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January 5, 2008

Ministries With Hispanic Catholics, With Teens; Christmas in January (or July); The Next Step in Social-Justice Ministry; Reflection on Celibacy; History of Catholic Prayer; Parish Councils

In this edition:
-- New book on "The Tradition of Catholic Prayer."
-- Parishes today: ministries with Hispanic Catholics, with teens.
-- The what and the why of parish councils.
-- Current quotes to ponder: Christmas in January? Or April? Or July? (What Christ rebuilds; the homeless; from Bethlehem to the Eucharist.)
-- The next step in social-justice ministry.
-- Reflection on celibacy.

"The Tradition of Catholic Prayer": Noteworthy New Book

"Prayer in the modern era has been marked by a focus on the significance of prayer in the life of ordinary Christians everywhere," say the three co-authors of a chapter titled "Ordinary Life and Contemplation: Prayer in the Modern Period," which appears in a brand new book titled "The Tradition of Catholic Prayer." The chapters in this book were authored by 16 Benedictine monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. 56321-7500; www.litpress.org; paperback, 2007).

I think many leaders in pastoral ministry will find this book worthwhile. They'll benefit from their personal reading of it, and they may well want to call it to the attention of others in their communities - discussion leaders, catechists, youth ministers, participants in adult faith-formation programs, etc. I confess that I read chapters of the book out of order so as to get more quickly to the topics that interested me most.

"The importance of integrating prayer and contemplation with ordinary life" has been a "pivotal" trend in the recent history of Catholic spirituality, according to the writers of the chapter on "Ordinary Life and Contemplation." They note the rise in the 20th century of various new ecclesial movements that, though very different in many ways, share "the common vision that God can and should be sought in the world by ordinary people among ordinary people."

A similar chord is struck in another chapter, "Praying With Mary and the Saints," by Brother Silas Henderson. The "idea that sanctity is accessible to everyone is key to a balanced understanding of the place of Mary and the saints in the Christian tradition," he writes. He notes that the number of beatifications and canonizations during the pontificate of John Paul II exceeded those of "all his predecessors combined"; this conveyed "the message that holiness was truly accessible to men and women of all times and places."

The book includes chapters on the history of Catholic prayer, liturgy and several special topics, for example "lectio divina" and prayer at this time in history, a time dominated by video and visual communications.

The book calls the liturgy "the church's school of prayer," adding that "we learn by the church's liturgy that we are made to give thanks and praise to God, all the while interceding, as Christ does, for those in need." The chapter on "Ordinary Life and Contemplation" includes this observation on the liturgy:

"The liturgical reform of the 20th century has sought to involve the whole praying community in the prayer of Christ. As such, the liturgical reforms have worked against the modern focus on the individual by emphasizing the church as community."

How do people grow in prayer? There is somewhat of a paradox here, it seems. For, to pray more deeply requires conversion in life, but conversion in life requires prayer, writes Father Mark O'Keefe in a chapter titled "Prayer and Conversion."

I suspect that leaders of small communities in parishes that meet for prayer and discussion may find Father O'Keefe's chapter especially valuable. (During Lent, perhaps?) He says that to grow in prayer requires more than simply "praying more often or more consistently." Rather, this growth "requires making our whole life, day in and day out, fertile ground for prayer." He comments that one characteristic of a deepening life of prayer is the way it "allows us to cut through the barriers that separate us from one another," thus revealing how precious every human life is and what an "affront to human dignity" is found in any kind of injustice.

I found the chapter "Lectio Divina: Reading and Praying" by Father Raymond Studzinski fascinating. Reading, of course, is a key element in the approach to prayer known as "lectio divina." But, the writer observes, in contemporary times people have become less familiar with reading "as a fundamental way of praying." Today, people tend to regard reading as a means of acquiring information, not a means of formation.

Thus, the climate of life today isn't "conducive to the slow, reverent reading associated with 'lectio divina,'" says Father Studzinski. The purpose of reading in "lectio divina" is not "to acquire practical bits of knowledge, but rather to bring about a life-giving connection with a real presence."

Finally, I suspect that readers will welcome Chapter 9 of this book, in which the reform of the Liturgy of the Hours called for by Vatican Council II is discussed. I found the following insightful statement about the Liturgy of the Hours at once amusing and thought-provoking:

"Though Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17), it is good to have a prayer with a beginning and an end so that we can say that we have prayed today. It is also good to have a prayer with words given by the church that takes us beyond our narrow concerns and our personal understanding of God. By praying this prayer we join ourselves to the body of Christ, becoming catholic in its many senses."

