Friday, October 05, 2007

Spiritual practices inspired by Julian of Norwich

In the November/December 2007 issue of Today's Parish Minister, Colleen Griffith wrote a splendid piece on how to discover love this Advent. She describes how Julian of Norwich attuned herself to recognizing God's love for all humanity. Here are two spiritual practices for Advent from Colleen which are inspired by St. Julian.

  • Take a few moments to enter silence. Allow your own depths of spirit to be opened to drink in God’s love. Stay with your heart’s stirring. Write your own psalm in response.
  • Julian makes many references to God’s maternal love. Spend some time in prayer with Scriptures that reference the maternal love of God. Choose, for example, Psalm 131 or Isaiah 46:3-4 or Isaiah 49:15.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Should we give money to street people?

Want to start an argument? Ask a group of Sunday-going Christians if we should give money to panhandlers. I've been on both sides of the issue. There are many good reasons to not give money to street beggars. I was at a dinner with some folks from a liturgy conference once. The food was bounteous, and many of us had to take home doggie bags. As we were walking away from the restaurant, a woman in our group placed her bag on the sidewalk next to a beggar and wished him a good evening. In the few steps it took for him to realize the bag had food in it, he came rushing up to her to return it. He was looking for cash or something he could sell for cash.

People who work with the homeless (and even more who don't) will tell you of professional beggars who can clear several hundred dollars a day, tax free, with the right story in the right part of town. Some city governments will tell you it is your civic duty not to contribute to panhandlers because it encourages them to keep begging and discourages tourism. Drug and alcohol rehab counselors will tell you that contributing to panhandlers is simply contributing to their addiction. And some beggars, no doubt, are aggressive and dangerous. It wouldn't be prudent to interact with them in any fashion if you were by yourself. Some people walk around with McDonalds coupons or bus tokens to give to beggars, but those are refused as often as accepted. And they can also be sold for cash.

Lunch and a beer
That was more or less my thinking for a long time. Then one day, many years ago, a colleague and I were walking to lunch in a nice part of town. We were approached by a beggar who wanted a quarter. Without hesitating, my colleague pulled out his wallet and gave the guy a dollar. A little embarrassed that I hadn't responded as quickly, I fished out a dollar for the beggar as well.

During lunch, I asked my colleague, who is not a Christian, why he had given the beggar money. "It's lunchtime," said my friend. "And I can spare it."

"But what if the guy spends your money on booze?" I asked.

"It's not my money now," he said, lifting his glass of beer. "Besides, that's what I'm spending it on."

So I've changed my thinking. If I've got some spare money and someone asks me for a handout, I'll often give him something. I don't ask him if his hourly rate is higher than mine. I don't ask him what he's going to spend it on. My change in attitude led to an interesting relationship.

Sunday drivers
Shortly after the lunchtime incident, I was driving to church. I came to a red light, and there was a beggar with a sign, asking for a handout. I lowered the window and gave him a dollar. Next week, same thing. That went on for weeks, and then months, and then a couple of years. We'd chat for as long as the light would allow or until another driver waved a bill at him. Then one Sunday he asked me to pray for him. "I'm going to a job interview tomorrow," he said. "Good luck!" I said. "God bless," he said as the light changed.

I told some friends at church the story. I laughed about it a little. I didn't believe him. It sounded like he was rehearsing a new story for drivers that weren't as soft a touch as I.

But he wasn't there the next week. He hasn't been there since. Maybe he found a more profitable corner. Maybe he really got a job. I don't know if he changed, and it doesn't matter. I did.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Reform of the sacrament of reconciliation

Bill Huebsch writes in the November/December issue of Today's Parish Minister, "Advent is coming soon. Let's find a way to help folks celebrate [reconciliation] in a way that will touch their hearts and reconcile them to the gospel."

Below is a brief timeline of the reform of the sacrament after Vatican II.

The Reform of the Sacrament

In 1973, a new rite for the sacrament of reconciliation was promulgated. The new rite followed norms set down by Vatican II itself, and there were five:
  1. the rite should be clear and the effect of the sacrament comprehensible,
  2. the role of the community should be emphasized,
  3. a public form of the rite should take precedence over the private form,
  4. readings from Scripture should be central to the rite,
  5. and the rite should be short and free from useless repetitions.
The revised rite has four forms:
  1. the individual rite,
  2. the communal rite with individual confession and absolution,
  3. the communal rite with general absolution,
  4. a brief rite to be used in emergencies.

