I remember an incident in dealing with a family for a funeral a few years back. The deceased man in his 90’s had four children in their 60’s, two of whom were not on speaking terms with the other two. At the funeral home the family had asked that we have a small service to mark the closing of the casket, prior to departing for the funeral at the Church. During that service, the crucifix and rosary that were with the deceased were removed and the funeral director gave them to one of the daughters. She placed the crucifix in my hand and asked me to offer it to one of her sisters, saying “she won’t accept it from me.” I turned to offer it to the sibling, who was standing not five feet from me, yet who acted as though she had not heard any of the previous exchange. Her response was “Oh thank you, that is very kind of you.” I was aghast that these siblings, who had adult children of their own, could persist in acting like petulant children and were unable to put aside pettiness, even during the funeral of a parent.
I never did find out what was the origin of that rancour and infantile behaviour, but in my experience over the years, it is usually some small disagreement or perceived slight that gets blown out of all proportions. Open communications and the ability to have a crucial but loving conversation while still fresh would prevent most of these family disputes growing into entrenched bitterness. Communication is essential for healthy relationships, be they among families, friends, colleagues, and even for parish families.
The other day I was listening to a webinar on parish leadership offered by AmazingParish.org, during which Pat Lencioni spoke about the need for clear and deliberate communications to all areas of the parish before undertaking any major change. He also talked about acknowledging that people need to mourn the past before being able to move forward with change. I found this last point to be insightful.
Over the past few months I have been in Halifax, experiencing a vibrant parish culture, slowly realizing that fundamental changes are necessary for parish growth. Learning about new approaches and paradigms that will enable my parish in Montreal to move from maintenance to mission. But I realize that I have also had time to learn to let go of old models. I have been mourning if you will, the old model of parish, and, in fact, of priestly leadership. I have been immersed in this for nearly six months, and as I near the time to return to Montreal my mind and imagination have turned to how to implement what I’ve learnt here.
But I now recognize that I need to slow down a bit. If I were to compare it to learning a new language, it’s as if I moved to another country to immerse myself in the culture and language while my parishioners signed up for a Berlitz class. We won’t be at the same level, and it will be my job to help them learn by always communicating deliberately and clearly in order for everyone to understand and to catch up. Above all I realize that I can’t simply barge ahead or I risk leaving some behind and perhaps even fracturing the community.
I’ve had the past months to adjust and integrate, and indeed mourn some of the past. I have seen what is possible when old paradigms are abandoned and reaching out to the unchurched becomes the core value of parish life. My parishioners have not had that same experience. In fact many probably don’t yet realize the past needs to be left behind in order to move forward. I need to properly communicate why we need to move on, not just where we want to move to, and I need to allow people the time to properly mourn the past.
I can see that nothing I do as the leader in my parish in the next six months to a year is as important as making sure I communicate clearly, lovingly and repeatedly why we need to move the parish from maintenance to mission. Max DePree, a noted author on servant leadership, said that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Defining and communicating why we can no longer hold on to old models and ways of being a parish will have to be my first priority. Clearly painting the picture of what is possible when we focus on our mission as a parish will be the second. All of this must be done in a loving way so that, as St. Paul writes “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph 4:15)
But I need to allow people the opportunity to mourn as well, otherwise it can tear the community apart. If not done well our parish risks becoming like that divided family I described above: A parish family where everyone behaves like a two year old throwing a tantrum, where motives are suspect, where resentment and bitterness become so toxic that no one is able to listen to one another, let alone accept a token peace offering, even at a time of crisis. The difference between succeeding in moving a parish from maintenance to mission initially depends on how well it is communicated. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving as a family, or irreparably splitting a family apart, it is that important.
God Bless us all.
Fr. Michael Leclerc
N.B. This is posted as the Divine Renovation Conference is about to get underway here at St. Benedict, in which five of my parishioners from St. Ignatius are joining 600 delegates from 11 countries to discover something about parish renewal. Please pray for us during the Conference.
The following is an excerpt from the CBC radio program ‘Under the Influence’ that looks at topics in marketing. (“Brand Envy 2016”, originally aired April 21 2016)
“One night back in 1898, two travelling salesmen checked into the very crowded Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin. But there was only one double room left. Although they didn’t know each other, John Nicholson and Samuel Hill decided to share the room. The two got to talking, and discovered they also shared a common faith, and both had toyed with the idea of creating an association for Christian businessmen. So they decided to try it together. One year later, they held an open meeting for any men who were interested in joining a Christian association for travelling salesmen. Only one person showed up. His name was William Knights…[who] had an inspiration. “We shall be called Gideons,” he exclaimed. The reference was to an Old Testament judge named Gideon who led a small group of men to defeat a much larger army. So Gideons it was.
In its first four decades of existence, only traveling sales and marketing men could join. One of the things they all shared in common – beyond their faith – was the fact they spent many nights in hotel rooms. That led them to the idea of providing bibles to hotels across the land. Not only would the books be of use to fellow travelling Gideons, but also to any other guests who needed them. They called it “The Bible Project,” and the first Gideon bibles were put into the 25 rooms of the Superior Hotel in Superior Montana in 1908. It would be the start of a journey that continues today.
Because the Gideons were originally sales and marketing men, they have a strong operational foundation, and they’ve done their research. For example, they know that the bibles have a six-year life span. When they wear out, they get refurbished, and sent to prisons for distribution. They know 25% of the people who check into a hotel room will read that bible – therefore each bible will potentially reach 2,300 people.
The Gideons aren’t upset if you break the Thou Shalt Not Steal rule, either. If you need the bible, take it, they will happily replace it.
The Gideons’ have a rolling counter on their website that keeps track of the number of bibles distributed. That number is over 2 billion… and counting. For nearly 110 years, the Gideons have survived and thrived. They offer a unique service, and virtually everyone knows what a Gideon bible is. And maybe more importantly, where it is. That is amazing branding.” Under the Influence – Brand Envy 2016
When I heard that I thought it amazing that all this occurred because two strangers were unafraid to talk about their faith. I can only imagine the conversation between two men meeting in a hotel for the first time, probably exchanging pleasantries, asking about each other’s work, about their families, perhaps about the difficulties of life on the road. However it must have quickly deepened to the point where they were willing to open up about how their respective faiths have impacted their work, their families, and their life on the road.
