Thursday, July 24, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 5

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued:
And now I write about the glorious triumph of light over dark, progress over regress and the wisdom of youth over the stupidity of old age.  These things come from my own memory and many of them I cannot footnote, but I was there. I endured it all. The great astrologers are not in agreement as to the precise date of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. 
Aquarius, the Water-Bearer, is one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, a system by which astrologers use imaginary designations of imaginary relationships among stars to determine which horse to bet on and the best chances of being lucky in love and money. It is of course a rigorously scientific system, at least as precise as the near-infallible fortune cookie. There are different eras associated with each sign and the epoch in which the imaginary constellation Aquarius is dominant will be a time of democracy, humanitarianism, idealism, freedom and social advancement. The eminent astrologers with their rigorous scientific method may not know precisely when the Age of Aquarius dawned, but my generation, the forever young generation now colliding with geriatric medicine, we knew when it started. 
It definitely started on or before April 29, 1968, the glorious day that Hair, the rock opera opened on Broadway.  Hippies everywhere ripped off their clothes and “Let the Sun Shine In” as the rock opera urged us to do.  Now, after all that sun shining in, we have skin cancers in odd places.  
We in the Church had been preparing for this glorious revelation-revolution for years. We had started to chuck outmoded Dark Age things like polyphony, Gregorian chant, Michelangelo, Bernini and all that pompous primitive art in favor of burlap banners and collages made by Sister Corita Kent. We dumped Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila for Matty Fox’s On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear and that classic of Catholic Spirituality, The Velveteen Rabbit.  (Again, I am not making any of this up, not a single word.)  The clergy of Chicago were in the vanguard of this new openness to the profound insight of the late twentieth century. We had been thoroughly schooled in the thought of Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer who dedicated his 1971 classic “Rules for Radicals” with the following words.
 “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”  
(This too, I am not making up. Saul Alinsky was very popular in my seminary training and even more popular in the years just preceding my time there. I have heard that he was in fact a guest lecturer, but I am having a hard time pinning this down. I would appreciate either confirmation of correction. Certainly Saul was meeting with groups of seminarians as early as the 1960’s).
The disciples of Saul Alinsky knew that they would never truly radicalize the church in Chicago until they could get rid of the old irremovable pastors from the “plum” parishes of the archdiocese.  It was the old pastors in the big parishes that were keeping the Church in the Dark Ages. They still preferred Gregorian chant to Kumbaya and kneeling for communion to hand-holding at the Our Father. So, on a glorious day, I believe in 1972, during a meeting of, I believe it was the presbyteral council of the archdiocese, the young lights of the archdiocese petitioned Cardinal Cody to ask the Vatican for an indult, that is an exemption from a requirement of canon law.  They wanted to limit the terms of a pastor to six years renewable for a second term of six years. All pastors would be automatically removed, removable or not. It is said, that in a voice of great solicitude, his Eminence responded, “Well, my sons, if that is what you want I will ask the Holy Father.”
Cardinal Cody left the hall suppressing a broad grin. The young lights thought they were opening up the church to the new winds of progress and goodness. Cardinal Cody knew that they had just removed any local oversight of the episcopacy.
You see, in the bad old dark ages a pastor could only be removed for cause, and that meant principally immorality or insanity.  They could not be removed for not raising enough money. The old pastors knew that they could refuse to raise the money that a bishop wanted for the running of the diocese. If the bishop wanted things to run smoothly he had to know his priests and to convince them of the wisdom of his initiatives. The young lights threw away the only real practical control over a diocesan bishop and Cardinal Cody knew it. The old pastors may have been weird, old coots, but they were by in large a good bunch of guys who loved the Lord and the Church, and most of them actually loved the people with whom they had spent twenty or thirty years, and remarkably their people loved them, chicken feet and bags of nickels and all.
The Church was a family, and its home was the parish. When the young progressives gave Cardinal Cody permission to ask the pope to change an ancient rule, they changed the parish church from a family to a bureaucracy — a sort of company franchise. Chicago was the leading light of those post-conciliar years and as Chicago went the US and the English speaking world went. It is now pretty much universal for priests to have mandatory retirement at 70, unless the bishop decides otherwise.
That meeting in 1972 of the Chicago presbyteral council destroyed a reasonable system of checks and balances that had been a thousand years in the making. That was the day priests stopped being fathers. They became CEO’s and vendors of religious services with very limited rights to run the local branch office.  
In the dark ages before 1972, a priest expected to leave his rectory feet first. He expected to die among the people he had loved and served all those years. Now a diocesan priest must turn in his resignation at the age of 70. They throw a swell party and send him off to die alone. He hasn’t enough money for a house in Boca anymore. He will be lucky to get single room occupancy in a bad neighborhood if he has not planned ahead.  At the very age when a man needs people around him who know him and love him, a diocesan priest is expected to find a new place to hang his hat for as many years as he has left, and the pension, at least in my diocese, with which he is expected to enjoy his golden years is the whopping sum of $1,200 dollars a month. 
The old monsignor who was my first seminary rector was given a couple rooms in the school basement of a west side parish. I think it was there that he died. He was a good priest who hadn’t worried about money and so a few rooms in a basement is where his life and years of service ended.
A diocesan priest is expected at the present time to move every 6 to 12 years. It used to be that he saw the children he baptized, grow up and marry, or enter religious life. He buried their dead and was part of the fabric of their lives. Chances were that he knew their names and really cared about their well being. Now we are paid to love you for a maximum of 12 years and then we move on. Hardly worth getting to know everyone’s name. There are other professions that love as long as they are paid to do it. 
The progressive lights of the Age of Aquarius did more harm than they can imagine. They made the church a colder, more anonymous place when all the while they thought they were initiating a giant worldwide love-in. The churches in the bad old days were packed.  Now they are empty. If you want to volunteer to serve coffee at the parish social, you need government clearance, finger printing and background checks. Having been cleared by the government, you then need to take theology classes about the ministering of coffee pouring and be a certified diocesan coffee pourer.
So, what has all my whining to do with anything? My point is this: Hollywood, the world and the bureaucrats of religion have not realized that the parish of a thousand years is gone. They keep pretending that there is a large mass of loyal Catholic people out there who will pay, pray and obey. I am in the process of burying the last gray hairs of that generous generation. Their grandchildren don’t even know how to say an Our Father, and their grandchildren aren’t going to throw in for that second collection or sign up for the pledge drive. Their children don’t go to church. It isn’t their home. 
Next week: More whining and perhaps some creative suggestions.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 4

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued.

