Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle. The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.
You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.
You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.
Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:
FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming. After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I accepted a review copy of At Play in God’s Creation because I wanted a coloring book. That’s my real reason. I’m going to talk about some controversial topics, but here’s a two-sentence review for those who are short on time:
When Sr. Patricia and I are having a meeting of the minds? That tells you we’re in some heady waters indeed.
What’s in this book?
At Play in God’s Creation is an adult coloring book with a prayerful twist to it. Amid the pictures, there are quotes from mystics and prayer-questions. I’ve scanned a few portions of pages of my work-to-date so you can get a feel for what kinds of quotes and pictures we’ve got, see below. There are a couple pages of suggestions for how to pray-while-you-color at the opening of the book.
My reading of the text of the coloring book is that it stays within the bounds of Catholic thought. There are references to “finding your center,” which can be dicey, and there are plenty of Gather-hymnal word choices and grammatical devices. So the book is operating at the hairy edge of the narrow road, yes — but I don’t think the author goes over the cliff. If you are reading the text with a well-catechized Catholic lens, and you’ve waded through authors like Bl. Julian of Norwich and come to shore edified, it works.
Likewise, if you were drawn to the book because you do color but you don’t pray and don’t know a thing about prayer and this is your first baby step into some kind of spiritual life, I think it could be a comfortable starting point rather than a hindrance to more formal and informed Catholic prayer as you moved forward.
Also, the author of the text reminds you not to pass judgement on the thoughts that enter your mind as you’re prayerfully coloring, so when you get to this page and think to yourself, “One of these flowers is a ninja throwing star!” that’s okay. No judging, guys.
Is Coloring Praying?
Coloring could be helpful just because it is good for a busy person to quiet down and do something calm and relaxing for a change.
I think this is a bit like the old joke about smoking-while-you-pray vs. praying-while-you-smoke. I advise you not to smoke, but I can attest from my proto-hipster days that actually, yes, a moonlit night, silence, and a decent cigar make for good spontaneous prayer, if you’re so inclined. But that sort of prayer is not the same thing as praying the Rosary or the Divine Office or the Mass for serious. It’s not the same thing as actually carrying out Ignatian Exercises with your whole heart and mind focused on prayer. It’s a good thing, and you should try it frequently — not smoking, but spontaneous prayer as you are engaged in quiet activity — but you’re cheating yourself if you never go deeper.
Still, we aren’t tube worms. We don’t live in the depths all the time. When we’re trolling the shallow waters of ordinary activity, we don’t therefore stuff our souls in the closet. It is in fact good, wholesome prayerful activity to take a little R&R by coloring a Celtic knot while letting your mind range over a St. John of the Cross quote, and your life, and how the two intersect.
Why Does Jen Like the Book?
Here’s a page I work on when I’m sitting in the car waiting for a teenager to come out after volleyball practice:
Come on guys, color my hopes? My hope is that said child will notice I’ve shown up before I have to reach for the bridge-of-the-support and phone her to let her know someone’s waiting, thanks. Not every single phrase and picture in this book is a perfect match for me personally; I trust that there is someone out there who needs and will benefit from a cute version of the Four Creatures of the Apocalypse, and that we two must share an artist.
But hey, here’s an impending bloody-shipwreck . . .
. . . and on the facing page when you make it to fair land, there’s a not-friendly dragon reared up ready to scorch you.
I like this book because I get the ordinary benefits of coloring (relaxation, art-for-non-artists, etc.) combined with a keen sensitivity to the reality of spiritual struggle. Not every single prayer-prompt in the text is my cup of tea, but most of them have their moments when they are spot-on.
Verdict: If this is the kind of book you would like, you will like it.
Related: I got this lovely Christmas card from someone at Ave Maria press, featuring artwork from Daniel Mitsui’s adult coloring book The Mysteries of the Rosary. That might better suit the taste of some of my readers. (Hey, Ave! – I will totally review that coloring book if you mail it to me.)
Related to Related: But why am I on someone at Ave Maria’s mailing list?! Oh, that’s right, there’s this book! Today’s the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and if you want to know my fit-for-print thoughts on that topic, and a few others, get the book.
