Last night we celebrated First Communion in my parish. Rather than go into my song and dance about sacramental sequence and confusion of signs, I will simply report that the ceremony was warm, our pastor did not infantilize the Mass (as some are wont to do on First Communion Day), I met old friends with grandchildren making first communion, and the parish served cookies after Mass. I betrayed my theological reservations for a fistful of chocolate chip cookies. It has come to this.
The photographs of the little candidates were taken before the Mass in the sanctuary, but I was still able to undertake my personal preparation for the Eucharist by reading, as I customarily do, the second of the two readings from the day’s Office of Readings. The Office of Readings, one of the “hours” in the Liturgy of the Hours, consists of three psalms and two lengthy texts. The first text is drawn from the Hebrew or Christian Scripture. The second reading, however, is taken from the rich treasury of sermons and writings of saints and doctors of the Church. Privately I think of this text as “the official sermon of the day.” For April 26 the second text is a sermon on the Good Shepherd by one of the Church’s great shepherds himself, Pope Gregory I, who in fact is known as St. Gregory the Great.
In his sermon on the Good Shepherd we get a glimpse of a very worthy imitator. While 95% of sermons preached around the world in churches today will probably address the dangers of sheep herding at the time of Jesus, the office of Bishop of Rome was a nightmare in the late 500’s A.D. In talking about today’s Gospel, Gregory passes immediately to his own personal ordeals: “My dear brethren, you have heard the test we pastors have to undergo.” Gregory turns the sheep image on its head: “Ask yourself whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds.” Gregory, it would seem, is counting heads to see who would stand with him in time of trial.
Gregory grew up in what would have been a noble Roman family a few centuries before, but the sixth century was not kind to Rome. The seat of the empire had long since moved to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and the Italian peninsula was ravaged by invaders from several directions. In one episode the city of Rome was actually depopulated. Gregory, in spite of this, received a significant private education, but he was also attracted to one of the few institutions thriving in his day, monasteries.
Not surprisingly Gregory would ultimately become a highly respected abbot, and would have preferred to continue this life uninterrupted. However, in an age where gifted souls were few, he was asked to serve as diplomat for Church and civil matters to Constantinople. A sign of the times: Gregory received this appointment though he neither spoke nor read Greek, the language of the Eastern Church and Empire. He served somehow for seven years but returned home to retire to his monastery. However, he was acclaimed pope in 590 for what would be a fourteen year tenure as Bishop of Rome.
To understand his challenges, remember that what we would call today “infrastructure” was in serious decay in Gregory’s time. The office of the papacy, for all practical purposes, was a civil as well as an ecclesiastical position, as it was one of few centralized institutions functioning with any sense of vision and organization. Gregory would complain to his sister that he had to conduct more business as bishop than was ever required of him as a layman. To another retired bishop he would write, perhaps enviously: “I am being smashed by so many waves of affairs and afflicted by the storms of a life of tumults, so that I may rightly say, ‘I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me.’ (Psalm 69:2). And so, you who stand on the shore of virtues, stretch out the hand of your prayer to me in my danger.”
What were his turmoils? Gregory found the Roman Church to be somewhat doctrinally disorganized; the Roman Latin west was still making sense of the Christological teachings of the Greek councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and a variety of “local heresies” existed throughout the Italian peninsula. As Gregory did not read Greek, he manfully did his best to defend and clarify the statements of the Nicene Creed. His greater strength, however, appeared to be his ability to draw from his monastic roots in his enrichment of the pastoral life in biblical commentaries and sermons. He reformed the order of Mass and placed the Our Father in its present day location before the breaking of the bread and holy communion.
He was one of the first popes to understand the vision of a unified Church in the modern sense, and despite troubles at home, he never lost sight of the critical need for missionary work. He dispatched missionaries to faraway England; legend has it that he encountered an English slave in Rome and told him: “You are an Angle, but I will make you an angel.” History has generally looked to Gregory as the inspiration of the universal ministry of the Bishop of Rome, though it would be some centuries before a successor would achieve his power and esteem.
This entry is actually the second half of Saturday’s (April 18) post regarding a reader’s question on how to judge on-line Catholic courses, particularly those that charge funds and offer certification. We looked at the danger clues to catch on such websites. Today we look for indicators of on-line teaching where a reasonable confidence of orthodoxy, professional excellence, and worthwhile record of achievement are a reasonable expectation.
