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.

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

 

St. Thomas Becket, Pray for Us! (Post-Election Thoughts from Me & Other Smarter People)

When I saw this photo of President Obama and President-elect Trump shaking hands [click the link, it’s not public domain], this was my reaction:

They look like men shaking hands at a funeral.  And I mean that in a good way.

It is possible to undertake an unpleasant task with both seriousness and good grace.

Here’s another photo that is public domain, from the same meeting.  If President Obama can be cheerful, surely we can put off our gloom?

Obama meeting with Trump, both men in good humor
A more cheerful moment – as one also sees at funerals. By Jesusemen Oni / VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Erin Arlinghaus writes here about the difficulty of making the post-election adjustment after actively campaigning against Trump. Readers will recall that I was ardently 3rd party (Any party but these!! Please!) and wrote both here and at Patheos about why one should not vote for Donald Trump.  I have not changed my mind.

My initial reactions Wednesday morning were threefold, and fourth quickly followed:

  • I was astonished that Donald Trump had won.  Truly astonished.
  • I felt great relief knowing we would not, therefore, be experiencing a Clinton presidency.  I was surprised at how strong my sense of relief was, when I had essentially accepted that reality as what we were going to get.
  • I was consoled that at least we could now hope for a working fourth estate.  Please, ladies and gentlemen of the press, do your work.
  • I was pleasantly surprised by reports of the sobriety with which Mr. Trump transitioned into office-elect.

My thoughts immediately turned to another politician who did what was needful when the moment came:

It was just at this period that King Stephen died and the young monarch Henry II became unquestioned master of the kingdom. He took “Thomas of London”, as Becket was then most commonly called, for his chancellor, and in that office Thomas at the age of thirty-six became, with the possible exception of the justiciar, the most powerful subject in Henry’s wide dominions.

. . . Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and in the course of the next year Henry seems to have decided that it would be good policy to prepare the way for further schemes of reform by securing the advancement of his chancellor to the primacy.

. . . A great change took place in the saint’s way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practised secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected.

St. Thomas Becket proceeded to exasperate his friend the king at every turn by the unexpected seriousness with which he took on his new office.  That exasperation eventually led to the saint’s martyrdom.

Donald Trump could surprise us just as wonderfully.  Pray that he will — though without the martyrdom, Lord willing.

 

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The murder of Thomas Becket, from a manuscript circa 1200, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Related:

Brandon at Siris on the implications of protesting a free and fair election:

But the anti-Trump protests people are having in various cities are annoying me. Are they protests of specific voting injustices? No. The protesters are protesting voting itself. I have no sympathy whatsoever for this. It is, frankly, revolting, as if the United States were some tinpot fresh-from-dictatorship little country, without any sense of due process or the importance of elections, both essential to American honor. Good-faith negotiation is one of the key principles of a free society; and if you have a problem with the fact that you can be outvoted by people whose views are distant from your own, protesting the fact now is a sign that your participation in the election was not in good faith.

Jim Curley at Bethune Catholic as usual sums up what I do think (and when not that, what I *should* think):

In other words, (my interpretation), if we as a people live our lives correctly, the country will be taken care of, including having good choices at the ballot box.

 

What we had this year is the two major candidates who reflect who we are and how we live as a people. Think on that for a bit. Angry, immoral (or amoral), bigoted, sexually immature, animalistic, liars, and cheaters.

 

. . .  we will go a long way for the future of the country if we as citizens reform our own lives.

 

One other (final) point. I have gotten many emails throughout the election season saying I need to vote for Trump because this priest or that priest gave a homily or talk saying so. (“Hilary is evil, Trump is just bad”). The problem is that politics is mostly in the realm of the laity. We should follow guidelines on voting from the Church, but how to play the political game is the laity’s. So many people hid behind the cassocks of clergy to justify a vote for Trump. I still don’t believe there was any justification. I hope I am wrong.

And here’s what I said to my good friend and colleague Kathy Schiffer, who endorsed Trump (So wrong! But I love you anyway!), in discussing the election results:

One thing I *won’t* do is attack a politician for something that’s not actually happening.

