Making sense of the church crisis

I don’t want to read about it.

But I know I have to. (And not just because I work in Catholic media.)

Even before the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released, the sex-abuse scandal in the Church was back on my radar screen. That’s because Cardinal McCarrick served in two New Jersey diocese. He presided at my husband’s Confirmation.

Before the grand jury report was released, my pastor dedicated his bulletin column to this difficult topic. He shared his disgust and how the first sex-abuse scandal had affected his priesthood. He called for our parish to participate in a 54-day Rosary novena, beginning August 15.

I’ve been reading about it, and trying to pray, and trying to figure out what it will mean for a Church that’s largely empty already — largely due to the first round of scandals in 2002.

Since 2006 I have been VIRTUS-certified so that I could volunteer and substitute-teach in a Catholic school. I have had to attend the class (which, having also been through the Boy Scouts’ Youth Protection Training, was less informative than the class the BSA offered). I’ve had to go to the really sketchy places in semi-abandoned industrial parks every 3 years to get my fingerprints done. (How sketchy, you ask? How about so creepy-people-in-the-elevator-sketchy, you think it’ll be safer to take the stairs on the way out — because at least you can run if you’re on the stairs? Yeah, that sketchy.) And to be honest, I haven’t had the best attitude about all of that, because I feel like I was being treated like a criminal because some other people were criminals.

I tried to turn that attitude around by praying for the victims and, yes, even for the criminals (they need prayers too) but I still feel that the rest of us were punished for the actions of a few.

But if that’s as much as this has touched me, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I cannot imagine the torment the victims and their families have experienced.

I feel like something is broken in the Church and it’s not something I have the power to fix.

I’m very unsatisfied by the statement of the New Jersey bishops, as well as the bishop of my own diocese. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that we need more than platitudes and talk of best.

We need shepherds, not CEOs.

Especially right now.

On Thursday, when I went to Adoration and took my rosary out of the little pouch, it was broken. That nearly undid me. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but that broken rosary (which was all in one piece the week before when I’d prayed it at Adoration) was a symbol, for me, of the brokenness we are experiencing now. So I sat there using my fingernails to try to repair the links, since I don’t generally bring pliers to the Adoration Chapel. I had to make it whole before I could begin to pray.

I will not stop going to Mass. I think we need to pray harder than ever right now. We need all the grace we can get. The criminals are not the Church. The bishops are not the Church. The Pope is not the Church. They are all part of it, but they are not all of it, and there is too much that is good in it to toss out the whole thing because of the bad stuff.

Helpful Resources

(to be updated)

The National Catholic Register ran an interview with seminary professor Janet Smith this week. It’s worth the read, especially if you are wondering what you, one lay person in a broken Church, can do right now.

What can the laity do right now?

We should certainly pray and fast and try to keep our faith strong and that of others.

We also need to help other Catholics see how seriously bad the presence of homosexual networks in the Church is. We should write letters to our bishop. We should 1) commend our bishop for the good works he has done 2) demand a clean-up of whatever homosexual network exists in the diocese. Carefully give evidence if we have some prefaced by “I have heard; I don’t know if it is true but I have heard it enough to think queries if not an investigation should be made.” Demand that if there are credible accusations against priests and more evidence is needed, that private investigators need to be hired 3) tell him that if cleaning up the homosexual network means that there will be such a priest shortage that parishes will close and services will be curtailed, say that we will stand by him and support his actions 4) that a lay board be set up to which priests and others can make charges of sexual harassment by the bishop himself and priests and the particularly priests can report any mistreatment from the bishop without fear of reprisals; 5) send the bishop copies of the best articles published expressing lay outrage; 6) promise to pray and fast for him 7) send copies of your letter to DiNardo and the nuncio; 8) get signatures of others who may not be inclined to write; 9) ask for a reply. Be polite but firm. And write again every month until something is done. If we don’t get a satisfactory reply, we need to consider writing to the public newspaper.

Father Willy Raymond, C.S.C., President of Holy Cross Family Ministries (and one of my employers) offered a short prayer for the innocent victims.


Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

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Us, Them, and the Creation of a Parish Culture

Ten years ago, my diocese created a new parish by merging two parishes that are in the same zip code, but on opposite sides of a state highway.

On the weekend of our no-longer-new parish’s tenth anniversary, which would be commemorated by a parish picnic on Sunday afternoon, the Saturday-evening Mass was celebrated by a beloved former pastor of one of the churches.

He’s retired, and will be helping out occasionally on the weekend (we’re a one-priest parish with two buildings and four Masses each weekend) and holding down the fort in a few weeks when our pastor is scheduled for surgery.

