November and Purgatory: I Worry Less About the Funeral and More About the Judgment
Those of you who connect with the Café through Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter have already seen my mildly irreverent cover picture of Frosty the Snowman’s cremation. No sacrilege intended—just a touch of humor to bring us to the most serious question we face, what happens to us when we “shake off our mortal coil,” as Shakespeare put it five centuries ago [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.] We are now a week into November, a month Catholics devote to the souls in Purgatory, and as the end of the Catholic Church calendar is just two weeks away, the Sunday Gospels focus on what theologians call the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. [The technical term for this science of theology is Eschatology, from the Greek for “last or farthest,” per Webster.] These are among the most difficult faith issues we face, and I fear that present day Catholic catechetics and preaching does not give us better insights into addressing preparations for our own death aside from “call a priest.”
I am in my mid-70’s, and death takes on a much more concrete existence as more of my friends die and I myself will follow in the not-so-distant future. There is a lot of practical business in the preparation of death. My will is filed. The funeral is prepaid. My bookies are paid except for over/under waging on the age of my death. I have not yet prepared a funeral Mass because I need to research better hymns than “On Eagles Wings;” I can’t stand that song.
I had always envisioned myself interred in a nice, wooded cemetery, preferably a Catholic one. This romantic vision dulled a bit after I had to manage a parish cemetery for several years. So, I left my burial decision up in the air for the indeterminate future and moved on to a new career and marriage. When I received my laicization and permission to marry from Pope John Paul II in 1998, our pastor told my fiancé and I, as two fifty-year-old Church professionals, that we did not need to take the Diocesan pre-Cana program. Instead, he recommended that we take several days of spiritual retreat at the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C. We did, and we both fell in love with the monks, the worship, and the retreat setting overlooking the Cooper River. I took particular note of the fact that Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, America’s power couple in the twentieth century, were buried on monastery grounds by the Cooper River. Henry, among other things, was the founder of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. I make it a point to put a new issue of SI on his grave at our annual retreat.
Meanwhile, after our marriage our pastor let it be known that he was planning to build a columbarium on our parish grounds here in Central Florida in conjunction with a new church and other additions. This was the first time I gave thoughtful consideration to cremation, and interment on the parish grounds seemed like a very good option for us, but the columbarium could not be built, possibly due to city ordinances. However, not so long ago, Mepkin Abbey announced its plans to construct a columbarium next to the Luce burial site on abbey grounds on the river.
This immediately appealed to us; the two biggest reasons were the opportunity to assist the monks financially into perpetuity and in return, to receive the prayers of the monastic community, which prays seven times daily and remembers those buried on its land. I believe I will need those prayers.
One of the doctrines of the Catholic faith which gets lost in the shuffle is Purgatory. Very simply, when we die, we are not ready to see God. We acknowledge that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the only sinless being by virtue of God’s intervention for her unique role in history. The rest of us cannot make that claim, and no matter how good we think ourselves to be, we are in no shape to behold the glory of God, face to face. This is counter to the “funeral parlor conversation” you so often hear at wakes. “Old Joe, he’s up there now teeing it up with St. Peter on the eighteenth fairway.” It is comforting talk for the survivors, but it doesn’t square with centuries of Christian tradition.
Admittedly the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on such matters is archaic, borrowed from prior catechisms centuries old, which can be misunderstood as portraying Purgatory as “hell, but with an end date.” That said, it is true that we die with unfinished business. Certainly, one roadblock to postmortem encounter with God is the sin of pride, i.e., that we are ready to see God just as we have lived all our lives, and that all we need do is pick up our suite key from St. Peter. No responsible saint or Church doctor ever described death in such a pedestrian fashion. Certainly, the Scriptures suggest nothing of the kind.
Having lived many years in the Franciscan tradition, I was always intrigued that as St. Francis grew older and more fervent in his life of faith—his very hands and feet were marked with the wounds of Christ—he came to understand the gulf between himself and God. In his last years he would privately throw himself on the ground and exclaim, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.” This is a pattern of the holy saints—the closer they imitated Christ and reflected upon their own reality, the greater they realized the gulf between God’s perfect love and being, on the one hand, and their own wounded humanity on the other. It is this profound awareness of God’s love versus my lukewarm response that makes the beholding of God a possibility and points us toward the direction of heaven.
Part of our Catholic heritage, drawn from the Gospels, is the reality of a final judgment. The Gospels are united in this reality, whether it be Matthew 25, Mark 13, Luke 21, or John 8: 12-58. In a variety of ways, the Gospels speak of a climactic moment of judgment, a determination of the life of every human being. If one does not believe in life after death, the discussion of post-mortem destiny is hardly a pressing concern. But the heart of Christian living is Christ’s conquering of death. Every Sunday is a memorial of Easter, when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection not just as his own triumph over death but as the promise that we, too, may one day share in his eternal glory.
The popular Catholic wisdom of life after death is optimistic, perhaps too optimistic, as many believe that the reward of eternal life is an automatic progression. Generally, present day catechetics and preaching does not clarify the picture with significant depth. Pastorally and popularly, we live with several “avoidance” factors in play. The first is a studied avoidance of judgment narratives in the Gospels as cited above. Human nature tends to cherry pick; we gravitate toward the biblical texts where God rewards gratuitously with no questions asked. We identify with the surprised recipients of God’s mercy in the Bible and assume that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “90% of redemption is just showing up.”
The second “avoidance” is the mistaken notion that the end time judgment narratives of the Gospels are mythic, time-conditioned visions with no historical basis or predictive value. It is true that several narratives cited above were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and probably influenced by what was known of the horrors of that event in 70 A.D. But in truth one of the most common literary forms in the Gospel is allegory, a type of language that Jesus uses frequently. For example, ““The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” On the matter of judgment at the end times, Jesus uses several analogies [see above] to drive home a single point: there will be a measure of personal accountability for what we have been given, i.e., God’s grace. Of course, if analogies are not your thing, you still must contend with John 8, which carries the directness of a hard-boiled county sheriff.
The third “avoidance” is the oft heard belief that God is too merciful to send anyone to hell, or to any measure of afterlife punishment, for that matter. God is indeed infinitely merciful. But, as baptized Christians, we are called to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5: 48] In other words, we are to be the merciful ones, the donors and not just the recipients. One of the most powerful of Jesus’ parables is the tale of the unforgiving servant [Matthew 18: 21-35], sentenced to indeterminate torture “until he paid back the last bit” of the mercy he had received. Chew on that.
As a graduate student a half-century ago, I did not sleep through every class despite what my report card says, and I remember a lecture that made a great deal of sense at the time, and even more so in my seniority today. I was taking an elective in eschatology, and our professor explained that as we age, we begin to see our lives with a growing wisdom of the totality. As I recall, he quoted a famous theologian “that we have the full picture of our lives at the moment of our death.” At that moment the judgment of God and our own assessment of our lives jell in an instant of clarity in which our post-mortem future becomes as clear as the sun.
Call this a psychological analogy, if you will, but what an image to carry forth as we reflect upon life after death. I am not aware of any theological formula that better summarizes for this century the meaning of Biblical judgment. If life is about meaning, what a terrible suffering to realize that one has squandered countless opportunities to extend God’s love, or even worse, to understand that our conduct has led others to despair of it. Those late medieval theologians who formulated the language of Purgatory as “this final purification of the elect” [Catechism, para. 1031] were struggling to describe the pain of awareness of the personal gulf between the goodness and wholeness of God and the brokenness that mars our personal histories. The awareness is the pain of healing. At that final moment of life, we all sing the same dirge as St. Francis, “depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.”
Somewhere on your Catholic calendars is the reminder that November is the special month for prayer for the “poor souls in Purgatory.” We are those poor souls.
I am grateful to Mark, one of the Café regulars, for expressing an interest in the Sacrament of Confirmation. In my Amazon review of Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium posted on Tuesday, I had summarized the book’s treatment of Confirmation in two sentences. [There is a 1000-word limit for Amazon submissions.] For better or worse, Café posts are limited only by me and vary depending upon the amount of coffee consumed over the past few hours.
Mark was responding to Chapter 7, “The Sacrament of Confirmation and its Role in the Ecclesiology of Communion.” The author, Moira Debono, was attempting to explain the role of this sacrament in the building of the body of Christ on earth, the Church. One of the principles of modern theology is the understanding that all sacraments are given by Christ to build the holiness and unity of the Church. Thus, when one receives the Sacrament of Confirmation, one is not receiving the Spirit simply for personal edification, but for the strength to bring holiness, wisdom, enthusiasm, prayer, and good example, etc. to the Church at hand. Even Penance, which appears to the eye as the most solitary of Sacraments, is a public gift to the Church. If I am truly sorry for my many sins, my newfound humility in confession enriches the immediate Church around me, and beyond that, my conversion away from sin becomes part of the Church’s mission to the unchurched and/or the unbaptized. Faithful living is mission, part of what we mean when we speak of the priesthood of the faithful shared by all baptized Christians.
