Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Vision to the future

The following is my pastor's pen for this upcoming weekend:

The direction of a successful person’s life is determined by the vision they have or the goals they set for themselves.   Having  set goals, the person will have to adjust their actions, redetermine their priorities,  figure out how these goals can be paid for or achieved, and make the sacrifices necessary to make these goals a reality.  The successful person also knows that these goals cannot be reached without the help of others.
    Keep this all in mind when we speak of the Church at large and the parish more locally. What is a parish to be?  What is its reason for existence?  Jesus, Himself, set THE goal for the Church.  From the Pope to the local parishioner, the goal is exactly the same: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit., teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)That is THE goal of every person who has ever passed through the waters of baptism.  Our participation in this mission is the standard by which we will be judged.  The Church is the ground upon which and from which this mission springs; this is true for the universal, the diocesan, the parochial, and the domestic Church.
    The point of setting goals or having a vision  is that we want something that can be measured in concrete terms of results, actions, and , ultimately, success.  Christ set the goal, He gives us the grace and the tools to make that goal come to fruition.  He instructs each of us, regardless of whether we happen to be lay or clergy, to the same end.  How do we engage ourselves in this and encourage others to do so as well?
    This is what 2020 is about.  It is an internally created and driven set of concrete goals by which we live out the command of Christ. It is driven by 4 question: in the year 2020 1) what do we wish to see when we evaluate our parish of St. Clement?, 2) How do we get there?, 3) How do we pay for it? and, 4) Who does it?  There are elements of our call that we need to cooperate with God’s grace so as to advance.  For example: Only about 45-50% of our registered parishioners come to Mass at all.  How do we get that percentage up?  We continuously either squeak by or fall short financially, something that makes some goals we might set as undoable.  How do we rectify this situation so that money does not become an excuse why we do not forge in a particular area that we need to engage? Can we make fledgling programs like our new youth ministry and Friends of St. Martha not merely survive, but thrive?  How do we recruit and support the next priest and religious from among our own?  Between our school and PSR program, we have only a percentage of our children in any form of faith formation.  How do we up those percentages as well?  This is, by no means, a exhaustive list of questions or potential goals.  This is why more than merely pastor has to set a vision for how we carry out our call.
    The vision we set must be in union with Christ.  Any other vision is doomed to failure.  Too many times we approach ‘setting a vision’ in the parish or diocese as an exercise of fantasizing about reshaping the Church into what I personally feel it should be or come up with a crop of excuses as to why nothing can be done or at least why I should not have to be a part of it.  2020 is not about rescinding Vatican II, nor is it about holding our breath till Vatican III or until the church ‘wises up’ and sees some it teaches are inconvenient.  2020 is about seeing how we as fellow members of St Clement parish can cooperate with God’s grace and do our best to wildly thrive at doing that for which we receive any of the Sacraments at all.
    Some , no doubt, will wonder why we have to do this all.  We didn’t do it in the past.  Why is it so urgent that we do it now?  I would wager that because we didn’t do this in the past, it has led to most of the problems we have in the present.  There was time when 90-95% of our parishioners went to Mass,  Sure, it was decades ago, but it still happened.  Our school had a much bigger student body.  We used to have more registered families.  We used to have active youth programs.  I am sure if we looked at the parish in former days, we will find that we used to do and be more.  No doubt  a litany of excuses that prove ourselves helpless to stem the tide will gush forth.  How bad do things need to get, though, before we are finally provoked into engaging ourselves in the mission of Jesus Christ?  Holding our breath and waiting for what I feel are the ideal conditions (example: all the Masses go back to Latin, we ordain married men and women, the church changes its teachings on_______) only ensures our continued downslide.  No excuses!  No complaining and whining from the sidelines! It is time to engage!
    On Thursday, November 3rd, those who volunteered for the steering committee will meet.  What we are wanting to do is neither simple or easy.  This steering committee is always open to new members.  We will eventually move to town halls to further set concrete goals and a path to get to these goals.  The more involved, the better.
We will meet in the parish youth room.
    Let me be blunt: Indifference and apathy do not help, in fact, they are our major foes.  The idea of ‘let someone else do it’ has been the major reason we are experiencing our problems.  Each of us has a simple choice: We can be part of the problem or part of the solution:  Which of the two do you want to be able tell Jesus you were on the day of judgment…He’ll be asking.  This has to be embraced by the parishioners and lived there first and foremost; pastors come and pastors go, we can not tie a vision to any pastor; vision cannot be a result of a cult of personality.  Parishes cannot simply rise and fall by whoever happens to be living (or if we do nothing) or not living in the rectory. If we pull this off ( and I believe if we are in union with Christ, we will), St. Clement can become a prototype for other parishes and a sign of hope that cooperating with Christ bears concrete rewards.  It is our decision, though, to engage or go on with business as usual.  All things must start with prayer if we are authentic to our call as Christians.  I ask you to pray not only for the wisdom and guidance we will need to do this correctly, but to pray earnestly in how you and you family should be involved.

