Friday, September 26, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 14

The following is a convoluted explanation of the reasons for my hesitation to baptize, confirm and give first communion. You may find it interesting. I will discuss the curses associated with First Holy Communion and the curses associated with Baptism.

I knew an old preacher who used to say, “You build the church and preach the Kingdom. Most people do it the other way around. They preach the church and build little kingdoms for themselves.  Where the Kingdom is preached, the church is built. Where the Church is built, the kingdom is preached.”  Most of the time, we preach the church. Some people talk incessantly about the church, fascinated by the latest gossip from Rome. Others preach the church by insisting that you can only be saved by their church no matter how tiny or recently founded, and that your church is wrong and you will go to hell for belonging to it. Protestants, Catholics and even the non-denominational denominations preach the superiority of the churches.  

The phrase “build the kingdom” just doesn’t appear in the New Testament. It appears possibly once in the Old Testament. “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10) Jeremiah is over kingdoms and nation to build and plant. In the text, these seem to be already existing kingdoms and nations.  The phrase “to build the kingdom” just doesn’t appear in the Bible, no matter how often you have heard from enthusiastic preachers or bureaucrats of religion. 

When someone talks about “build the kingdom” they are usually hoping for a corner office at the chancery and a nice budget.  We preach the kingdom. I say it to the point of being tedious, but kingdom in Greek and Hebrew is a very inclusive word. It means royalness, royal house area or persons ruled by a king. It is primarily the quality of royal dignity. For 21st centurists a kingdom is an archaic sort of governmental system or a specific geographic territory, like the kingdom of Great Britain. For those who lived at the time of Christ, kingdom was a quality of royalty that conferred authority over people and places.  Jesus came, not building, but “preaching the kingdom.”   “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matt 4:17) 
Preach the Kingdom build the Church. 

My job as a pastor is thus church-building and kingdom-preaching.  The sacraments exist to sanctify the faithful, that is, to make them holier. Teaching, praying for the faithful, and the administration of the sacraments in an appropriate way are my job as pastor. I am also charged with the oversight of the physical goods of the parish — that is the finances and buildings.   

I am a pastor who is to house and feed the sheep. I am not an evangelist. You who are reading this have that task, which is to invite people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. You can do that by learning how to pray for people by visiting the sick and feeding the hungry as well as all the other works of mercy. You are Christ’s face on the street. I am Christ’s face in the parish.  

So many clergy never say no because they believe that this will “evangelize” those who are alienated from the church. Quite the opposite, it isn’t evangelism. It is enabling behavior and is dishonest.  A sacrament is a commitment to the Lord and the Church. To confer sacraments on people who have no intention of fulfilling the covenantal responsibilities to which the sacrament binds them is harmful to those individuals and to the wider Church.

Haven’t you read what St. Paul says about the Holy Eucharist?  “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on them. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1Cor 11:29, 30)  St. Paul says that receiving communion unworthily is poisonous, certainly spiritually and even physically.  A Sacrament is an oath to the death.  That’s what the Latin word sacrament means.  

If you want your child to be confirmed or to receive First Holy communion without intending to teach them to practice the faith, you are causing them to commit perjury. You are making them oath-breakers. You are encouraging them to lie, to break their marriage vows, to live as people without any moral backbone. Is that what you want for your children?  By forcing them to Confirmation and Communion when you yourself don’t go to weekly Mass you will make them disrespect you as an unfaithful person, a lying oath-breaker. You want them to take a solemn oath that you yourself disregard. Is this what you want for your children? 

The same is true of Baptism. If you have a child baptized and have no intention to bring them up in the practice of the faith, you are committing them to a responsibility that they cannot fulfill. One day they will stand before the throne of God with their souls stained by the waters of baptism which they and you made foul by neglect. You and the sponsors you choose make the most solemn promises at Baptism to raise this child in the faith. You will stand before God someday, responsible not only with your own damnation, but also for the damnation of these children whom you promised to raise as Christian, but taught to live dishonest lives. 

By baptizing children whom you will never teach the faith and to whom you will never give honest and good examples, you are perjuring yourselves to them and to God, and this comes with a frightful curse. You are a curse to yourselves and to these children.  

To my fellow clergy who think this harsh, remember what good and gentle Jesus says to the beloved disciple, the one who taught that God is Love in Revelation 3:16 “So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  

We think we are being pastoral. We are not. We are enabling and infecting the whole body of Christ with a bland passionless Christianity when the world is longing for the real thing. The world is desperate for people who give their lives for the wellbeing of humanity and we pander to people who want to have a nice party and photo op.  