I’m going to say right here and now that this is going to set the creation of our parish culture back, in a big way.

Father F (F stands for Former Pastor) celebrated his first Mass as a weekend assistant at the church he used to lead, decades ago. He was mobbed before and after Mass by people happy to see him again — and that’s fine.

Not so fine, the applause at the beginning AND end of the homily.

Father C (C stands for Current Pastor) has mentioned more than once that there is a definite difference in the cultures at the two churches in our parish. I agree. As a musician, I’m bounced around among Mass times and locations. There’s only one Mass out of four that the folk group doesn’t play, and that’s 8 AM on Sundays.

It feels like we’ve still got competing parish histories, warring allegiances, and there’s still (after ten years) reluctance on the part of many people to cross the highway to attend Mass at the other church.

After ten years, people still identify themselves by the church they used to attend — the one that’s now part of our merged parish, which has a new name. The churches within the parish kept their original names, which makes things complicated but you have to identify places somehow.

After ten years, we have not yet begun to create a new parish culture. We have two separate cultures duking it out in the background of every little thing, from the location of daily Mass to whether parish musicians are volunteers.

Here’s the thing about a merge: you’re going from two lanes to one. You’re not still traveling in separate lanes.

I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the announcement that Father F would be around to help out every now and then until I started hearing people talk about how wonderful it is that he’ll be back.

He’s not here to be in charge; he’ll probably be celebrating one Mass per weekend except when Father C is sick or away. I’m not sure people get that, though. It seemed to me that people were ready to dig his old office chair out of the basement and put his nameplate back on the door.

There was lots of nostalgia, which is nice, but nostalgia is the last thing we need right now.

We’re ten years in. It’s time to invest our hearts in the culture of our new parish. The first ten years have been largely focused on administration — how things would get done, by whom, when, and where. That’s all figured out. And that’s fine for the first year or two — not the first ten (it hasn’t helped that by year 7 we were on our third pastor). I think it’s come at the expense of the spiritual and community life of the parish, which is important too. Without it, there’s going to be nothing to administrate.

It’s nice that we will have a weekend assistant, but I wish the bishop had assigned someone else to the task, someone who doesn’t have a connection to only half the parish. There’s too much emotional baggage involved, and I don’t think this will be a good thing.

We need to find a way to get rid of the idea that we should still be traveling in separate lanes.

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Photo by Jenny Bennett (2008) via Flickr; all rights reserved.

Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Wrong Answer. Wrong Question?

“How was church?” I asked my daughter yesterday after she returned from the 8:00 Mass.

“Boring.”

Maybe I’d asked the wrong question. Maybe I should have inquired if she’d seen anyone she knows there, or how the music was, or who had preached the homily.

I don’t know what answer I’d hoped to hear. But the answer I did hear leads me to believe that I’ve failed.

When I was her age I suffered through the summers because I had to sit in the pews instead of with the musicians. I didn’t have a place to sing at home in the summertime. I’d go to Mass with my parents sometimes (and once I begged sheet music for original hymns from the songwriter who was playing them at Mass.) Other times, I’d walk to the church a mile away from our house. A lot depended on my work schedule.

I didn’t consider it boring, but then again, I didn’t go to Mass expecting entertainment. My biggest obstacle in the summer was that I wasn’t serving.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I haven’t taught my kids that Mass isn’t about entertainment. Maybe I haven’t stressed enough that we’re not there to get, but to give (and I’m not referring to what we’re putting into the collection baskets).

I can make my kids go (as long as they’re living in my house) and I can even insist that they don’t wear shorts to Mass. But I can’t make them want to.

Is my example enough? Is bringing them week after week after week, sending them to Catholic school, enough? Should I have done, said, been something more?

Have I failed my Domestic Church?

Photo copyright 2015 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

First Communion: Save It for Sunday

Disclaimer: The following is my own opinion based on my own observations over many years of being a parent, a musician, and a parishioner. I am not a member of the clergy, a catechist, or the holder of a degree in theology.

This past weekend, it was my privilege to be one of the musicians at our parish’s First Holy Communion celebration. This is the first time in several years that First Holy Communion was held on a Saturday.

I’m not a fan.

I can think of only four reasons to schedule First Holy Communion as a separate event for only the children in the Communion class and their families:

  1. Hairdressers are open on Saturdays.
  2. It’s easier to schedule the afterparty.
  3. Sunday Mass won’t take 5 extra minutes because there are a few children receiving First Holy Communion, and it takes a little longer to have them (and their parents) receive before the entire assembly.
  4. There’s a good deal of extra running around involved for the DRE.

