The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has organised a national conference on the new evangelisation. The goal is to get a whole of leaders together and focus on how the parish can evangelise.
This focus on the parish is very good for me personally. I’ve long been dubious of the relevance of parishes. My adult faith was nurtured through chaplaincies, youth groups, and new movements. The parish didn’t play a part at all. Apart from that, people are much more mobile now and geography no longer defines community. As the Church’s resources diminish, I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t focus our energies on new apostolates, organise ourselves in new ways, and dispense with the parish model.
The Holy Father thinks otherwise:
The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.
Evangelii Gaudium, 28.
So in personal terms, Pope Francis has issued a challenge, and this conference gives me the means to respond.
Today’s keynote speakers were Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, co-authors of Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter. The book relates the authors’ successes and failures in rejuvenating their modest parish in Maryland. It’s great reading, and I’ll review it in depth some time.
I number among the 44 delegates from the Ballarat diocese — a cohort which constitutes 9 per cent of the total conference attendance of more than 500 people. This is a huge investment of people, time and money from a comparatively small diocese.
Conferences like this generate a great deal of practical wisdom and enthusiasm, but it can quickly dissipate when participants reinsert themselves back into the daily grind. The fact that Ballarat has sent so many people will hopefully mitigate that pattern. I have high hopes that we can return home, share what we have learnt, and effectively apply it. With God’s help, parishes all over the diocese will be blessed and renewed.
I hope and I pray.
Blogging occasionally offers unexpected side-benefits. I’ve just watched a full preview of The Identical — a film which won’t be released in US cinemas until September. Who knows when it will hit Australian screens?
All I have to do in return is write a review. Not an advertisement or an endorsement, but an honest review. Sweet!
I’ll write the review some other time. First, I want to consider the marketing of this film. The Identical was described to me as “a Christian film,” which in my mind conjures unfortunate and unwanted associations with Fireproof and Courageous. The production values of those films meet Hollywood-standards, but the acting is mediocre, and the writing is very heavy-handed. I’d call it “excruciating in its preachiness.”
To clarify, Fireproof and Courageous are movies I enjoyed. I would consider showing them in a parish setting. But I wouldn’t show them to secular friends anymore than I would bash them over the head with my bulky Jerusalem Bible, or hand them The Catechism of the Catholic Church as recommended reading.
There’s smarter ways to evangelise secular friends. I’ve often recommended C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters — the book and the radio play — as a user-friendly introduction to supernatural outlook. In the past six months, I’ve given away several copies of Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism. And I’ll never forget the life-changing impact St Josemaría Escrivá’s The Way had on me, which is why I’m always ready to share that book with others.
Movies can evangelise too. By that, I mean they can sow seeds. Subtly. In a way foreign to Fireproof and Courageous.
Of course, the danger of subtlety is that the message can become so subtle that it is lost. Don Jon is a case in point. A year ago, I was lauding the film — albeit cautiously. Since then I’ve read enough reviews to know that Don Jon is part of the problem it claimed to critique, and I don’t regret its aborted release in Australia.
The Identical, however, is a much more successful effort at subtle and effective evangelisation. Again, by that I mean it can sow seeds, presenting the Christian faith in a positive light, and engaging in the big issues which faith tackles. Ain’t nobody gonna convert after watching this movie. But they’re not going to sin either, which really is something when you consider the moral sewerage Hollywood retails these days.
The beauty of The Identical is that it meets Hollywood production values and it has a superb cast of recognisable and talented actors and its Christian themes are universal. That’s the genius of Christianity at its best, of course. It speaks to the universal human condition.
Consider this trailer, which is cut for secular audiences.
And then consider this “faith trailer,” promoting exactly the same film:
Both trailers do justice to the film they represent, but they’re a fascinating study in contrasts.
Kids never cease to amaze me. I’m speculating, because the option was never proposed to me, but I reckon when I was in grade three, receiving communion on the tongue would have horrified me.
