Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advice to a new semiarian

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I have just gone off to the Seminary of the Diocese of Frostbite Falls, at Bathsheba Bible College and frankly I feel like I am on my way to a desert island. Do you have any words of wisdom, or at least some humorous anecdotes that can distract me from my current nervous agitation?
Robinson K. Russo
Dear Rob, may I call you Rob?
I remember my first night at Bathsheba Seminary. I lay in bed thinking what am I doing here? That was about 50 years ago. It was a very different world, but I must admit, the Lord has not changed one little bit. He has been faithful. You are investigating the diocesan priesthood, and I will not spare you one gory detail, so before I start, I want to share an experience I had when I was first ordained. People make a great fuss over young priests. I’m not sure why. I was once a young priest and believe me, I was pretty much a self-absorbed idiot. 
Still, people are very kind and if you are ordained you will find that you celebrate about twenty “first Masses.” There’s the parish, the prayer group, the cousin in Iowa, the first assignment. The list of people who want you to say a first Mass is unending. I even said a first Mass back in Lower Upper-Hessia. After visiting my cousins in Germany, I went down to Italy and realized that it was the first time I had been alone since I had been ordained almost a year before. I made my way to Rome where I found rooms at the Casa Internazionale del Clero (International House of Priests. I am not making this up.) I asked the dear Irish nun who ran things if I might be able to say Mass. She showed me a chapel and set me up with chalice, vestments etc. and then left. I was about to say Mass absolutely alone, except of course for the Angels, the Communion of Saints, the Blessed Mother and the Holy Trinity present in that tiny chapel. 
I got to the words of the offertory, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation” at which point I broke down sobbing. I was a priest. I was offering the sacrifice of Calvary for the redemption of the world. I was about to call down the Holy Spirit on bread and wine and I would hold heaven in my hands. The goal of so many years and so much internal and even external suffering had been reached. I was a priest. By God’s grace, I was a priest. From that day to this I have never regretted the decision. There are lot of things I have regretted, decisions, failures, tasks and even sins, but I have never once regretted the decision to accept God’s call to be a Catholic priest.
I want to start with the central beauty of the priesthood because I want to be completely honest about the stuff that isn’t so beautiful. I want to tell you all the everyday things I wish I had been told when I was your age. I want to talk about studies, money, friends, people, what not to throw in your garbage can, family, people in whom you shouldn’t confide no matter how nice they seem now. You need to know about how to handle a calendar, sleep, health and sports, diet, being invited out to dinner, priest collectors. 
You will need to learn about building maintenance, building permits and the construction trades. Make sure that you assemble a good tool kit and know carpentry and basic wiring as well as boiler maintenance. You need to know about spiritual warfare. Believe me, the devil will come calling sooner than later and he is usually disguised as an angel of light. You need to know about gifts and charitable contributions, the ones you get and the ones you give. You need to know about popularity and the lack thereof. You need to know about the intellectual life of the priest. The Bible!! You need to know about the priest and the Bible, as well as the priest and his life as a disciple. You need to know about alcohol, drugs and sex (just say “no”) and how to live comfortably in a glass house, rather a magnifying glass house. And you need to know, above all, about prayer.
Why do you think the Lord may be calling you to the priesthood? The answer, “I want to help people,” just isn’t good enough. If that’s your answer, I would suggest that you become a social worker, or better still a plumber. There is a specific way that a priest helps people. He brings the forgiveness and healing of Christ in the sacraments of anointing and penance and he brings them the most valuable thing in all the world: the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. If you don’t believe the real presence of Christ is the Blessed Sacrament, I would suggest that the priesthood is not for you. Therefore, the first suggestion I want to give you is that you spend time in front of the tabernacle. Time spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is never time wasted. Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. Seek FIRST.
The devil, who is not very happy with you at the moment, will do his best to weaken you if he cannot dissuade you. There is a saying that whom the devil cannot make bad he makes busy. Prayer FIRST. Remember that the disciples spent 9 days in prayer before the afternoon of Pentecost, but what an afternoon it was! Let the Lord build the house, and then it will be well built. There is a reason Jesus worked in construction. Let Him do the designing and the heavy lifting and the project should come out well.
To be continued…

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A modest proposal...