Because two people shared their faith and listened to each other, billions of people over the last century have read and found comfort in the bibles they distributed. Who knows how many have actually found their faith through this non-denominational Christian group (the Gideons are not a religious denomination; they do not hold any religious services). That is what evangelization is, and it can have an enormous impact on our world.
I think that evangelization is intimidating to Catholics, because either we think it requires us to have all the answers in case somebody asks us a question about our faith. Or, perhaps we feel it is simply rude or impertinent to ask someone about their faith and share something of our own faith experience. If it is the former, well then I agree, and I don’t have all the answers either. But luckily we aren’t required to have all the answers. If it is the latter, then we need to create a culture where it is normal to share our faith.
At St. Benedict they make great efforts to address both these issues. To the first concern about finding the answers to questions, St. Benedict has two ways of equipping people; Discipleship Groups which allow people to grow in their understanding of the faith through Bible Studies and faith sharing programs, and the Alpha program which is designed to help people understand the answers to life’s big questions. The key however is not to get evangelizers to take Alpha so that they have the answers themselves, but rather to offer Alpha as the place where the evangelizer can invite someone to join them to find the answers together.
To the second concern, St. Benedict tries to make witnessing and sharing our faith and our story a normal part of the parish culture. In Connect Groups people are encouraged to share with others how they came to know Jesus, or how their faith has impacted their lives. At mass there are occasionally short witness talks given by ordinary parishioners tied into the theme of the homily. Any appeal or announcement at the end of mass done by a parishioner is expected to be presented as a witness to how a particular program or activity has positively impacted them. At different gatherings or workshops, sessions usually start off with short ice-breakers as a way to get to know some of the people there, but also because it makes sharing something of our lives normative.
Sharing our faith is not something that comes easily to a typical Catholic parishioner, and St. Benedict is no different than any other parish. But they do know that it is essential if a parish is to fulfill its mission of making disciples of all nations, so it deliberately and intentionally tries to equip people to live out that mission. St. Benedict gives people the tools to learn more about their faith (Discipleship Groups), provides a place for people to invite others to discover more about how faith can make a difference (Alpha), and most importantly intentionally creates a culture where sharing our faith is normal.
Because two men shared their faith in a hotel room in Boscobel, Wisconsin, the Gideons were formed and more than a 110 years later over 2 billion bibles have touched people and brought them comfort. What then can one parish do when it equips and encourages every parishioner to share their faith? The mind boggles.
Lord Jesus, you commissioned all of us to make disciples of all nations, send your Holy Spirit once more to give us the courage and clarity of purpose to be able to share the Good News with unabashed joy.
In my last post I talked about the “Belong, Believe, Behave” model they have adopted at St. Benedict parish and especially how that is applied in bringing people to faith and in sacramental preparation. (It would probably serve you better to have read that post before going on with this one.) The result of applying this model is messiness. There seems to me to be no other way to describe some of the situations that result from encouraging people to belong to the parish, or at the very least belong to a group in the parish, before they come to faith in Christ and his Church, and before they are expected to behave according his teachings.
Situations arise where there are people who have been away from the church for decades, who join Alpha, come to faith, and begin to come back to church on a regular basis. Sounds wonderful. But as you get to know the person and what is going on in their life, you see just how messy their situation sometimes is. You have to be ready to accept a lot of confusion, a lot of missteps, ignorance and uncertainty from them as they learn what believing and behaving mean for them. And you have to hope they are ready to accept a lot of the same things from us in the parish too.
There are some of the more muddled situations like a baptized Catholic on their 2nd marriage to a non-Catholic spouse on their 2nd marriage, both of whom come to faith. What to do? Then there are all the issues the last two synods on the family grappled with and which, I think, can fairly be categorized as still lacking definite clarity. So if the Church is uncertain about how to address these issues – expecting pastors (rightly, in my humble opinion) to deal with certain cases individually – we have to expect confusion on the part of the faithful, and ignorance on the part of those coming back to their faith.
Or what to say to a person who has grown up with no formal religion and who believes in some mix of new age philosophy, but after a friend invites them to Alpha, experiences a conversion. Now they have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and who was incarnate, died and resurrected, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. They are joyfully attending mass every Sunday and really excited to be learning more about their new faith in the RCIA class. They participate fully for the six month program we have in place, and come Holy Week are perfectly accepting of the Creed, but are unable to let go of one or two of their new age practices or beliefs. Do we baptize them at the Easter Vigil along with the 27 year old baptized Catholic, who took the RCIA just because she was told that in order to get married in the church that summer she had to be confirmed? This is a bit of a tricky situation for the pastor or anyone else in that ministry.
Then there are situations that I would categorize as more awkward than problematic. For instance, consider a single mother of two, aged 14 and 11, who rediscovers her faith that she had drifted away from years earlier and recommits herself to bringing her family to Church. However, only her oldest child was baptized as an infant and neither have ever been exposed to church since, but she now wants her children to come to faith as well. How do we as a parish respond to her needs?
In Quebec, as religious education has moved out of the schools, most dioceses have kept with the school grade level model for sacramental preparation. So the traditional year for 1st Communions corresponds to grade 2 or 3 and Confirmations in the ridiculously young grade 6. As I mentioned in my previous post, catechizing her children probably wouldn’t evangelize them in any event. And shoehorning them according to our current models would mean placing the 14 year old in a class with 7 and 8 year old children and not knowing what to do with the unbaptized 11 year old. Too old to baptize as a child and too young to place in RCIA. We all know that our models will not meet this mother’s desire to see her children come to embrace Jesus Christ the way she has. I also know that expecting this woman who is just now discovering her faith to be able to evangelize her own teen or ‘tween children is asking too much. Do we place the older child in the youth group and the younger one in with their faith formation age level and hope for the best?
Becoming a parish of missionary disciples is going to be messy. It will create awkward situations, it will require difficult pastoral decisions and judgement. It probably will require a complete overhauling of some of our existing structures surrounding sacramental preparations. “Belong, Believe, Behave” will mean letting go of certain expectations of conformity and what is considered normal. It will require vision and leadership and courage and above all hard work.
