Your Life is Not About You, As Illustrated in a Biblical Story

The Acts of the Apostles sets forth an event that amounts to a tale of one Church in two cities or regions. It illustrates well a couple of points: that the Church is always in need of reform and that our lives are not merely about us and what we want. Let’s look at the event in two scenes.

Scene 1: The Church in Jerusalem –

There broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him.
Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment
. (Acts 8:1-4)

Up until now the Church in Jerusalem has experienced steady growth. To be sure there has been some persecution, but mainly of Peter, John and the other apostles. A passage from earlier in Acts describes a kind of springtime for the Church in Jerusalem following Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. A sense of awe came over everyone, and the apostles performed many wonders and signs. …With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts…sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

And yet, just at this moment of growth the Lord permits a persecution that, in many ways devastates the young community. There is the first martyrdom, a widespread arrest of Christians (led by Saul) and a scattering of “all” the community. A worldly perspective may ask, “Why O Lord?! This is bad timing. The Church was just getting her feet on the ground in Jerusalem and you have permitted her to be all but destroyed!”

Yes, the Lord had summoned the Church to the cross. And why? God alone knows the full reason, but we can speculate as to some reasons.

In the first place, the idyllic picture of Acts 2 has already been marred by squabbles and injustice of ethnic origin. The Greek-speaking widows were being neglected, it would seem (Acts 6:1). This may also point to other internal struggles that give the impression that the Church may be losing focus on essentials and that the outward priority of evangelizing is giving way to inward squabbles.

Further, there is the emerging picture of a Church rather settled in Jerusalem. But had the Lord not summoned them to go into all the world teaching, evangelizing, saving and drawing people to the sacraments? (see Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47). There is no mention to this point of that taking place, or of any plans for it. So, perhaps the Lord permits this persecution to give the Church a nudge out of the nest. In saying they were scattered, we get the image of seed being sown. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church and persecution fires up the faithful and distinguishes them from the merely fair-weather friends of the Lord. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

The upshot of the whole episode is evangelical, for the faith now spreads north to Samaria and into Judah.

Scene 2: The Church in Samaria (The Church and Mission are Bigger than Us) –

Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city
. (Acts 8:4-8)

Here is a very different picture! Having been prodded by the Lord through a permitted persecution, the tears and suffering in one city, in one part of the Church, benefit others in a new and different part of the Church. Demons are being cast out, healings are taking place, the lame are walking, and there is great joy!

The seeds of faith are being sown by the suffering of some and watered by their tears that others be saved and come to joy. A psalm comes to mind: He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6)

So, the Lord had to prod the early Church to get moving. But this is only so that the work may become more fruitful and many more be saved.

And this points to two hard truths that, if accepted, are liberating:

1.  Your life is not (only) about you.

2.  You are not THAT important.

If we are not careful, we are very prone to become self-absorbed and think that our situation is the only thing on God’s radar. But the truth is, God has everyone’s needs in mind. My life is not simply about me and what I want and need and think and see. My life is also about what others need, and what others see and can contribute. I am not so important that God will sacrifice everything and everyone else just to answer my needs. God might actually ask me to suffer and sacrifice so that others may thrive. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. I have surely benefited from the sacrifices others have made, and I am called at times to sacrifice that others may come to know God and thrive. Thus, the Church at Jerusalem was permitted by God a persecution and a suffering so that others in Samaria and throughout the world would come to hear the Gospel and be saved. Scripture says elsewhere:

He who has an ear, let him hear. “If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he will go; If anyone is to die by the sword, by the sword he must be killed.” Here is a call for the perseverance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-11)

In our times of self-esteem, we can go too far and presume that my life is all about me and nothing and no one is more important that me and I what I and my family need. Or we can become very focused on the issues that preoccupy us in the Church in America or think that everyone sees what we see, or experiences what we do. This is myopic. The Church is bigger than me or my parish or my country. The Church is in every land, speaks every language and extends back in time and forward as well. God has a little more on his radar than “me” or our small and temporary group.

