Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spiritual Poverty

I guess I am a very traditional person, especially when it comes to celebrating Christmas. No artificial Christmas trees permitted in my house. I want the fragrance of real fir that resurrects wonderful memories of Christmases past. Despite my advancing age, I still look forward to the annual airing of Charlie Brown Christmas, even getting a little misty eyed when Linus recites the passage from Luke’s gospel. And like Charlie Brown, I feel a little depressed at times despite the joy of the season. I can’t seek counsel from Lucy and real psychiatric help costs more than five cents, so I will have to bare my soul here.

Last night, I accompanied my wife to a Christmas party for administrators of the school system where she works. I am always a little uncomfortable at such gatherings, but I had a nice time. Much of the conversation centered around education and the problems school officials face on a daily basis. Having never been a teacher, I spent most of the evening listening to others express frustration in dealing with young people, and occasionally, their parents.

Our hostess mentioned her interaction with one student in particular and the challenge she faces trying to keep him in school. She said that some poverty-stricken parents do not want their children to finish school. They may see the lack of an education as ensuring a certain inter-dependence that keeps the family together.

Our school district encompasses an area with an unusually high poverty rate, a rate increasing to the point where the entire student body may soon qualify for free lunches. I couldn’t help but wonder if free lunches don’t perpetuate poverty by encouraging people to depend on entitlements rather than self-sustenance. I read somewhere that the biggest problem facing the impoverished in the United States isn’t hunger, but obesity.

One thing was obvious to me. The educators in our school system are passionate about their profession. They have serious concerns for the well being of the young people they are attempting to prepare for the real world. Discussions centered around trends in education, problems in funding state mandates, and ways of improving instruction. Technology changes so rapidly that small schools have a difficult time keeping up. Money is always an issue, and knowing where to direct it most efficiently can be debated. Measuring student progress can be difficult and administrators are always under pressure to improve test scores.

After public education discussion was exhausted, one of the guests mentioned Christmas plans which included going to an early Vigil Mass where her child would be taking part in a program. As it turned out, several in the group happened to be Catholic. Our hostess mentioned that she attends a parish in her hometown about 30 miles away where she still has family living. She went on to tell about her children attending a youth group in that parish where the priest would not allow the teenagers to attend any off-site activities. Out of frustration, she began allowing them to attend another group which I assumed was affiliated with a non-Catholic ministry. She added that her now grown children were no longer Catholic, but they were very active in another denomination and she was “okay with that”.

Another mother spoke up and complained about the attendance requirements for her children in our local parish religion class. Our priest has mandated that anyone missing five sessions will have to repeat the class which is held on Sunday mornings between the Masses. The mother said they have family spread around different areas of the state and often travel on Sundays to visit. She also mentioned that she cannot drag her husband to Mass here, although he would attend regularly at a former parish they attended where they had a band with drums.

Our hostess asked if anyone was familiar with “Late night Catechism.” (For those who are not, do a search on youtube.) She had attended a Catholic school in the 1960’s and was troubled by some of the things she was taught. Apparently one of the nuns told her that chewing the Eucharistic host will cause it to bleed. She also mused at writing JMJ on all school papers and wearing scapulars. Turning serious, she said there was too much hell and damnation preached. People want to be uplifted.

The conversation quickly turned to other topics, but I was left feeling a little depressed. I never like hearing that people have left the faith or do not understand and appreciate what they have in the Catholic Church. These same school administrators who try so hard to overcome the effects of poverty affecting the education of our youth, do not recognize the spiritual poverty affecting themselves. Which is worse -- being deprived of earthly food or heavenly food?

Those who think they find more spirituality outside the Catholic Church may actually be experiencing a kind of spiritual obesity. In other words, they may be getting the sugar-coated message they crave, but they are missing out on the true heavenly nourishment that comes from Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Think of it as choosing between health food and a happy meal. What is pleasing to the spiritual palate on an emotional level may not be what the souls really needs for eternal life.

The public school system has a tax-funded staff of administrators and qualified teachers to provide the best education possible for our youth, and yet they often fail without parental support. Our parish has one priest and a commission of a few often-reluctant and poorly catechized volunteers to teach the faith. Opportunities for religious education are limited to a few precious hours a year, especially when many Catholic parents balk at committing any faith time beyond Sunday Mass. We should not be surprised that Mass attendance has dwindled.

Our parish school closed in the 1970’s, so this situation has existed for a couple of generations now. We should not be surprised that Mass attendance has dwindled.
Lacking the support of orthodox Catholic parents, good catechesis is difficult. The nuns that taught us fifty years ago may have been a little over zealous at times, but their methods were somewhat effective. I wish we had them back.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Discipline Rules

Last month, I was excited to learn that Father Robert Barron would be hosting a Catholic program on commercial television. He is the first priest to do so since Bishop Fulton Sheen some forty years ago. The program airs Sunday mornings on WGN America at about the same time I am attending Eucharistic Adoration, but thanks to my newly obtained DVR, I have them all recorded.

Father Barron is a very energetic and engaging speaker who relates well to the common man. His messages may reference the Beatles or Bob Dylan, who he calls one of his great heroes, but do not mistake him for one of those new age modern priests. His Catholicism is pristinely orthodox. Every presentation I have seen has given me new perspective.

In a recent talk (10-31-2010), Father Barron talked about laws and freedom. Since he explained the relationship so much more eloquently than I ever could, I hope he won’t mind if I borrow some of his words. He noted that Americans place a premium on autonomy. To most people, freedom means determining their own lives, or setting their own agendas. They view laws as an affront to their freedom.

Fr. Barron says another way of looking at freedom is a “disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of good possible and then effortless.” He cited several examples. Musicians who approach perfection are free to play any music they desire, yet the freedom to do that came through discipline. Michael Jordan was the freest player to ever play basketball. He was capable of doing most anything he wanted on the basketball court, yet that freedom came through discipline. To achieve perfection, one must first submit to discipline. Discipline is not an affront to freedom. It makes freedom possible.

