Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Random thoughts about the Church and volunteers

The other day, I found myself thinking about the movie Lilies of the Field. Many people know the story of Homer Smith, a handyman and a Baptist who (greatly to his own surprise) finds himself building a chapel for a convent of East German nuns who have settled in Arizona.

I'm not entirely sure why I was thinking about that movie, except that it probably has something to do with some random thoughts I've had lately about the Church and volunteers.

Let me give a few examples, some that I heard about myself directly, and others that I only know about:
  1. A deacon stood up after Mass and announced that the church was looking for a skilled computer person to create and maintain the parish social media presence as well as take care of other computer-related tasks. Both a high level of knowledge and a commitment to a significant number of weekly hours was needed, but (the deacon paused) they wanted a volunteer...
  2. A message circulated from a local young adult ministry leader: someone with graphic design and art skills was needed to help with an important project. The group was looking for a volunteer...
  3. An announcement was made: the parish wanted someone with calligraphy skills to help with some lettering efforts (probably for sacramental certificates and things of that nature). The parish was looking for a volunteer...
  4. A school carefully spells out its policy: parents are required to volunteer a certain number of hours per enrolled student to help keep tuition costs low. They may be "billed" if they don't deliver the required number of hours of volunteer assistance...
These are just a few of the sorts of things I've seen that have made me think about this topic. I'm still thinking about it all, actually; this is one of those posts where I'm really just thinking out loud. I hope you'll bear with me.

To begin with, I know that there is a long and venerable history of volunteers, especially lay people, being active in their parishes and schools and other Catholic ministries. Despite what some of her detractors sometimes say, the Church is not made of money, and there are many times and situations where volunteers make all the difference. The Catholic laity are supposed to contribute to the support of the Church--it is one of the precepts of the Church, and despite a common misunderstanding that precept has never been solely about giving money. In many ages, the laity could only "help provide for the needs of the Church" by giving their time, their skills, and the work of their hands, whether in the form of food or of handmade material goods or whatever the case might be.

And the work that volunteers do for the Church is valuable and important, a true gift of the heart in many instances. Neither is there anything wrong with Church leaders, clergy or lay, asking for specific kinds of help. So nothing that follows should be construed as attacking the principle of volunteering.

Having said that, I think the reason I'm somewhat uncomfortable with some of these random examples is that they do seem to be pushing the envelope a bit in terms of what volunteering actually means. Asking someone to work the equivalent of a part-time or even full-time job, and a job that requires education, training, certification and so on, while emphasizing that there will be no pay whatsoever seems to be a bit much. Well-meaning people do sometimes respond generously to these kinds of appeals, only to learn that the person in charge (the pastor, the deacon, a lay leader, etc.) has every intention of treating them like an employee in terms of the kinds of demands made, the amount of work that is expected to be done, the unreasonable deadlines, and so on--except that unlike an employee they aren't being paid or compensated in any way. I have known people who have taken on a volunteer assignment like this in their home parish, who have then had to step down when the demands of the "voluntary job" started to take over their lives. Some volunteers who have been through this sort of thing meet with understanding and compassion from those in charge, but others are treated as though they were unsatisfactory and disloyal "employees" who "quit" when the going got tough, which can certainly create tension in a parish community.

Perhaps the reason I was thinking of Lilies of the Field was because in the movie there was a bit of conflict between two ideas: the idea that those who belong to God (like a convent of nuns, or a pastor of a parish) are a bit like the lilies in the scripture passage, whose needs are met by God Himself on the one hand, and the idea on the other hand that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Nobody thinks that the Church ought to pay those who volunteer for certain roles, such as usher or lector or acolyte; nobody who offers to help set up tables and make pancakes for a breakfast fundraiser expects to be paid. But I can't imagine a parish asking a professional chef to make a weekly voluntary commitment to cook and serve food for an ongoing fundraiser; I can't imagine a pastor putting out a call for a certified public accountant to handle the Church's finances on a purely voluntary basis (though perhaps it happens!); I can't imagine a parish finance committee asking a parishioner who owns a heating and air conditioning business to volunteer to install a new heating system. As for the parents who are told they will be billed for uncompleted "volunteer" hours--well, when something becomes mandatory, it's pretty hard to argue that it is still voluntary, isn't it?

I know that parishes these days are in difficult situations. Only one in five Catholics even bothers to attend Mass on Sundays anyway. Donations continue to dwindle. Pastors can be in a tough spot in many ways when it comes to paying for things, and volunteers may seem like the ideal solution.

But I keep thinking of the end of Lilies of the Field, when Homer Smith, having completed the nuns' chapel, hears them planning to have him build a school next...and so he slips quietly away, disappearing into the night.

Monday, January 25, 2016

How "Star Wars" changed the universe of my imagination

We finally caught up with most people and went and saw the new Star Wars movie last night. I enjoyed it very much; but this post isn't really about the movie--well, that movie, anyway.

