It is true that Margaret and I do a fair amount of traveling every year, but on Monday next [September 25] we will be off before sunrise for a different sort of getaway, a 360-mile drive to Mepkin Abbey, about thirty miles from Charleston, South Carolina. We have been looking forward to our four-day quiet retreat for quite some time; we have not been to Mepkin since the Covid epidemic first struck and the abbey’s outreach was limited to protect the health of the senior monks and the retreatants. But Monday, God willing, we will be back for the silence and the rest, the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the warmth and the silent community support of the monks, the opportunity for spiritual counseling and sacramental confession with a monk who has lived the vowed life for a half-century or more, cozy corners to sit with the Scriptures and the classic spiritual writers of the Church…with the 24-hour Keurig brew master never far away.
There is some irony in the fact that when someone makes a retreat in the context of a religious community, like the Trappist monks, the opportunity is there for that rare intimacy of aloneness with God to discern God’s will in the life of the retreatant. And yet, the healthiness of the solitude is enhanced big time by the proximity to the living, breathing Church of men or women religious who go about their lives in peaceful, prayerful silence—witnesses who remind us, as Jesus reminded Pilate at his trial, that there is a Kingdom at a sacred remove from the personal and environmental chaos where we routinely dwell and call “the real world.”
A TWO-DOLLAR HISTORY OF RETREATS
Socrates, who lived four centuries before Jesus and was considered an atheist, is reported to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For Socrates, the need to” know oneself, one’s reason for being,” was of the very nature of humanity. [And curiously, Church teaching has held over the ages that God’s revelation is accessible through natural reasoning.] No less so for those who walk in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrew and the Christian Canons of the Bible are generous in their descriptions of those who stepped out of their lives for a time to reflect upon their relationship with God and to open themselves to God’s invigorating new wisdom for their future direction. Certainly, Jesus’s forty days in the desert-- ----with his encounters with Satan--is the most famous “retreat” and the event described in all four Gospels is a reminder that honest prayerful insight can reveal much about ourselves that is disquieting, though the Gospel of Mark also records that the angels came into the desert to minister to him. Christian history has generally treated favorably the idea of meeting the Lord is a quiet space over a time—be it a day or a lifetime.
In the Christian era, Roman Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians. Individual. and collective escape to the quiet and solitude began in the 300’s A.D. when Romans employed by the empire [50% of the citizenry, by some accounts] hastened to baptism just to hold good place with Constanine, and not to “take up thy cross.” Many sincere Christians in Rome found it nearly impossible to live a true baptismal lifestyle surrounded by the ribaldry around them. Hermits, and eventually clusters, gravitated to North Africa to pray and live outside of the madness of public life, from which arose the age of the “desert Fathers” or “desert mystics.” A brief but excellent summary of the beginnings of the healthy spiritual movement away from the world can be found in the Britannica’s Life of St. Antony of Egypt. Recent history has publicized the leadership of the “Desert Mothers” as well as the “Desert Fathers” in this era.
As the disorganization of the Dark Ages in the Western Church gave way to the more structured Catholicism we are accustomed to today, Religious Orders such as the Benedictines would open their monasteries to assist lay men and women in physical and spiritual need. I should note that there were many monasteries of women—living the same vows as their male counterparts—till at least the thirteenth century. Around 1200 Pope Innocent III ruled that all monasteries must be unisex, which certainly throws a different hue on those boring old Middle Ages.
Alongside the vowed communities of renewal, itinerant religious groups such as the Franciscans in the thirteenth centuries established communities of witness and service to the laity of Italy and eventually elsewhere. In a vision, Francis beheld Christ speaking to him thus: “Francis, rebuild my house.” While I was in Bruges, Belgium in August, I came upon the extensive site of the community of the Beguines, founded around 1240, a loose confederation of lay women who lived in voluntary simplicity and did not marry, though they took no canonical vows. They assisted in the corporal and spiritual outreach to the laity, under their own governance. The last Beguine died in the early twentieth century. I have gone out of my way to highlight the renewal work of women in the history of the Church because I believe that in the discussion, we may see history repeat itself in the next generations of the Church’s life.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT RETREATS OVER THE YEARS:
When I came into this world in 1948, it was not uncommon for a Catholic adult to sign up for a weekend retreat at a local “retreat house” or religious institution. There were men’s retreats and women’s retreats. They typically ran from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. The format consisted of conferences or spiritual talks, Mass, devotions, and confessions/personal spiritual conferences. In fact, it was during such a spiritual conference in 1960 that a Franciscan retreat master talked a mother into sending her oldest son to a friars’ seminary instead of to the “Little Seminary” of the Diocese of Buffalo. [You guessed it.] As I recall, there were a decent number of choices for making retreats in the Buffalo area, along the Lake Erie and Niagara River shorelines. The retreats were always given by priests—partly because of the sacramental duties involved, and partly to strengthen the institutional commitment of the Catholic participant to the life of the Church.
In the United States, the concept of the private retreat evolved along with many other church practices in the Vatican II era. In 1969, as a collegiate seminarian student, I signed up to work on a retreat team with fellow friars—composed of seminarians a bit older than I was—to serve the high schools and religious education programs inside the D.C. beltway. In two years, I was one of the two directors of the program, sometimes referred to as “the God Squad.” I look back on those retreats—three-day jaunts with 50 or more “teeny boppers” to rustic outdoor sites rented to use from Protestants, who had a wealth of summer Bible camp experiences and built their sites accordingly. My favorite retreat site for our kids, though, was Camp Maria, in Leonardtown, MD. On a personal note, I spent the day before my ordination reflecting at Camp Maria, as the site was holding no programs that day.
When I started in the retreat ministry, on paper we were using a program called “Teenagers Encounter Christ,” or TEC, still in existence 50+ years later, a national ministry established a few years earlier to assist dioceses and parishes in building regular faith support communities of their high school members. The TEC weekend retreat was the first step in undertaking follow-up programming; we assumed that the church and school communities would do that. I was always surprised that the same schools invited us back every year. Nobody, not even our professors, had the time or experience to help us critically assess what we were hoping to accomplish or to break down the skillsets necessary to comprise a unified retreat experience—public speaking, small group leadership, counseling, leading prayer services, etc. Pastoral ministry in 1969 was in that state of flux. We worked from the seat of our pants much of our time, our primary goal was to bring the students closer to God and the Church in an optimum way. I like to think we were successful to some degree at that. Many of our “retreat alumnae and alumni” would join us at the friary for our Sunday morning conventual Mass.
I continued to give retreats for the first five years of my priesthood, this time without a team. The Sisters of Mercy in New Hampshire and other religious communities in New England invited me on several occasions, thanks to my summer school connections, and then a retreat house in the Finger Lakes of New York put me on its rotation to give retreats to laity. It is hard to describe how pastorally satisfying it was to give those retreats. It is one of those rare opportunities as a priest to do all the things you were ordained to do—Mass, confession, conferences, spiritual direction—and none of the things you must take care of at home—i.e., administration. My Order did have a “retreat band” of priests who worked full time on the road, and this work looked more and more attractive. But having given retreats to many women religious, I felt it would be dishonest to preach and minister to them without serving some time in the nitty-gritty of parish life. Thus, I applied to become a pastor in Florida…and the rest is a story for another time.
CHOOSING RETREAT OPTIONS TODAY
One big factor in 2023, a major change from years ago when I was still in the “family business,” is the reduction in the number of priests, and this includes religious order priests, many of whom specialized in retreat work, full or part time. Many of the buildings and institutions that welcomed retreaters a half-century ago no longer stand. Several dioceses, including my own, have established spiritual development centers over the years, offering a wide range of services including retreats, though in fewer numbers than decades ago. In Orlando, for example, we used to have a community of religious priests at the site, but this is no longer possible. If the figures I am seeing are correct, most religious educators, speakers, and scholars in our major schools and university are women, and the retreat ministry in the U.S. may become a woman’s enclave, if it has not already.
Today a prospective retreatant must decide if he or she wants a silent/private retreat or a structured/content retreat. If you read the websites of various retreat centers, you may be asked your preference. How to decide, of course, is up to you, but it is a good question to bring up with your pastor or confessor. A “structured retreat” implies that you will participate in the religious exercises [prayer services, etc.] and the “talks.” The contents of the talks should be made available to you before you commit, as you would have the chance to assess which topic would be most helpful to you—I have seen retreats for those in grief or twelve-step programs, for those seeking deeper insight into prayer or the Scripture, etc.
I am most at home with Mepkin Abbey, for while it does offer directed or private choices for retreat, the Trappist atmosphere of silence conveys a round-the-clock sense of peaceful sanctity. I choose the silent/private route, though I join the monks for the major Liturgies of the Hours and Mass, as well as confession/spiritual direction. For this week’s retreat I purchased Shaped by the End You Live For: Thomas Merton’s Monastic Spirituality, as well as packing my Gospel of John.
Mepkin Abbey now publishes a requested stipend or offering for a four-night stay. The costs of maintaining a community of primarily senior monks as well as the fine retreat accommodations and meals is not insignificant. However, any offering is graciously accepted. Moreover, the monastery has several ancillary services on-line to follow-up their retreat; Margaret and I belong to a circle of retreat alumni who meet monthly via Zoom to discuss assigned spiritual reading. Other religious providers have similar assistance.
I am told that it is time to pack, so I will have to cut it short here. My first retreat at Mepkin was twenty-five years ago. We were doing our paperwork with our pastor to marry in October 1998. He told us not to worry about a pre-Cana program, but he suggested we make a reflective retreat at a place called Mepkin Abbey. We did…and here we are, on the eve of our 25th anniversary, returning to the hospitality of the good monks.
On June 3 I posted on the dramatic decrease in the number of Catholic weddings in the United States over the past two generations, from 426,309 in 1970 to 98,354 in 2022, per research of the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate [CARA] at Georgetown University. [Incidentally, CARA’s annual data base of Catholic sacramental life, religious schooling, attendance, etc. is a free and indispensable resource for anyone involved in Church work, though it makes for depressing reading.]
How many weddings are performed in the United States? Let’s break down the official number from diocesan and parish registries across the country.
There were 16,429 parishes in the United States last year, meaning the average parish is performing under 6 weddings per year according to the last available official statistics. Since my first post on this subject a month ago, I checked the numbers against my own region. I learned that my own parish, a “mega-parish” and once considered a “destination site” for weddings with its beautiful church and grounds, celebrated one wedding in the months of May and June combined. A priest friend of mine assigned to a downtown church in Orlando celebrated his first wedding there, one year after he arrived. If the Catholic family is the cradle of the Faith, and parents are the “first teachers of the Faith” as the Baptismal rite for infants proclaims, these numbers are harrowing for the future of Catholicism in the United States, period.
Clearly, Catholic brides and grooms are not phoning the church offices as part of their wedding plans. Why? Perhaps they have heard over the years that once you enter the Church office, you are probably in trouble.
GUILTY UNITIL PROVEN MORE GUILTY:
Prospective brides and grooms generally have significant difficulties when they need the Church to discuss their wedding plans. I would venture to guess that 95% of Catholic couples who approach the Church will run afoul of the many hurdles that lie in their path. I wanted to look more closely at the hurdles faced by intrepid Catholics who might be inclined to approach the Church about a prospective sacramental wedding, with an eye toward the question of whether our establishment approach to “pre-Cana ministry” has become a living example of St. Luke 11:46, ““Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” So, what “burdens” face the prospective bride and groom as they consider picking up the phone to make an appointment at the parish office? Here is the gauntlet. Here we go!
About applicant couples:
--They are probably sexually active.
--They may be living together.
--They are using artificial birth control.
--They may wish to have a small family or to postpone children.
--The bride might be pregnant.
--They might not be registered in a parish.
--They may have no record of parish stewardship.
--They may not attend Mass regularly.
