Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming a Better Catholic

Unsolicited question from a local Catholic high school student:
How do you help kids become better Catholics? What do you do to carry out the mission of the Church as the Director of Religious Education? 

My answer:
Our job as religious educators is not so much helping kids become better Catholics, but rather helping parents help their kids become better Catholics—or at least better catechized Catholics anyway.

St. Viator of Lyons (d. 390), catechist and martyr
St. Viator of Lyons (d. 390), catechist & martyr
Ultimately, it's the Holy Spirit's job to help us become better Catholics, but even He can only do so much if we refuse to cooperate. Hence, the need for solid formation in the faith and good catechesis—a fancy Greek word for religious education.

And the party primarily responsible for that formation and catechesis? The parents. Religious educators only serve to assist parents in their critical responsibility of raising their children in the faith. In religious ed classes for those not in Catholic schools, participants have contact with their catechists maybe once or twice a week. Kids in Catholic schools? Maybe once a day, along with an integrated Catholic perspective throughout the curriculum hopefully.

But regardless of type and amount of formal instruction, the real place young people are formed in their faith is at home, where they see moms and dads, older siblings, and other family members putting that faith into action. All the classroom instruction in the world won't mean a thing unless it's accompanied by exposure to what it looks like in real life—especially in the real lives of those we love and respect and look up to.

St. Charles Lwanga (1860/65-1886), Ugandan catechist and martyr
That's the thing: Catholicism is not a set of beliefs and doctrines that you need to learn as if you were preparing for a test. Instead, it's a way of life that has to be witnessed and adopted and lived. Jesus Himself said that He was the way, the truth, and the life—that's literally true. He is literally the way we must go; He is the path we must follow and trod upon. Far from being just a mystical guru teaching us about love and peace and goodness, He is instead love itself, peace itself, goodness itself. We don't learn about Jesus in Christianity; we become Jesus.

So, my role as a DRE? I try to recruit catechists (teachers) who have that same vision and are trying to live it out themselves—that's the first requirement. Curriculum, teaching strategies, classroom management, and all that technical stuff is way down on the list. What matters first and foremost is that a potential catechist affirms the Faith of the Church and aspires to live it outthat he or she has embraced Christ and is striving to grow in that embrace.

If I can identify and recruit enough people like that to lead our religious education classes every fall, then the rest will follow. Say a prayer for us as we look forward to finding additional people like that for next year, and please consider becoming a catechist yourself!

A version of this story appeared on, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Baroness. Pauper. Wife and mother. Celibate. Activist. Contemplative. Catherine de Hueck Doherty's tumultuous life included all these elements and more. Like Francis of Assisi, whom she sought to emulate as a Franciscan tertiary, Catherine was single-minded in her quest for God, and the force of her personality drew along many in her wake.

Photo of Catherine taken by Thomas Merton (1941)
Catherine was born in 1896 into Russian minor nobility. As a young schoolgirl, she displayed her innate piety when she tried to clean away Christ’s bloody wounds on the crucifix. Raised in the Orthodox Church and educated largely in Catholic schools, she grew up breathing with both lungs of the Church, East and West. Eventually Catherine became a Catholic, but she never lost her love for eastern Christianity. 

At age 15, Catherine married her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution denied the couple an idyllic married life in society’s upper-crust. Instead, the de Huecks left Russia for Ontario, Canada, where Catherine gave birth to a son, George. The upheaval in their lives hit Boris hard, and he fell into dissolute living. The de Hueck marriage unraveled and was subsequently annulled, leaving Catherine a single mother in a foreign land. She leaned heavily on her faith during this time, and even as she found success as a writer and lecturer, Catherine felt the Lord preparing her for a special work.

An immigrant and outsider herself, Catherine knew the pain of poverty and the shame of social exclusion. Taking her cue from the papal social encyclicals, she applied her awakened social consciousness to the fight against racial prejudice. “A love that is not incarnate is not real love,” she used to say, and it was a sentiment she put into action. 

Doherty with Dorothy Day in Rome (1957)
Catherine’s Friendship Houses—first in Toronto, then in New York City—focused on interracial bridge-building, and despite opposition and poverty, the work flourished throughout the 1930s and 40s, spreading across North America.

