Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

So the US Bishops have assembled again, and following a hot tip I watched the session with Bishop Barron’s report on evangelization.  You can view the whole thing here.

It is worth watching if you have the time.  I started jotting down a few of Bishop Barron’s points on post-it notes for reference as the new book goes into final edits in December, and ended up annotating the whole transcript instead.   [FYI for those tempted to create snarky hierarchy-themed bingo boards, ahem, YouTube’s auto-generated captions and transcript do some fascinating things with the words ad limina.]

There were many valuable points raised, but the one I want to talk about now occurs around the 46-minutes mark. Bishop Daniel Conlon raises the question of evangelization versus catechesis. In his comments and Bishop Barron’s reply, a thorny problem for catechists is discussed: How do we both provide the rigorous catechesis that young people need (discussed extensively earlier in the presentation), and evangelize the barely-Catholic youth in our parishes?

As the bishops’ review of the state of evangelization rightly points out, it is no good throwing a pile of commands and directions at someone who is still asking basic questions about life, the universe, and everything. But at the same time, for the young person (or older person) who has largely accepted the Catholic faith, and in a different but crucial way for the young person whose mode of grappling with the faith is headily intellectual, the hunger for theology is a survival drive.  Serious examination of the faith for some young people is life-saving nourishment.

And yet that same theologically-intensive approach to the faith would absolutely drown a different kid also sitting in the circle at the youth group ice-breaker.

So what do you do?

The present solution — parish food fight, and last man standing gets to organize the youth program along his or her favorite lines — is not a good solution.  It’s not just a bad idea because yelling at your pastor is poor form (so I’ve been told, more than once), but also because “young people” are not a homogenous lump of catechetical tumor.

The young people who attend your parish are not identical to one another.  They have differing academic abilities, differing faith backgrounds, and differing spiritual needs.

Imagine if pediatricians organized conferences where they attempted to hash out a single mode of treatment for every child. Imagine showing up at your child’s doctor’s office, and the appointment went like this:

Parent: My kid has a badly swollen knee.  It started about three weeks ago.

Doctor, nodding gravely: Ah yes.  I see.  You will definitely want to start our regimen of asthma treatments.  It’s a shame you didn’t come in sooner, but it’s not too late.

Parent: I don’t think you understand.  It’s the knee.

Kid: My knee really hurts.  I can’t play soccer anymore.

Doctor: Yes!  It’s impossible to play soccer if you can’t breathe well!  What we need you to do is come in once a week for breathing treatments.

Kid: I can breath just fine.  I don’t need breathing treatments.  It’s my knee that hurts.

Doctor: Well, it never hurts to improve your breathing.  Many children have undiagnosed asthma, and so it’s important that we focus on making sure you can breathe well first.  When you’re older there will be plenty of time to look into your knee, if that’s important to you.

Parent: But if we don’t treat the knee, isn’t my child likely to get out of shape and have a worse time keeping up?

Doctor: Yes.  Exercise is so important!  That’s why we require all patients to receive weekly breathing treatments, to make sure they can exercise well.

Parent: I don’t think that we want to do the weekly breathing treatments.  We’re looking to understand why the knee is swollen.

Doctor: I’m sorry.  With an attitude like that, obviously your child is not going to get any better.  In all my years of medical practice, I’ve found that if we don’t require breathing treatments, children with undiagnosed asthma can get seriously ill, and even die.  I’m concerned you don’t take your child’s health seriously.

Parent: Could you refer us to a knee specialist, perhaps?

Doctor: Of course!  After you child finishes college, it might be possible to find a doctor’s office with a knee program. Though honestly, most Singles Doctors and Young Adult Doctors don’t do knees.  We did have an OB-GYN who treated a sprained ankle once, though.  Knees are more likely to come up in the Seniors treatment center.

Kid: I hate doctor’s offices.  Last year I had to spend six weeks in a cast because four of the kids in our treatment group had broken wrists.

