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When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.

And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!

A lot happened last week, and with all that was on my mind, there was one piece of news that I really didn’t absorb fully.  I first learned that Fr. Patrick McMahon, O. Carm., had passed away on Facebook, where he was tagged in a number of posts announcing his passing (obituary).  It seemed an odd way to learn that bit of news, but it did prepare me to hear his name included in the prayer intentions at mass on Sunday, so at least it wasn’t the surprise it seemed to be to others in the church that morning.

Father Patrick was one of the reasons I changed parishes back in 2009.  At the time, he was teaching in Washington, DC, and, while he wasn’t officially assigned to Good Shepherd parish, he was a regular celebrant of the weekend masses there.  I found his preaching to be refreshing and compelling in its humor, compassion, and call for mercy and empathy.  I later attended some evening lectures he presented at the parish about the history of the Church, and discovered that he maintained a blog, which I began to read regularly.  I found much to admire the depth of his knowledge and the breadth of his vision of what the Church should be in the world.

His blog (titled “What Sister Knew and Father Never Told You”) included long series of posts that explored various points in the history of the Church, but also brought a historical perspective to contemporary Church issues.  He posted anonymously so that he could express personal opinions that might not necessarily be condoned by his superiors.  But he was eminently qualified to speak to the history of the Church and how it might apply to the Church today: He had studied history at New York University, where he earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate.

A few years ago, he was transferred from his teaching job in DC to a suburban parish in New Jersey, so he no longer celebrated mass at my parish.  But I continued to read his blog, looking to him for insight into the actions and message of Pope Francis, and the reactions to the Pope that bubble up in certain parts of the Church.  In fact, I still find myself looking at the blog, almost expecting to find a new posting.  I may have to go back to the beginning of the blog and read the earliest posts (the earliest post, dated January 10, 2011, is about the history of papal conclaves), from before I discovered it.  I’m sure that there is still plenty that I can learn from what he wrote.

Rest in Peace, Father Patrick.  Your work helped me better understand the Church that I call home, even when I sometimes question the things it teaches or does.  You will be greatly missed.
For those who have been paying attention to the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, you may be familiar with Cardinal Raymond Burke.  Formerly the bishop of LaCrosse, WI and archbishop of St. Louis, MO, Cardinal Burke was recently transfered by the Pope from his post on the Vatican's highest court to the ceremonial role as the sponsor of the charitable Order of Malta.  This transfer has been widely understood as a demotion, an exceedingly rare occurence at this level of the Church.  The problem with this demotion is that it actually gives the Cardinal more freedom to express his criticisms of the Pope.

In a recent interview, Burke expressed his views that the decline in priestly vocations and the sexual abuse scandals were caused by a radical feminzation of the church.  I'm not sure what reality the Cardinal resides in, but it must look a whole lot different from the one I live in.  I think the most clear explanation for the sexual abuse was spelled out by Fr. Andrew Greeley, the late Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist.  In his view the sexual abuse was an expression of of the unchecked power in the structure of the church hierarchy.  He, very credibly, pointed out that similar abuses occur in any social structure where individuals are place in positions of authority and then not held accountable for their actions.  This has nothing to do with feminism or the (all too slowly) growing role of women in the church.  If anything, the increasing number of women in positions of some authority in the church has helped to both reduce the amount of abuse and expose its existence.  Perhaps that is what Burke is referring to...without the women, the abuse scandal wouldn't have happened because the abuse could continue undetected.  I hope that isn't what he meant, but I'm not sure what else he could have meant.

As for the decline of priestly vocations, I want to quote him directly before I comment:

The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

The problem with this argument is in the timing.  The numbers of men entering seminary and preparing to become priests had been in steep decline well before girls were allowed to serve at the altar in 1983.  I was an altar boy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I remember the priests then complaining about the declining enrollement.  There weren't any altar girls yet, so I don't see how the decline in priestly vocations can be linked to the introduction of girls to the altar.  In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons girls were allowed to serve was because they couldn't convince enough boys to do so.  I can't speak to why the numbers of men entering the priesthood has declined, but I'm reasonably sure that Burke's connection to the introduction of girl altar servers is utterly bogus.