“Benefice” denotes either certain property given for the support of ministers of religion, or a spiritual office or function, such as the care of souls, but in the strict sense it signifies a right, given permanently by the Church to a cleric to receive ecclesiastical revenues because of the performance of some spiritual service.  (Plagiarized from the “the Catholic Encyclopedia”). 

There were such things as single and double benefices.  A single benefice was a kind of living, or salary provided for a clergyman whose job it was to offer Mass and pray the liturgy of the hours for the well being of the faithful. Such a priest didn’t have to live in a parish. He could do his praying anywhere and just pop the check in the mail, please.

A double benefice included the basic job description of praying for the faithful plus the care of souls! The recipient of the double benefice is expected, “to preach and take care of the religious instruction of the faithful (especially of the young), supply their spiritual needs by the administration of the sacraments, reside in their parish or mission, administer the property entrusted to their care, watch over the moral conduct of their parishioners, and remove as far as possible all hindrances to their salvation.”  I suppose that means I am supposed to peer in your window to see what you are watching on HBO and, if need be, pull the plug or take an axe to your new flat screen. Keep your eyes peeled. That rustling in the shrubbery in the front yard just might be me!

For these services, I am to be reasonably remunerated. As the French say, “One must eat”, except they say it in French.  Keeping me in fighting weight, a salary and a roof over my head is sufficient these days. Back in the dark ages when a man’s wealth was estimated in chickens, the living provided the clergy was a scosche more direct. A parish might have a few acres attached to it, a household, and a flock of sheep, a few peasants and a certain number of barrels of wine in the rectory cellar. From the revenue generated, the priest maintained the church and the rectory and provided for his needs and that of his household. Had I lived then, my household would definitely have included a lute player and a retinue of dwarves. Ah, good times.

I digress. Times have changed. I don’t think we are even allowed to use the word “dwarves” anymore. We no longer deal in barrels of wine, chickens, dwarves or even sheep. We deal in little bits of plastic and computer printouts, but I remember once upon a time in the grand old days of my youth when the medieval concept still applied. The pastor was entitled to all the income of the parish from weddings, baptisms, Mass offerings and funerals. He might, or might not share this income with the 2 or 3 assistants (not associates) who served under him. He also received the Christmas collection, the Easter collection and the All Souls Day collection.  There were more prosperous parishes called “plums” by the clergy.

These were places like Sts. Pecunia and Prospera here in the Forest Lake district of the West Shore here in the Frostbite Falls Parish. A pastor was expected to maintain his household with this income, but the rest was his to do with as he chose and this occasionally involved real estate in Boca. Most pastors were hard working and generous. I got in on the tail end of this system. I remember a pastor who every week would give me an envelope in which he had scrupulously divided the income from stipends (money offered by the faithful for a Mass intention, stole fees money received for services rendered while wearing a stole, such as blessings, marriages, baptisms etc.).  It was all recorded in his precise hand, Stipends, Stole fees, Masses and a category I didn’t quite understand: Fun. One day I asked the pastor, Fr. John, a real saint, what was meant by “Fun Money”.  “Oh,” came the reply, “That’s for Funerals.”  Fun Money. Oy!  

Less saintly and less scrupulous pastors than Fr. John were not quite as generous.  The less it took to maintain the household in the parish, the more one had for the winter retreat in Boca. I remember a pastor whose life was determined by his housekeeper, famous not for food, but for frugality. The young assistants used to come down to my mother’s kitchen frequently. It seems that the rectory housekeeper’s specialty was boiled chicken feet. I am not making this up. I remember another great story of a young assistant moving into his new assignment and being greeted by the pastor who handed him a bag of nickels and pointed to the pay phone on the wall. He then turned and went into his room and shut the door. “Welcome, Father New Guy.” A lot of pastors never gave keys for the rectory to their assistants. The doors to the rectory were locked, and if you weren’t home by ten you were on your own. The rectory and its revenues were the property of the pastor, not of the assistant.

Assistant pastorate was a kind of indentured apprenticeship. Young priests were not allowed to drive for the first five years of their ministry; they were expected to “take the pledge”, that is to abstain from alcohol for the first five years of priesthood. They did the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals of less important parishioners, and said the later Masses. Remember that in the old days one did not eat or drink — even water — before Mass. If you had a Mass at 11AM on a hot summer day, chances are you would have heat stroke, especially if it was a high Mass involving incense. The Pastor said the 6AM Mass and then returned to the rectory to tuck into a sumptuous breakfast of chicken feet….that is if he were in town. Remember the house in Boca?

If a pastor had a real “plum” of a parish he could leave the work of ministry to his assistants and, loosely interpreting the injunction that he live in his parish, go where he pleased or do what he wanted. I remember an old priest under whom I served as a deacon. When he was asked, “How are you doing?” He invariably responded, “Pretty much as I please. I’m a pastor.” Actually he was a very good pastor who loved his flock and worked very hard. Died young as I recall.