None of these are good reasons. All of these (except reason 4) pander to people who are either more concerned about the externals of the celebration than the sacrament itself or likely to complain because Mass is a little longer than usual. We need to challenge the assembly, including the families of children receiving sacraments, to be better than this.

I can think of one compelling reason to (as my parish has done for the past few years) designate a Sunday (or two) as First Communion Sunday and invite families to sign up for the Mass they usually attend and receive First Communion:

Reception of the Eucharist is not a private event.

The celebration of First Holy Communion should not be divorced from the rest of the parish.

I used to love when First Communion Sundays rolled around. There would be several families arriving in the vestibule as I got there. The other musicians and I would make sure to congratulate the children. The First Communicants and their families would sit in the first few rows of pews, and there would be special mention of First Communion during the homily and the Prayer of the Faithful. The rest of the people at Mass were the people who are also usually at that Mass, and seeing children receive First Communion at Sunday Mass strengthens that community bond within the parish.

Three years ago, when my friends’ sons received First Holy Communion, I wrote:

I love that at this parish, First Communion is celebrated during Sunday Masses, so that the whole community gets to be there to celebrate along with the children who have been waiting in the pews for seven or eight years to join the rest of the assembly in the sacrament.

Those boys are altar servers now. There’s a commitment to the Church that is affirmed when a family faithfully attends Mass together.

And then there are the other reasons that Sunday is the proper day for First Communion:

  • The pastor will not be tempted to tell parents of First Communicants, “If you’re not going to bring them on Sunday, don’t bother bringing them on Saturday.” (Yes, this happened when my oldest received his First Communion in 2000.)
  • The pastor and/or deacon will not need to provide verbal directions such as “Please kneel” (after the Holy, Holy, Holy) because even if there are visitors among the families of the First Communicants, the vast majority of the assembly will know what to do and will lead by example.
  • There won’t be a low hum of conversation throughout the entire Mass. (Yes, this happened at the class Mass on Saturday.)
  • Catechists won’t need to scold First Communicants for talking and fidgeting while they wait for the rest of the assembly to receive Communion, because the First Communicants will be sitting with their parents, who should be monitoring and modeling church behavior. (Yes, this happened at the class Mass on Saturday.)
  • Family members and friends of the First Communicants will be less tempted to treat the occasion as a photo opportunity (even after instructions to the contrary are given) and won’t jump out into the aisle to wave at their First Communicant during the entrance procession. (Yes, this happened (several times) at the class Mass on Saturday.)

There should be nothing in the religious education program at a parish that sends the message (intentionally or not) that sacraments of initiation are private events, to be enjoyed only by those receiving those sacraments and their families and friends.

By Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr (2009), CC BY-NC 2.0

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

#WorthRevisit: Take the Kids to Say “Hi” to God

I’m thinking back to a time when I was in grade school, and my dad would take us into an empty church on a Saturday afternoon. In those days, churches were open during the day, and anyone could just go in and pray for a few minutes. If you have the opportunity to bring your children to a church or Adoration chapel–not just for Mass, but for a visit–definitely do so. It will leave an impression.

When I was around 10 or so, my dad would take us kids to a church in a neighboring town while Mom was at some meeting or other. Dad would have some time to kill, and we’d walk around the neighborhood, visit a park, and at some point wind up in the church.

One of us would ask him, “Are we here for church?”

“No, let’s just say hi to God.”

That was an amazing idea. You can go into a church, and just visit. You can just let God know you’re there, say a prayer, light a candle. Dad would let us walk around a little, look at the statues, kneel down for a moment by the tabernacle.

The church would be quiet. Most of the lights would be out, but it wasn’t a spooky darkness. It was kind of comfortable, actually, kind of the way you feel at night when it’s dark, and you’re nice and warm and sleepy, and you know you’re safe. After all, even if the church is nearly dark, and nearly empty, it is still full–because God is there, just waiting for you to come in and say hi.

(March 2006)

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

The Evangelizing We Need

In a conversation a few weeks ago, a friend observed that people have been leaving parishes (and, by extension, the Church) because they’re not being evangelized.

I was all in with that sentiment until it became clear that by “evangelized” she meant “told what they want to hear” and “affirmed in what they’re doing, even if it’s not what the Church asks of us.”

Actually, I think that if that’s the definition of “evangelization” we’re seeing too much of it, not too little.

If all evangelization does is affirm what we are doing, it’s a failure.

