instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Misperceptions from the inside

I'll just mention two specific misperceptions I think I heard from the attendees, and I'll be done (probably) commenting on the Forming Intentional Disciples mission Sherry Weddell led at my parish this past week.

First: To active, faithful Catholics, passive acquiescence can look like active participation. I should go to Mass? Okay. I should kneel here, bow my head there? Okay. I should get confirmed? Ask Jesus to forgive me? Go to confession? Okay.

It's kind of a disturbing thought, maybe, especially for cradle Catholics who did start doing a lot of those things via passive acquiescence rather than active participation. When you're a child, you of course think like a child. But does anyone check that the adults have put aside childish things?

The antidote to presuming activity is not to presume passivity. For those in the parish whose place it is to know, I'd say it's best to stop presuming at all, and simply ask. Not as an inquisitor, or judge, or evaluator, but as a brother or sister in Christ.

Second: To active, faithful Catholics, the sacraments of the Church can look like the ministry of the Church. I say that because at one point on Saturday, Sherry asked us how well the Church had helped Daniel, whose story we were hearing. We had just watched a video clip of Daniel saying that, when he showed up high at Mass one day, the priest (who knew of his addiction from his confessions) told him, "I can't help you, you need to find someone else." Daniel said he had the feeling the priest didn't want to deal with having him around.

At least a couple of people said the Church had been a real help to him, because he was able to come to Mass, pray, and receive the Sacraments. The church -- that is, the church building was always there when he needed it. The priest was only being honest with him, perhaps even showing him some tough love.

I think those answers sound like answers from people who have never needed help from their parish -- or perhaps never thought of their parish as a source of the help they needed. If the Church is only there to provide the Sacraments and a quiet place to pray, then no, the Church did not fail Daniel.

Or perhaps the answers were simply an expression of piety. The Sacraments and a quiet place to pray are, after all, not chopped liver, even if ideally the priest would have been able to help with drug addiction.

The one priest in the audience shook his head regretfully when Sherry asked how the Church had helped Daniel.



Perception can be reality

In all the time I've known Sherry Weddell -- call it eleven years -- she's been defending her work against charges of Protestantization. She says things that Catholics don't say but evangelical Protestants do, so she sounds like a Protestant. Her defense is that Catholics -- or at least popes and ecumenical councils -- do say the things she says, and the reason she keeps saying them is to make it normal for Catholics to say them, since the things -- things like discipleship and personal relationships with Jesus and talking to others about your relationship with Him -- are things Catholics ought to be saying, ought perhaps even to be incapable of not saying.

Sherry tried to inoculate the mission she just gave at my parish from these charges by, on the first night, quoting Popes Benedict and St. John Paul II on the centrality of a personal encounter with Christ to the Christian life. And the matter only came up briefly, and relatively mildly, on Saturday morning.

Sherry was going over what the Forming Intentional Disciples program calls "threshold conversations," which are intended to help you figure out what threshold the person you're conversing with is at. (She also calls it an evangelism of listening, which sounds like it has a more general application.) All it takes is the right moment, some guts, and a level of trust consistent with the situation -- the person sitting next to you on the plane needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of the flight weird and uncomfortable, your co-worker at lunch needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of your time together at that company weird and uncomfortable, your family members needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of their lives weird and uncomfortable.

A threshold conversation involves asking two questions, then really listening to the answers (and following up with questions to clarify the answers, not to challenge, correct, or instruct). The two questions are:
  1. Can you describe your relationship with God to this point in your life?
  2. If you could ask God one question that you knew He would answer right away, what would it be?
Sherry had been talking about the first question for a few minutes when a woman in the audience raised her hand. It may have been the only time during the whole three days when someone raised a hand when sherry hadn't asked for questions or comments.

The woman said she had worked with returning Catholics for fifteen(?) years, and she had a problem, not with the intent, but with the phrasing of the question. A "personal relationship with God," she said, is "Protestant language," and she thought it would work a lot better when talking with Catholics to say something like Sherry herself said she once asked someone on a plane who was telling her about his experience fighting cancer: "And where was God in all this?"

Sherry replied with a brief defense of "personal relationship" as "Catholic language," and said, "You'd be surprised" at how people respond when asked. (It's a powerful question for at least three reasons: most people have never been asked; some people have never considered the possibility of a personal lived relationship with God; some people will find themselves unsatisfied with their answer, and continue to think about the question long after the conversation is over.)