Before I get too far here, I would like to introduce what may seem like a left-field idea: eschewing on line programs in favor of actual on-site college studies for college credit. Many of you may live in large metropolitan areas where there are many Catholic colleges. Boston certainly comes to mind, and were I living in Bean Town I would probably make it my business to take night school courses in theology and religious education at Boston College even now, at age 67, to fill the considerable gaps in my own theological knowledge. If possible, take the courses for credit, not audit, meaning you would be accumulating hours toward a real (accredited) college degree. There are other considerations about attending college, of course, having to do with your career plans and finances, among other things, and I will discuss these on Wednesday, “Professional Development Day.”
How do you know if a college is a reliable source of teaching in the Catholic Tradition? The United States Conference of Bishops has anticipated us, and provides an exhaustive but convenient list of all Catholic Colleges around the country. You will notice that the list includes seminaries as well. A few seminaries do not admit laymen as a principal, but many by contrast do open their downs to laypersons and religious seeking degrees in theology and Church ministry, and in fact depend upon the income of broader admission policies. A good example for those around Buffalo is suburban Christ the King Seminary, which actually conducts a degree track for theology and pastoral ministry.
But suppose college attendance is out of the question, for the moment, anyway. Can you go to college for a degree on-line? Yes, it is possible, but not every college offers on-line degree programs. I checked with college recruiters at the NCEA Convention. Notre Dame and San Francisco do not. You might be saying, “But I see ads on TV for degrees all the time for on-line degrees and certifications in just about everything.” True, but read the small print: “our credits are not transferrable” which indicates that the regional accrediting bodies of colleges—I discussed those yesterday—have significant difficulties with exclusively on-line learning, and the “degree” has much less clout when you apply for jobs.
Possibly the most common form of on-line learning comes in the form of certificate programs, which was the root of my student’s original question. In truth, anybody can start and maintain one, though rarely have I seen the level of fees anywhere near the site that was submitted to me. So how do you know if your selection of an on-line study program is a good decision?
First, your bishop and diocese may already endorse one. At the Diocese of Orlando website, a seeker will be directed to a link to the Virtual Learning Center for Faith Formation of the University of Dayton. This is a triple guarantee of legitimacy: The University of Dayton includes one of the finest theological faculties in the country, it is accredited and listed by the USCCB, and it has the blessing of the chief catechist of the Orlando Diocese, Bishop John Noonan.
Second, is the study website connected in any way to an existing, approved institution of the Church? For example, is there a corporate link to a mother organization (which is usually labeled on the front webpage as “about us” or some variant)? This might be a diocese, a legitimate Catholic school, parish or university, an approved publisher, or a religious order or Church-approved organization. The USCCB contains a list of all approved publishers who market faith formation printed material, but I was told by publishing reps that it is physically impossible for the USCCB—or just about anyone—to evaluate the proliferation of on-line teaching sites claiming to be Catholic.
Third, how does the instructor identify himself/herself? In the site we discussed yesterday, the webmaster claimed to hold a Ph.D. and self-identified as “doctor,” but there was no mention of the school that awarded the “degree.” Have you ever gone to a doctor who hid his credentials? Hopefully not more than once.
Is the curriculum of the courses available for your review? Good educational sites will lay out the curriculum, as in Dayton’s introductory sketch. You should see exposure to a sequential and organized course of study. In truth, ministry training outlines should look something like seminary course outlines as the minister or catechist will be undertaking parish work with an ordained graduate of a seminary, and “should speak the same language” so to say.
Do the usual internet safety standards appear evident? In the site I looked at yesterday, I could get no meaningful information without giving my credit card number, which of course I would not.
And finally, I would add three more things in your selection process: (1) Will this program enrich my intellectual and spiritual life, along with my passion for learning? (2) Will this course of study enrich the people I serve, and (3) will the degree or certification you earn by completing the program most enhance your future earning power and progress if you are considering expanding your ministerial career? A good site will, at the least, give you some indications of how to answer those questions.
Thanks to the gods of bad scheduling, I found myself on the road yesterday (Saturday), though a relatively short commute to my own diocesan cathedral, where I presented a day-long educational program to teachers, catechists, and parish ministers of the Orlando Diocese on the subject of the Eucharist. As it turned out, the registration was exceptionally high and the vast majority of the registrants were Catholic school teachers. These folks, like me, had spent the week at the National Catholic Educators Association Convention this week in Orlando, both as participants and as workers. The burden of work falls to the host diocese by tradition. Thus, I expected a group of tired professionals, perhaps regretting the loss of a beautiful 85-degree sunny Saturday. I was in no great shape, and when my alarm went off, I covered my head with the pillow. This is going to be a tough day, I told myself.
