Not Accepting Labels: Pharisees & Evangelization

How many of of us have a positive impression of Pharisees? Probably not too many. For most Bible readers, the Pharisees stand out, memorably as the best known opposition to Jesus and his followers.

230px-rubens-feast_of_simon_the_phariseeHowever, this Sunday’s Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Luke 7:36-8:3) reminds us of the absolute folly in settling for a label instead of a story in our relationships with others, even those we don’t yet know.

In the end we see that Sherry Weddell’s maxim, “never accept a label in place of a story” was as relevant to Jesus’ ministry as it should be for us.

As Luke the Evangelist so often reminds us, Jesus did a lot of eating. Jesus ends up at this particular dinner party because, “a Pharisee invited him to dine with him” (Lk 7:36). Did you catch that? Jesus, the Good News personified, doesn’t set up some intricate plan to attract the “unchurched” or “dechurched” of his age to come to him–a Pharisee invites Jesus. This tells us that Jesus operated outside the circle of his immediate followers. He wasn’t known only to disciples, he wasn’t so busy with his disciples that he made no impact, or impression on the outside world.

This can be tough for us today in our modern day settings. We want to be part of our local Christian fellowship in a parish, it’s good to be growing and living life with other disciples in parish life–yet, without keeping a balance, of cultivating authentic relationships outside of the parish walls, we’ll never experience what Jesus did. Without the perception of a possible “yet” to such an invitation, even from someone of different worldview or religious convictions, who would reasonably want to invite me to dine with them? While we don’t know the full intentions or motives of this Pharisee, we do see that he is taken at face value. Jesus accepts the invitation. And we can do the same, assuming good will and genuine intentions of every person we interact with, especially those “in opposition” to us in some way.

In the meal conversation, we begin to see beyond the label “Pharisee.” This man who was interested (for whatever reasons!) in having Jesus attend his dinner has ideas about Jesus’ identity. He thinks that Jesus might be a prophet (Lk 7:39). He already considers Jesus a teacher (Lk 7:40). In short, if we were to accept the label “Pharisee” as the full picture, we as time-travelling evangelists might write this man off. We might see him as one in opposition to the disciples and Jesus. We might assume his religious viewpoints are absolutely fixed and decided. We might take this man as a hypocrite because other Pharisees acted that way publicly. And if we did that–accepting the label instead of a story–we’d never know that he was toying with the idea that Jesus was a genuine prophet, and already convinced that Jesus was a wisdom-filled teacher.

 

But Jesus is always operating beyond a label. Jesus makes it personal. He addresses this Pharisee by name (Lk 7:40). “The Pharisee” has become Simon, a man who is wondering if Jesus is a prophet and interested in his teachings. And Jesus enters into Simon’s story.

See Simon was put off that Jesus had accepted the attention and affection of a sinner who had slipped into the dinner (Lk 7:38-39). Jesus does not give Simon the answer. He does not issue a direct correction. Jesus leads Simon to be able to see things differently, telling him a parable of two debtors, and asking him a question. It’s still Simon’s story. The difference is that Jesus is in it.

Now, sometimes we imagine that when it comes to evangelization, it’s all or nothing. But this isn’t the case. Jesus loves to save. Jesus loves to save so much that he’s willing to take a little openness and work with it.

Simon answers Jesus’ question about the parable correctly. Kind of. See Simon isn’t so sure. He couches his answer with an uncertain, “I suppose” (Lk 7:43). But Jesus does not call Simon out for hedging his bets on the answer. Jesus affirms the faith present. He gives a Teacher’s approval, telling Simon, “You have judged rightly.” You. This is all about Simon, not the religious beliefs, convictions, and practices of all the Pharisees Jesus has ever met or heard about.

And, just as Jesus heals the son of the father who can only muster this statement of faith, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24), or Paul takes as evangelistic success the response, “We should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32), I suppose is an occasion for rejoicing. Jesus is in Simon’s story. We don’t (this side of eternity!) know the rest of Simon’s story. But, we do know this–there would have been no hope for Simon if Jesus had accepted the label, “Pharisee.”

Image credit: “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens, c. 1618, via Wikipedia)
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God’s Great Rescue, Urgency, and You

“I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

Today on the 4th Monday of Lent we respond to God’s Word with in the words of the Psalmist David, I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me (Psalm 30, in context or within Mass).

This response begs the question–from what, precisely, has God rescued you?

To be rescued implies that each of us, personally, was in need of rescue. God didn’t just pluck us from being “basically a nice person,” “pretty good,” or “okay” and raise us to something else. No–God rescues. God does something that none of us could ever do for ourselves. God offers a power beyond our attempts at self-improvement or “self-rescue.”

The Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News (this is what the Greek word we translate as Gospel, euvangelion, literally means). Good News (like rescue) implies, however, that the status quo was not good. The status quo was the opposite of Good News.

For decades, change leadership theorist John Kotter has asserted that establishing a sense of urgency is a critical first step to effectively changing organizational behavior. I wonder, if the challenges and hesitations that organizations (large and small) and even individuals have when it comes to intentionally evangelizing flow from (among other things) a lack of urgency.