To leave the ministry to your assistants and the money to your personal accountant was called “hanging up your stole.” I remember a story from the days of old Cardinal Cody back in the sixties. When he first arrived in Chicago he was very hands on. He would go from parish to parish all by himself without handlers and without warning. He wanted to get to know the diocese first hand. He was death on alcoholism among the clergy and if he suspected you tippled a bit, you were off to rehab in a New York minute. 

One afternoon he was making a sweep of parishes on the south side, and after leaving a parish, the assistants quickly called the next parish over to warn the assistant priests there that the boss was on his way and they had better get the pastor, old Monsignor James Beam, in presentable shape. It seems that Monsignor Beam enjoyed a glass of sherry now and then….mostly now. 

They got the beloved old coot showered, combed and dressed in a clean cassock. They poured black coffee down his throat until he could hold no more, and sat him upright in his study. Cardinal Cody walked in and said to old Monsignor Beam, “Monsignor, I have heard complaints that people can smell alcohol on your breath at baptisms.” To which the old priest responded without losing a beat, Your Eminence, I haven’t baptized a baby in twenty years!” This is what was meant by “hanging up your stole.” 

I can hear you harrumphing, “Well, How shameful!” Remember that the great majority of priests I knew and under whom I served were true servants, especially the ones who went on to be bishops. I suppose my point in telling these stories, of which I have many more, is that the priest felt absolutely secure once he had been made a pastor. This was for two reasons. 
                     
First, there were such things as irremovable pastors and moveable pastors. An irremovable pastor has the right of perpetual tenure, not unlike an incompetent university professor. He cannot be removed or transferred except for a reason laid down in canon law. Even if he is accused of criminality he could not be removed except by a canonical trial!

A movable pastor was one whose office did not have this right, but the bishop must have some just and proportionate reason for dismissing or transferring him against his will and, should the priest believe himself wronged in the matter, he could appeal to the pope and the pope usually ruled in favor of the pastor. So, a removable pastor was in effect irremovable.
 
Second, people living within the parish boundaries could not go to another parish or another priest other than their pastor, except with his or the bishop's consent.  This means; no baptisms, no last rites, no anointing of the sick, no holy communion, no marriages and no funerals outside their parish and no permission to be buried in a Catholic cemetery next to Grandma Gewurztraminer, even if you had already bought and paid for the plot and the perpetual care grave package with waterproof coffin included!  If you didn’t like your pastor, it was pay, pray and obey. That or move or join the high Church Anglicans.

People really respected this system. In 1947, my parents moved out of a parish on the south side of Chicago because the pastor was a horrible man. They thought their children would not grow up Catholic under his influence. He was the pastor of Five Holy Tombs, a parish you may have heard about in the book, Last Catholic in America. They moved into a suburban parish after convincing the realtors that — despite my father’s family name and the fact that he was in the retail garment business and the only gentile in his company Morris B. Sachs — they were not Jewish. 

They went to meet Monsignor O’Brien who always stood on the church steps after every Mass. They introduced themselves as new parishioners and started the usual small talk, at which point Monsignor O’Brien broke in and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not here to chat. I’m only here for parishioners who need to talk to a priest.” 

They nodded and decided to stay. They never regretted it.

Next week: How the dark ages ended in 1972

Monday, July 14, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 3

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued.

In order to understand the current pickle, we must delve deeply into the culture and religious climate that created the American Catholic parish as it now exists. We must delve deeply into the murky history of the dark ages, a mysterious and distant period called the Dark Ages. This was a benighted and ignorant time in which men married only women and people did not usually kill their children in the womb nor did they have the means to blow up whole cities. 

The Dark Ages begin with the fall of the glittering urban civilization of the Roman Empire, built and sustained by slaves. The Dark Ages lasted until about 1972. For most of that dark and distant period the Mass of the Catholic Church in Europe looked and sounded pretty much the same. By the time of Emperor Charlemagne (800 AD, give or take), Mass was pretty much the same from Bishop’s Ichington England to Dabrow Tarnowska, Poland. 
  
There were two flavors of Catholicism at the time, diocesan and monastic. The monastic flavor was the style of worship cultivated by monks in monasteries. The word “monk” comes from the Greek word “monachos” or “loner.” Monasteries were places where the monks of the 4th and 5th centuries came to be alone together. Being alone without anybody to help you be alone can get very tricky. Monasticism got its start among the Christians in Egypt around 250 AD. It was getting harder and harder to get martyred as a Christian and there were more and more Christians with lower and lower standards, so people would run off to the deserts to get away from the worldly influences that were creeping into the Church. These first Christian hermits would try to draw closer to the Lord and to Christian perfection by living alone in such out of the way places as caves, tombs and the occasional abandoned chicken coop. It didn’t always work. 

My favorite monastic ascetics were the pillar sitters. They would try to escape the corruption of the world by living atop pillars, where those still in the world would gather to gawk at the wonder of such sanctity. The pillar sitters would hurl holy abuse at the reprobates on the ground floor and build higher and higher pillars to remove themselves yet further from this evil world. This would cause more gawkers to assemble in awestruck admiration. Soon it was a matter of the higher the pillar, the holier the hermit. This kind of monasticism carried on in the Eastern Church well into the 12th century. In fact, even now, Fr. Maxim, a monk in the country of Georgia is fixing up a hut on top of Katshki pillar and intends to take up residence when the hut is complete. Happy days are here again! 

This sort of thing largely died out in the West because of a fellow named Benedict of Nursia (around 500 AD). He too, wanted to escape worldly corruption, but managed to do it with other like-minded people for whom he wrote a rule of life, now called the Rule of St. Benedict. It was a brief constitution on how to live the Christian life in a community of people who were withdrawn from the world. They live a shared life, isolated from the outside world, but they had lived under the leadership of an abbot who kept them from going completely squirrely and climbing pillars. Benedict’s motto was “ora et labora.” Pray and work.  In other words, “Get off the #$%!@ pillar and make yourself useful.”  And, boy did they!  They salvaged western culture, preserved the intellectual heritage of antiquity, preserved literacy, developed farming, drained malarial swamps, fed the poor, cared for the sick and developed the liturgy and theology of the Church. Their monasteries were beacons of light in a troubled age. And they brewed beer. It’s all good. There was another flavor of Catholicism: the diocese. 

