Wandering Thoughts – Article #3
How do we understand church today?
In this article I will be speculating on the immediate future of our church. Some may agree with my speculation and some may not. But there are two facts that we must face because they are obvious. In the Catholic Church we are losing people at an unprecedented rate. In a recent survey, it was said the Catholic Church was the largest identifiable religious group in the country and the second largest group are ex-Catholics. We are losing people and we need to consider why? What to do?
The second fact we need to look at is: we do not have enough priests. We are simply running out of priests. And what do we do in the future if that keeps on? We have consoled ourselves with both those problems by saying “It will change, It will change.” But I have been waiting that out for 30 years and it hasn’t changed. And it just keeps getting worse. Nothing has changed until we do something to make it change. And we are just sitting around watching the process of the church becoming smaller, in the size of our presbyter and smaller and smaller all the time. In this regard, I think of a hypothetical child, who will be born in parish of New Salem Michigan up near Grand Rapids. The baby boy will be born in the year 2018. Now I suggest to you as this little boy grows up how will he experience church? He will certainly not experience church as I did. We were a very fervent active parish. On some of our Masses, we filled up our huge church right to the brim. As I remember all through my childhood we had four priests in the parish plus the pastor. Right now that same parish has one priest. This little boy is not going to experience church as I did. It is going to be different for him. He is going to experience a church that cannot have a Eucharistic celebration every Sunday. He is going experience a church that lives in a different world. I would say, just by a general principle, there is more than one way to be church. Now the church has existed under all sorts of different circumstances. And the church has thrived under those circumstances. To begin with, we have 250 years of rather brutal persecution and the church thrive under that. For one short time in France, after the revolution, the church priest couldn’t operate. It was true in Mexico for a while. But the church went on, the Church thrived. And went on because the community went on. So how will this little boy experience church?
I listen to my mother into her old age, about how she experience church as she was a little girl growing up. They lived about 10 miles from this small parish near Leslie, Michigan, a small parish which still exists today. Her father was a dairy farmer. There was her mother and two siblings. The father was not a Catholic, he didn’t even like Catholics. But he promised to raise his children Catholic. And here is a man who never went back on his promise. So he was trying how to do this – but how to get to Mass every Sunday? I would take them all day to get there and back. And he would have to get a neighbor to come in and do the chores on a dairy farm and this got old very quickly. Finally the pastor of the parish came up with a different program.
He came up with being a different way of being church. He went out to people like my grandfather and said “Frank, you just can’t bring your family to church every Sunday.” My grandfather said “I pledged to do it”. But he said “Look cows don’t wait. You can’t do it. What I propose to many people who live far away and have to come to church in a horse and buggy, I suggest to you that you should come to church once a month. And we will have a special celebration because we will not have only the people who live nearby but the people who live far away.” He convinced my grandfather that it would be a good idea. So my mother experience church in a different way. She experienced church once a month when they went to Mass. She was a young girl living on a farm with two siblings, with no child her own age within a good walking distance. That one Sunday, when she went to church, she got togeth with all sorts of kids her own age. And they had catechism classes and they had fun together. Then in the end they would go upstairs and celebrate the Holy Eucharist together. It was a happy joyous celebration as she remembers it. She loved those Sundays when she could experience church. After church, they would maybe go out and have a snack, a quick lunch and then some entertainment. Very often that would be a baseball game with fathers playing the teenagers. They all loved it. By the middle of the afternoon they were ready to depart. In my mother’s family, they were close friends with some people who lived close by, a farming family whose name was Oak, as the tree. The Oak family was a very devote Catholic family. They had eight or ten kids. They had this huge house and all the kids had their own bedroom, but some of the kids had to double up. But they always made a point; my mother remembers to keep one room special. That was God’s room. My mother remembers that all the kids had their room but God had His room. The father would laughingly say to the kids who had to double up, “maybe you are getting sick of doubling up and maybe we could give you a room. But we’re not going to give you God’s room. God stays. So you better get used to doubling up.” That family said their night prayers in that room. Once a week they would go to that room and study the scriptures and talk about them. In times of crisis and sadness they would gravitate to God’s room. My mother never got over the idea, that a family could be put together where God had His own bedroom just like the other kids. My mother was a devote Catholic in her old age. She told me about the richness about her church. I don’t recall that she ever mentioned a priest’s name. Her church was the whole community that came together joyously, that learned together, had fun together and got serious together. It was a rich enduring experience for her. There is more than one way to be church.
