What I Learned From My Lent Without Twitter

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you know that I took social media off for Lent. This is the first time I’ve ever done this and it was an interesting experiment that netted some important lessons:

  1. I didn’t miss it. Sure, there were one or two times when I thought “Hey, I should share this on Twitter!” But the feeling quickly passed and I doubt anyone really missed a random link about evangelization or catechesis from me..
  2. I missed hearing from some online friends. There are a number of people I only know online who I enjoy interacting with and I did miss them. Which makes me think I should find some ways to meet these folks face-to-face.
  3. I wasn’t more productive. I had hoped that I might get some writing done, or a bunch of reading. That didn’t happen; in fact, my pace seemed to slow down a bit more this Lent than in years passed. And I was OK with that.
  4. I missed a bunch of hot takes on current events… and that was great. One of the interesting side effects of being off social media was not hearing about breaking news until after the initial reactions had passed and there had been time to get context. This was a much more enjoyable way to consume news and makes me want to return to more long-form reading in magazines and journals that have taking time to reflect before publication.

I’m not sure I’ll give up social media next year, but I’m glad I did it this year. I hope I’ll be able to take these lessons to heart in my use of Twitter in the coming months.

On the Pleasures of Riding the Bus

My mechanic recently informed me that my old car is effectively dead, by which I mean he told me it’s structurally unsound and would require $1000+ to make it safe for driving. As a result, I’ve been taking the bus to and from work a few days a week when my wife has need of our other vehicle.

I’ve been an on-and-off public transit rider since shortly after we got married, when I was working and studying for my masters degree in St. Louis. We lived in north St. Louis county where I was able to pick up the bus a block from our apartment, transfer at the airport for a ride on St. Louis’ light rail line, and then catch another bus that would drop me off close to my office.

The whole trip would take over a hour, during which I came to love public transportation. I rode regularly when I lived in Springfield, Illinois, and am similarly fortunate here that bus stops are located near both our home and my office. Sure, driving my car would be faster and more convenient. But riding the bus and train is a pleasure in a way battling through highway traffic never is:

  1. Using public transportation gives me the opportunity to decompress at the end of the work day. I’m an introvert, and after a day of meetings, workshops, and interaction with other people — all of which I love! — I need some time to re-energize, especially if I’m going to give my children the attention they need from their father. A 45-60 minute bus ride, during which I don’t have to concentrate on driving, is a welcome respite that even my wife has noticed helps me be in a better mood at the end of the day.
  2. I use the time to pray and read (mostly). The commute to and from work gives me plenty of time for… well, most anything I want, really, which means it’s ideal time for praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The truth is I’m pretty bad at carving out time in the morning to pray (having a 5-year old who tends to get up early doesn’t help). Riding the bus ensures that I’ve got plenty of time to start the day of right. Even after praying through Lauds or Vespers there’s plenty of time to read through my backlog of books, write out notes for an upcoming writing assignment or talk (I wrote part of this post on the bus), or listen to a podcast. I try to minimize the time I spend on my phone (not always successfully), but since removing all the games off my phone I’m at least usually reading through blogs if I’m browsing.
  3. I get to interact with other people in my community. Riding the bus, you get to see a cross-section of the people in the community. In St. Louis I saw a lot of professionals and blue-collar workers sharing the ride downtown. In Springfield my morning commute coincided with high school students riding to school. My current routes see a lot of Purdue students commuting to campus and back. Riding the bus helps me see my community as more than an abstraction, and more as the diverse cast of individuals it is.
  4. Riding the bus is good for the soul. By that I mean that riding the bus helps me avoid some near occasions of sin, such as yelling at other drivers or allowing my impatience to get the better of me. Ceding the responsibility of driving to a bus driver also cultivates an acceptance that I’m not in control — which is good practice in the virtue of obedience to God’s will. And that’s all on top of knowing I’m exercising good environmental stewardship, too.

I don’t always ride the bus, and I know I’m fortunate that riding the bus is, for now, convenient and easy. I can easily imagine situations where it won’t be an option the way it is now. But for the foreseeable future I’m glad that it’s a pleasure I will continue to enjoy.

