When going to Church hurts

After Mass a few weeks ago, I encountered a parishioner who was feeling very hurt by the Church and specifically, a comment that made her feel unwelcome in the parish.

Her story made me recall many years ago when I was starting my career as a high school teacher.  I attended a small parish in the town where I was living and teaching. I was one of the few African Americans living in the town and it seemed like I was one of the only African American Catholics for hundreds of miles. Having said that, I never felt entirely welcome in the parish. I thought I was a fairly active member of the parish (Knights of Columbus and lector ministries were my favorites). Nonetheless, I often wondered if the pastor considered me a joy or an intrusion in his little church.

On leave – Not missing in action!

As a teacher, I often spent my summers traveling, visiting family and teaching at a summer program in another part of the country. So, though I attended Mass faithfully during the summer months, I rarely attended Mass in my parish of registration. Furthermore, I would inform the parish secretary of this each June and ask her not to schedule me as a lector until I returned in September. Year after year, she would accommodate my request in the spring and welcome me back to town warmly in the fall.

Well, one fall, I returned and was told that I would have to talk to the pastor in order to get back into the lector ministry. When I approached Father, he chastised me for my “sparse attendance at Mass.” Furthermore, he told me that I had no business on the altar if I did not bother to come to Mass regularly.

Judge not

Needless to say I was livid! Once I explained my circumstances, I think he understood and almost apologized. But, I was livid still. I told him, “What if I were sick, or lost my job and couldn’t come to church? Worse yet, what if I had actually lost faith as you suspected and did not find Mass important? As a pastor, couldn’t you have made a phone call before you removed me from the lector schedule?!”

Almost a lost sheep

I walked out and vowed never to return to that parish. Every Sunday, I drove an extra 15 miles to the next Catholic Church until I moved back to Washington a year later.  Furthermore, that is certainly not the only time in my life I have been hurt by the Church.

Now that I am older, wiser and more grounded in my faith, I wonder how many others have walked away not just from a parish but from the entire Catholic Church because of a negative experience such as the one I described. On the other end of the spectrum, I wonder about those who have experienced far worse than a judgmental pastor and how impossible healing may seem to some of them.

A step toward healing

Consider the following poem that was given to me a few years ago after a hurtful experience with our beloved Church. What do you think about it?

How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!

You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.

You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.

Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face—and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too — where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.

And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough, I know better.”

– Carlo Carretto

“Spiritual Cross Training”

Recently, I had invited a friend of mine who had fallen away from the Church to come to Mass. It was probably the first time he had been to Mass in three or four years. After Mass, he said to me, “I probably won’t come back – This did nothing for me.”

I am out of shape – It takes time to get back into shape

As it turns out, this friend and I are training together for a 5K race in July. We have been diligent about keeping a workout schedule and holding each other accountable. When he said that church does nothing from him I helped him to recall the beginning of our training a few weeks prior. I said, “Neither of us had run a yard in 10 years. What if we tried to run 3 miles in 24 minutes, failed miserably and then concluded ‘running does nothing for me?’” Really, if I haven’t run in years, how can I expect to be able to benefit from the sport in the first workout?  Can I run around my neighborhood for five minutes and get on a scale and lament – “I haven’t lost any weight yet!”?

Spiritual Workout

The practice of our faith is a spiritual workout.  If you only go to church on Easter and Christmas, how could you possibly expect to be in good spiritual shape?  If you don’t make prayer a habit, how can you expect to benefit from the exercise?

I have NEVER in my life run a 5K race. I thought it was out of my reach. But, by running only a mile for the first week, then a mile and a quarter the next and so on, I slowly learned that completing a 5K is attainable. On occasion, I dare think that perhaps a marathon is somewhere in my future.

Even a marathon starts with a small step

For those who have fallen away from the Church, I imagining returning to spiritual shape is a similar process. I image that for some, the process of turning one’s life over to Christ is a process that starts with one mile, then a mile and a quarter and so on……

I am still working on my friend. I would love to hear how some of you are working to get some of our brothers and sisters back into spiritual shape.

We don’t teach them because THEY are Catholic; we teach them because WE are!

“We don’t teach them because THEY are Catholic; we teach them because WE are!” I have heard this quote attributed to the former Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey. Apparently, this was the Cardinal’s response to a question of why Catholics should support a Catholic school that doesn’t have many Catholics among its student body.

Building up the Body of Christ

I think of the wisdom of Cardinal Hickey often in my ministry and his quote came to mind last week during a school Mass. Specifically, during communion, a guest in attendance noticed that several students did not approach the altar to receive the Eucharist. In fact, during communion, it is easy to observe that less than 30% of my students are Catholic. After the Mass, this person commented sarcastically saying, “I thought this was a Catholic School? Frankly, it doesn’t look too Catholic to me!”

Real Catholic Identity

I find myself often defending the Catholic identity of my school based on the percentage of Catholics enrolled.  In my particular case, how does a 182 year old school, owned by a rather traditional community of habited sisters, run by a permanent deacon and that has well-attended school Masses (even when they are optional), not seem Catholic? My verbal response to this comment was more measured than my actual emotions but, I said, “I just preached to hundreds of non-Catholics about the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our salvation. Where else does another Catholic priest, deacon or even a bishop get that opportunity?”

