Sunday, January 29, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 9

Letter to Robinson K. Russo a young seminarian, continued.

Dear Robinson,
It was a delight to see you and all the other seminarians from Bathsheba Bible College at the annual retreat a few weeks ago. The retreat director struck me as a little odd, but at least the pizza was good. Say hello to the brethren for me. Back to the disquisition.

Let’s talk a little about the perish, I mean the parish. A parish is a stable community of the faithful within a particular church, the care of which is entrusted to an ordained pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop. It is the primary unit of a diocese. In the Code of Canon Law, parishes are discussed in cc. 515–552, “Parishes, Pastors, and Parochial Vicars.” The word parish is derived from a Greek word that means “…the area around the house.” My only perspective is that of a diocesan priest. I cannot comment on the experience of religious order priests. The diocesan priesthood has changed greatly during my short life, and I cannot predict where it will go. I can only comment on where it has come from and how it has developed. People ask me, “What order do you belong to?” I used to answer flippantly, “The order of St. Peter.” I cannot do that anymore. There is now a group called the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), so that joke won’t work anymore, as if it ever did.

What I meant is that I am part of the original simple structure of the Catholic Church. The essential structure of the Church is the parish. (Warning the next few lines are speculation garnered from a lifetime of study. They may be absolutely wrong.) I suspect that in the first century of the Christian era, one town had one supervisor ("mebaqqer" in Hebrew, "episkopos" in Greek, "bishop" in English,) who was assisted by a few table waiter/helpers (“shamash” in Hebrew, "diakonos" in Greek, "deacon" in English.)  His congregation was probably never more than a couple hundred people.  He was probably called “Pappas” ("Father" in Greek) and was a spiritual father to his small community. The bishop presided over the Eucharist and approved new members of the community who were then instructed by the deacons. He re-admitted the fallen back into fellowship after a time of repentance and probably anointed the sick as well as preached.  He was both supervisor of the faithful and wise elder (“Zaken” in Hebrew, "presbyteros" in Greek, "priest" in English.) When things got a bit too much, he might appoint tried and true deacons as fellow elders, thought this would have been honorific. They could preside at the Eucharist in the absence of the bishop, the main elder, but could not admit others to holy orders and did have authority to re-admit the fallen to the fellowship by means of penance. If a local church had more than one house of assembly, that is a parish, in a given district, the bishop might put that community in the care of a trusted presbyter and a deacon or two.

So, there it was. You had a very simple structure: supervisor, assisted by table waiters and elders.  (Bishops, deacons and priests in English) Each diocese was essentially autonomous in its administration, though united to the wider Church by means of local synods of bishops, and when a big doctrinal issue came up, they looked to the bishop of Rome for instruction.  Around 170 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a Greek bishop of a French city, wrote, “…we do put to confusion all those who…assemble in unauthorized meetings by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. (It is) the faith… which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church… (Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3)

Irenaeus was born into a Christian family around 125 AD. His pastor (bishop) was St. Polycarp who had been instructed by St. John. This means that one long lifetime from Christ, one short generation from the Apostles, Christians in the little Catholic Church already looked to Rome for theological guidance. This was not much different from the church in which I was raised.  There were no deacons anymore, but the pastor was pretty much the bishop in his parish and was assisted by a few assistant pastors. The church was the parish. The parish was the church. 

The parish was almost as much my home as was the house I grew up in. We played in the church lot, went to the parish school, assisted at the Mass, went to parish ice cream socials, dances, catechism classes, retreats, holy hours, and even the occasional lecture. There were men’s clubs, ladies’ guilds, book discussions, card parties and on and on. It was the parish, the village of our souls. We didn’t have cable, nor had we IPads or IPods.  We played baseball, went to Boy Scouts which then was made up of people you knew and trusted. The pastor was scary. He never smiled. He knew us very well, better than we wanted to be known. I suspect even though he never smiled, he actually cared for each of us and knew us each by name. You didn’t go to the next parish over because the pastor was crabby and gave long sermons and longer penances after confession. The parish was home. If you went to the next parish over, the pastor would send you right back to your own home parish. There was no church hopping, just as there was no wife swapping, at least as far as I knew. The churches of my youth were full. The intimate community of believers that shepherded by the overseer/elder, heir to the apostles was preserved in the simplicity and familiarity of the parish. The parish was not incidental to the faith. It was the faith. This system worked pretty well for almost two thousand years, and then something happened.

