March 23, 2010

What's at Stake: Mission

(This is the first in a series of posts that will be an attempt to articulate how the experience of parish ministry has changed me as a theological reflector. Here is the introductory post.)

In the course of one day I met representatives of two very different, but equally sacramentally lost communities.

In the morning I went to visit a local reform school to hear confessions. A handful of teenage boys appeared for the sacrament, and for most it was their first time. Almost all were Hispanic and were confident that they had been baptized as infants, either in the home or in church. They reminded me of those St. Francis Xavier speaks of in his reading in the breviary, 'They only know that they are Christians.' I was impressed by their seemingly innate reverence and love for our Lord and our Lady, but I was amazed at their ignorance of the faith. They were praying people, but they didn't even know that there was a prayer that went with the rosaries they wore as amulets. The cultures of poverty, the absence of durable family structures, and especially the dislocation of immigration had taken the faith away from these young men. I asked each where he was from, and all but one told me about the dormitory at the school. They lacked a sense of being from somewhere apart from the juvenile corrections system. I realized that a visit to their world, a glimpse into their particular geography, was a trip into 'mission territory.'

That same evening I sat in the parish office planning a wedding with a young, delightful couple. They are the great-grandchildren of Irish and Italian immigrants. Their great-grandparents built the beautiful churches we have in this part of the country. Their grandparents and parents were the beneficiaries of the great American system of parishes and schools that catapulted European-American Catholics into the privileged and ruling classes of these United States. Thanks to all of that, and especially to the sisters, these young people sat before me with college educations, good jobs and good teeth. And yet, they seemed to have very little use for the faith that had done so much for their ancestors. They had received all of their sacraments, but had 'graduated' from the practice of the faith after their confirmation and were no longer practicing in any measurable way. Apparently, whatever religious education and sacramental formation they had received as children was no longer durable or relevant to their experience of themselves and the world. They weren't hostile to God or His Church, but were more or less indifferent to both. They did not have a sense of what it all had to with them and their concerns. Just as I had in the morning, I realized again that I was in a mission territory.

My point in relating these experiences is not to rant about them (I do it enough!) or even to blame anyone for this sacramental lostness. My question has to do with my own identity as a Christian and a minister, and the models implicit in the parish ministry as I have experienced it.

On the natural level, my job as a parish priest is one of 'customer service.' People appear and ask for things, i.e. sacraments, spiritual direction. I offer Mass and preach to the people who show up for it. The model of ministry is centripetal. If people want something, they come to the church to try to get it. Ministering in this fashion takes up most of my time, and staff is shrinking. When I came here this parish was served by three full-time priests, a full-time lay friar, and one retired priest who helped with Masses and confessions. Three years later, we are two full-time priests, a half-time lay friar, and another retired priest who helps out.

The ministry sails along on this model, which would seem suited to a kind of 'Christendom' situation in which the faith was fully planted and established. My experience suggests that we don't live in such a world, but in something more like a mission territory. This divergence between the ministerial model and the pastoral situation is precisely the dissonance that presses upon me, and it leaves me with three theological pressures:

The hermeneutic of suspicion angle: What are the conditions of possibility of living, preaching, and ministering in denial about the mission 'territories' all around the parish? What allows me to act like a priest who lives and works in an established Christendom when in fact this is not the case?

The practical. What would have to happen to free up preachers and ministers from the centripetal model of parish ministry, so that they would be able to 'go out' on mission, to seek those who have become lost? In other words, as staff and clergy continue to diminish, what changes in ministerial models will help us not to become burnt out and buried under the work of keeping house and free us up for the missionary needs that are right under our noses? Are we ready to hear about and imitate the God whose Love is so outrageous as to 'leave the ninety-nine?'

Preaching, catechesis, and inculturation. How can the Word be preached and the sacraments offered in a way that is compelling for the human person of today? What are the languages and articulations we need to make to help people see that the concerns of the faith are the concerns of their own hearts as well? This isn't a new question, of course, but what can learn from the errors in this area of which we heirs at this historical moment, move beyond simply condemning them, and be about the rebuilding of a compelling articulation of Christianity?


Greg said...

Very good questions.

I have begun to address the situation with Taming the Wolf a program in which practical aspects of faith - healing relationships - become the focus of an outreach. (see

I dream that secular Franciscans take up the vocation in large numbers and we capture the charism of Francis as he went out into the world to bring the gospel message to people on a practical level.

Kevin F said...

