Easter Vigil Without the Exsultet

“Stay Home. Stay Safe. Save Lives. This order takes effect on March 24, 2020 at 12:01 am, and continues through April 13, 2020 at 11:59 pm.”

And with that, what I’d seen coming in mid-March was now a reality. It’d be an Easter Vigil without the Exsultet. Read more at The Catechist >>

The Liturgy after the Liturgy

Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have an expression, “the liturgy after the liturgy”–meaning the rest of the week, flowing from Sunday and returning to Sunday. The Body of Christ sent out (the origin of our English term, “Mass”– Ite, missa est, meaning, “Go, it is the sending”). As those intimately joined to Jesus the Christ in baptism, we who are sent share in Jesus the Messiah’s common priesthood, as well as His identities as prophet and king/shepherd/pastor (CCC para. 1546).

Okay, so how is it, practically that you and I as baptized believers truly exercise that priesthood during the week? In the “liturgy after the liturgy” of our lives?

An especially visible way, is through sacramentals.

Sacramentals are:

“sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men [and women] are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy (CCC para. 1667).

Blessings are “first” among all sacramentals. Blessings can be of people, objects, places, etc. and usually involve invoking the name of Jesus and making the sign of the cross (CCC para. 1671).

The power of a blessing flows from the baptismal priesthood given to us in and through Christ Jesus as baptized believers. As the Church teaches, “every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless” (CCC para. 1669). We consecrate the created order to, for, and through God. We are sanctified (aka “made holy”) as is the created world. The Church teaches, “there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God” (CCC para. 1670). The liturgy after the liturgy is expansive, indeed!

“Liturgy” itself derives from a word meaning the public work done on behalf of others. The Mass is liturgy we the baptized do or participate in, for ourselves–yes–but also for the sake of the world. The Eucharist and all liturgy, each in a mysterious way, is for the “life of the world” (John 6:51), not merely for those physically present–or even just for those joined to Christ’s Body. For the life of the world. What an amazing, humbling responsibility this is, that Jesus has shared with us! (Does Jesus know how messed up we are? Yes. And yet, God still uses us to bless and consecrate the world! Amazing!)

Are there some blessings that lay people should not give, that are reserved for the ordained, ministerial priesthood? Yes.

In general, “the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons)” (CCC para. 1669). For example, blessings within Mass (clearly an ecclesial and sacramental setting), belong first to the bishop [if present], then priest, or the blessing of the water before a baptism–an ecclesial and sacramental act. You get the idea 😉 The vast majority of people, places, objects, locations, situations, etc. are not part of the Church’s sacramental or ecclesial life in a direct way, and thus are wide open for any member of the common/baptized priesthood to exercise his/her ability in Christ, to bless.

Keep the name of Jesus, the sign of the cross, and (if you have it) some holy water handy–and you’re all set to be a conduit of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our world.


Revised Common Lectionary

Happy Week (or Octave) of Prayer for Christian Unity!

While it’s hard to know exactly how many Protestant Christians are worshiping in churches using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or a local/denominational version of it, the overlap of Biblical texts used in the liturgy can be a place of Christian unity, and opportunity to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us anew, through the inspired Word of God. The Revised Common Lectionary and lectionary used by most Catholics are extremely similar.

Interested in learning more? 

signature_divinityThe Revised Common Lectionary site of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library is a wonderful online resource for anyone wishing to explore this way of interpreting and engaging the Scriptures communally.

In addition to the readings (listed in the 3 year Sunday cycles), the site offers art and prayer supplements, ready-to-print Biblical readings, and an in-depth FAQ list that provides historical background on the development of the RCL.

The Nearness of Our God

The alternate Collect Prayer text for the Christmas Mass at Dawn petitions:

Almighty God and Father of light,
a child is born for us and a son is given to us.
Your eternal Word leaped down from heaven in the silent watches of the night,and now your Church is filled with wonder at the nearness of her God.
Open our hearts to receive his life
and increase our vision with the rising of dawn,
that our lives may be filled with his glory and his peace,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

My parish often sings this prayer at Masses for the Nativity of Our Lord, in an arrangement written by Sr. Stacy Whitfield, SGL, a religious sister and member of the parish. This year, listening to the song, I was also looking down at my own five-week old infant, peacefully nursing. This is how near God comes to us. God comes near enough to drink milk from a human mother. How awe-inspiringly close; how near to us.

This particular image of God’s nearness is easy to wonder at in delight. But, the nearness of God is not only the image of a baby nursing. As we turn now into Ordinary Time, the nearness of God is manifested in other ways. Our weekday lectionary texts begin with the Gospel of Mark, and we continue with his Gospel for weekday readings through the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time.