One bright day, when I was eight years old, my mom told us "older kids" (and kids in big families know those divisions--the "older kids," the "younger kids," and that one kid in the middle who belongs to whichever group it best suits his present interests to be in) that Dad would be taking us out for a special treat. I ran upstairs and got dressed in the outfit that seemed the most suitable for a special event--my favorite dress, an ankle-length prairie dress of the sort that was popular in the 1970s, part "Holly Hobbie" (tm), part Laura Ingalls, and all, in the mind of an eight-year-old, awesome.

I remember now that Mom actually tried to talk me into putting on something a bit more casual than this dress which I usually wore to church, but she gave up; I was determined. To me, the dress reflected one of my current heroines: Laura Ingalls. I had moved on from an early diet of Nancy Drew mysteries to immerse myself in the books about Laura and her family, and even though the TV show wasn't all that much like the books I liked it too. The yellow paper covers of my Laura Ingalls books were already showing signs of wear, and I read them over and over again, sure that nowhere out there would be any kind of story capable of capturing my imagination quite so much.

I was wrong, and I was about to find that out.

The special treat Dad took us too that day was a trip to a movie theater, already a rare event (again, something kids from large families understand). As the previews ended and the lights dimmed, there was a sudden blare of stirring music, and across the screen the words began to rise: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

The movie was starting like a book, and not just any book; it was starting rather like a fairy tale. This was going to be good! (I do seem to remember one of my younger siblings, not yet an avid reader, whispering in disappointment to my dad, "Do we have to read the whole movie?" but perhaps I'm imagining that bit.)

A couple of hours later we all emerged blinking into the sunlight, and while I knew I'd just had an extraordinary experience, I had no idea that Star Wars had changed the universe of my imagination forever.  Soon, Laura Ingalls and Nancy Drew and all of my early heroes would have to scoot over on the bookshelf to make room for the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth; books by people like Elizabeth Marie Pope would be cherished as treasures, and a copy of the paperback novel version of The Empire Strikes Back would end up well-worn before we ever even got to see the second movie.

My love of imaginative fiction began in that dark theater that day, and so did my desire--my need--to create it. My brothers and sisters and I were acting out our own "Star Wars" based stories long before anybody had ever used the term "fan fiction," and though I didn't know it, my tendency to daydream about the characters and make up totally new and exciting adventures for them to experience was practice in the art of story-crafting that would come in handy in the decades that followed.  It's not an accident that the first publishable book I wrote is set in space--if anything, I wanted to write children's space fiction because I recalled my disappointment as a child that there was so little of it that was appropriate for an eight-year-old.

It's true that I never turned into a total Star Wars geek. I loved the first two movies (by which I, and most people my age, mean Episodes IV and V), but thought that the Ewoks in Episode VI were silly. By the time the prequels came out I ended up only seeing Episode I, and not being terribly impressed by it (and then, of course, there was Jar-Jar; enough said). I'd have to say that Episode VII was pretty good, overall--but, like I said, this post isn't really about that movie. Sitting there in the darkening theater last night, hearing that first triumphant burst of John Williams' now-famous theme, and watching the words begin to rise up on the screen, though, I had two thoughts: the first, that I am forever grateful for the way the first of these films gave a whole new scope to my imagination, and the second, that somewhere in some dark theater another child is thrilling to his or her first experience with this particular fictional universe, and will never be content to read or watch or create solely realistic fiction again, a thought that makes me smile.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A clear and official change on the Holy Thursday Mandatum

It was kind of a surprise to open the news today and read this:
In a letter addressed to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Pope said that from now on the 12 persons chosen to participate in the ritual of the washing of the feet will be selected “from among all members of the people of God.”
“For some time I have been reflecting on the rite of the washing of the feet, which forms part of the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with the intention of improving the ways in which it is put into practice, so that we fully express the meaning of the gesture made by Jesus in the Upper Room, his gift of self until the end for the salvation of the world, his boundless charity.”
Francis also stressed that “an adequate explanation of the meaning of the rite itself” ought to be provided for those chosen to participate.
Now, as you may remember, I wrote a post on this topic a couple of years ago. Since I'm largely going to be repeating myself anyway, I'm going to just go ahead and pull some stuff out of that post:
So, what do we have?

