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

10 ways to let the pandemic shape your Lent

Didn’t we just have Lent? Aren’t we going through it still?

It comes as a shock every year when I look at the calendar and see that it’s almost Ash Wednesday; but this year feels especially unreasonable. The pandemic and all its wretched offspring have made most of 2020 and all of the new year feel so very penitential.

Almost everyone I know has lost someone to COVID. And we’ve lost so many other things that make life pleasant and rich: Eating together, gathering with friends, traveling, visiting family. Many of us can’t even go back to Mass yet. Adoration isn’t safe; confession takes massive planning and coordination. Weddings and other sacraments have been postponed or sadly muted. Even if we haven’t lost anyone we love, we have all lost so much.

So when I think about what we will do for Lent this year, I feel dull and discouraged. What to do? I know intellectually that people throughout history have suffered through much tougher times, but that doesn’t make it easier to muster up any enthusiasm for the coming season of penitence.

The only sensible plan I can think of is to accept that the pandemic is going to make things different this year, and to lean into that. To try to accept our situation as a gift from God, and to use the pandemic as a framework for Lent.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 
Image by mfbj from Pixabay

How to clean up, according to my kids

We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.

Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.

I’ll tell you.

My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.

How to wash the dishes

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.

This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.

Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glue on it.

And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hell is paved with the skulls of online Catholics

“It’s not real life; it’s just online.”

This is something I’ve heard a lot over the last few years. People have said it derisively, claiming that online friends aren’t real friends, and online relationships aren’t real relationship; and they’ve said it soothingly, so alarmists like me would stop overreacting about the threat from silly, lame online gamers who chatted incessantly about revolution but never actually made it out of their mum’s basement.

Then came the assault on the capitol building, and I do believe that’s the last time I heard anyone say “it’s not real life; it’s just online”. Some of the people who made it into the building were truly silly, albeit also dangerous; but many had been grimly, purposefully planning an organised revolution, complete with public executions.

It was real as could be, and it could not have happened without first starting online — with far-flung people meeting each other online, normalising, amplifying, and escalating each other’s worst and craziest ideas, and then working together to put it into action in real life.

It started out virtual, but five real people are dead in real life, and dozens, maybe hundreds, are going to jail. Things that start online can become very real, and we don’t have the luxury of assuming that threats will stay in the realm of the potential.

I’d like to shift gears now and talk about another kind of threat, and another kind of potential revolution.

It would be hard to understate how much Americans cherish freedom of speech. It’s perhaps especially hard to see it right now, when there is so much disingenuousness and so much confusion about the limits of that freedom.

In the final days of the Trump presidency, Twitter and Facebook suspended the president’s accounts, because he was disseminating dangerous lies, and the courts have ruled that Apple has the legal right to refuse to host Parler, the social media platform that refused to regulate dangerous speech on its site.

As often happens in a crisis, there was lots of confusion about who actually has what rights. When platforms moved to cut off people fomenting violent dissent, a certain number of innocent people got caught up in the broad net — myself included. My best guess is that a bot misread some combination of words as incendiary. At the same time, lots more people claimed to be innocent and unjustly persecuted, when in truth they were simply facing the overdue consequences of their misuse of free speech.

It’s fair to say that there was a purge of conservative voices on social media, but this happened not because conservatism itself is suffering persecution, but because so many conservatives have become cozy with people whose words and ideas are dangerous and violent, and whose online life very demonstrably spills out into real life.

So that’s a real thing. Far right domestic terrorists are by far the most pressing violent threat to the nation, and for the last four years, our president has been their friend. Now we have a new, more liberal administration now; and while our new president is himself fairly moderate, much of his administration is more progressive, perhaps even radical.

So even though the explosive threat from the far right is far from diffused, and even though I applaud ongoing efforts to clamp down on platforms that help that threat emerge from online into real life, I am well aware that this is not the only danger we face. Sometimes, under the guise of saving the nation from exploding, we instead run the risk of imploding.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a real thing, too. There have always been Americans who adore the idea of quashing free speech, and who will use the current crisis to prolong the clamp-down on speech, and make it permanent, and expand it. Do not think that Trump and Qanon are the only ones who drum up fear and paranoia to exploit the masses.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

T-shirts and other heavy burdens

Let me tell you a story about old t-shirts, and I promise I have a point.

