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December 21, 2007

Homily Preparation; How New Vatican Document Describes Evangelization; Contemplative Prayer; Story of a Family and the Mass; Pastoral Planning for Growth - and More

--Post-Christmas story: One family and the Mass.
--Three-year eucharistic initiative.
--Homily preparation.
--Current quotes to ponder: The legacy of St. Francis; the meaning of success; and, how to reach today's youth.
--World Day of Peace: The family as a resource for peace.
--Contemplation for everyone.
--How new Vatican document describes evangelization.
--Pastoral planning for growth.
--Some whimsical, but insightful, sayings for the new year.

Post-Christmas Story of a Family and the Mass

A three-year period of diocesan-wide reflection on the Mass was launched Nov. 25 in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., with the publication of a pastoral letter on the Mass by Bishop Robert Lynch. The St. Petersburg bishop began by sharing a letter he received from a woman about a post-Christmas experience her family had at Mass a year ago. Perhaps you, too, will find her letter noteworthy, so I'd like to include it here:

"Bishop, my husband and I wish to share with you an experience which we had last Sunday. We have three young children, ages 7, 5 and 18 months. Our two oldest attend the parish school where my husband and I regularly attend Sunday Mass with all our children.

"On the Sunday after Christmas, we awakened later than usual and in a general state of overall holiday season fatigue. My husband and I thought that the Lord would understand if we missed Mass, just this one Sunday. The children were up, and the oldest asked when we would leave for Mass. My husband looked at me and said, 'I think we should go.'

"We rushed to prepare the baby, fed the other two, got them dressed and ready to leave, and we set off. We knew we would be about 15 minutes late for Mass at our own home parish, so we decided to attend another, nearby parish where the Mass would begin on the half-hour.

"As the five of us walked into the church, a greeter, a woman, warmly welcomed us (showing a lovely interest in our children). She asked if we would like to place the baby in the parish nursery service, and we did. This was a new experience for us -- attending Mass without our oftentimes hyperactive infant. We came back into the main church as the 'Glory to God' was being sung.

"It was Holy Family Sunday, and the priest's homily focused on the life challenges that Jesus, Mary and Joseph often faced. He suggested we not over-romanticize the manger scene, but think instead of the difficulties Joseph and Mary faced even from the birth of Jesus: death threats, dispossession and flight to a foreign land, separation from family and loved ones at the moment of birth, uncertainty about their future, strangers in a land which had no history of hospitality to foreigners. As he preached on the Gospel text as well as the other Sunday readings, my husband took my hand. The more he spoke of the feast and the readings, the more we both realized that being a family in today's world was a similar challenge. It takes commitment, sacrificial love and mutual support of one another in all areas of our life -- like the love and commitment exhibited by Mary and Joseph. In that moment, the Holy Family seemed more real, and we both sensed that; we also began to realize how much we have been missing in our faith.

"Later we processed forward for Communion. Suddenly there seemed to be more of a 'connect' between the word we heard, the homily and the Eucharist we shared.

"We were so glad that we went to Mass that Sunday; it renewed in a unique way our faith and our spirit. We will continue to attend Mass at our own parish. And it is our hope that perhaps we can bring some of the good things we experienced at this parish to our own faith community.

"We wished to share this experience with you in the hopes that you can encourage more and more parishes to strengthen the experiences we had that Sunday: welcome, great participation by the congregation, good preaching. I know I am thinking of another Gospel story, but our hearts were afire at that Mass. The living Jesus was truly present and truly alive in the word and in the 'breaking of the bread' we shared with all those who worshipped there."

St. Petersburg's Three-Year Eucharistic Initiative

The first year of the three-year eucharistic initiative launched in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., will concentrate on the Liturgy of the Word. The focus of the second year is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, while the third year is to focus on what it means to carry Christ received in Communion out into the world -- for example, on "the ministries of mercy and justice," St. Petersburg's Bishop Lynch said.