It’s one thing to inform yourself in an election based on past behavior. But I won’t be slinging criticisms for the dark joy of it. If he wants my disapproval of his presidency, he’ll have to earn it 🙂.

May our president-elect marvel us with unexpected wisdom, diplomacy, and integrity.

***

My main response to the post-election riots and Calexit is in the form of a bit of satire over at Patheos.  It upset some people; if you don’t like dark humor, please read some other blogger. To keep abreast of my list of recommended reading, follow either my @JenFitz_Reads account on Twitter or the corresponding (and essentially identical) JenFitzWrites page on Facebook.  I nearly never converse at those locations, but I do feed a lot of interesting reading, both from my feed reader and links other people suggest.

For civilized conversation on all the dark and heated topics I cover on both blogs (and the odd pleasant topic as well), the place to look is my blog discussion group on Facebook. I am not always there, but if I’m active online, I look when in I can.  Readers are welcome to post non-spam links of interest and converse without me, that’s the point of the group.

You can find links to all these places in this blog’s sidebar.  If you turn off your ad-blocker, you can also find out who sponsors the Catholic Conspiracy and consider giving them a bit of your business this holiday season. We never post annoying pop-up ads, so it’s safe. The mix varies, but at this very moment the three sponsors showing are the Shrine of St. Anthony, Rugged Rosaries, and a service that provides profanity-free movies.  Thank you to these and all our supporters who keep this blog on the air!

50 Shades of Donald Trump

Among conservative Catholic Republicans on Facebook, there’s a meme being passed around that keeps ending up in front of people like myself and Scott Eric Alt, though neither of us can possibly be the intended target.  The argument is that the popularity of novels such as 50 Shades of Grey proves that women don’t, in fact, object to Donald Trump’s lewd behavior; any objections are political calculus.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss responds to another variation — same argument, different famous incident:

“But Bill Clinton…”

Oh yes. And I opposed him, and criticized him, at the time. Anyone else who did so must, in order to be morally consistent, do likewise with Trump. If you don’t, it just sends a message that you never really cared about sexual abuse of women, but were just appropriating morality in order to make your opposing team look bad.

Before my next sentence, let me reiterate: I do not think you should vote for Donald Trump.

Next sentence: There is some validity to the observation that Donald Trump’s lewd behavior is indeed representative of the American public at large.  I said so here.  This is a representative democracy, and our two candidates do in fact represent America.

Dear friends, if Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump represents you?  You can change that.

You can’t change the candidates, but you can change yourself.  You don’t have to be a person who winks at sin.  You don’t have to be a person who creates convoluted defenses of BDSM. You don’t have to be that person who justifies exposing kids to porn.

You can stop that now.  You do not have to be enslaved to the person you were yesterday.

***

Pro-life friends, another minute of politics: When people give sorry mealy-mouthed justifications for voting for a pro-abortion candidate by explaining that solving poverty or immigration or global warming will somehow fix abortion, those people are dangerously deluding themselves.  There exists a hierarchy of priorities, and cold-blooded murder is a far graver and more pressing issue than good roads or good tax policy.  When someone says I don’t like abortion but I’m voting for the person who advocates tirelessly for abortion, what I hear is: Actually, I’m fine with abortion.

I understand, therefore, the Republican Impulse.

I have grave reservations about Donald Trump’s sincerity on pro-life issues, however, because his life is one long series of promotions of the actual, real-live causes of abortion.

Food stamps don’t cause abortion.  Adultery? That causes abortion.

***

Quick aside on modesty.

When people like me talk about “modesty” we tend to hit a few topics related to girls’ clothing.  That matters, of course.  But for those who are trying to get their heads around about what immodesty looks like in someone who is neither female nor scantily-clad, Donald Trump is the poster boy.   He models immodesty not just with regards to sexuality, but also with regards to wealth, power, and personal accomplishments.  

