Friday, November 20, 2009

Where Does Your Treasure Lie?

"Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." Luke 12:33-34

Jesus' listeners were often the poorest of the poor, eking out a living in an occupied land, saddled with oppressive taxes, with little hope for the future. So it was natural that Jesus would address their focus on material things. It is not only the rich who can obsess about money and property, after all.

But a perennial questions for each of us are, "Where does my treasure lie? Where is my heart's focus?" Money isn't the problem (the love of money is another question, however). My heart can focus on all kinds of things besides what truly matters. Maybe I'm a huge sports fan, and die a thousand deaths as my team falls behind in the game. Maybe I'm obsessed with my health - or lack of it; or my weight - too much of it.

In the Church, we can focus on the wrong things, too. John Allen has a good article that touches upon this called, "Rethinking the Catholic 'box score'", which draws upon his analogy of Catholicism to baseball: "Both venerate the past, both spawn vast bodies of rules and lore, and both put a premium on patience." And as some baseball categories, like a batter's hitting percentage is helpful, it may not be as helpful as another statistic: how often he gets on base when one or more of his team mates is already on base. Allen argues, "the analogy applies here too: In the church as on the diamond, flawed categories skew perceptions of the game."

What flawed categories is he talking about? These -
1) Thinking not just in local or national terms, but globally.
2) Focusing not just on controversy, scandal, and newspaper headlines, but where ordinary Catholics actually invest their time and treasure.

Allen gives an example of the first.
"In Mexico, the country's bishops issued a cri de Coeur Nov. 12, in the wake of 14,000 violent deaths since a crackdown on drug cartels began in 2006: 'To the producers, dealers, pushers and consumers, we say, "Enough!" Stop hurting yourself, and stop causing so much damage and pain to our young people, to our families and to our country.' The bishops also apologized for 'superficial evangelization,' and what they euphemistically described as an 'anti-witness from many of the baptized.' That's an indirect way of admitting that in a country where 90 percent of the population is nominally Catholic, such carnage would be impossible if Catholics weren't complicit."
At first, this may not seem like a global issue, but remember, drugs may be entering from more southern Latin American countries, or even overseas, and moving through Mexico into the U.S. Tucson, my home, is the terminus of I-19, a major drug highway.

I began thinking about "the meaning of life," as a graduate student in geophysics, when, while walking along a nicely kept area of Palo Alto, CA, I encountered within a few feet of each other, a homeless man taking a spongebath on the curb, and a neatly coiffed woman dressed to the nines. "How can this happen in the U.S., the richest country the world has ever known, and a supposedly Christian nation, as well?" I thought. Sure, I was idealistic, but perhaps no more so than the Mexican bishops.

We are not as Catholic - or generically Christian - as Mexico, but even so, there are many things that happen with little or no comment that makes you wonder how superficial our Christianity is. While there is a vocal struggle over abortion, and, to a lesser degree, capital punishment, most Americans seemed fine with the idea of the appropriateness of torture to "protect" ourselves. We accept ever-increasingly lewd behavior on prime-time TV, horrifically violent video games for our teens, obscene disparities in wages between laborers and the highest levels of management, and act as though conspicuous consumption is a virtue, if not a right.

The response to this is not to become an outsider who condemns what is happening and try to move into a Catholic ghetto. Nor is it to simply shrug and say, "that's the way it is." The answer is conversion to Christ and accept a commission from him to go to the front lines - that is, the heart of the marketplace - and slowly begin to change things from within. That takes the patience that Allen mentions is a part of the Catholic life.

The second issue, of focusing on controversy, scandal, and newspaper headlines, instead of where ordinary Catholics actually invest their time and treasure, is something Sherry's addressed in previous posts, but is worth repeating. Sherry tells the story of going into one of her RCIA sessions when she was trying to enter the Church with a book in her hand. I don't remember what she was reading, but one of the people leading the RCIA class took one look at it and said to her, "Well, we certainly know now where you're coming from!" The irony is, of course, that Sherry didn't even know where she was coming from. This happens today, still - perhaps even more regularly. I sometimes wonder how people will react if I show up to teach in my habit. Or how they'll react if I don't. How will I be judged if I say I enjoy reading Fr. X? It's amazing how quick we are to slap labels on one another. And there are basically only two labels, "one of us," and "not to be trusted."