This small story from Acts reminds us that the Church is always in need of reform. It also reminds us that the Church is more than me or us. Here is one Church with two scenes. In Jerusalem there is weeping, but in Samaria there is joy. My life is not about me alone. I both benefit from the sacrifices of others and am called to make sacrifices for others. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church, the tears of the persecuted will often water those seeds. It is a hard but a freeing truth. In heaven we will see what our sufferings accomplished. For now, we must accept whatever the Lord decides, be it suffering or joy, or some combination of both. My life isn’t just about me or what I want. It’s also about you and what you need.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Your Life is Not About You, As Illustrated in a Biblical Story

The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Altar

There is something remarkably universal about most Catholic parishes in the U.S: our parishioners come from everywhere. The Catholic Church is two thousand years old, is a presence in every country, speaks every language, and summons every soul. The very word “catholic” means universal, and that quality is manifest. Some parishes in the Washington D.C. area look like the United Nations! So many countries and cultures are represented; dozens of languages are spoken by parishioners.

While some like to emphasize the diversity, which is indeed a great gift, I think it is more important to emphasize the unity that unlocks its power. There is a tendency today to speak of diversity in a detached way, as if it were an end in itself. Pursuit of diversity for its own sake can be a bludgeon with its demands for recognition and resources.

The various and diverse parts of the human body are only able to work together through the head. Without the head, the diverse parts cease to function and fall into decay. Each of the many spokes of a wagon wheel is only able to do its part when connected to the others through the hub at the center; otherwise they become detached and even dangerous. So, diversity needs a context; there must be something in common that unites the other diverse parts.

Scripture says,

The body is a unit, though it is comprised of many parts. And although its parts are many, they all form one body. So it is with Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

You were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-5).

In our best moments, our Catholic parishes manifest a rich diversity but one that is rooted in fundamental unity and equal status before God. We come before God like blind beggars, whatever our wealth, status, or origin. We are all poor; we are wayward and needy. We are like little children whom God must watch at every moment lest we do something dangerous or foolish. Bishops shed their miters and become “me, your unworthy servant.” The clergy and the laity are before God the Father, in need of immense mercy and every good grace.

Anthony Esolen writes eloquently of God’s people kneeling before the altar:

Consider, where else [outside the Church] do the rich and the poor meet as brothers? Where does the professor break bread with the janitor? … Where does the manager of millions confess his utter poverty? Where is the mayor a minor? Where is the president a beggar? Where else does anyone hear, “Unless you become as these little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (cf Matt 18:3)? (Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching pp. 33-34)

Yes, at her best, the Church shows forth the truth that, whatever our race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, the ground is level at the foot of the altar. God is not impressed with human titles and honorifics. I can assure you, dear reader, that the Lord does not call me “Monsignor.” No indeed, He calls me “Carlito” (little Charlie).

Unfortunately, the emphasis in recent years on diversity without reference to unity has influenced the Church’s thinking and liturgy. Too often we have focused on ourselves rather than God, becoming concerned with human distinctions such as language, ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status. I’d like to think that if a large number of my parishioners were Spanish-speaking, I could learn to enjoy celebrating Mass in Spanish, but I’d also like to think that we could all learn more Latin so that we have that in common whatever our native tongue. Ethnic music has its place but so does chant, which is the common heritage of every Catholic. Knowing the story of different races and ethnicities is good, but so is knowing the Scriptures and seeing them as our common story. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.

It is hard to get diversity right if the central unifying force is neglected. Only when we all focus on the Lord and see our common status as blind beggars and needy children can our diversity bless us; without that it is too easy to use diversity to bludgeon.

Consider well, then, the great Catholic truth that the ground is level at the foot of the altar. Meditate on the beautiful picture painted by Anthony Esolen in the excerpt above: All of us facing God, kneeling before Him in need of immense grace and mercy. Rich or poor, we are all destitute before God and in need of His grace for every beat of our heart.