It is easy to excuse his unseemly boastfulness by saying that he needs to prove his leadership potential or share his legitimate accomplishments with voters.  Not so.  It is possible to communicate one’s ability to lead without behaving immodestly.

Below in the links I include some examples of SC’s governor Nikki Haley in action, for other reasons.  But in her hurricane Matthew press conferences, she’s a vivid example of the counterpoint: A leader who is both a strong, decisive, competent leader, but who also conducts herself with modesty.

***

Link Round-up.  Here are all kinds of loosely related links.  At the bottom are a few of mine, but first here’s the pile I extracted from my reading list.

Timothy Scott Reeves, an evangelical Anglican philosopher with strong ortho-catholic leanings writes on our tendency to rely on chariots and horses instead of trusting in the Lord.

Simcha Fisher has an excellent piece on why consent alone is not sufficient.

Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse writes:

Many young conservatives have been disheartened to see the leaders of their movement endorse Donald Trump. I am one of the disheartened ones. Let me explain what these leaders taught me and why their endorsement of Trump betrays those principles.

Faithfully Catholic, orthodox, conservative Katie O’Keefe catalogs her series of encounters with so called “locker-room talk” sexual abuse, and how she learned from an early age that protesting was futile:

5 years old – In my own backyard. I was stopped by a man in a car in the alley behind my house who showed me “what (he had) in his pants” and then offered me the opportunity to put my mouth on it. I declined but never told anyone because I had no idea that it was anything but just gross. . . .

12 years old – On my paper route, I was collecting for the monthly bill. An old man who had been very kindly toward me and had several grandchildren that he looked after, grabbed my breasts (which were more impressive than they were when I was 8) and humped me. He told me I was a good girl and he’d take good care of me. I quit carrying papers that month. I never told anyone because I figured that no one would believe me. . . .

Father Longenecker has sensible, hard-nosed advice on what to do after the elections, which promise us four years of disaster no matter what.

And here is a short, heartening story on seminarians already following that advice.

Erin Arlinghaus writes about:

Mary Pezzulo writes about the bad news for feminism that will come with the election of our first female president.

To which end, here’s a refreshing antidote: Watch a conservative, pro-life female governor in action, successfully managing a natural disaster. I don’t know how long the SCETV archives will be up, so here’s a link to the governor’s YouTube channel where you can find most of the videos.

(Tip: If you skim ahead to the Q&A’s with the whole executive branch team, a few of the press conferences contain striking examples of the linguistic diversity among educated, standard-English speaking southerners.  And that’s just a beginning.  Armchair linguists, this place is a treasure trove.)

Here’s Meg Hunter-Kilmer saying what many of us are saying:

A friend of mine attempted to defend Trump by pointing to his daughter’s respect for him and saying that he must be a good father. I don’t care what she says. I don’t care how marvelous he was every single time he was with her. Owning strip clubs makes you a bad father. Being a serial adulterer makes you a bad father. Treating women like objects for your sexual gratification makes you a bad father. And it will make him a bad president.

To round out the reading, from a man who’s no slouch on Catholic faithfulness, Archbishop Chaput shares his thoughts on faithful citizenship:

But 2016 is a year in which two prominent Catholics – a sitting vice president, and the next vice presidential nominee of his party — both seem to publicly ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along.  And meanwhile, both candidates for the nation’s top residence, the White House, have astonishing flaws.

This is depressing and liberating at the same time.  Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become.  Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps.  I’ve been a registered independent for a long time and never more happily so than in this election season.  Both major candidates are – what’s the right word? so problematic – that neither is clearly better than the other.

And finally, a few links from my own archives:

Adultery is Not the Only Option: Five Things You Can Do to Keep Your Vows Intact

Here’s a patron saint for those who’ve fallen for the idea that Catholics need to be all sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

And to close, here’s my report from the field on how our Trump-Clinton society plays out among middle schoolers. In Sexual Bravado vs. Sexual Maturity, I share some of the real-world evidence parents like to ignore, then discuss the underlying issue:

In our popular culture, sex-status is the big thing.  The kids have learned from their parents that the purpose of sex is to gratify one’s desires, and that a girl’s worth is measured in sexiness.  The kids have adopted that philosophy wholesale. . . .

