Palestrina: Alma Redemptoris Mater

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quæ pervia cæli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quæ genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.

Suggestions for teaching RCIA from a nascent Catholic

“How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being?” – St Athanasius

“There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education….” – G. K. Chesteron

This is a longish post, but I want to address a largish topic. If you teach or lead RCIA, or are going to, or are in a position to help organize the RCIA offerings in your parish, this post might be for you.


First, for those who don’t know about RCIA: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is an important part of the process whereby an adult convert enters into the Catholic Church. The minimal goal of RCIA is to prepare an individual to enter the Church in such a way that the basic dogma and doctrines, expectations and requirements of the Catholic Church are understood by the catechumens (those going through the process). The bigger goal is to foster a growing love for Christ and His Church. Typically RCIA takes anywhere from 8 to 12 months, sometimes though it takes up to two or more years. RCIA is not absolutely required, but it’s an expectation unless a good case can be made otherwise. A well taught RCIA course can be a real blessing.

I went through RCIA prior to entering the Church. What I got for RCIA was not really what I wanted or needed. I felt it could have been far better. I had already done a fair amount of studying and research long before I decided to become Catholic. So my RCIA became a rather bland formality. However, I am no expert on RCIA, I have never taught or lead an RCIA class or program, and I only have my experience and a few observations I’ve made of other RCIA programs from afar. Based on that experience and those observations, and on being someone who is deeply interested in this topic, and on having taught other kinds of courses elsewhere, here are my thoughts on what might make a good RCIA program.


Be passionate. RCIA leaders should probably be somewhat obsessed with the territory covered by RCIA. The ideal RCIA leader is someone for whom Church dogma, doctrine, practice, and the such are infinitely interesting. They should be eager and willing to take on any question, discuss any topic, and have lots of deep and broad knowledge. I do not believe they have to be trained (I’m not sure that’s a requirement) but they should know and love official Church teaching. This is not about being an “expert” proclaiming wisdom from on high. It’s really about being a passionate student of the subject, and eagerly wanting to continue that education by including others.

Know that your catechumens will likely have done some homework. In other words, someone who is converting from another faith or “version” of Christianity, will likely come already curious enough about the topic at hand that they will have already done a fair amount of reading on the topic. Some of that studying may be of good stuff, some might be not so helpful. It can be a really huge thing for a Protestant to become a Catholic. It can be huge for anyone. Not unlike, but perhaps even bigger than, getting married or choosing citizenship or starting a new company. Protestants inherit a laundry list of anti-Catholic positions and prejudices. Converts will need to deal with these, and that will require study. If you are a cradle Catholic and can’t see what the big deal is, then maybe teaching RCIA is not for you. I mean no offense.

Know something about who’s coming. Are they former Protestant’s? Or from another religion altogether? Are they former agnostics or atheists? Every person is unique, and will know a certain amount of truth and falsehood about the Church. Some will have done extensive research and could nearly teach a course on Catholic apologetics, and others will be wide-eyed newbies. Some will be relatively uneducated, and some may have advanced degrees. Some may be more or less blue collar, and some white collar (whatever that means these days). And some will be eager to be there and others may be there only to please someone else. All will have unique questions and desires for what RCIA will mean for them. Never, never, never invalidate their previous experiences, religion, life choices, etc. All truth is God’s truth. Find what is true in their experience and build from there.

Consider carefully your curriculum. I assume many RCIA leaders use some kind of RCIA guide or manual to teach from. Probably most of these resources are good and well thought out. However, none will match exactly your needs or the needs of your catechumens. Do not be afraid to change the curriculum to suit the need. What if you have catechumens with a science background, what if you have artists, or teachers, or business people? They may all respond to different approaches and/or materials. Make the right changes, but make sure the core is still presented and no dogmas are altered. Be orthodox, but be a human being teaching other human beings. Find what will work best.

