After Obergefell v. Hodges: Now What?

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This morning the Supreme Court ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the state must recognize marriages between persons of the same sex.

When someone told me the news they were surprised at my rather blasé response and questioned why I wasn’t angry or bitter.

The truth is that anyone surprised by this ruling is completely out of touch with the prevailing cultural and intellectual currents in American society. The triumph of the personal will over any other competing interests has been a fait accompli for some time. It is the basis for the rampant materialism and shallow spirituality manifested in everything from the collapse of the real estate market to the popularity of Oprah Winfrey.

Indeed, I find it impossible to be mad at the justices who ruled in favor of redefining marriage in the same way I can’t be mad at a fish for refusing to leap from the sea and take flight. They did not possess the means of arriving at a correct decision and it would be unjust to expect their ruling to conform to the natural law and God’s revelation when their underlying assumptions and premises are rooted in neither.

If I’m going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction.

What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.

Now, for those of us involved in catechesis and evangelization, our task is to shake off the dust and begin to exercise those muscles again — to take up the call to “make disciples of all nations” without relying on the culture surrounding us. This will be a long, arduous process — think of it as physical therapy for the Church. It may require something approaching Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. But we will need to start with baby steps and small, seemingly insignificant victories that won’t make a dent in the culture but will help us make the slow, incremental progress needed to return to true health. Our losses against the culture will grow worse before they get better. I don’t expect to see the tide turn in my lifetime.

One sign of hope, however, are the wonderful men and women helping the Church to begin exercising these muscles — people like Fr. Robert BarronSherry Weddell, Tom Quinlan, Elizabeth Scalia, and Greg Willits (to say nothing of the statements of recent popes). The work has already begun — and thank God for the prophetic call of those who saw the need to begin working our evangelization muscles before now!

But the road ahead is long and narrow. Through prayer, keygmatic formation, and a careful reading of the signs around us we can rebuild what we have lost. The gift we make to future generations will be in our commitment to pass on to them the tools of evangelization that we ourselves did not inherit.

O God, who in the power of the Holy Spirit
have sent your Word to announce good news to the poor,
grant that, with eyes fixed upon him,
we may ever live in sincere charity,
made heralds and witnesses of his Gospel in all the world.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

(from the Mass for the New Evangelization)

Improving Parish Marriage Prep – More Highlights from Notre Dame

Last week I shared some highlights from the general sessions of the 2015 Notre Dame Center for Liturgy summer symposium on “Liturgy and Vocation.”

The afternoon sessions I attended were led by Josh and Stacey Noem and dealt with marriage prep in a parish setting. The Noems did an outstanding job laying out the theological and pastoral contours of an effective, evangelizing marriage prep process:

I’m looking forward to helping the parishes in our diocese deepen their commitment to a welcoming, evangelizing marriage formation process. Big thanks to Stacey and Josh Noem — and the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy — for the great conversation they facilitated at the symposium!

Highlights from the Notre Dame “Liturgy and Vocations” Symposium

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This week I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy‘s annual summer symposium, focusing this year on “Liturgy and Vocation.” This was my first time attending the symposium — indeed, my first time on the campus of Notre Dame — and I was delighted by the rich conversations that matched pressing pastoral questions with deep theological insights.

(Next year’s topic will be Liturgy and the New Evangelization — I would highly recommend attending!)

The symposium began on Tuesday evening with Msgr. Michael Heintz. His address on “Liturgy and Vocation” set the stage for the remaining general sessions and afternoon seminars:

The second general session by Dr. Brant Pitre was a whirlwind tour of nuptial imagery in the Bible, based in large part on his book Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.

On Wednesday Dr. Chad Pecknold of CUA spoke about the social and political dimensions of marriage and the priesthood, rooting his talk in St. Augustine’s image of the two cites.

Finally, on Thursday, Dr. Holly Taylor Coolman helped us to reflect on the nature of icons in order to practice seeing marriage and ordination as icons of Christ’s love.

These highlights don’t even touch the panel discussion on marriage and priestly formation or the two-day afternoon seminar on marriage prep that I attended — I’ll share more on them next week. In the meantime you can browse all the live-tweeting from the event by following the #NDSymposium2015 hashtag.

Thanks to Timothy O’Malley for inviting me to the symposium and for the gracious hospitality extended by the staff of the NDCL. I look forward to attending more Center for Liturgy events in the future!

Why I Remain Catholic

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Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, has invited Catholic bloggers to answer the question “Why do YOU Remain a Catholic?”

