Lent Day 3: Put a Raincoat on It

Something we are doing this Lent is cutting out extraneous sugar from the family diet.  (Why?  Not to lose weight.  I’m the only chubby member of the family, and I don’t eat all that much junk food.  But we’ve noticed that some of the castle residents tend to be more emotionally volatile when they are living from snack to snack, and thought that peace in the home was worth attempting.)

There’s not a hard-and-fast rule to that resolution, but there are some obvious changes.  Don’t stop for donuts as a way of rewarding the kids for meritorious behavior, for example.  One of the chief challenges is that the children are all enthusiastic chefs, and several of them specialize in variations on pastry chef.

Therefore I had to confiscate the sugar.

If I didn’t, they’d go on quietly creating delectable baked goods whenever the parents weren’t looking.  They  might not even do it out of defiance — it’s just a habit.  So I took the sugar canisters from the open shelves in the kitchen and stowed them in a laundry basket in the parents’ bedroom (double Lent: that room is already cluttered enough without adding “pantry” to its list of responsibilities).

Next I had to take the chocolate chips.  Mid-morning Ash Wednesday I find a child happily creating chocolate candies.  “They aren’t for today!” she chided me solemnly.  How dare I question her penitence, sheesh?  So I added the canister of open chocolate chips to the laundry basket, and later found the resupply of chocolate chips* in the laundry room cabinets and put those in the basket too, because otherwise children would take the initiative to fix the Lenten inventory problem in the kitchen.

So now in my bedroom I’ve got a basket full of sugar and chocolate chips — really good chocolate chips, not those sorry ones that are mostly corn syrup.   Really, really, good chocolate chips.  In my bedroom.  Staring at me as I walk in after dropping a child off for an internship, on a Friday morning when I’m pretty hungry and trying to be virtuous but have not had breakfast, and did I mention they are really, really, good chocolate chips?

So thank goodness not-my-truck needed an oil change and so I had to switch vehicles with the spouse so I could take care of that this afternoon, and therefore I had to empty my junk out of the truck before he went to work, and that meant, as I was being reined in by the siren song of especially, wondrously, notoriously good chocolate chips, that I had a raincoat slung over my arm.  I was going to hang up the raincoat in the closet, since it’s a sunny day and I thought I wouldn’t be needing it.

But you know what needs a raincoat on it?  A basket full of chocolate chips.  And then I don’t have to look at temptation, glowing in the rays of springtime — Lenten — sunshine every time I go to my room.

Thank you, raincoat.  Thank you, oil change.  No thank you, chocolate chips.

 

Four umbrellas against a wood backdrop.

Photo via Wikimedia [Public Domain].

*The reason I have an inventory of chocolate chips is because we prefer, when possible, to acquire them from Equal Exchange or some similarly reputable source.  Since we live in the South, we can only mail-order chocolate during the cold months.  It’s practically pioneer living, you know.

Lent Day 1: Father Gonzo Makes His Mark

1.1 This morning, an unwary child says: “I haven’t decided what to give up for Lent.”

Evil Dictator: “Not to worry.  I’ve got you covered.”

Between cutting out extraneous sugar and sending us all to bed on time, child, it’s gonna be a long Lent.  But a calm one, so we hope.

1.2 A different, diligent little Catholic bear, was determined to set a fixed penance.  “What if I give up Netflix and Amazon?”

“What’s your goal?” Evil Dictator inquires.

Discussion ensues.  Child finally resolves, after taking advice, to write on her card to turn in at school: “I will give up all TV and movies, with the exception of shows my parents or teacher tell me to watch.”

1.3 Good problems: And your Catholic school student wants you to come to the school Mass in the morning, which is always very good . . . and your spouse and your boy are going to be singing Allegri’s Misere Mei Deus at the evening service.  Here’s an abridged version:

Another version, unabridged, and with girls in it:

So yes, I went to both.  Ashes and Holy Communion at Mass #1, and then sat back and enjoyed the music and prayed along at Mass #2.

1.5 My school child wasn’t so keen to double-dip, and asked if maybe I could require her to watch a little Netflix while I was at the second Mass.  Well, darling, funny you should mention that.  Evil Dictator’s got quite the talent for finding all the kids’ French-language videos on YouTube, and that’s something you need to be watching over the next few months.

I pulled up tabs of French-language entertainment and . . . she read books instead.  Her English is gonna be excellent before Lent is out.

1.6 So I show up at church for Mass #2 and Father Gonzo takes a look at me and says: “Did I do that?!”

Jen with massive black ashen cross on her forehead.
I sure didn’t do this to myself.