Be organized. I will hazard a guess that a lot of RCIA programs are poorly organized. This is not to say there is no plan, or calendar of events, or basic curriculum. But I can imagine that many churches, running on underpaid and volunteer labor, without the pressure of having to please paying customers, or meeting government standards for testing, etc., become a seat-of-the-pants operations running largely on the good will of limited church staff. Catechumens, however, should be able to know what is going on, what is coming up, what the expectations are, who they can contact with questions, and where this will all lead. There should be a syllabus, including a calendar of topics, a reading list, a sheet of times and places, resources, contact info, and anything else a normal person with common sense would want to have in hand when they enter into the process. Plan your work, work your plan. This is not only basic, it is more loving to all those participating, including guest speakers.


Don’t water it down. Teach the Church’s teaching straight up. If someone does not want to hear it or believe it, they might not be ready for it. That’s okay. They also might be in the midst of their journey to the truth, examining and wrestling, with their previous knowledge or their hearts putting up defenses. Let that happen. Encourage it. Support the process. But stick with the truth, don’t water it down. But keep this in mind: Your job is neither to push nor pull someone into the Church. It is walk beside them as a friend, mentor, confidant, and guide. Accept catechumens where they are and encourage them to keep going towards the truth. Allow them to flail and fail with the hard stuff. Let them be human. Don’t give up on them. But teach the Church’s dogma unapologetically.

Don’t be scared of the hard stuff. There might be a temptation to think that if the hard stuff (whatever one might think that is) is out there in the open, then several possible bad things will happen: a) inquirers will walk away, b) discussions will become heated, or c) you will quickly be over your head. All this may happen. Let it happen. Try to guide the group wisely, with love, but these are adults. If they do not know there is a reason people generally don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company, now they can learn. If they don’t know that the Catholic Church has dogmas that don’t change, practices with long traditions, and many strongly opinionated members, now they can learn. And being a Christian is not a little thing.

A word on the sex abuse scandal. For some this terrible wickedness within the Church is the only, or the biggest, stumbling block to entering the Church wholeheartedly. You must have a good response. This is not about defending the Church, or having a pat answer, or even trying to change anyone’s feelings. Any one of those responses could easily become offensive. Rather, it is about being honest, listening, and being able to see the scandal for what it truly is. And it’s also about offering the Church (and Christ, its head) as the answer. I wrote my personal thoughts on it here, and why, with all that wickedness, I still chose the Catholic Church.

You don’t need all the answers. Faith is not a test of knowledge. No one will enter the Kingdom of God because they got a perfect score on some doctrinal SAT. The same is true for entering the Church. No one knows it all. More than this, the process of education is where the teacher (better: tutor) and the student learn together. Be willing to say, “I don’t know” a lot. However, if you find yourself saying , “I don’t know” a lot, perhaps you need to do better prep work.

Do your prep work. Don’t come unprepared. If possible, teach from a place of abundance. RCIA should not be a time when you show up, open your book (if you are using an RCIA book/guide), and say, “Well, let’s see what we have for today.” Even cracking the book the night before is too little too late. Know the topic at hand as best you can. Plan how you are going to teach it. Consider the kinds of questions someone will have. Be able to give clear answers. If you need to, and you probably should, you can read out loud directly from key Church texts, such as the Catechism, or encyclicals, and let them stand on their own. Always, always, always have Bible passages ready to provide a foundation for the teaching as well. If you don’t know that Protestants (even those converting to Catholicism) will tend to judge everything you teach from the perspective of what the Bible says, then know this is true. Be able to answer why the Catholic Church sees scripture as part of tradition and not against it.

Communicate clearly and often. Everyone should know of any changes to the schedule, who to contact with questions or concerns, and where to get info. Have a web page or Facebook page dedicated to the course, with the syllabus, calendar, contact info, etc, easily accessible – and actively monitor those sites. No one should ever show up and find out the course is not happening that week (several times I showed up to my RCIA only to find it had been cancelled and no one was told – I found that disrespectful). And no catechumen should send an email or leave a voicemail and not get a reasonably quick response. Many in RCIA are also professionals in their “regular” lives. This means they act, and expect others to act, with professional courtesy. They are used to how things work in the “real” world and within organizations that get things done and serve others. Too many churches seem to throw professionalism out the window merely because they are churches. I don’t know why, but don’t let the inherently laid back, amateur nature of church life lead to lack of basic courtesy to others. Also, RCIA members should be able to easily explain (and provide resources) to the curious on how to get involved. Provide them the info they need to do that. The converting are sometimes good evangelists.

