Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

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

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

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

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

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

So what do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind Your Narratives!

Here’s an article with a fascinating finding on ancient European social patterns that also showcases a modern western social pattern.  What DNA and isotope sampling from ancient German cemeteries has found is that it was customary, four thousand years ago, for adult sons to remain with their family of origin, but for adult daughters to leave home and marry into family groups elsewhere — groups that were far away in distance and distinctive in culture.

This is a pretty interesting discovery, because: Who does that?  Right?  Neat.  Lots of fodder for thoughts on what that ancient society might have been like.

Sooooo . . . where should our imaginations head?  We could take it any direction we want, and in so doing we’d learn more about our imaginations than we would about ancient societies.

Notice how the otherwise objective and informative article subtly adopts the narrative of poor, oppressed, rejected adult daughters.  We see the illustration of that sad, lonely girl looking back in misery as she’s pushed out of her home and forced to march towards an unknown fate.  The text tells us that the girls are “sent away” and that “you have to give away all your daughters.”

Well, that might have been true.

Or: Maybe girls looked forward to the adventure that awaited them?  At seventeen I was pretty happy to hit the road and see the world.

Maybe women were considered more capable of the emotional and social task of cementing extended networks of relationships across distant tribes?

Maybe wealthy young women (the social class that traveled, per this set of findings) appreciated not being stuck in the expectations of their family of origin, who would always remember their childhood foibles, and were privileged to be able to forge for themselves an adult identity uniquely their own, among a people who expected the new daughter-in-law to bring with her distinctive customs and perspectives, and who valued the combination of innovation and energy that an older teen brought to the community?

Maybe, because she was likely joining a society that was not completely unfamiliar, as there would have been older women in her own community who came from the culture she was traveling to, it could have been best-of-both-worlds?

Or maybe not.  Maybe it sucked being a teenage girl in early bronze-age Europe.  Maybe you got buried with all your arts and crafts from your native tribe because your nasty father-in-law didn’t want too look at your ugly foreign figurines one minute longer, and you were counting the days until you were dead and buried because your mother-in-law resented you for being part of this vast cultural norm that caused her to lose her beloved daughter and get you instead, and also you overcooked the cabbage every. single. time.

We don’t know.

In the study of history, we have to be careful not to foist our own narratives on the blanks in our limited trove of evidence.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pricing People Out of Parish Life

Over at the blorg I put up a quick note about something that caught my eye: Best Practices in Evangelization = Unintended Lesson in Homelessness.  The trouble with things you dash off, as a friend so tactfully put it in a comment, “I need to be awake to really see what she is saying clearly.” Ha.  What I say is:

  1. Hey look! The Archdiocese of Baltimore is doing something awesome.
  2. Notice what their missionaries need to live on?  What does that tell us about living wages for families?
  3. And that reminds me of a fresh new rant I’ve cultivated lately . . .

Allow me to tell you about #3.  Recently someone posed the question: What do you think of holding abc parish ministry at xyz commercial venue?  The primary concern was that the venue might be suitably excellent for the ministry, or maybe the nature of the location was potentially problematic for some participants.  Charitable discussion ensued.  The one small thing I had to add:  Is it possible for people to attend without having to pay for the privilege?

I find with surprising consistency that among American Catholic parishes there’s an expectation that people who love Jesus will cough up money for dinner or drinks or babysitting so that they can participate in parish life.  There’s an assumption that if your child desires a sacrament, you will be able to get free from work and find transportation on a day and hour of the week chosen for you without consulting you — nearly always an hour when service workers are expected to be on the job, and when special-needs kids are melting down after a long day of pretending to be normal.  My rant reaches its peak when friends tell me about their parishes where mandatory sacramental prep costs the equivalent of a month’s rent on affordable housing.

The assumption is that most participants will have the money, and if you really cared you would reorganize to find the money and clear your calendar; in the unlikely event poor persons should want to do the parish thing, then the poor persons can beg the proper authorities so that a patron steps forward to pay their way.

