Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reconcilable Differences

I attended a communal Penance Service last week. We have them twice a year, one during Advent and one during Lent. Attendance has steadily dwindled over the years. This one had five priests present to hear 22 confessions. I suspect only 10 to 15 percent of our parishioners receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at all anymore. Of course, nearly 100 percent of those who still attend Mass receive the Holy Eucharist on a regular basis.

The Bible clearly warns us about receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy manner (1 Corr 11:27). So, why do so many Catholics think nothing of approaching Our Lord in a state of sin? I believe there are several reasons. We have lost our sense of sin. Whose fault is this? I blame the clergy. A recent poster in Steve Ray’s forum told of a priest announcing the Mass Schedule for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day of Obligation. He encouraged the congregation to “try to make it” if they could, but not to worry about it otherwise. He laughed saying, “We used to think you could go to hell for missing Mass” and the congregation laughed along with him. It’s no wonder they do not take the obligation seriously. The Church still teaches that missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation without just reason is a grave sin. (CCC 2181).

The Examination of Conscience used at the Penance Service last week was schmaltzy and sugar-coated compared to the booklets we used when I attended Catholic grade school some 40 years ago. Gone is the distinction between mortal and venial sin. In those days, mortal sins were listed in all caps. The booklet shouted at us. There was no doubt that such acts or omissions were serious offenses. Today, being judgmental is itself the sin. Who are we to tell someone they are committing a sin by sleeping in on Sunday morning occasionally instead of attending Mass? The emphasis now seems to be one’s own conscience.

While we should certainly listen to our consciences, we have a moral obligation to form that conscience in accordance with Church teaching. Furthermore, the shepherds of the Church have a moral obligation to instruct the flock accurately on Church teaching. Priests should examine their own consciences by asking themselves, “Have I done a spiritual injustice to my parishioners by not being forthcoming in presenting the truth in my preaching?” Pulling punches for fear of offending the congregation only serves to jeopardize souls.

The lack of proper catechesis is compounded by the loss of so many Catholic schools. Few of us have the opportunity for a strong Catholic education. Many Catholic elementary schools have closed due to the expense of hiring qualified Catholic teachers to replace the nuns which are now fewer in number. Religious education is often taught by volunteers who are ill-equipped to do so. Learning the Catholic faith adequately is impossible when restricted to an hour a week. Following Mass last Sunday, our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from the parish religious education class performed a sign language interpretation of a contemporary Christian song in front of the altar. While their proficiency in sign language was impressive, I couldn’t help but wonder how much they are really learning about their Catholic faith.

Poor catechesis has also lessened appreciation for the Real Presence. Many take the Holy Eucharist like a weekly vitamin, completely unaware of the miracle they are ingesting. The warning of 1 Corinthians 11:27 carries little weight when one does not understand what is actually taking place. How many of those partaking of the Body of Christ observe Church teaching on artificial birth control? How many fasted for an hour? How many can truly say they are in a state of grace? The congregation assumes the attitude that everyone else is approaching the altar and none of them go to confession, so why should I be any different? If there was something wrong with this, the priest would say something, wouldn’t he?

Even those who do understand the necessity of proper disposition are sometimes deterred from receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation by the modern forms. Many are uncomfortable with face-to-face confession, and although the option of going behind the screen is still available, the guarantee of anonymity is shaky at best. Many confessionals have been replaced by Reconciliation rooms where the priest may be visible upon entering. One never knows if he will be seen by the confessor and therefore, may avoid the possibility. How many serious sins go unconfessed because someone fears his anonymity will be compromised?

The fact that few priests show any concern for the long Communion lines and non-existent Confessional lines only further serves to justify the commonly held belief that confession is no longer considered necessary. The Priests contributed to this attitude and only they can reverse the trend by addressing these issues from the pulpit. Souls are at stake!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Seniority Rules!

The world's oldest person, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Bolden died at a nursing home in Memphis, Tennessee this week at the age of 116. You know what this means. We all move up a notch!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Facial Expressions and Matters of Life and Death

Saturdays are normally my day to relax, watch a game or two on television, and maybe get a little yard work done, but last week was an exception. An afternoon wedding, a birthday party, vigil Mass, and the out-of-town wedding reception had been on the calendar for some time. Added rather unexpectedly was a funeral in the morning. A friend from our parish lost her elderly mother and I wanted to pay my respects.

Since my wife and son were providing the music for the wedding and would be attending the rehearsal Friday evening, I stopped at the Burger King drive-up on my way home from work to pick up a fish sandwich before attending the wake. The cashier who was a friend of my daughter, asked me about the death of a relative of mine. This was news to me. I knew he had been in poor health, but despite the fact he lived only a few blocks from me, I was unaware of his passing. Add to the weekend another wake.

Saturday also proved to be busy for my son, the organist. He came home from college to play for the wedding so he also played for the morning funeral. The deceased came from a large Catholic family. One of the daughters picked the music for the Mass. My son is rather particular (read orthodox) about the music he plays. While there are many beautiful Catholic hymns appropriate for funerals, most families typically request Amazing Grace, and Precious Lord, Take My Hand. He respects the family's wishes, but puckers at the Protestant flavor of some of the selections. Wedding music is another matter. More about that later.

The funeral went well. A nephew of the deceased is a priest in the Boston Archdiocese. He concelebrated the Mass with our parish priest. I did notice a new liturgical wrinkle creeping into the liturgy. Our parish is pretty much evenly divided among those who during the Our Father assume no particular posture, those who assume the Orans Position, and those who hold hands. At the funeral Mass, some of the visitors took the hand-holding to a new extreme. They held hands, not only from one end of the pew to the other, but formed a snake going from pew to pew, punctuated with the standard half-orans termination pose. At the response to the doxology, they all raised their hands high the in air, still joined, in what I would describe as a modified ring-around-the-rosie move. (At what point does a Protestant pucker become a frown?)

For those who say, "So, what's wrong with holding hands during the Our Father", I really don't want to pontificate on the dangers of adding innovations to the liturgy here. Suffice to say, the Church does not prescribe a posture for the laity during the Our Father. When we invent one, we create a distraction that disrupts our unity and risks evolving into something of a spectacle that may lead to conflicting meanings not intended by the Church. As for singing Amazing Grace during the Mass, some consider it to contain a heretical lyric. I have covered that before. (See Selecting Liturgical Music, 11-28-03)

Before I wander too far off topic, let's go on to the wedding. My cousin's daughter, raised Catholic, was marrying a young non-Catholic she met at work. I do not know his faith background. The wedding vows were exchanged before our parish priest in the Catholic Church, but there was no celebration of the Mass. Music was not a major issue as the bride had little preference for what my son played. She only requested something similar to what her sister had at here wedding a number of years ago. The wedding was nice, but not without its quirky moments.

My niece was one of the bridesmaids. Having no fashion sense myself, I won't try to describe their gowns other than to say the upper half of their torsos were exposed in the back. My niece has tattoos, among which is a black cat sitting between her shoulder blades. At least, I THINK it was a black cat. The quality is so poor, it could easily be mistaken for large birthmark, which would be much less unsightly than the tattoo. I'll never understand what thought process causes a beautiful young girl to mutilate her body that way. (When does a frown become a grimace?)

