Saturday, January 10, 2015

A religion or a relationship?

One of things that priests do often is celebrations with families at key moments of their lives: baptisms, weddings, funerals for example.  It is at such events that the extended family comes.  There is no priest who hasn't looked at the gathered family and notice that it is obvious that the overwhelming majority had quit the practice of the Catholic faith.  It is not just the young ones, but the much older as well.  It is easy for us to look at such a situation and wonder what went wrong...with them.  What act of rebellion led them to abandon such a well presented and well witnessed to faith?  Did we not have great classes and programs?  What is deficient in these people?  I know this, because I thought those things early on in my priesthood.  I was among those who saw this and either used the opportunity to do nothing or to berate (subtly) the disbelief of the gathered.  Was I ever wrong!  Now, I look at the situation and wonder if and where we as a Church failed.  Where did we who were in charge of faith development (parents and clergy) fail to make a compelling case for not just a religion, but the relationship that is the very center of our Catholic faith?  Maybe, in some cases, the fallen away person did have great role models and compelling witness and chose to abandon the faith anyways.  Let's be honest though, more often than not it was a lack of such things that allowed the person to drift off in hopes of finding greener pastures.

Human beings are social creatures.  We crave relationship.  It is not enough for us to talk about the theories of relationship, we actually crave to be in such.  It drives the desires to interact, to make friends, to date, to marry and so on.  This desire is what drives the creation of families.  It builds towns, countries, and empires.  Healthy people know these relationships will have peaks and valleys, good days and bad days, times of intense emotion and times of incredible dryness.  Deep within the person is a desire to be in relationship with something beyond themselves.  This desire drives us to faith, and when that desire goes unmet or is betrayed, it leads to a great anger and bitterness.

Our Judeo-Christian faith is based on one central premise: He who created us, loves us, and desires a relationship with us.  He reveals Himself in our history.  He does so through angels, judges, and prophets.  He gives us a written testimony through the Scriptures. He creates a way for us to come to understand Him and encounter Him.  Primary to that encounter is worship.  Worship is our way of returning to God the love He first shows us.  Our God is not content with a singular relationship with us; no, He wants us to love whom He loves...He wants us to love the entire group whom He calls His family.  The Bible is rife with familial bond terms: spouse, father, mother, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters...all pointing to the deepness of a desire for a loving relationship He wants with us.  This relationship, built upon love, has a certain look to it, will act in certain ways which all speak to the heart of all Scripture and Church teaching: LOVE.  Love is a complete self emptying for the sake and good of another.  This love has no strings attached and sets no conditions.  All of the 'rules' point to what love looks like.  They do not, however, replace the actual duty to love.  Religion is the is the lived relationship.

Therein lies the rub.  Do we present Catholicism as primarily a religion or as a relational faith?  Is it primarily a set of rules to follow so as to check off obligations so as to get some merit badge or is it a continual self giving which draws us deeper and deeper into an eternal relationship?  If we present a mere religion, we do a tremendous disservice, if not tremendous violence, to God's divine self revelation.  God wasn't looking for us to dissect Him but for us to come to know Him.  If faith gets reduced to a memorization of facts in which we will give you various certificates to prove you went through training (talk about an act of violence towards the sacraments!), can we not but wonder why those who do stay do so?  Faith is not an academic subject.  Coming to know the teachings of Christ and His Church should lead to ongoing conversion and alert us to what a healthy loving relationship with God and His people look like.  No more than religion can be reduced to 'do what you feel' (which was kind of the mantra for several decades...and they did what they they were leaving our doors) can it be reduced to a mere scientific dissection.

This changes everything.  It changes how we present faith and what its obvious end is.  If faith is about an encounter with religious knowledge, then we will continue to have the problems we have.  Does this mean we cease having religion class?  Absolutely not!  But what is the end in mind?  A grade or a relationship?   Perhaps taking a different approach in the dissemination of the content of our faith might be looked at:  approaching it as not merely a giving of a particular type of knowledge (which by comparison seems disconnected from others types of classes) but as the type of dynamic in building a friendship or in courtship.  This is much harder to do.  It cannot be taught coldly out of a book, but must be a lived witness by the instructor.