This is a most excellent question and one that, in the present age, all Catholics should stop and ask themselves. In the wake of abuse scandals, against a world that sees us as backwards and bigoted, and facing daunting challenges in evangelization, all the faithful should have a ready answer for why they remain when remaining seems, in the eyes of the world, so foolish.

I have many and varied answers for why I remain Catholic: because of the beauty of the liturgy; because the Church, despite all the flaws of her members, remains a force for good in the world; because I was raised Catholic and finding a new spiritual home sounds like way too much work. But the most foundational reason is that because the teachings and worldview presented by the Church constitute the most consistent and coherent set of propositions I’ve encountered — coherent in that it matches my own experience and observations about the nature of reality, and consistent in that it is systematic and non-contradictory. (Indeed, the systematic nature of the faith was one of the things that contributed to my spiritual awakening in college and beyond.)

What’s more, this worldview helps me to see beyond my own myopic vision and to overcome my own self-interested biases. This is part of what is meant when we describe the Church as a hospital for sinners — it strips away our excuses and denials and distorted passions, allowing the root of the problem to be diagnosed, treated, and cured by the Master Physician.

Of course, all of this would be as nothing if it weren’t for faith, since it is faith that allows us to see the coherence and consistency of Catholicism. Our faith is not scientific; it does not rest on demonstrable proofs or repeatable experiments. I agree with Chesterton that “original sin… is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

And that is the paradox: faith doesn’t make sense from this side. It’s only by crossing over — by taking the proverbial “leap of faith” — that we get the proper perspective and can begin to retrain ourselves to see the world, ourselves, and God as they really are.

And that’s why I remain Catholic: I have crossed the chasm and become, to paraphrase the Apostle, a fool for Christ, even as I follow him imperfectly in starts, reversals, and blind reaching. Yet it is in the striving to achieve holiness that the world takes on meaning and hope is made manifest — not due to our own efforts, but because in the reaching we find God, in his infinite mercy, reaching out to us.

Where else could I remain?

No Cares About Your Office Hours (or: What Your Voicemail Greeting Should Say)

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I recently called someone and reached their voicemail. As part of their greeting they let me know what their office’s normal hours were. “I don’t care about your hours,” I thought to myself, “I want to know when you’ll get back to me!”

The truth is that, when someone calls and reaches your voicemail, they want to know two things:

  1. Did they reach the right voicemail?
  2. When will you be available to get back to them?

I have found that the most effective way to do this is to change my voicemail introduction every week, first thing on Monday. In the intro I state who I am and what days that week I will be in and out of the office. This accomplishes both the tasks set forth above.

As an example, here’s the script of my voicemail introduction a few weeks ago:

Hi, you’ve reached Jonathan Sullivan, director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. This is the week of May 10th. I’ll be in the office on Monday and Tuesday. I will be out of the office Wednesday and Thursday attending a curia workshop. Our offices are closed on Fridays. Please leave your name, phone number, and a brief message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can. Thank you, and God bless.

Using this system it is clear that, if someone leaves a voicemail on Wednesday, they probably shouldn’t expect a response until the following Monday. On the other hand, if all I had was an evergreen message stating the curia office hours, they might expect a return call much sooner. (And grower frustrated while they wait until Monday!)

This goes back to a fundamental principal about leadership: anticipating what people need, not what we think they need. The more we practice this principal, the more effective we can be in our ministry.

Book Studies for Catechists

I’m a big believer in reading as a vital component of personal and professional development. This is especially true for catechists and catechetical leaders — reading, sharing, and discussing good books is a great way to form ourselves as disciples and disciple-makers.

Recently my office compiled a list of books that would be appropriate for group study by catechists and Catholic school teachers:

(We also correlated the books to our diocesan Catechist Formation Process.)

My hope is that our parishes and schools will organize book studies for their catechists as a path for continued formation.

Have you ever participated in a catechetical book study? Are there any books you would add to our list?

An Easter Reflection for Catechists

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ in this Easter season, it is a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Paschal Mystery in our lives and for our ministry. The Church proclaims that

In the sacraments of Christian initiation we are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We receive the Spirit of filial adoption and are part of the entire people of God in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection. (Christian Initiation, General Introduction, no. 1)

As catechists this is not only true of us personally, but it is also the basis of how we form those in our charge. All catechesis finds its root, its hope, its end in the Paschal Mystery, because it is through that mystery that God’s promises to his people are completed:

If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)

In the RCIA, Catholic schools, religious education programs, and adult faith formation sessions, the Paschal Mystery should have pride of place and be a constant touchstone for our teaching and formation. As catechists it is our privilege to lead people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship finds its culmination in Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, because these sacraments unite us in an unchangeable way with the life of Christ.

