Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I am concerned. There are nothing but gray heads, not counting the bald, in my church. No young people. We have tried everything. In the years I have been in the parish we have had all the evangelistic campaigns; Christ Rebukes His People, Refresh, the Carelessmatic Renewal, the Paleo-Catechetical Movement, the Matrimonial Encumber Movement. Everything. We hired the best youth director we could find, as well as a grievance minister, parish nurses, liturgists, choir directors. We have gotten the consulting services of design coordinators and a feng shui expert. We have hired a full-time media ministry director. We have administrators, coordinators, and I think we even have marriage terminators who guide people through divorce and annulment. Their office is right next to the office where weddings are arranged. We have changed the flavor of our incense 8 times and the location of the tabernacle 12 times. Nothing seems to work.
For each new program or director that was going to solve all our problems, we built a new office in which each one quickly became ensconced. We naturally gave them all the pay raises and benefits that the diocesan ministry office said we had to, and to cover the expense we started off with a second collection. We decided it would be better to have a pledge drive for the parish ministries, so we hired a fund-raising director, and you guessed it, we built him an office and instituted another pledge drive to pay for the fund-raising ministry.
The pledge drive was so successful that we have continued the pledge drive and re-introduced all the second collections. Now we have hired a new director of Evangelism who has a degree from Bathsheba Bible College. She says that people in the downtown office say we have to do a program called “Come Dance in the Forest.” It is a program that tries to evangelize young people through interpretive dance. The new director must have an office and in addition, a dance studio. The liturgy committee and the evangelism sub-committee are suggesting a second collection. Believe it or not, all the second collection and pledge drives actually do very well. The parish is in the black! Still there are grayer and grayer heads and fewer new heads in church. Nothing seems to be working. Do you have any suggestions?
Your letter brings to mind a great Chinese evangelist and Martyr, Watchman Nee. He was a very interesting thinker/theologian who was killed by the Marxist government of China in 1972. I have heard that he was not very fond of us Catholics, but much of what he wrote is useful, and one comment comes to mind as I read your letter. “Isn’t it interesting what a helpful tool for discernment money is.” People say, “Oh, if only we had more money, we could do great things for God.” The truth is really quite the opposite. If we are doing things that are inspired, that is “God-breathed,” it has been my experience that there is more than enough money to go around. If God is in the thing, there will be money for it. People sense it, they are excited about it and they contribute to it. If there is a careful listening to the Holy Spirit, and if we get God right, the project is a success. If we substitute our good intentions and wishful thinking for the plan of God, the whole thing will crash and burn.
I remember a great evangelistic event that we had here in the diocese of Frostbite Falls about 30 years ago. It was going to re-vitalize the diocese. There were small groups and large groups and we were to hold a Large Group Event, as mandated by the planning book. There would be choirs and publicity and banners and speakers. The great day came. We opened the doors. In streamed the Large Group for the Large Group Event. The Large Group Event had a name. It was Wilhelmina Ruckenhaus. (I am not making this up.) Forty people, choirs, speakers, liturgical dancers, soloists etc., all gathered to inspire WILHELMINA RUCKENHAUS. Wilhelmina was a sweet 90-year old lady who had lived in the parish since forever. I think when she was young she had briefly dated Methuselah. If the church was open, she was in it. She did the daily readings at Mass, except once when we had two feet of snow. She asked if I could read because she was tired from shoveling her walk. This is all true. Wilhelmina was about as saved as a person could be, at least in my opinion. On that grand afternoon, Wilhelmina was the only person who showed up. Most people had better things to do with their Saturday afternoons. Well, the show must go on, and if the Refresh Project Manual said we were to have a Large Group Event, we would have a Large Group Event. An hour and half later the songs were sung, the sermons preached, the liturgist dancers had cavorted and the soloist had gushed. We quietly dispersed and went on with our lives quite unchanged, though I imagine Wilhelmina was mightily inspired.
In that same parish, which was down by the harbor district of Frostbite Falls, a very dangerous neighborhood plagued by Patagonian alpaca smuggling gangs, another group that couldn’t plan a two-car funeral had an annual event: the Youth Rally, or as the Patagonian teenagers called it, the Youf Rally. It had no budget, it had no real schedule, it didn’t even have a clue, but the 18-year old Patagonian who suggested it said that it was what God wanted. The other Patagonian Youths (or if you prefer “youfs”) prayed about it, said OK and they were off. For years thereafter, the rallies fed, entertained, evangelized and prayed with as many as 1,000, that’s 1,000, surly “youfs.” The smaller rallies were only 500 kids. It was always moving to see some young thug weeping for his sins and some of them actually did repent. No money, no budget, the loosest of schedules and a roaring success. One event was conducted according to the strictest fiscal and professional criteria. It bombed like the London blitz. The other event was run more like a clown car. It worked.