God’s law is not an obstacle to our freedom. As Father Barron puts it, “What God gives us in the law is a way of disciplining our desires and our bodies that we may become conduits of his love.” By submitting to the law, the achievement of good becomes possible and then effortless. I thought about this idea and I would like to take it a step further.

We know nothing unclean will get to heaven. Matthew 5:48 says, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our goal is to get to heaven someday. As Catholics, we are on this journey toward perfection. To get to heaven, we must submit to discipline. How is this discipline manifested in our lives? Jesus gave us a Church with the authority to bind and loose. He did this not as an affront to our freedom, but rather to make the achievement of good possible that we may become conduits of His love.

We often hear people complain that the Catholic Church is too encumbered by rules. Is it really a mortal sin to eat a hamburger on a Friday during Lent or to miss Mass on Sunday? Does such a seemingly innocent infraction really suspend our relationship with Our Lord? Suppose Peyton Manning decided he didn’t feel like going to the team practice one day, or decided he was too tired to play football one Sunday, so he just slept in. Do you think he would be penalized? I will guarantee you, if Peyton Manning did not show up for a Colts game simply because he didn’t feel like going, he would face repercussions. He would probably be suspended from the team until he made reparation. Professional athletes are paid big money by the team owners are expected to strive for perfection. Season ticket holders paid a huge price to watch these players give their best effort.

As Catholics, we are members of the team known as the Body of Christ. Certain disciplines are demanded of us, not as affronts to our freedom, but rather to keep us on the path to perfection. Jesus Christ paid a huge price for our sins. We owe Him our best effort. Sleeping in on Sunday because we are too tired to go to Mass is unacceptable and is subject to penalty. Mortal sin suspends us from grace. We are cut off until we make reparation. Which is more important -- getting to the Super Bowl or getting to heaven? Skipping a football game or skipping Mass –- which has greater consequences over the long haul?

There was a time when I thought requiring Catholics to attend Mass under penalty of mortal sin was a counter-productive. We should go to Mass because we want to be there, not because we have to be there. That is true, but I wonder how many people would stay home if they were not obligated to attend every Sunday. How many people would pay their income tax if not for the IRS? How many people would obey the speed limit if there were no fines for not doing so? While some people may submit to self-imposed discipline, the majority may not. Having the majority not paying taxes and driving recklessly could jeopardize the survival of the rest of us. Some imposed discipline is necessary for the benefit of everyone. Children need to understand there are consequences for disobeying their parents. As children of God, the same holds true for all of us.

Wikipedia says the following: “In its most general sense, discipline refers to the systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct or order.” Therefore, to be true disciples of Christ, we must submit to the divinely authorized discipline prescribed by His Church. Doing so enables us to discipline our desires and our bodies in such a way to allow grace to flow. We become conduits for God's love. Discipline turns us in the direction toward perfection that ultimately sets us free.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Role with the Punches

I share an office with a guy who plays music on his computer every day during our lunch period. Unfortunately, the only songs he has come from a novelty album that he plays repeatedly. Today, we listened to Mr. Custer, a comical song about a reluctant soldier worried about losing his scalp as he heads into battle with the legendary General. Those familiar with Larry Verne’s record probably remember the tag line, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go.” It was number one on the Billboard charts in 1960.

These days as a Catholic, I sometimes feel like that soldier. Mention being Catholic and you better be prepared to dodge the arrows that will come flying your way. The Church is under attack, not only because of the sexual abuse crisis, but also for maintaining a stand on moral issues that secular society considers intrusive. I was watching the news Sunday evening when they mentioned Pope Benedict canonizing six new saints, including Mary MacKillop, the first saint from Australia. The entire story of the six saints didn’t last more than twenty seconds, but the newscaster found time to say MacKillop was once excommunicated for reporting a sexually abusive priest. No other details were provided.

There is more to the story, of course. The Josephite order to which Mary MacKillop belonged was already at odds with the local clergy over educational matters. During this time members of the Josephites reported allegations of sexual abuse by a parish priest who was ultimately sent back to Ireland. A colleague of the accused priest was angered by his removal and took it out on the Josephites by convincing the local bishop to change the Joesphite’s constitution. MacKillop apparently opposed the bishop’s order and was excommunicated for insubordination. Eventually, she was completely exonerated and the excommunication was lifted.

We can expect the secular media to paint the Church in a bad light whenever possible, but public criticism is even more painful when leveled by Catholics themselves. Our local newspaper recently published a piece on the editorial page written by a retired lawyer who calls himself a “committed Catholic.” The heading read, “Outdated views on women stunt Catholic Church.” This self-proclaimed “committed Catholic” advocates the ordination of women priests and criticizes the ongoing Vatican Commission investigations of women’s religious orders.

Catholics publicly expressing disdain for magisterial authority is particularly disheartening. I would think a lawyer would have an insightful appreciation for authority. On the other hand, those accustomed to seeking loopholes may carry that inclination beyond the boundaries of their legal profession. This particular lawyer views Catholic women as downtrodden by a remotely connected Vatican hierarchy.

He lauds Pope John XXIII saying he “led a brief Vatican movement when our leaders concluded that ‘we’ are the church and that we can form our own conscience if we are conscientious in our research and seek prudent counsel.” This is the typical liberal spin applied to Vatican II whereby many Catholics thought they could justify most any behavior if their conscience was clear. The key here is determining what constitutes “prudent counsel.” Orthodox Catholic theologians who are faithful to Church teaching are prudent counselors, but that is not what many people want. The tendency among Vatican II liberals is to satisfy their consciences by seeking affirmation for their own self-serving beliefs. Doing this requires venturing outside the boundaries of orthodoxy, seeking heterodox theologians or secular counselors who profess what people want to hear.

The ideas professed by this lawyer and others like him are shortsighted. First and foremost is his lack of respect for the infallible teaching authority of the Church that has existed for two thousand years. The all-male priesthood has been infallibly defined and is therefore unchangeable. Either he does not understand this, or he denies the existence of infallible teaching.

Men and women may be equal, but they are different. We have different roles despite what contemporary society may tell us. We are not all equipped for the same things. God designed us that way on purpose. The lawyer states that “women are smarter and more steeped in common sense and virtues like compassion, humility and care than we men are.” That may be true. The point is that we are not the same.