My prayer for you in this blessed season is that your life and ministry will be increasingly touched by a radical encounter with Christ and his Pascal Mystery. Have a happy and blessed Easter season!

What our Students Should Know: Religion Curriculum Standards in our Diocese

This week my office is rolling out our diocese’s first set of PreK-8th grade religion curriculum standards:

These standards were developed over nearly five years with a committee composed of both parish and Catholic school representatives. We used as our basis standards from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Orlando, as well as materials from the USCCB.

Of course, a set of standards is only effective if they are implemented — and I am keenly aware that this is no small task! I’m anticipating a five-year implementation period for these standards, beginning with a study and review period for teachers, catechists, and catechetical leaders; an alignment review to document how the standards line up with the catechetical textbooks in use in our diocese; and lots of encouraging, reassuring, and question-answering on the part of our office!

We will also need to review the standards with an eye for how parish formation programs will implement them, given the disparity in contact hours between Catholic schools and parish programs. We will try to make good recommendations for what standards parishes should focus on each year.

Please pray for this process — for our office as we seek to set these standards into motion, and for our catechists as they adopt these standards in their parishes and schools.

How I Work: Office Edition

Thomas L. McDonald of God and the Machine recently invited fellow bloggers to post their own “How I Work” entry (modeled after the Lifehacker series of the same name) so I thought I would have a go. This week I’m featuring my work office; next week I’ll do the same for my home setup.

Location: Springfield, IL
Current Gig: director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois
One word that best describes how you work: interrupted
Current mobile device: LG G3 running Android 4.4.2 (KitKat)
Current computer: Acer Veriton running Windows 7

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Google Calendar: I keep separate color-coded calenders for my diocesan responsibilities, family (shared with my wife so she can add events), the liturgical year, and project work. I have a horrible memory, so this system helps me keep track of all of my responsibilities at a glance. The one hitch occured when Google discontinued direct syncing support for Outlook (which our office use), but I’ve implemented some workarounds so my colleagues still see my full work calendar.
Dropbox: Come, children, and hear tales of the days when we had to use floppy disks to shuttle files back and forth!
Evernote: I use Evernote for a variety of tasks, including organizing travel documents, maintaining a digital filing cabinet, and storing recipes. Most recently I’ve started dumping meeting agendas into it so I can access them from my phone instead of printing a paper copy. (The Outlook plugin makes this a snap.)
GoToMeeting: Our diocese covers 28 counties, which makes gathering people for meetings/training/etc. difficult. One of the first things I did when I joined the office was push to implement online meetings. Most standing groups still meet in person at least once a year, but using GoToMeeting allows more people to participate without burdening them with a 2 hour drive.
LibraryThing: I’ve tried a few other book cataloging sites before, but I love LibraryThing because it was built by bibliophiles for bibliophiles. With it I can quickly browse books by subject, keep track of all my book reviews, and remind myself who I’ve lent books out to.

What’s your workspace setup like?
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This is my desk on a good day. Not pictured are my four bookcases and meeting table (see below).

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(I hide all icons on my computer desktop, so there’s nothing to see expect the pretty pictures I use as wallpapers.)

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My phone screen is dominated by Google Now, with a few apps I use the most.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?

Delegation. This is my first job where I’ve had a secretary and learning how to work with one well has been a huge boon to my productivity.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I’ve tried a variety and left most for pen and paper. Right now I’m using Trello.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
On the hardware side I love my Wacom Intuos Pen Tablet. It’s completely replaced my mouse at work. I also use it during presentations to transform PowerPoint into a digital white board.

In terms of my office setup, I couldn’t get by without my big wooden meeting table:

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I inherited it from my predecessor and, given the number of staff members in my department that I’m blessed to work with, it’s invaluable for one-on-one chats, small task force meetings, and sitting down with folks from outside the curia.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I’m really good at identifying the heart of an problem — peeling away the secondary issues and getting at root causes. I’m not sure what the secret is to that, besides being able to mentally categorize the issues on the table and sort through them in a systematic way.

What do you listen to while you work?
Most days it’s either classical or jazz, although Johnny Cash sees pretty regular rotation.

What are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading Redeeming Administration: 12 Spiritual Habits for Catholic Leaders in Parishes, Schools, Religious Communities, and Other Institutions by Ann M. Garrido and Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) by Edward Fesser.

What has changed over the years since you started and what do you do differently?
I often say that one of the joys of my job has been seeing good collaboration between the offices in my department and the fruits of those relationships. I used to take that for granted but, as a colleague likes to remind me, “Collaboration is hard work.” So I’m trying to be more intentional about how I communicate with the people I work with and ensuring that tasks and responsibilities are clearly understood by everyone in the room.

What Young Catechetical Leaders Need

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A couple weeks ago I responded to a request from a catechetical colleague and friend to consider working on a national project. After thinking and discerning about it I decided to politely refuse but found that, in doing so, I had some things to say. Indeed, what should have been a simple “no, thank you” email quickly blossomed into a 1,300-word essay about the needs of young catechetical leaders.

Below is a highly edited version of that email. I don’t mean to speak for all young Catholic leaders, but I would love to hear reactions from other young adults working in Catholic ministry — feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message via my contact page.

Dear T—-,

Thank you again for your invitation. I am gratified by the words you shared expressing your confidence in me and my gifts.

Unfortunately I find that I can’t muster much enthusiasm right now for committee work. As I mentioned, my experience with national committees is a mixed bag – good, committed, energized people who are often ignored and who do not possess a means of energizing the organization with their ideas. With a new baby, plenty of diocesan work to keep me busy, and other projects I’m excited to pursue, I don’t think I would be effective in breaking through this organizational culture.

In particular I find myself pessimistic about the ability of national ecclesial bodies to attract and tap into the energy, charisms, and commitment of young Catholics, in no small part due to the experiences I have had. In some corners of the Church there is a consistent undertone directed towards young adults that we are there to learn or be learned about, rather than having anything meaningful to say on our own behalf. This was made very clear to me when, at a gathering of national catechetical leaders, a well-known and respected leader in catechetical circles cut me off three times as I tried to respond to a point he was making to me during a hallway conversation before he walked off. At that moment he was the face of an organization that didn’t care to hear my story.

The failure of many national organizations to make good use of new media is also disheartening to me as someone who has tried to educate catechetical leaders on “best practices” for engaging the faithful through new media and who sees it used so well in other corners of the Church (including, surprisingly, the USCCB).

You may recall that, at the end of our conversation last December, you made the statement that “I have a deep loyalty to [X organization]”. I reflected on that afterwards and realized that I have no loyalty to the organization – not because I see it as unimportant or because of my shorter history with it, but because my loyalty is to the ministry of catechesis (as is, I know, yours). Any interest I have in or energy I give to the organiztion is directly proportional to how helpful I see it to catechesis and my role as a catechetical leader.

In this I don’t think I am alone among younger Catholics. Last October Rod Dreher recounted this anecdote following a meeting of friends of First Things magazine:

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.

The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear…

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

This resonated strongly with me – I’m not interested in reforming organizations that have outlasted their usefulness. This is a reality that ecclesial organizations will have to face if they want to attract young adults – insofar as they seem to ignore the concerns of young catechetical leaders (and to be clear, those concerns tend to be very different from the concerns of older catechetical leaders who are driving the agenda), these organizations will appear useless to those young leaders.

I think such organizations have a place in the Church – they have not outlived their usefulness. Indeed, my words here are born out of a place of love and respect for the good work such organization have done over the decades. If I sound harsh it is only because I want such organizations to succeed in the future. But I do not see many of these organizations’ names surfacing in the catechetical circles in which I travel – young catechetical leaders see them as largely irrelevant to their ministry, if they think about them at all.

We don’t need organizations for their newsletter – there are plenty of blogs with more (and often better) content. We don’t need them for their conferences – we can see the same speakers in webinars and have the same lobby conversations on Twitter and Facebook (and year-round, too). We don’t need them to stay connected to the national catechetical scene – we have myriad ways of accessing resources from publishers and the USCCB.

What we need are professional organizations that will acknowledge, listen to, and engage young catechetical leaders as leaders with our own expertise and experiences to bring to the table, even when we do things differently and challenge the “old guard”. This generation is not willing to “wait our turn” – we have plenty of opportunities, thanks to new technologies, to strike out on our own and form our own intentional communities of support and mutual learning. Current national leaders could be a willing partner in those conversations. Thus far they have chosen to stay within their own walls.