Friday, December 28, 2012

Why aren't our plans working? -- part 3

Continued from last week…..

Perhaps, dear Frieda, you will recall that I proposed as evidence for a successful Catholic school or religious education program, the example of an adolescent attending church in July when his (or her) parents were unable to do so. Were that child to go to an un-airconditioned Church, it might be evidence of exceptional sanctity. I digress. Perhaps one might say that a good and moral life would be as good or preferable as evidence for successful Catholic education. I remind you that I am talking about Catholic religious education. We may be doing a good and noble thing to create a moral citizenry, but we cannot call it Catholic education. Catholic education exists to produce Catholics, I would presume. Still, let me momentarily concede the point for the sake of amicable discussion. In that spirit, let us look at the product of modern education, both Catholic and in general.

In 2007, 20.7% of young adults ages 18-25 had in the past year had been addicted to, or abused illicit drugs or alcohol.  About half of college students who drink, also binge-drink. The study states that 599,000 students are injured while under the influence of alcohol and 1,825 of them die. Another 690,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. To date, 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Twenty five percent of college students report academic consequences as a result of drinking such as missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall. Approximately 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem and between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use. Also, 2.8 million college students reported driving under the influence of alcohol. In short, about one in four college students is drunk, disorderly and dangerous. I cannot find a similar accumulation of statistics for Catholic schools, but being a graduate of a Catholic University, Krayola University here in Frostbite Falls, and having been a teacher at said university for 25 years, I suspect the figures above are low ball for us Catholics and another survey in 2010 done by Mississippi State University seems to agree with me.

Let’s talk about sex. Why not? Everyone else does. As mentioned above, the MSU study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion indicated that women at Catholic colleges engage more frequently in sex than those at secular or evangelical colleges. Researchers suspect that more tolerant Catholic attitudes to drinking may be to blame. I wonder how much money was spent to find out that drunken adolescents tend to behave in an excessively amorous fashion?  Also of interest, on the Cardinal Newman Society Blog “Campus Notes” I found a reference to a helpful list from TFP Student Action that claims “52 percent of Catholic colleges in the U.S. sponsor some form of ‘pro-homosexual’ student club. The Cardinal Newman Society has documented the damage that activist and social groups can do, such as drag shows being held on Catholic campuses.”  

I personally remember a correspondence I had a few years back with the then President of one of the largest Catholic Universities in the known galaxy, DePeter University here in Frostbite Falls, home of the much loved basketball team, the Azure Devils. In the Library there was a shrine to St. Harvey Milk, a pioneering homosexual politician who was shot by an angry fellow committee man in San Francisco in 1978. I am not sure that it is still there as of this writing. It was a simple dignified shrine, an icon of the martyred  Harvey Milk, holding a candle, wearing the pink triangle, head surrounded by a halo and, on either side, in Greek, the words “St. Harvey.” A student organization at the same university a few years back conducted a beauty contest for those young men who find the wearing of women’s clothing more expressive, and a week celebrating amorous diversity and different life style choices in the tolerant and enlightened spirit of our age. The whole glorious event was capped off by a dance for these daring young progressives in one of the university’s dorms. When I questioned the University President  about the event, he pointed out that his hands were tied by academic freedom.  Freedom indeed.....

So if the good and moral life provides evidence for the success of Catholic schools, I rest my case once again. Promiscuity, drunkenness and abortion cannot be made to look like moral victories, and remember we are not doing those things at the same rate as the pagans. We are surpassing the pagans in vice! And all of this paid for by you, Mummy and Daddy, who have taken out a second mortgage and cosigned a fortune in college loans to complete the Catholic Education of the apples of your eye, your beloved children, in the hope that you will one day have grandchildren whose First Communion and Confirmation you will attend. Don’t hold your breath. Maybe you should have sent them to trade school instead of the University of Sodom and Gomorrah. There they might have kept their faith and their morals and learned a marketable skill that could have found them employment in these hard economic times. But you opted for the much vaunted and increasingly worthless college degree, and from a good Catholic college to boot. Rather than choose dirty finger nails for our little dears, we have chosen filthy souls.  The children of Catholic homes abort and contracept at the same rate as pagans. They go to church only rarely and seem to drink more than the heathens and fornicate like rabbits. And you are paying for the party. Mazel Tov.