In contrast, the children I’m presently preparing for communion seem to prefer it. With just a few weeks to go, we practised how to receive holy communion today. St Cyril helped out:
Make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen.
I’m conscious of kids not liking wine, and making faces after tasting it, so we also tasted some altar wine today. The reaction was precisely what I expected. “Yuck!”
“Even if you don’t like the taste,” I told them, “remember that it won’t really be wine at Mass. It will look the same and taste the same, but it will be the Precious Blood of Christ. You don’t have to receive from the chalice, but I think it would be a wonderful thing to receive our Lord’s blood on your first communion day.”
So then the negotiations start. “Can’t we dip the bread —” (Fr John clears his throat) “— I mean, can’t we dip the body of Christ into the chalice?”
I guess someone, somewhere, had seen that practice. So I explained to the children that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow that, because the Precious Blood might drip onto the floor. “But in some places,” I added, “the priest dips the host into the chalice, and then he places the Eucharist on your tongue.”
That intrigued them. They all wanted to try it, and having tried it, most of them seemed to prefer it.
I promised them a funny video next week, which explains the dos and don’ts of receiving communion:
At face value, when Jesus tells a Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs,” he’s engaging in a racist and misogynist slur.
In Semitic culture, to call someone a dog is highly derogatory, and our Lord directs this slur against not just one Canaanite woman, but the entire race of Gentiles. So he insulted you and me too. Gospels like this one are good for us. Christians aren’t called to unthinking obedience. We’re called to foster intelligent faith.
In the Gospels, the disciples are always asking Jesus questions. We should imitate them. We should not only ponder, but also scrutinise the Word of God. There’s nothing that can’t be Googled these days, but we should, each of us, also turn to our Lord himself. It’s good for us to sit in front of the tabernacle and to question Jesus. It’s good for our faith, and at a personal level it pleases him a lot.
At the Last Supper, our Lord calls us his friends:
“I shall no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know the master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” (Jn 15:15)
Well, friends can say and do things servants can’t. Friends question friends. They complain to friends. Sometimes, they even repudiate friends. This is the sort of intimacy our Lord wants from us: an easy familiarity, which arises naturally between people who share regular conversation. So, what do we make of our Lord’s racial slur in today’s Gospel?
It’s not what it seems, I think. Recall the context. Our Lord and his disciples are still aggrieved by the recent death of John the Baptist. They have tried, unsuccessfully, to go on retreat. They finally escape the crowds by leaving Israel all together. They withdraw to a foreign land. Our Lord has drawn a line. He and his disciples need to rest. They are resting — maybe even sleeping — when a local woman starts shouting at them from outside the house. Our Lord ignores her, but it’s too much for the disciples. All they want is some peace and quiet. Can’t Jesus quickly oblige her so that she’ll go? He doesn’t budge. His work is in Israel. Right now, he’s on vacation.
Eventually — maybe after many hours — the woman gains direct access to Jesus. We’ve all been in similar situations. How co-operative are we, when people who have relentlessly badgered us finally confront us? Even these situations, though, don’t license us to engage in verbal abuse. But then, maybe Jesus didn’t do that either. There are mitigating details.
Our Lord’s doesn’t refer to street dogs — scavengers — which are common in the Middle East and many parts of the world. Instead Jesus refers to “house-dogs.” The original Greek word — κυνάριον — is a diminutive, like “puppy-dog” or “doggy.” So our Lord’s analogy evokes a family meal, with small children at the table, and puppies at their feet. The children no doubt love their pets, and perhaps the adults love them too. The analogy echoes the prophet Nathan’s parable to King David:
“A poor man had nothing but a lamb, only a single little one which he had bought. He fostered it and it grew up with him and his children, eating his bread, drinking from his cup, sleeping in his arms; it was like a daughter to him.” (2 Sam 12:3)
In our Lord’s scenario, the house-dogs aren’t refused food; they must simply wait their turn. The children are fed first. The Canaanite woman picks this up straight away. She’s apparently not the least bit offended. I don’t think our Lord means to insult her — or us.