To me, Cardinal Burke represents a style of Church leadership that should have vanished decades (or even centuries) ago.  His vision of the Church is narrow and exclusive, and it smacks of the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus condemned quite clearly in the Pharisees of his time.  For me, the humble, open and inclusive style of Pope Francis shows the kind of leadership that I believe the Church sorely needs more of.

I don’t think it would surprise anyone who knows me well that there are a number of teachings and practices in my Church that I wouldn’t might seeing changed.  But I know that the newly elected Pope Francis is not likely to make any of the changes in these areas that I wish for.  And yet, as I noted yesterday, I find myself filled with hope because of this election.  So what, exactly, is it that I’m hopeful for?

There are a number of areas where this new Pope might make changes in the Church that I think are overdue and sorely needed.  He could bring greater transparency to the governance of the Church, openly confronting the scandals of the past and present and providing an example of how the Church should take responsibility for its mistakes.  He could reverse the trend towards more centralized authority, restoring the collegiality of the bishops and devolving authority back to the local diocese.  These would be important changes, ones that would restore a great deal of credibility  and moral authority to the institutional Church.  I hope that he tries to do these things, though I’m not sure how much traction these ideas will find inside the bureaucracy.

But mostly, I am hopeful because I think that I glimpse a new spirit in Pope Francis, one that I haven’t seen in many of the leadership of the Church.  A priest that I know often complains that the whole world knows what the Church is against, but very few know what the Church is for.  This is his way of pointing out that the Church has been emphasizing the negative for too long, and it is time for us to start focusing on the positive.  This would be a return to the unambiguous message in the Gospels that we are called to live a life of radical love.  Jesus did not preach a conditional love, one that required others to meet some predefined standard or live a certain lifestyle.  Instead, he commanded that we love everyone, even our enemies.  We are not called to condemn others, but to be compassionate and forgiving.  This is the message I believe that the Church needs to be proclaiming, and I am profoundly hopeful that Pope Francis might just help change the focus of the Church from the battles over what we shouldn’t be doing to an emphasis on living lives of love and compassion for all of creation.


The selection of the new Pope to lead the Catholic Church last week was an incredibly historic moment.  While all such selections carry historic weight, this particular selection was especially notable, because it involved so many unprecedented (or nearly unprecedented) elements.  For the first time, the man selected to lead the Catholic Church is from the Western Hemisphere, the “New World”, the first non-European Pope since the 8th century (Pope Gregory III, who was from Syria).  The selection of a Cardinal from Latin America was not unexpected, but it still marks a turning point in the history of the Church, as our population shifts from Europe and the ‘developed’ world to the ‘developing’ world.

The man chosen to lead the Church, Cardinal Brogoglio of Argentina, is also the first Pope to have originated from the Society of Jesus (commonly known as the Jesuits).  Common thinking has long held that no Jesuit would ever become Pope, a belief that was shared by most Jesuits as well.  This is because the rules of the order bar its priests from seeking higher offices, so that it is extremely rare for any of them to become bishops.  Brogoglio was chosen by Pope John Paul II to become a bishop, and since Jesuits also take a special vow of obedience to the Pope, he was dismissed from the order so he could be ordained as a bishop.  His rise to the College of Cardinals and ultimate selection as Pope are therefore remarkable, and may remain unique for a very long time.

The very first action of the newly elected Pope was his selection of a papal name.  This is very old tradition, where the newly elected leader chooses a name that is usually symbolic of what the new Pope hopes to accomplish in the office or the tone they want to be associated with their leadership.  Every newly chosen Pope for the last 1,100 years has chosen the name of some earlier Pope (or in the case of John Paul I, the names of both of the two preceding Popes).  This long precedent was ignored by Brogoglio, who instead chose the previously unused name “Francis”.  And in this selection, this man picked a name that conveys layer upon layer of symbolic meaning.

After some initial confusion, it has been clarified that the name is, in fact, a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan orders, who is perhaps the most widely recognized and admired of all the saints of the Catholic Church.  It is a name that conveys meaning to people far beyond the membership of the Church, even to non-Christians.  In the statements that have been reported, Pope Francis seems to have chosen the name to reflect his desire to focus attention on the poor, which is certainly one of the well-known aspects of St. Francis’s vocation.  St. Francis was also known for the simplicity of his lifestyle, which, by all accounts, is also a hallmark of the new Pope’s way of life.  And it also sounds as if Pope Francis is also planning to emulate St. Francis’s message of respect for all of God’s creation, perhaps in advocating for more responsible attitudes towards the environment.

