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StickFiguresOne of of the practices at our parish during the great Easter Vigil is to have those in attendance walk past the font, dip our fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on the person next in line.

People mostly carry out this ritual by signing their loved ones or close friends. But this time, while my wife and I dutifully stood in line, the queue dissolved a bit into a crowd of random members of the faithful, separating this loving couple’s duo. I admit some apprehension at the thought of having to touch the forehead of a complete stranger behind me. I didn’t even bother to glance behind me to see what was in store as I drew nearer the font, and I was a bit amused as a looked ahead to see my wife’s reaction when she turned to see someone 6 inches taller than me waiting for her blessing.

My turn came, and I also was greeted by someone who looked nothing like me who placed the sign of the cross on my forehead, and as I returned the gesture to the person behind me, a question wafted through the air (along with the incense) – ‘Just what was I afraid of? WHO was I afraid of?’

Fear dominates us these days – fear of losing our jobs, fear of not being able to provide for our families, fear of being killed by some wacko terrorist. This fear spawns a more subtle though insidious emotion – suspicion. It is not enough that we fear the unseen, we now suspect those we can see of ill intent, especially those whose background doesn’t line up with ours.

The gestures during the Liturgy of the Mass should be the small step we need to take to keep fear, especially fear of those who we don’t know, at bay. But even our Americanized Catholicism has to work a bit harder to make certain that faith triumphs over the culture that seems too enamored with independence and isolation.

I remember the days in the early  70’s during the reform of the structure of the Mass. Change was hard, especially for the older pastors. I distinctly remember the monsignor carefully instructing the faithful about how his parish was going to implement the sign of peace.

Upon prompting from the celebrant, persons on the right side of the church were to turn to those on the left, and say “Peace be with you”; those on the left side would then turn to those on the right and reply, “and with your spirit”. (It’s a good thing he wasn’t celebrating the liturgy in a worship space in the round — the exercise would probably have ended up being an early version of the wave as the greeting would continually circle about the church.) I think that lasted for a year or so before people actually started shaking hands, a little stiffly, grudgingly, perhaps, but still a gesture that forced us to look at something besides our worship guides.

What is it about us that moves us to resist touching another human? Is it possible that our love-affair with our personal space helps make fear and suspicion so easy for us?

And what do with our gestures of touch during the celebration of the Mass and other sacred events have to do with how we behave in our politically charged environment?

Much, I think.

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Our liturgical practices are spawned by the message of the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice. That message and example of sacrifice demands that we break down barriers with those suspected of being unclean, of bad behavior, of incorrect values. The same inspiration that moves us to make contact with others in our church MUST inform our behavior in American civil society, especially now, before we discover that our fear-motivated behaviors have taken us to a dark place from which there is no easy return.

Fears have always been with us. What is so dangerous today is our penchant to blame our fear on somebody else – somebody different, someone who may not look or act exactly like we do, someone who resembles an evil-doer. And for some of us, resemblance is good enough justification for mistrust and suspicion.

This suspicion and mistrust has become a rallying point for those who want to lead our civil government (should ‘mistrust’ and ‘civil’ be in the same sentence?). We have seen leaders who thrive on fear through much of history. Such episodes began very badly for those considered outsiders, and ended tragically for everyone else concerned.

Is it possible that the same same hesitancy to make contact with those around us, the same tendency to stay within ourselves to the point of avoiding eye contact with those we don’t know, the same proliferation of technologies that conflate smart-phone delivered bubble-text with meaningful dialogue,  are behaviors that provide fertile ground for suspicion and fear of those who we don’t allow into our emotional space?

*******

And yet, it is easy for us to suspend our much needed sense of isolation when it comes down to the relationships that are truly important to us.

When we hear the news of family members encountering serious illness or tragedy, the first thing we are pushed to do is the find them and embrace them, holding onto them, hoping in some way to move their pain onto our own burden.

Is it even possible to think of a parent who can’t hug a son or daughter as they get married, celebrate the joy of parenthood, welcome their return upon military deployments, or welcome their triumph over health challenges?

But while I am not an expert on Scripture, I do not recall any of Jesus’ examples that call us to connect only with those who we know and like.

As I visit my 94 year old dad at his care facility run by the Brothers of Mercy, I am moved when I see some of the elderly residents become disoriented or afraid, and witness the brief miracle that happens when a staff member simply reaches out to gently pat their hand. Just that simple gesture of touch seems to do wonders for those confronting the fear of circumstances beyond their control.

During a recent visit to my dad and a couple of ladies (the average age being somewhere north of 88) at his dinner table, we had a lively chat that included a fair number of good-natured jokes poked at each other. As I stood up to leave, one of the ladies looked up and asked, “Can I have a hug?” I don’t know what moved me more, the need she had for a brief moment of human-ness, or the privilege I felt in having a practical stranger ask me for the gift of a gentle embrace.

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It is a crazy world out there. Our technologies, while providing tools that allow us to briefly overcome limitations of distance, often make it too easy to remain ‘virtually’ connected while physically distant. Our politics too often call us to suspect, blame, and fear them, the outsider, the person who is different.

And yet our Church, our liturgies, our gestures, call us to connect with each other, reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, we are all called to move from isolation to connection with everyone God has placed in this garden we call Earth.

So what should we remember, the next time we are to hold hands during the Lord’s prayer, exchange the sign of peace, or sign the cross on another?

  • We probably won’t die from the gesture. Yes, such acts should be suspended during cold and flu season and those contagious are excused from outreach. But, generally speaking, most people survive the ordeal.
  • Reverse the perspective. Think of how we would want to be seen through the eyes of the stranger standing next to us. For God’s sake (really, for God’s sake), smile at the opportunity to break down a barrier for just those few seconds.
  • Move the experience of church into the multi-cultural, multi-religious, noisy, messy, community setting that we have been blessed with. We can muster the strength to connect with those who share our religious tradition, but we are also called to connect with those who aren’t like us.

We believe our faith and commitment to the Gospel drives behavior that gives encouraging, hopeful witness in world of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities, a witness that is especially important during times of great change and turmoil.

What does the sign of peace, grasping hands during the Lord’s prayer, and signing the cross on the forehead of a stranger, have to do with our response to terrorism, economic uncertainty, and cultural change?

Nothing, if the only hands we grasp are of those who remind us of us.

 

I looked up aWhoAreWet the television when I heard Ron Reagan’s voice mention something about ‘not afraid of burning in hell’. There he was on the screen promoting his Freedom From Religion organization. For a guy risking an eternity of searing pain, he certainly looked sure enough of himself.

Not coincidentally, soon afterward I was watching one of those news specials about atheists, persons who left traditional religions to pursue a spiritual life without God. The show had caught my interest as it reminded me of my own struggles with faith.

There were two comments in particular that caught my attention. One person mentioned that it would be wrong to be too critical of faith, since faith and belief are so much part of a person’s identity.

A second point emphasized that most ex-believers-now-atheists had one thing in common – they didn’t want to continue to live a lie.

Identity. Not living a lie. Amen to that.

 

Who are we?

