Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.
For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?
I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.
Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!
Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).
Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”
During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.
Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined
At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.
The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.
I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.
This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!
As the summit on sexual abuse begins in Rome, the prelates of the Latin Rite of the Church are reading from the Book of Proverbs in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Some of the proverbs listed in today’s reading are particularly appropriate to the task at hand.
He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).
There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are often labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is stark evidence of this.
The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.
We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, books, the news media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.
God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.
It seems obvious that the failure to correct sin in others and the downplaying of sin are at the heart of this crisis. We pray for our Church leaders to clearly and confidently proclaim God’s law and to courageously correct and reprove error.
A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).
Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal it with euphemistic or deceptive phrases such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.
Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of eternal life despite difficulties in this world.
We pray that the clergy and leaders of the Church will be like a fountain of truth and justice. Sadly, too many pulpits have been silent; teaching on many critical moral issues has been lacking or even erroneous. Many prefer to speak of tolerance and love in vague and unmoored ways. Tolerance and love have their place, but only in the context of truth and concern for the ultimate good of souls (not necessarily their present comfort).
Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).
In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost ever-present temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost.
Our age is one of easy access to various media (e.g., movies, television, books, news, music), and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues.
Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their criticism to what is truly helpful unto conversion.
The Pope has warned in this crisis of the need for care in how we speak to it. On the one hand, there has been too much silence and the faithful are rightly finding their voices. However, all of us must restrain the impulse to speak with invective, undue anger, and cynicism; these can generate more heat than light. Many criticisms of the hierarchy are rightly deserved, but we should not fail to praise what is good, to pray for a miraculous conversion, and to assist in crafting solutions that will restore holiness to the Church.
Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).
Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. Fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated—in books, movies, and on television.
It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use to solve problems.
Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.
As the prelates gather in Rome, we must recall that we are dealing with a cultural issue, not just a Church issue. Our whole culture has turned foolishness into entertainment and proposes we not take grave error seriously. We pray that Church leaders will realize anew our obligation to return to the font of God’s wisdom as the source of truth. Pleasing the world by conformity to its language and narrative is neither our role nor our goal. Proclaiming God’s truth is our purpose and our mandate.
When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).
The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.
The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and reject Church teaching. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.
Though the Lord permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.
As the bishops gather, we pray that they will see the need to purge evil from the Church, to resist the pressure to succumb to the spirit of the age. Pray that they recall we will ultimately win only with loyalty to Christ Jesus. Persecution is not the worst thing in life; compromise with the world and dying in our sins is. The victory is in the Lord Jesus, who was crucified to this world, rose gloriously, and is reigning over a Kingdom that is established forever.
These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our bishops as they gather. Please pray for them all.
As I write this, it is mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Like each season, winter has its time, its three months. To many of us, there seems to be a metaphorical winter in the Church and in our culture, one that has lasted for years.
Those of us who are older probably remember a time when Masses were crowded. The church parking lots were packed full, and if you didn’t arrive early enough you often had to park elsewhere and then stand during Mass. Catholic Schools had long waiting lists, and parents made sure to put their children on the list long before they reached school age. If you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, however, weekly Mass attendance by Catholics began to drop. According to some polls, nearly 80 percent of Catholics were regular attendees in the mid-fifties; today, that figure has dropped to as low as 20 percent (depending on the polling methodology). Open dissent from Church teaching grew among the faithful and the clergy, especially after Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which re-affirmed the rejection of artificial contraception. The autumn of our discontent and the “falling leaves” of defection of clergy and religious sisters from their vows and the faithful from their pews ushered in a long winter from which we have yet to emerge. Added to this are scandals of the worst kind, rooted in a loss of faith by the very ones sent to prophetically announce that faith. Corruptio optimi pessima!
What is evident in the Church is even more apparent in our culture. The West, which was once called Christendom, has descended into a cold and fierce secularism. The darkness and moral confusion grow deeper; opposition to once-widely-held moral norms is outright celebrated. Artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual acts, euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide, and many other things we once considered shameful are now promoted and called “rights.” Our culture has become crass, coarse, and angry.