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Three ways to link liturgy and justice

Gregory R. Kepferle, the CEO of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County in San José, California, wrote a splendid article about liturgy and justice in the November/December issue of Today's Parish Minister. Below are three more ideas he has for linking liturgy and justice.

Three ways to link liturgy and justice in your parish
  1. Cross train your liturgy team and your social justice team. Help folks that are liturgically-oriented see the justice themes in Scripture and the church year. Help social justice-oriented folks appreciate the richness of the liturgy. Participate in an immersion action-reflection experience together and ritualize what you learn.
  2. Celebrate your social justice and outreach ministries. Institute a commissioning ceremony for your parish volunteers engaged in social concerns. Invite the liturgy team to work on it in collaboration with the social concerns team.
  3. Plan ahead and calendar special occasions that can link liturgy and justice through Scripture, music, prayers of the faithful, the choice of eucharistic prayers, and psalms.

    Some examples include:
  • the Feast of Christ the King, which is often the Sunday for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s anti-poverty collection;
  • a Sunday when Catholic Charities has a special collection for the needs of the poor;
  • January, when the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services celebrates immigrant and refugee awareness.


Litany for the church's social ministry

In the November/December 2007 issue of Today's Parish Minister, Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, wrote a guide for helping parishioners live a life of justice and peace. Below is a litany he composed.

Dear Lord, we ask these things in your Name:

Victims of violence, may your suffering end.

Sufferers of injustice, may your rights be vindicated.

Wounded creatures of God, may the scars of waste and pollution be healed.

Builders of Peace, we pray your work bears fruit in our world and our hearts.

Defenders of Justice, we pray your example inspire us all.

Protectors of the Environment, we pray God’s creation may be cared for by us all.

Children of God, let us serve our brothers and sisters.

Followers of the Lord Jesus, let us practice what we profess.

Receivers of the Spirit, let us be inspired by divine vision.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Be a dreamer this Advent

I have one of those weight-lifter art books that nobody really reads. You know, the kind you get one of the kids to help you drag off the bookshelf onto the coffee table when company is coming over. Well, in this tome is a picture of a painting by a 15th-century painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, titled “Adoration of the Shepherds.” It’s a nativity painting in which the whole world is coming to adore the newborn Christ child. Seriously, this painting looks like it could have been inspired by the crowds at LAX the day before Thanksgiving. And every one of the throng is focused on Jesus. Everyone, that is, except Joseph.

Joseph is oblivious to the commotion, gazing far off into the distant sky, looking, in fact, in the opposite direction of his adopted son. He is depicted as an elderly man, and, when I saw the painting, I thought he’d already slipped off into dotage.

We know from Matthew’s gospel that Joseph is a man of dreams. And we know that a guy who dreams up the kind of stuff Matthew tells us about—angels appearing right and left with life-changing exhortations like “flee to Egypt”—isn’t a guy who only has three or four dreams in a lifetime. This guy lives in a dream.

How did Joseph get to be saintly? After all, when he found out Mary was pregnant, he planned to divorce her (Mt 1:19). Not shocking, but also not what you’d expect from a saint. It was his dreams that changed him. Because he was a dreamer, he was able to welcome Mary into his home and into his heart.

I took another look at the picture. In Ghirlandaio’s painting, Joseph is not an addled old man. He is a man of purpose. His hand rests firmly on a sarcophagus that serves as the Christ-child’s crib in the painting and a foreshadowing of his fate. That is to say, Joseph is grounded in the paschal mystery. With that foundation, he looks to the sky, far off in the distance, focused on what everyone else is too busy to see.

The challenge that Advent poses for us is to dream. And to teach our children to dream. But what are we to dream of? Joseph teaches us: A messenger of God, bearing good news.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The wicked stewardship problem

"Stewardship" has become the new beige. It goes with everything and seems pretty neutral.

Here's what I struggle with. If the parish belongs to the parishioners, how do we get them to take ownership? At the same time, how do we legitimately assert the authority of the bishop and the pastor to make "final decisions"? And, in the midst of all this, how do we ask parishioners to pay for the re-sources needed to accomplish a mission they don't always feel completely responsible for?

