Monday, May 31, 2010

Not Going to Communion

Whenever I see someone who doesn't go to communion, I find I feel all at the same time both very hopeful for them and also a little bit worried and maybe even sad.

On the one hand, I feel hopeful because I think to myself, here is someone clearly taking the eucharist very seriously. They are clearly on a journey of some kind. And isn't it amazing that they've given themselves to that.

At the same time, I worry about whether they're taking that journey with anyone from the Church, whether they're talking about the things that they feel are holding them back from communion, be it a sin or simply the series of basic steps necessary to enter into the Church. As a priest I would never want to meddle in someone else's spiritual life, but I must say, having been at this whole religious life thing a little while now, I've seen how, left alone, we can get lost and confused and even despair. For most of us it takes conversation or at least a sounding board to help us separate our own human, limited views of God, of the nature of our sinfulness, of our mission from the realities thereof.

Put another way: in my experience, God is often a lot more loving and forgiving than the unconscious images that we respond to/react out of. And if there's not someone out there helping us get in touch with that, well, it could be we never take the steps we need to come to the table of the Lord that we seek -- and that God seeks for us.

God: Reaching Out to Help Us?...

Or ready to throw a lightning bolt and smite us down?

We believe as Catholics that the Eucharist is our ongoing sacrament of reconciliation, the means, along with confession, by which we are continually brought back into right relationship with God and one another.

It's always good to remember that.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fasting, Part 2

So, how did it go? Did you eat something before Mass? I have to say, I had some qualms after I made the suggestion. In the end, being Catholic is about making it your own, and part of that is not simply taking things on anybody's say so, but using the input of others to help you figure it out for yourself. I certainly hope you didn't eat if it felt like a betrayal of any kind. It was just a suggestion!

Here's my experience: On any number of occasions, I've broken the one hour fast rule. And in part I didn't really give it too much attention, because I thought, ah, old rules, no real relevance today.

But having broken the rule, I found I appreciated it more. To me, it's strange to go to communion feeling full. It's like I've missed the point entirely, or like, why exactly am I up here? Clearly, the eucharist is not supposed to be all the calories you need for one of your meals of the day. But still, it is food. And if I don't actually physically have any need for that, it doesn't exactly feel right.

Also, personally I find it weird to have some particular taste in my mouth at communion time. It sort of distracts me from what I'm there for, pulls me out of the experience.

So for me, the rule is sort of about being available. Going to Mass, I want to be open to the experience that is going to be offered to me. If I go on a full stomach, or have other tastes in my mouth, I'm less available. There's something else already there.

That's my two cents. As always, I'd be interested to hear others.

Americans, have a Happy Memorial Day!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Friday Two-Fer: The Sunday Obligation

Since I didn't get to blog as often as I hoped this week, I'm offering two posts today. The main one (below this one) offers a little experiment in fasting.

For an addition, I thought I'd offer a link and some quotes from Archbishop Timothy Dolan's recent column on the Sunday obligation. According to his citations, only about a third of Catholics (at most) go to Church on Sunday regularly. Not a great stat. And according to him, in the end not really a beneficial choice for those who skip. The Sabbath, he notes, is a day of rest, that is, a day to renew and feed the spirit of our lives. It's supposed to offer us a taste of what we can expect after we die, a taste of the kingdom that God promises us.

The choices we make should reflect that. Spending Sunday running around doing errands might be necessary, but it's not a great pattern to fall into. (And let's be honest, shall we? Yes, we all have errands to run. But if you've ever opted not to do the errands on a given Sunday (and who hasn't), you know that by and large we can skip them on a given day, and the important things still somehow seem to get done. It's like trying to get at the front of the line when waiting to get a seat on the plane. Your seat's already reserved, and usually even today there's enough shelf space for everyone. We feel a sense of urgency, so we do it, but it's really not necessary.)

Our Sunday observance, says Archbishop Dolan,
above all our Sunday Eucharist, is our anticipation of that definitive Sabbath rest when we shall enter into the Lord’s Day that will have no end. We need Sunday here below so that we might not lose our path to heaven above! We live on Sunday now what we hope to live forever in heaven.
Something to think about...

