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Walking in Memphis . . . PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 20 August 2009 17:25
Off to Memphis on the morrow - very, very early. To train 15 new Called & Gifted teachers with Fr. Mike. Back mid-day Monday.

We've had some very exciting opportunities pour in over the past couple of days.

A highly respected deacon in Canada wants to work with us bringing the Called & Gifted to the clergy and deacons of his region.

A sister from one of the new women's orders wanting to add the discernment of charisms to her sister's formation process.

The superior of a new men's community of priests has asked us to teach his men how to discern their own gifts, to help them understand how the charisms empower evangelization, and how to facilitate the discernment of the lay Catholics with whom they work.

A large archdiocese in the west wants to integrate Making Disciples into their evangelization plan.

A booming archdiocese in the south is recommending the Called & Gifted as part of their diocesan evangelization strategy.

The evangelization office of yet another mid-Atlantic Archdiocese has issued a brochure of evangelization resources and includes the Institute in a prominent way.

My brain is a little scrambled from dealing with them all but we are most grateful. What we are learning is that small and obscure as we think we are, lots and lots of people have heard of us and actually have some of our materials. Sitting in little ol' Colorado Springs, it is easy to underestimate the power of word of mouth.

And it has been 16 years after all, since that summer of 93 when I was putting the very first draft of what become the Called & Gifted discernment process together.

But right now, I have to focus on Memphis.
Generational Shift PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 20 August 2009 07:30
As I have mentioned before on this blog, the post-World War II, pre-Vatican II world that conservative American Catholics tend to idealize was not experienced as a golden time by Catholics who lived through it and were old enough to understand the terrors that had taken place between 1914 and 1945.

The bloodbath of World War I had overlapped with the October revolution in Russia which was ferociously athiestic. In fact, Pope Pius XI spoke of the "Terrible Triangle" - referring to persecution of Christians in the new Soviet Union and the civil wars in Mexico and Spain in which Catholics and the Church suffered horribly. Simultaneously, Hitler rose to Power in Germany. It all ended in another global catastrophe - World War II, the Holocaust, the bombing of HIroshima, and the beginning of the long anxiety of the nuclear era and the cold war.

Their literature, which I read a great deal of while preparing to teach the graduate course in the Theology of the Laity at Sacred Heart Seminary in June, is filled with anxiety and cataclysmic language. They talked as though all of life hung by a thread while we look back and think of them as inhabiting a serene, sunlit pastoral valley flowing with ecclesial milk and honey. i think we have to let the pre-Vatican II generation speak for itself in these matters. By comparison, we are the ones living in the sunlit valley.

I mention this as backdrop to an excerpt from a very interesting Australian Radio Broadcasting 2001 interview about Thomas Merton.

The question: Why was Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain such a publishing phenomena, selling 600,000 copies?

Robert Elwood: Certainly that immense success of the book caught the publishers and everybody else by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have, if one really looked at the undercurrents of life in those immediate post-war years.

A series of books on mysticism – Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit and so on, were appearing around that time, and also doing quite well. What they suggest is that people were desperately looking for something different from the contemporary world, and understandably so, when you consider the terrible Great Depression, the horrors of World War II, the anxiety that people felt over the apparent triumph of Communism in much of Europe, the fact that although the war had ended, the world hardly seemed secure with the atomic bomb as a new player on the world scene, all of this created a kind of feeling that the modern world as we had understood it, had somehow really gotten out of control.

Opinion polls of young people around that time show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that.

So it was a time when the modern world seemed to have little appeal. In the midst of this I think the appeal was not so much to some future vision, because the future seemed pretty bleak indeed to those who thought about it, but rather looking back at the past. Was there a civilisation in the past that seemed to work better? And were there institutions in the world that preserved the values of that past, despite everything the world had been through. And in this context I think the Roman Catholic church and its vision, however idealised it may have been, of the Middle Ages, came out very well.

In this context somebody like Thomas Merton who is presented in the autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been to Columbia University in the late ‘30s, where it seemed like practically everybody was on a soapbox proclaiming some absolute dogma or other: communism, socialism, Catholicism, technocracy, all of the isms of the late ‘30s period, and in the midst of it all had finally decided on Catholicism, but not only that, but taking it to the point of becoming a monk in one of the most austere orders of the church, this caught people’s imagination. You know, this is a person who was willing to repudiate all of that modernity that it was giving us so much anxiety.

"young people around that time show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that."

In many ways, it is impossible to understand the enormous rise in religious and priestly vocations between 1945 and 1965 (20,000+, a 53% increase in 20 years!) without grasping what that generation of young adults had seen and lived through. In a sense, It was very like the reaction of the generation that lived through the wars of religion in France in late 16th century. They too entered (and founded) religious communities in large numbers and began the Catholic revival that transformed the nation.

