Full of the Presence

It probably sounds odd or even redundant to say that St. Anthony parish values liturgy. After all, worship is the source and summit of the Catholic Church. Don’t all Catholic churches value liturgy? What makes St. Anthony any different (and make no mistake, we think we are not a typical church in our attitude and practices regarding Sunday worship)?

When I first came here, two and a half years ago, it was a revelation to participate at liturgy in which full, active, conscious participation is the norm. People here sing, they respond to the prayers, they are remarkably friendly. If you come here on the day when liturgical ministers are commissioned, you will see a good third to half of the congregation commit to serving in one or more of the roles open to the laity.

All of this, though, is the manifestation of an underlying charism that sets this parish apart from many. The parishioners of St. Anthony profoundly experience liturgy as communion, as an experience of Christ through the four manifestations elucidated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: the Word, the eucharistic elements, the presider and the people. Most churches get the first three of these, but truly embracing the Real Presence in the assembly is not so easily discerned—or at least not so obviously perceived in many churches.

Seeing the congregation as Real Presence means seeking excellence in every aspect of the worship experience. It means taking responsibility for the liturgy so that the priest isn’t held solely responsible for the encounter with Christ. It causes worshipers to regard each other as important, which leads to an attitude of caring and concern, of appreciation of the gifts each person brings. Experiencing Christ in the assembly creates an electric atmosphere.

In some ways this parish might seem (borrowing a descriptor of the worship experience of the ‘70’s) “happy-clappy” because of the exuberance of the worship experience. This is far too dismissive of the depth of this church. Care for details here is intense. Expectations are high. There is an admirable degree of professionalism among our lay ministers. Joy does not imply laxity. Jesus’ followers were considered a merry band. Why shouldn’t we be too if we are encountering Christ? The joy doesn’t come from a lackadaisical attitude toward worship. It comes from experiencing worship done well. It comes from experiencing Christ.

Why not me?

“Why not me?” This is the response that a person I know gives to people who ask the big question about her incurable disease: Why is this happening to you? And, in fact, I think that her answer is really the only one that makes sense. Religions spend a great deal of time trying to explain why bad things happen to good people, and the answers are many and varied. Perhaps it is divine retribution. Or it is God teaching someone (the afflicted, the surrounding community, the world) a lesson. Maybe it is all part of God’s plan. None of the answers are completely or universally satisfactory, and we will clearly not have the final answer until God provides it directly to us—at which point we will be well past the point of enduring suffering any longer.

The “Why not me?” response actually puts suffering in the context it probably deserves: the context of inevitability. As mortal, limited beings, suffering is simply unavoidable. All of us endure sorrow and pain and discouragement and isolation to some degree and with some frequency. Measuring human tragedy seems rather pointless to me. Trying to explain it is equally fruitless. I can’t say that I think any person actually deserves to suffer the unexpected blows of mortal accidents, incurable illness, debilitation of mind or body.

But perhaps we ought to wonder even more why our lives are so undeservingly blessed. Why do really wonderful things happen to one person and not another? Does that make any more sense than the tragic? Did I deserve to grow up in a stable home surrounded by people who loved me? Did I deserve to have four healthy children? Good health? Sufficient skills to cope with the demands of daily life? I certainly haven’t done anything to deserve those blessings any more than any other human on the planet.

Rather than trying to explain the allocation of suffering and joy, perhaps we ought to focus more on what we do about them. Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, did not  give us the clear and simple answers to these questions—probably because the answers are neither of those. Rather, he told us how to handle mortality. He healed and fed and welcomed. He loved. He also enjoyed life and endured unexplainable suffering. He taught us how to live with one another and support and care for one another in the midst of our limitations and challenges.  The best answer he gave us was that suffering isn’t the end. Resurrection is.

We’re on fire

Life in general is rarely dull, but life at St. Anthony Church in Madisonville is never boring! For a small community, we have a lot going on. In October, we had: programs on the environment and Faithful Citizenship, a visit from brothers and sisters of our twinning parish in Dominica, a concert with other Madisonville churches, enrollment of our 2nd graders into preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation, and a Focus Area Gathering at which we shared the goals of our five focus areas and celebrated our commitment to this parish.