Worn out by years of selfless charity and civil rights activism, Catherine retreated to the prairies of Ontario in 1947, and established Madonna House with her new husband, Eddie Doherty. What started as an attempt at “poustinia”—a Russian term for desert spirituality—became a destination for a regular stream of visitors.

A community of like-minded men, women, and priests began to take shape, and, recognizing God’s hand at work, the Dohertys surrendered themselves to the new undertaking—a surrender that led them to take a promise of chastity and embrace celibacy for the remainder of their lives. “Acquire inner peace,” Catherine wrote prophetically, quoting St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, “and a multitude will find their salvation near you.” Today, Madonna House includes over 200 permanent members with satellite communities around the world.

Catherine Doherty died in 1985. Pope John Paul II opened the cause for her canonization in 2000, bestowing on her the title Servant of God.

A version of this story was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sand, Oceans, and Kneeling

Point Pleasant on the Jersey coast was a frequent summer destination when I was a kid. I had an aunt and uncle there, and cousins, and heading down to the shore was a way of connecting with family while taking advantage of the nearby beach.

So it is that the ocean looms large in my childhood memories. Even now, landlocked in the Midwest, and decades since I've visited a coastline, I can close my eyes and see the surf, smell the Coppertone, hear the gulls, and taste the saltwater taffy.

And I can feel the sand—the hot sand burning my feet as I bolt from the station wagon toward the water, heedless of my mother's admonition to put on sandals. I wanted to feel that heat and that grittiness. It was what I looked forward to as much as the Atlantic itself. The sand presaged an encounter, an event, and it was always eagerly anticipated—the hotter, the better! And if we chose an access point that was more boardwalk than beach? Somehow, the ocean was diminished when we got there—smaller somehow, less majestic.

Kneeling is like that I think, and it's the best part of getting to Mass early. With seven kids in tow, making it to Sunday Mass before the Gospel reading can itself be a stretch, so getting there on time is a treat, let alone arriving early. But when it does happen—like for the "Big Liturgies," requiring early arrival to reserve seats, or when I'm on my own during the week—kneeling before Mass is like feeling that sand push up through my toes. It announces, “Get ready. Something huge is ahead. Like an ocean.”

My affection for kneeling goes back to my first encounters as a Presbyterian with Catholic liturgy, and the revelation that kneeling could be—ought to be—incorporated into the very act of worship itself. Real Presence and Transubstantiation were both mind-boggling and appealing, but my first infatuation with the Mass was its incorporation of posture into public prayer. "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess," St. Paul declares. The confessing part I knew as a born-again Christian. The knee-bowing thing? In church, for real, and not just in the abstract? That was a revelation. 

Joos van Wassenhove, The Institution of the Eucharist (1473-1475)
It was also a revelation that the call to kneel, while explicit in Scripture and the rubrics, was profoundly implicit in the solemnity and sacredness of the liturgy itself. The incense and candles, the vessels and vestments, the choreographed movements and the Canon—it was all overwhelming in its numinous opacity, and kneeling came as a relief. As a young Catholic-wannabe, I became utterly convinced that if any of it was true, and God really was making an appearance there, then I was glad for the invitation and permission to kneel—if not to fall prostrate.

So, unlike many post-conciliar churches that abandoned kneelers and kneeling, I can’t get enough of it. This is all the more important as I age and grow in my awareness of the luxury of kneeling—at least on the knees God gave me. I'm a nursing instructor, and my students and I care for plenty of folks following their total knee replacements. Consequently, I'm regularly reminded of how transient kneeling on our own joints can be.

Given that, I’ve even taken to skipping the padded kneelers altogether whenever convenient. Instead, I like to kneel directly on the floor—whether carpeted, wood, or stone. I saw a friend of mine do this once, and the thought of direct knee-to-ground contact appealed to me. Yet I was reluctant to follow his example for a long time out of fear of appearing overly pious—like a Pharisee broadening his phylacteries for all to see. 

But then I remembered the beach, and the pleasure of direct contact with that gritty heat and its accompanying shiver of anticipation as the waves beckoned. Give me the floor, I say, as long as I’m able. And I can't even count it as a small gesture of penance or self-denial for the suffering souls. It’s too enjoyable to be a real sacrificeI look forward to it with relish every day.

God is an ocean of mercy, and the Mass, our Sacramental shoreline. Kneeling, then, is like a stretch of sand. While we are able, let’s kick off the sandals and run!

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.