How did this all happen? I’ll tell you how. Sports. You heard me: SPORTS. The first time you missed Mass because of the big game you told your children that Mass and God and all that stuff, while important, were not nearly as important as the BIG GAME. Their obligations to the God who made them, who loved them with His life, the God who can rescue them from death, and before whom they will stand on the day of judgement,  their obligation to Him doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t really matter to you. Why shouldn’t they drink and sleep around? Self control is just one more pious myth, one more tedious practice, like religion. Every Catholic school that allows a practice or a game on Sunday should immediately be closed down, or at least taken over by a Catholic faculty. 

Thank God I’m not a bishop. I would be a very unpopular one.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why aren't our plans working? -- part 2

Continued from last week….

Last time I wrote, Dear Frieda, I said I would address the central problem as I see it: the Eucharist, or as most of us old people call it, going to Mass on Sunday. We are propping up a system of religious education that was designed for a culture that is as dead as a plate of pickled herring, a system that the progressive wing of the Catholic Church helped kill. Speaking of pickled, I must admit that I was a committed member of that progressive wing in my youth. I formally quit the “movement” in my junior year of college when the peace committee broke up in a big fight during peace week. Even though my official membership in the silliness of the 60's was not long, it took me decades to find the moral courage to become as  wildly politically incorrect as I now am. When I accuse a certain segment of the Church and the society of killing the culture and weakening the faith; I am talking about me. Enough of breast beating. I will return to chest thumping.

For one thousand years and more, the culture of the West had been nourished philosophically, artistically and esthetically by the Roman liturgy. Even the weak gender identity of the male of the species had been propped up by the Liturgy and the notion of a holy and sacrificial priestly caste. (You mean clericalism? Yes. I do. We need it. Women come by holiness and maturity a lot more easily than men. Women used to be grown-ups. Men have never been grown-ups unless you give them an important responsibility, like fatherhood or ordination. Just think about male hobbies like Ice Fishing and belching contests.)  Where was I before the last digression? Oh, yes. The liturgy. The Roman liturgy, the sacrifice of the Mass produced the great visual art, the great  music, the great architecture and the philosophical coherence of the culture. It was obscure in its secrecy and strange in its language. The celebrant mumbled in a language that only smart people knew. If you wanted to understand it and participate you had to actually learn something. You had to stretch yourself intellectually and if you couldn’t, you had to trust those who could. The very obscurity and art of the liturgy gave people a window into a world that otherwise would have been denied them.

Then, over night, Palestrina was replaced with polka music, Zurburan and El Greco were replaced with Burlap Banners and Corita Kent. The great soaring Cathedrals, the palaces of the poor in which any beggar was welcome, where the poorest of the poor could taste art and music, and probably get a meal afterwards in the convent soup kitchen, these were replaced by space ships from the Planet Ugly. Why did it happen? I have written elsewhere that the wars resulting from the reformation break up of Christendom started the car rolling down the cliff, but the sixties were definitely the point the car went into the ravine. 

What did it? Democracy. Democracy had defeated Hitler. America was a democracy. America was good. The stuffy monarchies of the past were bad. Tyranny must go! The papacy was a monarchy. Thank God for the Council! (At least the shallow interpretation of the Council presented in most institutions of learning.) Now we would vote on the truth just like our American Protestant neighbors, the Congregationalists. We were living in an illusion. America was not and is not a democracy. A very small group of very wealthy secularists tells us what to think, what to wear, whom to love and how to vote. They do so by means of the television that sits in every room of our house. The country used to be ruled by a small group of wealthy secularists. The country is now ruled by a small group of wealthy secularist who have control of the media. I call them the Mediacracy (accent third syllable.)   
The guiding lights of liturgical renewal in the noble pursuit of heroic democracy and freedom of conscience  decided that the moral thing to do was to play to the lowest common denominator, hence the liturgy of the New Church which we are busy singing into being. (Cf. Do a web search for “Liturgical Abuse: Puppets (WCCTA 2008)