Yes, it is the depths of winter in the Church and in our culture. Jesus once said, False prophets will arise and mislead many. Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:11-12).
Where is the plentiful catch of fish, the abundant harvest of which Jesus often spoke? What are we to do in this long winter when little seems to grow?
Perhaps the first step is to realize that there are seasons through which the Church must pass and that one day the seasons will change. Even in winter, farmers work to prepare for the next harvest. What does this mean for us? St. Paul wrote this to Timothy regarding the seasons:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So, they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-4).
Therefore, even in winter we must still work for that which will bring in the harvest when winter has passed. We are to preach and live the Word in season and out of season, whether popular or unpopular. We are to pray, to prune, and to accept pruning ourselves.
Back in November as climatic winter approached, I pruned my roses and crape myrtles. Pruning cuts away what is excessive and no longer fruitful in order to encourage future growth. Soon enough the warmth of spring will come; tender shoots will appear and then leaves and flowers. Similarly, the Church must prune and be pruned. The pruning has been severe and evidently quite necessary; much that was unhealthy is being cut away.
Even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “The harvest is plentiful,” but that doesn’t mean that the harvest is necessarily right now.
The bottom line is this: just do your work. Keep living the faith, passing it on to your children, and insisting on what is true. Obey what the Lord commands and know that the harvest He announced will be brought in someday. Yes, the harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Scripture says,
Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. They go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown. But they will surely return with rejoicing carrying the harvest of grain (Psalm 126:5-6).
Although it is winter, continue to do your work. We may not live to see the harvest for which we prepare, but others surely will. Jesus says,
Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).
I have reaped harvests that others have sown. When someone comes to confession after forty years away, I reap the harvest that others prepared—planting, watering, and fertilizing. I, too, will prepare so that others after may harvest.
Whatever the season, do your work. It will bear fruit in due time.
It is hard to describe 2018 as anything short of a disaster for the Church, both in the United States and around the world. I will not recite every gory detail here but suffice it to say that this year will go down in history for its high-stakes drama and the discouragement that ensued among both clergy and the faithful.
Can anything good possibly come from 2018? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Though I am a known critic of many of the events of the past year, I would like to point out some positive effects that have occurred. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.
The laity has found its collective voice.
Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a priest or bishop. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior by a clergyman, mentioning it was verboten. There was a kind of excessive deference to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.
Though this began changing in the 1970s and ’80s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.
Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.
While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful people are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.
The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.
Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.
Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.
Clergy are more likely to correct one another and speak more honestly to their bishop.
Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.
We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.
This recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to become more willing to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop. This is not obsequiousness and fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.
We have learned the price of silence and compromise.
The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained far too silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children are now raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually-transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits on these matters is deafening.
In 1968 many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stepped away from any teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized and controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.
We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.
It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.
Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.
The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it out into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts, here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is going to be necessary for any credible solution.
Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself recently raised these concerns. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.
The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!
We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent children and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.
Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.
Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.
There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.
The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.
Here, then, are some positive outcomes, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to a perhaps-equally-undesirable extreme. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:
A laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops.
Bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking.
Neglecting mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin.
Forgetting that 20 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy have been female.
Demonizing sexual attraction such that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be criminalized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.
Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may come of the crises of 2018.
As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.
A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.
As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.
This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.
This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.
The Protestant Experience:
There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.
However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.
In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.
As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].
The Catholic experience:
The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.
Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.
The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.
That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.
Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.
The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.
There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.
In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.
If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.
What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”
Fortuitously, the first reading for this Monday, which is the day that the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Baltimore begins, speaks to the qualifications of a bishop. The full reading from Titus is as follows:
Paul, a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ for the sake of the faith of God’s chosen ones and the recognition of religious truth, in the hope of eternal life that God, who does not lie, promised before time began, who indeed at the proper time revealed his word in the proclamation with which I was entrusted by the command of God our savior, to Titus, my true child in our common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior. For this reason, I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents (Titus 1:1-9).