Now let me be clear: I am not against Theology on Tap.  I am not against Ladies’ Night Out at the local restaurant.  I totally get that someone’s got to buy the books and craft paper and the new boxes of markers for religious ed.

But let me also be clear: When we make the decision to center parish life on pay-to-pray events, we are making the decision to exclude the people who don’t have money for that.

What with it being Mother Theresa’s feast day yesterday, and what with the Gospel reading this past Sunday, it is more and more on my mind how much our default mode of operating in the American Church is to center parish life on the needs and abilities of an affluent, able-bodied, main audience.  People who can’t keep up with that lifestyle are often an afterthought and an exception.

The article I cited caught my eye because in the midst of explaining a ministry that is exactly the opposite of all this — true evangelization of the poorest of the poor — there was a sobering reminder that yes, the cost of living is high.  Take a look at some income charts from the Census Bureau.  A very rough statistic is that about 1/3 of American households earn the same or less than what it costs to sponsor a healthy, single young adult with no children living as a missionary in church-provided housing.  Here’s a short discussion of the prevalance of credit card debt among Americans (Money tip: If you can’t pay off your credit card bills, you can’t afford to go out to dinner at the restaurant).

I think we should change this.  I think I am as bad as anyone about building my life around my comfortable little middle-class bubble.  But the Gospel says what it does, and to paraphrase my pastor yesterday, “Things go better when you do what God tells you to do.”  So I’m thinking the US Church in general needs to reorganize parish life so that people who are resource-thin are the center, not the periphery, of our faith community.

 

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Need Your Help: Stories of Equal Access

I need your help with getting a door unlocked.

I’m a parishioner (and at last check parish council member) at a large and historically-significant parish.   Thanks to renovations over the years, there are three wheelchair-accessible entrances feeding the parish church.  Unfortunately, since November of 2017 all three of those doors have been locked.  The only way to get into the building during Sunday Mass or Saturday Confession is to either walk up a short flight of stairs (seven if I counted correctly) or wait around on the sidewalk hoping to flag someone down who will go unlock an accessible door for you.

Unfortunately, the pastor of the parish doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t okay for someone with a disability to have to make advanced arrangements in order to be able to get inside the building for Mass or Confessions.  He’s otherwise a fairly stand-up guy, but he seems genuinely shocked that I would be angry about this issue.

I’m not above launching a massive public shame-storm, but that’s a weapon of last resort.  What I’d like your help with is attempting to show Father (and I tell you again: he is otherwise a pretty sane guy) that equal access matters.

Here is a form where you can share your story.  Can you share with him an example (or multiple if you’ve got them — fill out as many entries as you’d like) of how equal access, or lack of it, has affected your life?

My plan is to pass on to him your stories so he can see, person by person, just how painful it is to be the one stuck out on the sidewalk wondering how you’ll get in.  I’ll also put in a Mass intention for the collective intentions of those who share their stories (so Father L. gets to pray for you, cause that’s his job), and of course I’ll pray for you individually and I think he will too.

I’m not looking for angry.  He’s gotten plenty of angry from me, and believe me, I’m not as nice in regular life as I am on the internet.  I’m looking for your personal story of how being able to participate in parish or community life made a positive difference for you or someone you love, or how being excluded by needless barriers did the opposite.

The reality is that barriers keep people out.  After a year and a half of locked doors (in a previously accessible parish), the only regulars with disabilities are the few who are okay with the new status quo as second-class citizens.  Everyone else has disappeared.  If you showed up as a tourist (the parish receives many out-of-town visitors at weekend Masses), you’d follow the signs to a locked door and maybe succeed in waving someone down, or maybe just give up and move on.  As a result, Father L. no longer sees the people who are most affected by his decision: You’re all gone.

I need you to make yourself visible to him again.

Thank you so much.

I’ll post updates as I get them.  Also: If you choose to let me share your story (and only in that case — opt in or your story remains completely private), I’ll pick a few to post here and elsewhere, so that your voice gets heard far and wide.  Thank you!

