Monday, October 31, 2011

The storm on the horizon and my grief about it

No, I'm not talking about weather.  For two times in the last four days, I've been contacted to anoint someone who is dying.  Certainly, this is not a problem; this is "what we do" as Parish Priests.  The two live in the parish boundaries, and no one is questioning the state of their health.  But here's what both have in common:

  • Neither appears on our books as a parishioner.
  • Neither had family members contact us that the person is at the end of their life (in one case, it was neighbors; in the other case, the hospice caregiver).
  • One of the two lived alone.  The other is living with children, who also aren't registered parishioners.
  • I know it's petty, but neither asked if we could come, but ordered a priest to come, as if they were calling for a pizza to be delivered to their home.
Priests reading this will probably recognize the situation.  The elderly, fairly Catholic, Mass-attending, faith-having believers are old and dying.  Their children (and grandchildren) don't attend Mass and don't see the need for it.  They see no need to come to Mass to pray for their sick loved ones, or even to stop in a church to spend some time with the Eucharistic Lord, and now, to keep their consciences clear, they want a Priest to come and give their loved one "last rites" (though they really don't know what that is or that we stopped using the term decades ago).

There's a generation of Catholics out there, generally in their 40s to 50s in age, whose years of religious education left them with nothing to turn to in their adulthood.  Back then, doctrine went out the window, only to be replaced with arts and crafts and music time.  They know very little about the Sacraments (if given a word pool, they could probably name all seven), and essentially don't see the need for them on our road to Heaven.  Church, for them, is a commodity, like bread, milk, or eggs: They like having convenience stores nearby that will sell it to them when they want it, but they certainly don't believe they have any dependence on it for survival.  And, since in their minds, "all eggs are the same", it doesn't matter whether we get our eggs at Quick-Chek or WaWas.  Faith is more about instant gratification than eternal redemption.  If Blah-Blah Bible Church has better donuts than St. Fillintheblank's, we'll go there instead.  After all, it's all the same.

I was having lunch with a Priest-friend who lamented about a morning meeting he had.  A woman called the office, requesting a sponsor certificate to be a Godparent.  She identified herself as a parishioner, though there was no record of her.  She was in a marriage not recognized by the Church.  Oh yes, and the baptism was four days away, in St. Louis!  The woman, of course, was not happy that she wasn't getting the sponsor certificate.  My friend opined, "And somehow, all of this is MY fault.", when we explain why they really shouldn't have a letter from the parish identifying them as a practicing Catholic.  Whenever we talk about inactive Catholics, it's almost always with a presupposition that the institutional Church is the reason they're away from the Sacraments.  No one dares say that the reason they've been away is because they chose to do so.  Yes, we've had plenty of talk about the "New Evangelization", but what I fear we're dreadfully unprepared for is the question of what happens when we preach the Gospel to our own team, and they choose to walk away?  Do we, like Christ, have enough of a conviction of our beliefs to let them go, as he did with those who did not understand his Bread of Life discourse?

If all of this weren't enough, the generation of "Catholic-in-theory" has bred.  Their children, having been brought up with the church as "location, not vocation", only know the church as a physical place, and not as the Divinely instituted community of heaven and earth (of which, by the way, they are already members through Baptism).  Truthfully, most have spent more actual hours in basements of churches going to religious education than in the church itself attending Mass and praying.  They have been sent to us to gain an understanding of the Triune God, of Jesus Christ, of the Church and all she professes, much like parents send their kids for lessons in piano or gymnastics (something they buy, but don't do themselves).  To these families, we spend lots of time attempting a kind of ecclesial-seduction: We schedule special Masses and confessions at the same time that their children normally attend religious education, hoping in our hearts that this will get them to begin a regular practice of their faith.  In reality though, we know that, if we do not schedule Sacraments while the kids are here, many parents will not do it for themselves.  In their minds, this is "what they pay us for."  We try to instill in the parents an understanding of the need to take their children to Mass.  To do this, we try things like a sign-in sheet at the door, or prayer slips that are supposed to be placed in the collection basket.  Parents, meanwhile, treat this as a game of Cat & Mouse, in which they do what they can to avoid Sunday Mass, yet at the same time trying to fool us into thinking they went.  It used to be that church and parents worked together for the children; now it seems we've become adversaries.