After the bridal procession, the priest opened the ceremony by announcing that he forgot to have chairs set up in the front of the sanctuary for the wedding party. The bride and groom, best man and maid of honor, were made to stand through the entire ceremony including the homily. It was awkward, but everyone muddled through without fainting.

Sandwiched between the wedding and the reception, we briefly attended a birthday party for the one-year-old son of some parish friends, and then returned to church a third time for the Sunday vigil Mass for which my son also played. The wedding reception was being held about one hour's drive from the church, and we were hoping to make a quick exit after Mass as to not be too late for the festivities. We had forgotten that a baptism was taking place during Mass, and that my son had promised to meet another prospective bride and groom after Mass to pick out music for their wedding. I believe I may hold a record for witnessing a baptism, birthday party, wedding and funeral all in one day!

Knowing that we had to drop our son off at his college after the wedding reception and our schedule was now tighter than ever, we decided to run home to load his belongings for him while he met with the future bride and groom and their vocalist. When we got back to the church, he was still meeting with them in the choir loft. As we were now ten minutes late for the reception, and the reception was an hour away, I went upstairs to try to hurry them up. When I got there, I could tell from my son's facial expression that things were not going well. The vocalist, supposedly a Catholic, had suggested show tunes from the Sound of Music for the wedding. My son had informed them that wasn't going to happen here. She had also picked one of the contemporary pieces of music for the Mass, and was explaining to the bride and groom that "they don't do music in this parish that is done in almost every other parish around." (When does a grimace become a sneer?) With that, I told them we had to leave and they would have to finish picking out music themselves. We actually locked them in the church after telling them a complicated route they could follow to exit the church in the dark.

On the way to the reception, the car directly in front of us hit a deer. Had we left a few seconds earlier, we could have been the lead vehicle in the deer slaughter. No one was hurt, except for the deer, and we proceeded to the reception, getting there just in time to miss the obligatory full length epic video biographies of the bride and groom set to country music. The bride's sister and her husband got up to read a poem they had written about the bride and groom. Included in the prose was the story about how the bride and groom cohabitated before they were married. When it was over, everyone, including the priest who presided at the wedding, applauded politely. (When does a sneer become a glare?)

The experience of that day makes me realize how far we have strayed from our catholicity. The faith that makes us Catholics has been obscured by the secular traditions that have crept into the most important events of our lives. The sacramental nature of Matrimony has been cast aside. The marriage has become a production, complete with planners, directors, writers, designers, makeup artists, and videographers. The music is the wedding score, much like a movie soundtrack selected to set the mood and reflect the personality of the couple. No longer is it a melodious prayer praising God and asking him to bless the union. What spiritual preparation occurs is treated like a procedural requirement, much like getting the license. Couples go through it because the parish requires it, not because they are seeking spiritual growth together.

Those considering marriage should thoroughly understand what it means to enter into a covenant before God. Being in a covenantal relationship implies a complete commitment to one's partner. It carries certain responsibilities in the way couples lives their lives within the context of their Catholic faith. They must realize the difficulty they will encounter in their spiritual growth if they are not on the same path. Our parish has Marriage Preparation classes, but I cannot help but wonder about what is taught. What are they told about the Church's teaching on birth control? Do they study Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul's encyclical on Human Life?

Of course, the brief time spent by the couple in front of the priest in preparation for marriage will mean little if proper faith formation did not take place from an early age. When one of them was never grounded in the faith or comes from a non-catholic background, the chance of a solid faith-based union becomes even less likely. Then, what are chances that children coming from such a union will be properly catechized?

There are no easy answers. We are all called to holiness, but few seem to heed that call these days. We must pray and lead by example. Pray for vocations, for good priests who are not reluctant or unwilling to teach the fullness of the faith from the pulpit. Pray for families, for good parents who raise their children in homes upholding solid Christian values. Nurture the love of Christ and His Church in our children and all those around us. Living lives that are more Christ-centered than self-centered will give us many reasons to smile.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Roadshow Treasure!

Appraiser: Tell me what you've got here - first of all, how did you come by it?

Guest: Well, it was handed down through our family. I got it from my parents, my mother mostly. We grew up with it in our house and never thought too much about it. As I got older, I thought there might be more to it than what my parents had realized. They seemed to take it for granted that everyone had one, or at least something like it, and one was just as good as the other. I moved out of the house when I was about 19 and I guess you'd say I left it behind - didn't even miss it really until I got a little older.

Appraiser: We see a lot of these come through the Roadshow. As you say, most people have it and just take it for granted. They assume theirs is real or at least, serves their purpose, and don't give it much thought beyond that. The fact is, most are not original. They are copies, and in many cases, copies of copies. And the more they are copied, the more different they become from the truly authentic. Most people just assume theirs is original and authentic, and for the most part, they go through their entire lives not knowing any different.

Guest: I honestly never knew if ours was real or not. In fact, I didn't know whether there is a way to tell. Many claim authenticity, but they can't all be true because they differ in many ways. I don't know how to tell and that's why I'm here!

Appraiser: You are right about that. They can't all be true if they conflict with one another. Well, there IS a way to tell, although many people don't want to admit the truth when they hear it. Even when you show them theirs was developed much later, they don't want to hear it! Now, I can tell you how we can determine if yours is real.

Guest: That's why I came.

Appraiser: Okay, then. First of all, what do you call it?

Guest: We always just called it the Church. Mom always said, "We're going to Church," and that's what we called it.

Appraiser: That's fine. Some people call it their religion, some have a specific name for it, but most use the term Church even though what they specifically have is not necessarily what we would call the true Church. One of the characteristics in determining the authenticity is its unity or oneness. There is only one Church.

Guest: One? How do you know that?

Appraiser: From Scripture. We know the Church is the Body of Jesus Christ. He had only one body. I can give you several references if you want to research it yourself. You might want to read Romans 12:5. Also look at 1 Corrinthians 10:17, and 12:13 where this oneness is emphasized. Rather than a series of Christian Churches all having differing beliefs, Jesus established just one universal Church. By the way, the Greek word for universal is catholic.

Guest: But how do we even know the Scripture is true?

Appraiser (laughing): Well, we will have to delve much deeper into this if you want to go there, but let me explain it briefly. The short answer is because this Catholic Church says so, but of course, logic prohibits us from using a circular argument to prove the Church from Scripture and Scripture from the Church. Therefore, we must go outside the circle and prove the existence of the Church first, and in fact, the Church does pre-date Scripture and we would not have the Scripture were it not for the Church.

Guest: But again I ask, how do we know this?

Appraiser: You might be surprised to learn that we know quite a lot about what was happening 2000 years ago. We have ancient manuscripts including the some of the writings of the earliest Christians. These documents of antiquity have been scrutinized very carefully to determine authenticity. We have strong evidence that a man named Jesus lived, that he claimed to be the Son of God, that he was a miracle worker, that he died a horrible death by crucifixion, and that he rose from the dead, and was seen by some 500 witnesses afterwards. We also have evidence that he established a Church and promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide it to truth, and gave the Church authority to bind and loose in His absence. He also said the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Guest: But aren't you just quoting Scripture? Isn't this the circular argument again?

Appraiser: No. We are not assuming the inspiration of Scripture yet at this point. These facts are based strictly on the historical record.

Guest: I thought ALL Scripture was inspired.

Appraiser: It is, but how do we know that?

Guest: Doesn't Scripture itself say so?

