thoughts – take two

I’m very grateful for all the input I received in response to my request last week, whether it came through comments, emails, or personal conversations.  As I read over everyone’s thoughts, one overwhelming question came to me.  It’s one of those questions that has a pretty elusive answer (like when people ask me, “How do we get kids to keep coming to Church after Confirmation?”  Yeah, if I had that answer, I’d be rich. Somehow.), but I still think it’s worth asking.

Many of you responded with a desire for family life to be promoted and encouraged.  We are constantly inundated with the bad news about divorce or single parent families, and the culture is so obviously working against those families who are obeying the Church’s teaching. What can we do to promote and encourage the positive message that the Church has for family life and marriage?

When I was reading over the post-synod document (which is also serving as the guiding document for the upcoming synod), the bishops did exactly that.  They encouraged those families who are living Church teaching and they expressed “their gratitude, appreciation, and encouragement” to those who have responded to their vocations and the mission of the family, even when that has meant suffering.

But we all want something more, right?  So what is that?  The Church has been encouraging families for a while. Read Familiaris Consortio.  Is it because things like that don’t make the news?  “Pope Encourages Families” isn’t exactly the best headline if you want to sell papers.  Or is it because we aren’t seeing it translated into practical ways on the local level?

And here’s my other question… as much as we talk about the synod being positive about marriage, do we deep down want them to condemn things as well?  Maybe we would feel encouragement in our daily struggles to live the hardships of Catholic family life if there was a clearer expression that the other ways of living weren’t okay?

These are honest questions.  I’m personally tired of just receiving statements and documents and letters that no one reads and just get filed away on a website somewhere.  But can we really ask anything else of the Synod, other than a statement or document?  Again, that sounds like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. What do we want from this time?

It’s an understatement to say that family life is a mess right now.  Some other topics raised were single parent families, the need for better marriage prep, and a better understanding of the sacraments.  I agree with all of these, and I hope there are some practical, concrete changes to come out of the Synod.

I suppose it’s ultimately up to the Bishops to decide what exactly they can do.  But whenever I complain about changes not happening, I feel like I should be able to articulate what I even want.  And I can’t do that right now.

Your thoughts

Okay, peeps.  I know you’re out there, and I know you’re reading my blog. But I rarely get comments.  I don’t take it personally, although I do occasionally wonder why some blogs get oodles of comments and other blogs get none. Perhaps I need to blog about more controversial topics, like vaccines or something.  But I’m not that desperate for comments.

A few months ago, I blogged about the controversy surrounding the Synod on the family.  One thing that struck me (but not surprised me) was how the hot-button issues of communion for the remarried and homosexuality received all the attention, when there’s so much more we need to be discussing about the family in the world today.

Another thing I noticed, when speaking about the synod with people or reading articles about it online, was that we in the Church can get really focused on what we think is important and possibly miss some issues that people living the life think are important.  And I’m not talking about the old “what does a celibate man in Rome know about marriage…”, but rather about myself. As a person who works for the Church and thinks and speaks about the Church every day, I might have a completely different view of things from the average person sitting in the pew.  It’s the whole “inside baseball” problem.  When I get together with coworkers or people who work in other dioceses, we have a whole host of things we think are issues… but are they really?  And are we missing something because we’re so focused on the ad intra problems in the Church?

That being said, this is a honest question for my readers — and I know that you’re out there, even if you don’t comment!  What would you like to see come out of next year’s Synod?  (Remember, we’re doing this all over again next fall!)

What are some issues you would like to see discussed?  What are your thoughts about family life in the United States?  About family life in the Church in the United States? Is there something you think might be ignored because it’s not “hot-button” enough?  Or are there positive things you think aren’t celebrated enough?

I would honestly like to hear from you — as people in the pew … or as people who aren’t in the pew!  If there’s going to be honest and fruitful discussion happening, those of us who work for the Church need to hear what you all think.  After all, you are the Body of Christ.

So here’s my desperate plea… not just for comments, but for thoughts and feedback.  If you don’t want to comment publicly but have something to share, feel free to head over to the contact tab.

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 Photo by Jimmy McIntyre

why ashes?

What is it about Ash Wednesday that gets people more excited than they get for Mass any other day?