A list of anticipated pastoral applications of the eucharistic initiative is found near the conclusion of Bishop Lynch's pastoral letter. For example, he says, "Each parish community is encouraged to be open and welcoming to all: parishioners, strangers, visitors and those who have fallen away or are alienated from the Catholic faith."

Every parish, Bishop Lynch writes, "is to have a liturgy committee, and the members should receive training in liturgy and education about church documents. The purpose of the liturgy committee is to prepare the Sunday celebration in accord with the seasons," since "the church's liturgy is already planned, allowing for options." Bishop Lynch explains that "the liturgy committee would evaluate specific liturgical celebrations and seasons in order to identify opportunities for enhancement."

Among numerous other points, the bishop says that "all liturgical ministers are to be well trained for their particular ministry and, when offered, they should participate in diocesan workshops focused on their ministry." He adds, "Each parish should appoint someone who will be responsible for the recruitment, training and ongoing formation of its liturgical ministers."

In his list of pastoral applications, the bishop states that "the word of God is to be proclaimed well" and that "the homily should be thoughtful and applicable to the faithful." Earlier in the pastoral letter he spoke again of the homily, saying: "Good preaching guides us in the passage from contemplating God's word to taking ownership of it and then applying it. A good homily begins with the Scripture themes of the day and relates them to daily life. There is no mistaking a good homily when we hear it -- or a poor one either."

Bishop Lynch calls upon parishes "to strive to make their weekend liturgies an experience that spiritually feeds the parishioners." He says that "priests, deacons, musicians/cantors and readers are to be mindful of the places in the liturgy that call for prayerful silence" and that, "where called for, the liturgical symbols and gestures are to be used lavishly."

Homily Preparation

It is becoming more common for homilists to start the preparation of a homily "by reflecting on the Scriptures together with other ministers of the word - for example readers and catechists," says a resource issued by the Liturgy Office of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Are you a homilist who thinks this approach is of interest or are you someone a homilist might consult in preparing a homily? If so, here are the six steps "of a simple process" that the Liturgy Office says is frequently used in homily-preparation sessions (excerpted from the office's resource titled "Liturgical Preaching and Catechesis"):

"1. Opening prayer.

"2. The first [Mass] reading is read twice, by different people, with three minutes of silence between and after the readings. Group members listen to the reading.

"3. Group members share briefly their response to the question, What word or phrase strikes you and why? Other members listen to these echoes of the word.

"4. The second reading or Gospel is read twice, by different people, with three minutes of silence between and after the readings. Group members listen to the reading.

"5. Group members share briefly their response to the question, What word or phrase strikes you and why? Other members listen to these echoes of the word. Consider the question, What does this mean for our community?

"6. The meeting ends with spontaneous and intercessory prayer arising from the session."

The Liturgy Office resource adds that "such collaborative reflection can greatly enrich and ease the work of preparation of the homily and more firmly secure it in the life of the assembly."

Current Quotes to Ponder

St. Francis' Peace-Making Legacy: When we talk a lot about social-justice themes, "we might think that we are living a radical form of the Gospel life. Was it St. Francis who said the saints did all the work and we get the credit by talking about them? [Francis] lived a life of intense prayer, poverty and love - and it was like a bomb dropped on the world. His idea of brotherhood led to a Christian pacifism in the secular Franciscans that brought many wars to a halt. He even held out an olive branch to Islam at a time when our ancestors where planting the seeds of an ageless enmity that is blossoming in terrorism today." (From a speech by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, at the Capuchin Theological School in Venice, Italy, included in his Nov. 30 blog)

From Power and Success to Service: "Every true disciple of Christ can aspire to one thing only: to sharing in [Christ's] passion without claiming any reward. Christians are called to assume the condition of a 'servant,' following in Jesus' footsteps, that is, spending their lives for others in a free and disinterested way. It is not the search for power and success, but humble self-giving for the good of the church, that must mark our every action and our every word. True Christian greatness, in fact, does not consist in dominating but in serving." (Pope Benedict XVI in his homily Nov. 24 during the consistory for the creation of new cardinals)