Pater Noster: Part 3: Hallowed be thy name

In continuing with our discourse on the Our Father, we come to the next point, 'hallowed be thy name'.  Hallowed, is a older English word for 'holy'.  The word 'holy' has slightly different meaning depending upon whom it is applied.  When in reference to God, it means 'wholly other', in other words, that God is wholly unlike anything of this world, something beyond our comprehension.  When applied to us or any other material matter, it connotes, 'being set apart for God's use.'  Dr. Hahn, in his treatment of this phrase, goes back to the original language of the Old Testament, Hebrew, and the words used for holiness/holy.  they tell us something of why this phrase is here and how it relates to the words before and after it. 

The first is the word kiddushin, which is also the Hebrew word for marriage.  God is a god who draws us into a covenant.  The entirety of the Scriptures likens the bond between God and us in the terms of a marital covenant  In fact, in catholic teaching ( and scriptural as well), marriage is the foretaste and visible sign of the relationship that is to exists between a God who is wholly other, yet wishes out of love to come to us and we who have been set apart through the waters of baptism.  Yet go back to the pronoun,'our' again, he deals with us as a community in covenant and as individuals who belong to that community.  In coming into the covenant relationship by our own free will, we do so in the Lord's name.  This is no small thing!  To take the name of the Lord faithfully in the covenant relationship is to share in its blessings; to be unfaithful to that name and hence unfaithful to the covenant relationship is court being cursed.  Why?  To  break the covenant relationship is to willfully remove ourselves from God's love and protection and thus be at the whims and cruelty of the world; much like the prodigal son who is used and abused by the world once he has left his father's home, so do we leave ourselves open to use and abuse once we have pushed God away from all or part of our lives.  If we are to live this covenant relationship, then it is recognizing the holiness of God and that we are called to be holy as well.

This leads to the second Hebrew word, segullah, a word that connotes belonging to king and hence enjoying his protection.We are holy when we live willingly and joyfully with Him who is holiness in its perfection. Because God wishes to draw us into a relationship based in His own holiness, then that holiness becomes the identification not only of God, but of us as well.  Whereas God lives that holiness always and everywhere, not ever breaking His covenant through Christ, so we are called to make that holiness our own through our cooperation with the holiness of God.  Hence, 'hallowed be your name' is more than merely our saying something true about God, but our committing ourselves to that truth of holiness in the way we live and in the choices we make.  As no element of God is separate from holiness, so too no part of us is to be absent that holiness.  'Hallowed be thy name' is more than expressing an attribute of God, but a pledge to live in that attribute as those bound in a covenant relationship.

Thus when we pray this, we are either acknowledging our faithful covenant relationship with God our Father, or we contemptuously mock it through a life that negates this profession of faith.  The more we go through this simple  prayer, the more dangerous it becomes for us to merely say it without acting it.  Rather than shy away in fear from saying it, we should seek God's grace to authentically live this prayer.

Pater Noster: Part 2: ..who art in heaven...

As my Adult Education group keeps going through the Our Father, accompanying the reflections of Dr. Hahn on this greatest of prayers, we come to the the second point: who art in heaven.  Recall, that in merely referring God as Father, and proclaiming Him to be Our Father, we set the foundation of this prayer in the terms of relationship, specifically, familial relationship.

This relationship, though, is unlike any other relationship of which we have experience.  Since we are dealing with a relationship with God, who is neither limited to time and space, the depths of that relationship are mind-boggling.  When we call God 'Father', we may allow the diminished images of fatherhood we are familiar with to color, warp, if not destroy, who God as Father is.  We can take all of the warped images provided in our media, a  media who actively rebels against a positive description of fatherhood. WE can see the fathers in our own lives and their foibles and imperfections.  We can see the priests whom we call 'father' who fail to live up to that awesome responsibility.  We might even see those fathers, both paternal and religious, who were good men and tried their best. All of that said, God, our 'Father' is the perfection of fatherhood and far greater than even the greatest of our dads might be.  He 'is in heaven', He is the prototype and image of what fatherhood is to be about.  As He is in heaven (not to the exclusion of being among us), He is eternal in His fatherhood and it is His Fatherhood that is perfect.  Like an earthly father, he creates and brings forth life.  Unlike earthly fathers, whose love is imperfect or altogether gone, His love for us knows no bounds or limits.  As we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son, though, the fullness of his gifts depends upon our submitting to his will and protection.

