Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gut punch

I am just about giving up on the American political experiment. First, let me say that I don't expect much from government on the national level. If basic order can be maintained and the freedom to pursue the good life, that is, the virtuous life, then that's about the best that I think can be expected, human nature being what it is. Then the good has a chance to flourish in institutions like family, church, and neighborhood. Big government should get out of the way of those things. But that's not happening now. Our federal government is determined to override everything else.

I had once thought that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the rest, to paraphrase, I think, Winston Churchill. (Actually I think constitutional monarchy is better, but...) I had thought this because it is hard to corrupt a constitutional democracy totally. By contrast, forms of government that have power concentrated in fewer hands can be corrupted by the corruption of the few. It takes the corruption of the many to corrupt a constitutional democracy like ours, but once that corruption has occurred how hard it must be to reform.

We have reached that point, and I don't see how to go back. As even some of our founding fathers foresaw, the government they were forming works only with a virtuous populace. Once the culture has turned vicious, then what hope is there?

OK -- You are probably wondering where is this post coming from. It is coming from the Supreme Court's decision yesterday to overturn the Texas abortion restrictions. It should have been no surprise to me that the decision continues to enshrine abortion as a fundamental constitutional right. I should not be surprised because that is what the court has said all along since Roe v. Wade. I, like many pro-lifers, had bought into the incrementalist approach to changing the law on abortion. That won't work. The corruption of legalized mass murder has gone too deep into our culture.

I am throwing in the towel on changing things within the legal and political system. I think it would take war to restore the right to life in our country. Being a Southerner, I am not too sanguine about that approach. I am not even going to campaign to change the culture. That is too much for me. I want to love and to help those whom I can and to try to form others to do so with me. That is what I can hope to do.

I think that we are pretty much at the same point about marriage, gender, etc. as we are with abortion. The institutions of our culture, including the legal and political ones, have been totally corrupted. I do not know if any sort of reform is on even the distant horizon. But Christians are made for all times, including corrupt ones.

This post sounds like a big downer, but I don't think it is. If things do take a turn for the better, I will be happy -- and surprised! But if they don't, I won't be disappointed. In some ways, it's easier to be a saint in this situation. Even a little light shines when it is really dark!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What really matters

God, prayer, home, family, love, friendship, sacrifice, care, patience -- these and all the beatitudes, works of mercy, virtues, etc. matter and last.

Trends, emotions, anger, popularity, success, gratification, politics, riches -- these don't matter and don't last.

St. John Paul had it right. Culture matters, and culture begins with cult. Cult is what you worship, and we all worship something. What our society mainly worships is unbridled individual autonomy. How unstable is that? About as unstable as the tantrums of a two-year old. Doesn't that describe our culture?

The cult of the Lord Jesus, by contrast, looks more like this:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.
So turn of your devices -- after reading this, of course ;-) -- and go pray!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Thinking about University Catholic

Thinking about St. Mary's is actually a piece of cake compared to thinking about University Catholic! In the heart of a mobile city, St. Mary's opens its doors basically to the world at one particular spot. University Catholic, on the other hand, serves a particular demographic. That is what a chaplaincy is in the eyes of the Church: the pastoral care of the Church directed to a particular group of people for a particular reason. Why pastoral outreach to university students? Can't they just go to the nearest parish? Yes, of course, they can, but frankly there are hardly any parishes equipped to deal with them. Their hours, for one thing! And the Church needs to deal with university students. This is the time of life to make or break connection with the Church. There are tons of data to show it. Just go the the FOCUS web site. This information is what they lead with. Even after 10 years of this work, I can't tell you how connecting with college students works or fails to work. This past weekend the godfather at a baptism in the parish was a former UCat student. He became very turned on as a disciple of the Lord Jesus during his time at Vanderbilt. He has a younger brother who is a senior at Vanderbilt whom I have never seen. Go figure. I certainly can't.

The hardest part of this mission for me has been the incomprehension of those outside of it. From the first days of my assignment to campus ministry when I was frequently asked whether it was a full-time job -- obviously implying that it shouldn't be -- to a meeting yesterday with an official of the diocese, people just don't get it. He would keep comparing UCat to a parish, but what parish (other than St. Mary's) has so many faithful young marriages and faithful seminarians and those willing to try their priestly or religious vocations?  Where are those parishes in the Diocese of Nashville? So at least for the future of the Church focusing a chaplaincy to this group makes sense.