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Image: No Accessibility Icon, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

Towards an Authentic Spirituality of Confirmation

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s more than enough.

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Photo by Richard Bartz courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 2.5.

Vatican Clergy Abuse Summit Bingo

From the makers of that evergreen classic Bishop Press Release Bingo comes the game we’ve all been waiting for, Vatican Clergy Abuse Summit Bingo!

Unlike regular Bingo, with Vatican Bingo what doesn’t get said counts too!  Put your chips on the grey boxes at the start of the game, and you get to keep them there until someone starts talking.  Don’t worry, when the Vatican’s playing, you can be sure your chips won’t be extradited any time soon.

And lest you worry: The Vatican shut down the USCCB’s process last fall to replace it with this?  Fear not.  The USCCB wasn’t planning to talk either.

Why Kids Like Sports Better than Religious Ed

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

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

Kids Want to Do Hard Things

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

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

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

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

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

Kids Want to Be Themselves

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

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

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

Kids Want Competence

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

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

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

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

Children Have Bodies

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

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

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

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

Kids Have Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Manliness and a Perfect Funeral

Hathaway’s funeral was perfect.  Chanted Extraordinary Form Requiem Mass at the old but not old-old St. Mary’s church in Aiken, then procession to the graveside for a Melkite burial.  Nothing says “four last things” like a Dies Irae in the hands of a good cantor.

As our line of cars, lights on, hazards flashing, police escort, ambled down US 1 towards the cemetery, traffic of course made way.  But this is a land where funerals are still taken seriously, and even on the four-lane highway where there was no practical need to do so, most vehicles coming the other direction pulled to the side, stopped, and put on their lights, paying their respects.  You have no idea of it, I thought as I passed driver after driver putting life on hold for two minutes of stillness in honor of a complete stranger, but you are witness to the funeral of one of the world’s great men.

***

John’s daughter asked (shortly after his death) if I could speak at the funeral meal.  After the perfection of the funeral homily and the solemnity of the mass and burial, what I had prepared seemed woefully inadequate.  It also was not very gentle, but fortunately there was a line-up of nice friendly people to follow, including a dear friend with the gift for coming across as a big, chummy teddy bear while he reminded the audience of the value of redemptive suffering and the need for masses and holy hours of reparation.

I’m sure most people did not like what I had to say, but the one person it was written for thanked me for saying it.  Below is the text, with most of the typos removed.

***

When we try to explain the difference between men and women, we tend to resort to stereotypes.  We know that men possess, on average, more physical strength than women, so we use examples of large, muscular men performing heavy manual labor.  We know that men have an inborn, undeniable vocation as providers and protectors, so we reach for clear examples of those.  When we think of providers, we might give the example of a successful business owner, or an accomplished professional; or we might think of an ordinary workman or farmer putting in long hours at physically grueling labor in order to provide a simple but decent living for even a very large family.  We know that men are created to be protectors of the family and community, and thus we look to the sacrificial life of men who have careers in the military or as law enforcement officers.  These are not bad examples.  But they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a man.

John Hathaway had the rare and excruciating vocation of showing the world what it means to be a man.

You could not look at John and think “typical big strong muscular man.”  (Though at times he astonished me at how strong he was.)  But what is a man’s strength for?  It is for serving God and serving his family.  John Hathaway used every ounce of his physical strength in fulfilling his vocation as husband, father, and Christian.  I remember him telling me the story of literally crawling to Holy Communion one time, so determined he was to receive Our Lord despite whatever parish he was visiting not noticing he needed the sacrament brought to him in the pew.  John was a wealth of medical knowledge – if I had a difficult medical question, he was on the short list of people I’d go to with such questions – because he was utterly focused on husbanding his strength, as the expression goes, so that he would be as strong as he possibly could be in order to serve his wife, his children, and God.