But that sort of generational motivation is something that, by its very nature, is one generation deep and can not be sustained forever, especially if the times get better. In 17th century France, the war generation's intense focus on a heroic monastic asceticism and contemplation became, in their children, an intense focus on personal, pro-active charity in the world toward the poor, the illiterate, the sick, and the abandoned. Both were of God but there was a distinct generational shift.

Every generation has its own terrors and struggles of course. It is not Nazism or Communism but Islamic terrorism that tends to dominate our thoughts these days. But despite 9/11, most of us in the US do not expect to die in a terrorist attack and do expect to live a normal life span and to live a pretty comfortable life - which is why economic recession hits us so hard. It threatens our expectations of a middle class life. We don't live in fear of the annihilation of the humanity as Americans in the 50's and early 60's did. Our children don't routinely practice hiding under tables and in bomb shelters in case of a nuclear attack. Which gives us the leisure to spend our energies on other issues like "building a culture of life" and the liturgy.

And that distinguishes post-Vatican II Catholics from the pre-Vatican II generation as dramatically as the experience of celebrating the Mass in the vernacular.
Catholic Quote of the Day: Nothing is Lost PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 20 August 2009 07:03
"We are divinized to the extent that nothing of our humanity is denied, despised, or ignored, when nothing of what makes us human is lost or left behind. Just as God’s Son lost nothing of his divinity during his sojourn on earth, so we will carry to eternal life everything in our lives that is genuinely human.

May the humanity of Jesus inspire us to accept our own humanity in all its present ambiguity, so that through him and with him and in him we may become, in a manner that is beyond our imagining, full sharers in his divinity."

Fully Human, Fully Divine, Michael Casey

H/T Robert Imbelli, Dot.commonweal

Happy Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux!
Prayer request: tornado destroys church PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 19 August 2009 14:50
My brother-in-law, David Beals, is the pastor of Williamsville Christian Church in Williamsville, Illinois. The church, which was undergoing renovation, was just destroyed by a tornado.

Share  photos on twitter with Twitpic

David and my nephew Tyler were in the church at the time; they got out OK. One of the construction workers in the sanctuary had his leg broken by a collapsing wall. David was slammed up against a wall by the storm; now he's helping with searches. About 25 homes in the town were destroyed.

My sister Melinda and other nephew were in another town for a doctor appointment, and are OK.

Their family lives in the parsonage, a couple of hundred yards down the street from the church. It seems to have been spared.

They all have a very strong faith, but this will be a big challenge. And I'm leaving for Poland in less than a week, so I can't be of much help right now. Please, please pray for them and for their community.


Here's some You tube footage of the damage:

And pictures of damage from the village website

And the Twitter feed on Williamsville.
The Food Timeline: Delight Yourself in Fatness PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 19 August 2009 09:04
I just came across a website so cool that I had to share it: The Food Timeline

Foodies will laugh but I'd never come across this before. Want to know about the history of milk?

Of marshmallows? (there is a history of marshmallows???)


Worcestershire Sauce?

This site is a dream come true for foodies, historians, and lovers of the quirky.

My dad loved to quote Isaiah 55 about "delighting yourself in fatness". It is in that spirit that one should revel in this incredible labor of love.

So make yourself that non fat half-half, hazlenut latte and set down to delight yourself in fatness - and macadania nuts, manderin oranges, and the lore of chili peppers.

Julia would be proud.
From In the Field PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 19 August 2009 05:39
An interesting e-mail that I received last week while still in Omaha from a parish associate, related to our recent discussion here on "the Gap".

I am an Intentional Disciples reader and appreciate your thoughtful posts so much. We are looking forward to our mission with Catherine of Siena next Feb/Mar.

Your reflections upon the Gap really hit home this morning. Wednesday, I was on boarding a plane in Dallas, headed to Columbia, SC where two of my children attend "the other" USC, as west coasters call it. As we were settling in our seats, the flight attendant announced that a Bible has been found in the concourse--did anyone lose it?

Half the plane went diving for their bags, checking for a lost Bible (I admit I checked to see if it was my Liturgy of the Hours that she found) did look like a vignette for You know you are in the Bible Belt first, it was funny. But held a deeper meaning for me.

As a former Evangelical and one whose ministry focuses on adults, it is more poignant than that. When I came to our parish five years ago, the emphasis was on cerebral, intellectual formation...absent of any spiritual dimension. They functioned as water-tight compartments--you were either in one or the other. And the standoff between the two groups was, well, interesting to say the least.

When I reflect back on my own years as an Evangelical (now 30 years ago), a personal relationship AND ongoing formation went hand-in-hand. As my personal relationship grew, I wanted to learn I learned more, it drew me into a deeper relationship with God. When I reflect upon the past years in the parish, I realize how big a part my personal experience has played, often without my knowing it, in the direction we have taken. It was not intentional on my part to begin with--purely providential. As were the persons in the parish God sent my way who shared a similar vision. How we have grown and changed as a parish is has been a challenge for all of us.