We have an optional part of the Holy Thursday Mass which was added to the Mass in 1955; prior to that the Mandatum took place outside of Mass, and in even earlier ages it included lay rulers washing the feet of their subjects as well as bishops, priests, etc. washing the feet both of other clergy and of lay people. At least one form of the Mandatum seemed to center around washing the feet of beggars, paupers, or other lowly people, while the other form seemed to center around washing the feet of priests, deacons, or seminarians (some of whom might have received the minor orders); however, from about 1570 on the Mandatum specified 12 men, but said nothing about whether they were to be lay people or clergy, or whether, if lay people, they should be beggars or the poor.
The present instruction in the rubrics specifies men, but the number 12 is not included in the present instructions. So if the number was specified in previous law, it was dropped at some point--and it would be interesting to learn whether there actually used to be a requirement that 12 men should participate, and, if so, at what point that requirement was changed (especially: did a decline in the number precede the change in the law, or did the change in the law precede the relaxing as to the number required?).
I will grant that people who are interested or confused by what Pope Francis did on Holy Thursday are not necessarily legalists or Pharisees. Here in the United States, a group of loudmouthed agitators, some of whom, alas, were bishops, pushed to include women in the foot-washing thing under the mistaken impression that the Mandatum was always and everywhere about the priesthood. Some of them rather sneakily declared that of course the Mandatum wasn't really about the priesthood, but about serving the lowly, and after all women were treated as lowly people by some Catholics in some ages past, so...
...and the joke is on them, really. Because the Mandatum has always had these two parallel ideas associated with it. When bishops washed the feet of 12 or 13 beggars after dinner on Holy Thursday they certainly weren't calling the beggars to the priesthood (at least, not right then and there), but reminding the faithful that they, their Lordships and Excellencies the Bishops, who wore fine clothes and were rather high up socially, had the same duty to kneel in the dirt and wash the calloused feet of filthy, ragged paupers that Christ had exhorted and modeled as the duty of all priests to His own Apostles: this is what Christian leaders are to do, what sets them apart from the worldly ideas of power.
Having said...er, repeated...all that, let me continue.

Today's news of the pope's letter from December to Cardinal Sarah making this change clear and official is actually good news, whether you think that only men should ever have their feet washed at Holy Thursday Mass, or whether you have long believed that the Mandatum wasn't primarily about priestly ordination but about Christ's exhortation to His followers (all of us, that is) to follow His example of humble service. The reason it is good news is this: there has been widespread confusion on this issue. Most of us are used to bishops and priests ignoring the Roman Missal on the "viri/men" question and washing the feet of women and/or children anyway. It's tempting, as a lay person (especially as a parent) to condemn the Holy Father's actions here as "rewarding" the rule-breakers, but we have to remember that the Church has full authority over these kinds of rules, and in fact throughout her ages it has not at all been uncommon for local priests and bishops to make small, minor changes that eventually found their way into Canon Law or the Missal or other places. We are not, let us be clear, talking about God's laws which are eternal and unchanging; we are talking about man's laws, such as whether or not men and women can sit on the same side of the church at Mass, or how many candles need to be placed on the altar during Eucharistic Adoration, or whether it would be theoretically possible for a priest/astronaut to celebrate Mass in space by pulling out ancient nautical rules governing Masses where only the Body of Christ (and not the Precious Blood) was consecrated, given the difficulties regarding liquids in space and the potential of being unable to handle the Precious Blood with due reverence in a weightless environment.

And I think that many of us have had some really honest confusion about the purpose of the Holy Thursday Mandatum. If, for instance, it was meant always and everywhere to point to the ordination of priests, why were lay married men whose wives were sitting a few pews over and hoping desperately that her husband hadn't carelessly picked out that one pair of socks with the hole in the toe for today included? They weren't eligible for ordination in the Roman Rite anyway. Wasn't it at least possible that the Mandatum's main meaning was supposed to be that reminder of humility in service, and that the only reason women weren't included earlier had to do with cultural standards of decorum and practical considerations due to women's clothing in those eras?

At this point, however interesting our speculations might be, the reality is that Pope Francis has made a change he is fully and solely authorized to make, and that in doing so he has made it clear that at this point the Church does indeed see the Holy Thursday Mandatum as being more about humble service than about ordination. And it is perfectly proper for priests to include women among those who represent the objects of a priest's service because, in fact, we are. There is not one Church for men and another for women (however much some men I can think of might wish for such a thing). There is one Body of Christ whom priests are called to serve, and Christ is present in the Church's humblest and least and most insignificant children, both male and female. And by the example of his humble and willing service, the priest leads his flock (as he is called to do) to go and do likewise, just as Christ led his apostles to the path of sacrificial service for the sake of the Gospel.

On Missing Mass due to bad weather

It's funny--just yesterday I was feeling bad that my "January blahs" have kept me from coming up with anything interesting or informative for the blog. True, blogs aren't what they were, but then my blog has always been my "think out loud" place for the most part, and I have to admit that I've been slogging through January without any heavy thinking.

And now, today, I have TWO things to blog about.

They're really unrelated, so I'm actually going to write two blog posts--this brief one first, and then the main event.

I just opened my "stats" page by accident instead of my "new post" page, and what I saw was that three of the last four search strings that apparently led people to this blog was some variation of the question: "Is it okay to miss Mass due to bad weather? Do I sin if I skip Mass due to bad weather? Is it a mortal sin to skip church when there's a blizzard?" etc.

I thought I'd answer this question once and for all, even though I'm just a lay person with no particular competence in this field except that of common sense: NO.

No, it is NOT a mortal sin, or a sin at all, to miss Mass when you cannot safely get to Mass.