The role of the priest is to act in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ, and Scripture tells us the Church is the Bride of Christ. We have the priest as Father and Holy Mother, the Church. A woman cannot take on the role of Father for Holy Mother, the Church. You would not have a woman in the role of General Custer in a movie about the Battle of Little Big Horn, and a woman cannot act in persona Christi in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

It is easy for us simple-minded folks to sit back and think a woman could stand up there at the altar and do the same things a man does, say the same words, probably give a better homily, and look better in an alb, but theological reasons for the male priesthood are deeply rooted, and should not be dismissed as inconsequential. At some point, Catholics need to acknowledge that, lacking years of study, we do not always understand why things have to be the way they are. We need to trust in the wisdom of our bishops who have been guided by the Holy Spirit. To do so brings great comfort and peace of mind.

Our modern social values seem very confused at times. We preach equality and diversity at the same time. Everyone is equal, but we have to accept differences. I have worked in industrial maintenance for nearly thirty-eight years. The job requires a degree, technical know-how, and is at times, physically demanding. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of men, and probably fewer than a dozen women. Why so few? That’s a good question. Women are certainly capable of acquiring the same educational background. The position is a union job, meaning it goes to the highest qualified bidder without discrimination. Everyone works under the exact same pay scale regardless of productivity. The opportunity is there for any woman that wants it. Out of about sixteen people currently in the department, the number of women is zero.

The fact is that women are just different from men. This type of job requires a certain savvy that the average woman does not have. Of course there are exceptions, but they are few. Of those women who have tried, none have lasted more than a few years. If you are thinking the men probably made life miserable for them, I would say you are wrong. We have a pretty good group of guys who are generally helpful and accepting. Does this mean women are inferior to men in some way? Not at all. They are not inferior, just different.

I remember reading a column where someone asked why scientists, composers, CEOs and so forth were mostly men when the average intelligence of both sexes is equal. The answer given was that while the average intelligence is equal, the standard deviation among men is much greater. In other words, while the most intelligent people are men, the dumbest people in the world are also men!

What does this have to do with the all male priesthood? The point is that God made men and women for different roles. We are His instruments, put on this earth for a purpose. Our mission should be to conform to His will and not let envy twist us into something we are not. There. I said it. Now, let the arrows fly.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Days of Old

Yesterday was my sixtieth birthday. Wow! I have a childhood memory of my mother turning forty. At the time I thought she was pretty old and now I have exceeded that number by twenty. My father was only twelve years older than I am when he died.

When I was an adolescent, I remember a certain day when I suddenly became aware of my mortality. The thought of dying brought a feeling of panic over me. Death will eventually come and there is no way to avoid it. At times, I felt that death could come at any minute, but I survived those feelings, at least up to this point.

I remember realizing that even should I avoid accidental death or terminal disease, eventually I will end up knowing I am on my death bed. Having not yet reached my teens, I took some comfort in the hope that dying was many years away. Now that I am sixty, it doesn’t seem so far off.

Three people I know personally died this past week. My Aunt Ethel Mae was my father’s youngest sibling. My family had the privilege of helping her celebrate her one-hundredth birthday in August of 2009. At that time, she appeared to be a great health for her age. She was still extremely active and interested in life until a heart attack slowed her down earlier this year.

The former pastor of our sister parish died on Tuesday. My wife and I attended the visitation for Father Bill earlier yesterday evening. He was a kind and gentle man, eighty-one years old and a priest for over fifty years. In addition to his duties as a parish priest, Father Bill was chaplain of a local health facility for the aged and disabled where he impacted many lives. He was loved and respected by area residents, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

A schoolmate a year younger than I also died this week. I did not know him well, but remember him from our high school activities. The circumstances of his death are not known to me, but I find it disconcerting to see obituaries of people younger than me dying of natural causes.

Our faith tells us death is not something to fear. Rather we should be excited at the prospects of eternal life with Our Lord in heaven. Our frail human nature, however, makes us want to put it off as long as possible. A priest giving a homily asked the congregation for a show of hands on how many wanted to go to heaven. Nearly all raised their hands. Then he asked, “Who wants to go right now?” All hands went down.

Comedian George Burns enjoyed some of his greatest success very late in life. He was booked to work on his 100th birthday, although failing health did not allow him to do it. I remember a talk show host, perhaps it was Johnny Carson, asking him about his longevity. As a consummate professional entertainer who prided himself on original material, Burns said he wasn’t going to die because, “it’s been done.” He was certainly right about that. Everyone who has ever lived has either died or will at some point, including George who died in 1996.

The fear of death is shared by many. True faith replaces fear with anticipation, but faith does not always come easy. Our sensual existence does not render clear understanding of spiritual reality. Despite the assurance we receive from the Word of God via the Church, doubt often creeps in. We want to believe, but we are spiritually challenged.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal thought some people do not have the ability to believe. He urged them to live their lives as though they had faith because by doing so, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If the possibility of eternal life with God in heaven exists, we need to live our lives in such a manner to get there. If we don’t, the potential loss is beyond measure. On the other hand, if heaven does not exist, and we live as though it does, the loss is minimal.

I wonder how many of us who attend Mass and receive the sacraments faithfully, do so following Pascal’s reasoning. We have doubts, but don’t want to take any chances. The body language of many people in church seemingly demonstrates a disconnect from true belief. They don’t seem to be really tuned in. It is so easy to go through the motions while our thoughts are somewhere else. Without a deep understanding of what the Mass is, the repetitive form of the liturgy can be conducive to wandering minds. To avoid becoming robotic Catholics requires some effort on our part.

Our faith must be nurtured so that it may grow and flourish. Older people may be more inclined to take faith seriously because they begin to think about their mortality. As my ninety-year-old uncle quipped about his regular Mass attendance, he was “cramming for his final exams.” The trick is not to wait for impending death or a serious crisis before turning to God.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Who said that?

