What Can Comedians Teach Us About Ministry?

What Comedians Can Teach Us About Ministry There’s a principle in improvisational comedy called “Yes… and.” The gist is that when someone offers an idea or direction during the game or skit, the other actors should respond with “yes… and” instead of “no” or “but.” By immediately accepting the idea and not shooting it down the energy and action of the game is maintained instead of screeching to a stop:

(NB: The idea isn’t to actually say “yes… and”; it speaks more to a mindset than a scripted line.)

Beyond comedy, this is also a good principle for ministry.

When people come to register at a parish or to ask for a sacrament, they come to us in the midst of their lives: dealing with wounds, asking questions, and searching for the meaning and community that will bring them fulfillment. This process is ongoing. More often than not they have not reached the end of their spiritual journey, ready to “cast down their nets” and embrace the life of Christian discipleship. As a result, they may balk when encouraged to take the next few steps to become engaged in religious education, preparation for marriage, or turn away from some abiding sin.

For example, many couples today come to parishes already cohabitating. This is obviously far from the ideal. Church teaching and sociological studies show that marriages are more likely to succeed if couple live apart until their vows are completed. However, many couples in this situation encounter the blunt message that “until you separate we cannot proceed with marriage preparation.” Many no doubt turn away and simply procure a civil marriage in place of the sacrament.

Adapting the “yes… and” mindset, a pastor or marriage preparation coordinator might instead say:

“Welcome! We are so glad you have come to the Church to celebrate this sacred occasion! However, we note that you are both currently living together. In order to best prepare for your wedding and marriage, we would ask you to consider living apart for the next six months until the wedding. Think of this time as a retreat as you prepare to make your vows. And we would like to help you do this. In fact, we have a couple in our parish who have a spare bedroom that they have offered to anyone preparing for marriage, rent free, so that you can make the most of this time of preparation.”

Adopting the “yes… and” mindset helps to open doors to evangelization by acknowledging the reality of people’s lives while also pointing towards further healing, deeper relationships, and growing faith.

How could you adopt the “yes… and” mindset in your ministry?

Living and Longing in Exile

I’ve been walking through the Old Testament prophets with the diaconate candidates in our diocese the last few weeks. The message of the prophets is centered on God’s call to conversion and the promise of his mercy in the context of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the taking of Judah’s population into captivity by the Babylonians.

Two threads of the prophetic message have stood out to me in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the longing of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem is echoed in the faithful’s desire for the resumption of public celebrations of the liturgy. The psalmist gives voice to this lament: “By the rivers of Babylon/there we sat weeping/when we remembered Zion… How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?” (Ps 137)

Many of the faithful are keenly feeling this loss of the source and summit of our faith, even as they recognize the important public health reasons that have prompted this loss. We can find in the scriptures both words to help us express this loss and the promise that what has been lost will be restored.

The second thread is that the proper celebration of the Temple sacrifices does not exhaust the Lord’s expectations for his people. Micah exhorts the people: “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? … You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:6-8)

A good question for us to consider might be: as I long for the Eucharist and the liturgical celebrations, am I also longing for God’s justice and goodness? How will my rejoicing when the faithful return to Mass be echoed in how I treat my neighbor, especially the poor and the marginalized?

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.

After Obergefell v. Hodges: Now What?

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, kerygmatic 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.

(from the Mass for the New Evangelization)

Why I Remain Catholic

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?

Defeating the World by Embracing the Cross: Under the Influence Of Jesus Blog Tour

One of the great gifts of the New Evangelization is the reminder that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to evangelize the culture because, like us, it is in need of conversion. Christians, we know, are called to live, work, and play within the world without taking on the attitudes and habits of that world which — while made by God and declared good — has nevertheless been broken through sin. Thus our weapons are not those of the world. Rather, our weapons are spiritual in nature.

Joe Paprocki makes this point in his new book Under the Influence of Jesus: The Transforming Experience of Encountering Christ. Joe devotes an entire chapter to the power of the cross and it’s power to transform our ways of living and thinking.

By way of example Joe relates the story of Barabbas and the decision by the Jews to ask for him instead of Jesus when offered a prisoner by Pontius Pilate. Barabbas was a revolutionary who sought to overthrow the occupying Romans by force. Jesus, in contrast, was a king with no visible army who did not defend himself.