I have been very blessed to travel across the country - and beyond, at times - and to meet lay Catholics in big cities, small towns, from wealthy parishes and very poor parishes. I can promise you, poor, simple Catholics I've met here in Corpus Christi are not interested in culture wars. They - at least the ones at the evangelization retreats I've helped out with - are interested in making ends meet, overcoming illness, addiction, and sin. They're not interested in the culture wars, or liturgical reform. They are seeking healing, and want to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They want to know God is real, and want to be changed by His grace.

It's a breath of fresh air for me, and forces me to focus on Jesus, because that's who they want.

That's Who they need. And for more and more of them, it seems that their treasure lies in Jesus.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Futures of Christianity

I am participating in the annual convocation at Duke Divinity School, which is focusing this year on "The Next Generation." Today's presentations were by Philip Jenkins about whom Sherry has blogged about in the past (including this week). I have blogged some of my observations from this morning over at my parish blog. They may be of interest to the readers of Intentional Disciples.

As St Vincent de Paul said 370 years ago: "Christ said the Church would last to the end of time. He said nothing about Europe." (as quoted by Jenkins)

Notably, Jenkins said that Christians who are unwilling to deal seriously with charismatic gifts, spiritual warfare, healings, exorcisms, etc. should stay out of the Global South. These are so important and so bound with the practice and politics of Southern Christianity that Christianity in the Global South is unimaginable without them.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Generations" of Catholic theologians

Fr Mike and Sherry are on their way to Wisconsin this afternoon to gear up for Making Disciples, which starts tomorrow evening. Barbara Elliot and I will follow them to the Badger State tomorrow morning. I, for one, am looking forward to a lower elevation and temperatures more in my summer comfort zone (Colorado is a little cool for a South Carolinian!). 

John Allen has a fascinating piece this week on the opening session of the Catholic Theological Society of America annual convention going on this weekend in Miami. This year's convention theme is "Generations" and in her opening address Prof. Maureen O'Connell (Ph.D., Boston College) of Fordham University reflected on the gaps between four generations of Catholic theologians (and American Catholics generally). The sociological data she worked with was provided by a study done by James Davidson of Purdue University. 


“O’Connell had been asked to reflect theologically on a presentation from Catholic sociologist James Davidson of Purdue University, reviewed data from surveys of what he identified as four distinct generations of American Catholics, grouped with respect to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65):

• Pre-Vatican Catholics, meaning those born before 1941, representing 17 percent of American Catholics;

• Vatican II Catholics, born between 1941 and 1960, at 35 percent;

• Post-Vatican II Catholics, born between 1961 and 1982, at 40 percent;

• Millennial Catholics, born since 1983, at 8 percent.”


“Davidson argued that the results of surveys from 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005 show a clear trend, amplified in each succeeding generation, away from what Catholic writer Eugene Kennedy calls “Culture One Catholicism,” with a high emphasis on religious practice, clerical authority and doctrinal conformity, towards “Culture Two Catholicism,” emphasizing lay autonomy and the individual conscience.

Asserting that church leaders are today attempting to return the church to a “culture one” model, Davidson said that because the socio-economic status of American Catholics is not in decline and because “laity are not willing to grant control” to the hierarchy, “the percentage of Catholics who are culture one will continue to decline.”

If older liberal Catholics are over-represented in reform groups such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful, Davidson said, younger conservative Catholics are equally over-represented among new priests, seminarians, and even theologians.

Speaking specifically about theologians, Davidson said that a growing tendency for younger theologians to reflect a “culture one” mentality reflects “a larger pattern of separation between the laity and the leaders of the institutional church.”