Thank you for the post.

In relationship to the Irish Catholic couple you mention; that hit a nerve. I come from a large Irish Catholic family and out of a family of roughly 25-30 people that I know of in my family I am the only one who attends church anymore (and I have pretty much stopped going within the past month, with no plans to go back). The reasons for the breakdown in my family's Catholicity is very rarely discussed, but I think that there is a general alienation from the Church (even among people who would normally meet the stringent standards to be considered "good Catholics") and the feeling that the Church has become irrelvant or a place to go to if you want to be beat-up.

I don't think that there are any simple answers, but I enjoy what you have written and look forward to your thoughts on mission.

ben in denver said...

This is a fascinating series, thank you for writing it. I wonder if your boys and your young couple might have more in common that it appears on the surface. It seems that in many ways sacraments (especially marriage) are viewed by a good number of people as rites f passage for the comfortably middle class. I have to say that I think an important reason why the poor often don't marry is that they think it is too expensive, and that such parties are for those of a higher economic class.

As far as the American mission field is concerned, it seems that there is an increasing awareness of just how much ground christendom has lost in our communities, but there is a long road ahead.

Brother Charles said...

Kevin: I offer apology to your or anyone in your family who has ever felt beat up. A priest once apologized this way to me, and it was a big help to me, so I offer it for what it's worth.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, thanks for this slice of life from your world.

Kevin - I come from a family of 1st generation immigrants, and out of all of us (including the ones who were actualy born here) it's pretty much just me and 1 aunt who are practicing Catholics. The irony is I even have an aunt who is a nun, but who is not a practicing or believing Catholic. So, your experience is pretty typical.

Sometimes I get full of rage at what has brought us to this point. Yes, we can place blame on society and changing morals and priorities following the 60's. But the sad reality is it is the church hierarchy under Pope Paul VI that is squarely to blame for the church's demise, and thus the demise of so many souls. May God have mercy on them for what they did. And may God bless those brave priests like Father Charles who are rebuilding our church.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for your blessing, QR, and God bless Paul VI. Everybody should read Humanae vitae again and see that we was a prophet.

Nevertheless, my questions aren't about blame so much as what attitudes, reflection, and action does the gospel demand of me.

ben in denver said...


If you haven't already, you may wish to read this piece by Cardinal Stafford, published in 2008:

The dissent of priests described in this article occured under a bishop who had been appointed to the See of Baltimore by John XXIII and had been elevated to the episcopacy by Pius XII in 1945.

It is also interesting to note that Cardinal Stafford was elevated to the episcopacy by Paul VI in 1976.

Matt said...

As with most questions like these, I think the answers vary in regards to the place and the culture. So, for example, how I might approach these questions in East New York are different from how you would approach them in Yonkers.

As far as the "practical" questions go, I think a model of leadership that involves laity may be a solution, yet this solution presupposes a base of devoted laity who are willing to offer service, which may be too rash of a supposition.

But (and I think this was mentioned in a previous comment), I think a key to any answering of addressing of these questions needs to be based in witness. We can't teach or preach with words alone, but rather by our actions and by who we are.

This will never satisfy everyone, but we do the best with what God gives to us and sacrifice ourselves on Christ's Cross, uniting ourselves to the Eucharist through prayer.

4narnia said...

thanks so much for this sharing, Fr. C! what you mention in this post is certainly a lot to contemplate. i understand the pressure you must feel as a parish priest with a staff that has become smaller. i truly sympathize with this situation and, as an active, participating member of the Catholic church, we lay people are called to do our part to help ease the burden of our parish priests. a great example of this is the fact that our wonderful pastor, Fr. Moe, has asked all liturgical ministers to actively participate in the Holy Thursday "washing of the feet," by inviting others to participate, as well. i feel this is a great honor and a chance to help our Pastor and priests. unfortunately, some who received this request from our pastor have complained about it and say they don't wish to participate. this is sad because we (even us laity) are called to serve. doesn't it tell us somewhere in Sacred Scripture to "come and worship and praise God as a Royal Priesthood and Holy Nation?" i, too, come from a non-practicing family, but through God's Graces and Blessings, i never strayed from my faith or from actively practicing my faith. it only gets stronger. God hs always put the right people in my life who have been instrumental in my faith journey-the Capuchin Franciscan Friars, in particular, have been and continue to be the most instrumental. i agree with Matt that we need to "witness by our actions and who we are." PEACE! ~tara t~