No, it is NOT a sin to miss Mass if the ice storm is only just starting but there's a very serious likelihood you might not make it back home safely (Father doesn't have room for everybody at his house for the duration, you know, and probably not enough bread or eggs or milk either).

No, it is NOT a sin to stay home rather than walk ten miles each way to Mass in subzero temperatures because your car keeps sliding when you try to get it out of the driveway. If you are an Arctic explorer home on holiday and you have all your gear and equipment and really want to give the twenty-mile round trip hike a go anyway, and you know from your experience that you won't be unnecessarily burdening emergency personnel who will have to go rescue you or something, great--but even then I think you'd still be going way beyond any reasonable understanding of the Sunday Mass obligation.

Here's the thing: the Church expects us to cultivate the virtue of prudence, and the virtue of prudence is that virtue that says things like, "No, you don't have to fast on Ash Wednesday if you just gave birth after a two-day labor and you are STARVING right now...No, you don't sin if you miss Mass when a Cat 5 Hurricane has just made landfall in your neighborhood..." etc.  If you are unsure of your situation and you have time to check with your pastor, by all means check with him: "Dear Fr. Smith, our pine trees have already begun to bend under the weight of the ice but the driveway is still clear-ish and people must still be driving because we can hear the sirens--should we head out for Mass as usual in an hour? Concerned Parishioner." "Dear Parishioner: Don't be silly. Stay home. Fr. Smith." But if Fr. Smith is too busy trying not to kill himself sanding the walkways for the handful of parishioners who live close enough to walk and/or wouldn't stay home during a nuclear attack ("I'm not a wimp! Missing Mass due to radiation and fallout may be okay for those weaksauce one-hour fasting types, but not me!"), then you must pray about it and make the most prudent decision you can make when weighing all the circumstances.

Now, most priests I know would add the caution that we're not supposed to take this lightly or make silly excuses to miss Mass. A light dusting of flurries, a mild cold that is almost over, a mere Cat 1 Hurricane--okay, just kidding, but you get the idea--anyway, there are times when we have to fight our weaker nature because our weaker nature would love an excuse to sleep in on a Sunday morning. But those times do not include times when the local Department of Transportation is sending hysterical representatives to the airwaves to BEG people to stay home, or times when you nearly end up in a ditch just trying to get out of your neighborhood. Use common sense, because God gave it to us for a reason.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Internet Trads, and what they say in comment boxes

I'm a little behind in my reading, so it was only yesterday that I read the blog post by Msgr. Charles Pope that everyone's talking about. In it Msgr. Pope raises the possibility that interest in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite may be reaching its peak in America:
Some years ago (as far back at the early 1980s) we who love the Traditional Latin Mass often said (or it heard said) that if we would just return to the beautiful Latin Mass our churches would again be filled.
At first this appeared to be happening. As many dioceses (through the various indults of the 1980s and 1990s) began to offer the Traditional Latin Mass, those churches were filled, often to standing room only. Liturgical progressives were horrified and traditionalists were joyfully pleased and felt vindicated.
But as the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass has increased, it seems that a certain ceiling has been reached. [...]
Explanations abound among the traditional Catholics I speak to about the lack of growth in attendance at the Traditional Latin Mass. Some say that it is because more options are now available. But one of the promises was that if parishes would just offer the Traditional Latin Mass each parish would be filled again. Others say there are parking issues, or that the Mass times are not convenient, or that the Masses are too far away. But these things were all true 20 years ago when the Solemn Mass was thriving.
It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum.
Some traditional Catholics I speak to say, “If only the archdiocese would promote us more,” or “If only the bishop would celebrate it at all or more frequently.” Perhaps, but many other niche groups in the archdiocese say the same thing about their particular interest.
At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don't have sheep; sheep have sheep.
And once again we are back to the fundamental point: numbers matter. Groups that seek respect, recognition, and promotion in the highest places need to remember that numbers do matter; it's just the way life works. If we who love the Traditional Latin Mass want to be near the top of the bishop’s priority list, we're going to have to be more than one-half of one percent of Catholics in the pews. (Emphases in original--E.M.)
Msgr. Pope’s piece makes me think about why I never got the hang of the Latin Mass, though I was ideologically predisposed to like it. The reason was not the “ancient language” part — that was something for which I was eager — but the “largely whispered” part. I very much wanted a more reverent liturgy than what we had in standard Novus Ordo parishes, but the experience of the liturgy as mostly a ghostly silence was hard to embrace.
It’s also true, I’m afraid, that some Latin Massgoers had a way of thinking about the old liturgy and the new mass that framed the contrast in a way that posited Novus Ordo Catholics as deficient in sanctity. There was a pride there, and it was deadly. If you think that the Latin Mass is obviously superior, and those who can’t see it are aesthetically and theologically cloddish — well, it’s hard to evangelize from that stance. Plus, if someone who visits the parish doesn’t sense joy in the congregation, they’re not coming back. I’m not talking about happy-clappiness. You can be very reverent, but also radiating joy.
Here’s the thing: all these criticisms of the Latin Mass crowd could also be made of much Orthodox Christianity in this country.
We Orthodox very much occupy a boutique niche in American Christianity, and though I hope I’m wrong, I don’t see us breaking out of that anytime soon. (Emphasis in original--E.M.)
I highly recommend that you read both of these gentlemen's posts in their entirety; they are very good and very thought provoking.