[See the end of this post for a brief digression on church web sites.]

Give homework. Do not fear telling catechumens they have reading to do. Give them lots of reading. Have them read sections of the Bible, of the Catechism, of encyclicals, of a great book on being Catholic and its claims, or something pertaining to a particular dogma. Make the syllabus available early so they can read ahead. Give them work to do. Also give them projects to do – such as go ask people they know about the Catholic Church, or about Christ, or about sin, etc. Have them come back with their reports on what they heard, and use that for discussion and a lead-in to the Church’s teaching. Tell them to watch a film, or a television show that deals with an upcoming topic. Don’t let them off easy because you fear that any amount of hard work will drive them away. I would have welcomed a lot of homework (maybe I’m strange). I got nothing. That was a big let down. Give them work, but make it relevant. Key: chose homework that is worthy. Forget lightweight, easy to digest, pre-chewed reading. Give them red meat. If they struggle, then coming to clarity will be part of the discussion. Don’t forget literature, poetry, song lyrics. Don’t forget research. Ask them to come prepared to share. Put a little pressure on them. RCIA should not be merely an exercise of sitting through “x” number of classes so one can get one’s Catholic merit badge. And don’t forget to actually discuss the reading or project that was assigned for that class.

I have compiled a few online resources and lists of good reads here. Share them with your class.

Don’t forget Goodness and Beauty. There are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Often RCIA is essentially about Truth – what does the Church believe, what are its dogmas and doctrines, etc. But people are drawn to the Catholic Church for various reasons. Coming from the Protestant world I was drawn to the call to holiness and the history of art in the Catholic Church, to its prayers and liturgy, as well as its doctrines. Keep in mind, Truth is not greater that the other two. All three transcsendentals intertwine and any one leads to the other two. All express the character of God, and of what we are called to. Various practices in Catholic piety should be presented and discussed. Art should be presented and discussed. Have the catechumens read fine literature, listen to fine music, look at fine art. Bring in some beautiful work of music, for example something by Palestrina, hand out the lyrics with both the original (usually Latin) and the English translation. Listen to the piece and then discuss it. Discuss the design of traditional church buildings and what they mean. Read a poem in class, for example something by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then dig into it. Pay attention to beauty. Discuss the lives of saints. Ponder their actions and commitment to holiness and how that played itself out in their lives. Teach how to pray. Give them novenas to pray. Show them how to make a prayer alter at home. Schedule a hike with the class and get outside into nature. Use that time to discuss the beauty of nature and how it expresses the Divine Law. These are normal aspects of God’s goodness and grace poured out to us. All RCIA leaders should be lovers of holiness and beauty, and not truth alone, as though being Catholic is merely accenting to a list of propositions.

Consider how you teach. Not everyone has a philosophy of teaching, but it is good to at least think about what teaching is, and how one is to approach it. Consider the approach to teaching that was common prior to the industrial revolution. With that revolution, and all that modernity has wrought, the goals of education changed from developing virtuous and complete human beings to workers who can produce in order to help the economy. That pre-modern approach is often called classical, though I would merely call it human – as in it conforms to human nature (something denied by modern man). Okay, I realize this is a big topic, and potentially overwhelming. So first, read these two blog posts of mine to get a better idea of what I am saying, and how truly simple and human the classical approach is. Note: these were written with homeschooling in mind, but the principles are universal.

Consider St. Paul’s approach to education.

Teach like Jesus.

I hope these posts helped make clear what I am getting at. Also, keep in mind the basic classical assumption that education tends to follow a kind of interweaving course that begins with the grammar stage (basic building blocks of knowledge), followed by the dialectical stage (discussing, even arguing, about the assumptions and interconnectedness of the building blocks of knowledge), then concludes withe the rhetoric stage (being able to express ideas and defend them). Naturally these stages do not flow strictly in sequence like dominoes falling. Rather, there is always a constant back-and-forth interplay between them, but the basic idea is solid. It is also how we most naturally learn every day. For example, when we take on something new at work, we first must learn the basics, then we wrestle with them in the context of work, then we become experts and can teach others. This process can happen for weeks or years, it can happen over hours as well. It depends on the subject and the learner. Organize each class, though, with this process in mind.

