Lent: Rooted in Belonging

What is belonging?

When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.

Lent: Not Just Individual Piety

Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). 

The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.

Lent for Early Christians

What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.

In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:

“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)

Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).   

Lent: Icon of the Entire Year

If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)

How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.

This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.  

Belong
Duncan Rawlinson @ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*Note The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011). 

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A Glimpse of Parish Life as a “None” Parent via”Losing Our Religion”

9781479883202_fullFor the past week, we’ve been diving into key points and applications from Christel Manning’s “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children”. In closing, I’m sharing her own personal experience encountering a Catholic parish as a “None” parent. I’m thankful to Manning for incorporating her own personal experiences into her valuable work of sociology.

Manning, like many other parents who identify as “None,” experienced new questions during the “early childhood” stage of her daughter, Sheila. Embodying the diversity of her framework for understanding the beliefs of Nones and range of options to offer worldview formation for their children, Manning took up the recommendation of a Catholic friend, and enrolled her daughter in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at her local parish. Here’s her reflection:

The teacher leading the program was a lovely woman, gentle and non-dogmatic and so good with kids. My husband was initially opposed to any kind of church-based education, but I convinced him to give it a try…I enrolled Sheila for the first year. She loved it…When we went to England for Christmas, my husband’s family was duly impressed with Sheila’s knowledge of religion…At the end of the school year, however, the doctrinal basis of the program became more clear. The first year curriculum, geared to very young children, was centered on the idea that God is a good shepherd who will take care of you–a fairly generic concept that I could accept. By contrast, the second-year curriculum involved teaching children the Catholic creed and preparing them for first communion. I did not feel comfortable with that. Parents were encouraged to attend church with their children, and in talking to other parents I realized that everybody else was actually doing that. I felt like a fraud. So the next Sunday, I went to mass and I took Sheila with me…There were rousing hymns singing glory to God, prayers, a reading from the Bible, a homily on a topic I cannot remember people lined up to receive communion. The hymns struck me as militaristic, the Bible reading felt irrelevant to my life,and the prayers reminded me that I do not believe in God. Sheila was bored and fidgety. I was bored and alienated. It was clear this was not the right path for us. I was disappointed, but also relieved. (192)

Take Aways

  1. What appealed to Manning?
    • the recommendation of her Catholic friend, who did not hesitate to share an experience that was positive for her child with her “None” friend —> personal endorsement/invitation is the most powerful marketing
    • about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd? We see it in her own layperson’s description, “a Montessori-based two-year program for preschoolers and kindergarten age children that allows children to choose from various religion-themed play activities rather than imposing a unified curriculum on them” (192). While this is incomplete in a technical sense (i.e. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is in Catholic language a “systematic” catechesis and stretches to age 12) it reveals what resonated with a “None” parent —> our marketing “key words” for outsiders do not need to be what’s most theologically important to us “church folks”
    • the Level 1 (ages 3-6) emphasis that “God is a good shepherd who will take care of you” was experienced by Manning as pre-evangelistic, it connected to her existing values –> the Church’s teaching on the role of pre-evangelization should not be overlooked 🙂
  2. As described in her research, it was her interest that convinced her husband to allow the “testing the water” in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. After the child’s interests/needs, spouses exert the second most powerful “push” to explore religious worldviews. And it’s usually the woman. –> #MarketToMoms #ConnectWithMoms

  3. Those familiar with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) will notice that Manning’s perceptive description isn’t quite accurate, i.e. our “insider” understanding of different “Levels” each spanning approximately three years is not clear to her. And this isn’t her fault, she’s not trying to be a catechetical expert (and yes, the parish mentioned runs typical Level 1 and 2 CGS programs). This impacts her expectations and understanding. –> When describing catechetical programs to parents, let’s remember that they don’t have the time to research or prepare to be familiar with our “insider” language.

