Christian Unity: The Old, New Evangelization

Our opportunities to learn from the experiences of fellow Christians is certainly not limited to our present day and age. For me, some of the most inspiring testimony to the possibilities of evangelization that is new comes from the work of John and Charles Wesley in 18th c. England.

John Wesley Preaching Outdoors

Charles and John Wesley were ordained in eighteenth century England, a time when the sacrament of Holy Communion was often regarded with indifference or neglect. Church historian John Bowmer remarks that the sacraments and Christian life were widely disparaged in this “new age of reason,” and most people in the Church of England aimed for the minimums of religious practice”receiving the Eucharist three times a year and treating it as an historic custom, rather than encounter with the living God.

Unsurprisingly, most in the Church of England were not looking outward to form disciples or share the Gospel. In fact, many clergy and laity in the Church of England believed that England’s growing urban masses were beyond influence and simply had “no taste” for Christian liturgy and sacraments. Christianity was on its way to becoming a fruitless cultural niche.

So what did the Wesley brothers do in their setting of indifference and perceived divisions? Read more here…

Catechesis and Prayer

Do your faith formation classes teach people about prayer or form people as pray-ers?

Yesterday marked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual “Catechetical Sunday”–an unofficial kick-off to the new academic year of catechesis in parishes across the United States. This year’s theme is Prayer: The Faith Prayed, a great opportunity to consider the essential relationship between prayer and catechesis in your parish or Catholic school. 

Here’s the reality, all too often we think of catechesis or religious education as a collection of doctrines, of specific claims, statements, and positions to be learned. Something that can be fully captured in a good textbook. Yet this ignores the example of our very own Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Part 4 of the Catechism itself is “Christian Prayer.” Catechesis essentially includes the action of praying. As this year’s theme reveals, “pray” as a verb is an action of, and in, true catechesis.

Now you might be thinking, “yes, this is obvious–of course we pray during religion class, and of course our second grade students are required to memorize such-and-such prayers.”

But, what I offer to you is this: how we pray in catechesis often teaches more about prayer than our planned “lessons” ever do.

Do you offer prayer in a perfunctory, obligatory, rushed way? I certainly have. Especially when I feel a “crunch” for valuable time in a classroom.

Yet as I reflect on this, yikes, what am I really teaching my students by doing that? For one, I’m making prayer all about me. “There, I’ve said a prayer [and hopefully everyone has prayed or at least listened], and now we can move on.” Secondly, have I set the conditions for God to actually speak? i.e. Have I left any space (i.e. time, silence) for my students to hear God’s voice speaking to them personally? Am I treating this moment with the full dignity of expectation that this could be the most important part of class? That my students might tangibly encounter the Divine?

As a catechist, woe to me if I’m ever proud or satisfied that my students have memorized their prayers through hard work of drilling with their parents. While rote memorization in itself is an important, basic step in cultivating one’s prayer life (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154)–the how of memorization matters. Memorization that occurs organically through the repeat action of praying, rather than attempting to memorize the Apostles Creed as if the Constitution, conveys the reality, significance, and words of a prayer (while memorization as for a quiz merely teaches words). Forming and empowering Christians of all ages to actually pray–to converse with God–this gift in the Holy Spirit should be my only “satisfaction” as a catechist. If my students can only follow me in prayer, and not pray on their own–then I have not fulfilled my full calling as a catechist.

Today’s Gospel (Lk 8:16-18) offers a parable where Jesus declares to his audience, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a  lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”

In catechesis, prayer is our light–“the faith prayed.” Prayer illuminates, brings power, spreads the warmth of God’s love, and is a moment of personal intimacy with God available to each and every person–every child, every adult, in every faith formation setting. Let us not be content to show a photograph of this “lamp” to our students for study. No, in catechesis we must pray and form pray-ers. Light the lamp with our students and experiencing the Light together.


a version of this post also appears at

St. Mark’s Challenge to Us

Image: Wikipedia (Saint Mark, Donatello)

Happy feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist!