As an aside: In retrospect, it was this desire to integrate these two dimensions of my life, that led to the door of the Newman Center at Emory University in Atlanta--an awareness of how scriptural the Mass was, and yes, I also experienced a Real Presence that was undeniable, and drew me deeper into liturgy.

The plane episode was just one of those moments God uses so well to renew my commitment to service. Your post helped me see that.

Thanks again for the posts--they really speak to me out in the field.

The Gap: An Agony in Four Fits PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009 17:43
This was supposed to be a simple comment on The Gap: Third Verse, Same as the First but Blogger is refusing to post more and more. Last week, it was pictures and now it won't take my comments. Let's seen if I can still post!


Remember the woman I quoted was quoting another evangelical friend who thought her child, used to a much more expressive and exuberant form of worship, might find the typical Mass boring.

I doubt very much whether the comment was stereotyping at all. I can think of members of my own family, who literally haven't a clue about the Catholic Mass, who would spontaneously feel the same way if I shanghaied them into one.

They have acquired a profoundly different sense of what "real" worship and "real" reverence should look like. In fact, they would be likely to regard the typical parish Mass as not simply boring but literally "dead". Since I know my family and what some of them are used to thinking of as "worship", anticipating their response requires no stereotyping at all. Just a simple knowledge of the person involved.

It's much like observing that my daughter, raised on Indian cuisine might well find English food bland and boring. Or that my son, raised in Kansas, might find Indian food too hot. It was a statement about the likes and dislikes of a particular person in light of their tastes and what they have been raised to regard as normal.

Here the gap in lived experience is so great that I despair of ever being able to get evangelicals to stop projecting their expectations upon Catholics and vice-versa. Which is why I won't be shanghaiing members of my family to Mass any time soon.

You wrote:

Orthodox Christians, interestingly enough, were significantly less likely than Catholics to profess belief in a “personal God.” Does that mean that large numbers of Orthodox Christians are functionally Deist?

Actually, I've had long conversations with a couple of very theologically and psychologically sophisticated Orthodox clergy with a broad knowledge of the orthodox scene and the answer seems to be "yes". For one thing, their attendance is far, far below our own. (One told me that although there is supposed to be 1 million Greek Orthodox in the US, attendance at the Divine Liturgy on a given Sunday, was probably no more than 40,000 - in the entire country!)

And when i asked him about discipleship and like issues, he knew immediately what I meant but his own sense of the number of disciples among the Orthodox was exceedingly grim. They seem to suffer from exactly the same diseases we do - but even more so since culture plays a much larger role.

You noted:

As an aside, one finding I found very interesting is that 73 percent of evangelicals worship in congregations of 500 people or less compared to only 44 percent of Catholics. I wonder how much that particular fact affects the rest of people’s spiritual lives. It may be hard to image God as “personal” if your congregation feels very “impersonal.”

It's a interesting question that I haven't thought much about honestly. Partly because I suppose that I have experienced so many evangelical mega-churches who manage to maintain a strong emphasis on the personal in their services and cultural norms. (Of course, they put an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources into doing so in a way that I've hardly even seen a Catholic parish attempt. It has to be huge priority in a gigantic parish to succeed.) But I imagine there has to be some point beyond which the sheer numbers overwhelm you. So an interesting question.

You commented:

The question is whether the additional level of spiritual intensity in those congregations is the result of specific practices that can be identified and transferred effectively to Catholic parishes.

Another great question in which I have a considerable professional experience and background. The immediate answer is "You can't simply import something from the evangelical world because almost always there are serious theological ecclesiological, cultural, and linguistic differences that you have to address or it will fail to have the desired impact. What I have found best is to be "inspired" by evangelical experience and then turn with new eyes to the Catholic tradition and ask "where have Catholics addressed this issue before?"

They have, you know, but most of our evangelical and pastoral wisdom has been relegated to the province of historians. Very few are doing the research into say, the evangelistic strategies of St. Bernadine of Siena as it relates to the work of St. Francis Xavier and St. Vincent de Paul. Evangelicals are reading our history for that exact information (My knowledge about 16th Jesuit missions was acquired from a paper I did at Fuller) but we aren't.

If you have 500 - 600 disciples in a congregation of 3,000 families (let's say a Sunday attendance of 5,000?), you are actually doing quite well. 10% is actually double the average estimate so God bless you!

And honestly, it is our ignorance of our own Catholic history and pastoral practice that makes us think of Bible studies and small groups and mission trips as "evangelical strategies". All of these things have been done many times in purely Catholic settings in the distant and near past.

For instance, i'm just reading a book on the amazing Oasis movement in Poland that developed in the 50's under communism. When American evangelicals heard about it in the 70's, they were riveted because it all sounded so familiar but the practices weren't imported from the evangelical world, they were home-grown in one of the most intensely Catholic cultures on earth.