I think there was a certain amount of talking past each other. Sherry isn't (I don't think) hard up over the words "personal," "lived," and "relationship" being in the question (only the last was included in the question as it appears in the handout), as long as the other person is talking about their relationship with God. The woman in the audience isn't (I don't think) hard up over the term "personal relationship with God" actually being Protestant rather than Catholic, her concern is that it's regarded as Protestant.

And I do think she has a point. There's no need to make things harder than they need to be. If a returning Catholic isn't returning from an environment in which talking about God is natural and normal,  don't add to the stress of talking about God by making them do it in unnatural or abnormal terms. I haven't worked with anyone, so what do I know, but if I had to, I'd probably ask something like, "So... how are you getting along with God?"



Can you hear me now?

Part of the Forming Intentional Disciples mission Sherry Weddell conducted at my parish over the past several days involved watching a video interview with Daniel, a man whose own story is quite dramatic. There's a poor childhood relationship with his parents, an attraction to a neighboring family and to their faith (such as it was) in order to be close to them, there's time in juvenile lock-up, mistreatment of a girlfriend, there's booze and drugs and a decade-plus up-and-down addiction to meth, there's a final, almost cinematic surrender to God and an almost immediate answer from Him, there's a thin gold thread tying him (in a fashion) to God through all of this.

The video interview is broken into parts, so that after each part we can discuss at which threshold -- Trust, Curiosity, Openness, Seeking, and Intentional Discipleship -- Daniel had arrived by that point in his life.

What fascinated me is how bad the Catholic attendees of the mission were at applying the Five Thresholds model to a complicated story.

At the end of the first part, Daniel is a teenager who occasionally goes to Mass with his best friend's family. The father had told him on a car trip that Jesus died to save him and it's not too much to ask to give Him one hour a week. He had prayed once for Jesus to come into his heart, because he was afraid that his friend would go to heaven and he wouldn't.

To the pious Catholic ear, this can sound like the boy had crossed the threshold into Seeking, which is the stage in which a person is actively trying to work out whether to answer Jesus' call to follow Him. My own, less pious ear heard a kid mimicking the actions he saw other people doing, in the hope of getting what he thought they had, which seems to me to be pretty much the workshop definition of Trust.

The point is -- and this shouldn't be news, but we aren't always as wise in practice as in theory -- what we can observe happening is not necessarily what the person we observe is doing. If I see someone kneeling in church, they aren't necessarily praying. If I see someone staring out the window in church, they aren't necessarily not praying. Even when people say exactly what they're doing and why, other people tend to override that information with their own pre-existing interpretive biases.

It's not a Catholic problem as such; I think conflicting information tends to get filtered out of the human brain before reaching the pre-frontal cortex. But the pre-post-modern Catholic interpretive bias is remarkably mismatched with the post-modern religious experience. We have to work to understand what people are going through, even (especially?) if they tell us. The canonical example Sherry uses of this is the assurance with which Catholics tell Catholics that Catholics are leaving the Church for Evangelicalism in order to be entertained. Catholics who leave the Church for Evangelicalism are happy to tell you why, and the reason is never "to be entertained," but since the reason doesn't sound sufficient to Catholics who don't leave, they look elsewhere for the real reason.

In defense of pious Catholics, I'll admit that my own interpretive bias was such that there was little or no chance I'd perceive anything other than "Trust" at the end of the first part of the video interview. (C'mon, there are five thresholds, there are five parts to the interview. The math solves itself.)

At the same time, as Daniel's story went on, with all the inconsistencies and false starts and tangents that an ordinary life tends to have -- and considering the fact that we were watching the interview for the express purpose of applying the Five Thresholds model -- I came to see that the Catherine of Siena Institute is, after all, proposing the Five Thresholds model as itself an interpretive bias that doesn't necessarily match neatly with the post-modern religious experience. It doesn't always sound like that when the model is being explained -- I've had some on-line conversations with FIDites who treated the thresholds as objective realities; we don't merely think  and speak of someone as crossing the threshold into openness, they objectively do cross the threshold that actually does exist.

But even an empirically derived model of human behavior is going to be damaged when brought into contact with human behavior. The question to ask about a model isn't whether it's true, but whether it's useful, and as long as it's proving useful it makes sense to use it.



From parable to model?

At the Friday night session of the Forming Intentional Disciples mission Sherry Weddell just completed at my parish, she gave us some time to draw our own paths through the Five Thresholds. After trying for some minutes, I said to myself, "Nope. The Five Thresholds model just flat doesn't fit my own experience." As I wrote in the last post, this isn't such a surprise given that I'm not a post-modern.