Go forth and teach the nations!

In the great commission, Jesus instructs us to “Go forth and teach the nations!” (Matthew 28;19-20). Non-Catholics are always invited to share our faith and can prayerfully participate in Mass without receiving communion. However, I suspect that this happens most often in an inner-city Catholic school. Now, does that mean all of my students convert to Catholicism prior to graduation? Certainly not. But, I do believe that anyone exposed to the truth will eventually be attracted to it. And, as Catholics, exposing the world to the truth of our faith is our  job!

Check out this wonderful article about 19 Baptisms in a Washington, DC Catholic Parish School.  St. Augustine’s  Catholic School – Way to go!!!


Stand in the hallway– Then thank a priest.

Brothers and sisters, as a high school principal I can easily get discouraged. Because I am one of the few people in the building that knows everything that went wrong on a given day, I often end my day feeling that the whole school is falling apart and that it is my fault.  When I feel this way, I have a remedy that was suggested to me by a colleague early in my career as an administrator – Stand in the hall while classes are changing.

Standing in the hallway.

When I stand in the hall I quickly discover that most of the kids are indeed in uniform, most of the teachers are happy and fulfilled in their ministries and most of my parents do not in fact hate me. Standing in the hall, I appreciate the fact that while one of my 300 students may be falling short, the other 299 are doing just fine. This simple exercise is a reminder that my God cares for me and that His Holy Spirit is there to guide me. In other words, if I step back from my problems through prayer, I discover that all is well with my school.

Christ and His Church prevails

Monday night, I had an opportunity to “Stand in the hallway” with regards to our church. Specifically, I had the privilege of serving as a deacon at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Chrism Mass. This is a Mass celebrated during Holy Week by the Bishop of every diocese in the world. It is also one of those rare occasions when virtually every priest in Archdiocese surrounds our Archbishop on the altar during Mass. It is a celebration of the priesthood and a celebration of the men who have answered the call to serve God in this very special way.

At a time when our Holy Father seems to be under scrutiny and attack; At time when our values as Catholics are assaulted as marriage is being legally undermined and; At a time when our commitment to protect the unborn is ridiculed, we need to “stand in the hallway.”

In awe of the priesthood

Brothers and sisters, I stood on the altar of the Cathedral of Saint Matthew with my brother deacons and each one of us was in awe. The sight of six bishops – the literal successors of the Apostles – surrounded by hundreds of priests while a Cathedral full of seminarians, men and women in consecrated life and the lay faithful looked on was simply overwhelming. If for a moment I may have been discouraged by the recent attacks on my faith, the Chrism Mass was my opportunity to “Stand in the hallway” of my Church.

Thank a priest!

Brothers and sisters, there are very good men in the priesthood. Like any other group of humans, some are not living up to their calling from God. But, the vast majority are! And, if the media and those with political agendas try to tell you otherwise, find a way to spiritually “stand in the hallway.” When you do, I trust you will find that we are indeed the Church that Christ built on the Rock of Peter!

Thank a priest today for his service to us and to Our Risen Lord!

Here is a link to more information about Chrism Masses in the Catholic Church:


The ultimate gold medal

Now that’s a Gold Medal!

My wife has a wonderful devotion to the Blessed Virgin. As a convert to the faith, she often credits the Mother of God with drawing her closer to her Son, Jesus Christ. As part of her devotion, she almost always wears a Miraculous Medal given to her as a gift when she was received into the Catholic Church. For Lent, she asked me to say the prayer on the Medal daily and to think of her while I pray it.

I am victorious!

As we were watching the Olympics recently, we enjoyed witnessing the joy on an athlete’s face when they put the medal around their necks symbolizing their respective victories.

Brothers and sisters, Our Lady’s Miraculous Medal symbolizes victory as well. It symbolizes a victory over sin and death. And unlike an Olympic medal, it is available to anyone who seeks victory over death through Jesus Christ. Also, unlike Olympic medals, the glory of this victory will never fade but only increase. If you have one, put it on. If not, buy one. Few things say, “I believe in Christ!” like a Miraculous Medal.

Take your place on the medal stand!

Let God and your faith in His Only Son, Jesus Christ, put you on the platform and place the ultimate gold medal around your neck!

“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

Thank God it’s Friday (even during Lent)

What’s for dinner?

I know I am not the only one who does this – When I got home yesterday (Friday), I realized that I had only meat in the refrigerator for dinner. So, I traipsed out to the grocery store to buy some fish.  In the express line, I noticed that the person in front of me had fish and a few spices. The person in front of him had fish and a few other items. I, of course, was purchasing the same thing.

It is like Christmas Eve – just not as expensive

When I got to cashier, she asked me, “What’s with the fish? Everyone is buying up fish like it is on super sale.” I responded, “Everyone is buying up fish because it is a Friday during Lent.” After I explained our Catholic tradition some more, she then said, “So, it is kind of like Christmas Eve at the Mall, just not as expensive.”
I have to admit that this was probably the first time I linked Lent to Christmas Eve. And I had to really ponder how this cashier came to that connection. What does grocery shopping during Lent have to do with last minute Christmas gifts?