As a provider, John fell in the terrible predicament of those who are extremely talented but not in financially lucrative ways.  He was an English professor in a nation where adjunct professors sometimes literally live out of their cars because they cannot afford rent.   Many men find themselves in this position, willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families, but thrust into overwhelming circumstances beyond their control.  The despair this can cause men is at times deadly.

John Hathaway deployed extraordinary determination and perseverance and ingenuity in figuring out, day after day, year after year, how to provide for his family.  And he did provide.  He absolutely embodied what it means for a husband and father to be a provider.

As a protector I want to talk about John’s role in defending his children’s very lives.

We live in a time when it is legally and politically and socially acceptable to say that John and Allie and Gianna and Josef and Clara should simply be killed.  They should never have been allowed to be conceived, for fear they not measure up to some ideal standard of human health.   Allie, the same Allie who has been a pillar of strength and a fount of practical help to Mary over this past harrowing week; the same Allie who is delightfully talented and devoted to sharing her talents with the community . . . is someone that even Christians will sometimes say, “it would have been better if she’d never been born.”

I would say John’s life work was one steady, undying protest against that evil.  He tirelessly spoke and wrote and worked to persuade the world that his children deserve to live.

This vocation of his was painful.  It was physically and spiritually exhausting. He deployed every spiritual and physical weapon at his disposal against the constant and at times overpowering despair and darkness that descended on his life.

I can recall at times literally thanking John for still being alive.  I thanked him for the depths of the agony he endured by dint of continuing to pursue medical care in order that he might, for as long as possible, be present in this life to his family.  I thanked him selfishly: I knew that death would be easier and more pleasant for him, and I knew that when that time came I would feel his absence profoundly.  John was a delightful person to know and to talk to and to be with.

In closing I want to commend Mary for her choice of a husband.  She has faithfully withstood no end of criticism for marrying a man who lacked the superficial traits that are idolized by our society.  But she has known what others don’t see: That she married a man who truly embodied manliness to its fullness.  He cherished her, he sacrificed daily for her and the children, and gave his life and every ounce of his strength to providing for and protecting his family.  He made his own and by extension their relationship with Jesus Christ his number one priority.  He was everything any man could ever aspire to be.

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The pale and fleeting beauty of the Shadowlands, as seen in the Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

Ableism Entrenched

Up at the Register: Are People with Disabilities Welcome at Your Parish?

Ableism is the counterpart to “racism” or “ageism,” the often-insidious discrimination against people with disabilities.  Ableism is happening when a parish that has three wheelchair-accessible entrances decides to lock all doors except the one with the stairs.  No malice, just complete indifference.

When you park in the handicap spot even though you don’t need it, that’s ableism.  It’s also ableism when you assume the person with the tag must be faking just because you can’t identify an obvious disability.

Here’s an example of how pervasive ableism is:

We’re at the “atrium” of the children’s hospital today, a big sunny play space where kids can do fun stuff.

Children's Atrium, MUSC Children's Hospital

L. is in the teen corner doing arts and crafts, and it gets to be a few minutes before closing.  The other family there is a patient with her dad and a sister.  The dad calls clean-up time, and I get up and go help with putting away all the craft supplies.  I’m not really paying attention to who is doing what, other than that I start with putting away the things we personally got out (because I know where they came from) and also I tell L. to go sit in her wheelchair and hold all our junk for the trip up.

Here’s the entrenched-ableism mindset: In my brain I compose an explanation for why my kid is not helping clean up.

My child has a broken sternum from open-heart surgery less than 3-days earlier, and I am feeling the need to be ready to explain why she can’t walk around putting things away.  In a children’s hospital.  Where everyone else is there with a kid (or is the kid) who also can’t do all the things.

Mind you, not a person batted an eye.  But you know you are used to living in an abelist world when you just automatically prepare to fend off stupid accusations against a kid with an invisible (and thankfully temporary) disability.

Which is why we have parishes that lock people out of Mass if they can’t climb stairs.  And that’s a problem.