For example, if I don’t really feel like I’ve been “rescued” by the Lord–you know, I kind of feel like…hey, life was pretty good and being in relationship with God is just some bonus icing on the cake–then why would I be motivated to lead others to the Lord? If being a part of a local church is a nice lifestyle choice, but not something that flows from a necessary “rescue”–then why should I go out and invite others in?

So, consider again today’s Psalm response: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

What is it the Lord rescued you from? When you made the “fundamental decision” of your life to be a Christian after encountering Jesus Christ, what was the life you left behind as you turned to your “new horizon” with a “decisive direction”? (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1) Being able to name, to put into words the unique rescue God did in your life is a critical piece of testimony. In fact, if you struggle with sharing personal testimony, then just simply describing your own personal rescue can be a great start. This is a powerful testimony in and of itself–not further story required!

As I pondered in prayer, Lord, what did you rescue me from when as a teenager, I made that fundamental decision? The need for a rescue became quite clear! God rescued me from single-minded pursuit of prestige and academic success, from striving for worldly success, from placing my own needs above those of others, from preferring to avoid relationships (like parenting) that stretch one’s virtues, from being uncertain about the possibility of eternal salvation, from tacitly assuming that as a pretty-good-person-not-an-axe-murderer, heaven was pretty much automatic on my own merits, from doubt in the free grace of salvation, from fear of sacrifices or zealousness in faith. Quite the rescue 🙂

Name your rescue story. Share it. And, let your experience of God rescuing you become fuel for a renewed urgency of evangelization for all those around you!

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!

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.

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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 🙂

This post previously appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Grace Over “Good Standing”

If you travel around enough as a visitor to different Catholic parishes–especially for Christmas, Easter, funerals, or weddings–you’ll hear a range of different announcements given just prior to Mass or (more jarringly) just before communion distribution pertaining to who should or should not receive the Eucharist. There’s one that always strikes me as odd, if you are a Catholic in good standing you may receive communion.

As far as I can tell, the phrase “good standing” is not in the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the USCCB’s official Guidelines for the Reception of Communion. It seems that the verbiage of “good standing” isn’t drawn from our faith tradition. In fact, it sounds more akin to civic organizational culture, i.e. “I’m a member in good standing of the local Lions club.” “Standing” in a club is something we earn. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, a Holy Temple–we’re incorporated into it through our response to grace–not by attaining “good standing.”

 

Credentials
Image: “Credentials” by davidd via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 license)

As Pope Francis explained in a General Audience:

our taking part in the Church is not an exterior or formal fact, it is not filling out a form they give us; it is an interior and vital act; one does not belong to the Church as one belongs to a society, to a party or to any other organization. (Sep 11, 2013).

Talking about “Catholics in good standing” gives the impression that Church is about filling out a form or meeting some man-made organizational standards. As a baptized believer I share in Christ’s anointing as prophet, priest, and king. I’m God’s beloved, adopted child. And, as Pope Francis so concisely put it, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

No amount of “good standing” can make me worthy to receive the deepest essence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist–it’s only having my soul healed by the Word that makes communion possible. “State of grace” is far more awe-inspiring (and accurate) than “good standing.” I’m not able to stand alone before God and worship Him, except for the power of the Holy Spirit, uniting me to the perfect prayers and praise of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Good standing doesn’t tell the half of it. How sad to think that the divine life God so wants to share with us could be spoken of, publicly to the unevnagelized, with such a paltry phrase as “good standing.”

I believe, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we can live boldly the vision in Acts 2:42 of worship (“breaking the bread” and “prayers”) in the context of devotion to the “teaching of the apostles and to the communal life” we call the Church, while finding more precise, theologically sound, Tradition-filled, and evangelistic ways to counsel against partaking in the Eucharist “unworthily” (1 Cor 11:27).

In Part 2 (tomorrow), I’ll offer some concrete alternatives to cautioning-without-an-opportunity-for-response.

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

 

“Jesus, That’s Ridicuous”

Where do I need to say, “Jesus, that’s ridiculous”–and then listen to Him?

Lk 5:1-11, 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Fishing nets, Bermagui

Image: “Fishing nets, Bermagui,” by Brad Hinton, Creative Commons 2.0 license, via Flickr

It’s Never Liturgy Or Evangelization

True to Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s founder Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.’s oft-repeated words, “Liturgy is doing the world the way the world was meant to be done,” comes a guiding vision that breaks through any notion of needing to choose liturgy or evangelization in a parish/ministry:

The goal of liturgical renewal is not ultimately oriented toward better liturgies alone (though this should also take place). Rather, it is to make possible an encounter with Jesus Christ through the liturgical rites; an encounter that ultimately transforms what it means to be human.

Read more from the Center’s Director, Tim O’Malley,  here.

We should never frame our ministries in such a way that liturgy and evangelization (or the transformation of what it means to be human in the realm of working for social justice, etc.) are choices–or worse competing goals.

p.s. It’s great content for reflection on its own, but also an outstanding example of strategic planning in ministry. It’s easy for any of us to get caught up with striving to do lots of things. Programs, sacred cows, new initiatives–often good things–but without strategic planning ministries miss out on the opportunity to paint a picture of what the future should be and the steps to get there.