Something else: Consider the seven laws of teaching: In 1886 Gregory authored the book The Seven Laws of Teaching, in which he asserted that a teacher should:

  1. Know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach; or, in other words, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
  2. Gain and keep the attention and interest of the pupils upon the lesson. Refuse to teach without attention.
  3. Use words understood by both teacher and pupil in the same sense – language clear and vivid alike to both.
  4. Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.
  5. Use the pupil’s own mind, exciting his self-activities. keep his thoughts as much as possible ahead of your expression, making him a discoverer of truth.
  6. Require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning – thinking it out in its parts, proofs, connections, and applications til he can express it in his own language.
  7. Review, review, REVIEW, reproducing correctly the old, deepening its impression with new thought, correcting false views, and completing the true.

Follow these seven laws as best as you can and your RCIA class will almost assuredly be a success.

Evangelize. Remember that RCIA is a form of evangelization. It is, fundamentally, the “process” whereby a Catholic teaches and mentors non-Catholics in the ways and means of the Catholic faith, with the goal that the non-Catholics will eagerly enter into the fullness of the Christian faith with sufficient knowledge to comprehend what they are getting into and why. Fr. Robert Barron has his Seven Keys to the New Evangelization. They are:

  1. Lead with the beautiful – it’s an excellent gateway to goodness and truth.
  2. Don’t dumb down the message – dumb is dumb.
  3. Preach with ardor – a little passion goes a long way.
  4. Tell the great story – connect the Gospel to all of salvation history.
  5. God does not need us…and he loves us anyway – God’s grace and mercy are utterly and perfectly selfless.
  6. We are made for God – forget wealth, pleasure, honor, and power. Only God satisfies.
  7. Use the new media – Proclaim the Tradition of the Church with the communication tools of the day.

Don’t get caught up in right/left politics. The Church all too often has been burdened by giving in too much to whatever political landscape has the day. This is true in the U.S. and elsewhere. Politics are not unimportant, but they both pale in comparison to the weightier issues of faith, and they tend to steer one away from the far more radical Catholic position – which begins and ends with Christ, not with conservative or liberal positions. Still, some catechumens might bring politics and other divisive social issues into RCIA. Gently steer away from those things. Don’t let them dominate the class, even if you find them interesting yourself. Leave it for after class discussions. Also, be prepared to give a clear answer why RCIA is not the place for political debates. And yet, if someone asks a direct question on the Church’s position for a given issue (e.g. abortion, marriage, contraception, are just three biggies), give a straight answer. But don’t belabor it. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t suggest the Church is wrong even if you have doubts about official Church teaching on a particular topic (though if you do have doubts, then ask yourself if you should be leading RCIA). Also, be clear about what is Church teaching and what is not. Avoid making up an “official” position if the Church doesn’t have one. I can’t stress how important it is to not let RCIA become a political discussion group. Remember: Unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things.