Appraiser: No, and it wouldn't prove anything if it did. Many early Christian writings claimed to be inspired. It fell upon the shoulders of the 4th Century Bishops of the Catholic Church to determine once and for all, which of the disputed early Christian writings were inspired and therefore should be included in the Canon of Scripture. Without the Bishops of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we would not have a Bible. People don't realize that you can't know infallible Scripture without an infallible Church.

Guest: So how can so many people try to prove errors of Catholicism by quoting Scripture?

Appraiser: Ironic, isn't it?

Guest: But, don't many other Churches claim to be the true Church Christ established?

Appraiser: Yes, and now we are getting back to how we discern the true Church. Let's examine the identifying marks of yours carefully. If we now accept Scripture as truth inspired by God, we know the true Church is ONE Church. It doesn't make sense to have a series of different denominations all claiming to be the Christian Church, but teaching contradictory doctrine. So, unity of doctrine is the first mark we look for. We also know the Church is Holy.

Guest: I would think many churches . . . or denominations . . .

Appraisers: Ecclesiastical Communities, we sometimes call them.

Guest: Okay, Ecclesiastical Communities. I would think many Ecclesiastical Communities could claim to be Holy, and the Catholic Church has certainly had priests and bishops whom one would never consider to be holy!

Appraiser: True, but don't confuse the universal Church as the Bride of Christ with the actions of her individual members. Paul writes about the relationship between Christ and the Church in his letter to the Ephesians. You might want to read in Chapter 5 where he compares the relationship between husbands and wives to that of Christ and the Church. Read verses 21 to 30 where we get this imagery of the Church as Christ's Body, being holy and without blemish. Contrast this with John chapter 6, verse 70 where Jesus refers to one of His chosen apostles as the devil. Those apostles were the first bishops of the Church, chosen by Jesus Himself. Yet, one of them was evil. That does not mean the Church as a Divine Institution is evil. There's a big distinction there!

Guest: But, that describes many churches . . . or Ecclesiastical Communities. (I can't get used to saying that!)

Appraiser: Well, maybe so, but they don't have the primary source of holiness which is grace conveyed through the Sacraments, and especially the Holy Eucharist. John Chapter 6 says unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, we have no life within us. (verse 53) That's a pretty strong statement!

Guest: And only possible in the Catholic Church?

Appraiser: Yes, and let's talk a little more about that term Catholic before we run out of time. We said before that the word Catholic means universal. That's the third mark we look for. Jesus intended His Church for everyone. He told his apostles to make disciples of ALL nations (Matt 28:19-20). The Catholic Church has been doing this for 2000 years. We know the term Catholic was in use to describe Christ's Church at least as early as the 2nd century when Ignatius of Antioch was using it.

Guest: It still seems to me that many ecclesiastical communities could make these claims.

Appraiser: Well, they can make the claims, but the claims won't hold up to scrutiny! I might suggest you take time to read the Church Fathers, early Christian writers who describe belief and practice when the Church was in its infancy. Compare their beliefs to those of the various ecclesiastical communities of today and compare them to the Catholic Church. And even if you still believe any Christian communities can claim to be holy and universal, I think you'll be hard pressed to accept any claim to be one and apostolic. The fourth mark, being the Apostolic continuity of succession, should be the clincher.

Guest: And what does that mean exactly?

Appraiser: Jesus appointed the apostles to be the first leaders of the Church. Those leaders had successors which we now call bishops. By apostolic, we mean the true Church will have a continuous unbroken line of successors from the first apostles down to the bishops of today. Even that apostle we talked about earlier who Jesus called the devil, had a successor. You can read about his selection in the first chapter of Acts beginning around verse 15. You can also read some of early Christian writers who list the successors to Peter, the apostle who was given primacy over the others by virtue of being given the Keys to the Kingdom by Jesus.

Guest: But still, can't at least some of these so-called Ecclesiastical Communities still have the four marks? Say the Lutherans for example. Didn't Martin Luther just remove some of the dirt that had tarnished the Church?

Appraiser: No. While he removed the dirt, you might say he also removed the patina, and in doing so, what made the Church so valuable, that being protection of truth by the Christ-granted authority, was lost. Once the authority and the teaching of that authority was denied, only the Bible remained. What's the pillar and foundation of truth?

Guest: The Bible.

Appraiser: Is it? Read first Timothy 3, verse 15. The Bible says the pillar and foundation of truth is the Church of the living God.

Guest: So, without the Church, we lose the pillar and foundation of truth.

Appraiser: Absolutely. The ecclesiastical communities can have much truth, but not the fullness of the truth. They have the Bible, which they got from the Catholic Church by the way, but they have to interpret it for themselves since they no longer trust the authority which gave them the Bible in the first place. Do you see why I call these other so-called churches knock-offs?

Guest: I do now.

Appraiser: I don't mean it disrespectfully. Some of them are very beautiful. On the outside, they may appear more attractive than the Catholic Church to some. But once you understand what's missing - the authority, the truth, the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation, the Mass itself, and all the other graces, the whole Communion of Saints - I could go on and on. There's really no comparison. The provenance is critical to the value.

Guest: So, what is this worth?

Appraiser: Well, you owe a great debt of gratitude to your mother for bringing you up in the Catholic faith. All four marks that we look for are here. I've talked this over with a number of my colleagues. How can you place a value on a one of a kind gift from Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It's beyond value - by far, the most valuable thing we have ever had on the Roadshow.

Guest: My God, I had no idea. All these years, I never gave it any thought. I never knew what I had. All the times in my life - all those years - I just didn't know! Thank you so much. You have given me a whole new appreciation for my Catholic faith. I'm not going to keep it hidden away now. I want to put it on display for everyone to see in the hopes others will learn to love it and cherish it as I will from now on.

Appraiser: You'll want to take good care of it - frequent confession, Holy Communion, daily prayer - do all those things and your faith will increase in value.

Guest: Thank you so much.

Appraiser: Thanks for bringing it in.

Guest: I wish my mother could have heard this.

Appraiser: She knows.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Our Parish Anniversary - 125 Years

This weekend, our parish will celebrate 125 years in this small farming community. The town itself is not much older, having been established in 1865. We will be reliving memories of the first 125 years with Mass celebrated by our Bishop and a dinner program following at the local middle school gymnasium. I have been around for over 50 of those years, and my ancestors for more than 100. While we will certainly enjoy looking back, perhaps it is also a good time to look ahead. Just as the President makes a State of the Union address each year, we should also look at the state of our parish.

We live in a community of about 2000 people and only a small percentage are Catholic. As this is a rural area, a good percentage of our parishioners come from the surrounding area. We probably have about 300 active members at this time. Our parish school closed in the 1970's due to declining enrollment and a lack of qualified teachers. Once staffed entirely by the Sisters of Saint Francis, lay teachers were needed as the number of available sisters diminished. The parish could not afford to hire teachers and support the school with tuition money.

The importance of having the school was never realized until long after it was closed. Having good holy nuns directly involved with the formation of children was also an important factor in the spiritual welfare of the parents. Around the time the school closed, we were also feeling the effects of Vatican II reforms. Society itself was in a transitional period. Traditional moral values were being challenged by the effects of the drug culture and sexual liberation. Church attendance began to decline. Where ushers once found it difficult to find seating for everyone at some Sunday Masses, there were plenty of empty pews and the number of Sunday Masses was reduced. Spiritual life was no longer the central force for most Catholics in our parish it seems. I am sure this was not unique to our situation.