How do we even begin to solve the problems surrounding stewardship? If you are like me, you fantasize that there is "an answer" out there. Some parish or some person smarter or more experienced than I am must have solved all this already. But down deep, we know that really is a fantasy, don't we?

Wicked problems
These kinds of problems are what Horst Rittel, a pioneering theorist of design and planning and late professor at the University of California, Berkeley, called "wicked problems." Rittel figured out that many problems cannot be solved by "experts" dropping in and delivering a ten-point plan, even if they have experience in your specific area of difficulty. This is, in fact, the very type of solution most of us go looking for. We go to a workshop or buy a book or hire a speaker to just tell us what to do. The thing that makes your problem "wicked" is that there is no one solution. And each potential solution raises other problems. And, this is really key, each problem is unique.

Jim Conklin, author of Dialogue Mapping: Creating Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, went on to develop Rittel's ideas further. Conklin says wicked problems have these characteristics:
  1. The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution.
  2. Stakeholders have radically different worldviews and different frames for understanding the problem.
  3. Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
  4. The problem is never solved.
Don't you just hate that last one?

There is no "solution"
But think about it for a minute. Isn't the lack of a "solution" the very thing that makes the whole of parish life an encounter with grace? Stewardship is not a puzzle. There is no final answer. In the end, we are stewards of a mystery—a mystery of love. How do we solve that mystery? We can't. We can only enter into it.

Conklin says, "Because of social complexity, solving a wicked problem is fundamentally a social process. Having a few brilliant people or the latest project management technology is no longer sufficient." We might paraphrase that to say that because of the radical, loving relationship of the Father and the Son (in which we are immersed through the power of the Holy Spirit), solving a wicked problem is fundamentally an ecclesial process. Having a few brilliant theologians or stewardship experts is insufficient.

The answer is the community
In other words, stewardship is the responsibility of the entire parish community.

This means that all the multiple, complex, disjointed, busy, and distracted parts of the body of Christ must share a commitment to entering into the complex process of stewardship together. And they must share a commitment to love and support one another in that process. This won't "solve the problem." But it will bring us all more fully into the love of Christ.

[This was inspired by knowledge-management expert Jim McGee. See his post on "Solving puzzles or framing mysteries" for more information on wicked problems.]

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stewardship: Hospitality is the key

In the September issue of Today's Parish Minister, Cathy Rusin describes how hospitality is the key to good stewardship. She offers some criteria for measuring the "welcome factor" in your parish:
  • Can people locate and read your sign, including Mass times?
  • Is the entrance to the church building easy to find and attractive?
  • Once inside, what sort of experience will they encounter?
  • Do new members simply get a set of donation envelopes, or perhaps a basket with a ministry handbook, city map, and freshly baked bread?
Learn more
For more on stewardship and hospitality, Cathy recommends you contact the Archdiocese of Louisville (502-636-0296, They publish Christian Hospitality, a comprehensive handbook which “provides a theological basis for hospitality,…tips for welcoming all people, and a sampling of models and programs…. Parishes will be able to evaluate their hospitality ministry and find suggestions for improvement.”

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Liturgy lacks imagination

In the August 27, 2007, issue of America, Cardinal Godfried Danneels writes about liturgy 40 years after the Council. The entire article is deserving of a careful read, but here are my favorite lines:

How many celebrants consider the homily to be the climax of the liturgy and the barometer of the celebration? How many have the feeling that the celebration is more or less over after the Liturgy of the Word?

Too much attention is also given to the intellectual approach to the liturgy. Imagination, affect, emotion and, properly understood, aesthetics are not given enough room....

Liturgy is neither the time nor the place for catechesis....

Nor should liturgy be used as a means for disseminating information, no matter how essential that information might be. It should not be forced to serve as an easy way to notify the participants about this, that and the other thing. One does not attend the liturgy on Mission Sunday in order to learn something about this or that mission territory....

The church fathers, too, adhered to the principle that mystagogical catechesis (in which the deepest core of the sacred mysteries was laid bare) should come only after the sacraments of initiation. Their pedagogical approach was “sensorial”: participate first and experience things at an existential level in the heart of the community, and only then explain....

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