Thursday, January 22, 2015

Guilt and the Heroic Response

Fear is a powerful thing.

But how can we praise the heroic without condemning those who in a moment of duress faltered or acted differently?

This question arose when I was considering the story of St Maria Goretti, the teenage girl who preferred death over giving into the sexual demands of her assailant. This story, and the story of many other Saints and heroes, gives us pause if we consider what this might imply for those who, in a situation of duress, gave into the demands of another. Does this imply that unless a woman prefers death to sexual violation that she is less than a hero? If a soldier retreats to fight another day is he less than the man who fights to the end? 

 Fear and duress has a powerful influence in our life. In certain situations it can be overwhelming, literally paralyzing; other times it can be superficial, something as meager as peer pressure. On the higher end of that spectrum fear can completely remove our guilt, our culpability; or, on the lower end of that spectrum, partially mitigate our guilt. For each person it is different, according to our strengths and the force of the duress. As always, personal guilt is something only God fully knows and no court can make a judgment concerning the individual’s culpability. Even the person responsible does not know the full breath of their culpability; and for the most part it is a mute issue anyways. Something has been done and it needs to be acknowledged or amended.

In light of the mitigating power of fear in terms of our personal responsibility, we can say that we cannot hold someone responsible for failing to do the heroic. Now, this is obviously on a sliding scale. Some individuals, because of their position and formation, like a police officer, have a greater imperative to lay down their life than a 12 year old child. We also have to factor in the degree of the duress applied. In any case, the individual who fails to act heroically is either partially or completely free of guilt.

In a sense the heroic action is supra moral, beyond personal guilt or innocence. It is in fact a calling, a vocation. It answers the question, “How will I lay down my life?” “How do I make of my life a gift?” “For what shall I die for?”

This is not to be understood as a statement of moral permissiveness. The objective moral standard remains the same.  The guilt of a woman, who, under duress, obtains an abortion, is mitigated; but that does not make abortion permissible. The ideal, the standard, remains the same. In this situations there is a clear, objectively immoral course of action; a higher standard that should have been upheld. In our example we can say that abortion is not a morally permissible solution and that, while the woman may not have complete responsibility for the crime; there are others who have a greater share in the responsibility for the crime, including the doctors, the civil authorities, and even the greater community.

However, such as in the case of the Maria Goretti, the choice is sometimes between equal or similar goods. Both the gift of life and the gift of sexual purity are intrinsic goods. The case is not really one of sinning or not sinning but of choosing to celebrate one or the other. Often these are decisions of the moment, of instinct and formation. Maria Goretti chooses to stand for her sexual purity and in that sense becomes an extraordinary witness to its value.

This is a vocational call, the particular manner in which we choose to make ourselves a witness to values that give our lives purpose. It is a combination of an active awareness of the needs of the greater community and an understanding of our gifts and desires. It is an eager awareness of those opportunities to act in a generous manner, an active cultivation of virtue so that we can respond to those invitations when they come, and a discernment of which ones we should choose.

This means that, while our judgment of particular situations that asked of us a heroic response is limited, we can say that everyone is called to act in a generous and heroic manner. That only by making of ourselves a gift to another do we truly fulfill our Christian and human vocation. The person who repeatedly avoids the invitation to act generously is in danger of losing their soul, their purpose. Therefore, formation and education is not for the sake of obtaining security and prosperity but in cultivating virtue in order to hear and respond to the opportunities to lay down our lives.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. Robert  Frost


Thursday, January 1, 2015

To whom do we give all honor glory and praise? A Christmas Homily

One of my favorite things about Christmas is the music. For some reason no other liturgical music seems to have as much popular success as Christmas. No radio or TV programs play Easter Music or Pentecost music; but somehow the right chemistry came together to make Christmas music an enduring theme even in our secular society. It seems part of the overwhelming success that the celebration of Christmas remains throughout society. It is also simply really good music.

Talking about Easter music, one of my favorite pieces of music during the Christmas season is not explicitly written for this season but is predominately a Holy Week Theme. This musical celebration of the history of salvation is Handle’s Messiah. The entire piece takes several hours to perform and Handle does an excellent job of expressing in music highlights from Scripture.