I had a very difficult time in finding that ‘adult’ perspective on what it meant to be a Catholic Christian. Perhaps that difficulty started for me in elementary school.

I’m not going to be one of those who piles on to the Baltimore Catechism – it was designed to help children memorize the important elements of our religion, and it got the job done for getting the basics down.

But as kid, I was always a bit curious, and never got answers to the questions I started asking in the 6th grade..  why would the eternal pain of hell be possible for someone who didn’t ask to be here in the first place? What happened to all the souls who came and went before Jesus?

The stock answer was that it’s a mystery, which I interpreted as ‘we have no idea’. (But at least in regards the the second question, according to catechism chapters 632-636, the pre-Jesus souls made out alright.)

Given the shaky foundation of my childhood faith, it is no wonder that I was challenged as an adult to truly understand and embrace Catholicism.

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I think I am a humanist.

When it comes to one’s choices for the authority that informs his or personal theology, I think a person falls somewhere along an axis anchored at two points.

At one end sit the ‘rule book’ followers. The community’s values are expressed by a single source document. That source could be the bible or an intermediate reference (the Catechism) that is explained or interpreted by an authority figure(s) such as the clergy and trained catechists.

There is a clean simplicity about such a flow. Followers need only know who to listen to on the holy day, and, trusting that the person at the pulpit has invested a great deal in theological study and spiritual development, follow the shepherd’s guidance. Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.

In an increasingly chaotic and confusing world, just trusting one person or institution to clearly spell out the rules of a holy life has a certain appeal to a public that already has way too much to think about.

At the other end of this axis you have the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ crowd. These folks profess a personal relationship with a higher power that doesn’t require — well, anything. No clergy, no sacred text, and no formalized process to identify the difference between right and wrong.

I admit that most of my early adulthood was spent closer to that latter crowd — to the point where I was so un-religious, I even doubted the presence of a higher power. My Catholic identity came close to something being in the past tense.

But after a while, I found that believing in nothing lacked a certain substance.

Trying to live the humanist life wasn’t all that bad – I was given a new perspective on the importance and yes, sacredness of all human experiences. The problem was that by formally accepting a Godless experience – I felt lonely.

Not only did I feel lonely, but that same curiosity that got me into trouble in elementary school also challenged the atheist’s perspective. Spiritually speaking, I felt that the atheist’s vision is that of a person standing on the shoreline of an island in ancient times. There are hints of something beyond the horizon as he sees things wash up on shore and birds approach from a distance. But he looks to the horizon, sees nothing, and concludes that there is nothing to look for. Why build boats if there is nothing to sail to?

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I thought I was a humanist.

It would be a good read if I could point to some magic moment that changed everything in the blink of an eye. But there was no such moment. The best metaphor I could use is one in which I decided that my Catholic faith would be my ‘ride’ to answer the important questions in front of me. Despite the vehicle being in need of maintenance, my Catholic background had been the basis of my upbringing and education. I figured that had to count for something.

And then there was St. Paul:

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

It was time for me to grow up and stop relying (and blaming) my poor spiritual vision on the materials and teaching pedagogy designed for elementary school kids.

That meant reading and learning first about scripture and how we interpret it, then exploring many of the other facets of our faith, from the founding philosophies that fueled its survival during the early centuries, to how the Church adopted to changes in the arts, culture, and science through the ages. (Granted, it isn’t always a happy story.) Most importantly, I took a stab at actually performing some Christian service to the poor, the disabled, and those who opportunity had left behind.

After a few years of re-visiting my faith, reflecting on what we do and why we do it, remembering how to pray, and trying as best I can to adopt the Catholic Christian view of life, I began to understand what ‘Catholic’ meant, and it was different from what we see hear screamed at us from the flat-screen and the blogosphere.

 

Hello, my name is Ken, and I am Roman Catholic.

If you were to use the public media as your only source of information, you might believe that the only issues Catholics care about involve sex.

The public view of our Church is dominated by the media’s coverage of Catholic opposition to gay marriage and the insistence that Catholic institutions not participate in insurance plans that include birth control.  In this hyper-partisan, hyper-connected society, observers (Catholics included) may get the impression that these are the only positions and only issues that Catholics care about.

To get past this perspective, I had to pretend, for just a moment, that God has things under control when it comes to creating men and women and their individual sense of identity, and that religious freedom involves something other than asking people about their sexuality.

So moving beyond the 15 second media snippet pretending to capture the prototypical Catholic image, I considered the more timeless elements of our tradition, reflecting more on a 2,000 year old spiritual journey rather than what is appearing on CNN, EWTN,  or Fox News.

Here is my layman’s view of the key elements of Catholic identity:

  • It starts with what we call the Eucharist. Catholic teaching states that during the consecration part of our Mass,  just as Jesus said ‘this is my body, this is my blood’,  the hosts and wine become His presence. We set aside consecrated hosts (the Blessed Sacrament) reserved for the sick and displayed for private reflection and adoration. For devout Catholics, the Eucharist is something far more than a symbol, it reminds us that there is a physical presence of Christ, here, in this place and time.
  • The Mass is really important to us. If the Eucharist and wine are the body and blood of Christ, the Mass is where that bread and wine become the vehicle through which we now become Christ’s body.  That means we become His eyes, His ears, and His hands to do His work. Our Mass is the ritual through which we conduct the Last Supper wrapped with the prayers that express everything from what Jesus taught us, readings from scripture, and a profession of faith.
  • We tend to approach scripture allegorically –  Our belief is that God’s message sometimes lies beneath the words and transcends the cultural practices of a time. Our mission is to explore the spiritual experiences of our forefathers  and shine today’s light on God’s message to us.
  • We use sacraments to mark the really important benchmarks of our lives. The Church has seven sacraments that mark the grace imparted to us through the years. Each sacrament (Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Ordination, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick) is based on Jesus’ words and actions during His ministry. If something is going on that is really important in our lives, chances are good that it’s covered by a sacrament.
  • We take all life seriously – we embrace the advances of medical science that help improve the quality of life. But we are equally certain that life’s creation and termination are the domain of a higher authority.  In addition to concern for the soon-to-be-born, we care deeply about the social and physical welfare of children, adults, and the elderly. And many of us find a vocation in exercising concern for what makes all life possible –  the land, air, and water that we share with the generations to come.
  • Catholic Christians are called to service. We’ve all heard of ‘saved by grace, not by works’, but Catholic tradition adds a requirement that we must act out our faith. This goes back to the Council of Trent which, in a nod to James, began teaching that grace saves the righteous, but in order be be righteous, faith must be sustained by real action. I tire of the scriptural hissyfits that sometimes go on between Christian segments arguing the relative value of faith and acts. There is a common sense thinking that faith without action is little more than an unfulfilled promise.

So there it is. My sense of Catholic identity. I don’t expect it will please the extremely conservative members of our Church because it didn’t involve Latin. Extreme liberals will complain about it because they need to find something to complain about. But these points best capture what I consider my Catholic identity.

What we do with this identity is determined by our personal circumstances, the calling manifest by our interests and talents (some may refer to that as the Holy Spirit), and our receptiveness in responding to that calling.