I can’t wait! Because it will mean we’re finally fulfilling our mission, it means we’re making disciples, and living out our faith together. Bring on the mess.
God Bless us all
A few years ago I was at a get together of recently ordained priests, the primary purpose of which was to meet with our then new Archbishop, Christian Lépine. In this informal gathering one of my colleagues asked a question concerning marriage preparation. The basic premise was that for the past year he had been in a parish that saw dozens and dozens of weddings each year, and that he spent hours with each couple leading up to their wedding, talking with them about the sacrament of marriage and the important role faith plays in married life. In all of the couples he’d worked with he had not seen a one return to church after the wedding itself. His question to the Archbishop was how do we reach them? Archbishop Lépine’s response was that we are spending too much time catechizing people who have yet to be evangelized.
Over the past couple of years I have recognized the truth in his statement, and that this principle applies not simply to marriage preparation, but to nearly all of our sacramental preparation; baptism, first reconciliation and communion, and confirmation suffer from the same problem. We have spent countless hours and money and energy developing new catechetical programs, and new ways to prepare parents for baptism, children for first reconciliation and communion, and teens for confirmation. I’m quite certain we already have great programs that teach parents what baptism confers and what symbols will be used during the celebration. I know we have programs chock a block full of great information for children about Jesus, the Eucharist, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I have been the priest full of pride when the bishop or monsignor asks the confirmation class about the gifts of the Holy Spirit during his homily and the children are able to name all of them. But ultimately it matters not one whit because I know that the next weekend no more than a handful will be back in church. In fact, many I will never see again. While I may see the few who will one day decide to get married in a church, where the charade of catechizing them can begin again.
I have thought about what the Archbishop said; Evangelize before Catechize. But looking back on RCIA classes I have been involved with, (I have to look far back as St. Ignatius shamefully hasn’t had an RCIA class in years), I don’t even think that evangelization is enough. The best classes I’ve been around have a wonderful bond that develops within the group, where each person feels part of something greater than themselves. This cohesion is wonderful to see and allows people to grow in their faith. Yet even in this environment, where people aren’t taught so much as challenged to deepen their relationship with Christ, doesn’t seem to be enough. They may commit to becoming a disciple of Christ, that after all is what baptism is. But not long after the RCIA meetings have ended a good number of them have fallen away from practice of the faith too. I now realize it is because the feeling of belonging, which was an intense part of the process, is lost when they try to integrate into the larger parish community.
At St. Benedict there is the maxim; belong, believe, behave. This refers to the notion that people need to feel as though they belong to something, then they will be open to hearing the Kerygma and to believing in Christ, after which they are ready and willing to learn more about Scripture or the precepts of the faith. All the while they need to know that they belong, it is the foundation upon which evangelization and catechesis are built, and without which they will crumble at the slightest adversity.
Alpha uses this belonging before believing dynamic to bring people to Christ. But beyond Apha the goal is to maintain the sense of belonging, which is why they have Alpha Team, Connect Groups and Discipleship Groups. Each is meant to foster the sense of belonging to community, while being part of a larger parish community. They understand that attending mass on Sunday with hundreds of other anonymous people does not foster the same sense of belonging that helped bring people to Christ in the first place.
Adapting all sacramental preparation to this belong, believe, behave model is a work in progress at St. Benedict. For instance it works better with Marriage preparation than with Baptism. Engaged couples are asked to go through Alpha together, where they are placed with others like them in order to feel connected as a group on the way to hearing the Kerygma and prior to being catechized. It doesn’t work with everyone, and some balk when they find out what they are asked to go through in order to get married at St. Benedict. But I dare say that the batting average here is better than the .000 average the young priest in Montreal was experiencing.
I recall a priest who had spent more than a decade working among the poor in Montreal telling me that the greatest poverty he has encountered is loneliness, and that it crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. People long for a sense of belonging.
I do not believe that a new approach to catechesis is going to answer any of our problems. I think we need to heed Archbishop Lépine’s call to evangelize before we catechize, and I think that giving people a sense of belonging is the foundation upon which evangelization needs to be built. Only then should we think about how to teach them about our faith. As I heard Fr. Mallon say “we’ll have the rest of their lives to catechize them.”
Gob Bless us all
Fr. Michael Leclerc
On the surface it would seem to me that people in Halifax have messier lives. The people I’ve encountered seem to have more problems, more emotional wounds, and more psychological scars than people in my parish in Montreal. That of course is a load of bunk. There are no more failed marriages, broken relationships, at risk children, crisis situations, or abuse survivors here than anywhere else. I just hear about them more at St. Benedict.
It isn’t that I hear about them because people come to me in confession or spiritual direction and open up about these troubling aspects of their lives, though, some do. However, most of the time, I hear it when they testify in their Connect Group, during a prayer session or at an Alpha night. They are willing to talk about the issues they are facing because they expect to be supported in their struggles by a loving community and never judged as a failure. They are also willing to share because they expect that people will pray with them, over them, and for them. However perhaps the biggest reason they are willing to talk openly about the messiness of their lives is because they expect those prayers to be answered, they expect the Lord to bring them healing.
Up to now it’s been my experience that not too many Catholics actually believe that the Lord will answer their prayers. Not too many believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, or that Jesus wants us to be healed and will often bring real physical and spiritual healing. Too many of us have become, for all intents and purposes, Deists; that is the belief in a creator of the universe and rational beings, but who has no ongoing involvement in creation. Couple that with the lack of widespread occasions where we truly feel part of a loving community of faith, and perhaps that is why few of us are willing to openly talk about our pain; physical or otherwise.
A couple of Thursdays ago we had the final Alpha evening for the winter session. This was more a celebration than a typical Alpha night. This was also meant to be the come and see for the next session of Alpha, so people were asked to invite others to come out for the evening. Part of the evening included a few people who had just completed the session witnessing about the impact Alpha had for them.
There was a lot of messiness there. One woman spoke quite openly about how much of a struggle she’d been going through dealing with a personal tragedy and an ongoing situation involving one of her family members. It was heart wrenching to hear her speak to her pain and her anger toward God and the world. She also spoke of her apprehension about Alpha being of any use to her. But then she talked of how the people in her Alpha small group allowed her to feel safe enough to open up about her struggles. How on the Holy Spirit weekend she was skeptical, but felt comfortable enough to allow people to pray over her. And then she witnesses that in fact the Holy Spirit did come into her heart, that she then spent the rest of the weekend letting go of all the bitterness and anger that had been gripping her and letting God’s love fill her. She talked about how much more at peace she feels since then, and that she is now able to deal with her situation in a healthier and more loving way.