By a Polish priest who had grown up in a non-religious Catholic family, miraculously survived Auschwitz where he experienced a powerful conversion, went directly into the seminary from the concentration camp, and in his very first parish of 12,000, recognized a serious problem:

"He compared his work at this period to that of a farmer who kept going from field to field scattering seeds of grain with his bare hands but having no time to check what if anything, had grown. Crowds filled the church at each of the many Masses on Sunday.

However Fr. Franciszek saw that most people were coming to Church out of custom and habit more than anything else. To many of his parishioners, faith was not a source of happiness and strength. Nor had it any real relevance to their lives."

It makes sense that for a man jolted out of agnosticism by the horrors of Auschwitz, merely conventional, cultural Catholicism would not be enough. And out of his experience grew a very powerful renewal movement in Poland which emphasized personal relationship with Christ, discipleship, Bible study, Christian community, and Marian devotion, and which received the active support and involvement of the future John Paul II.
Lucy Shea is Born! PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009 08:14
Mark and Janet Shea are first time grand-parents and I guess I'm a grand god-mother since Tasha Shea (wife of Luke, Mark's eldest, gave birth to the beautiful Lucy late last night. Both mom and babe are well.

I received a very large and fuzzy picture of the gorgeous girl early this am but it's not really bloggable so I'll have to let Marko beat me to it.

A joyous welcome to Lucy and congratulations to Chez Shea!
The Gap: Third Verse, Same as the First PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 18 August 2009 07:13
This is a reply to some comments on the The Gap, Part Deux post below. Like Topsy, it just grewed till it was too big for the comment box.

Peter wrote:

"whether a "Catholic" to "Evangelicals" comparison is really statistically "apples to apples." Catholics tend to identify as Catholics long after they have left the Church. I don't think the same is true of evangelicals.

Actually, the Pew studies dealt with all religious groups (Catholics, main=line Protestants, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, etc.) in exactly the same way, distinguishing between those who still hold to the religious identity they were raised in and those who have abandoned it. It was the huge number of American adults from all backgrounds who have left the religion of childhood (53%! - only 9 % of which had eventually returned) that was the real discovery of the Pew study and which precipitated their 2009 follow-up Study, Faith in Flux in which they focused entirely on those who left the faith in which they were raised.

All religious groups in the US experience significant losses because it has essentially become normative for adults, raised in any religious tradition or none at all, to decide their religious affiliation for themselves upon reaching adulthood. Which is why the majority are left the religious tradition of their childhood at least once – even if they eventually return – and most don’t. This is one of the remarkable characteristics of our culture at present. What varies a great deal in this very fluid situation is how many “natives” leave a given faith vs. how many enter that faith from the outside.

Of course, for an evangelical, moving from Protestant denomination to denomination has little meaning because their focus is much more on the quality of the life of the local church (parish) rather than that church’s denominational ties. For an evangelical to leave Protestantism, however, is roughly equivalent to a Catholic leaving the Church.

32% of those raised Catholic no longer claim the identity while 29% of those raised non-denominational Protestant have either joined a non-Protestant faith or ceased to practice any faith at all. So slightly more Catholics raised in the faith abandon the identity than do non-denoms. (Which doesn’t begin to exhaust the number of evangelicals in this country but “non-denoms” nearly always fall into the evangelical camp and Pew looked at them as a unit.)

The big difference is in the numbers who enter. Nearly four times as many Catholics leave the Church as enter it while the numbers of non-denominational Protestants have tripled despite their considerable loses. Today there are three times as many non-denominational Protestant as were actually raised in that faith.

Summary: A higher percentage of our people leave the Catholic faith altogether and a vastly smaller number enter the faith than happens in the evangelical world.

What I think is really telling is the difference between self-identified Catholics and self-identified evangelicals in these three categories:

1) Those who are certain that God is a personal God and you can have a relationship with that God.
Catholics: 48% Evangelicals: 74%

2) Those who say religion is “very important”
Catholics: 56% Evangelicals: 79%

3) Weekly attendance
Catholics: 42% Evangelicals: 56%

We live in the same culture and are subject to the same pressures and realities. But there is clearly a significant difference across the board in evangelical responses to those pressures which cannot be simply dismissed with a “they are oranges and we are apples” wave of the hand.

Another commenter wrote:

“I grew up around Evangelicals, Baptists, et al, and they were great at motivation and desire, but I realized by the end of my teens that they had nothing more to offer than 'Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so." It is ok, and it creates many spiritual babies, but there wasn't much more.”

I would agree – up to a point.

First, a little side meditation. The broadest and most misleading caricatures entertained by Catholics and evangelicals about one another that I have encountered amount to “Evangelicals are stupid, Catholics are dead”.

