Not all of us can regularly go to Mass in a cathedral of great beauty. Most Catholics have available to them rather humdrum works of architecture for their local parish. But it’s still possible to find beautiful small churches where careful attention to detail and the meaning of form went into their design. And yet, that still relatively rare.

The following video is an excellent look at one of the crown jewels of Catholic cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral in France. This comes from the “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation” YouTube channel. As you watch it, consider how much thought went into this building, and then consider the church where you regularly go to Mass. My point here is not to highlight the great beauty of Chartres compared to the humble local parish, but how carefully the design and the details were thought through and realized in Chartres. Can we achieve such excellence again? And can we achieve something of this in our local parishes? I believe we can and should.

Of course, very few parishes have the resources to build large and lavish churches, but often a church that achieves the right virtue of proper “churchness” is not a matter of resources, or size, or expensive materials, as it is of basic understanding and will. What I mean is that having the right understanding of what a church is and ought to be, and applying one’s minds carefully to its design, even a small church in a small parish can be a work of architecture worthy of worshiping Christ and elevating the faithful to Heaven.

I am surprised at how apparently ignorant so many Catholics are, including many in the hierarchy, about basic church architecture–or seem to be so. Churches are where we celebrate Mass. This is no small matter. Although, perhaps most Catholics are not as ignorance and not caring about such things, believing they are unimportant. However, the church building itself, though not absolutely necessary for celebrating Mass is, nonetheless, the normative place of worship. In it we meet the Real Presence of our Lord and savior, the King of Kings. If we take worship seriously then we should take church design seriously, including for the humble local parish Church. Catholics used to. But we haven’t for some time now. We must again.

I have frequently posted on this and related topics, for example here.

I also love how the speakers in the above video, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, don’t shy away from orthodox Catholic dogma. This is not a video where the information presented has a condescending tone toward faith and believers. I have no idea if they are Catholics or not, but they just say things as though they are relating how Catholics ought to think of these things. I think this is the best way to present something like Chartres Cathedral. The viewer can make up their own mind, but at least one should know what the builders of Chartres believed and what led to make the kinds of decisions they did.

I have also been reading an excellent book, Visions of Mary : art, devotion, and beauty at Chartres Cathedral by Rev. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion. She is a scholar, photographer, and Episcopalian priest who has come to love Chartres and Catholic history. (I pray she takes the leap and become Catholic–perhaps not easy for a woman who is an Episcopalian priest. She would have to give up some things precious to her.) This book takes a look at aspects that speak directly to the Holy Mother, her role in the life of the Church, and how Catholics (especially in times past) think of Mary. It does so by focusing and meditating on specific details of the cathedral. This book makes me want to go to Chartres and spend some significant time with the Cathedral, taking pictures and making sketches and just attending to it.

As I see it, architects should look at Chartres, and similarly excellent Catholic churches, as inspiration to how they should think about church design in general, and then apply that understanding to every Catholic church building, even the most humble and simple of churches. I also believe the faithful should know these things too, being encouraged in the faith, but also demanding churches actually be Catholic in their designs.

Of course, church design tends to flow from intended use, thus a church designed to serve the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass will necessarily look different than one designed to serve the needs of a Novus Ordo Mass. This is why, when the Novus Ordo was promulgated, so many older churches had their altar rails removed, altars brought closer to the nave, and other changes because the Novus Ordo felt wrong in a traditional space. And this is also why the Novus Ordo still feels out of place in a traditional church even after those kinds of changes have been made, because arches, stained glass, cruciform floor plans, and other harder-to-change elements don’t fit the New Mass. The contemporary modernist church needs a more Protestant style, entertainment hall. Thus, it’s more than merely the architecture that often needs to change.

modernism octopus
Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Octopus”, by E. J. Pace.

Postmodernism has been a common term for at least three decades. Because of that fact the term modernism may seem to refer to a thing of the past. Modernism has also been used to describe certain concrete developments in the history of art, architecture, literature, and other areas of human creativity. Thus we can speak of modernism in architecture with specific start and end dates, preceded by pre-modern architecture and followed by postmodern architecture. But in the area of ideas it is different, especially in relation to theology and Church history.

Modernism began before the industrial revolution, really earlier with the Protestant Reformers and the embracing of nominalism, and it continues today. In fact, it is so pervasive that one can fairly say modernism is the defacto set of beliefs held by most people, including most Christians. Sadly, I am a modernist in many ways, not because I want to be so, but because it is the ocean in which I swim and its tenets and presuppositions have become second nature to me. In fact, I don’t really see them, and when they are made evident to me I am often surprised. Thus, I have been digging into modernism with the purpose of eradicating it from my life and faith.

I also believe it can be argued that, for the most part, when we look at the Church today what we see is largely a modernist institution rather than a truly Catholic one. Whether that argument can be adequately countered I do not know, but I do think Catholics are very often unaware of modernism and its effects, and thus, because of modernism’s allure and its malleable nature, we are inclined to accept its ideas into their understanding of the faith. In short, modernism appeals to the natural “bent” of human nature, and is thus appealing to all of us if we are not on our guard.

1200px-Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922
Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Descent of the Modernists”, by E. J. Pace, first appearing in his book Christian Cartoons, published in 1922.

Below are some excellent lectures and discussions on the topic of modernism. Each covers much of the same territory and terms, but each is also different and together they help form a complete picture. For those who love the Traditional Latin Mass, the first video is especially excellent.

Although understanding modernism, including where it came from, what it is, and how it has affected the Church, is an important task, Catholics are then faced with the question of what to do now? How does one combat the leaven of modernism within the Church?

Question: If modernism, the synthesis of all heresies, was significantly at play during Vatican II, and if it clearly influenced the formation of the Novus Ordo Mass, and if the so-called spirit of Vatican II is better called the spirit of modernism dressed in Catholic garb, and if the papacy of Pope Francis seems to be a thoroughly modernist papacy, then what are orthodox Catholics to do?

This is a good video.

We homeschool and participate in Classical Conversations, the organization behind this video. Latin is not easy to learn or to teach. I have tried to learn it. I once led a seminar for homeschoolers part of which meant I had to address the question of how one teaches Latin. Fortunately I recruited several people to help me. I still don’t know Latin. But I agree with everything in this video. It’s a good thing to learn Latin and to teach your kids Latin.

If you know someone who is thinking of learning Latin, or adding it to their homeschooling curriculum, or struggling with either learning or teaching Latin, share this video with them.

It is interesting to hear these people, parents and teachers, talk about Catholic liberal education:

For years, beginning long before we became Catholic, we began to homeschool our children (which also meant homeschooling ourselves). After several years we got connected and involved with an educational program called Classical Conversations founded by Leigh Bortins. It is an excellent program, and I would encourage anyone interested in homeschooling to take a close look at what it has to offer. It is not Catholic, but it is basically Christian, and in many ways basically orthodox for Catholics. I also had the privilege of writing the first draft of the science chapter in Leigh Bortin’s book The Question. And I spent a year with Andrew Kern of Circe Institute studying Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and more. Kern is another significant voice in the classical education movement. As a family we are committed to the idea of a Christian classical education for our children and ourselves. In short, we know something about what a classical approach to education offers, and how it is a kind of corrective, even a profound and radical challenge, to the prevalence of the typical anti-human modern education of our society.

The kind of education discussed in the video above follows the classical education model — at least it has a similar mindset. In fact, I believe one can say that a truly Catholic, a truly classical, and a truly liberal education are all the same if understood from a biblically and anthropologically truthful understanding.

I wish there was Catholic Classical Education in our area — whether for homeschooling like the Classical Conversations program, or a more formal brick & mortar school. The local Catholic schools in our area, though having the reputation of being a little bit better quality than the local government schools, are definitely not classical — and therefore not nearly as Catholic as they believe themselves to be. Actually, at their core they are modernist with some Catholic veneer. Our eldest went for two years at the local Catholic high school and it was a bust. I feel sorry, in a sense, for the faculty and administration at that school. They are products of our modern Catholic culture, meaning they are modernist and American before they are Catholic.

They also are inheritors of the post Vatican II reality. Take away all the nuns and religious who used to be the teachers (because the draining of religious from the Church) and you now have to hire “professionals,” which leads the double whammy of much higher salaries, and therefore higher tuitions, and modernist thinking. In that sense, these Catholic schools too often represent the anti-human educational philosophy more than they realize. Into those schools come students from any family who can afford to pay, which means they are no longer serving the local Catholic community, most of whom cannot afford the tuition. This produces a student body of only about half Catholic. And of the Catholics, only about a third actually believe the tenets of the Church. (Hopefully the numbers are better in your area.) This situation has produced a “Catholic education” system that is not truly Catholic, certainly not classical, basically a poorer education than its reputation warrants.

God bless the folks in the video above who recognize the need for truly Catholic education, and the blessings that follow.

Here is a talk on the family by Michael Matt of The Remnant newspaper. Those of you who know of him know he is a staunch traditionalist within the Catholic Church. I am currently of two minds when it comes to the traditionalist position. Having come from a Protestant background I have a strong allergy to anything that smacks of protest. However, I do find myself sympathizing a great deal with the traditionalists.

I am curious what other think of his take on the state of the world, the Church, and the family today, as well as his thoughts on how to combat the problems he outlines. Is Michael Matt on target, or not? Does his understanding of our current situation make sense or is it too one way or the other?