Funny Story: There was some brouhaha a little bit ago that I decline to link to, in which a group of ostensibly-Catholic women were recording themselves preaching on the Gospels, with the goal of proving that hey! Girls can read the Bible and talk about it too! Put a cassock on it!
And I was like, No duh. CatholicMom.com does have some male voices on the Gospel Reflection Team roster, but the group is definitely mom-heavy, as we’d expect.
But you know what’s really super cool, and has nothing to do with boys and girls and everything to do with the grace of God? Showing up at Mass and your pastor preaches a sermon, and you’re like, “Yeah. That’s way better than anything I would have said.” Coloring book or no coloring book, pray for your priests.
Have you been to confession lately? Fr. Pavone is human, and like you, he is capable of sinning. Like you, he is capable of acting in willful disregard of the law of God. He’s also, like you, capable of acting in culpable ignorance. We who view from the outside cannot know the state of Fr. Pavone’s soul; we can, however, inform our consciences to the point that we can perceive when an objectively sinful act has been committed.
Now it is likely that in his tactics Fr. Pavone sinned against the virtues of prudence and temperance; certainly his bishops have found it so. For the remainder of this essay I’m setting that aside, already dealt with extensively elsewhere. We are going to look only at the sin against the cardinal virtue of justice. Did Fr. Pavone give God His due?
What is the Purpose of the Altar?
In our spiritual lives we often invoke the image of the sacred altar. We speak of uniting our sufferings with Christ on the Cross, and Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When we offer up a Mass for a given intention, we might say that we placed that intention on the altar. You’ll often notice when you attend Mass that the priest will have a card right there on the altar reminding him of the intention for that Mass.
Thus we can understand how someone — anyone — might have the natural instinct to place some significant object on the altar in an act of devotion and offering.
To avoid sin, however, requires obedience to supernatural instincts.
The altar of the Mass is the place where heaven meets earth. We who enter a Catholic church are entering the Holy of Holies. We are people who, at the moment of the Consecration, see God and live. We are so used to this sacred privilege that we forget how unspeakably privileged we are. The daily duty of caring for the parish church can create an over-familiarity with sacred things, to the point that we start to forget they are honest-to-God sacred.
Our Strength is in the Lord
Time and again in the Old Testament, we see the Lord do valorous deeds for the people of Israel. That miraculous action didn’t end with the Incarnation: We can cite miracle after miracle in the long history of the saints down to our present day. These miracles are not mere emotional adjustments. God acts in the physical and social world, at times miraculously delivering physical healing, political victory, and military protection.
These miracles happen not on our schedule but on God’s. They also follow a pattern, and it’s a pattern that illuminates the nature of Fr. Pavone’s error. Step 1: We turn to God for His miraculous provision. We acknowledge our complete dependence on God’s saving hand, and abandon ourselves entirely to His divine will. Our help is the Lord who made heaven and earth. Step 2: God intervenes for the good of His people when and how He pleases.
In the beginning there was God, and then He made heaven and earth. The sacred altar belongs to that First thing. It is a holy place set aside for the Presence of God in the shockingly same way God Is, outside of all time and space.
Righting the Sacred Order
God wills the protection of all innocent lives. He wills an end to abortion. It is the desire of God that men would freely act to end this atrocity. It cannot but be the desire of God to come to our assistance in the work of protecting and defending the most vulnerable among us. These facts are incontrovertible.
We must charitably assume that Fr. Pavone’s recent actions were motivated by a sincere desire to serve God. All the same, he committed an act of sacrilege. We can defend him with mercy, for who among us is not also a wretched sinner, but we can’t defend his action with approval. To do so would require contortions along the lines of proposing that first God made heaven and earth, and then the next day He Is.
No no no. It must always be the other way around. It is unable to be otherwise.
The objective gravity of Fr. Pavone’s sin was in putting a second thing first. He failed to remember the supreme sacredness of the altar.
You have probably done that once or twice, if only in thought if not in word or deed. You may have heard about, if not witnessed yourself, reprehensible violations along these lines committed by clergy and others who ought to know better. We humans are woefully fallible.