--One or both might never have been Confirmed, or even made First Communion.
--Their religious education might have ended at the eighth grade, if that far.
--One or both might have been previously married and does not understand the reality of a “previous bond” in Canon or Church Law.
--One or both might have [unbaptized?] children from the present or a previous relationship.
--Their families might be inactive Catholics in the parish.
--One or both might have spent some time as a member of another Christian denomination.
--Their trust in the Church might have been injured by the abuse scandal.
--They might hold political beliefs on such matters as same sex marriage and availability of abortion at variance with Catholic teaching.
--One or both might have issues with ICE or other citizenship matters.
--The couple might be of modest means with a guest list of 50; the parish church seats 1500 and the fee for a church marriage is $1000.
--The couple’s pastor or representative might be grossly incompetent, judgmental, or theologically/pastorally inept.
One of the best research projects on the religious experience of young adults—the imminent brides and grooms planning to celebrate weddings--comes from St. Mary’s Press, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.”  There is an excellent podcast on this study from Minnesota Public Radio linked here with a panel of young adults. Interestingly, one of the primary reasons given in the study and in the podcast for youthful disaffiliation is the perception among the young that the Church behaves primarily as an overly judgmental institution toward them. Many, some as young as thirteen in the St. Mary’s study, spoke of a great sense of relief after disengaging from the Church. These young adults are not asking for the moon and a lifetime pass to decadence. They are adrift in a very trying culture and looking for a home. And while it is a worthy venture to parishes and dioceses to establish ministries such as “theology on tap” for young adults, it is unfortunate that the Church overthinks the one event that captures the memory of young adulthood forever: marriage.
As you saw above, I came up with sixteen potential roadblock issues in the time it took me to consume a cup of Dunkin’s Cinnamania Coffee, and I have not even touched upon other genre of issues that arise in the initial premarital meetings with couples. As a psychotherapist today, I approach new client couples in medical/clinical settings with a keen eye for substance abuse [particularly binge-drinking alcohol], domestic violence, and a mental health diagnosis such as depression or borderline personality disorder, issues which can be lethal to a relationship but generally unrecognized by most church ministers.
WELCOME HOME, KIDS
I performed Catholic weddings from 1974-1992, long enough to grow in appreciation of the possibilities of the marriage event as one of God’s sacraments. My seminary days shaped my theological thinking that all sacraments are rites of conversion in the richest sense of the term, a move to something better, i.e., greater intimacy with God and God’s family. In that context, the Sacrament of Marriage marks the end of one era of life with a conversional moment to receive the Spirit with a lifelong partner. Marriage is the one sacrament that two baptized persons administer to each other—the cleric is an official ecclesiastical observer. I did not marry until I was 50 and laicized, and I recall very clearly my wedding day, sitting in the living room of my little house reflecting upon the new way of life I was freely embracing that Friday evening at our wedding Mass. [My meditation was interrupted, I might add, by an untimely knock at my door from a bill collecting agency. It seems my employer at the time had paid all of us therapists on staff with bad checks! For better or worse, richer, or poorer...]
In my years of marrying couples, I often felt like a “real father” as I was usually older—sometimes much older--than my candidates for marriage. Fathers love their kids, they bear with their kids when they make youthful mistakes, and they want nothing but the best for them. I could not bring myself to approach the pre-Cana ministry as adversarial. I always assumed as a pastor that my engaged couples were probably sexually active and often living together, and that they were using artificial birth control. I saw no helpful reason to raise these issues as moral obstacles in the course of our work. These were the times. They still are. I might wish otherwise, like parents feel, but these are the cards we pastors were [and continue to be] dealt. I never had the sense that a cohabitating couple, for example, had chosen this route before marriage as an act of contempt for God or disobedience, the necessary conditions for a true mortal sin. Better to think of the young in the words of the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal [1623-1662], who coined the phrase “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.” Every couple we meet in the matrimonial process comes to us as unique as a snowflake.
I also assumed that they had next to no meaningful adult religious formation, a reality backed by strong statistical evidence today. Given these deficits and the others I cited above, I labored mightily to keep their “wedding reunion with the Church” from becoming a time of acute embarrassment or accusation, the same stance I took in the confessional. I tended to adopt the attitudes of the famous confessors Sts. Alphonsus Ligouri and John Vianney that too much prying into sexual domestic matters, for example, unduly disturbed an innocent conscience. But beyond that, I believed that premarital pastoral counseling was primarily an act of embrace by the Church, not scolding. There will be a lifetime ahead for the couple to embrace the challenges of the Gospel for the first time as adults and the riches and wisdom of the saints. My work was to spark the interest and draw them to the Eucharistic table, from which they may trace the footsteps of Christ as lovers and parents.
Much of my marital preparation was an introduction to the couple of how much God loved them and the ways that they could foster a prayerful and an apostolic life in their homes and in the parish. In a sense my advising content was not totally different from what a catechumen might receive—and given the wretched state of religious education today, we are probably right to assume nothing and think of most adults as catechumens. I encouraged my couples to engage in the parish—though I came to see that 27-year-olds, for example, have their hands full already with developing their careers, buying homes, finishing education, paying down student loans and the like. And, in many cases, children will soon follow [if they haven’t already]. If I had it to do over, I would have spent more time in marital preparation assisting them in the habits of home prayer and Scripture reading. Those kinds of programs were just beginning to emerge in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
When Margaret and I finished our paperwork to marry in 1998, our venerable Monsignor, Patrick J. Caverly, said, “The Pre-Cana Program has nothing to teach you. But I would recommend you make a week retreat with the Trappist monks up at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina to prepare for your wedding.” We followed his advice. This fall, as we celebrate our silver wedding anniversary, we will be heading up to Mepkin for another week of retreat in late September. We know the retreat grounds and the monastic routine well by now and we even arranged to be interred there when the time comes; and these days we study monastic spirituality on Zoom every month with other regular retreatant regulars. Marriage can be a gateway to a true rebirth in the Spirit. Sadly, younger couples don’t always get the kind of advice we got, I fear. They may be expected to invest an inordinate amount of time in Natural Family Planning instruction instead. Nothing takes the romance out of an engaged couple’s life faster than the as many as eight sessions [!] of NFP at a cost of several hundreds of dollars. [Where are you, St. Luke? Checking in with more burdens....]
In my early days as a priest, when my parish was small and rural, at the end of our sessions together I took each of my engaged couples out for a steak dinner—on Jesus’s credit card, so to speak—a month or two before their wedding. I also charged them no money or fees for the wedding. “You are parish family,” I would say, “and we have free coffee and donuts for you after every weekend Mass.” They knew exactly what I was driving at. [BTW, my parish never lost money on free donuts in ten years.]
FATHERS CAN'T FIX EVERYTHING, BUT THEY SURE CAN CONSOLE THEIR KIDS
It does happen that significant issues can arise which demand greater attention than the parish staff alone can provide or alleviate. One such issue is a previous marriage by one of the parties to a third individual, or more rarely, when both parties were married to other people. Church law is quite firm that in most cases an annulment is required before a new marriage can be attempted. Annulments take time, though over my lifetime diocesan tribunals—the office of the bishop that processes such requests—have worked hard to manage the cases more effectively, on the grounds that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Every church bulletin on the planet contains an advisory that wedding dates are not set until the annulment is granted. However, a low percentage of Catholics attend Sunday Mass anymore and are unaware of this factor, or couples come into the office unaware that a civil divorce alone is not sufficient for them to engage in a Catholic wedding.
Circumstances such as these called forth every bit of sensitivity and creativity I could muster. Fortunately, I had taken special courses in Church Law in the seminary such that I could explain the process in considerable detail, to the degree that the logic of annulments might make sense to them, and I knew what the tribunal judges were looking for. I was honest and told them that if I “broke the annulment rule” I would get fired. Suffice to say that I tried to walk with them throughout the prolonged process in a fatherly way.
Another issue is evidence of serious difficulties between the engaged couples themselves. I was lucky during my priestly years that this occurred infrequently. Again, I watched for such things as binge drinking, violence, and significant mental health issues such as narcissistic or borderline personality features. I don’t remember ever telling a couple they might destroy each other in a marriage, but I do recall talking to one of the parties in several marriages where I sensed indecision. I always made it clear to individuals that if they had severe doubts, I would help them if they chose to delay or cancel the wedding—e.g., I would talk to the parents, send an update to a prospective therapist, etc. In these cases, I would also dictate a lengthy impression of my work with the couple for the official in the Tribunal, if things reached that stage at some point in the future. An officiating priest is an excellent annulment witness.
It is extremely difficult, for an engaged party, to step up and cancel a wedding far along in the planning stages. No one ever canceled a wedding on my advice, and I never told a couple they could not marry for mental health/compatibility reasons. It is interesting to me that twice in very recent years I had two divorced parties from different unions tell me that they wished they had “followed my advice,” so I guess they read my mind because I never said that directly. Today there is public recognition that mental illness strikes as early as the teen years. I hope today’s clerics are getting good diocesan advice and support on mental health ministry or taking courses and reading on their own about marriage and family counseling. [In 1984 my diocese, Orlando, included a $600 annual allowance for its priests to study and take courses. God bless Bishop Thomas Grady. Rollins College was then offering three-credit graduate courses for $290 and ended up paying about 70% of my tuition as I earned my M.A. in counseling in 1988, with the coursework spread over four years.]
Some dioceses fund a strong clinical counseling service [usually an arm of Catholic Charities] available to engage with pre-Cana couples where there are major problems. In my day such counseling was mandated for youthful marriages or where a premarital baby was on the way. Today many dioceses are strapped for cash and unable to provide such a range of services. I would suggest to younger clergy that they develop their own rolodex of ancillary services for their marriage ministries. Licensed Catholic therapists in the parish are often happy to help on many levels.
I will talk about wedding liturgies themselves in the third post in this stream. But I will lay to rest any rumors or worries as I cannot recall any grim encounters with BRIDEZILLA’s or MOTB’s [Mother of the Bride.] I did have moments when I wanted to throw a groomsman or two out the window, but they were bigger than me.
Tis’ the month of June and the season of weddings. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Catholics are choosing “the Church route” for those June weddings, or any other month, for that matter, according to the Center of Applied Research for the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which keeps records of such things going back to the 1960’s. In 1965 there were 347,179 sacramental marriages performed in the United States, i.e., marriages entered into the official canonical church records. In 2022 there were 98,354 such weddings, or 28% of the 1965 total—and this does not factor in the rise in the population since 1965. CARA’s Catholic statistics on all aspects of Church life in the U.S. are available to the public free online but pour yourself a stiff belt before you read all the bad news.
I am going to slip into my “inner Canon Lawyer mode” for a moment and wonder out loud if anyone has considered the possibility [probability?] that, in the eyes of Church/Canon Law, statistically speaking, at least a majority of baptized Catholics are living in concubinage as the Canons would define it? Look at the law:
Can. 1108 §1 Only those marriages are [sacramentally] valid which are contracted in the presence of the local Ordinary [bishop] or parish priest or of the priest or deacon delegated by either of them, in the presence of two witnesses.
Canon 1127 §2: If there are grave difficulties in the way of observing the canonical form [the presence of a priest/deacon and two witnesses], the local Ordinary of the catholic party has the right to dispense from it in individual cases…for validity, however, some public form of celebration is required. It is for the Episcopal Conference [in the United States, the USCCB] to establish norms whereby this dispensation may be granted in a uniform manner.
