Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger Disaster: Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago today, I was sitting in my office at Saint Mary Magdalen Church in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where I served as director of liturgy and music. It was a very cold, crisp morning, by Central Florida standards. The 500 plus kids in our Catholic school were all standing out on the soccer field, shivering in the cold.

One of the really cool things about living in Central Florida, at least for this northerner, was watching the launches of the space shuttles. Even though we were over fifty miles away, we could still watch the trail of smoke as the shuttles soared into the air. On more than one occasion, I would set an alarm, grab a lawn chair, and sit in a vacant field near my house for the spectacular night launches. It was like watching an instant sunrise.

Since I had seen so many launches, one very close up on the sands in Cocoa Beach, I decided to stay in my office that cold January morning. Someone rushed into our music suite and said that something had gone terribly wrong with the launch. I ran outside and saw our school teachers ushering very confused and startled children back into the school. I looked up in the air and saw the reason. It was obvious that just a minute before, something had indeed gone terribly wrong. The trail of smoke from the Challenger still hung in the air, but where it stopped, I could see trails of other smoke cascading down to the earth.

The school children were on the soccer field for this particular launch, of course, because Christa McCauliffe, the first school teacher in space, was aboard the doomed flight.

About an hour after the disaster, when it was clear that there was no way that any of the astronauts could have survived the explosion, I was summoned to the pastor's office, where I found the pastor and the principal of the school. They asked me to put together a prayer service for the children that would help address their shock, grief, and confusion. The way a kindergartner reacts and the way an eighth-grader reacts to a tragedy like this is very different.

Frankly, I don't remember much about the prayer service, save two things. Firstly, I had never seen a group of more than five hundred children more silent than that day when they assembled in the Church. And secondly, we were asked to choose a piece of music that we thought would be appropriate. So, my associate and I sang Eternal Father, Strong to Save. It was one of the most difficult moments in my music ministry. My voice tends to fail when I feel intense emotion, but somehow we got through those final two verses, which is my continued prayer on this day thirty years later.

O Spirit, whom the Father sent To spread abroad the firmament;O Wind of heaven, by your might Save all who dare the eagle's flight,And keep them by your watchful careFrom ev'ry peril in the air.

O Trinity of love and pow'r, Your children shield in danger's hour;From rock and tempest, fire and foe, Protect them wheresoe'er they go: And then shall rise with voices freeGlad praise from air and land and sea. 

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

RCIA: Stumbling Blocks

Tuesday greetings from the home office here in Franklin Park, IL.

These past several weeks have been busy ones for me. Last week, I gave two seminars on "Rebuilding the RCIA and Building an Evangelizing Community." The first was held at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania for folks around the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Here are two photos I took.

The next day I was in the Diocese of Greensburg at the Bishop Connare Diocesan Center. The snow had been falling gently. Just a picture perfect setting.

And yours truly with the enthusiastic RCIA ministers in the diocese.

Diocesan leaders from several offices were present and I asked them to offer some opening remarks. It was striking how similar the remarks were from both dioceses. Both dioceses seem to be in somewhat of a holding pattern with respect to training RCIA ministers. Both talked about the RCIA needing more attention and a much-needed shot in the arm in this area of Pennsylvania.

As the new translation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults continues to unfold, it is my hope that the dawn of the new translation will see a resurgence in training in dioceses around the English-speaking Catholic world.

Some in attendance spoke about their frustration with the priests in their parishes. One said that when the time for the Rite of Sending for the Rite of Election neared, the pastor said, "Oh, do we really need to do that?" These RCIA ministers expressed frustration that often their biggest stumbling block in their parishes as it implements the RCIA is the pastor. I have found this to be true in most places I have visited. In too many dioceses, there simply isn't the formation for RCIA in the seminary curriculum nor in ongoing priestly formation.

Of course, for every one of these sad stories, there are others where the pastor is completely on board with the vision of the Rite and works very hard alongside the baptized with the full implementation.