 - Please, I implore you to look at this. You’ll  totally platz. I am not making this stuff up.) The liturgy was the lifeblood of the culture. It was hijacked and became the plaything of artistic wannabe’s in the sixties. In the above mentioned video, with its liturgical dances and giant papier mache puppets celebrating Mass, you see the quintessential stupidity of the whole project. Everyone’s an artist, everyone’s a celebrant, everyone’s entertained. Democracy. Christ the King becomes Christ the Sub-committee Chairperson. The only thing the perpetrators in the video clip were afraid to do was have a priestess as the main celebrant. The old fellow with the chasuble wanders around in the video like some lost child, while liturgical dancers female, and possibly male, cavort about sprinkling holy water on the assembled young liberals most of whom seen to be in their 70's. It is very entertaining if you were in college in the sixties. It is as boring as mud if you are young in 2012. 

All that new liturgical music is 50 years old. It is as about as current as disco music. It might be delightful nostalgia, but it isn’t the eternal Sacrifice of Calvary. “But,” the young octogenarian liberals respond, “the Church used to be so dreary, so morbid, all that thinking about death.” We abandoned the black vestments and the Dies Irae, and replaced them with more upbeat things like white vestments and happy hymns like “On Beagles Wings” and “Be Not A Noodge.” “Dies Irae” was “Be Afraid, Be very Afraid!!”  

Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid. Maybe the Bible, the big book on the coffee table, is wrong when it says that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” (Proverbs 9:10) Well, we may longer be afraid, but we are also not entertained. There are a lot better things to do on a Sunday morning than watch a bunch of aging ex nuns dancing around in giant paper mache masks sprinkling Holy Water on aging liberals by means of small pieces of shrubbery. The liturgy was scary with its smoke and candles and strange gestures and solemn chanting in a strange language. God was scary. Life was scary. God and Mass are no longer scary, but life on Planet Earth gets scarier and scarier. At the Mass, we no longer propose  reasonable answers to the difficult questions. We propose a kind of spiritual entertainment, a sort of community gathering, salvation by a positive mental attitude. There really is no reason to go to Mass on Sunday, unless there is nothing better to do.  And believe me, there is always something better to do. That something is high school sports.

High school sports is one of the greatest enemy of Catholicism and of Catholic schools.  I have elsewhere said that the sign of successful Catholic educational system is an adolescent who goes to church on Sunday by himself in July when his parents are out of town. This happens with about  .0001 percent of Catholic adolescents. (I made that statistic up, but I bet the real figure is not much different. Somebody, please prove me wrong.) Most parents give themselves and their children a dispensation from church if there is a BIG GAME. Or a medium game. Or just an optional practice. The big, medium or optional sporting event is far more interesting than a bunch of old liberals cavorting about in what passes for liturgical dance. In fact the liturgical dance just gets downright embarrassing to a normal adolescent male when a 50 year old, overweight, balding man dances around him clad in ill fitting white pants sprinkling him with heaven knows what.(Cf. Afore mentioned video.) Better to be on a practice field throwing some kind of ball around.  We old people who find this stuff  meaningful have no idea how boring it is to our tech savvy, media addicted grandchildren. The liturgy which acknowledges and answers the great questions about death, judgement, heaven and hell has meaning. The liturgy as we now perceive it answers these great question with coffee and doughnuts and bad art.

To be Catholic is to go to Mass. It is the sacrifice by which we acknowledge our real condition as sinners who will die. At Mass, we commit ourselves to God’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life. This is true of the Mass in all its valid forms, Tridentine, Novus Ordo and all. Mass as entertainment has no power to move men’s souls. It merely moves their emotions. A good Bears-Packers games is much better at moving the emotions. So why bother to go to Mass? After all, all dogs go to heaven, that is, if there is a heaven. God is too nice to send even the Chihuahuas to hell. 
The first Christians believed the Mass was the Messianic sacrifice. The Hebrew sages believed that the messiah would do away with all the sacrifices of the Law, except for the “Todah” sacrifice, the Thanksgiving Sacrifice, that is. The Thanksgiving Sacrifice was offered when a person had been delivered from death and danger, not when a person wanted to be mildly entertained. Thanksgiving is Todah in Hebrew. It is Eucharist in Greek. The reason that the first Christians celebrated the Eucharist was that they had been delivered from certain death. Sometimes it seems the modern liturgist wants to distract the believer from the prospect of mortality. The messianic Thanksgiving sacrifice was about life and death. The liberal liturgy is about political correctness and good times. It is irrelevant to modern people who can find more efficient ways to distract themselves.