In the later Roman Empire things were organized into administrative districts called “dioikesis”. The root word of diocese is the Greek word “oikos” or “house.”  Diocese, in ancient Greek meant administration, or household management. Similarly, the word parish comes from the word “oikos.”  “Par-oikia” becomes “parish” in English. So, a parish is,“the (area) around the house”, or the “neighborhood.”

During the 4th and 5th centuries, the persecuted Church slowly became the official Church. It was only natural that the administrative divisions of the Church conform to the structure of local civil society. We still do this. We still identify local churches with civil units such as the Archdiocese of Chicago which is limited geographically to Cook and Lake Counties.

When the barbarians (my people) invaded and conquered the western half of the Roman Empire around from 450 AD, the Roman army and government bureaucracy skedaddled to the east where the empire still stood with its new capital, Constantinople. Bishops and priests in Europe stepped in to take the place of the absent Roman government; things like feeding the poor, judging legal disputes, cleaning out the aqueducts, etc. From that point on things got strange. The government tried to appoint the clergy and the clergy tried to control the government. To be a member of the body politic, it was necessary to be a member of the Church. If a pope or local bishop excommunicated a king or feudal lord, the subjects of that ruler no longer had to pay their taxes, serve in the army or even to obey. In effect, the citizenry would go on strike. It often worked. The rulers dreaded excommunication. The flip side of the coin was that kings and local rulers got very involved in the appointment of clergy. It was great to have a friend or relative on the local episcopal throne who wouldn’t dispute your choice and number of wives or your abuse of the peasants.  

The state and the Church became hopelessly intertwined in Europe. Take, for instance, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was never Roman and rarely holy. He nominally controlled most of Europe. He was elected by 7 electors, four of whom were secular leaders and three of whom were Archbishops! The job of elector was quite a plum. With it came huge bribes and favors from those wanting the job of emperor. It sounds a little like Chicago, no? 

There were reasons to aspire to the episcopacy other than a desire to give your life to Christ. In 1461, there was a shooting war in central Germany, called the Erzstiftsfehde, or “church feud.”  Bishop Diether and Bishop Adolf decided to fight it out as to who would be the Archbishop of Mainz, and hence an imperial elector. The village of my grandmother’s family backed the reformist, Bishop Diether. Bad choice. Bishop Adolf put the town under siege and after three days we ran out of beer and sausage and so we surrendered. There are three cannon balls mounted in the town church wall to commemorate the event. 

That was a time when people took religion seriously! Things were quite a muddle. The clergy could excommunicate the local leader, but on the other hand, bishops were by and large appointed by the local aristocracy after a bit of negotiating with the pope and other local church officials. Parish priests were pretty much appointed by the local squire or landowner without a lot of training, or much of a salary. They might have to farm on the side and maybe charge a little extra for a wedding just to make ends meet. In remote districts and small towns the local pastor might not have a clue what he was saying at Mass, because he couldn’t understand Latin.  

Meanwhile, there were still the monasteries where the clergy were literate and sometimes even devout. The life of the monk was designed to be a rhythm of prayer, study and work. They prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, a collection of psalms and readings that gives a wonderful rhythm to life and faith. Monastic life endures to this day. The parish priest on the other hand buried the dead, baptized the babies, dealt with the local chaos like cheating spouses, feuding neighbors and accusations of witchcraft. In addition they had to squeeze enough money out of the job, the people and the local landlord to keep body and soul together. It is interesting to note that even now monks and nuns tend to live into their 80’s and 90’s. Diocesan (parish) priests tend to drop dead in their 60’s and early 70’s.

Next Week: “the “Benefice”, or “All this can be yours, Father”

Monday, July 7, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 2

A disclaimer:  the following section, if improperly understood, is easily the most discouraging thing I’ve written in a long time. The parish censor said, “It sounds like you’re saying we should just sell all the real estate and move to Rio with the proceeds.”  Not so!! I think the Church is entering into one of its most glorious periods in its history.  I just heard about a friend of mine — a priest in Africa — who the Sunday after Easter baptized six hundred children and married 250 couples. The Church is growing by leaps and bounds everywhere but in Euro/America. This should cause us to ask questions, not simply to try and sustain things as they collapse. 

My whole point is that the Church in this country must become what it was designed to be: an intentional society. We must disabuse ourselves and the secular world of the notion that the Church is the vendor of religious and charitable services. 

I love Catholic schools. They are a central part of our life as Catholics, but I suspect that the way we are doing them now is a surefire prescription for their extinction. Catholic schools as well as Catholic churches must become intentional. Now they are taken for granted. I believe that the only reason to send a child to a Catholic school is because you want them to be a Catholic, and the only reason to teach in Catholic school is because you want to bring people to Christ and the Catholic faith. As Jesus said, “Be hot or cold or I will spit you from my mouth.” Rev. 3:16 

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued…. 