“Yes you did.”  And let me say: There’s nothing like walking around all day with Father’s Revenge, as the guidebook calls it, to bring out all the evidence of your horrid inner disposition.

40 days to get my act together.  Or forty seconds, everyone’s hoping.

Why Annulments Matter

From this morning’s Gospel:

He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

One of the reasons I think that people get upset about the question of divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion is that they don’t understand what’s happening.  I’d like to look today at the question of what an annulment is, and I want to do so by way of an analogy.  Like all analogies, it is imperfect.  Still, I think it sheds light on the overall situation.

An Otherwise Decent Guy Gets Into a Mess

Imagine you’re a young man in your twenties.  Like many young people, you were a tad promiscuous during college, something you shouldn’t have done, but, well, you did.  One Saturday morning you answer the door and one of your college girlfriends is standing there, with a darling little boy at her side.  He’s the spitting image of his mother.

Your ex-girlfriend explains that the boy is probably yours. She apologizes for not informing you sooner, and appeals to your better self and asks you to do the right thing.  The boy needs his father to be in his life.

A Decent Guy Becomes a Stand-up Guy

After you recover from the shock if it all, you do exactly what she was hoping: You agree that of course you will do your best to be a good father to any child of yours.

This isn’t going to be easy.  There are good reasons you and the boy’s mother stopped dating each other.  There will be lots of complications to work through.  You are now going to have to devote a massive amount of time and income and emotional reserve to the rearing of this boy.  You’ll have to reorganize your career and personal plans to make sure you can give this boy the attention from you that he deserves. It’s not easy to be a parent, and it’s even harder when you aren’t married to your child’s mother.

But you are a decent human being, and the least you can do in this world is be a good father to your own child.  It’s not something you have to think about.  Of course you’ll do it, you tell her.

Except There’s This Other Guy

There’s one hitch though: Neither of you are 100% sure you’re the father.

The dates all work out, but honestly? She was a tad promiscuous herself.  There’s at least one other college friend who might be the father instead.

Your ex-girlfriend thinks it’s more likely that you are the father, which is why she came to you first.  She asks you to take a paternity test, which will clear up all doubt.  You agree that’s a good idea.

Why Does Paternity Matter?

Let’s review two important facts:

  • It’s quite likely you are the father.
  • You have every intention of being the best father you can to this little boy, if he is in fact your son.

But still, it’s important in this complicated situation to ascertain paternity if possible.  Why?  Two reasons:

  • It’s important because the boy has a right to be reared by his own father, if possible.  There are many situations in which, unfortunately, a child cannot be raised by his own biological parents.  But if it is possible, he and his parents will both rightly want that to happen.
  • Likewise it’s important because the responsibilities of a man towards his own child are significantly different than his responsibilities towards children in general.

You’re a stand-up guy.  If the boy isn’t yours, you’ll still wish him and his mother well, and you’ll do all the things that any decent man does to help the children of his community.  But it would not be fair to you to expect you to rear a child to whom you have no particular connection, and it also would not be fair to the boy and his real father.

The two of them deserve the opportunity to be father and son, if that is possible.  It would be an injustice for you to step in and presume the rights that properly belong to some other man.

What’s a Marriage Tribunal?

A marriage tribunal is something like a paternity test.  A paternity test attempts to answer the question: Am I the father of this child?  A marriage tribunal attempts to answer the question: Am I married to this person we’ve assumed until now was my spouse?

As with paternity tests, we don’t examine the validity of marriages except in difficult circumstances — situations where there is reasonable doubt.  If you are separated or divorced, the question might reasonably come up.  Whatever circumstances led to the separation might hint that no valid marriage was ever contracted in the first place.

Like a paternity test, the purpose of a marriage tribunal isn’t to give you the answer you want, its purpose is to give you the truth: Do I have a solemn and irrevocable bond with this other person, or do I not?

 

File:Biertan house for divorcing people.jpg

Photo: The Beirtan house for divorcing people, via Wikimedia.  The photographer’s description explains: “This small building stands next to the church of Biertan (Birthälm). There was the habit to close there for two weeks the couples that wanted to divorce. Inside there was only a bed and the necessary to eat. It actually worked because in 400 years only one couple eventually decided to break up.”  By Alessio Damato [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0].