Mercy and Reparation
Fortunately, there are remedies. Begin by forming your conscience as to the sacredness of the altar of the Sacrifice of the Mass. If you do not live in a parish where the sacred altar is treated with due reverence, make a pilgrimage to a place where it is. Lex orandi lex credendi.
Then proceed with prayer and fasting for the reparation of every rent in the sacred relationship between God and man. Contemplate our Lord’s mercy on us sinners. One of the missions of Priests for Life is bringing healing to those who, knowingly or unknowingly, committed a grave offense against God and man in the act of abortion. As it is for abortion, so it is for every sin: No one who desires to repent is beyond the reach of the Lord’s infinite mercy.
There are lots of people who know exactly what Purgatory is like, but few of them are available for comment. A review of the literature, however, points to some likely ways that Jack T. Chick could be spending his hours of purification.
Top Ten Ways Jack Chick Will Spend His Purgatory
Helping St. Anthony look for things.
Putting finishing touches on portraits of the Blessed Mother.
Listening to Saints Peter and Paul reminisce about everything that’s ever happened at the Vatican, for real.
Meeting all the Jesuits.
Praying along with the prayer requests mentioned on Catholic Answers Live.
Assisting St. Rita in all the desperate pleas for help with last-minute Halloween costumes.
Working with the purgatory-residing authors of anemic bread-wine-sharing-dinner-table songs to rewrite their lyrics into hymns suited to Eucharistic Adoration.
Writing If I can’t keep my pagan gods’ names straight, I will visit the local library to fact-check 1,000 times on the blackboard. In hieroglyphics.
Having to answer these egregious attacks on the Church was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I just like the liturgy,” or “This seems to be where God wants me for now.” I had to turn on my brain and find out: Is this faith true? Can I know beyond a reasonable doubt that this is for real? Because it’s lovely to have bright glowing memories of a spiritual experience, but what about when the shine wears off? What about when all the scandals that have rocked the Church take their turn at my place for a change? Will I still believe when things aren’t so easy anymore?
I still have my annotated copy of Are Roman Catholics Christian? full of penciled-in Bible verses refuting the assorted misinformation. (Quick answer: Why yes, we are. Thanks for asking.)
I can’t seem to find a proper review, but here’s my Goodreads blurb on Jimmy Akin’s excellent book The Nightmare World of Jack Chick:
Great book. As always with Jimmy Akin, it’s thoroughly researched, and calmly and charitably expressed. In addition, the book is a fun topic, not technical and it’s a quick read. Great choice for teens just getting going with apologetics. My son loved it!
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.
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.
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.
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. . . .
(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.)
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.
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 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.
Twice in the past month men I know, good solid Catholic men who run circles around me in the holiness business, have mentioned in passing that they’re not so sure about this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” stuff. Larry Peterson did it here, and Tom McDonald did it here. Both articles are worth reading on their own merits. These are not wishy-washy lukewarm Catholics. These are men who have counted the cost of discipleship and have stepped up to pay it.
Because the question is still being asked, I’d like to answer it as well.
What kind of relationship do you have with a person?
To be human is to have a relationship of some nature with three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, three Persons in God.
You might have an antagonistic relationship, a numb relationship, or a sorely neglected relationship, but you’ve got something. To be Catholic is to acknowledge, even if you don’t realize you’re doing so, that God isn’t some vague cosmic force or a misty feeling or a set of good thoughts. God is Personal, period. You literally cannot be baptized without acknowledging the Personhood of God.
Persons, even when it’s a Divine Person and a human person, are made to have relationships with one another. The question I think many Catholics struggle with is partly linguistic and partly practical: What should we call our relationship with God, and what should it be like?
Do Protestants own all the words?
Catholics used to be people who borrowed words shamelessly. Need a word to describe what a “Church” is? Hey, look, there’s a Greek word that we could use to get us started, grab it and run! Large swathes of the Catechism are littered with words that Catholics picked up off the sidewalk and put to work in ways those words weren’t previously used.
