Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Tipping Point

This Sunday, the 4th of Advent, we hear about Mary's visit to Elizabeth. You can learn about it here:

We read the upcoming Sunday's Gospel and pray on it every week, as a staff. This week I felt a twinge of recognition in this moment of recognition from Elizabeth, and I imagine, from Mary. This is the story of a tipping point- a moment in history that will change everything. It's a moment where a distinct line is drawn between "before" and "after." I imagine that Both Mary and Elizabeth, even if they can't imagine what their lives are to become, are feeling that uneasy/exciting feeling of knowing that after this exchange, everything will be different.
I can relate because as a parish we seem to be poised on that dividing line too. There's been some tension among us, which is unusual for us as a group. I think part of the tension is that we're on that line of knowing that things are about  to change, and we don't know how or when, but we are seeing an old age end and anticipating the beginning of a new one. I know that whatever happens, I'll look back fondly at this "before" time and miss these days of relative certainty.
The pastoral plan that faces us is something that's not yet fully realized, has never been done before, and could change at any point. We can't know who the pastor will be here at our parish, and therefore, we can't know if we'll be employed here in the future.
I am a gal who likes a plan. I like to end a meeting with a "to do" list, action items, a framework on which to build whatever needs building. Whenever poor Scott shares his goals for me, I inevitably bleat out "but HOW?" I like to know what we're shooting for, and I like to have things to do that help move the plan along.  At this point, though, I've got nothing. We can dimly see a possible future, but can't move toward it.
Well, in the meantime, we've got lots of stuff going on, and the parish is still a Spirit-filled, productive place, and I'm treasuring my time here. I have plenty to do, and I will just have to ignore the Great Unknown for now. Tonight our staff gathers for a Christmas celebration together, and it may be just what we need, a tiny break in the fever. But when I hear Mary and Elizabeth's story this Sunday, I'll nod to myself in recognition of the bring upon which these two faithful women stand.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

heyyyyy just for the record...

... I believe in cooperation with grace. But I believe that a mature faith cooperates with grace out of love, not out of fear. Did I make that clear? Sometimes it's not till my drive home that I realize what I've been trying to say.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Follow Your String

I have a little brochure on my bulletin board (along with my "too bad it's raining" toon) titled "Hell Exists and We Might Go There." Below the title there's an illustration of Our Lady of Fatima "showing the three shepherd children the vision of hell." I have to admit, it makes me chuckle, every time I see it. Hell exists. We might go there. Don't go saying you never were told.
I know there's a sort of existential fight going on in the Church about how we should think about hell. As long as I can remember, I've heard opposing views on the damned place: hell exists, but it is empty. Hell exists, and it might be empty, for all we know. Hell is full of people!!! I've often heard it said that the reason the Church (and the world) is falling apart is that no one's afraid of going to hell anymore.
This week at a parish activity, one of our participants said that she is so thankful that we're still alive and can pray for our salvation- that we can pray for those in purgatory- that we still have a chance of heaven, unlike the poor people who suffer in hell, and the other poor people who suffer in purgatory. She mourned that so many people walk around every day not knowing that they should be praying to avoid hell... wasting time that could be spent trying to reverse their fortunes. She also said that it's just too bad for those people who didn't do something while they were alive, because those in purgatory can't help themselves, and those who are in hell, well, it's over for them. That door has been closed.
I felt the other members of our group stiffen at her words, her passion. This was a group of older people, pre-Vatican II people, raised on vivid images of hell. But each one who responded to our first commenter urged her to remember that Jesus spoke of mercy along with justice. (I feel quite sure she was unconvinced though...)
Maybe I've written about this here before, but it's been a defining image in my faith life and understanding of God, so I'll tell it again: at a prayer group with high school girls, the topic of and salvation came up. One of the girls said that her grandmother used to throw big birthday parties for the kids, where they'd arrive and be handed a piece of string, and they'd have to follow that string to the end, where a gift was attached. The string would lead them through every room of the house, up and down stairs, into corners and closets and out again.
Okay, but here's the clincher. She said that night that, she thought, if one of the kids at the party failed to find her gift by the end of the event, Grandma would say "SORRY KID! TIME'S UP!" She said her grandmother wanted each child to find that gift. She said she thought that God wants us to have salvation so much that God will find a way to give it to us, even if we run out of time, even if we mess up and tie our string up in knots.
I had to agree with her. What kind of God would set a time limit on salvation? This, then, is the faith-and-good-works problem: do we earn salvation, receive it by grace, or do we have to cooperate in some way, once the grace is given, to keep it? It's an eternal question, and the Catholic Church has an answer- can you guess what it is?
I read recently that free will makes no sense if there's no hell. I forget where I was reading it, but basically, the author said that if God saved everyone for no good reason, that would make his grace "cheap." I know that's a common understanding. But I think... that kind of thinking is like saying that marriage doesn't make sense if there's no divorce (or... matricide?). I know it's not a perfect analogy- (for instance, I'm talking about a good marriage here, one built on love) but I also know that I work hard in my marriage not because I'm afraid of being divorced, but because I love my husband. I think it's possible that love could be a good enough reason for salvation, and that it would not cheapen grace. This is a harder concept to teach than hell and damnation, but I think it's what Jesus stood for.
I guess I'm gambling my salvation on this, but it's a bet I'm comfortable wagering.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Welcome to the CAPE

