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.)

Friday, August 8, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 7

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued….yet more whining
There are many more elements to the current mess. One is the new concept of “liturgical style”. We have dancing celebrants, Broadway tune-singing celebrants, children’s Mass clown celebrants, and the ubiquitous Five-Sermons-Explaining-The-Mass-As-You-Go-Along celebrant. We also have the Say-What’s-In-The-Black-Do-What’s-In-The-Red celebrant, or the boring celebrant. I am of the boring celebrant school.  Someone recently recommended that I make Mass more exciting.
I retorted, “On the contrary! I am trying to make Mass more boring!”
They said that I was succeeding beyond my wildest dreams in doing so. 
The Five-Sermons-Explaining-The-Mass-As-You-Go-Along celebrant says things like “Peace be with you, true peace, inner peace, that deep serenity, that knowing which the Lord gives us that makes us aware of the beauty of nature and the fullness of the plentitude of all innerness.” 
To this the congregation responds, “And with your Spirit.” Or sometimes just, “Back at ya’ Father.” 
This kind of priest finds himself infinitely interesting and thinks we do too. It never occurs to him that maybe you just want to go to Mass. This type of celebrant also tends to have a religious voice when praying; He says things like, “O, Gawd…” in high-pitched voice accompanied by extravagant gestures.  He usually wears interesting vestments.  
In the old Mass there were lots of ways a priest could commit a mortal sin while saying Mass. If he willingly left out or changed parts and actions of the Mass, it was a big deal. This seems absurd, but it had a few things going for it. Mass was Mass was Mass. You were perfectly at home in the jungles of Bavaria or on the dark and mysterious North Shore of Chicago. Now that we have dancing, singing, clowning, extemporizing celebrants, it doesn’t seem that absurd.
The wisdom of the ages knew that we the clergy have serious temptations to raging narcissism, but as long as we all had to do the same thing, weren’t talking into a microphone and weren’t even looking at people for most of the Mass, we were pretty much held in check. When we turned around and got our mitts on a microphone, all bets were off. A few neglected children found a ready audience for their unrecognized and unappreciated cuteness.
Things are better now. Most of the serious narcissists found more amusing things to do 20 or 30 years ago, but the tendency among some is to think that the emotive, cute, expressive liturgical style is somehow better, or more pastoral, or more sincere. I remember a homiletics teacher who used to say, “Gentleman, you have to put more pizzazz in the homily!” I agree with him. The homily sometimes needs a little more enthusiasm, but we have definitely overcompensated and put our pizzazz into anything but the homily. I for one am pretty tired of liturgical pizzazz. I would like a little more substance and a little less pizzazz. Anyway….. 
The liturgical pizzazz syndrome has had some interesting results. Combine that with the fact that now a person may drive for half a day to a parish where they feel “comfortable,” and you get designer parishes. If you like lots of incense, you can go to St. Foggia’s. If you like grand Mozart Masses you can drive across town to St. Teutonica’s. If you like Broadway show tunes you can always stop in for the matinee Mass at Saints Panes et Circenses.
You catch my drift? In the evil olden days you were stuck with old Monsignor Fensterslammer who said Mass pretty much the way everybody else said it. This was the same era in which all phones were black and kept on the desk in the front hall, the era in which telemarketers could not harass you in the bathroom.  Just as we upgrade our phones every six months, we can upgrade our religion about as quickly. In the sad past your parish was your parish and you knew those people from cradle to grave and they knew you.  
When Old Monsignor Fensterslammer kicked the bucket, they carried him out of the rectory feet first, decked the church fa├žade in black bunting and waited for the next guy, who might be a better or worse preacher or a better or worse confessor or more or less a curmudgeon than the old guy who had just died, but the parish was still the parish. The head of the Altar and Rosary Society was still the head of the Altar and Rosary society. The same was true for the women’s guild, the Holy Name Society, the men’s club, the school and the mothers’ club. The secretary and the housekeeper and the janitor still growled at you when you wanted something and life went on.
You still had a community that demanded your tolerance, your love, and your best efforts to make it work, and often your forgiveness. Thank God that era is over and we can make demands of our community instead of having to put up with the demands our community makes on us. We no longer have to put up with people we may not like and who may not think like we do. We can have genuine community. (This is sarcasm, of course, like most of this entire screed.)  
There is an unforeseen problem with the designer parish. The pastor is moved every 12 years, maximum, the associate every six years. Then they put in someone at St. Foggia’s who hates incense, someone at St. Teutonica’s who only likes that new music from 50 years ago, like those classic funeral hymn “On Beagles’ Wings” or “I will Raise The Rent” and someone at Saints Panes and Circenses who refuse to say Mass in any language but Latin. People take to their cars in a desperate search for another parish where they can feel comfortable and have true community.
I am writing all this not merely to get things off my chest, which feels remarkably refreshing, but to point out that if you are looking for the parish and the parish priest of once upon a time, that structure died in the heady days of the post-conciliar Church. It’s not coming back. The cloud of glory has moved on.  Where it has moved I am not sure.

