When I began to take the idea of a Church-related blog seriously, I realized that I would need good news services to keep up on the nuts-and-bolts of grassroots issues of Catholic life in the United States. As a National Catholic Reporter and America subscriber, I was already getting daily updates, particularly from NCR. But more sites were brought to my attention: National Catholic Register (long the “yang” to NCR’s “ying”) is producing insightful news and analysis on an almost daily basis. An in-depth Register report yesterday on seminary formation and sexual aberration was one of the finest concise psychological treatments of the subject I have ever seen. I am embarrassed to say that I have only recently become acquainted with the erudite conservative publication First Things, which has the temerity to regularly gore my liberal oxen nearly daily with a quality of writing and thought rarely seen on the internet.
Some random thoughts here: you may notice that I have said nothing about diocesan newspapers. Some dioceses have in fact discontinued printing a paper in favor of on-line or other formats. Those that do publish weekly generally wish to highlight good news about local happenings: the Chrism Mass, ordinations, dedications, etc. that occur in their own dioceses. In the publishing trade such papers used to be called “house organs.” Dissatisfaction with the somewhat bland news and editorials of diocesan papers is not a new reality. In the 1950’s my relatives complained that Buffalo’s Union and Echo (now there’s a name) was nothing but “bridal pictures and recipes.”
Moreover, diocesan papers are carefully monitored for content by bishops or surrogates; this is to be expected, as the diocesan paper is an extension of the bishop’s official teaching authority. All the same, rarely does one see a “bad news story” unless it is absolutely unavoidable, as when the explosion of child abuse incidents came to light in 2002. My own diocese, for example, now in the middle of its annual Catholic Charities campaign, would be loathe to pick up yesterday’s investigative story from National Catholic Reporter regarding national patterns of diocesan financial mismanagement.
National publications such as the ones I mentioned above are independent to varying degrees. All of them are Catholic, and all will claim editorial fealty to the true Church. How this editorial loyalty is interpreted is precisely what makes each publication different. National Catholic Register is now owned by EWTN, itself controlled by a lay board of Catholic trustees. Editorially the EWTN Corporation has identified itself as a semi-official defender of Catholic truth, though critics have noted its preference for the pre-Vatican II norms and customs.
At the other end of the spectrum is National Catholic Reporter, which recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday. NCR began as a Kansas City diocesan paper until its bishop became uncomfortable with its progressive editorial stances on Vatican II implementation. NCR is lay owned and controlled; it has seen its mission as reform of Church and Society and would fairly be called left-of-center. And yet it may be the most investigative conscience of the Catholic publishing world with a number of boots on the ground.
Someone in my class asked me last Saturday if America Magazine was “liberal.” I think it is more accurate to say that America strives for the middle road. It is owned and published by the Jesuit Order. At times its articles take readers to mildly controversial areas, but the publication has always offered free space for an American bishop to write a rebuttal, and bishops do submit articles for publication from time to time. America is written more for the college educated publication and does assume a rather big picture stance on the part of its readers.
There has long been a segment of American journalism that has emphasized the promulgation of traditional Christian thinking along the lines of Cardinal Newman’s return to venerable Church sources in the nineteenth century. First Things, surprisingly, is interdenominational. It was several weeks before I realized this; its mission at its website describes First Things as “published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” It is an amazingly prolific source, posting several essays on Christian life and American culture every few days. It is easily the most thoughtful of the sites I have included.
Two points of professional development for catechists and church ministers here. First, to maintain a healthy level of professionalism, it is important to go beyond your diocesan boundaries and maintain connection with national Catholic news and thought. This would include your regular news sourcing, of course, but also attendance at regional or national conventions and workshops, on-line study from Catholic universities such as the University of Dayton’s program for catechists, journals, and other forums.
Second, the growth of the Church will flourish once we untangle ourselves from our own version of red state/blue state division. Become conversant with the best of conservative and liberal Catholic theology. Both are indispensible. Liberal thought saves us from atrophy. Conservative thought keeps us grounded in our tradition. We are a Church of Cardinal Newman and Dorothy Day, John Paul II and Francis I, and we are the richer for that.
It has always made sense to me that if parish catechists are now doing the work recently entrusted to priests and professional religious, lay catechists and parish ministers should receive a training that resembles in quality and curriculum what the clergy and religious received for doing essentially the same work. The catechists deserve it, and certainly the Church itself deserves this. The few times I have brought this up, either to catechists themselves in class or at diocesan meetings of colleagues, I have been reduced to the status of a tiny lion in a roomful of angry Daniels. But if Catholic faith formation does not take on the discipline of other professions, we are looking down the road toward a soul-less fundamentalism or maybe worse, a frivolous Catholic chic such as this Ash Wednesday specimen from the USCCB of all places.