Which raises the question, what model does fit my own experience? Put another way, is there another model that might help form intentional disciples, preferably one that accounts for the importance of the communal and ecclesial dimensions of our relationship with Jesus? While I'm at it, how about a model that doesn't stop at intentional disciples, but takes the Christian all the way to union with the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, so we may be called not just disciples but friends, and indeed children and heirs?

Granted, that might be overkill for working with high school seniors in CCD class who don't know the Lord's Prayer. And a full-blown model would have to be used with care around adult Catholics in leadership positions who don't know a personal relationship with God is possible, or they might be too distracted by all the moving parts to notice that the whole thing sits on the ground of a personal relationship with God.

In any case, I went to sleep Friday night with a brief prayer for illumination on the question of a model for spiritual growth useful for helping others to grow, and I woke up Saturday morning with the thought of the Parable of the Sower.

And I thought yes, that works as a description of spiritual growth at all levels. An individual soul can, as Jesus explains, be described as shallow soil or rich soil, and then within that soul there are different weedy patches and hard-packed roads. Every day is a matter of converting bad soil into good, and making sure good soil doesn't revert to bad.

How might the Four Soils model be developed and used? Got me. I only prayed for illumination, not an action plan.

But when I heard the Gospel reading at the Mass before Saturday's FID mission session -- Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower -- I thought it was something more than coincidence.



Saturday, September 20, 2014

On the Threshold of the Five Thresholds

Having heard, over the course of two evenings and one day, Sherry Weddell explain her take on applying the Five Thresholds of Conversion in a Catholic context, I think I'm ready to downgrade my objections to quibbles.

My objections chiefly amounted to this, that the Five Thresholds model is too one-dimensional and linear to fully describe all the paths to discipleship Catholics might follow. What answered the objection?
  1. Sherry said several times that not everyone goes through all the thresholds in a clear and distinct way.
  2. Taken individually, the thresholds do describe transitions people go through, so even if it's not categorical it's still a useful model.
  3. I realized that the model was developed to address the post-modern journey, and I'm not a post-modern, so it's okay if it doesn't really speak to my own experience.
That said, I'm still not sold on collapsing the lived experience of so many Mass-going Catholics into "Trust." But hey, maybe they're post-moderns, and besides, it's only a model.



Monday, September 15, 2014

The heaviest coin in the Christian's pocket

The homilist at Mass last Sunday -- when, as you recall, the Gospel reading was Matthew 18:15-21 -- made an interesting side suggestion while preaching on fraternal correction. He said it may be that the two hardest things for Christians to practice are fraternal correction and forgiveness.

Put another way, perhaps, the natural or humanistic concept of love most falls short of the fullness of Divine love in terms of correction and forgiveness. And if Christians, who are at least occasionally told they should correct and forgive in love, aren't great at it, what can we expect of those whose culture doesn't regard both fraternal correction and forgiveness to be virtues?


Crowdsourcing a Stork Bus

Rae Stabosz of Confessions of a Cooperator hopes to crowdsource the funding for a Delaware Stork Bus, a stork bus being "a medical vehicle equipped with a counseling area and a state-of-the-art ultrasound machine, which allows pregnancy centers to counsel and minister to women and show them an image of their baby."

If you'd like to donate, please do. And remember to pray for (and maybe do more for) those women who, seeing an ultrasound image of their child, change their mind about getting an abortion.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nobody said anything about interactive small groups

Sherry Weddell is coming to my parish this week to present the Catherine of Siena Institute's Forming Intentional Disciples mission. It's been two years in the making, which is how far ahead Sherry's schedule was booked when she was invited to come two years ago (our adult formation director is an old pal of Sherry (as am I, in the have-met-for-dinner-in-real-life sense)).

It should be a good mission, although I just now noticed the bit about "interactive small groups" in the bulletin announcement. I don't mind participating, but I don't really do sharing. We'll see how that plays, since I believe a large part of the whole Intentional Disciples program is learning to tell your story. As big as I am on the role story plays in human nature, and therefore in Christian evangelization and culture, I have to say my own story strikes me as irredeemably dull, not to mention terribly plotted, with all the character development of a wacky sitcom neighbor. (--And what happened when the young protagonist finally looked inside the small chest the old man at the bridge had given him? --If he ever does, I'll let you know.)

