Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is that what you call it?

As part of the information and communications that came out of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family was a debate over the whole "gradualism." Some saw this as a good thing, others not so. For those that are not up on the debate or even the concepts and terminology, here is a link to a good presentation by Monsignor Charles Pope out of the Archdiocese of Washington DC (no need for me to go to all that work myself). Anyway, I guess I've always understand the concept to be more about pastoral practice rather than a theological concept.

When I was a seminarian (many years ago), I remember a long conversation I had with one of my priest mentors around the whole issue of the Church's moral teaching and the pastoral application of that teaching. I was a transitional deacon at the time and was beginning to deal with the many real life pastoral situations of the folks in my assigned parish. I was struggling with trying to be faithful to the Church's teaching while dealing with the person or couple right in front of me. How do I mediate between the Teaching and the person? I was new to all of this. I had a lot to learn.  But I wanted to do the right thing as the Church's minister.

The priest, who was ordained prior to Vatican II, shared with me that much of what I was struggling with was a result of the breakdown of the Confessional sacramental practice. He said that in the past many would go to Confession regularly, confess their sins, encounter the teaching of the Church in its fullness, and then hear from the priest encouragement and forgiveness. My mentor shared that it was in the confidentiality of the confessional that he was able to encourage people to not give up but to gradually grow in their acceptance of and living out of the fullness of the Church's teaching. Within the privacy of the confessional, people encountered grace and mercy. So, for example, if you had a young person who was struggling with chastity, the priest would encourage him or her to keep trying to become more chaste, to not give up, and to continue to take advantage of the Church's sacramental life. But it was all done within the Confessional.

Then came the post-Vatican II changes to the Liturgy and pastoral practices and the resultant dramatic decrease in people going to Confession. As a result, the confessional-penitential structures and practices disappeared as well. Now the issue became  - among many - where does the person hear the fullness of the Church's teaching, hear it applied to the particular situation of his or her life, and then receive advice and encouragement and perhaps, forgiveness? We've all seen what happens when one tries to discuss publicly the Church's moral teaching as applied to particular pastoral situations: you can end up at one extreme with a rigidity of law that allows for no mediation or with something called "exceptionalism" - the moral teaching of the Church becomes watered down or even understood by way of exceptions rather than the rule. On the one extreme you have the hand of mercy that is closed in a fist. On the other end, you have hands that are so open that everything falls through the fingers and nothing is ever grasped or held as true. Among many things, it leads to a feeling that everything is "up for grabs," that there are no hard and fast moral rules anymore.

I know there is a lot more to say on this matter.  I'm not a moral theologian but a pastor. Still I wanted to share this in this blog post because this conversation with my priest-mentor and subsequent ones helped form me so as to be a priest and now bishop who has been, I hope, a consistent teacher of the truths while being a pastor who encourages and helps those with whom I speak to live that fullness while never losing sight of the Church's mission of mercy. I try and help people to gradually grow in their faith, always striving forward in the life of holiness, never "settling" for something less than that, but always moving forward.

So when I read a lot of the information that came out of the Synod and the blog posts that followed, I thought to myself, "Is that what you call it - gradualism." Nice to have a name to it after all these years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the recent General Meeting of the USCCB ...

I, along with others, have been following internet and media coverage of the recent USCCB Fall meeting which I attended. It has varied from simple reporting to critical commentary.  Some commentary in particular has seen the past meeting as a kind of litmus test for how the bishops of the United States "view" Pope Francis with we bishops receiving a less than stellar grade. As one who participated in the past meeting and engaged in many conversations with those who attended the meeting - bishops, USCCB staff, guests, observers, etc., I offer a few thoughts that may help clarify why things happened the way they did at the meeting.

First of all, the direction that the work of the Conference and our meetings follows is set in advance according to a four-year "priority plan." You can read about this plan in greater detail here, but suffice it to say that right now the Conference is in the midst of the 2013-2016 plan which was planned in 2012 and predates Francis' pontificate. The four priorities as established then and in use now are:

- Strengthening marriage and family life;
- Faith formation and Sacramental practice;
- Affirming the life and dignity of the human person;
- Supporting religious liberty.

Again, the establishment of these priorities predates the election of Pope Francis and were the outgrowth of a long process of consultation among the bishops in and around 2012-13 as to what they saw as the principle pastoral priorities of the Conference's work at that time.  I think it is also important to recognize that there exists another set of guidelines as well, the General Mission Goals of the USCCB:

- To act collaboratively and consistently on vital issues confronting the Church and society;
- To foster Communion with the Church internationally under the leadership of the Pope;
- To offer appropriate assistance to each bishop in his local church.

The amount of work, time, and effort that goes into establishing the "priorities" is huge. Every bishop has an opinion, every bishop has a vote, and every Ordinary has to weigh these "priorities" in light of the particular pastoral situation he is dealing with in his Archdiocese or Diocese.  It takes a lot of wrangling and consensus building for the bishops of the United States to come to a place where they can agree to four "priorities" out of all the issues and challenges we face.

