September 2015 Link RoundUp

Here’s some of my favorite online articles from this past month:

Dorothy Day on Abortion and Mercy
“The image of the seamless garment like the image of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head, is a hierarchical image. Abortion, the willful termination of human life, is simply not the same moral act as capital punishment or even economic exploitation. Rather, such a vision requires the careful and precise distinction evident in Evangelii Gaudium, when Pope Francis explained why the protection of the unborn takes primacy of place in the Church’s teaching on human dignity.”

The Secret History of Father Maloney
“Lloyd explained to us that Father Moloney used his privilege as a white man and as a Catholic priest in a heavily Catholic area to break down barriers of injustice. He started a federal credit union to help blacks who couldn’t get loans from local banks. He started a bus service to take poor black workers to and from the Avondale Shipyards, 70 miles away, so they could get good industrial jobs, and not have to settle for low-paying farm jobs. And he worked to undermine the plantation system, which played on the ignorance of poor African Americans to cheat them.”

Glen Keane – Step into the Page

Why Can’t We Do Catholicism Well?
“I do my best to wrench my thoughts back to what matters most—to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—to the beauty in the church’s architecture, the priest’s vestments, the poetry of the liturgy, and these things are all very good. But there’s something to be said about the beautifully vested priest mumbling the prayers or the fact that the liturgical motions—themselves richly endowed with meaning—are performed haltingly, truncated.”

Fourteen Tips for New Catholic School Teachers
“4. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the students. So learn how to spell the word ‘concupiscence’. Concupiscence is a tendency to put yourself first. Only divine grace enables us to rise above it.”

A Divine School of Solidarity: The Hours
“The gift of the Liturgy of the Hours as a daily practice is that the Christian is schooled in the fullness of the spiritual life as we meditate morning after morning, night after night upon the Psalms. And these Psalms are given to us. We do not get to choose which ones we pray. We do not simply praise God with timbrel and harp but must also acknowledge our deep woundedness, the injustice of the world, and the sorrow that comes with hearing only silence in the midst of our prayer to God.”

Analyzing Post-Conciliar Catechesis: A Blindspot?

A few weeks ago I read a defense of catechesis in the 1970s by Cathleen Kaveny on Commonweal’s blog. Ms. Kaveny was confirmed in 1978 (coincidentally, the year I was born) and gives a heartfelt apologia against those (including Fr. Robert Barron) who criticize post-conciliar religious education:

For many years, I was sympathetic to that analysis. But I am increasingly uneasy with the wholesale dismissal of the catechetical programs of my youth. First, the stock caricature of the period is unfair. The programs had far more content then they are given credit for. Second, the criticism only reinforces polarization within the church. Scapegoating 1970s religious-education programs fosters the illusion that the church’s problems can be fixed by going backward, by inoculating children with something like the simple question-and-answer method and content of the Baltimore Catechism. But the root problem facing the church, then and now, is not catechesis.

Her analysis continues with an appeal that I am sympathetic to:

My generation was not lost because of religious miseducation. It was lost because of the changes in the culture. No CCD program, no matter how rich and nuanced, could overcome the challenges created by the simultaneous breakdown and reconfiguration of the institutional Catholic world and the American social world.

This is a piece that is often missing when examining religious education in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Church was completely unprepared for the radical and rapid shifts in society — an irony given Vatican II’s roots in an aggiornamento that envisioned dialogue with the surrounding culture. Those who would criticize the catechists of the period would do well to keep that historical and cultural situation in mind.

Yet for all her pleas Ms. Kaveny’s analysis rings incomplete due to a glaring omission: nowhere does she address evangelization. Indeed, the word is conspicuously absent from her post. She, like many of her generation, seems to take for granted that the young people in parish formation programs and Catholic schools were familiar with the person of Jesus Christ — not just in stories or catechetical texts, but through a deep and abiding relationship with him.

But, as Sherry Weddell reminds us in Forming Intentional Disciples, this is not something we can take for granted. Part of those sweeping cultural changes alluded to by Ms. Kaveny is a wholesale forgetting of the story of Christianity: the reality of sin, the need for God’s saving help, and the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

If Christians are to ensure that there is a next generation of believers, they will need to find ways to tell the stories of the faith, as well as their own individual stories of conversion. That is, they will need to focus on the work of evangelization in witness and proclamation, for without evangelization catechesis cannot be fruitful, regardless of the cultural context in which we find ourselves.