Rev. Richard T. Simon

Friday, September 19, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 13

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued. Still.
Can.528-2. The pastor is to see to it that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful. He is to work so that the Christian faithful are nourished……
You may notice that the word faithful is much repeated in the sections of canon law which I have cited. The pastor is to care for the faithful. The unwashed infidel and the lapsed apostate are nowhere mentioned. This is explained by some strange passages of scripture.  
“A complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. ‘Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.…”  (Acts 6:1-3)
Well, just who did the Twelve think they were?  They should have been anxious as humble followers of Jesus to serve the poor and they should have been glad to wash their feet! That’s what real Christians do!  Au contraire!  
I have another story that might help explain. When I was a student at Bathsheba Bible College I worked summers at Frostbite Falls Amalgamated Widget Company in the widget warehouse. My job was to fill widget orders and put the heavy boxes of widgets on wooden pallets. The fully loaded pallets would weigh close to a ton. A fork lift driver would pick up the pallet of widgets and move it to the loading dock. The fork lift drivers were a surly lot and prone to taking breaks. 
The whole warehouse funneled through the main aisle and the one-ton widget pallets would pile up and the whole warehouse would grind to a halt. The foreman would then jump on a forklift and personally move widget pallets. I remember pointing out to my rich uncle, Gottlieb Gottbucks, what a great guy the foreman was, not afraid to get down in the trenches and do some real work.
Uncle Gottbucks just shook his head and said, “That foreman is the best paid fork lift driver in Minnesota.”  He meant that if the foreman had been doing his job, there would never be a pile of widget pallets and the business would not have ever ground to a halt.
In the body of Christ we all have our jobs to do, and the people we are to serve. If I do your job and you do mine — or worse if you assume  that I am the pastor and therefore it’s all my job — the church, like the widget warehouse will grind to a halt, as we see it happening in Europe and America.
God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they?…” (1Cor. 12:28, 29)
My job is to nourish the faithful. Does this mean I should baptize it if it’s breathing and bury it if it’s not, no questions asked? Perhaps a recent article by the irascible and unpleasant Fr. Simon might be of some help at this point: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me”  (John 10:14)
There is a map on the front page of the bulletin today. It shows the parish boundaries. The times are a-changing. I am now the only priest at St. Lambert’s.  Deacon O’Leary and I are responsible for the care of souls in this parish, not those of other parishes.  Our solemn duty is to build up the church. So, for whom are we responsible?  As you may read in the Rev. Know it All’s rambling articles, we are responsible to serve the faithful of St. Lambert’s Parish.  A reasonable definition of a faithful parishioner includes three categories:  
  •       Baptized Catholics who live within the area bounded by Jarvis on the south Greenwood on the north, McCormick on the east and Kenton on the west. (This would include any gnomes or trolls living under trees on the southeast side of the golf course, but so far none have asked for Baptism or First Holy Communion.)

  •       Anyone who has registered in the parish and FAITHFULLY attends Sunday Mass here at St. Lambert’s.

  •       Anyone who has a genuine pastoral relationship with Deacon O’Leary or me.

Therefore, I will not admit anyone to the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation or Matrimony who is not a parishioner. The one exception I will make is for grandchildren of faithful parishioners whose parents are also active Catholics in another parish, as demonstrated by the required letter of permission form that child’s pastor. Confession and the Anointing of the sick are open to all, because they are sacraments of repentance that can be repeated.  
I will accept anyone for burial who has fulfilled the conditions of membership in the past or active membership in the recent past. Residence in the parish boundaries at the time of death will also be respected. This is meant to include members who have moved away in retirement, but still legitimately regard St. Lambert as their spiritual home.

Next week: an explanation of the curses involved in Baptism and First Holy Communion.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 12

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued.  

On to another thrilling episode in an ongoing disquisition on what’s wrong with the Catholic priesthood, but first; a grammar lesson. 

Verbs can have a number of moods. Some verbs are in a good mood, others are in a really lousy mood. I’m joking of course.  No, the moods, or modes, of the verb are as follows: The declarative mood states a fact: “I blather on endlessly.”  The subjunctive mood states a  possibility or contingency: “I may blather on endlessly if no one shuts me up;” or “I may choose to blather on endlessly.” The optative mood express a wish (or a hope) “May spiders nest in your bouffant hairdo and finally cause you to change it.” 
In English, a strange and convoluted language that was once spoken in the United States, one uses the word “may” to denote the subjunctive or optative mood. The word “can” always expresses a fact. It is always in the demonstrative mood. All this is a prelude to a discussion of the minister of the sacrament.
  1. Any Christian CAN validly baptize. Only a priest or deacon MAY licitly baptize except in the case of real emergency. 
  2. Only a bishop CAN hear confessions or an ordained priest who is delegated by his bishop. 
  3. Only a bishop or priest CAN confer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
  4. Only a bishop, or a priest specifically delegated by a bishop CAN confer the Sacrament of Confirmation.
  5. Only a bishop MAY validly ordain a priest or another bishop. Even if a bishop is not the ordinary bishop of the diocese, he CAN ordain, but MAY not without the permission of the ordinary diocesan bishop. A bishop CAN, but MAY not ordain a bishop without the express delegation of the Pope.
  6. Only a bishop or priest CAN validly offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist. A priest MAY be the principal celebrant of the sacrifice in the absence of the bishop, though he MAY NOT, or at least should not, be the principal celebrant if a bishop is also celebrating the Mass with him.
  7. A Bishop, priest or deacon CAN NOT confer the sacrament of marriage. The ministers of the sacrament of Matrimony are the bride and groom. The bishop, priest or deacon stands as witness for the Church. If there is no possibility of a bishop, priest or deacon being present, a delegated layperson MAY be the Church witness to a marriage. This is very exceptional. It only happens during plagues, persecutions or on deserted islands. Though the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament, they MAY NOT and usually CAN NOT marry expect in the presence of an ecclesial (Church) witness. 