Next week: ‘til death do us part, you old sourpuss.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 8

Letter to Robinson K. Russo a young seminarian, continued…

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

As a priest, you will be in constant danger of thinking that your struggle is against the parish council, the finance committee and the diocesan bureaucracy. It is not. Our struggle is against the devil. In his brilliant book, “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis has the devil calling human beings, “amphibians.” We live like frogs on the edge of the pond. We, like the frogs, live in two worlds. They live in water and on the land. We live in a spiritual realm and a physical realm. It is much easier to live on the land, quite frankly. You can see what’s out there more easily and travel becomes simply backward and forward sort of arrangement; whereas in the water, vision may be obscured, and opportunities as well as dangers are much more omni-directional.

So it with us, especially us priests. The visible world is much easier to deal with. The devil will try to convince us that the real work of the priesthood is dealing with baptisms, weddings and funerals (called the hatch, match and dispatch part of the business) we get the ceremonies done with as little hassle as possible. It always amazes me that people will complain to the proper authority, meaning the bishop if they were unhappy with your “performance.”  (I am not making this up. A person, not a parishioner, not even a Catholic, used that exact word in a letter to the bishop regarding a funeral I offered.) You will fight with wedding planners who want the bride brought down the aisle in a chariot drawn by llamas, and you will fight with the mother of the bride who wants the llamas to remain in the sanctuary during the Mass.  (This part I am making up, but not by much.)

Above all, the devil will want you to believe that the most important thing you will do is go to meetings. For some reason bureaucrats think that going to meetings is real work. They will plan endless meetings that you will be expected to attend. The devil will gradually convince you that there is nothing spiritual about the priesthood, by having you forget that he even exists. Again, C. S. Lewis:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”  

You will get some very strange people who think that everything is going bump in the night. I remember a woman who was absolutely frantic about being attacked by demon-possessed birds. They would charge at her windows and terrify her. I explained that male birds will charge their own reflection during mating season and that nothing supernatural was going on. She was not convinced. 

On the other hand, you will meet people who, when they see someone floating five feet over a bed will insist that there is just a strong updraft in the room. The middle position is the correct one. Part of the job of the priest is to be a little skeptical about spiritual phenomena. A little skeptical, just a little. We usually become so skeptical that if a miracle or a demon came up and bit us in the ankle, we wouldn’t notice it.

That’s just where the devil wants the clergy.  He wants us firmly planted on our fundamental fundament, and never on our knees. There is a saying, “Whom the devil cannot make bad he makes busy.” I would change it slightly for the clergy, Whom the devil would make bad he would first make busy.

I am a lousy prayer. There is so much else I have to do. God is very patient. When I come late to prayer, and spend only a little time, the Lord never gets mad. On the other hand, the people who so want you to see things the way they seem things will get very huffy if you are late for their event, or only spend a little while at it. The Almighty usually gets the leftovers in my life, because, oddly, the All Powerful never insists on having His own way unlike the head of the parish llama herding committee.

The worst is the late-night party. People will invite you to an event that starts at 8:00 PM. They will expect you to stay until midnight. No mind that you must be up at 5:30 AM to be awake for a 6:30 AM Mass at which you will be expected to preach a reasonably coherent, but very brief, sermon. They will say, “But father, it’s only once in a blue moon.” For them maybe. For you it happens a few times a week. There are birthdays, there are anniversaries, there is the arrival of the Nouveau Beaujolais. Most people celebrate the great events in the lives of ten or twenty people. You will have a family of thousands. That’s at least three or four birthdays a day. They will expect you to get just a little tipsy to help them celebrate the great event. That means you will need treatment for alcohol or liver failure or maybe both in pretty short order.

Once Jesus was asked, “What is the work of God?”  Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29) Remember that the Greek word in question is “pisteuein.” To believe in modern English primarily means “to be of an opinion” the word in the text of scripture, “pisteuein” primarily means to trust. The Christian’s first task is to trust Jesus.

How do you learn to trust someone? By getting to know them. Time spent in the study of Scripture and time spent on one’s knees before the Blessed Sacrament is the great task of the priest. If you have no spiritual power, what can you give a world ensnared by the devil? There is a great deal of talk these days about accompanying the people. What good is my company, if Christ does not accompany me? The great work of the priest is accomplished in prayer; and the world, the flesh, and the devil will conspire to keep you from prayer, and for the most part I go happily along with them, forgetting the incredible power that waits for me in prayer.