I have come to see that here in Nashville, we need a flexible and mobile approach to campus ministry rather than an institutional one. There are some beautiful examples of institutional campus ministry. My friends at Texas A&M are the flagship of this approach. But we will never have a big chapel with a dome or even a university parish here -- much as I would like it! Rather we should have people and programs that can work at Vanderbilt, Belmont, Fisk, even at a distance at MTSU, etc.  Here is what it looks like.

1) Human Pillar of Formation
This is where you have to start. When these students are living in a world of hook ups, pressures to achieve academically and socially, political correctness that is constantly fluctuating, and social media posturing, having a home where the individual is valued as a child of God is essential. They need friends. They need faith. They need food! Get them together so they won't be picked off one by one.

2) Spiritual Pillar of Formation
Give them the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession. Did I say Confession? Give them beautiful, dignified worship. Give them retreats and personal encounters with the Lord Jesus. Teach them to pray. Oh yes, and Confession.

3) Intellectual Pillar of Formation
You might have to sneak this one up on them because when they are already studying so much, the last thing they want is another class. But you have to do it. They need to put on the mind of Christ. They need an intellectually mature and robust faith to survive. Call it Theology of the Body -- whatever it is, and they will come ;-)

4) Apostolic Pillar of Formation
Let them serve. They love to. Put it in the context of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy so that they understand their service in the light of Christ. Get them to share their love of Jesus. They will do it, if they see it that way.

Invite, invite, invite.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Thinking about St. Mary's

When I officially end my term as pastor of St. Mary's in about six weeks, it will be four years to the day that I began. When I began, I didn't really have an agenda for the parish, and I didn't have time to formulate one while trying to run University Catholic at the same time. Over these four years, I think that I have discerned at least part of God's agenda for the parish.

1) St. Mary's is a house of worship and a school of prayer.
The architectural predominance of the church building speaks externally the reality that the worship and praise of God is the most important thing St. Mary's does. We commit more time and resources to worship and prayer than to anything else. That is as it should be. St. Mary's embodies the hermeneutic of continuity linking past, present, and future in liturgy and prayer.

2) St. Mary's is a threshold of mercy.
Again literally and physically this year St. Mary's opens a Holy Door of Mercy to the city and the world. The parish already offered generous times of confession before the Jubilee Year, but I think that St. Mary's offers more regularly scheduled times for confession than any parish in the city: an hour and a half on Saturdays, almost two hours on Sundays, and four hours during the week. And people come, both parishioners and those seeking out mercy in the midst of the city.

3) St. Mary's offers formation in Christian discipleship.
There was no catechetical program at St. Mary's four years ago. Now we offer the best support to Christian families and individuals that we can find for forming disciples of the Lord Jesus. Of course, we can do better and more, but we have come a long way in a short time.

4) St. Mary's is a communion and witness of faith in the city.
St. Mary's really tries to be all things to all people because that is who we have in the parish: downtown residents and workers, city bus riders, the needy and homeless, tourists and visitors, local folks from all over seeking what is offered in #1-3, and just about anyone else you can imagine. And we hang together to offer the light of Christ in the heart of the city.

I think that about does it for now. What else does God have in store for St. Mary's?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

And yet...

Horrible as things are in the world these days, and they are horrible, my thoughts are not completely negative. There is always the "and yet" approach. I am beginning to see "and yet" as rooted in mercy. My thanks to Pope Francis for making me think more about mercy. What is it? Is it God's response to our wretchedness? I must admit that I have approached mercy in this way, but that can't be it because that would put this attribute of God at our, well, mercy. No, mercy comes before our wretchedness. Let me post a warning here. These are ramblings of mine, perhaps without sufficient theological backup. So if this doesn't ring true to you, just throw it out the window. I might need to think and pray on this some more. But I am finding it helpful for the time being.