 

 

Authority in Marriage, a Free Retreat, and The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Working backward through the title, we begin with some thoughts on the feast of the Chair St. Peter, as written several years ago in anticipation of today’s feast.  Jesus has just given the eat-my-flesh ultimatum, and as others are leaving, our Lord asks Peter if he’s going, too.  Peter’s response is one of my two favorite St. Peter quotes:

“To whom should we go, Lord? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

. . . He doesn’t say, “Goodness, no, Lord! We know what you really have planned, and it all makes perfect sense.” He doesn’t even say, “Well, your forearm looks like it might be palatable enough, if I could call dibs.” Peter doesn’t have an argument. He cannot make the case that what Jesus is telling him he must do is perfectly reasonable. What Jesus is telling him to do is perfectly unreasonable. . .

Peter’s answer? Well. I don’t know how this can possibly work. I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make sense. But I know you, and I know what you have done so far. I know you can forgive sins. I know you can open the very gates of Heaven. Where exactly else am I going to go? You’re all I’ve got.

Um, I don’t really have any place better to be, Lord, so I guess I’ll stay.

This is an excerpt from the free Lord You Know I Love You retreat. (You can find out my other favorite quote by clicking through and scrolling to p. 7.)   The retreat is suited for use on your own or in a group, and comes with a pile of suggestions for how to adapt it for different situations.  Two ways to use it this time of year:

  1. Use it over the next week to reflect on what you’d like to undertake for Lent.
  2. Use it during Lent to reflect on where you need to grow in your faith over the next year.

Both versatile and free. That and my other free downloads can all be found here.

And finally, at Mass this morning, Father brought up in passing the topic of authority in the home.  He was using the example of a father’s authority over his household as a way to explain to the children the idea of the pope’s authority.

People get upset about this idea.  I think they are not paying close attention.

Here is something you must understand about marriage: No man becomes the head of his household until his would-be wife appoints him to that position.  Likewise, every man who heads the family home has on hand for advice, admonishment, and loyal opposition the woman he chose for that work.   This is not despotism.  Marriage is the purest democracy we’ve got.

In celebration of the Met making its collection available online for download, enjoy these Cypresses [public domain].  Details about the painting are here, including related works of interest and loads of other good stuff.  Bless these guys, amen.

Why I Love My Parish Catholic School

This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw.  She had made friends with girls her age at parish events.  It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year.  We did a little more research and decided this was the time.

Our experience so far has been nothing but positive.  Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.

Everyone is kind and friendly.

When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region.  She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”

The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students.  Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic of whether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options).  I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”

To which my daughter replied: “Mom.  This is St. Urban’s.  We don’t have bullies.  The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”

The friendliness is welcoming to me, too.  The administration respects my time.  The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers.  When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.

I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs.  Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse.  Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class.  It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.

Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.

The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying.  Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day.  There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does.  I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.

Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me.  There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true.  When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”

“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said.  “And also the Angelus.”

The children ate and then talked quietly.  The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass.  The children swept up and prepared to leave.  Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.

My daughter’s teachers know her.

The school is small.  There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits.  (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, and here for The New Yorker’s explanation of it.  I have found this to be true in practice.)  My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest.  But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.

When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going.  To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.

I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her.  All these things you describe? That’s my girl.  You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her.  She’s not lost here.  There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.

The curriculum is well-chosen.

Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum.  Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.

If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.

Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.

Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before.  But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal.  I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture.  There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.

Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good.  I’ll take it.

The school makes the most of its strengths.

One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school.  That approach doesn’t work.  Homeschooling isn’t for that.  Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point.  If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed.  The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.

My parish school does that too.

There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age.  There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location.  Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.

My daughter loves it there.

No school can be everything to everybody.  My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments.  Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period.  She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here.  Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.

She’s a normal kid.  Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream.  There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well.  Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.

Addendum: About that award she got.

Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning.  Truth?  It’s the other way around.  I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes.  I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.

And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around.  You know what happened?  They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.

What’s the big event?  Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction.  One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties.  The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.

That’s what I want in a Catholic school.

File:Pages from a hundred years of Dominican history - the story of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Sienna - by Anna C. Minogue (1921) (14587455058).jpg
The sisters agree: If you cultivate the virtues, you’ll get the best academics you can have.

 

A page from 100 Years of Dominican History, published in 1921.  Photo by Anna Catherine Minogue, b. 1874 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

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

 

How to Get Your Young Athlete to Sunday Mass

I’m not a fan of sports on Sundays.  I’d like to stay home, go to Mass at my local parish, then spend the day relaxing with friends.  Instead, I’ll be at a tournament this weekend, watching one of my top favorite athletes in the world do her thing.  Also, she and I will be going to Mass.  If you’ve ever had a child involved in competitive sports, you know that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Should You Even Be Playing on Sundays?