Parish Life: Welcoming the Stranger

"When parishioners tell me that there are no Hispanic people in their parish, I tell them, 'They are there, you just haven't found them,'" Bishop Bernard Harrington of Winona, Minn., says in a pastoral letter titled "Proclaim Jesus" that he issued this December. "Effective ministry - engagement - must take place in every parish" to serve "the Hispanic people who live among us," the bishop writes.

"The sad fact is," Bishop Harrington says, "that if we do not tend to these new arrivals and welcome them" into parishes, "then people of other faiths will fill the gap. These evangelizers from other faiths are enthusiastic about their church, they speak the Spanish language and they understand the Hispanic culture. In doing so they also are showing us what we must do to evangelize our Hispanic neighbors."

Every parish in the diocese is asked by Bishop Harrington to "reach out to identify, contact, welcome and engage Hispanic people who have settled in their area." He says, "Parishes have a God-given opportunity to demonstrate their love for the strangers who live among us by helping them to adjust to their life in a new community, especially by helping them to learn English."

It is unfortunate that, "on occasion, we have not made [Hispanic Catholics] welcome in God's house. We must change. We must give them an opportunity to bloom and to blossom by reaching out to them and engaging them in the life of our parish," the bishop writes. He adds: "They too have been blessed by God with gifts and talents. As strangers in a foreign land, they often are reluctant to step forward. It is our responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves and invite them to join us in the community of believers."

Among other concerns addressed by Bishop Harrington's pastoral letter are the evangelization of teen-agers and ministry to them. "The secret to rekindling the Spirit is engagement. People of all ages are most receptive to the call of Jesus when they are involved regularly with the church. When they see and experience disciples who are concerned about them and who want to help them grow in the faith, they will respond," the bishop comments.

Among parents and grandparents it is no secret "that we cannot force our young people to accept their gift of faith. Rather, we must invite them, engage them and lead them to consider the great love that God has for them. If they are invited, engaged and led, they will respond," Bishop Harrington writes.

Parishes should "engage teens in the process of developing ministry programs enabling them to exercise their gifts of leadership," the bishop says. Parishes also should "enable youth to take their place in the community of believers, serving and leading in all parish ministries, including liturgy, social justice, stewardship, faith formation and pastoral care."

The What and the Why of Parish Councils

Among the "multitude of issues" every parish will face over the next 20 years is that of evangelizing "a Catholic population that is currently multilingual and [bringing] it together as a common community" -- a task that "will not be accomplished by any single group." In matters such as this, " it is important that the pastor have at his disposal a group of individuals knowledgeable in the life of the church, but also familiar with the issues facing the parish that he may turn to for advice and counsel," according to new guidelines for parish councils in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C. The guidelines were promulgated in November by Charlotte's Bishop Peter Jugis.

The guidelines note that "parishes are becoming more and more multicultural" and that they "need to take this into consideration when planning their ministries"; parishes should analyze the needs of each group.

The guidelines examine the pastor's role in the parish council. "The pastoral council advises the pastor" on pastoral matters, "but it is important to recognize that it is the pastor's responsibility" to make final decisions, the guidelines state. At the same time, Catholics must now take seriously their role of assisting the pastor "in his ministry of the entire parish for, as Christians, it is our ministry as well," the text says. The pastor's role "does not mean the laity have no voice and no role." Elaborating in this context, the guidelines say:

"When we look in the Acts of the Apostles, we can see that the apostles never made an important decision without going to the community for advice and then praying as a community for guidance. The apostles knew that they must also consult with the community of the faithful, since it is in the church as a whole that we best come to an understanding of what the Spirit is trying to do within our lives and our church."

A parish council has the role of bringing "concerns that affect the whole parish to the attention of the pastor." Its role is to discuss "parish-wide concerns or those items that the pastor chooses to bring" to it. The council's "chief concern is the implementation of the pastoral plan [of the parish] and its maintenance," the guidelines explain. They caution that "parishes often do not anticipate ministerial needs in a timely fashion" and do not see "that ministries often overlap. Parishes then cannot concentrate on common goals and needs."

The guidelines describe the parish council as "the thinking, planning and reflection group for the parish." The council members, according to the guidelines, "are to collaborate with the pastor in the building up of the church and its sanctification."

Current Quotes to Ponder (Christmas in January? In April? In July?)