Columnist and Grammarian James J. Kilpatrick died on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary a couple of weeks ago. I sometimes quote him when trying to explain the benefits of the new translation of the Mass that will come into use Advent of 2011. In one of his columns, he said, “English vocabularies offer abundant opportunities to measure meanings by micrometer.” Perhaps that explains one of the reasons the new translation took so long to render accurately.

Whenever I hear or read a quotation I find interesting, I save it on my computer for future reference. In looking for my Kilpatrick quote, I found others that caught my attention over the years. In his January 16, 2005 column, The Writer’s Art, Kilpatrick wrote about the word ‘any’. He said, “Early in the 18th century, some agnostics were ‘anythingarians.’ The court is not making this up.”

Another man I respected also died recently. Basketball Coach John Wooden, a graduate of my alma mater, Purdue, said, “You cannot live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” I am sitting here trying to think if I have ever done anything for someone who could not repay me. Sometimes I feel so inadequate.

Along the same lines is this quote by PFC Daniel R. Parker. “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better or happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm smile.” Private Parker died in Iraq in August of 2003.

Archbishop Charles Chaput attended a town hall meeting on immigration on July 18, 2006. Someone tried to trip him up by asking him if the government should listen his church. He replied, “I don’t think the government should listen to the church – the government should listen to the people and the people should listen to the church.” Bullseye.

Father John Corapi said, “God has placed obvious limitations on our intelligence, but no limitations whatsoever on our stupidity.” As evidence of this fact, I present 35th District of California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. At a pro-choice march in Washington DC, she said, “I have to march because my mother couldn’t have an abortion.” Along the same line is one of Murphy’s lesser known laws. “Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”

Violinist Jascha Heiftz said, “No matter what side of an argument you’re on, you always find some people on your side that you wish were on the other side.” Who hasn’t seen the actions of a fellow advocate prove counterproductive?

I often think of a quotation by George Bernard Shaw when I see some of the entitlement programs our elected officials have enacted. Shaw said, “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” How true. He also said, “If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”

And finally, an unknown author urges us to “Pray for the conversion of Catholics to Catholicism.” Many Catholics do not practice their faith these days and they could certainly use our prayers. On an Internet forum, someone asked, “If you were on trial for being a Catholic, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” We should all give that some serious thought.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Truth AND Consequences

Summer is the time for reruns, so I am going to repeat excerpts from my blog entry of August 29, 2003, titled Sharing the Faith. The events I described that day took place in 1999. One of the persons named in my story is in the news today. I will explain later.

Here is some of what happened eleven years ago:

I have successfully shared my faith with others. This usually happens when the other party or some unusual circumstance leads into the conversation. The strangest example occurred at my place of work several years ago where a roll of pink tape lead to an ongoing email discussion with a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute. A contractor I’ll call Dave, was doing an installation which required the use of Teflon pipe tape. (Teflon tape is used to wrap pipe threads before assembly.) All the Teflon tape I had ever previously seen was white in color. Dave had pink tape.

The course of conversation took some bizarre turns. All of this occurred about the time that Evangelist Jerry Falwell was speaking out against a children’s television show called the Teletubbies. One of the Teletubby characters (I think his name was ‘Tinky Winky’) was pink and carried a purse. Falwell criticized the presence of this character on a children’s show because the character appeared to be gay, at least in the eyes of Jerry Falwell. I noted the unusual color of the Teflon tape and wisecracked that Jerry Falwell might jump to a conclusion about Dave’s sexual preference based upon the unusual color of his tape.

Dave happened to be an Evangelical Protestant and a follower of Jerry Falwell. Dave asked me what I thought of Falwell. Not knowing where Dave stood, I tried to indicate respectfully that I thought Falwell’s remarks about the Teletubbies might be a little extreme. In the course of the conversation about Jerry Falwell, I mentioned that I was Catholic. Dave perked up as though he was well prepared to challenge Catholics.

He immediately asked me why so much of what the Catholic Church teaches is not in the Bible. Caught somewhat off guard, I replied that while not every thing the Church teaches is explicitly in the Bible, nothing the Church teaches is in conflict with the Bible. I explained that the Church predates the Bible as we know it and that it was the Bishops of the Catholic Church who determined which of the early Christian writings were inspired by God and therefore, included in the Bible. Dave wasn’t buying that, so I asked him for some specific things he believed the Catholic Church taught that were not biblical.

We discussed several common Protestant objections to Catholic theology, including Mary’s perpetual virginity and the reference to Jesus’ “brothers” in the Bible. I explained how the original Greek word translated to brothers in English, could include extended family such as step-brothers or cousins, and in fact, there was no word specifically for cousin. We briefly discussed the necessity of Baptism and its cleansing of the soul. Dave was unwavering. With our time together growing short, I asked him to give me an opportunity to write down several of his most pressing questions about the Catholic Church, and I would respond to him in detail by a Fax. He left me with two: (1) Why do we pray to Mary instead of going directly to God and (2) Where in the Bible does it say to pray for the dead?

I could tell Dave had been taught how to evangelize Catholics. These are two common objections to the Catholic Faith that are often raised to make unprepared Catholics squirm. I wanted to answer his questions thoroughly and respectfully. Opportunities to share our Catholic Faith do not come often. This could be a life altering experience for Dave and his family – literally a matter of (eternal) life and death!

In the weeks that followed, Dave sent me a couple of essays by contemporary Protestant authors and asked me to respond. I did and faxed them back to Dave. I found out later that Dave had a friend with whom he was sharing my answers. This friend was a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute. Eventually, Dave put me in touch with the professor and we began to correspond directly by email.

Our dialogue went on for several months. We touched on many aspects of Catholic theology. I used the Bible and simple logic to back the Catholic position. I saved copies of our correspondence and hope to share it with others someday. As I look back on it now, there are things I would say differently, but overall, I think I held my own. I shared several audio tapes with him, including some by Dr. Kenneth Howell, a convert to the Catholic Faith who became an author and speaker for St. Joseph Communications. After the professor wrote a critique of one of Dr. Howell’s tapes, I requested his permission to share the critique with Dr. Howell, with whom I had also corresponded after he spoke at our parish in 1997. I don’t know whether the two of them had a subsequent conversation. At about the same time, the professor ended our exchange saying he did not have the time to continue our talks.