The Catholic Church of popular imagination no longer exists, at least in any part of Europe and the United States with which I am familiar. The moguls of Hollywood and the Bureaucracy of Religion do not seem to have noticed the death of a system that endured for a thousand years, but the pastors of parish churches are painfully aware of its passing. I am writing this just as the canoe goes over the waterfall. It used to be fairly common to say, “The Lord be with you” and to hear absolutely no response from a congregation was full of generic, white Americans. But I just celebrated (?)had a wedding at which about two hundred people of an ethnic group famous for its devout Catholicism responded to my greeting with dead silence. They seemed to have thoroughly accepted the secular dream of Amerika and “…knew not the Lord”.   (“After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel.” Judges 2:10)

At a recent funeral in another parish, the deceased was being waked in a church and the family had not put the traditional rosary in the hands of the guest of honor, they had however put a glass of whiskey in the coffin. Don’t they know that whiskey is flammable and should not be left out when there is a danger of exposure to an open flame? I have had 16 funerals in the past two months. I and my fellow pastors are burying a “whole generation (which is being) gathered to their ancestors” and their children know neither the Lord nor do they donate to the church! 

The grand edifice of hospitals, orphanages, schools, churches, seminaries, convents, nursing homes, soup kitchens, charitable organizations, rectories, monasteries and  universities seems nothing more than a water-soaked sugar cube that manages to hold its external form for the moment, but is really about to dissolve. It seems so substantial so unchangeable, but as more and more dioceses declare bankruptcy, as more and more schools close, as more and more religious orders flicker out of existence, and leave their assets, hospitals, schools and nursing homes to lay boards who know not the Lord. A priest I know is desperately trying to make his parish school a Catholic school once again. He insists that the children attend the weekday morning mass. The parents are furious. They are paying good money for a private school education and resent the time taken from the curriculum for an outdated ritual. He is also trying to reintroduce the children to the regular practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One of the teachers was overheard saying, “Confession? I haven’t been to confession in twenty years!” 

In California, a Catholic school teacher recently married his long-time, same-sex partner. He was fired. A Los Angeles judge ruled that he can sue the school. This part of the insanity doesn’t much bother me. What bothers me is that former students of St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, California are protesting vociferously, demanding that the school reinstate the teacher. They have supposedly collected 48,000 signatures to that effect. St. Lucy’s school is over. If the teacher prevails in his law suit, St. Lucy’s will no longer be a Catholic school by definition. If the protesting students and their irate parents pull out the school will die. This is just the first of a thousand such debacles.  

If we were able to immediately dismiss all teachers in Catholic schools who did not practice their faith or were in irregular relationships with any and all genders, the Catholic school system would deflate like an old circus balloon.  (I am not talking about your parish school, father, sister, teacher or parishioner. Your school is the exception. It is the city set on a hill, a light in the darkness. I am talking about the next parish over, St. Delilah’s.)  

There is a diminishing community of believers who are asked to dig deeper and deeper to support a crumbling edifice that does not reflect their faith. Most everyone thinks that unless something is done, the thing cannot hold together. I maintain that the point of no return has passed and we might as well stop kidding ourselves. The thing has not held together. 

For forty years we have failed to teach the faith in its fullness. We have encouraged a kind of experimental Catholicism and the experiment has failed. People somehow think it is my job as a parish priest to keep things going. I have had so many friends, other priests, whose spirits were broken when they had to close a school. When the collections keep shrinking due to the narcissism of the generation that knows not the Lord, and when the pastor has to find five or six hundred thousand extra dollars a year to make up what the low tuitions don’t cover, he has no alternative but to close the school. He can’t pay the salaries any longer. 

Parishioners are irate. It is the priest’s fault that the school is closing. It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the graduates and their parents don’t go to church on a regular basis and when they do they toss a buck in the basket and resent even that. It has nothing to do with a failure to encourage children to join the convents and monasteries that sustained the Catholic school system with devoted nuns and brothers who loved the Lord and taught the faith. The parents’ guild has offered to have bake sales to help out. What more can they do? Have you ever tried to bake and sell a half million dollars’ worth of cookies in a world where people have 1.9 children per household? No, it is clearly the priest’s fault. We have sowed the wind and now we reap the whirlwind. Perhaps I am wrong and things really are just fine. On the other hand perhaps I am right and we need to go back to the drawing board. 

I sound pretty grim, don’t I? I am not grim at all. These are wonderful times in the Church. We are returning to the Church of the first centuries, persecuted, and even hated, but those who believe are committed and vibrant. The Church is growing like never before, and people are joining themselves to Her not for the sake of an old familiar habit, but because She is the home of Jesus Christ Her Lord.  

The Catholic Church, the steeple towering over the tiny village nestled in the hills of rural France or Italy or Ireland or Ohio is pretty much gone. It still exists in Hollywood and in the imagination of those raised on sitcoms and old movies, but it is a fantasy and fantasies don’t fund schools and orphanages. I remember a young woman in my former parish who made an announcement at the “inclusive” Mass inviting people to march in support of the right to abortion. Being more traditional in my understanding of the Liturgy I was not welcome to say the “inclusive” Mass. That was the Sunday I ended the “inclusive” Mass.  In the firestorm that followed, the above-mentioned woman railed at me, shouting that I had no right to tell her what to believe as a Catholic. She was born Catholic. I corrected her saying, “You weren’t born Catholic. You were baptized Catholic.” In that moment, I understood the problem at the heart of the current crisis. 

For many if not most, the faith is a kind of ethnicity. As we lose our ethnicity, we lose what we thought was faith. Her ethnic background was Irish. She didn’t believe a thing that the Catholic Church taught, but to admit that she was no longer Catholic meant that she was no longer Irish. She would have no reason to drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or to sing the old songs and pretend that she was part of something that stretched unbroken from the distant past to the uncertain future. She wanted none of the moral demands that Christ makes, but she still wanted the old steeple to cast its shadow over the churchyard where her ancestors lay buried. She wanted a myth with which to ornament her life. She didn’t want me as her shepherd in the faith. She wanted me to be the keeper of old memories. 

I have no interest in that job. I want to be a priest. It is time to remember once again that the church is an intentional society. You cannot be born Catholic. You must become Catholic.