Doctor: Oh yes.  I’m so glad your group was treated for that! Many children hurt their wrists skating or climbing trees.  In any case, I doubt it’s your knee.  We have extensive research showing that breathing treatments are far more effective at keeping young people in your grade alive and healthy.  Let’s just go ahead and sign you up, and you can give it a try, and I think if you have a good attitude it will work wonders for you.  Remember, you only get out of treatment as much as you put in, right?  Big smile for me, okay?

Disaster.  But before you lay into the “doctor” in this situation, keep in mind the doctor is only doing what we’ve asked. We’ve spent generations now commanding youth ministers and faith formation directors to develop a single program that somehow effectively treats every patient in the pediatric hospital for sinners — and then we heap on the blame when an overworked, underpaid staff member isn’t able to magically cure all the youth of the parish in that sacred hour a week of instructional time.

There’s an alternative to this approach, and your pediatrician is already doing it, and interestingly it’s the same thing the Church prescribes: Parents as primary educators, passing on the faith in the domestic church.

What would happen if we abandoned the orphanage-model of faith formation and operated the hospital for sinners more like a good doctor’s office?

We’d quit scolding and start educating parents.   When public health professionals notice parents aren’t getting their kids treated, they don’t rely on general admonitions to “Take your child’s health more seriously!”  At my doctor’s office there are posters on the wall and racks of pamphlets explaining common medical problems, and signs to look for, and treatments to pursue.  Does your parish educate parents on the common spiritual illnesses of youth, and how to prevent and treat them?

We’d give parents realistic ideas for how to educate their children in the faith, and expect them to follow-through. At the annual well-visit, the nurse runs through a list of age-appropriate potential concerns.  The advice that goes with is concrete.  Not a vague: Are you protecting your child from head injuries? but Does your child wear a helmet when bike riding?  The best doctors take into account the family’s resources and limitations, and the child’s true needs, and work with parents to find solutions when, say, the kid won’t eat fruits and vegetables, or constantly unbuckles in the car. [Duct tape? Not kidding.]  Parents usually will rise to expectations if the medical team can find a solution that the parent can reasonably hope to carry out.

We’d focus heavily on helping parents instill everyday spiritual health habits, but train parish staff in the diagnosis and treatment of serious problems.  Our pediatrician is an excellent cook as it happens . . . but it’s not her job to feed our family.  That’s my job.  Do I sometimes slack on that job?  You bet.  But even on days when my kids have popcorn and ice cream for dinner, it’s better that our doctor focus her time on becoming as knowledgeable as she can on detecting and treating (either herself or via referral) the serious problems.  Most appointments will end up with our doctor prescribing a simple course of treatment at home; every now and then, one of the kids will need more advanced care.

What would happen if we didn’t divide-and-conquer this way?  I’d probably have a dead kid, thanks for asking.  My pediatrician would be so bogged down with the weight of attempting to somehow feed our family a balanced diet (and do it in one weekly dinner twenty-five nights a year) that she’d never have the time and energy to stay current in her specialty and schedule one-on-one appointments.  She’d never have discovered, in a routine five-minute check-up before a vaccine, the thing that could have killed my child.  But because she specializes in treating the hard stuff, and leaves the day-to-day to me, when we need her expertise, she’s able to give it.

But the parents are neglectful! We lament.  Well, yes.  The parents are dropping like flies themselves, and Bishop Barron’s presentation addresses that.  You can’t care for someone else when you yourself are dead.

Build Better Orphanages! is not the solution to the spiritual death of the adults in the congregation.  You cannot bypass the parents.  There are not enough youth ministers in the world, and never will be, because that is not God’s plan for the human family.  Evangelize the parents, catechize the parents, and deploy the parents to do likewise for their children.

This is a constant, all-at-once process.  Our pediatrician is effective because she assumes the goodwill of parents.  We parents might know nothing at all about medicine, but we do love our kids.  That’s all she needs for a start.  If a parent is coming to your parish, that parent is ripe for the Good News.  Who doesn’t want eternal life for themselves and their children, if only they know it’s attainable?

