Saturday, September 27, 2014

No one received Holy Communion

Since I've arrived at my parish (July 2013), all the weddings I've celebrated have been of members of the Spanish-speaking community, I'd say nearly a dozen or more.* Almost all of these have been convalidations. The trend in the Mexican community goes something like this: start dating early, then move in together, live for several years in a union libre [i.e. shacking up], have kids together (3 or 4 is the norm), get a civil marriage once it looks like things are stable, and then, finally, years down, approach the altars for the Sacrament. In the meanwhile, everyone follows the rules -- they know the Church doesn't approve, and if they come to Mass (many do), they don't receive Holy Communion. It's a whole new reality.

The movement towards the Sacrament of Marriage, in my short experience, is tied strongly to some kind of a conversion experience, either through the Charismatic Renewal, or the CRHP retreats regularly offered at the parish. One or both partners has a new appreciation for his or her relationship with the Lord, and wants to "get in the rights" with God. These evangelization retreats are a major force for evangelical dynamism in our parish. After each retreat, we get folks signing up for the intensive RCIA process (for their sacraments of initiation), marriage prep, scheduling baptisms for their children (so many are not baptized!), or the seguimiento [literally "follow-up"] classes offered by the Renewal, which is basically a 10-month long, lay-led, weekly discipleship and Bible study course.

Hispanic weddings are very relaxed. There is no obsession with photo-finish perfection. The nervous tension I've experienced in Anglo wedding just isn't there; no momzillas or bridezillas. There's rarely the custom of bridal parties made up of close friends. Instead, there are padrinos who will present the couple with the rings, the arras, sometimes a Bible or a Rosary, and the lazo. Often, the couple is late (the bride is busy getting ready for her big day)! The music is provided by one of the parish choirs, and the songs are all from the regular Sunday repertoire. There's always kids running around, often the kids of the couple celebrating the Sacrament. Sometimes they cling to their parents as mami and papi are exchanging their vows. Invariably, the couple goes to Confession just prior to their wedding. They take this very seriously.

As at most weddings, many of those attending are not regulars. In Spanish the phrase is alejado de la iglesia -- distant from the Church. One can always tell by the way folks participate and respond, how familiar they are with the Mass. I always make a simple announcement about receiving Holy Communion worthily. At most weddings, a good 1/3 or so come up to receive.

Today, no one did.

There were over a hundred people in church. After the bride and groom received, no one came up. Not one single soul! [The choir, lectors and ushers are all regular parishioners who would be going to Mass later in the weekend and would not have felt it necessary to receive.]

That was a first! After Mass, before the final blessing, I congratulated the couple again (as I always do), and then gave a small ferverino. I took the opportunity to proclaim the kerygma, inviting those were alejados to rediscover Jesus again in a new way, to experience His mercy again, and to come back to His Church.

Clearly, this couple is an evangelical witness to their families and friends. What a fascinating wedding Mass!

*There have been a handful of Anglo weddings, but I was not the celebrant; they were either guest priests, or the Pastor, understandably, since the locals have known him longer. Most of the (English-speaking) couples I've prepared for marriage are getting married elsewhere -- the function of having a young, transient, college and post-college population in town. My first local English-speaking wedding is coming up in November, along with a few convalidations. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Models of Liturgy in the Church

Continuing liturgy blogging, though this is really no more than just a reference to an excellent post by Fr. Chris Smith (from just up the road on I-85, in South Carolina) at Chant Cafe.

