Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bucking the Establishment: In the Church and in the State

The last three days I have been ill.  This has given me a lot of time looking at the internet, Facebook, and the news.  This has probably not helped my illness.  However I see a thread of thought throughout the postings.  In a phrase: To hell (literally) with the establishment!  The establishment is killing us! It really does not matter whether it is a thread about politics or religion, the sentiment is the same.  The establishment has ground to a halt, weighed down with corruption and greed.  The sides in the debate will agree with this.  Their answers to set things anew really fall into three camps: the purists, the anarchists, and the compromisers.

First, to American politics:  This political cycle might well be described as the rise of the outsider.  This is true for both parties.  I am by no means a political analyst, but here is my take. 

In the Democratic party you have Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a man who is not a self identified democrat, but a self identified socialist who caucuses with the Senate Democrats.  In other cycles, Senator Sanders might well have been easily dismissed and out of the race by now.  The democrat establishment candidate, former 1st Lady and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton seemed a shoe in for the nomination.  However Sen. Sanders is tapping into the youth and others who feel that the DNC has not fulfilled their promise of utopia.  These people have been raised with an idea that life should be fair, free, and easy; that the governments job is to make life such.  Mrs. Clinton, who herself is far to the left, seems establishment by comparison.  Gov. Martin O' Malley, who might well have been a shoe in for the nomination is decades past can garner no traction at all.  I do not know who will win that DNC primary, but it seems it will be a brutal race. 

In the Republican party, you have a similar fight.  You have Donald Trump, a multi-billionaire businessman, who is seen by many as the ultimate outsider.  A man, they perceive, as the one who gets things done, beholden to no one in the party.  You have Sen. Ted Cruz, a man reviled by the establishment, who seems to be a strict constitutionalist, running second.  The closest establishment candidate, and even some would argue this, would be Sen. Marco Rubio.  The GOP field was littered with political outsiders: Mr. Trump, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.  Establishment candidates like Gov. Jeb Bush,  Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich, and such have never really been a factor in the race.  Many in the GOP want a guy who can get things done.  Others want a guy who will adhere to the constitution, something they believe the parties have long abandoned.

In the races, both parties are contending with chunks of the population who are widely dissatisfied with the status quo.  Their dissatisfaction comes from a variety of sources, each wanting the body politic to move in a particular way.  The anger is palatable from all sides.  They perceive a country reeling from years of compromise, weakness, and corruption.  I do believe most of these people love their country and do want this country to succeed.

Next, to the Catholic Church. There has always been a division, it seems, through my life in the Church.   As with the body politic, there is real angst in the Body of Christ.  In Protestant faiths, if there be a disagreement, you simply split off and form a new Church.  In the Catholic Church, we stay in, for the most part, and slug it out.  There are many who want a Church who will return us back to what is perceived as the glory days of the Church (aka, before Vatican II) and those who see the same perceived lack of inertia and think we need to compromise further (aka Spirit of Vatican II).  They have taken to the internet and other forms of media.  I notice some, like Michael Voris, have started referring to the powers that be in the church as the establishment.

So why all the angst? Most perceive that the numbers have fallen in the developed world.  Traditions are dropped, it seems, and things watered down.  Those who are faithful Catholics are frustrated by what seems to be a litany of band aids or complete inaction as to the slide.  Their feelings about the bishops, including even the pope, is that they have failed in stemming the loss.  Empirical evidence would seem to back their claims, at least in the developed world. As before, I do believe that most of these people love Christ and His Church and want to see it grow.

I am not dismissing the feelings and frustrations people have, nor am I going to validate each and every one.  How do we deal with such dissatisfaction? There are some hard truths we will have to face.

First, this world is imperfect.  It is full of human beings who can be incredibly selfish.  So many have either ignored or dismissed the notion that our actions do bear consequences for myself and others.  The more selfish a society becomes, the more the fabric of the society of ripped apart.  If you notice, in the political arena, so often either greed, wrath, or envy are the underlying motivations to get people out to vote.  Getting any group of people to move in a unified direction is like trying to herd cats; a task that becomes more impossible as the size of that group grows.  Keep in mind that the population of the USA is over 321 million, and the members of the Roman Catholic Church is hovering around 1.2 Billion Catholics, with 65 Million in the USA alone.  Do we get the monumental task here?

Second, much of the world's imperfection comes from man's selfishness.  In Catholicism, we refer to concupiscence, a selfish desire that motivates the human soul towards sin. In essence , so many want the United States of Me, or the My Catholic Church. As pure or impure as the motivations might be, we want our leaders to cater to me and people who think like me.  I would guess that is because I feel I have figured out reality in all its rich complexity and know what needs to be done.  Inevitably, there will be monumental clashes as all these disparate like minded groups clash.  At stake, the institution they want to make better.  Oftentimes, those who do not think like me can either adapt, hit the bricks, or be eliminated.