The woman gets her favour: her daughter is healed. But what about us? What can we derive from this Gospel? I think there are two lessons.
Firstly, gentiles were always a part of our Lord’s scheme for the Church. Our Lord ministered to the children of Israel first, but his ultimate mission was the reconciliation of the world, as Paul relates in the Second Reading. You and I aren’t an afterthought.
Secondly, in the Lord’s vineyard there is a time for work and a time for rest. Jesus delayed the woman because he and the disciples needed rest. But at the same time, persistence pays off. We can remember this in our apostolate, and in our prayer. In the apostolate, we should be generous with ourselves, and attentive to self-care. Not neglecting the needs of others, but defining healthy boundaries. And in our own prayer life, if our Lord at first refuses, we should pray and pray some more.
Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Korea highlights a local church which makes for fascinating study.
The Church in South Korea has expanded at a phenomenal rate in recent decades. Many reports note the growth of the Church in Korea despite the very low number of foreign-born missionaries.
But maybe the Korean Church grows because of the foreigners’ low numbers. More specifically, maybe success lies in the failure of the West to export to Korea the laxism and mediocrity which typifies “the Spirit of Vatican II.”
Consider first the opinion of Fr Piero Gheddo, an expert in Japanese and Korean sociology, and dean of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Milan:
In Korea Christianity exercises a powerful force of attraction, compared to Confucianism and Buddhism, for at least five reasons.
1. It introduces the idea of the equality of all human beings created by God himself. In Confucian society woman was almost the slave of her husband, girls did not go to school, and woman was inferior to man.
2. Catholics and Protestants distinguished themselves by their active participation in the popular movement against the long military dictatorship between 1961 and 1987. Confucianism and Buddhism, however, promote obedience to the constituted authority.
3. Christianity is a religion of the Book and of a personal God, while shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are not even religions, but systems of human wisdom and life.
4. Catholics and Protestants have built and maintain a large number of schools at all levels, including numerous universities that have asserted themselves as the best in the country.
5. Finally, South Korea has become a developed and even wealthy country in which the ancient religions do not have an answer for the problems of modern life. Christianity, and especially Catholicism, presents itself as the most adequate religion for our time and the most active in assisting the poor.
Fr Gheddo is full of praise. Since 1960, the number of Catholics in Korea has grown from about 100,000 (0.5 per cent) to 5.3 million (over 10 per cent). But others aren’t quite as positive. From the National ‘Catholic’ Reporter:
When Pope Francis arrives here Thursday, he will encounter a vibrant but divided Korean church. It is a church that has grown substantially in numbers in recent decades, but one with significant internal divisions.
“There are actually two churches here,” said Columban Fr Pat Cunningham, “the church of the bishops and the church of the progressive minority.”
The division between Korean bishops and Catholic activists has grown as more conservative bishops have been appointed during the past three decades and Catholic activists have become more vocal.
I have to credit Fr Cunningham for referring to a progressive minority. He paints the scene with an honesty which isn’t typical. Progressives are often depicted as the overwhelming majority. Vox populi, sensum fidelium, and all that.
In America, Europe, Australia, we hear that the Church will grow again, when and only when the Church lets go of traditional moral teaching and doctrine. The progressives’ case has always required historical revisionism, wherein Traditionalists have controlled the agenda, and the episcopacy, since 1968. (Certainly not my experience of the Church in Australia!)
In Korea, the Church is fruitful, so progressives are unable to depict Catholic Tradition as sterile, and present modernism as a panacea. But the same old criticisms are heard: “lost opportunities,” and “clerical structures,” and “conservative bishops.” The critical spirit blows hard.