Those of us who have been around awhile are certainly aware of changes in the church. Why does a church, 2000 years old, established by an unchanging God, seem so different today as compared to the church we knew as children? In actuality, despite the reforms of Vatican II, it is society that has changed rather than the church herself. The changes we see are more the result of the changing of its members. Evolving attitudes manifest themselves in the way we worship. Secular influences affect the way we all think and behave, even those responsible for the formation of seminarians. Once the shepherds of the Church have their spiritual direction diverted, it is only a matter of time before the flock goes astray.

Attitudes changed drastically back in the 1960's. In the era of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, we seemed to lose all respect for authority. The Viet Nam conflict caused many young people to disconnect from societal norms of the time. They rebelled against the establishment viewed as government, parents, and even the Church. With no one else to answer to, we became very self-centered. Relativism became the norm. Many began to question absolute truth. Fewer vocations were honored and many seminaries began to close. In an effort to attract young men to the priesthood, the emphasis of the spiritual life was probably relaxed in favor of a more social or fraternal life experience.

The reduced number was not the only problem. Many of those coming out of the liberalized seminaries were frankly not very good priests. Some of them went on to become lousy bishops, as well. Things were allowed to occur that should never have happened. We are all aware of the many cases of abuse by priests. While nothing can ever compare to the damage done by sexual abuse, other less notable abuses still occur within liturgies and other priestly responsibilities that are lax or misdirected.

Those who travel or have occasion to visit various parishes have undoubtedly had jaw-dropping experiences at Sunday Masses. My son just began his freshman year at a Lutheran University where he attends Mass at the Catholic Center across the street. He laments the fact that the Lutherans sometime appear to be more "Catholic" than the Catholics themselves. Accustomed to some semblance of reverence at our home parish, he was shocked to experience improvised Eucharistic prayers, no kneeling, chasubles made of bed sheets with handprints painted on them, and Happy Birthday sung at every Sunday Mass. Many priests seem to feel the need to make the Mass a toga party of sorts to keep young people interested. If only they understood and appreciated the miracle that is happening before them, no fluff would be necessary. Where is our catechesis?

There are still many excellent priests, but they are often overshadowed by the exploits of the less spiritual. The best ones tend to be assigned to large parishes where they can do the most good, leaving us at the smaller parishes to contend with those placed where they can do the least harm. One would expect the local bishop to pull on the reins once in awhile, but maybe he does not want to deal with the situation. In light of some of the recent scandals, we should not be surprised to see a bishop shun his responsibilities. It is also possible bishops are not aware of what may be going on in certain parishes. The holiest members of the congregation are the most likely to show respect to the office of the priesthood, making them reluctant to rock the boat by reporting liturgical or administrative issues. The less religious either don't recognize the problems or they don't care.

We have dealt with extremes when it comes to the local pastorate. From a very holy man who could not interact with ordinary people, to a very sociable priest who likes to visit the casinos, we have run the gamut. One was never seen without his collar, and the other seldom seen with. Somewhere in between, we have also had good parish priests who did their best to lead us closer to Our Lord. I am sure it is not an easy vocation. A priest must deal with many responsibilities, both administrative and spiritual. He must be on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to assume the burdens of others at the worst times of their lives. While we all turn to others in times of trouble, the priest often has no one to turn to but God.

So, what does the future hold for our parish? That is a difficult question to answer. We have already been told we will have to share a priest with a neighboring parish soon. The loss of the parish school, as detrimental as I think it was, will pale in comparison to not having a resident priest. Prospects for an increase in vocations are not good in this diocese. While vocations are growing in many of the more conservative dioceses, such has not happened here yet.

On a positive note, an exciting influx of Protestant converts is taking place all over the country. Some of the most fervent followers of Christ are finding the truth of the historic Catholic Church, thanks in part to the many Catholic Apologetic organizations that have sprung up in the past ten to fifteen years. Many of the groups are run by former Protestants who through their studies have discovered the one true Church Jesus founded. In some cases, Protestant clergy are leading members of their former congregations in the same direction. What we cradle Catholics sometimes lack in evangelistic fire is now igniting others within the Church. I am optimistic about the future growth of the Church. I pray it does not come too late for our parish.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wistful Thinking

Our second son moved off to college last week leaving only our daughter, a high school senior, at home. One more year before we become empty-nesters. Being an emotional father who was always most comfortable when all three children were tucked firmly in their beds, I had a difficult time keeping my composure those last few days as the reality of another soon-to-be empty bedroom settled over me. Thank God, my wife is the strong one in our household. She helps me to keep it all in perspective.

Evan was never your typical teenager. He began piano lessons at the age of five, and developed an early love for classical music that continues today. The organ became his instrument of choice and he played his first Mass at the age of nine, following in the footsteps of my Aunt Agnes who was the organist at our local parish for 65 years. After her death, Uncle Joe gave her beautiful Conn organ to us. Our house was filled with music everyday. When Evan wasn't playing Bach on the organ, he would be playing Debussy or one of my other favorites on the century-old upright piano that was handed down through my wife's family. Now, they both sit silent in our downstairs family room.

The melancholy that surrounds me is soothed by the knowledge that Evan is pursuing his love of music. He will be home from time-to-time and I am sure the old piano and organ will come to life again. He seems to be excited about attending the university and appears to be adjusting well to his new surroundings. With Internet instant messaging and video technology, and the cellular telephone, kids are never really far away anymore. The world has become a much smaller place.

I have to keep reminding myself that these are not our children. They are God's children. We are just caretakers until they are ready to survive on their own. I don't want to demean the importance of that job, however. It is a tremendous responsibility, one that haunts me as my direct control over my son ends. Did I teach him everything a father needs to teach his son? Will he be ready to take responsibility, to do the right thing? When I am not there to lead, will he make the right choices?

The job of Parent had to be the most difficult in the world. It carries the most responsibility and yet, we begin it with no previous experience. Training is on-the-job, and by the time we gain the expertise, it's too late. Our career is over. Occasionally we see children who are raised from an early age by Grandparents. I wonder if they turn out to be more responsible adults since their guardians had prior experience. It might be an interesting study.

Would I do anything differently if I could raise my children all over again? Certainly, I would. Raising a child is somewhat like painting a picture. We make what we think are the proper brushstrokes to create our masterpiece, but we never really know how it will turn out until we step back to look. There are no assurances. I have seen parents seemingly do all the right things only to have kids grow up to be irresponsible jerks, and others who become wonderful adults despite being neglected while growing up. Perhaps the best we can do is act as we want our children to act. Lead by example, and hope they gain the necessary respect to follow in our footsteps.

I wish I had placed greater emphasis on getting priorities in order. Part of being a responsible adult is knowing what is important. I want my children to understand what a covenant is, and what it means in terms of commitment. I want them to love Our Lord, His Church, and all His creation. I want them to learn their faith and to share it with others. I want them to continue to grow through Grace and by personal study. I want them to be committed to family and to helping others. I want them to be civically and socially responsible. I want them to do the right thing, even in the face of opposition from our secular society.