Those in her Alpha small group had heard this before, however all of us who were hearing this for the first time were incredibly moved by her vulnerability and her testimony. I’m sure she helped more than one person that night become more open to faith or at the very least to commit to trying the next session of Alpha. That is the power of witnessing and that’s the power of God working through this community. This woman felt comfortable enough and loved enough to talk about the details of her struggle in an open way in front of strangers even, because she knew that sharing the messiness of her life had brought her healing and she knew that other people could benefit from hearing her witness.
As a priest I don’t often hear that kind of vulnerability expressed in confidential conversations, let alone being talked about openly. I’m sure people have lives that are just as messy in Montreal and elsewhere. There is no shortage of heartache and pain in the world. To my ears however it remains exceptional that people are willing to be so honest about their brokenness and their struggles with issues of faith. Yet hearing about the messiness of her life, the healing she received and the support she felt is not uncommon at St. Benedict, it is in fact actively encouraged by all the staff, Connect Groups and Alpha leaders.
Lives here are transformed, as they may very well be elsewhere, but at St. Benedict we hear about them. We hear about the messiness and more importantly, about the prayers, healing and loving support people have received. That in turn encourages others in their own struggles and woundedness, affording them hope, if not the expectation that the Lord will bring them healing too. All of which builds a community and a culture that expects great things from God.
God Bless our mess
Fr. Michael Leclerc
I have been reading The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin and in it at one point he makes allusion to the similarities between the transformative effects of an evangelizing community and those of a 12 step program. I found this very insightful and wish to delve into it a little further.
The only AA meeting I’ve ever attended was for a celebratory anniversary meeting, which was atypical. But more importantly I have known a number of people who’ve been through AA and similar 12 step programs. I have seen how their lives have been transformed. I know that the people who have had this transformational experience are the biggest advocates for their program. They are the ones who act as sponsors to new men and women who show up at a meeting. They are the ones who try and encourage friends, colleagues and acquaintances who may be struggling with their own addiction, to attend an AA meeting and to get into the program.
It’s my understanding that a great deal of a typical meeting is hearing from witnesses. Witnesses who are at different stages of the 12 steps, some still struggling with their addiction, some still in the throws of it. All of them, however, wanting to overcome their addiction and all of them looking for help. That witnessing is at the heart of the matter, it helps those at various points of their own journey to identify with other people, to know they aren’t alone, and to recognize that it is alright to struggle with the program, encouraging them to continue no matter how often they stumble.
We believe that 12 step programs work because we’ve seen the effects, we’ve encountered men and women who have been changed. We know of people who’ve found ways to manage their addiction and rebuild their lives. We know it’s made a difference.
Do we believe that faith too makes a difference in a person’s life? The Church teaches us that humanity, in our woundedness, has an addiction to selfishness and sin. So we are a group of sinners, a group of people who recognize that this tendency to sin has a hold on us. We recognize that we need a higher power to help us overcome our selfishness, that our own merits and will power are not enough to truly free us from this addiction to sin. Does faith therefore make a difference? Does it help us to overcome our selfishness, our shame and our sinfulness? Does it transform lives?
The other night (March 17th) I was in my car and heard a portion of the CBC radio program “Ideas”. In this episode that dealt with the ideas of French thinker René Girard, he posits that Western society and thought is so influenced by Christianity that it cannot conceive of a world except through the prism of Christianity. The idea of what is just or moral in society is shaped by it, and even the Enlightenment’s and modernity’s criticism and judgement of Christianity cannot occur without the Christian ethos as its basis. (I am not doing the program or Girard’s work justice, please listen to the podcast for a better understanding.)
Nonetheless, to me this indicates that the degree to which Christians have influenced and shaped our society is so deep and profound that we cannot see the extent to which transformation has taken place. We simply assume this is now normative for society. But as individuals we need constant reminders and witnessing of how lives have been transformed by faith, by an encounter with Jesus Christ. AA, which Girard may have argued could only have come about in a Christian society, shows us the extent to which we need to be mutually supported, part of which is hearing testimony from others.
And it seems to me that originally the Church functioned quite similarly to AA; we met anywhere and everywhere, members who had had their lives transformed invited others to join with them, worship had a lot of witnessing from all sorts of members as to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 14: 26-33 in which St. Paul describes worship to include an element of prophecy and speaking in tongues, albeit in an orderly way).
To this day we need to celebrate and hear from those in our parishes and communities who’ve had their lives changed by their encounter with Christ. We need to hear from men and women who are still struggling to overcome selfishness and sinfulness, but are experiencing the Holy Spirit at work in their life. I don’t know at what point we felt this should no longer be an integral component of our communal lived experience of faith, and I do not know in what shape and form this should take. We need constant reminders of the power contained in giving our lives over to a higher power; Jesus Christ.
However to do that would require not simply a culture change, but a cultural revolution. As Catholics we are so uncomfortable talking about our faith, let alone our relationship with Jesus, that pushback and outright revolt would ensue if we were to center our worship around witnessing and testimony from disciples. Our sharing as Catholics is often limited to trying to understand the Church’s moral teachings, or talking about our practice of receiving the sacraments. However, if we truly believe that the sacraments are moments of grace for us, isn’t that grace meant to build up our own natural gifts and impart and reinvigorate our spiritual gifts? But we bristle at the notion of someone talking about how that grace has affected, even transformed their life. Yet it’s the witnessing of lives transformed that makes the AA program successful, that is its single greatest selling point. Should it not be that for us too?
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Fr. Michael Leclerc
On February 27th I was sitting on a flight to Philadelphia on my way to the Dominican Republic. I’m not enamored with flying and so I try and distract myself during those times, and as this leg of the trip was on a small plane with no movies or other ways to get my mind off my circumstances, I was trying to think about my destination. I was going to the Dominican Republic, not to get a break from the winter (which has been very mild in Halifax), but to join some young men and women from my parish of St. Ignatius in Montreal to participate in what I too often describe as a ‘service trip’.