These two figures continue to challenge us today as we seek to live in a world increasingly hostile to the kerygma. One tempts us to be “realists” and utilize the ways of the world in order to defeat it. The other asks us to renounce those ways in favor of prayer, fasting, and alms giving. In short, we are asked to embrace the cross. Joe reminds us that

As Christians, we formally worship Jesus on Sunday; but all too many of us continue to clamor for Barabbas the other six days of the week. We do so because we trust that his weapons are more suited to the “real world” than are those of Jesus Christ. As a result, we remain enslaved by what I call the “Barabbas cycle.” Whenever we perceive that we are “attacked” by an evil, we are inclined to respond with a bigger, stronger (but in our eyes more righteous) version of the same evil. Ironically, our actions are self-defeating. By perpetuating evil, we are only strengthening the enemy we aim to crush.

The Gospels, of course, tell us that choosing Barabbas is a mistake — that Jesus is the savior we need, and that his weapon, the cross, is more powerful than any gun.

The cross? Cue those crickets again.

Unfortunately too often we fall short of Christ’s call and fall prey to the temptation to fight fire with fire. Whether calling for preemptive war, making disparaging and uncharitable comments online, gossiping in the office, or playing politics while ignoring the common good, the ways of the world lead away from the cross and the Kingdom of God.

Fortunately we can renounce the bad habits of the world and seek to embrace the way of the cross in our lives. Joe offers three suggestions for cultivating “kingdom habits” that will help us embrace our crosses and use them for the spiritual benefit of the world:

  1. Cultivate silence as a means of silencing the ego.
  2. Shift the focus away from our own needs by reducing our consumption.
  3. Focus on others by practicing generosity.

These three habits can not only radically transform our personal lives; they are also key habits for the New Evangelization, which calls us out of ourselves in order to preach the Gospel through the proclamation of the kerygma and the practice of the Works of Mercy.

I highly recommend Under the Influence of Jesus — in fact, I’m giving away a copy to a lucky reader! Check out this blog post for details.

Notes – Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization

Today I’m at the National Catholic Educational Association’s Convention and Expo in Pittsburgh giving a presentation entitled “Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization.” Below are my notes and materials from the presentation as well as links to additional resources. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter where I’ll be posting notes, thoughts, and pictures from the conference!




Affirmative Orthodoxy and Excommunication

Excommunication is a widely misunderstood part of the Church’s pastoral practice. Many people believe that excommunication is used to “kick people out” of the Church whenever they disagree with a bishop or priest. Others believe that it is used to threaten people with eternal damnation. Few know just what excommunication signifies and its purpose in reconciling people to the Church.

What Does the Church Say?

“They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.” (Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church], n. 14)

Excommunication is “a severe ecclesiastical penalty, resulting from grave crimes against the Catholic religion, imposed by ecclesiastical authority or incurred as a direct result of the commission of an offence. Excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the Eucharist or other sacraments and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function.” (CCC)

“An excommunicated person is forbidden: to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever; to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments; to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.” (Code of Canon Law, c. 1331)

Teaching through Affirmative Orthodoxy

Excommunication, unsurprisingly, is connected to our understanding of the Church and its members. As the Second Vatican Council made clear, membership with the Body of Christ is bound by the profession of faith (believing what the Church believes), participation in the sacraments (particularly Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist), and communion with the visible institution, embodied in the College of Bishops with the Bishop of Rome at its head.

Those who break with any three of these bonds sever their relationship with the Body of Christ. For instance, a person who denies the bodily resurrection of Christ professes a different faith than the Church. Similarly, a cleric or religious who engages in obstinate disobedience to a bishop or superior to which their obedience has been pledged has indicated that they have put themselves outside the governance of the Church.

A decree of excommunication is merely the formal acknowledgement of this ruptured relationship and a call to repentance. This is why excommunication is called a “medicinal” remedy — it’s purpose is not punitive, but to call the person to reestablish that which has been broken. Indeed, those who are excommunicated are not considered outside the Church, but members in need of reconciliation and healing. Similarly, excommunication does not imply anything about the state of the person’s eternal soul; God alone knows that.

Helping people to situate excommunication in the context of the bonds that keep the members of the Church connected is a useful way to help them understand the issues at play when a person is declared to be excommunicated from the Church. Of course, it must also be stated that excommunication can be abused — St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary Mary MacKillop being two famous examples! This is why the Code of Canon Law spells out under what circumstances excommunication is incurred. It is not to be taken lightly.

