On The Road AgainRead Now
Yesterday I was wide awake before 5 AM, setting the Garmin for directions to my assigned diocesan teaching day, which on this adventure would take me to our western boundary in Lakeland, Florida. Lakeland is actually considerably closer to Tampa than Orlando; it straddles the Hillsborough County line which effectively marks the beginning of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metroplex. So, though only 70 miles from my door, Lakeland seems far away.
I have been doing these professional training programs for my diocese since I moved here in 1978. It is hard, especially on the road, to avoid nostalgia about catechetical outings over four decades; on the trip home yesterday, with Interstate 4 clogged with Daytona 500 fans, I had more time than usual. I have a ritual, of course; get to the hosting parish site no less than 90 minutes ahead of time, and then find a Dunkin' Donuts for a leisurely toasted bagel and a final review of my notes. The route home always begins at Race-Trac, whatever the town, which has surprisingly good coffee and cheap gas.
Yesterday I was assigned our introductory overview course on the sacraments. We are required to provide seven contact hours, which to the students, I'm sure, seems like an eternity. Given the breadth of the subject and its obvious importance, though, seven hours is a pittance, and I hope my diocese soon corrects our present curriculum arrangement. Yesterday I was probably able to deliver four good hours of content, "good" in the sense that we were able to focus on the sacraments themselves, their origins, development, and current discipline.
But yesterday's program was very typical of most of my past experiences: there are many, many masters to serve. Part of my job description is personal connectedness to the diocesan vision, or in English, reminding everybody of current diocesan enterprises and events. This year Orlando is hosting the NCEA Convention April 7-9, the biggest Catholic event this diocese has ever hosted, and there is a religious educators program appended to it. This will be my fourteenth convention, eleventh as a speaker, so I spent some time talking it up. The Catholic school teachers in my class told me that their attendance and volunteering for visitors services was a “command performance.” When I told them about the free food and goodies at the Expo Hall, they seemed to perk up considerably. (An unknown tradition of the Convention: the Target free ice cream event always takes place during my workshop.)
Then there are the questions. I have always encouraged them but that is not always without risk. Some questions are not really questions; they are assertions that sometimes are just dead wrong. Then I am in that no man’s land of maintaining professional accuracy for the students without publicly embarrassing a participant.
Another and more widespread challenge is the innocent question where students ask more than they realize. Yesterday I was talking about a sacramental practice and a student asked, simply, “Who decided that?” This was a gift and a problem; the gift was the opportunity to talk briefly about authority in the Church, how it developed, and how it is exercised today. The problem is the ticking clock. I do my very best to provide my students with internet and hardcopy resources, such as professional and up-to-date books on all of the pertinent areas of theology, usually with email follow-ups. At least the students will have direction to fall back upon after the program.
It is clear to me, too, that a lot of folks in active ministry do not get an opportunity for what I would call professional peer support. In other words, there is no opportunity for them to talk with their colleagues about their working theology and understanding of what they do. Thus a program like yesterday’s is a theological/psychological watering hole, meeting a not-insignificant need. I feel badly that I can’t give them more time on a Saturday for that; but, I do think that some local ministerial directors need to be more on the ball in making this happen in their own parishes. A good example yesterday was the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. The students seemed intense in their pastoral concern and, if I read the room correctly, worry. One actually raised a good point about legal complications for the Church. I hated to cut that discussion short. It is precisely the kind of thing we do need to be talking about.
But here it is Sunday. I’ll open my briefcase and get to my many next-day responsibilities and email follow-ups, but after the Daytona 500. It is good, though, to have these opportunities to go out among the soldiers in the trenches, and I always come back with more energy for catechetics.
A Busy Saturday NightRead Now
Last night’s (Saturday’s) Eucharistic celebration in my home parish marked a number of special concerns and populations. It occurred to me that with the penitential quiet of Lent at our doorstep, there were a lot of matters to be tended to before Wednesday. In checking a number of church bulletins from around the country this AM (see home page) it would seem that this Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time was a bit more “juiced” in many places.
My parish, like many others in the Orlando Diocese and elsewhere, conducted the annual Catholic Charities Campaigns. Last week I reported that my parish’s assessment was around $550,000. It turns out I was wrong; the precise figure is around $650,000, or three-quarters of a million dollars. I must commend our pastor, however, for his unflappable and optimistic demeanor during the “Appeal portion” of our Mass. The presentation was delivered on video by Bishop Noonan, interspersed by many clips of ministry throughout the parishes. The video was not offensive or ham fisted in any way, though I had to chuckle from time to time because nearly all of the charitable ministries captured on tape featured good works presently funded by parishes from their respective operational funds. In addition, whenever it was humanly possible to put a nun in habit in the production, the opportunity was not missed. The habit may not make the monk, but it appears to make the bucks.