What has this to do with our attempts to put Catholic parishes and Catholic schools on a sound economic footing? Simply this: If one does not go to Mass, one is not a Catholic (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2042 and Canon Law # 1247) Mass defines the Catholic. We have schools that present no real reason to go to Mass except that there is a tuition discount. Done with school, done with Mass seems to be the motto of the Catholic school graduate of today. In the current muddle we have schools that simply don’t produce Catholics, et ergo, they are not Catholic schools. We are bleeding money to pay for private schools that produce secular humanists at reasonable rates. I know people who would open up their mattresses in a minute to have Catholic schools. They aren’t quite as interested in what we have going now. 

I believe in Catholic schools. I wish there were more of them.

Next week: More about the modern Catholic and modern ejukashun.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why aren't our plans working?

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?

Frieda Begue

Dear Frieda,

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.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why give to the Church?

I have just been asked two questions that dovetail, I think, rather nicely. One question asks, “Why give so much money to the church?”  The second asks “Why not give more money to the church?”  I am afraid that the answers to both questions will be rather whiny. A dear and respected friend of mine told me “Don’t do it. It’s Christmas. Write something uplifting, especially after that horrible article about eating babies. Why must you always be so grim?” I just can’t get the questions out of my mind. I am sure that in the following two articles there will be something to offend nearly everyone. Here goes.

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Friends of mine are always criticizing my Catholic faith. Now they are all over me like a tax auditor on a pyramid scheme. They ask me how I can be so generous to a church that misuses money so often. The priests and bishops live in mansions and the pope wears jewels and little red slippers and lives in a palace. What should I tell them?

Ira Banks

Dear Ira,

First let me laugh. The clergy doesn’t live in palaces. We live in our offices, except for those who have bailed.  That goes for the pope on down. Some offices are nicer than others, but they are still offices. A priest’s office is usually called a rectory. I live in a rectory. The phone rings night and day and it’s rarely someone calling with good news. The computer on which I am writing is about 8 feet from my bed. The usual greeting when I wander downstairs in the morning is “Mrs. Von der Vogelweide died last night. Would you like some coffee?” 

My kitchen is at street level. You have no idea how irritating it is to have the pasta just about al dente when a parishioner comes, looks in the kitchen window and joyfully says, “Oh good, the priest is here and he’s not doing anything.”  I turn off the pasta, open the door and in they come to explain how their mother-in-law’s Pekinese is demonically possessed. An hour later I, return to my pasta, cold and mushy, the pasta that is, and eat hurriedly because the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Motion starts in five minutes. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a priest. I get to say Mass, but to say that I live in a mansion is a hoot! It’s a very nice house in which I have a bedroom and a sitting room in which I never sit. As for the pope’s jeweled miters and red slippers, I imagine he puts them on and wraps himself in an antique cloth of gold cope and gets comfortable on the papal throne to watch Monday night football. This almost never happens. 

Do you have any idea what an uncomfortable garment a cope is?  Over street clothes one puts on an alb, a stole, a cope, a humeral veil, picks up the monstrance, (which is a display case for the Blessed Sacrament, made out of brass. The gold is not real. It is just gold plating. The “gems” on it are glass.) So there I am resplendent in my “gold and jewels.” I then carry the monstrance around the block in eighty degree heat while the faithful chant with varying degrees of success. Talk about a life of luxury! Even the Renaissance popes and cardinals, some of whom did live scandalous lives, spent the money on some of the greatest art the world has ever known and have created a tourist industry that has benefitted the Italian people ever since.