One thing that I find consistently bewildering is the number of Catholics (in general – this is not a reflection on those of you who have commented here) who seem to have very little sense of the enormous number of really mature, spiritually and intellectually impressive evangelicals about. There are easily as many mature evangelicals in this country as there are mature Catholics. I’ve had the privilege of living, studying, and working with many of them and they remain some of the most impressive Christians I have ever known – by any standards.

Over and over, Catholic bloggers who manifest very little in-depth knowledge of the evangelical world, describe evangelicals as emotion-driven spiritual bears-of-very-little-brain and no staying power. Which has about as much reality as the perspective of the young beauty school student who was working on the hair of a Catholic classmate and stopped in bewilderment. “Where are they?” she asked? “Where are what?” returned her puzzled Catholic friend. “Your horns”. Where are your horns?” Turns out she had always been told that Catholics had little horns hidden in their hair – a sign of their demonic allegiance. (True story – it happened to Mark Shea’s mother-in-law).

Do I have to point out the obvious? You don’t establish and support 270 graduate level academic institutions if you have no interest in or capacity for sustained thought. And you certainly don’t successfully buck the west’s intense cultural pressure to privatize faith and launch a globe circling missionary expansion if you have no staying power. If evangelicals were simply the pathetic, shallow, spiritual ditz’s that many Catholics loftily presume they are, they’d be no challenge to us at all.

The truth is, they bother us exceedingly because they are anything but stupid and they are strong in areas where we are weak – and that isn’t supposed to be the way this works.

Of course, the reverse is also true – we are strong in areas where they are weak. But increasingly, evangelicals are more than willing to acknowledge Catholic strengths and are more than a little dazzled by them. I attended a gathering of high powered evangelicals committed to spiritual formation in early July. They were talking and quoting Catholic authors almost exclusively: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Green and referred a great deal to monastic practice. Their passion was a profound union with God and so naturally, they turned to the great mystics. I learned from them that many of the foremost evangelical universities in the country now have spiritual formation programs in place that are adopting the same approach.

But so many of their evangelical assumptions were still in place. One impressive missionary leader, who lives in St. Petersburg, was stunned when, in response to his questions, I had to explain to him that being a Christian and being a disciple weren’t the same thing in the Catholic tradition. One was sacramentally based and the other a personal response.

The bewildered look on his face said it all. There was no place in his spiritual worldview for such a distinction. After all, he was turning to historic Christianity for guidance in how to help immature disciples become mature disciples. It had not yet dawned upon him that a faith that produces such saints could simultaneously have large numbers of members who are not yet disciples at all. Who don’t even know that discipleship is possible. Many of whom don’t even have an imaginative category in their heads for discipleship. Because they have never heard anyone talk about it.

Yes, evangelicals produce lots of spiritual babies. They may only be one year old spiritually but at least they are crawling and/or beginning to take their first steps. While we are finding that our pews are filled with the spiritually pre-natal. Many still in the first trimester. And they've been in the first trimester for decades and are showing no signs of growth at all. (Which is scary since unborn babies that don't grow, eventually die.) There are days when I’d give anything for a room full of toddlers. For all of our pro-life rhetoric, our practice and our culture is seems to be firmly in favor of spiritual contraception.

Or to use another metaphor, Catholicism is the graduate school of the spiritual life. We have this enormous, gorgeous library, full of the riches of the ages and open 24/7 to anyone who wants to enter and peruse at their leisure.

But first you have to teach yourself to read and write. Cause we don’t have a public elementary school system and the majority of our people are illiterate. Now this works for some of our own who are especially gifted and persistent or have parents who tutored them privately or sent them to be educated by the emerging network of small, specialized private schools. But many, even the majority in our village don’t even know books exist. So our wonderful library is beginning to fill up with the graduates of hundreds of humble evangelical public elementary schools who know there is more and are hungry for it.

To continue with the metaphor: There is no reason at all that we could not establish our own public elementary "spiritual formation" system but when someone points out the need for such a system, the common responses seem to be:

1) We built the library and wrote most of the books in it!
(Hmmm? True indeed, but exactly how is that a meaningful response to a wide-spread lack of spiritual "literacy" (discipleship) which means few can read and understand those wonderful books?

2) Catholics don't do elementary schools. That's Protestant. The majority of our people have never been "spiritually literate".
Even if it is true - and it hasn't always been true everywhere - why does that make it ok? Especially since the founder of our library, gave us a very clear mandate: Go therefore and make disciples ("spiritual literates") of all nations . . .

3) We already have our own educational network and our people spend years in it!
Yes that is often the case, but we don't conduct tests to see what they have learned before they graduate. All the available evidence indicates that most of our pupils graduate still unable to read and write. (They never pick up a book and can't read our blogs for heaven's sake!) Shouldn't we ask ourselves: "is our existing educational system giving us the results that our founder clearly stated was the norm and our mission? If we keep doing what we are presently doing, we'll keep getting what we have gotten. Isn't it time to re-evaluate and revamp our "spiritual school" system?