Now, fast-forward to the present. I would like to report that Dave, along with the professor from Moody, and all their families and friends have converted to Catholicism. I would LIKE to report that, but unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to any of them. My reason for this reprise is the third party in the story, Dr. Kenneth Howell. I do know what happened to him.

According to an article by Jodi Heckel appearing in the July 9, 2010 edition of the News-Gazette, Dr. Howell has been an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois in Urbana for the past nine years. Until his firing after the spring semester, he taught two courses, Introduction to Catholicism, and Modern Catholic Thought. He was also the director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on campus. His salary came from the Institute of Catholic Thought.

So, why was Dr. Howell fired? His dismissal apparently resulted from an email he sent to his students prior to final exams. (The News-Gazette article contains links to Dr. Howell’s email and an email complaint from a student who was not even enrolled in the class.) The subject of Dr. Howell’s email was Utilitarianism and Sexuality. In it, he explained the relevance of utilitarianism as applied to moral theory, and specifically in the context of homosexuality.

In the email, Dr. Howell said, “One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent.” He uses various examples to point out deficiencies in the mutual consent argument. He goes on to say “the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects.” Again using examples, he explains how homosexual acts are contrary to the laws of nature.

Dr. Howell’s email concludes with the following: “As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.”

Nowhere in Dr. Howell’s email does he say we are to hate homosexuals. In fact, he says, “to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person.” The student complaint purportedly referring to Dr. Howell’s email, accuses him of “hate speech at a public university” and expresses disdain that “hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes.” I see no truth in any of those complaints. Ironically, the student says courses at Illinois should contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought. Why is it that people who promote independent thought are the first ones to suppress any thought different from their own?

Dr. Howell was doing exactly what he was hired to do in explaining Modern Catholic Thought. This isn’t so much an issue with his conduct. Rather, it is a manifestation of the hatred of the Catholic Church by modern secular academia. So much more could be said about the persecution we find ourselves in today. This story isn’t over. The Alliance Defense Fund may take up Dr. Howell’s case. Stay tuned.

UI v. CC Update

An article published in the Chicago Tribune on July 18, 2010, shed more light on the dismissal of Dr. Kenneth Howell as adjunct instructor of Catholicism at the University of Illinois. While his remarks on homosexuality were cited as an excuse for his firing, the real reason is more complex.

Although the two classes he taught on Catholicism were credit courses, Dr. Howell was employed by St. John’s Catholic Newman Center funded by the diocese of Peoria. Dr. Howell therefore answered to both the church and the university. Being a very orthodox Catholic, he taught Catholicism as absolute truth rather than a mere presentation of the Catholic position. In fact, Dr. Howell sought a mandatum from the local bishop, an acknowledgment by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church. Sadly, even professors at Catholic institutions are often reluctant to seek a mandatum for fear it will compromise their academic credibility.

As a secular institution, it is perhaps understandable why the University of Illinois would be uncomfortable with this arrangement. According to the article, other religious foundations, primarily Protestant, had given up teaching religious courses for credit, but this one remained due to persuasion by Monsignor Edward Duncan over the objections of the university administration. The university feels that they should have control of the content of what is taught as part of the curriculum. Is this need for control limited to religious studies or does it apply in other academic disciplines?

Suppose the University wanted to offer a course on Apple Computers. If the Apple Corporation came forward offering to supply an instructor at no cost in the hope that they might recruit qualified future employees, would the university find this arrangement acceptable? Or, would the administration be concerned that the class would become a commercial for Apple Computers, glossing over any possible flaws in their product? Would potential propagation of the Apple brand concern the administration as much as the potential propagation of the Catholic Faith?

The situation with Dr. Howell and the Catholic Church is really no different. Is he hoping to recruit future Catholics? Of course, he is. So what? In his conversion story, Dr. Howell talks about how his faith perspective changed when he began looking at scripture though Catholic glasses. Once you put those glasses on, your vision improves so dramatically that you never want to take them off. I cannot picture him in the classroom without them. What is wrong with a professor truly believing in the material he is teaching? When an academic makes an exciting discovery, he wants to share it with the world.

The Tribune article quotes Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State as saying “a person hired by the diocese (but) being put in a public institution having, at a minimum, a conflict of interest.” I doubt that Dr. Howell’s interest was conflicted in any way. His loyalty to the Catholic Church is clearly evident. Advocacy groups for the separation of church and state typically concern themselves with keeping religion out of the state when the framers were really intending to keep the state out of religion. We have a situation here where church and state were actually separated. State money was not being used to pay the instructor or influence class content. The extent of state involvement was in providing the class for those who wished to take it. Ironically, what they are apparently advocating is more state control in what is being taught in a religious class.

The UI administration must examine its own objectives. Are they really interested in an accurate presentation of Catholic teaching, or do they want a critique of the Catholic Church? Their actions would seem to indicate the latter, in which case they need to openly describe the class as such, and hire their own instructor.

On the other hand, if the religion department at the University of Illinois is really interested in providing courses called Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, there is probably no better-qualified person to teach those courses than Dr. Kenneth Howell. Advertise his mandatum as assurance that course material will be an accurate presentation of what the Church teaches, complete with all the politically incorrect facts that should not bother anyone truly open to alternative ideas and academic freedom. There are probably very few secular institutions that can offer courses on Catholicism taught by a professor with a mandatum.

No matter how this turns out, the diocese should continue to make Dr Howell’s class available. If that means moving it to the campus Newman center for non-credit, then so be it. Those truly interested in learning about the Catholic Faith for the right reasons will still seek it out.


On July 29, Dr. Howell was reinstated under pressure from the Alliance Defense Fund. He will now be paid by the university. Whether this situation is resolved remains to be seen.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Evan and Mary's Wedding Day

The younger of my two sons got married today. Evan and his bride Mary will be living downstate as he prepares to enter grad school continuing his study of organ performance. I always thought Evan would be the last of my three children to marry, but he turned out to be the first. The time leading up to a family wedding is so hectic that one has little time to reflect on the life we brought into the world nearly 23 years ago.

