When we have no favorite TV shows stored in the cable box, my wife and I will occasionally watch “House Hunters International,” that up-close spectacle of the Ugly American couple badgering a poor local realtor for a seven-bedroom apartment with a balcony, next to the Eiffel Tower, for $400/month. The other evening a couple was looking for a home in Cambodia, somewhere on the outskirts of the urban center. The realtor showed them a modern home, located next to a high grass marsh and a medium sized river. As the wife was swooning over the granite countertops, I was concerned about the location. Knowing that Cambodia is ground zero for the cobra population, I said to Margaret that the terrain had to be crawling with snakes. “This is the problem with this show: they never show you the snakes.”
When I was in the final few years of training for the priesthood, my order’s superiors attempted to introduce us to the realities of life in the ministerial church world. I worked several summers in my order’s missions in the southern states, in small black parishes where segregation was still de facto a reality in the southern Church. I worked for one pastor there who was arrested for driving over a fire hose during an active fire. In another southern assignment one of my local superiors overdosed on medication and disappeared from the scene during my six-week tenure there.
Not that everything in the north was ideal, either. In my deacon year in Washington, D.C., I worked weekends at a parish where a pastor lived alone with his poodle and painted all the rectory rooms with Disney characters. You never knew if you would be dressing in front of Snow White or Captain Hook. As ordination approached I submitted my three choices of first assignment to the New York headquarters. The Provincial scratched the first one off the list. “Too dangerous. Not a healthy environment for a new priest.”
Looking back, at least some effort was made by my superiors to open my eyes to what I might be getting into. The rest I would learn the hard way. In fairness, I think the analogy can be made to most professions, and my own experience bears this out: the most dysfunction boss I ever worked for was in the health field (unless you factor in the years I was self-employed.) The problem, though, is the nature of the institution, i.e., the Catholic Church, which by definition is understood to be Christ’s kingdom till he comes again. The expectations of this institution are, not unreasonably, exceptionally high.
I will admit this about myself, and I certainly saw this quality in my employees over the years: we came to the Church with very high ideals and dreams, with the expectations that we would be entering a workplace of highly energized and exceptionally competent ministers of the Word. Needless to say, the Vatican II description of the Church as a “pilgrim people” heading toward a life of sanctity is a tangible reality, with many members (and ministers) still struggling with the early phases of the journey.
At some point I would have what I called “the talk” with promising applicants or new professionals on the staff. “Working for the Church,” I would say, “is a dirty business.” I would explain that they would see things and hear things that would be very troubling, that parishioners, colleagues, the diocese, even—God forbid—their pastor would say or do things that would disappoint, confuse, or trouble them, or let them down. I had no easy answer, but I did want them to know that this human reality of the Church was on the table and that they could indeed talk about it without fear in the appropriate forums. (Emailing an entire parish—which has happened in recent times in a few parishes—is obviously not one of them.)
I wonder today who prepares the catechists, the directors, the faith formers, the youth ministers, the Catholic school personnel, or even the seminarians and young priests for that matter, about the dirty side of the family business. I spent a good part of Monday discussing the theological orientation necessary for catechists and ministers, but as I write this morning, it occurs to me that personal orientation must play a critical role in ministerial formation. As a therapist I can vouch for the fact that most church employees of many faiths who sought stress counseling were ill-prepared for the actual experience of parochial life—the turf protecting, unreasonable parishioners, passive-aggressive (or just plain aggressive) pastors, apathy, inappropriate task scheduling, the guilt of saying no to added projects thrown on the desk.
Historically this diocese has tried to at least maintain local presence and support for the regional (or deanery) clusters of ministers through periodic gatherings in those regions. But this practice evidently has fallen victim to the financial crunch; there are no available personnel to provide regular field support. And any diocesan official in any city will tell you that no adjustments to work environment s without the pastors’ active involvement—which is dicey when a pastor is the major part of the problem.
Years of EAP (employee assistance counseling) has taught me that the steps to a rewarding ministry involve a strong sense of self (or ego strength.) No parish or ministry defines who you are.( Many parish staffers do not know where they end and their parish begins, ecclesiastical borderline disorder if you will.) Jesus himself said something about shaking off dust and moving to the next town. You need someone, early in your ministry, to tell you it is OK to avoid the snakes, or as Jesus put it, the “brood of vipers.” And he was nowhere near Cambodia.
