Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I think it was Jean Danielou who said that we believe in a Church "mudsplashed with history." Working for the Church, seeing the inner machinations of the curial structures and political infighting, brings the "mudsplashed" bit into real focus.

A Pew Research study just came out today about the retention of various religions in the U.S., meaning how do those who are raised Catholic, Protestant, Hindi, whatever, how do they fare in "the open market" of religious pluralism in our society? It turns out that Catholics have the highest retention rate. Now, what the Pew Research study means by "Catholic" I don't know. One imagines they mean self proclaimed Catholics. In an earlier 2008 study the same research group determined that active Catholics were those who attended church at least once a month. So take that figure with a grain of salt.

At any rate, it got me thinking about the rates of Catholics who come and go in the Church. It was reported that this past Easter the Church in the U.S. received somewhere around 150,000 new Catholics. This is new adult Catholics and does not include all the baptisms throughout the year. This is amazing. Furthermore, this is and has been a regular trend over the past couple of decades.

So where are all these new Catholics? Well, it turns out that about half (that's right half) of the 150,000 new Catholics entering the faith on Easter Sunday leave by the end of the first year. After five years the number is something close to 75%. So really, of the 150,000 that enter every year, after five years just under 40,000 of them remain Catholic, that is attending Mass at least once a month...which is itself a huge problem since they are supposed to be attending every week...it's not optional.

As the ecclesial structures of the Church or, as a character in the 1944 film Keys of the Kingdom put it, as the "ecclesial mechanics" employed by the Church attempt to figure out the reason why things are so dismal, all sorts of keen programs are put into place. The suggestions include greeters at the Church doors, more involvement in the liturgy (because of course you can't ever have enough EMHC's), saying hello to your neighbor in the pew just before Mass starts, or other things like making the music more contemporary, setting sacred texts to show tunes (I'm not joking), and on and on. Meanwhile, the Church is still bleeding numbers.

But I've never liked the numbers game. It's not about numbers.

So let's talk about those in the pew. How are they doing? What do they feel? Well, for starters, the vast majority of them don't know if they are even going to be in the pew on any given Sunday. The Real Presence is a foreign concept, and in the end apparently only something like 40% of "practicing" Catholics believe that there is a personal God, which means a God that actually has a care about our everyday lives.

The "ecclesial mechanics" might protest that the loss of Catholics or the disengagement of Catholics in the U.S. is due to the sex scandals, to rigid rules, to guilt complexes, to impossible moral standards, to doctrinal differences. But the Pew Research study that came out today notes that actually, the vast majority of Catholics or any religious people lose their participants because they just drift away. It is rarely some singular event like abuse or a harsh word from a priest or some other traumatic experience. In other words, in the blindingly affluent society in which we live, people just drift away from faith, from even needing anything more grounded than their relationships with their iPod.

This raises some serious problems for retention and evangelization. More on that later.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Not awful...awful

My family and I attended Mass at a different parish this Sunday than is our norm. We walked into the lovely neo-gothic style Church that looked like it could have come out of an English countryside (the fact that it was cold and rainy today lent to the whole mystique of the thing). We were immediately struck by the wood and the stone and the beautiful vestments of the celebrating priest and his deacon.

Then this voice from above came crackling over the PA: "Good morning folks. Our opening hymn..."

"FOLKS? Did I just hear him say 'folks?'"


Strum, strum, dee dumditty, strum. Yes it was a guitar.

Now let me stop you, the reader, right there. I have nothing against the guitar Mass per se. I lived through them at the Jesuit parish growing up, and I lived through them at school, and eventually through college. They didn't bother me then...when I didn't know, didn't really know that there was anything else.

My first argument here is not primarily theological, it's aesthetic. If we were in one of those gymnasium churches where one could hold a pot-luck or a battle of the bands without feeling discomfited either way, then, yes the guitar would not have bothered me as much. But to have the guitar there, at this gorgeous church...well... it was like being forced to listen to a old man play the spoons (as cool as that is) while I'm contemplating the architectural significance of Rome's Pantheon. Or, conversely, being forced to listen to Mozart while contemplating the significance of rural Indiana architecture. They just don't fit together.

