The Penalty Pew

So I attended mass today and the response I heard to “The Lord be with you” was something like this:

“And also with your spirit, yo.”

I guess this is going to take a bit longer to catch on than I thought.

And that being said leads me to some further new innovations that the church can take advantage of with the advent of the not-so-new translations.

1) Install a penalty pew for anyone who messes up the new words. You have to sit there until you can say “consubstantial” 10 times fast and the entire creed by memory.

2) Place a jar at the end of every pew and for every time someone says “And also with you” they have to deposit $5. The church renovation fund would have gotten a big boost today.

3) Two words: Electroshock penalty.

4) For every stumble that the priest-presider makes, he has to do 5 push ups. Gotta keep these guys healthy. Guys over 75 can do “girl push ups”.

5) Maybe we should make this part of our everyday lexicon?

Colleague: Good Morning
Me: And with your spirit.

Relative: Merry Christmas (Or would it be Joyeux Noel?)
Me: And with your spirit.

6) When the pizza delivery guy comes we should say: “Lord (which after all is loosely translated as “Sir”), I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed” instead of the usual $5 tip.

7) This one comes from a friend: If you make a mistake you have to take a piece of gum from underneath the pew and stick it on your nose.

8) Install a buzzer on the altar for every mistake uttered the priest can slam it down and a purple whammy ala press your luck comes down the aisle and laughs at you. Little kids will root for the whammy, thus engaging them to hear all the words and follow along. After all, the family that prays together, stays together.

9) Who needs Bingo? Have pew bingo at every mass with seats assigned to a number. B16 just made a mistake. The first person to shout Bingo wins pending a check of their card after communion.

10) And finally…all congregation members who make a mistake have to do the electric slide at the end of mass. Parishioners vote for the best electric slider. We could call it Catholic Idol and have it broadcasted on FOX and added to you tube.

In all seriousness, I would add one note. We’re all struggling with this. I don’t find this to be helpful or any more beautiful than it was before. It doesn’t exactly help my prayer in any significant way thus far. And I’m finding most people could care less one way or the other. At best, it’s awkward and at worst, it’s frustrating or even ignored.

Perhaps it would have been enough, if we realized that what happens at mass should actually strike us speechless. God offers himself to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar and we all too easily want to talk about it and none of it can really capture the mystery.

We should celebrate that…and perhaps that would have been enough. After all, it’s because of this, that all of our mistakes are erased.

One Young Adult’s Experience of Finding a Church…Can you Relate?

Mary Donovan summed up what I’ve come to know as “the Church Search” trying to find a community that’s a good fit for one’s self. If find older people at times wondering why no young people are in their pews. Oftentimes, it’s because for younger people church has a different context.

Check out some of Mary’s thoughts:

I’ve been church shopping for more than three years now. I’m not much of a shopper so it’s getting tiring, but I’m not about to give up. I’m choosey: I want good music, a diverse and accepting community, a priest who consistently gives relevant and challenging homilies, and a church culture that embraces social justice. I’ve found churches that have some of the things on my list, but finding all of them in one place has proven to be a challenge.

Now full disclosure, I know Mary. She was one of the volunteers in our diocese’s Catholic Charities Volunteer Service Corps last year. I encouraged her to start writing for Busted Halo® and she attended a retreat I ran last year as well. She’s even come to my parish on occasion. And you can bet your last buck that I’ll be taking her to lunch to talk further about her search and what we’re not doing right in our parish (if anything).

But I love the things she points out as being elements of a church she really wants and I really appreciated the fact that she pointed out what keeps her from church:

– not having a ride
– not seeing young families
– student masses that only connect with campus life and leave us unchallenged

And when she hasn’t been able to go to a church–how does she stay engaged spiritually?

Volunteering, having meaningful conversations about spirituality, learning about different spiritual traditions, going on retreats, and sticking with my already established spiritual practices kept me connected to God even without a church to call home and on the weeks I didn’t attend church.

Sounds like she does much more than the average person who punches their mass clock each week and lumbers out unreflectively. And that should tell us all something.

Younger people want more out of their experience on Sunday. They want to be engaged, they want to understand, they want to be challenged to take that next step. They want time to think and consider in quiet contemplation and be moved and they want the rousing engaged community to go forth from that place renewed by the spirit together to create change in a sometimes and all too often broken world.

And that’s my job to try to create that. Most days I think we do a good job. But I know I get too easily disappointed by the lack of younger people in pews everywhere–here included—and we’re not doing all that bad from what we hear from the young people who are engaged here. I shudder to think what goes on elsewhere.