Next week: I am far from finished with this harangue.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part one



Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I will never go to a Catholic bingo game again. My Aunt Morticia was snatched away from us at the tender age of 101 and 8 months. We were overwhelmed by her premature and untimely death.  Aunt Morticia had not attended Mass since the Korean War, but was deeply spiritual and a devout Catholic. She never failed to attend Monday night Bingo at Our Lady of Spain Parish. She felt it her duty to support the church in this way.
In our grief, we called the nearest Catholic Church to arrange a funeral and spoke with Monsignor Fensterslammer.  He was horrible. We informed him that we had planned a wonderful slide show on the life and loves of our Aunt Morticia and wanted to show it in church after communion. (She once dated Xavier Cougat and was rumored to have had a fling with Calvin Coolidge.)  This was to be followed by a bag pipe rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to which melody her great, great, great niece was going to tap dance in the sanctuary. (It’s the cutest little routine. Morticia loved it. We just knew that the marble floor in the sanctuary would be perfect for tap dancing.)
Despite our grief at the unexpected death of our beloved Aunt Morticia, Monsignor Fensterslammer just said, “Are you out of your minds???”  
I didn’t think this was very pastoral and neither did Bishop Lance Fairweather whom we promptly called to complain. He said Monsignor Fensterslammer would be hearing from him. I hope he gives it to him good.
Yours,
Ann T. Clerikuhl
 Dear Ann,
I commiserate wholeheartedly with your grief. I myself am mourning the loss of a beloved friend, one of the finest priests I have ever known. I miss him greatly, because, among other things, he always counseled me to restraint and tolerance. Now that he is gone and no longer able to restrain my baser instincts, I would like to address your question in the context of a long treatise on the priestly life in our times, at least my priestly life in our times. He always told me it would be unwise to do this, but he ain’t here, so here it goes.
First, allow me to say that I have no regrets about having spent my life as a priest. As I see life’s little conveyor belt chugging along and the people just ahead of me dropping into the great beyond like widgets off an assembly line, I have no regrets about having said “Yes” to the Lord’s call to the altar, no matter which way the altar happens to be facing at the moment. I whine a lot, but I come from a long line of world class whiners who thought that complaining was an Olympic event. 
I remember complaining to another whiny descendant of the Germans. He looked square at me and said, “Yeah, but you get to say Mass.”  He was absolutely right. I get to say Mass. To hold bread in one’s hands as it becomes the flesh and blood of the Messiah is an amazing privilege. It is not the priesthood I am complaining about. It is the non-priesthood I am complaining about. And my parish — my parishioners are wonderful. They far exceed me in holiness and generosity. I am not complaining about the parish. It is the non-parish I am unhappy with. 
Non-priesthood? Non-parish?  The non-priesthood and the non-parish are things like the pet “parent” calling and asking for a wedding ceremony for their two dachshunds.  We wouldn’t want them to live in sin now, would we?  Or the person who comes looking for a gallon jug of holy water because some psychic told them they have to paint their children’s bedroom with the stuff.  I just love it when the TV psychics tell people that because their house is built over an ancient Indian graveyard, they have to get a Catholic priest to do an exorcism while a shaman blesses the house with burning sage.  Then the TV pans to some priest, supposedly “Catholic”, doing a scene right out of the “Exorcist”. 
“Get the yellow pages, Junior. That’s just what we need to get Pa’ to stop drinkin’! They got to have discount exorcists in the Catholic Church. After all, don’t all them priests take vows of poverty?” 
I may be exaggerating, but I am not making any of this stuff up. I have been asked to do the strangest things for animals and to cast the devil out of the darnedest places. People seem to get most of their religion and all of their history from the television and having seen a show on the discovery channel, they assume that they know how this stuff is supposed to work.  Catholicism is a coherent and reasonable way of life. As such it is not well suited for present day America. 
I think that the priesthood, especially the diocesan priesthood is in crisis. Our understanding of the priesthood and the parish comes from Middle Eastern and European village life a thousand years ago. The expectations we have of priests and churches are created by television and the popular (lack of) culture. Most of the pundits of modern culture, the geniuses of the media, have not darkened the door of a church or synagogue since Jesus was a boy, yet they create an outdated expectation for the Church that the faithful, the unfaithful and, amazingly the clergy swallow hook, line and sinker.
The faithful and the unfaithful can be forgiven for their ignorance. After all, if it’s on TV it must be true. But the clergy? The clergy of our times constantly talk about “being pastoral.”  This is new-speak for wanting to be liked because if we are not liked, people will leave the Church and that would be horrible wouldn’t it?  Jesus was always nice to people, especially small children and large dogs. He was so nice that they crucified Him.
The geniuses of the media are about as deep as a puddle.  Allow me to recount an incident from my own life. When the movie “The Exorcist” was re-released about 15 years ago, the mid-level officials of the diocese went into panic mode. They had no exorcists because they fervently hoped that no one actually believed in that stuff anymore. The mid-level officials certainly didn’t. They realized that they were going to be deluged with calls from people whose children’s heads were spinning around 360 degrees as they levitated over the furniture. Worse than possessed children, they were going to get calls from journalists looking for a slow news day scoop. The mid-level diocesan officials summoned all the priests who were involved with the charismatic renewal, the only ones who still believed all that mumbo jumbo, and told them to brace themselves.  Having some fluency in the Spanish language, I was assigned to all Spanish speaking demons and the journalists who accompanied them.
Sure enough, it was not long before I got a call from the chancery asking me to come down to the chancery for an interview with some network called Telepsycho, or Mundobizarro or something like that.  I then got another call telling me they would come up to my parish because they wanted some place that looked more, well, religious than an office downtown.  That afternoon I got a call from my secretary to come downstairs. The Telepsycho Mundobizarro people had set up for the interview in church. I walked over and the place had been backlit in smoky purple light that made it seem like a cheap fortune teller’s storefront. They wanted to put a light on me that made me look a little like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. I said “Kill the lights or no interview.”  They grudgingly did so, but it was clear that they were looking for a story and not for the truth. If you see it on TV, it’s probably a lie, especially if it’s on the news.
Next week: More of a harangue that will go on indefinitely.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why focus on Christ on the cross, He rose didn't He?