Compared to the other three Evangelists, Mark has a knack for including the emotions of Jesus in his narratives with bit more color and precision. For example, in Mark’s Gospel we hear of Jesus being moved with pity, angry, indignant, saddened, compassionate, grieved, amazed, and loving (see Mark 1:41, 3:5, 6:6, 6:34, 10:14-21, and 14:34–the particular English words will vary by translation).

Some of these words are easy to accept as God’s nearness. We are delighted by a God who is loving and compassionate. We readily accept God’s desire to be close to us when we are feeling these emotions.

On the other hand, most of us stumble or hesitate a bit more to readily accept God’s nearness in his or our anger, indignation, grief, or sadness.

The reality of the Incarnation is that Jesus is as near to us in anger, indignation, or grief, as Jesus is nursing at Mary’s breast.

I am filled with wonder at a God who so longs to be near to me in all of those human experiences.

“Strategy is Not Planning”

Do an internet search for “pastoral planning” and you’ll quickly discover this is a vague topic, nebulous in that many “good things” seem to be said, but they don’t necessarily connect with any precision. Many priests will joke about the absence of formation in this area in seminary studies–and even from a lay person’s perspective–I can attest to this! As a graduate student, I was dual-enrolled in a Master of Divinity program and a Master of Nonprofit Administration business school program simultaneously. In the Master of Divinity program, “planning” was rarely spoken of, and without much detail or depth. On the flip side, in a business school, we were assigned many (probably too many!) articles from the Harvard Business Review where leading scholars wrote on the differences between strategy, operations, management, planning, etc. It’s a deep field and unpacking it in a relevant way for parish leaders isn’t intuitive.

Today I’m going to attempt a different approach and leverage terminology used in military settings [my other professional background] to help give us a way forward for real-life pastoral planning. The military terminology “cuts to the chase” more than business scholarship, and avoids the vagueness of much of the existing pastoral planning literature. This post is excerpted and paraphrased from Harry R. Yarger’s monograph Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (Strategic Studies Institute) p. 47-64.

Let’s begin…

Strategy and planning are not synonyms.

The prominence of the term “strategic planning” probably does us all a disservice by overly associating and mixing “strategy” and “planning.”

What is strategy?

Strategy lays down what is important and to be achieved (objectives), and sets the parameters for the necessary actions and resources.

In strategy formulation, getting the objectives (or “ends”) right matters most. While it’s also beneficial for the strategist to correctly  identify the parameters of action and resources that are crucial to success, naming actions and resource-needs is a subordinate task to naming objectives.

More on “Objectives”

Objectives (aka “ends”) explain “what” is to be accomplished. in short, doing the right things. This is why objectives are the most important element of strategy [and by extension, planning]. The right concepts and resources are great; but if they are used to accomplish the wrong thing, then what’s the use?

How do we get objectives? We start with the “end state.” The way we want things to be. [Note: in civilian-land, this is often called vision]. We allow objectives to flow from analyzing the end state we’re aiming for in light of the factors in the environment (or setting) affecting the realization of the desired end state.

Picking objectives that are too confining leads to problems for planners because it limits their ability to be flexible and adapt for execution. Picking objectives that are too vague becomes problematic in that they can be easily misinterpreted, intercommunicated, and/or fail to provide appropriate direction to others.

The ideal is to choose objectives that create realistic boundaries or parameters (the guidance planners and those on the ground need and want!) but, not overly confining boundaries for planning and execution.

Now to the subordinate elements of strategy, concepts (ways) and costs (means), remembering that these come after selecting the right objectives.

Concepts (aka “ways”)

Concepts are concerned with doing things right. Concepts explain “how” the objectives are to be accomplished. Concepts link resources to the objectives by addressing who does what, where, when, and why to explain how an objective will be achieved. Choosing the right concepts/ways for action matters because it’s possible to achieve a correct objective, but have the positive results undermined due to negative effects of the incorrect concepts/methods used to achieve the goal.

Resources (aka “means”)

Resources (or means) are the costs–financial, human resources, effort, equipment, opportunity costs, material, facilities, goodwill, courage, will to persevere, etc. Resources can be tangible or intangible.

Flowing from correctly chosen objectives, the strategist identifies the types and levels of resources necessary to support the concepts chosen to accomplish the objective. The responsibility of the strategist is to ensure that the resources necessary for the accomplishment of the objectives as envisioned by the concepts are articulated and available. The strategist’s responsibility is to ensure that the strategic concept will accomplish the objective, and that it is resourced to do so.

Remember, a better concept may require less or different resources than available. This is where strategic decisions are made, as a strategy that is not adequately resourced is not a viable strategy at all.

Onto Planning

Now that we’ve covered strategy, what is planning?