So thanks, Mary. Lunch or dinner is on me. Let’s keep the conversation going.

And anyone else…let’s chat.

Blow Amongst Us Spirit of God

Br. Chris Derby, S.J. kneels before the Body of Christ as he recites his final vows to the Society of Jesus.
It’s a weekend of Holy Spirit festivities this weekend. Today I spent the morning at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at Canisius High School where we witnessed the final vows of Br. Chris Derby, SJ as a member of the Society of Jesus. I got to catch up with Fr. Tom Benz, SJ who was a scholastic when I was an undergraduate student at Fordham and often invited me over to their home for dinner. The famed Fr. Jim Martin, SJ also was there and we had a great time listening to him regale us with stories at lunch. We should note that Br. Chris is a Jesuit Brother, not a priest. I asked him once when I first met him why he chose to be a Brother and not a priest. His response amazed me. He said:

“Well, a priest leads a community both at mass and in other ways. I don’t see myself in that role, in the lead. I see myself walking alongside people, journeying with them.”

Br. Chris serves as my spiritual director here in Buffalo and he is true to that call. He walks with me as a companion and confidant and I’m always gifted by his wisdom and his insight. It’s a new relationship for us, so we are taking this where the spirit guides us and so far it’s been an opportunity for me to see how great God truly is and how often I’m touched by his presence through others. The Holy Spirit blows where it will and quite often I feel that hurricane and breath in my life and Chris often points that out to me when I’m missing it.

Mass was lovely and included this hymn to the Holy Spirit, At the Table of the World which is one of my favorites performed here on you tube which doesn’t let me embed.

The rest of our weekend includes some leadership training for our student leaders where we’ll discern where the holy spirit is calling them to serve in our midst and in the lives of their friends and colleagues. It’s an exciting time. We head to a camp tomorrow to do a low-ropes and obstacle course (I’ve been getting in shape) and to listen for God’s call for the remainder of our school year. Keep them and my colleagues Julianne, Ed and Katie in your prayers this weekend if you would.

Sunday we have our Mass of the Holy Spirit and award our Newman Award to UB’s Head Basketball Coach, the esteemed Reggie Witherspoon. Our new UB President, Satish Tripathy will be joining us as well for the morning mass and we’re touched by his acceptance of the invitation. We’ll have our choirs and Fr. Jack Ledwon will be preaching on the Holy Spirit in our lives. The spirit is indeed alive at UB. My colleague Ed Koch and I met with Vice-President of Student Life Dennis Black and Barb Ricotta the other day and we talked about how we can bring that spirit more openly to the campus–not just as Catholic Campus Ministers but as UB Campus Ministers—in a spirit of collaboration and interfaith dialogue with all of the Campus Ministers at the University. They had lots of good ideas and generated much excitement for the future of Campus Ministry.

Our mass will be a celebration of that spirit past and present. If you’re around, join us. It’s a lovely day filled with much joy and spirit.

For us, let us discern where the Holy Spirit is calling us to be in this moment. TO whom should we go? To Christ, and only Christ. Where do we see him? In all those we are called to serve: Students, faculty, staff, our families and friends. To those in tragedy and those who are elated.

The spirit is blowing wildly. We can’t pin it down. The best we can do is let us take us on the ride of our lives, where God pushes us to be the best version of ourselves.

Tennis Fans Go the Way of Baseball Crowds

Last year, for my 40th birthday, I took a trip with Big League Tours to four different baseball stadiums that I had not previously visited (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati) . I had a blast as you can see in this picture with the Pirate Parrot and if you’re a baseball fan, I’d highly recommend Big League Tours. They’re loads of fun and the seats are fantastic and they get you ballpark tours and player experiences as well (Dave Parker met us in Cincy and was really a fun guy).

However, while I was with a bunch of nutso baseball fans, I noticed a disturbing trend all around us:

Nobody was watching the game.

It seems that the ballpark experience today is more about what’s going on besides the game. What can I get to eat, what other distractions are there and what music will they play between innings? Sometimes if the team is popular or are winning, the ballpark becomes a place to be seen as well and celebs make their way to the choice seats.

Now the leisurely pace of baseball lends itself to SOME distractions and I’ve had numerous philosophical conversations with friends and colleague over nine innings…but we at least knew what was going on down on the field. I keep a scorecard because I’m a baseball geek and don’t expect others to, but some people can’t tell me if there’s two outs or one. True baseball fans realize that at the game every nuance means something–and what I think makes baseball so exciting and nerve wracking. Baseball isn’t about what’s happening so much as what MIGHT happen and what a manager MIGHT do. I could speculate all day long about pitching and catching and where the infielders are playing and why the outfield isn’t shifted to left against A-Rod. In my opinion, the game’s the thing and the distractions are a bonus that I don’t particularly need but many people come to the game for them.