I digress here, but National Catholic Register is carrying a story about a major capital campaign, not an annual Catholic Charities appeal, that will probably have every pastor and every bishop in the country studying the Pittsburgh Diocese and its remarkable bishop, David Zubic.
But back to Mass last night. After the campaign appeal about fifteen persons of all ages were received into the Catholic Church and confirmed. All of these candidates were baptized in another Christian tradition. This was a new experience for me, as during my years as pastor we had included all of these folks in the Easter Vigil rites along with the unbaptized, though the rite marked a clear difference between the two groups. I definitely needed to research this. The USCCB site makes clear that the initiation of the previously baptized must maintain a separate identity from that of the unbaptized. Catholic Law recognizes the sacramental nature of baptism in any Christian Church that uses the Trinitarian formula (that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) This certainly makes sense, but I wondered if there were was a unified national policy about when to receive the previously baptized. The USCCB was unclear; dioceses that discussed this issue on websites (and not very many did) expressed a preference for a Sunday reception rite not associated with the Easter Vigil. My guess is that the decision rests with the local bishop. However, those of you in ministry may want to check your local practice and if you have time, let me know what you find out by posting or email.
The occasion of the Easter Vigil and the Church initiations such as last night’s in my church always raises for me thoughts about the experiences of each candidate: what led them to our communion? While volumes could be written here, last night’s rites at least suggested that the conversion process is motivated by the local church as much as the universal one. The constant welcome of congenial pastors and associates, the enthusiasm of present members, family influence, spousal influence, the community’s good works, a healthy Catholic school where they exist—I believe these buttress the mysterious inner call to conversion and change.
The Catechism, in its opening chapters, makes the case that man can come to some kind of natural knowledge of God exclusive or prior to formal initiation; this assertion has been a staple of Catholic philosophy and theology since the earliest days. But the Church was born to put flesh and bones on these indescribable hungers of the human heart. This creates an added impetus for those of us, the baptized, to do all things well—in the church context, in the home, and in the public arena. Yes, we provide answers, but first and foremost we provide templates of Christian living. Perhaps this is a thought to take into Lent: how our personalities lead others to approach the saving waters of the Easter Vigil.
Catholic Charities DrivesRead Now
A funny thing happened to me last night when I went to Mass. There was no Catholic Charities Appeal. It turns out I misread my calendar, and the Appeal is next week. I carry a certain ambiguity about the annual campaign that probably dates back to my first one as pastor in the 1970’s. A few recollections from someone who conducted fifteen Catholic Charity drives in the role of pastor may explain my dyspepsia.
In the first instance, when your individual parish announces its financial “goal” for the annual campaign, this number is not a spontaneous inspiration. It is calculated by a secret formula that no pastor, to my knowledge, has even been able to crack. Since the goals are public knowledge (I always knew what my neighboring parishes were expected to give) we pastors used to sit around at social gatherings and attempt to crack the code. Looking back, I doubt that even Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory” could crack the code. Needless to say, complaints among pastors about their goals being set too high were rife; again, relying on memory, I think there was an appeal process, but I can’t recall an avalanche of successes.
The campaign was awash (and still is) in euphemists. The “goal” is not an idealistic plateau; it is in actually an assessment, or to be more blunt, a “tax.” A parish that does not meet its goal in a fiscal year is billed for the balance from the parish’s general operational funds. My first goal back in 1978 was $8000. My present home parish is assessed around $550,000 this year. Another euphemism, and one that is much more troubling to me, is the use of the word “charity.” In popular language I think it is fair to say that “charity” is defined as direct services: feeding the hungry, providing tuition assistance, caring for the sick, etc. There are watchdog organizations such as Charity Navigator that monitor the ratio of dollars raised to direct services; about twenty Catholic Dioceses are listed in the Charity Navigator database; these dioceses were not rated poorly. This is a very useful site, by the way, for all of your charitable giving beyond the church as well. (One troubling point: in looking at the sites for three dioceses today on Charity Navigator, all three were running at deficits per IRS reporting.)
It is my impression over the years that while most dioceses advertise as hands on charities in brochures and videos, most of the moneys are actually targeted toward diocesan or chancery administration. A good case in point is Catholic schools: while children in plaid Catholic school uniforms grace the visual promotions, my own diocese does not in fact have a tuition assistance program for low income children. This need is addressed by a parish’s offertory income when possible, and in a few cases, by endowments established by visionary pastors. “Funding of Catholic school children” is in reality funding of the Office of Schools. There is nothing inherently dishonest or fraudulent here; Catholic schools are accredited by the State of Florida and are bound to strict regulatory record keeping. Obviously, this cannot be overseen by volunteers. But I do not see a clear and adequate explanation in fundraising mechanics.
