Sunday, September 23, 2007

RCIA journey

This year's rcia for our parish shows a lot of promise. We have an interesting group (9 people so far, I think) So far the group is all female and composed mainly of teachers from our Catholic school system. We are using the Growing in Faith Project by Bill Huebsch from Twenty Third Publications for the first time in RCIA. This is based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and was intended to be for Adult study groups. One of the good things about this resource is that it provides solid doctrinal content and asks questions in a mature way. One problem is that the program has 48 booklets while we don't have nearly that many weeks available to us in this years RCIA (especially considering the early date for Easter this year). So, I would have to say that as we begin this year I am eager to see how some of the changes we have made work and I am hopeful that together the group for this year can grow in their faith journey.

One of the things about RCIA that is important is the notion that everyone in the whole faith community is on a journey (not just those who are candidates or catechumens). Religious conversion is not a single event deal. Yes, we celebrate Baptism as a sacrament of initiation into the Church. But Baptism (especially for persons baptized as adults) only comes after a process of initial interest in the Gospel and growth toward acceptance of the Baptismal commitment (which is to continue to progress in our faith journey until we finally meet God face to face.

So, my faith journey began when I was baptized a few days after I was born (you could also say that my journey began even earlier than that since I was created by God with the ultimate destiny of union with Him). When I look back on my personal faith journey I can see similarities with the journey of the Israelites in the book of Exodus. My journey has had (as the journey of anyone could) times of :
  • intense interest in and awareness of the journey.
  • a lack of interest and a lack of progress on the journey.
  • doubt about how to proceed on the journey.
  • doubting God and even anger with God.

I know that some of the steps that I have taken on my journey have been the correct ones. I still worry that sometimes I have missed or might still miss an important step on my journey. I also have hope that I will be able to leave behind some of the things that still keep me from Christ and eventually "meet God face to face".

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sports and Catholic Schools

Occasionally people express the opinion that sports, particularly competitive team sports have no place in the curriculum of a Catholic School. In order to deal with this opinion it is good to first examine the basis for such a contention.

First of all, there is no doubt that it is possible to cite regular examples of sports figures being less than perfect role models for students. As I write this the McLaren racing team is being subjected to severe penalties for "cheating" against its rivals from Ferrari. The coach of the New England Patriots is apologizing for making videos of opponents signals for the purpose of gaining advantage. Michael Vick might be out of a sports career after charges that he had some role in organizing dog fighting matches. Many fans objected to whatever record Barry Bonds set because of allegations of steroid use on his part. This past summer so many athletes failed drug tests during the Tour de France that the final result became irrelevant in the press. As I write this O.J. Simpson (who has not been a role model for some time) is being questioned over his role in a break-in/robbery at some sports memorabilia event in Las Vegas (does anyone collect Simpson memorabilia?). So, it seems that despite public relation efforts (The NBA cares!) there is lots of evidence that contemporary sports culture does not provide much in the way of role models to young people. On the contrary side there have been examples of athletes who were fine role models of course.

Secondly regarding the role that team sports plays in our culture is the allegation that sports itself has become a sort of religion. That is, people put ultimate value on winning and overcoming the opposition instead of placing ultimate value with God where it belongs. Sundays are increasingly dominated by sporting events at the expense of church..

Thirdly, people say that competitive team sports are incompatible with the Gospel. In the Gospel of Matthew (Chpt 5) we find Jesus saying:

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

These points seem to summarize the case that people make for objecting to competitive team sports in the program of a Catholic school. On the surface these are logical points and it is important to recognize the logical basis for concern regarding this question. Still it is possible to deal with these concerns and make a case for the role of competitive sports in our Catholic schools.

First of all, it seems important to point out that just because contemporary sports is full of examples of behavior incompatible with Gospel values it does not follow that sports is not capable of providing examples of behavior based on the Gospel. So, just as in the past there were examples of athletes being models of dedication, perseverance, and concern for others (team work); it is quite possible that these kinds of examples can exist now and in the future. Christianity has a long tradition of being counter-cultural and if we are aware of the values that ground us it should be possible to play competitive sports in a way that is compatible with the Gospel.

Regarding the passage from Matthew quoted above certain things stand out. First of all, in this passage Jesus is not talking directly about competition. He is talking instead about retalliation and the commentators I have read suggest that he is using hyperbole to make a point. In other words I do not think that Jesus intended all of his followers to be absolute pacifists as the passage suggests. So, what we have here is not a black and white question. The whole question of the attitude of the early Church to soldiers suggests the complexity of our approach to this issue. On the surface of it you would expect the early Church to be strongly opposed to soldiers since they sort of are the atithesis of the Gospel ideal suggested in the passage from Matthew. Still, even in the New Testament we find soldiers being portrayed in a favorable light. The confession of the soldier seeking a cure for his child is still a part of our liturgy: "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof ...". The words of the centurion at the foot of the cross make another example as does the reference to Cornelius in the book of Acts. In each of these cases the author does not explicitly approve of the soldier's profession but does not condemn the profession either. Paul uses military analogies in his writing just as he uses sports analogies (I hope to post something on this in the future) In his book, We Look for a Kingdom, Karl Sommer discusses the complexities of the attitude of the early Church to soldiers. You expect to find a blanket exclusion for soldiers seeking to enter the Church but we find examples of soldiers as Christians from very early on. The point here is if we were taking the passage from Matthew literally and were applying it in a black and white kind of way we would expect the attitude of the early Church to be quite different from what it actually was. The reality is that early Christians recognized that there was much that was morally objectionable in a soldier's life (participating in executions for example) yet there were also values and attitudes that could make a soldier a good Christian. I think that the same point applies to athletics. There are no quotes from Jesus (that I can think of) regarding sports and athletes but Paul does make significant use of sports analogies although again he neither approves of nor objects to sports. I would suggest therefore, that competitive sports does not have to be incompatible with Gospel values. I hope in a future post(s) to explore the ways that competitive sports can be effective ways of promoting some important spiritual values.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sponsors and the RCIA