Guess what? Tennis isn’t far behind. A recent article in the New York Times tells the story:

Mixed doubles was front and center at Arthur Ashe Stadium one afternoon last week. Not on the court, where a United States Open women’s singles match was being played, but in a midlevel suite where two men and two women, drinks in hand and backs to the court, carried on as if they were at a cocktail mixer.

On one point, their peals of laughter caused the server to catch her toss and the chair umpire to call for silence. The suite holders were so oblivious, they did not know the scolding was directed at them. The match ended, and they kept talking.

Afterward, the winner, Victoria Azarenka, whose high-decibel grunts were not the main distraction for a change, said, “As a player, we would all like to have a bit of respect and quietness.”

More than any of the other tennis Grand Slam events, the United States Open is where elite sport and high society intersect. Its premier show court, 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, has 90 suites that are leased for $250,000 for the fortnight, ensuring that any match will have dilettantes mixing with die-hard fans.

I think this says a lot about the attention span of the modern person, perhaps even the younger set.

Researchers tell us it’s the equivalent of a hummingbird.

So here’s a challenge for all of us, sports fans or not. What can we give our full attention to without all of the distractions? Can we spend a full minute in silence without going crazy or even doing anything once an hour? Could we journal for hours? Be focused on one task instead of defaulting to multi-tasking six things at once?

Can we even spend an hour at a peaceful mass without all the hoopla that sometimes breaks our prayer?

My students tell me that they need that peace. That they are surrounded by noise and distractions all the time. Church, for them, is an hour of peace and quiet without the need for high energy vibrance that surrounds them all day long. They look forward to our 8PM mass and when we pause for just a moment of silence to start mass and re-focus ourselves on our relationship with God and others and what’s truly life-giving.

While sports sometimes imitates life, I think in this case, perhaps some sports fans need a quiet mass. And maybe then, they’ll realize that the distractions are in the way of something truly beautiful.

A great game.

How I Met My Ministry: The Early Years

Kids, this is a story that we’ll tell for the next few weeks. It’s a story of how I met my ministry. Having no children of my own and taking a cue from my favorite TV show (How I Met Your Mother), I’ll begin to tell the story of how I got involved in ministry to begin with. It’ll be filled with many humorous tales as well as a bunch of serious ones.

In some ways it started when I was about 9 years old and I became an altar boy. Back then only boys served on the altar and you had to be in at least 4th grade. Our parish deacon has created a group called The Knights of the Altar Society. We served mass, did some service projects, played at the parish school gym on Saturday afternoons and took trips to Six Flags together. It was a fun time.

That first mass was an interesting time. I was tiny compared to the two guys who were training me. Henry DiLello and Dominic Finouli were both high schoolers. They were nice guys and they took me under their wing as a little brother, especially Dominic, who was simply a nice guy. They taught me the various roles at the altar. One server was “book” and another was “bell.” Sometimes a third server would be “cross” and at a high mass a fourth server was “thurifer” which meant that he’d handle the incense.

It was a Wednesday morning mass. They found me an alb and had me write my name in it. It was a plain white alb with a hood. We tied it with a cincture and then a cross went around my neck and was tucked underneath the alb’s hood. The older guys wore black cassocks and a white surplice. The cassock had a space for the white tab that a priest would wear but ours were just worn sans tab.

I was simply going to observe at this mass itself, but I would also handle some pre-mass and post-mass duties. Henry lit the taper in the long gold holder that we used to light the candles. The candles were bigger than me so it wasn’t easy to light them. The harder I tried the longer the flame became. Henry had left me alone to light the candles but then, when he saw the foot-long flame on the taper he ran to me and had me snuff out the flame! We re-lit and Henry watched me, lest I burn the church down. I learned when to get the book for the priest, when the chalice was needed and when we’d get the water and wine from the credence table. Everything was done together with Henry and Dom moving as a sharply trained drill team.

I watched carefully, learned all the responses and prayed that I’d be up to the task. It seemed like a serious matter to be on the altar. I don’t think I feel any differently even today. We kept our hands in prayer position and they were on our knees while seated. We also had to wear shoes and nice clothes, even if we took our shirts off before putting our alb on.

I can still remember our prayers before and after mass.