This is my third time going on this trip and so I should know better by now that this is an ‘experience trip’ rather than a service trip. It is much more about experiencing the Dominican culture and living conditions, than any service we might render to anyone living in that country. Pasos de Esperanza Dominican Republic is an organization run by Rey Peralta that places young people in family homes in the towns of Consuelo and San Pedro de Marcoris, so that they can experience living like typical Dominicans. For a week these young people are taken to see and experience the life of the poor of their neighbourhoods, of Haitian migrant workers in sugarcane fields, and undocumented families living in the slums of Santo Domingo. They also, in the midst of this experience, do some work in the cane fields or on a home to help alleviate some of the poverty they encounter. So service isn’t the purpose of the trip, encountering real people from the developing world, some of whom live in poverty, and understanding what that means is the purpose. As Rey has told me “These are Dominican problems, so the solutions need to come from us, not Canada.”
As I mentioned this was my third trip, but the previous ones had been with grade 10 boys from Loyola High School. This was the first time going with our parish on this trip, so there were some first time jitters as I made my way down to the Dominican Republic. Would it be as successful a trip? How would it be different this time with a smaller group, with different aged teenagers, and with more girls?
One of the things I have learnt over the past couple of months at St. Benedict is the need to ‘Define the win’. That means that in order to determine whether an initiative, a program, or anything else is successful, you need to know ahead of time what success looks like, otherwise there is no fair and objective criteria from which to evaluate it. So as I sat on the plane trying to distract myself I thought about how to define the win for this trip. I realize that this should have been done sooner and much more systematically than I was now doing it, but at least I was doing it and better late than never. Hopefully at the end of my six months in Halifax this will be more ingrained than it is now.
So what would a win be for the young women and men who went on the trip? I think that I would consider it a mild success if they were to truly be moved by what they experienced. If they were to feel empathy and compassion towards the people they encountered on the trip, and perhaps an awareness of the societal responsibility we have toward the developing world. It would seem to me that all but the most callous could come to that realization. However for a church we need a bigger win than something on the natural planes of the emotional or psychological. We need a supernatural win because we are in the game for supernatural reasons; to build the Kingdom of God.
We need these young people to have authentic encounters with the living God. To be able to see Jesus in the Haitian sugarcane workers, in the mothers who would cook our meals, in the boys whose only toy was old bicycle tire they pushed down a road with a stick, with the little girls who wanted a piggy back ride as we walked through the Batays (shanty towns for workers and their families in the sugarcane plantations). A natural win might be that these Canadians assuage their conscience by assisting the poor people they encounter, a supernatural success would be if they were evangelized by befriending Christ when they meet him in the poor.
Pope Francis has said that the poor “have much to teach us… We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them… We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” (The Joy of the Gospel, no. 198)
That last line is perhaps how I would best define what would be supernatural success; that these young people embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through the encounter with the poor.
So was it a success? Well first of all wins don’t happen in a vacuum, they require planning and work, and a big part of ensuring a win is making sure that the conditions are in place to allow for success. For our purposes that means allowing room for God to speak to these young people on this trip. I think there are four elements that we use to do that.
The first is the group of guides that we have. They are Christian and are not afraid to tell us that this is their motivation for working with us. They fervent desire is for us to experience Christ in this trip. They are enthusiastic in their passion for their country and love for its people, especially the forgotten poor. Many Dominicans have heard of the poverty in the batays and slums but never seen it for themselves. Our guides are often as moved as we are at seeing the suffering and marvelling at the joy in the people we encounter. The Pasos de Esperanza group are extraordinary and I cannot imagine this being successful without them.
The second element is prayer. Every day our Dominican guides would begin with prayer, and we usually also spent time singing some Spanish praise & worship music on the bus rides. Not only was opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit essential, but it also helped the young people to be a bit more comfortable with Spanish. Midway through the trip it was our young people who would lead the prayer, and by the end they knew the Spanish songs well enough to lead them too, sometimes without prompting. I consider that a win.
We also tried to encourage our group to journal, and we try and make sure that each day there is a time for small group reflections. On this trip we made adjustments along the way; we moved the reflections to the evenings, after we had gotten back into our Consuelo homes. This seemed to give people the time necessary to process their experiences that day, and at times we allowed the young people to reflect among themselves, with only our youth minister as the facilitator. For the adults on the trip, it probably didn’t make much of a difference, but for our youth I think the depth of their reflections were enhanced by not feeling that they might be judged by us adults. From what I was told there was a genuine deepening of their spiritual understanding of their experience in the Dominican Republic. While I think there is room for improvement in this area, and we perhaps need to encourage journaling even more, or find some other means to help them process the spiritual dimension of the experience. I do however believe the reflections were a very fruitful exercise and could be seen as a success.
We also had a mass every day, something unusual for these young men and women, some of whom attend on Sundays only occasionally. But there is something more meaningful to Mass in a small intimate group, which is made all the more significant by relating Scripture to what we are experiencing that day. The Mass is meant to unite us with all of heaven in worshiping the living God. I think seeing the divisions and wounds in society, seeing the forgotten faces of our world helps to bring home the communion and healing nature of the Mass.
I dare say that perhaps the most meaningful Mass these young people have ever experienced was the one we had Thursday afternoon in a desperately poor elderly woman’s home, Sumergida. We had spent the day cleaning, painting, fixing up her house, providing her with a new bed and stove. We had met her two days earlier and she had praised God and then blessed us for providing her with a little food. On a personal note I have received blessings from bishops, from a cardinal, and I even have a papal blessing hanging on my office wall, but I have never felt so blessed as when Sumergida blessed us. The Mass we held in her newly cleaned and painted home was extraordinarily moving for Sumergida, for our group, and the Dominican guides, and it seemed the only way to truly give thanks for the opportunity to meet her and help her in some small way. At the very least there was one time when Mass came alive to our youth. That, I think, is a successful element.