CAUTION: THIS MAY BE THE MOST OFFENISVE ARTICLE THAT THE REV. KNOW-IT-ALL HAS YET WRITTEN. PLEASE KEEP IT OUT OF THE HANDS OF CHILDREN UNLESS YOU WANT TO DO A LOT OF EXPLANING.

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Why do Catholics still have a crucifix in Church and say dreary prayers like,“…to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”?  Jesus rose from the dead and we are an “alleluia people.”  It’s a wonderful world and the Catholic Church is still spouting on about sin and repentance and self-denial. It’s like that old song,  “You'll get pie in the sky when you die.”  I’m glad I was raised in the new, more upbeat church. Get with it!

Yours truly,  
Ann Thusiast

Dear Ann,

Face it. Rock Hudson was uninterested in Doris Day, though he and Gomer Pyle of Mayberry were quite close.  And Doris Day’s first husband beat her and eventually committed suicide. Her second husband divorced her. Her third husband died and then her fourth husband divorced her.  Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz endured three divorces and died of an overdose and probably cirrhosis of the liver. Alfalfa of the little rascals — one marriage, one divorce, was shot to death in a fight over 50 bucks.

So what’s my point?  “You'll get pie in the sky when you die,” is an old lyric from “The Preacher and the Slave”, a song written by the union organizer Joe Hill in 1911. It was written as a parody of the hymn “In the Sweet By-and-By.” It mocks the promises of eternal happiness that Christianity offers to the poor and downtrodden of the world.  The song holds that religion is just a way to keep people down.  Promise them heaven and rob them on earth.  We should get our pie now!

I would venture that it’s quite the opposite. My generation was raised by movies and television and everyone else in this country was raised by the media as well. The entertainment world made outrageous promises. One could live happily ever after despite a few fights just like Rock Hudson and Doris day, home was just a click of the heels away like Dorothy and her ruby slippers and children were sweet and innocent just like Alfalfa of the Little Rascals. The era of happy escapist movies started in the beginning of the 20th century and blossomed into the happy marriages of the sitcoms in which one or two children were allowed, like Rob and Laura Petrie (Rob two wives, one concubine in the real world. Laura: three husbands).

My point is this: You were lied to, not by the Church. You were lied to by Hollywood.  Your expectations of a happy life in which all problems could be resolved in a half an hour, except for the serious one that took a whole feature film. Happiness was being loved and having the man or woman of your dreams and just a couple children.  The most self-evident doctrine of Catholic faith is that of original sin. We are a flawed race of beings and this world is most certainly a valley of tears, tears of our own manufacture.

It didn’t work out for the television people, but we still believed the lie.  We now live in a world of lies. Television, radio and even internet commercials tell us that diets work, we can lose weight without even trying and that miracle foods cure everything. I dread turning on television or radio because invariably I hear or see a commercial for some product guaranteed to perk up men’s sagging interest.  I am especially amazed by the commercial with the two old people sitting in two separate tubs on a beach as the sun sets. Have you ever sat in tub on the beach? Have you ever wanted to sit in tub on the beach?  All I can think of are sand fleas and mosquitoes — and nosy tourists.  Pie in the Sky? How about tubs on the beach?

Christianity says things like, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’” (Acts 20:35) and “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) — not, “slimmer thighs in 30 days or your money back.”  The Gospel promises a struggle with evil and human weakness.  Socialism and capitalism promise an earthly paradise in which Science will solve all our problems. Science is great, but it seems to create at least as many problems as it solves.  Science has made better weapons, but not better people.

Our indoctrination by entertainment has been a non-stop barrage of lies and, after a century of lies, we have believed it all. We marry only to divorce. We want what we want and we want it now.  Our entire sexual morality is based on wish fulfillment no matter what that wish may be.  People have been taught to say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it?”, or “Who am I to judge?”  Certainly, we would never want to judge, or to condemn anyone. We would just like to point out that a rose by any other name would still have thorns.
My favorite is the transgender thing.  How painfully, exquisitely tolerant people are expected to be when an old friend comes to a gathering wearing a dress and heels announcing to the old frat buddies that the name is no longer Al, but Alexandra.  I have no objection to anyone’s fashion choices, but the mutilated former rugby player confronting me is not a woman, no matter how well the hormone shots are working.  This is not judgmental, nor is it condemnatory. It is just true.  But I want it… It will make happy… It’s who I really am….  We have watched entirely too much television and we have lost our minds.  We believed the TV and the Movies and have tried to find happiness by going from bed to bed, from marriage to marriage. We have left behind us a string of broken hearts and homeless children who can’t seem to hold down a job.  The Gospel has always told us that this life is not about happiness. It is about faithfulness and generosity, heroism and the highest human nobility and it actually used to teach that sex was about children! Now we have a world that believes it should have what it wants and that sex is about me.

I suppose I shouldn’t expect more from the world. Its Prince is a liar and the father of lies, but what really alarms me in this madhouse age is that some of those in leadership in the Church seem increasingly to tell the same lies.  As you may have heard me say already, can anyone remember a sermon that says the purpose of life is sacrifice? Have you heard any sermons that remind people that artificial birth control is gravely immoral? Or a funeral sermon that doesn’t canonize the deceased? “Uncle Alexandra was a wonderful caring person.  She was loved by all three of her wives and will be greatly missed by her current husband whom she married after her operation.  She was literally father and mother to both her children and we know that she is in heaven with Jesus.”  Maybe she, or he, is. Maybe not.  We have lost our minds and to point out that fact is impolite. It is hate speech.