In her essay, Debono is seeking to put meat on the bones of the Church’s understanding of Confirmation. We tend, in church work, to use too many generic and fluffy words without concrete precision. Thus, the specific definitions and rites of the sacraments are very important, or else religious life becomes a game of Vulcan mind-melding. Speaking concretely, the Church has always understood Confirmation as a pouring out of God’s Spirit which occurs in the sequence of conversion. An adult convert embraces three sacraments—Baptism, the bath which washes away the sins of the past and marks the definitive turning point of becoming a new being; Confirmation, the laying on of hands by the bishop, successor of the Apostles, who shares the Spirit of God poured out at the first Pentecost; and Eucharist, the table feast to which one is invited to the fellowship of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ, the bread and cup of eternal salvation.
Confirmation, then, is a sacrament of initiation into the Body of Christ in tandem with Baptism and First Eucharist. Today, when unbaptized adults enter the Church, these sacraments are celebrated together at the Easter Vigil. With children and minors, however, the situation has been different. Without reviewing two thousand years of history, suffice to say that since the influence of St. Augustine [354-430 A.D.] and his clarification of what we call today original sin, there was increasing pressure to baptize infants as soon after their birth as possible, lest they die without baptism and face an eternity without the vision of God. Confirmation [and Eucharist] could be postponed until later when a bishop could confer the laying on of hands and the sacred anointing.
Once the three sacraments of initiation became separated over time, each one developed its own rationale, catechetics, and timing. In 1900, for example, a child would be baptized at birth, confirmed around seven, and make first communion in the teen years. Poor theology of the time discouraged frequent communion at any rate; Church law mandated that a Catholic receive communion at least once a year, the “Easter Duty,” setting the bar rather low. Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] revolutionized the Church’s practice of receiving communion by moving First Communion to the “age of reason” [age seven or thereabouts] and encouraging everyone to receive frequently. Confirmation was subsequently postponed; I received communion in the second grade in 1956 and was confirmed in sixth grade in 1960 with the idea that the Spirit would make me a “soldier of Christ” ready to die for my faith.
The Council Vatican II [1962-1965] attempted to restore the ancient understanding and dignity of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, Confirmation, in its document on the Church, Lumen Gentium . Debono summarizes: “A Catholic, already an integral member of the Body of Christ by Baptism, is effectively brought into active relationship with the other members of the Body; that is, in a new kind of communion with others through the Sacrament of Confirmation. This new way of relationship within the Church for the individual cannot but enhance the communion the Church lives and expresses.” [p. 113] However, Debono shows that after the Council there was very little emphasis by the Church on Confirmation’s role in building the Christian Community. It was not until 2016 with Iuvenescit Ecclesia that any formal Church document talked about this important aspect of community-building as a purpose of Confirmation.
However, in the years since Vatican II there has been much written about the nature of the Church. Debono summarizes in her essay the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the nature of the Church [“ecclesiology”] and its relation to God. The major theme which emerges is that of unity. God is Triune [a perfect unity of love between Father, Son, and Spirit.] In the act of the Incarnation, whereby the Divine Son became man, humanity has taken on this Trinitarian quality of perfect communion of love, though imperfectly. Consequently, Christianity identifies itself by its love and unity in everything that we do, including our worship and sacraments.
Pope Francis, addressing an audience on Confirmation on May 30, 2018, said this: “In Confirmation it is Christ who fills us with his Spirit, consecrating us as his witness, participants in the same principle of life and of mission, according to the design of the heavenly Father.” [p. 119] Francis continues the themes of his predecessors. However, this still leaves two critical tasks in the study of Confirmation. First, how do we concretely talk about this sacrament from the pulpit and our education programs, and second, how do we celebrate this sacrament in a way that best illuminates the unity of the baptized and the Church’s unity with Christ? Finding a common ground of understanding will address such glaring divides as the varying ages of Confirmation, which currently range from age 7 to 16 or thereabouts, or even at infancy in some cases.
Debono turns to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Doctor,” [1225-1274 A.D.] and the father of modern Catholic theology. Aquinas write that in Confirmation a Catholic is no longer living an “individual life” but is meant to be in relationship with the other baptized. Confirmation strengthens the baptized for the mission of loving union. [p. 112] Aquinas does not mention a chronological age for Confirmation. “For him, the perfect age of the spiritual life is when ‘he [the believer] begins to have communication with others.’” [p. 120] Debono uses the first Pentecost event as an image of “the perfect age.” “Before the tongues of fire rested on them, there was a personal relationship that they [the Apostles] were nurturing with their Lord….In the Pentecostal event, the young Church was spiritually galvanized as a community for the sake of the mission of Christ…The sacramental character of Confirmation gives Catholics not only a similar responsibility for the salvation of the world, but the spiritual means (gifts and graces) to carry out the mission of Christ that continues to this day.”
Debono says this about the sacramental character of Confirmation: “We are given a new rank or role in the Church to more visibly extend the Mission of Christ to bring the saving Good News of Christ to others. The power to accomplish this is also made available to us.” [p. 123] The New Testament offers several powerful teachings on this power of the Spirit within us. Romans 8:26 reads: “Now in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Galatians 5: 22-23 lists the qualities of one living in the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” In closing her essay Debono has put before us the principles of how to speak of Confirmation, how to celebrate it, and how to nurture a full adult life in the Spirit.
However, we are still stuck with the realities of everyday parish life. I follow several blogsites of Catholic religious education directors and teachers, where frustrations with Confirmation practices are frequent streams of conversation. The primary frustration is irregular or nonexistent participation in the weekly Eucharist by the young candidates for Confirmation and their families. This is a sad condition in that the Eucharist is the highest visible union we have as a Church family, and Confirmation is the empowerment to the communal family of Christ. The second is the prevailing attitude that Confirmation is “graduation” from Catholic faith formation. [I started the Catechist Café eight years ago for adult faith formation, in part to counter the idea that faith learning is just a childhood exercise.]
Catholicism—all of Christianity, really—is an inseparable marriage of mind and heart. The mind comes into play as we learn about Jesus of Nazareth and how his believers ahead of us have understood him and tried to walk in his footsteps. The heart is the love and affection for our God who loves us beyond definition and who resides in every created person, many times simply waiting to be brought to consciousness. The Spirit is the very breath of God’s love. After studying Debono’s text again this week, I did something I haven’t consciously done in a long time. I prayed specifically to the Spirit to fire up my heart again. If we as the Church cry out for that Spirit, the way will be shown to heal the broken Body of Christ, the Church.
The Church: Under the Hood Part 1
There is no denying it: the Church has been in the news a lot this summer, and not always in the most favorable light. There was heated discussion this summer among bishops in the United States over the suitability of President Biden presenting himself for Communion; nearly one thousand unmarked graves of children were discovered on the properties of Catholic orphanages in western Canada; a number of Catholic Churches were desecrated this summer across North America; and, as I write this, Pope Francis is recovering from surgery, a reminder that the Bishop of Rome is subject to the laws of mortality and that the transition of authority in the Church is a delicate but necessary consideration. On this last note it should be recalled that Pope Francis recently convoked a universal synod in 2023--on the very subject of snynodality or grassroots involvement in the mission and vision of the Church.
The polarity that currently afflicts Catholics across the country is complex and made more so by the recent “culture wars” in American society. But ever since the closing of the Council Vatican II in 1965 there has been a rift between those who believe that the Church is moving too slowly in reinventing itself to meet the challenges of the modern age and those who believe that some reform strategies and ideologies have outrun the sacred deposit of Revelation received and promulgated by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. It can be argued, of course, that this ying and yang is a helpful corrective for a body that sees divine truth only dimly, as through a glass, to cite St. Paul. Unfortunately, the absolutism of those on both sides advocating ecclesiastical reform has had the unfortunate effect of dividing the Church at all its levels.
This summer I have turned the attention of one of the Café website streams to Ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the origins, structures, and works of the Church. I have referenced the text Ecclesiology and the Beginning of the Third Millennium  in recent posts as a good example of how theologians in this field do this work, in this case a collection of essays by about a dozen Australian theologian-ecclesiologists. If you have a moment, peruse the free on-line sample provided by the book’s site on Amazon to give yourself a flavor of ecclesiological study [many good books on Amazon provide this kind of free sampling.] I will be using the outline of this work through the summer as I file posts on the Church on the liturgical stream, as the Church is defined as the ultimate sacrament of the presence of Christ in the world.
This Australian book on the Church begins with an introductory essay by Tracey Rowland of Australia’s Notre Dame University. [See her publications here.] Rowland introduces the reader or novice student to trends in ecclesiological theology over the past 150 years or so. She observes that there are three ways of proceeding with contemporary study of the Church. First, one can examine the official teaching Church documents of the last century, notably the Council documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II and several major encyclicals of popes, starting with Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi or “Mystery of the Body of Christ”  and continuing through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Second, one can “trawl through the publications of the big [scholarly] names” as Rowland puts it, from Cardinal Newman of the nineteenth century to the western theologians of the twentieth century, primarily from Germany and France. The third approach is through controversial Church issues which have arisen in recent times. [p. 2]
Ecclesiology involves the Church looking into a mirror and describing what it sees. In St. Mark’s Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [last weekend’s text] the evangelist sees a primitive body of poor disciples dispatched by Christ to go forth into the world with nothing but a staff, trust, and a call to repentance with the arrival of the kingdom of God. Clearly the Church’s self-portrait in the mirror is more complex today, for better and worse. For myself, I have found it useful for my own faith’s ecclesiology to study the conversion process of great minds who sought admission to Catholicism at the height of their careers—Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thea Bowman—who identified something about the Church body as they experienced it that compelled them to embrace it. For Augustine, for example, it was the powerful example of the bishop of Milan, the future Church doctor St. Ambrose, whose faith and erudition was matched by physical courage in protecting his Milanese Church from threats of harm at the hands of a heretical emperor.