Well, that should clean things up! Let me summarize the whole thing. There are 7 sacraments. A bishop CAN confer six of them, all but marriage. A presbyter is a sort of stand in bishop for Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Confession
Now pay attention.This part will get really confusing. 

A deacon is a sort of stand in bishop for Baptism and as a witness for Marriage.  The priesthood and the diaconate are the two arms of the bishop. The priest is the icon of Christ the shepherd, and the deacon is the icon of Christ the servant. The bishop is both the head deacon and the head priest of a diocese.

I believe that in well run parishes where people are really desirous of the sacraments, a deacon should baptize new Christians young and old, and should be the witness to marriage, leaving the priest free to say Mass, hear confession and anoint the sick. Things like visiting the sick, feeding the poor, conducting wake services and such, CAN and MAY be conducted buy any baptized believer. Bishops, priests and deacons CAN and should feed the poor and console the bereaved, not because they are clergy, but because they are baptized Christians. These works of mercy are the job of the believer, not the clergy.  I hope you understand me. I’m not saying that the clergy are off the hook, but they are not the only ones responsible for the works of mercy and the life of the Church.

Here is an example: I offer Mass. I stand in the vestibule. People come and want to arrange a marriage in 30 seconds while small children are tugging at my chasuble and people are trying to greet me and a sobbing penitent wants his confession heard right there in the vestibule. Meanwhile, the St. Dymphna Guild is having their annual baked groundhog dinner in the basement. Someone comes upstairs to tell me that both the St. Dymphna Guild and the baked groundhog casserole are getting cold and are waiting for you, Father, to come down and offer the traditional baked groundhog blessing. You finally dismiss the last suppliant who was telling you in real time about his Bible Cruise to Alaska, you run to the sacristy, rip off your vestments, charge down to the basement to be greeted by a hungry mob saying, “Where have you been????”   

I tell them, “You should have started without me!”  

“Oh no, Father! That would have been impolite, and besides, only a priest can say the annual groundhog prayer of blessing, or it will not come with the traditional indulgences.”

Again, I can feel my coronary arteries tightening in preparation for the ingestion of groundhog gravy. 

The point I am trying to make is that it’s over. Done. Finito. Kaput. If the laity don’t understand that they CAN, MAY and SHOULD exercise their legitimate ministries in the Church, things like the joyous celebration of St. Dymphna and the groundhog casserole will soon go the way of the dodo and the wooly mammoth.

Here’s an example of something that’s going well. In my parish I say Mass every morning.  Mass is followed by the Prayer to St. Michael, the Rosary, the Litany and the Divine Mercy chaplet. I lead none of them, though I sometime stay for them, schedule permitting.  Were I to lead any of them, those devotions would stop when I was not present and when I am done with this vale of toil and tears and they send some new fellow, those devotions would stop entirely. 

You see, my job is to say Mass and preach a sermon. None of the rest is my job. It is yours.  
“But Father, it’s so much nicer when the priest is there.” 

No it’s not. The clericalism of the past has caused Catholicism to become a sort of spectator sport for most people who call themselves Catholic.That era is ending. And it’s ending fast. My job is to pray and preach and to make sure the sacraments are validly and licitly administered. It is not necessarily to bless groundhog gravy. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 11