Even if setting out to teach all our people to read and write smacks of Protestantism?
A Small Miracle in Omaha PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 17 August 2009 07:07
I'm back.

Thanks so much for your prayers everyone! They were badly needed. There was a number of minor disasters prior to am on Saturday when the workshop began and I didn't get much sleep cause I didn't have access to the final version of the slides that Fr. Mike had prepared until I reached Omaha and I had some significant prep to do!

I was getting increasingly tense as I rushed around (trying to shovel down an omelet at ramming speed and standing up cause I has used breakfast time to prep but if I didn't get some protein in my system, my blood sugar would crash; struggling with my computer - no emergency calls to my MAC man, Fr. Mike, since he was holed up with his father in a hospital with no cell access and my own cell had died as soon as I reached Omaha - the booktable materials, etc.) I was on my own and shooting up little bleets of "You have to provide, Lord or this is not going to be pretty" as I worked furiously and finished with maybe 30 seconds to spare.

The day was put on by INET, a small group of lay people who have organized and put on formational events for RCIA leaders in the diocese for the past 15 years. My stress level raised a trifle when they told me at dinner the night before that they had had the very top presenters in the field in the past and I didn't recognize a single name! (That's when you know you are really out of the loop!) And I'm sure that the organizers, who were very gracious, were also wondering how this was going to go. After, they had a Dominican priest lined up and ended up at the last minute with this unknown woman. All they knew was that "I worked with Fr. Mike"

But the minute I started speaking, God's presence and provision was abundant. The day went beautifully. The organizers told me over and over "people came up to us all day and said 'this is the best event you have ever put on'. They really liked that fact that I was an RCIA alum myself and I told many stories of my own experiences and those of my friends and many acquaintances who have pass through the RCIA process.

I can't take credit for the content. Almost all was drawn from Fr. Mike's fertile brain and, of course, Making Disciples. But it was one of those days when you just find yourself saying and doing things that far beyond what your cold, calculating brain would come up with. Segments that we have sweated over before (like the kerygma) just flowed effortlessly. The Holy Spirit was doing something much larger and more beautiful than I had to give. God bless all of you who prayed! I often find myself thinking when these sorts of things happen: "Someone out there is praying! This is so beyond me."

And then on Sunday, I was struck down by a 24 hour bug, and slept all the way home on the plane, and then essentially all the rest of the day and all night and now I am up and feeling pretty normal again.

And Fr. Mike's dad is doing much better as well!

I realized afterwards that the fact that I had had one of those creative "brain storms" the week before and had spent several days re-working Making Disciples (which we'll be doing in Omaha in October) was all part of God's providential preparation for the seminar I did not yet know I was going to teach.

Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever.
High Tension Communities PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 15:54
I'm listening to my dad snore in his room in the cardiac unit of the hospital. He was moved from critical care up here to try to take care of some arrhythmia. They've given him his normal medication to combat this, which also tends to lower his blood pressure. Since low blood pressure was one of the huge problems post-surgery, it's not surprising the absence of that medication has led to this new problem. Hopefully, it will be resolved quickly and he can move to the orthopaedic unit and begin his physical therapy.

In the meanwhile, I've had time to catch up a bit on blogging. John Allen has a good, balanced response to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, carried out on behalf of the National Religious Vocations Conference. Titled “Study of Recent Vocations to Religious Life,” the research surveyed 4,000 new members of religious communities, and basically confirmed the anecdotal impressions of new religious. New members tend to come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, especially Hispanics and Asian-Americans; and they tend to be more traditional in both theological outlook and spiritual style than older religious. There are various interpretations of this result that Allen examines.

"There’s what one might call the “ideological” interpretation in some conservative quarters, which amounts to a chest-thumping “we’re winning and you’re losing” response. (A brief and sarcastic statement released on Tuesday by the Catholic League, excoriating unnamed liberal “diversity dons” presumably flummoxed by the results, illustrates the psychology.) Some liberals will undoubtedly see the study in the same way, although they’re less likely to issue press releases or write blogs about it.

This ideological reading would see these results as a referendum on the progressive reform agenda of the Vatican II generation, concluding that young religious are voting with their feet against it."

Another possible interpretation goes like this: A “generational” interpretation, on the other hand, would see these results in terms of differences in historical milieu. The Vatican II generation grew up within a strong Catholic culture and to some extent reacted against it, seeing it as overly stifling and controlling. The defining cultural crucible for millennials, however, has been a rootless secular world. They’re eager to establish a strong sense of Catholic identity, not to reform or redefine it. In essence, they’re reacting against the world, not the church.

Seen in that light, the commitment to orthodoxy and to traditional modes of life one sees among young religious today is less about the ideological contest of left versus right, and more about differences in generational experience."