O’Connell largely agreed, saying that one distinguishing feature of her generation of theologians is that it came of age in an era of a “near-total disconnect between a culture one hierarchy and a culture two laity.”

Facing that situation, O’Connell said, many younger theologians today feel a need to try to be of pastoral service to the church – working with disparate movements such as Voice of the Faithful, the Focolare and Sant’Egidio, for example, or writing for non-specialized audiences outside the academy. Those activities, she said, represent an attempt to “fill in the pastoral gaps.””


“In that light, O’Connell proposed that amid today’s tensions over Catholic identity, perhaps a defining characteristic of what constitutes a “good Catholic theologian” ought to be what she called “pedagogical excellence” – meaning a commitment to teaching and formation.”
Complete story here

This is interesting stuff and not all that surprising given the broad landscape of American Catholicism today. I am truly grateful for her insight about the excellence of a theologian being constituted by a commitment to "teaching and formation." Theological work is not worth much if it does nothing to serve the Church, help bring people to Jesus Christ, and form disciples. However, I am disappointed to see this data strictly interpreted through lens of the culture one v. culture two Catholicism. I really do think the positions of theologians young and old are far more nuanced than such a hard and fast distinction allows. 

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Msgr. Albacete also speaking in Portland, OR

I'm grateful to Alex Vitus of the CL School of Community in Seattle for mentioning that Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, the national leader for Communion & Liberation, will be coming to the West Coast at the end of this month.

The Portland CL School of Community is also hosting Msgr. Albacete and Gregory Wolfe for a evening of discussion on November 28 (the day before the Seattle event) at the Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center at the Ecotrust Building, 1st Floor, 721 NW 9th Avenue in Portland. Doors open at 6:30, with the program starting at 7pm.

The topic will be "Wounded by Beauty". Msgr. Albacete and Prof. Wolfe will explore the transcendent aspects of beauty, which is more than mere aesthetics. Through art and nature, beauty touches the heart and helps us to reach out to reality, and at its height it wields the power to recall each one of us to our ultimate destiny in Christ. Msgr. Albacete will also likely delve into and develop the insights in his book, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity.

FYI, Msgr. Albacete is a New York Times columnist and a co-founder of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. Gregory Wolfe is the editor and publisher of Image Journal and Writer in Residence as well as the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University.

If you'd like more information, leave a comment and I'll get back to you. As our friend Mark Shea in Seattle says, don't miss it if you can!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

"To hunt, to shoot, to entertain" - is that all there is to the lay vocation?

I just discovered Catholic author and blogger Mark Shea's latest article, which is up on the website of InsideCatholic (the successor to Crisis magazine).

It's on the subject of clericalism, which has been much discussed amongst those of us who have struggled with Protestant vs. Catholic concepts of Christian leadership. This is a very charitable and clear-headed consideration of the issue. Here's a taste:

"A few years back, Russell Shaw wrote a terrific book called To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. It took its title from an amazing remark by a 19th-century English monsignor who loftily declared, 'What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.'

"John Henry Cardinal Newman disagreed, pointing out that during the Arian crisis, it was the laity who kept the Faith while the majority of bishops vacillated, caved to heresy, or were silent during the 60 years of the crisis. That doesn't mean that the Church operates on the principle vox populi, vox Dei. But it does mean that clericalism ought to be avoided."

I encourage you to click on the link in the title of this post and read it all. Great food for thought.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Catholics are Mainstream America

Please click on the title of this post to be directed to a sobering report of a random survey of some 4018 Catholics recently conducted by the Barna Group ( that examined 97 different facets of the lives of Catholics (beliefs, behaviors and attitudes), comparing them to national norms. The outcome is disturbing: we are "virtually indistinguishable from people aligned with other faith groups - except in the area of faith."

George Barna, the founder of the organization, is Protestant, and the surveys likely reflect in some ways an evangelical outlook. Nevertheless, they provide useful information, and have been used by Catholic parishes and other Catholic organizations. So taking the report with a grain of salt doesn't diminish my dismay at the results.