Did I always do these things as an example for my children? No, not always. I am weak. But for the grace of God do I even have a wife and family. I have been very blessed. Are my children turning out the exactly the way I had hoped? Maybe not exactly, but I am mostly pleased and there are many chapters yet to be written. Despite what we tell them and how we lead, our children need to learn some things for themselves. At times their mistakes can be painful, but we cannot keep the reins on forever. We have to let go.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Please Accept My Apology

My dialogue continues with my non-Catholic friend. His last presentation to me was a list of 19th century Protestant Bible commentaries refuting Peter's primacy, the papacy, and its succession. I countered with a list of quotations from the early Church Fathers proving that the earliest Christians accepted Peter's primacy, his office and its continuity. My letter to him was a much revised version of what I posted last month. I re-read and re-wrote the text several times while making prudent use of my delete button before settling on the final form.

Such apologetic activity is a delicate procedure. How much is too much? My goal is to provoke thought, not anger. In some respects, dialogue with a friend is much more difficult than with a stranger. Friendships can be easily strained, and yet we have a responsibility to share the faith. The Bible says to do so with gentleness and reverence, which is not always easy to do. One's demeanor does not always come across accurately in printed form. Keeping that in mind is paramount.

Our exchanges average semi-monthly cycles. That gives each of us time to calm ourselves, ponder the issues, do research and formulate an answer. While some discussion is done via email, the past few have been in printed form through the U.S. Mail. The reason for this is primarily due to length. Emails twelve to fourteen pages long can be difficult to read. It seems rude to fill someone's mailbox with a large amount of text and then expect that person to print it on his or her own paper. Both of us agree that having the text in printed form is essential for serious study. It allows us to make notes as we read while eliminating the temptation to let the message get buried in an online mailbox.

This particular discussion began when Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, debuted. We have remained on good terms despite the fact that we have firmly revealed our disagreements. Sometimes after sending an apologetic essay, I do sense some peevishness in my friend's initial reaction which usually comes via email. He will usually follow up with a friendly phone call in a day or two. Generally, the phone conversations consist of mostly small-talk, perhaps a mutual reassurance that everything is still okay between us.

Have these exchanges been fruitful? Yes. I'm not going to jump ship and he has shown no signs of coming onboard, but we both have gained insight into each other's faith. We share many common beliefs, and of course, we have many disagreements. My mission is to wipe away any misconceptions about the Catholic Church while presenting the faith in a logical and loving manner. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Peter Rocks!

A close non-Catholic friend and I occasionally get into discussions about the Catholic faith. About a year ago, he asked me to look a booklet titled The Facts on Roman Catholicism by John Ankerberg and John Weldon. Ankerberg is a well-known Protestant Christian apologist who has a television ministry. Weldon is an author who collaborated with Ankerberg on a number of apologetic books.

A quick Internet search led me to Ankerberg's web page where I was able to purchase the 63-page booklet for five dollars. My friend expressed his preference for this tract because it presented the problems with Catholicism in a "charitable manner." I suspected I already knew basically what the booklet would say, but using it as a discussion tool seemed like a good way to further our dialogue.

As I read through the booklet, I began making notes and writing comments. Eventually, those gave birth to a 17 page reply to my friend in which I refuted all the half-truths and downright erroneous information contained in the booklet. Last week, my friend replied with a rather lengthy response of his own. It consisted of early 19th Century Protestant Scripture Commentaries by Adam Clarke and several others, most of which were directed at denying papal authority. My friend noted that these commentaries are well known and respected. What follows is a portion of my latest reply.

We can both present our evidence over and over again, but how do we get beyond this point in our discussion? We know we should be united in mind and purpose as the Bible tells us, but what happens when in all honesty and sincerity, we just disagree. How do we discern the truth? As a Catholic, I could look to Scripture and say we should take our disagreement to the Church (Matt 18: 15-18), because the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.(1 Tim 3:15) We still have a problem because we cannot agree on what Scripture means by the Church.

I'm sure Adam Clarke's Commentaries are "well known and respected" -- in Evangelical circles. The problem is that, as a Methodist writer, his commentaries always come from a Protestant point of view. That is to say, his interpretation of Scripture will never support a Catholic position with which he disagrees. For example, let's take 1 Tim 3:15 which I cited above. A Catholic would say this verse means exactly what it says. Paul is referring to "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." As Catholics, we believe Jesus, the Son of the living God, established an authoritative Church guided by the Holy Spirit to all truth (Matt 16: 13-19, John 16:13), and we can trace the Catholic Church to this origin. The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. There is no mystery here. Since Clarke does not hold this position, he cannot interpret this passage literally, and must try to come up with other possibilities.

I found his commentary on 1 Tim 3:15 at I display them here just as they appear on the webpage. Regarding to what the "pillar and ground of the truth" refers, he says the following:

[The pillar and ground of the truth.] Never was there a greater variety of opinions on any portion of the sacred Scripture than has been on this and the following verse. Commentators and critics have given senses and meanings till there is no meaning to be seen. It would be almost impossible, after reading all that has been said on this passage, for any man to make up his own mind. To what, or to whom, does the pillar and ground of the truth refer?
1. Some say to Timothy, who is called the pillar, &c., because left there to support and defend the truth of God against false doctrines and false teachers; and is so called for the same reason that Peter, James, and John, are said to be pillars, i.e. supporters of the truth of God. Gal. ii. 9.
2. Others suppose that the pillar and ground of the truth is spoken of GOD; and that ov esti, who is, should be supplied as referring immediately to qeov, God, just before. By this mode of interpretation the passage will read thus: That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, WHO IS (ov esti) the pillar and ground of the truth. How God may be fitly termed the pillar and ground of truth, requires no explanation.
3. Others think that the words should be understood of the CHURCH of the living God; and in this case the feminine relative htiv esti, which is, must be repeated immediately after ekklhsia, the Church. The house of God is the Church of the living God; WHICH (Church) IS the pillar and ground of the truth. That is: The full revelation of God's truth is in the Christian Church. The great doctrines of that Church are the truth without error, metaphor, or figure. Formerly the truth was but partially revealed, much of it being shadowed with types, ceremonies, and comparatively dark prophecies; but now all is plain, and the full revelation given; and the foundation on which this truth rests are the grand facts detailed in the Gospel, especially those which concern the incarnation, miracles, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the mission of the Holy Spirit.
4. Lastly, others refer the whole to to thv eusebeiav musthrion, the mystery of godliness; and translate the clause thus: The mystery of godliness is the pillar and ground of the truth; and, without controversy, a great thing. This gives a very good sense, but it is not much favoured by the arrangement of the words in the original.

The term Eisegesis refers to Biblical interpretation that is formed in accordance with preconceived beliefs, as opposed to Exegesis, the theological study of the true meaning of Scripture. Imagine how difficult it must be to form a Biblical interpretation without allowing one's personal beliefs to enter. I read all of the commentaries on Matthew 16 that you provided. I think any reasonable critic will see some eisegesis in the exegesis. It's a bit like having a little broken glass mixed in with your peanut butter. There may be spiritual nourishment here, but one must chew it carefully.

In all fairness, were I to try to write on Matthew 16, my commentary would be biased also, but not soley based on my own personal discernment. I have no Divinely-granted authority to speak for Jesus, but neither do these commentators. What they provide is their private interpretation. We know, however, that Jesus did give SOMEBODY the power to bind and loose in His absence. Those standing in opposition to that authority need to justify their position, and having already rejected the authority and the historical Tradition, these commentators have only their personal interpretation of Scripture to fall back on. That is a pretty safe place to be because they have no one to answer to but themselves.