Server’s Prayer before Mass
Open my mouth, O Lord,
To Bless your holy name
Clear my mind of all evil
And Distracting thoughts

Ignite my understanding
Inflame my will
That I may serve eagerly at
your Holy Altar

O Mary, mother of Christ,
The High Priest
Obtain for me the most important grace:
Of Knowing my vocation in life.

Grant me a true spirit of faith
And humble obedience
That I may ever behold the priest
as a representative of God
And willingly follow him in the way and truth and the life of Christ Amen.

Server’s Prayer After Mass
O Lord Jesus Christ
Eternal High Priest
I thank you for the privilege
of serving at the Holy Altar of your sacrifice.

Now as I put aside the garments of that service
I ask that I may at all times think of you.
May I ever seek you and find you,
may I always follow you.

Ever ready in your service
May I always come to do your will
In all things
And by your grace
persevere unto the end. Amen

I’ve had the same conversation with people over the years about girls serving at the altar, which I think is a great idea. The Diocese of Phoenix decided today that unfortunately, they would no longer be granting women and girls the privilege of being altar servers. We didn’t have girls or young women serving in my day and I think that was a big loss. I know what my experience was with the guys and how valuable it was, but I don’t think it would have been any less an experience if girls were around. Perhaps some would not have come to our recreation activities on Saturday as we played football, hockey and other sports all afternoon and put tables up for bingo when we finished. At times some sisters of our buddies would travel on group outings with us and it didn’t disrupt things a bit other than the usual puppy dog crushes that some one of us would have on our friend’s sister and her yelling that someone punched her in the arm (a young boy’s usual way of showing a girl affection).

Regardless, of the obvious sexism at play, some have offered the thought that young men won’t be altar servers if they see girls on the altar. My response to that is that they might be right about that. But they also should note the responsibility we all have to tell them that this isn’t a good reason to NOT be an altar server. Secondly, it’s up to that person who does the inviting to ministry to invite equal numbers of boys and girls, as well as, men and women who are lectors and eucharistic ministers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that whoever has the responsibility for liturgical ministers often gets it wrong, opting for a preference over one gender (male or female) over another.

I know what my experience as an altar server was. From a practical standpoint, I know it kept me off the streets and probably saved me from a lot of dangerous activity in my neighborhood. But mostly, it was an opportunity to engage with mass, to develop a love of the mass. It made the priests I served with more human and approachable and certainly, it gave me a love of the church and of ministry. I still love serving at the altar as a lector or eucharistic minister. But it all started with Deacon Al Impallomeni and Dominic and Henry. Their dedication to the altar was amazing and it gave me an opportunity to see others who were prayerful people.

In short, I think it saved my life and it continues to do so each and every week, when Christ gives himself to us so that we might have life eternal.

So kids, It’s a serious matter, I hope servers, male and female, remember that and appreciate their role as much as I do. Up next, How I Met My Ministry in College.

The Church of the White Middle Aged Woman

So last week, I was out of town in Washington, D.C. and attended mass at a lovely community that came highly recommended to me. What I found there was a confirmation of much that I’ve noticed nationwide.

I looked at the altar and saw three white female altar servers all over the age of 40. The lectors were both white, one male, one female (the male was a lousy lector by the way) both, I suspect, over 35. All of the eucharistic ministers were over the age of 50 and they were all white women.

I can hear female baby boomers applauding this. If so, you might want to stop reading because I’m not sharing in your enthusiasm. Why? When I looked to the back half of the church, it was filled with younger men and women, most of them recent graduates of nearby universities. Presumably , none of them have been invited into ministry.

Repeatedly, over the years, I’ve heard from a number of people in the church that when it comes to ministers on the altar “we don’t need anymore men up there.” I can understand the sentiment. Women are not eligible to be ordained priests and therefore we should give them the opportunity to serve at the altar as much as possible. Women who have fought for equal treatment for women for years in the church are predominantly baby boomers. And because they are in the majority in our church (and have been now for some time), the opportunities are slim for younger people simply because older people don’t invite them into ministry when they see them.

Younger people in the Catholic church are by and large on foreign ground. They don’t know the rituals and symbols because Catholic practice has waned as a part of the family unit, the parents of younger people today have not always made religious practice a priority and therefore they don’t either. When they enter our churches, they don’t see anyone who looks like them in roles of ministry often. (That’s why the young priest is often popular, by the way!). The few that are involved are most likely involved because their family always have been involved in church.

