The Blessings of Being Flipped Off

by: Vincent Weaver

Something a lot of people involved in the pro-life movement do is to stand up for the unborn by praying outside of abortion clinics. Happily, this effort has gone in a much more positive, loving direction over the last 15 years. It’s not even accurate, in most cases, to call these “protests” anymore. Make no mistake, this presence is intended to bring attention to the defense of the most vulnerable in our society. To take an innocent human life is objectively wrong. To take the most innocent of all human lives is unacceptable. There should be no minced words about that. To be silent is false compassion – it’s spiritual and emotional euthanasia.

However, it is incredibly important to heed that ancient axiom to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. We all have an obligation to point out injustice and wrongdoing. However, none of us has any right to condemn the person carrying out that act, as only God knows their heart. So, if you see or hear someone telling a woman considering an abortion that she’s going to Hell, then they clearly don’t understand the point here, nor do they understand Christ-like love.

The much more common scenario these days is people calmly and quietly standing outside abortion clinics praying. Sometimes they hold signs with slogans like, “Pray to End Abortion”, or “Adoption: The Loving Option”. We’re there to provide women in unplanned pregnancies real choices (having literature on alternatives to abortion available) and to let them know how much they (and their babies) are loved.

This reality makes it that much more bewildering when you’re standing there peacefully praying and someone drives by and gives you the finger.  Admittedly, there was a time when such actions irritated me. They fed a desire deep down in my heart to give that person “what for”. While I knew that wasn’t the proper reaction, it seemed instinctive.

Then, I read Abby Johnson’s book, “Unplanned” a few years ago. For those who don’t know Abby, she was a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Then, one day (through some fluky circumstances), she ended up witnessing an actual abortion at her clinic. (This was the first time she saw the product of the business she was running.) She had a visceral reaction and knew she had to quit. And she did. Since then, she’s been an outspoken voice for life, and she wrote this book.

What “Unplanned” showed me (much to my surprise) was the humanity of abortion clinic workers. Honestly, I had never given these people much thought, other than as some kind of faceless monsters. That caused my praying for a culture of life to take on a much broader focus. Only then did a human face start to appear on these folks for me. These are real human beings who deserve our love, who deserve MY love, because to cast them aside would mean I just don’t get what it means to be a Christian.

That realization also helped my attitude towards the bird flippers driving by. (You know who you are!) J All of a sudden, my immediate response when being flipped off was to have compassion. I’d immediately think to myself, “What kind of pain must that person have suffered to feel this way?” “What is the source of that anger?” And by making that pain and anger clear to me, therein lay the ‘blessing’. By having a reaction – of any sort – that person gave my prayer a target. I would launch into a ‘Hail Mary’ or a Divine Mercy chaplet asking God to rain down His love and mercy on that person. I’d pray that they find healing, peace, and the presence of God.

So, if you see me (or any of the 1000s of other regulars) standing outside an abortion clinic praying and encouraging others to choose life, it’s okay if you feel the need to tell us we’re #1 with your middle finger. But know that prayer is powerful, and that I’m calling for all God’s truth, mercy, and love to come showering down on you very soon. And I thank you for giving me that blessing – that reminder of your humanity. Please pray for me, as well. I need all I can get.

And for all you awesome pro-life prayer warriors out there, please consider this unsolicited advice. Arguments don’t help. Love, prayer, and genuine compassion (and the willingness to listen) do.

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

A Love Fully Human and Fully Divine

I always have trouble when Christians say, “Jesus had to die on the cross in order to save us.”  It makes me think: I suspect God could have saved us however He liked.

But He did it this way, so here we are.

Humans are thick about the nature of God.  You’ve just been created out of dust and given domain over the earth, and yet you’re unclear on God meaning what He said when He told you not to eat that one fruit.  Never mind ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army — did God really say . . .?

The Godliness of God is hard for us to grasp.

Even harder, judging from the pagan pantheons and our own understandable tendency to despair in the face of so much evil, is believing that God is good.  The gods of myth are fickle and self-serving; they come to our aid when it suits their own cause, not ours.