As for The Remnant newspaper, I find it an interesting resource. Sometimes it’s a bit too shrill for me, and sometimes I find myself saying, “Stop fretting so much and trust in God.” But I also like their history and, while they oppose much of what is going on in the Church today, they remain faithful Catholics and in communion with the Church and the Pope. This, I think, is very important.

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

We homeschool. This puts in a strange place within our society — a good place I believe, but not always understood. I wrote this piece below, in a slightly different form, several years ago (before we entered the Catholic Church) in response to a tendency I see within the homeschooling world, and which I feel is still relevant today.

There is a trend within the subculture of homeschooling* that is based, in large part, upon separation from society at large. This makes some sense. Homeschoolers are often defined, to a large degree, as people who want to pull their children out of mainstream society and protect them from “the world.” Certainly not all homeschoolers are this way, and I hope we are not, but it has some appeal given the many troubles this world presents.

Recently we attended a Christian homeschooling conference. As you might imagine we saw all kinds of Christians, from the young hip couple with their cool glasses and lattes to the families with 6+ children all wearing 19th century prairie outfits. The conference had numerous speakers and work sessions. One of the keynote speakers struck me as the kind of homeschooling parent I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, and I only heard the one talk (or I should say over-the-top performing-preacher show talk), but I was encouraged by his talk to more clearly define an aspect of why we homeschool and why some of our reasons stand in contradiction to his.

He began by lauding his father for taking his family to an island away from “the world” and homeschooling them. In other words, our keynote speaker was raised on an island cut off from the taint and spoilage of the wider world. He went on to say that that was a great thing and we should not be afraid to separate our children from the world on “islands” where they can be protected and safe. If you are like me you might be chafing at this idea, but it is not unwarranted, and I want to give the idea its due.

This world we live in is most certainly full of may horrible things — war, famine, crime, and all kinds of ugliness. There are also many competing ideas that challenge one’s own beliefs. A Christian parent who is interested in their children knowing God as they themselves know God may want to protect their children from those competing ideas for as long as possible. The same goes for any parent who has a worldview to which they cling. I can understand the desire to keep one’s children away from the corrosive influence of the world. To do so feels like being responsible, and in some cases it certainly is. So I know where our keynote speaker is coming from. I know that feeling. But there is more to the picture.

The concept of “the world” is a big deal in Christian teaching. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. John the Apostle said “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Paul the Apostle said “do not be conformed to this world.” There is a lot more to be said, and I do not intend to unpack the biblical concept of “the world” here, but most Christians know there is this thing called the world which they must avoid in some way. Christian homeschoolers might see pulling their kids out of public school as pulling them out of the world. Christian families who move to the country far from urban areas may believe they are removing themselves from the world in some meaningful way. Certainly to raise one’s family on an island would feel like the world is far away and one’s family is safe.

However, when John says “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world,” we see that the world is not so much a physical entity as it is a heart condition or a spirit. Also, when Jesus said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world,” it appears his intention was not fleeing the world but to bring it light. Elsewhere in scripture Christ followers are called to be light in the world and salt of the earth. And when we read that “God so loved the world that he gave us His son,” we get the idea that our stance towards the world may not be so simple. We may not be able to separate ourselves from the world as easily as we think for “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” comes with us wherever we go, even to an island. Also, we cannot be light or salt to the world if we decide to have nothing to do with the world. And we certainly cannot love the world as God loves the world if our stance is to flee the world which, as we have seen, may not be so easy anyway.

At that homeschoolers conference it became clear that the world could be seen most clearly in such things as 1) cities, 2) public schools, 3) government, and 4) anything other than far right politics. If one didn’t know better one could conclude that homeschooling is all about 1) getting out of the city to the country – a kind of “back to the garden” idea, 2) avoiding any kind of public education, including any education or activities that has public monies attached to it, such as a city funded soccer league, 3) having nothing to do with government or public service unless it is to defend against liberals who want to impose laws on homeschooling, and 4) assuming a political stance and championing the values of such organizations as the Christian Coalition. I may be taking a somewhat extreme critical view here, but I honestly don’t think so. This is what I see coming from much of the Christian homeschool subculture and from our keynote speaker.

But those reasons are not our reasons.

One of the great blessings of Christian truth is the incredible freedom we have. As we love God and His values we find ourselves marveling at this world He created. This world of His includes all that we find, including the incredible variety of humanity and human creativity. We might and should grieve at the evil we see in the world, but we should also love the world. We should love the cities and the arts and the culture and the governments. Wisdom dictates that we do not love folly or evil or rebellion against God. On the other hand this world is full of God’s creative work, it is His sovereignty manifest in all things everywhere, and this world is full of the people He loves – which includes all people. We have the freedom to engage in this world head on. We also have the opportunity to be light and salt. This opportunity is a great privilege. As a parent I can choose to model light and salt, or I can model the act of withdrawal.

Another great blessing is that because I know God is sovereign I can engage in this world without fear. I can live in the city or in the country, work in private business, ministry, government, or public schools, listen to Christian or secular music, visit art galleries and museums, watch popular movies, and even drink, smoke, play cards and occasionally cuss, without fear. If Jesus is my example then I can eat dinner with the most worldly people. If Paul’s theology is correct then I can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Wisdom, and the pursuit of holiness will dictate how I live, and so will my consideration the weaker brother (and I too am a weaker brother), so I may choose not to do some or most of these things at times, or ever, but there is no need for fear. But I must say that having no fear is not the same as not being scared. A man may say he is not scared of the world, and that may be true, but he may still live in fear of the world. To take one’s family away from the world and live on an island because the world is a bad place is to live in fear of the world.

We are to fear God, not the world. Our battles are not with flesh and blood, but against evil spiritual powers — sin and Satan. And it is God who fights our battles. Our greatest weapons are faith, love, and prayer.

There is another kind of separation — the separation through ideology and stereotypes. On our keynote speaker’s website promoting his daily radio program he touts the following: “There are no psychiatrists, professional counsellors [sic], bureaucrats, and seminary professors. But you will find fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.” Other than spelling counselors wrong this quote says a lot. There is an attitude within some quarters of Christianity that sees psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors — along with scientists, social workers, and anyone from Hollywood — as being other than fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends. Not only is this a wrongly prejudiced perspective more indicative of a passionate narrow-mindedness than of wisdom, it is also a perspective indicative of fear. There has always been a class of persons who claim victim status though they are not victims in a meaningful sense. This class is also easily manipulated by those who point to the educated, or those in government, or big city dwellers, or those in the entertainment industry, as the victimizers. Some politicians can be quite good at doing this, and so are many preachers. Our keynote speaker not only claims the victim status but uses his talents to fan the flames of fear. Fear thrives in the world of stereotypes. And just like the religious leader who prays to God, thanking God that he is not like other people, we can all fall prey to a profound blindness. What we see in Jesus is someone hanging out with the sinners. We see someone not only reaching out to everyone, but doing so without fear, and not drawing lines between himself and the rest of humanity. And, ironically, it is the religious leaders — the upstanding citizens, moral agents, family lovers, Bible teachers — who criticized Jesus for just such activities.

Where does this leave us? Our confusion, like so much in Christianity, is to make the wrong distinctions and then fall into the pit of false religion and self-righteousness. We confuse the world with superficial distinctions as “psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors” rather than with a heart rooted in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The world, in this bad spiritual sense, is as much alive and thriving within Christianity as it is anywhere else. When it comes to worldliness there is often no distinction between the Hollywood movie star and the megachurch pastor. In fact we bring the world with us wherever we go, wherever there is humanity, even into the nuclear family unit (a modern entity that, arguably, is the source of many problems in comparison to the traditional large extended family living and working together — but this is not the place to dive into that subject). Only through the grace of God do we have any hope to be free of the world — and that freedom can come to a professional counselor/psychiatrist working for a government agency while moonlighting at a seminary and living downtown in the biggest city as it can come to the man barricading his family against the evils of the world in some distant wilderness. Grace be to God for our hope and freedom.

But what about my charge as a parent? It is one thing to be an adult confronting the ugliness of this world, it is another for a child. As a parent I must protect my children when appropriate. I must also guide them in wisdom. I would rather my children face into the harshness of reality, guided by my example, sometimes stumbling and struggling, but learning to see themselves for who they truly are and learning to love others where they are. I also want my children to grow up without fear. If we can walk through this life together, confronting the variety of human experience and choice, and do so hand in hand, I think my children might have a decent chance of knowing good from evil, of learning humbleness, of appreciating all that God has created, and learning that goodness comes not so much from trying to avoid the stain of the world as turning to God in genuine repentance. We have come to realize that fleeing the world and taking one’s family to an island, even if those actions are clothed in the finest Christian robes of piety, could very well be an act of rebellion against God. Not necessarily, but could be.

This is one reason we homeschool, and we do so within a city context, and we listen to all kinds of music and study all kinds of art, and we are interested in politics beyond narrow “Christian” agendas, and we appreciate MLK and Gandhi, and we appreciate revised histories when they offer clarity and truth, and we don’t believe one can homeschool true faith into any child, for faith is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit. And we also don’t think we’ve got it all right. All we can do is move forward in humbleness (which also is a gift), looking to God for grace and mercy, and seeking goodness the best we can.


* Like many different elements of our society, homeschoolers represent a kind of subculture. However, it would be incorrect to think of it as a single or homogeneous subculture. At best it is a subculture of subcultures, and may be better described as an eclectic group of families that have a rather unique similarity regardless, and sometimes in spite, of their many dissimilarities.