Like the Greeks and Romans and even those pagans who lent us the word “Lent,” American Protestants have a few useful expressions of their own. The concept of a Meat-and-Three restaurant, not to mention Macaroni is a vegetable! come to mind, but we’ll stick to theology for today. A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is a phrase used heavily by American Evangelicals, sometimes beautifully and sometimes in ways that make you suddenly remember there was another county you needed to be in right now.
But they are words that, when used rightly, do in fact sum up Catholic spirituality. They are words that we now find helpful, in this era when many Catholics do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. They are words that counteract the pseudo-spirituality that infects the Catholic Church and reduces the reality of the Incarnation to supposedly-edifying legend.
Where do I find this in Catholicism?
Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
When we speak of knowing, loving, and serving God, we aren’t speaking of rendering obeisance to some distant overlord who wants us to pay tribute. We are speaking of Someone who knows us entirely inside and out, and who wants to be known by us. Someone who chose to suffer grievously that we might again be able to walk in the garden together.
The concept of a “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is specifically about owning the Incarnation. Our Lord didn’t appear in the Heavens on His Throne and zap the world clean from a dignified distance. He took on human flesh that we might eat with Him, and care for Him, and lay His body in a grave. God seeks intimacy with us.
This is Catholicism.
Can poetic prayer be personal prayer?
It can be hard to say out loud the things we feel most deeply.
One of the hallmarks of the Catholic liturgy is that the Church gives us the words to express what we would say to God if only we knew how.
When we purchase a greeting card at the grocery store, we don’t have too much trouble with this concept. We look through the racks until we find the right words for the occasion, the words that best fit the relationship between ourselves and the recipient and the event at hand. Yes! That one says what I’d like to say! When we receive a card, we are moved by the sentiments if we know they come from a loved one who is genuine in sharing the humor or well-wishes or tenderness of the ideas in the card.
(And likewise: Nothing is more off-putting than receiving a card from someone who most certainly does not share the sentiment printed on the cardstock.)
But we live in an age with very little poetry, and which often mocks the beauty of previous generations’ rhyme and meter and melody. We can accept the idea that we might be truly expressing ourselves in the greeting card or when we sing along to a pop song on the radio, but somehow many of us have been deceived into believing that we our unworthy of higher art. We’ve been persuaded that too-beautiful words aren’t capable of being our words.
The Incarnation is Everything
The law of prayer is the law of belief, and if we pray the Our Father or the Glory Be convinced that somehow these are words too high for us, too mighty for us, we’ll come to disbelieve the Incarnation.
We’ll persuade ourselves that Bless us O Lord is the herald’s shout to Jesus on His Celestial Throne Who Can’t Be Bothered To Get Any Closer, not the simple few lines of people wishing to pause before eating to say a word of personal thanks to a Person who literally dwelt within our very bodies the last time we received Holy Communion.
This heresy is at the heart of our liturgical wars: It is it only “authentic” prayer if it’s folksy? Or is God so august that we must never approach the throne of grace with anything but fear and trembling? It’s a false dichotomy. In the liturgy I’m a child learning to say grown-up words. God the Father wants to rear me for His Heavenly Kingdom; God the Holy Spirit breathes supernatural life into my feeble attempts at prayer; and the God the Son is both there at table for me to lay my head upon His breast and raised to the great high throne in majesty.
My relationship with Jesus is personal because Jesus is a Person. I grow in that relationship the more completely I embrace the entirety of what Christ is. God humbled, God crucified, God glorified. All of it.
Today’s topic is important enough that I’ll be cross-posting it at Patheos as well. Share from whichever venue you prefer. Per my standard policy on blog posts, parish and diocesan publications have permission to reprint at no charge, please provide a link back to the original in your attribution.
God becomes Man, and the prophet sent to prepare the way for Him declares, “I am not fit to untie his sandals.” We can imagine our Lord untied his own sandals most of the time. She may or may not have been the one to remove his shoes, but we know the sinful woman did wash those feet. That woman might or might not have been Mary Magdelene, but Mary certainly did know those feet as well. The feet she saw pounded through with nails weren’t generic metal feet hanging in your hallway, they were the feet she had held and caressed and perfumed.