From this passage, note the following qualities of a good bishop:
The Bishop is Submitted and Sent. St. Paul writes to Titus, Paul, a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ …
In this matter St. Paul reflects on his own relationship to Christ, but because he is of the rank of bishop, his reflections apply to bishops whom he will soon describe. Paul sees his rank as that of a slave. He is not his own man; he belongs to God and is under His authority. Paul is accountable to the Lord. In our current crisis, many wonder to whom the bishops are accountable. Juridically, bishops are not accountable to one another but to the Pope. However, even if they never answer to the Pope, thy will one day have to answer to Christ!
St. Paul speaks of himself as a slave to Christ. Some may wince at the use of the term slave, but we who are in Holy Orders at any level are indeed slaves to Jesus. We are taken up by Him in Holy Orders as He wills, not as we will. When we lay down upon the cathedral floor, we gave our whole lives to Christ and said, “If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me!” Yes, we are slaves of Christ, and He will use us as He sees fit.
St. Paul also says here that he is an apostle. That is, he is sent, commissioned by Christ, to whom he owes his first allegiance. No priest or bishop can have an authority above Christ or in place of His. The Church is Jesus’ bride; the people are His. Bishops are “slaves” to whom He entrusts oversight—an oversight for which they will have to account.
The Bishop should be Saving and Strong.The text says that bishops should teach … for the sake of the faith of God’s chosen ones and the recognition of religious truth, in the hope of eternal life …
The bishop ministers for the sake (i.e. the salvation) of God’s chosen ones through his proclamation of the faith. He is called to instill the faith by the grace of God, a faith that saves not just pleases. The word translated here as “religious” is εὐσέβεια (eusebeia) and refers to a faith that is pious, godly, or devoted. Hence, the bishop’s role is to keep God’s faithful in a close, pious, and devoted relationship with God through the proclamation of the truth of the gospel.
The bishop must also, by this proclamation, instill hope. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Hence, the bishop is courageous and summons others to courage and to the confident expectation of God’s help.
Too many bishops and priests today fall short when it comes to proclaiming he gospel courageously. They avoid subjects that they think are “too hard” for God’s people. Many seldom preach about or teach of sacrifice. Long gone are any real demands from the pulpit for things such as fasting or turning away from sin to live a life of virtue and obedience to Christ even at high cost. But hope is the confident expectation of God’s help. A bishop should confidently and courageously summon God’s people to walk in the truth!
The Bishop should be Steady in Speaking. The text says, … that God, who does not lie, promised before time began, who indeed at the proper time revealed his word in the proclamation with which I was entrusted by the command of God our savior …
The bishop has been entrusted with God’s word, which he is to speak. This is not something to be used simply to further his own projects; it is the word of truth from God, who cannot lie.
It is God’s “revealed” word, meaning that it is unveiled and should not be treated as strange, remote, or unfathomable. It is plainly disclosed and should be plainly spoken.
Finally, the word is “entrusted by the command of God.” Thus, the bishop is under command to preach and teach the word entrusted to him. As St. Paul says elsewhere, For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)
The Bishop should Stabilize and Secure. The text says, … to Titus, my true child in our common faith …. For this reason, I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town …
A bishop must put in order the local Church that has been entrusted to him. Even if elements of the truth are already present, there must be a purifying of that Church so that it is more complete in the truth and the virtues and so that there is order, that things are “set right” and improved upon.
A bishop is also to appoint priests in every town to help him to keep order, to teach and insist on what is right. As St. Paul says elsewhere: But let everything be done in a fitting and orderly way (1 Cor 14:40).
The Bishop must be Steadfast in Sanctity.The text says, For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled …
I think this list speaks for itself. I will not add to it except to say that that the bishop and his priests and deacons should themselves be chaste and insist that others be chaste as well. It seems that in our times this must be specifically stated, for there has been too much unchastity among the clergy and it has been knowingly been tolerated.
The Bishop must be Sound and Sure. The text says, … holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents.