In my youth the practical ecclesiology of my parish and education was the role of the Church as juridical gatekeeper to the world of the infinite. The thrust was otherworldly, and Church life was understood, as the Memorare prayer reminded us, as a veil of tears. But even then, there were scholars who understood that the Doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming man—had significant implications for the Church and its members. In some way the Church was Christ, not simply his bodyguard. Both Newman and Pius XII opened the door to this new emphasis in the study of the Church--the relationship of the spiritual/mystical with the concrete world of the real. However, Vatican II, in its teaching on the identity of the Church, retrieved the ancient Biblical understanding of Baptism and the Church. In Baptism, we are changed and become living sacraments of Christ. The Church is the living and acting persona of Christ on earth, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit outpoured after Easter. The Gospel promise of Jesus that “I am with you all days, even to the end of the world” is more than just encouragement. It is a statement of fact that he who sees the Church sees Christ who animates it. This dictum applies corporately and individually.
Given that the theological and catechetical community has had many decades now to reflect upon God’s plan of sanctity for the Church, Rowland correctly points out that the leadership of the Church has been rocked by scandal which has wounded its witness power significantly. She believes that scholars and leaders will need to address this conflict between the Church’s glorious identity and its less than stellar witness. [Australia was rocked in recent years by the imprisonment of its leading churchman, Cardinal Pell.]
During Vatican II, the Council fathers’ ecclesiological document on the Church, Lumen Gentium or “Light to All the Nations” described the Church in the Biblical image of the Chosen People of God in the wilderness, wandering together so to speak until arrival in the eternal promised land. The metaphor “People of God” is one of the most enduring titles of the Church since the Council. It is also something of a reversal of the older model used in my youth—the “pyramid” with pope on top, then bishops and priests, then religious, and finally the laity. In today’s baptismal rite the new Catholic—regardless of age—is announced as sharing in the royal priesthood of Christ. However, precisely how this royal priesthood of baptism relates to the institutional priesthood of Holy Orders is another question, another of ecclesiology’s tasks of the third millennium which is related to but not limited to issues of women’s ordination, married clergy, etc.
Similarly, the issue of authority in the Church is another of theology’s tasks. Lumen Gentium went to great pains to restore the independent identity of bishops as successors of apostles whose authority as teachers is derived from their sacramental identities as successors of the apostles. The older texts often described bishops as simply sharing the judicial powers of the pope. LG describes the world’s bishops as a college in communion with each other and with the Bishop of Rome; it is the office of the episcopacy that binds them together. On the other hand, LG describes the pope as having “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” and the bishops having such power only when acting with the consent of the pope.
One may legitimately ask: if all the baptized share in the Church’s evangelical mission of Christ, how are the laity to contribute their insights and vision? In truth, Pope Francis is the first pope in modern times to address this question, and if his health holds steady, we may see a true ecclesiastical experiment in Church communication. Francis’ immediate predecessors drew from LG’s priority of unity [or communio in Latin texts], the principle of full union of God and unity among his people. The concept makes eminent sense and is drawn from the Gospel of St. John’s Last Supper Discourse where Jesus prays that “They all may be one, as you Father and I are one.”
The ecclesiastical problem, at least as I have observed it over my lifetime, is the absence of a vehicle to raise respectable and good intentioned questioning throughout the Church. Critique is heard as “dissent.” If a priest were to share with his bishop back in 1968 that the papal declaration on artificial birth control was causing significant stress among those sharing their plight in the confessional, a bishop could interpret the priest’s pastoral concern as disobedience to either papal authority or natural law. It is no secret that for years the Vatican forbade the raising of certain topics at the universal bishops’ synods on the grounds, among others, that the airing of disagreement was a breech of communio and “confusing to the simple faithful.” In the present-day pastoral distress over the term “disordered’ to describe homosexuals is another specific example where many good Catholics would like an opportunity to explore—for personal and pastoral reasons—alternatives for this language in the Catechism.
Jorge Bergoglio brought a somewhat different disposition to the papacy when elected in 2013. As Rowland writes, “One gets a sense...from the history of the Bergoglio papacy to date, that Pope Francis does not regard conflict as necessarily a bad thing.” [p. 23] In truth I believe that Rowland herself is a bit flustered by what she sees as an untidy papacy, in terms of the latitude that the pope allows for interpretation of pastoral practice. Pope Francis’ description of the Church as a field hospital inspired the author to quote Robert Spaeman that “the Church cannot be a mere booth in the fairground of postmodernity or just another institution trying to provide social welfare.” [p. 24]
No pope sacrifices communio, but Francis understands that union/unity is a project as much as a principle; a marriage, for example, is a legal and sacramental reality but it is also a dynamic relationship which is richer at the end than in the beginning. Taking the long view, the pope has engaged the Church on a two-year process of learning cross-current communication, the synodal model. I do not expect to live long enough to see its impact upon the life of the Church in the United States or elsewhere. But in the years I do have, I would like to be a part of a synodal experiment, for the responsibility of the Church would make me a better member.
Sunday Mass on Vacation
It is hard to jump back into routine after three weeks on the road. Although I downloaded Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium  to my Kindle for the trip to review and share on the Professional Development stream of the blog when I got home, it was not until I got to the airport to come home that I broke out some serious theological reading. As my trip home originated in Las Vegas, I could safely assume I was the only person in McCarran Airport reading up on Catholic ecclesiology, no small feat considering that this airport is full of slot machines as well as the usual distractions.
I did find auto traveling from Omaha to Las Vegas to be captivating and exciting. Our primary targets were natural ones, places for hiking like the great national parks of the West, such as Badlands in South Dakota and Arches and Zion in Utah. But we had opportunities to visit Father Flannagan’s Boys Town, several noted schools and cathedrals, some major cities in states we had never visited before [hello Omaha, Bismarck, Casper and Las Vegas], and a countless number of small-town gas stations and coffee stops as we avoided the interstate system as much as possible. I can honestly say that I encountered nothing but genuine hospitality and some surprisingly good coffee over the broad central expanse of our country.
As noted, I did not do much book reading, though I followed both national and Catholic media online throughout the trip. When sunset rolled around after a full day of travel and outdoor activity, we were too tired and heat exhausted for heavy literary pursuits. I am embarrassed to admit that my wife Margaret coaxed me into binge watching “The Gilmore Girls” on NETFLIX across the country. At least the writing is clever, though in every episode I quietly mumbled to myself, “Is there a decent therapist in that town? Or even a mediocre one?”
One of my great pleasures in traveling is visiting churches. Naturally, celebrating the Eucharist in a new community is always a lift for me and a lesson in the vitality of the Church. One of the most overlooked catechetical opportunities for children and adults is the chance to encounter other ecclesial settings while traveling, and when I look back over my vacation albums, I can recall nearly all the churches we visited and particularly where we had the opportunity to attend Mass. On this last vacation we traveled over three weekends and thus celebrated in three quite different settings.
In Omaha we were the guests of the principal of Mount Michael Benedictine School, an outstanding high school establishment of the Benedictine monks. Monastic liturgies are remarkable for their simplicity and focus, among other things. The chapel had recently reopened for Sunday Mass to the lay community of supporters as the Covid restrictions were just mitigated. Here, as in Mepkin Abbey, SC, where Margaret and I go for retreat each year, the community Mass is offered with devotion in about forty minutes. The monastic tradition has much to teach our parishes about focus and simplicity; my sense is that parochial liturgies get “cluttered”, and this is what makes them feel “boring” to participants of all ages.
Our host suggested that we may want to visit the Omaha Cathedral later Sunday. After Margaret and I walked across the Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the late afternoon heat we decided to take up the suggestion. As luck would have it, I messed up the directions and we visited or passed four churches in the Omaha city limits in our quest to see the church. All the churches were celebrating 5:30 PM Sunday liturgies. The Cathedral itself resembled most inner-city churches, but it was interesting to see the early twentieth-century construction of several parish campuses which featured large edifices for schools, rectories, and convents. Many of these buildings have been converted into social outreach centers or childcare facilities. Again, a catechetical opportunity to see and appreciate the development of twentieth century Catholic parish mission in the United States.
Before I leave Omaha, I need to add that Margaret and I had the opportunity to tour the above-mentioned Mount Michael Benedictine School and the famous Boys Town of Father Flannagan fame. While these institutions address distinct populations, it was most encouraging to see well financed and excellently managed ministries at a time when there is a mood of gloom and discouragement in many quarters regarding the future viability of parishes, schools, and social outreach agencies.