Christ called for his followers to put God first.  Then they were to understand they were part of His people.  What was to be done was for the good of the entire Body.  This does not mean compromising the faith to suit an end; but means to allow the Gospel to transform us.  If that happens, then the anger subsides.  This is what St. Paul pleads with the people of Corinth in his letters.  This is more than just 'get along'; this is to be collectively transformed by Christ.

In the body politic, if we do not start asking what is in the best interest of this country and get away from what is in my best interest, we will rip apart this society.  Too many times we assume what is in my best interest is in the best interest of all as well.  This is not true.  If our vote is motivated by greed, wrath, or envy, the base of our vote is steeped in sin.  Nothing good will come of it.  Motivation matters.

It might well be true that the establishment has failed.  That said, what we seek to do to rectify that matters.  Not every overthrown establishment is replaced by something superior.  Witness the French Revolution, the Rise of Hitler, the Rise of Lenin and Stalin, and so on.  If we try to replace an establishment corrupted by human sin with en establishment built on another human sin, we will get the same result.  If we want a different result. we will need to take different tactics.  In the Church, that means the self-revelation of God comes first.  His teachings matter and can not be coopted to suit what we perceive to be a noble end.  The nanosecond I put myself above the need for conversion, I make myself a God.  We might well be successful in making a human government in our image, we will not be successful at all in trying to make a God in our own image.  It will be very difficult for us to positively effect the secular order if we are warring in the spiritual order.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Evangelization: Knowing Who You are Really Up Against

    In The Catholic Church, an increasingly popular character is the exorcist.  An exorcist is a cleric who is officially charged with combating demonic forces who have possessed a person.  It is not the business of B movies, schlock TV shows, or parlor games. It is real. Make no mistake about that.  However, no exorcist merely saunters into an encounter with demonic forces unready. He has spent much times in prayer, abstinence, and fasting.  He makes regular use of confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  He knows what he engages in is God’s work first.  He knows he is the tool, the weapon, with which battle will be entered.  He prays for his own steadfastness and fearlessness in encountering the hopelessness that is evil.  He knows that victory over the devil and his minions rest not on his power but the power of God.

    What on earth has this to do with evangelization?  Am I saying that those who have fallen away or are unchurched are possessed?  No.  However, in doing the work of evangelization, we are doing battle with demonic forces who have no interest in the conversion of human beings and will actively fight it.  Jesus understood that in the preaching of the Gospel, that the devil had an arsenal of weapons to stymie its growth.  We also know that Jesus was prone to pray much.  As to the weapons of the devil, let us look at Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23: The Parable of the Sower.  It tells us what we are up against. 

    Jesus speaks about the seed that falls on the footpath and is eaten immediately by the birds of the air.  These are those who hear the word with no understanding.  These are the indifferent.  Satan’s weapon of indifference is a powerful tool.  These are those who see no reason for conversion.  No matter how much of a mess their life is, either pride or anger have blinded them to the need for Christ.

    Jesus speaks next of that seed which falls in rocky soil and withers quickly for lack of roots.  These are those who hear the word and initially are provoked to change, but it dies off quickly.  These are those who know they need conversion, but to do so would require change in their lives.  Change that would require their letting go of their favorite sin.  They resent having to change or doubt they can change.  Here the devil uses the deadly sins, habits that prevent a person from change.  We know vices are hard to break. Good habits are harder to form than bad habits.  The devil convinces the person that either they should not have to give up their bad habits or that they can’t.  Thus they fall away.

    Jesus then speaks of the seed that falls among the thorns.  It grows but is choked off by the thorns.  These are those who hear the Word , allow it to start to transform them, but it choked off by anxiety and worry.  The devil will use anxiety and fear to stop conversion dead in its tracks.  He will use despair paired with pride and doubt to choke off growth.  In all of this, the devil and his demons will fight any seed you try to throw.  That will not suffice for the devil; he wants the sower to grow despondent and believe that they cannot do it.  He will tempt us to despair, frustration, and even abandonment of the evangelical call of Christ.  It is a good bet he is tempting you now with thoughts of how silly, foolish, and unrealistic this ’demon thing’ is and how medieval all this nonsense is.

    This, my friends, is what we are up against.  That said, be not afraid.  However as an exorcist wisely gears up for battle, so should we.  If we love the friends and family we are calling back or reaching out to, we will do these things.  We do them  because we love God, we love them, and we want their good.  People tell me they ‘have tried everything’ and yet what they do falls on deaf ears.  Might I suggest a different approach with a look at what exorcists do to prepare themselves.