Many Catholics take hold of the right-to-life movement, others minister to immigrant hopefuls as they cross the American southwest deserts. Others work to deliver healthcare to the poor, to repair broken childhoods, and still others struggle to find the proper balance between environmental and economic interests in impoverished rural areas.

Maybe that is why this prototypical identity is so elusive from the media’s perspective. The range of challenges and opportunities to serve is so great, the diversity of our experience so broad, that  we find any number of different ways to act out our faith in service. Unfortunately, as a result of this range of views, we sometimes we turn on ourselves, believing that one’s own vocation, interest, and Gospel interpretation is more important than another’s.

What can I say? We are a fallen people.

My belief in Christ’s physical presence among us, my commitment to celebrate the grace that touches us in all phases of our lives, my reflections on scripture, and the calling to act  in service to all God’s creation, these are the elements of what being Catholic means to me. It is an identity that I can own.

 

The truth shall set you free.

I appreciated the atheists’ rejection of living a lie. And there was truth in the comment that what we believe in, what we put our faith in, is a very large part of who we are, our identity.

I was too afraid to consider how close an anemic profession of faith was to a lie; but deep down, I knew that what I learned as a child wasn’t good enough. A good foundation won’t keep the rain off your head.

I needed to better understand the true nature of my faith, not by watching the news or even listening to the clergy, but, as inefficient as it may seem, finding my own circuitous route to a picture of what being Catholic really means.

To my atheist, agnostic, humanist friends, I know of your road, and I wish you well. It’s possible your work may open new perspectives that people of faith may appreciate. God works in mysterious ways.

I pray that all seekers continue their path to understanding why we have been put here, and that path leads to a conviction and identity that gives meaning to your life and those who will follow you.

But I also suggest this humble reminder.

Admit the truth when you hit a dead end, and don’t be afraid to back up if you need to.

______

REFERENCES:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/03/living/friendly-atheists-next-door/

http://www.kvue.com/story/news/state/2014/07/06/charities-help-immigrants-at-the-border/12277493/

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-eucharist/the-real-presence-of-jesus-christ-in-the-sacrament-of-the-eucharist-basic-questions-and-answers.cfm

http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/why-does-the-church-teach-that-works-can-obtain-salvation

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+2%3A24&version=NIV

http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm

 

Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

“The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. “ – Raymond Cardinal Burke

The quote above was from an interview conducted by Matthew Christoff of the New Emangelization project (read that word closely, I’m not making this up). His observation is part of a trend that encourages fewer girls to participate as altar servers in order to encourage more boys to participate, theoretically leading to growth in the number of boys who choose to become priests.

The feeling was recently echoed by Rev. Joseph Illo at the Star of the Sea church in San Francisco which recently stopped allowing girls to serve at the altar.

“The specifics of serving at the altar is a priestly function,” Illo said. “And the Catholic church does not ordain women.”

So while Pope Francis calls for a “more profound theology of women”, some senior church clerics and pastors have come to the conclusion that this deepened theology is best developed by having young girls watch what boys do.

It must be pointed out that wherever such statements are made, the speaker always adds the caveat that the position or decision has nothing to do with equality. Rather, according to Cardinal Burke, the policy is a much needed step to counter ‘the radical feminism which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s’, leaving men feel ‘marginalized’.

(Radical feminism is a term within the feminist movement during the 1960’s and 70’s that argued that many social structures based on patriarchy unfairly oppress women.)

Somehow, when I see the young ladies serving at the altar, I rarely look at them as leading a radical charge to marginalize my sense of self-worth. But apparently, I must be missing their diabolical intent. I must also be missing the signs of this movement’s success, as to me, at first glance, most popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons appear to be men.

The policy of female altar servers is a voluntary decision made at the parish level by pastors, providing the diocesan bishop has granted permission for such a choice. If the bishop says its OK, it is then up to the pastor to determine if young ladies are to be permitted as altar servers.

In the cases of Cardinal Burke’s opinion, and the policy in San Francisco, along with a number of cathedrals and parishes (Phoenix, Ann Arbor), as well as the entire diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, the idea is that female altar servers result in fewer boys who want to become priests.

Even though there is little hard data to support such a supposition, these church leaders feel that this belief is a hypothesis worth testing.

So long as we don’t need much (if any) data for a hypothesis, here’s mine:

Increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in pastoral roles would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

To start, I am not going to touch on the role of women as ordained priests. It is not because I do or do not agree with the suggestion, but because the exclusive role of men as priests is so deeply ingrained in the tradition of our church the issue is a non-starter with anyone whose opinion matters (and they would all be men).

St. Pope John Paul II used his 1994 Apostolic Letter Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men to summarize the reasons why women could never be priests:

“[because of]…the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

Although I would love to write something inflammatory on the subject (and anything written about this is bound to inflame somebody), I honestly don’t have the spiritual maturity to suggest an interpretation of God’s plan for His church when discussing who is or is not qualified to act on behalf of Jesus as a church leader.

But while I am unqualified to explore the dogma of male ordination to the priesthood, my role as a parishioner qualifies me to touch on the role of women in other services to the community.

It is time to allow women to become deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.

The history of deacons goes back to the earliest years of the Church. Male deacons primarily served at the pleasure of bishops in order to conduct most of the administrative functions of the diocese. At the beginning of Church history, there also existed women deaconesses who would tend to the needs of the women of the community — though in those days, that generally meant presiding over the baptism of women faithful — which at that time took place in the nude.

The ‘official’ rationale for opposing the admission of women to the diaconate centers on the mind-numbing exercise of interpreting the intentions of the 4th century Church. When the Council of Nicea was clarifying the role of deaconess, they were clear that these were persons who, unlike male deacons, were not ordained. Furthermore, as people started wearing clothes to baptisms, there was no longer a perceived need for women to minister to women. So, along with the increasing importance of male deacons, the role of female deaconesses gradually faded.

Today, opposition to deaconesses remains little changed from Nicea. The more conservative interpretation collectively encompasses the roles of deacon, priest and bishop as ‘ordained’ – or empowered by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And as pointed out earlier, only males can be ordained because, well,  Jesus was male and only males can act in the personhood of Christ. Deaconesses were never meant to be deacons, the argument continues, so why start now.

More liberal arguments contend that deacons cannot (among a number of priestly actions) conduct the sacramental duties associated with the Eucharist (consecrating bread) or administering the Sacarment of Penance — examples of actions that represent the personhood of Christ. Since deacons cannot act in personhood of Christ, they must be acting as Christ’s servant. Therefore, the male-personhood restriction to deacons should not apply. (I told you it was mind-numbing).

I’m going to simplify vocabulary here by calling for male and female deacons. Today, we do not assume that a lay deacon is a ‘priest in training’ and the 4th century Church’s dismissal of the spiritual needs of women was a trend that reflected little more than the social norms of Late Antiquity. (Someone find me a scriptural reference that women’s spiritual needs are to be ignored). Attempts to maintain separate deacon/deaconess roles reflect nothing more than an interest in retaining 4th century job descriptions and career paths.