I have a friend who is a nursing student, and she tells me that when she has downtime working in the critical care unit, she’ll fill the hours by going around and washing the patients’ feet and massaging them with lotion. Very sick patients typically have feet in horrible condition and a desperate hunger for human touch, both.
When Mary Magdalene met the resurrected Jesus in the garden, she wasn’t like Thomas who asked to see the pierced hands and side; had she asked, it probably would have been to see the feet.
In my absence from the internet, another Catholic food fight has broken out over the question of what people should do with themselves during Mass. The latest round concerns the direction priests point their feet. Where your feet go, you go.
Because humans are body and soul both, what we do with our bodies at Mass matters. The Mass can’t happen if the priest stands in a corner and prayerfully wills it to be so. Human wills express themselves in bodily action. In carrying out the actions of the Mass a priest makes the Mass happen — it can happen no other way.
The other sacraments are the same. Thus the question of feet is important.
We Catholics get fervent in our opinions about what everyone should do at Mass because we know deep in our souls that our bodies matter so very much. Thus we’re fifty-some years in to a massive Catholic food fight over how we laypersons might best carry out “active participation” in the sacred liturgy as mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Says the Church:
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.
It’s a food fight that typically devolves into two questions: Who else can we put a cassock on, and how do we persuade Catholics to sing more?
So I want to tell my story about active participation in the Mass, and singing, and the feet of Jesus.
I like words. I am the person who pays attention to the words of all the hymns we sing at Mass. I like to sing at Mass, because I like having all those words about God and to God moving through my body and coming out of me. I was pretty happy at St. Populus, my home parish, where every Mass was a folk Mass in the best meaning of that term: We served up a four-hymn sandwich sing-along every Sunday, always and every time meant to be that part of the Mass when everyone joined in with gusto.
The actual amount of gusto varied. But that was the goal. It was a goal that I loved.
Then my husband reverted to the Catholic faith (good) and I discovered that he could sing (interesting) and he became a cantor at St. Populus (variable). There wasn’t another bass available to help him with his cantoring skills, so he drove down to Our Lady of Classical Choirs and pestered the choirmaster until they got tired of his badgering and agreed to teach him to sing. One thing led to another, and I ended up with 50% of my family in the choir loft at not-my-parish.
The trouble with OLCC, in addition to being not-my-parish, was that half the time you couldn’t even understand the words they were singing — even if it was English. The sound bounced off ancient plaster mercilessly. Furthermore, whether you could understand it or not, the bulk of the Mass on any given Sunday was done in the style of Not a Sing-Along. I was aware that the whole thing was purported to be exceedingly beautiful, but couldn’t we all just have four nice easy hymns to sing together as a group? Please??
Then some things happened. One thing was that I was now living with three people who played this strange, purportedly beautiful, music around my house all the time. I got to know the music better. It was no longer weird sounds bouncing around a tall building, it was something my ear understood and could make sense of.
Another thing that happened is that over at St. Populous we had a little Latin club going on Friday mornings for about a year, long enough for we ignorant laypeople develop to a working familiarity with the meanings of the words that tended to bounce around during the Gloria and Sanctus and all those other things that were Not a Sing-Along down at OLCC.
I am persuaded that I am the Bread of Life is all the proof anyone needs that ordinary people aren’t quite as stupid as our betters pretend. If you can teach we slobs in the pews to memorize the key points of John chapter 6 in an irregular, non-rhyming, voice-cracking, genre-less song, than we slobs can probably learn all the other, much easier, supposedly-too-hard-for-us stuff as well.
The final thing that happened to me was decrepitude. OLCC became an appealing parish to me for two reasons:
There was a wall I could lean against.
No one would try to speak to me.
Not-my-parish for the win.
I remember this night at Mass when active participation ceased to be about marching around or singing along. I was at OLCC, sitting in the pew because standing was not on my to-do list (decrepitude), it was some feast or another, and the Gloria was going on forever, and ever, and ever. The choir would sing some line of the Latin, and then sing it again and again in fifty different variations of hauntingly beautiful soaring tunes. Then on to the next line.
Not a Sing Along.
It was a Pray Along.