Now, could we choose to "reboot" the priorities in light of the election, teaching, and direction of Pope Francis? Of course. But to do so quickly and smoothly would not be easy. Since the process of establishing the "priorities" is one that takes over a year and a half of meetings and review to come to a successful conclusion, it would take at least a year to do so again in midstream. And that could only happen if we could get a majority of the bishops to agree to do so.

Furthermore, the work of each department and staff of the Conference is set and directed by the priority plan. When I meet as a member of various USCCB Committees and sub-Committees, the Conference staff reports to us about their work in reference to the "priorities." A lot of time, talent, and resources are in play. That has to be taken into account as well.  Now, again, this doesn't mean a "reboot" can't be done. It would just take a major action by the bishops and a willingness to accept a major cost in terms of resources to do so. Frankly, I don't see it happening as the process itself allows for a reset of the priorities every four years anyway (see below).

So our priorities and our general mission is set. In light of this, what went on at the last meeting was not a refutation of anything Pope Francis has asked the bishops to consider, nor an act of confusion among the bishops as to where the Pope is asking us to "move" as a Church.  It was, basically, a continuation of the work of the Conference that was set into motion almost three years ago.  The priorities that were established back in 2012-13 are still "driving the bus" and will, most probably do so, until the Fall of 2016.

In addition, the priorities that we set back then are still for the Conference priorities now. Are we easy targets of the charge that we are fighting the political "culture wars" when the Conference defends traditional marriage, beginning of life and end of life issues, and religious liberty? Yup. Is it easy for those who seem to know what "Francis really means or is saying" to say that the bishops are running counter to what the Pope's wishes may be? Yes indeed especially if one can claim to know what the Pope "knows." But this begs the question: Is the Conference presently undertaking as a priority anything counter to the content of what Pope Francis is saying regarding matters of faith and morals? Absolutely not. And nothing changes the fact that the present "priorities" of the Conference are still of vital importance to the life and mission of the Church in the United States at the present time.

The bishops of the USCCB have begun the process of setting the priorities for the next four-year cycle which begins in 2016. At this week's general session, we bishops broke into regional meetings for the first discussion of what those priorities might be. In my group, Region VII (IN, IL, WI), the discussion was wide-ranging and very "Francis-centered" - evangelization, care for the poor, immigration reform, our mission to youth and young adults, greater outreach and care for our Latino brothers and sisters, care for the marginalized, for the hurting and lost, as well as our on-going work on behalf of families and human life. There were a lot of references to "Evangelii gaudium," to Pope Francis' speeches and homilies, and to the new direction the Holy Father was taking us. It was a very healthy, honest, and open discussion.

Is there a lot of work and discernment ahead within the Conference? Absolutely. The Conference is by its very nature a large institution that is often hard to steer in one direction let alone change course midstream. But the large and sometimes unwieldy group of pastors who make up the USCCB membership will find our way to continue to "foster Communion with the Church under the leadership of the Pope" under the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Random Musings of Faith - August 22, 2014

Thoughts on a day-off ...

I was recently talking with someone about the whole profound nature of having a "personal relationship with Christ." It's one of those phrases that our evangelical brothers and sisters tend to use a lot more than us Catholics. It's often part of a question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior." It sounds a little odd to me, almost liking having a personal chef or a personal work-out guru, somebody who you choose, for your benefit. I know it means more than that, of course, but the act of "choosing" to accept the Lord and make him "my" Savior has always struck me as somewhat Pelagian. I guess I'm a bit of a Jansenist at heart, needing to rely more on God's grace in the midst of my broken human nature to get by. Still, I have to choose to and desire to cooperate with the divine offer of grace but I like to think I need to rely on God a lot more than myself.

And that is where the difference between the evangelical understanding of a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic understanding differ because it's never my choosing that sets me free and calls me toward Christ and His salvation. It is always God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in and through His Church who first chooses me and seeks out me and helps me. I then choose to say "yes" to that divine offer of love. It is played out not in a "me and Jesus" way but in a "me in the midst of the Body of Christ," in others who believe and in the Church.  As a Catholic, my relationship with Christ does not call me to isolation but to Communion in His Church and in community.

I guess that's one of my first responses to those who say, "I am spiritual but not religious ..."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Random Musings of Faith - August 10, 2014

Friday, August 15, is a holy day of obligation here in the U.S., the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.  There is a tradition among some Irish, especially around the Northeast U.S., that one is supposed to go and wade in the ocean waters on that day and so gain a blessing for one's feet, as there is "a cure in the water."

It may be connected with the title of our Lady, Star of the Sea ("Stella Maris"). It may be that in parts of Ireland the fishing boats were blessed on this feast day.  Whatever, the reason, the tradition continues.  Here, however is something I found on line to add a little flavor to the tradition.

