Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Practicing the Fundamentals

Quite regularly I try to deal with RCIA participants who have some desire to be associated with the Church but who struggle with the demands of RCIA - the meetings during the week and the Sundaydismissals. I recall one lady who complained, "why can't we do this with a few meetings in secret like they did when my mother joined the Church?" Most of the time people are more subtle than that; citing family or job commitments to explain their absences. The challenge for the RCIA leader is to be authentic in presenting the challenge of belonging to the Church and at the same time to (as much as possible) welcome all who seek the Lord with a sincere heart.

So why do we initiate adults into our Church the way we do? The first answer is that conversion is a complicated process and takes time. Deciding to join the Church is not like choosing a new pair of shoes for spring. So people need to take the time to have their questions answered and to experience the worship of the Church before making a final decision to be baptized or received into the community. Certainly, it would be possible to provide a basic catechesis regarding Baptism in just a few hours and then proceed to the sacrament. The question becomes how lasting this kind of conversion is. Granted, based on statistics from the USA and personal observations, the RCIA is not wildly successful at producing regular church attenders. So, back to our question: why should the RCIA be so long and complicated?

Another answer to this question came to me in the Gospel for last Sunday (Matthew 7: 21 - 27). Here Jesus tells us to build our spiritual houses on solid foundations. How do you do that? Well, one analogy is found in sports. Years ago I spent some time coaching basketball. One of the challenges was to teach the fundamental of (for example) shooting and then to promote the practice of that correct form over and over. Doing this would establish a sound base for taking a shot in the pressure of game situations. We know that successful professional players spend many hours in practice. It seems to me that the spiritual life is like this also. We need to learn the basics and to repeat them often so that when times of trial come we will be able to stick to the basics and come through the trial.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thoughts for a graveside service

We are gathered here to bid farewell to Irene who was a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, and friend to many people. It is natural to have a complicated range of feelings at such a time as this. I know that when my own mother passed away a few years ago I somehow felt that even though she was advanced in years and very ill her life should never come to an end. So, when the end finally does come the feelings pour out. We feel grief because someone who was part of our lives has been taken from us. We might feel regret because of harsh words spoken without the chance for reconciliation. We might have missed a chance to say, "I love you" one last time.

These feelings might be unbearable except for two things. First of all, we can remember the gift of Irene's life. We remember all of the good things that made our lives better for her being there. I hope that after this short service you will have a chance to share these happy memories at the luncheon. Finally, we take comfort in our belief as Christians that life for Irene is changed not ended. We believe that God in his mercy will receive her and welcome her into a place of happiness and peace. So we continue our service with a short prayer.

Monday, January 24, 2011

RCIA Sunday Dismissals

One of the traditions of the RCIA is that catechumens be dismissed from the Sunday assembly following the Liturgy of the Word. In my experience there has been a mixed response from the participants to these dismissals. Some people feel nourished by the Liturgy of the Eucharist (even though they do not receive the Eucharist). Other people feel isolated and excluded by the dismissals. In either case personal feelings run high and it is difficult to explain this adequately in such circumstances.

However, apart from the tradition, there are good reasons to continue these dismissals. At the end of their direct RCIA experience there remains a great need for these new Catholics to continue to grow and to reflect on their faith journey. The problem is that unfortunately there are few opportunities for adult faith formation. Consequently all members of the assembly (not just the new ones) need to be provided with better tools so that they can be nourished in their faith by the Liturgy of the Word - which is the primary place where faith formation is regularly offered in the life of the Church.

So how could RCIA dismissal provide these tools. Obviously we want to provide participants tools so that they can continue to find spiritual direction and growth in the Liturgy of the Word. Now, we are all supposed to find this in the Liturgy but it seems to me that our ability to do this is more or less assumed and as a result many of the faithful do not have a sense of being nourished or fed by the Word of God. Might this be one of the reasons why people have a tendency to abandon regular attendance at Mass?