But if you want to answer the question, "Why doesn't the Extraordinary Form Mass draw more people to it?" I suggest that the answer might be found in the comment boxes under both posts.

As I write this there are 136 comments below Msgr. Pope's blog post and 46 comments below Rod Dreher's blog post (I suspect there will be more there by tomorrow).  Here are just a few quotes from some of those comments--first from those below Msgr. Pope's post:

"Honestly, I think the root of the problem is that the theology of the Latin Mass and the theology espoused by the Church following Vatican II are totally incompatible..."

"With the graying of the suburban parishes where I live, we might see that the Novus Ordo only really appeals to the octogenarian niche while being suffered by those of us resigned to the oppression of beauty..."

"Conclusion: not only must the TLM be promoted, it is my considered opinion that the Paul VI rite of mass must be phased out, along with all the dubious theology and practise that has sprung up with it..."

"I admit that it can become so discouraging to be around the Novus Ordo world whom we are supposed to evangelize (due to effeminate priests, laywomen running the show, etc.), I am often tempted to move next to an SSPX community, curl up, and hide..."

"If you attend the EF with any seriousness you eventually come to the discovery that the EF is the only mass feeding your faith..."

"When the Bishop(s) individually/collectively start adhering to actually doing their primary job aka “Saving Souls” and teach the Truth, that the TLM is a defined doctrine and why, and then support with action rather than open and/or silent resistance…then a turn in the liturgy (we pray as we believe and live) will happen..."

"The novus ordo, to me, is watered down and mediocre. I don’t have time to waste on luke-warm..." 


"Peak schmeak. On the rare occasion I do have to attend the crappy variety show known as the Novus Ordo, the average age seems to hover around 60. Meanwhile, the vestibule in my TLM parish is packed with snot-nosed future traddies and their parents. If we’re the only ones to survive – spiritually, numerically, and, hence, financially, so what if we’ve peaked?" 

"I understand people who prefer the eastern or Anglican use liturgies. A lot of that makes sense to me, for the same reasons that someone might prefer Franciscan vs. Carmelite spirituality. I honestly don’t understand people who prefer the NO to the TLM. I cannot grasp it. It’s like preferring dog food to a fine steak."

Now, there are a lot of other comments too, some of them quite balanced, and some of them insisting that the only reason the Extraordinary Form is not more widely attended is simply because the bishops in the U.S. have not ordered every parish to make its main Sunday Mass an E.F. Mass, because that would fix things overnight (well, except for the part about making sure those parishes all had priests capable of saying an E.F. Mass, enough men or boys to act as altar servers, etc.). And we should take it as a given that Internet Trad Catholics are hardly representative of all Trad Catholics--that should, by now, go without saying.

But even if Internet Trad Catholics are a vocal minority of Trads who themselves are (per Msgr. Pope's post) a tiny minority of Catholics in the first place, they are still (alas) the Trads most people will encounter initially (or ever, in some cases). And the message that the sane and happy Trads want to spread, which I think goes something like this, "Hey, we have this really amazing treasure to share: the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, complete with all the cool chanting and banks of candles and incense and bells that your grandmother probably told you about, so come any Sunday and check it out!" gets diluted by the message given by the Internet Trads, which is, "By the way, the Mass you currently attend is a theologically deficient crappy watered-down lukewarm variety show that can be compared to dog food and that can never feed your faith properly; besides which it's run by effeminate priests and laywomen and attended by octogenarians and the occasional contracepting couple with their zero-to-two kids. Our Mass, on the other hand, is the Mass of All Ages prayed in the Holiest Language God Ever Gave Mankind, and if you understood theology correctly you would instantly grasp the importance of much of it being prayed by the priest inaudibly while the congregation reads along in their Missals as every True Catholic always did from time immemorial except for those trivial few centuries in which people could not, by and large, afford printed books even if they could actually read--but that doesn't matter; what matters is that if you don't come to our Mass, or if you do come and are not instantly moved to tears of joy by it, you are probably just one of those self-centered Novus Ordos who doesn't care enough about God to worship Him in the only way He really wants to be worshiped."  

