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.