Give me pie in the sky. It can’t be any worse than the pie in the face that we are currently enduring.

Yours,
The Rev. Know-it-all

Friday, June 13, 2014

What is your problem with same-sex "marriage"?


Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I heard you say that the state may one day demand that the church marry same sex couples.  Well, the Catholic Church says that a man and a woman marry each other and it's not a marriage if it isn't one man and one woman.  So, wouldn't that be our argument???
Yours truly, 
Al Thesame 
Dear Al, 
I promised myself that I would drop the topic of marital and connubial strangeness because I am so sick of the whole thing and there’s no way to convince these people anyway, but just today I heard that the glorious state of Illinois, led by the devout Catholic governor, Pat Quinn, and adding another feather to its cap, has just approved same-sex marriage. I mention this simply because a state one-third of whose population calls itself Catholic could not care less about what the Church teaches about sexual morality and family life. Though not a Catholic, Senator Mark Kirk, one of Illinois’ two voices in the national senate was recently asked, “Who came first, God or country?” He immediately said “Country!” I don’t think he represents the bulk of Catholic Illinois in this sentiment. I suspect that many of the Catholics in Illinois when asked who comes first, God or country, would respond, “Neither. I come first!”  
Illinois, the 9th most Catholic state in the good old US of A joins those other Catholic states like Massachusetts (½ Catholic), in declaring same sex marriage legal. When you say that the Catholic Church defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, and that should be enough, why should the state pay attention to the Catholic Church when Catholics pay no attention to her? They will lose no votes in defying the teaching of an outdated and impotent religious group. Catholics divorce and abort at the same rate as non-Catholics and I suspect that they are more favorable to same sex marriage than non-Catholics because of the triumphs of progressive Catholic education over the past forty years.
I once wrote that only 24 percent of Catholics believed in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Someone corrected me saying, “Oh, no, Father, 100 percent of Catholics believe in the Real Presence.” The respondent’s point was that if you refuse to believe in the Real Presence, you are not a Catholic. One may have doubts and questions, but to believe means to trust. We trust what the Church teaches. Herein lays the problem. Not many people trust the Church. It is very common for people in our times to say that they are spiritual but not religious, or that they are Christians and believe in God just not in organized churches. Fine — let them follow Jesus alone, who defined marriage when He said, “…for this a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh.”  (Mark 10:7) Jesus says in no uncertain terms that marriage is the coming together of a man and a woman in one flesh. And what is that one flesh? Is it not the children to whom they give life? In that child’s flesh two people literally become one flesh. This is clearly Jesus vision for marriage: mom, dad, and the kids. 
If you claim to be the follower of Christ in any sense you must believe this. You can’t be disciple of a rabbi, much less a rabbi who is the Son of God, if you say, “I believe all He says, except that business about marriage.”  So I paraphrase what was said to me. “100 percent of Christians -- and of course Catholics -- believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman that is open to the possibility of children.”  It’s just fine with me if you want to marry your flat screen TV, or your sports car or your Uncle Fritz. The problem is that the One for whom I work, whom I worship and for whom I may someday have to die, disagrees with you. And unless you rose from the dead and can promise eternal life I’m sticking with Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, He’s a much better bet than the governor of Illinois. 
We Catholics have to admit that we lost the battle sometime in the late 1960's when we decided, despite two thousand years of consistent teaching, that families were not the purpose of marriage.  The pope wrote an encyclical “Humanae Vitae” which reminded us that the intimacy of man and woman was inseparably bound up with the life of the family. Malcolm Muggeridge, author of “Something Beautiful for God”, a life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, converted in his 80's from agnosticism to Catholicism.  He said that the decision in the 20th century of which the Catholic Church would be proudest would be her decision to reject artificial birth control, because artificial birth control would divorce erotic love from family life. And so it has come to pass. 
Artificial birth control meant that a man and woman could enjoy intimacy without sacrifice. In times past there was danger in sexual intimacy, for a man, because he risked becoming responsible for the care of his offspring. The danger was even greater for women who before antibiotics risked death every time they gave themselves to a man in intimacy. The passion and intensity of Erotic Love was once so great that man and woman would risk a great deal for its sake, and if they did things right that intensity of love spilled over into an absolute devotion to their children. Now it has been replaced with casual sex that can be free of any real risk or sacrifice. 
Children are not the natural outcome of intimacy anymore. They can be prevented or if need be killed in the womb. Fidelity is optional because divorce is the norm. The few children that our marriages produce command no real loyalty. It is common to meet children now who have never met their fathers. Faithfulness to spouse and family are entirely optional. We have no passion for our spouses and no passion for our children. It has come to pass as Mr. Muggeridge said. 
Two men or two women can pretend to marital love, but they cannot achieve it. Why? Their physical relationship is absolutely closed to family life. If they can convince some stranger to collaborate in the production of children, the child born will never be the reflection of the beloved. Even opposite sex couples who cannot have children participate in family life by their openness to children. By their faithfulness and self sacrifice they strengthen the bonds by which societies are made whole.  A same-sex couple BY ITS NATURE cannot be the cause of intense and passionate family life. 
I remember my mother, an old woman standing by the coffin of her husband, my father. He had been the love of her life since college, almost 50 years before. She touched the cold dead hand in the coffin and then quietly took my brother John’s warm and living hand. She held the flesh that the two had become and was consoled. “For this a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh.” 
We live in a world of convoluted relationships, in which the few children we have are more often than not reminders of failed relationships. We love them but they are not the one flesh that a man and woman can become. What was the strength of Christian civilization has become the failure of enlightenment defiance. We decided that we were the masters of nature and so have come to be unnatural. And that is the strongest argument I know against same-sex marriage. 
Rev. Know-it-all