. . . Why is there such a market for teenage girls in a sleepy Bible Belt town, to the point that pimps are willing to risk kidnapping charges and worse in order to abduct upper class girls and sell them locally?

You can almost hear the eighth grade boys scoffing at those pathetic men who have to pay for what they can get the girls to give them for free.

There is no magic remedy that will guarantee your teens will live chastely and stay out of harm’s way. But you can be certain that if your understanding of human sexuality is all about the quest for gratification and sexual status, your children are going to learn that from you.

 

File:New York Primary 2016 (26517842356).jpg

Photo Collage by DonkeyHotey (New York Primary 2016) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Presidential Candidates, Internet Life, and the Company You Keep

The latest on Donald Trump’s lewd exploits have unleashed a flurry of “all guys talk that way” defenses from desperate supporters.  When it was Bill Clinton extorting sexual favors from interns, we heard roughly the same thing.

All men are not like this.

While every one of us sins, there are differences in behavior among persons.  That’s why some people can be trusted to watch your children, or your money, or your new car, and other people cannot be.

As voters, it is our job to be discerning.  The right sinner for the job is the order of the day, as I discussed on a different but related question of fallen men and women in positions of authority.

Here is a related fact: Not everyone on the internet is a pompous boor.  I have a fairly active presence on Facebook, and my friends list runs the gamut politically, religiously, and socially.  I have friends who, in this election, are posting strong political opinions that also happen to be terribly, terribly wrong.  (They feel the same way about me.)

I have friends on the internet who promote the products they sell to make cash on the side.  I have friends on the internet who post endless pictures of their crafts or their kids or their favorite inspiring-quote-du-jour.

None of these people are narcissists.  None of them are bent on stirring up drama.  All those horrible things you hear about, and perhaps experience, in social media relationships?  Not happening among my friends.

Another related fact: This doesn’t happen among my real-life friends either.

It isn’t because I live in some special protected bubble.  It isn’t because fairies and unicorns circle around me every day, keeping out the criminals and crazy people.  Real world nasty situations find me just the same as they find anyone else.

And yet I and other men and women I know manage, all the same, to avoid surrounding ourselves with toxic, dangerous people as a matter of course.

What’s the secret?

Refuse to cooperate.

That means you can’t be so concerned about your career that you’ll tolerate the lewdness of a Bill Clinton or a Donald Trump because you desperately hunger for the glamour or the promotion that comes with it.  When someone behaves badly towards you, that’s on them.  Your virtue will not deter someone determined to violate you.  But when you realize someone is a dangerous person, you can make choices about how to respond.

You can choose to resist and to avoid.  You can choose to cultivate an awareness of warning signs so that you are less likely (not guaranteed — just less likely) to be preyed upon in the future.

You can choose not to be friends on social media with that toxic drama queen.  When some guy thinks he’s got a right to grab your genitals?  You can show him what knees are for, thanks.

Yes, I said that.

I didn’t just say it, I’ve done it.  I don’t tell a lot of personal stories, but here’s one: I was staying with another family as a teenager, and the teenage son, same age as me, got the idea that he should to come to my bedroom and inform me he’d arrived for intercourse.  The tone was a little difficult to read — was he joking? He claimed afterwards he was.   But the words were not difficult to understand at all, rather unequivocal, so I kneed him in the groin.

(The fact that he was close enough to be on the receiving end of that response tells you a little more.  I didn’t have to disturb myself and cross the room to carry out the counter-offensive.)

He proceeded to get upset at me for doing that, and to inform me that I needed to be more careful, as such behavior on my part could cause serious injury.

Well, darling, that behavior on your part is what got you injured.

Another word was never said.  I’m sure I immediately garnered the reputation among our mutual friends as the resident prude.  I also never had another untoward advance during the time I was staying with that family.  Guess what?  My reputation was deserved and earned.  Call it prudery or call it clear communication, do not present yourself in my bedroom even jokingly soliciting sexual favors.