The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You

Here, enjoy this book cover.  I am. Last round of edits starts in December, speak up at the blog discussion group if you have any final requests.

Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???

If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department.  Change is hard.  Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.

And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem:  What the heck is Confirmation???

For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament.  A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s).  My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.

(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.”  It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements.  If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things.  But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)

For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.

Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community.  If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant.  If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation.  Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.

Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service.  They are sacraments that commission a vocation.  While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.

What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is.  We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service.  We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.

This is not what the sacrament is.  Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation.  Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine.  We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills.  You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.

Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit.  Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.

Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication.  You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities!  Show yourself able and worthy!  To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!

This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest.  Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ.  First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received.  Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.

Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?

File:Brooklyn Museum - God the Father with Four Angels and the Dove of the Holy Spirit - Giovanni Francesco da Rimini.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Towards an Authentic Spirituality of Confirmation

I wrote to the DRE at the start of the school year, explaining that my teen wanted to be confirmed but that I was in the middle of a new job that was requiring 70-80 hour work weeks, so I really *could not* be the hand-holding parent going to a bazillion meetings and all that.  I requested that the parish come up with a formation program my teen could complete without parent attendance, and what with it being she, not I, getting confirmed, it seemed reasonable.

Despite the steady nagging of teens to become “adults in the faith,” the parish struggled intensely with the idea of working directly with a teenager.  I can get this, because I work directly with young persons, so I know that they are not universally organized and conscientious.   Teaching children to become adults requires risk-taking and persistence.  DRE’s thus tend to have an Augustinian wish: Give these teens responsibility, oh Lord, but not yet.

***

Over at the Register, Jason Craig writes “Why Confirmation is Not a Mere Rite of Passage.”  I give it a hearty amen in part because  I have shown up to a couple parent Confirmation-prep things lately, and apparently the indoctrination at religious ed on the “becoming an adult in the faith” is so strong that when I whispered to my teen a corrective to the presenter’s assertion that the sacrament of Confirmation was about you as a teen confirming you wanted to be Catholic, she whispered back, surprised, “It’s not??” I let the deacon feel my ire.  The mother is not amused by pseudo-theology.

The mother is, however, grateful.  If you’re going to lay into the parish staff for their irresponsibility, you have to be willing to do the work to offer something better.  We came home from that dreadful formation meeting with a challenge: What is the point of Confirmation?  It’s all well and good to say it gives you the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but what does that mean?  How is it different from Baptism and the Eucharist?

A few days contemplation bore much fruit.  My husband and I, and hopefully the kids as well, found ourselves moved very deeply as we considered with awe the reality of this sacrament which, described imprecisely, is for your relationship with the Holy Spirit what the Eucharist is for your relationship with Jesus Christ.  That intimate union, that indwelling, that receiving of life . . . to speak of the action of the Trinity is risk material heresy, but whoa!  You want to shake a few shoulders and shout at the bishop with his well-meaning video for teens DO YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS YOU ARE FAILING TO TELL THESE KIDS?!!  Tithing and church service are great, and yeah I’d like more priests too (though I want to find out if there’s a trustworthy seminary first), but seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, guys!  Confirmation is one of the seven great mystical things, and you are missing out terribly if you think it is just a glorified membership drive.

Fortunately, the sacrament doesn’t wear off.  Even if your parish has hidden the glory of the Holy Spirit under the table cloth of mandatory service hours, and your teen’s formation program consists of Catholic-brand career-counseling, God in His humility is waiting, like the preschooler behind the door calling out “I’m hiding come find me!”  Ignore the distractions.  Go into the quiet room where God dwells and find Him there.  He wants to live in you.  He wants to make you His home.  He wants to make His life your life.  You were made for this.