From Bethlehem to the Eucharist: "It is amazing that even in our jaded society the feast of Jesus' birth can still stir us up and call us to be something more than we usually are, to demonstrate some of the best of ourselves. What we need to remember is that the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago was the beginning of a great mystery, a mystery which still transforms us and our world. This is precisely why we gather each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist through which the risen Lord continues to transform each of us as he builds up the church. Bethlehem was the beginning, Jerusalem was the climax, and the Eucharist is the extension of this mystery throughout time and space." (From the Christmas message of Archbishop V. James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Manitoba, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

What Christ Rebuilds: "According to [St. Gregory of Nyssa's] vision, the stable in the Christmas message represents the ill-treated world. [Christ] came to restore beauty and dignity to creation, to the universe: This is what began at Christmas and makes the angels rejoice. The earth is restored to good order by virtue of the fact that it is opened up to God, it obtains its true light anew, and in the harmony between human will and divine will, in the unification of height and depth, it regains its beauty and dignity. Thus Christmas is a feast of restored creation." (From the homily of Pope Benedict XVI for the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica)

Homeless People. "In a sense, it is not only heartless but pointless to ask why people are homeless. The typical reaction Jesus experienced when he saw people in real need is described in the original Greek Gospel texts by a word that means 'deeply moved with compassion.' The Gospel writers wanted to communicate what they had often noticed -- that Jesus almost physically felt people's need for help. If we always walk past the homeless men and women in our cities and never really look at them, never allow them to touch our hearts, something essential is missing in our idea of Christianity, and we find that, like the innkeeper in the Gospel, we cannot find any room at our inn." - (From the Christmas homily of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England)

The Next Step in Social-Justice Ministry

The great need today "is not to convince people of the value of social ministry, but to provide opportunities to acquire the skills to do it well," Franciscan Father Kenneth Himes says in the current online edition of CMSM Forum, published by the Conference of Major Superior of Men (www.cmsm.org). Father Himes, chairman of the Department of Theology at Jesuit-run Boston College, observes:

"The 'why' of justice and peace ministry has largely been answered; what is lacking in so many cases is the practical 'how to.' The knowledge and skills for successful social ministry remain to be acquired, and continuing education in this area is very much needed."

A "perennial danger" in the use of religious language is cited by Father Himes -- the danger of using religious language "cheaply" - using it, that is, "without making the effort to translate it into a meaningful message for people in their concrete situation." The theologian added, "We must speak to the needs, the hopes, the yearnings of real people in their actual lived experience."

The article by Father Himes actually was taken from a presentation he gave to a 1996 CMSM assembly. The CMSM notes, however, that the piece "is as current today as when it was first given." Titled "Religious Men and the Ministry of Justice and Peace," the text by Father Himes addresses men's religious orders specifically, but what he says on the relationship of justice-and-peace ministry to the work of evangelization seems valuable for others as well.

"If we are committed to the great religious mission of the church, to evangelize our world by proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, then we must also be committed to witnessing by our actions that the good news of God's reign touches the actual experience of people's economic, political and social existence," Father Himes explains.

"The Gospel cannot be merely a matter of words and ideas, it must be good news proclaimed so as to affect the way people live. It must be a transforming word," he says. It isn't enough to tell the good news to people who "are enveloped in conditions that deny the very dignity we tell them is theirs." Rather, the theologian says, "the community of Christians must be the agent of the reign of God."

What is needed is a willingness to "assist people in developing a way of life where they have some foretaste, some here-and-now experience, of the fruits of God's reign. We should as a church be able to point to how their relationship with God transforms their life or at least calls for that transformation," Father Himes says.

Reflection on Celibacy

Pope John XXIII "radiated Christian love. And in this way he taught me about celibacy," writes Jesuit Father Jim Martin in the winter edition of Portland magazine, published by the Holy Cross Fathers' University of Portland. Father Martin is one of the editors of America magazine. He tells how, over time, he "was drawn to John XXIII not so much for his wit, or his writings, or his love of the church, or even his many accomplishments, as for something more basic: his love for God and other people." How did this teach the writer about celibacy?

Father Martin, speaking of what he finds tough about celibacy, says, "Just as difficult as the lack of sexual intimacy and sexual relationships is the lack of an exclusive emotional relationship." The writer adds immediately: "Sacrifice, though, is at the heart of celibacy, as it is at the heart of any committed relationship. And here I like to think of what one theologian calls the 'God-shaped hole,' the space in your heart that only God can fill. That's why an absolutely essential element of celibacy is an attentiveness to an intimate relationship with God, who provides the celibate person with a different kind of love, which he reveals in ministry, relationships and prayer."

One reason that Father Martin thinks Pope John XXIII "was able to exemplify the ideal of celibacy so well" was that "he himself experienced the love of God. He also understood the absolute need for a vibrant life of prayer and the way that a close relationship with God helped him love so well." Father Martin writes, "The gentle old man seemed to be one of the most loving of all the saints: always a loving son, a loving brother, a loving priest, a loving bishop and a loving pope."