In the grand finally Handle puts out all the stops as he expresses John’s vision in the book of Revelations; the vision of the Lamb seated on the throne surrounded by “Thousands upon thousands” of Angles as they break out into this Anthem:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
and hath redeemth  us to God by his blood
to receive power and riches,
and wisdom and strength,
and honor, and glory, and blessing”

Handle does a marvelous job of catching the power of this vision. The whole auditorium shakes from the fortissimo and I get visions of Fort Knox being emptied, Wall Street shutting down, Presidents and representative quitting their business, and all casting their crowns before the thrown.

But, to whom do we most readily give our strength, our abilities, our riches, our wisdom, our honor, glory, and blessings?

The answer might be sitting in your lap right now. They generally weigh between 5 and 15 pounds with lots of pudgy baby fat.

It is to our children that we are most willing to surrender everything,  that we are willing to suffer for, humiliate ourselves for, put up with just about anything for. Before their feet we most willingly cast our crowns.

Which is probably why, of all the images by which God has manifested himself; the burning bush, the good shepherd, the patient father, the crucified Lord; none have been as successful in the popular mind as the innocent, vulnerable, unimposing infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

It is this image that he comes to us on Christmas day. The Lord of all comes in the most inviting and non threatening image so that he might win our hearts. He is in anxious search for our treasures, our energies, our abilities, our honor; because he alone is worthy of them. Only by surrendering them to God will they bear fruit. If we do not surrender them to God we will surrender them to addictions and dictators; we will dehumanize ourselves. He comes seeking our hearts so that we do not loose ourselves.

He comes so that we might be converted. Is that not the true joy of Christmas, the joy of conversion? Is that not what the secular parables keep telling us? 
“The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” 

 “It’s a Wonderful Life,”

etc. . .

Conversion is what we are seeking; but if we simply stay on the superficial level we will never get there. If we remain at the Christmas cradle with the cute little baby, like an uncle who plays with the baby until they start crying or making demands, then we will never move to the maturity commitment. This baby is going to grow up and be the cause of the “rise and fall of many.” He is going to set is feet towards Jerusalem and, drawing the line in the sand, say “whoever is not willing to take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He is going to make some serious demands on our life and hopefully we will not be looking back saying, “You know; he was really nice when he was a baby, now he’s making demands on my life.”

This Christmas let us assail heaven with a desire for the gift of conversion, depth, commitment, and new vision. Let us ask that, like Scrooge and the Shepherds in the fields the Angels may come and give us a fright, awaken us from our slumber lest we dissipate in lethargy and indifference.    


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Celebrating Baptism Mindfully

Celebrating Baptism Mindfully

I love the sacraments; I love the opportunity to celebrate, to make the reception of the grace of God a special occasion. I love the sights and sounds, the smells and bells; and all the physical ways that we seek to appreciate the dignity of the event; the Divine presence. The sacrament of Baptism is one of the most beautiful of the seven but one that is so often rushed. Parents often don’t have any real sense of how to celebrate this sacrament and priests often error on the side of expediency; an expediency not only that comes from a demanding schedule but also from the superficial attitude of the laity. Having had my fair share of baptizing children whose parents have obviously not been anywhere near a Church for a while, I can understand why priests don’t want to put any energy into something people aren't that excited about.

However, sometimes parents, even devout ones, don’t know the options available to them, or how to celebrate the rite properly. So, here is my list of things you can do to make your Child’s Baptism meaningful.

1.     A Novena: A prayerful preparation for the presentation of your child for Baptism is a great way to begin the celebration. This can be in any form that is helpful for you; but a novena of any type is one format you can use for the preparation. This Novena can consist of 9 days of celebrating Mass, having a Holy Hour, praying the rosary, etc . . . I would  recommend reflecting on the rite of Baptism itself, the promises you will be making, the readings supplied for the occasion. You can find an example Novena at the end of this article.

2.     Confession: The reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation should precede the reception of any Sacrament, and it is definitely a great way to prepare for your child’s Baptism.

3.     Be Familiar with the Rite: You don’t have to have it memorized, but at least have a sense of the proper responses to the questions and prayers.

4.     Choose a Baptismal Name: The giving of a name has always a sign of a special relationship with God; a covenant, a mission. When a Christian is named they should have a name that reflects their Christian identity. Many families name their children after saints at birth; either as their first name or middle name. Others choose a saints name, a patron, which is the name by which they are baptized. Choosing a patron is a great way to give your children a role model to imitate.
5.     A word about God Parents: Godparents should be exemplar, faith filled members of the Christian community.  If Aunt Julie never attends mass, attends pro-choice rallies, and is still bitter about Humanae Vitae; then she is not a good candidate for being a Godparent no matter how much you like her as a person. This also includes members of our separated Christian brothers (Protestants) and individuals in their irregular marriage situations. We love these people; they just aren't ready to be Godparents.