There are few intuitions that use money as well as the Catholic Church. We maintain hospitals, orphanages, schools, retirement homes, shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, counseling services and all the while we open our doors to the poor and rich alike for the sake of the Gospel and the salvation of humanity. We are the largest charitable institution in the world with, arguably, one of the lowest administrative costs of any charity. It’s a real money saver when the CEO lives above the shop. I, like the pope, live in my main place of employment, right next to the factory floor. How many CEO’s do you know who live at the factory?   

For twenty years, I was pastor of a parish with a soup kitchen, a school for poor refugee children, a food pantry and a clothing room. I lived upstairs from it all. I will never forget when one of our soup kitchen guests was sitting in my room sleeping off his pre-dinner cocktail. At another point in my ministry, a gang was going through the rectory on weekly basis, looking for what they could steal. Had I come into my room when they were going through the drawers and throwing the contents on the floor, I have no doubt I would have been killed. There was another time when a heroin addict was robbing us daily. So much for life in the mansion.   

Every priest I know whether they are in poor or rich parishes have similar stories. We are the lucky ones. The ones who have it rough are those whose lives are in constant danger because of anti-Catholic prejudice. They willingly serve in places guaranteed to shorten their lives. I feel like a slacker because I live in an actual house, looney bin though it may be. I have known a few corrupt priests and a few nuns who had forgotten their vows of poverty, but all in all, the great majority of nuns, deacons, priests and especially bishops I have known are self sacrificing work-aholics who do it for the love of God, Church and humanity. There are burn outs and sinners among us, but even the burn-outs usually burned out because they were trying to do something worth doing.

Let me tell you about my finances. At first glance it seems like a good deal. I get a house, auto and health insurance, a salary, and a generous per diem for food. (We have no cook or house keeper.) Last year the salary paid me by the parish came to a little over $40,000. Not bad. Let’s look a little more closely. I am self employed and must pay the social security tax. I am not an order priest and do not take a vow of poverty. I am responsible for my own finances and  I must pay federal and state income tax for which I can claim no dependents. I can’t retire until I’m 70 and then my pension as a priest is about $1,200.00 a month. If I live in a rectory, the pension is reduced to $550 a month, so unless I want to live in another office or a cardboard box in my golden years, I must have payroll deductions taken out of my check. When all the dust settles, my take home pay as a pastor last year was $22,750. Money given for Masses, weddings and baptisms all go to the parish unless there is a gift for the priest that is clearly designated as such. That’s not a lot for a someone who has two graduate degrees and 40 years seniority in the company. I am responsible for my own auto expenses, my clothing, medications and all the stuff that comprises life in our times. 

In some dioceses of the US priest make more, in some they make less. Priests in the developing world make a whole lot less. Twenty-two or 23 thousand isn’t bad, really. What do I need money for?  Actually, the scary thing is retirement. I will need the money for retirement. Just when an old man needs people he knows and loves around him, the priest is compelled to retire. There is a wonderful party, a hearty handclasp and quick goodbye. Things were not always this way. Up until 1972, when the young progressives demanded the removal of older pastors from the better parishes, it was expected that a priest would die in the rectory where he had served for most of his life. He may have been an old fossil, but he was everybody’s grandfather. He may have been difficult, but he was yours. That’s gone.

The modern more efficient Church doesn’t want a parish to get stale so they move priests around like deck chairs on a cruise ship. The priest grows old having served in 4 or 5 different churches. He knows a lot of people, but isn’t really close to many of them. No kids no grandkids. He is just old. I remember a cop who told me about going to some 3rd rate retirement home in his paddy wagon to pick up a body bag that had no one to claim it. He unzipped it and there he saw a cold gray face and the Roman collar beneath it. I remember a prestigious old monsignor who had been a seminary rector and who lived in a room in a church basement near the boiler room. He stayed there until the last trip to the hospital. And the old priest’s photo album is a very sad thing. When he dies there are all those pictures of a smiling priest at some sacramental event with people whose names he probably didn’t know. Those whose job it is to go through his things wonder what to do with the pictures. They get put in a box, and thrown away at some later date. The only person to whom they had any meaning has no more need of them. The saying is that there is no one so dead as a dead priest. Remember to pray for the repose of the soul of your priests. You are the only children they have who can do that.

