Saturday, May 26, 2007

My Mission Statement

As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebration for the diocese, our parish hosted a four-night mission earlier this month. Billed as Called by the Spirit to Mission, the event featured “Four evenings of inspirational song, prayer and reflection with Father Daniel J. Mahan.” Nine area parishes gathered to participate in the mission. All sessions were held in our recently-renovated church.

We belong to the Diocese of Gary, a city historically besmirched by racial tension, high crime, and urban blight. The Church has taken an active role in trying to bring people together through various ministries. Our diocesan initiative generally revolves around various themes of diversity awareness. This always struck me as being a bit counterproductive. Most people seem well aware of the diversity. It is our common bond as members of the Body of Christ that we sometimes fail to acknowledge.

Father Mahan is an excellent speaker who preaches about stewardship. Each session consisted of two movements. A movement was made up of a song, a scripture reading, Father Mahan’s talk and a few minutes of reflection. Including fellowship and refreshment time, the event lasted about two hours each night. Attendance was disappointing. I would estimate about 100 people came each night and the average age was probably well into the sixties.

If I had to summarize Father Mahan’s four-day mission statement in one sentence, I would say he told us to allow the light of Christ to shine through us each and every day as we serve others and grow in holiness. His message was inspirational and well received by those in attendance. Of course, those who needed to hear this message the most were not there. As I sat during the moments of reflection, I could not help but wonder why so many stayed home. Looking around the church, I think I know at least part of the answer.

While Father Mahan’s message may have been very Christ-centered, the structure of the mission itself did not seem so. Years ago, special events such as this were more devotional. We had annual 40 hour devotions which included Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, along with homiletic presentations. This mission was much different from what we older Catholics are accustomed to seeing. People conversed in the pews before the start. A few knelt to pray, but most did not. Though the pastors of all the participating parishes were in attendance, one would be hard-pressed to pick them out in the crowd. Only three or four wore collars and one showed up in shorts. Snacks were served, not in the church hall, but in the rear of the nave.

The “Gathering Hymn” on Monday was As a Fire is Meant for Burning by Ruth Duck. The opening verse reads as follows: “As a fire is meant for burning with a bright and warming flame, so the church is meant for mission, giving glory to God’s name. Not to preach our creeds or customs, but to build a bridge of care, we join hands across the nations, finding neighbors everywhere.” If Dana Carvey were here dressed as the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, this would be an appropriate time for her tag line, “Well, isn’t that special.”

At one point during the mission, Father Mahan spoke about the importance drawing people to know Jesus through the Catholic Church. Our creeds, both the Nicene and the Apostles’, profess what we believe as Catholics. We cannot lead people to the truth of the Catholic Church if we cannot preach our creeds. One of the reasons so many people are outside the church is that it has become politically incorrect to tell others what we believe and why we believe it.

So, how do hymns such as this find their way into Catholic worship? One might say this was not part of a liturgy, so we can bend the rules a little when it comes to appropriate Catholic music, but my son reported this very same hymn was sung at the Mass he attended in another parish last Sunday. Do those who select these songs not read the lyrics? Do they not understand enough Catholic teaching to see the conflict? Are they deliberately choosing these songs as a form of protest? Our Mission booklets containing these songs were prepared by the Office of Worship, Diocese of Gary, 2007.

I wondered how many of these songs were written by Catholics. I was particularly interested in Ruth Duck, who apparently thinks the Church’s mission should not be to preach creeds or customs. That particular text did not sound very Catholic to me. Her Internet biography says she is professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Her bio lists eight denominations who have selected her songs for their hymnals, all of them Protestant. It also says she lives with her partner. Is this what the diocese means by diversity acceptance?

One of the problems of using Protestant music in the liturgy is that it needs to be filtered to insure its compatibility with Catholic teaching. Of course, Catholics are also capable of writing bad music, but are less likely to do so if they are knowledgeable and orthodox in their thinking. At least two of the mission songs were composed by Marty Haugen. He purportedly writes for a number of different denominations, as well as the Catholic Church. He serves as a composer in residence at a United Church of Christ. It seems to me that anyone having sufficient understanding of Catholic theology to write Catholic hymns would be Catholic!

Liturgical hymns are intended to be a form of prayer and worship. Father Mahan stressed the importance of being Christ-centered. Most of the songs selected for the mission were peppered with first person references. We are many parts, We are learners, What do you want of me Lord, O Lord with your eyes set upon me, We are called, Let us build a house, We are a pilgrim people, We are the Church of God – the list goes on. Granted, this mission was about stewardship so one would expect the songs to be reflective on our duty as Catholics, but have we become too self-centered, and in doing so, are we losing our catholicity? Apart from the Catholic-relevant material in Father Mahan’s talks, this mission had a very Protestant feel.

I love watching Marcus Grodi’s program, The Journey Home, each week on EWTN. I love seeing the excitement in the eyes of converts who have recently discovered the truth of the Catholic faith. Many can barely contain the joy that fills their hearts, minds and souls. Why is it then that so many well-intended Catholics think it necessary to tap Protestant elements into our services?

Father Mahan told a cute story about Pope Benedict’s affection for pizza. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he liked to dine at a pizza restaurant owned by a man named Gino. One evening, Gino got a call requesting that a pizza be delivered to the Vatican for the Pope. He put together his best pizza and wanted to deliver it personally. On his was to the Vatican, he was stopped by a policeman wanting to know why he was speeding. Gino explained that he was delivering a pizza to the Pope, and wanted to get it to him before it got cold. The officer was skeptical, but he offered to escort Gina to the Vatican. Upon their arrival, the policeman watched as Gino went up the stairs and was allowed to enter the Pope’s residence. After he came out, the policeman told Gino that he should be entitled to half of the tip since he was instrumental in getting the pizza to the Pope while it was still warm. Gino said okay, raised his right hand, and brought it down vertically as if to give the police officer half a blessing.

Sometimes I feel like we are getting half a blessing also, except that we get the horizontal half instead of the vertical half. The social or communal aspects of church have become dominant over the spiritual elements. Father Mahan spoke of the wonderful gift of reconciliation. Despite the presence of numerous priests each night of the mission, no opportunity for confession was offered. There were scripture readings but no Liturgy of the Eucharist until the last night. There was no Eucharistic Adoration or Benediction. Apart from the Catholic aspects of Father’s talk, the first three nights of this event could have taken place in any Protestant church. The unique gifts we possess as Catholics were cast aside in favor of something mundane.

Father Mahan often referred to the imagery of the vine and branches. Our communal relationship with one another is through Christ. If we are cut off from the vine, we die. Father Mahan recognized the importance of nourishing our relationship with Christ if we are to function as stewards. I am not sure the mission organizers from our diocese really understand this.