The commentaries by Clarke, Matthew Henry, and Jamieson Fausset and Brown are all formed to deny any indication of Peter being the first prime minister of a singular, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Not only do they express their beliefs of what Matthew 16:18 means, they go out of their way to say what it does not mean, an admission of the commentary's Catholic target. Regarding the possibility of Peter being the Rock on which the Church was founded, Henry says, "Yet if it were so, this would not serve to support the pretensions of the Bishop of Rome; for Peter had no such headship as he claims, much less could he derive it to his successors, least of all to the Bishops of Rome, who, whether they are so in place or no, is a question, but that they are not so in the truth of Christianity, is past all question." Clarke says, "That Peter is not designed in our Lord's words must be evident to all who are not blinded by prejudice."

I ask, who here is REALLY blinded by prejudice and how can we know? What evidence do we have that Peter DID have headship, that he was the first Pope, and that there WERE successors? Most of the cited Protestant commentaries come from the 18th or 19th century when anti-catholic sentiment was running high. Why not look at commentaries from the first few centuries of Christianity written by those closest to the events of the day?

At this point, I cited excerpts from a number of early Christian writings. They date from as early as 170 A.D. to the 5th century, more than 1000 years before Luther. I divided them into three groups corresponding to the three objections mentioned above, those being that Peter had no primacy over the other disciples, that he was not the Rock on which the Church was founded by Christ, and lastly that Peter's headship was not passed on to successors. I won't list all of them here. They are too numerous. All of these quotations can be found at

What do these writings prove? They refute the contention that the Catholic Church somehow usurped power at a later time. They show the earliest Christians acknowledged the chair of Peter and his successors, in direct contrast to the contentions of the commentaries written some 1400 years later. They show earliest Christians were Catholic.

Monday, May 29, 2006

May another take his office

In my more than fifty-five years on this earth, I had never attended a Protestant Sunday service until today. My son, who was hired to be the organist at St. Luke United Church of Christ several years ago, will be graduating from high school this week. The congregation graciously wanted to make a presentation to him at their Sunday service, and their pastor invited us to attend.

Evan played his first Mass almost nine years ago to the day. It was Memorial Day, 1997. He was 9 years old at the time. He began taking lessons when he was five from the wife of a Lutheran minister. It seemed to come almost easy to him, and by the time he entered high school, he was a regular organist at our Catholic parish, and even directed the adult choir. All of this was done in service to the Church, so Evan would never take money for his work. Being a teenager in need of spending money, he jumped at the opportunity to make $50 per week for playing the organ at the nearby Protestant service, while continuing to play the Saturday evening Mass at our parish. Allowing him to play for a non-Catholic congregation was never an issue for us. He has become firmly ensconced in his Catholic faith, very knowledgeable for someone his age.

The people at St. Luke United Church of Christ were very friendly. We were greeted at the door by a couple of members of the congregation and their pastor. Living in a small community, we knew a few of them. They welcomed us and we felt comfortable.

The service began with the pastor at the ambo where he made a few announcements and then asked the congregation for "joys and concerns". A number of people got up to request prayers for certain friends and family members. One expressed joy at her daughter finding a job, and another man thanked God for helping him discern which job he should take. The pastor took notes and worked these joys and concerns into prayers near the end of the service where he mentioned each of the petitioners by name. It was also at this time that the presentation was made to my son.

Following the introductory prayers and an opening hymn (America, in recognition of Memorial Day), the congregation sang something similar to our Gloria. There was a "Litany for Memorial Day", another hymn (Battle Hymn of the Republic), followed by Psalm 33 and a reading from Acts 1:15-26, which became the topic for the sermon.

The reading from Acts and the sermon were of particular interest to me. We would have read that same passage from Luke's second volume had we not celebrated the Feast of the Ascension this Sunday in our diocese. It tells of the process of choosing a successor to Judas. The proceedings are lead by Peter who stood before the assembly of about 120 to express the need for filling the vacant office. Two candidates were presented and after praying for guidance, they cast lots whereby Matthias was chosen to be counted with the remaining eleven.

The pastor talked about the importance of filling that office vacated by Judas. He said the eleven probably could have continued to serve those 120 people, but that it was necessary to fill the office and all Christianity eventually spread from that ministry. As Catholics, we often cite this passage to support our belief in the existence of Apostolic Succession. Our Catholic priests and bishops of today can trace their lineage to those original twelve. We know from Scripture that Jesus promised to establish a Church, with Peter holding the keys to the kingdom. Jesus gave all twelve apostles the authority to bind and loose, and here in Acts, we see that office being passed down.

When Christians separate themselves from the authorized line of succession, they can no longer be assured of the truth. Hence we have thousands of Protestant denominations, each teaching their own interpretation of Scripture. Anyone who disagrees with this pastor's sermon can go down the street and find another pastor who teaches something more palatable.

I would like to question the pastor on the events depicted in Acts 1:15-26. If these twelve men were given the authority to bind and loose (Matt 18:18), and that authority was passed on as we see here, who holds that authority now? If the pillar and foundation of truth is the Church as we learn in 1 Tim 3:15, is it not important that we remain under the safe harbor of that Christ-given authority? In view of the lack of Christian unity we experience today, does he ever consider the possibility that many have rejected this Christ-given authority if favor of self-rule through personal interpretation?

In a discussion I was reading this week, someone asked why Protestants do not see the big picture? One person pointed out the tendency to take Scripture one passage at a time in order to prove a certain point. Another used the term cognitive dissonance to describe the ability to see what supports one's belief while ignoring that which does not. When one answers to no particular authority other than his own congregation, he is certainly free to preach whatever he believes and avoid anything which may be in opposition.

Following the sermon, the offering was collected. Up to this point, I was somewhat surprised how closely the service resembled the Liturgy of the Word in our Catholic Mass. The pastor apparently follows our Lectionary, as many Protestant denominations do, even though he omitted the seconded reading and the gospel. Were we in a Catholic Church, we would now begin the most important part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Here in St. Luke United Church of Christ, what followed was the Closing Hymn. You see, outside the line of Apostolic Succession, there is no priesthood, and therefore, no valid consecration.

We departed the church amid handshakes and warm wishes from many members of their congregation. There is no doubt that they love Jesus and one another. In many respects, I wish our own Catholic congregation could express the warmth and friendliness we witnessed today. Despite all these good feelings, there was something very important missing. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (John 6:53) My prayer is that one day they can be reunited with us in the fullness of the faith.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fire the Canons!

Our Sunday bulletin for March 12, 2006 contained the following announcement:

Welcoming 125th Anniversary Witness Reflections:
(Parishioner's Name) will be speaking at all Masses this weekend as he will be sharing heart warming reflections on our Parish's 125th Jubilee Year.

We welcome (Name) to share with us stories during the "homily time" just as we would welcome other laity or ordained when they share with us stories as to what is happening in their field of mission work. In fact, the Code of Canon Law does make allowances for the laity to homilize as it states in Canon 766: "Lay persons can be admitted to preach in a church or oratory if it is necessary in certain circumstances or if it is useful in particular cases according to the prescriptions of the conferences of bishops & with due regard for can. 767, #1." Therefore, on behalf of the 125th Anniversary Committee it is with open hearts we welcome (Name) for the "particular circumstance" as our speaker this weekend as he reflects on faith stories pertaining to our Jubilee Year!