I finally got, for the first time in my life, a chance to pray the Gloria with something that felt like justice. No more wincing at the splendor of tu solus sanctus then quick keep moving, time for the next big idea. Each idea, one at a time, washing over the congregation, swirling around in a whirpool of words, seeping into our thoughts and wetting the soul’s appetite for the next line of the prayer.
It isn’t that they don’t ever do hymns or plebeian Mass settings down at OLCC. Nor do I have any less love for a good rousing Sing Along Mass. Singing is good for you. It’s good for all the parts of you, and it would be a strange and disastrous thing if we pewsitters all gave it up and used no other part of our bodies than our ears at Mass.
Curiously, the part where feet come into it was during a Mostly Sing-Along Mass down at OLCC.
Because I am decrepit, I can’t always sing, or can’t sing the entirety of a Sunday’s pewsitter parts. Because I am a word-person, lately sometimes I do the very weird thing of standing there with the hymnal open, mouth shut, eating up the words with my mind while the congregation sings them aloud.
This past Sunday, though, I was unusually decrepit even for me. I found a seat against the wall, and didn’t even bother trying to lip sync the Our Father. I was pretty happy to just be standing-along during the bulk of the standing parts. I was secretly pleased that the side aisles were relatively empty and all I had to do was wave to a couple people several rows behind me during the Sign of Peace, and then I was freed to go back to my still, silent bubble.
I didn’t know, on Sunday, that Internet Catholics were busy arguing over which way priests point their feet. The readings were not exactly about feet, except that they were. The Law living within us, He is the image of the Invisible God, the parable of Mercy-Made-Flesh.
11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  . Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.
It means that when our Lord comes to us, we recognize Him and respond accordingly.
The carrying out of those laws governing valid and licit celebration aren’t the stones of an empty tomb. The carrying out of those laws is the business of our bodies doing what our bodies are made to do. What do our bodies do? Our bodies are the means through which ours souls express themselves.
I have a daughter who adores rabbits, and therefore she knows what porn is. “No, dear, you can’t have that particular bunny sticker,” I had to explain several years ago, when she was searching Amazon for, well, bunny stickers.
Why not? She wanted to know, of course.
“Because that’s the logo for a company that sells pictures of naked ladies.”
No need to discuss sex, or what makes porn distinctive. She can intuitively know, by the simple fact that she shuts the door before changing clothes or going to the bathroom, that selling pictures of naked people is wrong-headed.
She has a righteous indignation about the purveying of pornography because a perfectly good rabbit has been co-opted into the works. At her age, I expect she feels as badly for the rabbit as for anyone.
The children’s grandmother has a stall in an antique mall. It’s one of these old brick factories that’s now home to a hundred or so vendors of everything that turns up at estate sales. If you want a case of Coca-Cola, unopened, from 1967, this is your place. I have to stay out of there because my sponsor at Vintage Books Anonymous threatened to stage an intervention.
The kids have been going to help their grandmother keep her stall clean and organized since as long as they’ve been old enough not to be a menace to porcelain. They dust knick-knacks and re-fold linens, and put out the latest crop of dishware, and they love doing it. The owner of the mall and the other vendors who work the counter know the kids, and the kids know them.
This week while working at the shop, my nine- and eleven-year-old daughters, always on the lookout for bunny figurines, came across a basket of Playboy that one of the other vendors had displayed on the front counter of his stall.
It’s not just an antique mall anymore, it’s a porn shop.
“Does the owner of the mall know about this?” my husband and I asked, when we heard about it late that night. The vendors stock their own stalls, there’s no central merchandise system.
“Yes. She told him he had to tape the covers shut.”
Ah. I see.
We’re knowingly putting out pornography for children to find as they hunt through the acre of treasure.
“It was right next to the big display of pocket knives,” one of my daughters said helpfully. Because you know, boys are interested in those sorts of things.
Things People Tell My Children About Pornography
But they’re vintage Playboys. I got that argument. It was related to me secondhand by my children, who’d been told that by someone at the shop; I heard it again directly from one of the vendors at the shop. As if dusty porn were somehow not porn.