Teaching RCIA participants the ancient practice of Lectio Divina might be one way of providing participants a way of being fed by the Word of God. Lectio has a number of steps, but these steps involve two basic movements. People first need to get into a mindset that they can (and should) read Scripture prayerfully - with a belief that the Word is speaking to each of them in a special way. Such a mindset is difficult to attain because we have been conditioned to read very differently than this. As well, people need to believe that the Word of God requires a response - our lives ought to be changed in some way or another by our Sunday encounter with the Word. People with these two attitudes toward the Word will have a better chance of finding the weekly Liturgy of the Word an occasion of blessing and growth.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Baptism and Conversion

The RCIA, as it existed in ancient times, was clearly about conversion. Baptism involved a radical turning around of ones life. First of all there was a history of persecution of Christians, so that until the fourth century becoming Christian might well entail risk of death. Secondly, because pagan culture was so pervasive the newly baptized Christian was restricted in the things he/she could do for a way of life. For example, Michael Himes, in his book Mystery of Faith lists architecture, painting, sculpting, teaching, and acting as just some of the professions that were "out of bounds" for Christians. Of course belonging to the military also was frowned on since soldiers were bound to make an oath to the emperor.
Fr. Himes points out that this is one reason why the theme of death figured so much in the liturgy of baptism. Paul wrote that when we were baptized we were baptized into the death of Jesus and when we came out from the water we rose with him. In fact the liturgy for funerals has many similarities with Baptism. The holy water, the white garment/pall, and the Christ candle are important symbols in both liturgies.
The problem is that in the modern RCIA (or at least in my experience) it is very difficult to help people understand that being baptized involves change. To be sure some people do come with a sense that they need to change their lives but most of the people I meet come with only a vague sense of unease, curiousity, or obligation (they have a Catholic spouse). The only good analogy for radical conversion is that of the alcoholic entering Alcoholics Anonymous. The problem is most people in RCIA have trouble relating to that. We also seem to have a problem with the notion of sin. Few people that I meet have a sense of personal sin and therefore have little sense of their need for conversion.
Some time ago I listened to an audio to talks given by Paula D'Arcy and Richard Rohr. In the first of this series of talks D'Arcy describes an experience of hers that caused her during the course of a week long retreat to change the way that she was viewing her companions on the retreat. It seems to me that conversion as a change in the way I look at the world is another way of trying to promote understanding of what it means to be baptized for the catechumens in our RCIA

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics and Perception

Here in Canada we have just finished a federal election while the US presidential election has three more weeks to go (it seems that it has been going on for ages). One characteristic that stands out in these election campaigns is the tremendous amount of negativity in the campaigns. Here in Canada the Conservatives ran attack ads that said that Dion (the Liberal leader) was too much of a risk. At the same time the Liberals and the New Democrats ran ads that said much the same thing about Harper (the Conservative leader). It seems to me that things might be even worse in the US campaign. Generally, it seems to me that each side (not always officially) seeks to portray their opponent as being incompetent or corrupt. Experts tell us that these kind of attacks in fact work. Attack ads are able to move voters from one opinion to another. The problem, I think, is that at the same time these ads create a public perception of politicians in general. In other words, if during an election campaign both sides spend huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that their opponents are incompetent, corrupt, or possibly immoral then at the end of the campaign politicians in general should not be surprised when the voting public is generally of the opinion that all politicians are incompetent, or corrupt, or immoral. Another problem of course is that this negativity has an impact on politicians ability (it seems to me) to work together to solve serious problems facing the country. Sure, they talk about putting negativity aside but why, for example, would Prime Minister Harper want to work with Newfoundland premier Danny Williams when Williams has called him every name under the sun and actively campaigned against the Conservative party in the election. Politics, ideally, is a competition of ideas. When politics start to be about character assassination this has to effect the ability of the political system to function in the interests of the whole country.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Life of Prayer

The reflection for our next RCIA session asks us about out prayer life, when we pray, and when we find prayer difficult. When I look back on my own prayer life I don't think that I had much of a prayer life for a long time. Like many Catholics my age I think that the experience of prayer that sticks in my mind is the family recitation of the rosary before bed time. The rosary then was an exercise in rote memory. I don't remember praying for anything during this and I'm not sure that I had much of a "connection" with God during this early prayer. I think that my first real experience (like those of many) of prayer was with the prayer of petition. So, in times of crisis I remember praying to God to help or to heal someone.