    First, we pray.  We pray for the good of the individuals we are seeking to bring in or bring back.  This is not a one and done prayer.  This is a habit developed through the grace of God.  In doing so we are using this grace to invest ourselves in their good. As evangelization is not about ‘winning’ or gathering trophies, the disposition with which we come matters.  Love and care for a person and their soul cannot be synthesized. It must be real.  Without that love, the devil can easily ward off any and all attempts. In this we seek the help of the saints and angels in joining us in intercession for these people.  We do not attempt to go into battle on our own.

    Second, we fast and abstain for the good of these people.  This builds on the investing ourselves in other people’s good.  They are powerful weapons.  Remember, though, that Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and abstaining between you and Him.  This is not about publicly trying to show the person you love them.  Because we are willing to disrupt our lives and change our own habits through God’s grace, the devil knows he is coming up against a formidable opponent who is in union with God.  That does not mean he backs off; to the contrary, he will step up his game.

    Third, we make ample use of the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.  We believe that the Sacraments are the prime conduits of grace by which we receive the strength and courage we need to engage the devil, his temptations, and his lies.  In Confession, we ask God to heal us of our sin; a sick physician is hardly a good healer.  The devil loves wounded prey.  Sin becomes first his toehold, then foothold, then method of conquering.  We can give it no quarter in our lives.  It is said the Satan knows you by your sin, hence we must strip him of his knowledge.  The devil also likes a weakened foe.  Hence the regular reception of the Eucharist in a state of grace, provided by Confession,  is so very important.  Use of the Sacraments reminds us, like the exorcist, that we are not engaging in battle on our own, but we are with our brothers and sisters, both here and in heaven, and with Christ Himself.

    Finally, like the sower in the parable, we do our part realizing that the one who transforms hearts is Christ.  We live lives that show the transformation that is possible.  That life is authentic if we stay connected through prayer, fasting/abstinence, and the Sacraments.  Holiness can not be faked.  In all these things, we set the example, be a bridge of trust, and an open door.  Remember that these are the prerequisites for engagement and not the totality.  Let us begin here though, turning not to our power of persuasion, but to the grace of God.  If we tire of poor results, we must then start with good beginnings and approach. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Why Parishes Die

I read an article just now about the closures of parishes in Bayonne NJ (in the Archdiocese of Newark) that will narrow the number of parishes from 5 to 2.  This scene plays out regularly now in the USA.  A lot can be attributed to population and demographic shifts.  I think, however, these reasons become fall guys for the real underlying problems.  Without knowing the specifics of the reasons in Bayonne, hence I am not speaking directly to that situation, there are multiple reasons why a parish closes.  Oftentimes it is the result of a perfect storm of the following:

A) They became country clubs people didn't want to belong to.  So many parishes are about as welcoming to new people as a snooty country club is to non-members.  There have been times I have seen a scene from Caddyshack play out, where Judge Smails sneers at another character who seems interested in the club , "Some people just don't belong."  This wasn't a problem demographically until Catholics started to mimic the society around them and started using artificial birth control and contracepting themselves out of existence.  We weren't producing our own Catholics nor actively evangelizing either.  We ignored two teachings of the Church (contraception and evangelization) and thought all would go well.

The word many use to describe their parishes is 'cold'.  Many think this means what people are looking for is handshakes, slaps on the back, and an atmosphere just shy of a football game.  What they mean is that they can go for years to a church and never be acknowledged even discreetly, their suffering goes unnoticed, and their needs unfulfilled.  Mass becomes a prefunctionary  duty which seems little more than putting face time in with God.  These people are largely in danger of leaving and taking subsequent generations with them.

They tire of the infighting, turf wars, gossip, and back biting.  That is what the rest of their world looked like.  They weren't looking for the same in their church.

B) The transcendence was gone.  I think it is a understated and maybe even not totally conscious understanding, that what people want is from their Church is to be reminded that there is a personal God, that He wants a relationship with us, and that we can come into contact with this transcendent God at Mass. When Mass becomes about entertaining the congregants, it switches the direction. 

When the focus became either the priest putting on a good show that would resonate emotionally with people or focused on the congregation as if they were theater goers looking to be entertained, well, we were competing on a field where we couldn't win.  We don't have the special effects capabilities.  Not saying a lot of churches don't try, but when we do, it is like digging the hole deeper.  People came to encounter the transcendent and got a song and dance about the transcendent.  They leave going to look for the transcendent somewhere else (aka spiritual but not religious).

C) These two factors lead to a vocation crisis.  We simply do not have the clergy to man the parishes anymore.  I have lots of theories about this.  I will speak of a couple pertinent to this monologue.  First, what inspires a young man to anything?  Example.  If the Mass is a show, how does that inspire?  A person so disposed to entertainment could go into secular fields of entertainment and get married and make a lot more money!  When no plea is constantly made towards the selflessness that encountering the transcendent requires, then why bother thinking of others' needs when I can accomplish the same end without all the moral baggage and disciplines required?