After a week in Wall, South Dakota, Badlands State Park, and Mount Rushmore, we found ourselves the following weekend in Bismarck, North Dakota. We took a walking tour of the city and came upon the Cathedral of the Diocese of Bismarck. It was a large but unpretentious church; one would not guess that it is a cathedral. I was impressed with a large and well-appointed social gathering room accessible to the church vestibule. As the cathedral was close to our Hampton Inn, we decided to attend the Saturday vigil Mass later in the day.
I was impressed again by the appropriate simplicity of the Mass here. The parts of the Mass, including the music, were undertaken with devout simplicity and community engagement was energetic. I felt compelled to sing, which is not true of Mass in my home parish which tends toward the theatrical. What I most remember, though, was being surrounded by little children. We were in the third row, and it was evident that the little members were not routinely shuffled off to a noise-insulated designated site. I was particularly moved by the mother who sat behind me. She appeared to have four or five little children under her wing. The oldest curled up in a corner of the pew for his afternoon nap, but the others engaged with the children from other families in the vicinity, much in the fashion of the prairie dog villages we had seen at Badlands Park. None of the adults seemed unduly disturbed, nor did the celebrant.
Again, I was struck by a contrast with my own parish, where little children are by far the exception and not the rule at the Saturday vigil Mass. Why the difference? I cannot honestly say, though we noted in our earlier walk through the neighborhood that the cathedral sat in a middle-class neighborhood with the homes near the church. This is precisely the kind of neighborhood I lived in, just a half block from my church and school. For just about all my elementary school years I virtually lived on the church grounds for my sacraments, school, sports, and CYO activities. My dad was an officer in the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic War Veterans. My first crush and my first “date’ involved a parish girl.
The Bismarck cathedral church had that sort of feel. If I lived there, I would probably become active in that sort of parish. In any event, at the end of Mass I felt compelled to say something to the mother behind me, who was gathering her miniature quintet to go home for supper. I told her that I was inspired by her efforts to bring her little children to Mass by herself and that God would bless her for the effort.
Our final weekend of vacation found us in the beautiful mountainous village of Springdale, Utah, less than a mile from the entrance to Zion National Park. Our accommodations there took the colorful name of “The Bumbleberry Inn.” We checked in on a Friday and inquired about Catholic Mass. We were given a welcome sheet to a “Catholic Service” in the Canyon Community Center at 8 AM on Sunday. I should point out here that while all the national parks are very crowded this summer, Zion was extraordinarily full. Given the heat and the number of visitors, Margaret decided that we would not even attempt a morning entry. Our neighbors at Bumbleberry told us of going to the park at 5 AM or 6 AM to do serious hiking.
Even with these challenges, I was a bit surprised with the attendance at a Communion Service held in the community center. Led by a local lay woman who read a brief reflection in place of a homily, there were eight of us in attendance—six locals from Springdale and two tourists, i.e., Margaret and me. I do not know what to make of that, as the city was teeming with tourists. Later in the day, we encountered a boy in the park with a “Loyola” tee shirt. Margaret quipped, “I didn’t see him this morning.” [School principals never die; they just go on doing their thing.]
I noted in the beginning of this entry that I am currently reading up on ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the nature of the Church itself. It is a timely subject that covers a lot of territory, but the theologians who work this discipline agree on several points. First, the mission of the Church is to live as the sacrament of Christ himself on earth. Second, our spiritual strength as a Church resides in our unity. And third, the heart of our unity on earth is the weekly Eucharistic sharing of the bread and the cup. Any amount of travel opens our eyes to the unity we share and the work that remains to be done.
DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY HIS HOLINESS
POPE PAUL VI
ON NOVEMBER 21, 1964
1. Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, (1) to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils. The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ.
And so begins the Vatican II declaration Lumen Gentium as it undertook one of the Church’s most critical self-analyses in history sixty years ago. The title Lumen Gentium is translated from Latin as “the light to the nations.” There are a good number of folks here in the United States who would argue that in 2021 the Catholic Church is generating more heat than light. Are there many people who are pleased with the Church’s status quo? It is no secret that a large number have left the Church in recent decades, and there is a growing anxiety—if Catholic journalists are correct—that the long-awaited return of the faithful from the Covid shutdown will be more of a trickle than a stampede. This is certainly my impression in my home parish.
I admit that I must work up my energies for the weekend Eucharist. Preaching as a rule is poor. It is evident that many priests do not read, and thus fall each week into their “default sermon” which neither comforts the afflicted nor afflicts the comforted. The guiding principles of fitting liturgy in general from Church law—from architecture to appropriate participatory singing to reflective silences in the Mass—are frequently ignored or, more likely, were never properly taught to those in charge of planning parish masses. On the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, the parish cantor at my Mass, during the distribution of the Eucharist, sang two solos—to the Blessed Mother—on a day of universal feasting over the ascension and glorification of the risen Christ. A well-intentioned error to be sure, but one that complicates Catholic identity and catechetics, nonetheless.
Paragraph 1 of Lumen Gentium above describes the Church as the visible sign of Christ to the world, “like a sacrament,” the pinnacle of unity with God and the whole human race. Sadly, the public face of the Church in real time can be distressing. Many of our family and friends have left Catholicism to look for Christ elsewhere, and there seems to be a reluctance by American bishops, for example, to research why so many have left the Church and why others are tempted to do so. The official “default” answer from Church officials to the media blames outside factors instead of difficulties within the family—asserting that former Catholics were never strong believers to start with, or the secularism of this age has stolen their faith. Yet there are dozens of other credible reasons why many view the Church with caution at the very least. The tales of clumsy personal encounters are legion, from the pulpit, the classroom, and the confessional. The honesty of official church leaders has been damaged by generations of equivocation or outright dishonesty in the matter of the abuse of minors. The “optics” of church life—from the classification of homosexuals as “disordered” to the attempts to deny public Eucharist to politicians—are embarrassing and distracts from the serious underlying theological issues that do demand reflection and consideration.
To top it off, there is grave division within the Church on precisely who is a good or a bad Catholic, exacerbated by “culture wars” and attitudes toward the last several presidents of the United States but which predates recent events and goes back at least to Vatican II itself [1962-1965], or even the 1800’s to be precise. It is forgotten that the Council was nearly shipwrecked in its first sessions during the fall of 1962 and 1963 when the conservative Roman Curia and the more progressive Western bishops came to blows over the very agenda of the Council itself. On November 8, 1963, Cardinal Fringes of Cologne, addressing the heavy administrative hand of the Vatican’s Holy Office headed by Cardinal Ottaviani, accused Ottaviani’s Office of exercising “methods and behaviors…which are a cause of scandal to the world,” a declaration met with prolonged applause by many of the bishops in attendance. [Xavier Rynne, Vatican Council II (1968), p. 221] This tension between forward looking and backward looking is a heritage of the Council which, if anything, has intensified over the past sixty years.
Very recent theological writing on the nature of the Catholic Church, the branch of theology called “ecclesiology,” is trying to break loose from the conservative-progressive tug of war to recover the term “communion” or the unity of believers around the table of Jesus Christ. As a lifelong Catholic and a pastor for two decades, I would like to fall in love again with the tradition that shaped my life and identity. Moreover, for the many now discerning whether to remain under the Catholic umbrella—and I think we all wonder about the value of that commitment from time to time—I would like to put forward the Church’s full identity so that whether one stays or leaves, the decision can be made in clear conscience in possession of the heart of Catholic identity.
For the next several weeks I will use the “Liturgy” blog stream of the Catechist Café to feature the paragraphs of Lumen Gentium and proceed to a discussion of what the Vatican II fathers envisioned as the unifying identity of the Catholic family. I will add references and commentary on Lumen Gentium from the post-Council popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Pope Francis’ Pentecost Sermon yesterday addresses our very subject at hand. I will also provide references to the latest Catholic works on ecclesiology [the identity of the Church]; the Amazon Prime truck made a large delivery yesterday and I am reviewing several newly written texts on the Church for our use here and possibly your own reading at home.
A few weeks ago, I lamented on another post that I did not believe the Church does very much to inform and educate its catechists and Church ministers, nor its baptized adult members in general, many of whom have earned college degrees and are eminently capable of reading and critiquing the same texts used by seminarians in preparation for the priesthood. There are few resource sites where adults can review a bibliography or library of contemporary Catholic theological themes for self-study, such as our focus on ecclesiology or the nature of the Church. I do my best to research such works and provide links. For our purposes today I connected to the excellent on-line theology training program of Dayton University and checked to see what textbook it recommended for its ecclesiology course and where to find it. Save the Dayton link, as it offers dozens of courses and text recommendations you might not find elsewhere. Notice, too, that the Dayton recommended ecclesiology text can be purchased used on Amazon for a few dollars.
Vatican documents are free online. The link for Lumen Gentium is here.
Praying: Let the Children Lead Us
One of the best books to come my way this Lent is Father James Martin’s best seller, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.  I will review it in full in a few weeks when I have completed it, but what I have experienced so far has touched me deeply during this Lenten season and brought me back to the roots of my own childhood spirituality.