3 Starting Points for Encouraging Non-Practicing Catholic Families

5139215570_fa0b898570_bMy friend Marc has a challenging post up about what we are teaching Catholic families about who and what they are. After reading through the questions posed for the Extraordinary Synod on the The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization — and its assumptions about the faithful’s familiarity with documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Familiaris Consortio — Marc muses

Is the Vatican so out of touch with the faithful? These are very intellectual questions that assume a lot of knowledge. Do they really think most Catholics read and understand these documents and terms?

But the other thing I thought was–should I have been teaching them this stuff? I’ve never even considered having a class for families on who and what they’re supposed to be. Parents would never come.

But if we don’t somehow teach them, how will they know? How will families understand themselves and what they’re called to be?

I’ve been wondering something similar for some time, although I also wonder if we’re teaching families what they should be doing to practice the faith at home. So many Catholic parents don’t even seem to be doing the basics anymore. And if they aren’t going to Mass on Sunday or praying before meals, do we really expect them to be sharing their faith in any meaningful way with their children?

(I could probably insert a whole sidebar here on the implications of Forming Intentional Disciples; suffice to say that it’s clear most Catholic parents wouldn’t meet Sherry’s criteria for intentional discipleship.)

I don’t think the answer is to hand out copies of Familiaris Consortio to every Catholic family and expect them to read it. So where do we start?

  1. Talk about the domestic Church. We need to remind parents that their families are a microcosm of the universal Church. Just as we gather together in parish communities to celebrate our faith, serve one another, and give thanks to God, so too are families called to do the same. This isn’t an “add-on” or something we do when we have extra time, but an integral part of what it means to be family in a Catholic context. Reminding families who they are — and using the language of the domestic Church — is one way to get them thinking about and moving towards this reality.
  2. Encourage greater Mass attendance. By that I don’t mean haranguing parents to be at Mass every Sunday. Rather, we should encourage them to take small steps towards greater participation. For a family that only attends at Easter and Christmas, maybe that means going once per month. For a family that participants more frequently, moving towards regular weekly attendance. And for families that are already attending every week, encouraging adding a daily Mass every week. The point is small improvements that can build on each other, not going immediately from 0 to 60.
  3. Reinforce family meal time and prayer. We’ve all seen the statistics that show how regular family meal times leads to better grades, a reduced likelihood of drug and gang involvement, and better mental and physical health. So why do so few families practice a daily shared meal? This simple step can help re-prioritize a family’s activities, help make connections to the Eucharist, and expand their faith lives through shared prayer and conversation. Activities such as The Meal Box (which my kids love) are a great tool to facilitate this interaction.

How do you think we can reach Catholics families and help them pass on the faith to their children?

Photo Credit: More Good Foundation via Compfight cc

The Best Advice I Got When I Switched My Major to Theology

In May of 1998, shortly after returning home from my sophomore year of college, I walked into the dining room and calmly told my parents that after two years I was switching my major from elementary education to theology.

My parents, thanks be to God, didn’t cringe or gasp. In fact, their only real question to me was what I planned to do with this major. (At the time I assumed that I would teach religion in a Catholic high school. What’s that line about telling God your plans?) They also asked me to do one thing: before I turned in the paperwork, they wanted me to talk to our parish’s DRE, Debbie.*

I don’t remember much of the conversation I had with Debbie, but I do remember one piece of advice she gave me: if at all possible, do a double major. The point wasn’t so much the academic titles as the fact that having a skill unrelated to theology or pastoral ministry adds a whole new dimension to what you are able to bring to your ministry as well as increase your marketability. Drawing on a perspective outside of traditional ministerial practices is a useful corrective to the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality that can creep into parish life.

I wasn’t able to do a double major since I switched so late in my academic career, but I held on to Debbie’s advice nonetheless. And, indeed, my knowledge of technology and social media has proved to be a great boon to my ministry and opened doors to speaking and engaging with other catechetical leaders that might not otherwise have been available to me. It has also helped me think about catechesis, evangelization, and parish ministry in different ways as the shifting cultural landscape reacts to these new technologies.

Even these many years later I remain grateful for that piece of advice and the fruit it has born in my ministry!

What “extra” skills or knowledge do you possess that could be used to enhance your ministry?

* I later found out that my parents had talked to Debbie in advance and told her to dissuade me from changing my major. She says that she’s very happy to have failed!