This is a poem written by Fr. John Duffy, C.Ss.R.. Considering his last name was Duffy and his mother's name was Bridie, the connection to the Irish seems to hold. It just doesn't say why they believed the waters were more blessed on this feast day.

Feast of the Assumption, 1924

You shamed that naked goddess of the seas,
0 Bridie, barefoot in Our Lady's tide
The day you begged a miracle to ease
The swollen feet that life had crucified.

Clothed to the knees in black, you stood and prayed.
Your little son, I watched, appalled. I knew
What you were praying for and was afraid
Of God - and miracles - and even you....

I'd carve you in great marble if I could,
My Bridie of Our Lady of the Sea,
To show the sorrow of it, how you stood
Praying in vain for what was not to be.

Long dead, my dear... but when at last we meet--
O changed forever! The Eternal's bride,
Robed all in white down to the little feet
Shining like His who once was crucified!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Random Musings of Faith - August 6, 2014

(Thoughts while pondering the fact that the Bengals gave Andy Dalton! a $115 million dollar contract extension.)

In the pre-1969 liturgical calendar (or if one participates in the EF liturgy), yesterday's feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major was known as "Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary of the Snows" (In Dedicatione basilicae S. Mariae ad Nives) based on the legend of the miraculous August snowfall connected with the founding of the basilica on its present site.  While this story is probably without any historic foundation, it is still commemorated in the basilica with a fall of white rose petals from the dome of the Chapel of Our Lady inside the basilica and an artificial "snowfall" outside the basilica in the square at sunset. "Passare il limoncello così questa neve non vada sprecato, prego."

It's stuff like this that makes me love being Catholic (aside from salvation and all that, of course).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Random Musings of Faith - August 4, 2014

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the death of novelist and Catholic Flannery O'Conner. In honor of the date I posted two quotes from her writings on my FaceBook page, both of which attracted quite a bit of attention. My favorite was this one, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and change is painful." This is not a new insight but it is one of which we often need to be reminded. St. Augustine in his Confessions famously wrote, "As a youth I prayed, "Give me chastity and continence but not yet."" I was recently reading a book entitled, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults in, Out of, and Gone from the Church. At one point, the author was interviewing one of the young people, Jae, who had grown up in a very, very, Catholic family. Now 21 and in law school, Jae has left the Church.  Among his reasons, in his own words:

"If I went back to church, I would have to change so much about myself. I just don’t want to get into that now. I feel like there’s a lot of effort in following a religion, and with all that’s going on in my life right now, I don’t want to get into that.... There are several reasons —it’s just easier not to follow a religion, is what it comes down to. It’s easier for me and I don’t see any reason why I should."

As the authors of the book further comment, "At the very least, Jae seems to have some notion of the commitment involved in rightly practicing the faith in which he was raised."

[Smith, Christian; Longest, Kyle; Hill, Jonathan; Christoffersen, Kari (2014-01-17). Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (p. 93). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.]

Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples talks about the various stages that a person goes through in coming to that deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ in Him and His Church. One of the hardest is the willingness to change. To truly accepts the offer of grace that He makes to us, we have to be open to conversion. "Go and sell all that you have ... Go, and from now on, avoid this sin.... You are saying you have no husband for you have had five husbands .... Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men!"

Grace still changes us. Grace still makes its demands on me to change even though it is painful. But it is a change for the better.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Random Musings of Faith, August 2, 2014

On keeping the Lord's Day ...

When I was a pastor of a suburban parish just outside of Boston, Sundays were busy. There were three Masses, two in the morning, one in the evening. One of our religious education sessions was scheduled in between the two morning Masses. There were baptisms in the afternoon.  Two Sundays a month we had an afternoon Confirmation session which started at 3:00 PM and ended at 8:00 PM (Mass included). Oftentimes there were all kinds of pre-Mass and post-Mass activities. There was the collection to be deposited and folks to meet who just asked "for a minute of your time." So, it wasn't, at least for the busy pastoral staff, what one could call a "day of rest." Yet ...

I made it a point to try and do nothing else: no extra meetings, no extra work, no food shopping or other shopping, no menial labor (in as much as that actually happened to me), nothing that couldn't be done on another day. I even avoided cooking. Most Sunday evenings after things were over, I would join a couple of the other priests in the area down at one of the local restaurants for what we always called "a burger and a brew."

In the parish, I always encouraged families to try and keep the Lord's Day as His day and as a family day. For many, it was easier said than done, especially if the kids were involved in sports, but for some of the families that tried, they managed to keep the day separate from errands and work and things that could just "wait for another day." When the Sunday morning Masses became too crowded and I added the 6:00 PM Mass, I suggested that if families were looking for a Mass to attend together, the 6:00 PM might work for them as normally sports and other activities were usually over by then. I began to see a lot of families coming together to the 6:00 PM and then going out for a pizza or picking up some take-out so everyone got a break. My suggestion to parents was to begin to say to their kids, "Remember it's Sunday, a day to rest in the Lord and in re-Creation's fullness. Turn off the distractions to tune into the Lord."

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