6.     Buy your own candle: You don’t have to, but you also don’t have to live with the candle the Church supplies.  You can buy or make your own. It should be of bees wax (not perfumed or paraffin wax) and white. It can be as large as you want it to be and even in its own vessel. If it is large enough it can be lit on different occasions, like the anniversary of Baptism, and put in a place of honor. Many companies actually produce larger Baptismal candles and bringing your own candle is quite popular in the Latin American culture.

7.     Supply your own Baptismal Gowns. Using the symbolism of the Baptismal garment is something few get right. The gown is supposed to express the cleansing and renewal that happens after Baptism. The candidate for Baptism should be presented to the Church with their normal clothing and then receive a new, white garment during the rite of Baptism. Thus, the child should be vested in something drab before Baptism with the white garment that the family has purchased given to the Priest or Deacon at the beginning of the Rite. After Baptism the white garment will be handed to the family as part of the Rite and then the Child is changed into this garment. In this way the white garment you spent all that money on actually becomes the sign of your Baptism and not that cheap, felt thing the Church gives you if you didn't do the above. You can also achieve this effect with a nice, white swaddling blanket. Simply bringing two blankets, one grey or brown, the other pure white can actually be cheaper, elegant, efficient, and provide greater accessibility for the priest during the anointing. Simply wrap the baby in the drab blanket before the Baptism, unwrap them for the Baptism itself, and then receive from the priest the white blanket after the Baptism. This blanket can then serve as the Baptismal garment. 

8.     Choosing the reading for the Baptism: Just like at a Wedding, parents can meditate on the readings that are supplied by the Church for the rite of Baptism and suggest to the priest or deacon ones that they would like read.

9.     Making a litany of saints: During the Baptismal rite there is a litany, a list of saints, whose names are invoked and the people respond “pray for us.” This litany of saints brings us into communion with all those who have given exemplar witness to the obligations of Baptism. However, the number of saints provided in the Rite itself is only about 5 or 6 because it was meant to be supplemented by saints that are particular to the family. Families can compose a list of saints that they would like to be invoked that are special for them, particularly their patron saints.
10.                        Invite people: This sounds obvious, but I have seen too many Baptisms where the only people there are family members. Invite parishioners to your Baptism as well. Baptism is supposed to be a public event, anyone who wishes may witness the event; not just family members.

11.                        You can ask for Immersion Baptism: the symbolism of immersion Baptism (placing the baby’s entire body in the water as opposed to simply pouring water on the Baby’s head) expresses the meaning of Baptism in a very dramatic way. Any parent can ask their priest for an immersion Baptism for their child. That being said, there are a multitude of reasons why a priest may decide that an immersion Baptism would not be feasible, and so any petition should be made with deference to the priest or deacon’s decision.

12.                        Saving Holy Water from the Baptism: Is something that many families do and is a very nice devotional. Simply prepare a special vessel for keeping some of the water in and keep in a space of devotion.

13.                        Celebrate the anniversary of your child’s Baptism: It can be as simple as lighting their Baptismal candle and marking them with Holy Water. Some throw parties or other expressions of celebration. Others go to Mass or spend an hour in prayer with their Baptismal candle. All of these can be great ways of reminding ourselves of the grace of Baptism.  

An example for a pre Baptism novena

All the family members light a candle and a bowl of Holy Water is placed in the middle. The participants either kneel or stand.
As before the reading of the Gospel during Mass each participant traces the cross on their forehead, mouth, and chest (parents can trace this on their smaller children) while the leader says:

The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he touch our minds + to receive his word, our mouths + to proclaim our faith, and make our hearts +a temple of his glory.
Then the leader reads one of the readings from the Liturgy of Baptism:
 Day 1 Ezekiel 36:24-28
Day 2 Romans 8:28-32
Day 3 Ephesians 4: 1-6
Day 4 1Peter 2:4-10
Day 5 John 3:1-6
Day 6 John 9:1-7
Day 7 Mark 1:9-11
Day 8 Mark 10:13-16
Day 9 Matthew 28:18-20
There is then a moment of silence. Then the leader continues:
Let us ask the saints to intercede for us before we prepare to renew our Baptismal promises:
Holy Mary, Mother of God     R. pray for us
Saint John the Baptist             R. pray for us
Saint Joseph                             R. pray for us
Saint Peter and Saint Paul     R. pray for us
Other saints are then added especially the patrons of those present and of the one to be baptized. It then concludes with:
All holy men and women        R. pray for us
The leader then introduces the penitential rite in the following manner:
Having asked for the help of the saints let us call to mind those times we have not rejected sin, the glamor of evil, and failed to live our Baptismal promises.
All then pray the act of contrition:
I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I ask the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.
The Our Father is then introduced with these words:
Now let us pray the words our Savior taught us:
Our Father…
The leader then concludes the prayer with these words
Let this water call to mind our Baptism through which we died to sin and rise to life in Christ.

The participants then anoint themselves with Holy Water in the sign of the cross 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sex, Marriage, and Consensual Relationships

“Sex either build’s up or tears down marriage and the family.” This statement of my ethics professor really put a lot of things into perspective as I navigated the foundations for sexual morality. Many times in my ministry I have been approached by this question concerning premarital sex. “Why is it wrong?” “We love each other, so why can’t I express my love through sexual intimacy?” Understanding this perennial teaching is difficult to express when so many of the fundamentals have been called into question in our society. It can often be like explaining the nature of color to a blind man.

So, let’s start with some basics. The following are two sets of words that express the same action.

1.     rape, voyeurism, porn, breeding, impregnating
2.     Conjugal Love, sexual intimacy, consummation, conceiving life, intercourse

 In terms of biology and mechanics, these actions are the same. On the level of meaning and morality they are completely different. One set of words expresses a dehumanization, a violation of the sacred, and the other set of words expresses something wholesome and life giving.  

Now, most in our secular society would agree with that statement; that there is a difference between sexual assault and sexual intimacy. They might say something like, “as long as there is consent” and there is truth to that statement. It must be a consensual relationship. However, there are degrees of consent. The consent to give away a million dollars is not the same type of consent as giving permission to receive a hug. So the epicenter of the debate is not whether sex has a human or moral quality about it or whether or not consent (covenant) is required but the nature and gravity of that consent.

Christian sexual ethics has always held that this consent must be a mutual, exclusive, and a lifelong commitment ratified by the community; a covenantal relationship we call marriage. It affirms that the same type of consensual agreement that you might have with a masseuse is not morally sufficient for the sexual act. To engage in sexual intimacy for anything less that the marital covenant is to devalue it, to treat it in a flippant manner.

There are several reasons for this.

The first, most straight forward reason is wrapped up in the most primordial and profound of covenants; the indissoluble covenant that is forged at conception between mother and child. “Woman, behold your child, Child, behold your mother.” From the moment of conception this child is her child and this woman is the child’s mother, with all the moral responsibilities that come with that. In conceiving a child the mother places her health, her future, and her very life on the line. Therefore, the marriage covenant mirrors that natural covenantal relationship of parent and child. Because it mirrors the relationship between parent and child, the commitment between sexual partners should be of the same gravity /involvement. This is reflected in the Genesis statement that “He leaves his mother and Father and clings to his wife.” The love between man and woman is meant to be of the same level as the relationship between parent and child.    Therefore, in marriage the woman turns to her man and requires of him an unconditional covenant, witnessed by the community, binding him to her and vice versa. The community is present because bringing forth the next generation is the most basic focus of the human communities’ striving. The protection of the mother and child, the integrity of the family, is central to all social efforts.

In light of this; open, extramarital sexual activity are only really possible within a contraceptive culture; which is basically an artificial culture. It is not how it was supposed to be. It is a culture buoyed by dependencies and presents a sexuality that can be simply used as a passing pleasure. Sex marketed as a temporary arrangement has a hard time turning around and demanding unconditional commitment.

Some have argued that some sexual encounters can simply be casual, while others can be permanent; that it all depends on what you agree upon. Just as long as you are careful and communicate well. Once again, morality is about meaning and value. If you place sex on the same level as a back rub how can it be an expression of the unconditional love of marriage. If it is something that I do not give away lightly, that I treat seriously, then the action is affirmed as an act of self-donation.