According to the report, "of the dozen faith-oriented behaviors tested, Catholics strayed from the norm in relation to eight of the 12 items. Specifically, the typical Catholic person donated about 17% less money to churches; was 38% less likely than the average American to read the Bible; 67% less likely to attend a Sunday school class; 20% less likely to share their faith in Christ with someone who had different beliefs; 24% less likely to say their religious faith has greatly transformed their life; and were 36% less likely to have an "active faith," which Barna defined as reading the Bible, praying and attending a church service during the prior week."

Also disturbing was the fact that in spite of all the attempts at catechesis through Catholic schools, CCD, sacramental preparation classes, and homilies, the respondents "were more likely than the norm to say that Satan is not real; to believe that eternal salvation is earned; and to contend that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth."

If I had hair, I'd be pulling it out.

Barna's assessment at the end of the report is insightful, I believe.

"The history of American Catholics is that of a pool of immigrants who have successfully blended into the native culture. They have done well at adapting to their surroundings and emerging to become a backbone of the community and the national economy. The questions raised fifty years ago about the political loyalties and social objectives of Catholics are no longer relevant in this society," Barna commented. "Yet, the cost of that struggle to achieve acceptance and legitimacy is that Catholics have largely lost touch with much of their substantive spiritual heritage. They retain an appreciation for tradition and consistency, but have much less of a commitment to knowing and practicing the commands of Christ. For instance, the data show that some of their long-held distinctives, such as being champions of social justice, are no longer a defining facet of their community."

"The trail of Catholicism in America is a clear example of culture influencing faith more often than faith influencing culture," Barna continued. "The faith of tens of millions of Catholics is affected by the prevailing culture more than by the central principles and teachings of the Bible. Spiritual leaders who are passionate about remaining true to the scriptures and to Catholicism’s historic commitment to Jesus Christ and the Word of God must address this spiritual drift within the body. If they fail to do so, in the next quarter century American Catholicism could well lose its ability to shape people’s minds and hearts in ways that conform to the historic teachings and purposes of Christianity."

The Second Vatican Council was meant to turn Catholics to the world - not to be assimilated by it, but to transform it through their faith. The problem, as far as my limited brain can analyze it, isn't with the teachings of the council, but with their lack of implementation. The Church exists to evangelize, according to "Evangelization in the Modern World" and to give praise to God through the liturgy. We can't focus on only one or the other without serious repurcussions. We've done just that, and Barna's survey illustrates the consequences.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Could the Gospel of John be evangelical?

While preparing last night to preach this morning, I looked at the "New Testament Message" commentary on the Gospel of John by James McPolin, S.J. At the conclusion of his commentary on the encounter in the third chapter of John between Jesus and Nicodemus, McPolin added a section titled, "The Gospel of Belief" which I found quite interesting. I'll share a bit of it with you.

"Faith is the key theme not only of Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus and the rest of the chapter but also every chapter in the gospel is about faith, from beginning (1:9-13) to end (20:30-31). Therefore it has been rightly called the gospel of belief. Still, not once does the abstract word "faith" occur in the gospel because there is only the personal activity of believing which is almost exclusively directed towards the person of Jesus. One may believe something about Jesus, for example, that he is Messiah and Son of God (20:30-31) or give credence to him by accepting as true what he says (2:22). But the element of personal commitment to Jesus is expressed in the most frequent phrase: "believing into" Jesus: "He who believes in (to) me has eternal life" (6:47; 3:18)

This "believing in (to)" Jesus goes far beyond accepting his message for it is a movement towards the person of Jesus, an attachment to him as the promised one and Son of God in such a way that the believer appropriates the very life of Jesus. Thus faith means to enjoy a life-giving relationship with him and to give oneself to Christ in dedication and full confidence.... Furthermore, believing in Jesus leads to "knowing" him; but this knowledge extends beyond the understanding of faith (6:69) and includes the experience of the person of Jesus in understanding and love, and a fellowship and communion of life with him (17:3)..."