Mark the Evangelist gave us a distinctively short Gospel, with the word “immediately” seemingly used in just about every narrative…something like 40x in 16 chapters–whoa…no in antiquity! 😉  But, God inspired him as a true human author, using his unique skills and personality to give us an action-packed, fast-moving evangelization project that still manged to provide us extra vivid details into Jesus’ wondrous deeds and a dramatic half-way-thru-the-Gospel shocking turn to blunt emphasis on Jesus’ servant-kingship.

St. Mark the Evangelist also uniquely “punts” the ball to us in his first “curtain call” ending (16:8) where he makes it look as if Jesus’ Resurrection is the end of the story here. The end of any message of salvation going forth, as the women flee from the tomb, trembling, astonished, and saying nothing of this to anyone. Ouch.

While we as modern-day Christians are blessed with the benefit of additional longer, canonical manuscript endings (16:9-20 proclaimed in today’s Mass), there were likely many early believers who only heard the first “curtain call” ending. Yikes. It’s hard for us to imagine!

Yet, think about the implied responsibility Mark is creatively pointing us toward. St. Mark is reminding us that now it is up to us to choose to take an active role in spreading the word about this great miracle, this victory over death that changes lives for the better! St. Mark recorded his Evangel (Gospel) in writing, but now it’s time for anyone who hears and believes to continue to share the message, to evangelize in their own unique time in history, guided and empowered by the same Holy Spirit that inspired Mark is such an amazing way 🙂

St. Mark the Evangelist, pray for us that we would respond to your challenge with the urgency, joy, and excitement you modeled, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed through our lives as disciples.

How long should Mass be?

 In Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon offers these insights and reflections for figuring out what’s right for your parish community when it comes to Sunday Mass:

Worrying about Mass as a production is the wrong concern. He writes, “to the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.'” While Mass isn’t a “production” in the literal sense of the term, it should be treated with the utmost planning and concern for quality and transformation of those present.

Remember the 80/20 rule. In most parishes, “the only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend,” yet what proportion of time goes into preparing for this crucial weekly moment?

“The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people.”

Mass might need to be longer than you think. Or like. Or are comfortable with. Fr. Mallon observes, “The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end…if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards…We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times?”

In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures.

What values does your Mass schedule, length, and culture project? Fr. Mallon asserts:

Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule. Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another.

In summary, I think a key is moving from the question how long should Mass be? or how long should a homily be? to addressing the intended outcomes. What is Mass to do? What is the outcome of the homily? Then, work backwards to determine how much time this takes in your setting and context. At the same time, begin to consider how to assess if these desired outcomes, effects, and fruits are happening among those present to worship. Challenging, but worth it to unleash the full power and fruits of the Eucharist amid our worshiping assemblies! 😀

Want to read more? Check out these longer excerpts from Fr. Andrew Carrozza, read Divine Renovation yourself, or listen to Fr. James Mallon’s podcasts on topics related to this great ministry book!

Pentecost During Lent: Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Today’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle calls us to understand the Papal Office, our lives as disciples, and Jesus’ enduring summons to Christian unity as inherently related and dependent on the Holy Spirit.

This feast actually began as two separate celebrations–one day marking Peter’s “chair” of apostolic ministry in Antioch, and another to mark his later apostolic ministry in Rome. Yes, there once was a literal piece of furniture (a chair) saved from the time of Peter, but this was destroyed relatively early on in Christian history. So, (sorry “Antiques Roadshow” fans) no historical furniture exists. But what’s more important than a physical chair is the idea of Peter’s seat–his office of apostolic ministry and leadership.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached while celebrating this feast in 2006, the first seat was not even in Rome or Antioch, but in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. On this day, the Holy Spirit was sent in order that the Spirit might “continually sanctify the Church” (CCC §767). How? Special graces (called charisms) are poured out and enable believers to “undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church” for the good of humanity and the world (CCC §798-9). All of us believers in the Body of Christ have different charisms in accord with the different special graces poured out upon us (CCC §2004).