In other words, the local bishop can grant a “dispensation from form” allowing a Catholic to be married in a Protestant Church before that church’s minister, or even before a civil official, if there is good reason and the proper permissions have been signed off by the bishop. This dispensation is required for validity of the Catholic sacrament! Attached here is the Dispensation from Form request to the Archbishop of Los Angeles. I filled out such forms in my years as pastor for episcopal permission, but it was still my responsibility as pastor of the Catholic bride or groom to do the premarital investigations for freedom to marry, collect the baptismal certificates, record the marriage in my parish’s canonical books, notify the Catholic party’s church of baptism, and perform the premarital counseling for the couple. Interestingly, the Protestant minister who was performing the ceremony was often doing his due diligence, too, and conducting premarital counseling while I was doing mine. We put those folks through a lot. [USCCB research indicates that the best long-term results of premarital counseling are obtained by 8-9 sessions.] By the way, if a Catholic seeks to marry a member of a non-Christian religion—such as a Jewish or Islamic believer, or an unbaptized person, there is different paperwork for what is called a “disparity of cult” dispensation—a bishop’s permission to marry a party outside of Christian baptism.]
Catholic moral teaching holds that for baptized Catholics, any sexual activity outside of a valid marriage is mortally sinful. Consequently, if most Catholics today are marrying ‘outside the church” as the statistics from CARA and the anecdotal reporting of local churches would seem to establish, then large numbers of our Catholic neighbors and families are “living in sin,” as we say in Catholic circles. Or are they? And we have not even factored in the pastoral situations of couples living together before marriage.
BUT BEFORE WE BREAK THE EMERGENCY GLASS…
Before we get into the subject of marriage per se, let us reflect for a moment on the nature of mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 1857, defines mortal sin thusly: “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter, and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." No argument that matters of marriage are matters of high importance for both church and society. But it is the next two issues that deserve closer scrutiny. “Full knowledge” implies that an individual knows the law, understands the law, and how that law applies to one’s personal situation. Full consent follows from the previous point: armed with the knowledge of the teachings and values at hand, an individual chooses to disobey Church teaching from a motivation of scorn or contempt for Revelation and its legitimate officers. I doubt that Catholics are aware of the multiple conditions for sinning; I have often thought that the psychology of committing a mortal sin is a lot more complicated than we acknowledge, and perhaps we should draw some comfort from that.
I am going to make the argument that the vast majority of the brides and grooms make their marriage plans with no contempt for Canon Law or Catholic sacramental theology. Rather, their formation to the faith and their inclusion into the Catholic worship has been so deficient or even absent from their lives that marriage—like many other of life’s key decisions—is totally disconnected from Catholic culture and tradition. Interestingly, the USCCB admits as much. In its own hired research, it found: “Although parents continue to be instrumental in the formation of healthy relational skills and attitudes during this period, many [diocesan marriage preparation] policies refer to the value of classroom instruction in marriage and family life during junior high, high school, and college.” And yet, what is one of the greatest frustrations of parish personnel? That their eighth-grade confirmands fly the coup out the church door even ahead of the ordaining bishop! Thus, in the years of peak formative values of young adults on matters of love, relationships, and marriage, the Church is a non-player. I will return to this thought in a moment.
I had the opportunity recently to hear Kenneth Woodward, longtime religion editor of Newsweek and the dean of Catholic editorialists in the United States. Woodward, in an address to diocesan priests, made the point that since Vatican II each generation of Catholics has been exponentially less educated in the rudiments of Catholic life than the previous one. I cannot argue with that; when I was doing weekend workshops for adult catechists in my diocese, I was frequently surprised by what my students did not know in terms of what I always thought to be general Catholic household knowledge. I was delighted that that they had the courage to ask, and I welcomed the questions, but in the back of your mind is always that haunting question, “Quis custodes custodiet?” [“Who will shepherd the shepherds?”] Put another way, parochial catechetics in general are dissolving in content and competence.
SO WHY ARE SO MANY UNCATECHIZED AND/OR LEAVING CATHOLIC PRACTICE?
In discussions of this sort, I am always reminded of the scene in “Godfather I” where Vito Corleone begins a meeting with the heads of the five families: “Gentlemen, how did things get so far?” Looking for answers, I tend to agree with John Tracy Ellis’s famous 1955 essay on the intellectual state of the Catholic Church in the United States as a place to start. Ellis, a renowned priest historian, shook the American Church when he wrote in effect, that intellectually speaking, Catholicism in the United States was a mile wide and a foot deep.
[From America Magazine cited above, 1995] Ellis took as his starting point a comment by Denis W. Brogan, the Cambridge political scientist who was an expert on both modern French and American history. Brogan had said in 1941 that "in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful." More in sorrow than in anger, Ellis commented: "No well-informed American Catholic will attempt to challenge that statement." It does break my heart to see the general low regard for Catholic scholarship and the very limited opportunities for adult study and faith formation at the diocesan and parish level, because all this deficiency percolates downward into family life and the faith formation of children. How can we be surprised that many Catholics know next to nothing about marriage theology and pastoral opportunity when the bishops in the United States are spending $28 million to reeducate American Catholics to the very central doctrine of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist?
Ellis argued that the American Catholic Church has been more pragmatic than thoughtful. In 1955 he pointed out that there were vast numbers of Catholic colleges and seminaries in the U.S. but a dearth of worthy intellectuals and scholars to staff them. This was [and remains] very true in most seminaries, with the result that many pastors today are unread, preach poorly, and have little intellectual meat to offer college-educated congregations, including inquisitive youth. [At the Mass I attended on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the priest homilist told us that book learning does not lead to faith…which would have been quite a shock to Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and Benedict XVI, the latter a professional theologian and writer before his elevation to the papacy.]
To make this point personal, I cite a 2017 America essay on religious education, where a 40-year Director of Religious Education, Ernie Sherretta, wrote this reader response, sharing his experience as a Catholic parent of adult children:
My own adult children were raised in a "traditional Catholic" household, if I may say so, and yet they abandoned the Church, each marrying in another denomination and each holding the values/virtues they were taught. They married faith-filled spouses and now worship and serve in ministries of their new denominations. As adults, I respect their choices but asked why, having a suspicion as to the answer. My suspicions were confirmed when they stated that the Catholic Church is behind the times- not so much due to doctrine- which never was a problem due to its irrelevance to their lives but due to a structure that is patriarchal, authoritarian, and not very inclusive. Having participated in their weddings, one at a Presbyterian and the other at a Methodist church, I do understand their preference for another Church community. Another insight that comes from my own 68 years of being a Catholic, is the Church's refusal to incorporate Vatican II, incorporate all the baptized in leadership roles, not just as liturgical ministers, or council/staff members but as pastors, bishops etc. and rid itself of a clerical mindset still attached to the garb and nomenclature of the Middle Ages. Today's adults are no longer the "pay, pray and obey" people our parents and grandparents were and refuse to acquiesce to titles and procedures no longer relevant to the modern world. Catechesis, no matter how new, no matter what venue will not compensate for example, and the experience of inclusion which Jesus exemplified, and which affirms their baptismal anointing of priest, prophet, and king. In other denominations, they see lay leaders, modern worship, and members living in the real world not in convents, monasteries, rectories, or the Vatican. Sorry, but Roman Catholicism is on the path to extinction while the followers of Jesus continue to light the way through personal witness and ministry.
Some of the language here is strong, and it is painful to hear a church minister with so much “skin in the game” question the viability of the ecclesiastical body he has devoted his life to serving. But I think he is representative of not just church ministers, but of the much greater number of Catholic parents of roughly my generation [he is 68, I am 75] whose children and grandchildren have opted for other ways to live their values. I discussed earlier the issue of young people being poorly catechized to Catholic life. But what about those who were immersed in the Catholic culture and then opted out of the Church for another Christian communion or other vehicles in their search for meaning, as Mr. Sherretta’s children did?
I noted in his response the author’s observation that his children left the Church “not so much due to doctrine- which never was a problem due to its irrelevance to their lives…” That is a telling admission that we can assume nothing, really, about the effectiveness of our present modes of catechetical formation. In my parish—and in many across the country—there was no effort to conduct synodal listening. Can you imagine, as part of the synodal process, if an independent facilitator had spent a private evening with just each religious education class, without the teacher present--and with the Catholic school students, for that matter—and asked them point blank what they thought and experienced in religious education class, or even more pointedly, at Mass? The very thought of it answers the question of why so many American church leaders wimped out of the process.
To suggest that all these folks like Mr. Sherretta’s children who have moved in different directions from Catholicism are in dire danger of hell fire because of their canonical marriage status is ludicrous, and I hope that no parent lives under the shadow of that fear. They, like those of us who still practice, do what they need to do to discover the ultimate meaning of our existence. They, like us, will be judged at the end of time by the criteria set by Jesus himself in reference to the Last Judgment [Matthew 25: 31-46], and it sounds like Mr. Sherretta’s children take the Gospel very seriously. We must assume that barring evidence to the contrary, those who choose other paths to God do so in good faith. The early philosophers of Christianity—those guys it is a waste of time to read, according to some—understood, as an anthropological principle, that every human possessed an innate drive for the good, the true, and the beautiful, even before the saving waters of baptism.
The numerical decline in Catholic weddings is quite sobering, perhaps more so because it is not an outlier but a reflection of the reality of semper reformanda across the board. But marriage does deserve special attention: it is the most significant relationship that any of us will ever enter, and in the last millennium the Church has designated marriage as one of its seven sacraments or “events that save.” Those of us who are married know that we are “saved” daily by this relationship, in much the same way one is saved daily by holy communion. So, in the next installment on this theme, in a week or two, I would like to muse about Catholic marriage, the before, the during, and even the after.
I went back to school last week. I came home with new sympathy for lay ministers in the Church.
IT ALL BEGAN WHEN…
The Florida Mental Health Counselors Association held its annual statewide conference/convention last week, as it does every year, at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Lake Mary, Florida, a mere 30-minutes from my house. Hundreds of mental health folks from Key West to Pensacola attend every year, and while most therapists were enrapt last week in new and cutting-edge advances in the field, a tiny cohort of us—about twenty—spent two days off in a corner of the Marriott taking an intensive program, “Qualified Supervision Training.” This is a required certification for those who serve as supervisors for young therapists seeking licensure in Florida to practice independently, i.e., prepping them to go independent into private practice. Supervisors are required to meet biweekly with their interns for two years to review case files of their patients, assess competency, and [a new piece] to assist interns as they prepare for their national licensure exam, the final hoop, so to speak. We can provide intern licensure supervision for profit or pro bono. In very recent years, the disciplinary board of the Florida Department of Health has required that we supervisors get recertified periodically in this skill field. [I am pleased to tell you I was recertified for six years as an intern supervisor--till the age of 81.]
I don’t supervise psychotherapy interns anymore—as stimulating as that was years ago--but I found the skill set of professional supervision very helpful in my presentations and personal interactions with catechists, lay ministers, and school personnel in my diocese’s certification program over the years. Acquired supervisory skills have helped my writing the “Professional Development” stream of the Catechist Café blog, and even more recently, to advise on my diocese’s plan to train lay spiritual directors.
Did I learn new stuff last week? Well, I learned a lot of good new law. The state has toughened up “supervision” as an entity. During the program we had a two-hour meeting with the stern lady who writes the legislation up in Tallahassee. There has been significant consternation over the number of interns summoned to the disciplinary board for infractions up to and including cohabitation with and outright stealing from patients. [The same intern? Same patient? Nothing kills love like theft. I had to say that. Sorry.] To put it mildly, certification of supervisors needed more heft—more content, more frequency. In the past the state regarded certification of supervisors as a one-time deal, like those sacraments that leave an indelible mark on your soul. Tu es custodes in aeternum, or words to that effect. Now training and recertification is required every six years.
The next point made me sit up in my chair. I encountered a term I was unfamiliar with, vicarious liability. I can be sued for the malpractice of my interns—such as their failure to recognize suicidality or to report abuse. Today I have nothing to worry about—I am not actively practicing or supervising--but I realize now that twenty years ago I had significant exposure in some of the more lackluster locales I worked. I also learned that had I become a vicarious defendant, my attorney might have used the “frolic and detour defense.” There is such a thing.