***
The children are taught to list the Gifts of the Holy Spirit when asked what it is they receive at Confirmation.  You’re supposed to say that, instead of “Green light for my quince,”  or “To get my parents off my back,” when they ask why you want to be confirmed.  There’s an awful lot of talking about the gifts, and using the gifts, and of course you had to work hard attending classes and doing service projects and writing papers in order to be allowed to have the gifts.

It is so much noise.  Blather.  Idiocy.  Too smart for your own good.  Ditch the growing-up talk, because it is a childlike faith that our Lord requests.  Children, unsophisticated, believing, accepting, are unafraid to ask for what Confirmation is: I want the Power of God to live inside me.

That’s more than enough.

File:A Taraxacum Ruderalia dandelion clock.jpg

Photo by Richard Bartz courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 2.5.

Why Kids Like Sports Better than Religious Ed

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

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

Kids Want to Do Hard Things

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

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

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

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

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

Kids Want to Be Themselves

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

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

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

Kids Want Competence

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

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

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

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

Children Have Bodies

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

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

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

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

Kids Have Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

File:Youth-soccer-indiana.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

The #2 Thing Anyone Can Do to Help the Church

There are two myth-making forces at work in the McCarrick scandals.  One is denial.  Clinging to the idea that there are a few bad apples, and they are just so very sneaky and that’s why they got away with their crimes.

The other myth is that the good guys can fix this.  We imagine we can run over to Costco and pick up the plenty-pack of Accountability Spray, and with enough elbow grease the house will be squeaky clean again.  Everyone pitch in!

If the Church is a house, myth #1 is that the fridge is a disaster and needs to hauled to be the dump, can’t decide whether to fumigate the couch in the den or just burn it, and let’s rip out that musty carpet in the back bedroom — then everything will be fine again.  A few cobwebs and a squeaky staircase?  Typical old house.  Relax.

Myth #2 is that sure, we belong on an episode of Hoarders, but if we call in the team we can all work together until the junk has been cleared out and the walls and floors are all scrubbed down.

That’s not what we have.  What we have is extensive rot in load-bearing walls.

What does the rot look like?  It looks like this comment from the fabled orthodoxy-wonderland Diocese of Lincoln:

I’m glad someone has finally spoken about this.  A fellow-seminarian (now-priest) and I were tormenetd by MK’s [Msgr Kalin] behaviors for a long while.  Our experience was part of what led +Fabian to order that at least 2 people accompany MK on the stadium walks.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

What was happening is that Msgr. Kalin, who was both diocesan director of vocations and director of the University of Nebraska Newman Center, was molesting his students.  The former student explains:

Since you seem to be afraid to read between the lines, I will state it plainly: repeatedly asking to touch and be touched in inappropriate places, asking for “French kisses”, and doing these actions without being given permission — to say nothing of the entire grooming process by which these actions/gestures were normalized.  I finally said something after my friend walked into the chapel literally *shaking* after one of these episodes, because until then, I thought it was just me.  It was at that point I woke up to how twisted the whole situation was and had been for some time.  Now, think about the fact that this is coming from the person who made himself your confessor and spiritual director.

UPDATE: Here is an account of Wan Wei Hsien’s experience that provides a clearer timeline of events.

This is the same Msgr. Kalin who was the picture of a balanced commitment to priestly chastity in an interview for American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church:

When I asked Kalin about homosexuality, he said, “I get to know a candidate pretty well before I recommend him to the seminary, and if I think someone is an active homosexual, I’ll take him aside and we’ll agree that the priesthood isn’t for him.  On the other hand, Bishop Flavin always said that he didn’t care what someone’s inclinations were, as long as he was sincerely committed to a chaste life.”

American Catholic by Charles Morris, p. 387

Predators cover their tracks.

A healthy, sane person would react to such betrayal with shock, despair, and disbelief.   If the lone-predator myth were true,  then when Msgr. Kalin’s deception was uncovered, a clear-thinking supervisor would do a thorough investigation and either exonerate the accused or determine the man was not competent for ministry.