The full text can be found here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Experiment for the Weekend

For decades (centuries, actually) we've talked about a one hour fast before Mass. And I have to say, growing up I never really "got" that. Sounded like a rule without a purpose. What does it matter whether you've had a banana 30 minutes before Mass?

And you know what, maybe it is a hanger-on from another era, with no real relevance today.

For some of us, the best way to find out is to experiment for ourselves. So, here's a little something you might try this weekend: before Mass, have something to eat. It doesn't have to be a lot, but if it were filling, that would be great. Do that, and then just pay attention to your own experience of receiving communion. Does the fact that you've eaten something impact your reception (either for good or for ill)?

Try it, and we'll talk on Monday.

Have a good weekend!

You Lookin' At Me?

Do you ever watch where the priest looks during the Eucharistic prayer? It's actually a lot of fun. I think they could make a game out of it, something like Where's Waldo? But instead of Waldo, he's looking at, you know, God.

So -- as far as I can tell, there are three main tendencies priests have about where to look during the prayer. The first and perhaps most obvious is to look up. It comes from our training in grade school -- where is God? He's up there.

Outside that approach would work really well. But inside, if you've ever noticed someone doing this, it sort of looks like we're talking to the ceiling. This can be tweaked, of course -- if they're looking more out than up, it works a lot better. But when we look straight up, or close to that -- from the congregation's angle, it really does look like we're seeing something nobody else is. (Can't you see him? He's right there!)

(What is she looking at?)

A second standard, which I think of as very post-Vatican II, I need for you to know how much GOD LOVES YOU, is to say the prayer looking directly into the eyes of the congregation. Usually as priests we accompany this with emphasis and earnest intonation. You could ignore the words entirely, and the tone tells it all -- WOW. WOW. WOW.

Have you ever been to a Mass where the priest is constantly looking right into your eyes saying the prayers? It's a little freaky, isn't it? Like, there's way too much emotion going on here. Somebody needs to settle down a bit.


The real problem is, for the most part the prayers we say as presiders are not addressed to the congregation, but to God the Father or Jesus. So, not only is it a little offputting (and scary) if overdone, it doesn't really make sense liturgically. I am not asking my aunt Kathleen to grant that we may be filled with the Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ. Not that she wouldn't appreciate that, and I think if asked of she could probably give some good suggestions on how we might get there. It's just not her role (or anyone's) in the prayer.

The obvious exception to this is the rite of institution, where we retell the story of the Last Supper. There, you'll often see priests talking directly to the congregation, and while it still can be scary if overdone, it makes more sense. We -- that is, presider, congregation and God -- are sharing a story that the presider is telling.

The third place presider eyes can generally be found during the eucharistic prayer is looking down at the sacramentary. It's the safe bet, really. Keeps the presider from making himself the center of attention, and allows him to make sure he gets all the words right, too.

A variation on this, which I prefer, is to look straight out, not at anyone in the congregation, but just generally straight out. I like it because on the one hand, it, too, keeps the words themselves front and center. It's not about me personally "connecting" with the congregation, making them feel one way or another. And at the same time, it sort of helps me pray. If I'm looking down the whole prayer, I generally lose track of the fact that I'm praying. Just reading along, I can sort of tune out.

And the fact is, at this point I pretty much know the prayers. If I can trust that (sometimes I can, sometimes I can't), I find I go slower and appreciate the words more, let them breathe a bit.

For those who pray the eucharistic prayer looking down, one helpful suggestion we learned in school was, don't have the sacramentary off to the side. Put it instead directly in front of you, and the bread and the wine in front of it. That way, from the congregation's point of view, the focus of their vision is on the elements. And you are directly facing them, rather than looking away.

Frankly, as long as we don't draw too much attention to ourselves, seems like the congregation could care less. But it's fun to tweak, too. It's like when you're pitching or hitting in baseball; slight changes in posture or position really can open things up in a whole new (and better) way.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

And Another Thing, Eucharistic Prayer III!

Another passage in Eucharistic Prayer III that always drives me nuts:
Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth;
your servant, Pope ___, our bishop _____,
and all the bishops,
with the clergy and the entire people your Son has gained for you.
It's an important prayer -- of course we want our Church, our leadership, our people blessed and strengthened. My problem is, on the face of it the prayer seems so heavily weighted toward the ordained. We move through the Pope, the bishop, but then also all the other bishops and the clergy, before we ever mention the broader people of God that they're all a part of. They get part of a line, and that's it. They almost seem like an afterthought -- the liturgical version of saying "and everyone else". Or "etc."