Before You Enlist...Read Now
On Saturday and Sunday we looked at the process of screening on-line programs of Catholic theology for catechists and church ministers. (I am pleased to note, by the way, that the original questioner has connected with an excellent college-based certificate program contracted by the home diocese.) The weekend experience generated much thinking on my part about the very nature and lifestyle of a catechist or anyone directly involved with faith formation, but it also reminded me of an informal gathering a few weeks ago with several veteran DRE’s in a chancery hallway. These were among our “platinum class” directors, and they have all been in “the family business” for some time. Each said virtually the same thing—they were feeling burned out on “running programs” and craved the time to involve themselves in substantive theology and challenging teaching.
Something I do not list on my curriculum vitae is the undeniable fact that for one year I was an official DRE for a Florida parish. My qualifications consisted of my theology masters, my ordination, and the fact that I happened to be there. I will always remember that year as my closest experience to being sued. To house the growing religious education program, I rented a large double-wide trailer—a former public health facility, of all things. The trailer mover failed to fill in the holes at the previous site, and someone fell in and broke a leg. If faith formation is measured in depositions, I would have been a major success. My only real success was in recruiting a wonderful faith formation director who served the parish magnificently for a decade—until my diocese, my own bishop!—raided my staff.
I regret that I did not become truly cognizant of the challenges of religious education until long after my years in the priesthood, when I become more intensely involved in the training of catechists and visited many hosting parishes onsite. And it goes without saying that as a Catholic myself I have the strongest desire that the faithful in all of these parishes receive the best quality professional faith formation.
If someone today were to ask me about entering the ministry of religious faith formation, at a volunteer or profession level (and one frequently morphs into the other), I would offer a few words of advice.
The first is to develop and maintain a career vision. Yes, you heard me correctly; I said a “career vision,” as opposed to “temporary slotting,” for want of a better phrase. I have great discomfort when I see or hear of parishioners drafted last minute to “cover fourth grade religious ed” or run a parish bible study. Faith formation is a vocation, a unique charism, a particular expression of one’s Baptismal promise to do the work of Jesus. The decision to undertake this kind of ministry demands discernment and prayer, appropriate vetting and comprehensive training. Failure to address catechetical ministry as a “call” results in a cheapening of the ministry and the profession, frustration and rapid loss of viable ministers, and probably worst of all, a breakdown of Jesus’ command to “teach everything that I have taught you.” If I were shaping policy, I would incorporate a year of spiritual, theological, and pedagogical formation before anyone sets foot in a position of catechetical responsibility.
Second, I would tell advise an inquirer that his or her level of competence in all formative ministry must be professional, whether compensated or not. We are in dangerous territory when we have “tiers of competence” in parish faith formation. An easy example—perhaps a tired one, I admit—is the comparison between a Catholic school religion teacher and a catechist volunteer of the same school grade level. Given that the subject matter in both forums is identical, namely the Apostolic Tradition of Faith, the ability to formulate this matter cries out for equality, given that the students or hearers are in this setting for very high stakes. Again, were I in a position to make policy, I would work toward appropriate compensation for the time and continuing education of all certified parish ministers of formation, with the commensurate expectation of professional performance.
And finally, I would encourage an individual to develop an internal identity as one whose life involves theology, the “study of God.” The ideal minister of faith formation incorporates the hungers of faith, the pursuit of knowledge, the joy of expression and the conduct of a servant.
The catechist must own “his/her life” in the manner in which “Jesus taught with authority.” Individually and in groups catechists have the right and the duty to shape the environment and conditions under which they exercise their ministry and, within reason, the methods and models that make best use of their own gifts.
The professionals I referred to earlier are on point that much of what we call religious education ministry might be more appropriately called “event planning.” I instinctively understood what they meant. As a DRE (in title only) I can recall my pastor crabbing at me because he was finding broken pencils around the church after CCD nights. What kept me going…was knowing I was a temp. Today my concerns are for those who stay.
If you are undertaking Catholic ministry, or if you are trying to make sense of the “ying and yang” of conservative and liberal understandings of Church life, it may be useful in your professional development to take a look at a subject that is rarely if ever discussed in catechetical circles: the effect of the Enlightenment upon culture and the ways we address matters religious. If you’ve forgotten your history, the Enlightenment is the age of the great shift: when reason, science, and knowledge in general came to replace faith as the coinage of human thought.
The Catholic French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is best remembered for the quote that summarizes Enlightenment thinking: “Cogito, ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore I am.”) In fairness the fifth B.C. philosopher Protagoras came close to Descartes with his “Man is the measure of all things.” But Descartes make his significant philosophical claim precisely at the time when mankind indeed was making gigantic strides in every field of endeavor.
