Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Welcome back teachers and students

By Father Gregory Elder
Parochial Vicar, St. Martha, Murrieta

This essay is respectfully dedicated to all teachers, academic administrators, school staff and volunteers as the academic year resumes. Oh, yeah……. and also the students.
I am sitting in the chapel of a monastery a number of miles from my home in Redlands. I am not on retreat, although this is the place where I normally go for my obligatory annual retreat. I am here for another reason. Behind the altar there is a very large image of Christ, seated in glory. I have been visiting this image for about twenty years. I am recalling one of my professors, who taught me.

Twenty years ago I was a graduate student at a fiercely secular campus of the University of California. I got a great education but for many of the people there saying ""I believe in God" was about the same as saying "I play with matches and eat school glue." There were no official chaplains there, but several denominations had unofficial clergy there to meet the spiritual needs of the students. "Never wear your clerical collar on campus, Father Gregory" they warned me. "We have to do undercover work here." I have always found it charming how so many institutions which profess a dedication to freedom of thought have all the intellectual tolerance regarding religion as does the government of North Korea.

Even now, I normally do not wear my clerical collar on campus, although I make no secret of my faith. But I always make a point of wearing it and my cassock to graduation ceremonies just to remind them that the rascal who spent the past year teaching them about Greek and Roman paganism does not, in fact, pray to Apollo.

I did my doctoral work there under the supervision of a great professor who was known for his research and for excellence in teaching. Indeed, he had won awards for his teaching and his classes were always full to the brim. So one day, I asked him what his secret was. How do you manage to sway the mobs of undergraduates? He took a long pause before answering.

"I pray for my students as I walk to class." He said. "A lot of people ask me that and I have to tell them the truth, that I pray for my students every time I go to lecture them." And then he added, "I get a lot of strange looks when I tell my colleagues that.

"Let me get this straight" I said. "So when I see you walking across the quad and I wave hello at you, you are in fact at that moment praying for me and the rest of us? He smiled a sad smile and nodded yes.

A disciple is not greater than his master, a very wise rabbi once said. And so I try to remember to pray for my students before I meet with them. Sometimes I run down my grade and attendance roll and pronounce their names before God, and sometimes I pray for them on my way to class, and sometimes I pray for them while they are taking their examinations. I do always mention in the course of this or that lecture that I am a Catholic Christian, but I imagine they have no idea that I am appealing to Christ on their behalf. And I do not ask God for good grades for the little varmints, because the academic world is founded on the principle of salvation by merit, and they must earn the marks they get. But I do ask for His blessing on their minds, their lives and that He touch their hearts with His eternal truths, which are the foundation of everything they think they know. If you are a student, pray for your teachers, and teachers, return the favor. It may be that everyone will learn more in the process.

So this is why I am parked in the monastery chapel staring at this image of Christ in glory. I like to start the teaching year by placing myself in His service and thereby do better in their service. But as I get up to leave and drive the long road back to Redlands, I notice something odd about the icon and I walk up to it for closer inspection.

Is Jesus getting younger in this picture I visit every year? He looks rather like a young man on His throne above the sapphire pavement. When I first started visiting this chapel as a graduate student in the 1980’s, the face of Jesus seemed quite mature and solemn, as befitted a king. But now He seems rather like a young strong fellow. How could this be? There are no reports of miracles here, the painting has not been revised and it is the very nature of icons that they do not change at all. But He somehow looks a lot younger than he used to. And strange to say, my new students also seem to be younger than ever. How can this be?

Friday, August 13, 2010

What is Anne Rice, and others like her, Telling Us?

By Steve Valenzuela
Director, Small Faith Communities

Most people may have heard by now that one of our local celebrity church members (she lives in Rancho Mirage), popular author Anne Rice, has renounced her membership in Christianity, though she maintains she is still in relationship with Christ. In great post-modern style, she posted this decision on her blog. Her public renunciation is consistent with her earlier public renewal of faith and return to active practice as a Roman Catholic. She chronicled that journey in a wonderful book, “Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.” From both her commentary about the decision and the many blogs and commentaries I have read, I doubt a book is in the works regarding this latest turn in her faith journey.

Unfortunately, Anne is not alone is this action. According to recent poll figures, in the United States there are over 30 million “former” Catholics. As National Catholic Reporter contributor Tom Gallagher put it “if the … 30 Million… were their own denomination, their church would be larger than the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians - combined." I have heard this referred to another way, as well. Former Catholics make up one of the largest denominations in the United States. Amazing.