One priest friend said to me, hey, man, don't complain. We ordained, we need all the prayers we can get.

And that's sure true, brother. But you know what, I think if I asked my brother and sister-in-law or my sister and brother-in-law, who are raising families, working their tails off and trying to keep the zip in their marriage and be good people, they might say they could sure use those prayers, too. Maybe even more than "poor me". (It's a funny thing about being clergy; you can really talk yourself into thinking how tough you have it, and not even realize how hard it is to get the grass to grow that green on the other side...)

Case in point...

I don't like to change the prayers; they're poetry. You don't mess with that. But I have to admit, I will often times jump right from our bishop to "and the entire people your Son has gained for you." "Entire people" includes the bishops, it includes the priests, it includes the sisters and religious and everyone else, and it doesn't send the message that the ordained have priority in the scheme of things. Before Vatican II, some might have said that. But that's not the understanding of our Church today.

Another friend gave me an even better suggestion: "and all those who minister in the Church and all his holy people." Ministry certainly points to the broader pool of bishops and clergy, but it also includes everyone else with a role in the Church.

Here's the new translation:
May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation,
we pray, O Lord,
advance the peace and salvation of all the world.
Be pleased to confirm in faith and charity
your pilgrim Church on earth,
with your servant N. our Pope and N. our Bishop,
the Order of Bishops, all the clergy,
and the entire people you have gained for your own.
"Entire people" now get its own line, which is nice, a bit less throwaway. Also, the text adds a "with" before mentioning all these specific groups, a nice addition, as it makes more clear that all of what follows is part of "your pilgrim Church" (a.k.a the people of God). Still overheavy in its weight toward the ordained, though. But this isn't a new text, after all, just a new translation.

I'm away tomorrow, but I'll be back with something new on Wednesday.

Happy Pentecost!!!

Wherever They May Be Redux

Tonight at dinner we were talking about my blog post from yesterday and someone had the bright idea to check the new translations of the eucharistic prayers, which are supposed to offer more literal translations of the original Latin. (Why Eucharistic Prayer III, which was crafted in the 1960s, would ever have been written in Latin in the first place is a whole 'nother issue...)

Here's the translation they give for the passage I cited yesterday:

In your compassion, O merciful Father,
gather to yourself all your children
scattered throughout the earth.

So I guess the point really was just geography. It fits, too; the lines directly before speak about the community gathered here in this place. The passage I've cited thus broadens our view; it's a gentle reminder that at every liturgy we're part of a much bigger family before the Lord.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

...Wherever They May Be

I was saying Mass today for the final retreat of the Ignatian Volunter Corps group of New York. A fantastic group and a fantastic program. If anyone reading is retired and looking for a really really cool volunteer opportunity -- one that has bases all over the U.S. -- you should definitely check out IVC. It's something special.

So, anyway, I'm up there presiding, and I'm using Eucharistic Prayer III, and near the end of the eucharistic prayer I'm hit with a question that occurs to me over and over the last 3 or 4 years. Right before the end of the prayer, where we pray for all those who have died, and right after we've prayed for the pope, the bishop and the entire community, the presider offers these two lines:
Father, hear the prayers of the family
you have gathered here before you.
In mercy and love
unite all your children
wherever they may be
It reads like a summary -- hear our prayers, Lord, and unite us.

But what exactly do we mean by "wherever they may be"? When I first got ordained, I put a sort of "whether they're in the Church's best graces or not at this point" spin on it.

But at some point since I've begun to wonder whether that's correct. Could the phrase have a geographical referent instead? Seems a bit too on the nose, but on the other hand it embraces a sense of communion not limited by distance, which is nice.

Why should we even need to have the phrase, really? That which precedes it really says it all. The fact that we include it, I don't know, it always feels a little ominous to me, like there might be some sort of parameters that could reasonably be thought to keep us from being united. Like our sins, maybe.