Image from The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969)

What My Little Ponies Can Teach Us About the New Evangelization

The third season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic just made it on to Netflix. My 5-year old daughter loves the show and roped me into watching the opening two-part episode with her. (Admittedly she didn’t have to press hard; the show is actually pretty good and includes plenty of funny Easter eggs for adults.)

The first part of the episode features the return of a long-lost kingdom of crystal ponies. Twilight Sparkle (the main character, pictured above) and her friends are sent to investigate and find that all the ponies in the kingdom are suffering from a form of selective amnesia. Research in the library reveals that their spirits can be lifted (and the kingdom protected from the evil King Sombra) by holding the annual Crystal Fair. Twilight and friends then sing a song about saving the ponies by re-introducing them to their history:

It occurred to me that this is a useful metaphor for understanding the work of the New Evangelization.

Our post-modern culture has forgotten it’s roots and cut itself off from any interest in or embrace of the past, especially anything smacking of the supernatural or spiritual. The radical relativism that pervades the culture has replaced truth and beauty with a tepid “truthiness” and utilitarianism; Christianity has been replaced with a therapeutic moral deism that is more concerned with its own feelings and desires than a spirituality rooted in an objective reality. (Science fiction author John C. Wright, in a recent blog post, identifies the First World War as the major precipitating factor of this cultural amnesia, which seems about right to me.)

The work of the New Evangelization, then, is to re-introduce (or, to use Pope Benedict’s language, re-propose) Jesus Christ and Christianity to a culture that has largely forgotten him and his message.

It is important to note that this re-introduction has a strong historical character. The Judeo-Christian tradition (including Islam), unlike Hiduism, Buddhism, or tribal religions, is deeply rooted in historical events, places, and figures. This is why St. Luke situates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2)

This is a far cry from “once upon a time!” Luke locates the call of John the Baptist in a very specific time and place. He is not discussing some abstraction outside of time such as the Greek gods or Native American creation stories, but real people who have left a historical record outside of Sacred Scripture. History, then, is a vital component of our understanding of the faith. Knowing how the story of the Church has unfolded over time — how faith in Jesus Christ was expressed in a variety of places and historical epochs — can be a source of great strength and consolation.

Of course, simply talking about it won’t do much good. Twilight Sparkle and her friends didn’t just lecture the crystal ponies about what they discovered in books; they actually held the Crystal Fair! Likewise, we must help people to make connections with history by inviting them to participate in the life of the Church. This may mean helping people to participate in devotions that were meaningful to them when they were young; it may mean introducing them to new practices. Regardless we must help them reignite the spark of faith in their lives. It is participating in the life of faith — especially in the Eucharist — that connects us to the great cloud of witnesses and raises our spirits to God.

If part of the problem of modern culture is a fundamental ignorance of and disdain for our history — grounded, as it is, in a Christian cultural context — then talking about and immersing ourselves in that history must be a part of the New Evangelization. We can, in fact, save the world with our history.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Photo Credit: Nuwandalice via Compfight cc

Habemus Papam! A Personal Reflection

fry-whitesmokeIt’s hard to be sure since I’ve only experienced two in my living memory (the first two taking place when I was less than six months old), but sitting in bed last night it occurred to me how similar to pregnancy an interregnum is. The watchful anticipation; discerning signs of impending activity; the breathless anticipation as we wait for the appearance of this person. The buzz I felt yesterday. sitting with my colleagues and waiting for the new pontiff’s appearance, was not unlike the anxiousness I have felt while my wife has been in labor. Even now we must take the time to get to know our new Holy Father — not unlike receiving a new child into the family.

Of course some are already celebrating him; some are already decrying him. I suspect this is nothing new in the history of the Church as all manner of people seem to have an opinion on what a new pope should do — not; should say — or not. Personally I tend to take a more cautious approach. Attestations on Twitter that “We love him already!” make me uncomfortable, as it should anyone who knows the history of the papacy. (There’s a reason so few popes are listed among the saints, and why Dante listed so many as residences of Hell!) That’s not to impugn the character or sanctity of Pope Francis, but simply to point out that the papacy is more about the office than the person holding it. Popes come and go; Peter’s chair remains.

Of course I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased by his choice of name, which I share (yes, that F. stands for Francis). My connections with the poor man of Assisi run deep, having been baptized by Capuchins and educated by OFMs. My brief defection to the Dominicans in graduate school only deepened my love for Francis’ mendicant spirituality. I hope that Pope Francis will speak on his own relationship with St. Francis, which I suspect is strong.