  4. Manning takes her daughter to Mass. (!!!) Did you catch that? How blessed are we to receive such seekers in our midst! Remember, Manning is a “None,” her husband initially opposed the idea of having their daughter attend Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Manning herself already feels “uncomfortable,” and yet, she still goes. This is a huge leap on her part. –> Our attitude toward seekers should respect and honor the risks they’ve already taken to encounter us on “our turf,” rather than veil a disdainful or critical, “where have you been all these years?” We rejoice (note Jesus’ 3 parables in Lk 15) that the Holy Spirit has led them this far.
  5. Manning finds the Eucharistic homily at Mass to be forgettable. –> #AlwaysBeEvangelizing. While Mass isn’t “for” seekers, seekers are present. Preaching matters–it’s worth spending the time, bringing in the team, and preparing for the sake of those who might only be giving Mass one try.

  6. The music and lectors didn’t captivate Manning either –> Movements like Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation all emphasize the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” They’re right. (Other evidence supports this too).
  7. Manning’s daughter was bored and fidgety. –> While liturgically oriented Catholics may love having their young children with them at Mass, it’s unlikely a seeker or “None” will find that experience life-giving. We shouldn’t force them to by failing to care enough to offer a memorable and engaging experience for their children. It was Sheila who indirectly “brought” her mother to Mass this time–imagine if Sheila had spent the car-ride home telling her mom about the kids she met, how much she loved the singing, how fun it was–many parents would come back a second time (or more!) simply because their child had a great experience. That’s how us parents work 🙂

Again, I’m grateful to Christel Manning for sharing so personally in the conclusion of her book. Rarely do we get such a detailed description of how a “None” parent/child can go from non-attending, to catechesis, and even make it to Mass. 

Having concluded this series on Losing Our Religion, what new thoughts are you thinking about “Nones” as parents?

“An Invitation” on Christmas

Utilizing all means of communication matters. Back in 2006, I lived in southeastern North Carolina–not a place with a large Catholic population, universities, or obvious resources to grow more in one’s faith. But, I started searching online for podcasts of good Catholic preaching, and I stumbled upon the podcast of homilies given by Msgr. Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His preaching was perfect for an independent Baptist formed, Catholic believer, and has remained a fixture in my podcast feed ever since.

For years, I’ve wanted to attend Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and this Christmas, we happened to be near Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian for the Vigil Mass, hooray!

The worship aid/program for Mass included this excellent example of a kerygma-filled invitation:

On this feast of Christmas, we celebrate the fact that the eternal Son of God came forth in greatest love to save his people from their sins.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to live among us, teach us, and to die on the cross but also to gather unto himself a people, who would love, support, and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.

He then sent his apostles forth to gather his people into the community of the Church by baptism and the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. This work continues today as it has down through the centuries.

Kerygma without the Church can be a problem–but this example incorporates that fullness in plain language, without context-less theological jargon.

The invitation goes on to address individuals–showing that it’s not simply that “we” have “stuff to teach you,” but that we are meant to be a bigger we in God’s plan.

At Christmas, many people find their way to church who are not otherwise very connected to church. There are many reasons for this. Some have simply drifted away, others have experienced some hurt or disagreement related to the Church or her members. Still others have never been formally related to any church. Whatever the reason may be, know that you are wanted and needed in this community of faith. We need your experience, support, encouragement, and love. You also need these same things from the Church. We need each other. The doors of this church are open if you seek a spiritual home…We are grateful for your interest in our parish and are here to serve you in whatever way we can. May you have a blessed Christmas and joyous New Year.

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Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church 

Worship That’s Not Mass

Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes,

In this age when so many Catholics are drifting away from the church and there are so many others who are genuinely interested in the Catholic faith, I wish we had some form of non-Eucharistic worship where we could evangelize and catechize effectively. This would also provide a way for Catholics who, for whatever reason, cannot receive communion to belong to the church and worship God while they are working out how they can be full members of the church. These forms of worship would also get around the clericalism in the church because they could be conducted by laypeople–both men and women.

It would be pretty radical, but what if once a month we actually put in place a simple, dignified act of worship which was not a Mass?

Absolutely! There’s a vital need for this because Mass is inherently and distinctly not a seeker-service. Mass is designed for those who have experienced encounter with Jesus Christ and conversion, for those initiated into the fullness of Christian life. While this doesn’t mean we completely ignore the reality that in our culture, seekers and those in need of pre-evangelization and evangelization are present at Mass, it does mean that we take seriously the need of “outsiders” of those who are not already a part of our parish life when it comes to their inherent desire to worship.