What was bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s solution to this problem?  Require seminarians to only visit their director in pairs.

That’s right: The bishop understands that the director of seminarians can’t be trusted alone in the room with a seminarian . . . but he still thinks the man is competent to direct the formation of the diocese’s future priests?

This is the behavior of people in abusive relationships.

***

Here’s an interesting article in that it shows you the shiny veneer of a dysfunctional family.  Compare the key players in that happy vocations story to the names in Rod Dreher’s efforts to dig out the facts on the Kalin case (quoted above).  Gives you pause for thought.

***

People in abusive or dysfunctional relationships behave in insane ways.  There is constant blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and generating of excuses and distractions to cover over the real problems.  Anyone who tries to speak reason or point out real problems becomes the enemy.  The status quo must be preserved.  Everyone tied up in the abusive relationship has somehow come to believe that their safety is threatened if anything disrupts their twisted, tormented way of life.

So seminarians are sent to see their director in pairs.

A generation of priests in one of the most boomingly orthodox dioceses in the nation were formed by a notorious lecher who was left in office after his crimes were known to the bishop.

That’s not about McCarrick.  That’s about Bruskewitz.  Different theology, different politics, different dioceses . . . same problem.  All across the nation and around the world, whitewashed pillars of the church are decayed to the core with this rot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

***

I and others who have been writing about the McCarrick fallout get letters from church-workers, clergy and laity alike.  We get thanked for our open, outspoken coverage of the bishops’ failure of leadership.  And invariably there’s a coda: “I can’t say anything myself.  I have to be careful.”

Yes, I know about that.  I know about being pushed out of a parish ministry because I held someone accountable for a gross failure of common sense where child safety policies were concerned.  I know about silence and “discretion” that involves never, ever, speaking up with plain answers.  I know about people accused of sexual crimes against children threatening lawsuits if you share public information about the status of their legal case . . . even as they are in the process of inviting your own children to their home.

I know about that.

***

I also know that things are complicated.  I know that false accusations happen.  I’ve been the key witness in a case defending an innocent man against an egregious and absolutely fabricated, revenge-motivated accusation.  I know that decent people get overwhelmed in difficult situations, and we don’t always handle the moment in the best way.  I know that sometimes you are under the gun and you do something really dumb, and you regret it later, and you resolve to never do it again.  I know that sometimes you examine a situation carefully, and you still come to the wrong conclusion about the best way to handle it.  I know that sometimes you just don’t understand how serious a situation is, and you don’t treat it with the gravity it deserves.  Stupid happens.  It happens to all of us.

***

Here’s the difference between stupid and dysfunctional:  Healthy people don’t build their lives around defending and perpetuating stupid.

***

So what can anyone, in any state of life, do in response to the rot of abuse and dysfunction in our Church?

Of course #1 is to fast and pray.  You know that.  You don’t need a blog post about it.

The response that hurts is #2: You have to act like a healthy person.  You have to refuse to be part of the cycle of dysfunction and abuse.

The only way for the Body of Christ to be healthy is for members of that Body to be healthy.  The gangrene stops here.

***

That’s not fun.  It gets ugly fast, because the dysfunctional people will pull out every weapon they have to fight your insistence on sane behavior.  You can expect lying, evading, shunning . . . the works.

What does it mean in parish life?  It means you might not have much of a parish life.  It means that you might become the persona non grata, because you refuse to play along and pretend everything is fine.  It means you or a family member might be denied the sacraments.

***

Oh no!  In that case—

Think about it.  You’re afraid that if you refuse to sin, and if you refuse to be party to perpetuating sin . . . you’ll be cut off from the grace of God?

That’s not how God works.

How God works is that He rewards His prophets by having them thrown into a cistern.  He rewards His son’s obedience with the Cross.  But His grace is right there the whole time.

