We Shall Draw Water Joyfully

A new article of mine is now available on Catechist magazine’s website:

The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin and brought you to new life through water and the Holy Spirit.” With these words,  spoken to the neophytes immediately after their Baptism at the Easter Vigil, the Church professes our belief in the unique power of the sacrament of Baptism.

Baptism has a special significance for catechists, since the truth it bears — salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — is the faith we proclaim in our teaching. Understanding our Baptism — and drawing on its graces as a source of inspiration and strength — is a necessity for all who proclaim the Catholic faith to others.

Read the read at catechist.com…

Generation Z and Evangelizing the Digital Culture

Last week our diocese hosted its fall Parish Catechetical Leaders meeting. This group is made up of pastoral associates, DREs, youth ministers, and other catechetical and evangelization leaders in our parishes.

Our speaker was Jonathan Blevins (@BeardedBlevins). He spoke about Generation Z (the “post-Millennials”) and how he’s used video games and social media to create an evangelizing community for young people:

Thanks to Jonathan for joining us for the day!

What is an “Ordinary” Mass?

I appreciated this weekend’s episode of the CNA Editor’s Desk podcast and their conversation about parish membership and what drives people to choose a parish. I was particularly gratified to hear Ed Condon echo a sentiment (at about 27:16 in the episode) I’ve had over the years — that part of the fragmentation of parish life is the diversification of styles of celebration of the liturgy in parishes:

Almost everywhere I’ve lived there have been a variety of parishes — and styles of liturgy — to choose from: the “liberal” parish, the “traditional” parish, the “social justice” parish, etc. Almost inevitably parishes that are known as a “type” allow this to influence their celebration of the Mass in such a way as to distort or work against what would seem to be the clear rubrics. In the case of so-called liberal parishes this often takes the form of changing the words of prayers or creating extra ministries for laypeople; in the case of traditionalist parishes, of adding back in gestures or prayers from older forms of the Mass that aren’t called for in the Ordinary Form.

Indeed, I can think of only two parishes I have worshiped in regularly in the past that seemed to favor a “vanilla” style of liturgy — that is, simply doing what the Church prescribes in her ritual texts. One was the only parish in a small town (the result of a merger of five parishes some years earlier) and the other was a Midwestern cathedral. (Our current parish is pretty good, too.)

So what would an “ordinary” Catholic Mass look like? Here are four elements I think we should consider: (In case it needs stating: these are my opinions and not necessarily those of my employer.)

  1. Following the words and rubrics of the ritual texts. I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “Say the Black, Do the Red” because it seems overly reductive (especially insofar as it ignores the importance of the ars celebrandi — more on that in a minute) but there is something to be said for following the texts gifted to us by the Church. I’ve been in Masses where the priest blatantly left out phrases from the prayers, interrupted the prayers to make comments, and invented new blessings and rituals whole cloth (“renewal of vows” at wedding anniversary celebrations are a good example of the latter). The people have a right to the proper celebration of the Church’s liturgy; being guided by the Church’s texts seems like a minimal consideration to give them.
  2. A focus on a simple, reverential celebration of the liturgy. Even when the texts are followed exactly it’s possible to celebrate the Mass in a lackadaisical, irreverent fashion. I’ve even seen this in more conservative parishes where the gestures were performed with extreme precision but the words spoken in a casual, almost off-handed manner. Those leading liturgical celebrations should strive to do so in a reverential manner, avoiding the extremes of being too performative, too regimented, or too glib.
  3. Appropriate inculturation. One of Thom Rainer’s principles in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church is that the congregation should look like the community in which it’s situated. For Catholics, the liturgy should also take into account the community and cultures of the people gathered. If there is a heavy Latino presence, some elements of the all Sunday Masses should be spoken in Spanish — even if there is a dedicated Spanish Mass. If the parish is in a rural community, regular celebration of various blessings for seed and harvest times should occur. In this way the liturgy can more deeply touch the everyday cares and concerns of the faithful.
  4. Hymns the people can sing. Ignoring the rubrical question of antiphons versus hymns, the selection of music is one of the most visual (aural?) ways a parish inculturates the Mass for its local community. While allowing for a variety of styles, liturgists and music coordinators should choose music that is in a range people can sing and that is easy enough to pick up after a verse or two. Too many modern liturgical tunes are neither and wind up becoming performance pieces for the choir.

Consideration of these elements doesn’t depend on location or resources; they can be adopted in the largest basilica or the humblest mission parish. But, as noted in the CNA discussion, having the liturgy celebrated in an “ordinary” way across parishes would help mitigated the felt need for parish shopping and eliminate some of the fragmentation of Catholic communities.

Knowing Jesus as a Catechist

This weekend the Church in the United States observes Catechetical Sunday, an annual celebration during which we recognize and pray for those who pass on the Catholic faith. This includes parish catechists, RCIA team members, teachers in Catholic schools, and youth ministers.

In his 1979 encyclical letter Catechesi Tradendae, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.” (no. 5) That is, the role of the catechist is to pass on a relationship and love of Jesus Christ.

