  Far too crazy to be eligible for fiction, what with no foreshadowing, no crises, and a shocking denouement in which you get home and have to forbid your kid to clean her room, until you finally break down after a couple hours and let her clean her room.

Also it can’t be fiction because everyone was fine.  A little edgy, sure, definitely some adrenaline happened.  Garden-variety hospital snafus happened (ex: The Night of the Beeping Monitors). There was sunburn during the lead-up to the climax, and also my sister sitting alone on the beach nobly guarding my phone, which was actually with me in the beach parking lot talking to the insurance people. But mostly everything was fine.

Truth: While we were busy with our dramatic medical incident, many friends were enduring much worse suffering.  That is, if by “worse” you mean people-actually-died ‘n stuff.

Since there can therefore be no riveting memoir, here’s my how-to quick guide on How to Throw a Successful Medical Crisis in Just Two Weeks!

 

1.  Try to recruit about a thousand people to pray for you.  If you do this, then your most anxiety-prone child of the bunch can be the one who needs to have her sternum cracked and her heart sliced open, and it’ll be fine.  By “a thousand” what I mean is: The actual, literal number 1,000.  That’s my ballpark estimate of how many seriously praying people were on this job.  Do that.  You want these people.  What they do matters.

2. Happen to invite the exact right relatives to come stay with you.  Try to get them to arrive for vacation the day before you go in to receive the shocking diagnosis.  Whom to invite?  The ones who keep the house clean, provide competent medical advice, have a couple cousins of just the right ages and personalities to provide 24/7 emotional support for the kids, and who are restless enough to keep everyone busy with activities so you don’t have much time to sit around dreading things.

2a.  Dessert.  The children insist you want to invite the relatives who firmly believe in running out to the store to buy three boxes of brownie mix, because there weren’t any brownies in the house.  I say if you do the dishes, vacuum, and wash the sheets before you leave . . . you make all the brownies you want, I can be healthy again after you go home.

3.  Go to the beach.  Oh, you just want to sit around googling statistics about rare surgical procedures?  That’s why you arranged for your sister to show up: Because she is going to take you to the beach, and once you’ve viewed one excision of a right ventricular mass you’ve viewed them all.  Go to the beach. Your kid is gonna have a very boring and painful summer once surgery happens.  For goodness sake go to the beach.

Backlit tree with egrets at sunset.
Sunset at the rental house on John’s Island. It’s hard to be stressed here.

4. Comparative Advantage for the win.  So you are going to ask all your friends with relevant experience for their advice, and then you will take it.  One of the things you’ll learn is that there are different types of work for different people at different times.

  • The aunt who is perfectly capable of watching your healthy kids is the person who needs the power of attorney so she can do her thing and not need to call you at just the wrong time.
  • The ICU nurse who has gotten your kid stable post-op, and she is not tired, and she is one-on-one with your kid, is the person who should stay up all night after surgery watching your kid while you go to the hotel and get as much sleep as you can.
  • The spouse who does better on disrupted sleep should take night shift in the step-down unit.
  • The spouse who does better at asking hard questions and won’t be intimidated by the platoon of physicians descending on your room during rounds should do day shift.
  • The people who cook astonishingly good food available at local restaurants should feed you during shift change.
Dinner at Fuel. Tourist tip if you’re ever in Charleston: King Street is for people who like normal food. MUSC neighborhood is for people who feel cheated if the taco is just a regular taco with no purple cabbage on it.

5.  A sane parent is a priceless treasure. There is no substitute for a parent who is willing to do whatever it takes to support a child in a medical crisis.  Thus more sides to the shape of parental-sanity:

(A) If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to do the whatever it takes when the need arises.

(B) Whatever it takes includes doing some hard things, but not all the hard things.  If you don’t have to be there doing a thing, go do something that makes you better able to do the things only you can do.

So yeah: I totally made a teenager deliver me my good cruiser so I could go on a bike ride when it was my turn to get out and get some fresh air.  Yes, the spouse and I got out for couple-time during shift change, so we could see daylight, talk to each other without interruptions, eat something good and be ready to go back in for more.

 

Lawn by the ER at MUSC
If your kid kicks you out of her room because she doesn’t want to smell your heated-up frozen dinner, then go lie down in green pastures on the lawn by the ER. It’s okay to take pleasure in good things even when your kid just had major-major surgery.

6.  You can just be real about the situation.  Back to that whole 1,000-person prayer team:  Yes, the SuperHusband and I, and everyone else, were worried and scared.  Left to my own devices, not only could I worry about this child’s impending doom, I could also conjure up scenarios in which other children met tragic fates while we were all distracted by the one having the official crisis.  Drowning? Fatal car accident?  Nobody’s safe!  Ever!

Nobody is ever safe.  Our kid came through surgery just fine, and other people were receiving bad news.  Our days were getting better and better while other people’s lives were getting worse and worse.  It’s a fallen world.  You don’t have to pick a single All-Purpose Mood that somehow perfectly matches the gravity of the situation, because the truth is that the situation is complicated, and some really good things are happening and so are some bad things.  So just whatever.  Don’t feel beholden to the Feelings Police.

7.  Eternity is for real.  The thought of my kid dying is unbearable.  Also: It could happen on my watch.  Indeed, the expected death rate for my children is 100%, so unless we all die in the same train wreck, some of us get to be bereaved.

This is awful.  Believing in God doesn’t take away the intense grief that comes with losing someone you love.

But here’s what it does do: It means you aren’t hanging all your faith on doctors.  You can be sensible and do practical things to try to ensure the best odds possible on your kid’s survival, but the weight of Everything Forever And Ever Amen doesn’t hang on your shoulders, and it doesn’t hang on the doctors’ shoulders.  When you know that God has everything under control, you don’t have to be in a non-stop panic, frantically trying to save your kid from eternal nothingness.

You ask God to spare you the suffering, and hopefully He spares you the suffering.  But you also know that the separation of death is temporary, and no matter how bad things get in this life, no matter how black your grief, no matter how much your life sinks into the abyss of loss if the worst should happen, it isn’t the end of the story.

And then if your kid’s not dead and actually she’s recovering pretty well, you can leave her to the spouse who has day shift and get out for fresh air and sanity.

Green sea grass with sailboats on the water in the distance.
View of the marsh and estuary from the Lockwood Drive greenway.
Concrete walk along The Battery, Charleston, SC, with house and palmetto trees.
The Battery, where cars are as slow as the bicycles that pull over to let faster traffic pass.

 

*It’s not done until Pathology says it’s done . . . but we’re not going there right now.

Pro-Parenting Tips: Doubly-Virtuous Children

Something I like about our parish school is that every week the students bring home a folder of all their graded work, so we parents can see how they are doing.  We sign off on the papers and send them back to school, so the teachers know we’re in the loop.  Here’s my 6th grader’s latest religion test, on the theological and cardinal virtues:

You’ll notice the teacher marked #8 incorrect.  The instructions are to match the cardinal virtue to the statement, and #8 is “The virtue that enables people to give respect and obedience to their parents.”  The cardinal virtues are prudence (wisdom), justice, temperance (self-control), and fortitude.

Obeying your parents is exactly the kind of thing thrown out as a classic example of the virtue of justice.  I use it myself all the time.  If I were taking the test, that’s the virtue I would have picked from the list.  So the teacher isn’t exactly wrong here in saying “justice” is the correct answer.

The difficulty is that this is my child’s test.  And I assure you, my kid is absolutely right.  If I had to put up with me, I’d need fortitude for sure.