I want to also cite my own failure as a now “semi-middle aged” male of 41 (and yet, still one of the younger ones, my baby boomer colleagues will tell me) and as a minister in the church. I don’t invite enough young people into ministry and I especially don’t invite younger men all that often. I sometimes am timid and shy around new people and need experiences with people to break the ice.

That ends today.

I’m issuing a challenge, it’s to myself but it’s also to all of those people who have been so active and vibrant and to whom the church should be more grateful for their service for these many years.

We’re not all that old, but we’re also not all that young. We’ve got a limited time to invite the younger people around us into roles that others invited us into. So this Sunday, simply put, invite someone who is “not you” into ministry. It could be:

– Your husband or child
– A young family who sits near you
– A graduate student or a recent grad who you’ve seen around
– Anybody who recently got married (Pastors and marriage ministers could send them all a letter very easily–even better would be a direct ask)
– University Students
– Someone who you know is Catholic and who is a great speaker (a lector awaits!)
– The young woman with an inviting attitude simply by her presence
– The quiet guy who prays piously at Mary’s statue after mass each week

For myself, I’ve done some of this before, but need to do better. I recently invited a young couple to get more involved with our university students and they were so honored to be asked. Last year, I asked a young haitian woman to be a eucharistic minister and she accepted and then went on to lead our spring social justice project and our alternative spring break.

So there are great rewards ahead for those who dare to reach out just a bit.

This Sunday, I’m finding a young African man who I’ve been friendly with lately and I’m going to ask him if he’d consider being a eucharistic minister. There are dozens of newly marrieds that I’m asking to get more involved each time I see them, one whom I know can be a great lector.

The message of the day is that it’s too intimidating for them to ask you how they can get involved. We need to break the ice. We need to openly ask for their gifts not in an announcement that says “all those willing to be eucharistic ministers, ushers, lectors, come after mass to sign up.” But rather, we need to be more like Christ and say “I want you! Come follow me.” This is all part of being a welcoming community and we cannot afford to fail.

Our protestant brothers and sisters are all too happy to do this every time we don’t. There’s a reason that the biggest denomination out there is former Catholics. For most, their reason for leaving is boredom and the more involved one can get, the less likely they are to be bored.

I hope you can take this challenge not as a criticism, or even as a lack of appreciation for all you have been for the church (especially the thousands of women who rightfully deserve our respect). Rather, I hope you see this as an opportunity to be generative, to be mentors not of a future, but of today. For our twenty and thirty somethings are the now of our church. And we cannot afford to waste another second of not inviting them to be a more vibrant part of the Eucharistic meal.

Have fun growing your ministry of today. And let me know your success stories and struggles.

Should We Clap at Mass?

The anchoress had a recent “hissy fit” post up regarding clapping at mass. (I think crankiness is entertaining). You know, the spontaneous outbursts for the choir when their musical skills shine and people just can’t help themselves and they break into applause.

Technically speaking, mass is not a performance or entertainment. I can appreciate those (The Anchoress included) who find the clapping inappropriate. But, I’d also throw in the following suggestion: creating sacred space takes a lot of care and many are involved in that, should be appreciated for it and are often not. That said, it also is important for people to be led into a deeper prayer experience by those involved in worship, rather than be simply entertained by them.

Creating a prayerful worship experience is more than simply having good cantors and musicians, it’s about intentionally leading people beyond what is their usual experience of music into something more transcendent. It needs to be something where nobody would dare clap afterwards because their experience has led them into that kind of liminal space that places them in deeper contemplation.

That takes “direction” to help people get into that frame of mind. Some examples:

Before our student mass, I usually come out and call the congregation into worship. We welcome one another at the start. There’s movement and noise and people generally like doing this. But then there’s a more intentional “stilling” that follows. This is where we take a moment for quiet, an opportunity to actually focus on what is about to happen and we sit in quiet contemplation, just for a brief moment, to think about what our intention might be for the next hour or so.

The students love it. Our permanent community that attends has stopped me afterwards and told me the same. We’ve intentionally made the “feel” of this mass quieter and more contemplative. It takes work.

Now I’ve been to plenty of other liturgies where there is clapping (after various musical numbers mostly). Sometimes as a response to something in the homily, people will also applaud. And it is no less, a transcendent experience for some. Sometimes people can’t help but clap. They don’t know another way to express gratitude, not merely for good music (which is rare in most places, mind you), but for what God has done for them.

Honestly, the issue with clapping in most places has less to do with the music and the minister’s personality and more to do with the overwhelming BOREDOM that exists in most places. When people come to a mass where there is good music, good preaching and a welcoming feel to it–they are excited, perhaps for the first time in a church.