Now I got used to the way that I grew up with where we had plenty of priests. Where we had Mass every day and with certainly multiple Masses on the weekends, on Sunday. I liked that way of being church. I was ordained into that kind of church. I liked that. I would like to hang onto it but I am suspecting that way of being church was going into our past. We are no longer going to sustain that kind of church. We are losing too many people. We are not getting enough priests.
As far as losing people, we’ve got people coming to Mass because we made it very clear to people that to miss Mass would be a mortal sin and they could be punished in hell for all eternity for doing something like that. We all grew up believing in that, I believed it. So we took Mass very very seriously. But Mass became for me and for everyone I know an obligation that we needed to take care of.
The Mass for a lot of people was something that you had to get through so that you could spend the rest of the day doing things you really wanted to do, like play golf. No priest who has been a priest very long, has had someone come up to him wearing golf clothes and said to him: “How fast can you finish Mass?” This is not the words of a devote Catholic. I think what has happen to us now is that we’ve come upon a generation that do not believe the sanction that you would suffer if you missed Mass. They simply don’t believe that you are going to be condemned to hell. Since that seemed to be the motivation that kept people going, they just stopped going. At times when they wanted to start going again, they ran into what I think is the real problem behind our church. That is this, I think our church and celebration of Mass does not lead to anyone’s transformation. It hasn’t for a long time. I remember a conference we were at, there was a bishop there, they were talking about celebrating the Eucharist in a proper way and a joyful way. This bishop got up and said I’m under the impression that this isn’t working. That what we’ve got going is simply not working. I think that was a prophetic statement. He was saying that we have a church full of people, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, celebrating Mass together and you don’t see any transformation. There is no growth. There are no richness there. This is the problem we need to address. When a younger generation does come back to church from time to time, what do they find? Often times they find a priest still threatening hell with them and trying to get them to behave themselves so that they can stay out of hell. This is not the message of Jesus Christ. It is not the Good News. It does not transform anyone. I think we’ve lost the Good News in the church by concentrating on teach morality. We wanted to teach people how to be good, instead of how to be great. I think the church needs to turn that around. There must be a renewal in the church.
In the Vatican II, Ecumenical Council the church supposedly went into renewal. The thing that got renewed most quickly was the liturgy. We all or mostly all welcomed those changes in the liturgy. We had high hopes that the liturgy would mean more to everybody. When it was done in this new way and when it was done in the language that everybody could understand. You don’t have renewal in the church until you are trying to affect a renewal in the church. We never did that, we just changed some of the outward signs of the Mass. We turned the Altar around, we put the pulpit in a different place. We arranged furniture and that is not renewal. That is why it didn’t work. I think looking back at it, and I was part of that of that whole process, I was a young priest thrilled with the way the church was changing. I think before we change any liturgy, we should have spent as a people, two or three years, just discussing publicly and thinking privately about what the Mass means to us. This Eucharistic celebration, how is it to enter our lives, as I said it before to us it just figures as an obligation that we would have to get through.
I think to many Catholics, the Mass is their spiritualty. Still when they go to Mass on Sunday, they feel like now for the rest of the week I have taken care of my spiritualty. I think that there is a different way to look at it than that. I was in a conference, a retreat; a priest was giving a talk. He said something that would be the safest thing in the world to say to a bunch of priest. He said “for me and for all of us, the very basis of our spiritualty is the Mass”. Every priest in the room was nodding his head. I was nodding my head. I had to think to myself, what am I doing? That is not the way that I think about the Holy Eucharist.