Some particular graces are named “hierarchic,” literally meaning sacred order (CCC §768). These gifts of sacred order are exercised in a particular office or position in the Body of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the Lord gave:

some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-2).

Benedict XVI demonstrated the precise nature of hierarchic gifts concretely through his resignation in 2011 (the “greatest act of papal humility”). He stepped away from particular hierarchic gifts by leaving an office in the Body of Christ, a position of sacred order.

What was the purpose of this seat, this office first occupied by Peter? Most concretely, to keep Jesus Christ’s disciples unified in faith and in charity (Benedict XVI, 2012 homily). Bishops are successors to the apostles, and the Bishop of Rome in a particular way is a successor to Peter, receiving the hierarchical gift of serving the function of unity and charity in the Body of Christ. The title “pontiff” gives us a wonderful illustration. Pontiff comes from the French and Latin words for “bridge” (pons). (Or, think in English, of a “pontoon boat”–same root!] The Bishop of Rome, in his Papal Office serves as a bridge between all other bishops, guiding the flock of Jesus’ disciples in unity of faith and love.

Talking about the Pope the wrong way can sometimes come across as arrogant–i.e. I’m a Catholic. We have a Pope. Therefore we’re “better” than that non-denominational congregation down the street. It’s not about being better or superior. No. This feast celebrating Peter’s seat, his office inspires us to pray for the Pontiff as bridge, pray for unity and charity in the Body of Christ–a Body that extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church (Decree on Ecumenism, §3).

In fact, this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter was formerly celebrated on January 18th, as the start to the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (which ends on Jan 25th, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). The Holy Spirit is one with God the Father. The God of Mercy who wills “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Holy Spirit gives hierarchic gifts of the Spirit so that we (who as believers in Jesus Christ, are all uniquely given particular charisms for the good of the Body) can be one in faith and charity. Devoted to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This is the Spirit-filled vision of Peter’s chair–from Pentecost to the present day.

I recall being very blessed, three years ago, to bring my first child to his first Mass on this day. What did we see? A weekday reception of a fellow brother in Christ into full communion and a surprise choral post-communion hymn from his enthusiastic friends and family. What an outpouring of the Spirit, a reminder that even during Lent, we’re a Pentecostal church for sure! 🙂

Communion Guideline Announcements as Mercy in Motion

I’m going to propose something that sounds utterly impractical. Completely inconvenient. And, at first, flat out impossible, maybe even ridiculous. Here goes: during this Jubilee Year of Mercy (and beyond!), when we know that it’s an occasion where a lot of the “baptized who no longer practice the faith” are going to be present in our churches, we need to open the doors to mercy, right then.

What do I mean? Instead of simply announcing (at say, Christmas, Easter, First Communions, Funerals, etc.) that only those in “good standing” (poorly chosen phrase to begin with, as discussed in Part 1 of this blog post), in a state of grace, who uphold the teachings of the Church, and/or are in full communion should come forth to receive the Eucharist, we need to do something. To open up the door of mercy, and not simply in an abstract sense. But tangibly. Right then.

I mean seriously. Just think about our present reality. We make an announcement reminding folks why a person would abstain from physical communion at times of the year when we’re blessed (just think of everything in our society that contributes to a decline in religious attendance) to have the “baptized but not practicing” visiting us in large numbers! What are we hoping will happen as a result of an announcement like “only Catholics in good standing may receive communion?” Concretely, we’re informing so that each person can discern properly before the Lord. That’s a good thing. But, for the many who discern, “no, I should not receive” what are we hoping happens next?