Nothing I did brought on that advance.

Whatever caused that young man to think he could get away with that behavior, it wasn’t me.  Not every intern who’s been groped by a Clinton or Trump was “asking for it.”  People who want to get away with deviant behavior aren’t sitting around wringing their hands waiting for an invitation.  You cannot control the fact that there are people like Trump out there in this world.

You can control whether you tolerate their behavior.

Your options may vary, but you can choose to use the ones you have.

There’s not always a quick, easy way to stop an aggressor.

You have to assess the situation and do the best you can.

But among your limited options, choose to resist in whatever way you can.

Don’t settle for excuses.

People who make themselves lists of the reasons they need to tolerate bad behavior are people who invite continued bad behavior.  Don’t act so shocked you’re surrounded by evil when you keep choosing to surround yourself with evil.

You do not have to cooperate with the people who want you to put a crude, immoral, inept candidate into office.

If your state’s ballot includes third party candidates, vote third party.  If there is no moral choice on the ballot, write-in a moral choice.

As a last resort, if your state offers neither of those options, protest by going to the polls and participating in all the elections that have moral options, and abstaining only from those races where there is no moral choice.  Follow-up by publicly voicing your opposition to the slate of candidates and pointing to the better options.

There Exist Decent People in the World

There are men who treat women decently.  There are women who stand up for the lives and rights of all women, even the very young ones. There are politicians who follow the law in all matters, and do their best to act in the interest of the public good.  There are principled men and women who would go into politics, or go farther into politics, if they knew they were wanted.

There are even unprincipled people who would back any likely winner, and so if they knew that what it took to win the power game was an honest candidate, they’d back an honest candidate.

Stop shutting up and putting up.  This year and every year, refuse to be screwed.

 

File:Stamp US 1977 2-cents Americana.jpg "Freedom to Speak Out - A Root of Democracy"

Image courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

Why Does the Ascension Matter?

File:AscensionofChrist2.jpg

This is my annual reminder of why we bother with all this Jesus business.  If you’re not in it for this, I’m not sure what you’re doing.  First ran at the Wine Dark Sea.

***

We think of atheists as the people who actively deny the existence of God, but there’s a much more pernicious and widespread atheism among religious people today: Faithy-ism. We talk about God, and do God-themed activities, but we don’t really mean it.  It’s all just a metaphor.  Our spirituality consists of our deeply felt emotions and our mental catalog of Good Things That Happen, wrapped up all pretty in a cellophane bag of inspirational poetry.

It’s a vapid illusion, but an understandable one.  When someone dies, what do we see?  Nothing.  To all appearances, the human soul is snuffed out.  We’re left with a decaying corpse and a collection of memories.  It’s hardly surprising if we conclude that “eternal life” must consist of little more than remembering the beloved family stories, combined with a reverent observation of how the well the oaks grow when their roots hit graveyard compost.

Want to find the world’s most diehard atheists? Pop into a parish and listen to the unscripted bits.  If the songs and sermons are mostly about the works of good Christians, and not so much about the worship of God, you’ve found your spot.

The Ascension is the punch in the shoulder to this religious atheism.

And his companions asked him, Lord, dost thou mean to restore the dominion to Israel here and now?

But he told them, It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. Enough for you, that the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will receive strength from him; you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and throughout Judaea, in Samaria, yes, and to the ends of the earth.

When he had said this, they saw him lifted up, and a cloud caught him away from their sight. And as they strained their eyes towards heaven, to watch his journey, all at once two men in white garments were standing at their side.

Men of Galilee, they said, why do you stand here looking heavenwards? He who has been taken from you into heaven, this same Jesus, will come back in the same fashion, just as you have watched him going into heaven.

(Acts 1: 6-11)

Here’s our Lord, fully man and fully God, body and soul united in one resurrected, eternally-enduring piece.  He appears among the disciples for forty days, cooking, eating, admonishing – all the things a person ought to do.  You can touch Him.  You can split a fish sandwich with Him.