The Mass is not the basis of my spiritualty. The basis of my spiritualty is prayer and my personal reaching for God. I can do that without Mass. I don’t want to but I can. The Mass then becomes a celebration of that spiritualty. A special celebration on Sunday of that thing that has been going on all week. That thing is our own reaching for God, our own spiritualty. Before we made any changes with the liturgy of the church we need to look at such issues, and say to ourselves what does the church mean to me? What is doing for me? We still need to do that. I still believe in renewal in the church, but we did it all wrong are going to have start all over again and do it right. We are going to have to ask ourselves some profound questions. The renewal that we went through in the 1960’s, was like moving deck chairs around on the Titanic, it really didn’t mean a lot. I think that these are signs of our times. The church is not just losing people; the church is losing itself and losing the message of God. It’s preaching is highly moralistic: teaching people how to avoid serious sin and therefore avoid eternal judgment and that is not the Good News of Jesus Christ. We have got to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ because that is the only way that our people will be transformed. Unless we are seeing transformation in the Mass and unless we are working for it then we are just spinning our wheels. The Mass was meant to be sacred celebration of our intimacy with God. Before we go through that Mass, we need to make sure that that intimacy is there. If it isn’t there, we have to make sure we are reaching for it. The very basis of my spiritualty is not Mass. The basis of my spiritualty is my personal reaching for God and I celebrate that reaching when I celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Wandering Thoughts Article #2
How do we understand Jesus?
We were always taught when we were children that Jesus came to save us from our sins. This is how we always understand Him. “Why did Jesus become man? To save us from our sins.” The most fundamental understanding of that he took the punishment for sin upon himself. In other words, he served our prison sentence so that we would not have to. This is why God became man.
In the 12th century, St Anselm, who was the archbishop of Canterbury, (I believe that his successor in Canterbury was Thomas Becket, who became a martyr). St Anselm was a brilliant theologian and he proposed a way to understand Jesus. It was a theory called in Latin: “Cur Deus Homo; Why God became man”. According to Anselm, human beings committed this atrocious sin against God and only God could forgive but only a human being could create the conditions for forgiveness. And that is sorrow and a desire to make reparation. So God being the only who could forgive, had to become man because a man was the only one who could create the conditions of forgiveness.
But after that another theologian came along, and stirred the pot up a little bit and confused everybody. His name was Duns Scotus, he was a Franciscan. He had a hypothetical idea: “What if man had never committed sin. Sin was voluntary, it didn’t have to happen.” What if man had never had committed sin? Then would God have become man? I think what Duns Scotus said was: certainly God would have become man. God became man not just to save us but God became man because He loved his sons and daughters so much He wanted to be with them. God became man because He couldn’t keep His hands off us. He loved us that much. This helps us in understanding about God becoming man. God’s becoming man was not a reaction to anything. Man became a sinner and therefore God had to change his plans and save him. God doesn’t operate that way. God does not react – God acts. So God is not waiting for me, O’Leary, to see what I do today and to react to it and forgive me. God acts always of His own will. Why did God become man? Because he wanted to be with us and to touch us because He loved us that much.
In this question of prayer, I think Duns Scotus’ theory of redemption is very very helpful. God did not just serve our prison sentence for us, He came to us because He had a personal love for each one of us as individuals. In the face of God’s love, what is our response? What do we do? How do we pray? How do we enter into intimate relationship with this Father in Heaven, who loves us so much?
Of course the first understanding, of redemption, was formulated by Thomas Aquinas. God had to make reparation for us. It is a kind of intellectual understanding of God. Duns Scotus is more of intuitive understanding. God couldn’t stay away from His beloved creatures, his beloved children. This is the God of Jesus Christ. He revealed this God to us, a God who is simply filled with love for us. I think we have a God who is love. I think we have a God who is also joy. We need to appreciate both. We need to answer God’s call to intimate friendship with Him.
Religion has always said and people have always understood religion as an effort to make its participants good. I think that it sells it short. Our understanding of good is not deep enough.
We say what is the opposite of “good”? We would say “bad”. What is the opposite of “truth”? It would be falsehood. The opposite of a truth could be an even more profound truth. The opposite of good need not be bad. The opposite of good could be wonderful. God does not call me to be a good priest. He calls me to be a superb priest. God does not call a woman to be a good mother. He calls her to be a superb mother. God is not calling us into mediocrity. He is calling us not to be good but to be great. I think that the church has often missed this point. That God is calling anyone to be simply good that is mediocre. He is calling each one of us in an individual way. But He is calling all of us to be close to Him as we possibly can.