The final hypothesis is, in my mind, connected to Sherry's posts on "the Gap."
Here’s yet a third explanation, this one arising out of the sociology of religion: the competitive edge of “high-tension” groups.

Both in the United States and around the world, those religious movements which have grown most dramatically over the last half-century are those with the clearest boundaries between themselves and the prevailing culture. In their 1987 book A Theory of Religion, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge called this “high-tension religion.” Low-tension groups, according to Stark and Bainbridge, are usually dissolved into the “cauldron of secularism.”

This might seem a counter-intuitive result, because in the short run stricter groups may alienate some members. But over time, this attrition works to resolve what sociologists and economists call the “free rider” problem. High-tension groups screen out members with low levels of commitment, enhancing the participation levels of those who remain. This, in turn, drives more effective recruiting and retention.

Economist Laurence Iannaccone made this argument back in 1994, in an influential essay titled “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” According to Iannaccone, strict churches (or, by extension, strict religious orders) attract members because, in the mercenary language of economics, they offer a better product. Here’s how Icannaccone described that product: “A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams.”

Significantly, “high-tension” and “conservative” are not coterminous. It’s entirely possible to foster a high-tension ethic within a church, or a religious order, that’s not premised on ideological conservatism. Within Catholicism, new movements such as Sant’Egidio or L’Arche illustrate the point; they have many of the characteristics of “high-tension” groups without falling on the ideological right. It’s simply a fact of life that in post-Vatican II Catholicism, many progressive groups and religious orders also adopted a more “low-tension” way of relating to the outside world.

Of course, Iannaccone acknowledged a point of diminishing returns. Too much strictness becomes self-defeating, making it virtually impossible for anyone other than a zealot to hang on. Still, his point was that both economic theory and empirical research suggest that “high-tension” groups enjoy a structural advantage in a competitive religious marketplace.
The community that Icannaccone (who himself surely has some Catholic roots with a name like that!) describes, is what I would expect a community with a significant number of intentional disciples to look like. Part of the "same language" spoken is the language of a loving relationship with Jesus - and it is that relationship that the members, with all their variety in other aspects, have in common. The common texts are scripture and the Church's teaching, the same dreams have to do with living the faith in the world; calling others to relationship with Jesus; transforming secular society from within so that it is just, humane, and lovely; and, ultimately, becoming saints.

I would presume that all three of these interpretations of the data are correct. I'm sure there are some people entering conservative communities out of a reaction against a misapplied, liberal, agenda-driven interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. There are certainly those who are entering because of a reaction to the increasingly valueless and meaningless nature of secular life. And there are those who are attracted to a "high-tension" group and it's clear identity and camaraderie.

The problem is, of course, that men and women should be entering religious life for none of those reasons (presuming a "high tension" community that focused on say, their founder, rather than the following of Christ), but out of a desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and to follow him through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience; to serve their neighbor in love in response to the love Jesus has shown them; and to speak to others of the great work of salvation the Father has done in His Son's death on the cross for our sake.
Update on Ted Fones PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 13:16
I appreciate everyone's prayers for my dad.

He was doing well Thursday morning when I chose to go to Omaha after all. When I left, but had a setback: terrible, uncontrolled palsy in his hands and arms that made it impossible to hold anything, plus slurred speech and stuttering. I returned at my sister's insistence because both she and my dad were very anxious that the nursing staff (a new one that day) were insistent that nothing was wrong, and he was just confused. It's a long, sad story, but he's much better today, thanks be to God. The palsy's almost all gone, and his speech seems to be fine. Your prayers are appreciated. He is 87 and has 20% kidney function (he'll be on dialysis soon), some heart disease, and diabetic neuropathy in his legs. Nevertheless, he's my mom's caregiver! His mind is as sharp as ever - he's a Life Master in duplicate bridge and regularly ends up in first or second place at local bridge gatherings with his various partners.

He's being transferred out of the critical care unit this afternoon. Hopefully he'll be starting physical therapy soon.
Engagement and Discernment PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 13:14
Our parish is going to ‘do’ the “Engaged Church” program together with a Gallup survey and the Living your Strengths. I’m guessing you two are aware of this program? I think it has a lot of merit but I have real concerns about the Living Your Strengths. I’ve taken it and it obviously is a very secular model. But the questions and content [even in the Catholic edition] feels like a ‘conflict’ with our charism process and understanding. What I’m told when I question this is more people will participate in the LYS than in the Ch because it’s less of a time commitment, more familiar language, etc. and that once we ‘get’ them in on this level we can invite them to the deeper level of charism. While I recognize the reasonableness of this thought process I worry that it will set-up a sense of either-or-equality between the two. I’m totally committed to the Charism process and content. I feel like we’re trading true gold for a cheap imitation bronze here.