If the parish is a business like a country club, why give my life to that?  I can go into business and make more money and get married.  Unlike the church, where there seems to be no penalty for doing your job poorly, business rewards success and punishes ineptitude.  If the only encounters a young man is afforded is either a happy clappy condescending attitude that wants to entertain them or a cold poorly executed Mass in which the priest seems indifferent, can we blame them for not connecting with a understanding of the transcendence of God and how His Church connects us to that?

Now place this in the societal milieu that routinely criticizes and stereotypes Catholic clergy as cold, hypocrites, predators, and emotionally dead.  If the local parish offers no counter-balance to this, how on earth do we expect any other outcome as opposed to the one we have? It is not as if we are bringing a knife to a gun fight, we are bringing a handkerchief!

D) These have led to a further problem: Catholics notoriously do not invest in their parish nor tithe. It did not used to be that way.  I laugh when I hear about how rich the church is.  Sure, some live like princes (wait till they have to stand before God on that one), but most every parish financially struggles.   They do this despite paying less to their employees across the board.  They do this despite continual cut backs.  But let's be honest.  Who wants to invest in mediocrity?  Who wants to invest in programs that don't teach the faith?  Who wants to invest in Churches that do not do their jobs?  Who wants to invest in the dwindling and failing?  

Now pair this with the aforementioned business mode the church in this country takes.  We quit talking about the thanksgiving offering as an offering made to God.  We replaced it with 'we got to pay the bills' motif which switched the tithing from a thanksgiving offering to God to a 'pay for play.' This turned the collection into essentially a cash register where how much is given is dependent upon the services used by the parishioner. These are self tallied and what is seen as what things are worth becomes the amount.  We managed to take God out of the offering and replace it with human beings.  How is that working our for us?

I'll be honest, sometimes parishes can come across as Monsieur and Madame Thernadier from Les Miserables, singing 'here a little nip, there a little cut' in the numerous fees we charge for services rendered.  Want a baptism?  That'll be $50 bucks.  Want to get married?  That'll be $100 for the priest and $500 to use the Church.  Want to get Grandma buried?  Sure, that'll cost you $100.  Need to petition for an annulment?  Yeah, sure, bring your checkbook!  And on and on and on.   Where fees for sacraments (stole fees) are the only source of income for parishes (think the developing world where collections are a exercise in futility as no one has money to give) this makes sense.  But for a place such as the US where we slide collection baskets under people's noses on a regular basis, it engenders cynicism.  When we project the idea of money for services rendered, we go from the familial bond to a business.  Like with businesses, people will go where they get a better bang for their buck.  As an aside, what does this attitude do to the motif of pastor as father?  What dad charges his kids for attending their special events in life?!

E)  Finally, we forgot we were supposed to a family, a People of God, the Bride of Christ.  All of the above points to this.  A family seeks to expand through childbirth and marriage.  When we contracept ourselves out of existence or refuse to evangelize for fear of getting the 'wrong type' (defend that one before God), we will have no other conclusion but the shrinking of our congregations. When we keep settling for mediocrity, the dominant business  model we use  will be our undoing.  Consider that families will be much more patient with the quirks and shortcomings of their family members.  Business patrons will abandon a mediocre business, no matter how good it once was.  When our fellow parishioners suffer and we do nothing (I mean would be do something for those who happen to shop in the same store we do?) it tears at the fabric of the family.  When forgiveness is withheld, divisions fomented, turf wars commonplace, and general indifference is shown to expansion, how can we not think this contraction will happen?

Underlying all of this is the onerous fact that we have done such an incredibly poor job of catechesis in this country, adapting the societal 'feel good' and social reconstruction to our teachings, that we have rendered those teachings moot.  When encounter with the Transcendent God, whether it be in Mass or in our daily dealings got replaced with a social justice agenda in which Jesus is little more than a cheer leader, how did not think this will come back to bite us?

In short, if we want to stop this contraction: Get up, start reaching out for new members, put down the game console and pick a Bible and catechism (or some book that presents Church teaching on a level you can understand), start demanding better of your parish and get about the Mission of the Church.  If the parish is no more than a convenient place and time to go to Mass, then you are adding to the problem.  Don't do that!  If you are a priest: shut down the business and go back to being the dad of the parish.  Take your responsibilities seriously, understanding that your parishioners are God's flock first and you will be held accountable for your shepherding of them.  Treat the sacraments with the dignity and respect due them; if you don't believe, how will your flock?  Get out of your rectory!  After 50+ years it has become all too clear that the sheep will not shepherd themselves. 

There is nothing wrong that cannot be undone and corrected.  Why?  Because at the heart of this all stands Christ.  We believe that Christ is victorious. Perhaps we need to start acting like that!