22 February 2009

Benedict, Monkeys, RCIA...

Questions. . .

1). What's going on in the Vatican? Why all the tumult around the Pope?

There's always been tumult around the Pope. Even a quick glance at Church history will tell you that there's never been a pope who hasn't had to deal with an entrenched curia, disobedient cardinals, scheming advisers, and throngs of dissident insiders lusting for his downfall. Nothing has changed. This is a good time to remind Catholics that the Holy Father cannot fail in the only ministry of his that matters: teaching and preaching the gospel of Christ. He might not be the best administrator, or the best diplomat, or the best crowd-pleaser. So what? None of these are his principal task. Pope Benedict has made some controversial decisions lately and "professionally aggrieved grievance professionals" (Mark Shea's wonderful phrase) are using these decisions to hit at the Holy Father in an attempt to discredit his whole program of reviving a strong Catholic identity. Don't be fooled: the Pope is under attack b/c he is doing his job as the Vicar of Christ. Like Cardinal Ratzinger said one time: "If I don't read something in the press at least once a week attacking me, I don't feel like I'm doing my job." This too shall pass.

When reading any news story about the Holy Father or "the Vatican" in the secular press, always remember that the reporters know almost nothing about the Church or her faith. They are trained to see and report in purely political terms, usually leftist terms. Recent hysterical news stories about the SSPX and the LC's are evidence of this. They see the Holy Father as a democratically elected official--a prime minister or president--and then proceed to evaluate his "performace" based on criteria used to judge secular politicians. Also keep in mind when you see the phrase "a senior Vatican official says" that this phrase is utterly meaningless. There is no way of knowing who this person is or if there even is such a person. How easy is it to insert anti-papal wishful thinking into the mouth of a ficitious "official" and then report this official's criticism as fact? As I said to a fellow friar recently, "These reporters need to name names, or shut up." Fat chance.

Now, does any of this mean that the Holy Father needs to ignore criticism or fail to learn from mistakes? Absolutely not. Benedict is a brilliant man. He will listen, and he will adapt where he can. But as faithful Catholics, we need to separate out what matters to the faith from what matters to the anti-Catholic press and our perpetually whining internal dissidents. Recent controversies change nothing that is true, good, and beautiful about the faith as taught by the Church's magisterium. So, watch out for dissenting opportunists who will use the blood in the water as an excuse to push their private agendas. Administrative mistakes do not equate to doctrinal mistakes. There is no connection between the two.

2). What is "Monkey Mind"?

I've used this phrase often in describing my own persistent mental state. Basically, it is borrowed from Zen Buddhism and is used to describe a mind that swings rather wildly from thing to thing to thing. Think of a monkey swinging from tree branches, chattering, squealing, and just having a bit of fun. When Zen monks sit for hours on end in zazen (formal "sitting meditation") they are left with no other distraction but the flashing images of their minds. A large part of any mental discipline is mastering these images to the point where they no longer occupy the mind as distractions. I've noted before that I am plagued by both dyslexia and ADD. Fortunately, I found out about both of these well into my doctoral studies, so they never became excuses for me not to succeed in school. Still, I find it extraordinarily difficult to concentrate for even short periods of time. I've adapted my "learning style" to these realities by perfecting the art of procrastination! Papers, presentations, lecures, etc. all get done at the last possible moment b/c I need the pressure of a deadline to serve as a taskmaster. This system has always served me well. Yes, it causes me some anxiety and leaves me exhausted, but any paper I start too early in the semester becomes an unmanagable monster before it is finished. Of course, this method is useless for learning languages. . .foreign language acquisition requires a steady exposure to vocabulary, grammar, and reading. Frankly, I'd rather be beaten bloody than told to memorize verb forms! Seriously, if my dean told me that he would waive the French requirement for my license if I took three lashes from a leather whip. . .I'd think about it. . .I'd seriously consider it.

3). What to do if my parish's RCIA program is not very Catholic?