Could the phrase have something to do with our moral status, whether we're sinners or not? Or our final status? Perhaps we're talking about people who have died and might be in Purgatory?

Undoubtedly there is a definite meaning to this phrase; in fact, if it's like the Creed, and it is, there's probably some specific historical issue that led to this particular phrase being included. That's how things tend to work with us in the Church.

These days when I pray it, I tend to think of families that broken or divided in some way that seems un-overcomeable. (And yes, that's a word. A horrible, horrible word, but still a word.) If anyone hungers for that sort of unity of the prayer, it's them. Maybe it's all of us. I reach for the hope that in God's hands, something beyond all the obstacles is possible.

But to date, I'm still investigating...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, here we are. As one of my professors in theology would say, we've done it! The whole liturgy, little bit by little bit. I started this project the first week of Advent, thinking it would last maybe through the Christmas Season. Maybe. And now we've just passed the Ascension.

In the long term, I'm not exactly sure what the next step is for this blog. I'm actually moving in the coming months, and so there will definitely be time, probably a couple months, when I'm not posting anything at all.

But for the short term at least, I thought I might keep writing little bits and pieces about the liturgy -- things I notice these days, liturgical moments I missed along the way, and also some things I covered that might benefit from some further research. (Like, why the heck is that some priests do the institution narrative talking directly to the body and blood? As I wrote before, I think it misses the whole point of the moment. But who cares? It's a practice people have. Why not learn about it.)

But at this point, I just want to thank you for reading. For me the liturgy is like a very big house with many interesting little rooms and passageways. And over the years, especially since getting ordained, I've had the opportunity to notice a lot more of the details of those rooms. I am clearly no expert, but to be able to share and reflect on what I've seen and wondered about is a great gift. I have learned a lot, and really appreciated the comments and questions people have had for me. Keep them coming, and I'll try to pursue them.

I'm away from New York and the internet over night on a retreat. But, in place of a new entry tomorrow, here's a little extra piece today.


I absolutely hate reading the responsorial psalm at Mass.

There, I said it. I really, really cannot stand it. I would rather listen to the 9th grade boys trying to tell jokes than to be asked to read it.

And I say this as someone who not only loves the psalms, but as someone who spent two years writing a thesis on them. I should love reading them. I should be the guy they say, oh yeah, we got a psalm to read, go get Jim. Let him break that bad boy open.

If I read the responsorial the way I want to, the way I read the reading, the way you would read poetry, with pauses after important lines, taking your time, etc., the congregation begins the response before I've finished my verse. Every time, they do this. Every time.

Which causes me to go all crazy clumsy Lucille Ball on the following verses, speaking too fast, adding in weird a-rhythmic emphases that make it sound like I might be having a stroke (or impersonating someone who is), and throwing the end of one line on top of the beginning of the next to keep the congregation from beginning too soon.

This works, but it is hugely unsatisfying. That word is not being broken open, just broken. It ain't being proclaimed. It's Shakespeare turned into Jenga.

Really, I need a 3 credit class in responsorial psalm reading. Or, if not 3 credits, a solid afternoon seminar. Really. Somebody to sit me down tell me how you do it. Here's the audio cue you have to make to let the congregation know you're not done yet. Here's the rhythm and speed you need to use. Here's the way to turn that jumble of random hiccups and second guesses into something palatable to the ear and to the soul. Here's how to turn your creepy Joe Cocker impression into good news.

Yeah. That would be nice to add to my repertoire. Because at this point, I pretty much have got what doesn't work down pat.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Big Show

The parish next door to where I live, St. Francis Xavier, has been going through an enormous renovation for the last year. It's been an enormous undertaking -- the church is big and old and had lots of peeling paint and inadequate lighting.

About five months ago I was in there for Mass on a Sunday. And I noticed that at the entrance, these huge pieces of cloth from the painters hung down from either side of the center doors like the curtains at a theater. As you recessed out, those painting sheets framed the outside as though it were the stage that we were walking out onto.

It's a great image for us at the end of Mass. In a way, Church is our way station, it's the place we return to again and again for renewal and, if you will, course correction. And the world, that is our stage, the place where we try to put the challenging ideas of the Lord into practice and help God build his kingdom of mercy and justice. Oftentimes it's the place where we discover the face of God, as well.