As I've said before, I have family members and friends who attend the Extraordinary Form Mass, and none of them (at least, to my knowledge) would skip a Sunday Mass if they couldn't get to the E.F. Mass, or be contemptuous either openly or privately about the O.F. Mass or those who attend it. The sane and happy Trads are probably the ones who do draw others to try out a nearby E.F. Mass, and even if the guest or visitor ends up saying, "Why, this is quite nice, and while I'm still planning to stay at my current parish I'm glad this Mass is offered here, and perhaps I may visit again," the sane and happy Trads do not shake their heads dourly at the failure to "convert" the visitor to the Extraordinary Form. This is because, quite simply, the sane and happy Trads do not think that we have two Churches--the Church of the E.F. and the Church of the O.F.--let alone that there is only One True Church of the Extraordinary Form while the "Novus Ordo Church" is a false religion (something the less sane Trads are often prone to say, especially on the Internet).

Msgr. Pope, in his post, says that those who attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass need to "evangelize," that is, they need to draw others to that form of the Mass. But if your only experience of Traditional Catholics included people who sneer at the Ordinary Form, compare it to dog food or a crappy variety show, etc., would you be anxious to go and experience the form of the Roman Rite they love?  Perhaps one of the reasons the crowds at the Extraordinary Form Mass don't appear to be growing as much as predicted has something to do with the Internet Trads, and what they say in comment boxes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Of gifts and Magi and poverty

Happy Feast of the Epiphany!

Okay, I know--if, like me, you are a Catholic in America and attend an O.F. Mass you celebrated the feast of the Epiphany this past Sunday. Today is the traditional date, though, and most Catholics I know quite like for there to be twelve days of Christmas, so I think it's fine to celebrate on both days. This is not one of those posts where I'm going to join in the ranting about moving feast days to Sundays in a non-Catholic country where employers and schools don't care if it's Jan. 6 because it's just a Wednesday after the Christmas/New Year's holidays to them which actually makes more sense than many of the ranters usually think--but, like I said, this is not one of those posts.

I was thinking this morning about O. Henry's lovely little story titled The Gift of the Magi. If you've never read it, you can read it for free at that link.  To me, it's a timeless tale of love and sacrifice, which are so interconnected that they might as well be the same thing.

But I was also thinking about an essay by a Learned Scholar I once read about this same story. Alas, I can't remember the name of the scholar or the publication, no doubt an erudite one, where his essay was published. The Learned Scholar opined that the story, though nice enough in its way, is completely unrealistic. People like Della and Jim, the impoverished main characters of the story, just didn't exist, even in O. Henry's day--at least, not in the rose-colored hues that O. Henry painted them in. They were Poor, you see, and everybody knows that the Poor are that way because they deserve it. Jim probably drank and beat his lovely wife. Della probably hovered between the co-dependency that got her what she wanted out of Jim and the perpetual role of a cringing doormat (as feminism hadn't yet been invented to liberate her from the chains of domestic servitude and wifely submission). Both were guilty of squandering what little educational opportunities they had been given (though in those days such opportunities were nothing like the ones offered children today).

And so, the Learned Scholar imagined, when Jim came home with the combs for Della, teeming with resentment and anger that the gift-giving customs of a dead religious feast forced him either to sell his watch or feel forever guilty over not doing so, and found that Della had cut her hair--why, Jim probably slapped her around, and she probably hid the gold watch chain and later pawned it to buy herself the sort of attire that could earn her a bit of extra money should she don it and stand on a street corner or two of an evening--because that is what the Poor are really like.

Poor Learned Scholar! His poverty is greater than that of many people who live a hand-to-mouth existence, and yet know that love and sacrifice are both very real, and both so interconnected that they might as well be the same thing.

I wondered (and still do) whether this nation's latent strains of Puritanism that have burst forth in our generation in their new guise of Prosperity Gospel are at least partly responsible for forming the minds and imaginations of people like my Learned Scholar.  The Puritan sees the poor and thinks that they must be guilty of something, and knows that at the very least they are guilty of laziness and the foolish squandering of opportunity, because anyone who works hard and takes life and learning with the kind of dead seriousness both demand is bound to get ahead.  The Prosperity Gospel adherent sees the poor and thinks they must be guilty of something, and knows that at the very least they are guilty of laziness and the foolish squandering of opportunity, because if they prayed right and worked right and studied right and got themselves right with the Almighty, the Almighty would make sure they could afford a McMansion by the sweat of their own brows, instead of living in "free" housing generously provided by the taxpayer and gathering "free" groceries also generously provided by the taxpayer (but, of course, God spares those who get themselves right with Him from such cheeseparing generosity, which is as it should be).

The Magi came to find a king, and found instead a simple family who were certainly not rich or powerful. I have seen some ugly things in recent weeks posted by Christians claiming that of course Joseph and Mary and Jesus were not "poor," not really, because Joseph worked hard as a carpenter and provided well for his little family--with the thinly veiled idea that the opposite of poverty is work, and the opposite of work is poverty, as if all one needs to do to escape poverty is work. This would come as a great surprise not only to the little family at Nazareth, but to plenty of people throughout history, who worked harder than most of us moderns can imagine and yet barely managed to provide the minimal necessities of food, clothing, and shelter for the people under their care. They were not lazy; they were not opportunity-squanderers; and yet they were poor, despite their hard work and struggles--and there are plenty of poor among us today who fit this exact description.