And when He ascends into Heaven, He doesn’t just wisp away like the cheshire cat.  He doesn’t slip out the door and into the sunset.  There He goes, up into the sky towards eternity, and there’s no nitrogen-rich corpse left behind.  The body goes with.

That is our eternal destiny.  Why do we recoil against death?  Because we were made for something so much better.  So much cleaner.  So much more comprehensible.

And the clincher to the Ascension – and to the Assumption, and to the taking up of Elijah in the angelic chariot – is that we’ve got a handful of people who are waiting for us somewhere.  We’re not sure where.  But they’re out there.  The place beyond all places is a place.

Even as we sit here at our computers goofing off reading blogs, Our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and some debatable number of other humans are hanging out, body-n-soul, in a Heavenly place.  They’re in a place where they can be touched, with a hand like your hand.  They can breathe on you with breath like your breath.

Jesus isn’t just a warm feeling before we slip into eternal nothing.  Heaven is no abstraction.  It’s real. And we can go there.

Artwork: Benvenuto Tisi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My vote for Most Important Book of 2012

I just spent 3 days in the largest Catholic bookstore in the world.  I bought one book.  This is it:

Then I was stuck in an airport for five hours.  Perfect timing.

What it is:  Tiến Dương is a real guy about your age (born 1963) who is now a priest in the diocese of Charlotte, NC.  Deanna Klingel persuaded him to let her tell his story, and she worked with him over I-don’t-know-how-long to get it right.  Fr. Tien is a bit embarrassed to be singled out this way, because his story is no different from that of thousands upon thousands of his countryman.  But as Deanna pointed out, if you write, “X,000 people endured blah blah blah . . .” it’s boring.  Tell one story well, and you see by extension the story of 10,000 others.

The book is told like historical fiction, except that it’s non-fiction verified by the subject — unlike posthumous saints’ biographies, there’s no conjecture here.  It’s what happened.  The reading level is middle-grades and up, though some of the topics may be too mature for your middle-schooler.  (Among others, there is a passing reference to a rape/suicide.)  The drama is riveting, but the violence is told with just enough distance that you won’t have nightmares, but you will understand what happened — Deanna has a real talent for telling a bigger story by honing in on powerful but less-disturbing details.  Like, say, nearly drowning, twice; or crawling out of a refugee camp, and up the hill to the medical clinic.

–>  I’m going to talk about the writing style once, right now: There are about seven to ten paragraphs interspersed through the book that I think are not the strongest style the author could have chosen.  If I were the editor, I would have used a different expository method for those few.  Otherwise, the writing gets my 100% stamp of approval — clear, solid prose, page-turning action sequences, deft handling of a zillion difficult or personal topics.

Why “Most Important Book?”

This is a story that needs to be known.  It is the story of people in your town and in your parish, living with you, today.  And of course I’m an easy sell, because the books touches on some of my favorite topics, including but not limited to:

  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Diplomacy
  • Poverty
  • Immigration
  • Freedom of Religion
  • Freedom, Period
  • Refugee Camps
  • Cultural Clashes
  • Corruption
  • Goodness and Virtue
  • Faith
  • Priestly Vocations
  • Religious Vocations
  • Marriage and Family Life as a Vocation
  • Lying
  • Rape
  • Suicide
  • Generosity
  • Orphans
  • Welfare
  • Stinky Mud
  • Used Cars
  • Huggy vs. Not-Huggy

You get the idea.  There’s more.  Without a single moment of preaching.  Just an action-packed, readable story, well told.

Buy Bread Upon the Water by Deanna K. Klingel, published by St. Rafka press.

3.5 Time Outs: Real Things

Thanks once again to our host, the very patient Larry D. at Acts of the Apostasy.

Click and be amazed.

1.

Really Real:

I was going to continue my slacker non-blogging, but Potty Race pushed me over the edge.  I had no idea video games could be so . . . realistic. First time I’ve ever said that about something Barbie.