Here’s a sign attached to a fence around the tennis courts at a local private Catholic high school:

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I’m just a little curious. There is plenty of room on this sign to have included all the words from the Bible verse being quoted, but interestingly some words were left out. Here’s the complete verse:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Notice what was left out (highlighted in blue):

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The sign also says: “Proclaim Good News!” I wonder if the school administration believes that removing the strict exclusivity of “No one” and “except” make the good news gooder. In other words, have they improved the Gospel by making it seem as though Jesus is merely one way to come to the Father? Is this easier to swallow? Less offensive?

Is it being ever so slightly evasive?

And all those ellipses: confusing, visual weird, creates suspicion. This is just a poorly designed sign. Is it an example of modern Catholic marketing?? Perhaps indicative of the post-Vatican II era? A sign of the times?

note: take this post with a grain of salt

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

This is one of the most interesting and intense conversations I have ever witnessed. Jordan Peterson has received a significant amount of attention of late for his views, and in particular for an interview he did on television. Camille Paglia has been well known for years and is frequently outspoken on a number of topics. Both are absolutely brilliant and provocative. This video is easily worth its nearly two hours running time.

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My daughter Wilder Rose speaking of her music teacher and the joys he gave her, and her sorrow of losing such a good and fine teacher.

A couple of weeks ago my kids music teacher died. He was a brilliant, generous, uniquely gifted man who was loved by many people and many families in and beyond our town. He was primarily a percussionist who played in various bands, played many other instruments than drums, taught numerous students over the years, and also handbuilt wooden canoes.

A year ago we purchased a traditional drum kit for our son who was 6 years old at the time. We began looking for a drum teacher. This man came highly recommended. We had some worries because our son is young and prone to fidgetiness (some might say he’s a touch ADHD). However, this teacher was perfect for our son, working with his natural tendencies, and helping him discover the music within him. Then he offered to add our daughter for just a few dollars more. So we bought her a guitar. Our daughter is deeply musical and sings, plays piano and fiddle, and has great natural gifts in music. But as she began guitar something beautiful began to happen. Suddenly her musically talent blossomed like it had not before.

This man, a musician, husband, and wonderful teacher, gave my children, and our family, the gift of himself. After he died we cried and cried, and then we began to discover just how much he meant to so many other people in our community. Today we went to a memorial geared more towards his students, who are mostly kids. There was a drum circle, sharing, tears, laughter, and good fellowship.

The world needs more teachers like him. His loss, as is the loss of any human being’s life, is very significant, but our community also lost a special teacher. We also lost a wonderful musician.

As a Christian I know that this life is not the end. I know that death is the severing of one’s soul from one’s body, and that someday they shall be reunited. The memorial only addressed this sense of continuation in terms of us remembering him and carrying with us what he put into us through his teaching and his person–which is no small thing. But I realize that our society today adds to the natural difficulty of dealing with the tragedy and sorrow of death the lack of deeper knowledge of God’s goodness and the ultimate end in which we are made share.

I pray for his soul. I pray that God will have mercy on him, and bestow His graces upon his soul, if only for the generosity, kindness, and love he showed my kids.

I’m reposting this, because it is so good. But also because we live in a society that has become a slave to sentimentality. This is also true of Christianity — sentimentality affects so much and we are so blind. O’Connor hated sentimentality. Ralph Wood speaks to this in the midst of so much else he says. A rich talk indeed.

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A truly great lecture…

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Context: This is a paper I wrote to explore the re-establishment of the tabernacle and high altar in its rightful place in the sanctuary for a particular Catholic church in Eugene, Oregon. I wrote it for myself, but then gave it to a friend who has passed it along to our parish priest. I know he has read it. In one way it is an argument, but it’s really a means for me to teach myself about this subject and related church architecture concerns.

I welcome feedback as to its contents. I could be very off-base, or factually wrong at points. It’s very long for a blog post, but it is originally a paper after all. All inaccuracies are my own.

I also welcome your prayers, because there are several of us in the parish, including our priest, who are interested in get the altar and tabernacle moved back to where it should be. But there are some hurdles including cost, the fragility of the altar, and potential backlash by some parishioners. I am now working on spearheading this project in a fairly low-key manner for now. Again, prayers are welcome.

Note: One of my main goals is to help bring back the Traditional Latin Mass to this parish. Moving the church’s original altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary seems like one of the first steps to take.

 

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[Note: Most of the images in this document are taken from the Internet without attribution. My apologies to their creators.]

Introduction

This paper is a personal exploration of how the location of the high altar and tabernacle at St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene, Oregon fits into the mission and core values of the parish, and how moving the high altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary might contribute to the fulfillment of the Church’s mission and better align with its core values.

We must also recognize the topic itself is not without controversy. Any discussion of proper liturgy and church design is loaded with recent historical baggage and fraught with competing perspectives. This is neither an unemotional nor a non “political” topic. Nor is it without legitimate debate (far beyond the boundaries of this paper). This paper seeks to avoid the debate and merely argue one perspective.

We might also consider these words from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy:”

Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward god. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.

Thus our first focus is on Christ and living righteously, and secondarily on Church architecture and specifics of liturgy. Our unity as the Church must first be based in love: our mutual love for Christ and our love for each other. Nonetheless, God has built within us both the calling for and the necessity of “cult,” and He has created us with a nature that we all universally share. Questions of proper worship are both a natural outpouring of our nature and ourselves before God, and have been with us since the beginning of creation. Let us seek right worship, and may that seeking not become a source of disunity.

St. Mary’s (full name: St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation, Catholic Church) is an important Church in the Eugene/Springfield metro area. This is true not only because it represents the oldest and most centrally located Catholic parish in the city of Eugene, but also because the church building itself is the most visibly recognizable Catholic structure in the area. Thus it plays a unique role in calling Catholics to worship and proclaiming the Gospel to the community. The building stands as a Catholic witness to the community. This witness is perhaps even more important to the members of the parish who are buffeted on all sides by challenges to their faith.

Some historical background

Catholic missionaries first arrived in what is now the Eugene/Springfield area as early as the 1850’s. They came at the request of Catholics working in the region with the Hudson Bay Company. The first Catholic Mass ever held in the Willamette Valley was celebrated in 1839 by Fr. François Norbert Blanchet (later the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City, now known as the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon) at the church in St. Paul. The Eugene parish was officially established in 1887. It is interesting to consider how pioneering these individuals were.

During this period the region was still very much the wild frontier. Eugene was first named Eugene City in 1850, after Eugene Skinner, who arrived in the area in 1846. Population growth continued quickly apace, and the Catholic community also grew side-by-side with the larger Protestant community.

St. Mary's

The first notable Catholic Church building in Eugene was at the corner of 11th and Willamette streets. The building was originally a Methodist church, then purchased and converted to a Catholic church under the direction of Fr. Francis S. Beck (pastor from 1887-1894).

As the Catholic community began to increase in size, there was the need for a larger church building, and greater facilities for a parish school and other parish activities. Property was purchased two blocks away from the original location at what is now the current location at 11th and Charnelton streets.

The current church building was completed and dedicated in October of 1927 (90 years ago as of this writing). The construction was overseen by Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara (pastor from 1920-1929, later appointed Bishop of Great Falls, MT, then Kansas City, KS).

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The current building was designed according to a modified Gothic style prevalent of American Catholic churches built during that era. The Church was designed by Joseph Jacobberger (1869–1930), a Portland Architect who designed numerous buildings for the Archdiocese of Portland.

One natural benefit of such a stylistic choice is that the language of the Gothic style speaks clearly that this is a church and not something else. Gothic is certainly not the only architectural language proper to church design, but has consistently proven to be an excellent choice. [Note: every work of architecture conveys a message, sometime multiple, competing messages if the architecture is confused.]

Another benefit is that, if church architecture is a language of theological and liturgical form, then the design of a place of worship cannot help but have a significant effect on the formation of those who worship within her walls, including St. Mary’s. Poor church architecture will inherently lead to poorly formed worshipers or, at least, create an unnecessary hurdle in their formation. A church “in the round” conveys a different theology and a different conception of “the Church” than does a basilica form.

According to Michael S. Rose (author of “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces ─ and How We can Change Them Back Again”), a Catholic church must follow three natural laws of architecture in order to be considered truly Catholic in terms of its architectural message:

  1. A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
  2. A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
  3. A Catholic Church Must Have Iconography

Fortunately, St. Mary Catholic Church has all three. Though not endowed with an abundance in any of these categories, it is a church that certainly embodies the principles of traditional church architecture, which is to say it speaks the language of Catholic worship through architectural form.

It is, in fact, the only church in this region that is somewhat close in structure to a traditional basilica in form. That alone makes it a unique and special place of worship and a witness to the community.

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The aerial views shows the traditional Latin Cross plan, with a long nave crossed by a transept. This is the only church in the Eugene Springfield metro area that follows such a traditional and historically important Catholic plan, thus linking it more closely to the to the Church throughout the centuries than any other local church in terms of its architecture in the area.

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Again, no other church in this region follows this identifiably Catholic, historical, traditional, and sacred plan. This is one reason St. Mary’s can be seen as a kind of “jewel” of Catholic worship (and even evangelization) set within the surrounding area ─ a building most decidedly not secular, and therefore a “sanctuary” from the secular. Just how much our society, both Christian and non-Christian, longs for such sanctuaries from the ravages of our modern world cannot be understated.