As an active member and minister in the church that baptized Anne and the other 30 million “formers” I can not help wonder, “what went wrong?” What do we, who maintain our faith within the Church, need to hear in these decisions to leave?

Sometimes I think our own beliefs and ideals can mislead us, causing many, like Anne and others to expect the Church, its leaders and members, to be something they were never meant to be: perfect examples of the faith we profess. Our belief in indelible marks and celebrations of public vows can give the false impression that once baptized, vowed or ordained, people somehow give up being human. A priest friend of mine likes to joke that he would be a great priest “if it weren’t for all those #@*% parishioners.” I think many of us who are active members would love to just believe in Christ, in the ideals of faith, hope and charity, in the great commandment of loving God with all your soul, strength and might and loving your neighbor as yourself, but we realize the real trick is putting into practice the beliefs and ideals we profess. The first place, outside of our families, we need to do this is inside the gathering of folks we call Church. God seems to have entrusted this whole faith enterprise to a very imperfect band of brothers (and sisters), namely us!

I am not sure one can truly be in relationship with Christ without being a member of His body the church. I know a lot of people claim they are doing just that. Still, I think this well documented exodus of so many means we have to rethink some things. How do we communicate who we are to each other in a way that is both authentic and human? What does it mean that some of us are “set apart” for leadership and service? How do baptized members whose views and experiences differ from Catholic orthodoxy fit into the larger whole? Anne claims her decision to leave is rooted in some of these concerns, especially from her perspective, how we seem to exclude those whose views and practices differ. Other denominations have courted her but so far she seems resistant to join them. I do not have a ready plan on how we should change, but I do believe 30 million people can’t simply be ignored. At the very least we need to ask them, “Why did you leave?” as we ask ourselves “Why do I stay?” Both answers will help us figure out what to do.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

An Outward Sign

By Deacon John De Gano
St. Catherine of Alexandria, Riverside

“What is a sacrament?”

That was the question from the 1963 Baltimore Catechism (BC) that our catechism teacher posed when she wanted the response, “an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.”

While I can still repeat the answer today, I doubt that, at the time, I fully realized the magnitude of the answer or, for that matter, what this thing we call ‘grace’ was really all about.

I just knew that by memorizing all the answers to the questions and not asking too many questions I wouldn’t get in trouble with the pastor.

Looking back, that was the wrong approach. At least it was for me. And I would assume for others, as there would soon be a change in emphasis from strict memorization (‘head knowledge’) to a more gradual experiential (‘heart knowledge’) that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

After all, having all the answers just didn’t prepare us for the onslaught of the evangelical Christians and later, the Jehovah Witnesses and Latter Day Saints, who ‘farmed’ the same soil and converted many Catholics to their way of thinking.

And they did this by using ‘used to be’ Catholics. When they spoke about God with such conviction, we knew they were somehow different. They seemed happier, too!

As a result, I spent a year attending church with classmates from a ‘non-denominational’ tradition. I learned a lot of scripture. And, in time, that they really were a denomination, in sheep’s clothing. However, like a chameleon, they kept changing traditions whenever they hired or fired a pastor. I left when the church overnight ‘turned’ Calvinist, complete with a pastor who preached predestinational theology and ‘turn or burn’ guilt.

I had learned enough about Jesus to know that this wasn’t the God I had come to know and love. My God was a God of love. A God who is forgiving and merciful. A God who gives himself to us in the consecrated bread and the wine and asks us to do and be the same for others.

I went where they taught and believed this. I went to the Roman Catholic Church, who, by then, was moving away from strict obedience to everything ‘Father says’ to a personal responsibility to form your own conscience. No longer were we to be spoon fed. We were expected to mature and stand on our own feet.

And as we struggled with the changes (and implementation) of the Second Vatican Council, the way we catechized also changed. Faith formation became the norm and the process was enhanced by the reinstitution of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), which encouraged the participants to ask the questions that we, as Pre-Vat Kids, were not allowed to ask.

Of course, the process can only do so much. De-Evangelizers will still ferret out some of the sheep but we can become stronger in our faith if we accept the responsibility for our own faith formation.

When we do that, our relationship with Jesus will improve, we will become more active in ministry and we will receive the grace – God’s power – to be an outward sign for our brothers and sisters.

We will become sacrament.