I told the story to the kids of Msgr. Roth of blessed memory, who preached one Sunday about living out your faith all week long. He’d gone to visit a parish family, and they’d realized too late that their porn was sitting out on the coffee table. They apologized and put it away. Not in the trash—just out of sight. “Don’t put it away for the priest,” he said to the congregation. “You shouldn’t have that in your house at all. If it’s not okay for the priest to see, it’s not okay.”
I don’t know which family he had visited, but I know that I got a babysitting job for a family from church that year, and that was how I got my chance to see what’s inside the covers of Playboy. Apparently church people don’t hide it for the babysitter, either.
But they’re taped shut. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re selling pornography at your store. You’re telling the world that it’s fine to buy and sell this stuff. You’re making the decision to attract buyers of pornography to your business.
But that guy who runs the stall is just trying to make a living. That’s right. He’s decided he wants to profit off the exploitation of women and the uncontrolled lust of those who find pornography so compelling.
“I can tell you are very emotional about this,” I was told when I phoned in my complaint.
Yes, indeed. Discovering that people are knowingly putting out pornography for my children to find makes me emotional.
There are times when calm is not the answer.
What kind of sick person thinks we should feel calm about this?
As I told my children, who were well aware I was in rare form over this incident: Women are dead because of what this industry does to them. It is right to be upset about that.
The reality is that we Trumpers think the exploitation of women is AOK. It was fine for those church families way back in the ’80’s, so why wouldn’t it be fine now?
One of the children expressed, in a later discussion, some of the nonchalance they’d absorbed from the world around them. And thus I explained: To tolerate the buying and selling of pornography in your place of business is to say that you think it’s just fine for girls like mine to be exploited this way.
If it’s not okay for your sister to be treated that way, it’s not okay for anybody’s sister to be treated that way.
Parents: Would you be willing to paste your daughter’s face on that centerfold?
Doesn’t feel so wink-wink-giggle-giggle when you look at it that way.
Related: Marcel Lejeune has good handbook out now, written for those seeking to overcome their addiction to pornography. Cleanesd: A Catholic Guide to Freedom from Porn is right to the point, and includes a compact, readable introduction to the deeper issues of the faith behind the right appreciation of human sexuality. Highly recommended for anyone who’s concerned about this issue, whether it’s a personal problem or you just happen to care about your fellow humans.
Here’s a question forwarded to me by Simcha Fisher, because she knows I sometimes write about this stuff. If it sounds like your parish, it’s probably not. Anecdotal evidence from parents and catechists suggests this happens pretty often.
Updated:Here’s the link to the US’s Virtus program, for those not familiar with the concept. Since every diocese sets its own additional policies, for the purpose of this Q&A, just think, “safe environment practices.”
This is my question: What is a parent supposed to do when the Virtus requirements aren’t being followed in his or her parish?
This is an actual problem in my parish right now . I don’t have any reason to suspect anyone of any wrongdoing, except for the lack of judgement being shown by our young priest who runs the youth groups. The problem is lack of chaperones. It’s a two-fold problem because (1) no parents are volunteering to chaperone the regular meetings, and (2) he holds the meetings anyway, even when no parents show up and he is the only chaperone.
All the advice I’ve been getting from the various people I’ve asked is to work with the priest to get chaperones. I’ve been trying to do that, but it doesn’t sit quite right. Obviously, if there’s abuse, you’re supposed to report it to the police. Hopefully we all know this by now. But is there an actual protocol or reporting structure that’s supposed to be followed for a problem like this?
Some opening thoughts:
The first thing to keep in mind is that the number one reason people ignore rules is that they don’t think there is a problem. It’s possible Father Lackadaisical is up to no good, but other explanations are more likely.
Second thing: There may or may not be a strict requirement of more than one adult in the room. With older students, alternate accepted practices may include:
Adult avoids being alone with students — at least three people in the room who are able to speak for themselves, but that might consist of one adult and several students;
Door stays open (only works if there are other people in the building);
There is a window into the room, and other adults in the vicinity who could look in at any time;
Event is entirely in public, such as if the leader meets the youth at a restaurant and is never alone with a student.