A major problem, of course, is that catechists as a rule get their initial and ongoing theological formation “on the job.” Excepting those who majored in Catholic religious studies in a Catholic college, Catholic school teachers, for example, are exactly that, full time professional teachers in multiple disciples. The demands of that profession are well documented in the private and public sector. To achieve a minimal professional competence in religious education and Catholic mission, dioceses create training programs such as the one I have been teaching since 1978. Given that catechists are generally all professional people with demanding lives, the pressure to keep these courses short and unobtrusive is heavy. It is possible to become a diocesan certified catechist in my region with seven hours of training in the entire Old Testament, or New Testament, or Morality. We presently have no follow-up for long term catechists or an updated bibliography.
Compare this with a description of a priest’s training from Commonweal Magazine in an excellent essay on current trends in American seminaries. One point of particular note: a seminarian needs two years of philosophy (or a degree, as my program called for) before undertaking the religious content of training, generally a masters level in academic or pastoral theology.
This requirement for philosophy background would be a near impossible sell in the present catechetical environment. And yet, there is a good reason the Church insists upon it for future priests, and I believe that we might find here a key for adult faith formation. This was brought home to me this week when I opened my birthday present early, Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015). His opening chapter, “Pivotal Moments in Early Christianity,” is one of the finest arguments for the study of philosophy as a prerogative for adult faith formation. He observes that one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the study of Christian history is our understanding of doctrinal development.
The nature of what we call today “Christianity” was not clearly evident to the first generations after the apostles. Such issues as the nature of God, Creation, evil, salvation, etc. were in play among Christian and pagan philosophers alike. Madigan argues that the Christian Church needed an embattled environment of thought to clarify its own understanding of Christian truth. He briefly but accurately describes the philosophies against which Christianity came to identify itself: (1) Gnosticism, which held that matter (including the body) was evil and that salvation consisted in the release of inner divine knowledge back to its divine origin. (2) Marcionism, which held the concept of a creator God as perverse on the grounds that this kind of God created evil; its founder Marcion denied any “Jewish portion” of the Bible—including the entire Hebrew Scripture—as false, which led the mainstream Christian community to define the Bible as we know it today; (3) Montanism, which held that Revelation was available directly to individuals; and (4) Docetism, a form of Gnosticism which held that Jesus, if he were truly a savior, could not have been human; the Jesus of the Gospels was a vision. Hence “Docetism” from the Greek, “to see” or “to show.”
None of these movements self-identified as enemies of Christian faith. In general, their adherents were thinkers and philosophers of their time, attempting to solve the critical life issues just as the Church’s bishops--Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and the other great second century Catholic saint/philosophers—were doing for the mainstream community. In truth, Christian apologists borrowed just as heavily from contemporary thinking. The author of St. John’s Gospel did not invent the concept of “logos” or “word” as an embodiment of eternal wisdom.
I return again to the question of contemporary adult catechesis and professional training. A catechist must know the burning questions of the times—the highly convoluted matters of Islam and ISIS comes immediately to mind—and bring to the fore two ingrained skills: (1) how to genuinely hear the questions of contemporary believers and inquirers, and (2) how to draw from the rich wisdom of the Church in bringing order to chaos for those same inquirers. This is catechesis. It is not about selfies.
How does a “group” work? It was 1984, early in my mental health studies, when Professor McCarthy went on a rant in class about the loose application of the term “group” in the mental health field. “Twenty college kids jam themselves in a phone booth and they call it group,” he would shout. There are such things as therapeutic groups: self-help groups such as AA have helped millions, but the group meeting is very closely tethered to the “Big Book” of AA principles. In the 1960’s and beyond the focus of group work was the new emphasis on marriage and family counseling, families being the ultimate group. Today there are a multitude of self-help groups: grief groups, victims groups, you name it. The critical factor is the professional structure and leadership of a goal. I was invited a few years ago in my capacity as a mental health counselor to simply maintain a presence at a Project Rachel retreat conducted by my diocese in case of traumatic or emotional breakdown. I might add here that the leaders were quite well trained and the three-day group structure was balanced and purposeful.
I see a lot of “groups” in diocesan and parish life. I commend the efforts of the founders, whose motivations seem targeted toward more bonding among members of parish, or spiritual growth, or education, or the addressing of a particular need. (Hats off, by the way, to parishes who invite outside groups like AA or CHADD to use parish facilities.) My pastoral and psychological concerns run more along the lines of purpose, training, effectiveness, and legal understanding.
The purpose of a group needs concrete statement. Making our big parish feel more like a home is at least a start, and it is a good intention, but can it be more focused? Given that the underlying goal involves community, here might be a place to start. Meaningful personal communities of active, affective connectedness lose intimacy at some point, perhaps 10 or 12. You may think of your parish as a spiritual, interactive, territorial community; an anthropologist or sociologist would be much more conservative about that kind of claim. I recently signed up for one such group, and discovered that no one else in my group attended the same Mass that I do. Given that parishes contain substrata of multiple communities, among them the various Mass time congregations, would it help to work a small group system where people of the same Eucharistic celebration gathered in common from time to time? There are many other possibilities, of course.