Several weeks ago, I had a spurt of energy and decided to tackle the laundry room. When there’s some article of clothing nobody wants to think about, they stuff it in the laundry room, and have done so for years. So I girded my mental loins, took a decongestant for the dust, and dived in.

I’ve been something of a hoarder in the past, partly because I’m sentimental, partly because anxiety makes it hard to make decisions, and partly because we were so poor for so long, it really was reasonable to hold onto iffy stuff in case we needed it someday, somehow.

But on this day, I was ruthless. I got rid of stained tablecloths; I tossed out bedsheets with sub-par elastic. I said goodbye to stacks of once-adorable onesies that several of my little ones had worn, and had thoroughly, irredeemably worn out.  I called people over to give me a definitive answer about whether or not they would ever wear all these overalls and cardigans and leotards, and I filled several bags and marked them “give away.” And I turned up dozens of t-shirts with corporate logos on them, and these I threw away.

Even though there was so much more I could have done with them, I just threw them away! Nobody in my house wants these shirts. We have clothes we like, and don’t need to wear t-shirts advertising an insurance agency that sponsored a long-ago softball team, or commemorating a marathon we didn’t actually run in. We already have plenty of comfy pajamas, and I already have plenty of rags. There is no chance in hell I will recycle them into some shabby chic rag rug or boho wall hanging. I want them out of my tiny, overstuffed house, and I want to get on with my life.

When you want to get rid of stuff, you have choices, of course. I could put them in a local clothing collection bin, whence they will be collected, shredded, and sold by the pound, and the proceeds will go to an organization that helps the poor in third world countries by pressuring them into getting sterilized.

I could put them in the back of my car and drive around with them for months until I remember to put them in the one bin three towns away that doesn’t have ethical problems, but by the time I get around to it, my children will have stepped on them so many times, they will be literal garbage. Or I could donate them to a local thrift shop, which, because it’s already so well-stocked, would entail making an appointment with someone, who would sort through everything and accept some but not all of them, and would add them to the already vast assortment of cast-off t-shirts with corporate logos on them, which the poor can buy for a dollar or even take for free.

Or I could throw them away.

Maybe this wouldn’t feel like a radical act to you, but that’s how it felt to me. Americans have been trained to believe that, because our world is drowning in garbage, we should always search for some other solution besides throwing things away, and if we do throw things away, we should at least offer up a pinch of the incense of guilt. But there’s more to the story than that… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Learn to tolerate other people’s discomfort (like Christ did)

I’m a member of numerous women’s groups, and one question comes up time and time again: Someone I care about (my mother, my adult child, my husband, my brother) behaves such-and-such a way. What can I do differently to change it?

The best answer is: Nothing. You can’t change how other adults act. You can influence it, but how people behave is their decision, not yours. How they feel is their responsibility, not yours.

Really, truly. Not yours. Even if they tell you that they do what they do because of you. Even if, your whole life, they’ve expected you to take responsibility for their behavior and their emotions. It’s just not your job; it’s theirs.

But in our culture, it is so deeply ingrained in women, especially, to take on this responsibility that we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we actually mistake other people’s emotions for our own. We think that feeling what other people feel is just part of love, part of caring for others.

Some of it does properly go along with love, and is normal and healthy. We are made to be connected to others, to care for them and to take their suffering seriously. But this sense of connection becomes an unhealthy entanglement when we can’t tell the difference between what someone else is feeling and what we’re feeling ourselves, and when we therefore assume that someone else’s anger or unhappiness is always a sign that we’ve done something wrong.

The truth is, if someone is unhappy or angry, maybe we’re doing something wrong, and maybe we’re not; but it’s very unhealthy when someone else’s sadness, anger, disgust, or distress automatically prompts us to rush around, searching for what we can change in ourselves, so their emotions and behavior will improve or at least make sense.

The problem comes when we set up our lives in such a way that other people are never left to deal with their own emotions and their own behavior, but automatically look to us to take responsibility. This is unfair to everyone concerned. It crushes the one who takes responsibility, and it stunts the one who refuses to take responsibility.