We know that many traditional Catholic churches went through design alterations beginning in the 1960’s, including removing the high altar, shifting the tabernacle to a side location, removal of altar rails and statues, painting over murals, carpeting wood and marble floors, and more. Although St. Mary’s experienced some of these changes, the overall architecture and traditional design elements of the building itself prevented many changes that might have otherwise altered the structure from its fundamental purpose as a place properly suited to the worship of Christ, who is our king and lord.

We also know that the often repeated perception is that these kinds of recent changes reflect the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.” However, careful attention reveals that such changes have either taken the stated dictates of the council too far, or have directly contradicted them. Regardless, it is arguable that the issue today is not about rehashing well worn debates, but about growth in holiness through authentic worship, and asking what kind of church design best supports that goal?

Traditional Catholic Church Design

As already mentioned, St. Mary’s follows fairly closely the traditional cruciform church design. This is a design developed over centuries, with deep roots in Jewish temple tradition, and designed to conform to Catholic theology, including a biblically rooted anthropology.

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Notice several obvious elements (so obvious they don’t really need to be pointed out):

  1. The floor plan is in the shape of a cross
  2. The sanctuary is clearly separate from the nave
  3. The altar is in line with the natural orientation of focus down the nave to the sanctuary
  4. The lectern and pulpit do not compete with the altar

Each of these elements arise from and contribute to the Church’s understanding of Christ, the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and the key characteristics of proper worship, and much more. The arguments in favor of traditional church design from a biblical and historical, not to mention phenomenological, perspective are numerous and easy to find. This is not the place to restate what has already been stated much better by many others.

What is important to say here, however, is that the call for a more traditional approach to church architecture is not a call for a slavish return to the past, nor is it merely a question of style or one personal preference over another, rather it is a call arising naturally from a proper understanding of worship rooted in Holy Scripture and Tradition. Though the past provides untold riches from which we can learn, the call is fundamentally to holiness. However, it is fascinating that again and again the pursuit of holiness (personally and corporately) leads us to rediscover what has been understood for centuries ─ that what we call traditional is also timeless.

Thus, we hear a call that looks to the past, yet is present with us today, and also looks toward the future. Though the Church allows for innumerable small variations in church architecture, significant deviations continue to fall by the wayside with each passing year as examples of poor theology, a faulty anthropology, and passing fashions ─ written, as it were, in stone, masonry, and wood.

Here is a newspaper clipping showing 1927 interior of St. Mary’s:

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The main altar was built by hand in Italy using Botticino marble, with a reredos of red Verona marble, and then carefully shipped to Eugene. Originally, a large crucifix was mounted above the altar and backed by a dark blue and gold brocade drape. The overall design had a simple elegance.

Notice the design was naturally suited to the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass (now Extraordinary Form) universally celebrated in that era (in fact for the preceding four centuries prior to the Mass of Paul VI promulgated in 1969) with the altar and reredos in the center and against the back wall of the sanctuary/apse, with the tabernacle also centered under the crucifix, and the altar rail for receiving communion and creating a clear separation between nave and sanctuary. The eye is naturally drawn to the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix at the same time.

Let us now consider one significant change to the interior design of St. Mary’s that was executed since Vatican II ─ the moving of the high altar and tabernacle to the side of the sanctuary. [Note: This author does not have any information as to the decision process and reasoning behind this particular move. It is assumed the decision merely followed the trends of those years following the council.]

St. Mary’s church interior today:

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At some point in the history of St Mary Catholic Church (late 1960’s?) the high altar and tabernacle were moved to the alcove in the right transept (or is it still part of the sanctuary? It is confusing). Also, the current altar was brought forward towards the nave in order to facilitate the versus populum orientation of the priest of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The large crucifix was lowered, and the wall behind the altar was painted gold. The original altar rail and baptismal gates, which had been crafted by hand, were removed altogether. The center aisle was also carpeted.

What appears to be marble flooring of the sanctuary in the 1927 photo, has now been replaced (perhaps only covered over?) with carpet and inexpensive tiles ─ neither of which are beautiful. This move most likely coincided with the liturgical beliefs of the post-council period that saw a need to emphasize there are no barriers between God and man, thus moving towards a sort of de-sacralizing of the sanctuary. Naturally this begins with moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary.

Remember, all these moves have their origin in theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical debates that have occurred (even raged) from decades before Vatican II and continue today. It is not the focus of this paper to deal with those debates, but it is important to recognize that what might seem obvious to one Catholic can be a very different matter in the eyes of another.

Something to consider: It was not uncommon for Catholic churches to go through design changes over time. A church would be built with available funds and resources according to certain traditions and accepted norms. Later, perhaps decades or centuries later, more funds would be raised to finish work, or improve the design with mosaics and murals, statues, stained glass, pipe organs, a domed roof, and other expensive projects. Many of the world’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals look the way they do today because of centuries of incremental improvements as both resources and the desires of the faithful changed and grew. In this light, it is particularly ironic to think that just about the time when St. Mary’s might have gone through upgrades to enhance its traditional beauty, for example with beautiful murals on the sanctuary walls to enhance the call to worship the believer’s mind before Christ, or additional iconography throughout the building to reflect the deep theological riches of the Church, it is arguable that the church was instead “abused” according to the typical post-conciliar fashions of the time. Fortunately, for St. Mary’s the changes are relatively minor and easy to fix ─ and may even present opportunities for surpassing the original design with upgrades.

The high altar and tabernacle as it stands today in the right transept:

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As one can see, the high altar and tabernacle is not overly fancy and ornate (as compared to many others in older churches and cathedrals), but it is sufficiently beautiful to declare the glory and presence of Christ. In many ways it speaks well of the probably unsophisticated yet obviously deep faith of Catholics in Eugene circa 1927. It is also a link to our local forebearers who worked to build a proper Catholic place of worship and a presence within this community. These were, for the most part, humble people with limited funds. Most churches of the past, those we love for their timeless beauty, were built by poor immigrants for their communities because they knew the value of what they were doing.

It interesting to consider this particular altar being the focal point of Catholic worship for Eugene during the years of the Great Depression, the troubling years of World War II, Korean War, economic boom, and the vast changes wrought by those and other events. And then (arguably) only to be set to the side when the spirit of the 1960’s seem to demand a focus more on the people in the Church than on Christ ─ perhaps more “spirit of the world” than of the council? Is this argument fair? Many would say yes.

What might it look like to move the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location?

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This is an architect’s rendering of how the sanctuary would look like. Notice a few things:

  1. The change is both significant, yet simple.
  2. The high altar and tabernacle seem to fit well in the space. This is because they are now where there were originally designed to be. (Of course they fit.)
  3. The crucifix has to be raised to accommodate the altar’s height, but the change is minor, and may be a better placement as well.
  4. The focal point for those entering the Church is now where the eye naturally goes, and draws one into the worship space more naturally. (Of course that is where our Lord is.)
  5. There is a kind of “completeness” now in the church design, with the tabernacle being at the head of the cross (in this cruciform church plan) rather than in one of the arms (transept).
  6. When the church doors are open, one can now see the tabernacle from the street ─ a powerful visual drawing the gaze into a holy space.
  7. The sanctuary now looks more like a sanctuary ─ the holy of holies on earth in Catholic theology. (Though there is still more to do in this regard, re-centering the tabernacle is the most significant requirement.)
  8. It restores a more proper sense of glory for what should be a glorious place ─ a Catholic place of worship.
  9. The priest now has the option to celebrate Mass ad orientem if he so chooses.
  10. The priest now has the option to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form if he so chooses.
  11. …yet the priest can continue to celebrate in the Novus Ordo form without problem ─ assuming the current altar remains where it is, out front of the high altar. (I do not know what is proper with having two altars in the sanctuary.)
  12. There is now less confusion for non-Catholics in wondering why Catholics believe in the Real Presence yet put Him to one side. This is an evangelistic move. The same is true for Catholics. This is a New Evangelization move (perhaps its most significant contribution in today’s climate).

St. Mary Catholic Church in our community

One could argue there are several reasons that the St. Mary Catholic Church building plays an important role in the life of local and regional Catholics, as well as the community as a whole:

  1. It is located in Eugene, the second most populated city in Oregon, and near the University of Oregon, the largest university in Oregon.
  2. It is the oldest Catholic Church building in the area, and thus exudes a sense of substantiality and permanence.
  3. It is directly linked to the earliest Catholics in the region, and thus has a profound provenance and important place in local history.
  4. It was built in a modified Gothic style with connections to the Romanesque style, thus it proclaims its connections to Church history of centuries past.
  5. It is the one Catholic Church building in the region that looks most like a Catholic Church, thus functioning unambiguously, merely by its architecture, as a witness to the faith.
  6. It is the only Catholic Church in the area that has a traditional pipe organ (and perhaps a choir loft?). The organ dates to the 1927 erecting of the church ─ this alone is a special fact.

Let’s pause a moment and remember three key points:

  1. The true Church is not the building. Rather, we are the Church, the Body of our Lord. If we do not “embody” the Church in our lives and community, then no mere building will do that for us.
  2. The building itself is to first serve in the worship of believers. To put it crudely, the church building is a “tool” for worship, used by the faithful in their pursuit of holiness. We must remember that we are not considering architecture or church design except as it is related to our consideration of the Real Presence of Christ and our proper orientation towards Him.
  3. The church building only secondarily serves as a call to non-believers ─ regardless of how powerful that may be. The best evangelical witness is to be fully and unabashedly Catholic.