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued.  (This section is remarkably confusing and much of it is fine print that can be glossed over.)
When I was first a pastor, the principal of the school, a formidable woman strode up the side aisle of the church where she found me reading my breviary. She glared at me saying. “There is no heat in the school!” 
To which I responded, “In all my years of seminar, I took not one course in boiler maintenance.”  I then put down my breviary, got up, went to the basement, started randomly pushing buttons, and, voila! The heat kicked on. 
What is the job of the priest? In brief, whatever you want it to be at the moment.  One of the questions most frequently asked of me, “Where is the bathroom?” The next statement is usually, “there is no toilet paper in the bathroom.”  I remember a call at 10:30 PM one night, the caller asking if perhaps her purse had been found in the parish hall after bingo. The answer was “No, not to my knowledge.” 
“Father could you down to the hall and look?” 
Again, good priest guilt kicks in. You may think, “How hard was that?” You have 2.3 children who are always losing things. It makes you crazy. I have a thousand children. I could sit by the phone all night waiting for interesting phone calls.
When I first came to this parish, the drunken stalker of a long dead pastor called a few times a night demanding to know his current telephone number. The good priest sleeps next to his phone, so that he can rush to the hospital in the middle of the night. I must admit that by this standard I am not a very good priest.
We have this image of the radically available priest waiting by the phone and coming to the death bed for the last minute conversion. This happens. I have actually done this a number of times. The number of drunks calling the rectory in the middle of the night is far greater than the repentant sinner at death’s door and after a while Father gets pretty tired. The life of the priest, as portrayed by popular culture and imagined by those who don’t actually know priests, is not a life that can be lived for a very long time.  So what are the duties of the priest?  They are very well spelled out in canon law beginning with canon 273. You can skip the fine print if you want to, but I thought it might be interesting. (You can find them in their entirety in the Code of Canon Law available on the web, and a real page turner.) 
Can. 275-2. Clerics are to acknowledge and promote the mission which the laity, each for his or her part, exercise in the Church and in the world.
Can. 276-1. In leading their lives, clerics are bound in a special way to pursue holiness since, having been consecrated to God by a new title in the reception of orders, they are dispensers of the mysteries of God in the service of His people…..they are to nourish their spiritual life from the two-fold table of sacred scripture and the Eucharist; therefore, priests are earnestly invited to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice daily and deacons to participate in its offering daily;  (they) are obliged to carry out the liturgy of the hours daily. They are equally bound to make time for spiritual retreats. They are urged to engage in mental prayer regularly, to approach the sacrament of penance frequently, to honor the Virgin Mother of God with particular veneration, and to use other common and particular means of sanctification.
 Can. 277-1. Clerics… are bound to celibacy.
Can. 279-1. Clerics are to pursue sacred studies and to attend pastoral lectures, theological meetings, and conferences.
Can. 281-1. Since clerics dedicate themselves to ecclesiastical ministry, they deserve remuneration… by which they can provide for the necessities of their life. 
And here are some the duties of pastors:
Can. 528-1. A pastor is obliged to make provision so that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish; for this reason, he is to take care that the lay members of the Christian faithful are instructed in the truths of the faith, especially by giving a homily on Sundays and holy days of obligation and by offering catechetical instruction. He is to foster works through which the spirit of the gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice. He is to have particular care for the Catholic education of children and youth. He is to make every effort, even with the collaboration of the Christian faithful, so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion or do not profess the true faith.
Can.528-2. The pastor is to see to it that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful. He is to work so that the Christian faithful are nourished through the devout celebration of the sacraments and, in a special way, that they frequently approach the sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and penance. He is also to endeavor that they are led to practice prayer even as families and take part consciously and actively in the sacred liturgy which, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, the pastor must direct in his own parish and is bound to watch over so that no abuses creep in.
Can. 529-1. In order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care.
Can. 530 The following functions are especially entrusted to a pastor: 1/ the administration of baptism; 2/ the administration of the sacrament of confirmation to those who are in danger of death 3/ the administration of Viaticum and of the anointing of the sick; 4/ the assistance at marriages and the nuptial blessing; 5/ the performance of funeral rites;6/ the blessing of the baptismal font at Easter time, the leading of processions and solemn blessings7/ the more solemn Eucharistic celebration on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
Can. 532 He is to take care that the goods of the parish are administered according to the norm of canons. 1281-1288. (these canons talk about the duties of the good householder and his employment of people to maintain the facility)
Can. 533-1. A pastor is obliged to reside in a rectory near the church. §2. Unless there is a grave reason to the contrary, a pastor is permitted to be absent from the parish each year for vacation for at most one continuous or interrupted month.
Let’s sum it up:  I have to pray the breviary daily, to share the word of God, offer Sunday and Holyday Masses, make sure the sacraments are administered, to get to know the faithful of ONE parish, to continue to study and pray. I am invited to say daily Mass, though not required. I am required to say the breviary. And oh, I get one month’s vacation every year.
There is a word that weaves its way in and out of the text. That word is FAITHFUL!!!!  I am not an evangelist. That’s the job of the laity. I am not supposed to administer sacraments to the UNFAITHFUL, no matter what you’ve seen in a made for TV movie. One of my major jobs is to get you to do your job. What’s your job? It’s to live a holy life, praying, participating in the Eucharist, studying, performing the works of mercy and above all being Christ in the world. I am not a vending machine of sacraments for the marginally religious. I am supposed to bring the lapsed back to the practice of the faith, not to gloss over the fact that they haven’t darkened the church door since the Nixon administration. 
And here is one of my absolute favorites:
Can. 515-1. A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor.
 Hmmm…..A community of the Christian FAITHFUL. Did you read that?  FAITHFUL??? Again let me say “FAITHFUL.” You catch my drift. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” (Ephesians 4:11). The sooner we know the difference between pastors and evangelists, the better off we’ll be. The faithful need shepherds. The faithless need Christ. Parishes need to be restructured to admit the current reality instead of living in a black and white Bing Crosby movie about the “Bells of St. Delilah’s.”
Next week: more of this stuff, but aimed at deacons

Friday, August 29, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 10

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued. (I guess I’m still whining, but now I’m whining about evangelism and our lack of it.)