Finally, thoughts on the way it was. Warning: Opinion ahead! This is where I disagree with what I have heard about some of the typical uses of the Baltimore Catechism in the past (often brought up as though to say, “back in the day we really knew our catechism” as though that meant really being Catholic.). From what I understand that catechism is a basic question and answer approach that lays out the grammar of the Catholic faith in a very step-by-step, concise manner so that catechists can memorize it easily. Rote memorization used to be a common part of education, and one’s grandparents or great-grandparents probably had this kind of education. So far, so good. Rote memorization is something good we lost with the coming of modernity. But grammar is only the beginning. There needs to be the dialectic stage, for that is where a person wrestles with the grammar, digging deeper, being challenged, taking ownership. Then the rhetoric stage is where one can speak about it from a position of knowledge, even teaching others what they know. That is when one can truly say they understand. And it is a life-long process. Learning and growing never stop, unless one becomes comfortable in a kind of bland arrogance, no longer really considering what one believes. Too many older Catholics got their grammar, but did not advance beyond it (though many also did). A grammar-only education means one’s convictions may not be based on truly knowing the subject, but rather on a parroting faith supported primarily by either familial pressures or strident cultural identity rather than true belief – both of which can be bowled over by shifting cultural trends (such as the 1960’s and the sexual revolution). It also means one is less able to pass on that faith in a meaningful way, thus jeopardizing the next generation. On the other hand, a grammar-less education sorely lacks the basic grounding in Church doctrine and the fundamental language of the faith. The baby boomers might fall into this category, having shrugged off the “trappings” of their parents for the freedom of “if it feels good do it.” I do not know where generation X (my generation), or the millennials fall. Regardless, the goal is not merely to catechize, but to evangelize. RCIA should not be only about getting folks into the Church, but to draw them closer to Christ.

So that’s my take on teaching RCIA. Let me know your own thoughts and experiences. Thanks.

A brief digression on church web sites: Most churches (Catholic and Protestant) have rather poor web sites, and no Facebook pages. If they do have sites at all they are poorly maintained, badly designed, and look like Web 1.0 technology. This screams “old.” Sad, but true. Of course, much of the time a church web site exists only because someone has volunteered to create it and maintain it. And that takes a lot of work. Regardless, what I have observed mostly with Catholic Church web sites is that they are designed primarily by people who may be somewhat technical, but have bad design skills and little knowledge of the current web design offerings. Perhaps no one else volunteers to take over because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And not meaning to slight anyone, but the sites also seem to be built for people who learned a few Internet skills eight or ten years ago and are still a bit confused. I do not mean this as an offense, but it is the younger (and middle aged now) generation that lives online, and church web sites often do not cater to them. Remember, the elderly still prefer to pick up the phone and call the front office anyway. If you want to attract a broader crowd then one’s web site should look good, be well organized, have relevant information, and kept up to date. The church should also have at least a Facebook page (even FB is now older technology, but still functional) and a Twitter feed. These sites should all be coordinated to carry and send the same information. Ask yourself, why is it only the elderly who seem to keep the church running and do all the volunteering? There are many reasons, including their wisdom and love for others, but perhaps it’s also because many youth get no information on what’s going on from their church because the church doesn’t use the media of the age well or at all. How many of your youth are getting regular church updates on their smart phones? How many searching college students would find your church appealing (speaking their language) by merely looking at your web site or FB page? Consequently, one’s RCIA program may not attract anyone because the first, and last, thing people see about your church is its web site. People are searching online these days, not knocking on doors.

A war begins

One hundred years ago the war known as the First World War, began.

An archive picture shows a statue of Christ on the cross on a tree at Fricourt on the Somme front in France

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
(from The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, 1922)

Lest we forget, great public cheers went up in nearly every belligerent country at the the declaration of war. Germany cheered. France cheered. Italy cheered. England cheered.

England is ecstatic at the declaration of war.

“Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.” – Saint Paul

“You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.” – Saint James

“Et avec votre esprit”: Catching up with the French Plan de la messe

The Peace of the Lord...

When I came into the Catholic Church the Order of the Mass had just been updated with a few changes, mostly of the verbiage I believe. Because I had no prior experience, the changes meant little to me. One, however, caught my attention. As I understood it, previously the priest would say, “The Lord be with you,” or during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and the faithful responded with “And also with you.” This phrase, “And also with you,” was probably the only “liturgical phrase” I had heard prior to deciding to become Catholic and going to mass regularly.

The recent changes to the Roman Missal by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops altered the well known response to now be “And with your spirit.” This wording is closer to the older Latin:

P: Dominus vobiscum. (P: The Lord be with you.)
R: Et cum spiritu tuo. (R: And with thy spirit.)

It did not have to be changed, but it was. I am used to it. Anyway, a number of U.S. Catholics were confused a bit, and not a little non-plussed. It seemed a bit clunky, and somewhat strange to their ears. Also, long practiced habits are hard to break. But now it seems old hat.