So the question remains; was the trip a win? Did these young people embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through the encounter with the poor? While there certainly needs to be some follow up, and I cannot know the heart of each person who was there, I think they did recognize the profound joy in many of the people we encountered. And I think that they understood that that joy came from placing their trust in God rather than in material possessions or even in their own ingenuity or cleverness. I think they embraced that mysterious wisdom. So yes it was a win. And I thank God for their openness, for being able to experience this trip with them, and for the fruit that will come from this success.
God Bless Pasos de Esperanza
P.S. Links to videos of the trip can be found at
I’ve been listening to podcasts from Andy Stanley. If you are like I was, you have no idea who Andy Stanley is, despite being the 10th most influential preacher in the U.S. He is the founder of North Point Community Church, a non-denominational Evangelical church in the Atlanta area. This is one of those mega-churches that you see in the suburbs of the U.S. that look to me more like auditoriums or arenas rather than churches. But then again in many ways I am an old fuddy-duddy.
During one of the podcasts, which focus on leadership and aren’t aimed only toward church leaders, Andy Stanley talked about an incident in which he quoted the CEO of Chik-fil-A responding to questions about expansion by saying ‘if we focus on making it better, our customers will demand that we get bigger.’ Stanley’s point, if brought back into a church context is that when we focus on making our experience of Church better for people, bigger will come all on its own. Too often in my experience when I have thought about how I could grow my parish it has centered around the question of “how can I get more people in the pews?” In my conversations with other priests, clergy, pastoral staff, and discussions in pastoral councils, it seems I am not alone in focusing on how to get bigger.
This may be understandable too, after all many of us can remember a time when churches were full, when it seemed necessary to have 3 or 4 Sunday masses. I’ve heard that at one time it was necessary to sell tickets to Christmas midnight mass. We look back wistfully, especially in Quebec, on a time when it seemed everyone went to church, and so we look at numbers as a sign of health. I wonder however if those times were actually times of true health. How many people went to church out of a sense of obligation, or cultural pressure and practice, rather than out of a desire to worship God?
Regardless of this we tend to get hung up on numbers and hope that the future will see a return to similar rates of attendance. We confuse attendance with practice, and practice with discipleship. If we focus on attendance we can lull ourselves into a false sense of being healthy. For instance a parish in a growing suburb can think itself healthy when it is new housing developments that are growing their attendance, that are driving the number of children in sacramental preparation. Similarly a parish in a more urban area with an ageing population and an influx of Asian immigrants might not see their attendance drop off radically at first, as older people tend to practice their faith at higher rates and be more engaged in their church. Both of these parishes may think they are healthy when it is simply demographic trends at work.
The health of a parish cannot be tied to attendance or practice, or even engagement, it must instead be tied to how well that parish makes disciples. After all, the risen Christ did not tell the apostles to ‘go and fill amphitheaters.’ If we concern ourselves with making disciples, then practice of the faith and attendance at mass will take care of themselves. Making disciples will be different for different parishes. For the suburban parish I mentioned above, with a large number of families, disciple-making may initially focus on the existing Catholic families. Whereas for the urban parish with a large influx of presumably non-Christian immigrants, disciple making may need to focus on them. In either case true health of the parish cannot be measured by the number of people in the pews, but rather disciples in the making.
We will not return to the attendance of the past unless we attend to the mission of the Church; to ‘make disciples of all nations.’ And yearning for a return to the past is, to me, like driving forward by looking in the rear view mirror. We may see where we’ve come from but we will never arrive at our ultimate destination; the Kingdom of God fully realized on earth as it is in Heaven. For that we need to look forward rather than back. We must focus on being better at forming disciples, and then we will get bigger, because true disciples practice their faith, are engaged in their church, and most importantly, joyfully invite others to join them.
When I listened to Andy Stanley’s podcast I was reminded of one of the members of the pastoral council at St. Ignatius who is always going back to the idea of ‘making it excellent’. I asked him to join the pastoral council precisely because he had mentioned to me a number of times about our need to be excellent at what we do. He seems to be echoing Stanley’s message of ‘Better before bigger.’ I also knew that he would have the gumption to call me out when I did things that didn’t live up to our vision.
What does it mean to get better at forming disciples? That may be too large of a question to fully answer in this blog post, but I think it includes, although is not limited to, having a better Sunday Mass experience for families, better music, better preaching, better services for children, better welcome of newcomers. However it cannot be limited to what happens on Sunday. As I mentioned in my last post, the Mass is not primarily meant to evangelize, it is not where disciples are created, it is where they worship. However by being more invitational in our masses and having liturgy/music/preaching that is dynamic and speaks to people today, it is an opportunity to create trust and openness among the unevangelized. When the Mass is seen as relevant to people’s lives it becomes a point of entry into the discipleship process.
That, however, presumes that there is a discipleship process in place. That has not been the case in my current parish. As Catholics we think that this is what the RCIA is for. If it is we certainly are not doing it properly. In my experience it serves more as an adult confirmation class for Catholics who want to get married in a church but are missing some of the sacraments of initiation. In the actual rite there is a first period of inquiry that could serve as an opportunity for evangelization before the catechumenate stage, but we take no advantage of this. This is another area where we have to focus on being better rather than worrying about numbers.
At St. Benedict they use Alpha as the primary tool for evangelization. Fr. Mallon is fond of saying that it is the best tool for bringing people to Jesus they’ve found so far, so it’s what they will use until they find something better. Alpha may or may not be the panacea, but more importantly St. Benedict actually has a process for creating disciples. Alpha is the entry point, and an entry point for creating disciples is something too many other parishes do not have. After Alpha there is often the opportunity of being on the Alpha team, helping others to go down the road to discipleship, as well as Connect Groups, which are a form of house church.
Fr. James does a better job at explaining this in his book than I can here, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that St. Benedict does have a thought out process of how to get better at being church for people. That in and of itself puts them leaps and bounds ahead of many other parishes. And one of the things they have learnt is that growth in engagement and attendance at the parish are signs of health, but they are outgrowths of what truly matters; getting better at making disciples.
In a meeting of St. Benedict’s Senior Leadership Team the other week, one team member, who is a Wesleyan pastor, didn’t understand a reference that was being made about fasting on Ash Wednesday. He said ‘Hey I’m still learning about this whole Lent thing Catholics do.’ It reminded me just how much of what we take for granted in the Catholic Church could be misunderstood or, perhaps more commonly, not understood at all by outsiders.