Next week, more endless whining.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 6

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued. (More whining as promised)

  An old classmate friend of mine was supposed to come by last week for a religious festival of some kind or other which would involve the laying on of food. He cancelled at the last minute because he had what we call a “sick call”. A hospital called and asked him to confer “last rites” or “Extreme Unction”. Never mind that we no longer have “last rites”.  We have the “Sacrament of the Sick” which could also be called “Not-so-Extreme-But- I-Have- Been-Feeling-Poorly-Lately-Unction”. People still want “the Last Rites.” This friend, unlike the author, is a good priest and went to the hospital immediately. 

  The hospital wasn’t in his parish. It wasn’t even in his diocese and the person needing the final consolation of religion wasn’t a parishioner. If nurses and chaplains can actually find a priest who, unlike myself, will actually pick up a phone, and will then actually come to the hospital without asking, “Is the soon to be departed a registered parishioner?” they will call that priest until they burn him out and he has a heart attack or ends up in the St. Dymphna Home for Priests Who Have Fallen Off Their Rocker.  

  There are such places. They tend to be in cold climates, not in Boca. This brings us to another set of problems. In the old days the average parish had three or four young energetic assistants who were in effect, pastors. It had one business manager, who was called the pastor, who as I have explained might be on a three month spiritual retreat in a sunny climate. 

  Nowadays there is only one fuse in the fuse box in most places. The pastor is a sort of ordained janitor. People commonly point out to him that there is a leak in the roof, or the toilet is flooding or there is an exposed wire or the kneeler in third pew has a screw loose. The ordained janitor is usually vested at the time and has three minutes until the start of his third Mass of the morning and the concerned parishioner has a concerned look on his or her face that says, “Well, aren’t you going to do something about it? Someone could get hurt!” 

  The pastor/ordained janitor goes and tries to look at the situation with a knowing and concerned furrowing of the brow. The congregation is getting restive because the Mass is now five minutes late in starting as the pastor goes to retrieve a screwdriver, or light bulb or a sign reading, “caution/piso mojado/wet floor”. In the midst of this the pastor/ordained janitor can hear the sound of his coronary arteries quietly clogging. I have actually stood in crowded parking lots dressed in ancient Roman finery breaking up fights and directing traffic. Why do we do this? Because, heaven forefend, if there is a law suit, a concerned parishioner just might testify, “I told Father about the puddle/burned out bulb/loose wire/ broken kneeler, but he just didn’t seem to care!”  

  These days if there is more than one priest in a rectory, or even if there is just one, that priest is usually working a few jobs. For about 20 years, I was a pastor of a very poor parish with lots of loose wire, loose kneelers and more than one loose screw. I was also the Cardinal’s liaison for Spanish Speaking Charismatic groups, in which there were quite a few loose screws. I was assigned to a 2/3 pastorate and a 1/3 chancery job. The parish paid 2/3 of my salary and the chancery paid 1/3, half of which I was expected to raise from the people I was serving in the Renewal. I also taught Latin and Greek in the college seminary for all those 20 years. Three jobs, one and a third substandard salaries, but I was young and having fun. In my parish I also had 5 hospitals, and a gaggle of nursing homes for which I was pastorally responsible. All those places called for the “Last Rites” which no longer exist. People were incensed if I didn’t answer the phone when I was, for instance, sleeping.