My second argument is more theological and I will borrow a few lines from Dorothy Day for this one. Dorothy lived the America of the 20th century about as fully as anyone could (It would have been fascinating to see what she would have said to the success of the Reagan administration in ending the Cold War peaceably as a result, at least in part, to the arms race that Dorothy rightly condemned, or what she would have thought of Pope John Paul II who was only Pope for two years when she died. Anyway, here is what she wrote:

"But there is also the attempt made by some young priests to reach the young, to make the Mass meaningful to the young (the bourgeois, educated, middle-class young), where novelty is supposed to attract the attention but which, as far as I can see, has led to drawing these same young ones completely away from the ‘people of God,’ ‘the masses’ and worship in the parish church. There is the suggestion of contempt here for the people and for the faith of the inarticulate ones of the earth, ‘the ancient lowly,’ as they have been called.

"I do love the guitar Masses, and the Masses were the recorder and the flute are played, and sometimes the glorious and triumphant trumpet. But I do not want them every day, any more than we ever wanted solemn Gregorian Requiem Masses every day. They are for the occasion. They are joyful and happy Masses indeed and supposed to attract the young. But the beginning of faith is something different. The ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Fear in the sense of awe."

Where is the "awe" in a guitar Mass?

I was joyful on my wedding day, but I wasn't giddy. I wasn't bopping around, groovin' to the loads of people and friends and family who were all there to witness something cool. I was awe-filled...so much so that I had to steel myself with a dram of spirits. I was fearful, but I wasn't scared. But, hell, even if I was scared I believe that is the appropriate response to such a life transforming moment. I felt very much like how I imagine Chesterton felt when, on his wedding day, he stopped on the way to the church to purchase a glass of milk and a revolver, both of them purchased for fortitude's sake. On that wedding day we are in awe of something beyond the two of us. We come to recognize and submit to the bond which God calls us. The awe of which Dorothy speak is an appreciation for something transcendent, something other, something more than us, even something that calls us to something more, something better.

The guitar at Mass communicates something, and Dorothy is right in that it communicates joy and glee and the youthful abandon that I am sometimes taken by when I revel in the fact that I am loved so immeasurably by Christ. That first time I heard U2's Beautiful Day, though, it gave me the same feeling . I'm glad to be alive. This is fine, but a faith built on enthusiasm is doomed to die a miserable death in lugubrious loneliness.

Like the Bible says, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." "Fear in the sense of awe," says Dorothy. So don't give me something awful with the guitar. Give me the awful truth of the Mass, the awe-inspiring wonder of Christ's presence among us.

Hello Newman

This little bit of news across the transom ought to give us great joy.

Newman: Beato subito

The prospect of beatifying John Henry Cardinal Newman is exciting if for no other reason than merely the thought that some may actually pick up his works and read them, and in them find a great many answers to our current struggles within the Church. It is also comforting to hear that the current Holy Father is keen on canonizing this great (future doctor?) of the Church.


The monikers are ridiculous, and I have been known to throw them about at times.

The Bard wondered what is in a name, and the answer is apparently an aweful lot, because everyone seems to want to go out of their way to avoid certain labels and attract other ones. It reminds me of the Max Lucado story I have read many times to my son...the one about the dots and the stars. We all do tricks, jump through hoops to get the proper label. Punchenello gets caught up in the labels and loses himself. But in the end most of us would leap for joy if those we loved or hoped to love slapped a big star on our back.

This is no judgment. It is life, after all, a human trait. We all want to belong.

Have you ever noticed that Wes Anderson's movies tend to revolve around the theme of belonging? Dignan sought with all his misguided might to belong to Mr. Henry's crowd. Max Fischer wanted to belong at Rushmore. Everyone wanted to belong to the great myth of the Tennenbaum family, most especially Mr. Tennenbaum...and on and on.

Labeling is part of what we do, because we all want to belong to something. Hell, even the rebels all dress the same.

A problem I see is when labels become just labels. What I mean is that there are labels that are words or a phrases artificially slapped onto someone or something that need not hold even the sparest of thin links to anything real about the person or thing or movement. But we often treat words like liberal, progressive, conservative as though they are just labels when they actually do communicate something that is real about the person or thing or movement. If I label someone a conservative Catholic for you, you now know that in all likelihood that person doesn't believe that women can be priests, that folks ought not play pokey-pokey under the sheets before marriage, that John Paul II was a great man and not a genocidal maniac, etc. There are people...yes even Catholics...that hold different views on this.

