Does it matter if a priest makes up his own sermon?

Would it bother you if your priest delivered ready-made sermons, written by someone else? A lot of Catholics say they wouldn’t mind in the slightest — especially if the alternative is sermons that are bland and uninspired, or rambling and incoherent, or heretical, or just plain weird.

I always felt sorry for parish priests who must, in addition to their insanely busy schedule, set aside time to come up with a sermon that is coherent, likely to speak to the congregation as he knows them, and is also tied into the readings we just heard or the day on the liturgical calendar. And some priests have great ideas to impart, but they’re just not good writers or speakers; and some aren’t fluent in the language their congregation speaks.

There are services and publications designed to solve this very problem, either offering full-blown homilies or helpful prompts; and there are public priests whose sermons are available online, making it easy for less-famous priests to borrow liberally or simply repeat the whole thing. It seems like a no-brainer: If you’re a priest who’s already pulled in a thousand directions and running dry creatively, it just makes sense to take this one thing off your plate.

That’s why I was a little surprised to learn how many priests have a visceral aversion to delivering a sermon written by someone else (even with attribution). When I asked on Twitter whether priests ever do this, only a few said they did… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Fr. James Altman loses celebret, is barred from preaching until further notice

Fr. James Altman can no longer preach, assist at marriages, or baptize without permission, and he cannot celebrate the Eucharist with anyone else present until further notice from his bishop, according to an excerpt of a decree shared by Rocco Palmo on Twitter today. 

The celebrity priest of LaCrosse, who gained notoriety for the increasingly strident far right views he shared in his sermons and online, was removed as pastor in May. He publicly rejected his bishop’s call to resign, and has now had his celebret removed for an indeterminate time, meaning many of his priestly faculties have been removed by his bishop until further notice.

The decree says that Bishop Callahan is taking this action as part of his duty to “protect the diocese against scandal and any civil lawsuits that could have dramatic financial consequences for the diocese.”

A cleric’s privileges may be restricted by an ordinary if there has been a delict (canonical crime) committed and proved, or alleged; or if the cleric in question is involved in a situation that, if he remains in a particular ministry, threatens the common good of the diocese.

The decree against Altman is the latter sort. Such a decree is issued when it will harm the diocese if the priest continues to act as a priest in public. The priest is not accused of having committed a crime, but his involvement in a particular situation is a threat to the integrity of the diocese, and the bishop judges that he is forced to constrain the priest’s faculties until something changes. 

While the excerpt that has been shared on social media does not specify how Altman’s presence in the diocese threatens to harm its integrity, it does put the onus on him to remedy the harm. It says that if he does not act himself to remedy the situation, it harms the diocese. It says that the restrictions will be imposed “until the cause has ceased to exist” and that “[i]t is primarily the responsibility of Father James Altman to make sure that this cause ceases to exist.” 

The decree bars Altman from leaving the diocese, which his bishop is entitled to do by virtue of the obedience Altman owes to him. It also requires him to go on a thirty day spiritual retreat “to give him the possibility to spiritually heal and recharge and to address the issues that caused the issuance of this decree.” It warns Altman that violations of the decree may result in further restrictions or the imposition of ecclesiastical sanctions. 

It is rare for such decrees to be made public, but Altman has not shied away from making public his inflammatory views or his defiance against his superiors. A Twitter account that claims to share messages from Altman today said, “I will not be silenced by any arbitrary decree, nor will I be cowed by any action against my priestly faculties.” 

Altman has not yet exhausted his chance to appeal the decree, and may now plead his case before the Signatura, the final canonical court of appeals for issues other than marriage nullity. The Father Altman account today has Alman characterizing himself as “a voice of Truth” whom the “corrupt” hierarchy “boldly continues to cancel.”

When Altman was removed as pastor, a group calling itself Caritas in Veritate launched a fundraiser for his legal defense, claiming he was the subject of “diabolical persecution.” As of July 8, over $359K has been raised. The fundraiser page said that Altman would donate any excess funds to the handicap ramp fund at St. James the Lesser, but only if he were allowed to remain pastor there. 