We joke that Evan was never a little baby. He weighed over ten pounds at birth. Soft-spoken and always big for his age, he had a teddy bear-like persona during his formative years. When he was about two years old, I remember my Uncle Cyril saying, “I sure hope you are going to let that boy play football!” I would have gladly let him play sports, but that was never Evan’s thing. We had a piano in our basement family room and Evan began plunking out tunes when he was three or four. Now, I am not talking ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ Evan was experimenting with self-taught cords and harmonies. My wife found a piano teacher willing to give him lessons at the age of five.

My wife is an organist at our parish, and Evan was always fascinated by the pipe organ. On Memorial Day in 1997, he played his first Mass at our parish at the age of nine. I was a nervous wreck that day, but he did just fine. God blessed him with a talent that he developed and continues to develop to this day. Last month, he graduated cum laude from Valparaiso University with a degree in organ performance.

Throughout high school, he played the organ at weekend Masses and other special liturgies at our parish. Those were all volunteer efforts, but he made a few dollars playing at funerals and weddings. During his own wedding rehearsal, our pastor remarked at the detail in which Evan and Mary had planned the liturgy. The fact is, despite his young age, he had many years of experience working with couples preparing wedding music.

When he was a sophomore in high school, a small non-Catholic congregation in a nearby town offered Evan a paying job on Sundays. His relationship with them continued for seven years until his graduation a few weeks ago. Before his departure, the congregation invited our entire family to a carry-in dinner in Evan and Mary’s honor. She often accompanied Evan to their Sunday service. The women of their church got together and made them a beautiful quilt as a going-away present. I will ever forget the kindness of their Christian community.

The wedding today was beautiful despite a few last minute hitches. Our Pastor, Father Terry, had a close family friend pass away earlier this week. Naturally the funeral ended up being scheduled the same day as the wedding. He planned to concelebrate the funeral Mass at a location an hour away and still make it back in time for the wedding, but instead, this gave us an opportunity to ask my cousin, Father Bob, a retired diocesan priest if he could perform the ceremony. He agreed to do it, and it was even nicer having a family member preside. Father Bob gave a lovely homily explaining the covenant between God and Man and how it relates to the Sacrament of Matrimony.

So now the day has ended. My big teddy-bear son is married and entering a new chapter in his life. I love him and his wife dearly and pray they grow in faith together for many years to come. They gave us a beautiful note Evan had written thanking us for all we had done for him over the years. Mary told us not to open it until we got home because she did not want to see any weepy eyes. I am sure glad we heeded her words! I only hope I did enough. May God Bless them richly.

Friday, May 21, 2010

One Hundred Years Ago Today

As I knelt waiting for Mass to begin on a cold rainy Monday evening, I became aware of the comfort I felt under the shelter of our old church building. Exactly one hundred years ago, my grandfather was a prominent figure in the construction of our church, a beautiful red brick edifice that stands tall as a testament to our Catholic Faith in this small Indiana town. It has weathered many storms over those hundred years while those inside prayed amidst the peaceful glow of candlelight.

The following paragraph is taken from a Diamond Jubilee booklet published by our parish in 1956:

Prior to the spring of 1910, solicitations for the building of the new church and school had been going on for some three or four years, and an accumulative fund of about five thousand dollars had been compiled. The Church committee was comprised of Frank Vessely, Frank Dalka, and Joseph Dolezal [my grandfather], men of good sensible and prudent minds, as can readily be seen by the pretentious edifice that was erected for housing Our Lord. The building of solid brick, was built on the exact site of the old structure. The high ceiling sanctuary and the main body of the church with most elegant stained glass windows, and the front vestibule over which the choir loft was flanked on each side by steeples in which one has the bell, and the other the Baptistry, is the complete floor plan of our church. The school was also started at the same time, consisting of four large classrooms. This tremendous undertaking cost in the vicinity of $45,000, however this does not include the many hours that were donated by all parishioners of labor, as well as their hard worked teams of horses, hauling the sand from the basement, the unloading and hauling of the lumber and brick from railroad cars to the site, the mixing of cement, mortar and plaster. The corner stone for the church was laid on May 21, 1910, by the Very Rev. Louis A. Moench of Mishawaka, delegated by Bishop Alerding to perform the ceremony. On Easter Sunday, April 11, 1911, the church was ready for its first Mass. The church was completely furnished, with the exception of the High Altar and stations of the cross. These buildings carried a $40,000 mortgage. The yoke was of very great weight and it was felt for almost 20 years.

Think of all the things that have occurred in the world while this church building was standing, and how those events affected the thousands of people who sought solace in the real presence of Christ within her walls. Two world wars, the depression, triumphs and tragedies, births and deaths, weddings and funerals, good times and bad. Here in this small town church, the Body of Jesus Christ awaits us daily, offering comfort and forgiveness, peace and tranquility. As the brick walls and slate roof protect us from the elements, Christ’s Church, built upon the Peter the rock, shelters us from the storms we face in everyday life.

Imagine building a church and a school with $5000 down payment and a $40,000 20-year mortgage. It seems funny today, but that was a huge amount of money back then. What faith our Catholic ancestors must have had to even attempt such a project. I pray that their Faith brought them a great reward in heaven, and I hope they are watching over us as we still reap the fruits of their labor.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stoning the Rock

The Church is in the national news most every day, and none of it is good. Sex abuse allegations, many dating back decades, have resurfaced, bringing out the Church-hating sharks that smell blood in the water. They would like nothing more than to bring down Pope Benedict by somehow connecting him to a cover up. In this age where the Catholic Church stands alone in claiming authority to speak for God in condemning abortion, artificial birth control, and same-sex marriage among other things, secularists are determined to destroy the Church and everything she stands for.

Yes, members of the Church committed grave sins. These things should have never happened. From what I have read, sexual abuse is even more prevalent in Protestant communities and our educational system, but those cases do not get the same media attention as the ones in the Catholic Church. Don’t get me wrong. The Catholic Church should be held to a much higher standard than any other ecclesial community or institution, but these stories do not make the front pages because the media holds the Church in high regard. On the contrary, they despise the Church for having the audacity to claim moral authority while seemingly trying to hide its own indiscretions. This is a natural reaction that we will have to live with.