It is also related to the nature of love and the fulfillment of the human person. Love, in its highest expression, is faithful, sacrificial, and unconditional. As John Paul II stated, the purpose of human striving is to make of ourselves a gift to the other. That is what we work towards throughout our lives. In our homes we teach our children to direct their basic impulses so that they can be presentable in society and be of service to the ones they love. We potty train them, teach them how to dress, teach them how to be polite, to work hard, and to be generous. All of these things are contrary to their basic urges, all of them take time and discipline; and it is exactly in that striving and sacrifice that we become gift. The same is true of the virtue of chastity. Chastity, modesty, and covenant are the “wrappings,” the boundaries, which sets sexuality aside as the gift of self. Chastity is a statement that I will not indulge in sexual relationship unless it is good for my partner, my family, and the institution of marriage

The formative, preparatory nature of chastity in relation to lifelong commitment to marriage is also an important point. I often tell couples preparing for marriage that the two best preparations for marriage are the living of chastity and praying together. A couple who has rooted itself in an intimacy that is deeper than sexual intimacy and who have developed the maturity to sit together in the vulnerability of prayer and silence will be better disposed to persevere through many other demands in their married life. Included in this is the fact that at various times in married life chastity is demanded of couples; business trips, military deployments, health issues, impotence, psychological issues. Sometimes these demands place on the couple a lifelong commitment to chastity and thus call the couple to live their marriage covenant in a heroic manner. These situations become a profound expressions of true love and illustrate that chastity can be a more profound expression of love that sexual intimacy, that sex only becomes an expression of love in light of a willingness to live the virtue of chastity. This living of chastity before marriage also allows other forms of intimacy to mature between the couple; a space to go deeper and develop other ways of expressing love. By postponing the psychological bonds that are created through sex they are able to discern their path with greater clarity.

Cohabitating before marriage is also a statement against marriage; that the couple does not consider the community’s ratification of their union to be of much value. Since the nature of sex and marriage mean so little before marriage; what does that say about the respect a couple will have for the obligations of marriage after they exchange vows? From the very start they are already disparaged their vows.

Sex is a language, an expression of meaning. To be an expression of love it has to be expressed within a certain parameters, set apart, made a sacred gift. In the Christian tradition the sexual act is the sacred sign, the ratification of the covenant that they expressed in words. To take it outside of the parameters of chastity and covenant is to treat it irreverently; as you would defame any other sacred sign. Thus, sex outside of marriage is sacrilege, a grave disregard for marriage.

However, while the Christian tradition has always called the human community to elevate sexuality to be a truly human act, an expression of unconditional love, it has no illusions about the frailty of human tendencies. That is why it keeps offering the challenge while at the same time extending encouragement and mercy. It is less concerned about finding fault then in assisting in an ongoing growth in virtue. It should also be remembered that, while these violations, these acts of sacrilege, are not to be treated lightly; they are also not to be treated as the gravest of transgressions. These sins should not to be exaggerated, especially in light of our weakness to self-indulgence. All of humanity is a work in progress and in need of forgiveness.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Black-White and Gray All Over; Navigating Degrees

One of the challenges to maturity is learning how to navigate levels of gradation; degrees, hierarchy. This is both true on a larger social and philosophical level and on the level of individuals. For example, relativism states that everything is relative, subjective; while the dogmatist states that there is right and there is wrong and everything in between is muddying the issue. The mature individual realizes that both are absolute statements, both are true, but need to be applied properly; that the objective is always in a relationship with the subjective, and vice versa. The same can be applied to the distinction between the materialist/evolutionist who states that everything is matter in motion, simply taking on different shapes and the fundamentalist creationist who states that God must directly create and that scripture passages must be accepted verbatim or everything is lost. The mature soul recognizes that matter is not sufficient to explain the universe nor is a cooperation of Divine and the material a negation of the Spiritual. The list of examples could go on; Capitalist vs Communism, Monarchy vs Democracy, Isolationists vs Cooperation, identity vs relationship. Navigating degrees is an important part of maturity and dialogue.

Degrees require a hierarchy, a real sense of what is most important. Hierarchy is the foundation of all morality because in morality we are ordering values and goods. Everything is good, as Genesis tells us, but each thing in its proper place. Beginning with this first premise that everything (EVERYTHING!) is good then we realize that it is never all or nothing on any issue. Each side has a value, a good, that they wish to safe guard, protect from violation. The art is in negotiating a proper hierarchy where the various goods are properly recognized and protected without neglecting, violating, other goods and values that are important. When someone approaches me from a pro-choice position, a pro-abortion position, they are seeking the goods of personal freedom, personal health, etc. . . .  A pro-life advocate emphasizes the protection of life and family. Both are legitimate goods that need to be resolved, both parties need to be heard. Abortion does not do justice to life, but that does not invalidate the goods that the pro-choice movement is passionate about.  It is impossible for anyone to desire evil, because evil is not a thing. They only desire goods in an ordered or disordered way. That is why all our passions and desires lead back to God, who is the good in se (in self). “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St. Augustine).