I've posted before about my own RCIA experience in 1995-6. Not good. The process as it is laid out in the relevant documents promises to be something of an adventure in learning to become a good Catholic. In the hands of a faithful pastor and a dedicated RCIA team, the process is wonderful. Unfortunately, too often the process leads converts into a world of pseudo-Catholicism, or worse, anti-Catholicism. The central difficult, I think, is that the pedagogy of the process places too much emphasis on "sharing the faith" and almost none of learning the faith. How can a group of people who know little or nothing about the Catholic faith share that faith with others who know as little as they do? This is not to say that they have nothing to share! Of course, they do. But RCIA is meant to be an introduction to the CATHOLIC faith not a year-long process of sharing feelings, impressions, and opinions about bullet-point theology and ecclesial politics. Many converts are left with the impression that the Catholic faith is simply a matter of joining a parish, signing up for duty as communion ministers, and occasionally going to Mass on Sunday. When the emphasis is placed on the subjective experience of the individual, the whole of the faith is lost in personal reflection and opinion. The strongest/weakest link in any RCIA program is the dedication of the teachers to the magisterium of the Church. Often these teachers are reluctant to present the more controversial elements of the faith for fear of being confronted by disagreement or disparagement. Tough. Teach the faith or find another ministry in the parish. I know a young RCIA convert who was shocked to discover when he came to U.D. that the Church teaches that Christians who struggle with same-sex attractions are called to celibate chastity. As one such Christian, he was told that the Church honors one's conscience on this issue and says nothing at all about the sinfulness of sexual behavior for homosexuals! In other words, he joined the Church believing that he could, as a homosexual, find a partner and live, in good conscience, a sexually active lifestyle. To his credit, he accepted the Church's teaching once he knew the truth. However, he signed up believing a lie told by his RCIA team. Why did they tell him this? Maybe they believed they were telling him the truth. Maybe they didn't want to risk controversy. Maybe they don't accept the Church's teaching on this issue. and use the RCIA program to teach error in the hope of undermining the teaching. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this young man was lied to and those who did the lying shouldn't be teaching the faith!

Ideally, you want to go through the RCIA program of the parish you will eventually join. If the program seems to you to be teaching something other than the Catholic faith, you might approach the pastor for clarification. You need to be open to the idea that your take on the faith might be wrong and that you have simply misunderstood what your RCIA teachers have told you. In other words, don't assume that you are being taught error simple b/c you disagree with what you have heard. Use the Catechism. Do a little research and find out. Ask faithful Catholics you know, or leave a comment here. I'm not shy about answering tough questions. If it seems as though something might be awry, bring it up in discussion and ask for clarification. Many articles of the faith are not easily understood and often lead to innocent mistakes. Also, orthodox teachings can be expressed in a number of legit ways. Don't assume that what you are being taught is mistaken simple b/c you aren't hearing it presented in a traditional way. In the face of learning and digesting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine and dogma, a little humility goes a long way. I would resist the temptation to bail on a program and look for another one. Take what your program has to offer but understand that learning the faith is your responsibility. You are not absolved for ignorance when there are so many resources for you to consult.

If all else fails, use my Three-Year Plan for Faith Formation.

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  1. I saw seeral news reports about the canonization of Fr. Damien! I thought that was a breath of fresh air. :)

  2. Nice to hear all this.

    As an RCIA teacher I am so glad we teach a class that lasts one year and also that we teach from the catechism. Students are told right up front that it is a combination of "heart and mind".

    We have small group discussion at the end of class so the teachers can ascertain if they are going astray in their thinking or misunderstood an important point.

    I also have adult ADD. I compare it to explosions going off in my head or a demented squirrel running in a cage.

    But, guess what? I wouldn't ask for anything to be different. I consider it a blessing and have developed many coping skills. My only regret is that I was not diagnosed sooner (I was actually in my late 50's before it became apparent) I take no meds and enjoy living "outside the box". Heck, some days I don't even have a box. ;-)

    Bless you and have a wonderful day...