November promises to be just as exciting. For Black Catholic History month, we will decorate the sanctuary with Kente cloth. African drumming will be incorporated into the Sunday liturgies. We will remember the deceased on November 2, the Feast of All Souls. On the 9th we will sign the St. Francis Pledge to care for the environment. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is a priority of this parish, and so we will have a speaker on November 16 in preparation for the collection on the 23rd. The 23rd is also the Feast of Christ the King—a big celebration as we wrap up our celebration of Black Catholic Family month. And on the 30th, the First Sunday of Advent, we will celebrate Eucharist at a single Mass at 10 a.m. And this is just a list of the liturgical “specials” for the month. We’ll also begin the process of implementing our pastoral region, announce our parish strategic plan, collect food and other items for the Madisonville Education & Assistance Center, and carry on with all of the many activities that constitute business as usual.

When I think of a brief way to describe St. Anthony, the words “small but mighty” come to mind. We are the polar opposite of a mega-church in size, but in spirit we can stand alongside any congregation. Our choir sings “God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire,” and our parish is holding the matches!

Touching Moments

Life in parish ministry, by its very nature, means that staff touches people at their most intimate and powerful moments—birth, marriage, death, and all of the moments in between when people most need not just the divine touch, but the divine touch mediated through flesh and blood.

This month at liturgy we have celebrated a baptism, a 50th wedding anniversary, the commissioning of our pastoral council, and the 50th anniversary of final vows for one of our sisters. Happy moments, one and all. We also buried a long-time parishioner, a moment of sadness but also a celebration of a long life lived well.

Earlier this week we experienced a peak moment of a very different kind. One of our parishioners who has been battling oral cancer for many years and many painful, difficult treatments and surgeries, informed us that the cancer is taking over her body and cannot be stopped. The prognosis is now terminal.

The overwhelming sorrow of this news is difficult to process—the impact on her husband and children, on her entire family for that matter; the loss of this gentle soul from our community; the many people who will mourn her passing. Death is always difficult, but untimely death is wrenching and incomprehensible. It takes our breath away.

I cannot imagine how it must feel to know that one’s remaining time on earth is numbered by days rather than years. My father passed away two weeks ago, and even though we had known that he was not going to live for a very long time, we were never given any kind of prognosis of how long it might be before dementia or COPD overcame him. That kind of limbo was hard because of its uncertainty. But I’m not sure that knowing isn’t harder.

We humans want to know. We want answers and explanations and reasonableness. Sometimes we simply cannot have it. On this side of the veil, we cannot know why a beautiful, gifted woman only gets a half a century or a young man only two decades. Death is the ultimate mystery. Other than one man who lived 2000 years ago, no one has ever come back through that portal. And so, we are left with questions.

For those of us in ministry, one of our tasks is to walk with our communities through these mystifying and profound moments. We seek to find God’s presence in the midst of all the extremes, knowing that in the person of Jesus we have a God who intimately understands and participated in the mixture of joy and pain that mortality brings us. We walk with the dying and the bereaved, the newborn and newly married. We seek to mediate the presence of God through sacraments and through our own humanity. In so doing, we cannot provide the ultimate answers but we can show that there is something more, something beyond.

You deserve a break today

In a world where food is fast, attention spans are short, and life is fast-paced, worship at St. Anthony is a counter-cultural oasis. The idea of a “McMass” is simply unacceptable. When parishioners walk in on Sunday, they do not set the timer and walk out after their allotted 45 minutes or even hour is up. No, we walk in and expect a full experience of worship. We like to sing all the verses. We extend the sign of peace to as many people as we can. We relish a baptism or a special occasion celebrated with a blessing.

This past Sunday, we welcomed an infant to the waters of the baptismal font and prayed over a couple on their 50th wedding anniversary. Next Sunday we will rejoice at 50 years of faithful service in religious life by another parishioner. These sacraments and blessings are not a signal for people to run out the door to find a quicker Mass to fulfill their obligation. They are celebrations of our faith family.