Curious Georgette

Hi, Georgette;
Sherry and I have some real concerns about the Engaged Church model. Here are some of them - Sherry may have others to add.
1. Yes, Growing an Engaged Church is based on a program first developed for the business world. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with that. However, because the strengths have nothing to do with the supernatural, the focus tends to be on the individual, whereas with the charisms (spiritual gifts), the focus is on what God is doing for others through my assent and cooperation. In my opinion, that's a huge difference.

2. There is no discernment involved in the StrengthsFinder's inventory. As we've learned from the Catholic Spiritual Gifts inventory, the results of any such inventory can be easily skewed by what people hope they could be, would like to be, feel a need to be, etc. With the StrengthsFinders inventory, people are told that the five areas of strengths that they score high on are, in fact, their areas of strength. There is no sense in which other people should be involved in helping the individual check to see if that, in fact, is the reality. Consequently, people, having taken the inventory, may insist on doing things or being engaged in the parish in ways that fit their self-image and ego, rather than the reality. If that's the case, how will anyone else on the staff or in the parish say nay?

3. On a similar note, the StrengthsFinder's inventory fits in nicely with the American desire for quick results and quick analyses of the individual. And, because all of the various strengths are positive in some way, can feed our collective and individual narcissism. At least with the Called & Gifted we are honest about the fact that we can and will attempt to use our charisms to meet our own needs. Thus, we offer some practical spiritual helps to overcome that tendency. You're right, Georgette, the StrengthsFinder's approach is much easier than the discipline and honesty required in discernment.

4. The thesis of Growing an Engaged church is that engagement leads inevitably to spiritual growth. Our experience, and Catholic spirituality, suggests that that is not the case. Spiritual growth happens because of grace and our conscious cooperation with it. Just as a human relationship doesn't grow when it's ignored, our relationship with God doesn't grow without our participation. Growing an Engaged Church doesn't seem to indicate how engagement will lead to spiritual growth. As the saying goes, spending time in Church doesn't make you a Christian any more than spending time in a garage makes you a car!

5. But do we want engagement in the parish? Is that the goal of ministry - to get more and more people involved in parish activities and events? That is much less threatening to the individual lay person than living their faith in their work environment, where people are much more likely to be supportive. Becoming "engaged" at Church buys into our tendency to believe that being a good Catholic means involvement at the parish, rather than applying our faith and being an agent of God in the marketplace. It tends to strengthen the dichotomy that many of us have between "what happens at Church" and what happens at work and home. Growing an Engaged Church, because it is based on a business model that attempts to deepen the connection between an employee and his or her place of work. This is quite different from the purpose of a parish, which is not meant to connect people to their parish, but to form them for their apostolate in the world. "Since the laity share in their own way in the mission of the Church, their apostolic formation is specially characterized by the distinctively secular and particular quality of the lay state and by its own form of the spiritual life." (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 29)
". . .the Parish has the essential task of a more personal and immediate formation of the lay faithful." (The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful, 61).

6. In light of the spiritual growth indicated by the thresholds (trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, discipleship) we've been discussing with pastoral workers, and again, from asking people about their relationship with God in our many gifts interviews, the consensus is that not all Catholics -even "engaged" Catholics - seem to be intentional disciples. Many of our parishioners seem to be at the passive thresholds of trust, curiosity and openness. If I become engaged in a parish where the vast majority of people are at these thresholds, and there is no concerted effort to call people to a deeper relationship with the Trinity, then even if engagement leads to deeper spirituality, how will it lead beyond openness? Again, God can and will use whatever we offer, but engagement alone does not necessarily lead to discipleship.

7. That being said, let's look at the example of the early Church. St. Paul didn't preach the Christian community or engagement within it. He preached Christ - and him crucified, no less! "Engagement" in the Christian community was the result of conversion to Christ; "You are Christ's body, and individually members of it." In addition, St. Paul had to confront the human tendency to sin - even among disciples - over and over again (e.g., Gal 5:15-21). My concern is that any process introduced in a parish, whether it's Growing an Engaged Church or Gifts Discernment, will ultimately be undermined by the lack of conversion and discipleship within the parish. The difference between the two processes is that the process of discerning gifts acknowledges the need for conversion and discipleship, and recognizes the human tendency to pervert a good thing to our own needs and ends.

In the end, Georgette, I have to admit I'm saddened that so many parishes are substituting engagement for discernment, but I understand why it's enticing. It's easy, the bulk of the expense is borne by the individual, not the parish, and it helps pastors and parish staff be successful in getting people working in parish programs. Unfortunately, engagement's not the purpose of pastoral ministry - formation is - a formation that is personal, immediate, and focused on the secular nature of the apostolate of the laity.
Mary of Nazareth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 06:53
For this Feast of the Assumption (and nameday of my eldest daughter), you might want to check out this lovely website of the Mary of Nazareth Project.
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