Legacy of Love

CAs we read more of the Easter passages, I cannot help but notice the impact that Jesus had on his apostles. Each story reveals how Jesus is remembered for the love that he showed to others, for his attitude towards the marginalized and his critique of any injustices that he witnessed. This is the way he is remembered by all those who encountered him.

The resurrection stories recount how he brought a sense of peace and comfort for those who were blessed to see him. He forgave those who may have abandoned him during the passion and he reconnected with the friends who could not understand what had happened. In each case he left a legacy of love and hope.

Each one of us leaves a legacy when we die. How we live our lives, the actions we take, the attitudes that we adopt send a message to the people we leave behind. Not too long ago, I attended the funerals of several people that I knew. At these funerals, the persons closest to the deceased would give a testimony about how the life of that person impacted them. For the most part, the testimonies were positive and each person shared what they cherished most about the loved one they had lost.

Most of us are not thinking about what will be said about ourselves at our funerals. But it is good to reflect on how we want to be remembered. What we do with our lives will speak much louder than what we say. Does our life reflect our values? Are our actions congruent with who we would like to become as a person? It is never too late to begin to act differently than we have done in the past.

We always have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the people we know and with our wider circle of contacts.

How do you want to be remembered?

The Joy of Love

papa-francescoThere are two words that are hallmarks of the papacy of Pope Francis. These words are Joy and Mercy. So, it is not surprising that when last Friday, Pope Francis’ much anticipated Apostolic Exhoratation on the family came out, he named it “The Joy of Love”.  It draws together almost three years of consultations with Catholics in countries around the world on the role of the family in the world.

Although I have not read it all myself, the title is very enticing and speaks to how real self-giving love brings us joy. This week, instead of writing a reflection, I would like to encourage you to read some of the summaries and commentaries that are available on the internet concerning the Joy of Love. You may even want to read the document in full. Let me hear your own thoughts.

Happy reading!

Ten Top Takeaways on The Joy of Love

Bishop Robert Barron

Q and A from Bishop Barron

A Deeper Look

A Canadian Perspective

Resurrection in the Ordinary

iStock_tulipes_Small (1)As we move through the Easter season, each Sunday there is another gospel story about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples. This coming week is the story of Jesus appearing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as he watches the apostles from the shore.

They have now returned to their previous occupation as fishermen. But they did not have much luck with their catch and they slowly became discouraged. They notice Jesus on the shore, who tells them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat. Their nets are filled to the brim. As they have breakfast together, Peter is reconciled with Jesus as Peter declares his love for Jesus three times. Each time Jesus responds by telling Peter to follow him.

In this story, as in the other stories of the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, there is a moment of healing for those who encounter Jesus.

But each meeting is very ordinary. When Jesus meets Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, She recognizes him when he calls her name. When he meets Thomas, Jesus asks him to touch his wounds. And the reading for today shows how Jesus appears by calling to the disciples to cast their nets in a different way. There is no fanfare, bright lights, or astounding phenomenon. The appearances are ordinary and everyday.

God reveals himself to us most often in the everyday. Small gestures, discreet moments of awareness, humble stirrings in our hearts are God’s way of reaching out to us. One way to notice these events is to pray the examen. There is a wonderful new app called “Reimagining the examen.” It is a beautiful way to pray and become aware of God’s presence in our ordinary day.

I invite you to try it and see how God may be speaking to you as you go through your day.

Divine Mercy Sunday

Divina_Misericordia_(Eugeniusz_Kazimirowski,_1934)The first Sunday that follows Easter has been designated by Saint John Paul II to be called Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a particular Sunday in which we recognize and pray in a special way to experience the mercy offered to us by God. The mercy that God offers us is another way that God shows his compassion for all of humanity. This virtue is nowhere more evident in the gospel for this coming weekend.