     Many years ago, at a Youth Ministry conference, I heard a speaker (it might have been Tom Booth?) talk about the day his son fell off a dock into the lake. He said that when he saw his child in trouble, heard him cry out to his father for help, he had never felt love like that before.
     That story moved me because I know that so many of us are reluctant to turn to God when we're really low, when we're struggling, when we're drowning in stress and anxiety. But God wants to hear from us then- when we cry out to God in distress, we can imagine that like the drowning boy's father, God will be moved with immense love to come to us.
     I had a friend who had been away from church for a while, and as Easter approached, I asked if she'd be going to church to celebrate. She said "no, after being away for so long it seems wrong to go suddenly on Sunday." I thought that was a funny thing. Even when I've not heard from a friend in forever, I'm so touched to get a greeting from them on my birthday. I don't think "sheesh, all this distance, and now they want to celebrate me? Whatever!!" I can't imagine that God is ever sorry to hear from us, whatever the occasion.
     I've heard, too, that parishes need to be more like AA meetings. When an alcoholic comes to a meeting, no matter how long it's been, they're welcomed- no "where have you been? Why haven't you been coming? What have you been doing instead of coming to meetings?" Their fellow group members know that it's a good thing whenever someone comes to a meeting. The important thing isn't why they've been away, but that they're there- and that by being there, they might be saved from a life of suffering with addiction.
     This Christmas we can rest assured that there will be people among us who haven't been to Mass in some time- maybe since last Christmas- and we have an opportunity to love like God loves. We must welcome the sufferer, the guilty, the distant. We must show everyone that God is glad to see them, no matter why they've been away, and no matter why they've come back.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Your Parish Is The Curriculum

    During the last round of parish closings here in our Archdiocese, I was asked by a religious ed. director to come and help her plan for the year ahead. One year from that time, 3 of the town's parishes would be closed down, and all would be joining together at the 4th (where she worked). She would be incorporating 3 additional parishes-worth of faith formation kids (just kids, no lifelong catechesis there at the time) into her one program. She was worried about how she'd integrate the four parish groups together, how to make the new kids feel welcome.
     After talking for a while, this was my suggestion: Throw the next year's religious education calendar out the window, and instead, hold 4 large group gatherings. Each parish's young people would meet individually and plan an evening, where they would host the other 3 groups at their soon-to-be-shuttered church, make and serve dinner to their guests (maybe something that reflected their parish's Italian heritage, for instance), give them a tour of their church, tell stories about the history of their parish, talk about their patron.
     The fourth gathering would be at the new "home" parish. The kids from that parish would do the same thing. After their dinner/tour/presentation, a welcoming ceremony might be celebrated, combining favorite songs or rituals from each of the parishes. Maybe everyone would get a t-shirt with a new parish logo on it. By the end of the year, each child would know more about their own "heritage" and about their new parish, they would have met the kids from the other parishes, and would feel some ownership over the process.
      The DRE couldn't do it. She couldn't throw out her curriculum for the coming year. How would the kids learn about the Creed? About the Old Testament? About whatever was on their list of topics? Ultimately, I heard that she just went ahead and did her usual thing, wrote up class lists and recruited classroom teachers, and soldiered on, hoping for the best. I'm sure the parish made efforts to welcome the new families, but I've always felt like it was a missed opportunity.
      When we welcome new people into our community, it can't be seen as a process of swallowing everyone whole, washing away their history and immersing them into "our" culture. Integration can't deny the existence of a history, of a loyalty to community, to pain in losing a church building (even though it's "just a building," something that was said over and over during that time of painful change and loss). People don't come into a parish community as a white page, waiting to be colored in.
     Many years ago (before all that consolidation even began), I read with fascination an article in "Today's Parish Minister" (I think... I wish I could find that issue!) called "Your Parish IS The Curriculum" which talked about the deposit of faith that exists within the community, in its rituals, its traditions, its memory, its actions. Before it was cool, TPM said that there was plenty of fodder for faith formation right in our parishes. Leaving the textbooks unopened for a year wouldn't necessarily mean that people weren't being formed.
     I can't help but mention that lifelong faith formation allows us to be freer than this DRE must have felt. Since we intend (and believe it will happen!) to be forming our people in faith throughout their entire life, and not just until they turn 16, we can forgive ourselves for not hitting every point of faith on a time-sensitive schedule. Kids have their whole lives to learn the creed, the Old Testament, etc. We can address real-life, real-world concerns catechetically, we can focus on evangelization and know that people will "get it" in one way or another.
     Curriculum is not the Gospel.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