If we’re hoping that that by hearing such an announcement, the baptized but not practicing will be spiritually moved to (at a later date) go find a place and time for Confession, participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (maybe for the first time in decades!), and then return to share in communion and thus receive the graces anew–this seems to make an awful lot of assumptions. A “leap of reason” (h/t Mario Morino) rather than a well-discerned leap of faith. It doesn’t seem like a good model at all. I’ve yet to see any studies or newspaper clippings that reveal that these announcements are effectively bringing many people back to relationship of communion with and in the Church.

If we were deeply concerned with the salvation of every person on earth, profoundly convinced that it would be an utter loss for someone to miss out on one more day without a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ who loves to save and desires to know each of us personally, then we’d probably act differently.

In his announcement of our Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reflected, “Jesus’ reminder urges each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we have a person before us.” Making an announcement at Mass, with no specific invitation (other than maybe words buried in the bulletin that we’re hoping people aren’t reading during Mass anyhow) seems like an example of stopping at the surface of things. And, stopping when we have a person before us–precisely when we have people back at Mass who rarely enter our sanctuaries.


Pope Francis continued in his announcement, “I have often thought of how the Church may render more clear her mission to be a witness to mercy; and we have to make this journey.” So, let’s figure out some options for ways to do mercy when it comes to communion reception announcements.

First, prepare by hosting your seasonal Penance Services (quick example, if this liturgical service is unfamiliar) strategically, in concert with other events that will attract the “baptized who no longer practice the faith.” While many Catholic priests and parishes work together to offer these many different nights during Lent and Advent, the “draw” is generally limited to those already attending Mass regularly, those who will see it in the bulletin or on the sign outside of the church. I mean, for those who no longer practice the faith, is “Penance Service” usually the kind of thing that gets someone in the door? Not usually. But, what if a Penance Service was done before or after an event that is likely to draw in those who no longer practice, i.e. a December Christmas Carol Festival or a music/drama performance of a Catholic school (think relatives!).

Secondly, when that Mass-with-lots-of-visitors comes around each year, include an invitation along with any communion directions.

Let’s face it “state of grace” or “grave sin” are not a terms those who no longer practice the faith are necessarily familiar with. Many even have misunderstandings about what theological terms mean, thinking that these are code for a permanent exclusion. Conversation on these matter is crucial–so let’s invite.

For example, an announcement could include, “we invite those who are unsure about or interested in receiving communion to come talk to us during the hymn for the presentation of the gifts…we’ll be in the lobby/entrance area wearing blue nametags.” These members of the parish could be trained to help quickly welcome, answer questions, point those in need to the next available Confession time, and invite them to surrender to Jesus as Lord and make a spiritual communion during the Mass. And/or, an announcement could invite those interested to come talk to the celebrant priest in a quasi-private, easy-to-slip-away-to-place (i.e. sacristy area) immediately following Mass. Don’t worry about missing handshakes–lots of parishioners have the right personality and gifts to engage people as they leave the church; but only the priest can administer the sacrament of conversion.

Parishes with more than one priest can offer even more opportunities. For example, having one priest offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation before the most popular Masses of the year (and if the demand is so great that the confessions run into the start of Mass, this is okay, sometimes we can let a flood of mercy can mess up our plans!). Regardless of how your parish chooses to do it, what’s important is to respond to the presence of the “baptized who no longer practice” in a way that offers an immediate option. Think of it as a Jubilee Year of Mercy version of the old phrase, “strike while the iron’s hot.” Plus, hoping that people will call you during the week and make an appointment is less likely to make an impact.

We must do everything possible to keep the doors of mercy wide open, so that those touched by grace may find the assurance of forgiveness, reconciliation with the Church as quickly as possible, and an immediate, personal connection of someone who can lead them in prayer. Let us never provide our sincere counsel on discerning reception of communion, without in the same breath offering a concrete invitation to reconciliation (even if it’s simply a starting conversation and prayer). Challenging? Yes. But the very same Holy Spirit who enabled Peter and the disciples to somehow manage the logistics of an unexpected three-thousand baptisms (Acts 2:41) in one day is still at work in us today 🙂

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