Uneven pastoral practice? Absolutely. When a person asks me what they should do, or how they should approach a pastor who doesn't understand the rite or who refuses to celebrate the various rites or refuses to allow the dismissal of catechumens, I often come up empty. I urge people to buy a gift for their pastor, Paul Turner's Celebrating Initiation: A Guide for Priests. I know this book has been enormously helpful for seminarians, priests, and those charged with helping shape the rites in the parish. Beyond that, I am at a loss.

Several years ago, I was asked to speak with a group of priests in a diocese in the Northeast. There were guys that I had been in the seminary with at the gathering. When I talked about the apprenticeship model and the need for directly connecting catechumens and candidates with the life of the parish during the catechumenate, one young priest pounded the table and said, "What you are talking about is nothing but a bunch of fluffy field trips. These people need the meat! They need to learn the dogmas of the Church. Don't you realize that the majority of the people in our pews don't even believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? We must give the catechumens and candidates the meat!"

Now, as I say all the time, I am certainly not against sharing and teaching the tenets of the faith during the RCIA process. But that thrust has to be balanced (according to the Second Vatican Council, the Rite itself and both the General Directory for Catechesis and the National Directory for Catechesis.) All of these guiding documents point out that initiatory catechesis has as its centerpiece an apprenticeship approach that must achieve a balance among the four pillars of formation: Catechesis, Community, Prayer, and Apostolic Service. It's not about teaching catechumnens and candidates about community, prayer, and apostolic service; it's all about having them become involved in these various aspects of formation while they are in the RCIA, while they are in "basic training."

I know that in my own lifetime I will never see the fulfillment of this vision. All I can do is plug along and try to help people see that the RCIA cannot be in the shadows, "in Room 102 on Tuesday nights from 7:00 to 8:30." The mission is worth it because I believe that initiation is more than imparting Catholic information; it is about forming disciples of Jesus Christ through a process of learning by doing.

Thanks for listening.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

Monday, January 18, 2016

WLP Ceremonial Binders Series 3 Have Arrived!

Monday greetings from the frigid Midwest. Oh, to be back in San Antonio and walking along the Riverwalk! Snapped this photo from inside the car this morning.

A nice surprise awaited me as I returned to the office this morning. WLP's new Ceremonial Binders, Series Three, arrived. And they are absolutely beautiful and will soon be available for purchase.

I just love it when I am in a diocese somewhere and I see our Series 1 and Series 2 binders being used at the liturgy. Just yesterday in my parish, the Series 2 binder in green was used at Sunday Mass. They bring beauty and dignity to the liturgy.

Tomorrow I am off to Pennsylvania, to speak in Aliquippa and Greensburg (Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg). I will be talking about rebuilding the RCIA and creating an evangelizing parish. These few weeks have been a whirlwind for me. The Southwest Liturgical Conference in San Antonio was, in a word, wonderful, Such hospitality and enthusiasm for the liturgy. I really hated to leave those great people.

Please pray for the safety of all travelers.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

WLP Wins Several Illumination Book Awards

Wednesday greetings from the Southwest Liturgical Conference here in beautiful San Antonio, Texas. While setting up the WLP booth in the exhibit hall, I received the news of the announcement of the 2015 Illumination Awards, whose mission is "shining a light on exemplary Christian books." This is an award that encompasses all Christian publishers of books.

I am so proud, humbled, and happy to announce that WLP has won several awards:

Under Catholic:
BRONZE (tie): Dear Young People… Inspiration from Pope Francis for Everyone, by Michael O’Neill McGrath (World Library Publications)

Under Education:
SILVER: Purified and Enlightened: RCIA Sessions for Lent, by Mary Birmingham (World Library Publications)
BRONZE: You Have Put On Christ: Cultivating a Baptismal Spirituality, by Jerry Galipeau (World Library Publications)

Under Devotional:
SILVER: Living the Word in Lent, by Laurie Brink and Deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt (World Library Publications)
BRONZE: An Imprisoned Heart, by Petra Alexander and Gerardo Gomez (World Library Publications)

A heart today filled with gratitude. Congratulations to the authors, editors, designers, marketing and customer care departments at WLP, as well as our rights and permissions professionals. A true team effort.