Early in his book Father Martin recalls his first experiences with the mystical as a boy. Riding his bike through a meadow one day, he stopped to look around. “All around me was so much life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge not only to be a part of it, but also to know it and somehow possess it. I felt loved, held, understood. The desire for everything, somehow for a full incorporation into the universe, and a desire to understand what I was doing here on earth filled me. It wasn’t a vision. I was still looking at the meadow. I hadn’t ‘left myself.’ And as a boy, I don’t think I would have been able to describe it as I just did. But I knew something had happened: it was as if my heart had stopped and I was given a conscientious inkling of the depths of my own desire for…what?” [p. 23]
The above cited passage stirred an early memory in my own childhood, probably about the age of four. We were living in an apartment over my grandparents’ house in East Buffalo, in the early 1950’s a green paradise of countless elm trees [later destroyed by Dutch Elm Disease]. Buffalo summers are alive with robins and their distinctive early morning and dusk distinctive song. My mother told me that the robins were singing their morning and evening prayers to God, which made a considerable impression on me. Consequently, in the still of sunset I would sit quietly in my bedroom with my face pressed to the window screen, taken up the robins’ medley, captivated by their tune and the stillness of the trees. It was my first sense of “purposeful quiet” and even these many years later I can still listen to a robin with an intuitive sense of home.
Father Martin believes that many of us in childhood have such transcendental moments of awareness that, truthfully, constitute an awareness of the beyond that is the essence of prayer. He is too kind to say it, but I have the impression that organized religion, with its stress upon routine, business, order, and correctness in its faith formation of children somehow squashes that early union of loving detachment, play, and comfort. My first communion at age 8 was such a ritual production that I decided to get up early the next morning and attend the sunrise Mass by myself with the handful of elderly and blue-collar workers, to receive the Eucharist without distraction and talk to Jesus in my own way. I consider that to be my true First Communion. I was struck this Lent by Father Martin’s observation that “children may be more open than adults to experiencing God, because they are not as burdened with as many expectations about prayer.” [p. 23]
As I guess happens to many of us who progress through church life, the structure of the thing does not allow much attention to spontaneous, unstructured joy. I found this to be true in the seminary, where there were many scheduled prayers but little or no direction on how to cultivate or attain that inner connectedness to the mysterious, or even respect for the possibility of it. For all my high school years my only real source of detached meditation was a copy of The Imitation of Christ which I had received from a relative as a gift. I used to read it after receiving communion after repeated failures to generate my own sense of “talking to Jesus.”
In college I did get one insight about prayer that has remained with me as it resonated with childhood experience. I was assigned Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels  in a philosophy course at Catholic University. Berger was a sociologist in search of divine experience in the common life of man. One of his “clues” [i.e., “rumors” of angels] is the experience of play. As he describes play, it is an experience of disconnect from the world of hard reality and death, and it is children who are particularly good at it. In the true experience of play, the participant[s] lose touch with time and space and enter a dimension of detachment.
I always felt sorry for kids on my street who “had to be home at 5 PM” on fear of punishment. In my own case my outside play was curtained only by the site of my dad’s car in the driveway at dinner or nautical twilight at night [and when my mother put a bright lamp in the living room window, we could play Monopoly on the porch if no one noticed how late it was getting.] Childhood play is escape into another true reality. Being with inseparable friends is timeless. In this sense the relationship of playing to praying is uncanny, and I suspect that deprivation of one is deprivation of the other. Mental health professionals are right to wonder how the Covid epidemic has impacted children.
There are many ways to pray, of course. Liturgy is the supreme act of prayer in the Church. Liturgy, particularly the Eucharist, is play in the way that the great Greek dramas lifted audiences out of time and space into a new world that Aristotle defined with the word catharsis, a draining of the emotions. [Catharsis: the first time I saw “The Godfather” in a theater, I could not find my car for fifteen minutes after leaving the theater.] The reason why young people [and the not-so-young] find Sunday Mass a chore is because we celebrate it not with the escape of catharsis but with the grim determination of miners.
It is worth remembering Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” My hunch is that heaven will be a playful place.
Back in August 2019, shortly before the Covid pandemic, the PEW Research think tank released the result of a national study of Catholics which revealed that only one-third of the Church in the United States believes in “Real Presence,” the full physical and spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Bishop Robert Barron of “Word on Fire” took to YouTube to express his dismay, with much of his ire falling upon weak catechetics and diminished attention to the teaching of Church doctrine. If that is the case, the Bishop might have cited the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1972 pastoral, “To Teach as Jesus Did,” which assured us that religious education programs could easily assume the quality of faith education as Catholic schools, which were beginning to close in significant numbers at that time.
[You can subscribe to daily PEW news releases here.]
Significant Church discussion about this study by all the American bishops and the Church’s educational establishment was interrupted by Covid-19 when the reception of the Eucharist itself—whatever one’s understanding—was interrupted for significant periods of time as churches closed and gatherings prohibited. In the meantime, the USCCB was faced with another dilemma involving Eucharistic belief and discipline, this time the election of a lifelong Catholic, Joe Biden, president of the United States, on the Democratic platform which maintains the availability of abortion as a basic right. When the election of Mr. Biden was certified, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, established a “working group” of bishops to determine what kind of action should be taken in response to Mr. Biden’s weekly reception of the Eucharist vis-à-vis his administrative stance of freedom of choice. Three months later the working group was terminated with no public indication of what the USCCB response would be.
The two recent Eucharistic controversies are interconnected, for both assume responses of the faithful—in the first instance, to a long held doctrinal formulation of holy communion, and in a second to a national bishops’ conference’s assessment of worthiness to receive the Eucharist based upon an assessment that abortion is the preeminent sin of our times.
The PEW study undertook to determine what Catholics actually believe about the Eucharist. The question was framed, as far as I know, upon adherence to the formal doctrine, written in the language of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, which in philosophical and theological terms is called “transubstantiation.” Specifically, transubstantiation asserts that that the reality of bread ceases to be bread and becomes the full living presence of Christ. The appearance of the bread, called its “accidents,” remains the same. Hence Aquinas, who also composed beautiful hymns in prayer to the Eucharist, could write that the glory of Christ is hidden by the “accidents” of the bread. An interesting sidebar here is that three hundred years later, Martin Luther, himself deeply immersed in Thomistic thinking, suggested the term “consubstantiation,” i.e., that Christ and the bread are both present in the Eucharist. His argument was that as the divinity of Christ coexisted with his humanity without destroying it, likewise the enduring divine presence of Christ in communion should not entail the destroying the reality of the bread. Luther’s understanding never gained approval of the Church, but it does illustrate that men and women of good will can comprehend the term “presence” in a variety of ways, all of them in good faith.
The PEW study noted that 28% believe in Real Presence and understand the doctrine of transubstantiation. Another 22% grasp the concept of transubstantiation and reject it, presumably for another formulation. Nearly half of Catholics do not know the doctrine of transubstantiation but reverence the Eucharist as a symbol of the Body and Blood of Christ. In his YouTube presentation Bishop Barron anguishes over the fact that so many Catholics are not catechized in the rich tradition of the Faith, and I do agree with that to a point. However, we need to exercise a more nuanced eye toward Catholics who understand the Eucharist as a symbol. They are not wrong. The very definition of sacraments—all seven—introduces them as outward signs of inner realities. There may be many reasons why their adult comprehension of communion is devoid of the full expression of divine presence, but bad will is hardly one of them.
To approach the Eucharist with an incomplete understanding—and we are talking about 50% of U.S. Catholics if the research is anywhere near correct-- is still a sign of faith in the communicants. Something religious is occurring in the hearts of these receivers; they are drawing closer to Christ and evidently encounter the Lord in communion even without an understanding of the medieval language of transubstantiation. It is my understanding that the USCCB is taking under consideration some kind of pastoral guidance for Catholics which would encompass the doctrinal reality of the Eucharist, the obligation to participate at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and the necessity of receiving communion in a state of grace, i.e., without mortal sin.
I would have two concerns about such a strategy. The first is the exercise of caution in demanding an immediate and full allegiance to the doctrine of Real Presence across the board in the Church. The doctrine ought to be taught, to be sure, but with the proviso that, as an article of faith, Real Presence is a mystery toward which all of us are journeying to grasp. Full understanding will not be ours to possess until the end of time, when the need for all sacraments will cease as we behold God face to face. It is worth recalling that when Jesus proclaimed his presence in the Eucharistic food, many in the crowd protested that “this is a hard saying.” Speaking for myself, while I have been a regular communicant for 65 years, the challenge of grasping this mystery of love and awe remains a spiritual struggle the longer I live. Eucharistic teaching by our bishops should not be reduced to allegiance to a credal formulary, but rather, exposure to the faith tradition of two millennia. Real Presence has inspired devotion and intellectual exposition by countless saints. As Father James Martin would put it, we fall in love with God by listening to those who already have. I agree with Bishop Barron that our catechetics is woefully deficient on this score, but this deficiency cannot be laid at the feet of the faithful. A more useful pastoral instruction by the USCCB might result from an honest assessment of the poor condition of all our faith formation efforts.