To give a flavor to the difference between the worlds of thought before and after Descartes and the Enlightenment, consider Galileo, who lived at roughly the same time. Galileo did not invent the telescope; the Dutch designed the first models shortly after 1600; Galileo purchased the process and spent some time marketing the instrument to military interests for reconnoitering enemy fleets. But no one, to our knowledge, dared to use the telescope to its most obvious advantage, as new eyes to the universe of space, before Galileo. He broke a taboo, that turning a telescope to the skies was a violation of God’s privacy, so to speak. He also broke a tenet of the Catholic faith when he discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, and his writings ran him afoul of the Inquisition.
Descartes in his day had similar difficulties. (For those who enjoy historical satire, I heartily recommend Descartes’ Bones, which I reviewed on January 24, 2009.) But the door was now open for thinkers in all disciplines to proceed without the shackles, if you will, of revealed Christian doctrine. For Isaac Newton, for example, it was the natural laws of gravity, not God’s guiding hand, which made apples fall from trees. This newfound confidence in man’s powers affected even political philosophy: the founding documents of the United States are Enlightenment products, as John Locke’s thinking on the rights of man became the quest of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Around 1800 the methodology of the Enlightenment was turned to the study of theology. This is particularly true in the study of Scripture and Worship. Historians, archaeologists, linguists, and others discovered errors in the translation of the Bible in current use, such as the Latin Vulgate edition of St. Jerome. The authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses was found to highly dubious. Historians uncovered early sacramental practices at odds with those in current day usage (the detailed catechumenate comes to mind.)
Perhaps the aspect of the Enlightenment most troublesome to popes was the concept of “freedom of conscience,” a political problem in that the Church was not ready to accept a “secular world” standing free of Christendom. Pius IX in 1864 issued his famous Syllabus of Errors, condemning a good number of post-Enlightenment developments, though his successor, Leo XIII, is remembered for embracing such modern concepts as the rights of workers to organize.
Vatican II demonstrated sympathies with aspects of Enlightenment thought. This is understandable, in that John XXIII recognized how the crises of the twentieth century, particularly nuclear holocaust, required global solutions formed by those of good will around the world.
When we look at the division of liberals and conservatives in contemporary Catholicism, a good portion of the problem can be traced to the heritage of the Enlightenment. If I may engage in caricature for a moment, conservatives distrust liberals because they believe liberals have sold out to the trends of the post-Enlightened world. Liberals believe that conservatives damage the Church by a blind adherence to an aging Church model inadequate to address the problems of contemporary society. In truth, I believe most Catholics are more sophisticated and probably carry elements of both conservative and liberal concerns (some more hesitant to admit this than others, perhaps.)
Since this divide runs through our culture as well, in its “red state/blue state polarity,” I don’t expect radical change of this alignment in my lifetime. I remember the late CBS news analyst/philosopher Eric Severeid observing during the wild days of the 1960’s, “If you are not a liberal in your 20’s, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative in your 50’s, you have no brains.”
A critical function of catechetics is conveying what is immutable or unchanging in the apostolic tradition, while bringing students to an imaginative skillfulness in addressing the Gospel to the times in which they live, a mission that calls for taking chances. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17: 22-34), Paul visited pagan shrines, and finding an altar “to a God Unknown” he preached to the Athenians that the unknown god was the God of the Hebrews and the Christians. I have sometimes wondered how this daring ploy by Paul sat with his fellow Christians. Or, more to our point, what Paul would have thought of the Enlightenment.
Just a short note to say hello and let you know that the Brewmaster has not stopped "feeding the beast." I have spent the last two days visiting the Exhibition Hall, where I have talked with a large number of vendors or representatives of a wide variety of Catholic publishing houses or social justice projects. I am heading back down to the floor shortly.
All of them extended the wish that I pass on their websites to you. I will be doing that gradually in the days ahead. Tomorrow (Thursday) I will be speaking on the Resurrection narratives. I have the last speaking slot, which may be very good or very bad from an attendance perspective. I posted the outline of the presentation on my Easter Sunday post.
I will be returning home Thursday night but turning around for an all day presentation on the Eucharist on Saturday at our cathedral for school teachers, catechists, and other Church personnel. So my hope is to get back to regular daily posting on next Monday.
I am using my mobile blog app for the first time. Hope you all get this! 😳