So, for now, we watch and wait and pray for our shepherd. At Mass this morning our pastor was practically beaming as he announced that we would be celebrating a Mass of thanksgiving for Pope Francis. I hope that joy remains for a long time so that the world might see the faith the Church has — not in this pope, but in Jesus Christ who has provided again for this little flock. Deo gratias.

The Spirit of Christmas

“There is just one season in the year when men seem able to realise for a moment what the Incarnation means for us all; and never was this so strikingly seen as in the Flanders trenches at Christmas, 1914.

“Just before Christmas there had been some attacks and counter-attacks here and there, and many casualties, but as the holy season drew closer the firing seemed to die down by a general instinct. On Christmas Eve in some sectors the German parapet was decorated with candles and the singing of carols was heard. In the morning from trench to trench were shouted greetings, and all along the line the bolder spirits began walking into no-man’s-land for a talk with equally adventurous enemies. Officers entered into the spirit of the proceedings, and as the day went on a good part of both armies had left their trenches and were fraternising in crowds between the lines, exchanging cigarettes and chocolate from their Christmas parcels.

“An eye-witness, writing twenty years after (in Reynolds’ News), says: ‘Our brigade was composed of the Gordon Highlanders, the Scots Guards, and the Border Regiment. On Christmas Eve a seventy-two-hour truce was arranged to bury the dead. We sent German identification discs and pay-books to the German lines. They replied by sending similar grim relics to our lines. We fraternised, exchanged views and rations. . . . When the truce ended the Germans fired three volleys in the air to indicate that hostilities were resumed. Even so, about twenty Germans were still walking about unarmed on the top of their trenches, and our lads did not attempt to shoot them down. Indeed, although many of us were threatened with court-martial, our unofficial armistice lasted for fourteen days.’

“Another (Seaforth Highlanders): ‘On Christmas Eve German soldiers began to shout across that they wanted Christmas without firing. At first it was regarded as a joke. As night advanced there seemed to be more sentiment in the German’s shouting, and one of our fellows, a daredevil corporal named Davie Flint, cried : “If you’re not afraid, come right over.” Someone came. Davie threw off his equipment and jumped forward to meet him. Others followed, and for four days Germans and Seaforths  exchanged smokes and rations. It was glorious. We enjoyed the utmost freedom and officers joined in our rejoicing. Then we went out for our four-days’ rest. On returning the Colonel said that fraternisation must cease, we were at war. A German was coming towards us. The Colonel shouted to him to go back. He failed to do so, and orders were given to fire over his head. This was done. The Germans replied with five shells. That is the true story of the first Noel of the war, before Messines in 1914.’ (Isaac Sefton, Airdrie.)

“Another: ‘I was serving with the 2nd Bedfords. The Germans put lanterns on the front of their trenches and called out to us not to fire as it was Christmas. There was singing on both sides. Before long British and German soldiers were exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs in no-man’s-land. We were later relieved by the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and our opposite number, the Saxons, by the Prussian Guards Orders were at once given reminding us that we were at war. Shots were fired over the heads of the Germans. Hostilities resumed. I don’t know what happened to the Saxon soldier who was a waiter in a London hotel. If he had the luck to come through it all, here’s Christmas greetings to him from G. L. Joyce, Peterborough.’

“The Christmas spirit could go on all the year round if our Faith in the first Christmas was strong enough.”

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part I: the Creed (1939)

“We paid to teach the children in the corner of an open corn crib”

Today, while cleaning out some files, my secretary came across a 1931 report from the National Catholic Welfare Conference (predecessor to the USCCB) on “Programs Conducted in Many Dioceses for the Instruction of Catholic Children Not in Catholic Schools.” It includes short reports from various dioceses.

The report from my diocese was written by one Very Rev. Msgr. Edward J. Cahill, the diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. Some highlights:

  • [On establishing parish catechetical programs] “At first pastors were dubious, many had territory fifteen more and less miles square; sometimes parts of three or four rural school districts were contained in one rural parish. Pastors thought children had to work in vacation, had no means of getting to the church, or would not come in. But many of them tried the plan and were surprised at success; results, more children attending Mass; taught to sing and had High Mass where it was impossible before; attendat Sacraments increased.”
  • “Most pastors prefer Sisters. We pay them $5.00 each week and all expenses. Sisters like it. Many places now have Sisters coming to the parish from a nearby school for Saturday and Sunday. This idea is growing. One pastor hired a Catholic public school teacher, paid her $50.00 a month and had classes all day for July and August. He was lukewarm at first but almost a fanatic for the work after he tried it.”
  • [On utilizing public school facilities] “The K.K.K. came out in autos and tried intimidation after the School Board refused to listen to them. We are not easily intimidated ‘out our way.’ We even got a Catholic woman teaching in this public school. We used public schools in several places; we rented houses, halls, barns, and in one place we paid to teach the children in the corner of an open corn crib.”
  • “Here is another point that may be of interest: In two country districts of this diocese the Lutherans, all farmers, have schools on their church property. When the public schools are closed, they send their children to these church schools for the remainder of the summer. If Lutherans can do that, why can’t Catholics? They will, as we found from experience, if the pastor is an energetic man, with faith in this work, with patience to begin humbly and build up year to year.”
  • “Most priests need to keep themselves better informed. They need more faith in the ability of the mustard seed to grow and become useful. This is practical work; it can be done and is being done successfully… Of course, all this means hard work, optimism, and using one’s head.”

That last part at the end, I submit, is still good advice for all of us involved in the catechetical ministry of the Church.

Fr. James Murray and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of participating in the annual Calvary Cemetery “Walk with Your Ancestors” event sponsored by the Diocesan Archives. I portrayed Fr. James Murray, a priest of the diocese who died during the 1918 flu epidemic.

The diocese has posted videos of all the portrayals online, including my own.

The other videos can be viewed at the diocese’s Vimeo page.

Cruelty is always in men’s hearts

In spite of Christianity the cruel and bloody spectacle of the amphitheatres, especially the gladiatorial shows, still continued in the early fifth century.

An old hermit named Telemachus lived in the mountains, and heard at prayer a voice telling him: ‘Go to Rome ”I have work for you there !’ He was old and reluctant and tried to treat it as illusion, but the voice persisted and at last he took the toilsome road to Rome.

Arriving there one morning, he was drawn along to the Coliseum with the crowds which were converging there. He took his seat, an incongruous figure, unmindful of the mocking smiles of the city folk around him.

Two parties of gladiators marched round the arena and lined up to fight. Then the old hermit suddenly knew what he had to do, and strength came to him to do it. He ran down the gangways, got into the arena, and stood between the combatants and shouted: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ who died for men! Do not kill each other!’

A moment of silence, then laughter from the gladiators and an angry roar from the crowd. Someone threw a stone, many others followed. In a minute or two St. Telemachus lay dead on the sand.

But the incident was talked of everywhere, and many said he was right. The Christian conscience awakened, and soon the Emperor issued a decree which ended these cruel and murderous public entertainments.

Cruelty, blood-lust, even murder lives under the surface in the hearts of ordinary men. Only Jesus Christ is strong enough to hold it in check.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part III: The Commandments (1939)

Catholic Schools: The More Things Change…

I recently started reading Parish School: A History of American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present by Timothy Walch. It’s a high-level view of the issues that have confronted the Church’s educational mission in America since the first settlers arrived in this country.

I’ve just hit the Reconstruction Era and already I am struck at how little has changed in 150 years. Then, as now, priests and bishops sought to combat the influence of the wider culture by providing for alternative educational opportunities for Catholic youth. Parish schools were seen as a particularly effective way to ensure the faith of the next generation, especially since the public education system was dominated by the nation’s Protestantism.

As a result, the country’s ecclesial leaders fretted over the fact that many Catholic children neither attended a Catholic school nor received religious instruction in the parish. In 1840 the bishops issued a pastoral letter that stated, in part,

It is no easy matter to preserve the faith of your children in the midst of so many difficulties. We are always better pleased to have a separate system of education for the children of our communion because we have found by painful experience, that in any common effort it was always expected that our distinctive principles of religious belief in practice should be yielded to the demands of those who thought it proper to charge us with error.

In other words, the country’s bishops saw Catholic education as a vital means of preserving the faith among young people in the face of a society which valued assimilation over tradition. They were also frustrated by parents who saw education not as a means of forming our children in the Catholic faith but   as a means of upward social mobility through academic learning.

Is this ringing any bells?

That we are still wrestling with these questions over 150 years later is both frustrating and somewhat reassuring. On the one hand, it would be hoped that we would have made better headway in learning how best to pass on the faith to the next generation. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there is nothing new under the sun and that the Church has endured such problems before.

Still, it would help if every Catholic parent and student understood better the words that Pope Benedict XVI recently related to the Catholic school children of Great Britain:

In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people… A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.