It's easy to read the story of salvation and think it's someone else's story, a whole lot of someone elses, Adam and Eve and Abram and Sarai and Moses and Jesus and the disciples -- it happened to all of them, and we're the beneficiaries of it.

But that's not right. Nobody's still writing about us in scripture, maybe, but as Christians we believe that we're part of that same story, that the history of salvation continues with us, and that we have roles to play.

Most churches don't have curtains on the doors reminding us of the fact. Maybe they should. Because for us, truly, all the world is a stage, and we are its players.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Friday Fun

Back next end with -- the End!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Return to Sender

You're at a party and someone gives you a gift. When could you say you have received it?

It sounds weird to put it like that, doesn't it? They hand it to you, you've received it. Ta-da. Or maybe you could go a little more philosophical and say, you've received it once you've actually opened it, seen what it is, said thanks.

Catholic liturgy teaches us that reception is not all at once like that. Because acceptance isn't all at once -- things need to time to sink in. And the proof is in the pudding. If you remember, lonnnggg longgg ago I talked about the ancient conception that what made God God was the fact that he kept his promise to save us. Deeds, not words.

The same is true for us. What makes us Christian is not that we say we're Christian, but that our lives and deeds reflect that faith. Our faith calls us into action.

And all of that, in a nutshell, is what those last minutes of the liturgy are for. First, to give things time to settle -- I say again, please, you liturgists and presiders, please give us some silence. Let us have some time to savor this experience, these graces.

And then second, to send us forth. Like Jesus with the disciples the presider blesses us, on special occasions even busting out with the "Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing"; and then he missions us -- Go in peace, to serve the Lord and one another.

The point is clear: The Mass is over. We're the disciples. Gotta get back out there and live it. It's all about deeds. It's all about striving. It's all about bothering to try to love.

Our How-to-Say-Mass professor used to warn us that you have to be careful about the final phrases of prayers. They can easily get lost in the shuffle and seem less important than what came before. So, for example, in Eucharist Prayer III, right before the institution narrative the presider says "All life, all holiness comes from you/through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,/by the working of the Holy Spirit." And if you listen 9 times out of 10, that Holy Spirit piece gets sort of mumbled or swallowed, when it should have emphasis all its own.

Maybe the whole missioning piece of the liturgy is sort of like that. Just this small bit coming at the end of a whole lot, it's easy for it to get lost.

And maybe we as Church should be doing it differently, or talking about it, such as during the homily, to explain its purpose and value to us. In a consumer culture like ours, Mass can end up seeming like another store you go to to pick up something you want -- be it peace or wisdom or the Eucharist.

But we're about more than that -- we're about being sent. And the Church means us to feel not only the challenge of being missioned, but the support of it! We don't leave alone. The Holy Spirit impels us, and is with us.

It's actually meant to be a very encouraging and inspiring moment.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wish I Could Stay

Not too long ago I was at a Sunday Mass in New York City. And pretty much the whole Mass, I just wanted to walk out. It wasn't any one thing that triggered it. I could make excuses, this or that, but that wasn't it, not really. I just had this restless feeling.

Sometimes the desire to leave after communion is as simple as that. We can explain it any number of ways, but bottom line, we got itchy feet.

It's a great thing to realize. If you can step back and ask, what's up with this? What's my rush?, and you see, I'm just restless -- then you have some freedom to resist it. You can say, yep, them feet of mine, they itchy. But I'm going to try and stick it out. Maybe I stand at the back of church, feet at the blocks like a sprinter waiting for the gun, but at least I'm trying.

So much of the Christian call can be boiled down to that -- a willingness to strive. Not that you always succeed, but that you try.

Except, of course, when there are exceptions. And there are. Like my friend Don Dunbar, who wrote yesterday saying he'd like to stay but his kids can barely make it through the homily as is. Stand those kids up and get them walking, ain't no way they gonna sit down again.

My sister and brother-in-law have it the same way -- they have three kids, all under the age of six. My 6-year-old nephew Jack is nicknamed "Action Jack"; his sister Ally is called "Tornado Ally." These children are great, lovable, awesome. And they are not going to make it through the final prayers. Sorry.

Do you really want this kid sticking around? Really?