Today, thanks to Vatican Council II’s restored emphasis on the role of deacons, if I, as a man, have a problem with my career, my marriage, or any other issue of personal importance, I can reach out to a handful of male deacons at my parish.

Would I reach out about problems involving my marriage or issues of a sexual nature to a woman deacon? Would I want to talk to a women about manhood issues? Not likely.

And that is the point. Women in our Church have few (if any) women of spiritual standing to talk to about problems that involve womanhood. Women don’t have the luxury of reaching out to a spiritual leader/mentor who really understands the female perspective of spousal abuse, post-partum depression,  breast cancer, family discord or any other facts of life that affect women in a unique way.

The absence of female deacons in our Church denies women equal access to adequate pastoral care. And in today’s world, that inequality of access is wrong.

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Young ladies and young men must have equal opportunity to act as altar servers.

The crux of the female altar server matter lies in the belief that eliminating young ladies as altar servers will result in more male vocations to the priesthood.

So, is there no other way to recruit men to the priesthood? No program of enhanced religious education, no after-school program of sports activities that can be combined to encourage consideration of religious vocations, no social events run by seminarians in the parish setting to introduce young people to religious life?

While young boys may find themselves uncomfortable around girls –  are there no scheduling options that can give young boys the space they need? Some dioceses that wish to encourage the Latin Mass often use that form as a setting to revisit the classical altar boy role without booting girls from the other masses.

Are these leaders serious in saying that only effective way to encourage priesthood is to post a sign that says ‘no girls allowed’ near the altar?

No one really knows how much of a factor altar serving is in encouraging vocations(*). There is only scant anecdotal data that points to pockets of increased priestly vocations at all-boy parishes, and even those instances can’t easily factor out the strength of a parish religious ed program, the vitality of the parochial schools, or the engagement of the diocesan recruiting team.

Some Church leaders do consider the possibility that a young lady serving at the altar may, as a result, be drawn to a vocation with the women’s religious orders. It’s not as though we don’t need more women religious to serve in our Catholic hospitals, schools, healthcare facilities or social service organizations. The Arlington archdiocese admitted as much, with Bishop Paul S. Loverde writing that altar serving provides “an experience which can facilitate a young woman’s discernment of the Lord’s call to religious life.”

By removing young women as altar servers, our Church says to our young ladies, “We know you want to serve our Lord and Church, and maybe this experience could encourage you to think of devoting your life in a religious vocation. But you are scaring the boys away and we need more men in the priesthood. So thank you, but please go back to the pews and sit next to mommy. We’ll think of something else for you to do. It’s nothing personal.”

Most arguments one reads about boys-only altar serving suggest that girls can be directed to other, less visible roles in the sacristy or steered to participate in other girls-only organizations in the parish.  Will these ‘alternate paths’ be full of the same spiritual experience as serving at the Lord’s table? Probably not.

This isn’t about equal rights. This is about providing all young people with equal opportunity to respond to a calling to serve.

Our young girls deserve equal opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit’s calling to experience the spiritual connection that comes with being an altar server. This opportunity may lead to interest in roles with religious communities or as lay leaders in the parish. To deny young girls such an opportunity because of their gender is wrong.

**********

So on what specific suppositions do I base a hypothesis that increased visibility of women in the church would enhance the role of priests and increase pastoral outreach?

We will start with the obvious —- more girls acting as altar servers will be exposed to the spirituality of our liturgy. This exposure may well fuel interest in pursuing vocations in any of the religious orders.

And I have already mentioned the value provided by female deacons in serving the women in our parish community — serving in a way that men just can’t because, well, because they are men.

And while our all male diaconate has held the privilege of proclaiming the gospel, what church foundations would be shaken to hear a woman’s gospel reflection?

Take the Gospel of the Annunciation. How long do women have to listen to a man explain the emotions of being an expectant mother?

A formal re-introduction of female deacons would also increase the pool of women candidates to act as parish administrators – a role that is already open to men and women at the discretion of the bishop. Numerous parishes already have parish administrators absorbing many of the critical operational roles in a parish where the priest/pastor is unable or incapable of serving.

In fact, there would appear a certain family-like symmetry in parishes where the spiritual pastor-priest works as an equal with a female parish administrator to advance the kingdom.

Finally, the good men who follow the priestly vocation would need less time in parish administration and more time to administer the sacraments and provide increased emphasis on the spiritual development of the flock. One would think that such an emphasis is the reason men became priests in the first place.

So yes, I hypothesize that increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in service would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

It’s a hypothesis worth testing.

 

(*) – The US Conference of Bishops has conducted surveys strongly suggesting correlation – some 80% of one class of ordinands having served as altar boys.


REFERENCES

http://www.catholicstand.com/cardinal-burke-on-female-altar-servers/

http://www.newemangelization.com/uncategorized/cardinal-raymond-leo-burke-on-the-catholic-man-crisis-and-what-to-do-about-it/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_altar_servers

http://www.ewtn.com/library/LITURGY/AROSEBY.TXT

http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/05/20/can-women-be-deacons/

http://www.arlingtondiocese.org/newsdetails.aspx?Pageid=422&id=3780

http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/09/can-catholic-church-ordain-female.html
http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/popes-remarks-on-women-in-the-church-call-for-deeper-theology-says-expert/

https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/ByIssue/Article/TabId/735/ArtMID/13636/ArticleID/15688/Study-offers-strategies-for-increasing-vocations.aspx

http://www.onepeterfive.com/altar-girls-altar-boys-and-the-priesthood-connecting-the-dots/

Source:  cardiphonia.org

Source: cardiphonia.org

The most powerful experience of hearing a scripture reading during Mass occurred several years ago during Pentecost.

I first noticed something different when two lectors approached the front of the assembly, one to the far left, one to the far right of the front of the church. They then began the second reading, in different languages.

As the readers approached the end of the reading, their words coalesced into English as they finished – ‘the word of the Lord”.

This was liturgical theatre at its best, for never in my past, nor since, have I been so moved by a demonstration of the universality of the gospel message.  We all know of the key points behind the event:

  • It is a joy-filled and exciting time. After the initial descent of the Holy Spirit, followers gathered for fellowship with ‘glad and sincere hearts’.  The fear that overwhelmed them at the crucifixion was forever broken with the understanding that death has no victory, that Christ lives.
  • The universality of the church is demonstrated. When the apostles started speaking in ‘tongues’, they weren’t babbling nonsense – they were proclaiming the gospel using terms, language, and messages that resonated with all the major societies in ancient Judea and its enclosing Roman empire. The bystanders were amazed that the apostles were able to reach across language and culture with their message.
  • It completes the miracle of the resurrection. Up to this point, the resurrected Christ appeared to the apostles and to select believers. Everything changed after Pentecost. Our tradition teaches that the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to move out of the protection of closed, darkened rooms and into the light of the world. It was time to carry the resurrection message to all peoples – to bring Christ to the entire world – making His presence real to all who would listen to the good news of the gospel. For this reason, some refer to this feast as the birthday of the Church as we know it.