Planning bridges the gap between strategy and execution. Planning makes strategy actionable. Planners work within the “box” of the parameters of actions and resources given by the strategists. Planners adapt strategy to their real world setting with the necessary details, facts, and figures that lead to interrelated and sequenced actions calculated to achieve the objectives set forth in the strategy.

Organizations need planning to:

  • reduce uncertainty at the on-the-ground level
  • deal with the concrete and explicit (and therefore shorter, time horizon)
  • create certainty so that people and groups can act

Parishes or ministries without adequate planning can have a well articulated vision and strategy, but end up going nowhere. Action players might even be aware of this strategy if it’s well communicated, but cannot act or implement because the practical actions are too unclear.

Summarizing Strategy

“Good strategy is an integral whole of the right objectives pursued through appropriate concepts and supported with the necessary resources.”

The strategic concept answers the big question of “how” the objectives will be achieved by articulating clearly for subordinate levels who does what, when, where, how, and why in such a manner that the subordinate strategist or planner can see with clarity how the execution of the concept leads to the accomplishment of the objective and what he or she is required to do in order to support the strategy.

Alpha Pitfalls

As a follow up to last week’s insights from Unlocking Your Parish by Ron Huntley and Fr. James Mallon, some key points from the book’s launch podcast/video.

First off, doing Alpha isn’t foolproof. Alpha can be done poorly. And, Alpha done poorly, doesn’t work very long. The fruit won’t be sustainable and won’t transform a parish’s culture. Because Alpha’s a small piece of a bigger puzzle, if the “soil” of the parish is truly lacking or toxic, both the culture [soil] and program/Alpha [seed] need to be addressed simultaneously.

Other common Alpha pitfalls?

Negative initial experience at Alpha. 

When a parish runs Alpha in a “rolling” or continuous style [which is ideal], the Alpha guests are in-training to be the next Alpha team. But, if being a guest provides the wrong experience, i.e. if your first impression is a bunch of church-going Catholics complaining about the church, then that becomes the “training”–and transfers/replicates in future sessions.

Spinning off Team members too quickly. 

It usually takes intentional encouragement to keep people in the Alpha pipeline/team, in contrast to immediately allowing Hosts and others to start leading new/other parish ministries for those who “want more.” Human nature often drives a desire to new/other/novel, but retaining Team members for multiple seasons is important for getting the momentum for church renewal and transformation. Once momentum is sustainably generating, then it’s time to help people move on to new ministries. As the Divine Renovation team emphasizes, “Keep your best leader on Alpha, until they can raise up another best leader.” With Connect Groups as the next step after Alpha, it usually takes about 2.5 years from the start of the first Alpha in a parish to the launch of a first Connect Group.

Alpha in isolation.

As Unlocking makes clear, Alpha is a tool that transforms parish culture and is enriched by being rooted in a missional parish culture. This means the pastor and staff are completely on board, i.e. the pastor preaching into the principles of Alpha and how/are these the principles you want in your church. Alpha thrives in the context of relevant homilies/messages, powerful community, non-judgmental interactions, high hospitality, and a belong-believe-behave paradigm. Otherwise, when those who experience Alpha experience the rest of the parish, they’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise! The “Alpha in isolation” pitfall can also look like a small group of parishioners deeply engaged in Alpha while the others merely look on. As Ron Huntley and Fr. James Mallon remind in the podcast, “you’re not doing Alpha until 30-40% of parish has been through it”–it takes a critical mass of a parish community to experience, adopt, and embrace Alpha for a culture to be truly transformed and renewed. 



Insights from “Unlocking Your Parish: Making Disciples, Raising Up Leaders With Alpha” by Ron Huntley & Fr. James Mallon

Unlocking Your Parish: Making Disciples, Raising Up Leaders with Alpha is one of the newer additions to the list of book resources coming from the Divine Renovation ministry.  In short, it’s a concrete, practically focused look at Alpha in the context of parish life.

Huntley and Mallon start with a focus on culture. Using the images of soil, seed, and fruit for the culture of a parish. Programs in parish life (or any ministry) are like seeds. Even the best seeds won’t bear fruit when planted in malnourished, weed-infested, barren, or toxic soil. But, on the flip side:

“If we evangelize and develop leaders well, we will impact the rest of our parish culture–in everything from outreach and social justice to developing new and life giving ministries to fostering an ever deepening love for the sacraments.”

Alpha is a tool that can enrich the soil of a parish and the book highlights “what Alpha can offer the Catholic parish interested in becoming a mission-focused community.”

Alpha matters because many Catholics (including leaders):

“have not encountered the love of the Father in Jesus Christ. They do not see themselves as beloved son and daughters of God, and they may not have made an intentional choice to follow Jesus. In fact, many Catholics today see faith not in terms of their relationship with God and others but primarily as something that places moral demands on them. They adopt an almost servile mentality, focusing on the things they must do for God rather than responding in gratitude for the things that God has done in and for and through them. This can make it difficult for parish to live out their mission, since the overwhelming focus becomes how do get to heaven.”