Continued from last week…

It’s time to wrap up another whiny harangue. I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel. Remember when I talked about those youth rallies on the Puerto Rican west side during which a thousand Puerto Rican teenagers surged forward to give their lives to Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit? 

Remember, I said they were totally hokey, with tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes. I just got back from a wonderful retreat, at the highlight of which the gathered congregation surged forward to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It was totally hokey, tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes and it was wonderful. It occurred to me that the whole thing is about conversion. 

To the degree that we - the church - understand and pursue personal conversion as our first priority, we will flourish or perish. The days of assuming conversion are over. Most young people in our culture don’t pray. Why do I mention prayer? It is in prayer, the lifting of the heart and mind to God, that we have the encounter with the Almighty. It is that personal, though not private, encounter that empowers and motivates the Christian life. Our young people have never learned how and they don’t see the point of it. Check out the Pew Surveys on the subject. They have never encountered God. If people do not have an encounter with heaven, they are not going to live the Christian life on earth.

There are moments when the world changes. The life of William Wilberforce was one of those moments. Born in 1759, he experienced a conversion in 1784 and thereafter dedicated himself to the abolition of slavery and came to be that movement’s de facto leader. He and his movement succeeded in ending slavery in the British Empire by 1833, which in turn made abolition inevitable in the United States and the rest of the Christian world.  Wilberforce was part of the very unfashionable Anglican evangelical movement. The upper-class sneered at evangelicals, especially those who, like Wilberforce, came from their own numbers. An evangelical Englishman had no future either in politics, or high society. They were a bunch of fanatics who distributed religious tracts outside taverns and one really wouldn’t want to be seen with or, infinitely worse, be one of them. Well, they changed the world and ended one of the greatest crimes of human history. 

If one can speak of a leader of the Anglican evangelical movement the nod would have to go to John Wesley who lived and died an Anglican an ordained one to boot! Wesley’s tireless missionary work among the poor of England started after a horrible ship ride home from a failed missionary journey to the Americas. Onboard he encountered a group of German Pietists and their pastor who maintained complete calm during a ferocious storm. As they prayed in the bow of the boat the English ran about in panic. Wesley asked the Pietist pastor why the Germans had been so calm while the Anglicans had been terrified. To which question the pastor posed another: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and have you been sealed with the Holy Spirit?” Wesley had to admit that he didn’t know. After he arrived back in London he started to attend Pietist prayer meetings and on May 24, 1738, he experienced what he called a strange warming of the heart. From then on he was a fearless preacher throughout Great Britain despite persecution by his fellow Anglican clergymen. Wesley and his friends preached wherever they could despite the opposition of the less enthused. He was accused of all sorts of horrible things, including an attempt to re-establish Catholicism! Heaven forfend!! 

Wesley believed that the government sponsored Anglican Church had failed to call sinners to repentance, and these sinners even included corrupt clergy! Despite the great opposition, Wesley travelled Britain preaching the Gospel, mostly on horseback, until his death in 1791 at the age of 87.

So, am I suggesting that we all become Methodists? Wesley was never a Methodist. He died as an Anglican priest. I am merely suggesting that we answer the question that Wesley had to answer. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life? Have you been sealed with his Holy Spirit?
Rephrase the question anyway you pleased but ask and answer it honestly. Can you honestly say that you have met Jesus of Nazareth in a personal way, or is he just a dead philosopher who has a lot of followers? And the second question: When was the last time the Holy Spirit spoke to you? If the answer is, “a long time ago,” then perhaps it's time to renew an old relationship. If the answer is never, maybe it’s time you asked the Holy Spirit to intervene in your life. If we all did this, I have a feeling things would be quite different.  