To what end? Ideology, I think. It confirms my suspicion that the progressive cause which was unleashed after Vatican II is mired in political outlooks and earthly horizons. The cause is not a means to attracting souls; it’s an end in itself. Supernatural outlook is lacking and human interests dominate — not that the forces unleashed are entirely human. The critical spirit has Satan written all over it.
In about a month’s time, our grade three children, who earlier this year celebrated their first confession, and received the sacrament of Confirmation, will make their first holy communion.
I’ll meet with the parents tomorrow night to plan out the last four weeks of preparation. Youtube is usually a goldmine of good material for such meetings. Busted Halo, for example, produce some great catechetical videos.
But apart from that, I stumbled across this video about the first communions of St Josemaría and Pope Benedict — one of my favourite saints and one of my favourite popes, respectively.
There should be a whole lot more videos like this. A great many of the saints fondly recalled their first communion, but this is the only video of its kind on Youtube. So I’m going to make some more. How hard can it be? If you have any knowledge in video editing, or any details about a saint’s first communion, let me know via email@example.com.
(Also, if you’ve got the ear of Pope Francis, ask him to share his memories too!)
There’s good reason Simon son of Jonah became the Church’s foundation stone. His faith is exquisite, and even in today’s Gospel, when he sinks like a rock, he is a model we’d do well to imitate.
But first, consider how the storm in today’s Gospel can be applied analogously. Perhaps when you think of storms in your own life, you think of moments of crisis and emotional turmoil. But I think the analogy is much broader than that. A storm is any reality we’d like to change but can’t.
Here’s a classic example. Not in my own life, of course, but certainly a storm which is very common in the lives of my parishioners:
I want my children to go to Mass, and I’ve been telling them that for years, but they just won’t go.
That’s a storm. I bet we can each identify a dozen similar storms in our own lives. Realities we’d like to control and change, but which we can’t.
Now consider Peter’s prayer in the midst of the literal storm afflicting the disciples. He realises that the ghost walking on water is actually Jesus, so he calls out to him:
“Lord, if it is you, stop this storm! Calm the sea!”
Except that is not what Peter says. We’d expect him to say something like that. It’s the sort of thing I’d pray — and often have — in the midst of life’s storms. But Peter’s faith, remember, is the exemplar. He teaches us a better way to pray:
‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’
Peter has our Lord’s measure, and he applies the perfect test. He knows that only Jesus can take him to a place beyond himself. Only Jesus can ask him to do something he can’t do alone.
So Peter steps out of the boat, and he walks on water. What’s in Christ is now in Peter. He invests all his trust in Jesus, and receives the power of Jesus into himself. But then he doubts.
As soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink.
When our focus on Jesus falters, we sink. More specifically, when we focus on those realities we can’t change and can’t control, we sink. And it’s so easy to pray out that of spirit:
Lord, take this storm away from me. Solve all my problems … and then I won’t need to bother you.
See the problem? We can go through life asking God to take away everything that makes us dependent on him. But God is our Father, and we are his children. He wants us to depend on him! So we have to abandon ourselves to the storm, and to God’s will. We have to shift our prayer, and our focus, to God.
Peter couldn’t walk on water. God did that for him. We can’t get to Heaven. God must do that for us. We can’t become like Christ. God must do that for us. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. It means we actively focus on Christ. If we trust him, his power will work through us.
Easier said than done. In practical terms, how exactly do we not focus on the storm, and instead focus on Christ? Even Peter struggled with that one.
I think the secret is to pray like little children. Simple prayer of the heart, repeated over and over in the midst of unchangeable realities.
Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus I trust in you. Jesus I trust in you.
Mary, pray for me. Mary, pray for me. Mary, pray for me.
Praying like that won’t change the reality around us. But it changes the reality within us. It fosters serenity, and it opens our hearts to the power of God.
It’s pure speculation, of course, but I imagine this is the way our Lady prayed at Calvary. What else could she do, as she gazed at the cross, watching her son die an agonising death? “Father, I trust you. Father, I trust you. Father, I trust you.”
H/T Fr Thomas Richter.