On visiting the "pastoral center"- a poem

There are never enough seats.
Late-comers wander
cup of coffee in one hand
bag in the other
a crew comes
to set up one more table
still not enough seats
and half of the lucky ones
(with original seats)
crane their necks
and twist their backs
straining to attend politely
to the guest speaker,
who stands far behind them.
The last ones in
pull chairs from a stack near the door
and try to balance
their notebooks on their laps
set their coffee on the floor.
Everyone is uncomfortable
but the hosts,
who sit
at the front tables
at the foot of the speaker
with their backs to their

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Scratch that Chin

This year, our Christmas tree is staying in the basement. We have two crazy kittens, and a tree would just be another piece of furniture to have to pick up off the floor when we get home from work, along with our lamps and wicker screen and pillows and houseplants and full-length mirror and tablecloths and clean laundry. Advent candles are verboten, too- but we have gotten away with burning a nice balsam-scented votive now and again without lighting any tails on fire... yet. I've put the Christmas-colored kitchen towels out, and that's about it, decoration-wise. But I can still feel Christmas coming. It's kind of nice, and Adventy, to have a place to come home to that is not decked, that doesn't blare Christmas music at me, that isn't twinkling. Our home is a cozy place to wait for good things to happen. Advent can start to feel like a forced, artificial way of getting everyone to hold back on their Christmas celebrations, a velvet (purple) rope behind which to wait before you rush toward Santa. (I've watched Catholics reprimanding other Catholics for daring to utter the C-word during Advent)But this year, maybe more than ever, I see the wisdom in a season of waiting. Time goes by sooooo fast. This year, I think every month someone has said "I can't believe it's (June, September, December, etc...) already!!" But, you know, believe it! It is December already and Summer's long gone, whether you still have your sundresses hanging in your closet and mittens still in a bin under your bed. Ready or not, here comes Christmas. Advent, though, is the cat on your lap when you're trying to write a paper... you've got a deadline, your head is full of all the things you've got to get into writing, your fingers are tapping away. But the cat wants love now. The cat is not only in your lap but is purring like crazy, is gazing passionately into your face and is demanding that you use your hands to scratch his chin, rather than type that paper that NEEDS to be typed. You can try to ignore the cat and eventually he will go away, but... you know what? Scratch that chin. Give the cat a squeeze and revel in the purring, and in a minute go back to your task. You'll be better for the break and for the love. Christmas is not here yet, there's still some time to get ourselves (and our souls) ready. Still time to take a deep breath, sit and listen to the kittens purr and the furniture crashing down, still time to think about giving and receiving,still time to ready ourselves to welcome and receive Jesus into our hearts again.