Thus the Incarnation.  Here comes God in the form of a man, which the mythical gods have done in their way, but this one is different.  This one loves the way that men love when they are very, very good men.

Mostly we humans like to push off thinking too carefully about love, because what we want is for the satisfaction of the present moment’s desire to be counted as “good enough.” But we do know real live goodness when we see it.  We honor the sacrifices of those who have given of themselves for others.  We know deep in our hearts that the very best people, the ones who embody Goodness itself, are those who care entirely about others and don’t consider what it might cost to give, they just give.

We know that.

And we’re not very bright about what God is like, so it is helpful for us to see that when God is a man, He loves the way that the very best men love.

***

There were good men living in the time of Jesus, just like there are good men living now.  Men who were heroic in their willingness to do what others needed them to do, in the mission of love and justice and mercy.  The Samaritan.  St. Joseph.  St. John the Baptist.  No doubt others as well.

Pontius Pilate was given the chance to be a heroic man.  His wife had been warned in a dream concerning Jesus, and passed on that message to her husband: Don’t mess with this guy.  Let him go.  Gentleman, recall that you chose your wife for this purpose. You elected her to be the one person whose advice you value most, so don’t squirm when she gives it.

He could have been a heroic man, sacrificing himself for the sake of love, justice, and mercy.  He knew very well that Jesus was innocent — he said so himself.

Instead he chose to be the coward of cowards.  What is the suffering of one innocent man compared to the danger I face?  And it was danger.  He was facing the end of everything, and so he pushed away the plain truth and talked himself into the crucifixion.

***

I do this all the time.  I push away what I know to be the right thing to do, because I do not want to lose some good I’ve convinced myself is more urgent.

***

The difference between God and us is that He’s God and we aren’t.  He’s all-powerful, our powers are limited.

We are capable of being fully human.  We are capable of being entirely the persons God created each of us to be.  We are capable of choosing heroic sacrifice rather than cowardice.  But we would still only be men.  Limited.

God-made-Man remained fully God even as He took on the fullness of humanity as well.   As man, he could be fully the best sort of man, giving of himself entirely.  But He was still God, and thus His powers were not limited.

***

Think of the best people you know.  Perhaps you have moments when you would gladly sacrifice yourself for someone else.  Perhaps you are a parent who would do anything to take on the suffering of your child so that your child can be spared.  Perhaps you see someone in grave danger, and know that if you could, you would give over even your very life to rescue that person.

Sometimes we get the chance to act on that impulse, but usually we don’t.  No matter how fully your heart is filled with generosity and a willingness to sacrifice, your powers are limited.  You would joyfully give your life to save that starving orphan in the war-torn country, but you can’t. You are limited by distance and other obstacles.   Maybe you can’t even give your life adopting some local orphan, because your means or the local bureaucracy or the other people who already require your help prevent you from being able to rescue that other one.

You and I can give everything we have, but we can’t give it to everyone.

***

We also can’t cause our sacrifices to do exactly what we want done.  My abilities are limited.  I can save some people in some situations, but other problems are beyond my powers.  I lack the mechanism to make the rescue happen.

***

Fully Man, Jesus was the best of men.  He was willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others.

Fully God, the power of His sacrifice is not limited.

He can save everyone, everywhere, everyhow.

He can breathe into dirt and cause humans to live on earth.  He can hang on a cross and cause humans to live in eternity.

He has the willingness and also the ability.

File:Caravaggio flagellation.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

FYI we have a family custom of unplugging for the Triduum.  Some of us will still be on the machine doing things like taxes and homework, but if you’re looking for me, I finally have a legitimate excuse for being gone.  Happy Easter!

Lent Day 43: Not Doing It

Wednesdays are traditionally the glorious mysteries.  I finally got back to praying the Rosary today after a gaping hiatus caused by a succession illness (it is a physical act, and thus requires one or another physical abilities), chaos, and inertia.