The Magi went to a palace to find the newborn King, but they found Him in a humble home, surrounded not by luxury or wealth or the trappings of power but by the simplicity of the ordinary poverty of so many of the world's people. The people who still seek Christ in the faces of the poor, serving Him in them, have a wisdom many of us do not yet possess.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you and yours a very blessed and Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Just war and Christmas dinner conversations

Rod Dreher today warns the families of Harvard students that the kiddies are being sent home complete with a "placemat guide" on how to discuss sensitive issues with their families at the holiday dinner table. You really have to go here to read Rod's post and see the placemat image; no mere description can do it justice.

This gives me the perfect springboard for a post I've been planning for a while now; the person with whom I discussed this potential post (and who gave me the initial idea) knows who she is. :) The post idea came from the notion that while we always want to react as good Catholics to the less than Christian or charitable things that might get said around the Christmas dinner table, there may be natural limits to what we can say without escalating the situation.  I said that we really needed to apply Just War teaching to Christmas dinner table conversations, at which point this post went from being nebulous to inevitable.

To begin with, here, from Wikipedia, is a brief summary of the Catechism on Just War:
The just war doctrine of the Catholic Church - sometimes mistaken as a "just war theory"[16][17] - found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for "legitimate defense by military force":[18]
the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
there must be serious prospects of success;
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).
Now, I don't in any way mean to take these principles lightly, but it occurred to me during my conversation with the person mentioned above that these are sound principles to apply to other situations as well, and in particular the situations that arise when, at a Christmas party or event of some kind, a relative or friend voices an opinion that is clearly outside of Christian teaching and thought.

Say, for instance, that the ordinarily kindly Uncle Isidore says, with a beam on his benevolent countenance, that all the refugees should be rounded up and sent home, or at least put into camps where they can't hurt anybody but each other. 

One's first impulse is going to be to engage dear Uncle Isidore in verbal combat--he is wrong, and you have Church teaching and quotes from the saints and your pastor's recent homily on the subject to back you up.

But perhaps discretion is the better part of valor? You decide to ponder the Just War principles as you make your decision:

1. Is the damage inflicted by Uncle Isidore's wrongheaded opinions going to be lasting, grave, or certain? Here we're not talking about the damage to Uncle Isidore himself, because when one of our brothers (or uncles, as the case might be) is wrong about something all the principles of fraternal correction argue in favor of a private conversation on the subject. We ourselves know that when we're wrong about an issue of moral significance we respond better to a one-on-one chat in an unthreatening environment, not an "all weapons fired" verbal assault at a family dinner party. Instead, we're talking about whether or not Uncle Isidore is doing damage to the other guests--the friends or neighbors who may not be Catholic, the young and impressionable, or even the other family members who though practicing Catholics are not all that well versed on what the Church teaches in regard to refugees or immigrants. If everybody knows Uncle Isidore well and takes all these things he says with an eye roll and a request for more gravy, we may have nothing to do. But suppose we have decided that, yes, our silence in the face of Uncle Isidore's statements may be taken as consent and that consent may scandalize somebody; it is now our duty to move on to:

2. Have all other means (apart from direct verbal engagement) been shown to be impractical or ineffective? It's one thing if Uncle Isidore is speaking during a moment of complete silence and if he clearly expects you personally to respond; but it's another if you can create reasonable doubt that you've even heard him, by asking Great-great Aunt Sophronia, perhaps, if the sweet potatoes are pureed enough for her, or by getting up to attend to something at the children's table (there's always something that needs to be attended to at the children's table!) or by waxing enthusiastic about your favorite Christmas carol that was sung last night at Midnight Mass (or earlier, provided that admitting you went to Mass before midnight on Christmas Eve won't be taken as a sign of the apocalypse by Cousin Justinian or somebody, which puts you right back in the hot seat). But what if dear sweet Uncle Isidore prefaced his remarks by insinuating that you've become a squishy liberal and has challenged you to respond? What if his remarks, in fact, were the throwing down of the verbal gauntlet? Do you charge? Not so fast--you still need to consider:

3.  Is there a serious prospect of success? If by "success" we mean actually getting Uncle Isidore to see that Church teaching sort of frowns on sending people who are desperately fleeing wars and violence back into the wars and violence, or (as an alternative) making them live in interment camps more or less permanently, then maybe not--at least not during a dinner table conversation (see the point about private fraternal correction above). But if by "success" we mean laying out those ideas for the others (who we reasonably think may be scandalized by Uncle Isidore's opinions) to consider while making it clear (though civilly) that we do not ourselves agree with him we may have a reasonable chance of succeeding. However, there's still one more step to consider:

4. Will our verbal engagement with Uncle Isidore lead to evils and disorders greater than the evil we're trying to eliminate (that is, the possibility that some may be confused or scandalized both by Uncle Isidore's statements and our apparent tacit consent to them)? This is where it really gets tricky, because as everybody who has ever participated in such a family dinner table discussion before knows that sides get taken, lines get drawn, feelings get hurt, and people who haven't thought deeply about refugees before this moment may be drawn by family loyalty or a host of other things to defend Uncle Isidore to the hilt. Now, it's also possible that Uncle Isidore will clarify and say that he only meant that those refugees who can't pass our screening tests should go back, or be kept under watch, which may even be a reasonable opinion, and we should consider the odds of an outcome like that as well, when we're making our calculations.

