Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sacramental Catechesis

Confirmation denied

A local paper in the USA tells the story of an adult who was apparently told, just before the ceremony, by her Bishop that she could not receive the sacrament of Confirmation until she had been properly catechized:

Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton set off a flurry of e-mail messages among priests and diocesan insiders when he told a 20-year-old Catholic woman she had not studied enough to allow him to confer the sacrament of confirmation.
The ensuing controversy regarding the woman's unsuccessful attempt on April 10 to be confirmed at St. Michael's Church in Paderborn raised questions about Braxton's ministerial style among some Catholics, criticism that was offset by a statement from the diocesan chancellor's office citing community praise for the bishop's interaction with parishioners.
The controversy also resulted in a statement from Braxton to St. Michael's pastor, the Rev. James Voelker, and by inference to all diocesan pastors, that they need to ensure that those who seek confirmation, whether adults or young people, should first receive the necessary educational and spiritual preparation.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, confirmation is "a sacrament in which the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Christ." It is usually conferred at ages 12-13 by a bishop.
Nicole Schilling, of New Athens, where she attends church at a different parish, and nine of her relatives heard the bishop's decision moments before the ceremony and angrily left the event, said Voelker. Schilling, an employee of King's House in Belleville, a religious retreat run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, did not bring a required baptismal certificate and was not known to the pastor of her home parish, Braxton said in a statement.
Schilling declined to comment.
Braxton told the woman she would need at least 10, one-hour education sessions and "some time for prayer and reflection," Voelker said.
"He has no capability of seeing anything other than his own views," Voelker said of Braxton.
While a diocesan spokesman said the bishop does not publicly discuss his private messages to priests, Braxton, in a written response to questions from the News-Democrat, stated, "The case in question involves a candidate who was presented to me moments before the celebration of the sacrament with no catechesis (religious instruction) of any kind, stating that she had been told, quite incorrectly, that as an adult she needed no preparation. ... This is simply not true and contrary to everything the Church intends in the sacraments."
Voelker said he was confident of the woman's sincerity. He said she had completed some earlier reading about Catholicism and he thought that was enough for confirmation.
"How many of us perform marriages when we know that people have very little understanding of the sacrament and all they really want is a nice setting? Do we stop doing them?" Voelker asked.

Much has already been written in the blogs about this story. First of all, it is true that baptized Catholics have a right to the sacraments of the Church. It is also true that in times past the Church taught that sacraments were effective means of grace in and of themselves (irrespective of the merits of the minister or the recipient of the sacrament). It is also true that since in the eastern Churches confirmation is given to infants – obviously without prior catechesis. I confess I was upset some years ago when the chaplain at the home where my mother lived informed me that she could no longer receive the Eucharist since her dementia seemed to have deprived her of an understanding of what the Eucharist was. My feeling was that she should continue to receive the Eucharist as long as this could be done without risk of some kind of desecration of the Host.

However, it is also true that the Church has an obligation to provide catechesis, including sacramental catechesis, as a way of inviting adult Catholics to continue their growth in faith. The General Directory for Catechesis (175) identifies the following general tasks of adult catechesis:
– to promote formation and development of life in the Risen Christ by adequate means: pedagogy of the sacraments, retreats, spiritual direction. . .
– to educate toward a correct evaluation of the socio-cultural changes of our societies in the light of faith: thus the Christian community is assisted in discerning true values in our civilization, as well as its dangers, and in adopting appropriate attitudes;
– to clarify current religious and moral questions, that is, those questions which are encountered by the men and women of our time: for example, public and private morality with regard to social questions and the education of future generations;
– to clarify the relationship between temporal actions and ecclesial action, by demonstrating mutual distinctions and implications and thus due interaction; to this end, the social doctrine of the Church is an integral part of adult catechesis;
– to develop the rational foundations of the faith: that the right understanding of the faith and of the truths to be believed are in conformity with the demands of reason and the Gospel is always relevant; it is therefore necessary to promote effectively the pastoral aim of Christian thought and culture: this helps to overcome certain forms of fundamentalism as well as subjective and arbitrary interpretations;
– to encourage adults to assume responsibility for the Church's mission and to be able to give Christian witness in society:
The adult is assisted to discover, evaluate and activate what he has received by nature and grace, both in the Christian community and by living in human society; in this way, he will be able to overcome the dangers of standardization and of anonymity which are particularly dominant in some societies of today and which lead to loss of identity and lack of appreciation for the resources and qualities of the individual.
So, it seems to me that catechesis, particularly sacramental catechesis, is important to the Church and should be important in the faith life of the people. The GDC also tells us that because adults are the most able to give full assent to faith the catechesis of adults as in the RCIA should provide the template for all forms of catechesis. It seems to me therefore in our news story above, that despite the fact that sacraments like confirmation might be administered without prior catechesis there is a strong case to be made that such catechesis is needed most of the time. So I think that the Bishop in this case was correct in what he did although he may have handled the matter more diplomatically. It seems to me that the issue here is more between the Bishop and the Pastor than anything else.
Should previously baptized Christians always go through RCIA when preparing for reception into the Church? As I have said above I think the answer is mostly yes. Generally the people I have encountered in my time as catechist in RCIA have not had a good knowledge of Christianity. There have been some notable exceptions to this but even here we have to be careful. I have read for example in some blog comments complaints by some who considered themselves well advanced in their faith and knowledge who felt indignant at being “lumped” together with uncatechized people in RCIA. While it is true that some people who come from other Christian faiths might have a strong knowledge of Christianity it seems to me that such comments demonstrate a lack of formation in the notion of Church. The Church is always composed of a variety of faith experience and backgrounds. One of the things that RCIA can do, if we do it well, is to give participants an experience of formation in community. As someone once pointed out: Catechesis seeks to provide not only information (religious literacy), but also formation, and transformation (ongoing conversion).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Media Censorship?