I also learned that I am very lucky I took my pen-and-pencil state licensure exam back in 1998. Today’s test is longer and much more comprehensive. In last week’s course we were advised to recommend our interns take the test as early as possible, and not wait until the end of the two-year internship requirement. Evidently a lot of interns today fail on the first swing. [Actually, 40% according to the test’s website.] I remember I sat for my exam four days after I returned from my honeymoon. All I remember today about my test was the legal section—I needed a minimum of 24 correct answers to pass it, and I scored exactly 24. It reminded me of my ordination theology board exam; I needed to pass three out of four questions to be ordained, and I passed three. [I failed Canon Law.] Is part of aging the realization that one has dodged a lot of bullets over a lifetime?
Our presenter last week returned frequently to the role of supervisors as “gatekeepers” in the discipline of mental health practice. We are part of the chain that prevents incompetent or dangerous candidates from entering the mental health profession. But primarily we are part of the process that identifies and nurtures promising candidates toward long, fruitful, and innovative careers. We do not do this by ourselves. The universities, the state legislature, the insurance industry, and employers are or should be part of the formative process. But the expectation of the state—fairly—is that supervisors need to stay abreast with the theory, practice, and law if they are to ethically serve their interns and the good of society at large. [I’m afraid that when I’m 81 the state will require intern supervisors to pass the same test the interns take.]
My two supervisors/gatekeepers during my internship years were the clinical directors of a non-profit social service center in Deland, Florida, “The House Next Door.” I worked there for five years. [1996-2001]. My two supervisors were both marriage and family specialists, Regenia Proskine, LMFT and the late Candace Crownover, LMFT. I came to them with a psychoanalytic orientation and specialty in mood disorder. Candy and Regenia taught me to think “family systems” as a therapeutic mode, which later in turn has led me to study and reflect upon the relationships between dysfunctional systems, mental health, and spirituality. Candy was a devout Catholic and very active in church matters. When I closed my practice in 2014 and diocesan ministerial jaunts brought me to Deland, we would go to Mass and then talk for hours over breakfast about the state of the Church.
The State of Florida—despite its sometimes-ersatz reputation—takes the “gatekeeping principle” seriously in mental health practice, as do insurance companies, surprisingly. When I was a provider in the United Health Care System, for example, I was required to submit a patient questionnaire charting symptom reduction every six weeks or so. If my patient was reporting no improvement in mood, a clinician from United would contact me to suggest resources and alternative strategies.
AND ON TO CATHOLIC “GATEKEEPING” AND OUR LAY MINISTERS…
All the above brings us around to a painful question: Does the Catholic Church exercise “gatekeeping responsibilities” commensurate with other professional bodies in its training, and support of its ministers?
It is my impression that as a Church we burn through ministers—particularly young ones--at a disturbing rate—at both the diocesan and the parochial level. For years in my own parish, we were changing youth ministers more frequently than I change the oil in my car. There were many reasons for this, but my main concern is that no competent and idealistic Catholic should ever leave our employment with a sense that the Church has let them down, treated them unfairly, expected the impossible, or outright abused them. So, I listed a number of factors that impede our “gatekeeping” ministry, things that may strengthen our current ministers and better prepare those considering careers in the Church.
 If you stay current with the national Catholic press, you are no doubt aware that many bishops of the United States—not all--are in a state of near panic about the continuing exodus of Catholics from sacramental practice, and most pastors share this angst, too. Moreover, Catholic University’s Well Being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests  revealed, among other things, that “only 24% [of priests] expressed confidence in the leadership and decision making of the bishops. Sadly, the shepherds are in disarray.
 At the same time, many clerical leaders are in denial about the possible/probable reasons for these departures as well as the decline in the quality of ministry across the board. Two examples: the bishops could easily employ researchers—be they Catholic, such as CARA/Georgetown, or independent, such as PEW—for an in-depth analysis of Catholic sentiment and concerns that might account for departures and discontent. Of course, it might have been cheaper [and more obedient] if most dioceses had followed Pope Francis’ directive on conducting the local synodal process. Have you ever wondered why your parish/diocese did not engage in this universal project of the Church if it did not?
 Consequently, we have what my family therapy supervisors Candy and Regenia might have called “an ugly family secret,” much like alcoholism, incest, infidelity, etc. Ugly family secrets  effectively block truthful communication, and  cause a raft of avoidance and circumventing behaviors and unhealthy strategies. Our church secret is that institutional Catholicism as we have known in our lifetime is passing away. This is a troubling thought, even frightening for those who only know “the old way,” such as bishops and many pastors. The old buttons on the control panel are being pushed, and nothing happens. See Villanova University Professor Massimo Faggioli’s ”No Longer the Bishops’ Church? Catholicism’s Episcopal Crisis” in Commonweal Magazine. How difficult must it be, particularly for new and idealistic lay ministers, to undertake their missions with this secret that few dare to say out loud?
 Theology and religious studies are in serious decline. Theology is a sacred science, but it is still a science like other disciplines that require a firm base of principles to be taught and understood across the board. Science requires openness to reality and continuous reexamination, in the venerable tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. “Gatekeepers,” be they theological or medical, must bring a critical and testing eye to their disciplines. As a therapist, for example, it is my duty, in communion with my peers and the organs of my discipline, to weigh evidence on such recent developments such as transgender medicine—is this a humanitarian breakthrough or a trendy episode which in this case is abusive to children? When a discipline freezes in place, it ceases being a science and instead becomes indoctrination. The ongoing search for truth is the search for God, and the Church is not exempt from this principle.
 Proceeding from the previous point, Kenneth Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years, makes the point that each generation of Catholics is exponentially less educated in the faith than the previous one. This is both a policy issue and a political one, I believe. Our creeping policy over the generations has been to accept lower standards of education for lay ministers because this is cheaper and imposes less preparatory and ongoing education. It also avoids the unpleasant truth that religious sisters and brothers carried the financial weight and the educational preparatory grunt work of parochial faith formation, while my generation got the high quality at a bargain basement price. Woodward would agree, I think, that the highest levels of Church management have never truly digested this enormous loss to pastoral ministry and have been applying ill-fitting bandages on a gaping wound.
Politically, I sense that many pastors are, at some level, uncomfortable with a “reading public.” I have attended the same church for 27 years, and I have never heard a recommendation for adult reading in a sermon. My present pastor preaches every week on prayer—and has never mentioned the works of any historical or contemporary spiritual author such as Thomas Merton or Father James Martin, S.J., whose bestselling Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone  is in the top 1% of Amazon purchases as of this writing. [I forgot! So is Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)]
 Woodward, cited above, points to research that the best predictor of a child’s remaining in the Catholic Church is the practiced faith of the mother, and particularly the father, given that men are usually not notoriously expressive of their inner lives. And yet, we tend to put all our parochial energies into the formation of children. Is it possible that one subconscious motivation at work is the fact that it harder, ministerially speaking, to engage and evangelize adults than pliable children?
 There is a dynamic at play in many of our parishes and chanceries that those with the least to lose and political immunity [i.e., bishops, pastors, and senior officers] are demanding solutions to contemporary problems of the Church from those on the front lines of parish and diocesan ministry with the highest level of vulnerability. Let me put that another way. We hire youth ministers, for example, to get young people involved in the Church when our conference of bishops has no idea how to do it, nor frankly, do the national organizations of such ministers as far as I can see. We hire religious education personnel to get parents and their children back into sacramental practice when pastors and bishops have no idea how to stem the hemorrhage of Catholics from practice and have been failing at it for years now. And what is the criterion used by pastors to assess success or failures of lay ministers? Let’s face it: numbers. Here is the vicarious liability principle turned upside down: pastorally speaking, church responsibility is currently running downhill, not uphill. The interns, so to speak, get fired instead of the supervisors. And yet, the same criterion—attendance—would be more damaging to those to lead the local communities and dioceses in Eucharist and tenor, if this was a fair world.
 Following up on the above point, lay Catholics in church employment enjoy little or no protection. They are expected to be perfect—" Practice of the Catholic faith is required. Church employees must conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with and supportive of the mission and purpose of the Church. Their public behavior must not violate the faith, morals or laws of the Church or the policies of the diocese.” [From my diocese’s current national ad for a diocesan youth minister]. Indeed, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. There is no protection of an annual contract, nor arbitration board for contested firings.
Candidates for hire are asked to do the impossible—" Knows how to develop and implement comprehensive ministry programming.” [op. cit.] There aren’t five pastors in the country who know how to do that; this is at the heart of the American Catholic evangelical crisis across the board.
 As a former EAP counselor for my diocese, and a daily follower of several religious education blogsites, it becomes clear to me that pastors and religious administrators could do far more to assist their employees and volunteers in their professional growth. For starters, it is probably safe to say that a new hire, such as a parish religious education director, has not had the benefit of a Boston College, Catholic University, University of Dayton, Villanova or Notre Dame master’s education in religious formation or an equivalent degree. Many are coming to church work with the degree they could afford—the on-line programs which vary greatly in quality—or as often happens, they progressed up the local church ladder from volunteer teaching to program assistant to parish director. Like it or not, lay ministers need much more supportive counsel and guidance in their work than they are currently getting.
 Job descriptions need to be realistic and precise. I wish I had a dime for every time a patient told me his or her pastor dumped a new responsibility on the minister’s desk, usually upon a whim. I advised them to ask the pastor which of the employee’s current responsibilities should be dropped to meet this new project. Unfortunately, most patients needed their jobs and/or were afraid to negotiate with a priest, and now I understand that better. Many pastors interpret such a request as a challenge to their authority and insubordination. Given the absence of detailed and realistic contracts and authentic appeals boards, a lay person working for the church works in the unsettling, no-win environment of clericalism. [For the record, in my parishes, all my staff would have told me to go to hell. Nicely, but firmly.]
Conversely, pastors—like any Catholic employer in public life—are responsible to see that the family and personal lives of employees are protected by establishing reasonable time expectations and boundaries. No business emails at home in the evening. Similarly, time for continued education, reading, and spiritual retreat need to be respected and included in the compensation package, as it was in my contracts as a priest.
 I suspect that many pastors are not aware of the pastoral satisfaction that comes from supervising staff, particularly those employees new to the pastoral field. This can be achieved through regular meetings, as in the case of clinical supervision and “case studies,” or through actual ministerial happenings.
One summer I had a seminarian assigned to my parish, and after supper I would invite him to join me in my office as I returned the day’s pile of phone messages. I would dial the number, and then say, “I have a seminarian with me tonight who is learning what it’s like to be a pastor. Would you mind if he joined us in our conversation?” Nobody ever refused. In fact, they seemed rather honored to help and, to judge by the content, nobody seemed inhibited. In fact, when I made [non-confessional] counseling appointments on the phone, several folks asked if the seminarian could be there, too!
As a pastor/employer/supervisor I didn’t have the precise skill sets of everyone who worked with me and for me. To remedy that, I attended liturgical music conventions, religious education conventions, Catholic school conventions, and Canon Law conventions [Canon Law, my nemesis!] with the appropriate staff, which boosted staff morale and made for lively general staff meetings. I made many mistakes as a pastor, but I do feel that those who worked for me went on to satisfying and better-paying ministerial opportunities. And I certainly enjoyed seeing them come into their own.
I may have left the reader with more questions than answers. This is not always a bad thing; it is better than fools’ certainty. There is no getting around the fact that our Church is troubled, and that ministry of any sort is a complicated proposition.
That said, let me offer a few words of hope to build on.
First, seek communion with God. Or more correctly, let God seek communion with you. Find that quiet place and time to open the Bible or another spiritual text, and let the words take over your imagination and your emotions. The very physical act of rest itself is a sacramental message that God is responsible for your very being and will carry you through. You are not alone, and you do not have to save the Church by yourself. It is God’s Church. [I bring a hot cup of coffee into my time with God.]