Monday, December 03, 2012

we can be pastoral

Next year will be our tenth year of lifelong faith formation. The staff made the arduous but rewarding transition before I came into the family, and by the time I got there, they were getting really good at it. It's a truly collaborative staff and when I came on, in about year 5 of the new model, they were starting to really gain confidence in their ability to teach in this way. Now here we are at year 9.5 and today we asked ourselves some existential questions. What are the numbers like? Are we doing okay? Are we boring people? When they don't come, why do they stay away? What should our expectations be? Having whole families attend together, combined with the fact that people are expected to attend throughout their lifetimes, gives us the luxury of not having to enforce attendance rules. There is no far that if a kid misses a session- or even a year- that that means they'll go off into the world with no formation. We have their whole lives to form people, and people have their whole lives to learn. If they have a family crisis and miss a year, they'll get it next time around. But what if we're not being tough enough? Are we devaluing what we offer by not having higher behavioral expectations from our participants? Should we be offended when they miss a session? As we hashed it out, two visions arose. An administrative approach had us tracking attendance records, raising expectations, setting boundaries (you must attend 7 out of 8 sessions, you must attend a make-up session, etc.) and the second was a pastoral approach. We decided to work harder to make the teaching more varied in style, send more reminder emails. We decided to send our participants a card that would remind them of upcoming dates but also thank them for making our program and parish such a special place. We are going to start sending topical updates between sessions. And we will be sending "we missed you this month" cards to families who are absent (something the High School and Middle School program already does)... not because we want to harrass them into attending, and not because we're worried about numbers, but because GOF is better when everyone's there. We're going to tell them we miss them, because we do miss them. I am thankful to be part of a staff and community that thinks this way. I know it can be done, to do faith formation pastorally, and I think if parishes want to survive, it's going to be vital that we all learn how to do it.

Vatican II Catholics

I pulled out my resume the other day. It's an old one, from two jobs and several years ago- I guess I only made one updated copy when I interviewed for this job, and my pastor kept it. But what caught my eye on this copy on my desk is the subtitle under my name and contact info: it says "A creative, experienced minister to youth and their families, in the traditions of 'Renewing the Vision' and the Vatican II Church."
I used to see that kind of statement on job announcements and bulletins: "St. Whatever: a Vatican II Parish." I don't see that anymore, anywhere. Depending on your own stance, that could be a good thing- of course, we're all supposed to be Vatican II churches, right? It's the current council, it stands. Maybe it doesn't have to be stated anymore. But I think the fact that no one brags of their Vatican 2-ness is a sign of something else, of the discouragement we've all gotten from thinking of our parishes as places of growth and progress, the hope and openness that were associated with The Council.
The current buzzword is "The New Evangelization" and it is starting to nag at me- it sounds like a development, an improvement on the old. On the surface, it sounds like something we should all be behind; not only does TNE encourage us to share the Good News with those who've never heard it before, but also to make efforts to reach out to those who have walked away.
Sounds good, right? But I'm starting to see this term adopted by the more conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, and the undertone is that of correction. In this context, TNE is about bringing people back in order, correcting their theological or spiritual errors, and getting everyone in line again, like it was in the 1950's.
I swear, I swear I'm not against conservative Catholicism. (I am one of those spectrum-thinkers, comfortable seeing everything in terms of where it falls on a pendulum. I tend to think the middle is the best place, but I also can weather the outer edges because I know that drastic left-ness, like drastic right-ness, never lasts.) But I think there's something dangerous lurking here. It seems it's not enough to reach out to those wanderers with love and hospitality- if they're going to come back, they'd better come back right. It seems that obedience is the goal and cure, not conversion.
I understand the nostalgia for that time in the Church. It looks great in the old movies, and I suppose it was if you were male, white, and cool with praying in a foreign language. It's said that in the wonderful 1950's people behaved how the Church told them to, believed the way the Church taught- they paid, prayed, obeyed. But I know so many "pre-Vatican II" Catholics who still agonize about the things they were taught, 50 years later. A near-saintly elderly parishioner here asked, at a recent meeting, "but what about those people who ate meat by mistake on Friday, and then were hit by a car before they could go to Confession???" She asked sincerely and with concern, genuinely worried about the fate of these people who did not know the merciful God like we do now. You'd be hard-pressed to find a "Vatican II Catholic" who stays up nights worrying about such things.
I suppose that many people would say that this is where the Church went wrong, lost its grip on people- when they started talking about mercy and other lovey-dovey stuff like that. I wasn't alive in the 1950's, so I can't say which is better or worse, but I do know that I'm still proud to call myself a "Vatican II Catholic."