Reaching the Youths of Today's Parish: "Millennials [young people under 25 years of age] rely on experience as their criteria for something to be true. We can say that young people are valued by the church, but if millennials don't experience being valued, if they don't experience a certain welcoming hospitality, if they don't experience invitations to use their gifts on behalf of the larger community, well, then, that's an experience that calls that truth into question." (From an interview with Robert McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, in the October 2007 edition of the Roundtable Report, the newsletter of The Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, found online at www.nplc.org)

The Family: Essential Resource for World Peace

Where should our world turn to learn the ways of peace? To the family, Pope Benedict XVI proposes in his message for the Jan. 1, 2008, World Day of Peace. If the world wants peace, it is essential that it grasp the value of the family in this regard, he believes.

The world might actually forget how to speak about peace if it allows the family to be undermined, the pope says. "The language of the family is a language of peace; we must always draw from it, lest we lose the 'vocabulary' of peace," he writes. "The social community, if it is to live in peace, is also called to draw inspiration from the values on which the family community is based."

The pope's message, released Dec. 11, is titled "The Human Family, A Community of Peace." He discusses care for the environment, human rights, the arms race and demilitarization. "In difficult times such as these, it is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms," the pope writes.

Discussing ecology, the pope says: "The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth." He says it is important that assessments related to the environment "be carried out prudently." However, he adds, "prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions; it means being committed to making joint decisions after pondering responsibly the road to be taken."

But it is the pope's discussion of the important contributions of marriage and the family to world peace that drew most attention in this year's World Day of Peace message. The family "enables its members in decisive ways to experience peace," the pope comments. "The human community cannot do without the service provided by the family."

Thus, society needs to recognize what marriage and the family are, and it must respond to the needs of families, the pope indicates. He writes: "The family needs to have a home, employment and a just recognition of the domestic activity of parents, the possibility of schooling for children and basic health care for all. When society and public policy are not committed to assisting the family in these areas, they deprive themselves of an essential resource in the service of peace."

And anything that "serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life, everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children, constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace," Pope Benedict says.

All of this makes violence within the family "particularly intolerable," the pope says. He writes:

"In a healthy family life we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters, the role of authority expressed by parents, loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age, mutual help in the necessities of life, readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them. For this reason, the family is the first and indispensable teacher of peace. The denial or even the restriction of the rights of the family, by obscuring the truth about man, threatens the very foundations of peace."

Contemplation, For Everyone

The result of truly contemplative prayer will be "actions inspired by charity that will truly help others come to know and love God," Benedictine Father David Turner writes in the most recent edition of The Clerestory, a publication of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill. Contemplation, he notes, is the fourth step in "lectio divina"; fundamentally, contemplation means "allowing oneself to listen to God's voice, to experience the transforming grace of God and to understand what it is that God wants to do within us."

The traditional four steps of "lectio divina," the writer explains, are: 1) reading from a written text; 2) meditating on that text; 3) praying over the text; and, 4) becoming open to contemplative action.

"In the 2,000-year history of spirituality in the church, there were times when spiritual writers and leaders would seem to restrict Christ's transforming action, limiting contemplative prayer to individuals living enclosed contemplative lives as monks or nuns," Father Turner writes. But, he says, in modern times "Pope Pius XII, in his frequent pronouncements on the spiritual life, would indicate that all people should be open to Christ's action that comes within the contemplative framework."

The first step in contemplation "is to try to understand what God wants us to do," Father Turner writes. And "what God wants us to do will become very clear through contemplative prayer because it will always involve the spreading of his love and his action," the priest says.

He cites the writing of Amelie Goichon, who, he says, believed "that contemplative action is a consequence of God's action in the world, and thus the contemplative will move beyond self and be a transforming influence in his or her surrounding world." Father Turner says:

"The contemplative's primary concern will be to act in accord with the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. The individual could well ask, 'How will God be best glorified by my influence on others?' No matter what the action, I will be able to discern the role of the Holy Spirit if what I am called to do will give glory to God and increase the love of God and neighbor in the world."