How do we love God? If we want to talk about love, we really need to take a look at the poets in our past because they’re the ones that talk about love. I would like to stay with Shakespeare for a few minutes. He wrote the play “Much Ado About Nothing”. The two principle characters in that play were the hero, Benedict and the heroine, Bernice. They hated each other. They were two young people extremely intelligent, who just rubbed each other the wrong way. Every time they got together, it was warfare. And each one was trying to get the better of the other one in this verbal combat. But at one point it got more serious than that. In Shakespeare’s play, Bernice got some bad news, some horrible news, maybe the death in her family. And she was devastated. Benedict tried to come close to her, to console her and to be of help to her. She told him to “get out”, she did not want him anywhere around. Then true feelings came out, in one sentence, and Benedict said to her “In all this world there is nothing that I love so much as you.” And Bernice turned around and the world for her and for Benedict turned upside down. I have currently tried to make it a practice to use that wonderful sentence as a part of my night prayers. I would like to go to sleep with on my mind that sentence. “Oh God, in all this world there is nothing that I love so much as You.” What a way to enter into eternity, to have those words in our minds. Let us think of God’s call, let us remember that He is calling no one just to be good. He is calling all of us to greatness. He is not calling anyone to mediocrity. He has a call like this not to lay a heavy burden on us but because He knows we are going to be a lot happier if we are striving for greatness and just not floating along being good. God wants all of us. And in our prayer life this is the way we go to God. I think God wants every square inch of each one of us. And none of us are there yet. But we need to be striving. This is what reaching into the depth of prayer enables us to do.
The first of these thoughts are on prayer. Prayer as a personal experience.
The great theologian of the 20st century Karl Rahner, said at the end of his life that the church of the future would have to be mystic or it wouldn’t exist at all. And he was saying that the spirituality that filled the church would have to something personal and something very deep.
In the seminary years ago, they gave us a book called the SOUL OF THE APOSTOLATE by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O. - the very heart of working as a priest. And the author made the thought that the primary call of each one of us is to be a friend of God, a child of God. The primary call of each of us a call to intimacy with God. He said to be a priest is a secondary call. And we all have callings in life. My calling is to be a priest, many of yours is to be a father and a mother or a husband and a wife or as a single life to live in communion with God.
But he is saying that the primary call for each of us is to enter into a relationship with God that is very intimate and very deep. And this really calls all of us to get into prayer of quiet with God. We need to make our time of prayer rich and very deep.
About thirty years ago, I felt a yearning to get into a deeper relationship with God, a relationship that would be based on just quiet reflection upon God. It would not be based on saying prayers or asking for things. It would be the just the kind of prayer that would put me in communion with God Himself. That would lead me into contemplative prayer which is just the prayer of quiet, just what I was looking for. Where we just contemplate God and are just happy in His presence.
I began my journey into this contemplative prayer, the prayer of quiet. And it is a very simple way to prayer. That does not mean it is easy. In contemplative prayer, we just sit down and put ourselves in the presence of God. I sit down in my living room and just image that God is sitting across the room looking at me and being with me. And I try to be with Him. Within sixty seconds, thoughts about what I am going to do today overwhelm me. And then I have to just stop and go back to my intention sitting down and of wanting to be with God. I don’t want to solve problems or have pious thoughts. I don’t want to pray for anybody else. I just want to be with God on a deeper and deeper level. I think this is what Jesus meant when He said when you pray go into your room and be alone. And be with God. This contemplative prayer eventually leads us into a different way of thinking and a different way of connecting with the world around us.
Personally, all my life I have had an anger problem. I was angry about everything and it seems like I was always angry. Some of my best friends noticed that and called my attention to it. Then what happens with contemplative prayer is that you withdraw and be with God for a while. And I did that for two or three years every day. Then I began to notice that I wasn’t angry any more. I began to look at the world differently. I began to look at the people who made me angry differently. For example: an old man came into see me. When I was in Kalamazoo before he had was always haranguing me on all of his craziness, spiritual craziness and when I saw him sitting there I just dreaded it. But I sat down and started to talk to him. Then I started to kid him about some of his peculiarities. But before we were done the two of us were simply laughing together. I think that he forgot what he had come to get me into. We simply enjoyed each other’s company and when he walked out, I simply had to say where did that come from? That guy use to drive me crazy and now I’m looking forward to his next visit. This is the fruit of Contemplative Prayer it puts you at peace and gives you the ability to see the world around you in a different way.
