The priest forgives sins

During 1937, in Alicante, a young Spaniard of Nationalist sympathies had been caught while trying to board a foreign ship, and lay in prison under sentence of death. Earnestly he was praying, not for release, but to get confession and absolution before he died.

On the night before his execution the cell-door opened and an old man dressed as a pedlar was thrown in.

‘Get in here,’ said the jailer. ‘Tomorrow you’ll have the cell to yourself.’

The first prisoner lay watching the new-comer take off his shoes and cloak, and prepare himself for the night. Before lying down, however, the old man scratched a small cross on the wall and knelt down to say his prayers.

‘Are you a Catholic?’ asked the young man eagerly.

‘I am. And you?’

They talked in low tones, and soon the young man told the other of his longing for confession.

‘I still think God may grant my prayer.’

‘He has granted it already,’ said the pedlar, with a smile. ‘I am a priest. Ever since the war began I have gone from place to place in this disguise to bring the sacraments to the faithful.’

Next morning the jailer was puzzled to see that the young prisoner, when led out to die, no longer wore a look of fear and strain, but of radiant peace and joy.

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

Episode 006 – Parents and the Priesthood

006This episode is a little different. Instead of an interview it features a talk given by Fr. Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., to a group of DREs last year. In it he talks about some of the fears shared by the parents he talks to as their sons discern a vocation to the priesthood.

Fr. Wisdom is the promoter of vocations for the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great. He is also author of the pamphlet Why Should I Encourage My Son To Be A Priest? and the book Advent and Christmas Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas.

Click to Play – 006 – Parents and the Priesthood

Evangelical Catholics: The Future of the Church

The indefatigable John Allen’s latest column examines the trend of “evangelical Catholicism” in the Church. He makes a number of points about this movement, which he describes as “a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity coupled with an impulse to express that identity in the public realm.”

Perhaps most notably, and counter to the prevailing narrative, he points out that

there’s a tendency in some circles to see evangelical Catholicism, with its strong emphasis on hierarchical authority and traditional doctrine, as a “top-down” project intended to bolster the sagging power of the clerical caste. No doubt, such political calculations can be part of the picture, but sociologists such as Roy confirm that the evangelical wave has much deeper roots in widespread social forces, and is thus a “bottom-up” force too. The hunger for a “thick” sense of Catholic distinctiveness among some Catholic young people these days, basically unsolicited by anyone in authority (and at times seen by church authorities with ambivalence), makes the point.

I’m surprised that this would surprise anyone. While I know a number of younger priests who fit the definition of “evangelical Catholic,” I see them as largely having arisen from the movement as opposed to instigating it. Just this week I was talking to a priest who grew up as a Baptist. One of the things he was looking for when he (re-)joined the Church was a solid foundation on which to base his faith — something he didn’t think his Baptist church, which often fragmented when a new pastor was hired, afforded him.

That this should be true for the laity — even absent any prodding from the clergy — really shouldn’t surprise us. When I have conversations with other catechetical leaders the talk often turns to the so-called “lost generations” who received incomplete catechesis in their parishes. It is only natural that, lacking a solid foundation of understanding in their faith, they should be drawn to a more robust and (to borrow a phrase) “caffeinated” Christianity.

The challenge for the Church, I believe, is to welcome evangelical Catholics and create space for their energy to act as leaven in the Church. They are the heir-apparent of the Boomers and the future movers and shakers in the Church (indeed, they are already making their presence known in many organizations). Coupled with their deft use of social media and other communication technologies, anyone who dismisses their efforts will soon find themselves left in the dust as evangelical Catholics create their own structures to carry out their work in the Church.

Leadership vs. Authority

Living in Illinois the past month has given me reason to reflect on the nature of leadership. I’m sure everyone who isn’t living under a rock has heard about the recent… troubles of our governor. Even now the wheels are turning to force him from office and convict him of criminal wrong-doing. People are saying that he is no longer fit to lead, that no one will now follow his leadership, the state is looking for new leadership.

We also hear about leadership within the Church. Sometimes its criticism of the bishops’ leadership or that a new pastor has been brought in the lead the local parish. This is understandable; after all, modern organizational practice seems built on a foundation of charismatic leaders who can inspire others to greater productivity and cooperation. Just look at the many books outlining systems and tips for leadership which have become staples for CEOs and VPs around the country; I’ve even got a small section of shelf space devoted to such titles as Leadership on the Line and Heroic Leadership in my office.

But speaking of leadership in the Church is, I think a misnomer — or, at least, a deviation from the way God has ordered our communal life as the People of God. God does not call people to leadership as such; nowhere, as near as I can tell, does Scripture describe leadership as a role in the Church or a gift of the Holy Spirit. (Even the gift of kubernesis in 1Cor 12:28, sometimes translated as “leadership,” is more akin to administration — it is the root of our word “govern”.)

God does not give us leaders; rather, he grants authority to those he chooses for specific roles in the community. This may seem like a small distinction, but it is, I think, a crucial one. We follow leaders of our own accord, subject the whims and fancies of fallen man. I may like this politician one week and another the next, depending on my mood (to say nothing of the popular consensus). But we are called to obey those with authority, not because we want to but because it is the natural way of things. We are all called to different roles. A foot is a foot and the head is a head; they each have a proper role to play in the body (cf 1 Cor 12:12-20). It would be improper — not to mention disastrous! — if we tried to use our head as a foot and vice versa.

To take a simple example, parents have authority over their children (who are, in turn, commanded to respect their parents). It doesn’t matter how likable a father is or how much charisma a mother has; families are comprised of a natural hierarchy. Parents guide and teach their children to live a good, virtuous life. Their authority is not arbitrary; it has a purpose and an end towards which it is ordered. A child cannot govern a household (a fact that may not be apparent on most television shows these days), and it is a tragedy we all recognize when a child is called upon to act as the adult in a home.

Not don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the child is less important or less deserving than the parent. Merely that it is not their role to head the household. There may even be exceptions (as in those regrettable circumstances when parents cannot, or will not, run the household in a right and just manner). But those exceptions, by definition, are not normative and should not be seen as equal — either qualitatively or quantitatively — to the norm. We should strive of the ideal, even when we must content ourselves with the actual.

So it is in the Church. We all have our roles; we are not all given the same role or authority. To forget this distorts the natural order and leaves us, in times of crisis, with no stable foundation on which to reside.