You may well ask, “If this stuff is so great, why didn’t we Catholics used to talk this way?”  Catholics don’t “get saved.”  They don’t “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior.”  They don’t have altar calls, they don’t have revivals and above all, lay people, the rank and file doesn’t pray spontaneously with other people. Clergy don’t even pray like that. You might say an “Our Father” or for the really fanatical, you might say a Rosary, but praying with someone to “meet Jesus”?  Unheard of! Impossible! My interior should stay right where it is: inside! That’s why it’s called interior. Religion is best left to the professionals. Let the clergy do the praying.  My job as a layman is to go to Mass, shell out the bucks and keep my nose clean. Now you want me to hold someone’s hand, tell them to close their eyes and ask Jesus into their hearts. If someone did that to me I would suspect they were thinking about picking my pocket. No, sir! When I want religion I go to a professional and when I go to Mass I sit in the back pew because I am not worthy and proud of it!

Alright, I’ll admit we didn’t talk this way years ago, we didn’t have to. We lived in a world where we couldn’t help but meet the Lord. He lived down the street from us in the big house with the steeple. We went to Catholic schools where we were taught by nuns, some of whom actually had an intense faith. Our two parents, one male, one female, taught us to pray and took us to Mass. To see my parents pray quietly after Communion was to see someone who was talking to the Lord. We absorbed Him from our very environment.

Now, Communion is a chaotic melee as we get ready for the after-Communion liturgical dance, the speaker who wants to shake down the congregation for a worthy cause or the Communion class singing a “meditation song” that is sweet enough to give you diabetes. Kids don’t get the chance to watch their parents or anyone else in prayer. The only thing kids can absorb in church these days is a strong desire for donuts and coffee. The idea of lingering in church to pray after Mass is unthinkable. All the best donuts will be gone!

I was saved by watching my parents pray. Kids in this present age of the Church rarely have this experience.
The dear nuns reinforced this sense of the presence of the Lord, but at the same time as they encouraged us to have a strong spiritual life, they warned us never to talk about it, because that would be spiritual pride, and that would cancel out all the grace we had just gotten from prayer. Grace was sort of like points in a video game that you could lose instantly with one false move.

If as a kid you actually prayed, you never talked about it for two reasons: you were afraid that because of spiritual pride you would wake up one day roasting in hell because you had committed the sin of PRESUMPTION!!! And there was a yet more dreadful fate! You kept your mouth closed about your spiritual life because if you seemed excessively pious, they might just ship you off to a convent or seminary at the age of 13 just when those formerly yucky members of the opposite gender were beginning to get interesting.

It was just best to leave the whole religious thing to the clergy and to those rather strange children who demonstrated an unhealthy interest in religion and were obviously destined to waste their life in a convent or rectory. In the good old days you were a Catholic or some other flavor of Christian because everyone else was, not because you’d had an experience that convinced you this stuff was real. Of course it was real. Everybody said it was real. Hollywood made movies about it and the president of the USA said it was real.

Have you looked out the window recently? Things have changed. The important people in the world, Hollywood stars and the politicians who idolize them are no longer saying this stuff is real. Most of them are saying it’s all a bunch of hooey. Your kids don’t believe for precisely the same reason you did believe. Everybody says it’s NOT real. What evidence do they have to the contrary? Have they met the Lord? Have they heard the Gospel? Have they witnessed a miracle? They may have seen a lot of liturgical dances and learned some really zingy new hymns, but those get old fairly fast. Real miracles, the Gospel and above all a sense of the presence of Christ never get old. We are giving them theater and thinking that somehow showbiz religion will save them. It ain’t working.

In the old days when they dragged you to church as a little kid, you had a little kid’s openness to truth. That was before your brains had turned to concrete and you lost a sense of wonder and awe. The stained glass windows, the strange rituals, the music, watching your parents kneeling with heads bowed and eyes closed. It was special. Now not much goes on in a Catholic Church that couldn’t happen in your basement entertainment center or in a theater near you, that is if you don’t count the miracle of transubstantiation. We need a new strategy if we believe the Church and the Gospel are worth the effort.

In the 1960’s there was this big convention that a lot of bishops went to. I think it was called the Ecumenical Council, or just Vatican Two. It was odd as far as councils go. It wasn’t a response to a heresy or anything like that. It didn’t produce any new Church teaching as such. It didn’t change the liturgy very much. That came later. It was about the role of the laity in the work of the Gospel.  It seemed to be saying that the people of God, clergy and laity together, are the Church.

When people heard that, they decided it meant everybody in the Church is the same. I remember a truly blasphemous comedy song written in the style of rag time tune that mocked the Church and the Council. One of its lines went, “Everybody say his own Kyrie Eleison, doin’ the Vatican rag.” And “Say whatever prayers you want if / you have cleared it with the pontiff.”  The attitude after the Council was “Anything goes.” We have not recovered to this day.