St. Paul recognized this desire in humankind to celebrate, praise, and worship in his own ministry, for example among non-Christians in Athens (Acts 17:20-22). He understood the cause of this to be the “invisible attributes of [God’s] eternal power and divinity” present in the created world that all experience (Romans 1:20).

And the same is true today. Men and women of all ages and cultures have the desire to experience silence and awe in close connection with the Creator and ultimate spiritual force in the world (even if they do not yet name or “know” this Creator personally, as we do). Many studies have shown the positive value of cultivating gratitude and mindfulness toward the world and people around us. The act of worship encompasses all this and more in giving glory to God.

As Fr. Longenecker suggested, setting a goal of offering a monthly service pre-evangelistic and/or evangelistic in character is a great start. The General Instructions for the Liturgy of the Hours offer a wide range of options and flexibility that makes Liturgy of the Hours ripe for customization.

Other ideas include:

  •       Taizé-inspired prayer services.[4]
  •       Modeling a service after the XLT (pronounced “Exalt”) nights popular with teenagers and young adults. XLTs “combine quality music and a dynamic teaching with worship of the Eucharist in an energetic and reverent setting.  In other words, you are sure to hear a fun and relevant talk, some of the best new worship music, and experience the intimacy of spending time with Christ in Eucharistic Adoration”[5]
  •        Reviving the Cathedral Vigil services (or other adaptations of the Liturgy of the Hours) popular in the Patristic era. A version of this is currently popular among young adults in Colorado.[6]
  •       Making use of services that do not include reception of the Eucharist, since receiving the Eucharist is often not applicable for someone in need of initial proclamation and allows for wider use of the baptized faithful as preachers of the Word or Liturgy of the Hours as a venue for evangelistic preaching (i.e. Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgy of the Word). [from “Why Do We Have to Preach For Evangelization in a Catholic Parish?]

Opportunities for preaching and worship together are what’s key for cultivating that pre-evangelistic desire to worship, creating space to encounter Jesus, and offering a chance for those present to hear the message of salvation through preaching.

Marketing is a key part of inviting others to attend, and for many, the name of a church or a location on a church campus can be a barrier. Parishes can consider off-site locations, as well as “internal spin offs” through a “specifically themed/marketed sub-ministry within a parish (see: Christ the King in Ann Arbor’s Upper Room as an example of this), etc. These aren’t merely programs, but initiatives that create a new organizational identity within the parish” (from “Catholic Takeaways from ‘Increasing Young Adult Participation in Churches and Other Faith Communities Today'”).

If a monthly commitment is too much, consider offering non-Mass worship around a religious or civic holiday that motivates many non-church-attenders to consider attending, i.e. Christmas, Ash Wednesday, or in the United States, civic holidays such as Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day.

Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Canada specifically offers “Christmas Unplugged”–a Christmas Eve service designed for people who aren’t regular churchgoers. As Saint Benedict’s explains:

Why have Christmas Unplugged? Christmas is a time where many people, even
those who aren’t religious, feel a tug on their hearts calling them back to church. But for someone who hasn’t been to church in awhile, a long and crowded Christmas Eve Mass can be difficult and not very engaging – especially for children. Christmas Unplugged is a family-friendly, welcoming alternative for anyone who wants to reconnect with their faith around Christmastime. (“Bene Dictus,” Dec 2017)
For an in-depth look at “Christmas Unplugged” listen to this podcast interview from Saint Benedict Parish.
Remember, just as preaching is wider and bigger than the Eucharistic homily alone, so too is worship a broader category than Mass alone. To connect with those who have not yet experienced a foundational conversion in Jesus Christ, or who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” we need to offer opportunities for them to experience a taste of belonging in Christian community and the awesome, transformative power of God.
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Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

Pre-Evangelization Inklings: Tough Mudder

Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?

Indeed. Why?

From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community.  As he explains, Tough Mudder events,

“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”

Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.

This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. An inherent world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship? Share your thoughts and experiences!