File:Dome Cappella Chigi from inside, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Praying for Terrible Bishops

Up at the Register: How to Be Catholic When Your Bishops Are Not.  I am not gentle in this one.  A faith that depends on eyes-half-shut and pretending all is well in the Holy Catholic Church will not withstand the present onslaught, unless you’re extremely expert at lying to yourself.  I don’t think lying to yourself is a good option.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about praying for your bishop.  Here’s a thing to understand:  Your bishop was chosen for his cowardice.

Perhaps over the years you have wondered why your bishop seemed unable to accomplish much of anything.  You might have wondered why every statement out of the diocese was more watered-down than a glass of ice cubes on a summer afternoon.  You might have wondered why your parish and diocesan leaders seemed to find the clear and certain teachings of the Catholic faith just. so. difficult. to. praaaaactiiiiiiiiice.

Now we know.  It turns out that in the eyes of the Church’s top leaders, fecklessness in a bishop is not a bug but a feature.

With Cardinals like McCarrick at the helm, it’s a miracle the clergy accomplish anything at all.

Well, God can use that.

Because you know how God shows off? By doing His work through the crappiest instruments He can get.*

Are you a terrible person?  Then God can use you.  You can pray things like, “Lord, I am almost as wretched as my faithless, weak-kneed toad of a bishop, and so I know what dreadful danger he and I both face.  Indeed, were I in his shoes, I might be even worse than he.  After all, Satan hates bishops even more than he hates me.  Under full attack from the enemy, I’m not sure I’d last half an hour.  So if you could somehow spare us both from eternal damnation, and maybe even accomplish a few miraculous acts of virtue through us, I’d be most appreciative.”

Alternately, if you aren’t already praying from the Liturgy of the Hours, give it a look.  A sample from this morning:

Lord, listen to my prayer:
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.
Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.

The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.
Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.

I remember the days that are past:
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.
Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.

Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will
for you, O Lord, are my God.
Let your good spirit guide me
in ways that are level and smooth.

For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life;
in your justice save my soul from distress.

Chicken Soup it is not.

***

Editing notes on the Register piece:

  • If I could do it over, I’d write “feckless simpering” instead of “simpering fecklessly.”  Sometimes we aren’t perfectly concise in our haste.
  • I regret that I did not write myself out a list of synonyms for the word “putrid,” as it occurred to me I should.  I woke up this morning with the stark realization that I had missed quite a few.

Well, that’s how it goes sometimes.  We live to write another day.

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain.  Bouguereau, I had know idea you had this in you!

 

*Hence the existence of bloggers.

 

Nature Builds on Grace

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What Doesn’t Protect the Church

I’ve been writing about the allegations of sexual molestation against Cardinal McCarrick over at Patheos:

Soldiers for Christ Hiding Under the Bed is about the connection between covering up for sexual predators and the inability of the Church to be an effective witness to wider society.  Not a surprising connection, but one that needs to be made.

Promiscuous vs. Predatory: How to Tell the Difference is a response to the suggestion that McCarrick was guilty of simple sexual immaturity, not predatory molestation and sexual harassment.  It contains links to my growing collection of essays related to the topic of abuse in the Church.

Rod Dreher has been covering this topic as well, from the point of view of a journalist who investigated McCarrick in the past, but was unable to pull together a story he could break.  In Uncle Ted & The Grand Inquisitor, he shares a disturbing comment he received from a reader:

We MUST protect our brand, our shield, our faith!

I fully support Pope Francis and his softened tone, and even swipes at capitalism because the media love him. And image is everything.   Similarly with Cardinal Dolan, I will fight to the death to defend him, and would go to extreme lengths to protect him because he is so well liked in the leftist NYC media.

In short, we must handle these issues swiftly, legally, but privately!  As a successful advertising executive in NYC I am looked up like an alien because I am a weekly mass attender, and a conservative. I am respected by my liberal media friends because I loathe the Trump-Palin-Brietbart wing of my party, and trumpet my cause in a more Bill Buckley.