Holding in tension the objective/ideal and the subjective reality of individuals is crucial. We always want to uphold the objective law while realizing that an individual culpability is often at varying levels. While negating human freedom through excuses is dehumanizing and removing a higher vision for them demoralizing; so is presuming knowledge of the conscience’s sanctuary and the crushing weight of the letter of the law. There must be a recognition that, while the .

In achieving this balance some individuals are too permissive. They negate the goal for keeping the status quo. Others are too critical. They see everything as life or death, they struggle with hierarchy. Sometimes these individuals scrupulous, struggle with mortal and venial sins, and see everything in black or white parameters. This is often the situation with people who have anger issues. Everything is a big deal, everything is either complete loss or complete triumph. Like wound up springs the smallest violation can set them off, often a result of being immersed in a very critical and demanding environment. Learning to “Seek first the Kingdom of God” is critical to every individual’s spiritual maturation.
This is why Catholic theology is always “both-and.” One God, three person; Human and divine; Divine will and Human freedom; Justice and mercy; Grace and human cooperation; Freedom and responsibility; the good of spouse and procreation: all of these themes reflect the one paradox that is at the heart of all that is sacred and true; the mystery of the cooperation between the one and the many, the universal and the particular, the creator and the created. It’s not a puzzle to be solved, it’s a reality to be reverence and experienced in all its beauty.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Who Made These Baptismal Gowns!?

Personal Pet peeves; beware, over exaggerated rant about to follow (but hopefully it will lead to something constructive)

So, you are a company that makes and sells Baptismal gowns for infants; gowns designated for this one special event, this one specific rite. It won’t be used ever again, it is custom designed for that event.  Now, would it not be right to presume that the person who designs Baptismal garments has a working knowledge of the Baptismal Rite, that they have read the rite and seen it celebrated? You would think that they would know about the various anointings  and prayers? Remember, this vestment is intentionally designed for this one purpose.

So why would you design a gown like this:
 or this
 or this

If you know that the baby will be anointed on the chest?

Why would design a gown for Baptism that forces a priest to do something like this:

Every time I do a Baptism the parents and I end up trying to undo knots and buttons just so that we can pull the front the vestment down just so that I can barely dab the chest with the oil of Catechumens. Last time the baby had a one's underneath which made it literally impossible.   

Sometime I wonder if I even got any oil on the infant at all.

Adapting  a phrase from Mc Dundie; “That’s not an anointing, THIS is an anointing!”

Here we see in this image an anointing of the baby in the Eastern Rite Church. In the Eastern Rite they strip the Baby down, the priest holds him or her, and oil is placed in the God Mother’s hands so that she can cover their entire body with the oil of Catechumens. THE ENTIRE BODY! Not a faint smear that leaves everyone wondering why the priest was touching the baby’s chest.

This however, leads me to a related pet peeve; the minimalist approach of some priests, faithful, and the Roman rite in general with regard to the symbols of the sacraments. I mean, the way that some priests use the oils of anointing makes one think that we are in an olive oil shortage, or that we are so impoverished that we can’t afford olive oil. I mean, shouldn't anointing look more like this:

And it’s not only with regard to oil but also to water. In Baptism we barely get them wet and no one does immersions any more. When we come into the Church we remind ourselves of our Baptism by "dabbing" ourselves with water. I wonder if it would not be more significant with we did something like this:

WAKE UP! you're a Christian!Aren't we supposed to be reminding ourselves of our Baptism; that profound promise we made to God to radically turn away from sin and strive for virtue? I think sometimes we're just a little too reserved with regard to these things.

No wonder the latest theme I keep hearing from the faithful is “we just want a simple ceremony.” Just a simple Baptism, wedding, funeral, ect. . . Have we forgotten how to celebrate? Have we forgotten how to waste time with God and with others? Always in a hurry, always trying to get in and out.