It makes me wonder whether we should be offering something different for families at the end of Mass. Like, maybe we should have a minister of some kind at the back of church who leads an informal blessing that sends people forth. Something fun, simple and interactive. The point would be the same, just using a means more appropriate to that audience.

Tomorrow I'll talk some more about that last grace of the liturgy, the reason we stick around -- being sent.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Growing up, we would leave Mass directly from the communion line. In fact, I had no idea that there was anything important after that, until I went to Mass in college. (And then I thought, boy, couldn't we do without this?)

It's a funny thing, the end of Mass. Sometimes from the altar it looks like a Catholic version of the flight out of Egypt. Those who do leave, and a lot of us do, do it sort of furtively, coat turned up, head scrunched down, looking straight ahead - like someone's about to bust us.

And actually, now that I think of it, I have worked at at least one parish where the pastor, coming out for announcements after communion, actually did upbraid those who were leaving, from the pulpit no less. (AWK-WARD!)

Today I ask, what are we to make of this tendency to leave early? And tomorrow, the other side: why should we stay?

On some basic level, I think people leave early because it sort of seems like the proper moment to leave. The structure of the liturgy is like architecture -- whether overtly or subtly, it creates pathways to follow.

Look at what we're asked to do at this point -- we sing, we stand, we process, we receive communion. On some level, this is what we came for. So really, why stay? What else is there?

People have other reasons for leaving the liturgy early, too. Some make sense: children at the breaking point being a prime example. There's only so much they can take.

And some of them .... well, I can talk myself into them as good as the best of them, but if I step back and look, these reasons are more along the lines of me just not wanting to stay any longer, or -- dare I say it -- wanting to get out of the parking lot before the crowds.

(Honestly, I get that, but as your friendly neighborhood priest let me just say: COME. ON.)

Grandma says, Sit your fanny back down!

And then there's another set of reasons that may or may not be conscious and amount to a sort of evaluation of the liturgy. A voting with your feet, if you will. Sometimes I think people leave early because they feel frustrated or boxed in. We've gone too long or haven't given them a meaningful experience, that is, something prayerful, something that draws them into the presence of God.

I think this is especially true as a motivation over a period of time. A long Mass, a bad Mass, you stick it out. But when you begin to experience it as a pattern in the parish, or a pattern with a particular priest, well, these sorts of commitments get more wobbly. Brunch calls.

We might not even recognize ourselves doing it, but I think sometimes, that's what's going on. Without meaning to, we've pulled the plug out of the socket. And the community responds accordingly.

Goodness gracious, there's a man behind the curtain!

A funny analogy. I once had the chance to see "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" with Donny Osmond. Fantastic show, high high energy, lots of humor. A retelling of the story from Genesis, Joseph and his brothers. Really great show.

Here's the Prologue. (You just have to get past Donny's hair.)

(Also, you'll be better off if you click on the video once to get it started, and then again to open up in Youtube. The blog is cutting off the image a bit.)

At the top of the second act, the woman playing the narrator came out to sing a song to a bunch of children. And she started fine, but then, after a verse, she suddenly stopped and asked the orchestra to start again.

Apparently, she had forgotten the verse, poor thing. And of course, the conductor complied and on the second time through it all went very well and we gave her a very big round of applause.

But even so, the rest of the show I was never totally "in" the story anymore. That mistake had sort of broken the moment.

When we're not doing our jobs well as liturgists and presiders, or we're just having a bad day, a similar phenomenon can occur to the congregation internally. Our choices, having distracted, disrupted, or simply bored silly, break that contemplative moment or mood. And when that's the case, why not leave after communion? Based on the experience of the rest of the liturgy, there probably really isn't anything else there.

It's important not to overstate this point. The Holy Spirit does not require perfection for it to move and inspire. (Clearly! Come to my liturgies, they are Exhibit A.)

But if a parish community in general or a particular liturgy has a high rate of Receive and Run, well, that community might be sending a message....

(It turns out, there's lots of clips from Joseph on Youtube. Some great songs. Enjoy!)

Donny's big number:

Elvis as Pharaoh:

Notes from a Good Sunday Homily

I'm in Boston this weekend, and yesterday at Mass our presider had two great comments I want to share.