Regard every human encounter as a moment of grace. We begin every Mass with the salute that the Spirit of God “be with you.” Be that Spirit. Nothing we teach or donate is as valuable a gift as a sincere wish of God’s upon a fellow human being. This is the first necessary step to evangelization.
Read. If you are a baptized adult, whether you currently minister or not, immerse yourself in the wisdom of the saints, lessons of history, the personal journeys of Church folks before us, and the deep thoughts of Augustine and Aquinas. It will make your Church membership a truly tangible reality in your consciousness.
P.S. I try to keep a stream of such books coming up on the Café posts. Unfortunately, I must read them first, LOL. So be patient with me. And I include Catholic novelists as well, whose tales reveal the presence of God in ways that only a true storyteller can weave.
It is my pleasure to host a weekly meeting of adult Catholics at my parish who are preparing for Confirmation, having not received the sacrament in their youth for any number of reasons. It is a pleasant circle: we have coffee and cookies while I go over the heart of the Catholic message as a preparation for their profession of faith at the Cathedral. Last night I was walking them through the Nicene Creed, which we proclaim or recite at every weekend Mass. I fell into the trap of trying to explain the Holy Trinity—how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit compose One God. I did not do a very good job of it and fell back on St. Augustine’s frustration in trying to do the same thing in 400 A.D.
But at least I could console myself that I avoided teaching an even greater mystery, the observance of the Advent Season. In the present Church Calendar, Advent is a devotional season constructed around the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which is permanently set at December 25. Consequently, Advent can extend from 22 days to 28 days depending on which day of the week Christmas falls. This year, 2022, is a long Advent, figuratively speaking, four full weeks. In the United States, ironically, the First Sunday of Advent generally falls on Thanksgiving weekend—no distractions there!
If you ask a liturgist or a specialist in church worship for a definition of the Advent season, he or she would begin with an analysis of the Latin word adventus, which translates to “arrival or coming.” The month of December is thus a period in which the Church prayerfully reflects upon the coming of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one sent by God the Father. However, Christianity has long held—based upon the Bible itself—that Jesus is glorified in two comings—his birth as a human to Mary, and his dramatic coming as judge at the end of time. Advent attempts to do justice to both, and it is not easy, for during Advent we observe the Second Coming first and the First Coming second.
The late Father Raymond E. Brown, in his [severely overpriced] An Adult Christ at Christmas , reminds us that the “Infancy Narratives” or the traditional Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are not soft and cozy narratives to warm our hearts; they are foreshadowings of the suffering of Jesus and those closest to him; “miniature Calvary stories” as one scholar puts it. In this respect the “Christmas Gospels” are of a weave with the “End of the World Judgment Gospels” that open the Advent season. However, we are so conditioned to hearing Luke’s narrative of the Bethlehem scene in our contemporary setting of family reunions and good cheer that the continuity of the first half of Advent [the Second Coming] with the second half [the remarkable events leading to Jesus’ birth] is often lost.
It has been many a year since I was directly involved in catechizing children, so I cannot say with certainty how today’s teachers broach the subject of Advent with children. I can remember in Catholic school being taught that Advent was something of a countdown to Christmas, though it was never clear precisely how we should be preparing ourselves spiritually other than to follow the directives of the Scripture readings at Mass. My motivation for good Advent behavior, I admit, was fear of offending Santa Claus. I can vividly recall, around the second and third grade, being stunned on the First Sunday of Advent with the proclamation of Luke 21: 25-33: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world….” [In the 1950’s the same Gospels were read every year on Sundays; it was not until 1970 that we went to the three-year rotating cycle we have today, Thus, Luke’s apocalyptic message on the First Sunday of Advent was read annually till I was 22, the same year I stopped waiting for Santa.]
Luke 21 was indeed heavy stuff for a nine-year-old who, based upon his religion classes, was expecting to hear about Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem on the First Sunday of Advent, and I was still confused that “grown-up Jesus” was the highlight of the Second Sunday. I felt a little better the third week when John the Baptist came into the Mass reading, although he too was grown-up and describing the adult Jesus, the one who was to come after him. Finally, I could breathe easier on the Fourth and final Sunday when Matthew 1: 18-21 described Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and the angel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus, though I had no idea of the complications involved in the story. To my way of thinking, it took three weeks for the Church to get to the meat of Advent, which I believed to be the Christmas narrative.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that the dynamic of the Second Coming gets lost, not just for kids, but for adults and even preachers, in Catholic life and worship in the Advent season. This came home to me in a powerful way last night with my group. We were wrapping up our discussion of the Nicene Creed, specifically the line “and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I shared with them what I had been taught about judgment, and more to the point, what I had heard countless times as an altar boy at funerals, the gripping hymn “Dies Irae,” [Day of Wrath] possibly written by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century:
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How great the tremors there will be,
when the judge comes,
investigating everything strictly!
Dies Irae describes Christ’s glorious return as final judge at the end of time. Our personal judgement, I learned, occurs as soon as we die. We were taught that upon our death our lives would be assessed by God, and that most of us, if we had not died in a state of mortal sin, would spend time in Purgatory [from the Latin purgatorium, a purge] to be cleansed of guilt we bore from a lifetime of imperfection and sin, before we could proceed to the presence of God. Catholics believe that our prayers and good works for the “souls in Purgatory” shorten the period of purgation or purification. While there is an essential truth here, the catechetical and pastoral articulation of Purgatory and judgment is somewhat impoverished today. Purgatory is much more than “paying down your mortgage.” Our failure over the years to think creatively about ultimate encounter with the glorified Christ after death is one of the missing ingredients of our present-day Advent observance. Or, put another way, how do we talk about our own judgment?
As my wagon continues to rumble toward the inevitable end of my earthly existence, I have given more thought to the reality of judgment. Given my background in both theology and psychology, my meditations on life after death have taken me in the direction of judgment and Purgatory as painful encounters with the Holy Spirit, who infuses in us the wisdom to see our lives as they really unfolded. Put another way, we will suffer from an encounter with the truth about ourselves. On earth, we can hide, divert, ignore, or busy ourselves against the Spirit’s gift of insightful truth. But after death, we cannot run from such knowledge any longer.
In talking to my class, I gave them my ideas about the truths I would encounter after my death. First, the reality of how much Jesus loves me and how little I have done in my lifetime to walk with him in Scripture reading and prayer. In early elementary school I was taught that if I were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have come down from heaven and gone through his sacrificial life just for me. That impressed me as a little kid; as an adult, I know—intellectually—that such is the case, but the enormity of that truth is only now beginning to penetrate my religious obtuseness. It is a blessed knowledge but a searing one as I reflect upon how little of that love I have reciprocated, or even recognized.
A second painful truth which I believe is only fully understood after death is the reality of how hurtful my sins of omission and commission have been for those who were the object of my selfishness or neglect. A third truth, related to the second, is the extraordinary number of wonderful people I have come to know in my life’s journey, and how much I missed by not taking more time to engage in their goodness in response to their invitations to me. And finally, I believe the Spirit will make clear to me the personal, material, and spiritual gifts I received over a lifetime in contrast to how I recognized and utilized those gifts for the service of the world. So much wasted time! So little Christian focus!
In retrospect, there is probably an “Advent logic” in devoting the first 75% of the season to a liturgical orientation to Christ’s Second Coming. To reflect upon the encounter with Christ’s Spirit of Truth at the end of our time is the greatest incentive to intensifying our present union with Jesus, whose earthly story the Advent season introduces on December 17 and continues through Christmas and the full liturgical year. In an introduction to Fleming Rutledge’s powerful new work, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ , Professor Michael J. Gorman writes: “Advent is not merely preparation for Christmas, much less ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ It is, rather, the season of difficult yet hopeful watching, waiting, and participating—the season that encapsulates the Christian life between Christ’s first and second coming.”
Desirous of Starting Over Your Faith Journey? Seek Out the "Permanent Catechumen," Thomas Merton, As Your Sponsor
This is the time in the Church Year when we see announcements and invitations in Church bulletins for those seeking to join the Catholic Church through Baptism [or a Profession of Faith if baptized in another Christian Church.] I remember very well from my years as a pastor how many of my flock would ask me why they could not be “born again” as their neighbors were doing in other Christian churches. Catholic doctrine teaches that we are baptized once in a lifetime, an unrepeatable event. For those of us baptized as infants, we have no experience of that event to draw from. And while we believe, doctrinally, that this baptism is a definitive saving event, we know experientially that we still wrestle with our reality of one foot in heaven and one foot in hell.
For nearly a half-century now since Vatican II, anyone joining the Church as an adult has been routed through the R.C.I.A., the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I could not help but notice that America Magazine this month reprinted a 1989 essay by Father Andrew Greeley, “The Case Against R.C.I.A.” Father Greeley contests the idea that one size or one model of conversion fits all, and he is quite heated on the point:
Everyone is unique. The Holy Spirit still blows whither She wills. The uniqueness, that which is most special about each person who comes to the rectory, is precisely the message, to those who preside over the rectory, of the Spirit of Variety and Pluralism. We have no right to try to arrange Her schedule, budget Her time, routinize Her grace. No one’s spiritual pilgrimage fits a formula. No one can be run through an automatic process. No one can be forced to jump through a series of hoops that have been designed a priori by liturgists and religious educators.
Whatever one thinks of his critique, Greeley makes a vital point in emphasizing the unique nature of each person’s search for encounter with the living God, an encounter that must precede and proceed liturgical formulation. Put another way, we know that baptism does not guarantee heaven, and that the best catechetical preparation in the world does not inoculate us against sin, confusion, and doubt. Moreover, the mystery of initiation into the full life of God is a lifelong process. As I meditate now in my 75th year of life, I am floored by the complexity of my own history. I hardly know how to reconcile the eager young 21-year-old redhead taking simple vows in the Franciscan Order in 1969 with the bald man who today can hardly imagine his life without his wonderful wife of nearly twenty-five years. More to the point, this senior citizen still feels like a catechumen, standing at the threshold of a deeper conversion that at times is quite frightening.
Thomas Merton once remarked that “the more I know about spirituality, I realize I know nothing about spirituality.” I can resonate with that. I sense that much work of the Spirit remains for me if I would get out of the way and allow God to shape me like the potter’s clay. Ironically, my hunger to “begin again” on the baptismal journey is stronger than at any time previously in my life, or so it seems. I suspect this is true for many of us regardless of when we were baptized. It was that realization which led me this summer to pick up, again, probably the greatest description of catechumenal seeking in print, the extraordinary autobiography of young Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain. 
Can a Catholic start all over again as a catechumen and be “born again?” The answer is no and yes. The negative answer is this: we have been baptized, confirmed, and eucharized, and whether we appreciate the fact or not, our sense of sin and inadequacy before God is a hearty symptom that one’s Confirmation “took”—the Spirit is enlightening us and prompting us with insight into who we are and where we ought to be. Unrest is a gift to move on to something better. So, to repeat these initiation sacraments because we are spiritually shipwrecked would be to deny their power within us at work. Moreover, the “tools” of our rebirth come from the Church—our Creed, the Scripture, the wisdom of two millennia of holy men and women, including those in the present day who minister to us and break bread with us in the Eucharist.
On the other hand, can a Catholic persona be “born again?” Absolutely, so long as we understand that this birth is the fruit of a lifelong labor. There is nothing that says we cannot take our souls back to the drawing board by way of an autobiographical examination of our lives to date. In fact, it is hard to imagine a Christian life which does not engage in a regular self-examination or examination of conscience. As I say, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain this summer, and it occurred to me that Merton—despite his Catholic conversion, his lifelong commitment to the Trappist Order, and his ordination to the priesthood—lived his entire life as a catechumen of sorts, and his ministry to the Church remains his written narrative of conversion from childhood to his tragic death while engaged in dialogue with Buddhist seekers of God.