Yesterday on Fr. Dwight Longenecker's blog, "Standing on My Head," he mentioned that he had been a speaker at the Evangelical Catholic Institute at which Sherry also spoke. He received several comments from people who were skeptical about EC - one, who was very concerned about orthodox belief, even went so far as to claim there was nothing on their website even remotely Catholic. But here's a quick quote from EC's welcome page:

"Jesus' ministry represented a continual invitation to a life of purpose and abundance that is discovered through communion with God, fellowship with His people, and mission to the world.

The Evangelical Catholic extends this same invitation, welcoming you to experience the profound love of God and to reflect that love in relationship. This transformational experience serves as the foundation and wellspring of our ministry, our deepest calling, and the very mission of the Church universal-calling people to interior conversion in Christ, helping people to grow in their faith, discerning and sharing our personal gifts in his Body, and transforming society by the power of the gospel."

I find it disturbing that a Catholic might read this and suspect that somehow it's creeping Protestantism.

We are hearing from the Gospel of John throughout this Easter season. Is our Catholic culture such that we don't recognize the call - the demand - for personal conversion and relationship to Jesus? How can I participate "fully, actively, and consciously" in the Mass if I'm not consciously seeking transformation in the encounter with Christ's body, blood, soul and divinity? How effective is the grace poured out upon me in any of the sacraments if I'm not willing to allow Christ to prune all that is unfruitful and un-Christlike from me? Can we say with St. Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me" (Gal 2:19b-20a)? How can I participate fully in the Mass if I'm not willing to offer myself in loving obedience to the Father with Jesus in his one, perfect sacrifice?

The assent to doctrine alone does not constitute a saving faith. Orthodoxy is necessary, but right doctrine alone does not save us. Otherwise, the Pharisees wouldn't have come under Jesus' critique. The Council of Trent, in chapter 7 on justification, says, "For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless..." Faith informed by love of God and neighbor, made joyful by the hope of salvation that is ours in Christ is a living faith - a faith that transforms our lives. It is a faith that is, at its foundation, a relation with Jesus.

Is the Gospel of John evangelical? Of course! The word evangelical comes from the Greek for "Good News!" And, of course, it's Catholic. After all, we included it in the canon of inspired texts!

Let's hear the call to become Beloved Disciples of Jesus that is contained on each page. Moreover, let's respond to that call.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Seven Theses to Nail to the Church Door

Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. has an interesting article (linked in the title of this post) on the history of the laity in the Church. What struck me was how recent is the idea of a truly lay apostolate, rather than the idea that the laity participate in the only true apostolate, that of the hierarchy. Fr. Aumann writes,

"During and after the Second Vatican Council the lay members of the Church have been called repeatedly to assume their rightful place among the People of God and to perform the apostolate that is their responsibility. This in itself constitutes a remarkable change in the traditional under standing of the role of the laity in the life and ministry of the Church."

Briefly looking at the role of the laity through time and the clericalization of the Church, he notes that "Closer to our own times, Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) stated: 'No one can deny that the Church is an unequal society in which God has destined some to command and others to obey.' Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) also declared that there are two distinct classes in the Church: pastors and their flocks, the leaders and the people. 'The role of the first order,' he said, 'is to teach, to govern and to lead men in life; to impose rules. The duty of the other is to submit itself to the first, to obey it, to carry out its orders and to honor it.'"

He mentions a few clerics who were instrumental in changing this view of the laity, like John Henry Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent Pallotti, founder of Catholic Action, not to mention the Popes named Pius X-XII. One of the foremost voices in the changing of the view of the hierarchy came from an outspoken and often suspected proponent of the laity, who in 1932 wrote,

"The prejudice that ordinary members of the faithful must limit themselves to helping the clergy in ecclesiastical apostolates has to be rejected. There is no reason why the secular apostolate should always be a mere participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. Secular people too have to have a duty to do apostolate; not because they receive a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church. Their mission... is fulfilled in their professions, their job, their family, and among their colleagues and friends."