I find this is an interesting time to reflect on this feast from two perspectives.

First, I wonder what it would be like today, if we were the visiting bystanders –  if someone were to approach us, telling us to repent our sins.

It is easy to dismiss a message calling for repentance  — the caricature of doomsayers wearing sandwich-boards proclaiming the nearness of the end is fixed in many of our minds.

For the longest time, I equated repentance with sorrow, or regret for doing something wrong. But in a Biblical sense, repentance more accurately means a change of heart, a change of direction away from the behaviors that hold us back, a change towards actions that provide spiritual fulfillment in God’s presence.

When Peter led the apostles into the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the traditional Pentecost festival, he was talking to a community that in one way or another, through direct persecution or distant indifference, had set down a path away from Jesus’ message. Peter’s call to those in Jerusalem wasn’t so much about asking people to apologize as he was asking them to change the directions of their lives.

Couldn’t we use a room full of apostles in our streets today — asking us not be be sorry for doing things that are wrong, but calling us to change the direction of our lives?  Any how many of us are, in one way or another, headed in some wrong directions? How many of us have let our lives be taken over by materialism, disdain for the poor, callousness towards the immigrant, indifference towards the unborn? How many of us have have let ourselves confuse pleasure with happiness and fulfillment?

I think if many of us were to hear Peter’s call for repentance, for a change in perspective, we would quickly walk past him, only to realize that he is talking to each one of us, asking if we have just a moment to reflect, to find those parts of our lives that are headed in the wrong direction, and finally, to ask help in getting our lives back on track.

I also think about a second perspective of the Pentecost feast.

How can we, the (supposedly) faithful, continue the mission started those 50 days after the first Easter?

To me, the message is clearly about reaching people in a language and manner that speaks to those we reach out to. This calls us not only to cross boundaries of culture, language and belief, but also calls each of us to use our talents to bring the gospel to the world (even if we aren’t multilingual).

The second reading during the Pentecost Mass reminds us that we have all been given different gifts and we are called to use those gifts in service:

 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;

there are different forms of service but the same Lord;

there are different workings but the same God

who produces all of them in everyone.

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit

is given for some benefit.

 

I think we are called to continue the work of Pentecost, not only in how we proclaim the message in words, but how we give witness to the resurrection in actions that allow us to use whatever gifts we have been given.

Our church is blessed with artists, medical professionals, and engineers who can bring a new hope to those in the dark places of the world. In our midst we find persons of limitless compassion, boundless energy, and unrestrained joy. And yes, just like that Sunday when I saw lectors flanking the altar, we have people of faith on the left and right of the political/cultural spectrum.

I think we are always being called to our own Pentecost – called to use any of the talents, skills, and experiences we have been given to help make the gospel something to be experienced, something like the wind that breathed new life and energy into the apostles.

I have never seen a tongue of fire. But I do know spiritual illumination when I see it. And I see it in the faces of those too few people in our Church who take real, physical steps to minister to the poor, the elderly, and the disenfranchised. Those folks are the closest we have to today’s apostles, and we need to follow them.

It’s time for all of us to leave the closed room.

 


 

References:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/what-is-pentecost-why-does-it-matter/

http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/Pentecost.htm

http://gospeltranslations.org/wiki/Biblical_Repentance/The_Meaning_of_Repentance

1 Cor 12:4-7

 

The Emtpy Tomb

The Empty Tomb – Brother Sylvain, Taize Community

Count me among the Catholic Christians who always felt challenged by the central tenet of our faith – that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I was always able to justify many of my Catholic beliefs by focusing mostly on the Gospel message of forgiveness, love, and the truth of a God that lives forever.

But the Easter celebration, physically rising from the dead? I never said it aloud, but deep inside there was a voice that muttered ‘did that really happen?’.

To a large extent, my reservations were many of the same as those mentioned in the commentary by James Martin, SJ in the Wall Street Journal:

“Recent years have seen a tendency to water down the Resurrection. A popular tack in preaching and in contemporary books on Jesus is the ‘shared memory’ thesis. That is, the experience of the disciples after Jesus’s death was not about actual ‘appearances’ as about ‘shared memory.’”

“…In this view, the real ‘resurrection’ came after the disciples remembered and discussed what Jesus meant to them during his time on earth. Revivified by this ‘shared memory,’ the disciples were emboldened to spread the Gospel. In this way Jesus was now ‘alive’ among them. He didn’t need to rise physically from the dead; he lives in their shared memory and commitment to continue his work.”

Fr. Martin continues to explore some of the other criticisms or revisionist views of the gospel that work to erode the foundations of modern belief – that miracles really didn’t happen and, essentially, that the apostles decided to continue Christ’s work simply because He was a really nice guy.

That is the way of our times –  to use our need to understand everything by projecting alternative events that explain why people said what they said and did what they did two millennia in the past. Everything that has happened must have an explanation that can be believed.

Which leads to the question for today’s faithful wanna-bees – how can a modern person place religious faith in what seems unbelievable?

It doesn’t seem reasonable.

But it surprises some to know that the doctors of the Church and her teachings strongly argue that faith and reason are both required in response to God’s call:

  • Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 Encyclical “Faith and Reason” argues that faith without reason “runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition…. the parrhesia [confident speech] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.”
  • Thomas Aquinas saw faith and reason as two compatible disciplines – reason being what logic leads us to conclude by what we sense and experience while the object of faith is that which is absent from our understanding. Aquinas believed that reason provided our free will with a compass, a direction that leads us to faith.
  • St. Augustine also emphasized the need for reason to provide the questioning framework that leads to a closer understanding of God’s presence – he referred to reason as the ability to know and understand the true meaning of faith – you can’t have faith unless reason informs you of its meaning.

It becomes apparent that our Church wants us to think before we say we believe, otherwise our words become mere recitations.

Which brings me back to thinking about the Resurrection and what it means to me as a Catholic Christian. Fr. Martin’s posting strongly dismisses the ‘watered down’ version of the Resurrection as not being credible, given its affect on Jesus’ followers and the resulting beliefs followed by billions.

But he is a Jesuit priest and I’m a Polish guy from Buffalo. What am I to make of the Resurrection?

We live in a world that wants to dismiss anything that can’t be explained as something that didn’t happen. I need to know why I too can ignore the arguments that my faith is built on the tale-telling traditions of the era and that my Church’s success was due to some quirk of history and the fall of the Roman Empire.

My nature is to understand what I believe – what do I do with this story of an empty tomb and a Christ who rises from the dead and appears only to those who believe?

I can start with reason.

Reason tells me that what happened 2,000 years ago was far more powerful and impactful than anything that happened previously. Yes there were the practices of ‘making up’ gods and miracles – but something had to be different here. The ‘god-making’ practices of antiquity may have provided a framework of daily ritual, but none inspired, none survived, and few can think of the names of anyone who willingly gave his or her life for a Roman god.

And reason tells me that something distinctive and unique happened to the apostles, something that turned a room full of terrified men, men who had nothing to gain by carrying on Christ’s ministry (and literally everything to lose), into a team of global missionaries, most of whom gave their lives for what they believed.