If we remember these points then we should be able to keep in balance our desires and decisions. And, of course, our motivations must first be for the Kingdom of God (and all these things will be added).

Looking a little closer at St. Mary’s and its parish life and commitments, we find the following:

Mission (from the website)

“St. Mary Catholic Church is a Sacramental community united in Christ, proclaiming God’s love through liturgy, prayer, education, and service to others.”

Comments: This mission will be seen and understood in how the Church body loves each other and those outside the Church. However, it will also be powerfully expressed and seen by how the Church body worships. These two things, worship of Christ and love of each other cannot be separated. Proper worship should lead to a better understanding of love, and our love should add to the depth of our worship. Even if many Catholics struggle with believing in the truth and power of the Sacraments (perhaps viewing them as mere symbols of their Catholic identity), the Church must believe and act in accordance with the truth. This is particularly crucial in regards to the Blessed Sacrament.

Core Values (the first two listed on website)

Tradition – We are a Eucharistic community committed to the sacred traditional liturgy, music, and sacraments of the Roman Catholic faith.

Education – We are a community dedicated to making available high quality religious education for all parishioners, returning Catholics, and those interested in the faith.

Comments: These values can be lived out best by actions that are expressions, and flow from, of a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Any Church that claims such belief but acts contrary creates a tension in the hearts of both its members and those outside looking in. Though unfortunately minor in many eyes, placing the tabernacle in the center-back wall of the sanctuary (apse if it is a curved back wall) is a significant move towards expressing belief in the Real Presence. Placing it to the side is arguably an expression of diminished belief (at least outwardly) in this truly unfathomably powerful reality. Whether actual belief is diminished or not for a given individual member or priest of St. Mary’s, it is arguable the physical expression itself has no place in a Catholic Church. Start with the Real Presence and all else follows. (Consider this the passionate perspective of a Protestant, and formerly deeply anti-Catholic, now a convert to the Catholic Church who cannot live without the Real Presence.)

More thoughts on the mission

St. Mary’s is a Sacramental community, thus it places a strong emphasis on the fact that the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1113)

We know it is all too easy for any of us to take the sacraments for granted, and to treat them lightly and with less respect than is their due. We are sinners, after all. But doing so we deny ourselves the fruit of those sacraments because of receiving them with poor dispositions. We must be reminded, and remind each other, of what sacraments are, of how we should think of them, and of what our dispositions should be.

Lest we forget, or have not paid attention, and lest we fall into chronological snobbery, we should consider the centuries of liturgical practice and formulation that have come before us. Could it be that older forms do a better job of preparing us to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist? Although this is not the place for an historical unpacking, it can easily be noted that Church architecture and design, including such things as the historically traditional location of the altar and tabernacle, did not come about because of passing fashions, but because of thoughtful understanding in light of Christ’s commands, the traditions of the early Christians, deep examination of Holy Scripture, and a clearer (pre-modern) understanding of Human Nature. In the eyes of this author, it is obvious that more traditional forms of liturgical celebration represent a more substantial understanding of human nature and human needs than do more contemporary forms.

This is not to argue that only in the past will we find the proper way to worship. Nor is it to say older forms are necessarily more holy. However, just as blessed John Henry Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” one might then argue that to be deep in Catholic traditions is to better see the poverty of much of contemporary worship and liturgical practice (to cease to be slavishly contemporary). The implication is that to lack an understanding of what has come before will more likely lead to conclusions that what should be obviously poor expressions of worship are, in fact, good. The past fifty years seems to prove this point.

Simply, a proper understanding of (and actual belief in) the Real Presence and true, properly formed worship would likely have prevented the moving of the high altar and tabernacle from its original location at St. Mary’s. This is a rather sharp claim, but it is, at least, a valid question.

However, perhaps the right question is not about tradition, or tabernacles, or high altars, or even Latin and altar rails, but to ask: What is the best way we know to show our reverence and devotion before the Real Presence of our Savior and King, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, making truly present the proper graces pertaining to that Sacrament? Notice, the question asked is what is the “best way,” not what is the minimum that must be done, or what is merely licit, or what best suits the current tastes of the broadest number of folks (many of whom may be poorly formed, ignorant, or merely pursuing fashions). Of course one may find an image of a priest celebrating mass in wartime, using the hood of a jeep as an altar, both heartwarming and heroic. But no one would argue that jeep hoods should become the standard for altars in Churches. It is the ideal that should be normative if at all possible. And only because of that ideal can jeep hoods become powerful, temporary substitutes.

Consider how the role that St. Mary’s, and in this case specifically the church building itself, functions as an icon of the Church in time and space within our community. In our post-Christian age, where so many have no knowledge of even the basics of their Christian heritage, including many (most?) Catholics, St. Mary’s can function as something wholly other from the prevailing message of the world. Even in her form and structure it can teach and encourage. It does so now, and it may be able to do so even better in the future.

Finally, consider how strange it is that moving the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location could be considered controversial by some (I don’t, in fact, know if that it is the case at St. Mary’s, but it has been elsewhere). Perhaps with another church, built according to a non-traditional form, this might not be an issue, for then it might feel forced as it might be counter to the architectural design. However, with a combination of clear theological, pastoral, and architectural reasoning, there is no actual controversy with such a move at St. Mary Catholic Church.

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This is a fantastic discussion with Dennis McNamara about what truly sacred architecture is, what it does, and what it is for. Naturally there is a lot in this about what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to worship as a Christian, because it’s all tied up together.

Here’s his bio: Prof. Dennis McNamara

Thoughts: I have been interested in architecture since I was a kid. At one time I thought I was going to college to study architecture. I actually don’t know why I didn’t, however, I did study art history which included the history of architecture. Interestingly, though I studied the history of Christian architecture, including the great cathedrals of Europe, my profoundly thin  religious education in matters of Church history, liturgy, etc, etc, did not prepare me to understand anything I was looking at. I fear most Protestants, at least evangelicals and fundamentalists, are also equally ignorant. I wish I had know these things when I was in college. Anyway, a discussion like this one above is so packed with wonderful information that I find it exhilarating. I also think it might go over the head of many Christians, if only because the basic concepts (including the Real Presence, the meaning of liturgy, etc.)  are just a bit too foreign to modern American Christian ears. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

“How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being?” – St Athanasius

“There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education….” – G. K. Chesteron

This is a longish post, but I want to address a largish topic. If you teach or lead RCIA, or are going to, or are in a position to help organize the RCIA offerings in your parish, this post might be for you.

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First, for those who don’t know about RCIA: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is an important part of the process whereby an adult convert enters into the Catholic Church. The minimal goal of RCIA is to prepare an individual to enter the Church in such a way that the basic dogma and doctrines, expectations and requirements of the Catholic Church are understood by the catechumens (those going through the process). The bigger goal is to foster a growing love for Christ and His Church. Typically RCIA takes anywhere from 8 to 12 months, sometimes though it takes up to two or more years. RCIA is not absolutely required, but it’s an expectation unless a good case can be made otherwise. A well taught RCIA course can be a real blessing.

I went through RCIA prior to entering the Church. What I got for RCIA was not really what I wanted or needed. I felt it could have been far better. I had already done a fair amount of studying and research long before I decided to become Catholic. So my RCIA became a rather bland formality. However, I am no expert on RCIA, I have never taught or lead an RCIA class or program, and I only have my experience and a few observations I’ve made of other RCIA programs from afar. Based on that experience and those observations, and on being someone who is deeply interested in this topic, and on having taught other kinds of courses elsewhere, here are my thoughts on what might make a good RCIA program.

PRELIMINARIES

Be passionate. RCIA leaders should probably be somewhat obsessed with the territory covered by RCIA. The ideal RCIA leader is someone for whom Church dogma, doctrine, practice, and the such are infinitely interesting. They should be eager and willing to take on any question, discuss any topic, and have lots of deep and broad knowledge. I do not believe they have to be trained (I’m not sure that’s a requirement) but they should know and love official Church teaching. This is not about being an “expert” proclaiming wisdom from on high. It’s really about being a passionate student of the subject, and eagerly wanting to continue that education by including others.

Know that your catechumens will likely have done some homework. In other words, someone who is converting from another faith or “version” of Christianity, will likely come already curious enough about the topic at hand that they will have already done a fair amount of reading on the topic. Some of that studying may be of good stuff, some might be not so helpful. It can be a really huge thing for a Protestant to become a Catholic. It can be huge for anyone. Not unlike, but perhaps even bigger than, getting married or choosing citizenship or starting a new company. Protestants inherit a laundry list of anti-Catholic positions and prejudices. Converts will need to deal with these, and that will require study. If you are a cradle Catholic and can’t see what the big deal is, then maybe teaching RCIA is not for you. I mean no offense.

Know something about who’s coming. Are they former Protestant’s? Or from another religion altogether? Are they former agnostics or atheists? Every person is unique, and will know a certain amount of truth and falsehood about the Church. Some will have done extensive research and could nearly teach a course on Catholic apologetics, and others will be wide-eyed newbies. Some will be relatively uneducated, and some may have advanced degrees. Some may be more or less blue collar, and some white collar (whatever that means these days). And some will be eager to be there and others may be there only to please someone else. All will have unique questions and desires for what RCIA will mean for them. Never, never, never invalidate their previous experiences, religion, life choices, etc. All truth is God’s truth. Find what is true in their experience and build from there.