And that, friends, is a good thing. Perhaps clapping actually keeps people in the church in some cases?

So in general, I’ll take the clapping church over the boring church anytime.

Now all of that said, some further notes:

I think we can do a lot to move people into a deeper sense of contemplation, even in the more “rousing” communities. Choirs can be less performative and more centered, but it’s the presiders and the liturgists that need to put things in perspective. People get bored because they don’t know HOW to participate and clapping is a more passive response to liturgy as opposed to a fuller participation. There’s a need to explain lots, assume little (and with the new translations coming, there’s a bigger need to start doing this now). Give stage directions if you have to. Tell people why we should stand together after communion and sing as opposed to kneeling or sitting (as the Bishops have directed us BTW). Give people something to think about before the choir sings that great post communion hymn. Say the prayer over the last few bars of the song quietly as the cantor hits those last notes –make it all an OBVIOUS prayer!

Some other suggestions for contemplation outside of the musical elements where people might want to clap:

Tell people why there is an offertory procession and what their role is in it.

Give people a snippet of what might be helpful to concentrate on before the readings are read. (Sometimes the church plunks us down in the middle of a story in the first reading—do you think anyone knows what’s going on? They don’t. Get over it and help them. “Here’s what’s going on–so pay attention to X and Y.” Then the lector starts. It’s one or two lines–not a mini homily.)

Engage your congregation, they need you and want you and really need assistance to be more fully aware and engaged during mass.

Back to that clapping…. I’ve noticed one or two interesting trends with regards to clapping:

1) Women clap more often than men do. That’s clapping DURING rousing gospel-based songs and after one is finished. (I don’t know why, they just do. I’ve done lots of anecdotal research on this and will blog more about some general liturgical trends regarding men and women tomorrow).

2) Middle aged people clap after hymns much more often than younger people do. (I don’t know why, they just do.)

3) Younger people favor more contemplative liturgy over liturgy that has more of the communal elements involved. They appreciate reverence and quiet more than their older counterparts in general. And they live in a noisier world than their older counterparts did when they were their age.

4) If people were invited into participating in liturgy more they’d be less apt to clap at mass and more engaged in liminal space.

5) If you ask people to stop clapping they will be angry. AND RIGHTFULLY SO. I often say, “good luck getting them to stop clapping.” In this case, asking clapping to cease is less important than providing the obvious prayerful experience that makes them less apt to clap–in fact, it’s about making that time inappropriate to clap by design. If they’re clapping, it’s probably due to a lack of direction on our own part as liturgy presiders and directors. That’s our fault as leaders, not theirs. We’re the ones who are boring them.

In general, I’m not opposed to clapping in every instance. (Would we not clap after an ordination? I think the more conservative folks in the church would be on their feet clapping vigorously) But I do think we can make mass a more engaging and moving experience if we took time and care with engaging people in liturgy.

Meeting Jesus in Misery – Update

It was the worst news we could imagine. We never expected it to happen. We thought everything was just sailing along smoothly, in fact life had been better than it ever had been.

Until now…

This week had been a good one for me. I wrote an op-ed for the Buffalo News that got rave reviews. I was elected co-conveneer of the UB Campus Ministry Association. One of my favorite students had been chosen to be a Catholic Volunteer in Buffalo. National Public Radio interviewed me for a story on their website. And I had not one, but two promising book deals on the horizon.

And then there was Thursday…when the phone rang.

“Hello my sister!” I said, happy to hear her voice. “How are you?”

Her response was blunt, “I’m full of colon cancer.”

The world stopped right there. I was on the road to what I thought was a wonderful summer, a wonderful end to the semester. And now…well, I didn’t know what to think.

This was not unlike our disciples today who also had high hopes for Jesus–the one they expected to redeem Israel. And then….

Crucifixion. Death. Entombment. And then crazy women told them that he was alive. It seemed like a cruel joke when they returned to the tomb and found it empty but didn’t find Jesus.

That 7 mile walk, must’ve been quite disconcerting. What were they to do? They had given up their very lives for this Jesus and now he was dead. All was lost and the worst possible news had indeed happened.

We all end up on the road to Emmaus, at one point or another. It’s a road that none of us want to be on. It’s scary. It’s unfamiliar. It’s an unexpected experience. It’s a road that nobody ever wants to walk on alone.

And these two disciples were no different knowing that they needed one another for support in these most dire of times. And then luck struck. A stranger who comes and offers them more companionship. Sometimes isn’t it just great to get an unbiased opinion of things? And this guy turns things upside down and gives them hope, renews their faith so that they just might believe one last time that perhaps death and suffering may not be the final word.