And With Your Spirit

Then, not long ago, I re-watched one of my all time favorite films, My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud), a 1969 film from the late, great Éric Rohmer. (I wrote some time ago about this film.) The film begins with the protagonist, Jean-Louis, going to mass. The two screen shots above are from that scene. And what caught my attention, now that my ears were ready, was that in the French the phrase is “And with your spirit.” The subtitles captured in the screenshots show the English translation, but if you listen to the soundtrack, and also take a look at the order or the mass in French, or Plan de la messe, you will notice the wording is just that:

P : Que la paix du Seigneur soit toujours avec vous.
A : Et avec votre esprit

As I would expect, the French, who generally care much more about language than do us Americans, maintained the essence of the Latin back in the heady days of the post-Vatican II 1960’s. Still, Catholicism was already beginning to diminish in France, fidelity to the Latin or not – which makes the rest of the film, with its deep discussions of religion, politics, sexuality, and personal commitments in the face of social pressures, all the more interesting.

Interestingly, the film was being filmed and edited during the winter of 1968 and 1969, almost exactly three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, and right about the time (I believe) the liturgical changes were going into effect. I don’t know much of the history of post-Vatican II France, but I think mass in the vernacular happened right around the time of the film. And notice the priest faces the faithful. My guess is that this mass, in the new manner, was still very new at that time. If this is true, then this was probably the first time the new liturgical form was put on film, perhaps anywhere.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs: Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Second Movement: Lento e Largo

Polish lyrics:
Mamo, nie płacz, nie.
Niebios Przeczysta Królowo,
Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie.
Zdrować Mario, Łaskiś Pełna.

Zakopane “Pałace”
cela nr 3 ściana nr 3
Błazusiakówna Helena Wanda
lat 18 siedzi od 25 IX 44

English translation:
No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Support me always.
“Zdrowas Mario.” (*)
(Prayer inscribed on wall 3 of cell no. 3 in the basement of “Palace,” the Gestapo’s headquarters in Zadopane; beneath is the signature of Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, and the words “18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944.”)
(*) “Zdrowas Mario” (Ave Maria)—the opening of the Polish prayer to the Holy Mother

What will it take? Thinking about Dwindling Coffers and Empty Pews

empty church

I am a member of a small parish. In fact, it’s really two parishes combined under one umbrella ministry, with one priest running both parishes and, for now, another priest who helps out with Mass and confession, etc. Let me give you some perspective: Both parishes have dwindling numbers of active parishioners and dwindling giving. Money is tight, budgets are constantly being evaluated for cost cutting opportunities, yard sales and bake sales are held, but to little avail, and generally the feeling is that these are good churches (with good people) but with tenuous futures. Our parish is not alone. In our archdiocese, and across the country, there are attempts to keep churches from closing their doors by combining them under a single priest, sharing staff to reduce costs, and trying to find creative ways to bring in more money.

I wonder what the solution is. This question naturally raises the question of what exactly is wrong? Is a church with dwindling numbers actually a problem? Churches grow and diminish in attendance all the time. There are large trends and small trends that cause this. Also, God is sovereign, thus such situations are under God’s providence. Plus, a growing church does not necessarily mean an increase of truly faithful people. And suffering financially, or in terms of numbers can be something God uses to His purposes – which, of course, He always does. So, is it a problem that the parish I’m in has less people and less income than in the past? I can’t really say. But lets assume it is. What then?

Sometimes I wonder – and I say this from a position of great ignorance – if local parishes generally tend to suffer from not being willing to see what is really going on, saying what really needs to be said, and making choices that ought to be made. Why do I say this? I can’t say much about my own parish, for I am too new, but I have seen elsewhere, in other contexts, the very human tendency to accept a host of silent presuppositions about the situation such that what really needs to be said and done is actively, though subconsciously, avoided. Active because there is resistance to see, say, and choose the things most relevant to produce the right kinds of change. Subconscious because there is a kind of genuine, but surface-level, ignorance of this resistance even happening. In other words, it would not surprise me if most of the time churches do not make the kinds of choices they need to because they don’t want to, while at the same time finding many reasons to complain and plenty of alternative excuses.