Someone blogging about his start in the RCIA recently wrote of his concern over being judged by the members of the RCIA team. They would, he wrote, discern whether he was discerning and the result could be him being discerned right out of the RCIA. Now on a RCIA team we know what the director does and we know what the catechist(s) does but what is the role of the sponsor (who presumably does some of the discerning in this writers eyes)?

The text for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has this to say about sponsors:

"A sponsor accompanies any candidate seeking admission as a catechumen. Sponsors are persons who have known and assisted the candidates and stand as witnesses to the candidates' moral character, faith, and intention. It may happen that it is not the sponsor for the rite of acceptance and the period of the catechumenate but another person who serves as godparent for the periods of purification and enlightenment and of mystagogy."

So according to this document a sponsor can have the role of "standing as witnesses" with regard to a catechumen's readiness for the sacraments. We evidence for this role as early as in the writings of Origen (c. 185 - 253). Remember though that in the situations that Origen faced the Church was still a persecuted minority. As a result of this reality great care was needed to make sure that those presenting themselves for Baptism actually understood all that was involved and were prepared to live their lives accordingly. So, presumably if a sponsor in RCIA knows that a candidate for Baptism is living a public life that is obviously in conflict with their Baptismal vocation it would be appropriate for them to communicate this as part of a discernment process. It is unfortunate that this might convey an image of the RCIA team being in judgement however because the most basic ministry of the sponsors and the entire faith community in the RCIA is one of demonstrating hospitality and living the reality of their own faith. As the RCIA document puts it: "They (the community) should therefore show themselves ready to give the candidates evidence of the spirit of the Christian community and to welcome them into their homes, into personal conversation, and into community gatherings." This suggests that the most basic role of a sponsor is that of companion. A good way of coming to some understanding of this role is to look at the role of a sponsor in a 12 step program. We can see from this that the most basic requirement of a sponsor is that they be aware of their own spiritual journey and be able to talk informally with their candidate about their experiences. By offering welcome into the community the sponsor begins the process of providing their candidate with connections in the community that will enable their faith journey to continue and to flourish following their Baptism. In this context it is probably good that the RCIA document envisions the possibility of two sponsors. One at the beginning of the journey who can act as a companion and another near the time of the sacraments who can act as witness.

There are some things that might make a prospective sponsor less than ideal. Most basically, someone who has not been practicing their faith or who has serious issues with Church teaching might not make a good sponsor. We need to remember that RCIA focuses on the person seeking admission to the Church and personal issues should not compete with this central objective.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Lament at Sixty

My birthday coming up this week marks one of those life milestones. I will in fact turn 60. I have in front of me a chart showing Levinson's developmental eras and transitions of adulthood that tells me that I will be entering the transition to Late Adulthood. This is all enough to make me wish I were younger like the singer (Billy Ray Cyrus, I think) who sings "I want my mullet back" or the people in the Diet Pepsi commercials who decide that of all the things from their younger days they would prefer to have the Diet Pepsi.

The thing that strikes me the most is the reminders of mortality that are regularly presented. A comedian once said that at this age if you do not wake up with some kind of ache or pain you should consider the possibility that you have in fact died during the night. The aches and pains are a reminder that I am no longer young. The reality of death is another thing. Ten years ago a girl playing on the basketball team that I coached lost her mother suddenly. Fr. Mick asked if I would speak at the funeral and offer support to the girl and her family. Sadly I declined. At that time the thought of death caused me quite a bit of panic. Since then, because of deaths in my family, I have become more accustomed to death and funerals. In the last six years there have been five funerals in my immediate family beginning with a younger brother. 2006 was a horrible year with three funerals. I recall my older sister's remark sometime during this period that the funerals could not be why they called this "the golden years." What this does is hit you with the reality that you will not live forever and it takes a while to come to terms with that. My older brother, who died before he was 65 last year, often said that he was not afraid to die. I would respond that it would be a shame to die before you had to. So, there seems to be stuff to complain about and little to celebrate on a 60th birthday.

I know, of course, that there are also lots of opportunities for me at this age. Most obviously I am retired and am no longer tied to the job, even though teaching was a source of great fulfillment for me. I have a chance, and the time, to think and pray more seriously about my relationship to God. I have a chance to take more time to treasure the relationships with my surviving siblings even though I live quite a ways apart from most of them. I am grateful for the security and health that I do have. I know that both of my parents lived past their 85th birthday and so, if I look after my health, I can probably look forward to more good years. But I still don't think that I will celebrate my birthday later in the week.