Image is everything, and when it comes to the One True Church we MUST protect her!

Dreher’s reader is wrong.

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about fighting the Church’s enemies:

11 Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. 13 Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. 14 So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, 15 and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:11-16

What are our weapons?  Truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God.

Covering up for sexual predators does not fit on that list.

If the allegations against Cardinal McCarrick are true, the man should have been removed from pastoral ministry decades ago.  By all means, when you see a priest, or anyone, doing what they ought not be doing, if no laws are being broken, begin by confronting the sinner privately.  We all sin.  Would that we were all given the chance to quietly confront our own failings and rectify them.

But when you have evidence of decades of predatory behavior, with untold hundreds of clerics at every level of the hierarchy complicit in silence and cover-up, and how many lives of young men ruined by the crimes inflicted upon them . . . there is no quietly cleaning this up.  “Discretion” does nothing to help the Church.  There is a time for genuine public penance, and now is that time.

Dreher’s reader is correct: the Church’s image matters. But when we hide behind some limp notion of “handling things privately,” the rot festers.  No one is fooled.  The public rightly views us as hypocrites of the worst sort.

So let us instead make the Bride of Christ holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before Christ.  That image, and that image alone, is the one for which we should strive.

File:Vincent van Gogh - The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet - Google Art Project.jpg

Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Raising Catholic Teens, Rough Cut Version

So I have this artist who lives at my house and makes Bible verse paintings.

 

The one she hung in the bathroom is . . . topical:

So that’s all good.  We’re keeping Hobby Lobby in business with our canvas-buying habits, even more so since I just gave her a new commission: I need John 20:22-23 on the wall, stat.

What happened is my 13-year-old came home yesterday and told me about an apologetics argument she’d gotten into with a grown-up who wasn’t too keen on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  She gave it her best, but she’s not a hardened veteran like her older brother is, and plus she was one-on-one.  We talked about some different ways to charitably approach the topic, and then I went to the living room and moved the dog bed and the cedar chest and pushed back the couch until I could fish out our New Catholic Answer Biblewhich we don’t ordinarily store under the couch, but I had seen it there when I was laying on the living room rug and I’d forgotten to rescue it then, so it was ready and waiting.  I left the sock and the plastic Easter egg for another time.

I couldn’t give her the actual citation, I just knew the verse was at the end of one of the Gospels since the moment occurred post-resurrection, so I sent her to check all the ends of the Gospels, but then I needed to go do carpool so I quick looked up the verse on Bible Gateway via keyword so that I didn’t leave her hanging.  I also handed her over my Precise Parallel New Testament, and explained that it was important to look up the verse in several translations so you don’t get blindsided if the person you are arguing with has another translation that phrases things differently.

“When in doubt,” I told her, “most Protestants will accept the KJV, so always check that.”

She did check the KJV, and noticed the use of the word ye.  I explained that meant Jesus was speaking to the group of apostles, not just one person, because ye is plural.  “The KJV is great for apologetics, actually, because you can point out the thou whenever Jesus is only speaking to one apostle.”

“Like ‘upon this rock I will build my Church,'” she said.  Yep, that’s my kid.  And that verse will be commission #2.

So this morning in the car on the way to school I quizzed her on what Bible passage shows Jesus giving the apostles the power to forgive sins, and she nailed it.  Probably I’m the only one who needs the art on the walls.  Also, she observed it must have been pretty weird for Peter getting a new name like Rock.  “Think about going around and everyone’s calling you ‘Rock’,” she said.

Yep.

So I’m proud of that kid, but here’s the thing: Just because you are growing up in a house with Bible verses on the walls doesn’t mean everything is swell in your little Catholic bubble.  And that’s why, when my eldest daughter came home the other night and was talking about her frustration with the Church, I decided I needed to write about it.