That having been said, excommunicated members of the Body of Christ should be treated with the love and dignity which calls them to renewed commitment to their faith. Indeed, shunning members who have been excommunicated or otherwise ostracizing them may simply drive them further from the Church and the sacraments. Although they are not permitted to receive the Eucharist they are still obligated to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; their presence at the liturgy should not be a cause for scandal but an incitement to prayer for their eventual reconciliation.

photo by foxypar4/flickrCC

Affirmative Orthodoxy and Divorce

This is the first in a series of posts looking at difficult Church teachings through the lens of Affirmative Orthodoxy.

Divorce has become epidemic in our society and the Church rightly decries it as a scourge on families and society. But how can we take about marriage from the standpoint of Affirmative Orthodoxy? What would a “positive” approach to a discussion on divorce look like?

What Does the Church Say?

“The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath  which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.” (CCC no. 1617)

œ’From a valid marriage arises  a bond  between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state  by a special sacrament.’  (CCC no. 1638)

“The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ They ‘are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.’ This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together.” (CCC no. 1644)

“It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this witness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community.” (CCC no. 1648)

Divorce  is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign.” (CCC no. 2384)

Teaching through Affirmative Orthodoxy

When  approaching  the topic of divorce and the Church, the key is focusing on what the Church affirms: namely that, as a sign of Christ’s abiding and eternal love for his bride, the Church, the union of man and wife is indissoluble and permanent. If the marriage bond were not indissoluble, one might rightly ask what good the marriage between Christ and the Church is. If the possibility were open that Christ might set aside his bride then the assurance of salvation has no foundation. But we cling to Christ’s promise of fidelity and it is in the image of this promise that the bonds of matrimony are formed. That is why divorce is described as an offence against the “covenant of salvation” — it denies the eternal fidelity of the Bridegroom, Christ, to his chosen ones.

On a more practical note, it is the  indissolubility  of marriage that allows for the total self-giving of husband to wife and wife to husband, most perfectly visioned in the openness to new life that is the mark of a Christian marriage. As we have seen time and again, children best thrive when both parents are present; when one or the other is missing it is almost always more difficult on the child. This formation of the family — mother, father, child — can only be maintained when relationships are stable and permanent.

This is why the Church takes marriage preparation so seriously. By helping couples to discern their intentions and  capacity  to commit to a life-long relationship the hope is that future complications can be minimized. (As anyone who is married can tell you you can never  eliminated  difficulties!) Unfortunately the modern culture’s commitment to radical individual autonomy and self-gratification makes this task even more difficult. It behooves anyone involved in marriage preparation to take this task most seriously and impress upon  engaged  couples the seriousness of the  commitment  they are making.

Finally, it is also important to clear up any misconceptions about what the Church teaches regarding the status of divorced individuals. Many people are under the mistaken impression that any divorced person is barred from  receiving  Holy Communion; in fact there is no such prohibition since, in the eyes of the Church, the couple is merely separated and the marriage still intact. (That does not, however, diminish the grave offense divorce commits against the natural order.) On the other hand, those who have divorced and “re-marry” without an  annulment  compound the offence and engage in “public and permanent  adultery” (Cf  CCC no. 2384) and thus should not present themselves for the reception of Communion (per canon 915). Failure to make this distinction has led to much confusion and kept some people away from the sacrament who might otherwise have benefited from its grace.

Photo by jcoterhals/flickrCC

Affirmative Orthodoxy and…

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that I’m a  proponent  of what John L. Allen has called “Affirmative Orthodoxy.” In his words this is “a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key.” Or, as Pope Benedict XVI has said,

Christianity, Catholicism,  isn’t  a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.

Unfortunately, in our evangelization and catechetical efforts, it can be easy to focus on the “thou shalt nots” of the faith, forgetting that these are first grounded in “thou shalts.” But if we want to attract people to the faith — if we truly want to be fishers of men — we must give them something positive to believe in together and not just focus on what we can condemn together.

As I said, this can be tricky. So beginning Monday, as an exercise for myself, I will be publishing a weekly series of blog posts demonstrating how some of the harder teachings of the Church can be presented first from a positive point of reference. The subjects I will be tackling are

  • Divorce
  • Excommunication
  • Contraception
  • Closed Communion
  • Gay Marriage
  • Abortion

I hope that you will find these posts interesting and helpful. I invite you to leave comments on the posts, especially if you’ve ever wrestled with how to answer questions about these doctrines from friends, family, or others. See you tomorrow!