One of Charity Navigator’s measures of an institution is transparency or disclosure: donors have a right, within reason, to know how their moneys are spent, as well as the general health of an institution. Some years ago a national consulting firm advised me that as pastor I should advertise the actual cost of educating a student in my school, which was considerably larger than the announced tuition. Much to my surprise, a number of parents offered to pay the entire amount, and others in the parish came forward to adopt a child’s tuition. Although it went against my personal fears, I gradually learned to have more trust in the wisdom and good will of active Catholics.
Trusting the Catholics of any diocese with a clear picture of the Diocesan financial structure would go a long way in restoring a positive attitude toward this annual event. My diocese used to call its drive the Bishop’s Annual Service Enrichment campaign, or BASE. For some reason this strikes me as more forthcoming. That said, sometime this week this household will go on line to participate. I will be honest that Catholic Charities is not my highest priority goal; the religious order that paid for my college and graduate schooling has a much greater claim on my charity as its geriatric costs climb. But, while our priorities may differ; our obligation is universal.
Something Is Wrong HereRead Now
I am going to assume the best of intentions on the part of Father Joseph Illo, pastor of Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, but in the past week he and his parish have come under increased scrutiny from the national print and blog media over his decision to discontinue allowing young women to serve at Mass. This is one of those visceral issues for a lot of people. Again, I strive to be fair and balanced: the pastor is enthusiastic in his efforts to recruit more young men to the priesthood. My concern is his method and his methodology.
If you are not familiar with this situation, I attempted to find a comprehensive Catholic news source for you. National Catholic Register, the popular conservative weekly paper, has no mention of the story. Catholic News Service, the 24-hour communication site for the US Conference of Bishops, has no mention. The independent National Catholic Reporter covered the story at a bit of a distance here in this NCR byline. The best source in terms of “feet on the ground” comes from the diocesan Catholic San Francisco coverage. Father Illo's Statement is contained in the Star of the Sea’s parish website.
If you have a minute, take a look at the pastor’s explanation, because it does embody currents of thought that are very common in strongly conservative blog sites, publications, and in particular in the utterances of Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Pope Francis recently demoted. My concerns run along these lines. First, Father Illo states that this policy change is the decision of the two priests. There is no mention of consultation with parish bodies such as a parish council, liturgy committee, or formation personnel. Second, he has been pastor of Star of the Sea for only several months; common courtesy would suggest more of a breaking in period for a pastor to know and gain credibility with his new community. Third, his appeal to a 1900 year tradition of male serving is a gross simplification, as any brief web search will reveal. (Always publicly document your sources!)
Then what are we to make of his assertion that altar boys “lose interest” because altar girls generally do a better job? Here is an example of taking a personal impression and rendering it into policy. (Never make policy without adequate consultation!) My own parish, by contrast, has altar boys and girls, and we have three men in the seminary as of this writing.
In his fourth paragraph Father Illo argues the point that serving at the altar is the logical jumping off point for entrance into seminary training, and thus it makes little sense for young women to get involved in a career track with no future, so to speak. Again, Father Illo is speaking from his own impressions. He may be advocating return to a day when young boys like me were shuttled off to minor seminaries at 14, in part to keep us safe from feminine charms. He does not seem current with the recent literature on seminarians such as The Inner Life of Priests by researchers McGlone and Sperry, among other professional and magisterial writing, which indicate that young men approach seminaries at a variety of ages and psych/sexual development.
His fifth paragraph is disturbing, suggesting that those who have difficulty with his policy have been seduced by dangerous secular trends. Presumably he is including St. John Paul II as one of those seduced; it was John Paul who approved the ministry of altar service for young women in the first place. While he notes that two dioceses in the U.S. do not permit altar girls, he does not pause to consider that the other 198 (including his own) see wisdom in the practice. (In ministry, stay on the reservation!) His use of the term “plumbing arrangements” in discussing sexual identity is simply crude and has no place in an official church statement of any kind.
I did not enjoy writing this entry today; every other day has been a delight. But as catechists and servants of the Church we are always looking for ways to improve our ministerial work ethic; sometimes the best lessons come from actual life situations. Again, I emphasize that Father Illo has not broken the letter of any law; he enjoys the permission of his local bishop. I assume that he is deeply dedicated to his positions for the best of reasons, the growth of the priesthood. It is his pastoral style that, I fear, has generated more heat than life. A wise woman could have told him that.
On a happier note: my head says “Seahawks” but my heart says “Patriots.” (I’m from Buffalo; we AFC East folks stick together.)
On My Mind