“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 
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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…

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 newevangelizers.com