I know that there's a quote out there from Pope Benedict which says that the Church of the future will be "less populated, but more faith-filled".  Maybe in other parts of the world, but not in the United States.  Our crowd of marginal Catholics will continue to live their lives separate from the Church, coming around for Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, Baptisms, 1st Communions, Confirmations, and funerals.  We'll allow it, avoiding any conversations about accountability or responsibility.

Truth is, we really don't want them to change their ways.  Uncatechized adult Catholics would require work, time spent instructing them in the Truth and destructing what they've come to believe as truth, and we don't want that.  Priests have a work schedule largely unaccountable to anyone, and many of them take advantage of that.  We'd rather take their occasional envelopes and go on making them feel that what they do is perfectly fine.  For their part, most of these marginal Catholics disagree with celibacy, the papacy, contraception, abortion, and moral absolutes, yet are unwilling to make the commitment of formally leaving the Catholic Church and going to a community that espouses those very things.  They want none of the rules but all of the privileges.  They haven't played one game of the regular season or playoffs, but they still want the champagne bath of a champion!

Please forgive this rant if you are one of those families who do go out of your way to fight the cultural tide and hang on to your Catholic faith.  I do know you're out there and that your decisions sometimes make you the "bad guys" to your kids and "religious zealots" to your neighbors.  None of this rant applies to you.  It's just that sometimes pastors feel like we work and work and work to get somewhere, and we're still right where we started.

Still, time marches on.  Little by little, the older generation dies, and THIS will be the next generation.  The generation that put $10. in their envelope each week will be replaced by the generation that puts $10. in an envelope 4-5 times a year.  Since Priests are also the managers of their parish's budget, this is something that will affect us all.  The stormclouds are on the horizon, I'm just sayin'.


Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

Feeling your frustration as a 40-something committed, with my husband, to keeping my family Catholic! We have submitted to sign-in-sheets that required us to bring a child in a Sacrament Year to a different Mass than the one we attended as a family and that 3 of us regularly ministered in. We're the fanatics on the block--mostly Catholic here--because we're the only ones who send the kids to parochial school. And sometimes we must listen to people who want to justify why they're right to let their kids skip Mass on a soccer-game day or whatever...and we wish we had a good way to respond to that--a way that doesn't just paint us as the fanatics on the block.

Unknown said...

Dear Father Jay,

I hear what you're saying. When I was ordained in 1988, 99.9% of the funerals we had involved a wake service the night before (either rosary or vigil service) followed by a funeral Mass the next day and ending with a burial service at the cemetery.

23 years later, and 99.9% of the funerals have NO WAKE or ROSARY the evening before; 75-80% have no funeral Mass; 50% have a prayer service at the funeral parlor the day of burial and the other half have ONLY a burial service.

This occurs IN ADDITION to what you experience where the adult children of dying parents do NOT call the parish so we can visit their folks while still alive and conscious. None contact us anymore about having their mom and dad put on the list for monthly Holy Communion visits. None call us when they are admitted to the hospital.

We get called (usually by hospice) in the person's last dying days if not hours or minutes. While we priests will willingly go ASAP when someone is dying, God forbid the drive alone takes too long and the person dies before getting the last rites. Would it not be better and more prudent to have the terminally ill anointed every six months if not annually? How many would love to have Holy Communion brought to them once a month or at least every other month?

I see the problem as one of PAGANIZATION. At least two generations of Catholics have been paganized in the sense that they no longer practice their Catholicism and no longer know and no longer care what the Church teaches or even practices.

I have seen devout Protestants and Jews respect the faith of a dying parent provide a full Catholic funeral Mass and burial if mom or dad had been of our faith. I have also seen adult children of Catholic parents ignore or omit any/most of Catholic rituals when they mom or dad leave this earth. Sadly, many of those old timers were not only faithful Sunday church goers, many were also daily communicants.