What was on my mind as I prayed was my inability to accomplish certain tasks before me, and thus my reliance on God to take care of them.  This is a good problem, because relying on me is not the wisest course, and in any case the tasks are God’s.

Here is a miracle, to give you an idea of the scope of the whole thing: I made a craft.  Not just any craft; one that required both bright colors and straight lines.  Also, I had to do it with supplies that I didn’t have spares of, which meant everything had to be done exactly right the first time.  No sane person assigns me a job like this.  Just never.

So anyway, I get around to the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Do you know what our Lady did during that mystery?

Nothing.

Just laid there.  Didn’t lift a finger.

God did it.

This seems to be the way it works.  Want me to conceive the Messiah? I can’t do that Lord, but however you want to handle this go ahead.  Out of wine?  Son, could you take care of this please?  So you’re saying the plan is that you’re going to die on that cross–? I’m just gonna stand here, and you figure out what the system is.

It’s not that Mary does nothing.  It’s that she does only the part she can do, and lets God worry about the rest.

 

***

Request: If you have a charism for bringing empty jars to the attention of our Lord, please consider joining the newly-formed Catholic Evangelization and Discipleship Intercessory Prayer Team group on Facebook.  It’s a closed group, but any member can add new members.  If you are in the work of discipleship or evangelization and would like people to pray for your mission, please join and post your requests.  (Also: Introduce yourself and I’ll add you to the pinned post of who’s who at the top.) Thank you!

 

File:Albert Cornelis - Assumption of the Virgin - ES BRHM BPV 009 12.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

The Unbearable Sameness of “Cool”

When you study buzzwords or fad words from each generation, very few stand the test of time. “Groovy”? “Hep”? “Tight”? “Gnarly”? (Really?) Nope. All of them – gone from our lexicon. However, one has stood strong for at least 3 generations. That is “cool”.

I don’t know why this specific word has lasted for so long, but I think I understand why what the word represents has endured. The idea is that you not only fit in, but that you fit in very nicely. Cool is comfortable. It fills that 3rd level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It means we are accepted and maybe even respected by the tribe.

Long ago, ‘cool’ meant being different in some sort of interesting way. The ‘differentness’ is what made the person (or the action) ‘cool’. However, ‘cool’ wasn’t usually associated with virtue or engaging in something ‘good’ or particularly healthy or virtuous. And that’s the downside – the dark side – of ‘cool’. It was never about becoming fully alive. It was never about growing as a person or being the best version of oneself. It was typically about wearing masks and aspiring to something that wasn’t worth the effort.

That differentness imbued with a general lack of goodness or virtue has become sameness. When you look around these days, ‘cool’ is about blending and conformity. Challenging traditional values was once considered ‘cool’. Now, if you don’t challenge them and conform to the ‘new normal’, you’re likely to be marginalized with visceral enthusiasm. Wearing underwear on the outside of one’s clothing (or in place of outer garments) used to be reserved for Superman. (Probably not the impression he was trying to give, though.) Now, if you leave anything to others’ imagination, you’re prudish. Getting a tattoo was once a unique thing to do. Now, it’s not a matter of getting a tattoo to express individuality – it’s that you’re kind of strange if you don’t get one. (This is not a judgment on tattoos, by the way – just saying that they hold no inherent ‘goodness’ or value.)

This new definition of ‘cool’ doesn’t just lack virtue, though – it’s not even cool. It’s now about fitting the beautiful diversity of what every single person brings to the table into a very small box – and a boring box of sameness, to boot.

But perhaps herein lies opportunity to rekindle ‘cool’ in a whole new way – a way that makes goodness and virtue desirable as something ‘different’. Recall those words from 1 Corinthians 12 where St. Paul says, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.’”

There is a reason each of us is different. We all have unique talents which aren’t always appreciated by others, but that shouldn’t stop us from fully developing them for the good of mankind and for the glory of God. We’re meant to strive for goodness and virtue. Becoming more virtuous means becoming more like God. Anything else is disordered and a waste of our efforts. It’s just not ‘cool’ (in this new sense, of course).