That thought was taken up by the Second Vatican Council, which discussed the secular character of the laity in paragraph 31 of Lumen Gentium,

"Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity... By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth, and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the Spirit to the Gospel, they may con tribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties... The laity... are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth."

Whose prophetic voice was it that challenged the view of the laity as simply being the helpers of the clergy?

None other than Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the recently canonized founder of Opus Dei.

In our polarized American Church (which too often mirrors the polarization in secular politics in our country), we too often find it impossible to believe that voices from the opposite side of the (church) aisle might have something to say that we can agree with. So we don't listen to each other. What a tragic mistake, and what a scandal we present to the world. But there is also a tremendous irony in the emphasis on the part of some people in the Church, mostly toward the progressive end of the spectrum, that sees the key to greater lay dignity in being involved in roles that were traditionally taken by clerics. Such a view stems from a pre-Vatican II view of the Church!

What do I mean by that? Fr. Aumann points out the, "slow and gradual process by which the laity were given their rightful place in the mission of the Church. For example, in the early days of Catholic Action, Pope Pius XI defined it (i.e., the rightful place of the laity) as 'the participation of the laity in the hierarchical apostolate of the Church.' That statement was made in 1939..."

Within a generation, the Second Vatican Council, focusing on the purpose of the Church as the spreading of the Kingdom of Christ throughout the earth and enabling all people to enter into a relationship with Jesus, wrote, "All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate...Indeed, the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact that the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself."

The Council, which has sometimes been called a council on the laity, calls the Church to see its primary focus as leaven within the world. In this sense, the laity have a primary role, and the role of the clergy is, in some ways, secondary, and focused on helping the laity be prepared for that apostolate, and offering their efforts with Christ to the Father in the eucharistic liturgy.

The Mass is essential to the success of the apostolate, don't get me wrong. We can do nothing without Christ and the grace His death and resurrection make available to us. The Mass is the source and summit of our life as Christians. It is the source of the success of the Church's apostolate. It is also the summit of our life as Christians when the fruits of the apostolate are offered to the Father with Christ within the eucharistic sacrifice. Those fruits include new Christians gathered around the table of the Lord and the efforts of Christians to humanize secular institutions. Both of these give glory and praise to God.

Unfortunately, many of our ecclesial structures still reflect the pre-Vatican II mentality that saw the role of the cleric and the inner workings of the Church as institution as primary. I am not advocating a "democratization" or "Protestantization" of the Church. Such a process would still be focusing on the Church and its inner workings. What I am suggesting can be summarized in this way:

If the purpose of the Church is the evangelization of the world and the changing of secular institutions so that they respect the human dignity of each person and better reflect the will of God which is the good of each person, then

1. The focus of each diocese and parish must increasingly become that purpose.
2. The role of the clergy must be seen as primarily helping the laity embrace and succeed in their apostolate, since it is the laity who have access to those far from the Church and who participate in secular institutions.
3. This will mean a change in priestly formation to include a coherent and integrated emphasis on evangelization, pastoral governance, charisms, and the role of the laity in the Church's mission.
4. This also requires a re-examination and restructuring of the ways in which the clergy and lay pastoral staff spend their time and energy, as well as a change in how lay Catholics view themselves, the Church, and the world.
5. A primary goal of the clergy and lay pastoral staff must be the conversion of individual Catholic Christians to a personal relationship with Christ and intentional discipleship, as well as an intention to help the Christian community support individual and communal apostolic initiatives.
6. The sacraments, particularly the Mass, which is the source and summit of our life as Christians, must be studied and experienced in the context of our mission to the world and as the catalysts and ongoing graced supports to the individual and communal relationship with Christ.
7. That means that our apostolic efforts must be consciously, purposefully and specifically acknowledged in appropriate places in Mass, and also recognized as an integral part of our worship and praise of God. That is, I am worshipping God not only before the altar, but also when I act from Christian principles at work, at home, at play, and at rest.