  3. thanks for the indepth answer.

    I'm thinking of printing it out and taking it with me tuesday.....seriously thinking of it.

  4. Anonymous7:11 AM

    This answered a lot of questions for me as far as RCIA goes. I am a cradle Catholic (aside of a 10 year span when I was a liberal Epicopalian)...I am the parish secretary and I teach 2nd grade religious ed.

    Our parish is run by a very conservative, middle aged diocesan priest and he teaches RCIA along with our deacon, who is also very conservative and straight-laced. I guess you could say I tend to be "sheltered" in many ways from the liberalism infiltrating the church...the RCIA horror stories I've read about have shocked & surprised me.

    I do agree with you, though, Father, that there are enormous resources out there...and a good one to start with is Catholicism for Dummies....sounds trite, but it is actually an excellent place to start & a wonderful gift for anyone in an RCIA program!

    Blessings on you, Father--my pastor loved the story you told about the teal vestments/weddings.


  5. We're having a big RCIA crisis right now-- mainly because the teacher was one of the "talk about your feelings" sort of instructors, and the pastor wants more (gasp!) Church history, teachings, and doctrines.

    It's not pretty.

  6. I'm looking to improve on my less than stellar RCIA education from last year, and I am really interested in the list of books you gave in the Three-Year Plan. What books you would add to make it "upper-classman undergraduate level" as you mentioned in the post?

  7. Anonymous7:54 AM

    There ought to be some kind of central RCIA-support online somewhere. Mention RCIA and you will get a flurry of horror stories.

    You hit the two main problems:

    1. "The central difficult, I think, is that the pedagogy of the process places too much emphasis on "sharing the faith" and almost none of learning the faith."

    This isn't mysterious. Secular therapeutic culture is so entrenched that RCIA turns into a self-improvement seminar. We would go into the various rites without anything explained and afterword, the director would ask, "Where was God?" How the heck does anyone answer that when they have no idea of what the rite was supposed to mean. It's like one of those hinky education philosophers (Dewey?) got hold of an RCIA class.

    2. The conscience thing. I don't think there is any way around it. The belief that the conscience is a moral law unto itself is so prevalent that the Vatican ought to formally anathematize it as a heresy.

  8. Anonymous9:38 AM

    Let me give you some staff officer wisdom that can help with ADD:

    * If we wait until the last minute, it will only take a minute.

    * If it wasn't for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.

    Good luck and bless you Father!

    Steve K.

  9. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Thank you Father, for your answer on RCIA. I went through RCIA some 15 years ago and it was a travesty. Most of "the team" was not truly Catholic -- I remember most of them arguing with the one or two orthodox ones about Holy Communion being restricted to Catholics in a state of grace. One of the team members also hinted darkly that Pope John Paul II had had a hand in the untimely death of his predecessor and that it would be good for the Church if he died soon. I was shocked and disgusted, and I wasn't even Catholic yet!

    It was like a penance to go to the meetings. They were so banal and empty. In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that I was already convinced of the truth of the Faith and of the Real Presence in particular, I don't know if I could have made it through RCIA.

    Thanks for your "three year plan"!

  10. I am an RCIA teacher too, and I completely share your views on what RCIA is and what should be and the pitfalls and errors of several teachers who embrace "trendy" new currents that more than offten just confuse the cathecumens. In my own parish I have emphazised over and over this fact. I have told the Religious formation director that RCIA is an introduction and a preparation for a candidate to live a christian life and not some program where you assume that you can do without dogma and let the student figure out the rest on his own. I pray that many realize this fact, and that many directors apoint RCIA teachers with the adequate formation and uncompromisingly in agreement with the magisterium. Everytime that I walk that classroom, I pray" "May your truth shine today before these catechumens you have entrusted me, and that it may be your truth and not my own personal views who inform their minds and hearts. Not me Lord, not me but only You may they hear, amen"