Making a Suitable Offering: The 10% Solution

stewardship-word-cloudOver the course of this year our diocesan Department for Catechtical Services has been journeying with a parish and offering monthly workshops on different aspects of discipleship and holiness. It’s a pilot project that, I’m hoping, will eventually yield fruit across our diocese.

Last month Deacon Patrick O’Toole, our associate director for marriage and family life, offered a presentation on living a simple and sacrificial lifestyle. His talk centered on three of God’s commandments: to be fruitful and multiply, to keep holy the Sabbath, and to make a suitable offering of the first fruits of our labors.

On the last of these commandments Deacon O’Toole spoke of tithing and the difference it had made in his and his family’s life by freeing them to give more generously and to shake off the shackles of materialism and consumerism. He and his family have even attempted to pare down their individual belongings to about 100 items per family member.

Inspired by this radical witness I’ve decided to begin paring down my own material possessions, beginning with what will be the most painful: my books. In the spirit of the biblical tithe I’ve committed to reducing my book collection by 10% (about 70 books), selling them at a used book store, and donating the proceeds to Catholic Relief Services. I’ve also invited my colleagues in the department to join me. To date we’ve amassed a not inconsiderable pile of books on my office table which, next week, I’ll pile into my truck to take to the bookstore.

This is, I think, a useful twist on the biblical tithe through which the view the things in our lives: where can we eliminate 10% of the “stuff” that is cluttering our homes, offices, mental space, and lives?

Worrying About PK Syndrome

Heading back from the last of our diocesan Roman Missal workshops on Tuesday, a fellow diocesan director shared a story that confirmed a fear I’ve had for some time: that Preacher’s Kid Syndrome (the tendency for the children of Protestant ministers to rebel against the faith) is alive and well in the Catholic Church.  Of course, in the Church, it’s not the children of ordained ministers we need worry about, but the children of lay ministers working in parishes and dioceses. This director’s son no longer practices the faith, at least in part because of his experience seeing his father let go from a diocese for no other reason than the bishop wanted to “move in a new direction.”

This is something I’ve worried about for my own children. I’ve worked for the the Church in one way or another since I was 18 — full-time since I was 22, shortly before our oldest was born. Anyone who has worked for the Church knows that it isn’t the perfect, holy workplace that you might expect. The Church is full of sinners, and I’ve seen plenty of bad management, poor HR practices, and institutional politics to back up that truth.

Will my children be able to hold on to the faith while exposed to the very human side of the institution? Many of the DREs and other lay ministers I encounter talk about having children who have walked away from the faith. How many did so because of the  cognitive  dissonance between the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and watching their parents struggle to work with other sinners on behalf of Christ?

I’d be interested to know if the National Association for Lay Ministry  or any other organizations have ever tackled this question: keeping our children in the faith when they grow up so close to the institution. There could be some real value in having some conversations around those sorts of close-to-home topics.

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

For many years I was ambivalent about abortion in the United States. As a teenager, and even through college, I didn’t give it much thought becuase a) I’m a guy, and would never have to directly make that decision, and b) I never planned on getting a woman into the situation where I would need to help someone else make that decision.

I knew the Church’s teachings on the matter and accepted them halfheartedly — like the vow of perpetual celibacy, I knew it wasn’t going to impact my life.

Then, while I was in graduate school, I saw a statistic that jolted me out of my complacency: My generation is 25% smaller than it should be because of abortion.

That seemed incredible to me. In fact, I didn’t think is was accurate. Surely abortion wasn’t that prevalent! So I ran the numbers:

I was born in 1978 — one of 3,333,279 live births in this country that year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1978 also saw 1,157,776 abortions.

4,491,055 pregnancies. 1,157,776 abortions. 25.6%.

That shocked me. I thought about the kids I should have known in school, the kids I should have swam with on the swim team, the kids that should have lived down the street from me.

And I thanked God that my mom chose life.

I still don’t consider myself a “crusader” for the pro-life cause. But I do consider myself proudly pro-life. Not just becuase “the Church says so,” but because I came to realize what abortion has done to my generation.