I am trying to flesh this out in practice.  That requires that I engage more in deepening my relationship with God and being extraordinarily conscious of how I behave and respond to situations.  In the beginning of this column I talk about those uncomfortable moments at funerals and weddings and such.  What do I do now?  The homily includes a strong call to seek relationship with God and the beauty that this relationship brings.  Instead of a wagging finger or a closed hand, a open hand reaching out is actually symbolic of the relationship to which we are called.  As we engage in the new evangelization, we must begin from the premise that what we present is not a mere religious choice...but a call to a relationship that God eternally calls us to and has created us for.  Let's start a  relationship with God and His our intellectual nucleus and let it lead beyond the sterility of mere intellect (which IS needed by the way) and to the dynamic reality of a lived and growing  relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Being a Christian Father

Yesterday, an interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke was released in which he spoke of the waning role of men in the Church.  It came across that the cause of this was a 'feminization of the Church' which had been overrun by radical feminists with a radical agenda.  This is nothing new being said, I have heard this multiple times.  The belief that since  'women have filled the sanctuaries' and the hand wringing about girl altar servers being the cause of the drop in priestly vocations and so on.  I'm not buying it.  I am not buying the notion that men in the Church are some damsel in distress held captive on a ship overrun by Amazonian pirates.  The women stepped in (and thank God they did) because the men abandoned their posts.  They abandoned their posts generations ago by abandoning being the spiritual leaders and heads of their home that the Scriptures demand they be.  That abandonment has spread like a horrific disease throughout every institution including the family, the parish, and society as a whole.  If it is to be corrected, it isn't by blaming women and driving them out, it is going to be by men stepping up and be the leaders they are called to be.

I caution though against falling into the two traps of pseudo-leadership.  A spiritual head of the home is to be a model of the Father, neither falling into being a tyrant nor an enabler.  Isn't is odd that the two greatest misconceptions of God fall into God being either the tyrant or the enabler?  The Scriptures present us with a Father who has a firm hand, a deep love, the strength of patience, and a burning desire for the good of his children.  The tyrant rules by force, too weak to model or produce a compelling argument to cooperate.  The enabler abdicates responsibility and plays both the fool and the coward in the life of those charged to his care.  Neither of these are models of Christian fatherhood, neither in the family or in the parish.  I say this because dysfunctional fathers are not sole to marriage, but are so often running parishes as well.  Of all the titles a priest can be given, father is the one that is supposed to remind him day in and day out of the awesome responsibility he has.

The answer to what ails us is for men to start being the dads , both lay and cleric, that God has created us to be.  This is not to diminish by one iota the role of the mom.  She shouldn't have to do both jobs though.  Over the years I have talked with many women who do both jobs (even with the man living in the home)  and while they do their best at fulfilling the roles, they desperately wish their husband would step up and take his role so that the mom can do hers better.  Gentlemen, it is time for us to step up! 

How do we do this?  How do we grasp the nobility that is spiritual fatherhood?  First and foremost by being a man  of God.  It means following those traits of God the Father aforementioned.  You put yourself last!  Your children and wife come first.  Period.  If you are a priest, your parishioners come first.  Period.  You actively look out for their entire good.  You realize your primary responsibility to be a provider and protector, both spiritual and physical, of those God has placed in your care.  Your wife and children (or parishioners) should see in you a model of the strength of faith and the pursuit of holiness.  Know that if you are willing to turn to God,  a Father who loves us and wants what is good for us, and seek the wisdom, courage, and strength to fulfill your mission, He will give it to us.  I find the most powerful petition I have every morning is asking God to help me a better father.

If the dearth of priests is to be ever answered. it will by men reclaiming their duty as spiritual leaders.  Young men will follow the example of the fathers, for good or for ill. So, men, you ARE a spiritual leader, for good or for ill!  Where are we leading? That goes for the parish as well.  I know it sounds harsh, but my brothers, neither being a business man nor a show man inspires.  They look to us to be strong spiritual leaders who model the strength and compassion of the Father.  In either the home or the parish, that is much more than speaking a good game.  It is actively living it.  It is in taking an active interest and forming the bonds of know being a father is a familial relationship?

So you do spiritual leadership?  Do you ever lead prayer in the home.  Do you ever pointedly model Christian discipleship?  I'll be is not primarily the mother's job to take the kids to is yours! It is not manly to abdicate responsibility because I bought into a worldly view of being a man (which is actually acting like a perpetual boy) .  I'm not going to go easy on men because I don't on myself.  Men don't need to be treated with kid gloves...they man up.  Be a better husband and father...model the selflessness, self-control, and compassion necessary to pull this responsibility off.  My brother priests, we cannot model our spiritual fatherhood by being prisoners of our rectories waiting like a businessman for the people to come to us. We must get out among our flock and be shepherds actively concerned for the guidance and well being of our flocks...they are the families which we have been given the duty of caring for.

Blaming the women for our own dereliction of duty is an act of weakness and cowardice.  We dishonor the effort and sacrifice they put into faith by trying to step up in our role AND their role.  We will stand before God, each of us, and have to answer for the role we played or didn't play in caring for those placed under our care.  I hope all who read understand this: the base is exactly the same for a good priest  as it is for a good husband/dad.  If the models aren't living up to the responsibility, how on earth can we expect healthy fruit?  No more blaming the up and take your responsibility to those placed under your protection and care.  If we truly want to see our society thrive and our church will be by being the men we are created to be.