There are other elements of the life of St. Francis that might be worthy of emulation by our new Pope who bears his name.  Benedict XVI initiated an effort by the Church to engage in a “new evangelization”.  It is perhaps fitting that the man who now inherits these efforts is named Francis, after the saint who is credited with saying “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”  It would be to the Church’s great credit if this idea of spreading the Gospel message by living it, by having the Church leadership provide a living example of what the Gospels mean.

Finally, St. Francis was an outspoken advocate for reform at a time when the Church leadership was riddled with corruption.  Once again, the Church finds itself facing a multitude of scandals because of corruption within the institution, and is in need of a voice calling for reform.  It is my hope that the example of St. Francis will motivate this new Pope to address the ways in which the Church is governed, allowing for transparency and accountability throughout the instittution.

I have heard some people express disappointment that this new Pope has held conservative positions on a wide range of issues of doctrine and Church teaching.  However, I think that anyone who was hoping for a radical change in those areas was deceiving themselves.  That hand was never going to be dealt by this conclave, because the deck being used by the Cardinals did not include any of those cards.

Eight years ago, the election of Benedict the XVI left me immensely disappointed, as it seemed to reflect a retrenchment by the reactionary elements in the Church.  I don’t know that I would call his papacy a success, but it wasn’t the complete disaster I had expected either.  I suspect that his legacy will end up being his decision to resign, especially if it sets a precedent that becomes the norm going forward.  My initial reaction last week was much more hopeful.  Is Francis everything I would want in a Pope?  No, he isn’t, but in many ways he looks to be better than I expected, and that gives me hope for the future.

I have long wanted to write about the ways I struggle to reconcile my Catholic faith with my rationalist understandings of science. I certainly don't believe that there is any reasonable way to understand scriptures as literally true or historically accurate. Instead, we need to recognize them as attempts, in a pre-science world, to explain the universe, and that any Truths that they contain are limited to insights into human culture and relationships and how we should strive to make the world a better place.

But what about other elements of Catholicism? There are elements of Church teaching that I struggle with. One of those is the reliance upon miracles in assessing the merits of canonization of potential saints. My rationalist oriented mind struggles to accept that these miracles are what they are purported to be by the Church, namely Divine (i.e., supernatural) intersessions into our physical reality. I can't help think that some future scientific breakthrough might provide a perfectly natural explanation for these events (most of which are unexplained healings).

The Jesuit Post recently posted an entry that tackled this same issue. I find that the author, a Jesuit priest, does a pretty good job of expressing a lot of what I go through when I struggle to reconcile these conflicts in my mind. While I guess that I always figured I was not alone in my doubt, it is supremely reassuring to find that it is shared by priests as well.
Last fall, I wrote about being a progressive-minded Catholic in a conservative diocese. I have struggled to understand how the Diocese of Arlington has come to be one of the most conservative dioceses in the United States, where we have priests who seem to wish that the Second Vatican Council had never happened, that the liturgy was still in Latin, and most importantly, the priest was the unquestioned authority in the parish.

Well, I'm now getting some insight into how this state of affairs came to be. A local priest and historian has been writing a series of entries in his blog detailing the history of the Arlington Diocese, and how it has evolved to its current state. So far, he's written three entries:
Why Arlington? Historical Context of Clerical Madness 1
Why Arlington? Historical Context of Clerical Madness 2
and Why Arlington? Historical Context of Clerical Madness 3

The comment in the third entry in this series about Obama stickers on cars resulting in notes on windshields reminded me of an incident that sealed my decision to change parishes. During that period when I was considering changing parishes, I happened to see a brand-new car in the parking lot at my old parish that had been almost completely covered with sheets of paper. When I looked more closely, I also noticed that it had an Obama bumper sticker, and the sheets of paper were photocopies of an article allegedly describing Obama's position on abortion. These sheets were not only placed under the wiper blades and jammed into the gaps around the doors, hood and trunk, but also stuck to the glass and paint (when I picked up a sheet, it was damp and smelled strongly of perfume, which appears to be how they were made to stick).