Tough Mudder
Image by zapmole756 via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0

 

Five-Year Tested* Plan for Promoting Liturgy of the Hours Among the Laity

How to promote the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH) among Catholic laity? Here’s a collection of ideas I heard following a talk by Daria Spezzano at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy‘s summer symposia:

  • use of bodily motions (i.e. bowing)
  • cathedral style celebrations with designated music ministers, responsorial style psalms, candlelight, incense, etc.
  • worship aids for introducing Liturgy of the Hours, but eventually prayer books
  • growing it in parish life by forming youth in the practice
  • digital apps [this seemed to have some critics]
  • singing(!)
  • combining it with Eucharistic Adoration
  • presence of a “seed” group of those who are familiar (versus an entire chapel of inexperienced LOTH-prayers)
  • slipping it into parish life, i.e. before Sunday Mass or during a particular liturgical season
  • praying along with recordings of sung/spoken LOTH
  • and from Spezzano, the idea of someone experienced (i.e. from a diocese staff) presenting in three sessions: history, spirituality, and then the “how to”

And my thoughts? Yes.

There’s simply not one way. No silver bullet. Ten people are going to have ten different stories. Listening to the discussion brought back memories of my own “discovery” of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Not sure if my experience was slower or had more touch points than typical, but I’m struck by how many of the ideas mentioned in the Liturgy Symposia were indeed present in my own life.

Here it is: a tested*, five-year plan for how a Millennial can discover Liturgy of the Hours

 Year 1: On a whim, go to parish’s Advent Sunday Vespers. Vespers are “cathedral style” with support from parish music groups. Get Psalm 110 antiphon tune stuck in head (I can still remember it today, twelve years later). Go back for the rest of Advent.

Year 2: While having one foot in a Baptist congregation and one foot in a Catholic parish, see a newly released edition of a 1559 Book of Common Prayer on the shelf at the local Barnes & Noble and think “ah ha! the perfect mix of King James Version texts and that Catholic prayer I liked.” Buy it. Start to pray it while falling asleep at night.

Year 3: Podcasts are growing. Notice a new Catholic resource, “ND Prayercast,” (from a Catholic university I’d never much thought of, but would eventually attend, years later). Start to listen to a Morning Prayer styled podcast with music. Singing (or at least humming) along with Invititory and Morning psalms and canticles has become a reality.

Year 4: Need some reading that will last through a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Buy the one-volume Christian Prayer (via this trendy “Amazon” thing–since it’s not like there are lots of Catholic bookstores in Fayetteville, NC). Start praying morning and evening prayer as an individual.

Year 5: In a new Army assignment with lots of travel. Wander into the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. (because I found some free, non-Catholic University of America-permit-required parking there!!) and see Vespers going on. Start to make finding communal celebrations of Liturgy of the Hours part of my work trips and experience the prayer with Holy Spirit Sisters in St. Louis, Jesuits in Missouri, Anglicans in London, and Visitation Sisters in D.C.

So that’s how it happened. How I went from having no clue about the Liturgy of the Hours, to being familiar with, drawn to, and even leading and pre-evangelizing through this liturgical action of the Church. There was no silver bullet. Many small and mundane things played a part along the way. Most importantly, God was at work. No five-year pastoral plan to promote LOTH can make more people pray the Liturgy of the Hours individually and communally. There’s no “recipe” that works for every parish, never mind every person. To sum up my experience in conversation with the Symposia-generated list of ideas, it comes down to this: do it & make it available. If LOTH is prayed communally, people will see it and hear it. Doing it (and seeing others pray this way) was a critical jump-start in my own story. And at the same time, communal celebrations of LOTH aren’t widely available in most locations. So, we can make it available and accessible for individual pray-ers through resources. Of course the books will always be sold, but audio recordings, video recordings, live-streams, apps, social media communities, etc. Almost anything could be the resource that encourages someone or sustains them when they’re ready and seeking to enter more deeply in to the Church’s daily prayer.

 

Do you pray the Liturgy of the Hours? How did it happen for you? What common threads do you see in your story and others’?

*and guaranteed to work on me, and probably only me 😉

Some other thoughts on preaching in the LOTH and parish celebrations of LOTH

 

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.

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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…