Evangelization is meant to call us to be better. It’s going to involve telling us things we don’t want to hear and calling us on our bad behavior.

As Elizabeth Scalia observes in Little Sins Mean a Lot,

If we were naturally good, we would not have needed God to go to the trouble of spelling out to Moses that, no, we cant just abandon our parents when they get old and feeble; we can’t just take what we want; we can’t kill whom we please and have indiscriminate sex all day long. As obvious as those prohibitions sound to us now, we need to be told not to do those things–because otherwise we would.
. . . if we are going to try to become really good persons, we need to identify and then detach from the faults and sins that we so readily give into, and thus keep us always playing defense. (18-19)

little sins mean a lot

About a decade ago, we had a pastor at our parish who worked hard to evangelize us. I wish I’d kept the church bulletins from that era, because he wrote a weekly column that was a real spiritual challenge.

He didn’t last long at our parish. People were vocal in their opposition to him. I suspect that what they really didn’t like was the spiritual challenge. Nobody likes hearing that they’re not on the right track. But everybody needs to hear that–or they won’t grow at all.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. (James 1:5)

It won’t necessarily be what we want to hear, but surely it will be what we need to hear.

"The Evangelizing We Need" by Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS @franciscanmom
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz @franciscanmom All rights reserved

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

Words Matter

I work with words all day. Whether writing my own or editing someone else’s, I’m aware of the importance of choosing just the right word.

I think my parish may have missed the boat on this one.

The parish was formed in 2007 and formally instituted in 2008, a merger of two churches in the same zip code but on opposite sides of a busy highway.

I don’t know how the nomenclature works in other merged parishes in our diocese and beyond, but in our parish, they’ve been referenced as “the St. Casimir site” and “the Holy Name site.”

Sites.

They’re churches, not archaeological digs.

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Copyright 2007 Temple-Samsung. All rights reserved. Via Flickr.

The term started out when the churches were listed as “worship sites.”

No. Just no.

“Worship” doesn’t even begin to describe what happens at a Catholic Mass.

Lately, I haven’t seen that word pop up in the bulletin or on the parish website, and I’m thankful that the churches are now referred to as churches (or simply as St. Casimir and Holy Name.)

But reference to the two churches as “sites” has become an unfortunate part of the parish lexicon, as evidenced by the early-morning text message I got from a friend today, checking where the vigil Mass for tomorrow’s feast day will be celebrated.

“SC site tonight, right?”

When I mentioned that I knew she didn’t create the term, but saying “site” bugged me, she agreed, and suggested that we use her fourth-grader’s words: “the daytime church” and “the nighttime church” (referring to the Saturday 5 PM Mass.)

I responded, “He says ‘church.’ I like how he thinks.”

Hello, yes, it’s been awhile…

Tomorrow evening is the Lenten Penance Service at my parish.

I’m not a frequent flyer at Confession, partly because I never seem to have good luck with it. I’ve tried penance services that turn into Near Occasions of Sin and had lackluster experiences at Saturday-afternoon Confession. (Last time I did that, 3 or 4 years ago, there was no penance, no Act of Contrition…I felt like Father was just phoning it in.)

So I stopped going.

I don’t think too many other people go either, judging by our Substitute Priest’s addendum to Sunday’s announcement about the Penance Service. He said that he’d asked the parish secretary why there was only one such service during Lent, and she promised him that the church wouldn’t even be close to full for that.

Well, around here Wednesday night is Folk Group night, but we decided that we’d practice on Thursday this week so we can go to Confession after hearing Father V’s insistence that this is the best thing we can do for our souls.

Honestly, I don’t feel like any priest has bothered before*. They announce the service and then leave us to our own devices. But Father V wasn’t letting it go that easily.

He said once, during a homily, that as a Substitute Priest he can say what he wants, because he’s only there temporarily so he doesn’t have to worry about being kicked out. So he tells it like it is. And that’s a good thing. I’m grateful that Father V cares enough about the state of our souls to make a big deal out of it.

*Please note that I’m not calling out my current pastor here, because (a) he only just got here in the summer and (b) he’s been dealing with health problems that have incapacitated him since early January, hence our need for a Substitute Priest.

Image credit: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

It’s All About Timing

This morning I read an article on Catholic Stand: The 18-Minute Mass.

Though I can’t get behind every statment or suggestion in this article, author Kevin Aldrich makes a good point: it’s not that hard to set things up so that the option of daily Mass is open to more Catholics.

It’s something I’d love to see happen around here.

My parish used to have an 11:45 Mass. People from several neighboring parishes (and others from farther afield who worked in the area) would come to this Mass during their lunch breaks.