Dare to be different. Dare to be the best you imaginable. Dare to let others see God through your actions. How cool would that be?

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

Lent for Slackers

This is a post for people who tend to be too lax with themselves.  We’ll start by kicking out those of you who don’t belong here.

If you are prone to scruples . . . don’t read this post. Go make an appointment with your pastor for a five-minute consultation.  Write down your plans for Lent, get him to sign off on that, tape your list to your fridge, and DON’T ADD A THING.

You may sprinkle on bits of supererogatory penance on your better Lenten days if the opportunity presents itself, but that’s pure bonus and you have to both (A) congratulate yourself for those days and (B) knock it off if your hot Lenten super days are wearing you down and making it too hard on ordinary days to do the thing you and your pastor agreed would be your thing.

That’s it.  Get out of here.

PS: If your pastor is a totally namby-pamby, flakey-wakey, wishy-washy cuddle puddle who wouldn’t know penance if it scourged him with briars . . . that’s God choosing to really lay it on you this Lent.  When Fr. Laxalot looks at your list of planned prayers and fasting and tells you that what he really needs is for you to smile during the sign of peace as your Lenten act of self-denial, honey you just do that. Tape it to your fridge.

If your life is inherently penitential . . . this post isn’t really for you, either.  But you can take a look, as long as you promise not to scruple.  Otherwise, it’s off to meet with Fr. Laxalot.

Slackers Quit Slacking

So there are people you know who glance at Lent and announce that The Really Important Thing conveniently does not include prayer, penance, and almsgiving.

Now let us agree, the Really Important Thing is you responding to God’s grace and accepting His gift of salvation and all that goes with.  Absolutely.  But you are a timebound meat-creature, so the ethereal glance towards Heaven is not something you are quite ready to sustain.  Your body and soul are inseparably glued together like a PB&J sandwich that’s been sitting on the dash of the car on a summer afternoon; therefore you must do things with your body now if you want to shine up your soul so it can embrace the beatific vision when the time comes.

Let us also acknowledge that if you are bitter, nasty, ungrateful wretch with seven mortal sins you commit before breakfast, you’ve got some rough work to blast through before getting to the fine-tuning.  Do please orient your Lent towards knocking off at least the most egregious outer layer so we can get to the deeper stuff in future years.

Furthermore, let us note that once the big crust of visible nastiness has been mostly brushed away, it’s possible that what we find inside is a festering wound of putrid moral ugliness.  In all likelihood you are so accustomed to the stench you don’t even notice.  Telltale Sign: You create complicated explanations about why your life doesn’t match the things Jesus says to do, but hey that’s okay!  It’s not okay.

Jesus came to save you from your sins, not to explain that drowning in the mire is just fine too.

Prayer, penance, and almsgiving are the physical tools God gives us, by His gift of unfathomable Grace, to help us not want to drown in the mire quite so much.

Prayer

Prayer takes many forms, but Not Praying isn’t one of them.

Please do not tell me that your work is your prayer.  No darling.  Your work is your work.  Your prayer is your prayer.  It may be that your state in life does not allow for the type of prayer you especially prefer or admire, but actual prayer is the thing we’re going for here.  Examples:

  • Prayerfully reading the day’s Mass readings.
  • Attending Mass and praying through it.
  • Adoring the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist.
  • Praying one of the hours of the Divine Office.
  • Prayerfully reading your Bible.
  • Praying the Rosary.  (Tips here.)
  • Praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
  • Praying the Jesus Prayer.
  • Praying some shorter (or longer) prayer that fits the occasion.
  • Setting aside a certain amount of time, alone and unbothered, to become aware of the presence of God and then converse with Him.
  • If you like to write: Prayerfully conversing with God via conversation with Him in a private journal.

There are other ways of course, but you get the idea.

You cannot pray all the prayers.  You must discern and choose.  I am well aware that there are times in life when your work or your vocation or your health does not allow you to pray as fully as you otherwise would.  But if you can read this post, you can definitely pray.