Indeed one of our parishioners delivered his talk in the place of the homily at all of Sunday Masses. A few of us in attendance who have some basic knowledge of Canon Law and also the General Instruction of the Roman Missal were puzzled. I was under the impression that homilies were restricted to priests or deacons. The answer lies in Canon Law 767, #1 to which the bulletin entry makes reference, but does not include. It says the following:
Can. 767 #1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.

It seems the "due regard for can. 767, #1" was disregarded by our pastor. He tends to take Church documents out of context in order to do justify his actions, much like some people quote Scripture out of context in order to support their own self-serving doctrines. Does he not understand or does he not care? Frankly, I am surprised he cited Canon Law at all. Perhaps he knew some would be upset that a member of the laity would be delivering a homily and thought he could fire a pre-emptive shot by finding legal support for lay preaching. It would also behoove him to read canon 767 in its entirely. Line #4 says: It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Latin, RIGHT!

Someone posted a question on Steve Ray's message board about what we should call ourselves. Are we simply Catholic or are we Roman Catholic? Which term describes us best? Many expressed concern about the origin of term "Roman" Catholic, saying it arose as a slur by the English who separated from the true Church. Others pointed out the Church herself uses Roman Catholic in various documents. Some said "Catholic" says it all. And still others felt the need to be more specific by saying "Catholic, Latin Rite". One clever individual said we are actually the First Apostolic Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ Unreformed, Roman Assembly.

All of this has nothing to do with my topic here, other than the fact it gave me the idea for my title. Last Friday evening as my family perused a restaurant menu looking for meatless dishes to comply with our Lenten abstinence, my son wondered why it is okay to eat fish on Friday when many consider fish to be meat. He got this question from one of his high school buddies and could not provide an adequate reply. I was stumped also but I knew there must be a reasonable answer, and I found one courtesy of Jimmy Akin's web page. (

All Church law is written in Latin. On Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, we are required to abstain from eating carnis, which we translate as meat in English. In Latin, carnis literally means a land-dwelling, warm-blooded animal. Fish are neither land-dwelling nor warm-blooded, so they are not considered carnis. All carnis is meat, but not all meat is carnis. Therefore, under Church law, it is acceptable to eat fish on days of abstinence even if one considers fish to be meat.

To remain closest to our Catholic roots, we need to understand Latin. Vernacular translations employ dynamic equivalence, meaning the literal language is modified to convey the thought in wording more easily understood. This is okay, but it requires passing the text through the eyes and mind of the translator for interpretation. The resulting text has been filtered by the views of the interpreter, and therefore is no longer seen in its most pristine original form. Hymn translations are subjected to even greater alteration since words are sometimes changed to fit the music or to make it rhyme.

In the carnis example, there is no common English word that means warm-blooded, land-dwelling animal. The translators chose the word meat. It is close enough to convey the intent of the law, but not literally exact. All translations require substitution of words and ideas which may not have literal equivalents. To dynamically translate an idea correctly, the translator must correctly interpret what the author was thinking, and choose words that convey that idea as closely as possible. Subtle differences are inevitable. As writer James Kilpatrick once pointed out, the English language allows us to measure meaning by the micrometer.

Today, some forty years after Vatican II, we are still awaiting a good translation of the Latin Mass. The Vatican wants all translations to follow literally from the Latin. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a committee of English-speaking Bishops, has been working on a revised Lectionary for several years. They are still finding it difficult reach a consensus.

This is why so many conservative Catholics love the Latin Mass. Latin expresses Catholicism in its purest form, a form universal (i.e. catholic) to the Church in its fullness or entirety. It's our faith expressed free of another's interpretation. We may not understand every word, but we know it is original in its pristine form, and it is right.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Feast or Famine

Our parish celebrated the Feast Day of our Patrons, Saints Cyril and Methodius, today with Sunday Mass followed by a Procession and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for forty hours until Tuesday evening, the actual Feast (February 14). This is our 125th year as a parish so this day also commenced preparation for our jubilee celebration on October 1st. A poorly attended carry-in dinner followed the Mass after which one of our long-time parishioners and Pastoral Council Members made a short presentation requesting memorabilia for the celebration.

Several guests at the dinner voiced memories of their days in our Catholic School which unfortunately closed in the 1970's. Some spoke about the nuns and their strict forms of discipline. We boys who lived through those days remember having our caps flung from our heads whenever we forgot to remove them upon entering church. We did not dare talk in church or misbehave in any manner. Even coughing warranted a reprimand. Eyes remained straight ahead and hands were folded in prayer position.

When a special event took place back then, much preparation took place. If a Forty-hours devotion were to occur, a number of altar boys would be selected and sent to the church to rehearse with the priest. Each boy knew his job and the liturgy would be practiced until everyone got it right. The celebrations were solemn and reverent with few distractions despite the complexity of movement. Not only were the school children quiet and well-behaved, so were their parents. The church was packed for these occasions as everyone understood the significance. During Eucharistic Adoration, altar boys in cassocks and surpluses knelt before the Blessed Sacrament during the daytime, and adult men tended overnight. As I reflected memories, I began to understand the reason for behavior I had witnessed after Mass today.

After the final blessing, Father announced that we would be processing with the Blessed Sacrament followed by singing the Tantum Ergo at the beginning of our Adoration time. He encouraged parishioners to join in the procession. Four young girls were altar servers today. It seems like only a few boys remain as active servers, but none of them were present for this special occasion. Father went through the motions of incensing the Monstrance on the altar although it did not appear that the servers had remembered to light the charcoal. The Cross and candle bearers led the procession at a pace much too fast for any semblance of solemnity. By the time about five people bothered to join the procession, the servers had already lapped half way around the church leaving them far behind.

At the completion of the procession, Father placed the Monstrance on the altar and we sang the Tantum Ergo, in English of course, because Father does not want us to sing anything in Latin. Somehow, it does not seem as reverent that way. Father then led a few prayers and after a moment of silence, he and the servers departed in silence to the Sacristy. At that point, parishioners got up and started chatting loudly in the aisles, choir members doing the same in the loft. Three parishioners tried to maintain concentration in prayer. The din continued for about ten minutes or more. A group of about six or seven stood in the center aisle conversing aloud, completely oblivious to the exposed Blessed Sacrament or those kneeling in adoration.

We are being given a precious forty hours of quiet time to interact with Our Lord and Savior in His house. If some would prefer to use this time interacting with someone else, they should do so in someone else's house. Unfortunately, very few realize who is before them. The few who understand are often those who lived through the discipline of Catholic schooling. There are exceptions, of course, but we may be experiencing the effects of a lack of Catholic education. That education, and the occasionally stern discipline that accompanies it, now must begin at the pulpit.

A sign up sheet was left in the rear of the church where parishioners could select times for adoration. The Blessed Sacrament should never be exposed unattended out of respect for Our Lord. If everyone understood His Presence, this would never be a problem. There would be lines up and down the sidewalks. While most of the daytime hours were filled, many names were repeated on the list. The vast majority of the parishioners are not willing to give an hour of time to Our Lord. One would think organizations such as the Knights of Columbus would stand guard for Eucharistic Adoration, but their numbers with a few exceptions were notably absent, as were members of other church organizations.