I think perhaps in the simple act of buying fish, my fellow Christians and I were participating in a public display of our faith. The only difference is that unlike Christmas, the TV news did not have a reporter on the scene to interview last minute grocery costumers. Can you imagine a reporter asking, “Do you always wait until Friday evening to buy your fish for dinner?”

Hey everyone – I am a proud Catholic!

Brothers and sisters, Lent can be a great evangelization tool. My wife mentioned that at a lunch meeting yesterday, in the midst of a buffet of beef and chicken, the only acceptable food for her was a tuna sandwich. It was quickly surmised that everyone who chose this relatively bland meal was a practicing Catholic. And in a very subtle way, those Catholics were evangelizing their faith.

Enjoy your last minute shopping

I love Lent because it allows us to celebrate Catholic traditions such as fasting and abstinence without the secularization that encroaches on Christmas and Easter. I hope you had a wonderful dinner last night.   And, I suggest that you wait until Friday evening to do your grocery shopping. Happy Lent!

I am not’giving up’anything for Lent.

Lent is rightfully associated with sacrifice and self-denial. It is intended to remind us of the sacrifice Christ made for us and for our sins. It is a time for us as Christians to repent and reconcile ourselves with God. Part of that tradition is to deny ourselves a convenience or two in the hope of growing closer to God.

What are you ‘giving up’ for Lent?

I will do exactly that for the next few weeks. However, when someone asks, “What are you giving up for lent?” I proudly respond – “Nothing! I am letting go of a thing or two but, I am not giving up anything. Rather, I am gaining faith and growing closer to God!”

Gaining spiritual fulfillment

The point of letting go of a favorite food, hobby or other material indulgence is to remind us that we can be plenty happy without those things. Letting go of such things leaves room for spiritual fulfillment. And spiritual fulfillment can be much longer lasting.

When I eliminate watching TV during dinner (my personal Lenten ‘sacrifice’), I gain the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with my wife. And such a conversation is spiritually fulfilling. When I let go of a favorite dessert, I gain an appetite for something healthy. When I let go of almost any extraneous material desire, the void is filled with a greater love for Christ.

Letting go

Lent is a wonderful time of the year. I don’t have to “give up” a thing. Rather, I “let go” of some things and what I gain in return is a Divine bargain. I would love to hear what you are “letting go” and what you hope to gain in return. Happy Lent everyone!

It’s Catholic Schools Week – and I’ve got stress

As Catholic Schools Week comes to a snowy end, I’ve got stress! Brothers and sisters, I work at a school whose original mission in 1828 was to “Teach the children of slaves to read the Bible.” Clearly, the foundress of my school, Mother Mary Lange, OSP, saw a dire need for ministry to the neglected and used the concept of a Catholic education to address that need. Despite the reality that her ministry was against the law in the slave state of Maryland and that most of her students could not really afford the tuition (approximately $1.00 per year) I now have a job because of her efforts.

Many still cannot afford Catholic Schools

In studying the story of the foundress of St. Frances Academy and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, I find myself under a bit of stress. On a positive note, I am convinced that my faculty and staff, as well as the faculties and staffs of others urban schools like mine, have matched the resolve of 1828 in ensuring that a Catholic education is available to those who might not otherwise get one. On the other hand, I have got stress because Mother Lange depended on the generosity of others to fulfill her mission. She depended on clergy, religious congregations and parishes for money and at times, a place to live and teach. I’ve got stress because I wonder if that support is waning.

My brother’s keeper

As the principal of urban high school, I have countless stories of generosity with regards to my school.  Nonetheless, not everyone understands their responsibility to support Catholic education.  For example, as the elementary school at my parish in Hyattsville began to experience financial challenges, I heard more than few parishioners comment, “I don’t have a child there. I want my money to go to the Church.” My response was that if your money goes to a Catholic school, it is going to the Church! More specifically, it is going to the Church’s future.

One Body, One Church:

Many of the benefactors of my school are alumni but many others did not graduate from Saint Frances. They may have graduated from another Catholic school and now want to help a new and different generation build their faith. Some did not go to Catholic school at all but want to make sure this generation has the choice. A few are not even Catholic but simply recognize that Catholic schools make our community a better place.

I have never been incarcerated, but I fully support prison ministry. I have never directly experienced a crisis pregnancy but I support Catholic pregnancy centers. Just because I don’t have a child in my parish or regional school doesn’t mean that it is not a vital ministry in our Church.

Catholic School Graduates, Step Up!

My challenge to you, especially if you benefited from a Catholic education, is that if you have not contributed to a Catholic school, consider a gift. It doesn’t have to be a gift to the one you attended. The one you attended may be relatively wealthy so, find on that isn’t.  Any Catholic school that needs your help will do. Remember, all of us benefit from Catholic schools, even if you never set foot in one.