That our Father is in heaven also tells us of whose home we belong.  Our eternal home lies not of this life nor existence.  This passing home, though, is where we make the decision whether we truly want God as our Father.  We make our choice here as to which kingdom we belong.  Since God created us not be mindless robots incapable of loving Him as He loves us, he allows us to choose whether we will attach ourselves to His household.  When we pray "Our Father, who art in heaven", we are at least vocally saying to whose home we wish to belong.  But our commitment to God must be more than words; our lives must proclaim that we belong to the household of God.  Fr Larry Richards, in his book "Be a Man", reminds us that when we call God 'our Father', we are saying to God, "Father, I am your son/your daughter."  We bind ourselves to a loving Father and that which belongs to Him.  Again, the ideas of relationship (especially familial relationship) are in fill play.  What a tremendous act of faith and promise to relationship we make in saying just these words: Our Father who art in heaven!   

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pater Noster: Part 1

For the past few weeks, my adult education group and I have been doing a study of Dr Scott Hahn's "Understanding the Our Father".  Not only the book, but the pursuant discussion and reflections (many coming from our applying a lectio divina style of reading and praying about the text) have been wonderful.  I believe that sharing those insights on this blog can spread the wealth of those discussions.  For all of us who have been in this group, the reaction has been the same: we realize for as many times as we have said the Our Father, we never really realized the full depth of what we were praying for and are coming a deeper appreciation of why Jesus gave us this prayer as the prototype of all prayer and the perfect summation of all prayer.  I hope my readers will find these reflections as useful and good for the deepening of our faith as we have.  As I begin, a thank you to Dr. Scott Hahn for writing this wonderful book and a big thank you to by 20 or so parishioners who have shown up over the course of these adult education classes.

To the reader: when I do adult education (including RCIA) I view it as I would dating.  This might seem an odd analogy.  When I dated, as a young man, I used that time to get to know the young lady.  I wanted to know things about her: what was she like, what was her background, what did she like and dislike, what gave her joy, what hurt her, what were hopes, her aspirations, and dreams. I did this, especially as I got older, because I was looking for someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life loving.  When we do theology, we delve into the truths of our faiths, we do so not so that we might merely learn data, but because that data tells us something about God and the relationship He wants withr us.  We learn about God so as to deepen the relationship we are called to have with God.  God reveals himself to us because He wants an eternal relationship with us.  This is so central to the prayer that Jesus, Himself, gave us.

From the openings words of the prayer, we are immersed in the verbiage of relationship. First, Jesus instructs to call God, the 1st Person of the Trinity, Abba.  We translate it as 'Father', which is a bit stuffy of a translation, but it is not as informal as 'daddy' either.  It is the word a child would call their dad.  It connotes the kind of deep relationship that a dad has for their child and vice-versa.  This term, dad, has become problematic in our time.  Fatherhood has been under assault for many centuries and has been extraordinarily harsh in our own time.  So much of our population does not know who their dad is, have dads who do not live in the home, or have had abusive dads.  So many times, those images get transferred to God.  The sobering fact is that men in this country need to be transferring the image of God as Father into how they are dads.  Any word we use to talk about God is going to be limited, for no word can fully capture the totality of who God is.  'Abba', though, is picked for a specific reason.  All that we would hope the perfect dad would be can be found in God the Father.  If we were to pick the traits we would want from the perfect dad, I am sure we would pick words like provider, protector, loving, fair, compassionate, and such.  We are given a glimpse of what type of father God is in the powerful parable of 'The Prodigal Son'.  In this parable we see a father who gives his ingrate son not only what is not rightfully his, but affords the young man freedom to do as he wishes with that property knowing full well he might well squander it.  We then see a heart-broken father, who does not hold anger toward his wayward son, but a deep longing to be re-united with him.  We get the image of a father who scans the horizon everyday waiting for his son's silhouette to break that horizon.  He does not force the son to come home, but desperately wants it.  This is an image of what type of father we have in God.  In essence, we have a Father who desperately wants what is good for us, now and for all eternity, but allows us to freely choose to be His son.  He does not force the familial bond upon us; he wants us to freely choose it.  Calling God 'Father', as Jesus directs us, gives us insight into what God wants for us.