Concurrent with this theme is the idea that one must be in a spiritually proper state to receive the Eucharist. Technically speaking, Church discipline has maintained for centuries—since St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, actually—that to receive the Eucharist unworthily is “to eat and drink a condemnation to oneself.” Specifically, in First Corinthians, Paul writes: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” [11:27-29]
The full context of this text is the liturgical practice of the Christian assembly in Corinth [Greece] around 55 A.D. When this local church gathered to break the bread, i.e., celebrate Eucharist, there was a social segregation between rich and poor which was a mockery of the unity that Jesus intended when his followers gathered to remember him in the breaking of the one bread. It is interesting that one of the New Testament’s most famous teaching on Eucharistic decorum involves worthy reception vis-à-vis what we would call social justice. This is an interesting contrast to the pastoral and canonical emphasis in recent centuries on sexual sins and their role in rendering persons unfit to receive the Eucharist. It is rare, for example, to hear racists, tax cheats, or corrupt politicians identified among those who cannot licitly receive the Eucharist, while divorced and remarried persons or couples using artificial contraception are the poster children for those to be excluded from the communion table. It is to be hoped that any pastoral instruction on appropriate preparation for reception of communion takes the broad approach of general sinfulness rather than focusing on concerns du jour. Moreover, the strength of the Eucharist as a remedy for chronic sin and moral failure needs greater attention.
Which brings us to the USCCB’s dilemma of what to do about Catholic elected officials who support access to abortion. In the first instance, what is the number of Catholics in general who support access to abortion? Studies throughout my adult life have remained remarkably consistent in that American Catholics are divided 50-50 on the subject, a reality which has aggravated many bishops since the famous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision of 1973.
Some background on the abortion controversy is in order. I was 25 years old and a graduate student in theology at the time of Roe v. Wade, and as luck would have it, working on a master’s paper for my morality requirement, on women’s liberation and the Catholic Church. In the early 1970’s the push for women’s rights in American society was very strong politically—the ERA was passed by Congress though not ratified just a few years later. The feminist literature of the time made a strong case that decisions about women’s health and reproductive issues were being determined by men, and the Roe v. Wade decision was received into that atmosphere. In the half century since then, and very recently in the #metoo movement, any discussion of limiting legal abortion rights is cast as an assault on women per se. I am not certain that Church leaders understand this or factor it into pastoral considerations when embarking on Pro Life ministries.
Second, the term “pro-choice” covers a considerable amount of territory. It can be invoked as advocacy for unlimited abortion, though interestingly the Roe v. Wade decision did not make that determination in its attempt to balance the right of the mother with the right of the unborn child. Moreover, I strongly doubt that all 50% of Catholics considering themselves prochoice are advocates of unlimited abortion. More fine-tuned analysis may discover that many Catholics, like many other Americans, simply believe in more therapeutic options where the life of a mother and her unborn child are at risk. A somewhat notorious case in the Diocese of Phoenix in 2010, where an abortion was performed in a Catholic hospital to save the life of a hypertensive mother, brought considerable national news coverage and, at the very least, confusion over the unilateral actions of the Phoenix bishop, Thomas Olmstead. Others may raise questions about pregnancies involving incest, child rape, etc. While Catholic moralists debate such questions, their deliberations do not seem to percolate upward toward the counsel of the national bishops’ conference.
A third factor, dating back at least to the presidential election of 2012, is the decision of the USCCB to designate abortion as the preeminent issue of social justice and to promulgate this designation in all Church sanctioned guides to presidential elections. If taken at face value, such official episcopal guidelines are de facto directives to vote for Republican candidates, as the GOP has included a Pro Life plank in its convention platforms almost since Roe v. Wade. Some bishops and pastors took this designation further in 2020 by publicly preaching that a Catholic in good conscience could not vote for the Democratic candidate, the Catholic Joe Biden, who ran for office under the Democratic pro-choice banner.
What has resulted is an uncomfortable alliance of the USCCB [with some notable exceptions] and a specific political party with its own moral baggage that violates the conscience sensitivities of many Catholics. Polls taken after the 2020 election indicate that about 50% of Catholics voted for Mr. Biden. There are bishops in the USCCB who would like to deny the Eucharist to the president. On the other hand, there are many social policies where the president and many Catholics would be in harmony with the bishops, and certainly with Pope Francis.
I do believe that abortion is a major moral concern for the Church and for American society. I recall years ago the wisdom of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who coined the phrase “seamless garment” to describe the unifying ethic of protecting life from conception to the grave. Every baptized Catholic carries a piece of that concern to the Eucharistic banquet. It makes no sense to exclude anyone from the one mission.
Will Catholics Come Home After the Virus--6? And Could Confession Address Our Trauma?
I am afraid that on top of our Catholic parish problems with Covid-19, we might be creating another. With bishops having exercised authority to absolve all Catholics in the United States from the Sunday Mass obligation last spring, the question has now become how to reinstate the obligation. I listened to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s three-minute video to Catholics of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the obligation of Sunday Mass is being restored this weekend [September 19-20]. In essence, he restates the Church’s general law about Mass attendance on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, which has for years described details of exceptions from Sunday Mass for the seriously ill, and those who care for them. He is one of the first bishops in the country to reinstate the obligation after the first wave of Covid-19. I assumed that the Archbishop had been in sync with Milwaukee’s civil authorities in terms of safety regulations, but in reviewing the city’s local newspaper coverage [The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel], it would appear that the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s relationship with the city of Milwaukee has been, for want of a better word, odd. As early as May, several Catholic churches were reopened as the diocese declared itself an essential service, though groups bigger than ten [e.g., the Milwaukee Brewers MLB team] were closed to the public by civil authorities.
The coverage of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is beginning to bring to Catholic media the question of whether Catholics are truly bound under pain of mortal sin to return to public Mass if their own reading of public health factors and conditions are more serious than the reading of a local bishop, the corollary issue being whether a bishop can declare individuals in grave, hell-deserving sin on September 20 when he did not condemn the absence from Mass on September 13 as equally sinful Trust me, you will be asked this question or, just as likely, forced to describe Church discipline by anyone who depends on you for “the Catholic straight dope.” I don’t normally post from the news service Life Site because of its sometimes too literal interpretations of Catholic life, but I was intrigued by LS columnist Phil Lawler’s critique of the way the American bishops have pastorally managed sacraments and closings during the Covid-19 first wave. Lawler believes that the Covid closings and dispensations—in the fashion they were executed—have cost bishops a good deal of authority. I told my wife in March that people—particularly parents—will decide when to resume church and public life, and not one minute sooner, despite what our bishop or governor might say.
Lawler makes a particularly good point about the exercise of authority. On the question of when to return to common Eucharistic worship on Sundays. He writes “the individual must answer that question for himself. His answer will depend on his particular circumstances: his age, his overall health, the possible risks of exposure to new disease. The pastor cannot come take his temperature and his medical history. The individual must trust his own judgment.” Catholics presumably read newspapers or their on-line equivalent and/or watch local news. If they read The New York Times this morning [September 22] which provides an up-to-the minute national tally of cases and trends, they might have noticed Wisconsin’s third place showing in the last fourteen-day “fastest spiking of the virus” derby. Evidently the Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, reads “The Grey Lady,” for he did not reimpose the obligation of Mass. [By the way, that NYT database is free, as I understand it, and you can have it emailed to your home.]
I have to say that the process of deciding when it was safe for me and my wife to return to public Masses was not by any stretch anguishing, but we did think about it critically. We are both well into the “precondition of age” category used in risk management for Corona though with few if any other preconditions. Florida locked down by state order in mid-March, but my parish offered the livestream Mass and the Triduum via YouTube, and we attended from home for a while. I believe it was late May when my parish reopened for offering public Sunday Masses, and weekday Masses soon thereafter, using a computer reservation system for the limited seats on the weekend. We determined during the summer that we would be safe attending the Thursday noon Mass live, as very few people attend that Mass.
Florida, as you might remember, was the heart of the “summer spike” with ten to fifteen thousand new cases per day in our state, but as July moved into September and our daily state numbers now sit in the two to three thousand range, we mutually decided to attend a weekend Mass to gauge the safety against our standards. For about a month now we have been attending our Sunday evening “Life Teen” Mass, though evidently some of our senior friends and fellow parishioners also feel safe at this lightly attended Mass, and I got to thinking that the “Life Teen” Mass might acquire a new nickname shortly. I think that collectively our conscience decision circled round our personal Catholic upbringing and understanding of the importance of the weekly Eucharist, our sense that going to Mass together is an important part of our marital common life, and that my wife’s high visibility as the parish school’s founding principal has some sort of bell weather influence on others thinking of returning. In addition, on a more practical note, the University of Central Florida reopened and my wife needed to return to her UCF supervisory role of student teachers at a variety of neighboring public schools, where admittedly some risk is involved [though the public school protocols seem to be holding up quite well, albeit with a bit of anxiety.] We agreed that attending the Eucharist on Sunday deserved the same level of faith-driven risk taking that teachers take on in their work environment.
My own personal reflections on returning to Mass ran in a different direction. Strange as it may seem, I deeply enjoyed the break from the Sunday live attendance for a time. For all my adult life I had attended and/or pastored small parishes—seating several hundred—so adjusting to an affluent mega-parish was hard. Our church is situated in a wealthy suburb north of Orlando, and in all my years there we have never had a sermon that might “afflict the comforted,” as someone put it. Actually, I am not criticizing the preaching; it is the best product to be expected in the present-day atmosphere of the unholy marriage of politics, culture wars, and ultratraditional spirituality. Dividing a long-established canonical parish community is a serious thing, and my priests have stuck to a formula that largely avoids this problem.