Penance

If you have big sins you’re trying to shed, penance can run two ways.  If your sin is something like using porn or committing slow suicide with your cigarette habit, then this particular Lent you might take on the “penance” of quitting that habit, stat.  It’s actually a gift to yourself, not a punishment, but such gifts can own you for a long while, and one can only do so much at a time.

On the other hand, if your persistent sin is something like wrath, or lust, or gluttony, there’s a point when cold turkey can’t happen.  Once you’ve eliminated the obvious don’t-or-die items, you’re left with a pile of wriggling worms of naughtiness that are constantly evading capture.  Fasting in its various forms, as well as acts of overt self-mortification (cold showers, for example), are the tools that fight sin and save lives.

Conveniently, if you take up such a penance you get a double-bonus: The miracles that are wrought by the combination of prayer and penance will flow both outward towards others and inward towards your soul.

Offering it up.  If your life comes with a significant built-in penance, then a reasonable Lenten resolution is to live out that God-ordained amount of suffering with a prayerful disposition.  This post was not for you, but there you go.

For those of you who are, in contrast, perfectly capable of additional acts of self-denial, don’t delude yourself.  You will not become a nicer person by resolving to be a nicer person.  You will become a more charitable person by training yourself, through self-denial, that it is not necessary to indulge your every whim.

Almsgiving

Sometimes people say, “Rather than giving up something for Lent, you can take up something for Lent.”  Certainly true, but if you are a slacker, you know very well how easily you can turn that observation into a shadow-play of Doing Nothing.

Slacker friends, let’s raise the bar one more: When you take on works of charity, don’t deceive yourself into Not Actually Giving.

If you have money to give, give it.  Give it freely and generously.  If you are the widow in the parable, this post was not for you.  This post is for those of you who so easily persuade yourself you are that widow, when really you’re the guy walking by the money box not even bothering to drop in a few coins.

Almsgiving is the triple whammy:

  • It is an act of self-denial, hence it works like a penance.
  • It teaches you to trust in God, because you are giving up your means of saving yourself.
  • It does some good for the recipient.

Most of us stink at it even more than we stink at fasting, and you know we pretty much stink at fasting, too.  If you are a person with significant wealth, you are far more likely to succeed at prayer and fasting than you are to succeed at almsgiving.

About those Poor People

Let me say a crazy thing, and you stay calm until you’ve read the details: Please don’t take on the works of mercy for Lent.  The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are your duty all year long.

It may well be that since you have no money to give, but you do have physical strength and free time, taking on one of the works of mercy will in fact be your best way of almsgiving.  Furthermore, taking on a work of mercy is often the necessary counterpart to a penance — if you don’t fill the void with something good, you’ll only go and fill it with a fresh vice.  Finally, if you are not currently practicing the works of mercy, or your life has changed so that you are now free to carry out works that were heretofore not open to you, please, take them on!

So it may in fact be best if you take up a work of mercy this Lent.  But slacker friends, do not say to yourself, “Oh yes, I feed the homeless every Lent!” or “Oh yes, I visit the sick every Advent!”  Love of neighbor is not a seasonal activity.  Take note of your spiritual gifts and the opportunities that your state in life allows, and do not shove off your portion of Christian charity on your fellow parishioners.

Chances are you stink at this even worse than you stink at prayer, penance, and almsgiving — and don’t even know it.  Love of neighbor flows from love of God.  Work on the Big Three this Lent, and the works of mercy should be the obvious fruit of your repentance and return to God.

File:Battistero 1.jpg

I searched Wikimedia for “camels” and came up with this.  More Lenten than you might think.  Giusto de’ Menabuoi – Re magi – Battistero del Duomo di Padova, fresco circa 1376 – 1378.

Top Three Things to Do for Lent

When you want to get something done, quit monkeying around.  For your Lenten to-do list:

  1. Prayer.
  2. Penance.
  3. Alsmgiving.

Don’t make it complicated.  These are the things that work.

IMG_0965
Ashtag from a previous year. At this writing I’m still festivating, thanks.

Related:

 

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.

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.

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.