Merton [1915-1968] is an ideal companion for anyone wishing to “start again.” I love Thomas Merton for many reasons, possibly not least the fact that he applied to the same branch of the Franciscan Order that I entered, though his application in his 20’s was rejected because of his relatively recent conversion to Catholicism and several moral complications from his college years, including fathering a child in England. [I entered Franciscan life at 14 and had no such complications, aside from immaturity!] As a convert to Catholicism, he desired priesthood and was despondent for a time when he believed that all doors to the sacerdotal were closed. However, he became aware of the Trappist Order of monks, specifically the monastery of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Monasteries, historically, have been more sympathetic to men with “pasts.” Monastic life dates to the third century, originally as a way of doing penance for sinful lives. Like other religious orders, the Trappist vows are commitments to an intensification of living the baptismal promises. [The vows of religious orders are distinct from the Sacrament of Orders.] A vowed religious remains a lay person unless there is a special need or call to ordination. Merton was received into the Gethsemane community at age 26 in 1941. He would live in this community for the remainder of his life, and he was ordained to the priesthood in the Trappist Order in 1949.
Thomas Merton is one of the most remarkable religious figures of the twentieth century and beyond, and his fame and influence in the Church are a continuing thorn in the side to many bishops who find his lifelong spiritual journey too honest and too “undomesticated.” In 2004 Merton was omitted from the final draft of the U. S. edition of the Catholic Catechism for Adults; by way of explanation Cardinal Donald Wuerl uttered a shameful dissembling: ““The generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was...only secondarily did we take into consideration that we don’t know all the details of the searching at the end of his life.” Wrong. Merton’s autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain currently sits in the top 2% of Amazon book sales [August 31, 2022] and his other devotional writings, such as Seeds of Contemplation, are in wide use today. There is simply no other convert to Catholicism who has left us such a paper trail as Thomas Merton—before and after his initiation into the Church—nor one who has dared to write about his need for God’s grace and his detours in attaining that grace and maintaining the course throughout his adult life in such magnificent prose.
Seven Story Mountain is Merton’s 500-page recollection of his life up to age 30. A detailed personal journal that he maintained throughout his life was made public in seven volumes in 1998, thirty years after his death, and there are multiple volumes of his letters to the famous and the anonymous available for purchase or borrowing today. Thus, although SSM take’s Merton’s life up to profession with the Trappists in 1944, there is an excess of autobiographical riches from Merton’s entire life, up to and including the day of his death, in all sorts of formats, including his journals, letters, spiritual books, and poetry. Merton, who had written poetry and attempted novels before entering religious life, assumed that when he took the habit, he would no longer be able to write. However, his abbot encouraged him to do so, including an exhortation to describe his journey to Gethsemane, which would become Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton’s autobiography appeared on the market in the years immediately after World War II, when thousands of veterans were attempting to make sense of their wartime experience. It is no exaggeration to say that the war had produced a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress syndrome as many impressionable men and women had come face to face with evil, the likes of which they could hardly have imagined. It is a happy accident that Seven Storey Mountain was released on the heels of the Hollywood blockbuster film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which chronicles the difficulties facing returning GIs to American society. Merton never served in World War II; he was received into Gethsemane just ahead of his draft notice. But his description of male unrest and thirst for religious meaning resonated with thousands of readers, not a few of whom sought the meaningful life of the religious cowl. There were 250 monks living in Gethsemane during Merton’s early years as a monk.
Moreover, Merton’s autobiography and other books began appearing in bookstores as thousands of young Catholic men were taking advantage of the GI Bill and attending college. [My former employer, Siena College, built Quonset huts to handle the overflow of postwar students.] Catholic colleges naturally required theology courses as part of the basic curriculum, meaning that into the 1950’s and 1960’s Catholic life in the United States was infused by better educated Catholic laity hungry for intellectual and spiritual stimulation.
My own rereading of Merton’s early years was a refreshing experience of religious introspection. I had read this work many years ago, but I was a different man then. I was motivated by curiosity as much as anything. But this time around I was taken by the nuances of Merton’s journey—the places he lived with his itinerant artist father, the books he read, the ideologies he toyed with, the religious prejudices he overcame, his time with the Quakers and the Communist Party, his volunteering in Harlem, his social excesses and squandered time. It is interesting that Catholic church buildings were among Merton’s first favorable experiences with Catholic life. [Having recently returned from Europe—particularly Venice and Florence—I can resonate with that.]
Even though all of Merton’s publishing underwent scrupulous examination by Trappist censors, it is amazing to see how God’s grace was able to flourish side by side with Merton’s imperfect humanity. While SSM outlines his youthful sins and trials to age 29, it is his journals [seven volumes in print] and his correspondence [about six volumes released, I believe] where we see more of Merton’s mature graces and vices. He wrestled back and forth with his belief that he needed to depend totally on God’s will, but he was a willful man whose tug of war with his abbot of twenty years, Dom James Fox, is legendary. [When Margaret and I visited Merton’s grave at Gethsemane in 1999, we discovered that the two men are buried side by side…death makes for strange bedfellows.]
Merton never quite reconciled the silent, structured life of the monastery with his own considerable energies, a problem that only got worse as he aged. His letters are filled with promises to correspondents and friends to read this and examine that. In SSM we see him as a young adult devouring volumes of books on philosophy and the arts, and then on to theology in his religious search. As a 50-something monk he continued this pattern—it is plain in his letters—and one wonders where he found the time to do all this. Late in his tenure he received permission to build a “hermitage” to find more silence and prayerful isolation. He joined the main abbey for Mass and one meal per day. But he hosted many guests and small groups at the “hermitage” or in the retreat center [Martin Luther King had a retreat scheduled at Gethsemane when he was killed in Memphis.] It is fair to say that he never totally “left the world,” and his 1960’s writings against the war in Viet Nam and racism in the United States raised the ire of those who felt a cloistered monk had no business engaging in these controversies.
The blessing of Thomas Merton is his recognition that his soul is always in need of reform, semper reformanda. For the Catholic who picks up Merton for the first time in 2022, it is a bit of a shock to read a man who has much in common with St. Augustine, with his distrust of man’s natural state and his utter dependence upon God’s grace. Merton’s college and young adult years had taught him what a life without God was really like. We are not used to hearing this language in the era of Vatican II, which tends to speak of the human species much more optimistically. The irony, of course, is that John XXIII convoked Vatican II precisely because of the moral collapse manifested in two World Wars and the Holocaust. Merton appreciated this fact and never got carried too far from his mea culpas.
Merton loved the sacraments; his description of Eucharistic encounter brings out his poetic best. He had strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, to the liturgical calendar, and the Divine Office. In SSM he reflects the times in his traditional disparagement of Protestant ideas and practices, but in middle age his deeper sense of the provenance of God steered him into a more ecumenical stance, and by the end of his life to the Eastern theologies of meditation. It can be said, I think, that the title “perpetual catechumen” can be applied to him in the sense that he never considered his divine conversion a “done deal” but a life-long search.
I believe that this is what Father Greeley was trying to say in the paragraph cited above: because we go through the rites of initiation does not mean that we stop initiating, whatever our age. And for this reason, I recommend that if you are feeling a need to get to the root of your spiritual unrest, or even if you feel that your initiation is somehow dead to you, pick up Merton. I recommend the Seven Storey Mountain, but if you prefer to begin with a third-person biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  by Michael Mott is dated but a very good narrative. Possibly Merton’s most famous spiritual writing is New Seeds of Contemplation [revised, 2007]. The first volume of his journals is Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation/The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941. If you would like to sample his letters, start with The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends .
A catechumen—first time or repeater—needs a sponsor. Merton is there for you. He has done the heavy lifting.
First, I am grateful I got significant response to the post on the Synod last week, and everyone who responded personally over the multiple Cafe social platforms had exceptionally good points to make. In fact, I would like to address as many as I can, but each deserves a full post because of the complexity of the question.
The first person to weigh in was Mary, one of my distant relatives from Pennsylvania. She and her husband are extremely active in their parish and have raised three remarkable daughters to adulthood. She asked this question: “How are we going to engage the unchurched and underchurched? Are we supposed to stand at the entrances of other churches and hand out forms to all those folks? To those who self-identify as former Catholics? It will be another exercise of ‘speaking to the choir’ imho.”
Thank you, Mary. In a few sentences you correctly targeted not one but two issues which may derail the Synodal process. First, your sentence, “It will be another exercise of speaking to the choir” reminds us that in the last half century or so, since Vatican II, we have loyally participated in a seeming endless series of programs which promise to restore the vigor of the Catholic Church at the parish level and enrich the universal Church. I suspect that we are growing weary of them. I must admit that when the Synod appeared on my personal radar, I had something of the same reaction—not another half-baked bureaucratic program leading to nothing. I was so unenthused that when a particularly good friend, a Doctor of Theology, asked me how I was going to get involved in the Synod process, I told her I was tired of Church programs and wanted to be left alone in my golden years.
If you google the web pages of dioceses at random, you will find that many of them in the United States are in the process of some localized structured renewal unrelated to the Synod. This morning I picked at random the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is featuring “Nothing Compares to Being There.” This is a campaign—well organized—to invite back to weekly Mass those who discontinued regular participation at Eucharist during Covid. The problem is that this program, and others like it, assumes that Covid is the facilitator of the decline, when there is a large body of research which establishes that the exodus from the altar predates February 2020. Nor did I see anything suggesting dialogue in the Philadelphia program; it is essentially “come back to us where you belong.” A pastoral effort, to be sure, but nothing synodal about it.
During my years as a Franciscan priest and parish pastor, I was elected to the Order’s three-year and six-year meetings, called “chapters,” to address problems and create better ways to enhance the community life of the friars on the East Coast of the United States. Each of these chapters produced a working document to be implemented by the local communities. Toward the end of my years with the friars we produced a document called Franciscan Life and Ministry, or colloquially, FLAM. Several years later we returned to write a revision of this document. The product quickly became dubbed “Son of FLAM” and became something of a poster child for the reality that meetings, documents, and plans were just not cutting it.
Why have so many Church projects of renewal died? The gifted Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936] may have put it best: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s adage explains why so many Church ventures do not deliver the goods, so to speak, whether they be the works of parishes, dioceses, or the universal Church itself. First, we nibble around the edges looking to avoid what our founding documents tell us to do—the Gospels, the Nicene Creed, Francis of Assisi’s Rule for the friars, written in his own hand; the “hard” challenge that Chesterton speaks of. There is no mystery to what Christ wants of us—to pray always, to care for the poor, to “be one as the Father and I are one.” Most of us—individually and corporately—are engaged in “conscience negotiations” about how far we want to take this, how hard do we want this to be.
Consequently, all our Church dialogue is tainted by this dishonesty. It is critical to admit this as we enter the Synodal phase. In fact, the best that could come out of the Synodal process is an intimate confession of our individual and collective sinfulness, one to another. Only then can the forgiving grace of God loosen our tongues to speak the words that build the Body of Christ on earth. If I understand Pope Francis correctly, this is the dialogue of saving unity he wishes the entire Church to embrace. To admit our sinfulness and failure to live the Gospel as well as our need for the saving example of Christ is the unifying principle of the Church.
In our prayers for the fruitfulness of the synod, we would be amiss if we did not pray for the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church. It is impossible to escape the reality that the line between the sacramental charism of leadership and the intoxication of authority and power is often crossed, many times unknowingly. Again, the success of the Synod will depend upon the honesty of the ordained clergy: that they understand the pope’s intention, that they preach it clearly, that they facilitate the process to the fullest, that they seek help for the process if they do not understand the art of effective collaboration, that they encourage openness, and finally and most painfully, that they hear sincere fraternal correction, when necessary, coming from their people. The mistakes of ordained leaders do not lessen their ministry or importance to the Church; rather, admission of “clericalism,” pride, academic sloth, insensitivity, etc., bring our clergy to closer communion with the faithful.