The Church has put itself in a difficult position. The secular media is not going to present the magisterial side of the story. Not understanding Holy Orders, they do not realize the difficulty in “unlaying” of hands. They will not consider the attitude society had forty or fifty years ago, when counseling was often the prescribed remedy for sex abusers. We will never hear that civil authorities were usually not notified because the alleged victims’ families did not want them notified. Certainly, any of the victims could have called the police at any time. That is not to say everything was handled properly. Terrible mistakes were made. Yet, the lawsuits and other pending actions likely have little to do with aiding the victims, and everything to do with destroying the Church.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


With Holy Week quickly approaching, we have been preparing for the Easter Vigil liturgy, the most exciting event on the church calendar. My enthusiasm is tempered this year because we have no one entering the Church from our parish. Our faith formation class has only one candidate and she will not be making her profession of faith until later. This saddens me for several reasons.

First of all, nothing is more exciting than seeing new people being baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil. I feel reenergized by those who have finally discovered the Church Jesus established. Especially rewarding is having a hand in preparing them for that beautiful event. Seeing them arrive with family and friends, their nervous anticipation, and the excitement of receiving Our Lord for the first time brings great joy to me and the entire faith community.

An Easter Vigil without catechumens leaves a void in the liturgy. Beyond that, it saddens me that we are not sharing our faith the way we should be. I have always believed that every Easter Vigil would be flooded with new Catholics if we were spreading the gospel the way Our Lord commanded us to do. We have too long subscribed to the notion that actively sharing our Catholic faith is uncharitable or at least, not ecumenical. Quite the contrary, we should be doing it out of love for our fellow Christians and non-Christians too for that matter.

Unfortunately, many Catholics today do not know their faith well enough to explain it to others. In our community, the Catholic school closed its doors more than thirty-five years ago. Up until then, most Catholics received at least eight years of Catholic education. There are still a few of us around who graduated from that school. By today’s standards, our Catholic education far exceeds that of most of our current parishioners. Yet, even those eight years are hardly adequate. Can you think of any profession where an eighth grade education would be considered sufficient?

Our parish offers classes in Faith formation, but attendance is practically non-existent. Getting people to turn off the television even one night a week to enhance their religious education is next to impossible. The Wednesday evening Lenten program in our parish did meet with limited success. A soup supper with guest speakers drew an average of about thirty-five parishioners on each of the four evenings it was held. While you see mostly older people at these events, I was encouraged to see a few young families in attendance. Perhaps that bodes well for the future.

I believe there are many things we could be doing to draw people to the Church. We need to be more visible. Matthew 5:14-16 tells us we should be a light to our community and not be hidden. Twenty-first century technology offers us many opportunities to get our message out and we need to take advantage of all of them.

The Internet is probably the greatest educational device ever conceived. Search engines allow anyone looking for information to find it in an instant. We must make certain we are available with answers. I started a website for our parish about ten years ago. In addition to weekly updates about our church, it contains links to orthodox Catholic sites where seekers can find answers to their questions about the Catholic Faith. We average about 4000 hits per month, not a lot by some standards, but not bad for a parish with about 200 families.

Aside from the website, which goes unnoticed unless someone seeks it out, how visible are we? Our church building is the tallest edifice in town. The Cross on the bell tower can be seen from most any approach and the carillon plays Catholic hymns twice a day, and more often on weekends. While this may attract attention and curiosity, it does little to spread the gospel message.

At one time, our parish published weekly messages in a local advertising publication. They were meant to be inspirational and informational. I do not know how effective they were, but we did seem to have more catechumens back then. The ads were discontinued about two pastors ago.

As many churches do, we have a sign out front with Mass times and space for messages. It is used to advertise dinners and other events, but could be utilized more for evangelization. Often, it is simply left blank which also sends a message. It says, we have nothing to say to you right now.

Many other opportunities exist to be visible in the community. Our town has an annual festival, some of which takes place on church grounds. The Knights of Columbus sponsor a pancake breakfast during the festival, and last year, our parish held a chicken carryout dinner. Each event lasted only a few hours of the festival, and aside from full stomachs, visitors took nothing away. Festivals provide wonderful chances to connect with visitors on the midway. Invite them into your booth for a sandwich and a cold drink, and hand them a Catholic tract before they leave.

Some parishes have their own festivals. Non-catholics may be more inclined to attend a Catholic-sponsored street festival than an event located inside the church itself. Any opportunity for interaction can be an ice-breaker. The key is to look for ways to evangelize while fundraising. With that in mind, make certain such events avoid any activities that could cast dispersions on the parish. Gambling or alcohol consumption is never appropriate when our mission is attracting converts.

All of these ideas require a commitment. In a small parish like ours, finding people willing and able to devote time and energy is difficult. The potential harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Perhaps the best way to share our message is to lead by example. Proclaim your Catholic Faith boldly, and lead your life in such a way to gain the respect of those around you every day. Then, sit back and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Truth or Tin Foil

Well-meaning people forward emails to me everyday. Some of them are funny. Many are political. Depending on the sender, I either peruse them or hit delete. The quickest to the trash are those that question my patriotism if I don’t forward them or promise some reward if I forward them to eight people and back to the sender.

Being a rather conservative Catholic, I share concern with those dismayed by many policies put forth by our current administration. Nevertheless, I get tired of the constant stream of negativity being passed around cyberspace. Yes, we have many things to be concerned about, especially the culture of death, relativism, moral decay, secularism, religious persecution. All of these things threaten our future, but real problems can be obscured by extremists who circulate wild conspiracy theories that often have little basis in reality.

Some conservatives have become obsessed trying to prove our current president is not an American citizen and therefore ineligible to hold the office. It seems like I get an email most everyday containing some new wrinkle about Obama’s birth certificate, his connections to Islam, or his disdain for the military. The smears are endless and merely provide distractions from what really should concern us about his policies. Of course, the leftists did the same thing to President Bush, accusing him of masterminding 9-11 and other ridiculous charges.