This abuse of someone's personal property angered me considerably, and I pulled all the paper off of the car and threw it into the trash. But the incident reflected the attitudes at that parish, and it convinced me that it was time for me to leave. Thankfully, I can't even imagine that such an incident would happen at my new parish.

Unfortunately, the Arlington Diocese has far more parishes and priest who would support this response, and my current parish is a rare oasis of compassion and forgiveness in the raging sea of self-righteous anger that this diocese seems to be. I doubt that the insights provided by the historical analysis in these blog entries will provide any insights about how to change the direction of the diocese, but I know that I for one will do my best to fight to keep my current parish from joining its neighbors.
I had planned to write an entry today about how I'm finally finding myself more comfortable identifying myself as a Catholic, even as the "leadership" of the Church becomes more visibly dysfunctional by the day. This hasn't been an easy journey for me, as I've tried to record here in a series of entries going back to 2008 (I recently made those posts public, so if you didn't see them because you weren't included on the limited reading list and want to read them, click on the "catholic" tag to see them).

Today's rant brought to you by the Freedom From Religion Foundation )
When I joined Good Shepherd parish, I was a little surprised to find that the bulletin, in listing the available priests included an entry that read “Bishop Joseph Estabrook, in residence”. After all, this is a suburban parish, not a cathedral, and it seemed a little strange to me that a bishop would be “in residence” here. Eventually, my curiosity caused me to do some research, and I discovered that Bishop Joe, as he was commonly called, was an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, which is a strange diocese in that it isn’t defined geographically. I figured that the bishop needed to live somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure how he came to be at Good Shepherd.

Over the last couple of years, I would occasionally attend a mass celebrated by Bishop Joe. Unlike episcopal masses I’d attended before (most notably the annual bishop’s mass at my high school), these masse didn’t entail any extra pomp or ceremony. Bishop Joe turned out to be a pretty good preacher, presenting sermons that I found interesting and thought provoking. Along the way, I learned that Bishop Joe had moved to Good Shepherd prior to his ordination as a bishop, while he was still serving as a naval chaplain at the Pentagon. He had been looking for a parish to live at, and greatly admired the community he saw at Great Shepherd, with its strong and active social justice outreach efforts.

Over the last year or more, I hadn’t seen Bishop Joe, so when he showed up at the end of mass a couple of weeks ago, his appearance was a bit of a shock. He was skeletally thin, and very weak. He made his way to the lectern and announced that he had been fighting pancreatic cancer for more than two years. He had been being treated in Texas, and was about to enter hospice care at the home of his brother in Texas, but had traveled back to Virginia, to Good Shepherd, essentially to say “Good bye” in person.

Last weekend, Bishop Joe finally lost the battle with the cancer. I think it speaks volumes about his opinion of Good Shepherd parish that while he did hospice at his brother’s in Texas, and wished to be buried in his home town of Albany, NY, he chose to have his funeral mass celebrated at Good Shepherd parish in Alexandria, VA.

I never really got to know Bishop Joe on a personal level, but somehow I felt compelled to attend his funeral today, to pay my respects to a man who had somehow earned my admiration. I have become a bit cynical about the leadership of my Church these days, but Bishop Joe somehow just seemed to rise above the suspicion I generally have of those who hold his title. I expected a full church (and it was), and I expected a long service (it was a full two hours). Why I didn’t expect a dozen episcopal leaders, I don’t know, but the mass was celebrated by Archbishop Broglio, who was Bishop Joe’s superior, and was concelebrated by 11 other bishops, including Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC, as well as almost 40 priests. It was a bit overwhelming to see so many bishops and archbishops at my parish church (to say nothing of the Cardinal).

I’m glad I went to the mass. Bishop Joe seemed like a genuine man of character and integrity, and he clearly was widely respected, judging by the size of the congregation at the mass. I hope his family (a brother and a sister, with five nieces and nephews) can find some comfort in the impact he clearly had on so many lives. Rest in peace, Bishop Joe.