Your parish or diocese may have specific guidelines, or your pastor or program director might be given some latitude in assessing the situation and making a judgement call.
Even if none of these alternatives are accepted standards in your diocese, and in fact there is a strict requirement that two Virtus-trained, background-checked adults be present at all times, the most likely explanation (not the only) is that the youth group leader feels he is nonetheless creating a sufficiently safe environment, and therefore would rather not cancel an important program for lack of other volunteers.
How to Intervene
There are some basic standards for addressing safety violations of any kind, and after running through the list we’ll talk ramifications below. Assuming there’s no reason to believe anyone is in actual danger (you’d call the police), your primary option is to run up the chain of command. Who does what, where, and how will depend on your parish and your diocese, but it’s something like this:
Talk to the youth group leader directly (which you’ve done). Offering to help out is excellent.
Bring the issue to the attention of the next higher-up in the parish. This could be a parish Virtus coordinator, the director of faith formation, or some other administrator.
Bring the issue to the attention of the pastor.
Bring the issue to the attention of the diocesan administrator responsible for implementing your Virtus program. This could be the diocesan director of youth ministry, a diocesan child-safety coordinator, or some other person. Ask around.
Write the bishop.
FYI, experience speaking here, it’s easy to do this wrong, or to do it right but still end up not getting anywhere. You may accidentally be referred to the wrong person, or to the right person but who doesn’t know what they’re doing. It happens. Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Some Things that Might Happen
Depending on your situation, this could all turn out any number of ways. Here are some possibilities:
Your intervention is received with gratitude. Some people know they are overwhelmed, and appreciate all the help they can get. Some people are conscientious enough that when they unwittingly err, they are thankful that others have their back and save them from disaster. This is the ideal, and you have to act with the charitable assumption that it will be the case.
If this is the case, what you can expect is:
Father Naive will make an effort to reform his ways;
He will still some times screw it up, unless a superior (not you) manages to instill some serious fear into him.
Just keep patiently helping him out. People who want to be helped will generally let you help them.
However, be aware that this might not be the case.
You unleash a nasty wave of gossip and backbiting. If your parish or diocese is dysfunctional, you may already know this is coming, or you might be stepping into the mire for the first time. If you happen to have a great parish, you might get away with just some temporary unpleasantness and then the restoration of good relations.
One or more administratively incompetent persons persist in carrying on as they’ve always carried on. Of all the spiritual gifts, the gift of administration is the one talked about least but needed most. Consider a novena to the Holy Spirit — no I am not joking.
You discover the joy of working with psychopaths. If this happens to you, you’re basically out of luck. If you were good at dealing with amoral, self-centered people who were masters at manipulation, you probably wouldn’t have written to strangers on the internet for advice. Assume the psychopath is going to convince everyone that you’re the crazy one, done.
–> If there’s no crime taking place, once you’ve done your part to bring the problem to the attention of those in authority, you are free to move on. You will probably want to find some other activity for your family. You will definitely want to share your experience with a trustworthy, clear-thinking person who can help you sort out whether or not you’re the crazy one.
It turns out the youth group leader is a predator and there is in fact an abusive situation in the works. This will make you dream of the joys of working with garden-variety psychopaths. Expect a messy, long, painful ordeal that completely changes your life forever — and since you’re only the bystander, you’ll count yourself lucky. This is, statistically speaking, pretty unlikely. But if it is happening in your parish, as much as you don’t want to be the one who has to get involved, thank God you’re there.
And finally, prepare yourself for one very likely outcome, regardless of how well or poorly everyone else responds:
You don’t handle the situation with grace and aplomb. You’re an ordinary mortal with a limited set of gifts. If you don’t happen to have that perfect combination of patience, wisdom, fortitude, diplomacy and pixie dust, there’s a good chance you’re going to at least partly screw this up. Cut yourself and everyone else a little bit of slack. When the other people who end up involved in this don’t handle it as well as you’d like, remind yourself they are mere mortals, too. If you haven’t done so already, cultivate an abiding love of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
Best wishes. Readers, in your charity please take a moment to say a prayer for all those who have to get involved in confronting problems of this nature. Thanks.