Accent on Evangelization: What the New Vatican Document Says

"For a long time, the reason for evangelization has not been clear to many among the Catholic faithful," the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says in the "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization" that it released Dec. 14. Yet, it says, "every activity of the church has an essential evangelizing dimension."

"The term 'evangelization' has a very rich meaning. In the broad sense, it sums up the church's entire mission: Her whole life consists in accomplishing the proclamation and handing on of the Gospel," the congregation says.

Evangelization, according to the document, "does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one's words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world." Furthermore, those who evangelize need to recognize that "in transmitting the Gospel, word and witness of life go together." For, "if the word is contradicted by behavior, its acceptance will be difficult," the congregation observes.

However, it speaks about "a growing confusion" that is leading "many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective." In this regard, the doctrinal note makes the following two key points:

--The church both prohibits forcing people to embrace the faith and leading or enticing them by improper techniques.

--The church disagrees "that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom."

The importance of dialogue seeking "to understand the reasons and feelings of others," of respect for the conscience and religious freedom of those one encounters and of inculturation of the faith are all affirmed in the new document. For example, it says: "Every encounter with another person or culture is capable of revealing potentialities of the Gospel which hitherto may not have been fully explicit and which will enrich the life of Christians and the church."

At the same time, it is an aim of the doctrinal note to defend "the legitimacy of presenting to others -- so that they might in turn accept it -- that which is held to be true for oneself." According to the document, "The sole desire of authentic evangelizers is to bestow freely what they themselves have freely received" -- and endeavoring to do so does not encroach inappropriately upon the intelligence and freedom of another.

Furthermore, the congregation says, evangelization extends to others the possibility of an "inestimable benefit," namely that of knowing "the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ" and of living "within the universal embrace of the friends of God which flows from communion in the life-giving flesh of his Son."

Pastoral Planning for Growth

A major challenge faced these days in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Ga., is the challenge of growth. "We are already a very large, growing, multicultural archdiocese , and we will continue to grow substantially in the next 10 years," Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta has said.

In a mid-November report on how the archdiocese is planning to meet the demands of this growth, the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the archdiocese, said, "The exploding growth of Catholics here spurred the most extensive review of the archdiocese in years, with scores of interviews of priests, parishioners, principals and staff, Internet polls and telephone surveys." Experts estimate that with the region's population boom, the number of Catholics in the archdiocese will grow by another 120,000 by the year 2015, the newspaper reported; there currently are nearly 650,000 Catholics in the archdiocese.

The newspaper said, "To keep up with expected demand, some three dozen additional parishes and missions will need to be opened over the next 10 years. There are about 100 now."

In the process of pastoral planning for the future of the archdiocese, planners have interviewed a broad range of leaders and parishioners about strengths and needs in the local church. The Georgia Bulletin said that in this process the planning committee heard, for example, that:

--Fellowship and building a sense of community is essential for parish growth.

--Coping with ethnic diversity is a concern.

--Affordable Catholic education is important.

--Greater emphasis should be placed on serving those in need.

--Strengthening and deepening the faith of the core Catholic population is vital.

A "strategic framework" developed by the archdiocesan planning committee encompasses a list of "critical success factors" to achieve in order to fulfill the church's mission. The Georgia Bulletin said that among these factors are "increased vocations, improved communications, vibrant worship experiences, coordinated religious education, expanded school availability, increased stewardship, greater focus on evangelization and accountability."

Finally, in Closing Out This Edition (and This Year)

Neely Young, editor-in-chief of a magazine on business and politics called Georgia Trend, had a column in the publication's December 2007 edition in which he collected a long list of sayings that he referred to as "one- or two-liners that show a little bit of whimsy and truth." Here I quote just four of them:

"The time to make friends is before you need them. One should keep his words both soft and tender, because tomorrow he might have to eat them. A good leader's patience is like a tube of toothpaste -- it's never quite all gone. A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks."