5 Books for 2015

I am a firm believer that one of the most important activities a leader can engage in is good reading. Reading exposes us to new and challenging ideas, expands our understanding of the world, and offers respite from our normal business.

Since 2010 I’ve started out the year by recommending books I’ve read the past year to other catechetical leaders. Here’s this year’s list:

  1. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (2014); Whether you’re a Pixar fan or looking for leadership insight from someone with an impeccable track record, this book is an easy, delightful read. I’ve already taken some of his lessons to heart as a diocesan director.
  2. Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All About Us by Timothy R. Gabrielli (2013); Thinking about the Sacrament of Confirmation has absorbed much of my mental energy in recent years, and this small but dense book helped a lot in clarifying some of my thoughts. Gabrielli gives a thorough historical treatment of the Sacrament of Confirmation leading up to Vatican Council II and after, with a particular eye to its interactions with changing secular ideas about adolescence.
  3. Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis (2014); This is a bit of a cheat since it’s technically an apostolic exhortation, not a book, but “The Joy of the Gospel” continues to unfold its rich treasury of gifts as I unpack it in light of my own ministry. Don’t rush through this one: it rewards slow, deep reading.
  4. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom Rainer (2014); This slim tome, by a Southern Baptist pastor, examines the factors that lead to a local church community’s decline and eventual failure. I posted a full review last May; suffice to say that there is much here that applies to Catholic parishes.
  5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1997); Recommended to me by the founder of LibraryThing, this science fiction novel tells the tale of the first Jesuit mission to another species on a distant planet. Russell does an outstanding job of portraying the rich faith lives of her diverse cast of characters — what could have come across as predictable and preachy is instead grounded, surprising, and tender.

Canned Programs and the Person of the Catechist

Recently the members of our department have been looking at and reviewing some of the new Confirmation programs that have been making the rounds. (We’ll be publishing some general thoughts and recommendations in the coming months; I’ll be sure to share them here on my blog.)

One trend I’ve noticed is that all the programs we’ve looked at try to be “turn key” programs – that is, they are designed to be easy to use with little need to prep or input on the part of the facilitator. Through video presentations and guided discussion booklets, there seems to be little for the catechist to do.

On the one hand this may seem a feature. In today’s busy, fast-paced world, having a program that doesn’t require a lot of time and investment can be helpful, especially for a parish that doesn’t have a lot of trained catechists.

On the other hand, the Church’s teaching is clear that no program, video, or book is able to catechize on its own. The General Directory for Catechesis reminds us that

No methodology, no matter how well tested, can dispense with the person of the catechist in every phase of the catechetical process. The charism given to him by the Spirit, a solid spirituality and transparent witness of life, constitutes the soul of every method. Only his own human and Christian qualities guarantee a good use of texts and other work instruments.

In other words, evangelization and catechesis are primarily human endeavors. They require the cultivation of relationships, not the bright glare of an LCD machine; patience and discernment, not a “one-size-fits-all” approach; and above all the demonstration of a lived relationship with Jesus Christ, not fancy graphics and music.

That’s not to discount the usefulness of programs, videos and books. But it is to remind us that the most important factor in a young person’s faith formation is the people around them who will demonstrate the importance of faith and invite the young person to enter more deeply into that faith. The former are important, yes; but the latter are indispensable.

The Importance of Discernment in Sacramental Prep

thinking-statueMy friend Marc has a post over at his (excellent) blog about Confirmation, restoring the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth, and possible effects on parish religious education programs. I’ve written about restored order a few times, but Marc argues for the other side of the coin:

If kids aren‘t evangelized the effect of Confirmation will be negligible. With little or no faith, Confirmation won‘t do much for them. They won‘t be any closer to staying Catholic than before. There goes that benefit… I‘m the last one to advocate for the carrot on the stick approach to Confirmation. I don‘t like the implications. However, with the culture the way it is, it might be the only option to keep the majority of kids in religious education.

Go read his whole post; he makes some good points and there’s good conversation in the comments. My purpose here is to point out that often neglected in these conversations is the importance of discernment when it comes to sacramental preparation.

If we take seriously the Church’s assertion that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the inspiration for all catechesis then I think we need to look closely at what the RCIA says about discernment. No. 43 of the rite states:

Before the rite [of acceptance] is celebrated… sufficient and necessary time, as required in each case, should be set aside to evaluate, and, if necessary, to purify the candidates motive and dispositions. With the help of the sponsor (see no. 10), catechiests, and deacons, parish priests (pastors) have the responsibility for judging the outward indications of such dispositions.

Similarly, before the rite of election no. 119 says that
confirmation

on the basis of the testimony of godparents and catechists and of the catechumens’ reaffirmation of their intention, the Church judges their state of readiness and decides on their advancement toward the sacraments of initiation.

Clearly, then, the Church puts a heavy emphasis not only on the preparation of individuals before they are initiated into the Church, but on discernment that the person is ready for the same.

Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of discussion on this aspect of sacramental preparation for Confirmation as it is lived in parishes. Young people are assumed to be ready if they’ve taken all the classes, participated in mandatory volunteer work, and written their letter to the bishop. Rarely do I hear of pastors sitting down and talking with catechists, parents, and the young person to ask about their intentions and readiness to receive Confirmation.

Part of this may be colored by by own experience. While preparing for Confirmation in high school I was wrestling with my faith and unsure if I was prepared to receive the sacrament. No one asked if I was ready; I went to our youth minister of my own initiative to have that conversation and decided against participating in the Confirmation that year. (I later completed my initiation in my sophomore year of college.)

If we were serious about discernment in sacramental preparation, questions about the “right age” to confirm youth would disappear. Instead of waiting for an arbitrary date we would help them to complete their initiation at the right time for them. If that means we have to change our approach to religious education, youth ministry, and sacramental preparation, I say so be it. If the studies are right keeping them in a few more years doesn’t seem to be doing much good, anyway.

Review: Be An Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation

Lisa Mladinich (amazingcatechists.com) has written an excellent and engaging resource for catechists and catechetical leaders involved in the sacramental formation and preparation of youth and children. Be An Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation (OSV, 2011) bills itself as “a guide for teaching the Seven Sacraments accurately and vibrantly” and it delivers on that promise.

Mladinich offers a variety of reflections, activities, tips, and tricks for catechists to use in their sacramental prep programs, beginning with some nice reflections on what it means to be a catechist. I especially liked her insistence that “It is a joy for the faithful to pass these truths on to their children so that they, too, might live in loving union with God.” (I may be using that line in some upcoming presentations!)

More specific to sacramental prep, Mladinich has some great suggestions to teaching reverence to children. Proper “church etiquette” is lacking in many parishes, so I was glad to see her tackle it head-on.

She then tackles First Reconciliation, First Communion, and Confirmation in turn. For each sacrament there are plenty of ideas for activities and lessons that will open up the meaning and impact of the sacraments in surprising and effective ways. These include the fun, the prayerful, and the educational. They are also very “doable”, in that they don’t require special resources or prep time.

I do have a small theological quibble: Mladinich states in the introduction that “the sacraments are administered by those ordained for ministry in the Church: bishops, priests, and deacons.” This statement overlooks the fact that, in marriage, the outward sign is the exchange of consent between the couple. Thus, it is the couple who administer the sacrament; the priest witnesses to the marriage. Similarly, while clerics are the ordinary ministers of Baptism, anyone (including non-Christians) can validly baptize if they use the proper formula and intend what the Church intends in Baptism.

But that’s nit-picking an otherwise excellent resource for catechists involved in the sacramental prepration of children and youth.

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from Our Sunday Visitor.

Confirmation Candidates Reflect Unity in Our Diversity

This past Sunday, on Pentecost, our bishop confirmed 44 adults from around our diocese at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. As the diocesan director of catechetical ministries I had the privilege of being the œbehinds-the-scenes  guy sending out directions, checking in the candidates, and handing out nametags.

Witnessing the Rite of Confirmation is always profound, but I found myself especially moved this time by the diversity of candidates who came forward “ in ethnicity, age, and geography. Some were barely out of high school, others had grandchildren. Some were born in Africa or Central America, others have lived their whole lives in Illinois. Some traveled hours to come to the cathedral, others just a few minutes. Those 44 adults truly represented a cross-section of the faithful in central Illinois.

That is one of the things I love about belonging to a œcatholic  (universal) Church “ it not only tolerates, but embraces the diversity of its members. Look at the saints! No two are exactly alike. Just like last Sunday’s confirmandi the saints reflect the great diversity in our Church. They come from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Some died or were martyred at a young age, others lived to be quite old. Some lived cloistered lives, others ministered in the city streets.

Yet the saints also shared a common goal and a common mission: to be holy and to make the world holy. Their lives, though different, were animated by the same Spirit “ the very Spirit shared by the confirmandi. Even in our diversity we are bound together in the Church for a common purpose. We may all serve that purpose in different ways, but we share it nonetheless, for there is

one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
– Ephesians 4:4-7

Cross-posted at www.dio.org.

‘I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation’

That is ‘I make you strong, dedicating you to God.’

A Chinese mission was being looted by a large party of bandits. The priest lay wounded and unconscious, and the bandits had got hold of a Chinese boy of twelve who usually served at Mass. For some time the bandit chieftain questioned and threatened the boy, trying in vain to make him say where the chalice and other sacred vessels were hidden. At last the chief lifted his hand with an angry oath, and with his open hand struck the boy a great blow across the face that sent him crashing against the wall.

‘Come back here!’ said the chief, and the boy slowly recovered himself and came back to stand before his brutal questioner.

‘Do you want another like that?’

‘Go on — I’m ready if you are. It is what I bargained for.’ The bandit grinned with puzzled admiration.

‘How do you mean, bargained for?’

‘We were confirmed last month. The Bishop struck me on the cheek. He said that is what a soldier of Christ must expect.’

‘Look here, you’re the sort of lad we want. Tell us where these things are hidden and I’ll let you come with me and my troop!’

‘No, I’d rather be a soldier of Christ.’

The chief took out his revolver, but just at that moment there were shouts and rifle-shots in the street, and the bandits all rushed out leaving the boy forgotten. Some regular soldiers had arrived, the bandits were soon cleaned up or driven from the village and the Christians were able to repair the damage and take care of the mission father, who wrote a proud account to the Bishop of the behaviour of his newly confirmed altar-server.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater,  Catechism Stories Part IV: The Sacraments (1939)

An Unusual Request: Reason #3

I’ve given my “practical” and my “negative” reasons for asking my pastor to consider allowing my son to be confirmed before First Communion; today I’d like to offer the theological reason.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the restoration of the adult catechumenate has been one of the greatest fruits of the Second Vatican Council. In the RCIA the Church recognizes that the ordinary way people enter into full communion with the Church is as adults — just as they did in the early years of the Church. This full communion is best symbolized in the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, the culmination of the process and the only Sacrament of Initiation that is repeatable.

The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) goes so far as to declare that “The baptismal catechumenate is the source of inspiration for all catechesis.” (p. 115; emphasis mine)  The Church recognizes the great wisdom inherent in the catechumenal process.  Yet we ignore that wisdom when we alter the order of the Sacraments  of Initiation for Catholic children baptized as infants.

Funny thing is, were these same children to approach the Church for the full range of initiation after turning seven, they would be required to go through the RCIA (in an age appropriate manner, of course) and receive Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

(Yes, I know this proscription is not universally observed in parishes. No, there is no such thing as the RCIC. Yes, these are pet peeves of mine.)

I think part of the reason we do ignore the inspiration of the RCIA is that we don’t trust the Church’s insistence on sacramental mystagogy as a vital and necessary part of catechesis. We get so caught up in making sure that kids are “ready” for the sacraments that we ignore the call to help them reflect on the experience and meaning of the ritual after the fact.

Imagine a religious education program where children are confirmed and receive the Eucharist in 2nd or 3rd grade and then have the next 5-9 years to unpack what they have been initiated into! Would children still anticipate “graduating” from religious education without Confirmation on the horizon? As fully initiated members would they (prompted by the Holy Spirit) be more likely to participate in the life of the parish? Would they be more inclined to view faith formation not as something leading up to a sacramental end, but a life-long pursuit?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I’d sure like to find out.

So those are my three reasons for making such an unusual request of my pastor. I don’t expect an answer until this fall, but I will be sure to let you know when an answer is forthcoming. And thanks to everyone who has added their comments to this conversation — your thoughts are appreciated!

An Unusual Request: Reason #2

Yesterday I wrote about the unusual request I made of my pastor —  asking that my son be confirmed before receiving First Communion — and one of the reasons why. That reason — that we do teens today a disservice in denying them the gifts of the sacrament — may be considered the “practical” reason for my request.

Today I want to talk about the “negative” reason. As I indicated in the comments to yesterday’s post, I am against  using  Confirmation as a “carrot” to keep youth in our PSR and youth ministry programs. For one thing, I’m not convinced that it works. I don’t see any evidence that parishes that push back Confirmation — and some are pushing it back well into the high school years — are doing a better job of holding on to youth than those that confirm earlier.

And second, I believe it is a gross injustice to youth and to our understanding of the sacraments to hold Confirmation hostage in such a way. I know of no other sacrament in which we deliberately prolong the time of preparation. What are we waiting for? Surely not some precise moment of spiritual or emotional development. Valid reception of Confirmation is not predicated on the recipient’s maturity level; Confirmation is not the Catholic version of a bar mitzvah. As the Catechism explains

Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification” to become effective.

This is only underscored by the Eastern Church’s practice of infant confirmation and the fact that the our Church makes similar provisions for infants near death. Indeed, a priest friend of mine was confirmed shortly after birth since his survival was uncertain. Certainly no one would question the validity of his confirmation?

I sympathize with catechists and youth ministers seeking to engage youth in today’s culture. But if we are having a hard time keeping youths in our programs — and I don’t think there is any question that we are — then that is a separate issue from when to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. Using Confirmation to artificially boost youth participation may make us feel better in the short term, but I don’t think we will see any long-term benefits.

Tomorrow: the theological reason and the heart of the matter!

An Unusual Request: Reason #1

Last week I made an unusual request of my pastor. Our second child will be preparing to receive First Communion next year, and I asked our pastor if he (and the bishop) would be open to having him Confirmed first.*

The order of the Sacraments of Initiation for children in parishes is a hot topic in catechetical circles. As you may know, the “correct” order is Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist. For a variety of historical and pastoral reasons, in the United States we typically Baptize children as infants, give them First Communion, and only later confirm them as teens. Some dioceses have begun to revert to the more traditional sequence. I don’t pretend to know all the arguments for and against “restored order,” but as I’ve reflected on it I’ve come up with several reasons why I think it’s a good idea.

One reason, ironically, has come from our bishop. Since his installation nearly a year ago, the bishop has been speaking regularly about the call to holiness and the struggle against sin and temptation. This is an important message, and he has encouraged a variety of practices designed to call people to  repentance, to strengthen is against evil, and lead more holy lives, even going so far as to authorize parishes to recite the Prayer to St. Michael after Mass on Sundays.

But if sanctification is of such importance, why do we deny the grace to this sacrament to young people just at the moment in their lives when they need it the most? We have all heard it said that being a teenager today is harder than in the past. If we truly believe in the efficacy of Confirmation — if we really believe that it seals us in the Holy Spirit — why would we seek to push back the time when teens can make use of those gifts?

That’s one of the reasons I’ve asked my pastor to consider this request. I’ll share two more reasons over the next couple days. If you have experience with restored order, or have thoughts on this reason, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

* For those interested, my pastor said he would talk over my request with the bishop and get back to me in a few months — which is exactly what I hoped and expected.

Adult Confirmation Preparatory Session

This Pentecost, at our cathedral church, our diocese will celebrate the Rite of Confirmation with adult Catholics who, for whatever reason, missed receiving the sacrament before.

My office has put together a sample 5-hour preparatory session for parishes to use with their adult confirmandi; the feedback we have recieved has been positive, so I thought I would share it with anyone who is interested.

The session makes use of  Together in the Spirit: Celebrating and Living the Sacrament of Confirmation (Ave Maria Press, 2010), by  Bishop Robert F. Morneau and Deacon Mike Grzeca, a book I recommend for anyone preparing adults or  adolescents  to  receive  Confirmation.