Cheer up. I am not trying to depress you. Really, I’m not. When I was young this is not the way it was. A priest died in his rectory and was mourned by those who knew and loved him. That is gone now. Priests are despised and mistrusted by many if not most. They have no permanent home. There is very little respect given the priest these days. People are constantly mad at priests for the situation of the world, the situation of the Church, the fact that when they called the rectory they got an answering machine, and when they finally got him on the phone, the narrow minded so-and-so wouldn’t do a garden wedding for them next Saturday.  

 All this means a young man who signs up for the priesthood in these times is one of the most heroic people you are ever going to meet. He may be weak and flawed and even a little odd, but he is not doing it for the perks, the prestige or the pay. He is doing it because he loves Christ and the Church. Somebody like me is always whining, but the truth is, in some ways, things have never been better in the Church. 

The young men and women entering religious life, at least the ones I have known, make me want to do it all over again. They sign on for persecution and poverty, a poverty that goes beyond mere deprivation of money and luxuries. It is the poverty of Christ who had nowhere to lay His head. Candidates for the religious life, if they have their eyes open, are looking for only one treasure, the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ and Him crucified. All else they count a loss. They are worth supporting in their work. Believe me, they aren’t in it for the money.

Rev. Know-it-all

Friday, November 30, 2012

Where was God then...?

Dear Rev. Know it all,

I was watching PBS the other night and I saw a frightful program about the dust bowl era. Apparently the mounds of dust towered over houses. Untold numbers of people died and were displaced. I asked the maid why didn’t they just go to their summer homes in the Hamptons for the duration, and the maid told me that there are people who do not have a house in the Hamptons. In fact, Consuelo told me there are people who are actually poor. I was shocked!  Consuelo told me that in her native Guatapeyor, there are people who envy those who have a cardboard box to live in. I considered the situation. Where was God in the dust bowl? For that matter, where is God in the midst of war and poverty? Where was God in the Holocaust ? Where was God in the great Influenza Epidemic? Where was God in the Black Death?  For that matter where has a good and loving God been through all the sorry catalogue of human history? I am a member of the high church Progressive Episcocalvilutheran Non-denominational parish of St. Jane’s. I find it has a theology that reflects my own beliefs. I went  to the church to  contemplate the question. I sat in my padded pew alone and in silence and looked for a long time at the lovely stained glass window of the beneficent Good Shepherd smiling down with its lovely pale and rosy glow. I got no answer. Diddly. Bupkus. Nada, as my dear maid Consuelo might say. Can you help me?

Ever yours,
Contessa Amanda Du Monet

Dear Contessa,

Your problem here is that you walked into the wrong building. Had you walked into a Catholic Church, at least a traditional one, you would have seen a Crucifix, not a cross, a crucifix and on it would have hung the bruised and bloody image of a Jew who died 2,000 years ago.

I have heard something dreadful about the beautiful calendar with the picture of the Good Shepherd with the fluffy little lamb slung tenderly over his shoulders that so many of us have on our refrigerators held in place with little teapot refrigerator magnets. If we knew the truth about it, we wouldn’t have it on the refrigerator. We wouldn’t have it in the house. And we certainly wouldn’t let the children see it.

It seems that sheep are not the smartest animals. They tend to wander off where wolves can get them. They run away a lot because they see what appears to be better grass over there. The shepherd has a rod and staff that give the sheep comfort (Psalm 23), and cold comfort it is. The staff has a crook at the top which is useful in snaring the sheep around the neck and dragging it back into the proper pasture. The rod is for bopping the sheep on the noggin to stop them in their tracks and knock some sense into them. The shepherd doesn’t do this because he hates them. On the contrary he loves them. A traditional shepherd knows his sheep by name. They are almost like pets.

There are some sheep who are consistent runaways. There comes a time when the shepherd, in order to keep the sheep out harm's way, must do something drastic, so the shepherd breaks the sheep’s leg, and the sheep will not run away again. In fact that sheep stays pretty close to its master for the rest of its life. That’s why you see the shepherd with the cute fuzzy little lamb slung over his shoulder in the calendar picture. The lamb has a broken leg.