2.

Really useful:

Chickens eat fire ants and highway grass.  So basically, as long as they keep that up, the new arrivals have a home for life.

Dogs eat chicken feed.  Luckily, there’s plenty of highway grass and fire ants, so the chickens won’t starve.

3.

Really cool:

Grayson Highlands State Park is air-conditioned.  The entire mountain.   Truly wonderful — so pleasant I didn’t mind camping in the rain, because at least it wasn’t hot.   The ductwork must run underneath North Carolina, because I’m pretty sure the actual air-conditioning unit is located here in central SC, where it’s pumping a reliable jet of hot air, especially during peak hours.  It would be pretty easy to disguise a giant heat pump as an office building.  They look about the same.

3.5

Really interested in the will of God:

Please pray for a special intention, writing edition.  You’ll get the other half of this take as soon as I have good news to report.  Which there will be, the big question your prayers are directed towards are the who and the when.  Thanks!

***

And with that, I’m back to regular life.  Have a great week!

(And yes, you can post links.  I am, by the way, reading comments.  Oh, about once a week, but I am.  And trying to reply as well.)

3.5 Time Outs: Surprisingly Good

Thanks once again to our host, Larry D. at Acts of the Apostasy, always good, sometimes surprising.

Click and be amazed.

1.

My niece is here this week, so the topic ought to be Teenage Girls, but there’s not much to say.  Other than: They’re fun and interesting and get along great with younger cousins, and also they sleep late.  Which I don’t mind.

2.

But look, two good magazines:

One is the magazine of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and this was a pleasant surprise – sort of a Catholic National Geographic with a bit of the best of The Economist mixed in.  The articles are substantial, and cover the history and contemporary issues in the regions CENWA serves.  Not a light read — one of the articles this month is a history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, starting in the middle ages and detailing, regime by regime, the power plays and organizational shifts ever since.

PG warning: Though there are no graphic descriptions of the horrendous things that go on in these lands far away, difficult topics are named by name, no glossing over or glamorizing.

Highly recommended.*

Liguorian is the other end, intellectually, of Center-Catholic reading spectrum.  Like Reader’s Digest for Catholics, only without the edge.  Good all-purpose, inoffensive but unapologetically Catholic magazine, targeted towards your average man in the pew.  Encouraging and inspiring without being too in-your-face.   Gentle.  For your parishioners who aren’t quite ready for The Register or Catholic Answers.

3.

We brought home from the library the season one DVD’s of the HBO-BBC series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  I haven’t read the books.  But hey, what a cool show!  Yes it runs sappy, and yes, I think you ought to watch along with your kids and provide a little parental guidance on the moral issues.   But here’s what I love: Africa seen through the lense of the African middle class.  How refreshing to see AIDS, or the ivory trade, or child sacrifice and witchcraft, or polygamy, or marital infidelity — through the eyes of someone other than PBS, NPR, Bill Gates or George Bush.  And religion! Ha!  People who can be overtly Christian on TV!  Love it.

Moral note: The No. 1 Detective does not always resort to the police and the law for resolution to crimes uncovered.  The Anglo-Saxon concept of Weregild comes in handy.

3.5

Glow in the dark rocks. I’m not sure whether I’m succeeding as hostess to the 17-year-old.  I tried to explain that we don’t really do anything fun here, so it’s hard to think up activities.  But listen, no visit to the inferno is complete without a trip to the third floor of the

***

Well that’s all for today.  Tuesday is Link Day for all topics, help yourself if you are so inclined.  Limit yourself to one link per comment in order to avoid the spam dragon.  Have a great week!

*FYI – CENWA itself is a bit of a disaster to deal with for the small-time donor.  Nothing egregious, just your normal incompetence in the administrative offices in New York; the flurry of solicitations, set aside and kept dry for use in the paper-stove, could keep a small house warm all winter.  But the magazine is great.

About that picnic . . .