The press release from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA
There has been much written about the new English translation of the Novus Ordo mass that the Roman Catholic Church in the English speaking world started using this Advent season. Some of what has been written has been positive, some negative, and much of it has felt like people trying to put a positive spin on something that they aren’t certain that they really like.

While my initial response to the news that a new translation was forthcoming was a bit of the “what’s wrong with what we’ve got now” reaction, but I made a conscious decision to wait and see. I really wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the translators, and not rush to judgment. Which raises the question about why I’m writing about it now, less than a month into the actual use of the new translation. But, it think I want to record my initial impression, so I can reflect on it down the road to see if and how my feelings might change.

So, what are my initial impressions? Honestly, I find little about it to be particularly positive. The new translation is wordier, often awkwardly so. While trying to be more faithful to the Latin of the official Order of the Mass, what may be poetic and flowing in Latin is clunky and jarring in English. This is less a problem with the prayers recited by the congregation than it is with the Eucharistic Prayer that the priest recites. I’ve been trying to pay attention to it, but it is so grammatically convoluted that I find myself losing much of the meaning, and then my mind wants to wander. This is not particularly conducive to my being a full participant in the mass, and definitely is not providing any deeper understanding or appreciation for the mystery behind the service.

And the vocabulary! I don’t know that the word “consubstantial” is ever going to flow off my tongue gracefully, and I have to wonder how many people in the congregations really have a good idea what it means. And that’s just one example. There are others, especially in the parts for the priest. Again, these words are distracting and disrupt the flow of the prayers, in my opinion.

So, if the purpose of the new translation was to elevate the language and make it a soaring reflection of the majesty and awe of the central mystery of the mass, it is an epic failure. English can be an incredibly poetic language, one that can be uplifting and inspirational. But you don’t get that effect from a very literal translation from another language. If you want that effect in an English translation, then the translator needs a great deal of latitude to find less literal ways of expressing the meaning of the original, without being tied to any sort of literal translation. This is, of course, more difficult, but necessary to avoid the problems I see in the current translation.
I really haven’t written as much about my struggles to find my place in the Catholic Church as an adult, which something I had planned to do. A lot of the reason for this is that when I changed parishes back in the summer of 2009, I largely found myself a home within the Church, a place I was comfortable, which took much of the urgency out of my need to write about my experiences.

A long, rambling, reflection on my journey )
About a month ago, I joined a few of my high school classmates at the annual reunion dinner at our school, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our graduation (Really? 25 years already? Doesn’t seem possible…). Our school, known then as Archbishop Walsh High School (and today as Archbishop Walsh Academy), is and was a small Catholic school serving the rural communities of western New York near the state line with Pennsylvania. For me, it was an essential escape from a toxic peer group at my local public school, and provided me with a much needed fresh start during my adolescence. My four years in that school were important in my personal development and I have (mostly) fond memories from that period.

However, as important as that school was to me, I never really gave much thought to the name. So when it came up during a conversation at the reunion, it got me wondering…Who the heck was Archbishop Walsh, and why was our school named after him? Somehow it seemed wrong that we should all have graduated from the school without knowing at least a little bit about the schools namesake.

Well, that question has bugged me for a month, so I did some research. Turns out that Archbishop Thomas J. Walsh was the first archbishop of Newark, from 1937 until his death in 1952. It seems that he was a big advocate for Catholic education, and expressed a preference for school construction over church construction. This much seemed to be at least vaguely known by at least some of the alumni at the reunion. But his connections to our school are actually deeper than that.

Thomas Walsh was born in Pennsylvania in 1873, but grew up in Wellsville, NY (about 30 miles from the school and one of the communities that was served by it), and studied at St. Bonaventure College (now St. Bonaventure University, operated by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor), only a little more than a mile from our school. When Archbishop Walsh High School opened, the original faculty included Friars from St. Bonaventure as well as nuns from the nearby Motherhouse of the Order of St. Francis. I suspect that this connection with St. Bonaventure also played a role in the naming of the new school when it was founded in 1959.

After being ordained as a priest, Fr. Walsh served as Chancellor for the Diocese of Buffalo (which built and operated the school until the 1990s) before he was appointed Bishop of Trenton. This gives us a third and final link between the Archbishop and the school that uses his name. While his support for Catholic education would have been a sufficient reason to name a school after him, the local connections are the more satisfying for me.