A bishop must not only hold and teach the faith, he must refute opponents and dissenters. There is far too little of this today among bishops and priests. Too often, even if they are personally orthodox, they stand by silently while wolves confuse the faithful, deceiving them and leading them astray.
St. Gregory the Great lamented that too many of his priest were “dumb dogs” who would not bark, who would not drive away the wolves and warn the faithful. Too rare today are bishops who will rebuke dissenters and deceivers. Too often dissenters, deceivers, and liars are allowed easy access to the faithful. Our universities teem with false notions; often the truth itself is banished. Parishes are permitted to stray seriously from Catholic norms on laity and Catholic teachings on morality.
Bishops must get back into the business of refuting error and refusing to allow access to the faithful to those who would deceive them. He must refute with sound doctrine not merely with his own opinion. He must protect his flock from the wolves in sheep’s clothing, with their pernicious errors rooted in presumption and false tolerance.
Here, then, is just a brief commentary. As our bishops gather in Baltimore, please pray for them and for all the clergy of the Church!
There is a notion that ushering in reform or change requires large numbers, majority percentages, and the like, but a passage from the First Book of Maccabees reminds us that Heaven’s math is not always ours:
But Judas said: “It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness, they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; so do not be afraid of them.” When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly upon Seron and his army, who were crushed before him. (1 Mac 3:20-24)
Intensity, dedication, perseverance, and fortitude often win the day even when sheer numbers are lacking. Water spread over a large area quickly becomes a stagnant pond but focused in a narrow channel it can be a mighty stream.
Another well-known story is that of Gideon, whose army of 30,000 was outnumbered two to one. Despite this, God told him his army was too large! He instructed Gideon to dismiss the cowards, those who did not feel up to the battle—20,000 left. God said that 10,000 was still too many soldiers and told Gideon to keep pruning. Eventually, the army was reduced to a mere 300 men. Those 300 defeated an army of 60,000; they won the day because God was with them.
In the Church, reform often comes quietly at first, through individuals who gather a small colony of Heaven about them by God’s grace. As the Church was exposed to the corrupting influences of the world, monks fled to the desert, and others joined them. Monasticism grew like embers in a darkening world. At other times of darkness and uncertainty in the Church, individuals like St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross appeared, as if out of nowhere, and small colonies of Heaven grew up about them.
In times like these, remember the mathematics of Heaven, which often uses remnants and tiny mustard seeds to accomplish its purposes. We may have grandiose visions of how God should fix the Church and may want God to bless the things we are doing to try to fix it, but another approach is to find out what God is blessing and then do that. It could be things as simple and old fashioned as getting married, staying married, having many children, and raising them well. It could be Eucharistic adoration, fasting, praying the rosary, teaching the faith, and fighting the battles right in front of us, just as Judas Maccabeus, Gideon, Catherine, and others did.
God has a plan to restore His Church in times like these. Is there perhaps a Catherine, Francis, or Teresa walking in our midst even now? Meanwhile, God reminds us to walk humbly with Him, live the faith, and tend the vineyard He has given us. Perhaps these are small things, but with God small things can bring about great ones.
St. Augustine wrote,
Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing, But to be faithful in a little thing, is a great thing.
The week in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours we are reading from the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both these prophets wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C. and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have, and other calamities.
Zechariah, who wrote in the autumn of 520 B.C., also expresses concern for the poor state of the Temple and ties its rebuilding to future blessings, including the coming of the Messiah. Later in the week, we will examine Zechariah’s writing.
In today’s post we look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:
This is what the LORD of Hosts says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” Then the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Now this is what the LORD of Hosts says: “Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.” You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the LORD of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house (Haggai, 1:2ff).
God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities!
Churches are also meant to remind us of Heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained glass) walls because Heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in Heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing/kneeling appropriately, and singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible. (I have written more on this topic here and here.)
Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.
God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.
The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than Heaven. (N.B. Some more recently built churches are returning to more traditional forms, but the reform has been slow).
Another problem was/is the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of Heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.
Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat, or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessing point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.
Enough said for now. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”
Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because he needs them but because we do.