Frank discussions, advice, and opinions from a Catholic Director of Religious Education.

Friday, July 29, 2011

God, Capaneus and the Mugwumps (Part Two)

The young man that came to Giussani returned. The holy priest's final comment had, by the grace of God, accomplished its goal. The young man repented, recieved the sacraments and died soon after. He made a choice.
Mugwumps don't make choices. Historically, mugwumps were Republican activists around the latter part of the 19th century.
"During the 1884 campaign, they were often portrayed as "fence-sitters," with part of their body on the side of the Democrats and the other on the side of the Republicans."  Source
Whether this label accurately portrayed these men or not, I have always heard the term "Mugwump" used for someone who is never willing to commit. They sit in the middle of two warring parties, their mug on one side and their wump on the other, until ultimately they get shot.

Most of us are spiritual mugwumps to a certain degree, unwilling to fully cross to one side or the other, waiting to see if the cost isn't too high. That is why conversion is a lifelong process. I've noticed a growing trend among families, though, that is quite disturbing and it has everything to do with the way of life our society worships. Both parents work. The kids are in activities everyday. Computers, televion, video games and every other contraption are fully embraced and take up their remaining time. There are no big questions. There is no reflection. There is no time. These are the Super Mugwumps: beings so completely enmeshed in their own concerns that the become completely oblivious to the rest of the world and any conflict therin. It isn't that they won't choose, but that they can't even comprehend that there is a choice to make.

Then we get parents saying this:

"Lucy needs to make her 1st Holy Communion, but we don't think we should have to go to Mass every Sunday."
"Jake needs to get confirmed, but he is going to keep attending the Lutheran youth group and he thinks he might convert."
"I don't make my kids go to their religious ed. classes because they say it isn't any fun."
Catechesis isn't enough anymore, not when I need to keep convincing parents that class is important. Our job must be evangelization. We must show by a truly authentic joy and peace that there is another way. We must boldly love our neighbor: inviting them to Mass, to prayer, to God. We must look them in the eye and re-propose Catholicism. We must say like Monsignor Giussani "Isn't it even greater to love the infinite." Please pray for families. Please pray for good leaders. Please pray for the Church.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

God, Capaneus and the Mugwumps (Part One)

In his book, The Religious Sense, Monsignor Luigi Giusssani tells an interesting story about a young man who came to him for confession. Apparently, the youth had no faith to speak of, but went to the priest due to his mother's persistent requests. Monsignor Giussanni began to speak with him, but suddenly found himself laughed at as the young man brushed away his arguments.

"Listen, all that you are about to tell me is not worth as much as what I am about to tell you. You cannot deny that the true grandeur of man is represented by Dante's Capaneus, that giant chained by God to Hell, yet who cries to God, 'I cannot free myself from these chains because you bind me here. You cannot, however, prevent me from blaspheming you, and so I blaspheme you.' This is the true grandeur of man." -The Religious Sense, page 9

Intense, right? I can only imagine the look on Monsignor's face as this fellow spoke with such force and audacity. Yet, despite the shock he must have felt, Giussani composes himself and utters hauntingly: "But isn't it even greater to love the infinite?"
The boy left, but he had a point.

There is a terrible dignity in man's free will. It is the one true power of man, and this brash youth really appreciated that despite his error. To Giussani's credit, he doesn't debate this. It is grand, but he knew it was "greater to love"; to use our will to serve Another. 

Both men, though they disagreed, recognized the great dignity and importance of choice.  Consider that tonight, and check back tomorrow to find out what happened to the young man and why this is important for catechesis today.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Children and the "G" Word

A few years ago I was walking through a class of children as they were drawing pictures of St. Paul. When I cast a quick glance on this picture I immediately entered into DRE Mode. Before I could begin my standard lecture against using the Lord's name in vain, however, I took a closer look and just had to laugh. If you were EVER going to say OMG, this would be the time to do it. Now, whether the child understood the irony of using this phrase in  a truly appropriate context is doubtful (especially since St. Paul was riding a John Deere just off screen), but nevertheless he taught me the important lesson of not jumping to conclusions. He also sparked an interesting question: when should we correct others for misusing God's name and what is the best way to do that?

Kids are generally easy. The right look paired with "We don't say that Johnny" works miracles. Yes, catechize them when possible. Yes, praise them when they do well. In the moment, though, when you are trying to keep order in a class, a firm rebuke followed by immediately returning to what you were doing can do a lot to show children what is acceptable behavior.  