I'm also curious to see if I come away more convinced the Five Thresholds of I Once Was Lost -- trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and intentional discipleship -- are as directly applicable to cradle Catholics as I think Sherry thinks they are. The smart money is on Sherry being right, but in my armchair ignorance I have to think the other two journeys she mentions in Forming Intentional Disciples -- ecclesial and active practice -- make the way Mass-going Catholics pursue the journey to intentional discipleship quite a bit different than the way unchurched people become intentional disciples in evangelical communities.

That aside, the fundamental message that Catholics need to be intentional disciples of Jesus, to have a true, lived relationship with Him, is one almost every parish in this country would greatly benefit from hearing. And I wouldn't be surprised if this weekend plays a role in more than one of my fellow parishioner's stories. Who knows, maybe even in mine.



Sunday, September 07, 2014

There's no such thing as a Copernican evolution

At this morning's RCIA class meeting, we watched the first video of ChristLife's "Discovering Christ" series. In the video, the presenter compares the difference between living for yourself rather than for God to the difference between the Ptolemaic Model and the Copernican Model. The question is, who is at the center of your universe?

Our RCIA leader pulled on that thread, pointing out how complicated an earth-centered model gets when you use it to account for all the observable motions of the stars and planets.

And yet, that's what everyone did.
It occurred to me that there is no way for a geocentric model to evolve into a heliocentric model. You don't keep adding epicycles until one day, presto, that's the Sun in the middle of your chart. You keep adding epicycles until one day, presto, you toss your Spirograph aside and say, "There must be a better way!"

A similar thing happens when people living according to a self-centered model examines their lives. It just doesn't really work, and you can't get it to work by adding incremental refinements and corrections to your self-centeredness. You have to toss aside yourself and say, "There must be a better way!"

Now, truth cannot contradict truth, so I don't mean to contradict the empirical fact that plenty of people living a self-centered life are altogether content with the way it works. Even people who know it's no way to go through life find it tempting.

Of course, the mere fact that people are content doesn't mean their contentment is well-founded. If your ideas about how to live are well suited to achieving your idea of what life is for, then you'll likely be content if you're following your ideas about how to live. And yet, if your idea of what life is for is wrong (or more likely incomplete), then your ideas about how to live are going to be wrong also.

What I think this means to Christian evangelists -- which is to say, to Christians -- is that we'll find people in two very different states. Some people will be, in one way or another, dissatisfied with what they've tried to put in the center of their lives; these people are waiting to be introduced to Jesus. Others, though, are satisfied, and they need to be introduced to the idea of Jesus, so to speak, to the idea of the true happiness, which we are not only capable of but for which we were created by a God willing to die in order for us to achieve it.

And the people we might meet in these two states may well be Christians themselves.



Friday, September 05, 2014

Venerable Fulton, pray for us

On the bright side, this sort of farce does make it easier to distinguish between hope in Christ and hope in the Apostles.

Representatives of the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria meet to discuss the cause of Ven. Fulton Sheen.


Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season

A few days ago, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a passionate post for the Archdiocese of Washington's blog about the corrupting effects of "all that 'old school' stuff that hangs on in a darkened world." Within a day, the post disappeared, and Msgr. Pope subsequently wrote:
I removed the post upon further reflection due to the strong nature of the language I had used in parts of it.
He added:
I remain concerned about the central point of the article, namely, how we as Catholics can effectively engage a culture that increasingly requires us to affirm what we cannot reasonably affirm.
I agree that his central point is valid. For that matter, I don't think the language he had used was too strong in nature -- though parts were... impolitic, by the standards of American diocesan communications.

Here, then, is a chunk of his post, with the impolitic parts excised:
Sometimes it takes a while to understand that what used to work no longer works

Let’s be honest: St. Patrick’s Day nationally has become a disgraceful display of drunkenness and foolishness in the middle of Lent that more often embarrasses the memory of Patrick than honors it.
It’s time to cancel the “Catholic” traditions that have been hijacked by the world. Better for Catholics to enter their churches and get down on their knees on St. Patrick’s Day to pray in reparation for the foolishness, and to pray for this confused world to return to its senses. Let’s do adoration and pray the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet unceasingly for this poor old world.

But stay away from all that “old school” stuff that hangs on in a darkened world. As for St Patrick’s Day, it’s time to stop wearin’ the green and instead take up the purple of Lent and mean it. Enough of the celebration of stupidity, frivolity, and drunkenness that St Paddy’s day has become. We need penance now, not foolishness.

Enough now, back to Church! Wear the purple of Lent and if there is going to be a procession, let it be Eucharistic and penitential for the sins of this age.

For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!