God has this incredible tenderness toward us and desire for our flourishing and well-being. This is mercy or at least part of it. It precedes any response on our part and survives any response on our part. The trick about mercy is not whether God is offering it, but whether we are accepting it. Our response to God and His mercy is very often the desire to be left alone by Him. We don't necessarily do terrible things to get away from God, but rather we get away from God and so we do terrible things, often not realizing how terrible they are. And then when we become miserable as sooner or later we must, we imagine that God has rejected us. It's really crazy because all the while God has nothing but tenderness for us. When we recognize this, we are changed, and we change. Without conversion, there is no acceptance of mercy. Without conversion, we are still trying to call the shots. Accepting God's mercy is part of letting God be God. This is what the sinful woman and David understood in the readings from last Sunday and what the Pharisee did not. The sinful woman and David changed, and the Pharisee did not. Simple as that.

So whatever is happening in your life and in the world, let it drive you back to God. Change what you can change which is yourself. Live in mercy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Well, it's out there

The changes in assignments regarding University Catholic and St. Mary's, that is. In case you have not heard, as of August 1, University Catholic will have a new chaplain: Fr. Michael Fye. No surprise there! And at St. Mary's the new pastor will be Fr. Jayd Neely. He is also a good fit. I am happy for both of them and for the chaplaincy and the parish. One of the things that makes me happy is to have such excellent successors. I am excited to see what each of them will bring to these really delightful assignments! I know that change is hard in community life, but it is also necessary. These changes will be for the good: omnia in bonum!

Bishop Choby has assigned me to the Pontifical College Josephinum, where I will be serving as a spiritual director and whatever else they tell me! I am a bit sheepish about this being announced as the details are not firm at this point, but I am glad the announcements have come out to allow for a smooth and timely transition. All my assignments as a priest have been different and unforeseen. This one is no exception. Of course, there is sadness in leaving UCat and St. Mary's. They have been such great places to serve, but I have to say that this new adventure at the Josephinum intrigues me. It will involve big changes, from being involved in many things -- really too many things -- all over the place to being focused on a single place and defined responsibilities. I will have to be much more focused, and I won't have the excuse of flying by the seat of my pants. I think that it will be good for me, and I hope that I will be a good servant in the new role.

It is bittersweet always to leave beloved people and places, even when going to another good place and good people. St. Mary's has been such an unfolding adventure itself! What an easy place to serve. And UCat -- what can I say? How the love, joy, and life of all those young, faithful students has filled me and sustained me for 10 years -- longer than I have served anywhere. I guess that I am the one graduating this time!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Maybe running out of wine isn't so bad...

Pope Francis said “a wedding feast lacking wine embarrasses the newlyweds – imagine finishing the wedding feast drinking tea? It would be an embarrassment!”

Hold on there, Holy Father. Not too long ago, in my small-town, upper-South culture such a wedding reception would have been the norm and probably still can be found. Yesterday was my parents wedding anniversary. There was no wine served at the reception at The Women's Club in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Granted, I doubt that there was tea -- probably punch, I would say, and from what I hear it was a lively event. You know, that can be the case without alcohol.

I do appreciate how Latin culture seems to be able to handle alcohol in a normal way. Every time I get back from southern Europe, I ask myself whether I should really be drinking as much as I do when I'm there. And when I come home, I revert to my more abstemious practice here. It literally happens over the Atlantic somewhere on the flight home!

We just don't do alcohol well here. Believe me, I know. I went to Sewanee, you know, the University of the South. There the non-puritanical elites of the South have traditionally trained the next generation in irresponsible drinking. I think that Sewanee would be a pretty dull place without alcohol: just tree hugging would be left to occupy your time.

One great blessing I have received from University Catholic is seeing college students having real fun without drinking. I have been pretty strict about this. Any event with anyone under age is alcohol free. Only a rare graduate or senior-only event can include alcohol. And, you know, it works splendidly. I think especially of the Easter Vigil party that goes quite late into the night, with dancing and high spirits but no drinking. Of course, I have no problem with our students drinking on their own time, so to speak. There developed a routine this year of upperclassmen going as a University Catholic group to a specialty beer place on Monday nights. Totally OK with me.

So much of what is bad in college culture is fueled by alcohol abuse. So much of what is bad in my Southern culture is also fueled by it. Simply remove the alcohol and a lot of bad stuff doesn't happen. Also alcohol often becomes a social and often a life crutch -- a dependency. A certain level of drinking can enhance communion among people, but generally alcohol in this cultural setting brings out bad rather than good in people. It unravels communion rather than enhances it.

Back to the Holy Father's point. I do see what he is getting at, especially from his (and Jesus') cultural point of view. But from mine, I think a more tea (or punch) parties would be better!