The gospel this Sunday is one of the stories of Jesus’s appearance to the apostles after the resurrection. Thomas, one of the apostles, is absent when Jesus reveals himself. When Thomas does see his friends and they speak about having seen Jesus, he does not believe them. In fact he tells them that he will only believe that Jesus is alive, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Quite the statement.

But Jesus, true to his word does reappear to his friends and this time, Thomas is present. Jesus knows and loves his friend. He knows that Thomas has difficulty believing that which he has not seen. He has compassion for Thomas and invites him to touch his wounds. Thomas no longer doubts. Jesus loves his friend in spite of Thomas’ skepticism. He accepts him for who he is and reveals himself to Thomas in spite of his difficulty to believe.

God looks at us in the same way that Jesus looks at Thomas. Our flaws do not define us in God’s eyes. We are loved unconditionally. As Jesus continued with his relationship to Thomas, God desires that same close relationship with us.

Pope Francis says that “The name of God is Mercy”. May we allow that mercy to touch us and open our hearts to that love.

AA as Inspiration

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

Spiritual Works of Mercy (2)

photodune-681350-mercy-xsA spiritual work of mercy that we often see Jesus perform is “to comfort the afflicted.” Jesus healed many people in his time on earth, but he not only healed them in a physical way, he healed them by being present to them or by comforting them in their sorrows.

One story that comes to mind for me is the story of the Samaritan woman. The story begins with Jesus and his friends going through Samaria, a region that is somewhat hostile to the Jews. Jesus rests alone for a while by a well where he meets a woman who is struggling spiritually. They begin a conversation and Jesus comforts her by revealing her the love of God. She is renewed and goes on to evangelize her community. Jesus brings life to her by giving her “living water.”

The encounter is very spontaneous and unexpected. How many times do we have the same kind of opportunities to be present to someone unexpectedly and to engage with them with words of kindness and caring? When that happens, we walk away nourished and unburdened as we have had a sense that God was in that encounter. We are given the opportunity to help others and they leave with a sense of peace.

To comfort the afflicted does not necessarily mean that we solve a person’s problems or make their suffering go away. But by taking the time to be present we do help lighten their burden.  Blessed Mother Theresa once said that “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

Do you know of a situation where taking the time to listen to someone may help them? Listening requires that we engage with them, it is a form of self-emptying, of bringing Christ to another. In this way we show that we love them. You are performing a spiritual work of mercy.

You can review the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Spiritual Works of Mercy (1)

photodune-681350-mercy-xsThe Spiritual Works of Mercy are those actions of mercy that assist the soul or spirit of those in need. In Western society, this need seems ever more prevalent and Pope Francis often reminds us that our spirit is in as great need of healing as our bodies. Two spiritual works of mercy that are particularly difficult  are forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently.

I have personally seen so many families torn apart because of difficulties with forgiveness. Holding onto grudges hurt not only those directly involved, but also all the family members connected to them.

The story of the Prodigal Son gives us such a moving example of how God responds to our transgressions and serves as a model for us within our own families. In the story, the younger of two sons, leaves the father with his share of his inheritance to squander it on friends and sumptuous living. When he becomes destitute, he returns to his father to ask forgiveness. The father greets his lost son with great love and compassion. The older son hangs onto his resentment for his brother, only to miss out on the great source of joy that the father experiences.

Jesus must have seen this kind of scenario in families over and over when he told this parable. He knew that many people can identify or recognize this scene. He tells us that God is like the father who forgives the younger son and invites the older son to join into his joy.

Forgiveness is freeing. When our hearts are tied up with unforgiveness and resentment, there is no space for love. To forgive is to unburden ourselves of the heaviness that grudges bring. It is a great challenge at times to forgo our past resentments and hurts to forgive someone. God can help us to do that.

Is there a situation where you feel called to forgive a past hurt? Can you ask God to help you forgive? We do not need to do it all alone.

Win in the Dominican

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

Fr. Michael

P.S. Links to videos of the trip can be found at

Better before Bigger

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.

Jettisoning the Jargon

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

Fr. Michael