Consider carefully your curriculum. I assume many RCIA leaders use some kind of RCIA guide or manual to teach from. Probably most of these resources are good and well thought out. However, none will match exactly your needs or the needs of your catechumens. Do not be afraid to change the curriculum to suit the need. What if you have catechumens with a science background, what if you have artists, or teachers, or business people? They may all respond to different approaches and/or materials. Make the right changes, but make sure the core is still presented and no dogmas are altered. Be orthodox, but be a human being teaching other human beings. Find what will work best.

Be organized. I will hazard a guess that a lot of RCIA programs are poorly organized. This is not to say there is no plan, or calendar of events, or basic curriculum. But I can imagine that many churches, running on underpaid and volunteer labor, without the pressure of having to please paying customers, or meeting government standards for testing, etc., become a seat-of-the-pants operations running largely on the good will of limited church staff. Catechumens, however, should be able to know what is going on, what is coming up, what the expectations are, who they can contact with questions, and where this will all lead. There should be a syllabus, including a calendar of topics, a reading list, a sheet of times and places, resources, contact info, and anything else a normal person with common sense would want to have in hand when they enter into the process. Plan your work, work your plan. This is not only basic, it is more loving to all those participating, including guest speakers.

TEACHING RCIA

Don’t water it down. Teach the Church’s teaching straight up. If someone does not want to hear it or believe it, they might not be ready for it. That’s okay. They also might be in the midst of their journey to the truth, examining and wrestling, with their previous knowledge or their hearts putting up defenses. Let that happen. Encourage it. Support the process. But stick with the truth, don’t water it down. But keep this in mind: Your job is neither to push nor pull someone into the Church. It is walk beside them as a friend, mentor, confidant, and guide. Accept catechumens where they are and encourage them to keep going towards the truth. Allow them to flail and fail with the hard stuff. Let them be human. Don’t give up on them. But teach the Church’s dogma unapologetically.

Don’t be scared of the hard stuff. There might be a temptation to think that if the hard stuff (whatever one might think that is) is out there in the open, then several possible bad things will happen: a) inquirers will walk away, b) discussions will become heated, or c) you will quickly be over your head. All this may happen. Let it happen. Try to guide the group wisely, with love, but these are adults. If they do not know there is a reason people generally don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company, now they can learn. If they don’t know that the Catholic Church has dogmas that don’t change, practices with long traditions, and many strongly opinionated members, now they can learn. And being a Christian is not a little thing.

A word on the sex abuse scandal. For some this terrible wickedness within the Church is the only, or the biggest, stumbling block to entering the Church wholeheartedly. You must have a good response. This is not about defending the Church, or having a pat answer, or even trying to change anyone’s feelings. Any one of those responses could easily become offensive. Rather, it is about being honest, listening, and being able to see the scandal for what it truly is. And it’s also about offering the Church (and Christ, its head) as the answer. I wrote my personal thoughts on it here, and why, with all that wickedness, I still chose the Catholic Church.

You don’t need all the answers. Faith is not a test of knowledge. No one will enter the Kingdom of God because they got a perfect score on some doctrinal SAT. The same is true for entering the Church. No one knows it all. More than this, the process of education is where the teacher (better: tutor) and the student learn together. Be willing to say, “I don’t know” a lot. However, if you find yourself saying , “I don’t know” a lot, perhaps you need to do better prep work.

Do your prep work. Don’t come unprepared. If possible, teach from a place of abundance. RCIA should not be a time when you show up, open your book (if you are using an RCIA book/guide), and say, “Well, let’s see what we have for today.” Even cracking the book the night before is too little too late. Know the topic at hand as best you can. Plan how you are going to teach it. Consider the kinds of questions someone will have. Be able to give clear answers. If you need to, and you probably should, you can read out loud directly from key Church texts, such as the Catechism, or encyclicals, and let them stand on their own. Always, always, always have Bible passages ready to provide a foundation for the teaching as well. If you don’t know that Protestants (even those converting to Catholicism) will tend to judge everything you teach from the perspective of what the Bible says, then know this is true. Be able to answer why the Catholic Church sees scripture as part of tradition and not against it.

Communicate clearly and often. Everyone should know of any changes to the schedule, who to contact with questions or concerns, and where to get info. Have a web page or Facebook page dedicated to the course, with the syllabus, calendar, contact info, etc, easily accessible – and actively monitor those sites. No one should ever show up and find out the course is not happening that week (several times I showed up to my RCIA only to find it had been cancelled and no one was told – I found that disrespectful). And no catechumen should send an email or leave a voicemail and not get a reasonably quick response. Many in RCIA are also professionals in their “regular” lives. This means they act, and expect others to act, with professional courtesy. They are used to how things work in the “real” world and within organizations that get things done and serve others. Too many churches seem to throw professionalism out the window merely because they are churches. I don’t know why, but don’t let the inherently laid back, amateur nature of church life lead to lack of basic courtesy to others. Also, RCIA members should be able to easily explain (and provide resources) to the curious on how to get involved. Provide them the info they need to do that. The converting are sometimes good evangelists.

[See the end of this post for a brief digression on church web sites.]

Give homework. Do not fear telling catechumens they have reading to do. Give them lots of reading. Have them read sections of the Bible, of the Catechism, of encyclicals, of a great book on being Catholic and its claims, or something pertaining to a particular dogma. Make the syllabus available early so they can read ahead. Give them work to do. Also give them projects to do – such as go ask people they know about the Catholic Church, or about Christ, or about sin, etc. Have them come back with their reports on what they heard, and use that for discussion and a lead-in to the Church’s teaching. Tell them to watch a film, or a television show that deals with an upcoming topic. Don’t let them off easy because you fear that any amount of hard work will drive them away. I would have welcomed a lot of homework (maybe I’m strange). I got nothing. That was a big let down. Give them work, but make it relevant. Key: chose homework that is worthy. Forget lightweight, easy to digest, pre-chewed reading. Give them red meat. If they struggle, then coming to clarity will be part of the discussion. Don’t forget literature, poetry, song lyrics. Don’t forget research. Ask them to come prepared to share. Put a little pressure on them. RCIA should not be merely an exercise of sitting through “x” number of classes so one can get one’s Catholic merit badge. And don’t forget to actually discuss the reading or project that was assigned for that class.

I have compiled a few online resources and lists of good reads here. Share them with your class.

Don’t forget Goodness and Beauty. There are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Often RCIA is essentially about Truth – what does the Church believe, what are its dogmas and doctrines, etc. But people are drawn to the Catholic Church for various reasons. Coming from the Protestant world I was drawn to the call to holiness and the history of art in the Catholic Church, to its prayers and liturgy, as well as its doctrines. Keep in mind, Truth is not greater that the other two. All three transcsendentals intertwine and any one leads to the other two. All express the character of God, and of what we are called to. Various practices in Catholic piety should be presented and discussed. Art should be presented and discussed. Have the catechumens read fine literature, listen to fine music, look at fine art. Bring in some beautiful work of music, for example something by Palestrina, hand out the lyrics with both the original (usually Latin) and the English translation. Listen to the piece and then discuss it. Discuss the design of traditional church buildings and what they mean. Read a poem in class, for example something by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then dig into it. Pay attention to beauty. Discuss the lives of saints. Ponder their actions and commitment to holiness and how that played itself out in their lives. Teach how to pray. Give them novenas to pray. Show them how to make a prayer alter at home. Schedule a hike with the class and get outside into nature. Use that time to discuss the beauty of nature and how it expresses the Divine Law. These are normal aspects of God’s goodness and grace poured out to us. All RCIA leaders should be lovers of holiness and beauty, and not truth alone, as though being Catholic is merely accenting to a list of propositions.

Consider how you teach. Not everyone has a philosophy of teaching, but it is good to at least think about what teaching is, and how one is to approach it. Consider the approach to teaching that was common prior to the industrial revolution. With that revolution, and all that modernity has wrought, the goals of education changed from developing virtuous and complete human beings to workers who can produce in order to help the economy. That pre-modern approach is often called classical, though I would merely call it human – as in it conforms to human nature (something denied by modern man). Okay, I realize this is a big topic, and potentially overwhelming. So first, read these two blog posts of mine to get a better idea of what I am saying, and how truly simple and human the classical approach is. Note: these were written with homeschooling in mind, but the principles are universal.

Consider St. Paul’s approach to education.

Teach like Jesus.

I hope these posts helped make clear what I am getting at. Also, keep in mind the basic classical assumption that education tends to follow a kind of interweaving course that begins with the grammar stage (basic building blocks of knowledge), followed by the dialectical stage (discussing, even arguing, about the assumptions and interconnectedness of the building blocks of knowledge), then concludes withe the rhetoric stage (being able to express ideas and defend them). Naturally these stages do not flow strictly in sequence like dominoes falling. Rather, there is always a constant back-and-forth interplay between them, but the basic idea is solid. It is also how we most naturally learn every day. For example, when we take on something new at work, we first must learn the basics, then we wrestle with them in the context of work, then we become experts and can teach others. This process can happen for weeks or years, it can happen over hours as well. It depends on the subject and the learner. Organize each class, though, with this process in mind.