Much has been written in the past few days about the massacre of students on the campus of Virginia Tech in the USA. An interesting issue here surrounds the fact that the killer took time out from his killing to mail a package of material to NBC justifying his actions. Should NBC (and immediately after everyone else) have aired the material produced by the killer?

NBC tells us that they only did so after agonizing deliberation and only because they felt that it was necessary to view this material in order to satisfy the need of the public to know why the killer acted as he did. Others supporting the release of the material point out that censorship in a democracy is a bad thing and leads to dictatorship. Well, it seems to me that the actions of the killer are explained by the fact that he was insane - no need to view his self-serving propaganda to discover that. Secondly, it seems to me that sometimes in a civilized society self-censorship is appropriate.

Airing the material produced by this killer over and over again plays into the hands of the killer himself as well as into the hands of other insane young men who might want to copy his actions. My own preference would be that the name of the individual who commits such horrible crimes would never be spoken again (and his face never seen again). This would be good first of all because it might discourage this kind of insane acting out. I suspect that one of the reasons for this kind of acting out is the hope for a moment of fame, even if in death. If this is true, every time we publicize the actions of these killers, we are setting the scene for a repeat of the horror. Secondly, publicizing the material produced by the killer takes attention away from the victims of his crimes. It must have been agonizing for victims and their families to see the killer attempting to blame them for his terrible actions.

The issue of censorship is a difficult one but it seems to me that a civilized society needs a certain amount of innocence. In Psalm 101 the psalmist writes, "I will walk with blameless heart within my house; I will not set before my eyes whatever is base." Evil exists in the world and Christians should never be surprised when they encounter it but we do not need to be immersed in evil in order to understand it. I think that the current obsession of the media with the spectacular misdeeds of celebrities for example, demonstrates a malaise in our society. The eagerness of the media to publicize the rantings of the Virginia Tech killer demonstrate such a malaise.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Universal Call to Holiness

The importance of holiness
The Holy Father's prayer intention for the month of April 2007 is: That guided by the Holy Spirit, each Christian may respond enthusiastically and faithfully to the universal call to holiness. In addition to this, when our Archbishop was ordained for this diocese he chose for his motto: "Voluntas Dei Sanctificatio Vestra" (the will of God is your sanctification)(1Thessalonians 4:3). So our baptismal call to holiness is an important topic for both newly baptized and long-time Catholics.

The teaching of the Church clearly tells us that: "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness." (CCC 2013) In Matthew's gospel Jesus tells us to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II devotes and entire chapter (5) to "The Universal Call to Holiness In the Church."
Some obstacles
Clearly, this call to holiness is part of the theme of continuing conversion which is a main theme of RCIA and is the basic movement in Christian life. We are familiar with the first part of conversion - to turn away from sin. We are less comfortable with the second part - to turn toward Jesus. Part of our unease can come from a sense of sin or unworthiness. We have trouble thinking of ourselves as holy - this despite the assurances of scripture that we are a holy people. We are in fact holy already by virtue of our Baptism. Our responsibility is to bear witness to that holiness in everything that we do. Another problem we have when thinking of our holiness could be that sometimes the models of holiness that are presented to us can make holiness seem unattainable or even undesirable. Many people, for example, might find the holiness presented in the life of St. Francis of Assisi as being so extreme, so perfect, that they could never measure up to such a standard. We might even ask ourselves about the advantages of holiness in our lives. Finally, another problem might be that we have trouble establishing just what holiness involves.