Imagine a Church that expected the Holy Spirit to speak at staff meetings, parish councils, planning sessions, finance committees and even from the pulpit!!! I said a while ago, that just citizens make a just society not the other way around. If we could only expect God to speak, and if we learned to hear clearly, I suspect that the Church and the world would be very different places. 
the Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Overcoming an early '70's Seminary Education

I was a part-time hippie and a fashionable socialist. I actually owned a Mao jacket and The Little Red Book of the sayings of Chairman Mao. I marched in protest. I sat in protest and I played guitar in protest. I slept on the floor. I tried to be a vegetarian. I was partial to Trotsky, but I think that was really about the cool glasses he wore. I actually leafletted for feminism. I was an idiot. I snapped out of it when the peace committee at my college had a huge fight between the violently non-violent and the non-violently non-violent. (I took the side of the non-violently nonviolent.) 

I was also dallying with interesting religions at the time and ended up in a Pentecostal prayer group at the same time that I was giving up on political activism. I found out that prayer works a whole lot better than community organizing. It seems inevitable that today’s liberators are tomorrow’s tyrants. You can’t have a just society without just citizens. The conversion of the citizen is the only way to change a nation. We, the clergy of the sixties, blew it. We failed utterly.

I spent my early ministry pre- and post-ordination on the Puerto Rican west side. We had a huge youth prayer group, four or five hundred teenagers. They weren’t all saints, by any means. It was a great place to meet girls. The gangs would wait to kill people coming out of the prayer group. There were prayer meetings that exited to gunfire. I was too dumb to know how dangerous it was, and what was really going on in the back pews.

Now it’s 40 years later. I don’t hear much about Puerto Rican gangs on the west side anymore. I hear about Puerto Rican accountants, attorneys, electricians, mechanics and secretaries. What happened? A lot of things, but one thing that I know happened for many was conversion. There were so many different groups all pushing for conversion to Christ. We used to hold youth rallies that would attract a thousand kids. We would work out truces with the gangs so kids could pass over gang boundaries for the weekend. We had no budgets, and not much organization, but we fed and entertained a thousand kids for whole weekends. The highlight of the rally always came when a thousand kids surged forward to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior. 

It was hokey, tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes. It was about as theologically deep as a puddle. It had all the decorum and dignity of a clown car. The Saul Alinsky, Carl Rogers-trained clergy of the neighborhood were appalled and did their best to put an end to it. This unbalanced and overly emotional sort of thing was dangerous and certainly not Catholic as far as they were concerned. So, a lot of these kids went un-pastored after their conversion and a lot of them joined protestant Pentecostal churches that were happy to shepherd them. Some drifted back into old ways, but they could never quite forget their encounter with Christ and now, 40 years later as I look back at that time that has absorbed so much of my life and energy, it occurs to me that, on a certain level, it worked. To find out that God was real and that Jesus loved them broke the cycle of poverty and violence for many of them. 

We never told them that society had messed them up. We told them that sin had messed them up and that they could repent and Christ would accept them. The Latin community that I knew was torn by marital instability, violence, alcohol, substance abuse, gambling and prostitution. When someone experienced a conversion, especially in a fundamentalist church, it was the end of gambling, the end of wasting money on the botanicas (voodoo stores) the end of smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.

Automatically, a person who underwent a conversion and was socialized into one of the strict storefront churches was suddenly richer, safer and more involved with their families. I won’t say that they were all happily-ever-after-stories, but they certainly were not sad-and-hopeless-ever-after stories.

The local Catholic pastors, and their fundraising efforts never seemed to mind drinking, smoking and bingo in the basement. That sort of thing kept the schools open. I have no objection to a dance or a Las Vegas night or any of that stuff when its purpose is to bring people together as a family, especially in a community that isn’t enslaved by all that, but when slowly, quietly become the main focus of the institution; it ceases to be a religious institution.

Well, guess what? We have to close a lot of things, and my suspicion is that back in the grand old sixties if we the clergy had been what the Lord had wanted and not so much a community organizing group, we would not be facing this kind of current mess. 

To be continued