We may all be equal in God’s eyes, but we most certainly aren’t the same.  We all have our jobs to do in the Body of Christ. Eucharistic ministers are a good case in point.  A priest I know suddenly had a surplus of priests and deacons in his parish. They all were happy to help distribute Holy Communion. This meant that lay extraordinary ministers of communion were less necessary.

This drove one of the extraordinary ministers to a near crisis of faith. She railed at the pastor, “You’ve ruined my ministry! This was the only thing I could do and now you’ve taken it away!”

To which he responded, “Why don’t you visit the sick or help with religion classes?”

She had failed to notice that part of her title was EXTRAORDINARY minister. The priest and the deacon are the ordinary ministers.  She served the Lord just by being available to help. Her ordinary ministry is the one thing that belongs to all lay people, to make Christ present in the home and the workplace, to join in the spiritual and physical works of mercy. The aggrieved minister had lost her moment to shine, not the opportunity to serve. This sort of thing is a clear example of the misinterpretation of the Council.

The Council didn’t teach that the laity were to do the work of the priest. The Council taught that the priest should stop doing the work of the laity. I had another good example of the misunderstanding of the Council when some parishioners wanted to start a Charismatic prayer meeting. It was an obvious thing to do. I am, in effect, one of the founding fathers of the Charismatic Renewal, though I heartily dislike the name “Charismatic”. I prefer to call myself a Pentecostal Catholic as we did at first because Pentecostalism is a spirituality of conversion, not a movement.

It seemed absolutely natural to have a prayer group here. It was a colossal failure. Few of the lay members of the group took responsibility. If they had something better to occupy their time on Sunday afternoon, they were no-shows. Father had to be there. If Father couldn’t come, we had to cancel the meeting. Father set up the chairs, made the coffee, played the guitar, gave the teaching, prayed with people after the meeting, turned off the lights and locked up the hall, all this after having said two or three Masses. The prayer group was not a calling for anyone but the priest. For the others it was an optional entertainment. It was the post Vatican II Church in miniature. The only person who now has a Sunday obligation is the priest. For everyone else there is a Sunday option.

Clericalism is alive and well, not among the clergy, but among the laity. All those people who are unhappy with the Vatican Council are quite mistaken. The Vatican Council has gone unimplemented. The laity who now dominate the liturgy offices and the parish councils assume that they are supposed to tell the priest how to do his job. The Council was really about getting the laity to do their job, not to tell the priest how to do his, or worse to do the priests’ job themselves. Where the laity doesn’t learn how to share the good news, the Church will invariably die.

The Church is currently growing by leaps and bounds. Conversions, vocations to the priesthood and traditional religious orders are up. The Church is flourishing in places like Africa, Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and the rest of Asia. In Europe and North America, the great consumerist societies, the Church is evaporating, but even there, those Catholics who can share the beauty of the Gospel without hesitation are creating dynamic enclaves of Catholic faith.

Next week: What is the job of the priest?