From the blog that’s Memorial Day all century long:

Early last week I got an e-mail from one of the Veterans Collaborative coordinators asking if I would be willing to speak to the staff of  her agency about Memorial Day.  One of their missions is to support military families and she had been surprised and a little horrified to find that many of her colleagues did not know the meaning of Memorial Day.

Read the whole post here.  And subscribe.  There’s always something excellent chez Lee Ann.

By Andrew Bossi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: Doctors of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI

The Doctors of the Church is my latest review book for The Catholic Company, and I’ll tell you up front why it’s taken me so long to get through it: Because it requires peace and quiet.

I don’t mean like holed-up-in-a-monastery-for-three-weeks peace ‘n quiet.  More like, “two to three paragraphs without interruption, and ideally as much as a page or more, all at once, before someone asks you how to spell a word, or where is the milk, or . . .” you know what I mean*.  I say this not to discourage the other housewives out there, but rather to encourage you to not give up just because it’s taking you a little longer than a Hardy Boys mystery, or whatever it is you other people read.

What it is: Pope Benedict did a series of talks at his weekly general audiences on each of the Doctors of the Church, and the text of those talks was put into book form.  (St. Peter Chrytologus is missing — there was no talk as yet at the time the book went to print.  But you get all the others.)  Each person gets his or her own chapter, and certain heavy-hitters have double- or triple-sized chapters if it took two or three sessions to cover the topic.

The focus of the talks is on the development of doctrine.  Sorry, no fun stories about St. Thomas Aquinas’s family’s colorful attempts to dissuade him from his vocation, or St. Therese’s heroic willingness to eat the peas and fake it that she liked them.  You get to be a Doctor of the Church due to your contribution to our understanding of the faith.  So that’s where the book focuses: What did this person contribute to our understanding of Christ and of salvation?  How did this person respond to the needs of his or her time, and re-present the faith in a way that was needed then, and that continues to be valuable today?

–> A brief biography opens each chapter, and there is enough information to give you a clear picture of the life and times of the individual.  There is relatively more biography for lesser-known saints.  If you don’t know the general St. Thomas Aquinas story, you aren’t ready for this book yet; but if you never can keep straight all your St. Cyrils and Gregories, the Holy Father has you covered, no worries.

What are the prerequisites?

Before reading this book, you need to:

  • Know the broad outline of Church history, and of course that means having a decent grasp of world history as well.
  • Be familiar with the who’s who of major saints.
  • Have a clear understanding of Church teaching.
  • Be comfortable with technical language at about the level of The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This one:

If that’s not you, be patient.  Come back to The Doctors later. Because the focus of the book is specifically on doctrine, and on the development of doctrine, this is a little harder of a book than some of the other collections by the Holy Father.

 

Who is this book for, and what good is it, anyway?  I recommend this book if you . . .

. . . Want an introduction to the topic of Development of Doctrine.  When read cover to cover, in sequence, this is an excellent first look at how the faith has blossomed over the centuries.

or

. . . Need a reference book on hand for all your Doctors of the Church needs. Great resource for catechists and others who need to quick know something intelligent about obscure-but-essential saints.  Each chapter stands on its own, and I found this to be very useful in preparing for class.

or

. . . You want a devotional that is built around reflections on theology and the lives of saints.  (Don’t laugh you Prayer of Jabez people, some of us like this stuff.)  You could either work through it a chapter at a time, or just have it on hand to browse at random when you need a little retreat into that happy place where you get to think about this stuff.

Verdict:  Well of course, it’s excellent.  If you are the target audience, there’s nothing else like it.  Worth the effort to work through it, not because then you’ll get to sit with the cool kids (though you will), but because even if the distractions of your vocation mean you can’t read through it quickly, it’s very meaty and satisfying.  A sure preventative against brain rot, and not so bad for your soul, either.  Great book.

***

Thanks again to the kind people at the Catholic Company, who would like me to tell you that not only do they do a work of mercy providing good books for bloggers in exchange for nothing other than an honest review,  they are also a great source for a baptism gifts or first communion gifts.

*No family members were injured in the writing of this post.