And so, Mary, only time will tell as to whether our march toward Synodality is the highway to the New Jerusalem or forty more years in the desert. But to your second point about reaching the unchurched. I am going to suggest that the terms “churched” and “unchurched” are much less useful than we may think. We tend to put stock on the number of the “churched” because it is the only visible metric we have for measuring the relative health of the parish. [As a former pastor, I looked at attendance through the eyes of my accountant, LOL.] It is unwise to assume that because someone is in the pew with frequency, he or she enjoys a full communion with God and is in less need of the “spiritual field hospital,” to use Pope Francis’ phrase, than an individual who is not in our pews but may enjoy a communion with God that we can scarcely imagine. The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son never abandoned his “pew” at the father’s table but his true soul was revealed in a painful display.
That said, it is exceedingly important that the Synod process involve those who once sat side by side with us in the pew and who have sought spiritual solace elsewhere. The assumption is often made that someone who absents himself from Catholic worship is “the guilty party in the divorce.” We have good research now that those who have left the practice of the Catholic faith have done so for a myriad of reasons, many of them quite understandable. The groundbreaking St. Mary’s Press/CARA 2017 study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” found that departure from the Church begins around the age of thirteen, and as early as 10. When I read this study, I found these results very confirming. For an eight-year-old child, not fortunate enough to sit in one of the first three pews, what is the actual experience of Mass for him or her—spending an hour watching the backside of the grownup in front? And does he get more from the sermon than we adult unfortunates? No one has ever stopped to consider—or considered it important enough—that our very architecture [and our preaching and music selections, too] alienate children from Mass. It occurs to me just now that the Synod process should listen very carefully to the young and the very young, who are “unchurching” under our noses.
I do not think we need to visit other churches and hand out forms, as Mary humorously put it. But I think everyone who reads my words today knows dozens if not hundreds of family members and friends who are no longer affiliated with Catholicism, however one defines that. I could go through three lists right now and produce at least five hundred names: my family, my old seminary classmates, and my Facebook friends. In a perfect world—and even in the real world—I would ask them to tell me about their faith journeys.
I will give one example. One of my close friends from my seminary and ordination class is celebrating his birthday today. He beat me to seventy-four by three weeks. He retired recently from his position as a highly respected Episcopal pastor in North Carolina. I would hardly call him unchurched. At the same time, how much richer the Catholic Church would be if we understood the spiritual call that led him to the Episcopal priesthood after he was ordained with me. I would never say to him, “We’re gathering the fallen-away Catholics back to the fold, and we’d like you to join us and reconsider.”
What I would rather say is this: “You began your baptismal and ordination journey in the Roman Catholic tradition, and then you were called to another branch of Christ’s family. Can you share with us something of your journey that might enrich and reform us as we assess our Roman Catholic stance toward God’s mission through Christ?”
Invite as many as you are comfortable with, with the understanding that their experiences are invaluable to us, as we humbly listen. And let God take it from there.
The Synod is Coming! The Synod is Coming! Has Paul Revere ridden through your home, your parish, your diocese yet to ring the bell and gather all the grownups in the town square to spring to action? The Synod on Synods, summarized in that snappy catch phrase, “Synodality,” has captured the fire and imagination of all American Catholics, eager to engage in a billion-wide consultation with the pope and the world’s bishops to form a future vision of the Church under the headings of “Communion, Participation, Mission.” A wave of energy and excitement has engulfed the country! Or not.
First, what is going on? Last year Pope Francis convoked a Synod or worldwide meeting of bishops to discuss the process of how the Church members communicate with each other [communion], work with each other and the world [participation], and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ [mission]. The Synod, scheduled for 2023, will be preceded by the largest consultation process the Church has ever attempted.
Whether this is all news to you, or you are confused about your role to play in this process, really depends on where you live, who you know, and “how plugged in your diocese is” to the happenings in Church World. National Catholic Reporter’s update of December 14, 2021 indicates that across the United States some dioceses are moving ahead energetically, and some are doing nothing. In Orlando, my home diocese, there was evidently a gathering at the Cathedral in November, though I heard nothing about it in my parish and it is not clear from the website who was invited and what, if any, follow-up is planned. [This would describe many of the dioceses I checked.] Some dioceses, such as Savannah, GA, are merging the Synodal process with diocesan discernment and planning programs already in the works locally. Lincoln, NE, is conducting its listening process entirely by email. St. Augustine, FL, has sent postcards to every Catholic on record throughout the diocese.
Because of Covid, among other things, the Vatican’s directives to the world’s bishops for the process of the Synod were late getting to the post office. The official Vatican document outlining the theological principles of the upcoming Synod were not released till September 7, 2021. As anyone involved in Church life and ministry is aware, the diocesan-parish calendars follow the fiscal year, beginning July 1. The introduction of a universal and novel program of such major importance—and there is no precedent for such a focused world-wide consultation--has caught many segments of the Church flatfooted. The September document--which runs to about 8,000 words—is no walk in the park; it conveys the theological underpinnings for the inclusion of the faith life and experiences of all baptized persons and the need to hear their insights in the light of the Holy Spirit. It is the kind of document that needs “digestion” lest the process be seen as simply an opportunity for the laity to get their beefs out in the open.
If you do not have time to read the Vatican Document, you might instead look at the guidelines for group listening sessions posted by the Diocese of Allentown, PA, for use in its parish/regional consultations. [Scroll down to sections 4, 5, and 6.] The Allentown outlines were written for group interaction, but clearly there is an understanding that much personal homework needs to be done before meeting in a group encounter. A few samples will suffice. The Allentown participants are called upon to address these questions in group: [I selected several from the full inventory.]
Describe ways that you learned about being Catholic. (e.g., raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, RCIA/Convert, married a Catholic)
How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community?
Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church?
Why or why not?
How would you describe your relationship with God? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
How can a church community help form people to be more capable of walking together, listening to one another, fulfilling the mission, etc.?
Where do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit? What are we being asked to do?
One of the first things that jumped off the page of these questions was the autobiographical nature of the inquiry. Participants are asked to provide a sketch of their journeys from baptism till the present day, which requires an admission of sorts about the bumps and washouts as well as the high moments. I noticed in the Allentown directives—and, as a mental health professional, I highly commend them for this—an admonition to confidentiality [though even in therapeutic groups, I cannot assure members that everyone will respect this, and I must extend that warning, too.] I might add here that there will be times when church/diocesan employees may be sharing hard truths with their superiors and employers, a situation known as a dual relationship. Would a Catholic woman schoolteacher in a parish school suffer consequences if she admitted that deep in her heart, she longed to be a Catholic priest? I wonder if that circumstance has been planned for—and if people are honest in sharing, it is bound to come up.
Honesty is hard to hear, and any of us who enter serious dialogue with our neighbors in Christ is going to hear feedback that is, at the least, troubling, and disturbing. It would be hard for me to say as I must, in a group of people who love our parish, that my mind and soul are not fed in my present parish of 26 years, that it is a struggle to attend each week, and that I am in my 70’s and still wandering in the desert seeking that saving unity experience that Pope Francis has called us to. I have felt isolated there, sad that what I perceived to be helpful educational/theological gifts I had shared with the diocese for forty years were not deemed useful to the mission of my home parish. When our permanent deacon reached out to me a few months ago to prepare the adult candidates for Confirmation, I was on the verge of tears at having been asked—and it proved to be the most heartwarming parish experience I have enjoyed there.
Of course, truth telling works the other way, too. In 1987 and 1988, after a decade of service pastoring the same parish, I had to embark on a campaign to raise about $2 million—an exceptionally hefty sum then—to build the church that stands there today. This involved a year of dining with individual families soliciting gifts of five and six figures. A pastor is never so vulnerable as he is with hat in hand. And in those long personal discussions, I learned a great deal. Some of my families were carrying crosses—personal and financial—that I had known nothing about in ten years. In other cases, parishioners used the opportunities to freely share their perceptions of my imperfections as a pastor. In some cases, these were misunderstandings, but in most cases, they were right, and when the church building finally opened in 1988, I knew in my heart it was time for me to take a hard look at my spiritual trajectory as a priest and rouse myself into the major discernment of my life’s direction, spiritually and vocationally.
On the question of the voice of the Holy Spirit, that too might raise surprises if we were honest with each other. I have posted over the years on the Café blog that my sixth-grade Confirmation experience was one of my true “downer” moments. Having been taught about the fire and power of the Holy Spirit and how it changed the apostles, I was so disappointed that nothing happened, i.e. I felt exactly the same after the ceremony as before. Something of my faith died then, and I really did not recover a profound sense of the Holy Spirit’s intervention till I entered AA in 1990 and a few months later found an Episcopal psychotherapist whose own religious faith, expertise, and blunt honesty turned my life around to the point where I could start, slowly, building a faith experience on stone, not sand. My guess is that the Spirit truly “blows where it will” to quote Saint John; I would be eager to hear how the Spirit has touched others in a synodal sharing encounter.
Again, looking back at the kinds of questions posed in the Allentown format, it strikes me that the kind of sharing process envisioned here cannot be achieved in an evening. The goal is not to fill paper with suggestions, but to share our life with God, historically and existentially. Consequently, for this Synodal process to work, pastors and deacons will need to coordinate preaching for some weeks to explain the process and, equally important, how this process can be continued after the official timetable of the Synod is complete. It is the pope’s vision that this kind of intensive unity at the grassroots level—let alone the interchange between communities and the bishops of the world in communion with the Bishop of Rome—become the standard way we interact and build the Body of Christ, a counterbalance to an overly authoritarian and clerical style of leadership.
It is true that segments of the Church do not trust Pope Francis nor the Synodal process. One glaring problem with the build-up to the 2023 Synod is that there is nervousness and opposition among many bishops and laity about “opening the floor” to the full membership of the Church to have influential say. Any hint that the Church is a “democracy” suggests to some that the Church is sacrificing its timeless principles to the whims of the age, losing its position as the one rock of security that can still be trusted. Such a fear does overlook the fact that the Church is a living and breathing entity empowered by the Holy Spirit to plan its mission and correct its sinfulness. Pope Francis would say that the Synodal process recognizes the power of Baptism, that a true priesthood of the faithful constitutes the Church, or the Church is nothing.
That said, the exercise of a true baptismal life requires study, prayer, and involvement; armchair criticizing is an abuse of the collaborative process. This is even more reason bishops and pastors must ensure that the resources are available for adult conversion and formation. Allentown’s guidelines make note of this; “How do you think people can grow in their faith? What resources (books, clergy, retreats, services, etc.) are helpful to you?” Most adults, I think, do not know precisely what they need—individually and collectively—to enter continuing faith and theological formation, beginning with Scripture study. I am not always confident that dioceses know how to introduce formative programs for professionals, those with college degrees, motivated initiative-takers, etc. [I began The Catechist Café blog to address this need.]
In the discussion of the synodal process, I have ignored to this point a very troubling fact: only 20-25% of Catholics are actively engaged in parish life to the point of weekly participation in the Eucharist. About 50% are Catholic in name only; the second largest identified group by religious pollsters in the U.S. is former Catholics. In truth, most baptized Catholics have already participated in this synod, albeit unknowingly; they left. In some of the better media and journalistic coverage of the Synod to date, there have been calls to do everything possible to talk to this population to find out why they left. This may be one of the most painful populations to hear, but if nothing else, there is an opportunity for healing at the very least. I would be cautious about using the term “coming home,” however, as some dioceses are advertising their outreach. The “home” is dysfunctional; it is better to invite those who have left to become part of the healing of the dysfunction that drove them away in the first place.