He gives a brief sketch of liturgical piety as it evolved from the medieval ages, through the Reformation and Trent, and the 19th century Benedictine revival and the Jesuit-Benedictine battles of the Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century. He then identifies three moments or approaches or schools of thought when it comes to the liturgy, and the influence they had on the mid-20th century liturgical reform, and how they played out after the reform, during the Papacy of Benedict XVI and now Francis.
What are those currents of thought?  1. The centrality of the liturgy praised by the classical monastic sources of the liturgical movement, 2. the pastoral orientation of a second moment of that movement which sought out the change of exterior forms of the liturgy for supposed greater accessibility by the laity, 3. as well as an Ignatian predilection for the individual, devotional and subjective.
That first current of thought seems to be the motivating principle behind most of the liturgical Magisterium of the Church in the 20th century and today, whether we are talking about Tra le sollecitudini, Mediator Dei, Sacrosanctum concilium, or Redemptionis sacramentum.  But that lives in tension, and some might say, opposition, to the way the second current of thought prevailed in the production of the Novus Ordo Missae and how the third current of thought conditioned the reception of the reformed liturgy.
Fr. Smith's point is that identifying which school of thought someone identifies with helps to explain how they will react to proposals or perspectives grounded in the other approaches. His hope is one that I share. The liturgy wars are ugly and anti-evangelical. We need to really pray for a way out.
Benedict XVI had hope that the celebration of the two forms of the Roman Rite would lead to mutual enrichment, and a corresponding renewal in the life of the Church.  Much ink has been spilled on promoting or proscribing one form or another of the rite.  I am beginning to wonder whether we need to examine, not which form is better or worse, but what lines of thought are driving the way we think about and execute the sacred liturgy, and whether, if they are allowed peacefully to coexist along side each other, that a true synthesis may emerge, one not forced by the work of human hands, but by the action of the Holy Spirit.        

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parishes Transformed

A few summers ago, I was visiting one of my friends in central Illinois. He was assigned to a fading, downtown parish in the northern part of his diocese. There was talk of parish mergers. We both talked energetically, as only idealistic seminarians can, of the need for a real zeal for evangelization, of resisting the move to the suburbs, or simply moving out when demographic change has set in.

There are stories out there of urban parishes transforming themselves and becoming centers of faith, worship, devotion, and communal life again.

The first such story I encountered was that of St. Peter's in downtown Omaha, NE. The parish robustly embraced a beautiful, traditional approach to the liturgy, and focused on restoring their parish church. This video was made during their fundraising campaign. I worshipped at St. Peter's when I was in Omaha for a summer course during my seminary formation, and on a recent visit, I took some photos of the stunning, beautifully restored church.

Another such story is that of the Church of Sts. Peter, Paul & St. Philomena in New Brighton, England. The church was closed in 2008. In 2011, the Bishop invited the Institute of Christ the King to take over the pastoral care of the parish, and by all accounts it is thriving. The Institute is one of few religious institutes within the Church that celebrates the liturgy exclusively in the Extraordinary Form, according to the Missal of St. John XIII. This video, just recently produced,  is well worth the time.

This also reminds me of Holy Name of Jesus in Brooklyn, which just finished a church restoration project, with a beautiful sanctuary, and Masses in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.

These parishes follow a model of transformation that may be termed the "restoration of the sacred," model. The emphasis is on reviving liturgy, sacred music, the church building, with a focus on highlighting beauty. Beauty is, of course, one of the transcendentals, and attractive, well, by definition! I would assume that along with this, there is also a focus on solid preaching and catechesis (reflecting the quality of formation the priests staffing these parishes have received), and a strong sense of ownership and belonging by the people. One commenter on a blog about the parish in England said that the laity are tremendously involved in the running of the place, which is what one would expect from a smaller parish with a committed laity. The parishes also attract faithful from a broad geographical area -- easily the norm in the U.S. but I suspect also in Britain. Both parishes attract younger Catholics and families.

This is not the only model of parish transformation. A very famous story is that of the Church of the Nativity in the greater Baltimore area, and the book, "Rebuilt," which follows ideas from the evangelical megachurch world. This blog is not the place that I want to comment on the merits and flaws, as I see them, of this model.