Was I ever wrong. This group proved to be one of the most intensely interested and congenial classes I have had in a long time. I suspect that the topic, the celebration of the Eucharist, had something to do with it. Everyone present has experience of the Eucharist and brought many insightful questions and observations. Those of you who teach or present regularly are no doubt aware of the “synergy phenomenon,” that is, the more responsive the class, the more juiced (or in my case, caffeinated) the instructor becomes.
It was my distinct impression that the participants yesterday have absorbed at some level the affective side of the New Evangelization. In their questions and observations (and especially in their written evaluations) they know that their own personae as religious leaders rest upon both professional competence and internal renewal of their own faith lives. Many of them wrote that they were intrigued to hear the Eucharist explained in the context of both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, as well as in the context of the Church’s history.
There was very strong conversation in class (and pre-class emails) about Real Presence. Many commented on what I would refer to as the “body language of reception,” that many who approach the Eucharist to receive the sacred species do so at the least with a casual style, and some literally bolt the building after they receive. I have to agree with them that this is a general problem for the Church, (that Catholics do not understand Real Presence) and it probably reflects among other things some significant deficiencies in religious formation.
Much of our discussion focused upon preparation for Mass during the week, and a reading of the Sunday’s Scriptures days before the actual celebration of the weekend Eucharist. We focused on three points: (1) the need for daily consciousness of the liturgical calendar; (2) active study of the Gospel of the year’s Cycle—I recommended that participants study a commentary on the Gospel of Luke during the summer and fall this year, since Luke is the Gospel of the C Cycle, which begins late next November, and (3) the use of a commentary or app designed specifically to prepare participants for the readings of the upcoming Sunday.
I heard a number of heartwarming things from the folks yesterday. A father shared his experience of using the Laudate app in the car with his children while driving them to school, listening or reading about the Saint of the day, the day’s Scriptures, and prayers. Good man, good father. Another asked me privately if the reading of the Church Fathers in the Office of Readings (in the Liturgy of the Hours) was advisable for the laity. (I replied emphatically “yes” at the top of my lungs.) Several asked about professional development, as in obtaining masters degrees in religious education, for example. Many had questions about books for follow-up study. Aside from the 2014 edition of Doors to the Sacred by Joseph Martos, probably the best discussion of sacramental history in the English language, I had a woefully poor bibliography prepared for this class, and I regret that.
Naturally, many tangential issues come up in a course of this nature. The matter of small groups/bible studies received some attention, possibly in connection with preparedness for Mass. We discussed how the focus of bible study is the text, not my personal spin or affective reaction of the moment. The danger in some study groups is the tendency toward egocentricity, or what the Word of God has done for me lately. I introduced the Benedictine concept of “obedience to the text.”
It also seems that some local parishes or communities are developing their own pious accretions to the liturgy. I was told of one community where the congregation evidently proclaims, “My Lord and My God” when the consecrated bread or cup is elevated. Of course, there is no such directive in the official Roman Missal; the Eucharistic acclamation is the Church’s official response to the consecration. All the same, this unlegislated act is a sign of Eucharistic faith. There are some questions that are very hard to answer, and I will admit to punting on a few occasions.
When I finally retired last night, though, I had to admit that I never expected to feel as rejuvenated that Saturday night as I was (and still am). If we have Catholic lay ministers of such good hearts in vineyards, there is hope of a good harvest yet.
I wish all of you a Happy Easter. After celebrating the Easter Vigil in my home parish last night, this morning my wife and I are preparing for our annual Easter brunch at Mission Inn in nearby Lake County. Another Easter tradition of ours is packing for the National Catholic Educators Association annual convention. This year, by good fortune, Orlando is hosting, so we can leisurely drive over tomorrow morning instead of flying to sites like Anaheim, Houston, or Minneapolis. We have sent more than one Easter in airports!
I will be presenting on Thursday morning, a program called "Goldmine: Teaching the Resurrection Narratives." For my Easter Sunday post here at the Café, I have copied my presentation outline to today's post. Please feel free to use material as you see fit.
I will do my best to stay in touch this week. the blog platform does not allow posts from mobile devices just yet, but I hope to find an Apple representative on the exhibitors floor who might have some ideas. If by chance you are attending the convention, look me up and I'll buy you a cup of coffee (and maybe interview you for a future post.)
I know many of you worked at your churches for the Triduum. May you get your well-deserved rest this week. I will bring you all souvenirs from the Convention!
Again, my best wishes for the Easter Season.
On My Mind