Adults are a different matter altogether, especially if you can't ever catch them alone. Last year, during Confirmation, the bishop discussed this very subject to my everlasting joy. He suggested uttering a pious saying or prayer whenever someone misused God's holy name. In other words, if someone said "OMG" then you would say (aloud) something like "Have mercy on us" or "Blessed be His name." I really liked this at first, but then it became apparent that it takes a person with a certain natural warmth to say this out loud and not come off like a jerk. With my personality I know that if I said this to another adult, especially one I did not know well, they would actually hear "Have mercy on us...cough, cough... you're a sinner...cough,cough...shun...cough, cough. Oh, and you're kid is a brat."

Exaggeration? Maybe. But I really don't think my constant corrections will do much more than annoy and alienate most people. This is why I tend to take a low key approach with this particular sin. For some time now I have been opting to leave adults alone unless I see that it is a major problem or they are in leadership roles. Instead, if it is a slip here or there, I simply bow my head ever so slightly and think the words "Blessed be God forever." I offer these small prayers for that person, my own sins, and God's glory. I think this small act of love toward God in response to such disrespect must go a long way toward repairing the damage of sin. I also do this during movies, TV shows and video games and it is surprising how much I find myself praying as a result. It has really awakened me to the amount of times our world must misuse the Lord's name and to how important reparation is.

Above all we should practice prudence. What is the situation? Who is being corrected? What is their relationship to you? These are all important questions to consider before resorting to charitable correction. In the end, though, we have to acknowledge that only God can change hearts and pray more fervently for our brethren and our own salvation.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Catholic Word of the Week

Anamnesis: Calling to mind or recollection. This is the prayer, after the consecration, where the Church calls to mind the Lord's passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This is the high point of the Mass as a memorial of what happened during Christ's visible stay on earth.

Luke 22:19, RSV

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance (anamn─ôsis) of me."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The First Post

Some time ago, I read Introduction to Christianity by Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, for a graduate class. The Holy Father mentioned an analogy that has stuck with me since then and become more and more relevant in my life as I continue to work in the Church. Essentially, the story goes that there is a circus which, through some unfortunate event, catches fire. As everyone works to fight this fire, a clown, already dressed for his performance with makeup, shoes and all, runs to the local village to get help. He arrives in the town square and warns them of the fire and the threat that it could spread and consume the village itself. The villagers, seeing the clown in his comedic dress, think that he is simply putting on a show and trying to get patrons for the circus. They laugh and think he is doing a marvelous job. The clown, now desperate, pleads all the more, but the more insistent he is, the more the villagers laugh and applaud his commitment. The theologian, says Ratzinger, is the clown who "cannot make people really listen to his message." The people feel that they are "already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance that has little or nothing to do with reality."

Now, all analogies limp. They aren't perfect. I am not a doom and gloom prophet proclaiming the end of the Church, burning to the ground like the circus, due to our inability, or stubborn refusal, to hear the warnings given to us. Instead, what I see as important in this story is the proposition that a large number of families who identify as catholic compartmentalize their faith. They go to Mass and listen to the priest's homily and say "what a nice performance" before going home, forgetting what was said and doing whatever it is they want to do. They act as if their faith has nothing to do with their everyday life.

I'll give you an example. One of my first phone calls from a parent came with a scathing rebuke of theology. A mother said that the kids simply didn't need "this theology stuff." Now, if you do not already know, theology is essentially the way we apply reason to our faith. G.K. Chesterton put it another way: "Theology is simply that part of religion which requires brains." This is important because we can only apply the tenets of our faith to our lives if, to use another analogy, faith and reason kiss.

Now, this mother seemed to be arguing that the children only needed to know that God loved them and that they should be good. I doubt she fully realized what she was arguing for and where it would lead. Whether she understood it or not, though, she was arguing for a faith based solely on feelings and experience. In other words, a show. Like many others, I think she was afraid that any serious study of the faith or use of traditional language would drive children away from the Church. I disagree.

Even better, I think our previous Holy Father backs me up. We can look to the words of Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio when he states that "it is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition."

As for the vocabulary of theology, it is challenging, but it is also rich in history and meaning. It would be a mistake to abandon it for the hope that a secular vocabulary would suddenly awaken our parishioners and children to the necessity of faith. In fact, Ratzinger himself makes this point when discussing the analogy of the clown as he says that "the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naive."

Having grown up with the very way of thinking that this mother promoted, I know full well that it does not work. It is precisely a challenge that young people are looking  for, that the gospel requires to be taken up, and that I hope to propose to students in my work as a DRE. This blog will be a log of my experiences in doing so, along with some ideas about catechesis, information about the Church and her teachings and whatever else I think important. Hopefully it will be of some help to those of you reading it.