  In the bad old medieval days your parish was a parish which, like the marriage vows, was for better or for worse. You couldn’t shop for a priest who was a better electrician or at least more entertaining. This had certain advantages. The priest knew his people, was often genuinely concerned about them and was not asked to serve perfect strangers who probably hadn’t darkened the door of the church since Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah. 

  Now people shop. I have actually gotten requests to drive for a couple hours to a distant church to do a baptism because, get this, “You baptized all the other kids in the family and it would look odd to have another priest in the pictures on the mantle.” (This has actually happened to me.)  

  Or “Father, this is Mary. You remember me from twenty years ago, no? We live in Nebraska now. Anyway, you did my kid’s baptism. My cousin Florinda asked me to be the Godmother for her baby, Tiffany, and the church is asking for a letter from my parish that I am a practicing Catholic. Could you write me one?”  (Actual conversation except for the names.) In the bad old days, this would be impossible. You had baby Tiffany baptized in your parish, and if you weren’t going to church you were probably out of luck, or at least grace. 

  I say, “No, I can’t write the letter you ask for, that would be dishonest. Get the letter from your current parish priest.” 

  The response is, “But we aren’t going to church these days. We’re going to start going. But the baby has to be baptized this Saturday because she has serious thrombosis of the ear lobe and the hall is already rented. It’s an emergency.” 

  To which I respond “I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. It would be dishonest.” 

  Dead silence on the phone for a minute, then a cold voice says, “You used to be a nice priest.” 

  The coronary arteries clog just a little more as this aging priest realizes that once he might have been nice, but he was certainly spineless, and chances are, I say something like, “Well, Okay.” 

  In the bad old days of yore, priests didn’t have to be nice. You were stuck with us. That is if you wanted to be Catholic. You see, people really believed that there was a heaven and a hell, and that faith was important. You went to church because, “I dread the loss of heaven and fear the pains of hell,” to paraphrase the old act of contrition. The same young progressives that swept away the security of the pastorate also did away with hell. If there is a hell there is no one in it, except for Stalin and Hitler a few old monsignors.

  To lead a religious life in the hope of avoiding eternal damnation is now thought of as insincere. One leads the virtuous life because of the basic goodness of the average human being and an un-coerced love of God and humanity. Everyone goes to heaven because, after all, who is God to judge? He is ever so nice and would never send anyone to hell. Boy, do I hope these guys are right and that the abolishing of hell works out better than the abolishing of the pastorate.  

  The Catholic faith is a reasonable system of beliefs and practices that give meaning to life. It teaches that the purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever. The Catholic faith can give purpose to life in the world and hope for the eternal survival of the human person. Now it often seems to offer no real moral direction except for a general optimism, a positive attitude toward one’s fellows and a vague hope of going to “a better place” after death. Most people seem to look at participation in the liturgical life of the church, not as the offering of sacrifice for the salvation of the world, but as an optional entertainment and a sort of photo opportunity. Pictures are taken at Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Weddings, and now at First Confessions.  

  Confessionals are out and First Confession must be made “face to face” lest the dark medieval confessional frighten the little dears. The little penitent goes to Confession in the sanctuary where Father is seated trying to look concerned while Junior is confessing that he disobeyed his grandma and slugged his little sister. The rest of the class and the parents wait in the pews, or the proud parents are snapping way with cameras and waving to get the little sinner to smile for the camera. 

  The proud parents haven’t been to confession in years, nor has Junior’s new mommy or daddy. Later, Father stands in the sanctuary for pictures while the children hold up the banners they made in religion class or their “new garment”. More smiling, more pictures, then everyone adjourns to the hall for cake and ice cream. People are even taking pictures at funerals. The mind boggles.

  Once it was about the care of souls. Now priesthood has become a kind of modeling career. We are assured membership in the church if we have the pictures to prove it.  And in all of those pictures, Father is smiling his frozen smile. He is doing his job, which has nothing to with a challenge to the condition of your soul. His job is to be nice. It strikes me as odd. In the days when we weren’t expected to be nice, the churches were packed. Since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Nice, the churches are pretty much empty. Strange, isn’t it?

  Next week: More whining. I am having too much fun to stop.