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More related stories at The Deacon’s Bench

Image: Screenshot from video of Fr. James Altman “You Cannot Be Catholic and Democrat. Period.”

Be patient with priests, but not with clericalism

The National Catholic Reporter has published a strange story about what happens to a parish when arrogant, ultra-trad priests move in and start making the church over in their own image. I say it’s a strange story because it’s hard to tell exactly what happened. Some of the details seem damning — book burnings, secrecy around finances — but others sound like they might be innocuous (oh no, incense?) or even commendable.

The pastor, for instance, is accused of bringing the Eucharist to a sick parishioner rather than letting a lay minister do it. Maybe that was an example of the priest trying to control everything, or maybe it was an example of the priest trying to serve his flock because that’s his job.

Let’s assume for a moment that what the article describes really is part of the great traddening of the Church, wherein rigid hardliners bulldoze over their goodhearted congregation and drive out love and tolerance with inflexibility and retrograde thinking. That is a thing that happens; I’ve seen it.

I’m also old enough to remember priests doing something very similar to our local church. Only they weren’t ultraconservative; they were ultra liberal. In a very short time, they laid waste to building and to the liturgy, removing the ornate crucifix and replacing it with a modernist corpus sans cross dangling in midair. They had clown masses and balloon masses, and they taught frank heresy in the school, in marriage preparation, and from the pulpit.

They tore the tabernacle off the wall and reinstalled it somewhere out of sight. And — I remember this so clearly — there had been a lovely midnight blue half-dome wall decorated with golden stars behind the altar. This, they painted over, and made it flat beige.

I was only a little kid at the time. I knew my parents were upset about something or other at church, but most of the changes went over my head. But when they took away the golden stars, it felt unforgivable. Why would they do such a thing? Who would want that?

Someone must have wanted it, and the more profound changes it symbolized, but many more did not, and I was not the only one who felt dismayed and betrayed. My parents, fairly new Catholics themselves, did their best to push back against the most egregious changes that were so abruptly imposed, but after they were kicked off parish groups for the crime of adhering to basic doctrine, they eventually gave in and found a new place to worship, where things weren’t perfect, but at least they weren’t bonkers.

I wondered how many others did the same, but ended up outside the Catholic church — not so much because they didn’t like the way things were, but because the people making the decisions clearly didn’t care what they needed. They were there not to serve, but to exert control.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
DAlanHirt, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Baptized, confirmed, and ordained in two weeks: My interview with Fr. Matt Hood

For a man who had just been baptized, confirmed, ordained and catapulted into the headlines in the space of two weeks, the Rev. Matt Hood of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Mich., sounded remarkably relaxed. I caught the 30-year-old priest on the phone while he and his father drove to Minnesota, where they were going to pick up a puppy named Sherman.

Father Hood’s story is no shaggy dog tale, though. It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on Aug. 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Father Hood had been properly baptized, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.

Father Hood’s situation has been remedied, but the revelation of his invalid baptism and speculation about what that means for all the people he interacted with as a priest, are still rippling outward. This record of our conversation, which continued over Facebook, has been shortened and lightly edited.

Read the rest of my interview with Fr. Matt Hood in America Magazine.

Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

Kids’ first confession? Here’s how to make it easier

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate their anxiety and even help them learn to look forward to confession:

Make sure your kids fully understand that confession is a place you go for help, not a place you have to go when you’re in disgrace. Mercy mercy mercy. Tell them until they’re sick of hearing about it. 

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession playing the part of different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward. 

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal. Remind them that the priest can’t tell the penitent’s parents what was confessed!

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating. And they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

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Image by Michael_Swan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.

The emerald ash borer and the priest

It’s a strange thing, but when I hear sensationalized documentaries about environmental devastation, I come away drained and horrified, exhausted with despair over what is becoming of the natural world.

Not so with listening to this man, who has spent his life literally face to face with the enemy. He was, as I said, placid, and I went away feeling hopeful about the future of the forest. Not complacent, but hopeful.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by USDA via Flickr (Creative Commons)

17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)