John Paul II gives us some idea of what holiness involves in his letter to the laity (Christifedeles Laici):
Life according to the Spirit, whose fruit is holiness, stirs up every baptized person and requires each to follow and imitate Jesus Christ in embracing the beatitudes; in listening and meditating on the Word of God; in conscious and active participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church; in personal prayer; in family or in community; in the hunger and thirst for justice; in the practice of the commandment of love in all circumstances of life and service to the brethren, especially the least, the poor and the suffering. (16) Even this fairly straightforward definition can seem daunting. Basically it seems to say that everything we do needs to be done in the awareness of our relationship to Jesus and our dignity as members of the Body of Christ. To live as the Pope exhorts us is not easily done but it is something that we as ordinary Christians can all aspire to. We will not be perfect immediately and we might never be called to show heroic holiness like the martyrs did. Still, everyone knows, a married couple that seems to be trying their best to live out their marriage vows. In my time as a teacher I have known teachers who did their best to care for their students (sometimes that was even what I did!). I have known people in the health care professions who seemed to me to be models of concern as they cared for individual patients. Jesus, in the time before he began his ministry may have been a tradesman - a carpenter. So surely it is possible for "ordinary" people like the examples given, to act in a holy manner at least some of the time. Saints are saints because they were able to consistently or heroically practice holiness.

Above all we should never give up or become complacent in our search for holiness. St. Augustine in one of his writings used in the Liturgy of the Hours exhorts us to make progress and continue our journey. This call to make progress is a major challenge to us as we try to live out the implications of our Baptism.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil liturgy is of course the high point of the journey for participants in the RCIA. In our parish we had four catechumens baptized (one other catechumen had to be out of town and will be baptized later). We also had adults and children being received into the church as well as one young girl who was present for confirmation. This is one of the smallest groups in our parish for quite a while. Before the service some people were quite nervous. One young lady (a first year teacher in our Catholic school system) told me that if she fainted she would never come back to church again. I reminded her that as a first year teacher she had already survived the first week of school, unruly students, parent meetings, and administrators and so she would most likely survive this (she did). Still, some people do feel uncomfortable in front of a large group (Our church was about three quarters full, so 350 people or so).

The liturgy itself went well. We had gone over the liturgy so the candidates and the catechumens knew what to expect. The liturgy began outside just as the sun was setting so the entrance into the church was not in complete darkness. The exsultet was partly sung and partly proclaimed by the deacon and the presider. We had four priests and a deacon present (not a common blessing in most parts of this diocese). The proclaiming part of the exsultet was because since the previous pastor left (he has an amazing singing voice and is the archbishop now) people feel inadequate as singers in comparison. The liturgy of the readings went as expected. We had already reflected on the readings in a retreat context so it was possible to just listen to the proclamation (You could not follow in the missal since the church by now was completely dark). There was a small light at the ambo, another for the cantor, and a clip-on light on the sacramentary for the presider. I noticed that there were also lights on the step leading down from the ambo. This because of a history of lectors tripping in the dark while leaving the ambo. The readings were well proclaimed. The congregational refrain during the responsorial psalms was the same throughout. I thought that was a good idea. A number of cantors sung the responsorial psalms but it was difficult to make out the words to some of the psalms. This is a problems because the congregation can't just look at their missal since it is dark. The explosion of light and bells at the conclusion of the readings is always effective. The young girl in front of me was momentarily startled when the lights came on.

The actual liturgy of baptism, confirmation, and reception went well. People looked very serious and there were no mistakes. I was struck during the litany of saints how much support the church tries to provide to everyone, but especially to the neophytes, on their journey of faith. We had rehearsed the reception of the Eucharist ahead of time. I still am surprised by how much we "cradle Catholics" take for granted about the rituals and prayers of the Church. New people need to be reminded and assured about some very basic things. Sometimes its hard to remember this when you are concerned about "covering" a certain amount of knowledge as well.

So, we have had our sacramental experience. The challenge of course is to continue living that experience. How do we continue to journey in our spiritual lives? How do we continue to be open to the meaning of the Paschal mystery in our lives? This is the challenge of Mystagogia not just for the neophytes but for all the Church.