One of the great skills I’m learning in my mid 40’s is the skill of sorting out whose emotion is whose. It’s liberating, but it’s difficult, and a little bit frightening — partly because it’s new and unfamiliar, and partly because it feels a little bit forbidden or impious. When Catholics learn to become more psychologically healthy, we sometimes have the haunting feeling we’re turning our backs on our faith, or that we have to choose between emotional health and holiness…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
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Humility in parenting can help heal the past

My brother is a therapist, and he says his clients don’t talk much about being hurt by their parents.

Okay, that’s not true. Let me back up.

When I first started seeing a therapist, I had a lot to say about the things my parents had done wrong. I was doing so many things differently, and better than my parents had. I also had a lot to say about the things I had done wrong AS a parent, and how afraid I was that my kids would be justifiably angry at me for all the ways I had screwed up.

It’s a strange place to be in: Simultaneously recognizing just how wrong your parents were, and being honest about how much it hurt you, and recognizing just how wrong you often are yourself, and being honest about how much it hurts your kids. How do you even live that way? How do you move forward?

In my less fraught moments, I had to admit that, for all the stupid and awful things they did, my parents had certainly done better than their parents — and it was also likely that my grandparents had done better than their parents. I floated the idea that, if things kept up on this trajectory, and every generation improved on the previous one, then within a few decades, we’d be a race of gods. I’ll have to get back to you about how that works out.

The pattern is a real one, though — up to a point. We see what our parents have done wrong, and we don’t make that mistake. No, instead we invent brand new mistakes to make instead. We would hate for our kids to miss out on all the delicious angst and resentment that should come along with childhood, so we make sure we come up with something for them to correct when they have kids of their own.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and there is a real answer to the question “How do you live that way?” — that is, there is a way to live with yourself when you’re simultaneously aware of how much your parents did wrong, and how much you’re doing wrong yourself.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

God wants what we already are

You know that friend you have, the one who is constantly reinventing herself? Every six to eight months, she breathlessly announces that she’s found a new direction, a new purpose, a new passion, and everything is going to be different now.

If she’s religious, she’ll say she’s finally learned to listen to what God wants for her life, and from this day forward, she’s dedicating her life to this new thing that is absolutely where she is supposed to be and what she is supposed to be doing.

That friend is probably wrong. Whether or not she is selling something, she is probably going to fail. How do I know? Because of that word “new.”

This isn’t just true for people who are prone to fads. I knew a woman who had an intensely rich interior life. She was very generous, but tended toward being withdrawn and insightful. But with the best intentions in mind, she would frequently announce a whole new approach to life, a radical reinvention of herself. I remember one time when she thought the Lord was calling her to be less negative and to say “yes” to literally everything. Even unreasonable requests from unreasonable people. I guess she thought that she was too closed-off and focused on self, and the way to remedy this was to be radically open.

That didn’t last long, nor should it have.

This is not to say that God never wants us to do something new. He wants this constantly, in fact. It’s terrible how much he wants it, and how radically. But it’s also true that what God wants from us is the development and perfection of what we already have. Or, more properly, he wants what we already are; and if we are looking to please him, that is where we should always start.

Here’s the crazy thing: God will even use the bad things that we already are to bring about good. I guess being without limit allows you to take the broad view, even of human beings.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: 木偶人1962, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Children’s confessions are just as real as adults’

Recently, I’ve come across several instances of people taking the seal of confession lightly. Not priests, thank God (although I have heard priests disclosing things that skirted too close to the line), but laymen — specifically, laymen talking about their children’s confessions.

(Before I go any further, here is my vital reminder: If you do encounter a priest who has broken the seal of confession, or if you find evidence that this has happened, SAY SOMETHING. Tell his bishop, and demand a response. This is a big stinking deal and you should make sure it gets addressed. A priest who breaks the seal of confession needs to be stopped ASAP.)

Carelessness around children’s confessions represents two failures: A failure to take confession seriously enough, and a failure to take children’s spiritual lives seriously enough. Both can be disastrous; or, at very least, they can erode our understanding of what sacraments are for, and therefore erode our faith.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

I feel like I should note that I was a little crankier than absolutely necessary while writing this. Sorry about that! 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

What counts as a work of mercy?

Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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