We don’t know what is going to happen to my sister. For our graduates tonight, you don’t know what awaits you either as you leave. But we do know two things:

The first is that no matter how many good things happen to you, the occasional bad one will come your way and it will stop you in your tracks. None of us escape suffering.

But the second one is the good news of the gospel…whenever we are on that scary road to Emmaus, when all seems lost, Jesus comes and will meet each one of us on that road. And quite often, we’ll all be too tied up with our our fear, or hate, or stubbornness, or pain that we will just miss him altogether. We’ll need a reminder. And so we come here and break the bread and have our eyes opened and are called into belief one more time, supported in belief by a faith community.

Eventually on that road, we all come in for a rest stop. We are able to come to a place where all are welcome, indeed where there are no strangers. Where each of us meets that Jesus in disguise–in one another–and we are never the same again. It is there where we realize that he is alive again…and has been with us always even in the most troublesome times of our lives. It is when we come around this table that we remind ourselves that suffering, or poverty, or losing a job, or failure….

Or even Cancer will not have the final word.

No, God always offers us something else. Something better. God offers us Himself. And it is more than enough.

May we always be able to see that. And may our prayers for one another keep that sure and certain hope alive and burning in our hearts….

No matter what hand life deals us.

UPDATE for those interested: My sister received some preliminary good news yesterday. It seems as if no “fast moving cancer” is in her system. We’ll know more about the stage of colon cancer and prognosis once blood work comes back in 5-8 days. I think my big sister is about to kick cancer’s ass. Thanks for the prayers.

Do You Grieve for Those Who Leave Catholicism?

Peter Steinfels is grieving the loss of adherents to Catholicism today in Commonweal. This analysis is fairly spot-on:

Most of us base our impressions (GG editor’s note: of disaffected Catholics) on our networks of family, friends, fellow worshipers, students, and colleagues—or on news sources that rely, at best, on a few experts and church officials, who in turn have their own networks and may or may not be finding what they want to find. The problem with our personal experience and networks—and this goes for the media too—is of course what the sociologists call “sampling error.” Last summer, for example, conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the Atlantic that “for millions in Europe and America,” Catholicism is “finished”—“permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The word “finished” evidently struck a nerve. Many commentators on blogs, apart from the predictably querulous or bitter, poignantly described how for themselves or family members a once-strong Catholic faith was reaching some point of no return.

What resonated for me personally was the overall note of grieving. Having written a book about the future of the whole Catholic Church in the United States (A People Adrift), I have increasingly come to narrow my sights. These days I think about that future in terms of my two grandsons, ages ten and seven, the children of Ivy League–educated parents, one Catholic and the other a thoughtful nonbeliever. Sociologically, the track record for successfully passing on the faith in these circumstances is not the best, to say nothing of my own shortcomings as a parent or grandparent. But month after month, year after year, I also see decisions (but mostly nondecisions) by Catholic leaders steadily reducing even further the chances that the faith will be the central reality and priceless blessing in my grandsons’ lives that it was in mine and my wife’s. I realize that I am grieving.

I too grieve for those who leave the church. I rejoice when they return as well. What exactly though are we grieving?

Are we grieving the loss of their gifts and talents in our community? Are we grieving because we think they are lost souls? Are we grieving because they have been hurt by some aspect of the church, be it an official teaching or a more personal experience with a cleric? Do we grieve because quite frankly many of those “in house” screwed up royally?

What part of our church is in need of healing? What opportunity do we have to look internally at what causes rifts and not simply bury our head in the sand with a “take us or leave us” attitude?

A final thought: What part of this has to do more with the evolution of a post-modern individualistic culture than anything else? People are “Bowling Alone” to steal a line from the famed sociologist Robert Putnam. Communities are always a reference point anymore when discernment comes up for people. They can just as easily reference a few trusted sources online and come to a conclusion on their own. The danger here is never having our own thoughts criticized and opened up further by others. Social networking often serves as a mini-panacea for the lack of “group think” but what of group prayer, ritual and the gathering of the two or three in the name of Jesus?

It seems to me that we have a much larger problem than people leaving because they are pissed off at the church. We have a church unable to meet people where they are. To talk candidly and publicly about what we teach and our intellectual tradition and the dangers of fundamentalism.

We are at risk of the re-ghettoization of the Catholic minority.

A final quick story: In a NYC elevator a friend spoke of her Jewish tradition which provoked a conversation about the religiousness of the other passengers in the elevator–trusted colleagues all.