When I taught grade school, I repeatedly had to remind students that pronouns matter.  Jesus doesn't merely tell us to begin this prayer with 'Father', He places the 1st person plural possessive pronoun to modify the word 'Father'; He places the word 'our' in front of it.  The word is not 'my' but 'our'; there is another relationship dynamic that comes into play just into the first two words of this prayer. The 'our' implies a familial bond not just with God, but with each other as well.  If I refer to God as Father and you refer to God as Father and he or she refer to God as Father then there is the rational understanding that we are brothers and sisters.  In the discussion, a lady (perhaps the last person in the group I would have expected this from) broke into the chorus of "We are Family" and smiled.  My answer, after shaking off the initial amusement, was "Well, actually, yes". The 'our' and the fact we are addressing God as 'Father' does imply just that.  It certainly flows from our ecclesiology ( the study of the church) and is well within the constant barrage of familial terms scattered throughout the New Testament when referencing the followers of Christ.  As in the use of father, we must lay aside the often dysfunctional vision of the family that exists in today's society.  Ideally, the family is were one finds those most concerned about your welfare, those quickest to offer support, those who are willing to correct with kindness, those who are willing to endure sacrifice for you, and those for whom you can show the same care and reveal the fullness of who you are.  We know where a family shows that kind of mutual support, mutual care, mutual mercy, and mutual concern for the path one travels, it is there we find the strongest of families.  It is this type that we as a church are called to be.  Think of just what is being prayed in those two words and the explosive dynamic present in those two words!  If we really mean those two words when we pray them, then how we live, how we view and treat others, how we live as a child of God all are radically transformed!

Thus we use these two words to come to know something of who God is and what He created us to be.  It is all wrapped up in a real and eternal relationship.  To pray those two words is a profession of faith of how we wish to live.  For me as a priest, that means I must model how I am a 'father' to my parish on the fatherhood of God.  To those who are biological fathers, your responsibility does not begin and end with ejaculation and impregnation: your responsibilities from that point on are to be modeled after the fatherhood of God.  It is for this reason that there is much to the saying :Any idiot can impregnate a girl, it takes a man to be a dad.  It also has a incredible point to make about how we approach one another, especially within the Body of Christ. While we do not and can not harbor wrong teaching, neither can we approach those who are purveyors of it with anything less than the same compassion of the prodigal son's father.  All the more, that means we cannot break into little tribes attached to a particular ideology within the Church and view each other as the competition, the other side, or worse yet, as the enemy.  The Roman Catholic Church cannot look like the 1968 DNC Convention! Remember the prayer of Jesus Christ on the night before he died: Father, may they be one, as you and I are one.  It is seeking union, not domination, that we answer this prayer and cooperate with the grace of God to actually make this prayer so.  It is doing this, that when we say 'our', we can actually mean it.

These few paragraphs are not an exhaustive exegesis of these two words.  I invite others to share what reflections they might have in the comments.  I will try to respond so that comments are not left up in the air as to say every view point is a valid viewpoint.  But, I do believe the greater our appreciation and understanding of just these two words become, the more dynamic the faith we live and thus the fuller the relationship we live with God our Father and consequently with each other.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

...and Mammon failed.

I have been watching, with some interest, the unfolding of the events with the Occupy Wall Street crowd and its like movements throughout the major cities of this country.  They claim to be the 99%. The 99%, as far as I can tell from their websites, are the overwhelming amount of Americans who are not members of the banking, insurance, mortgage industries, who have to foot the bills and barely make it.  For them, the other side are greedy, self-serving parasites of society who live off of the misery of others.  On the other side is a group called the 53%, a group who say the represent the 53% of Americans who actually pay taxes every year (or are supposed to). For them , the other side are greedy, self-serving parasites of society who live off of the hard work of others.  I would imagine in either group there are some who would fit that bill.  Both sides, though, represent an increasingly evident truth, we are unhappy as a nation, afraid of the future, frustrated with the status quo, and looking for answers and finding none.  Why?

I have thought and prayed a great deal about this.  Over the past few years, bracing for impact of what the future held, I dumped almost all my debt (by the end of the year I will be completely out of debt) and started to embrace a life of simplicity (which Canon Law says I as a priest should do anyway).  It means I had to make a lot of hard decisions.  It also means I had to really start taking my faith seriously.  It was a harsh reality for me that in some venues of my life I had not taken my faith seriously.  I cannot point a finger at anyone and chide them for being materialistic as I have been there myself as a priest.  I had been at the altar of Mammon.  When I started simplifying my life, I gave a lot away.  To my shame, as I packaged things to go to the local clothes shelter and to a pro-life yard sale, I realized I was packing things that I had never used but 'just had to have'.  I packed clothes with the labels still on them, CDs and DVDs I never listened to or watched, books I never read.  The list goes on and on.  I felt rather ashamed.  Not only had I bought all this stuff, I did it on credit.  I racked up quite the bill.  I worried about those bills and my ability to pay them off.  Spiritually, I became pre-occupied with these things.  I moved into my current assignment with a 17 foot U-Haul.  I once thought that this was awesome, now, I am deeply ashamed of it.