I’m conflicted about this.  I have been reading a lot about parish renewal and missionary evangelism, so I’m all about “capitalizing” on days like Ash Wednesday or other days that bring people to church and using these opportunities to evangelize.  Rather than complain about the Christmas/Easter Catholics, why don’t we make them feel at home so they want to come back next week?  How often do we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about people coming to Mass?  Whether or not they took our parking space or our pew, we should not only be glad to see them, we should invite them back and give them a reason to see us again.

But at the same time, let’s remember that ashes are not the single most important thing about today. What brings on these musings?  Here in this southern city, we had a sleet storm on Monday and below freezing temperatures since Sunday.  Coupled with a brief flizzard this morning, roads (especially neighborhood ones) are treacherous in many places throughout the city.  We just aren’t equipped to treat our roads quickly, and most people down here are gun-shy about driving.  And for good reason … one uneducated driver on ice-covered or even snow-covered roads, and boom, everyone is in trouble. So even with my mad Indiana driving skills, even I get a little gun-shy on the hills around here.

All that to say, many people might not be able to get out to Mass today.  And you know what? It’s okay, everyone.  It’s actually not a holy day of obligation. And even if it was, the Church doesn’t ask us to risk life and limb to get to Mass.

This may sound strange, coming from the director of adult formation for the diocese of Nashville.  And don’t get me wrong, I love sacramentals and penitential traditions as much as the next person.  I’m not saying Ash Wednesday isn’t important.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to get to Mass today.

….But why are you going to Mass today?

Why wasn’t everyone upset that they couldn’t go to Mass yesterday?

Perhaps it’s time to step back and remember what Lent is really about.  Will we be okay without ashes today?  Yes.  But will we be okay without Jesus today?

This post is not for those people who are not in the habit of going to Mass, but those of us who are.  Has it become just that…. a habit?  Do we go on Sunday because we have to?  or because we want to?

Are we upset to miss Mass today because it’s the thing we’re supposed to do to start Lent? Because we feel like we need to get ashes because that’s what we’ve always done?  Because we want everyone know that we’ve started Lent the way we’re supposed to?

Or are we upset to miss Mass today because that means going another day without receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament?  Are we worthy to receive Him?  Are we longing to receive Him?

At the end of the day, ashes are ashes.  As one priest quipped, “Of all sacramentals, I think dirt is the lowest.”  Why are we so eager to receive dirt when we’re not as eager to receive Jesus?  Yes, sacramentals are good and holy. It’s great to go to Mass on Palm Sunday and get our palms.  Or get our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise.  These are great opportunities to grow in holiness and are especially moving for those among us who might not be able to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for various pastoral reasons.

But what is a sacramental?  What is its purpose?

“Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1670)

So while sacramentals give grace, they don’t give grace the same way the sacraments do. Their purpose is to consecrate our daily lives, reminding us of the goodness of the material world and the ability for every aspect of our life to be holy and sanctified, and to prepare us to receive the sacraments.

We don’t receive ashes just to receive ashes. They are to remind us of our weakness and sin, our need for God’s mercy, and to shock us out of our complacency.  But do they still do that?  If you’re just receiving them just to receive them, because it’s what we do on the Wednesday following Mardi Gras, are the words “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” calling you to a deeper meditation on your ephemeral mortal life?

Ashes are dirt. Blessed dirt, but dirt.  Catholics do some crazy things, but we do not receive dirt just for the sake of it. We receive it in order for that dirt to prepare us to receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Eucharist.

So if you can’t get out of your house today to receive ashes, here is your challenge.

Set aside thirty minutes of your day. If you’re snowed in, this shouldn’t be hard.  Turn off the television, your phone, and your computer. Make a spiritual communion, asking the Lord to come into your heart even though you are not able to receive His Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Ask Him to sanctify this day and your journey to Easter, to give you the grace to grow in holiness during this Lenten season.  We’re not Pelagians, so we know that we can actually do nothing – zilch – to grow in virtue this Lent unless it first comes from Him.  No amount of dirt on our forehead – no matter how muddy that holy water made it – can transform us this Lent without Him.

Can’t get to Mass this Ash Wednesday?  Your Lent doesn’t have to suffer from it. In fact, this could be the most transforming Lent of your life.  I’d wager to bet Jesus would rather you spend thirty minutes of quiet time with Him in prayer, stuck in your iced-up house, than phone-in Mass just to receive ashes.