I have had numerous calls to anoint a dying Catholic and never get a call afterwards to celebrate the funeral. Graveside services where the undertaker recites the 23rd Psalm is all they want.

My response is now going to be this. To every funeral director in my area I am sending a small leaflet explaining what and why regarding Catholic funeral services, from wake to Mass to burial. I am going to ask the morticians to give those to ANY Catholic family they meet in my parish territory. Inside wil be a brief explanation of what we do and why we do it as well as a statement that euologies belong at the funeral parlor or cemetery, NOT at the funeral Mass. It will also contain the regulations on Holy Communion as to who is invited and who is authorized to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. Something on all music must be approved by the diocese vis-a-vis the parish musician. The first part will URGE family members to HONOR and RESPECT the faith of their deceased relative by having ALL availble Catholic funeral rites, from wake to Mass to burial.

I will also include a section on the DYING to help PREPARE for their funeral.

It may go on blind eyes and deaf ears, but it is worth a try. I did explain in this weekend's bulletin the infinite value of having a Mass offered for the soul of a deceased loved one. Sadly, I get mostly weekend intentions and less than a year's worth of weekday. 23 years ago, the day after a funeral, the parish office would be flooded with Mass intention requests from family and friends and neighbors of the deceased. Now, we get three or so. Praying for the dead has slowly declined over the years.

Nevertheless, if we priests mention it in homilies now and then, print stuff in the bulletin and charitably remind our faithful what our pious traditions and customs are, they may not slip into oblivion.

God bless and keep up the good work

Fraternally Yours

Father John Trigilio

Ellen said...

Well stated. Thanks for saying what so many of us think. Unfortunately, those of us who read this will fit into the category described in the last paragraph.

Helene said...

Please remember that as you work and work and work to get somewhere, you are reaching us. We try to follow the teaching of our Church and we are extremely grateful to have priests such as yourself who are here to guide us.

Dad29 said...

Don't feel alone in the "....back where we started" position. Many of my (now 50's/60's) Catholic parent-friends look at their children's utilitarian-Catholicism the same way.

Of course, we all have Monica as our patroness. But you, Father, have the privilege of the Shepherd as yours.

Chin up!!

Brother Charles said...

It amazes me that even though it is manifestly evident that God doesn't give us whatever it is we think we want just when we want it, people imagine that this is how the ministry should work.

Chris (Longmont, CO) said...

If you were to talk to me 15 or 20 years ago, I would have been one of those wonderful people you were talking about at the beginning of this article. Thankfully, I am now one of the 'zealots.'

Anyway, I am now a 5th grade teacher RE teacher (why do we have to call it that instead of CCD?). I am now seeing your side of the comments. I can also say that I am a product of EWTN, Divine Mercy, the Knights of Columbus and Scott Hahn.

ProudCatholic said...

Wow, Father! You hit it on the head again. What saddens me most is those of us who do what Jesus taught with love and absolute enthusiasm get tagged time and agian as not just zealots but overzealous--and this has come from priests as well as the "faithful." It seems they want Catholics to be nice, quiet, obedient but don't overdo it. I can name more people vibrant and in love with their faith, men who've become priests, etc. who give great gratitude to EWTN. Yet I hear more priests roll their eyes at the mention of this beautiful Catholic station. If they think people who are watching it are not going to church, they are so wrong. The people who watch EWTN are often the ones who absolutely can't love the faith enough and crave to keep learning it, keep feeding it and sharing it. I don't know what the solution to this religous ennui--I can only think of two: prayer (I have seen God directly intervene to turn hardened and cold hearts into fire), and perhaps some form of old-time discipline and fire and brimstone (gasp!). How do we reach the unreachable? I tend to think only God can do that, and even then, there is free will. The more I think of this, the more my head hurts! All I can say is don't ever lose heart, Fr. We need priests like you and may God multiply you and bless you with all of his grace. We, few that we are, hear you, and without priests like you, even us zealots might have strayed in the field and become just others in the herd of lost sheep.