The song in the video below says,

God and God alone, created all these things we call our own, from the mighty to the small, the Glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Altar

The Ancient Mass in “House Churches” Was Not as Informal as Many Think

The Catholic Faith was illegal in the Roman Empire prior to 313 A.D., when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan permitting it to flourish publicly. Prior to that time, Church buildings as we know them today were rare – Mass was usually celebrated in houses.

These “houses” were usually rather sizable, with a central courtyard or large room that permitted something a little more formal than Mass around the dining room table. I remember being taught (incorrectly) that these early Masses were informal, celebrated facing the people, and had a relaxed, communal atmosphere. In fact, the people didn’t just sit around a table or on the floor in circle – not at all. They sat or stood formally, with everyone faced in one direction: east.

The drawing above shows the layout of an ancient house church (more often called a Domus Dei (House of God)), based on an excavated 3rd century house church in Dura-Europos (located in what is now Syria).

Baptistry at Dura Europos

The assembly room is on the left, and a priest or bishop is depicted conducting a liturgy (facing east) at an altar against the east wall. A baptistry is on the right, and a deacon is shown guarding the entrance. The lonely-looking deacon in the back of the assembly hall is there to “preserve good order,” as you will read below.

What is remarkable about these early liturgies is how formal they were despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. The following text is from the Didiscalia, a document written in about 250 A.D. Among other things, it gives rather elaborate details about the celebration of the early Catholic Mass in these “house liturgies.” I have included an excerpt below (in bold italics); my comments are shown in red text.

Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care.

These “house liturgies” were not informal; good order and careful attention to detail were essential.

Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east.

Even in these early house Masses, the sanctuary (where the clergy ministered) was distinct from where the laity gathered. People were not all just clustered around a dining room table.

In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the lay men be seated facing east. For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women,

Everyone faced east, laity and clergy. Notice that men and women sat in separate sections, which was the tradition in many churches until relatively recently (the last 150 years or so).

and when you stand to pray, the ecclesial leaders rise first, and after them the lay men, and again, then the women. Now, you ought to face to east to pray for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east.

Again, note that Mass was not celebrated facing the people, as some suppose of the early Church. Everyone faced in the same direction: east. The text cites Scripture as the reason for this: God is to the east, the origin of the light.

Now, of the deacons, one always stands by the Eucharistic oblations and the others stand outside the door watching those who enter,

Remember that this was a time of persecution; the early Christians were careful to allow only baptized and bona fide members to enter the sacred mysteries. Only the baptized were permitted to enter the Sacred Liturgy. This was called the disciplina arcanis (discipline of the secret), and deacons guarded the door to maintain it.

and afterwards, when you offer let them together minister in the church.

Once the door was locked and the Mass began, it would seem that the deacons took their place in the sanctuary, with one remaining outside it to maintain “good order” among the laity.

And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place … also, in the church the young ones ought to sit separately, if there is a place, if not let them stand. Those of more advanced age should sit separately; the boys should sit separately or their fathers and mothers should take them and stand; and let the young girls sit separately, if there is really not a place, let them stand behind the women; let the young who are married and have little children stand separately, the older women and widows should sit separately.

This may seem a bit complicated, but the upshot is that seating was by sex and age. Note that those with young children were to stand in a separate area (the cry rooms of the day!).

And a deacon should see that each one who enters gets to his place, and that none of these sits in an inappropriate place. Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off.

The early Christians did such things? Say it isn’t so! Today, ushers preserve “good order.”

For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord.

Well, that is clear and to the point – and the advice is still needed. It is also a fitting way to end today’s post.


Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Ancient Mass in “House Churches” Was Not as Informal as Many Think

“Church-Speak” – Strange Things Church People Say

2.3.blogMany 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.”

Ah, Church-speak!

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!

Here’s another funny one:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “Church-Speak” – Strange Things Church People Say

Some Proverbs for the Bishops Gathered in Rome

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.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Some Proverbs for the Bishops Gathered in Rome

In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

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.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

Can Anything Good Come Out of 2018?

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.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: cathstan.org/posts/can-anything-good-come-out-of-2018

A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches

Lincoln Congregational Temple in Shaw, credit: NCinDC, Flickr

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.”