God’s call to us is very personal. We are not simply called to obey his laws or called to answer into a relationship. We need to realize what we have to give to God. What do we have inside us to give to God that no one else can give. We need to be able to answer the question: Who is this God? We need to listen to Jesus’ answer. He is not just the creator of the world - this God. He is not just the judge. He is more than just a father. And he loves each individual to the point of being insane. Jesus pointed this out in the fifteenth chapter of St Luke. The father of the prodigal son couldn’t just stop loving him, even when it was crazy to go on loving him, he did anyway. He loved his older son and nothing could ever change that. And that is the God of Jesus Christ. And that is the God that we are called to - to draw close to and to be intimate with. This is not a duty, it is an invitation. It can become a pleasure and a joy. We need to become contemplative. To pursue this God.
Easter carries the message of Christ to us; it sums up what Christ came to say to us. Easter is the feast of new life. In Christ’s Resurrection, we see the new life that Christ promised to His followers.
Christ had a most optimistic view of human beings. He thought that human beings could be perfect. He thought that human beings could act like God. Jesus saw that we could love, that we could forgive just as God does. Human beings can live without hatred, without resentments. We can live without violence. The power to be like this is within us.
However, a lot of other things are within us too. We are very naturally inclined to be angry and resentful. An inclination to violence runs very deep within us. You look at any movie, any play or novel, and the solution to the plot is almost always violent or a threat of violence. In our present state, we may have the power within us to be loving like God, but it is not likely that we will use it. The pull to be less than what we are is very strong. We can do it, but the odds are against it.
Jesus did not care about odds. He saw what the human race could be. He certainly knew that the whole human race would not embrace their full potential any time soon. But, Jesus also saw what each human could be. If the human race is not going to achieve perfection any time soon, that does not mean that any one individual cannot.
This is the vision Jesus had of us. The human race may wallow in self interest, but individual persons still can be all that God wants. There have been a lot of wars, but there also has been a Paul of Tarsus, an Augustine, a Francis of Assisi, a Therese of Lisieux. Christ brings new life in the Resurrection - for me, for you.
Fr. James O'Leary
“Were not our hearts burning inside us as He spoke to us on the road?” Luke 24
This burning heart business, how do we keep it going? I wonder about those two disciples. I wonder how long their hearts were burning over the message or the person of Jesus. I would be willing to bet the burning lasted a lifetime. But it was not the same as on the road to Emmaus. Nothing sustains that kind of enthusiasm permanently. But we do want to keep burning.
How long do married couples keep their burning going after the wedding? I hope the love goes on forever, but almost certainly, the passion will not. I must admit, after a wedding when I hear them singing, “Please Release Me” on the way out of church, it does give me an uneasy feeling. Just kidding! But, how do we keep the flame of enthusiasm alive?
If we live on the surface of life, we will never make it. If we are to keep enthusiasm for our commitments, we have to dig deep within ourselves. We usually think of the “burning”, the enthusiasm, as a spontaneous emotion. It is that, and it feels wonderful. But such spontaneous emotions do not last long. In life, love and enthusiasm must become an act of the will. We are enthused because we decide to be. We love because we choose to. This is not supposed to be easy. Commitments are never easy.
We know that we cannot go through life in a high state of hysteria. We see people who try, and they can be a real trial. I know people who try to be brimming with happiness every single minute. Spare me! That is simply not real. But we can keep some burning going on in our hearts. The love of God does not have to be just another reality we take for granted.
When God comes for us at the hour of our death, may He find us still burning for His Presence.
- Fr. James O'Leary
"To live a spiritual life, I must find the courage to enter the desert of loneliness and to change it by gentle persistent effort into a garden of solitude.”