“Well I’m Episcopalian.” said one.

Another Jew stated his Reformed Jewish status.

Finally, a Catholic quipped, “Well, I’m Catholic….non-practicing, of course.”

The last passenger wondered why, felt her face get flush and hoped to God that the elevator doors immediately opened. They did and out she rushed without a confession. Too afraid of being ostracized for being a (gasp!) practicer of Catholicism.

I think that mentality of embarrassment is far more prevalent than we think. Even those of us in the club often fear bringing up our faith because we just don’t have enough energy to defend the stupidity of bishop’s decisons, the media’s characterization of us as freakish and the lack of creativity in the average parish. Some, myself included, are bold enough to at least articulate what belonging really means to us. But for many of the young, simply put, they just can’t bother and don’t have the time it would take to unpack the baggage that’s been lugged around by too many for too long.

Steinfels notes that the Bishops have a lot on their plate at their November meeting. Perhaps they should dump their agendas and think about this for a few days first before the majority of the church even seems, to use Steinfels words, further adrift?

Your thoughts? Do you find family and friends hostile or indifferent to the church? Leaving? Happy? What’s your experience?

What Will People Wear to Your Funeral?

An English teacher I had in high school had us write our own obituary as an exercise. In college, I took a class called Death and Dying where we did a similar exercise. Lastly, I’m Irish, and we think about death a lot.

And so, I was thrust into my own Irishness yesterday when Fr. Z’s blog was sent to me by some of my compadre bloggers. He, and his audience of “liturgy rubricians” (is that even a word?), suggest that black vestments be used for funerals. They don’t give any really good reasons for it in my view (see, combox) other than “well the Pope once said that you COULD do it.” Mind you, the same pope didn’t say that you SHOULD do it. He just didn’t forbid priests from doing it altogether. Ahhhh, freedom!

Now, I like the use of white for liturgy vestments at a funeral simply because it is an Easter moment and a reminder of Baptism. We live in hope, in faith– and not in assurance– that the person is with God. Our notions of time have no boundaries in heaven, a point that people who say, “I will be in purgatory a long time”, often misconstrue. Therefore, the dead person may be praying for us as a saint in heaven already. They may also not be. We don’t really know–but we still live in hope. I don’t think that black makes that hope any more profound, not do I think that white makes it any less of a teaching moment or drive home the point that we need to pray for the person’s soul. I think it simply serves to make people hopeless and afraid.

Do we really think that black vestments place the “Oh my gosh, I’d better straighten up or I’ll go straight to hell” mindset in some people’s minds? I think they come TO the funeral thinking that long before they even see a priest.

White also connects us with baptism and all those saints that came before us to this very moment of faith. This moment when we get to make the ultimate choice for a life with God or not. Can God really be all we need or do we still hold on to something else, kicking and screaming, that we still long for something else?

We trust that God can forgive, nay perfectly forgive. And we hope that our deceased brother or sister may accept God’s forgiveness over their own choices to choose their own desires–a choice still available to us in the afterlife when we are brought face to face with our own failings in this one by God. Do we believe that life continues? Then we believe that we still have free will and we still have the freedom NOT to choose God.

But we also are faced with a God who wipes the slate clean if we only ask.

Hmmm…a clean slate. Kinda looks like a white vestment to me.

Since I’m Irish, I do think about death a lot…and the “thin places” where I believe the saints, all the people with God, still talk with us. And so I wait for my own death in hope as well. That I may join the saints and be considered worthy enough for life eternal. That I may choose the saints over other choices that leave me unfulfilled and that as Thomas Merton reminds me, I may choose to be a saint, especially when it is all too easy to choose not to be the best version of myself.

Funerals mean a lot to me. On my computer, I have a file called a “dead file” which contains matters pertaining to my funeral liturgy and wake. I’ve emphasized that there are people that should be “nowhere near the pulpit” those days. People who would not make this a prayerful moment, but rather thrust people into hopelessness and quite possibly boredom. I hope that my funeral and wake not be a day where people sum up my accomplishments and failures, but instead, simply pray in hope. To do the former would be to just celebrate my life here on earth, to do the latter would be to celebrate death. And in death, hope exists because we have a God who is hope, who can make all things new again. And the truth of the matter is that when I am long forgotten by people on this earth, I will not be by God. And that through baptism, I can once again be connected with all those who came before me.

Now that’s worth praying about. That is worth celebrating.

That is worth hoping for.

Today may we pray that beyond the death of loved ones we may be able to live in hope of the resurrection…and celebrate death.

No matter what some clown wears.