To be continued.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 7

Letter to Robinson K. Russo a young seminarian, continued… 
Alcohol and the devil. An unfortunate, yet common combination. “How can you say that, father?  Wine is mentioned frequently mentioned in the Bible. Jesus made wine at Cana.  Wine was used at the last supper and is used at Mass.”  
On the contrary, I am very fond of a nice glass of wine, like a 1982 Chateau la Vieux Canard Gras 1982 or a Gew├╝rztraminer. (I just threw that in because it’s so much fun to say.) Alcohol consumption has changed since our Savior was making the stuff out of water. In a word, distillation! The ancients always watered their wine, unless they were out to have a good time and subsequent headache. This is reflected by the custom of pouring a little wine into the chalice, symbolizing the joining of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus. At the time of Christ anyone who drank wine un-watered was out to get drunk. Even so, it takes a lot more work to get hammered on wine than on distilled beverages.  
The earliest evidence of true distillation of alcohol comes from the School of Salerno in southern Italy during the 12th century. The formula for making the stuff was written in secret code. In 1437, brandy or “burned wine” is mentioned in the archives of Katzelnbogen, Germany. The distillation process evaporates all the intoxicating essence of wine and squeezes out anything that even resembles fruit. As the saying goes, “Wine is fine, but liquor is quicker.” With distilled liquor one can kill as many brain cells in a few minutes as it takes wine to obliterate in perhaps an hour or so. One can go from sane to stupid in minutes with distilled liquor, hence its popularity. Thomas Jefferson said that the country with little wine has much drunkenness. He knew what he was talking about. The founding fathers were huge consumers of booze, much to the chagrin of the founding mothers one suspects. George Washington was the largest producer of whiskey in the United States, producing 11,000 gallons in just the year 1799. When the fifty-five founding fathers finished writing the U.S. Constitution, they celebrated by drinking, putting away 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, eight bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcoholic punch so large that, “ducks could swim in them.” Said one participant, Americans drank hooch, not wine, and this was true until recently. Watered wine with dinner is a lot different than three or four Long Island Iced Teas.  “What has this to do with religion?” well you may ask. Plenty.  
We Christians are all about freedom, because we are all about love. If one is forced to love one cannot Love and we believe that God is love, stone sober freely given sacrificial Love. Not the fake kind of “luv” that one encounters on a moonless night in a dimly lit bar. True Love happens in the cold clear light of morning. The devil knows this so he is going to want to get you into a lot of dimly lit places. I have never been an exorcist, but I know people.  There really is such a thing as demonic possession. It’s rare though not as rare as it used to be. We give the devil a lot more openings in the modern world than we used to.
I’ve heard that a possession is rather like when a thug has invaded a home and has the owner tied up and gagged in the basement. A huge element of exorcism is the attempt to get the possessed person to exercise his own free will. The creed is very important as a tool against the devil. In effect the sufferer is encouraged to make an act of the will say, “I trust in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The work of the exorcist is to help the person possessed to get free. The devil accomplishes the same thing with sin and addiction. He feasts on the will of another, as already mentioned above.  
Addictions (be they to alcohol, jealousy, hatreds we cherish, gossip, sex, pornography, drugs, television shopping, pick your poison) are all useful to the devil in snaring his dinner you. Any sin, but particularly addiction, is part of his hunting arsenal and you, father, are one of his favorite foods (though not as tasty as a bishop, cardinal or pope). He also enjoys snaring a nun or a monk, but he has already overfished those waters, so they are relatively a rare treat for him. So, father, or father-yet-to-be, learn your limits. And by the way, never drive under the influence. Even if you’ve just had a little if it’s a little more than the police like, the devil has you.  
A few years back, a truly holy man, a bishop was arrested for drunken driving. He had been to dinner with his aged mother. It seems he was set up by a waiter with whose political and social agenda this bishop did not agree. The waiter called a policeman, a friend of like preferences who ambushed the bishop and his mother. The breathalyzer said a little too much wine, the bishop was hauled in, and the press made it seem like he had run over a litter of kittens on the way back from a night of debauchery in Vegas. His ministry was trashed. The devil couldn’t get his soul, but he could still cause plenty of harm. If you, father, drink and drive, you are driving for a lot of people. You carry the diocesan lawyers in the back seat because it’s the diocese that your victims if any will sue. You carry your parishioners, who will be scandalized and grieved for you, and more than that you carry Christ and his bride.  
Scandal is a dreadful thing and the people who hate the Lord and his beloved bride, the Church are always looking for one. I don’t know if it’s still true, but when I was young, if you were arrested arrested, mind you, not convicted of a DUI, you were shipped off to that place I mentioned a while ago, the place where they send priests who need to think about things for a bit. It meant good-bye to friends for a while and probably to your parish permanently.  
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, prowls about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1Pt 5:8) 
Note, the first pope, Peter advises us to be SOBER. Why? Because the devil is peckish and we make a tasty snack when served with sauce. 
More about the priest and the devil next week