There are two questions every Catholic parent of an athlete ought to ask:

  1. Should we, as Catholics, even be participating in Sunday sports?
  2. Should my child in particular be involved in such sports?

The first question has been answered, for the moment, by silence and logic: I’ve never heard any priest or bishop forbid the faithful to watch the Olympics, professional football, or any other sport.  These activities take place on Sundays, and furthermore they require a decade or decades of training that involves, almost invariably, playing or practicing on Sundays.  If it’s moral to participate as a spectator, it’s moral to participate as an athlete — you can’t have one without the other.

That said, if at some point the Church should study the matter and determine that it is in fact immoral to play sports on Sundays, there we’ll be.  (I don’t mean kickball at home with your friends.  I mean the kind that dramatically interrupts church and rest for all involved.)  Until then, we have a conditional green light to play on.

So long as Question #1 remains a tentative yes, Question #2 is up to you as the parent to discern: There are many good reasons not to play sports on Sundays.  Some of those reasons may well apply to you.  Discern thoughtfully.

Plan Ahead. Way Ahead.

Let’s imagine that for some good reason you’ve determined that your child ought to participate in a sport that plays or practices on Sundays.  I hope if you had another option (a team with Saturday games only, for example) you took it.  But say this was your only realistic choice:  How do you make sure you’ll still get to Mass?

Answer: Talk to the coach before you sign up with the team.

Sooner or later, you are going to find yourself in a corner.  You’ll be playing in some town that only has Mass the same hour your child is scheduled to compete.  Your coach needs to know before you join the team that if push comes to shove, your player will be at Mass.

At that point, the coach might let you know that you should look for another team.  So be it.  It’s one thing to stretch the very limits of our freedom as Catholics; it’s another to abandon the faith altogether.  But chances are your coach will be willing to accommodate you, if you hold up your end of a fair deal.  What does that look like?

Don’t Be Obnoxious

You don’t have to make a big scene to the other families on the team about what amazingly holy people you are.  Come on: You’re playing sports on a Sunday, not fasting in the Adoration chapel.  You aren’t that holy.  Put together a list of parishes within striking distance and all their Mass times.  Then, when you get a break in the schedule, quietly head down the road to church.

Go to the first-available Mass opportunity you get.  You don’t want to miss your one chance to get to Mass free and clear, only to have to hurt the team later by skipping out on a game.

If you have more than one child playing at the same event but with different play times, ask around and find out if there are any other Catholic families also trying to get to Mass.  If your children’s breaks should line up just wrong, sending one child with another (trusted) family may be the only way you can get all children to Mass.

If you know you’ll have to skip a game, talk to the coach.  Have your list of Mass times laid out in a way that’s easy to understand, and let your coach pick which game your child should miss.

Be willing to accept any consequences that go with missing a game.  Charitably assume your coach has good reasons for having to bench your child if you miss a game.  If you don’t trust your coach’s decisions, look for a different team.

Be Ready to Do the Unreasonable

When you make your list of potential Mass times and locations, include every possible option, even if some of them are just horrible.  So you have to spend three hours on dirt roads getting to and from the Ancient Slobovian 10 pm Mass on your way home after a long weekend? If it’s a safe possibility, the fact that you’ll be inconvenienced is beside the point.  If you want convenience, competitive athletics is not for you.

There can be times when there is no safe way to get to Mass.  Weird things happen. In the winter you might, for example, be playing at a venue that is on well-maintained roads just off the interstate, but the nearest Catholic parishes are deep in the hinterlands with long stretches of dangerous ice patches.  Likewise, don’t be on the road later than you can safely stay awake to drive.  It’s better to skip a game and go to Mass during the day than to risk your life taking one for the team.  

But if there is a way to get to Mass without missing any games, take that option even if isn’t your favorite choice.  Don’t put the team dinner, touring around, or a relaxing morning at the hotel ahead of your obligation to attend a Sunday Mass.  Save your miss-a-game cards for when you really need them.

The How-To’s of Finding a Mass

  1. Look up your event location, then search Masstimes.org for nearby parishes.  If your hotel is in a different area, look for parishes near your hotel as well.
  2. If you will be traveling home on Sunday, look up parishes along your route home in addition to those near the event.
  3. Click through to the parish websites, and confirm that the Mass schedule is up to date.  Watch out for holiday schedules in particular, as Mass times can get irregular.
  4. Make yourself a list of parishes and their Mass schedules.
  5. Either include each church’s address in your list so you can get directions on the fly, or print out directions from the venue or your hotel (or both — whichever you are most likely to be leaving in order to attend Mass).