The question I have is what will it take to enliven the parish I’m in. You see, I’m not really all that concerned about the money or attendance. Though those things are important. And I do want to keep the church doors open, the priests and staff paid, and plenty of programs for everyone. What I do believe, though, is that all that will follow if the parish is truly captivated by Christ – captivated in such a way that going to church becomes less a habit and more a passion, that the Eucharist is not taken for granted but accepted as a privilege, and that fellowship is authentic and without hypocrisy. I am convinced that churches thrive because they are full of life, which comes only through the parishioners living out their faith in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

If I am right, then the first question to ask is not why are the number down and the giving down, but is this church truly alive in Christ, and how do we know that? The second question is what is to be done to encourage a church to be alive in Christ? And that is the perennial question. The only answer I see that transcends all other possible answers, is that it’s the Holy Spirit that creates the life of the church and the passion of the local parish. Still, we must ask what we can do. A parish priest is tasked with leadership. The pastoral and administrative councils are tasked with advising and other tasks. Others, however they are called, are tasked with doing their part. And all must use their knowledge and talents to bring about change, or more appropriately, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

I don’t have any particular answer. But I do think (and here I am guessing from my observations of human nature), if there is any one thing we might generally point to, it is that many parishes suffer (without really realizing it) from a lack of true veneration of the Real Presence of Christ at the Mass. When I say they don’t realize it I mean it is assumed the veneration is present, but I fear it is not – or not to a great level. In fact, I think many parishioners fall into patterns of churchgoing and liturgical habits that make them feel they are doing what is right and that they are being good Catholics. But these patterns may actually discourage authentic passion for Christ. I’m sure I do this. And when I say there is a lack of veneration I mean a combination of things. Though none of us can truly know the heart of another, nor can we truly know what the Holy Spirit is doing (or going to do) in the life of anyone, I think we can point to some basic liturgical actions that might be common in a lot of churches. They include such things as inappropriate music (use music fit for a King’s presence, not a sing-songy tune for the Gloria, e.g.), generally sloppy or too casual dress by the laity and often by the altar servers (I see those tennis shoes under the vestments), lack of incense (I’m not an ardent traditionalist, but there are things that inherently create a more reverential atmosphere than others, incense being just one example), lack of any Latin (a little can go a long way to create a sense of the history of the Church and our connection to that history, plus Latin is beautiful), and many other things.

Don’t misunderstand me, these are only my personal observations coming out of my experience and my own unique personality. And really, these are just surface things that cannot adequately express the nature of anyone’s heart. I am not being prescriptive, every parish is unique, but I do want to point out that we are made for worship and liturgy. God made us to respond, body and soul, to such things. Perhaps if a priest, his altar servers, and his music director decided to create the most holy feeling (for lack of a better word) environment, a more veneration inducing, a more honorific context for the Real Presence of Christ the parish would respond as humans are wont to do, with veneration (perhaps even awe) followed by more joy at being in the presence of Christ, which just may lead to lives more alive in Christ. And maybe parishioners need to just speak up about it, and not give in to excuses or denials or blank stares, and do so with great, laying down our lives for each other, love. Maybe individuals (let’s start with you and me) need to just begin behaving with more reverence – authentic passionate reverence – before the Blessed Sacrament and let that be the message, the witness.

I can almost guarantee the youth will respond in such a manner, for they are the most natural seekers for an an antidote to the emptiness of the world they are just beginning to discover. But many others are seekers too. And some need to become seekers (or re-seekers). We should all be seekers after Christ.

Act as if the King, the most honored guest you will ever meet, is visiting your parish, for He truly is. Perhaps that’s a start, at the very least.

