January 18, 2011

A Devout and Joyful Rebellion

My community has a provincial chapter in the spring. That means elections and the opportunity to make decisions about what we do and where we're going as a province. The conversations have started about how we can best serve the local churches in which we live. They're not easy.

Things seem dire. Even with parish closings, there are too few pastors. Priests are asked to pastor multiple parishes, and have to spend all their time in duplicated or triplicated meetings, and ministering to decaying buildings rather than people. Catholics continue to disappear from practicing the faith. Here in Boston it is said that something like fifteen percent of baptized Catholics ever go to Church. The wounds and legacy of sexual abuse still call out for penance and conversion. Even among those who have not explicitly rejected the faith, whole extended families and communities have reached a kind of critical mass of not having been catechized or sacramentally initiated, such that it is sometimes hard to find a single qualified sponsor for an infant baptism. And so it continues. The lack of catechesis comes to bear the rotten fruit of fights over the obligation to marry according to canonical form, to offer proper funerals and bury the dead, etc. Everywhere money is running out; much could be done in some parishes with more priests and lay ecclesial ministers, but there isn't any money for salaries. A few more cold days during the heating season can mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy for a parish.

Who am I in all this? I know well the temptations to bitterness, anger, and despair. They used to weary me when I was a parish priest myself, having to argue with people about baptismal sponsors, absurd choices for wedding or funeral Mass music (a problem which we ourselves have sown by our normalizing of 'picking a song' to replace the ordinary chants of the Mass) or about their obligation to bury the cremated remains of their loved ones.

But you know what? I've decided that I won't let all of this take away my Catholic joy. I joined this religion, I believe that God has called me to be a religious and a priest within it, the whole business suits me very well on the natural level, and I intend to enjoy it. The Communion of Saints assures me that the historical and geographical moments in which my earthly life finds itself are but a part of my place in the Universal Church. I get up in the morning and I read the writings of the saints, and I know that they are just as present to me in Holy Communion as the other brothers in the chapel. I pray for the perseverance and courage of those baptized souls who will have the privilege of being on earth on the last day when the Lord returns. Even if the Church were to be completely falling apart in my own historical moment, that moment does not exhaust my location and so does not comprehend my Catholic life.

Is such an attitude a temptation? Is it an abdication of responsibility? It depends. If I do this in such a way as to lock myself away (either interiorly or exteriorly) with my own desire for God and a devout life, not paying any attention to the trials or sufferings of the larger Church, for sure it's a temptation. But if I do this in such a way that it is a rebellion against decadence, despair, and bitterness, and a devout and joyful rebellion with which I try to infect other souls that God puts in my path, then I think it is an answer to the fundamental Franciscan mission: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church."


K T Cat said...

I'm really sad to hear about your woes on the East Coast. Out here in San Diego, every Sunday Mass I go to is crowded, regardless of time or parish.

Br. Andrew said...

You are right in saying things appear dire. With parishes closing there seems to be fewer pastors, but are there fewer priests? I was recently told by a "Pastoral Planner" that the ratio of current mass attendance to vocations to the priesthood are congruent to ratios from 30 years ago.

There is an impression that priests are rebelling from the traditional role of Pastor, with the mundane meetings and concrete responsibilities you mention, and opting for such "liberating" roles as social workers, conference leaders, and professors. I hope that this is not the case.

Greg said...

Wow. Powerful and uplifting statement of the charism of Francis. As I read, I felt myself standing amidst the fallen bricks at San Damiano, also hearing the call.

Yesterday I was privileged to attend a Mass with over a hundred priests, Bishops, and probably a hundred sisters from various orders.

The gathering allowed me to look upon so many dedicated religious and offer a silent prayer that from this day forward we grow in the fire of the Holy Spirit.

The reading of the litany of the Saints brought home the true extent of the team assembled.

Thanks for your inspiring post.

Tausign said...

A beautiful and inspired post. It reads like a psalm of lamentation and hope.

Sara said...

Br. Charles, thanks for the reinforcement.

Where I am we have enough priests for now, but not enough money (and lots of people who are running down the poor priests because of it). The archdiocese is closing schools. There are certainly not enough well catechized, happy, faithful Catholics. Some days I feel like it's me, two priests, and three old ladies from daily Mass, against the rest of the world.

It is hard work for me to keep a positive attitude. I expected that I would come into the faith and be relatively bad at it. (I'm sure I'm still actually bad at it. I just figured there would be more of a gap between me and folks who've been doing this for life.) It's lonely.

But God chose this time and this place for me. He chose the RCIA team who have never read the Bible and the in laws who think I should stop having kids and then get mad that I don't want them to be godparents, and all the rest of it, and He must want me to do something about it. So I will be joyful and work hard and pray for my priests. Nothing about that sounds like a temptation.

Anonymous said...

Father, thank you for your kind and balanced answer to my inelegant earlier questions. This follow-up post, intentionally or not, is an even better response, including mentioning Boston, and, in especially your last 2 paragraphs, expresses my reactions, even as a lay person. God Bless You, and I'll keep the success of your provincial chapter in my prayer intentions.

Barb, sfo said...

I think you will accomplish more good simply by living out your Catholic joy in your priestly life than 100 cranky priests. Thanks for your commitment to be there--joyfully--when it counts!