(no subject)

Oct. 27th, 2009 09:35 am
resqgeek: (Catholic)

Is Pope Benedict a closet liberal?, by David Gibson, Sunday, October 25, 2009

When I heard last week that the Pope had announced that Anglicans can join the Catholic Church without giving up their rites and traditions, I wasn't sure how to react. My initial positive reaction was tempered by the fact that the invitation appears to be targeted towards the most conservative elements of the Anglican community. In that light, this would appear to be a move to bolster those element of the most conservative elements of the Catholic Church, those very elements that I have the most issues with. Furthermore, this invitation does not appear (at least in any of the media coverage I've seen so far) to address biggest theological differences between Anglicans and Catholics.

The editorial linked above points this out as well, noting that the Pope's invitation to Anglicans seems to suggest that the common social conservatism trumps the significant theological differences. I have to wonder, as does the author of the article, about the long term impact this move will have on the Church.

Unless the theological differences really are still important (in which case, I suspect very few Anglican communities will make the move to join the Catholic Church), then this opens a flood gate to widely divergent beliefs under the umbrella of the Church, dramatically altering the character of the Church and the sense of identity for its members.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into all this. But somehow, this strikes me as an important moment in Church history. I just don't know what kind of impact to expect.
Last month, I wrote about the issues I was facing after my parish announced that they would not be offering CCD classes on Sundays next school year. With our daughters' various activities, it would be very difficult to attend classes on weekday evenings, so I began searching for a solution that would allow us to keep the girls in Sunday CCD classes.

It turns out that the answer was just around the corner (almost literally). I'd heard people comment about the neighboring parish, usually noting that it was a very welcoming and open community. It turns out that they also offer CCD classes on Sunday, not once, but at two different times! (They also offer CCD classes on Monday afternoons and Wednesday evenings, in a clear attempt to be as accommodating as possible.) It all sounded promising, so I decided to start attending mass there, to get a feel for the parish.

Wow! I should've come here years ago. This parish is such a contrast to where we had been (and, in fact, to most of the parishes I've been to in this diocese). To give you an idea of the contrast: In my old parish, the last announcement before mass is a sternly worded reminder to silence our cell phones. At the neighboring parish, the last announcement is an invitation to introduce yourself to those around you! There are so many little differences, its hard to pinpoint all of them, but the cumulative effect is to make it an atmosphere where I actually can feel comfortable, which is something that has been sorely missing from my church experience for several years now.

Needless to say, I have already filled out a parish registration form to join the neighboring parish, and signed my daughters up for Sunday CCD. It's a longer drive, but I expect it will be well worth the effort. My only regret is that I didn't explore this option earlier. Now I just need to write a letter to my old parish telling them I've changed parishes and asking them to remove me from their registrar.
I've been growing steadily less happy with my parish for some time now. It isn't a single thing, but more an accumulation of little irritations that have left me feeling that the parish really isn't a good fit for me. I've been tempted to just attend mass elsewhere, but with my daughters enrolled in CCD classes*, it is generally more convenient to attend the mass right before the classes on Sunday morning.

Last week, I opened the registration package for next year's CCD program and was rather irritated to find that there will be NO Sunday CCD classes next school year. According to the letter "it is an untenable position to teach our students that missing Holy Mass on Sundays is a mortal sin while tacitly accepting the fact that some CCD students habitually miss Holy Mass or come in at the end of Holy Mass in order to attend religious education". So, those parents who conscientiously take their children to the earlier or later Masses to ensure that they can attend CCD will be punished because some parents can't be bothered. I'd be willing to bet that many of the children in CCD that don't attend Mass under the current schedule will continue to miss Mass under the new schedule.

Next school year, CCD classes will only be offered on Monday and Wednesday evenings. While our evenings are not entirely filled with other activities, we have no way of predicting when our daughters' soccer teams will have their practices scheduled next fall (let alone next spring), and there is at least a 1 in 4 chance we will have a conflict regardless which class we enroll in. I do not want to be placed in a situation where I have to choose between CCD and other activities, especially when it is perfectly possible to schedule CCD on Sunday mornings when we would have zero chance of conflicts.