Friday, August 22, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 9

Enough with the whining, now for some suggestions: 
The Catholic powers that be in the business of religion need to learn a very important maxim: GOD HAS NO GRANDCHILDREN. The Old Testament has a hereditary covenant. God loves Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; therefore he is good to their descendants.
The New Testament doesn’t work this way. Jesus said, ““Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matt 12 48-50. This means you are not Catholic because you are Irish, or Mexican, or Polish or even Italian. You are Catholic because you think it’s the truth. You have made a decision for Christ and His Bride, the Church.  No one is born Catholic.
In the glorious 60’s at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius the churches started to empty out. The clergy, knowing that life would go on as usual said, “They may be leaving now, but they’ll be back when they marry and have children.” That was fifty years ago. We now have three generations whose return we the clergy are awaiting.  They’re not coming back. They could care less about us. Face it. The soap bubble is bursting. Schools close. Parishes close. Dioceses declare bankruptcy and sometimes it seems that all we can do is try to keep all the pie plates spinning like some circus act.
If we don’t admit that GOD HAS NO GRANDCHILDREN we will have no Church. If all we believe is that this Catholic stuff is something that’s good for you and a nice religion, we might as well close the buildings, sell the real estate and give everyone a refund. If we believe that this stuff is the truth and makes the difference between heaven and hell, then the whole thing is salvageable. If I love you and believe that the best and perhaps only way for you to live in eternal happiness is the Catholic faith, then I am going to do my best to share the faith with you. That is called evangelism.
Everybody talks about evangelism’ “The New Evangelization”, “The Dynamic Catholic” and so on. And everybody forms a committee, has a retreat, holds a bake sale and waits for someone else to do the evangelizing, whatever that is. I’ll give you my definition of evangelism. It’s one I learned about 30 years ago.  It’s still the best I’ve ever heard. Evangelism is to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  It’s that simple. Not an historical knowledge, not a theological knowledge, not a philosophical knowledge — a saving knowledge.
Evangelism is not to argue someone into agreeing that Jesus and the Catholic Church are the best things since sliced bread and the pop up toaster.You don’t need books, or a lecture hall, or any electronic device. You need those for Catechesis, not for evangelism.  All you need to have for evangelism is a little bit of bravery and the willingness to pray with another individual.
St. Alphonsus Ligouri said, “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned,” and is so quoted in paragraph 2744 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  To evangelize is to bring someone to Christ, not to church, not to the sacraments, not to a Bible class, not to a lecture. To evangelize is to bring someone to an encounter with a living person, not as concept nor a dead philosopher nor a distant concept.  Here are a couple stories. 
Before I was ordained a young man who was very interested in a young woman who was attending a prayer meeting at a Carmelite monastery spoke to me. He said that he didn’t understand this Christian philosophy. It was so restrictive. He had tried to combine the best elements of the philosophies and religions that he had studied, but he couldn’t understand the exclusive claims of the Christian philosophy. He particularly liked those philosophies that would encourage that particular young woman to be more open to a more intimate relationship. Her Christianity was getting ion the way of taking their relationship to the “next level.” I looked at him squarely and said “Christianity isn’t a philosophy. It’s a person.” To which he replied, “Huh?” 
I said, “Close your eyes. I’m going to pray for you.” I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Lord Jesus, you found me when I was in the same place as my friend here. Please touch him and let him know that you are real.”
I walked away leaving him in the chapel alone. As I stood talking to a few friends in the vestibule he walked out of the chapel and simply said, “Wow. I’ve never felt anything like that.”  I have no idea what happened to him. That was 40 years ago, but he understood that Christ is not an idea. Christ is someone.
First you might say, “That’s just hokey. I could never do that.” Why not? Are you ashamed to pray? Are you ashamed of Christ? “Well, what if nothing happened? I’d feel like a fool.” If nothing happens it’s not your problem. It’s God’s problem. You aren’t responsible to save anyone. He is.  And besides, better to feel like a fool than to be one.
Next you will say, “That’s just foolishness it’s just emotion, just a feeling. God isn’t a feeling.”  Absolutely true, but feelings are part of the human experience. They are reactions to perceived realities. God isn’t a feeling, but he can certainly cause feelings. “Taste and see how good is the Lord!” (Psalm 34:`8) Your job is to help them taste the Lord. If they do, they will want more.
I can hear you say, “It doesn’t sound very Catholic.”
Have you ever read St. Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross, or Thomas of Kempis, or St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or St. Therese, the Little Flower? They’re pretty Catholic and out of their intimacy with the person of Christ, they had faith enough to change the world.
“Well, that’s all fine and good, but what about sacraments and Mass attendance and catechism and the pope and all that stuff?”
 The whole glorious edifice of Catholicism is like a great pile of firewood that can cause a blaze big enough to light the world, but if you don’t light the match, what good is it? We catechize before we evangelize. We tell people the facts about Jesus before they have met Him, and all those facts and requirements bore people out of their skulls.
If the world could be saved by a sermon it would have been saved long ago, but to experience the nearness of the Lord? Once you have met the Lord, you can’t know too much about Him and you long to know what He requires and to obey Him. The person who has tasted the Presence of the Lord is hungry to know more and more, but you will never be hungry for food you have never tasted. Unless Catholics once again learn how to pray with people, and not just for them, the Catholic community will continue to wither.

Next week: If this stuff is so great, why didn’t we used to talk this way? 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Reflection on priestly life -- part 8