Truth be told, though, I am not the only one at the altar of mammon.  It is human nature to associate wealth with security and happiness.  We possess within us a desire to be free of want and the fear it brings.  In this country, and in the western world, we have amped this association on steroids! Because of this, we have the rumblings of class warfare, something that has never historically achieved anything positive.  One side accuses the other of greed whilst the other side accuses their rivals of envy.  There is truth in both, but at the end of the day it is greed that underpins the whole thing. We live in such a wealthy society that we simply believe if 'I want' thus "I should have".  Furthermore, we believe that I want it now thus I should have it now! Questions about whether 'I need' or that 'I need to wait' or 'can I afford' no longer apply.  Furthermore, we do not want to deal with the prospect of having to suffer the consequences of poor choices.  It is not without irony that there are enough I-pads, I-Phones, various recording devices, and such rolling around the Wall Street crowd (each side) as to one wonder whether one has happened against a revolt about corporations or a celebration thereof!   I know those things are expensive.  I know, because I have priced them and decided that I didn't want it enough to pay that kind of price for something that I have managed to live 46 years without already. Having been one caught in the trap, I can say that I know what it is like to tacitly believe that wealth and belongings equate happiness.  By the grace of God, though, I realized how much Mammon failed me.

We posses an emptiness inside that we desperately want filled.  It is longing for completion and purpose.  I liken it to what I have heard happy married couples say about their spouse: in their spouse they feel a part of them wanted and waited for and felt complete once married.  That is fully appropriate as the marital bond is the image of the relationship God wants with us.  We have this longing that refuses to be satiated by the things of this world.  People will spend their entire lives searching through the things of this world looking for that one thing that fills the gap.  They try wealth, power, pleasure, ease, reputation, and fame.  When these do not work, they fall into addictions to alcohol, narcotics, sex, food, and other stimuli to numb the gap that now has turned into an emptiness.  They become the type of wealthy who believe if they hoard enough of the world's goods, they will eventually find happiness.  There is never enough.  There is a too grand of a scale.  For the have-nots, it is a burning belief if only they had more they would find joy and contentment.  Both place their hope in Mammon and both have nothing left but greed and envy...for them Mammon failed.  The definition of insanity is to engage in the same behavior and expect a different outcome.

AS one of my favorite songs said when I was child "If you're tired of the same old story, turn some pages."  For me, that meant be faithful to the covenant God made with me and I with Him: A covenant sealed in Baptism and Confirmation, strengthened though Confession and Eucharist, and cemented in a special way through Holy Orders. That meant I could not go chasing after Mammon and still presumed I was faithful to God.  As I embraced this new found simplicity, I realized that I had been Mammon's slave.  Where God sought a marital bond with me, Mammon only sought me to be its slave.  God did not create me to be anyone's slave.  God created us to be His partner as we hear he created Eve for Adam.  God wants my good.  He knows what will bring me true happiness.  He knows that happiness will never be found in slavery.  Because of that, I have neither the fear of the hoarders, nor the envy of the have-nots.  I do pray for those on both sides and mourn their self-inflicted misery.  I, like ancient Israel, am between the enslavement of Egypt and the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (heaven: the end result of the covenant relationship).  To make it there means I will have to live and rejoice in that bond the Christ willingly gave His life to forge. It is not easy.  It beats enslavement.  The temptations are always there to turn back (believe me, I know that!).  But as one who starting to enjoy that freedom, I can only show my appreciation for that freedom by wanting it for others as well.

To those in the streets: you seek something from a source that will never give it to you.  You will not be able to have enough hand-outs, free rides, wealth, and prosperity to fill the hole within.  To those hoarding: obviously the accrual of wealth has not brought you what you hoped for and now you fear losing it...your hole, too, has gone unfulfilled.  As one who has been in both of your shoes, there is another way.  Equality and peace do not come through the distribution of wealth, they come from not being beholden to wealth to find peace, happiness, and joy.  As a former occupant of the hole you are now in, there is a way out that requires neither fear nor loathing...it only requires a willingness to give of oneself for one's brothers and sisters and a willingness to live a covenant relationship with  a God who desperately loves you.  You need not be Mammon's slave, when you can be God's own.