However, another story comes to mind: that of Most Precious Blood parish in Brooklyn NY. Here was a parish in a poor part of the City, on the verge of shuttering, that focused on reaching out to the new  neighbors, with a creative, faithful, youth program (run by this great ministry from Steubenville). Sherry Weddell's post from the Intentional Disciples blog in 2010 is worth a read:
Fr. Maduri, who grew up Catholic in the parish next-door, became pastor just over a year ago and responded in a remarkable way.   He sized up the situation quickly: either the human community had to be rebuilt or the parish would close.  Since the traditional Catholic population was leaving the area, he would focus on making disciples of the unchurched and apostles of the churched. 
When the parish school closed, he rented the building out and used the income to renovate the old convent into a faith formation center. He brought in two enthusiastic young evangelists, newly married Andy - with his wife, Megan - and a exuberant young woman named Kree.  They work with a Catholic group called Dirty Vagabonds, which specializes in the personal evangelization of urban youth.  These recent graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville sport lots of conversation-starting tattoos, live very simply in the faith formation building, and spend their afternoons going out and meeting the kids in the neighborhood and the projects nearby.  They have resurrected the parish youth group and renovated the rectory basement into an "Underground" gathering space.  After only 4 months, attendance is going up steadily – with non-Catholic black and Chinese kids. 
Fr. Maduri has also begun an outreach to local Hispanics.  He brought in Nancy, a quietly vibrant and efficient woman, whom he had worked with in another parish, to run adult faith formation.  He is forming a critical core of the parishioners, sending them to conferences, bringing in speakers to give retreats, putting on Life in the Spirit seminars, and bringing us in to teach his parishioners about gifts discernment.
But Fr. Maduri has even bigger plans.  Next year, he will be collaborating with a Catholic Chinese woman to begin reaching out to the huge number of non-Christian Chinese immigrants in the area. 
This model may be called the "discipleship" model -- where the focus is on the people, and in their being formed into intentional disciples, as well as apostles, i.e. well-formed, on-fire laity who go out of their parishes to live and share the Good News in the world. The focus is on the encounter with and personal relationship with Jesus lived out in the Church, in the sacramental life, but also in everyday life, as the central reality of the disciple's life.

Now the "restoration of the sacred" model also has an aspect of discipleship -- these communities are of generally well-formed Catholics, who have a love for traditional liturgy, and a robust sense of Catholic doctrine, tradition and teaching. The person of Christ is central. I suspect, though I don't know, that the apostolate is perhaps not as emphasized. The parish is a refuge in a secular world gone mad, an exercise of the so-called Benedict Option (again, a blog post really precludes a proper analysis of that term, which has been the subject of some interesting conversations). It may serve as a sign of contradiction, as an intriguing beacon, attracting the jaded post-modern seeker. But again, it may not. Going out, apostleship, is not emphasized, or so it seems

It is tempting to categorize these two approaches or models as fitting the teaching and personality of our two living Popes. While Pope Francis doesn't seem to say much about the liturgy (there are but a few lines about beauty in Evangelii Gaudium; this programmatic address to CELAM in Rio in 2013 warns against "restorationism," calling it the Pelagian solution; and the 2007 "Aparecida Document" [which has a Bergoglian stamp all over it], says nothing about liturgical formation), the emphasis on going out, on the peripheries, on discipleship being fruitful in everyday life, and apostleship is certainly one of his favorite themes. Pope Benedict, is, of course, known for his love of the liturgy, and his Pontificate focused on this in a special way, but he is no less evangelical in his thought and exhortation.

Of course, I would want to argue that both these "models" are vitally necessary. Discipleship and apostleship, as well as the culture of encounter and personal accompaniment, the willingness to go out and get messy, that Pope Francis talks about are vital, but so is a restored sense of the sacred, the transcendent, in our parishes and communities. Divine worship, after all, is central to who we are as Catholics, and if we don't get it right, so to speak, in this area, then the rest will be flawed as well. Another way of putting it is that the reverent celebration of the liturgy is as much a part of evangelization as is the culture of encounter, and forming disciples. A disciple, after all, is one who is transformed by the encounter with the Lord, which is renewed and perpetuated in the liturgy, the source and summit of the Christian life.

Finally, both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict (and Pope St. John Paul II -- just read Novo Millenio Inueunte, #30, for instance) emphasize the priority of God in all ecclesial activity, that is the priority of humility, listening, prayer and discernment, and warn against the temptation to operating purely out of a functional or institutional mindset.

Let me conclude this bit of a ramble of a blog post with the words of Pope John Paul, in the document mentioned above:
First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness ...  
 At first glance, it might seem almost impractical to recall this elementary truth as the foundation of the pastoral planning in which we are involved at the start of the new millennium. Can holiness ever be "planned"? What might the word "holiness" mean in the context of a pastoral plan? 
In fact, to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: "Do you wish to receive Baptism?" means at the same time to ask them: "Do you wish to become holy?" It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (NMI, #30, 31) 
A parish that takes seriously this call is well on its way to transformation, to new life. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Simple House - September 2014

Every couple of months or so I get a letter in the mail from the folks at A Simple House in Washington, DC. I've written about them before. These are on-fire disciples of Jesus Christ, committed Catholics, who live in a poor part of DC (they're also in Kansas City, MO), to simply live with, and grow in friendship with their neighbors.