Reason tells me that people don’t give up their lives for a lie; people don’t choose death to defend  ‘a good idea.’ Reason tells me that something more powerful happened there, something transformational.

Reason, the application of logic to what I know and experience, also tells me that the Resurrection continues. I myself have tried to live without belief in things unseen, only to understand that such a choice left me trying to live a life without that compass that St. Thomas talked about 800 years ago.

I have seen the miracles that happen when lives broken by alcoholism, drug abuse, loneliness any any other named infirmity are made anew when the sick turn to the Source, the one Truth, to God, for help.

Reason, the ability to use logic to explain what I have seen, experienced, and learned, tells me that faith in God’s love brings the dead back to life.

We don’t know what the apostles and the women of Jesus’ life experienced. The gospels said they saw, they heard and they touched a risen Christ. They experienced and lived through the events that will occur only once in the course of human history. Most died for what they believed in. Their examples inspired first thousands, then millions to do the same. Who are we to dismiss their witness as lies or exaggeration?

Two thousand years ago, a tomb was found empty. Terrified men and women were given courage. Gods of temples and themes were replaced by the Truth and the Way. And the law of ritual gave way to a law of service. That is what happened, that is history.

So when it comes the Easter and the Resurrection, I have reason to believe.


Sources:
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/04/18/celebrating-easter-why-a-watered-down-resurrection-doesnt-work/

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html

Auquinas 101 – A Basic Introduction fo the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Selman, Christian Classics, Notre Dame, Indiana

http://www.strangenotions.com/augustine-faith/

 

communion
So there I was, a young lad in his early teens, listening to the sermon delivered by the pastor of a suburban Buffalo Catholic Church. The Monsignor took the opportunity to rail against the trends of 1960’s era rock music, on that day taking particular aim at the Rolling Stones.

“How many of you parents know that the lyrics of one song go on to say, ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. This is what our children are hearing these days.” The sermon went on to decry such trends, and to urge all families to turn away from questionable messages of the media of the day. While he was concerned about the message being received through such lyrics, as far as I was concerned, that passage also reflected my view of the value of his homily.

The next chance I got when I was home alone, I scanned the local rock station (at that time WYSL) until I found the offending tune. Of course, I cranked it up and started doing the best air guitar that my chubby little body would allow. So there you have it, as a teenager, one of the longest lasting lessons I took from that sermon was my knowledge of who Mick Jagger was. And I confess that was the only sermon I remember from my youth.

A few years later, I struck out on my own, and while I would occasionally return to attend Mass, it was years before I became committed to finding a home parish and returned to become a ‘regular’.

I think about this because in the here and now, we are trying to increase involvement in a number of the ministries at our church. Since the best way to recruit persons is through personal, face-to-face contact, it follows that any recruitment effort is well served by getting more folks to show up at Mass.

The numbers are well understood. Regular church attendance for Christians has stabilized over the past decade around 37 percent. But the numbers are quite a bit more dismal for Catholics, with some 90 percent of Catholics admitting they don’t attend Mass regularly.

In short, as I continue my rehabilitation of faith and try to build the ministries that serve those less fortunate, I say this to all those who have left, those who remain distant, and those who find themselves indifferent to the Catholic tradition:

Please come back.

The Church has lost many ‘regulars’ – and the reasons and rationale for that exodus are beyond the scope of this brief note. And of course, I would be presumptuous to guess at the true reasons behind the personal choices involving spirituality. But I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground in saying that many people avoid regular church attendance because they don’t derive enough value from the experience – at least enough value to find time in a culture that seems intent on making  everyone do, buy, or watch something 24×7.

But regardless of age or station in life, to those who may be toying with the idea of returning, but just can’t quite bring themselves to do it, I have two suggestions.

First, do what Americans do best.

Shop around.
Catholic parishes are as diverse as the cultures of the 1.2 billion Catholics of the world. Each parishes reflects the character of its community. We are a church that currently celebrates with music and forms that characterize southeast Asia, Latin America, urban America and, of course, suburban America. It may take some time to find a new spiritual home, even the process of comparing parish communities will help open up a new perspective.

Please check your baggage at the door.
Many people have beliefs or opinions that differ from the teachings of the Church. But while there are just as many persons who think the Church is too conservative as those who think the Church too liberal, leave those obstacles at the door. The Mass is a celebration that goes to a core of our tradition – a tradition that has survived days much darker than these. We don’t attend Mass as one casts a ballot of approval. We attend Mass to try to reconnect with the source of our strength. When we leave our preconceptions and prejudices at the door we may be lucky enough to be filled with some more constructive feelings when we leave.

So with those helpful tips, let’s cut to the chase. To my fellow Catholics standing at a distance…

Please come back if you feel as if you are alone, that no one understands you, or that your life is a complete trainwreck.
I have a personal view that people truly discover their faith when confronted by some serious challenge. Once we have been around a few years, we invariably are confronted with problems that we simply can’t deal with, issues that seem to overwhelm our best efforts to stay positive and keep moving forward. As these problems persist, it is easy for some of us to descend into a dark place with no apparent way out. Worse, these can be times when we feel completely and absolutely alone.

Few problems of significance are solved instantaneously, but solutions invariably start with a choice to manage the things you do control (your personal behavior, your belief that life has meaning, your belief in things unseen) and accept that you control little else.

You may hear the story of Job who seemed to be the target of some unkind experiment. Or you may hear recountings by a people who spent a few hundred years being chased in the desert by other folks who always seemed angry with them. Chances are you may not immediately be able to connect the problems of thousands of years ago with your particular trial, but if you enter the sanctuary with an open heart, you will come away understanding three things –

  • most of us, at one time or another, have disappointed those who love us,
  • others have faced trials and tribulations that seemed insurmountable, but they were able to find the strength to see the sun rise another day, and
  • we have a God who is trying his darndest to reach each one of us through the love of those who stand ready to help us through our issues.

Please come back if you feel that all is going well and that you are on the top of your game.
With success comes a never ending string of commitments to one’s enterprise. And if one’s compass is pointed in the right direction, the successful person is also focused on investing the precious resource of time to raising and guiding his or her family.

That can leave little time to return to the Mass and the Church.

An American president recently got into trouble by telling small businessmen that they didn’t build their success on their own, and he was right. There is no debating that people need discipline, passion, and much, much hard work to be successful. But along the way, there had to be teachers, parents, relatives and mentors who chose to help the successful on their way.  Chances are that the successes of today push away the memories of yesterday’s angels — such is the nature of things.

But the investment of time of just an hour or so (35 minutes for the ‘express service’ Masses of some parishes) can go a long way in reminding us of the important sacrifices of those who came before us. And I personally have found the Prayer of the Faithful to be a meaningful reminder that there are those among us who success has eluded, those who been given a more difficult road, those who could use our help, guidance, and mentoring.

There is also one other reason why we should return to the Church as regulars, even though things are going well.

Everything is fleeting.

The Book of Ecclesiastes includes passages which, depending on how good your Hebrew is, proclaims that earthly things are little more than artifacts of vanity. Other interpretations of the writings contend that a more accurate translation infers that the things around us are fleeting and without real meaning.