The training of group leaders is probably one of the most overlooked and neglected aspects of religious ministering formation. Yes, I have seen the how-to manuals of church group leadership for multitudes of various programs, dating back to CFM (my parents were members in the 1960’s) to RENEW (which my home diocese adopted in the 1980’s). My impression was and is that the success and longevity (not to mention the retention rates) of any group depends not just upon written direction, but on “seat skill.” As a leader, how do you engage, stay on focus, assist the members in helping one another, keep an eye open for a member in stress, etc.?
I take a dim view of the assumptions underlying proliferation of “study groups,” and particularly those involving Scripture. Tell me if this isn’t the common template: the group reads a passage, there is a period of silence, and then each member is asked to share his or her reaction or “feelings” about the passage. At best, you will leave with your neighbor’s well intentioned but limited impressions; at worst, you may actually hear something inimical to the faith—fundamentalist interpretations condemning peoples or other religious faiths.
I have been involved in two kinds of successful group learning experiences: college comprehensive exam preparation, where each member is responsible for a thorough review of one aspect of the discipline; and second, graduate school, where students read at least a book a week and meet for two hours with the professor to describe the key points of each book to classmates. The key component is preparation. In parish bible study, for example, while the Bible is the center of attention, it is hard for me to imagine a discussion of any book of the Bible without each member progressing through an adult-level commentary that provides an overview of the entire book, such as our Year B Gospel of St. Mark.
And finally, there are some legal considerations, believe it or not. A group leader or group literature cannot guarantee confidentiality. “Everything you say here is confidential.” We have no control of that. We urge people to practice confidentiality, but we have no idea if they will or not. Medical professionals must warn group patients of this fact as part of an informed choice.
“Group” is a word we take for granted in our church work. Perhaps it is time to revisit what it means.
One of my cousins checked in with me the other day to wish me luck on the Catechist Café project. I wrote back and responded: “My goal is not to publish all the news that’s fit to print; rather my goal is to post anything I have on paper by 1 PM.” So here we are at 7 PM and the webmaster tells me that a number of you have already checked in, only to be disappointed. Very sorry about that, but on we go, better late than never (though you will be the judge of that.)
This being professional development day, I did want to discuss a working issue that greatly impacts the quality of your ministry—how much time in your work day should you allot to the folks you encounter in your parish? A quick case in point: on my second or third day on the job as a new pastor, I received a phone call at precisely 3 PM. And when I say precise, as I came to learn, we’re talking atomic quartz/Greenwich accuracy. It seemed that my predecessor received a call from this gentleman daily at 3 PM; the caller would apparently pour himself a tall glass of undiluted whisky (I could hear the ice) and talk the ear off the pastor until his 22 oz. of Jack Daniels had been consumed or the ice finally melted. After about three days of this I told my staff that henceforth at 3 PM the caller should be told that the pastor would be tied up in the counseling parlor. My new staff, still sizing me up, was quick to tell me that the gentleman “meant no harm” and that a priest, of all people, should have patience with God’s children.
I replied that there might be different standards here for God’s children blowing an .18 BAC, and the loving approach here might be less indulgence and more 12-step. My point in the matter was multilayered: talking to an impaired person is an exercise in futility; if the caller genuinely wanted to listen for advice, he might have taken me seriously about AA. But the third point is today’s advice: the more time I take in humoring an indulgent individual, the more I am denying to my parish mission.
Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament illustrates that the Kingdom of God is a purpose-driven mission. Everyone-from Jesus himself to the widow with her mite-has work to do, tasks with urgency and focus. It is a little disconcerting to read Mark 7:24-30, where Jesus declines to work a saving miracle for a Gentile supplicant (for her child, no less) because he has been sent to save the lost sheep of Israel. Or, for that matter, the Twelve’s classic “we don’t do windows” (Acts 6:2ff) assertion in the face of their call to preach the Good News.
Parishes and their ministers—cleric and lay—are, by nature of their Gospel call, focused. In the exercise of our responsibilities as catechists, for example, we strive to be the soul of patience and friendliness to those who have legitimate pastoral need: integrating new families into your programs, assisting parents in home catechesis, home visits when pastorally advisable, counseling families through sacraments of initiation, etc. However, in every place I have ever worked, the ministry has had its share of hangers-on, for want of a better word. What they seek is attention, and they cleverly use some of our own propaganda against us. We boast that our parishes are “communities” where everyone is welcomed all the time, that church personnel and volunteers are “always present,” that we can always use more “help and expertise.” Many times such individuals focus their needs on a particular minister, projecting a intimacy of persons where none exists.
Please note: you need never feel guilty or hesitant about giving yourself to your ministerial responsibilities, be they personal meetings, planning, or study and reading, at church or at home. It is not a sin against charity to disengage or discourage serial idle chat from those with nothing better to do. It may happen that a staff colleague at church is draining your time and energy with a constant stream of woes about personal problems. Discuss this with your pastor or supervisor. I have a three strike rule which served me well as pastor and therapist: if after three conversations it is clear to me that an individual prefers talking for attention over constructive problem solving with concrete advice and homework, I ask them to move on. You may be told you are “unchristian.” Don’t believe it.