Working for the Church to Stay in the Church

It’s a mistake to assume that everyone who works for the Church is a Spirit-inspired paragon of holiness. In fact, I often say that I work for the Church because my faith is so weak that working for the Church is the only way I stay in the Church!

When I started college I needed to find a work-study job as part of my scholarship. Unfortunately, being the lazy person I am, I waited too long to find something; by the time I looked at the job postings, most of the job were taken. By good fortune (or the work of the Spirit), the campus ministry department was looking for someone to run errands, clean the chapel, and set up before and clean up after Mass on Sunday nights.

I can say with all honesty that my work-study job probably kept me going to Mass in college. For two years I set up the lectionary, prepared the chalice and paton, and made sure all the liturgical ministers were checked in before Sunday night Mass at the university. While I wasn’t a particularly knowledgeable or active Catholic, I figured there wasn’t much sense hanging out to wait for Mass to get over so I could clean up — as long as I was there I might as well go to Mass!

Little did I know that taking that job would keep me attending Mass and (with the help of some excellent campus ministers, theology professors, and friends) propel me into a catechetical career. While I am keenly aware of the ways in which the Church fails to live up to her own ideals at times, I am nevertheless convinced that working for the Church has made my faith stronger. The Lord knows I need all the help I can get.

Tis the great fault of our age to underrate parental dignity

‘Tis the great fault of our age to underrate parental dignity. In the easy-going world, preference is given to profligate celibacy over honorable wedlock; marriage itself is degraded to the level of a purely natural contract, its bond has lost its character of indissolubility and its obligations are shirked to meet the demands of fashion and convenience. When parents, unworthy ones, do not appreciate their own dignity, how will others, their children, appreciate it? And parenthood will never be esteemed while its true nature and sanctity are ignored and contemned; there is no dignity where the idea of God is excluded.

– Rev. John H. Stapelton, Explanation of Catholic Morals (1913)

Aging, Prayer, and the Divine Office

Statue: angel prayingIt’s been a while since I took “Spirituality and Human Development,” but one of the themes I recall from the class is that our spirituality and prayer life change as we age. The accumulation of experience allows us to gain new insights into the divine and opens us to new ways of communicating with God; this, of course, has an affect on our relationship to God.

This has hit home for me a few times in my life. A year after completing my graduate studies I found myself engaging in new types of prayer — particularly an increased use of the Rosary and a greater sense of efficacy in my silent prayer. At first I was uncertain why I was being drawn in this direction (beyond my generation’s general reappropriation of older faith practices). Eventually it dawned on me: while in college and graduate school I had used my studies as the foundation for my prayer life. Indeed, there is a long history in the Church of study as prayer (to such an extent that Dominican friars are excused from communal prayer if engaged in study). Following my master’s degree and subsequent exit from higher education, my prayer life dried up for about a year as I “re-learned” how to pray. Since I was no longer spending significant time immersed in the study of scripture, Church history, morality, and the like, my normal avenue for prayer had been cut off.

While this was undoubtedly painful, it also proved to be a great blessing as it opened me to new ways of prayer that I did not have the time or energy to devote to before.

Lately, after nearly a decade of fits and starts, I’ve gotten into a general rhythm of using the Liturgy of the Hours. I’m not as consistent as I would like, but most morning and many evenings I take 10-15 minutes to pray Lauds and Vespers. I’ve not yet gotten into the habit of adding Compline, but I am working towards it.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the inconsistent nature of its application, the effect has been profound: I’ve notice a real change in my temperament and attitude when I begin the day with Morning Prayer, and a stronger resistance to temptation when I’m consistent for several days in a row. In particular I find myself dealing with my children in a more patient manner — something, my wife likes to remind me, that I need to work on.

As before, I’m not sure why it is that, at this particular moment in my life, this type of prayer has suddenly “clicked.” But unlike before I haven’t lost the types of prayer that I relied on previously. I still pray the Rosary and still find comfort in silent prayer. What I am experiencing now is a wider embrace of prayer types, not a replacing of the old.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that “the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office,” for “all who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ’s spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of the Church their Mother.” (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 100, 85) I am still discovering just what this mean, but I am thankful that, at this time in my life, the Liturgy of the Hours has been such a source of strength and a means of increasing virtue in my life. I pray, too, that it will continue to do so as I continue to grow in love and knowledge of God.