I'm sure there are other points that could be made, but this is a start. Feel free to add other ideas or observations I may have overlooked.

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Saturday, January 6, 2007

How Do You Communicate An Experience?

In Fr. Mike's post on Recovering a Catholic Culture, I was struck by this passage:
"As is almost always the case, our wonderful Church documents presume or propose a culture of intentional discipleship, but if one does not exist in a parish, we have a bit of a catch-22. How do we foster intentional discipleship if the lived reality of the local parish is not actively promoting it?"
(I suppose my being struck by that shouldn't surprise me. It is the question that moves this entire blog, after all ;-))

But what I kept thinking about when reading this question is that part of the challenge rests in how we can communicate an experience.

What experience, you say? The encounter with Christ.

I personally like that way of speaking of this experience. Admittedly, it may be due to the context in which the meaning of this phrase was driven home for me, but it has always felt less saddled with the baggage of what most Americans identify as "classically Protestant" expressions, like "a personal relationship with Jesus" or "accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior". Even, today, when I hear those phrases, I must admit that I first and foremost think of the personal and (honestly) an almost ethereal Jesus. But "encounter?" For some reason, there's flesh there. And where I find Him in the flesh is in His people, in His Church. Cardinal Scola said much the same in his address* at the 2nd World Congress of Ecclesial Movements this past Pentecost, where he described the encounter with Jesus Christ as a "personal and communitarian event" (emphasis added). At least for me, the phrase "encounter" more easily brings this to mind.

But, I think, it is that experience, the encounter with Christ, that is part of what makes intentional discipleship possible. After all, how do you, exercising your freedom, choose to follow Christ if you have not first met Him? And is not to follow Him but to encounter Him anew each day? And here, I am talking about the existential of being a Christian. An active following that is the following of a Person, not, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented, an adherence to a Christianity that's been reduced to some "intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism ...".

Of course, once could say that this is precisely what the Church as been proposing through the ages: the apostles sharing their experience of His presence with others and inviting them to partake and then those others sharing their experience of Him with the next generation. But in some pockets (and, admittedly they are some really big pockets today) what is being offered to people is precisely what now Pope Benedict warned was not really Christianity. And when tested, it fails to satisfy, it falls short, and thus doesn't sustain and change a person.

(Okay, I know what you are thinking. Did he use all of these words to basically just restate Fr. Mike's question? Well, what did you expect, programmatic answers from me? Heh. Not likely. The best I have ever managed is to return to Christ's own reply to the question of St. Andrew and St. John: "come and see." )

* Sorry that the link is in Italian, but I couldn't find an English translation anywhere.

** The external link above is a hat tip to Fr. Julian Carron,and the title of his article on education, that inspired the lens of this post.

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Friday, January 5, 2007

Recovering a Catholic Culture

Sherry mentioned in another post a story I tell in the Called & Gifted workshop about someone asking me if I "had accepted Jesus as my personal savior." Of course, as a cradle Catholic, it made me very uncomfortable. I instinctively knew that there were presuppositions behind that question that I did not share, so "yes" somehow wasn't appropriate. That is, I couldn't point to a specific date and time when I had been "saved." But "no" wasn't appropriate, either. After all, I prayed in my own words (silently, and particularly fervently before tests in school and in life). I can still recite my first extemporaneous prayer, which quickly became my bedtime prayer, "God bless mommy and daddy and David (my older brother) and Barbie (my older sister) and Penny (the dog) and myself." I learned rote prayers that I could pray aloud with other Catholics. My wonderful parents made sure they never missed Mass, so consequently I never missed Mass. I even played Mass as a kid with my older brother and sister (as the youngest I was relegated to communicant). There were reminders in my home about Jesus: a crucifix in my room, with last year's palms behind it; a book of prayers by my bed; a holy water font at the door. I went to Catholic gradeschool and CCD (how'd that happen?), gave up something during Lent, was an altar boy… the whole nine yards.