We are all aware that many bad things happen in this world. It is nothing new. Evil has been present since the fall of man. We may find new inventive ways of spreading it, but it has always been around. I am not suggesting evil should be ignored, but some people seemed to be obsessed by it to the point where all they see is doom and gloom. We will never see the light by focusing on the darkness.

Our pastor recently handed me a book called Spiritual Dangers of the 21st Century by Rev. Joseph M. Esper. He said, “Read this. There are things in there that will curl your hair.” I took it home and read it. My hair is still fairly straight, maybe a little wavy now. Father Esper writes about the seven deadly sins and how they affect our society. He points out many of the attacks that have occurred on our religious freedom, especially directed at Catholics and other Christians. He warns us of a persecution we are facing. This is a serious concern, but I also found parts of his book to be a little disconcerting.

Some of his dire warnings are based on private revelations discounted by the local bishop, and conspiracy-friendly authors. He focuses much attention on the abuse of modern technology and government intrusion in our lives. He cites articles, some of them from wacko websites, warning of chips being implanted in babies, behavior altering chemtrails being sprayed over metropolitan areas, space-based laser-generating satellites projecting images of Satan’s agent Maitreya in the sky, extra low frequency wave emissions making people think they are hearing the voice of God, and other foolishness. I was beginning to wonder if Father Esper might wear a tin foil biretta. Even the remote possibility that some of these things may be technically feasible does not mean they pose an imminent danger, or even warrant mention in what is otherwise a good synopsis of where we are and where we may be headed.

The Internet provides a platform for anyone to say anything. No longer does one need a discerning publisher or a soapbox in the public square to be heard. Anyone can publish a blog viewable instantly all over the world. Despite the widespread access, much of it finds only a small audience of gullible people to take it seriously. Father Esper cited some of these sources, possibly giving them more credibility than they deserve. He included many footnotes, but questions arose in my mind about the legitimacy of some sources. For example, on page 82, he says, “another estimate suggests that a thousand Christians a day give their lives for Christ.” Wow! Where did that estimate come from, I wondered. The footnote contains a reference to a book by a Christian economist known for his warnings about the Y2K collapse that never happened. The estimate may or may not be accurate. It simply comes from another man’s book.

Serious concerns become diluted when mixed with speculation and unlikely scenarios. I do not doubt that we have many problems facing us as Christians in a secular society, but I grow weary of all the pessimism permeating Christian thought these days. Those choosing the darkened path will not likely be swayed by warnings of peril. Yes, we must be aware of the evil around us, but we should not appear hopeless. We navigate the darkness by following the light. We need to live our Faith in a way that draws others to the beacon of Christ, who gave us a Church and promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Soldiers for Christ

About ten years ago, our pastor at the time was a rather conservative priest, very orthodox and particular in the celebration of the liturgy. He maintained a small army of well-trained altar servers, all of them boys. Shortly after his assignment to our parish, he dispensed with the servers’ albs and robed them in cassocks and surpluses. Two to four servers were assigned to each Mass, and on special occasions such as Holy Week or Christmas, they all served en masse.

The servers grew to be a rather close-knit group. The older boys got the envied jobs of cross-bearers, bell ringers and incense lighters. They trained the younger servers and taught liturgical protocol by their example. Maneuvers around the altar were coordinated and reverent. Father usually rewarded them with an amusement park outing during the summer.

Eventually during Father’s time here, a few parishioners began to take exception to his conservative ways. Among their complaints was the fact that only boys were allowed to serve at Mass. Most other parishes in the diocese permitted girls to serve, a privilege left to the discretion of the parish priest. Amid persistent pressure from a few parents, Father relented and allowed girls to join the ranks. Among them was my daughter although I was not a proponent of the change. I had reservations about breaking the all-male tradition. Even though priestly vocations are rare in our parish (only two that I know of in our 128 year history), being an altar server is a first step in that direction.

Looking back over the past ten years, I realize my concerns were not without merit. Once girls infiltrated the serving ranks, the fraternity fell apart. Interaction between pre-adolescent boys and girls is awkward at best. What was once much a relationship much like the Boy Scouts soon lost all its comradery. Some boys were reluctant to get involved, and it was not long before girl servers out-numbered the boys. Without the mentoring that took place in the past, the reverent postures and precise movements posture around the altar deteriorated to the point of distraction.

I am not blaming the girls for the changes that took place. Their inclusion in the serving ranks was just one of many changes happening in the church at the time. Our current pastor has taken steps to improve the training of the servers. Both boys and girls are doing better these days, although still a far cry from what they were years ago. I do not know the numbers, but I imagine the girls still outnumber the boys by a few, and it is difficult to go back without being labeled a chauvinist. That did not stop a parish in Minnesota from trying however.

In a blog by Father John Zuhlsdorf, he reports on a post from Stella Borealis telling of two men in a Minnesota parish who increased the number of male altar boys from 10 to 60 by making the rules more demanding. They approached their pastor with a plan for boys only that included training, a system of ranks with cool nicknames, a more reverent atmosphere with cassocks, surpluses and uniform footwear, and a program of outside activities such as bowling and fishing. The boys were motivated by the hierarchy of ranks, along with the program’s high standards of order and discipline.

Implementing such a program would be difficult in parishes where girls have already been permitted to serve, which is probably most everywhere. All servers, boys and girls, would benefit from higher standards of order and discipline. I see servers in our parish arriving late in all kinds of dress, oblivious to the Blessed Sacrament exposed for Eucharistic Adoration, and genuflecting in way where the knee never touches the floor. A little training and higher standards could go a long way. Holding the position of altar server should require certain responsibilities, such as observing dress codes, being on time, and maintaining reverence.

In my day, server training was done primarily by the Sisters of St. Francis who taught at our Catholic School. They attended most every Mass, so they knew who was performing properly. The nuns are long gone from our parish, leaving server training to the priest. The problem is that the priest cannot see what is going on behind him. Many of the server duties take place out of his view. For that reason, trainers other than the priest have the best opportunity to coach servers and evaluate their progress. The post cited above suggests finding adult leaders to run the server program. Sounds like a good idea to me.