Of course, in the actual Just War doctrine, we know that some weapons are disproportionately harmful and we must not use them. I mention this in case anybody, in the midst of these calculations, is tempted to employ the nuclear option of asking Great-great Aunt Sophronia to recall a childhood Christmas memory. True, Great-great Aunt Sophronia will immediately launch into her favorite and oft-told anecdote about how her whole family crawled backwards on their knees up a snow-covered hill for two miles to get to Midnight Mass, and how her little brother Mickey, a new altar server that year, believed those awful Sullivan boys who told him that to receive at Midnight Mass he had to fast from 9 a.m. Christmas Eve day, with the result that when he knelt to receive Communion he fainted and bashed his head open on a marble protrusion, and had to get seventeen--or was it eighteen?--no, seventeen stitches and spend the rest of Christmas vacation in bed with a concussion. But this will lead to immediate and forceful arguing about topics ranging from public transportation to Vatican II to Communion fasts to receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling vs. Communion in the hand while standing to affordable health care to whether relabeling Christmas Vacation "Winter Break" is yet another sign of the apocalypse. Thus, it is far better not to deploy this particular weapon at all, since it clearly leads to ills greater than the one we were trying originally to avoid. 

Still busy...

...but don't miss this: an account written by an ex-intern at Church Militant:
Through this influence, for four and a half of five years, I had an uncontrolled fiery passion for all things Catholic. I told people "the way it is," and if they didn't like it, take it up with God. For me, everything was black and white, Good Catholic vs. Bad Catholic. I believed the Body of Christ was 90% cancerous with modernist heretics and estrogen-filled men who wanted to dialogue with sin and falsehood, and it needed a good amputating so we could purify the Church.
In my mind, the Pope needed to excommunicate the vast majority of cardinals and bishops to save the Church from their evil teachings. Catholics both clerical and lay needed to be penalized and reformed. We needed to go back to mandatory kneeling and Eucharistic reception on the tongue, more Latin in Mass than the average Roman citizen could speak, and so much incense you couldn't see the person in front of you (I still wouldn't mind this one, mostly for the smell.)
I was an ardent defender of the Truth, and I viciously attacked anyone who dared question someone like my main hero, Michael Voris.
Four years of living my Catholic faith like that was dispelled in four months. And how did that happen? It's quite simple, really.
I worked at Church Militant. [...]
My head continued to swim with all these questions, and the more I questioned what we did, the less visibly loyal I became in the office. I began openly questioning why we were going to publish this or that information, and what good it would do, in the end. Needless to say, this was not appreciated.
After a little over two months of working there, my attitude and perspective had changed almost completely. I had come to believe that the public bashing (not to be confused with occasional respectful disagreement) of a cleric is immoral. I had become a regular viewer of Bishop Robert Barron (seen as nothing less than an enemy of the truth at Church Militant,) and I had decided that perhaps bishops and cardinals who weren't completely orthodox weren't terrible people after all. Despite theological issues, I believed they ultimately had good intentions. This was a breakthrough in my mindset which had been taught by Church Militant to believe these men were literally evil and intentionally trying to destroy the Church.

I realize that we laypeople struggle with this sort of thing all the time. How much is too much, when we're criticizing a local prelate or talking about a parish issue? How do we know when it's okay to go public with the details of any particular situation? What is the difference between mere venting, constructive criticism, or possibly sinful detraction?

Those aren't always easy things to discern. But I think the young writer of the blog post linked to above has zeroed in on something important: when you are in the business (that is, the actual making of money) of stirring up controversy in the Church, you'd better be clear on a daily basis about your motives.

It doesn't matter if you make a pittance. It doesn't matter if the sum total of your earnings is just a few dollars from blog sidebar ads. If you make money by commenting, as a lay person, on the Church herself as well as on matters of faith and morals, you owe it to yourself and your audience to make sure on a daily basis that you are not stirring up controversies for the sake of clicks or page views or the watching of videos.

I myself have at times been guilty of intemperate speech in my writings. It is a small comfort that I have done so as a completely unpaid nobody in the Catholic blogging world. With blogging in decline, it might be vastly tempting, were one paid to write, to play the faux outrage game with just about everything, because outrage sells pretty well among the Catholics of my generation. We can, however, be better than that--and as Catholics, we have the moral duty to try to be.