In some ways I grew up in a Catholic culture not unlike the one described by Paul McLachlan at a Catholic Pages website article linked above. You might say, as one participant proposed on this blog, that I picked up Catholicism by osmosis. In fact, my identity was Catholic enough that I have never really seriously being anything else. Sherry jokes that in my case, everything about this kind of Catholic culture "worked" and I'm not only still a practicing Catholic, but a priest, for heaven's sake (well, actually for my sake and yours, and completely by the grace of God).

But I know there are many children who grew up very much like me who are no longer Catholic. Some may even call themselves, "recovering Catholics," while others have joined Protestant denominations, or dabbled in New Age stuff, or started their own evangelical church in their basement twenty years ago which grew into the megachurch down the street. When I was involved in campus ministry, it sometimes felt like the Catholic students I was least likely to see were those who had gone to Catholic schools. They might have been at the local parish, but I met some who, when I asked why they weren't at Mass, responded, "Father, I spent X years in Catholic schools – I've done my time."

As someone who has entered the Church from evangelicalism, Sherry is more acutely aware of this kind of Catholic culture than I am. She mentioned the "don't ask, don't tell" atmosphere with regard to sharing our faith with each other that I never really thought about. It was the way we did things.

Over the last two years or so, I've begun to question if there aren't really two parallel Catholic cultures. One is the "cultural Catholicism" I experienced and benefited from, the other the Catholic culture envisioned by bishops and Popes and derived from the Scriptures. An example of what I mean follows. It's from the 1985 U.S. bishops document on Campus Ministry, "Empowered by the Spirit". In speaking about the importance of Christian community on college campuses, the bishops wrote

"The Church gains credibility when the dream of community produces genuine commitment and intelligent effort.
- In the ideal community of faith, the Mystery that rules over our lives is named and worshiped.

- Dedication to Christ is fostered, and openness to all truth, goodness, and beauty is maintained.

- The life of the Spirit is nourished and discussed.

- Positive images of God, Christ, Mary, and the afterlife warm the heart and structure the imagination.

- The common good is emphasized and personal development encouraged. Individuals experience true freedom and at the
same time accept responsibility for the well-being of the group.

- Traditional wisdom is available and the best contemporary insights are valued.

- Prayerful liturgies enable us to praise God with full hearts and create a sense of belonging, as well as nourish people for a
life of service.

- Members are known by name and newcomers are welcomed.

- Unity of faith is celebrated while legitimate pluralism is recognized.

- Individuals find both support and challenge and can share their joys and sorrows.

- The members hunger for justice and have the courage to fight the dehumanizing tendencies in the culture.

- The community knows the sorrows of life but remains a people of hope.

In this ideal community of faith, the members are of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32) and receive the spirit of wisdom which brings them to full knowledge of Jesus Christ who is the head of the Church (Eph 1:17-23)." Empowered by the Spirit, 37.

When I was involved in campus ministry, reading passages like this both thrilled me and exhausted me. "Who's going to make this ideal a reality?" I'd ask myself and my staff. Now I know the answer - intentional disciples! As is almost always the case, our wonderful Church documents presume or propose a culture of intentional discipleship, but if one does not exist in a parish, we have a bit of a catch-22. How do we foster intentional discipleship if the lived reality of the local parish is not actively promoting it?

The culture described above goes beyond surrounding our living environment with sacramentals. Not that sacramentals are bad. They are wonderful - able to sanctify almost every moment of our lives. However, their connection to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, from which their power is drawn, "sanctifies the lives of those who are well-disposed," (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 61) i.e., for those whose faith is alive and well-formed. Once again, we come up against the importance of a conscious daily choice to follow Christ which is the presumed foundation for a full Catholic life. I have some thoughts on how we can promote intentional discipleship in our parishes which I'll post in a few days. I'm interested in reading your reflections and comments, however.