Something else: Consider the seven laws of teaching: In 1886 Gregory authored the book The Seven Laws of Teaching, in which he asserted that a teacher should:

  1. Know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach; or, in other words, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
  2. Gain and keep the attention and interest of the pupils upon the lesson. Refuse to teach without attention.
  3. Use words understood by both teacher and pupil in the same sense – language clear and vivid alike to both.
  4. Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.
  5. Use the pupil’s own mind, exciting his self-activities. keep his thoughts as much as possible ahead of your expression, making him a discoverer of truth.
  6. Require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning – thinking it out in its parts, proofs, connections, and applications til he can express it in his own language.
  7. Review, review, REVIEW, reproducing correctly the old, deepening its impression with new thought, correcting false views, and completing the true.

Follow these seven laws as best as you can and your RCIA class will almost assuredly be a success.

Evangelize. Remember that RCIA is a form of evangelization. It is, fundamentally, the “process” whereby a Catholic teaches and mentors non-Catholics in the ways and means of the Catholic faith, with the goal that the non-Catholics will eagerly enter into the fullness of the Christian faith with sufficient knowledge to comprehend what they are getting into and why. Fr. Robert Barron has his Seven Keys to the New Evangelization. They are:

  1. Lead with the beautiful – it’s an excellent gateway to goodness and truth.
  2. Don’t dumb down the message – dumb is dumb.
  3. Preach with ardor – a little passion goes a long way.
  4. Tell the great story – connect the Gospel to all of salvation history.
  5. God does not need us…and he loves us anyway – God’s grace and mercy are utterly and perfectly selfless.
  6. We are made for God – forget wealth, pleasure, honor, and power. Only God satisfies.
  7. Use the new media – Proclaim the Tradition of the Church with the communication tools of the day.

Don’t get caught up in right/left politics. The Church all too often has been burdened by giving in too much to whatever political landscape has the day. This is true in the U.S. and elsewhere. Politics are not unimportant, but they both pale in comparison to the weightier issues of faith, and they tend to steer one away from the far more radical Catholic position – which begins and ends with Christ, not with conservative or liberal positions. Still, some catechumens might bring politics and other divisive social issues into RCIA. Gently steer away from those things. Don’t let them dominate the class, even if you find them interesting yourself. Leave it for after class discussions. Also, be prepared to give a clear answer why RCIA is not the place for political debates. And yet, if someone asks a direct question on the Church’s position for a given issue (e.g. abortion, marriage, contraception, are just three biggies), give a straight answer. But don’t belabor it. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t suggest the Church is wrong even if you have doubts about official Church teaching on a particular topic (though if you do have doubts, then ask yourself if you should be leading RCIA). Also, be clear about what is Church teaching and what is not. Avoid making up an “official” position if the Church doesn’t have one. I can’t stress how important it is to not let RCIA become a political discussion group. Remember: Unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things.

Finally, thoughts on the way it was. Warning: Opinion ahead! This is where I disagree with what I have heard about some of the typical uses of the Baltimore Catechism in the past (often brought up as though to say, “back in the day we really knew our catechism” as though that meant really being Catholic.). From what I understand that catechism is a basic question and answer approach that lays out the grammar of the Catholic faith in a very step-by-step, concise manner so that catechists can memorize it easily. Rote memorization used to be a common part of education, and one’s grandparents or great-grandparents probably had this kind of education. So far, so good. Rote memorization is something good we lost with the coming of modernity. But grammar is only the beginning. There needs to be the dialectic stage, for that is where a person wrestles with the grammar, digging deeper, being challenged, taking ownership. Then the rhetoric stage is where one can speak about it from a position of knowledge, even teaching others what they know. That is when one can truly say they understand. And it is a life-long process. Learning and growing never stop, unless one becomes comfortable in a kind of bland arrogance, no longer really considering what one believes. Too many older Catholics got their grammar, but did not advance beyond it (though many also did). A grammar-only education means one’s convictions may not be based on truly knowing the subject, but rather on a parroting faith supported primarily by either familial pressures or strident cultural identity rather than true belief – both of which can be bowled over by shifting cultural trends (such as the 1960’s and the sexual revolution). It also means one is less able to pass on that faith in a meaningful way, thus jeopardizing the next generation. On the other hand, a grammar-less education sorely lacks the basic grounding in Church doctrine and the fundamental language of the faith. The baby boomers might fall into this category, having shrugged off the “trappings” of their parents for the freedom of “if it feels good do it.” I do not know where generation X (my generation), or the millennials fall. Regardless, the goal is not merely to catechize, but to evangelize. RCIA should not be only about getting folks into the Church, but to draw them closer to Christ.

So that’s my take on teaching RCIA. Let me know your own thoughts and experiences. Thanks.


A brief digression on church web sites: Most churches (Catholic and Protestant) have rather poor web sites, and no Facebook pages. If they do have sites at all they are poorly maintained, badly designed, and look like Web 1.0 technology. This screams “old.” Sad, but true. Of course, much of the time a church web site exists only because someone has volunteered to create it and maintain it. And that takes a lot of work. Regardless, what I have observed mostly with Catholic Church web sites is that they are designed primarily by people who may be somewhat technical, but have bad design skills and little knowledge of the current web design offerings. Perhaps no one else volunteers to take over because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And not meaning to slight anyone, but the sites also seem to be built for people who learned a few Internet skills eight or ten years ago and are still a bit confused. I do not mean this as an offense, but it is the younger (and middle aged now) generation that lives online, and church web sites often do not cater to them. Remember, the elderly still prefer to pick up the phone and call the front office anyway. If you want to attract a broader crowd then one’s web site should look good, be well organized, have relevant information, and kept up to date. The church should also have at least a Facebook page (even FB is now older technology, but still functional) and a Twitter feed. These sites should all be coordinated to carry and send the same information. Ask yourself, why is it only the elderly who seem to keep the church running and do all the volunteering? There are many reasons, including their wisdom and love for others, but perhaps it’s also because many youth get no information on what’s going on from their church because the church doesn’t use the media of the age well or at all. How many of your youth are getting regular church updates on their smart phones? How many searching college students would find your church appealing (speaking their language) by merely looking at your web site or FB page? Consequently, one’s RCIA program may not attract anyone because the first, and last, thing people see about your church is its web site. People are searching online these days, not knocking on doors.

I just created a resources page for anyone who might be interested in exploring Catholicism. You can find the page here.

I came into the Catholic Church September 29th, 2013. It took me about seven or eight years of studying, researching, praying, talking with lots of people, and tons of mulling. I found a number of great resources on the Interwebs, various podcasts, and many excellent books. Anyone who wants to can easily find these themselves, but I figured I would make starting the journey a little easier for anyone who might be curious or serious.

There are many, many more resources out there. If you have some you think are excellent or even essential that I have missed, feel free to add your comments. I may try to periodically update this page.

Eternal Father,
we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.

We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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Christ said “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16a)

When are we sheep in the midst of wolves? Who are these wolves? Where are they?

Christians often see themselves as fighting against the world. An “us vs. them” mindset sadly prevails much of the time. (Sad because Christ died for the world, and like our savior, we too should die for the world.) We might even think of ourselves, and especially our children, as being like innocent sheep being sent out into a world full of wolves. Homeschooling parents especially like to think of public schools as being wolf dens; so they keep their children safe by keeping them close to home. We tend to see Churches and Christian establishments as havens from the wolfish world. But if that is the way we think, then we might miss a stern warning from Christ.

To whom was Christ speaking? His apostles, the twelve. What was he doing? He was sending them on a mini-mission, perhaps we should call it a training mission, to proclaim the gospel. Christ the teacher knew his apostles would be the first missionaries, taking the gospel to the world, so he was teaching them. He was giving them the opportunity to experience what proclaiming the gospel was going to be like while he was still with them, while they could still come back to him and debrief. He knew it would not be easy, and he gives them some specific instructions and the warning above. Let’s take a look at that verse above in its fuller context:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:5-23)

The answer to who and where the wolves are is this: The apostles are not to go into the world in the way we might think, but to go to those who already reside in the house of Israel. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So “the world” is not the world out there among the gentiles, but the world right there before them, among their own people. And therefore the wolves come from among them as well. Simply, the wolves are the Jewish religious leaders, the teachers of the Torah and the Law, the wise men, the kosher men, the good Jews, the embracers of of being Israelites, the good Jewish families, the upright citizens, the parents and siblings and children, the so-called lovers of God, etc., etc. If we can draw a comparison with us today, the wolves are the pastors and associate pastors and their wives (maybe especially), the deacons and elders, the church bake-sale organizers, the religious right and the religious left, the para-church enthusiasts, the Christians who bring their big floppy bibles with them to every meeting or conversation, the “I love Jesus and not religion” people, the successful Christian business persons, the fashion leaders, the social leaders, the Bible study leaders, the Christian school headmasters, the ones with a Bible verse always on the tip of their tongues, the quiet church ladies, the “real men love Jesus” guys, the arbiters of morals, the gatekeepers, the “prayer warriors”, the church youth activity chaperons, the concerned parents, and all the rest of us Christians who so easily confuse fear with love of God, who choose sacrifice over obedience, and who refuse to weep, mourn, or be poor in spirit.

In other words, the wolves are us if we do not abide in the light.

Preach and, more importantly, live the Gospel in the midst of these “good Christian” people who are really wolves and you will be torn to shreds and eaten alive; usually in the most unassuming and apparently innocent ways. You might even feel that you deserved it. The greatest enemies of Christians, apart from the Devil and his minions, are those who go by the name Christian yet who do not love God or the things of God. And yet, when they serve the Devil they believe they are serving God. When they eat lambs alive they claim they act only out of love. Remember how Christ chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” Geeze, Peter was only helping Jesus be the right kind of messiah. Jesus continued: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter would have been a wolf if not for the great love and mercy of Christ in his life. Peter had to learn what following Christ really meant.