I wonder how many non Catholics, if they heard that Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence for Catholics, thought that we aren’t supposed to eat anything as well as refrain from sexual intercourse. What may be a more common mistake than we care to admit may very well reflect society’s preoccupation with sex. Nonetheless, the fact that someone misunderstands or doesn’t understand at all what we are trying to communicate is the fault of the communicator, not the listener or reader.
Properly and compellingly communicating the Good News in a way that is accessible to people is our prime responsibility. We cannot evangelize someone who has not heard the good news of Jesus Christ, the kerygma, by using terms like ‘kerygma’ or ‘atonement’ or any other insider terminology. Rare is the audience for whom that vocabulary would resonate or stir the heart toward the Lord. And stirring people’s hearts is all of our responsibility.
We cannot assume that the vocabulary we use on a daily basis in the Church is readily understood by the uninitiated, especially in our post-Christian society. No one outside the Church understands what we are referring to when we say ‘Sacred Mysteries’ or ‘almsgiving’ or even ‘original sin’. I dare say that many people who attend Mass regularly don’t fully understand them either. Even more problematic are situations when the secular culture has a different connotation to a word like ‘abstinence’ than we do in the Church.
All of these terms are jargon really, vocabulary that is meant for those in the know, for insiders. Our reality today is that those insiders are fewer and fewer in number, and Christian culture is not as pervasive as it may have been in the past. We can no longer assume that people have been exposed to that vocabulary and know what it means. The same goes for other aspects of Church culture; the rituals, practices, customs, gestures etc. For instance I would think most men today are no more aware that it is customary to remove a hat upon entering a church as they are that they should put on a head covering when entering a synagogue.
Do we want to persist with our jargon or should we strive to use vocabulary that makes it easier for the uninitiated to understand what we are doing and why we do it? If we are to be an evangelizing people I think we need to take every opportunity to present Christ to people in such a way that he can be made known to them. This means eschewing our jargon for more accessible, simpler terms, or where need be, taking the time to explain and unpack those words and phrases. In a club exclusively for insiders, say for example a college fraternity, jargon and common practices help to foster a sense of exclusivity, they serve to separate the initiated from the outsiders. This is not what the Church is, it cannot be what the Catholic, or universal Church is. Shared rituals and practices may help develop communion and fellowship, but Christ gave us a specific mandate to be inclusive, when he said ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ (Matthew 28:19)
The Liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is a wonderful expression of the common faith of the Body of Christ uniting herself to worship the Lord. It is not primarily meant to be a tool for evangelization. But in our society, where even some who regularly attend Mass have not been evangelized, the liturgy can and should be a way to announce the Good News. This means explaining, on occasion, some of the rituals and practices in the liturgy, using a vocabulary that is meaningful and accessible. The Liturgy of the Word seems to me to be especially appropriate as a way to bring people to a fuller appreciation of the grandeur of God’s love for us, and to awaken the desire to respond to God’s love by loving him and our neighbour.
I realize that my homilies especially have to avoid jargon and cannot assume that those who are listening will understand references to insider practices and rituals. In a homily I once spent a couple of minutes explaining the sign of the Cross to people, it’s significance and symbolism. The feedback I received convinced me that people want to know their faith, that the catechetical opportunities of the mass need to be better exploited. However on further reflection I also concluded that I must be aware of how I speak in a homily, that I can’t assume that people know what I’m referring to in speaking about the ‘Babylonian exile’ or the ‘Transfiguration’. This doesn’t mean that I can never refer to them, however it does require me to explain what the ‘Passover’ is, if knowing about the ‘Passover’ is integral to making my point about ‘paschal sacrifice’. If I want to bring people to Jesus, I need to be able to make the Good News understood.
Prior to being assigned to St. Ignatius parish I had been in parishes in the West Island and Laval, where taking public transit is inconvenient and time consuming. As a result I hadn’t used the Montreal transit system in close to six years. In those years the STM had changed the ticketing system and moved to ‘Opus’ cards. (If you aren’t familiar with Montreal some of this will seem like insider language to you). While I was aware that things had changed, I really didn’t pay much attention to the specifics while I lived in the suburbs as I drove most everywhere. Now back in NDG I started to use public transit again from time to time as it was often more convenient than driving. However the first time I did so, I was hesitant and confused, I didn’t understand what an ‘Opus’ card was or how the ticketing worked. When I got on the bus after coming out of the metro I had no idea what to do with the transfer when confronted with the new ticket apparatus on the bus, and had to ask the driver for help. He looked at me as if I were a moron and showed me where to insert the transfer. As I walked away he motioned me back saying “Hey, prenez votre billet.” Meanwhile there were many people behind me waiting impatiently to get on, which made it more stressful.
I was uncomfortable going back to public transit for the first time in six years because I was unfamiliar with much of it, and I knew I was upsetting the regular users. This was despite my having grown up using public transit, and using it to commute to work for years, and I was fluent in French so I could read the signs and instructions easily. So how much more daunting would it be for someone who was away for longer, or a new immigrant to the city, or someone who spoke no French. What is so different from the baptized Catholic returning to the Mass for the first time since her confirmation, or for the woman who hasn’t ever gone to church outside of funerals or weddings? A little hand holding and explaining makes the journey a whole lot less daunting.
We need tools and opportunities to evangelize just as we need tools and opportunities to catechize. The Mass cannot be the only place for either to occur, nor should it even be the primary place for them. However we have to recognize that the Mass is a place where both can happen, where everyone can grow in their faith as they worship God, and where some people can come to know Christ. We also need to recognize that our Catholic culture, including the language we use in and out of the Mass can be a barrier to entry, a way in which we, subconsciously perhaps, exclude the uninitiated.
Pope Francis uses imagery and language in such a way as to get his point across easily and vividly. One of the more quoted passages from him is “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (The Joy of the Gospel no. 49) Here he makes it known that we have to engage the prevailing culture and that isolation will only lead to rot. This rot will eventually set in because we are not heeding Christ’s command to ‘go and make disciples.’ We need to heed not only his message, but also allow his use of engaging and compelling language to serve as a model for us. He gives us the example of one way to do exactly what he is exhorting us to do. We have to be cognizant of our vocabulary, our customs and practices, remembering that the onus falls on the person trying to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ to make themselves understood and bring others to share in the Joy of Gospel.