It doesn’t take much reading of any business newspaper to come across stories of ‘boom-to-bust’ occurrences that can turn even the best planned organization upside-down. And even if all goes well and one’s business or finances carry the aura of success to old age, the question will still have to be asked, “what did it all mean?”.

Revisiting our faith community and attending Mass are acts that may not immediately give us the answers to all our questions; but they can help make certain we at least start asking questions about those things in life that aren’t vanity or vapor, those things in life that do have a timeless meaning.

Please come back if you feel disconnected in an always connected world.
There is a place for social networking and electronic media. These tools extend the progress initially set by Gutenberg when he found a way to rapidly produce and distribute the written word to the masses.

But church, almost by definition, is a real social experience. You turn to a real person to wish him or her the sign of peace. You hold hands with a real person during the Lord’s prayer.

Whereas conventional media connects people with a flood of messages, most of which are of little, if any depth or meaning, the Mass, celebrated by our church community, connects us to a tradition celebrated by our parents, their parents and countless generations of parents before them. The Mass connects us to more than one billion others at roughly the same time – all reflecting on the meaning of sacrifice, all praying for those less fortunate. The Mass has been celebrated by small and large groups of faithful for 2,000 years, going back to the single event held in a house in today’s Middle East, when one Jesus of Nazareth, facing execution, asked his friends to remember him by sharing a meal.

That, is a real social network.

*******

Of course, I couldn’t write this without making a few modest suggestions for our esteemed Church leaders. And as a former outsider, I do have some recommendations for our Church leadership to reach more of those folks who think the Book of Job was a movie starring Denzel Washington.

Give dogma a day off.
I won’t speak for the masses (pardon the pun), but I wonder how many people feel as I when being informed of intrinsically evil acts that I have committed in the past. Not every act I commit that is contrary to Church teaching is done out of some convenient choice of self-interest. The problem is particularly acute when a teaching (or sermon) dwells on themes that are contrary to my personal experience.

No one is positively influenced when told, “never mind what you have seen, who you love, or what you feel, this is what we teach…”  God reaches us through the human experience that channels the truth of God’s love, and that reach trumps all.

Like the family member who feels dissed when someone says something wrong during Thanksgiving dinner, when clerics and parish leaders emphatically declare who is and who is not the ‘true’ Catholic, those struggling with their faith rightfully see themselves as ‘untrue’ Catholics; they remember the slight, build the sense that they are not welcome, and leave. Some, forever.

There are times and places for the Church to exert its influence in the political and business world. There is plenty of room to proclaim dogma in religious education classes, as part of political activities, and in the media – but the weekly Mass is where we all take time to remember the ultimate sacrifice and to reflect on the words of scripture. Those elements are all that matters.

It is time to develop evangelists who can reach the working young.
Many of our young people are working in the service or retail industries – meaning their weekends are full of 10-12 work shifts with any free time being directed to sleep or socializing. These are also folks who are just starting out in figuring out this thing called life. For them, attending Mass is probably just below the need to properly launder one’s socks on the list of the week’s priorities.

There is also the issue that our Mass and Church communities center celebrations and social events around the key benchmarks of family (marriage, birth, death). I would guess that for those Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millenials who are unmarried or without children, attending church services could feel like a lonely experience. These are folks who probably need some form of re-introduction to their Church before committing to regular attendance.

This is the kind of task best accomplished through electronic media.

But since we are talking about persons who have drifted from the Church, conventional evangelical messages won’t reach most of them. Networks such as EWTN speak to a segment of Catholics who are highly reverent and positively engaged with the message of the Church. A slightly different outlet needs to be used to reach persons who need to be convinced that ours is a church designed to deal with the issues of the modern world.

Several programs on Serius XM Radio’s Catholic Channel are a bit more in tune with such an audience (though I think sometimes the producers try too hard to be funny). The iPadre site (http://www.ipadre.net/) is also an example of a strong effort along the lines of new media evangelization as is the Catholic Stuff site (http://catholicstuffpodcast.com/audio) But a basic search of ‘Catholic webcast’ shows far too many links to sites of uneven quality, few with any keywords that would draw young adults, and most with programming consisting of discussions led by priests talking about things they know best – theology.

It is time to nurture a generation of young persons who understand and who can use today’s media to deliver positive, sometimes humorous, but always inspiring messages that integrate Catholic core values towards decisions involving relationships, family, career choices, as well as with illness, addiction, and loneliness.

Such an outreach won’t turn an inked-up roadie into a member of the Knights of Columbus overnight, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to re-establish a connection between the positive, uplifting message of our Church with those whose time is dominated by messages of lesser value.

It is time for women to serve as deacons.
Some of the suggestions here require greater pastoral resources from our Church. As a man, when I sit in church listening to sermons, I admire many of the priest’s sermons for their insight into scripture and his witness when describing the Church’s work for the poor and disabled. And I am fortunate that when our deacons stand to speak, their words integrate faith with the problems of fatherhood, of parenthood, all from the perspective of a man. I smile when I hear the stories of dealing with the nuances of family, and I nod agreeably when their words resonate with my experiences as a guy.

Who can say, with a straight face, that the women among us don’t deserve the opportunity for the same type of connection with those who help lead us in worship?

The reasons for the denial of female deacons are un-changed  since the Vatican revisited the issue in the 1970’s – opponents argue that deacons are sacramentally ordained, the same privilege available to only to males as priests since Jesus selected only men as apostles. From there, the argument degenerates into a shouting match between those who cite historical precedent with those who cite Jesus’ intentions.

Maybe there is a case to be made for only male priests – but our Church desperately needs more voices speaking the gospel to the flock from the full range of human experiences – and that includes the experiences of women in ministry to the Catholic faithful.

Conclusion
As part of a church community that has ambitions and interests in delivering more services to those in need, I understand that the first major step to helping staff and support those initiatives is to fill the pews with more persons who are Catholic, but who, for any number of various reasons, never seem to remember the Mass times for the weekend.

I have been there. I know what it is like to walk away.

But despite the fact that many times I have felt like the teenager who derived little from the liturgical experience, the fact is that attending the Mass has always provided me with a touchstone, a distant flickering light if you will, that marked the way back to an experience that forces me to turn off all that is temporal, and reflect on the truly important issues in life.

I make some observations that I believe are keeping the Church from doing a better job at drawing back those who have drifted. I don’t think we want to be happy with a smaller, more ‘pure’ church at the expense of those who need her wisdom. To reach those on the sidelines, we need more people, of a wider range of experiences, to deliver the Church’s message of joy through any and all means available.

And to any out there who are waiting for the right time to return, I submit a humble invitation to rejoin a community celebration that spans a globe of continents and more than 20 centuries of time.

Please come back. You home needs you. Your home wants you.


References:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/september/back-to-church-sunday-pew-research.html
http://chnonline.org/special-sections/parenting/10172-why-wont-my-kids-go-to-church.html
http://usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-word/the-lector-at-mass.cfm
https://bible.org/seriespage/here-today-gone-tomorrow-ecclesiastes-11-11
http://americamagazine.org/issue/422/article/catholic-women-deacons

confessionI was in the seventh grade at my parochial school, attending the daily Mass that tortured us with off-key organ music while we muttered the Latin responses toward the back of the celebrant (we saw his face only during communion).

This particular day included monthly confession when we would parade up the center aisle in lines that snaked towards each side of the church towards the confessionals. We’d enter, confess our sins, and return to our seats, forgiven of the many (and there were many) transgressions committed by young boys.

On that day, as I was returning from the confessional, trying to remember if my penance was two Our Fathers and four Hail Marys, or four Our Fathers and two Hail Marys, I fell victim to the worst possible scenario that can befall a seventh grader. As I passed the girls in my class, I saw her. I’ll call her Susie-Q, and she was the most beautiful creature on earth, or at least in the town of Cheektowaga. Then it happened…. I had an impure thought.

Knowing that it was possible that an earthquake could bring the church down around me at any moment, and that I possibly had a mortal sin on my soul (I never really understood the difference between venial and mortal sins), I couldn’t take the chance of risking the eternal pain of hellfire.

So I walked passed my seat, got back in line, and re-entered the confessional.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned, my last confession was two minutes ago. This is my sin…”

I heard a sigh from the other side of the darkened screen. “Add a Hail Mary”. I remember musing that price didn’t seem too steep.

It’s Lent, the season that is dominated by a sense of repentance, renewal, and anticipation of the resurrection that for all Christians demonstrates the victory of Christ’s love and sacrifice over death.

It’s also my favorite time of year, in no small part, due to the fact that I make a point of confessing my sins in hope of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation.

I went many, many years without going to confession, falling back on the same old excuses that many Catholics use, most of which involve a presumption that private confessions to God are sufficient, and other less honorable excuses that questioned the moral high ground of a clergy under scrutiny.

But I knew I was kidding myself. I knew that I was just plain lazy – too lazy to find the time, too lazy to think about my shortcomings, too lazy to exercise a modest expression of humility, and too lazy to even consider the consequences of my lethargy.

But that all changed a couple of years ago when I attended a retreat that offered me the opportunity for Reconciliation. I promptly got into line, even though Susie-Q was nowhere to be seen. I don’t exactly know why I paraded towards the confession area – but I understood, believed, and prayed that confessing my shortcomings was the good and right thing to do.

And I know I made the right choice.

Let’s consider some points about confession that I hope will be of value to my friends of all stages in their spiritual journey:

  • what is confession/reconciliation
  • isn’t talking to God good enough?
  • what right does a priest have to forgive my sins?

The Basics.
First of all, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (or Confession) is one of seven sacraments which, by Catholic definition, are signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church. They are celebrated through liturgical rituals which, by the nature of their physicality, are believed to be most effective at imparting grace on the faithful. Sacraments are generally attached to the important stages of Christian life, with Reconciliation being one of the sacraments of healing.

Reconciliation itself involves three phases: the penitent must first accept true contrition or repentance (be really sorry for messing up). Secondly, there must be a disclosure of the sins committed – or confession. And finally, there must be an act of penance, or some deed to acknowledge the debt owed by one’s transgressions.

With the basics covered, why do it?

Isn’t talking to God good enough?
Generally speaking, I will always try to behave and act as my Church teaches. But after an initial ‘trial’ period, I find that I can sustain those behaviors only if my experience confirms the wisdom of that choice. In other words, if my experiences don’t line up with Church teaching, the lesson is at risk.

And while (God knows) I have had difficulties with a good deal of Vatican dogma, the teachings involving the importance of the sacraments, and Reconciliation in particular, were never in question for me.

I recently attended a funeral service for a co-worker, and recounted to one of my friends that I was Catholic – the discussion turned to Confession/Reconciliation.

“There is no way I would ever sit down to tell a man my personal failings, that’s between me and God alone,” she said.

Since it wasn’t the time or place to engage in any strident defense of the faith, I simply smiled and replied, “It isn’t really like that, you know.”

But I suspect that her opposition to the practice of recounting one’s failings to another is the linchpin of much of the avowed resistance to confession. “Talking to God is good enough” goes the argument.

The only way ‘talking to God is good enough’ is if my sins were only something I talked about – but my transgressions are most often directed at other people, what I say to them, or about them, how I short-change them in deed or show a lack of charity, how I use their shortcomings to advance my status, career, or own sense of ego. These sins offend God, but they first and foremost were directed at other people.

Our friends from the Jewish tradition practice a similar ritual, the Viduy Confession prayers, as described by torah.org:

“It [confession] is an amazing test of character that a person openly acknowledges his shortcomings…Confession is so pivotal, on a simple level, because it forces a man to confront the essence of his humanity.”

There is something about verbalizing, saying out loud, our shortcomings that far outweighs any half-hearted executive summary of wrong-doings that never make it beyond our thoughts. When we have to say something out loud, the experience becomes that ‘test of character’ in which we bring our wrongdoings out into the light of day. And it makes perfect sense to admit our flaws before a real live human being, just as most of our sins inflict pain on the real live human beings around us.

Why does a priest have to forgive my sins?
He doesn’t. Only God does any forgiving.

Catholics believe that Jesus allowed that authority of forgiveness to pass on to his apostles through our interpretation of Matthew 16:19, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, and Jesus’ words to the apostles on Easter night: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” (Jn 20:19-23). The priest acts as a representative, an agent holding the authority to act as the apostles and to pass on forgiveness and reconcile the truly penitent to the church.

That’s the theological rationale. But since I’m not a theologian, I sometimes have to rely on a more worldly rationale.

As I mentioned before, there is something palpable in saying you’re sorry to another person. Our faith teaches us that all sins can be forgiven – but the sacrament of Reconciliation requires me to be truly sorry.

Sure, I can whisper to God that I’m sorry for messing up, and God will hear my whisper. But shouldn’t I be as public and personal in contrition as I was when I chose to sin?

(If you think confessing to a priest is awkward now, back in the days of the early Church, depending on the nature of the sin, the penitent could be required to admit their transgression before a panel of bishops. Penance could include a denial of all sacraments until absolution, which may be granted after a period of years. Some liturgies required sinners to gather together in groups that were organized according to their stage of penance completion. Ah, the good old days.)

For my part, asking forgiveness before the physical presence of one who represents Christ’s nature to heal is an act that reminds me of the true nature of sin and Reconciliation.

I do things that are wrong. I hurt people by what I say, think, and do. These sins move me away from God’s Truth. The least I can do is admit my failures, and look a priest in they eye to say “I’m sorry. I will do better next time”. My faith will take care of the rest.


References:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt2sect2chpt2.shtml

Sacraments of the Catholic Church: http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/sacrament.php

Background of the Torah – http://www.torah.org/learning/livinglaw/5768/yomkippur.html?print=1#

EWTN page on confession: http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/confession_of_sin_to_a_priest.htm

Notes on confession in the early Church: http://www.saintjamesrcc.org/faith-and-devotions/sacraments/penance/item/public-penance-in-the-early-church