To be fair, there is always a need to be balanced; to remember that the “size of the symbol” does not affect the efficacy of the sacrament; that God’s grace is present whether it is a dab of oil or three gallons of olive oil. However, it should be proportionate to our means and resources. A minimalist approach to the sacraments can also be an expression of our minimalist approach to God, where we have raised the priority of efficiency over the value of being lavish in our response God. The length of the celebration should not be overly burdensome which means it needs to be thought out and the people of God forewarned and instructed concerning the meaning of the symbols. Inconvenience, however, should never be the overriding determination.   

And whoever is buying, selling, and making those Baptismal garments; please go back to the drawing board.

End of rant. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

There Are No Private Sacraments!

There Are No Private Sacraments

It has become a cultural phenomenon in the reception of the Sacraments to make them a private, personal event. This perspective on the sacraments is especially visible in the reception of Baptisms, Matrimony, and Funerals. As a Church we hardly ever gather for these central and pivotal events of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some people go several years without witnessing the Rite of Baptism or Anointing of the Sick; which leads to awkward lack of familiarity when they do attend. These events are personal acts of covenant between God, the individual, and the community and so often the community is only present by delegation (i.e. the priest).  While this “minimum” is sufficient for the efficacy of the sacrament, it is hardly ideal; it is definitely not what was intended.

To be fair, the creation of this minimalist culture is not the fault of any one party. In the past Baptisms were simply not allowed as part of the Sunday liturgy, the practice of concelebration was not permitted and so priests celebrated their own “private” Masses, while anointing of the sick was reserved for death bed situations and so were done in the privacy of the home or hospital. People went to daily Masses, but were hardly ever encouraged to attend Baptisms, funerals, or weddings. While smaller, village communities might all show up for such events; our larger, metropolitan communities tend to make very little effort. Thus, they have tended to be merely family events, not events for the Parish community.

This is especially evident in a growing tendency of couples to ask for permission for a wedding at their home, the ball room, or some outdoor location like the beach. Without a proper understanding of the nature of the sacraments, and only knowing what they have experienced in the secular world, they are quite startled when their request is denied by the Church. Why will the Church not allow me to have a wedding on the beach? Why will the Church not allow me to have “my wedding” outside of the physical church?

Place matters; where we celebrate something is a sacred part of expressing the significance of an event. The presidential inauguration ceremony is done at the capitol building, not at the local McDonald's; the Thanksgiving meal is ideally celebrated at the home and not at a local restaurant; and the Texas Fighting Aggies play on Kyle field, and not the marching field. Where an event is held is just as significant a statement about the meaning of the event as persons, clothing, words, reactions, and documents.

The most ideal place for all the sacraments is in the church surrounded by the community. This is what the Church documents, in so many ways have been expressing to us. No one asks the Bishop to come to their home to administer Confirmation (unless they are dying) or asks the priest to come over to their home to celebrate the Sunday Mass because it would be a more intimate setting for them. Ordinations do not occur in small chapels but somewhere that facilitate the attendance of many participants. Yes there are exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions are always for a just cause (emergency Baptism, Communion to the home bound, administering sacraments to the dying in the hospital, etc. . . .).  In the same way weddings are ideally done in the church, before the community, as a public event and only by exception should the vows be exchanged in a different location. This, however, should not be some rule that the bureaucratic Church imposes on couples, but the fullest expression of the Marriage covenant and something the couple would want for their wedding day.

This topic however, includes far more that simply where weddings are celebrated. As I stated above, all the sacraments are enhanced when done in a sacred space. Here are some concrete examples of what communal celebration of the sacraments might look like:

  • The participation in weddings and funerals should have precedence over daily Mass. This might mean that:
    • The parish could announce when funerals and weddings are occurring and encourage parishioners to attend.
    • Weddings and funerals could be celebrated during times when the community can join; even during daily Mass times. I would even be in favor of the occasional wedding at a Sunday Mass. 
    • That it be presented as an act of charity, support, and ministry.
  • That the Church be the preferred place for confession; but more importantly, that all those preparing for confession should see themselves as praying for each other and the one in the confessional.
  • Upcoming Baptisms should be announced and people should be invited to attend.
  • Baptisms during Mass should also be something done from time to time.
  • The rite of the Anointing of the Sick should be done, when possible, in a Church, with a community present, even during Mass.

Are there not ways that we can reimagine the way that we celebrate the liturgy; reconnecting the sacramental signs with persons, places, and community? It is true that the sacraments act, give grace, independent of their context; but the context and expression by which they are given is also important because the externals express our readiness to receive and honors what is sacred. How can we all work towards facilitating a celebration of the sacraments as events that involves all the people of God?