God Bless us all
My first week at St. Benedict concluded on January 12th with the celebration of the memorial of St. Marguerite Bourgeois. This past weekend, marked the end of my first month in Nova Scotia. I celebrated mass in two towns, Hammond’s Plain and Upper Tantallon, both are part of the newly formed parish of St. Marguerite Bourgeois. They are in the process of building a new church as these communities merge to form one parish in a part of the province that is becoming a bedroom community for the greater Halifax region, HRM, as it is known here. I mentioned in these mass centers just how pleased I was, as a proud Montrealer, to come to Nova Scotia and be able to celebrate mass in a parish named in honour of one of the foundresses of my hometown. St. Marguerite Bourgeois, being the foundress of the first school in Montreal, also would have visited her sisters who taught in the towers on Fort and Sherbrooke street which are now part of the grounds of the Grand Seminary in Montreal, the seminary I attended.
Marguerite came over to Ville-Marie, as Montreal was then known, in 1653 in order to help educate the young girls of the newly founded city. She also founded one of the first un-cloistered order of nuns in the Catholic church. This refers to religious sisters who could travel freely outside of their convent and interact and minister to every person, not exclusively those who came into the convent. She is one of the most important figures in the founding and building up of the city of Montreal, let alone the building up of the Catholic church in the city. When the Society of Notre-Dame of Montreal decided to found and fund the settlement on the island Montreal at the base of Mount-Royal. They dedicated the colony to the Virgin Mary and thus named the settlement Ville-Marie. It was expressly intended to be a missionary settlement, where people lived under the Christian ethos in order to be a beacon of light and hope to those who had not yet heard the Gospel message. It was to be an evangelizing presence in New France, and consequently in the New World. Marguerite Bourgeois, along with Jeanne Mance, and Angelique de Bullions, are among the women who played key roles in establishing the settlement of Ville-Marie, and trying to fulfill the vision of the Society of Notre-Dame de Montreal.
In the early 20th century Quebec sent thousands upon thousands of missionary priests and nuns throughout the world, among them were hundreds of nuns from the Congregation Notre Dame, the order founded by St. Marguerite Bourgeois. It seems Marguerite’s vision was being fulfilled. Yet today this missionary nature of my hometown has seemingly been abandoned. It needs to be reclaimed. And that reclamation need not be the purview of nuns and clergy. The Society of Notre-Dame de Montreal had clergy, nuns, and lay men and women as its members. The laity need to reclaim their own missionary role so that the Church in Montreal can once again be an evangelizing presence to a city and province sorely in need of hearing the Good News.
How do we do that? In the past when a missionary arrived in a place and culture that had not heard the Gospel, it is my understanding that they spent time learning the culture, learning about the people and their religious and civil practices and rituals. And it would have been absolutely essential that the missionary learn the language. In doing so they would not only be able to communicate the Gospel to people, but they would also have been able to take what is good and noble and life-affirming in that culture and frame it in a Christian context. This would not only help in transmitting the beauty of the faith to people, but would ultimately enrich the Church. Think of the beauty of the traditional Huron Carol, originally written by St. John Brebeuf in the Huron language. This hymn adapts the Nativity story to the native culture and celebrates their traditions along with the Christmas message of a God who so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son. It is a wonderful example of how Christianity is enriched when we open ourselves up to other cultural influences.
So what does this have to do with what I am witnessing at St. Benedict parish in Nova Scotia? This parish is making a decided attempt to become a missionary parish, a parish that seeks to bring the Christian message to an increasingly post-Christian society. I see some of those same core missionary principles at work in what they do. They seek to understand their surrounding culture, understand the rituals and traditions in their community, and they have learnt the language of the society. And they have appropriated what is good and noble and life-affirming in the surrounding culture. In the process I believe they are enriching the Church.
I will go into more depth in the weeks to come concerning the details of this. But St. Benedict has a decidedly corporate mentality and language that is spoken among their staff and leadership. They use corporate leadership strategies and processes in order to ensure that they stay focused on their ultimate mission. They set measurable and definable goals for teams and individuals, and surprisingly in the Church that I know, they hold people to those goals. They seek to quantify success and strive to achieve it. In short, they have taken what is best about the corporate world and culture and brought it into the Church.
If we realize that a corporation refers to the forming of a legal person, although made up of many people, that is able to act in the world as an independent and unified entity. The word originates from the Latin word Corpus, meaning a body, or body of persons. Is this so far off from the idea of Church that Saint Paul first proposed when he called us the Body of Christ, meaning the body of people who form the Church to act as a unified entity in order to manifest Christ’s enduring presence in the world? Would it not then be appropriate to discover the best practices and language found among some of the healthiest and innovative corporations in the world and use them in the Church, the corporation of Christ.
I know that this frightens some people, that some might see this as de-humanizing the Church in some way. But is it really? Here I am referring only to healthy and innovative companies, companies that seem to have employees who are enthusiastic about the role they play in the company mission. They have dedicated sales forces who have bought into the vision and invest their time, talent and yes their treasure too (think stock options) into accomplishing that mission. It can be an enriching and rewarding experience to be an employee as well as a client of a company like that. And for people who either work for or with them it can be something that is life-affirming. Is that not something we would all love to experience. For those who’ve been lucky enough to work for, or deal with a company like that, does it not lead to a desire to deepen that relationship and be loyal and enthusiastically vocal advocates of their product or service. Why should the Church not learn from those companies and in fact embrace the best practices of the corporate world, adapting them to suit her mission.
Our product, salvation, is so critical to the world. Wouldn’t we want our leaders, our members and ministers to be enthusiastically vocal advocates for what we have to offer? St. Benedict seems to have bought into the notion that we can learn to be more missionary by using the language and practices found in healthy and innovative corporations, be they companies or churches. They are not simply dealing with those who come into the local church, they are un-cloistering themselves and interacting and ministering to their community at large. To do this requires trust; trust in their vision and their product, but also trust that what is good and life affirming in the world fundamentally must come from God and thus can be used for the building up of the Church. They are trying, in their way, to fulfill St. Marguerite’s vision.
St. Marguerite Bourgeois…pray for us.