First: it's been very blustery and cold this weekend. In fact I think the temperature today never got above 50 -- and it was windy, too. Hello, winter! And at the top of Mass the presider said, the wind is a good reminder that here in the weeks of Easter we're in the season of the Holy Spirit, which blows strong and as it will.

5 weeks after Easter, it's good to be reminded that oh yes, we're still in the season! And the Spirit is here.

Second: In his homily he reflected on the first reading, in which the Christians decided that you don't have to be circumcised in order to be Christian. That may not sound like a big deal to us today, but that decision was enormous in its significance. Enormous. It meant that people could legitimately come at being Christian out of their context and culture. You didn't have to do it "the Jewish way", the way of the disciples. If you were a non-Jew, you could enter the Church that way no problem.

The presider then turned the conversation to today. According to some studies, by the year 2050 something like 3/4s of Catholics will live in the Southern Hemisphere. The vast, vast majority. And in many of these places, they have different cultural and religious practices than the North. Which is to say, we're in basically the same position as the disciples with the Gentiles. And how will we respond?

Perhaps this reading is an invitation for all of us Northerners to pray for greater openness to that diversity that lies with us and before us.


I spoke to my mom yesterday, too, for Mother's Day. And she told me this joke.

St. Francis, St. Dominic and St. Ignatius are all sent up to the pearly gates after dying, to take their places in the heavenly court (I imagine it like something out of Glee.) And St. Peter is seated up there at the entrance, and St. Francis comes forward and asks, "St. Peter, is there a place for me here? " St. Peter points to a chair and says, "Yes. Come and take this seat." And then St. Dominic steps up and asks St. Peter, "St. Peter, do I have a place in the heavenly court?" And St. Peter points to a different chair and tells him, "Yes my son. Come and sit here."

Then St. Ignatius steps forward. And he says, "I think you're in my seat."

I don't get it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kneel On

Crazy week this week, so a little hit and miss writing-wise. Sorry about that.

A short thought for today: Tuesday I wrote about how, if you normally kneel after communion, you might try sitting. And then I thought -- well, Father, why not suggest the opposite, as well? If you're a sitter (as I am), maybe try kneeling after communion, see what perspective or graces it might offer. The posture of adoration, of humility -- what might that lend some of us?

It's a good reminder to me that while all of us in different ways we seek uniformity in the liturgy, diversity provides unique opportunities, as well.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Back to Our Seats

What do you do when you return to your seat after communion? Some of us are kneelers and some of us are sitters. When I was growing up we were taught that you remain kneeling until the priest sits down. The idea being that we should continue to pray after we return from communion.

That practice of kneeling abides in some places today, even many places. But I also see a considerable amount of sitting. And if you've never tried that, you might. It embodies a different sort of prayer, something less petitional or active and more ...acquiescent. Receptive. Something along the lines of sitting back now and letting the grace, letting the Spirit in.

Either way, if there is ever a moment that there should be a nice, long stretch of silence in the liturgy, it's here (and also after the homily). By long I'm not talking what in real time would be a lot of minutes; I'm not even talking five minutes, for most of us that would be feel like 2 hours and agony. But 2 or 3 minutes after it's all over where there is no music playing and no one talking -- it's really important moment to let things settle. To let God speak and nourish us in the quiet. We have so little of that in our lives.

Some places like to offer a communion meditation song after communion. And those can be great, too, but you always have to consider, how much further input does the congregation need? And if we're going to do a meditation, still, let's precede it with some silence. Give the congregation a chance to catch its breath.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Everybody is Somebody

It's hard to move on from communion without addressing one of the more complicated and difficult issues the U.S. church has faced in the last decade with regard to it, namely how to receive politicians who vote pro-choice. Articles ad nauseam have been written pro and con; if you're interested in that debate, I highly recommend the archives of America Magazine, where I used to work. They've had a lot of interesting takes on the issue, particularly in the months preceding the 2004 and 2008 elections. Check them out.

Personally, I resist the idea of denying people communion. Not because I think the church doesn't have the right. Of course it does. Nor because I think the issue of protecting the lives of the unborn isn't incredibly important. It is.