This is a key point. Who would want to share “Good News” that they haven’t personally experienced as good?!? This is a serious problem for many baptized Catholics, as I explore here.

The other key introductory point is that Alpha flips some of our “priorities” upside down. In many parishes, belief is expected, even taken for granted. This can be suffocating for anyone who is doubting, questioning, or just-plain-not-ready-to-believe because they need to experience authentic trust and relationships, love first. An Alpha culture firmly places belonging ahead of believing or behaving in parish life. This is true transformation of the soil!

If you’re interested in reading more about some of the concrete details of how and why to run Alpha in a Catholic parish, I encourage you to check out Unlocking Your Parish.




Giants: Cultivating Voice from Depth

The recent passing of Jean Vanier reminds me of a reflection from Carey Nieuwhof, where Nieuwhof ponders our present reality as young leaders and the spirituality each of us must cultivate if we are to bear fruit, as yesterday’s Gospel reading (John 15:1-8) declares to us.

Nieuwhof writes:

Of course, no one can truly replace the unique voices lost. But isn’t it our hope that every generation will have its voices?

Deeper, though, is this question: are the conditions even favorable today for producing men and women who can step into the void?

I fear the answer is no, or at least I’m not really sure.

Why? Well, for a voice to endure—to have real significance—it needs depth, not just breadth.

We live in mostly in the age of breadth. And that makes me worry just a little bit for our collective future.

Worth pondering…

In what way is my breadth a strength? Are elements of it vital and fruitful?

Where do I lack depth? What’s causing that lack of depth? 

What might God be calling me to prune, to pull back “breadth” in order to build depth? 

I think for many, the most significant barrier and temptation to depth is time. The feeling of busyness (I love Eugene Peterson’s 1981 essay on this). The feeling of a scarcity of time brings anxiety, worry, and even feels like it can “control” us externally.

The temptation to rush, to not be present, to not put in the deep preparation…these enter our lives each and every day.

Abide. Remain. These are the verbs of John 15. There’s no way to accomplish “abiding” or “remaining” quickly. I cannot accelerate progress in “abiding” in Jesus.

I can simply wait, growing deeper as a branch–not because I am the nourishment, but because the Vine’s roots are the ultimate depth.

Icon with Christ the Vine (16th c.) (8384468942)

What to Say About Confirmation [to a 6 yr old]

I started talking about the Sacrament of Confirmation to my 6 year old this week.

Why? Well, it wasn’t something he was asking about. But, he is starting to enter a more social age, of noticing what other kids and adults say, and there’s an awful lot of misleading [or just plain odd] theology, culture, and explanations surrounding the Sacrament of Confirmation.

So, I asked him, “have you ever heard of the Sacrament of Confirmation?”

Answer: no.

Great! I’ve got no competition [for now.]

Here’s what I shared with him:

You know how when a baby is baptized, the baby is too little to be able to talk? So the baby can’t say “yes” to believing in Jesus as God’s Son, or Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to us. The Sacrament of Confirmation is for when someone can talk and wants to say “yes” on their own to their baptism. When someone is ready to do this, they get anointed again with chrism, just like in baptism and are strengthened for all of the things God wants to do in their life.

His response? Oh.

Good enough.

I’ll make sure I keep repeating this whenever the situation arises, when we look at the chrism by the baptismal font in our parish, when we’re at baptisms, etc. He and his younger brother are big fans of baptism so I think that will be the logical (from both practical and theological perspectives) place to start slipping in our family Confirmation catechesis.

Do + Love = Walk (Micah 6:8)

“to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” –Micah 6:8

The more we read Scripture, pray, and get to know God, the more it’s natural to wonder, what is it God wants me to do? Who does he want me to be?  The prophet Micah sums it up in three parts:

We are to do justice.

This means taking action. Not simply knowing some moral or ethical principles and commenting on what others do—but getting our skin in the game by acting justly and taking a stand on behalf of what is truly good.

But, acting on behalf of God  is only possible when we first check out attitude.

We are to love goodness.

The “good” in God’s eyes is what is pure and timelessly beautiful, untouched by human sin. We are to love goodness, to long and crave for creation to be as God intended it. When we love goodness, acting justly follows.

Finally, our response to God requires a relationship. It’s not enough to have the right attitude and actions.

God desires that we “walk humbly” with him.

Walking with God means that we get to know him and keep close to him as we grow in our love of goodness and ability to act justly. While we may be able to act justly and love goodness out of our own motivations for a short time period or in some situations, it’s our commitment to relationship—to walking with God that will sustain us.


Image by Linnaea Mallette from Pixabay