Being alone at night in front of the Blessed Sacrament allows much time for contemplation. In a parish of hundreds of families, why am I the only one here right now, I wondered. There are parishes that sustain perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, yet we could get enough people to spend Forty Hours. In fact, our adoration period ended up being about 35 hours due to lack of participation. The implications of this are troubling. Ponder the message we send in blowing off an opportunity to kneel in adoration. Jesus, I do not have time for you. Instead of spending an intimate hour of meditation in Your Presence, I would prefer to watch television. I went to Mass on Sunday. That's enough. I worked hard today. I'm tired.

Worst of all, we pass this indifference on to our children. Mom and Dad aren't going, so it must not be important. It is much too easy to submerse ourselves in the daily routine of secular life without setting aside time to accept the graces God has set aside to sustain us. If we do not properly instill our Catholic Faith in our children, they may never rediscover it on their own unless a personal crisis someday interupts their routine, causing a change in direction. Many personal problems are caused by choosing instant self-gratification over moral righteousness. Living a spiritual life can help us avoid life-altering mistakes.

Our parish is suffering from spiritual malnutrition. During the Pastoral Council member's presentation, he mentioned the fact that he had been a parishioner here for more than sixty years, about half the time our parish had been in existence. He also mentioned that we need to record the history of our parish during this 125th anniversary year since many of us won't be around for the next anniversary in 2031. He failed to mention the realistic possibility that our parish will not exist 25 years from now if we don't get our spiritual priorities in order.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Parish: the thought

Last year our bishop sent a priest to meet with our Church Renovation Committee regarding various aspects of our project. While discussing how much money we could afford to spend, the priest asked us bluntly whether we were a viable parish. My immediate reaction was to answer in the affirmative, but his question bothered me later. What makes a parish viable? We have not had a priest come from our parish since my cousin was ordained some 40 years ago. Mass attendance is down. One never has to wait in line for confession except at the communal reconciliation services before Easter and Christmas. Pastoral Council positions go unfilled for lack of people willing to serve. Attempts to form study groups fail due to lack of interest. RCIA enrollees are few. Are we currently a viable parish? I don't know.

Certainly there are viable parishes around. Vocations are up in some places, but it seems these places are few and far between. The downturn can be attributed to the secular world we live in to some extent, but those few parishes who thrive exist in that same world. Why are some parishes filled with people on fire in their faith, while others seem so indifferent?

The primary responsibility for the mood of the parish has to fall on the shoulders of the pastor. The nature of Catholic worship, the Mass, leaves little time for instruction. Protestant Sunday services may consist of an hour of preaching and teaching. Catholics, if they are lucky, get a fifteen minute homily once a week. Fifteen minutes a week is insufficient to learn much of anything, yet additional opportunities for study are useless if no one attends. Somehow in those fifteen minutes, that priest has to inspire his congregation to want more. How many priests have the ability to hold the attention of their audience for fifteen minutes, let alone fill them with desire to grow in their faith?

I am reminded of what one old Monsignor once told me regarding his philosophy on limiting sermon length. He said, "The longer the spoke, the bigger the tire." Our current pastor's sermons probably average about seven to ten minutes on Sundays. The message is usually that God loves us and how great it will be to see all of our loved ones in heaven. I have never heard him mention mortal sin or the possibility that some of us might could end up in another place. Our previous pastor was quite the opposite. He reminded us frequently that we could end up in hell and gave the impression that he thought we probably would. His Sunday homilies usually lasted about twenty five minutes, during which much of it was spent yelling at us. Many of our parishioners who lived through both pastorates wonder if there isn't a happy medium somewhere. Both styles tend to be counterproductive.

Last night I watched one of Father John Corapi's sermons on EWTN. Father Corapi is one of the few great inspirational Catholic speakers who can hold an audience spellbound for an hour and leave them wanting more. He combines a solid message with a great delivery. In the course of his talk, Father Corapi mentioned that a bishop once asked him to refrain from speaking on the negative during his sermons. This did not sit well with Father Corapi who likes to tell it like it is. He said preaching is like electricity. You have to have a positive and a negative or you have no power.

Some priests apparently think they need to soften the message for fear of driving away those reluctant to conform their lives to Church teaching. Contrary to what some priests and bishops believe, Catholics want to hear the truth. Sugar-coating sermons can only create Spiritual cavities. Sincere people appreciate honesty. More than ever today, people need to be reminded that actions have consequences. Many Catholics approach the Eucharist in a state of serious sin, putting their souls in jeopardy. They must realize their salvation can be lost. To say otherwise is a Protestant notion. As Father Corapi said, accentuate the positive, but tell the truth.

Not every priest has the charisma of Father Corapi, and even he could not adequately educate a congregation preaching fifteen minutes a week. How can a priest inspire others to want more? Father Corapi, and others like him, inspire people by exuding holiness at every moment of their lives. They live and breathe Christ. Being a priest is a full time job. Priests are on duty twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year, plus one more in a leap year.

The way in which a priest conducts himself creates a climate in the parish. He can emit an aura of holiness which draws people in. This holiness extends far beyond the pulpit and the walls of the church building. His collar can be a recognized in the community as a symbol of his holy office by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The presence of Christ can be felt in those who truly live the gospel. The priest should be approachable to anyone searching for serious answers. He brings others to holiness. He saves souls.

When the parish climate is conducive to holiness, people will be open to conversion. Mass attendance will increase. Participation in educational programs and parish activities will improve. People will desire the Sacraments. A good priest will recognize the fears and apprehensions of his parishioners and make them comfortable approaching him for Reconciliation. In time, this climate of holiness will spread through the community. Convert Scott Hahn speaks about being so moved by common everyday Catholics taking time out for weekday Mass. This simple act created a yearning in him to join in.

The parish climate can also drive people away. Some look for any excuse to miss Mass, to criticize the Church, and to validate their disdain for all things Catholic. A close friend of mine once told me he nearly converted to the Catholic faith many years ago, but in passing the church one evening, he saw the pastor shooting pigeons roosting on the bell tower. He believed a man of God would not shoot God's creatures. A feeble excuse for not becoming Catholic? Maybe so, but perhaps if the pastor were feeding the pigeons instead of shooting them, my friend would have stopped to talk.

Some of our separated brothers and sisters in the Fundamentalist communities do not believe in any type of gambling or drinking of alcohol. While we may not see anything wrong with doing these things in moderation, our goal for Christian Unity becomes much more difficult to achieve when they see us engaged in such activities. An Indiana State Police officer gave up his career rather than take an assignment policing a gambling casino. His strict Fundamental background prohibited him from doing anything to aid in what he perceived to be an immoral activity. Those who love Christ enough to sacrifice their livelihood are prime candidates for eventual conversion to the Catholic faith, but before that can happen, many barriers must be broken down. When a parish engages in fundraisers where gambling or alcohol is involved, it reinforces pre-conceived notions some have about the church being the whore of Babylon. Even if we see nothing wrong, such activity emits an air of impropriety for others, and therefore, should be avoided.

Throughout this past week, area newscasts were again filled with allegations of another pedophile priest and accusations of neglect in reacting by the Church hierarchy. Callers to a talk-radio station in Chicago angrily chastised the Catholic Church for allowing these things to happen. One caller, a Catholic, said the Church requirement for celibacy attracts pedophiles who find a haven in the priesthood. He encouraged Catholics to forbid their children from being altar servers. It saddens me deeply that we find ourselves in this position due to the actions of a few sick men who have defiled their priestly office. The damage they have caused their victims, their fellow priests, and all Catholics is immeasurable.