As such, it is of prime importance that catechists themselves know, love, and serve the Lord:  “Whoever is called ‘to teach Christ’ must first seek ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 428) But how can catechists come to this “surpassing worth?” How does one grow in the knowledge and love of the Jesus in order to share it with others?

The first way catechists can come to know Jesus is by reading and knowing the Sacred Scriptures, for in them we hear the Word of God echo through the centuries. Catechists should engage in regular reading of the Bible and reflect on God’s word. (The ancient practice of lectio divina is a wonderful tool in this regard.) Catechists should be especially attentive to the story of salvation – how God seeks to forgive our sins, heal the brokenness of our hearts, and reconcile us to him, culminating in Jesus’ sacrificial work on the Cross.

Second, catechists come to know Jesus through a life of prayer. This includes asking God to respond to our needs and the needs of those we catechize, but it also means simply spending time with God so that we can speak to him from our hearts and listen for his response. Whether in an adoration chapel or the quiet of our living rooms, prayer offers us an intimate connection to God without which a true relationship is impossible.

The liturgy is another way catechists grown in their love of Jesus, for it is in the liturgy that we gather as the Christian community to offer praise and worship of God. By participating regularly in the communal prayer of the Church and the sacraments – especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation – God’s grace penetrates our hearts, we are conformed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are commissioned for the work of evangelization.

Finally, it is in the life of the Church that we come to know Jesus, for the Church is the Body of Christ. The Christian life is never just “me and God”; to be a Christian is always to be in communion with other disciples, especially the successors of the apostles. By listening to their authoritative teaching and seeking to reflect it in our lives we draw closer to Jesus.

These four means do not exhaust the ways in which we come to know Jesus, but they do serve as foundations on which a life of Christian discipleship are built. I pray that all catechists and teachers of the faith will grow in their love of Jesus and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit for their ministry!

This column originally appeared in the September 15, 2019, edition of The Catholic Moment.

The Fruits and Challenges of Restoring the Order

Last fall I had the pleasure of submitting an article to Catechist magazine exploring the pros and cons of the movement to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth. The article is now online:

At the same time, moving the sacrament of Confirmation to an earlier age is not a panacea for the Church’s evangelization of young people. Simply moving up the age of Confirmation doesn’t address the need to evangelize young people — to proclaim the kerygma, mentor them in a life of faith, and accompany them in their growing relationship with Jesus.

Read more at Catechist magazine…

The Tasks of Catechesis

On May 2 our diocesan Office of Catechesis hosted our biannual Parish Catechetical Leaders meeting. We host these gatherings twice a year as an opportunity for fellowship and ongoing formation for DREs, youth ministers, RCIA coordinators, and other parish leaders.

This spring the theme of our meeting was “Education, Formation, and Catechesis.” I gave a presentation on the tasks of catechesis (as found in the General Directory for Catechesis); I’m happy to share the audio and slides of that presentation here:

Question from the Field: Can Students Bless One Another?

A few years back I received a question about the appropriateness of students in catechetical programs signing one another on the forehead with holy water at the start of class. The catechist had been told that blessings can only be given by someone who has authority over the person receiving the blessing (e.g., a parent to a child or a bishop to a member of his flock) and wanted to know if this was true.

We need to make a distinction between liturgical blessings and devotional blessings. The former are defined by the Church and set out in ritual texts (such as the Roman Missal or Book of Blessings); the latter are not defined, but should support and and extend the liturgical practices of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1675).

The Catechism says of blessings:

Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless. Hence lay people may preside at certain blessings; the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1669)

There is nothing in that explanation that supports a hierarchical notion of blessings of persons over persons; the principle regards the nature of the blessing itself.

So the question then becomes: how concerned with “ecclesial and sacramental life” is a non-liturgical blessing on the forehead with holy water?

The Book of Blessings gives us some guidance. Generally, liturgical blessings over people (“Blessing of the Sick,” “Blessing of a Mother Before Childbirth, “Blessing of Students”) give the option of allowing a lay person to preside if no clergy are present. The text states that

[L]aymen and laywomen, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they posses because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings… Such laypersons exercise this ministry in virtue of their office (for example, parents on behalf of their children) or by reason of some special liturgical ministry or in fulfillment of a particular charge in the Church, as is the case in many places with religious or catechists appointed by decision of the local Ordinary. (Book of Blessings, no. 18; emphasis in the original)

Students signing one another with holy water seems in line with the “Blessing of Students.” Given the principles of the Book of Blessings, the ideal would be for the catechist to do the blessings. (And in fact, I think it would be a powerful ritual symbol for a catechist to sign the foreheads of students as they came into the classroom.) But since the signing in question isn’t a liturgical action, but a devotional one, I don’t think there’s anything stopping a catechist from delegating the act of signing to a student. (If it were a liturgical action, such as celebrating the “Blessing of Students” from the Book of Blessings, I’d say the catechist must preside, unless a member of the clergy is present, in which case he would be the proper minister.)