This has brought me to the point of exploring other parish options. If I can find a nearby parish that offers a Sunday CCD option, I will be seriously considering changing parishes, which will be a hassle and will probably increase by travel time each week. However, the ability to ensure that my daughters can continue to attend CCD without having to deal with conflicts with other activities may well be worth the effort. Unfortunately, my older daughter has become active in our current parish's Classical Youth Schola and is enjoying learning to sing Gregorian Chant, so that becomes yet another complication in this decision.

My first step is to make some calls to the neighboring parishes to see what my options are. If none of them offer Sunday CCD, then I guess I'll have no options. Otherwise, I'll have a tough decision to make.

[*Note to non-Catholic readers: CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) is the name used by the Catholic Church for its school-aged religious education program]

One of the problems with the leadership of the Catholic Church, at least in my view, is the inability to admit to mistakes. Somehow the higher someone ascends in the Church, the more likely they seem to be to forget that they are human, with all the imperfections that are part of the human animal. There are so many issues where the Church would be better served by admitting they were wrong and allowing more transparency. Of course, I'm not holding my breath waiting for any such change in attitude.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate ConceptionSince my most recent visit to Charleston in October, and in particular, since attending mass at the cathedral there, I've been on a quest of sorts. I'm looking for somewhere to attend mass that has a similar combination of inspirational architecture, gorgeous artwork and sensational music. In my search, I discovered that the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception celebrates a solemn mass with their choir every weekend, which sounded like it had potential. Unfortunately, most weekends during the school year, I need to be at my parish so my girls can attend CCD. In addition, a solemn mass, with its extra ritual elements, tends to be longer than the standard mass my daughters are used to, and also involves the use of incence, which my girls have yet to learn to appreciate. All of which meant that my options for attending mass there were somewhat limited.

As the long Thanksgiving weekend approached, it became clear that the girls wanted to spend the weekend at my mother-in-law's. I would need to go out to pick them up on Sunday, but that still would give me time to drive into DC to attend mass at the Basilica. And so I did.

It has probably been more than a decade since my last visit to the Basilica, and I guess my memory of the beauty of the place had faded over time. It is a huge building (the largest Catholic church in the US, and claims to be in the top 10 largest churches in the world), but it still felt warm and welcoming. The mass was more-or-less what I expected, though at an hour and a quarter in length, it was actually a bit shorter than I had anticipated (the standard mass at my parish can go that long if my pastor is celebrating). The music was nice (the organ is truly impressive...during the prelude, there were low notes that you didn't hear so much as feel) and the choir was good. But when compared to the music from the cathedral in Charleston, it felt a bit pedestrian. Part of that might be the season...this was the first Sunday in Advent, so the Gloria was omitted, which reduced the role of the choir somewhat.

I'm looking at the calendar, trying to figure out when I might be able to attend my next mass there. I'm thinking that I might give it a try with my daughters, just to see how they do. Since my older daughter joined the youth choir at our parish, I expect she might take an interest in the music. Perhaps we can attend mass on the Sunday after Christmas...
My pastor appears to have a deep, meaningful spiritual life. Too bad he has absolutely no talent for sharing it with others. He is a painfully poor public speaker...slow, monotone and he feels the need to repeat his main point over, and over (and over, and over,...). So it's gotten to the point where I normally just tune him out during the sermon, letting my mind wander.

Somehow, this week, I actually found myself listening to him. The Gospel reading was Matthew 22:15-21, ending with the famous quote "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." The typical sermon I've heard given for this passage is about respecting legitimate civil authority. My pastor took a different approach.

He argued that we choose to give to God or the Caesar every time we enter the voting booth. In our choices, we should be careful not to give to Caesar that which belongs to God. The specific example he used was gay marriage. As he presented it, if we don't oppose gay marriage in the voting booth, then we are giving to Caesar something that belongs to God. Marriage, he said, is part of the natural order, created by God, and to extend it to homosexuals would be a perversion of God's plan.