Gotta sing. Gotta Pray.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The RCIA and the Crawfish Boil

Tuesday greetings from the frigid Midwest. Winter has finally arrived here; light snow most of the night; high winds and bitterly cold temperatures now.

My apologies for not having posted this past week. Lots of things going on in my life right now and I just haven't found the time to post. I spent the better part of this past week at the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference in New Orleans. Simply put, I love the good people of this area of the country. Their hospitality and charm is infectious and so warm.

At one of my RCIA sessions on apprenticeship, I talked about a conversation I had had with a waitress at a tiny restaurant the night before. She was telling me that when they do a crawfish boil, it doesn't matter what seasonings go on the crawfish after they come out of the boil. It is more about the seasonings that are added to the boil that seep their way into the crawfish themselves.

So, at my presentation, I thought I would use the crawfish boil as a metaphor for what is supposed to happen in the RCIA. We immerse the catechumens and candidates in the "seasonings" in the "crawfish pot" that is the catechumenate. The people in the room really got into this, telling me what it is they add to their own boils, things like hot peppers and oranges, and garlic. Then they made comparisons between these ingredients and the great array of all things Catholic that we share with catechumens and candidates when we put them into the "boil" that is the catechumenate. What fun we had with this topic in New Orleans! And I think, using this metaphor, that the people really "got it;" they understood that the RCIA is much, much more than just teaching the tenets of the faith. It is about immersing people into the Catholic way of life throughout the process so that it all seeps in.

I will definitely be doing more research on crawfish boils. The folks told me to do my own when I got back to Chicago, but to use shrimp instead of crawfish!

Headed to San Antonio later today for the Southwest Liturgical Conference.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Wrong Way?

Tuesdays greetings on this cold January day here in the Midwest.

A very Happy New Year to you.

At Mass this past Sunday at Old Saint Patrick's here in Chicago, the celebrant and homilist told us a story that got me thinking pretty deeply. A friend of his had asked him a question about the meaning of the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. At the end of the conversation, his friend thanked him for the explanation and commented, "You are pretty liberal, Father." Our priest didn't think too much about it, but it did get him thinking later on, "Did I say the wrong thing? Did I lead him in the wrong direction? What was the way that I was showing him?" I could really tell that this priest was struggling with what he had done, wondering if he had said something that was wrong or misguided.

I went away from Mass on Sunday feeling a sense of appreciation for a pastor who could be so vulnerable in a homily, questioning himself and second-guessing (perhaps) what he had said to this man in their conversation. It struck a chord within me because when I am asked to speak somewhere, I know that there are often times that I can get in the way of the message I am trying to convey, or putting a certain spin on something that I see as crystal clear, but has come with years of time spent in the crucible. Sometimes I walk away wondering if what I said was pointing people in the wrong direction, kind of like the way our pastor felt after his conversation.

I bring this up today because tomorrow I leave for New Orleans to give several presentations at the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. One of my topics is "The State of the RCIA in North America." Frankly, I think that we have failed the people who have sought Christian initiation on a grand scale. I will be handing out three examples of parish RCIA schedules that I just retrieved from the internet. All three are syllabuses of topics; they are all courses in Catholic teaching. Two of the three schedules end at the Easter Vigil; nothing beyond. Some are pure apologetics. Others look very advanced for an average inquirer. All three refer to "classes." As an example, "Christmas-No Class Today."

I am beginning to reach the conclusion that no amount of pointing people to the vision that the Church espouses for the catechumenate will ever, at least in my lifetime, do a damn bit of good. I am a rather kind and gentle presenter, but this topic is getting me more and more frustrated as the years go on. I have come to the point of telling people something like this: "If your parish's RCIA process is nothing more than a course in Catholic dogma, please call whatever you are doing something else; it is NOT the RCIA." Harsh? Leading people in a wrong direction? What do you think? Do I need to cool off?

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.