When the parish merged, we switched to a 9-AM daily Mass time slot–like nearly every other parish in the area.

masstimes_appicon_1024pxA quick check of MassTimes.org shows that within a 5-mile radius of my home, on any given weekday, I can attend daily Mass at these times:

8 AM – at 2 different parishes
9 AM – at 5 different parishes

We have a total of 7 parishes in a 5-mile radius and everyone’s praying at the exact same time.

Why not spread it out–and publicize it? Why not have Parish A schedule an early-morning Mass (6:30 or 7?) Why not have Parish B take a noon time slot? Why not have Parish C celebrate an evening Mass?

Allowing more options for daily-Mass time slots, it stands to reason, will allow more people the opportunity to attend daily Mass. If neighboring parishes worked together to spread out the Mass times and to get the word out, attendance should increase.

It’s like that line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: First Faith Formation Mass

For the past 7 years, faith formation at my parish was held off-site, at the local Catholic high school situated midway between the two churches that make up the parish. Faith formation took place on Sunday mornings, beginning with Mass in the school auditorium and running for two hours after Mass. There were 14 faith-formation sessions per school year.

Faith formation (or religious education, or CCD, or whatever you call it) has largely been off my radar screen because my children have always attended Catholic schools, where they have daily religion classes. I never paid much attention to how our parish did religious education—until the children disappeared.

For the past 7 years, my children were among the very few children at Mass on faith-formation weekends. All the other kids were in the high-school auditorium. And that’s not a good thing. It means that families were separated out from the rest of the parish. This is not the same as designating a particular Mass as a “family-friendly” Mass, with a homily geared toward children and more upbeat, contemporary music.

The families had left the building—or, more accurately, been removed from it and sent to an auditorium whose primary purpose is school assemblies and performances of the spring musical. Projecting stained-glass windows on the auditorium walls is a poor substitute for the real thing that the children could see, up close and personal, at our two church buildings.

Families missed out. They missed out on the experience of being at Mass among people of all ages. They missed that fellowship and, hopefully, that encouragement at the sign of peace, or after Mass, or when someone in front of them turned around to smile at their babbling babies.

The rest of the parish missed out. They missed out on the witness of families who showed up, despite untied shoes, major bed-head, and arguments about whether Matchbox cars are good church toys. (Trust me, families. The parish needs to see you there. That’s how we know the Church is alive and well and continuing into the future.)

And this morning, at the second of two inaugural Masses for faith formation on our own parish turf, it became evident that the children had missed out as well. Case in point:

  • Lots of people sang the responsorial psalm, an entirely new, but very simple tune. Very few sang the other acclamations until the Lord’s Prayer came along. They sang that (again, not as many as sang the psalm, but they sang it.)
  • I watched one brother-sister pair as they made their way through the Communion line. The brother, age 9 or 10, was demonstrating to his sister how she should receive Communion as they walked toward Father. He had it all down—how to hold up his two hands, how to bless himself afterward. I hoped and prayed that his younger sister was actually old enough to receive, and that if she wasn’t, she hadn’t just made her First Communion today.
  • The kids didn’t seem to know what to do in the pews, which makes sense if their entire Mass experience has taken place in an auditorium with no kneelers.
  • And at the end of Mass, after Father prayed the closing prayer and the deacon said, “Go in peace,” they went. Immediately. Without waiting for Father and the rest of the procession to leave first. The rest of the parish followed their lead, so behind the altar servers we had a senior-citizen couple who crept along at a snail’s pace in the middle of a bunch of families. Father and the deacon couldn’t go anywhere.

I’m really glad that the families are back in church. I hope that as the weeks go on, things get better. It was encouraging that they sang the psalm, so we can expect that participation in music will improve.

It was good to see kids watching the musicians. I never mind if kids turn around and watch us play. That gives me hope that they’ll think, “maybe I can do that someday.” That’s what I did as a kid, and I appreciate the encouragement I received as a beginning musician 35 years ago.

There was a little dancing in the aisle, too, during the closing song, which contributed to the procession’s traffic jam, but to which the parents put a quick end.

We had one mom stop by the musicians’ area and ask us about joining our folk group. That’s terrific! I hope she does, and that she brings a friend or three.

Overall, I think the good of having the families back within the parish church far outweighed the bad and the ugly. This is good for the whole parish, and it’s necessary—and not just because we have only one priest now. It’s necessary for the good of the Church to have the families among us, not in some high-school auditorium.

After 7 years, the families are back in our parish church for faith formation. It’s about time. And now it’s time to welcome them.