Back to your original question. “Where has a good and loving God been through all the sorry catalogue of human history?”  I tell you where He’s been. He’s been hanging on that cross! “Au contraire!” I can hear you say. “We are a modern, yet Bible-believing congregation here at St. Jane’s Progressive Episcocalvilutheran church. We are told that Jesus rose from the dead, maybe even physically (We aren’t required to believe that, though we may if we want to. We aren’t required to actually believe anything.) He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of the Father (or Mother, if you prefer, or any combination of the two). He is no longer on the cross. He died once and for all. He no longer suffers, and neither should we!”

We Catholic cave dwellers who with our ten children per family are still living in the past and inhabiting cardboard boxes in Guatapeyor, and we have an odd belief. We believe that when Jesus said “Behold, I am with you until the end of the earth,” He meant it. You asked where is God in human history, not where is God in eternity. In eternity, He lives to make intercession for us, in time He remains the timeless sacrifice of the cross to which He invites us at every single Mass offered in every true church in the world. Haven’t you noticed that when He rose from the dead He carried the cross with him? He had the mark of the nails in His hands and the mark of lance through His side. His resurrection didn’t leave the cross behind.

The crucifixion wasn’t unique. Untold thousands were crucified by the Romans among others. The cross was the very symbol of destitution in the ancient world. It was reserved for slaves and criminals. The victim of crucifixion was absolutely destitute. He was stripped even of his clothes and hung naked and ashamed suspended between heaven and earth as a sign that heaven and earth had rejected him. There he writhed in pain sometimes for days struggling to breathe until finally he could breathe no longer. 

What was so special about one particular crucifixion on a hill outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? Jesus, the Jew who died 2,000 years ago on that cross was God, the Son of God, the second person of that One Relationship which is God, the Holy Trinity. He is the Tikkun Olam, the Broken Vessel restored. He is the visible image of the invisible God. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus of Nazareth, not a general, not a clergyman, not a rich man but a poor carpenter betrayed by His friends abandoned by His own, murdered by an unjust and oppressive regime. That’s who we believe God is. He did not have a House in the Hamptons. The Bible says He had no place to lay His head, not even a cardboard box in Guatapeyor. What we believe is that God looked down on the mess we had made of human history and did not sit sulking on the heavenly throne, but jumped down from His lofty palace and landed squarely on a cross. 

Couldn’t He have just waved His omnipotent hand and gotten everyone off their own personal crosses? Couldn’t He, who saved others, have saved Himself and the two thieves crucified with Him?  I suppose He could have, if love was only pleasure and truth were more convenient. God came to earth not to be Santa Claus, but to be God, God who is love. Love, not luxury, is the purpose of existence. 

The coming festivities of Christmas give ample proof that many of us prefer Santa Claus to Christ. Sorry about that, but I wish the truth were otherwise. He shared our sorrows to teach us how to love. That list of miseries you mentioned, the Black death, the Influenza Epidemic the wars and sadly even the Nazi Holocaust, are soon forgotten. Jesus said that, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16:21) If what Jesus said is true, then this brief, and often painful, moment of time in which we are given the chance to love even  at the cost of our own lives, will soon be forgotten except for the love that we gave and that we received. The sorrow will fall away and love will be revealed in all its golden splendor. Every mother who ever wept over a child will see love that sorrow hid. Every father who has searched for a son gone astray, every spouse who has mourned, every child who has grieved, will see only the beauty of love. God seems to allow darkness only to let the light shine more brightly. No tear will be wasted. No love unrequited. So, there is your answer. Where was God? He was there all the time, inviting us to love and to be loved, because God is Love.

That’s what we believe here in the Catholic Church, but you’re welcome to go to  St. Jane’s Progressive Episcocalvilutheran Non-denominational Church. It’s a free county. At least so far.

Yours ever,
The Rev. Know-it-all

PS If you want to invite us Catholics and our noisy children to your house in the Hamptons we’d be glad to visit. And say "Hi" to Consuelo for me. I used to be in a prayer group with her. Boy, can that woman cook! Have you had her enchiladas en mole?