ProudCatholic said...

"No one dares say that the reason they've been away is because they chose to do so."

Amen--as previously fallen-away Catholics, we can tell you that we had a million excuses why we left the church. But there were only two actual valid reasons--our own ignorance and stupidity. We certainly chose that path ourselves. Oh we could name a few excuses but we came to realize none of them had to do with God himself.
Let's face it, most people don't go to Church because they feel it is boring; they're lazy; they flat-out don't care. If they truly learned the faith and gave it a fighting chance, they would see just what they are missing out on. In order to feel the joy of loving God in your soul, you need to empty yourself, to be still, to cast away everything for at least a moment of time, listen, feel. But so few are willing to do that anymore. God forbid you are waiting for a bus for just five minutes without that phone--OH NO...YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY HAVE TO HEAR YOUR OWN THOUGHTS--SCARY. So few can or want to put the smart phone, tv, internet, etc longer than 2 seconds.I pray that at the end of my life (which could be tomorrow or 50 years away) I have comfort from my faith, that I can look back and say I held onto my faith, that I did what Jesus asked me to do and feel Jesus with me and lifting me to his heart. But how many will feel comfort from having 500 friends on Facebook and 100 "likes" on their photos. sad

InfiniteGrace said...

Well said Father - all of it! I remember my parents bickering over who was to drive me to CCD and pick me up - rather than stay for Mass. Most of us in the junior high school years, waited for our parents to drive off and then we took off too ditching CCD all together!

Now, at 41, I long for the education I missed out on. I'm a clueless Catholic at times, but I try. We have chosen to send our children to Catholic School and they are thriving.

You and all our good priests are in my prayers for all of the hard work that you do.

Christopher M. Zelonis said...

For all my engaged couples, would-be sacramental sponsors, school and CCD parents, and everyone else, I would like to print/email this post of yours, along with a recent USA Today article on how people are tailoring religion to suit their needs (whims, really).

I'd like to sit down with them and discuss the issue: "Having read these articles, do you think they accurately describe your attitude toward the Catholic faith? Does it shock you to hear your attitude articulated in this fashion--not only by a major news organ, but also (and more importantly) by a priest? Might these articles--and our conversation together, and the Holy Spirit--assist you in the process of adjusting your attitudes? If not, what do you think may prompt that adjustment?" (Like many people in many situations, nothing short of personal tragedy does the trick. Please God, we're there for them, and please God, it's not the Elder Son who comes out to greet them.)

In addition, your post is well worth being meditated and discussed by priests. We encounter, and often are responsible for, all sorts of inconsistency in the application of principles toward the unfaithful. Here as in other respects, we're our own worst enemy.

Keep up the Good Work.

Kris said...

I sure wish you were near us. We could use a priest or two like you. Keep up the good work, Father. I know there are people around you who are so grateful for a good and holy priest, whether you know about it or not. God bless you.

ProudCatholic said...

The really strange/interesting thing is the older people, who grew up with the old church, squak the most about "rules". I find the younger people up until about 35 are actually more excited about the roman missal (as surveys have been finding) and about following more closely the faith. People my age or slightly above and up, say around 55 and above are the biggest complaint department about even the smallest of changes. It is almost shocking. When I was a kid it was the grandparents who toed the line and taught you about Catholic tradition and the need and desire to follow the rules and in a positive light. Now this older generation are doing the opposite for the young. How sad. There are a band of older ladies who claim that they will not return to church becuase of the changes in the missal (i don't believe them at all) but that is what they are expressing. It's very strange. They are the ones who want priests married in the worst way, who think we should do away with holy days of obligation, and sadly, know way less about the faith than the average person unless you ask them to quote the Balitmore catechism which they can recite answers to verbatim. If it weren't for my grandmother I might have fallen away from Catholicism forever. She made a great difference in my faith life. I wish to God today's grandparents and parents realize that before it's too late.