Unfortunately, the product of years of peace keeping is a vanilla religious experience that describes not just the sermons but the selection of music and the style of the rites. If I were to say that “I get nothing out of Mass” the textbook response would be that my malaise is totally of my own making. Perhaps this is true in my case. But sacraments did not and do not originate from sole human experience. They are extensions of God’s love and direction. The Eucharist is the consummate feeding sacrament—feeding of the mind, of the emotions, of the body. Logically, an expectation of being taken to a new plane of existence ought to be the norm for all sacraments, but particularly for the Mass, an in-time reenactment of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the rising of the Lord [hence, “the Lord’s Day”].
The Greek philosopher Aristotle [384-322 B.C.] composed The Poetics, considered the greatest definition of the qualities of drama and tragedy of all time. The Poetics was considered required reading at my seminary, as the celebration of Mass is the enactment of the pivotal drama of human experience. Two points from Aristotle:  drama must maintain unity of action, i.e. every word, every rite point to the climax, and  the dramatic climax must raise our emotions to a point where we feel washed out, an experience called catharsis.
I have experienced precious little catharsis over the years of attending Mass; the sacrament seems celebrated as a checklist of things to be done, interrupted by personal pieties of the celebrant or the inordinately long list of “announcements” that go on longer than Luther’s 95 Theses. And so, for a period of weeks, on and off, I did think about making a break from active membership. I envisioned what life might be like without the Church, or in another faith community like the Quakers, or as a “sole proprietor” of my soul. I suspect that I decided not to give up on Catholicism in large part because I was baptized as one and honestly cannot imagine being something else. Curiously, the Café blog was helpful in stretching my own frontiers of belief and devotion. In doing an entry on the Reformation, for example, I was deeply moved by Martin Luther's metaphor of the Eucharist. When the bread and wine are changed at Mass, he wrote, we experience the final act of the Incarnation--God entering our world in full reality.
I remember the first evening I returned to a live Sunday Mass, and as I was leaving I laughed at myself as I remembered all the reasons I was so dissatisfied earlier in the year, and by George, they were all still there. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is the need for every Catholic to own his or her faith identity in every sense of the word. Put another way, to cultivate a well-formed Catholic conscience in the active tense, to take responsibility to look at the enormous corpus of Catholic prayer, theology, and history. To know one’s self well enough, for example, to confidently make moral choices such as whether it is safe and prudent to attend Mass. To pray in a truly cathartic sense. To do nothing to divide the Church and society further apart. To endure uninspiring liturgy for the many tangential reasons that make sense to you: good example to others, for one.
I will probably wrestle with liturgical agitation for a long time, but if I may quote the wise old New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” So, if your behind is weekly planted in a church pew, then you know who you are.
One final point: Catholics will always be in tension with some aspect of the Church’s human frailty. I like to think this is one of the reasons Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance—the place to be honest about who and where you are.
All sacraments are gifts of God. In one sense the gift is always the same, a better union with a God who is total love. In another sense God’s gifts are differentiated to account for the age of the recipient and his or her specific needs to grow over a lifetime. In its treatment of sacraments during the Council, Vatican II [1962-1965] called for reforms of the seven sacramental rites so that Catholics—and the world at large—can more clearly experience and understand what is happening to them at the hands of God.
Unfortunately, the rites and the catecheses of sacraments have been poorly explained or not executed so that the experience of sacraments is reduced to mental belief in formulas. The old Baltimore catechisms of my Catholic upbringing promised a great deal from the sacraments, but in my own case, I remember how let down I was after my Confirmation that I felt exactly the same after the rite as I had before. [Years later, the American Benedictine liturgist Aidan Cavanaugh would say of Confirmation that that it takes as much faith to believe the bishop is using oil as it does to believe in the coming of the Holy Spirit.]
This is the fifth post of a series on COVID-19; specifically, the question of how many Catholics who are not presently celebrating sacraments during the pandemic will or will not return as it is deemed safe to do so in the various regions of the country by health officials. My theme throughout these entries has been  to take the longer view of fifty years of Catholic departures, of which Corona is a major but momentary spike in the depletion of parishes, and  to recommend a rethinking of why two or three generations of Catholics have already left for good, looking at how the Church might improve our modus operandi and attract or reunite with the many who are not with us now, regardless of the timing.
I have been focusing on the sacrament of Penance, though the other sacraments will get their turn. But I focused first on Penance because even the best Catholics, those still attending, struggle to experience what the sacraments promise. My father who attended daily Mass and rosary, admitted to me forty years ago on a fishing trip that he never got anything out of confession, and he went “only because your mother said I have to.” I was in my 30’s then, a pastor, and his comments got me to thinking about the wide gulf between even the most faithful of Catholics in terms of what they were experiencing and what the Church promised regarding Penance, and for that matter, all the sacraments.
The heart of Penance is the experience of God’s loving healing through an intermediary ordained to make this love personal and relevant, to help a penitent set aright the areas of life that distract from or dissuade from the journey to the perfect God. The Baltimore Catechism states clearly that we were made to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in heaven. Spiritual writers through the centuries have advised that in our journey to God, we are either moving forward or drifting backward. Unfortunately, the penitential sacrament became the “automatic pilot” exercise and appears to remain so today, possibly because the term “good Catholic” has become equated to the stable Catholic.
It would probably help Catholics if there was a clearer catechetics about sin and forgiveness. The division of mortal and venial sins, for example, results in something of a paradox. Mortal sin is defined in the Catechism [para. 1861] as “a radical loss of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying [saving] grace, that is, the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back….” The Catechism balances the scales by giving devoting large sections to the joys of heaven and directives on living a virtuous, prayerful. All the same, the idea of a hopeless and abandoned existence such as hell tends to dwarf the rest of the conversation. If there is a second category of sins [venial] not deemed sufficiently bad enough to send one to hell, then we have stretched the word “sin” almost to the point of breaking.
The very existence of hell has come under renewed scrutiny throughout my lifetime. Stepping aside from the ivy-cloaked academic halls of theology and related disciplines, the basic catechetics of parish life, starting with the second graders, hammers home not just the reality of hell but also the idea that all of us live very close to the guard rail from eternal damnation. [First Penance, for reasons unclear to me, is presently celebrated before two sacraments of initiation into the Church, First Eucharist and Confirmation.] Given that so little energy was invested in the full Vatican II theology of Penance, and that the full rite of penance is not used even today in many parishes, it is helpful to see what is supposed to happen during individual confession, as in the British Rite of Penance [paras. 15-20]. In 2015 Pope Francis also wrote a personal exhortation to use the full penitential rite [Ordo Paenitentiae, 1973] in personal confession.
I offer here two strands of popular thought that need to be addressed if the sacrament is to become part and parcel of Catholic life.
 God did not have to create us. He did so, we are told, as an act of pure love, and He desires our companionship for all eternity. And yet He has created us with enough free will to land ourselves in eternal torment. Many Catholics find this theology hard to grasp and/or have crafted personal “salvific plans” that they can live with in this world or the next.
 If a mortal sin can actually bring a Christian to such an unthinkable destination, then it would stand to reason that mortal sins must be universally recognized by reasonable folks, such as atrocious deeds, universally despised, in the league of Hitler and mass murderers. But the Catechism  states that “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” The statement suggests that this inborn knowledge of the law of nature is known and easily accessible to all persons. To complicate natural law further, all sexual sins are considered mortal in official Catholic theology because human intercourse was created. Artificial birth control, for example, is considered, ipso facto, a mortal sin, though I would wager that not one in a thousand Catholics has any idea of the Church’s philosophical argument to support this. Or put another way, do the thousands of Catholics who use the pill to space their children either know or believe they are in mortal trouble, so to speak?
 I do not know how many people still publicly argue that “I confess to God directly” rather than to a priest or another human being. The question may be moot as, noted above, it is quite possible that many people sense no need to confess in the first place. However, as a close friend critiqued my thinking for this entry, I have to admit that the Church needs to consider the skills set of confessors to personify the various needs of penitents and the best ways of phrasing Gospel morality to a particular soul. My friend and I are both of the “Required Mandatory Withdrawal from IRA Accounts” age, and we talked about whether newly ordained priests, for example, sufficiently grasp the realities of seniors, spiritual and existential.
According to Canon Law, any priest validly ordained and enjoying the faculties [judicial approval] of his bishop or religious superior can hear the confession of a Catholic of any age and impart absolution of confessed known mortal sins, as well as of venial sins. But nowhere does the Church teach that in the normal liturgical life only the words of absolution constitute the rite. The penitent should have the opportunity to explain and examine what he or she understands about their current life’s journey and how it is intertwined with conduct at this particular instant, negatively and positively.
In my own case, I begin every confession with a very brief but descriptive curriculum vitae, that I am a laicized priest and now a man who is validly married in the Church for nearly a quarter century. I tell my age and talk about the moral challenges unique to this constellation that is me: I have my health, I am not poor, I am happily married, I am trained in two distinct disciplines, theology and mental health. I exercise. Given my advancing age, I know that I do not have unlimited days, so the question of how to do the most good with a racing calendar is always on my mind. I do have doubts from time to time that God loves me or is pleased with the 72+ years body of work I have amassed so far. And with the inevitable wisdom that comes from age and experience, I look back with regrets about the things I have left undone as well as what I have done.
Now it may occur to some that such soul searching would be better done in a counselor’s office or even in spiritual direction. But God did not establish a psychotherapy sacrament; his intention was a sacrament which replicated the ministry of his Son, who advised the enthusiastic young man on his conversion [Matthew 19: 16-22], engaged the Samaritan woman on her marital and doctrinal outlook [John 4: 1-26]; and persuasively led a questioning Nicodemus toward a new vision of his faith [John 3: 1-21].
Since the Council of Trent [1545-1563] the Church has placed a great premium upon the healing exchange of the Sacrament of Penance. The patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney [1786-1859], was known throughout Europe for his confessional grace, sometimes spending eighteen hours per day engaged in the Sacrament of Penance. Princes and rulers sought to confess to him; obviously, they were seeking more than a brief, juridical exchange they could easily have received from their personal chaplains. In our time, Pope John Paul II restricted the used of General Absolution [a rite of canonical forgiveness without confession] in favor of the interpersonal experience of the confessional, God’s personal intervention and interaction with his people who, like the proverbial snowflakes, are beautiful and unique.
If this is what we want, how do we get there?
I did not leave Washington, D.C., immediately after my ordination in September 1974, but I remained at my home friary near Catholic University for an extra five days to visit the high schools in Georgetown where my retreat teams had given three-day retreats over the past four years. Armed with my “faculties” from Cardinal O’Boyle, I offered the student body Mass at each location, and then I told the principal I could stay for a while if anyone wanted to go to confession. [There was a long tradition then of confessing to “Father Visitor” in parishes and schools.] Those days were my first true full immersion into the Sacrament of Penance. Some of the students had been on three or four retreats with me over the years, and I remember my overriding intention in those confessions was to reinforce the idea that the Church was their home and that they could trust priests to help them through life. I honestly cannot say I was aware of significant departures from the Church in 1974 [though later professional research would establish that] but I did know that teenagers commonly left the Church in college or the service. I felt a mission to do what I could to reverse that.
After my first day of hearing confession, I felt like I was born for the task in terms of comfort with the rite and the human interchanges. I had done hours of counseling during my years giving youth retreats from the major seminary, so the interactions in the confessional were quite easy. The rite of the sacrament then—confession of sin and absolution—was not exactly rocket science. In fact, just months before my ordination, the Vatican released the “study copy” of the post-Vatican II proposed reform rite for the Sacrament of Penance, so technically we were still using the old rite in 1974, though many parishes and religious communities were experimenting with proposals from the newly proposed rite of Penance, from face-to-face confession to group penance services. I might add here that the New York Times did an exhaustive article on the Vatican Penance reform in 1974, and it is interesting to see the Times predictions vis-à-vis the state of confession in 2020.
During my first week of confession I found that my young penitents “had narratives” or life stories to tell, some quite emotionally. This jelled with what my professors had taught, that the moral life was not just a succession of hermetically sealed missteps but a major journey toward meaning and virtue. In the relative leisure afforded to me that week, I was able to hear their narratives. I explained to them that in their parishes their priests might not have the time to give them significant attention or counsel, so I advised them to find a priest they were comfortable in talking with, perhaps at my seminary where a surprising number of “retreat alumni” were already attending our 11 AM Sunday conventual Mass. I told every one of them that Jesus and his Church loved them; I guess that would be called “evangelization” today but it was an attitude that me and many of my ordination classmates absorbed by disposition and example. It did not hurt that my branch of the Franciscan Order had a particularly good reputation as confessors and spiritual directors in the Catholic University ambit.
I got to my first assignment later in September 1974, to the chaplain’s office at Siena College. When I got there the term “college chaplaincy” was morphing into “campus ministry” and creating a new template for college work, but basically the chaplains [there were three of us on the team when I arrived] were operating a canonical parish within the college. While not overwhelmed by confessional demands, I have to say that Mass attendance by the students was very impressive. I remembered something from a grad school lecture by the late liturgical scholar Father Regis Duffy. A sacramental genius, Duffy told us that young people effectively minister and heal each other, and that we as future priests must respect and enhance this process. I found this to be excellent advice. Providing compelling Eucharistic celebrations, particularly on the weekends, was my focus, i.e., I spent a lot more time arranging music ministry than hearing confessions.
That said, much of my time was spent with students in the coffee shop and the Rathskeller [as well as arranging weddings for alumni.] Sometimes after a long conversation one or another student might spontaneously request absolution. During my final semester there, I offered a late evening Mass on every wing of the boys’ dormitories during Lent and I included General Absolution in the Masses, to keep the sacramental sense of forgiveness and divine reconciliation alive in their formation. I found that, spiritually speaking, most students who confessed or sought advice were using the college years to “figure things out” in the best sense of the term. For example, I got more feedback from students about our 10:15 PM Sunday Quiet Mass than anything else we did. I did not initiate this custom, but I wish I had. We had a commuter student with an ear for meditational music who would play pieces through our sound system in the parts of the Mass where there would have been congregational singing. The most common assessment: “I really liked that opportunity to be quiet with God and get my head together for the next week.”
Given the size of our campus ministry staff, I had opportunities to take weeks off during the school year and summers to conduct retreats for communities of women’s religious in New England and New York. [I had made many connections with communities during summer school years at St. Bonaventure University.] In those circumstances I was responsible for the conferences and the confessions. It was involving work, to say the least. Nearly all the retreatants were professed sisters, professionals in education, medicine, or a comparable field. And appropriately enough, many would use the occasion of the annual retreat to make a general confession. Looking back to my first week retreat for the Sisters of Mercy in 1975, I can only shake my head in bemusement. I guess all of us of a certain age look back on our youthful adventures with a certain shudder and say, “I could never do that today.”
In my own case, I think that whatever success was achieved in the conferences and confessions of those early years was sustained by youthful enthusiasm. This is not a bad thing except that enthusiasm of itself is not enough to sustain a minister for the long haul. I was able to affirm religious penitents in their ministries, to thank them for their work, console and commiserate with them at a stressful time in the Church’s history, give space to those who were debating their futures, and accept their intentions to live their lives and/or their vows in step with Divine calling. I had the advantage of being young, open-minded, musical, and liturgically updated as well, which might not be so typical for the older diocesan priests who regularly served the religious communities.
I learned my inadequacies: I needed more training and personal experience in the development of a spiritual life, both for consecrated religious and the lay persons of the Church [and myself, of course]. I was not satisfied with my advice to sisters, for example, who would tell me of their difficulties in binding together their prayer dispositions with the stresses of work that filled their day. I needed much more understanding of works from Erik Erikson and others to grasp the significance of human development and life stages to provide religious counsel in the confessional in “age-appropriate” idioms. I realized that better retreat conferences require much more “desk time” and research—a lesson reinforced by the Café blogsite just about every day.
I had hoped that I might become a full time retreat master for my Order, but I felt that to strengthen my credibility with religious and Church ministers, I should give several years to the stresses of parish life. After four years at the college, I informed my Order’s superior of my intention, and “several years” quickly became eleven years of pastoring one church and four years at another in Central Florida. This span of years included building a new church and serving in several diocesan capacities, including president of the priests’ council twice. I even had time for one sisters’ retreat. I received a frantic call from the chancery one Friday morning informing me that a big-name retreat master was unable to conduct the diocese’s annual sisters’ retreat, and could I be ready to go on at 6 PM at Treasure Island Resort in Daytona Beach? But those opportunities were few and far between.
Instead, I was a 24-hour pastor, and after a year or two I learned some things about the spirituality of parishes. Parishes are places that “always remain the same” where the dependable services are celebrated day after day or year after year. You can always count on your parish for Sunday Mass, daily Mass, First Communion, weddings, funerals, Mass cards, etc. Parishes sustain Church life. The challenge for a pastor is making sure that sustaining the faith does not stultify it, either. Confession is a good case in point. When I arrived at my first parish, confession was offered Saturday before the Vigil Mass and “by appointment.” This seems to be an arrangement still current today.
Confession in a tight time window—with a line behind the penitent—puts a premium on efficiency for the “sinner” and “the priest.” Such a format only permits time for the bare canonical or legal requirements of confessing all known sins and the absolution of sins by the intercession of the ordained minister, a far cry from the full rite for individual confession released in the post Vatican II reform in the 1970’s. The EWTN website provides the rubrics of how the Penance sacrament is supposed to be celebrated in the confessional. In a sense, years of customary brief confessions overpowered the much more powerful sacramental rite put forward in the 1970’s.
The reading of Scripture, the opportunity to personalize the need for forgiveness, the offering of comfort and spiritual advice by the priest—were [and continue to be] stifled to the point that going to confession has become just another “devotional” for a minority in typical parish life.
Next time, I will talk about some strategies we employed to communicate the richness of the Penitential experience—some success, some failures. Of course, I was not totally plugged into the reality that by the mid-1980’s a good many Catholics had abandoned the rite altogether.