Speaking of clown cars, I was privileged back at St. Dymphna’s to be the constitutional monarch of a wonderful parish. Like Queen Elizabeth, I got all the credit and did none of the work. It was grand. It was a tiny church that maintained a school for poor children, a clothing room, a soup kitchen and a food pantry. We gave away food bags, meals and clothes anywhere between two and four thousand times a month. Our collections totaled about $75,000 a year. Our bills were around $1,200,000 a year (that’s One Million Two). “How did you do it,” I was often asked. The trick is that I didn’t. I did write a lot of letters to little old blue-haired ladies and ate in a lot of expensive restaurants with well-dressed business persons. Tough work, but someone had to do it. (Between their prayers and their generosity little old blue-haired ladies are, by the way, the powerhouse of Christianity. Don’t take them for granted.)
One other strategy that worked: I would also take larger bills into church and inform the Lord that He had just received a large bill and ask Him how He planned to pay it. I would physically, literally do this. Usually by the time I got back to the rectory a check had arrived in the mail. I’m not kidding. We lived on miracles. I remember the miraculous multiplication of the turkeys. We had a full-time volunteer named Rhonda. She was a saint. Perhaps you have heard the old poem “To live with saints in heaven, you’ll find, is grace and glory. To live with saints on earth is quite another story.” She was in charge of the ministry of chaos. I have no doubt that God loved her to bits. Hers was a life lived by faith. Mine, not so much. Well the great day of the Thanksgiving meal arrived. Someone had failed to order Turkeys. The Soup Kitchen director and Rhonda were in calm and pious conversation about the situation in which there was no panic at all (that part I am making up) when, at about 10 in the morning Thanksgiving day, the door bell rang and somebody said they had 25 cooked Turkeys and could we use them? We said that we were sure they could be of some use. This really happened. In fact it happened all the time. It was an amazing twenty years.
I am not saying that organization and responsible financial practices are bad things. On the contrary! What am saying is that they are the second thing. To hear God clearly is the first thing. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all else will be given.” (Matt 6:33). This may be an irritating and pious platitude, but it is a pious platitude given us by Jesus Christ, whom some of us still consider our only Lord and Savior. (Dig at Jamie Foxx intended.)
Let me tell you about “the Kingdom.” In English “kingdom” is a place or a system of government. In Greek, though it can include these things, it is a much wider concept. The word is “basileia” and it is first a quality of the person. It means “kingliness.” It can be conferred or inherited. Any horse-faced cretin with bad dental work can be a king or queen, provided his or her parents were king and queen. There is not a big resume required, though there are not a lot of job openings these days. We “have the kingdom” because the Father who adopted us and the Brother who is our Lord are Kings. We are royal by adoption. We have “kingliness. You cannot build the Kingdom. You can preach Kingdom, you can advance Kingdom, you can even augment or build up Kingdom, but you can’t build it. I cringe when I hear someone say they are building the kingdom of God. Jesus said “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) to which we respond, “Don’t bother Lord. We are building one of our own and if You sit quietly over there and mind Your own business we’ll be finished soon and we’ll get back to You. Amen.” If someone says they are building the kingdom it usually means they are hoping for a corner office down at the pastoral center and you can bet fund raising will be involved. Every time I hear that maudlin song “Let us build the city of God” I think of the book of Revelation in which one reads, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband.” “Lord, we’re sure yours is nice, but we prefer the one we are building.” And then there’s that lovely but heretical song that is all about inclusivity “Let us build a house where love can dwell...” I think of St. Peter talking about a spiritual temple built by God “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” (Acts 7:28) If modern religious lyricists would read the Bible occasionally, their hymns would not be half so bad. Where was I? Oh Yes....
In the Bible -- that big book on the coffee table -- you will read, “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” (Psalm 127:1) I am not opposed to organization in principle, and Lord knows I am not opposed to special collections. I am, after all, a Catholic priest. Collections are very biblical. Just look at St. Paul, a schmooze if ever there was one. I quote: “For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” (Romans 15:26) I suspect that Paul was trying to guilt the Romans into out-giving the Greeks! A shameless fund raising technique, which I have often used. Have all the collections campaigns and special programs you want, but don’t expect them to succeed unless the Lord is in them. If they fail, I suspect it was because the Holy Spirit didn’t attend the meeting, nor did He get the memo. When a project dies, one should quietly bury it, apologize to God for ignoring Him and move on. One should not give it an office, a staff and a budget.
The problem is not the second collections. The problem is that we have forgotten the meaning of the Eucharist. That’s why we are broke and why we in the business of religion must think of ever more clever ways to squeeze a bit more blood out of the turnip.
(This letter will go on interminably. Let me give you a simple outline of what I intend to do. Next week I will go on to a peculiar disquisition about the meaning of the word “Eucharist” and how we are currently clueless about the nature of the Mass. Then I will move on to the four last things, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, and their relation top fund-raising, just in time for the end of the Joyous Season of Hanna-Krisma-Kwanza-Dan, and then the grand finale, a concrete plan to save Catholic schools and restore our financial stability, a plan which will not work because we will never have the nerve, the single mindedness nor the will to do it.)