If you know the tournament schedule in advance, you might be able to pick out which Mass you’ll be attending ahead of time.  Otherwise, watch for an opening as the weekend unfolds.  When you get a chance head to Mass, out you go!

 

File:Karol Wojtyla-splyw.jpg
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]. Some guy who liked sports. Click through for details.
Related Links:

Come to Mass Ugly, Please

Is the Mass Just Like Everywhere Else?

Three Ingredients for Parental Sanity in Kids’ Competitive Sports

Sabbath 101: Giving Up the Work Habit (I know! I wrote that!  And I still believe it, even if my life interferes.)

What Happens When You Go Out to Eat on Sundays (So do what you can to minimize your impact, however imperfectly you pull it off.)

 

Copyright Jennifer Fitz 2017.  If you would like to reprint this article for your parish or diocesan publication, you may.  Please credit the original link.

How to Make the Best March for Life Signs Ever

If you’re going to the March for Life, local or national, you are going to end up with a sign.  If you don’t bring one, helpful people will give you one, and then you’ll have to carry it.  Or you could go ahead and make the best sign ever: It’s lightweight, compact, easy to carry, and will keep you warm if the weather behaves like January tends to behave.

Bonus: It isn’t any more difficult to make than a regular posterboard sign.

Fleece March for Life Banner Instructions

What you’ll need:

Approximately one yard of fleece fabric.  If you have an old blanket you want to re-purpose, that works too.  Err on the side of choosing a solid color unless you’re really good at visual design.

Fabric paint and stencils, or some other way to write your slogan on your banner.  Go with something that will contrast with your fabric.

A length of rope a foot or two longer than the width of your fabric.  A walking stick would work, too.

Needle & thread, a sewing machine, or a bunch of safety pins.

 

Step 1: Think up your slogan.  Since your banner will roll up into a teeny tiny slot in your scarf stash, you’ll use it again in future years. So pick something simple and enduring.  Yes: “Don’t Kill Innocent People.”  No: “Please Pass Prop 37 on July 16th, 2012.”  My then-six-year-old came up with Abortion is Bad for our local March, but half a decade later the girls chose the much more subtle Babies are People when we went to the big March in DC.  I Regret My Abortion and Suicide is Never the Answer are good ones too.

Step 2: Hem or pin your fabric.  Lay out your rectangle of fleece, then fold over the top edge of the future sign.  Stitch or pin the folded-over edge so that you have a slot for your length of rope or stick.  Tip: If you’re using rope, it’s a pain to work it through the slot after you’ve stitched.  Go ahead and lay it in place before you sew.

Step 3: Add your slogan.  If it’s easier (depending on how you are attaching your letters) you can do the slogan before you sew up the slot for the stick, but pre-plan so you don’t end up with your slogan cut off.  You can see below we ended up precariously close to the hem.

Step 4: There is no step four.  This is a very easy project.

You can improve on the original design by not making it at the last minute the night before you march. Everyone loves house guests who bring along unannounced DIY projects.

Using Your Banner

While you are marching, sign-holding children (or adults, if you must) stand on either side of the banner and hold the ends of the rope.  Note that if you have many small children to keep track of, you can make a longer rope and they can all hold on and make a train.  You can tie a hand loop in either end; if your hands are full, you can use a carabiner to clip your end to your belt loop, backpack, stroller, etc.  If you used polyester fleece, you’ve got an extremely lightweight sign that doesn’t blow you over like a shipwreck if the wind gusts.

If you get tired of carrying the signdrape it over your shoulders like a cape, stash it in the baby’s stroller, or stuff it in your backpack.  It’s lightweight and compact.

If you get cold, wrap up in your sign for warmth.

If you have to sit on the ground during 5,000 speeches, your sign is also a blanket.

If the baby is breastfeeding, you can use the sign to cover that dreadful gap by your waist you failed to anticipate, and which does not feel invigorating outside in the cold in January.

If the kids are boredthey can do parachute games with the sign.

If your preschooler’s head keeps bonking against the window as he falls asleep on the way homefold it up and wedge it between his head and shoulder.  (Remove the rope first, thanks.)

If your house is so small you have no place to store your sign from year to year:

  • Keep it in the car as a lap blanket in the winter and to cover your steering wheel in the summer.
  • Hide it between your duvet cover and your quilt.
  • Fold it up and stuff it in a small pillowcase and use it as a pillow.
  • Hang it up in your living room to nip in the bud obnoxious political conversations.

You’re welcome!

Tip: Don’t argue with someone sporting one of these.

 

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.