- Henri Nouwen
In this poetic expression, Father Nouwen is saying that we can take our loneliness and make it a place we can live with. This is good news. We are people who suffer from loneliness. In life, we quickly learn that people are not the cure for loneliness. We find that the worst loneliness is when we are surrounded with people, people who do not know us really, people who do not understand our inside, people who do not care. Or we are with one person, who does not know, understand or care.
The cure for loneliness is love and understanding. To find some one who will listen, understand and go on loving makes us know that we are part of another and they a part of us. We are not alone. But, I think, people are half measures. They do not have the power to fill up that longing we have inside. Only God can do that. So we must risk being alone to let Him do it.
When we know that God is truly always with us, that God fills us up, then we can take the risk of getting close to others. If they let us down for a while, that is understandable. We still have God filling us up. When we know that God is truly with us, then we have taken our loneliness and changed it into a place called solitude, a place we can enjoy.
Fr. James O’Leary
I think in reaching for God, we are not trying to be saints; we are only trying to be real. We are only trying to be who we are. And anything that helps us be real is a gift from God.
I am in the process of reading the “Inner Experience” by Thomas Merton. Thirty six years after his death, his last book reaches us. It is a magnificent book. Merton speaks of reaching the real self inside ourselves, and peeling away the false self, the egotistical self, the self build on false ambitions. He openly says we cannot share intimacy with God by sharing a false self. He does not want our false self. (No one does!) If we do not reach our true self, the door to real intimacy with God is closed. Anything that helps us be real, is a gift from God.
A problem is that the things that make us real are usually not fun things. Birthday parties do little to make us real. Hard things make us real; challenges get to the real self. There is the problem. It is hard recognizing losing a job as a gift, or getting sick, or a child rebelling, or just plain getting old. All of these experiences are gifts, but only if we see them clearly and make them so.
So, let us see our gifts. I see so many who are saying, “Why is God doing this to me?” when God is giving them a blessing. Becoming real, discovering our real selves in the task of a life time. We must use our opportunities well. God is giving us gifts all the time. Let us see them.
Personal note: Even cancer is a gift if we make it so.
Fr. James O’Leary
Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.
The above statement indicates our tendency to want to reform the world by changing some other person. I think that this is a tendency that runs deep in us. You see it all the time. People threaten war. Violent people condemn violence in the Middle East but not in their own heart. We know people who bemoan hatred in the world who cannot get along with their own children.
I believe that Goethe’s idea was one of Thomas Merton’s prime principles. Merton said that all the evils of the world exist in the human heart, each human heart. Before we campaign to change the world, we must look to what is inside ourselves. “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door.”
Which leads me to some pertinent questions. Like, when was the last time I made a major change inside myself? Am I better at forgiving or carrying a grudge? Do I decry violence and then make a steady diet of TV shows which portray violence as the only solution to any problem? Do I pay lip service to spirituality but find my joy only in material things?
I do hope such questions make you uncomfortable. They do that to me. This sweeping in front of your own door involves getting very real with oneself. What does God want of me? What, right now, does He want me to change? That could be your healthiest imaginable question.
Fr. James O'Leary
When I was a very young priest, in my first year, I was put in charge of a multi parish program for high school students. I was too green to know the intricacies of organization. One of the pastors involved was a good friend. I had particularly wanted to impress him. I apologized to him for my short comings. He just laughed and said, “Never forget, time moves forward. Tomorrow is a whole new day.”
When I heard that statement, I understood very little. At that time, it simply meant that I should get over the bad feelings. Put it behind me, learn, and move on. In the 41 years since that incident, I have thought about those words, and that failure, not my last, by the way. Those words tend to mean more to me all the time. They mean that each day is a fresh start. It means we cannot let ourselves get bogged down with a bad day. The world begins fresh everyday. It means that it is never too late to have a good day, or a good life. A prophetic message!
I think that the celebration of New Year's reminds us all of this wonderful message. The New Year proclaims to us that time moves forward. New Year’s reminds me that I have a new gift from God. That gift is called 2004.
It is indeed never too late to have a good life. It is never too late to have our greatest year. We can accept this gift with that expectation. Time moves forward. It is never too late.
Fr. James O'Leary