No, my problem is, I don't think this policy is terribly effective in changing hearts and minds. Prohibiting Catholic politicians from receiving communion certainly has the capacity to force them and others to reconsider their positions. I have no doubt, in fact, that the experience of being refused has caused some soul-searching.

But it's also gotten a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics angry at the bishops. In the American context, it is read by many as an abuse of power. Some see it as well as a political move, meant not simply to help the unborn but to help the Republican Party. (And a few bishops have seemed by their words to suggest this interpretation is a fair one.) And it has led to some radical misperceptions of the circumstances in which communion can or should be denied, too!

None of this helps the cause. Indeed, it redirects attention from the issue we want to talk about, the sanctity of all life, to questions about the bishops' use of their authority. The more heavy-handed the bishops' action, no matter how well intentioned, the more the conversation becomes instead about them.

Last year, when Timothy Dolan was installed as Archbishop of New York, he touched on the issue of the sanctity of life. And his approach was to offer a very simple (and also hard to argue with) explanation for the church's thinking. "Everybody is somebody," he argued:
Yes, the Church is a loving mother who has a zest for life and serves life everywhere, but she can become a protective "mamma bear" when the life of her innocent, helpless cubs is threatened. Everyone in this mega-community is a somebody with an extraordinary destiny. Everyone is a somebody in whom God has invested an infinite love. That is why the Church reaches out to the unborn, the suffering, the poor, our elders, the physically and emotionally challenged, those caught in the web of addictions.

Don't mess with the mamma bear.

I would suggest that with this simple statement, the archbishop did much more for the cause of social transformation that the Church seeks than the activity of refusing communion is likely to. It avoids the distractions of power and speaks about the human person in a clear, compelling way. And the argument is so well grounded in the values of American society, and in God's love, it's very hard to dismiss outright.

I think as Church we need to keep asking ourselves, what is it that we want? When it comes to the pro-life issue, what we want ideally is not a smaller or "purer" church (whatever that would mean, given our fallen humanity), but a transformation of our broader society's understanding. Conversion.

Refusing communion is one approach to that goal. But if that approach is not bearing fruit, or worse is diminishing our capacity to achieve that goal -- that is, if it's not speaking in a way that people can understand, that causes the change of heart desired -- well, then, let's not get mired down in it. There are are other methods available.

The AA definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result....

Sunday, May 2, 2010

All God's Children Got a Seat at the Table

Last week I presided at a liturgy at Notre Dame School in the Village. Notre Dame is an all girls' academy founded in 1912 by the Sisters of Saint Ursula (one of the greatest groups of sisters you're going to find.) Saying Mass occasionally at Notre Dame has been one of the pastoral highlights of my time in New York City; I just love praying with those young women. They're a real inspiration.

On this occasion, a number of women came up for communion with their arms crossed over their chest, to indicate they can't receive communion because they're not Catholic or haven't had their first Communion yet, but they want a blessing. Which was a little unusual -- I don't often see adults coming forward if they're not going to receive.

It was also, to my mind, fantastic, and a sign of good catechesis on the part of the school. One of the real tensions of our faith and liturgy is that we believe that Christ came for all of us, that he saves all of us, that he loves all of us --regardless of our own beliefs or deeds -- yet then we tell non-Catholics they are nonetheless not allowed to come forward to the table to receive communion. We do so out of a sense of propriety, in a way -- to truly enter into this sacrament requires preparation. One should not do it lightly.

And yet, the argument could also be made that who knows what good God might be able to work -- great good, potentially -- even when operating outside of our normal procedures. And it's very important that eucharistic ministers are not made into cops. Sometimes we put them in that role, especially priests; but to ask them to behave in such a way during the liturgy is to warp their role and this moment. We recall, it is called "communion."

Inviting adults to come forward and receive a blessing is a great way of dealing with these issues. It respects the process of initiation which culminates in the reception of the eucharist, and at the same time respects the dynamics of this moment of liturgy, the sense of something being offered to all, God present in a special way, wanting to bring life, liberation, hope, joy to all.

I don't know who first thought of cutting the knot in this way, but it sure does work. (In fact, sometimes saying a few words of blessing over an adult while touching them on the head ends up a very powerful experience for them (and you) in and of itself.)

My sister's first communion. (You should have seen her confirmation.)