Pope Francis has expressed the concern that the poorest and the most vulnerable of society be invited to participate. Some dioceses are considering inviting clients from their Catholic Charities programs to express their needs to the local churches. In states like mine, Florida, the plight of immigrants [many of whom are Catholic] deserves personal witness. Again, this is a learning process that needs to extend far beyond the initial two-year Synodal process. We are being called to examine what Catholic community life is called to look like; there is an inherent discomfort in this because all of us will have to rethink our Catholic modus vivendi. The Protestant philosopher Brian McLaren puts it well in his The Great Spiritual Migration : “And that’s why we so desperately need this third migration: from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] McLaren is referencing the entire Christian family, not just Roman Catholicism, but the point is well taken for the Catholic household.
So how can you get involved?
The rollout of the diocesan consultations for the Synod is extremely uneven. Ideally, direction should be emanating from your diocese and your parish, but a review of the American landscape indicates that the rollout is uneven, and admittedly may not occur at all in some dioceses. My home diocese of Orlando has the general description of the synodal process on its website, but no concrete program is currently publicized. The “unofficial word” is that the parishes will be responsible for doing the consultations as they see fit.
Many dioceses are conducting “hearing sessions” at a variety of locations. In real life, this is a town hall style meeting. As a pastor, I had exactly two such meetings in twenty years. I am hesitant to endorse this model because the message it conveys is superficiality, the last thing this process deserves.
In an ideal world, a parish would build a series of cluster or small group meetings over an extended period to address the questions from a source such as the Allentown model. The layout and sequence of topics needs to be scheduled and publicized in advance so that participants can pray and reflect upon the questions prior to meeting; as I commented earlier, about every issue on the templates I have seen is profound and autobiographical. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of explanation and support from the pulpit. I do not know whether, in my own diocese, the priests and deacons have received orientations about the Synod and how to address it from the pulpit and other local means.
It may be that the only option open to you officially is an invitation to a town hall or listening meeting. You may wish to attend  to get a whiff of which issues generate the most heat, if not light; and  to see exactly why town hall meetings are ineffective anywhere if you did not know already. But, to take your involvement further in the true spirit of Synodality, there is no law against forming your own cluster to give prayerful and thoughtful consideration to the issues the bishops will be discussing at the 2023 Synod. I would mention to your pastor or someone on the parish staff that you are going to do it; that may generate some energy to rouse others in the parish to “go thou and do likewise.” But your parish cannot tell you it is wrong to gather five of your friends to gather weekly or monthly in a home or a local coffee shop to discuss what the universal Church is undertaking. You can use the Allentown outline or another similar to it.
Can you send your summary of discussions directly to the Vatican? Absolutely. The postage might be a bit—I would send it registered mail—but here is the official address copied from the Vatican directives on the Synod:
General Secretariat for Synod of Bishops
Via della Concilliazone 34
VA-00120 Vatican City
Phone (+39) 06 698 84821 / 84324
I have never owned a dog, but I am told by my friends who have them that at some point the dog starts to own you. I laughingly feel that way about The Catechist Café. The “soft” opening of the Café was September 2014, which coincided with the closing of my private psychotherapy practice. In those early days I had visions of a daily post for catechists and parish ministers as well as motivated Catholic adults while I continued to teach theology to catechists and schoolteachers for my diocese.
A few years ago, I realized that I had run out of about everything I know from 70 years of living and working with the Church. It was time for me to retool as a teacher and writer by expanding my own reading into new areas of theology and Catholic life. It has been and continues to be an exciting change…except that it takes more time to read the books—the new releases and the classics I have missed along the way. So be patient as I digest what is often for me new material so I can pass it along to you in a fashion that makes sense.
Therefore, I am setting the Café goal at about two posts a week, give or take. My hope is to enrich your Catholic experience as members and ministers. I know that most of you don’t have the time to read as much as you’d like, and my hope is to facilitate your access to the best the Catholic world has to offer.
I am going to open an eighth stream on the Café’s home page--Catholic novelists and their books. In the general world of literature, it is amazing how secular critics and readers devour novels by outstanding Catholic authors—from Graham Greene to Flannery O’Connor to Sally Rooney. I am constantly amazed at how secular literary critics return again and again to Catholic literature through the ages. It is amazing to me that with the dozens of acclaimed Catholic fiction writers in our faith family, none ever seem to make their way into a sermon or a faith formation program.
I have been asked by several people how they can subscribe to the Catechist Café for updates if they do not subscribe to Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter, the three current update portals. Fear no more. You can subscribe for a direct email alert and link by simply sending me your email address. You can do this from the mailbox at the bottom of the Café home page.
The Café welcomes suggestions and questions of any kind, as a basis for future posts related to Church life, theology, personal experiences with the Church, etc. Please feel free to drop me a line, anonymously if you wish. I’ll do my best.
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I began this post on Wednesday afternoon [yesterday] sitting in my car under the watchful eye of the medical professionals for my 15-minute crisis observation in case I suddenly started to retch or do whatever a bad immunization makes you do. For just a few moments earlier I received my first injection of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at the Orange County Convention Center, just north of Disneyworld. I am as amazed as anybody that this opportunity to receive the two-dose vaccine came up so quickly and, in my case, so easily. It was/is my best Christmas gift this year.
I know that all of you watch enough news to know that the distribution of the Covid vaccine, in my case Moderna, is becoming a national crisis, both in terms of limited distribution and national debate about who should get the limited supply first. On our Monday evening local news [December 28], we saw our Orange County executives receiving their shots. Privately I did not think I would be able to get vaccinated till March or April, and probably then in my doctor’s office. When I learned that 19,000 doses had been sent this weekend to my county for first line providers and the like, I never considered that the average senior gentry like myself would get anywhere near these precious first shipments. However, there on TV was the announcement that anyone 65 or older whose residence was Orange County could go on-line to register for 3000 available doses offered this week and next.
Margaret and I do not normally win lotteries, but immediately, in the middle of dinner, Margaret and I each logged in on to the Orange County Covid site on our IPads, just as we had been instructed on TV. Naturally, the site was overloaded for both of us, but we each kept hitting the “Next” button—literally about several hundred times--and about an hour or two later our pads lit up like Christmas trees and we obtained reservations—in the same two-hour window, no less. I believe there were eleven openings left. Tuesday morning Orange County texted us with our bar codes for admission and record keeping for the next day’s vaccination.
Naturally, I was surprised this all happened so quickly for us. I had long believed that there would be an elaborate pecking order for vaccine access, from first providers to nursing homes to teachers, etc. [Margaret is, in fact, an adjunct professor at UCF who visits public schools as part of her job, but we did not expect that to open any privilege doors for us.] We are both in the 73-74-year-old range, short of the CDC’s guidance of age 75, and neither of us have unusual health issues or think of ourselves as particularly vulnerable other than what the actuarial tables tell us. We are both proactive about flu shots, pneumonia vaccines, shingle shots, etc. We had no expectations of early opportunity; just hopeful we could be treated before summer to do some long-postponed travel abroad.
So, to what do we owe our unusual good luck? Well, our case is a textbook example of who you know and where you live. By the norms of the Center for Disease Control standards, the age of 75 is currently the cutoff for inoculations for vulnerable populations; my generation is, nationally, in the next lower tier. There is, of course, a national consensus of sorts that front line providers and nursing home residents should move to the front of the line.
However, I live in Florida. Our governor, Ron DeSantis, has been governed by one principle since the virus reached the Sunshine State almost a year ago: his reelection in 2022. Consequently, our protective measures throughout the state have been minimal at best. There are no statewide orders on lockdowns, masks, or public gatherings to speak of. Truth be told, major businesses and Catholic bishops have been more proactive in protecting the public. Governor DeSantis recently addressed residents at Florida’s giant retirement mecca, The Villages, about 30 miles north of my county, promising to make the vaccine available immediately at age 65. This would be fine if the vaccines were rolling out in large numbers of dosages, which is presently not the case. [In fairness, this underwhelming availability of vaccines is a federal failure as much as a state issue.] In Florida there is a political twist here, as residents of The Villages, like many of the 250,000 seniors who live in my county, are “snowbirds,” the folks who spend large portions of the milder months up north with families and grandchildren. There is political capital in freeing them up to travel when the first buds of spring appear. And Orange County is one of the world’s vacation meccas, and there has been great effort to keep the restaurants and bars open [though Disney’s policing of CDC policy is very stringent, I am told by my patients.]
Given the absence of state supervision, each county must fall back on its own resources to establish vaccine protocols, and there is a disturbing inequality in funding, infrastructure, and experience across county lines even here in Central Florida. Orange County’s on-line reservation and delivery system is first rate. [There is an expectation of Disneyesque quality, I guess.] But we have good friends in bordering counties where no on-line registration system exists, and individuals must call county health offices, whose phone lines are jammed and offices severely understaffed. This morning’s Orlando Sentinel describes the statewide problems encountered so far.
The current situation certainly weighed on my mind when I took advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated. There is unfairness in the system, to be sure, and as you might expect, I do try to examine issues from a Catholic moral perspective, and there are indeed moral considerations surrounding both Covid-19 and the medical means of treating and preventing it.
The medical resources available for illnesses and pandemics are uneven even across state and county lines, but this is a small paradigm of the challenges facing world health. Pope Francis has written and preached exhaustively about the rights of all persons on God’s planet to enjoy a modicum of preventive and proactive health care, matters that include clean water, sanitation, nourishment, and access to professional care. Covid-19 is teaching us that an international fraternity of care needs to govern our interactions across the globe.
Closer to home, the medical profession’s “do no harm” principle extends to all public officials in the establishment of public policy. It is becoming clearer that our country’s ability—at all levels of government—to address chronic and unexpected health emergencies is compromised by inadequate funding and an unseeming politicization of the healing process.
Our Catholic catechetics must review its contents and resources to address the morality of self-care and social responsibility. The many breakdowns of Covid-19 preventive personal discipline are rarely addressed as sin, but what other term would you use? The Fifth Commandment, in Catholic tradition, has come to imply an obligation to care for one’s own body and the physical safety of others. The political statement of going mask-less, for example, can hardly be justified in the face of honoring the body as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Catholics are obliged to seek truth in both the religious and the scientific realm. We hold that God is revealed naturally in the wonders of science. Consequently, there is an obligation to respect sound scholarship—and that includes the principles by which we come to understand more about ourselves and our surroundings. To undermine the common good through the seeding of “offbeat theories” which have continually failed the crucible of peer review and scientific method carries moral guilt commensurate to the harm it causes. Anti-vaxxers need to address their stance by a moral light. About fifteen years ago I sought medical help for deafness; a specialist explained to me that there is a strong correlation between mumps and adult deafness. At age 14 I was hospitalized for a severe case of mumps that invaded much of my body. Of course, this was long before the discovery of the mumps vaccine. It is hard for me to comprehend how parents expose their children to such long-term risks today when vaccines are readily available. At the very least, I believe there is a moral imperative to prevent the proliferation of Covid and other contagious diseases.
I am not going to lie and say that I had no thoughts about the consequences of injection of a new drug into my arm. However, I trust sound medicine and the institutions that brought it forth. I understand that Covid-19 is a grave danger to a good number of those infected. I also understand that my inoculation contributes to the common good, and in some way is my contribution to the ministry of Protection of Life. I regret that in my corner of the world there was not a fairer system of distribution in my state and in my country, but I could not see that declining the drug would any way change that equation.
So, it is now early morning, and you might be wondering about side effects. [The CDC advisory on side effects is here.] I woke up at 3 AM with a very sore arm and a case of euphoria [I do not usually blog in the middle of the night] for I consider myself extremely lucky to have had this health intervention so soon, and I look forward to my second dose on January 27. This was a Christmas gift I never expected to get, and I sincerely hope all of you can protect yourselves and your loved ones as soon as possible.
Time for breakfast.
On My Mind