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued. (And the whining continues)
 Remember a long time ago when I told you that there were two flavors of priest — diocesan priests and monks (though not all monks are priests)? Let me refresh your memory. As early as two hundred and fifty years after Christ, men and a few women were running off to the desert to get away from the sinful world and the sometimes sinful Church. There developed two parallel wings of the church which for a while bore the names, “the church of the bishops” and the “church of the monks.” 
There was a class of monks who called “gyrovagues” a Greek word meaning “those who wander around in circles.” The Council of Chalcedon condemned them as didSt. Benedict (480-543), the organizer of western monasticism. In our times, there are still gyrovagues wandering about and to call a monk a gyrovague is just about the worst thing you can call him. The most famous of the gyrovagues is quite possibly Rasputin, the holy man who wandered into the court of Czar Nicholas II. Most of the monks never quite abandoned the Church and always felt the need for the Holy Eucharist, so theirs was a tense relationship. Gradually, through the work of St. Benedict in the West and St. Basil (330-379) in the East, monks become an integral part of the wider Church and monasteries eventually ordained enough priests and deacons to serve their own liturgical needs.   
Monks, ordained or not, usually take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Benedictine monks take vows of obedience, conversion of life and stability. St. Benedict thought this was the only way to combat the gyrovagues.  This means that a monk may not leave his community or even his cloister without the permission of his abbot. This has the effect of creating lives of balanced prayer and work. They eat, pray, sleep and work by carefully regulated schedule. It is feasible that a monk who is living a very traditional life will never touch money, never pay a bill, and never pay a cent in taxes. They own nothing and need nothing. They tend to live into their 90’s, at least the ones I know do.  They live in the fellowship of their brothers, or sisters in the case of women monks, (nuns) for their whole long lives.
The world has an irritating way of changing and in the middle ages there was a need for a new kind of religious order. Groups like Servites, Franciscans, and Dominicans didn’t live in monasteries. They weren’t quite monks. These “brothers” (i.e. friars) and “sisters” lived in priories and religious houses that were not as cloistered as monasteries. They took on specific apostolates such as teaching, preaching, the care of the sick and so on. Though they didn’t live in monasteries and left their religious houses, they did so only under their strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as if they were monks. They were obedient to their superiors and lived in the community. The variations on this semi-monastic theme are almost innumerable in our times, but all seem to have poverty, chastity, obedience and community in common.  These variations on the theme are what we call the religious orders.  
Celibacy is a monastic calling. Celibacy does not seem to have been the rule for diocesan priests in the beginning and still is not among the diocesan clergy of the Eastern Church. In the West, when the Roman Empire fell and the diocesan system was under strain, the priests of the parish churches were often taken from among the monks.  Parishes didn’t have daily mass in the east and still don’t. Monasteries did, so the western church got used to daily Mass and unmarried clergy and so a kind of stability and celibacy bled over into the diocesan presbyterate (priesthood.)
I, being a diocesan priest do not take vows and may own property!  I make a promise of obedience to my bishop and his successor. I am incardinated into my diocese. Incardinate is a Latin word meaning “to be attached” or “hinged in.”  That means I can’t leave the diocese to work without my bishop’s permission. I can’t even say a public Mass in the next county over without a letter from my bishop saying I’m kosher. I make a promise of celibacy and obedience, and so I am bound to stability, chastity and obedience — like a monk — but by a promise, not a vow.  I take no vow or promise of poverty and I have no religious community beyond the parish I serve. Herein lays much of the problem.  
Since the reforms that limited the pastorate, the supports and protections for the diocesan priesthood are pretty much a thing of the past. Remember that in the bad old days a pastor was expected to be available for the sacramental needs of his parishioners, but who now are his parishioners?  In times past a priest was not expected to minister to the needs of the next parish over, and was actually prohibited from doing so except in the case of an emergency.  The real situation now is that a priest is expected to serve all who show up at his door, no matter how tenuous the relationship to the parish. I am not writing these whiny epistles simply to vent, but to point out how radically the situation has changed. If a priest wants to be a good priest he is expected to work until he drops. I am not saying that is necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that he is expected to exhaust himself for people with whom he has no real pastoral relationship. Instead of helping, he often ends up merely enabling.   
A lot of people think that if the community supports that sustained the diocesan priesthood are gone, perhaps we should consider abolishing the expectation of celibacy. In the Eastern Church the religious orders sustain communities of unmarried monastic clergy but the parish clergy are married. Think long and hard before abolishing celibacy. It will not result in a more available clergy.
Perhaps I’ve already mentioned this. I have a good friend who is Greek Orthodox. He and his wife often invite me to family functions. At first his extended family and in laws seemed shocked to see me. I asked my friend if they thought I was there to steal them from Greek Orthodox Church.
He said, “That’s not it, Father. It’s just that the only time a Greek Orthodox priest visits a home it means that someone is dying!”
This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not totally. In the Roman Catholic Church it is common for a priest to visit his parishioners in their homes, and it is almost expected.  I am often invited to a home for dinner, in fact so often that I can’t accept all the invitations. Imagine the situation if were I a married man with children and announced to my wife, “Honey, I won’t be home for Sunday dinner, I’ll be going over to the Smiths for Sunday dinner.” That wouldn’t happen twice in a row. It is true that Eastern clergy visit their parishioners, but it is usually with wife and children in tow, and it is a fairly rare event, from what I understand.
In the Western Church with celibacy and daily Mass and the whole deal, a priest could be radically available to his parishioners. Marriage necessarily limits that availability.  Marriage limits availability in another way. In my ministry I served 30 years in some of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the city. I was shot at, had a meat cleaver pulled on me, endured death threats ,was robbed often, had my car broken into repeatedly and did nonstop war with rodents and roaches, all while working three jobs.
Had I a wife and children I could not, in good conscience, have done this. Since God stayed the hand of Abraham, we have not expected to sacrifice our children. In addition, my current salary would have to double at least to provide for a wife and children.  Quite frankly, I would be far more interested in financial remuneration than I am now. Have you ever heard a sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:17-16?  (“The priests (presbyters/elders) who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching, for Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”) 
We are horrified to think that a priest is interested in money. The first Christians had no such scruples. In the bad old days I was free not to worry about money. I didn’t need the stuff that much. I didn’t have to worry about retirement or a wife. Now I have to provide for my own retirement and a lot of people want me to have a wife and children to worry about. 
I am finally done whining.  All this is to say that priests were never radically available. They were radically available to a limited group to whom they could speak the unpleasant truth with impunity. You can’t expect radical availability from a pastor without a sense of obligation to certain norms of conduct and religious observance. Suffice it to say the parish priesthood of our faulty memories no longer exists and it probably never did.

Next week: the solution.  (And maybe just a little more whining. It’s so much fun.)