Yes labels are limited and can be dangerous, but that is because people start to use them in ways other than they are intended. Labels are shorthand. They have their use.

For me, I will call myself a proto-paleo-jurassic-crusty-con...because I can.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Caller ID

The music of U2 has been Christian for a very long time, and by that I mean informed by a Christian world view. What does such a worldview mean or look like in rock'n'roll?

"Unknown Caller", the fourth track on U2's latest album No Line on the Horizon, and the title of this new blog, is nothing if it is not stirring musically and structurally. Beyond this, though, the song is about the prayer of a sinner and the results. It is a wonderfuly limited summation of the kerygma of Christianity.

The song opens with hope: Sunshine, sunshine. The Christian is to work out his salvation in fear and trembling, as St. Paul said, but he can have confidence in the fact that there is a salvation made available, already won in a sense because it is attainable. However, sin is still a reality and the sinner in the song is

... lost between the midnight and the dawning
In a place of no consequence or company.
3:33 when the numbers fell of the clock face.
speed dialing with no signal at all.

Like many of us, this sinner finds himself totally alone and in a dark night, wondering where it is that he ought to turn. The hour is 3:33 (between midnight and dawning) and this is the witching hour, literally. It is exactly the oposite time of day from when Christ died on the cross and won us that sunshine. In this moment of darkness, then, the sinner is searching for hope. He can do nothing else but pray, even though he does not know if there is anyone on the other end of the line, "speed dialing" even, just going through the motions of a prayer he's said a million times. But low and behold, unexpectedly, God answers.

Go, shout it out, rise up.
Escape yourself, and gravity.
Hear me, cease to speak, that I may speak.
Force quit and move to trash.

In Christianity we don't conjure God or make him into anything we want. He comes to us. He reaches out when we are lost. Even when we don't believe in him he can give us hope and tell us to rise up, get over our sinfulnes and the gravity of despair and trust in his mercy. We need to silence ourselves to be able to listen to him, however, to be able to quit the program of constant desparation and toss it out with the trash.

The song continues, then, with the sinner who is back to recalling his own sins:

I was right there at the top of the bottom,
On the edge of the known universe
Where I wanted to be.
I had driven to the scene of the accident
And I sat there waiting for me.

Searching for ourselves we often only find the worse part of our pasts. We want to be fulfilled, but can find only the "accidents" of our sins. We end up, then, like St. Augustine who wrote that he was hiding behind himself from God. He sat there in sinfullness waiting for himself only to find misery. He and we are restless. But then God speaks again:

Restart and reboot yourself
You're free to go
Shout for joy if you get the chance
Password, you, enter here, right now.
You know your name so punch it in.
Hear me, cease to speak, that I may speak.
Shush now.
Then don't move or say a thing.

Be born again. Baptism is a restarting, a recreation of what we are and can be when we accept the salvation which Christ offers us. We are free to go in order to do good, to shout for joy, and to enter into the fulfilling and authentic humanity that we have been seeking. Indeed, once we have accepted this freedom offered to us by Christ crucified, we who were restless can now rest in him and not move or say a thing.

Bono once wrote about the wonder of grace. It is popular now, and has been for some time in the West, to talk about Eastern mysticism and religion as though they are comparable, or "pretty much the same thing" as our Western religions. At the center, however, of the doctrine of Karma is the notion that we get what we deserve, that over time, over incarnations we ultimately pay for all the sins we commit. What goes around comes around, the great circle of life. Christianity is different. Grace is different. In the turning of the wheel Christ bursts in and forgives us. We ultimately don't pay for our sins. Purgatory is a sad comparison to the suffering we ought to endure for the sins we commit. No, at the Christic point of history grace breaks the chain of Karma, of getting what we deserve, and introduces mercy so that like the sinner in the song, we are no longer lost but found and found out by God.

So who is the Unkown Caller? We are, in a sense, if we are still searching for ourselves. But I believe that God is the ultimate Unknown Caller. He calls unexpectedly, not allowing us to prepare ourselves before we smugly answer the call knowing who's on the other end. It is God who moves in mysterious ways.

Shush now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The voice of God

Go, shout it out, RISE UP
Oh, ohhh
Escape yourself, and gravity
Hear me, CEASE TO SPEAK that I may speak
Shush now
Oh, ohhh
Force quit and MOVE TO TRASH