In my view there are two different problems with this argument. First, as I've argued before, there are two separate and distinct definitions of marriage. Clearly, my pastor, as one would expect, is talking about the religious sacrament, but he (along with many opponents of gay marriage) doesn't seem to recognize that marriage is also a civil contract conveying a certain legal status and rights. The use of this same word to refer to both concepts has seriously muddled the debate on this issue, as has our failure, as a society, to enforce the separation of church and state in this area. Because religious leaders are authorized to officiate over both the religious sacrament and the civil union, it becomes more difficult for people to distinguish between the two.

However, once we acknowledge this distinction, my pastor's argument makes little sense. The government can only control the nature of the civil contract, so that allowing gay marriages (by the government) is NOT giving to Caesar what is God's, but rather giving to Caesar what is Caesar's. The government doesn't have any authority to address the religious sacrament, and cannot force religious institutions to open the sacrament to homosexuals. Note that this separation already exists: Divorce and remarriage is perfectly acceptable in the civil marriage, but the same is not universally true with the marriage sacrament (the exact position on this matter varies from one denomination to another). So, as long as we take care to recognize and distinguish between the civil and religious institutions of marriage, there is no reason that allowing gay marriage constitutes a surrender of God's authority to Caesar.

In addition, I also have a problem with the argument that concept that the nature of marriage limits it to heterosexuals. There is a growing body of evidence that certainly suggests that there might well be a biological basis for homosexuality. If science does conclusively demonstrate that homosexuality is, in fact, based in biology, then it would seem that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are part of nature. The Church has a long history of ignoring the findings of science when they conflict with the prevailing Church teachings of the time. In order to maintain its credibility, the Church needs to learn from this history and adapt its teachings to the valid findings of science. In my view, God provided us with our intelligence and reason specifically so that we can better understand creation, in all its vast diversity. Our understanding of God's plan is necessarily limited by our limited understanding of his creation. As our understanding of the universe improves, we should also recognize that it requires us to change our understanding of his plan.

Finally, I think that one of the key tenets of Christianity is Jesus's message of mercy and compassion. To me, denying gays their civil rights as couples simply because of their sexual orientation flies in the face of this principle. I'm not completely convinced that gays should be allowed to marry in the church (though I'm open to the idea), but I do believe that it is criminal to deny gay couples the civil rights solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And I think my pastor has missed the point.
Those of you who have followed my postings here over the last few years may recall the occasional entry in which I talk about the Catholic Church and my little place in it. I don't always agree with my Church, and at times I struggle to understand why I feel so strongly attached to it. I get frustrated and angry, frequently wonder if it is really worth it. Sometimes, I find moments of sublime inspiration, and they give me reason to continue the struggle.

There are a number of topics in this area that I've toyed with writing about. I think it would help me understand my own beliefs better to write them down, and I enjoy discussing these topics with others, as long as the conversations remain polite and respectful. But, because discussions about religion can easily become uncivil, I am reluctant to post my thoughts for the world to see. I'm thinking of creating a new filter to use for these entries, but I really don't know who I should include. I'm sure my thoughts on these topics will be of very little interest to some of you, so there's little reason to include you.

So, I'll put it out to you, my readers. If you are interested in reading my entries on this topic, please comment here. I'll add you to the filter so you can see the posts as I make them. I doubt that these posts will be terribly frequent, but it would be nice to have a place to write my thoughts and discuss these topics.
During the 2007 BookCrossing Convention in Charleston, SC, a number of the visiting BookCrossers accepted [ profile] bookczuk's invitation to attend mass at The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to hear the cathedral choir sing. The group included a number of lapsed Catholics and at least one non-catholic. I'm pretty sure I was the only currently practicing Catholic in the group. At the time, I found myself thoroughly overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the music. The Church itself is gorgeous and the light streaming through the stained glass windows sparkled off of the gold leaf trim throughout the interior. It literally moved me to tears.

When I returned home, I ordered a copy of the Choir's CD (available here), and have listened to it regularly since. So, when I returned to Charleston over the weekend to participate in the BookCrossing "Un"convention, I was determined to return to the Cathedral for Sunday mass. Again, [ profile] bookczuk extended an invitation to everyone to come to mass, and so three of us (including crrcookie and [ profile] mojosmom) attended mass together. The music was a beautiful and moving as before, though it didn't evoke any tears this time, perhaps because of my regular exposure to the CD. I'm curious what the others thought, but I know that I'll be back again someday, if only to listen to this amazing music.