The things she had to say are things I hear from a lot of adults, too.  What she has to say are things that some people like to dismiss, but I showed my daughter the number shares we’ve already gotten, and that tells me and her that she’s not alone.   There are a lot of people out there like my daughter, people who want to be Catholic, but it’s not going so well. You can read about it at the Register: “What Good Catholic Teens Want from the Church”

When You’re Failing at Lent

Here’s an actual thing I prayed Sunday morning at Mass: “Jesus, please help me stop failing at Lent.”

I wouldn’t say I’m a pro at Lent any year, but this year is hitting new lows in the spectacular failure department.  One of the particularly depressing features is that things I used to be good at in previous years — this prayer routine, that bit of self-denial, those important tasks — I’m not hitting them like the imaginary composite “perfect Jennifer” does in my head.  Pick the best Jennifer features selected over 30 years of Lents, feasts, and ordinary times, mash her together into a collage called “You Should Be Able To Do This No Sweat,” and then stand back and despair.

That’s not the point of Lent.

For those of us on the Lent Failure Track, this is the point: Discover again how much you need God.

Hidden Years in the Spiritual Life

Over the last week I’ve been proofing the paperback version of the new book.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book walks you through an examination of your life with respect to the four ways of loving God — heart, soul, mind, and strength. (There’s a review here — thanks Patrice!)  So here it is Lent and I’ve written this great retreat that is ideal for use during Lent, and I’m thinking to myself: If there is one thing Jennifer does not need to be doing right now, it is this retreat.

I have been thinking because my life is already very full, and I don’t need to think up new things.

But I’ve been proofreading the paperback version, and as a result I sort of ended up doing an abridged version of the retreat in my brain.  The abridged version consisted of me noticing select passages that scream JENNIFER LISTEN TO THIS!!!! and then me getting an extremely clear idea, after reading all the words in the book, of exactly what it is I need to be working on in my relationship with God right now.

What I need to be working on is not glamorous.  God asks us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and some corners of those four parts of ourselves are not impressive.  I don’t think, “Wow, I would be SO HOLY if only I worked on _[thing that needs attention]_.”  Foundational issues don’t amaze.  It’s like a building.  The bulk of the technical genius is hidden from sight.

The Things You’ll Miss If You Don’t Have Them

Yesterday was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon around here, perfect for getting out for a bike ride or a walk in the woods or doing something fun with the kids.  Instead, the Superhusband spent his few hours of time off work replacing the toilet in the kids’ bathroom.

He could have gone out and done some Dad-activity that was easy for everyone to appreciate.  If you’re the dad playing soccer at the park or pitching balls, everyone’s like, “Wow! What a great dad!”  Replacing the toilet is like, “Wow!  Look where the toilet used to be!  It’s another toilet!”  You do all that work and there isn’t much to show, because that work is an investment in nothing happening in the future.  You’ll know the new toilet was worth it because: Nothing.  There’ll be a lack of toilet-related drama and that’s it.

Lent-Lite

That’s what it’s like in Remedial Lent.  Lent is falling apart because you need to make some adjustments.  A good penance will bore and annoy you, but it works.  You suffer a little, but mostly you just suck it up and do fine.  When you’re failing at Lent, something needs to change.  Probably something you don’t really feel like working on, because if you felt like working on it, you would have dealt with it from the outset.

So God is good, and He lets you try your thing.  And then you start failing at Lent, and when you finally break down and beg for help, God reminds you of the other thing.  The more important thing.   You can’t believe it’s the more important thing, because surely something as small as that, or as ugly as that, or as intrusive as that, isn’t what Lent is all about, right?  But you were failing at Lent.  It’s because God needs you to work on loving Him in this other area you’d rather not.

When you decide to give your whole self to God, you have to give the not-so-shiny parts too.

 

File:Jeremias-de-Decker-Jacob-Aertsz-Colom-J-de-Deckers-Gedichten MGG 0570.tif

Artwork: Christ in the Garden, Jeremias de Decker, 1656.  Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].