It is embarrassing to admit it but I think my prayer life only began to develop a few years ago. I first began a regular prayer life when the Catholic school where I was teaching finally got a chapel. I began to spend quiet time there before school began in the morning. That habit of setting aside time to pray in the morning has stayed with me through the last years of my teaching career and the first years of my retirement. During this time I also began the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This method of prayer had two advantages for me. First of all, it maintained for me the habit of praying at a particular time (In my parish we have a community celebration of Morning Prayer which I try to attend every day.). Secondly, the Liturgy of the Hours led me to examine more closely other kinds of prayer than the prayer of petition. The psalms which are the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours praise God, give thanks to God, and many other things in addition to asking God for blessings. I have to confess again that my use of the Liturgy of the Hours for other times of the day has not been as regular as for Morning prayer.
Another thing that has influenced my prayer life in the last few months has been my involvement in the hospital ministry of our parish. It has been quite natural for me to pray for those people I meet during these hospital visits and this intercessory prayer has helped my prayer life a lot. Here I have found that returning to my early experience of praying the Rosary has been a help.

Sometimes prayer is not easy. Quite often my mind does not want to dwell on God and instead I find myself think of any number of other things. I am not sure what causes this (short of attention deficit disorder). I take some consolation from the prayer of Thomas Merton that: "the desire to please you, does in fact please you.' So at these times of distraction I hope that the honest effort to pray does also please God.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Culture and Morality

The weekend paper carried a story by Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post titled: Zulus torn over virginity tests. It seems to me that this article illustrates a sort of cultural shift that threatens traditional morals and values in such areas as sexuality. Basically, according to the article, the tradition involves young girls undergoing an inspection by a woman elder of the tribe to determine if the girl is a virgin or not. Now of course there are lots of potential problems with this tradition - the most obvious one being that the responsibility for chastity is placed only on the females of the community. According to the article the opponents of this tradition argued that the procedure was degrading; it was emotionally scarring for girls who did not pass; it subjected girls who did pass to the possibility that they would be raped in a culture where some men believe that intercourse with a virgin can cure aids. Finally, the opponents argue that the tradition, as important as it may have been in the past no longer serves the needs of the society.

What seems to be said here is that "traditional" morality is offensive to individual rights and "old fashioned." Of course there are good reasons for "old fashioned" morality. South Africa, where the Zulus live, is a nation facing a catastrophic aids crisis. One very simple way of partly dealing with the spread of this disease is to encourage the citizens to practice traditional sexual morality. By the way, the article makes clear that this tradition has nothing to do with the practice of female genital mutilation found in some African cultures. The controversy over this traditional practice is seen in the article as a conflict between "modern" ideas of individual rights and tradition and tribal culture.

I seem to recall evidence of a similar attitude a while back when the host of an awards show on television publicly criticized some teens present (I think it was the Jonas brothers) who were wearing "purity rings" as a sign of their commitment to chastity until marriage. So, in this culture, as in South Africa, the traditional value placed on chastity has been replaced and the traditional value is seen as weird or strange or old fashioned. I think that you see something similar in action when a while back an American paper editorialized that Sarah Palin (Republican nominee for Vice President) did society a disservice when she chose to give birth to a child with Down's Syndrome. Her choice, the paper said, might encourage other mothers (who might not have the same emotional and physical resources as Palin) to choose to give birth to Down's Syndrome babies rather than aborting them (which apparently is now the "normal" thing to do)

So it seems to me that globally we are living in an age of individualism that has a profound impact on traditional morality. In this respect we no longer live in a Christian culture. We are back to an earlier time when we as Christians were called to be counter-cultural. Only by proclaiming and holding firm to important values can we have a chance at preserving what is important from our past.