Seeking the Finer Things: A Short Meditation on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, and Going to Mass

box church

As a new Catholic I arrived at the Church’s doors with not a few years of Protestant baggage, and not a few assumptions about Catholics. Consequently I am quite curious about what I am observing now from within Catholicism. I love the fundamental unity of the Church (they don’t really split apart, though they sometimes seem close), but there are many minor divisions within that unity. Although opinions have been slowly forming, I tend to refrain from expressing them. I’m too new and, frankly, the debates raging within the Catholic Church are many and deep. Some of those debates and divisions circle around such topics as proper liturgy, proper reverence, and proper worship. And not a few voices are calling the Church to go back to a more traditional time. Who am I to voice my opinion? Still, some of those voices resonate with me, but I am not convinced of going back. I want there to be more emphasis on beauty in Catholic liturgies and culture, but I don’t see the Holy Spirit as one who go backwards. Instead, the wind blows forward, and the movement of the Church moves forward as well, but not as Catholics often want it to.

Still I wonder. I came into the Catholic Church, in part, because of its rich artistic history and it beautiful liturgy. However, it’s one thing to be amazed at works of art that are 500 or more years old, and to be amazed at beautiful liturgies seen online or in videos, and to read profound theology and philosophy. It’s another thing to see the current landscape of Catholic art or to experience the typical liturgy at one’s local suburban parish church, to hear the music and see the way many churchgoers dress.

As I said, I am new to Catholicism. I have been studying it for a few years. I came into the Church last year. I love it. BUT… I look around me at the current popular art in the Church, and I witness firsthand the typical liturgy of my parish, and I feel that so much potential for excellence and beauty is missing. This is not about abuse. Intentions are genuine. The sacraments are taken seriously. There is love for God. And the people are good people, probably better than I. But I wonder. Have we lost our common sense of how to behave before royalty (the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord truly present)? Have we lost our common sense of the glory of man and thus dress overly casual, even as slobs? Do we no longer have ears to appreciate finer music?

these are my church clothes

I am not pointing fingers at anyone in particular (for I would have to point at myself first) or judging anyone in particular (for I would be the first condemned). And I believe we can make too much of this at a personal, in-the-pews level. Though we all have personal choices to make, we should be very cautious in judging how another dresses at Mass, or what songs the music director chooses. In part because what “has happened” is bigger than my (or your) local parish. It seems clear to me that “forces” have shaped the world culture (perhaps especially in the West) over the past 200 years or more, and accelerated rapidly in the past 50 years, to gradually degrade the culture in ways that also degrade our humaness (perhaps it is the other way around – degrade Man and the degradation of all else will follow). In other words, something has happened whereby the three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth have been challenged and made matters of mere personal preference. And I think we have inherited that way of thinking so deep in our bones that we can’t see it clearly. It’s a vague unease, but hard to pin down. What really is wrong in our local parishes? What really is wrong with most of modern Catholic art? We have to think about this. In other words, we HAVE to THINK about it. And that’s really hard to do.

I wonder if the universal Christian call to holiness requires us to think about these things. Is it not true that the call to be in the world, but not of the world, requires us to see the world clearly and to make proper judgments about it. And I wonder, if in our local parishes, we can find ways to encourage each other in the most serious and joyful ways to meditate on, orient ourselves to, and live out in the fullest way possible Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.

Finally, a word that frequently goes through my mind at Mass lately is the word “fittingness.” I first came across this word years ago from the philosophy professor Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Art in Action (1980). To keep it simple, fittingness basically means matching the artistic style to the subject. This is an oversimplification, but it gets at the heart of what I am saying. It does not make sense to portray the Passion of the Christ as a comedy. The story of the Passion and the genre comedy don’t “fit” together. Neither does singing the Gloria to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island television theme song go together. The Gloria and that particular tune don’t fit together. There is nothing wrong with that tune, it just doesn’t fit with either the content of the Gloria, or the typical setting (the Mass) in which it is sung. [Lest I confuse anyone, we don’t sing the Gloria to Gilligan’s Island in my parish, but I will say the current tune we employ is too “sing-songy” for my taste and I usually cringe when we sing it. Of course, it could be worse.] Perhaps I will contemplate this idea of fittingness more in a future post, but for now it is worth wondering about as we go through our lives as Christians, including when we come together to worship. Could the various parts of our liturgies fit better if some basic changes were made? Could we behave, dress, and sing in a more fitting way? Could our music be better, fit better within the overall context and purpose of the Mass? I wonder.