In this letter they talk about their neighbors Nicole and Donald, who wanted to get married, who put a face onto the reality that studies call, the "marriage divide", a pressing social problem that many who talk about poverty either ignore or downplay.

Read their latest letter and send them a donation if you can, and keep them in your prayers definitely. This the Gospel lived out!

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Two neat stories from the Christian East

Those who know me, know of my love for the Christian East. When in SC, I used to go occasionally to St. Igantios Melkite parish in Augusta. [And I am so blessed to have met with and conversed with the late Fr. Daniel Munn.] While in Washington DC,  Holy Transfiguration Melkite was an oasis of liturgical sanity during my novitiate with the CSPs. At the Mount, I was blessed to sing in the schola for the annual Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite, for my entire seminary career. I've attended an amazing Palm Sunday service at St. George's Syrian Orthodox Malankara parish in Bombay, and spent one Christmas with the (Knanaya) Syro-Malabar Archbishop of Kottayam, Kerala, and attended Midnight Qurbana in his Cathedral.

Two small articles that just came across my radar makes me reminisce of my experience of the Eastern Church. As a parish priest, it is impossible for me to go anywhere for Divine Liturgy on a Sunday, of course, since I have my commitments to my own people. They also involve places in the world close to my heart: Georgia, and India!

The latest issue of the Georgia Bulletin has a report on the ordination of a new Deacon at the Melkite parish in Atlanta, St. John Chrysostom (house in a unique building). Deacon Elie Hanna was ordained on August 10 in the parish. The description of the liturgy is lovely. This little bit made me chuckle.
"Melkite worship uses the Byzantine rite, where the liturgy is chanted, Communion is always given under the species of both bread and wine, and the celebrant traditionally faces east." 
 This is also the tradition of the Roman Rite, at least the chanting and the orientation. Would that we would remember it! It seems to harm no one in the East at all. In contrast, our own recent history is a sad tale of the deleterious effects of the abandonment of our own traditions. This is simply an aside, however. Read the whole piece

(Photo from the Georgia Bulletin)
The magazine ONE, a publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, always has interesting pieces on the lives of Christians from the far corners of the globe. The Summer 2014 issue is no exception. This piece ("Caste Aside") focuses on the lives of Dalit Catholics in a remote corner of Uttar Pradesh, who are served by a Syro-Malabar priest. India is perhaps one of the few places where  Eastern Catholic Churches are involved in huge missionary enterprises. For years, the Eastern Churches complained that new mission territory was only given to Roman Churches. Eventually the Bishops of India managed to agree. The Syro-Malabar church is now a missionary powerhouse. I was aware that in m y parents' home state of Gujarat, the region of Saurashtra has a missionary Syro-Malabar Eparchy, and the Holy Qurbana, in keeping with Eastern custom, is celebrated in the vernacular. The same is true of this part of eastern Uttar Pradesh, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Bijnor. The article is entirely worth a read -- a tale of deep faith and courage, as these poor Dalit villagers have found dignity, self-worth, healing and meaning in Prabhu Jisu. 
His entire family was baptized more than three years ago after prayers, he says, healed his elder brother. 
“We had spent lot of money for his treatment. But it was Prabhu Jisu (Lord Jesus) who cured my brother,” Mr. Masih says, adding that he had a vision of Jesus in a dream asking him to spend less time at work and more time in prayer. 
“We pray in the morning and evening,” he adds with a sonorous voice that can often be heard adding its color and vigor to the satsang.
If you are able, send a small donation to CNEWA for the amazing work that they support! (Also read the author's back story on how they ended up in this remote corner of Uttar Pradesh. The beautiful photos can be accessed in this format of the story.) 

(Photo from CNEWA ONE magazine)
These stories are a beautiful reminder of the catholicity of Christ's Church, and her mission to evangelize, here at home, and across the globe!