If Peter then why not us? He would eventually be crucified for his authentic faith. Oh that we would have Peter’s faith.

One reason that we sometimes cannot tell the wolves from the lambs is that the wolves seem to be the best Christians. They really seem to be the ones who know, often emphatically so, what Christianity is all about. They are the ones who are good at using Christianese (that ubiquitous Christian sub-culture language), at dropping Bible verses in every other sentence, at piety, at being visible in the sub-culture, and saying how much Jesus is really important. They can also be wonderful family people, homeschooling their kids, leading Bible studies in their homes, planning and leading church activities, and much more. One way to spot a wolf is to look for the super-Christian in your midst who has taken it upon herself/himself to test other Christians to see if they really are strong enough believers, especially for leadership. They will quietly corner people, draw them aside, talk to them in private, and then drill them with questions like, “How do you define yourself as a Christian?” and “Do you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” and “What does it mean to be saved?” They will do this saying they only want to know where someone stands, to see if they are on the “same page.” And they will generally do this only to those who are not their personal friends, to people they don’t know closely, and especially to those who don’t look or talk like they do. And they will do this because they are protecting something, like their church or school, or worse, their reputation, and not ultimately for the benefit of the one being tested. Remember Christ was tested by the Pharisees (you brood of vipers) for the same reasons. These wolves appoint themselves as the gatekeepers. They see their actions as noble. It is not an unusual experience for a lamb to feel like an inadequate Christian in relation to the wolves.

One of the great problems with Christianity is that the Church is filled with wolves, mixed in with the lambs, eating people alive. (It is a problem, but perhaps it is by design as well.)

Here’s the rub: How do you know, truly know, if you are on one side or the other? How do you know if you are a lamb or a wolf? Do you love God or only think you do? Have you given your life to Christ or only believe you have? Do you know the truth or only think you do? Are you a lover of the things of God or only believe you are? Do you confuse merely being annoyed at life with mourning? Do you confuse anger that the world isn’t going your way with weeping? Do you confuse your feelings of being a “little man” in the face of big government with being poor in spirit? How are you to know? How is one to untangle oneself and see clearly?

Perhaps the only way to truly know is through suffering. Our faith is tested through suffering because we would not know if we had faith without the testing. (Know this: I cannot “test” your faith, only God can. And He does it for you, not for Him. Thus I can only, at best, surmise if you have genuine faith if I can truly witness how you deal with suffering. But I can never truly know. And it cannot come via hearsay.) Faith is not something you know just by claiming to know, rather it is something you discover. You don’t claim to love Jesus and that’s that. God tests you and you break and then run away, or you break and then grab hold of God. For lambs, knowing one has faith often comes from being eaten alive by wolves and seeing that their faith has not left them. For wolves, knowing one has faith comes from repentance, which is the only thing that can turn wolves into lambs. The thing is, true wolves cling ever more strongly to their “Christianity” but never repent. In fact, they see no need to repent since their wolfish actions are what fuel their self-righteousness and convince them of their faithfulness. Wolves win and claim the victory as God’s blessing. And yet,  suffering works for them as well. It works by giving wolves fodder for their cherished self-image. Lambs will cry out to God in their suffering, knowing they are unworthy of God’s mercy and love. Wolves will cry out as well, seeing their suffering as a badge of what must be their worthiness to suffer, their righteousness, that they must be a target for Satan because of their holy standing before God.

It is the wolf that thanks God that he is not like others.

It is the lamb who bows before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And so… I am no saint, and I know well how easy it is to to find fault in others and not in oneself. I am sure that I have been a wolf at times; probably far more often than I realize. The following words come from a guilty participant, who stood by rather than stood up.

Several months ago, in a private meeting, I sat in a room of wolves who were accusing a lamb of not being worthy to teach their children. This teacher is a believer, and genuine lover of God, a servant of Christ, and a truly excellent Christian classical teacher who gives tremendously out of love for the students. But he is different, a little eccentric, a little atypical; not at all like so many cardboard evangelical christians populating the scene today. And so they accused him of having insufficient faith, of not being enough of a believer, of not giving unambiguous, Baptist evangelical “orthodox”, tip-of-the-tongue answers (read: fundamentalist/baptist orthodoxy) to their testing. (I previously addressed some of this story here.) They said he’s a “nice guy”, but just not Christian enough to teach. The teacher’s response to this attack was one of the most Christ-like examples I have ever witnessed. I saw the comparison play out before my own eyes—their accusations, his loving and honest responses, his weeping. And I saw their stone-faced reactions—and I knew it was a scene of wolves tearing into a lamb. The accusers took the teacher’s emotional response as weakness rather than strength, and merely considered it fodder for their claims. They were blind and I believe they remain so – I do not believe they are as yet capable of seeing themselves as anything other than champions of the Gospel. (I later heard that one father took the teacher’s weeping in genuine sorrow as evidence the accused is not man enough to be in a position to teach this father’s child. Oh how to completely miss the message of Christ’s sermon on the mount!) Perhaps they would have accused Christ himself of unworthiness as well. For me it was both disheartening and nauseating to witness the event. I was asked to not say anything at that meeting I really wanted to say, so I didn’t. Looking back I wish I had. But I know God is sovereign, and I know that God sees all. If God wills, they will see the error of their ways. But I don’t want to put myself up on some righteous pedestal, and I am getting too close to the line of judging the hearts of others, for I cannot truly see their hearts and I am certainly not righteous or free from sin in this matter.

Eventually the overall context shifted such that the teacher stayed (because of overwhelming support from others and from the organization he works for) and the wolves began to ruthlessly attack those who God had placed in authority over them and who supported this teacher, starting a campaign to smear the character of those in their target sights, telling both veiled and outright lies, and using Christian language to elevate themselves as righteous victims. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but this was one of the ugliest examples of Pharisee-ism I’v ever personally witnessed. And so they left to form their own “Christ centered” and “pure doctrine” (their words) educational endeavor which, in my opinion, they falsely and, from what I can tell, self-righteously claim is more Biblical, thus sowing division among believers in the name of Christ. Is this not taking Christ’s name in vain? I grieve at how quickly many Christians are willing to separate themselves from other Christians, and even claim the act of pulling away as some kind of badge of holiness. They made no attempt to seek reconciliation, to find a middle way, to let love rule over their pride. But isn’t this just par for the course, especially in our division-loving Protestant world? I mean no attack on Protestantism per se – though it is important to recognize certain prevalent tendencies when they are there. Perhaps many churches and “Christian” schools should have “Thank you Lord that we are not like other churches/schools” as their mottoes.

Of course I could be wrong in my judgement. I have been before. I admit I am biased and not a little emotional about it.

As hard as that was and is to go through, most troubling perhaps is watching the number of families follow the wolves to their new “Christ centered” educational endeavor, not knowing the backroom stories, not discerning (if they know any of the story) the difference between wolf and lamb, and not seeing that the beatitudes are the first touchstones of the Christian tutor. I am also disheartened especially by how easy it seems for the fathers of these families to so quickly abdicate their role as spiritual leaders by accepting hearsay without demonstrating any desire to know the truth—truth that is readily available if any would ask. (Only one father of the lot, because he suspected there was more going on, partially reached out to find out some of the truth for himself.) Perhaps it’s just too easy to “lead” without really leading. It seems much of popular Christianity is play-acting “Christian” spirituality without any true spiritual discernment (which is more the result of very hard work and lots of prayer rather than cheap intuition). I challenge fathers, as I challenge myself, to step up—not with a kind of American Christian macho cartoon version of being a Christian man, but a true Christ-like, beatitude loving, truth demanding, love rules kind of Christian man. Of course, it’s all too easy to slap on a Christian façade without really being different than everyone else. We all do it. But remember wolves often appear as the best Christians, thus garnering many unquestioning followers. Woe to us if we are not wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Please keep in mind that I am not seeing myself as above it all. I am deeply sinful and have said things and thought worse things in my own way. I am the opposite of a saint. And perhaps I am only taking the side of the lambs because this time I feel as though I am one of the victims. I’m sure when I am a wolf I don’t see it.

In many ways this story has been like a classic Protestant church split. What I see too often is an easy acquiescence to the idea of Christians splitting. It is so much a part of Protestant culture and history that many see it as normative. More than that, many Protestants, like the one’s above splitting to form their “pure doctrine” school, often see separating themselves from other Christians over perceptions of doctrine or practice as a badge of their right standing before God (I suppose this is a broadly Christian thing as well). I come from that background. I was trained as a good Protestant. I know that mindset, and I have come to believe this easy spirit of disunity is the spirit of Antichrist. It arises from the leaven of the Pharisees.

Then again, and with fear and trembling, I wonder how often I have been a wolf who thinks he’s a lamb. I wonder how often I have believed I have the truth, but really do not. I wonder how often I deceive myself, even now as I write this, about my own faith. And I wonder how often I have said faith is more important than love.

I’m sure some would say there is no little amount of hypocrisy in this post of mine. God have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper
you prayed to the Father that all should be one.
Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name
and seek to serve you.
Strengthen our faith in you,
and lead us to love one another in humility.
May we who have been reborn in one baptism
be united in one faith under one Shepherd.
Amen.