Christianity, if lived properly, is always counter-cultural. Jesus reminded the people of his day that our focus is on God, and seeking God’s ways—furthering the reign of God, that unexpected order in which the lowly are raised up and the mighty are brought down a peg or two. For us, perhaps one of the biggest challenges is time management. We feel so much pressure to be doing—working, exercising, catching up on social media, getting children from school to practice to lessons, and the myriad other activities we are told are important—that we lose sight of the importance of investing quality time with the Lord.

Coming to St. Anthony Church on a Sunday morning is a great way to get back in touch with that relationship with God. We sing, we pray, sometimes we might even clap or drum or move. We embrace one another as the face of Christ. We laugh (a lot!) and we weep (more than we’d like). I daresay most of us look forward to that good, long time in church because it allows us time to breathe. It allows the Spirit to fill us and energize us for another week. It is God’s time.

St. Anthony Sings in Summer!

In honor of the beginning of Summer, the St. Anthony choir performed a concert of some of our favorite music last Saturday. From John Rutters’ “For the Beauty of the Earth” to the Gospel Alleluia, the church rang with the sound of praise. Afterwards, we gathered in the yard for the first cookout of summer, sharing our favorite picnic foods in a spirit of joy and fellowship. 

Even though this celebration wasn’t liturgical, it shared the spirit of St. Anthony liturgy–joyous, Spirit-filled, warm and welcoming. As Scripture says, where two or three are gathered, Christ is present. All of the individuals who participate in liturgy here–whether in a ministry of service (choir, lector, usher, etc.) or as a member of the assembly–truly understand what the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II meant when it says that Christ is present in the priest, in the Word, in the Eucharistic elements and in the assembly. 

Luke’s gospel speaks of the criticism that the followers of Jesus received for being drunken revelers. Clearly those first followers didn’t think that being in the presence of Jesus meant letting go of joy. Nor do we. Nor, apparently, does Pope Francis since he named his first apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” The word gospel means good news. Eucharist is giving thanks. If we believe in good news and giving thanks, surely our behavior should reflect that. Even standing in awe–which surely happens also at liturgy–doesn’t mean we have to be glum or sober. David danced in the presence of the Lord. 

In our troubled world, which gives us plenty of opportunity for worry and sadness, we need to be reminded that God is here and that all will be well. Taking a few moments here and there to leave sorrow at the door and sing and clap and maybe even dance puts us squarely in the presence of God, in whom there is no more weeping or mourning. And so, we sing and eat and make merry to celebrate the arrival of summer. For God is in our midst. 

Aside

Lent has moved so quickly and been so busy that I’ve lost track of posting. Our second “Hope Sings” prayer service is tonight. It will incorporate a quote from Thomas Merton, songs by Stevie Wonder and the Umoja Men’s Chorus, and Scripture. Our discussions in the groups I’ve participated in have sprung from the book into some very personal reflections on how our lives have been impacted by racism. The majority of us have not been the direct recipients of injustice as we are mostly caucasian, but we have been impacted as members of a culture that has been racially unjust in varying degrees and in different manifestations. Just the other day someone talked about how this parish experienced “white flight” at one point in time. None of us are immune to the effects of racism. 

Conversations

Our small discussion groups have begun meeting to share our thoughts on Hope Sings, So Beautiful. A small group met for prayer last Thursday, listening to Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit, a haunting and powerful song about the dark story of the lynching tree. We heard a passage from James H. Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. We listened to a setting of psalm 63, My Soul is Thirsting, which echoed the blues-y tone of Strange Fruit, and heard the gospel of the day, in which Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock. And to treat others as we wish to be treated. 

As we move toward Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we think of the cruel torture that Jesus endured. For many in our world, torture is an ongoing reality. In our country, it is part of our history–the shadow of the lynching tree that is not a relic of a distant past. To whom can we turn but the Lord for deliverance? Who can change hearts and heal our wounds? Jesus showed us how to treat others with love, tenderness, compassion. Only God can move us beyond our dark past to justice and reconciliation. But first we must be willing to be moved. 

Aside

We are almost a week into Lent now, and many parishioners have taken a copy of Hope Sings, So Beautiful. They like it so much that some of them are buying copies for friends and relatives. On Thursday we will have a prayer service that will incorporate the song Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday, and a short passage from James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As we move through Lent, remembering the suffering of Christ, we are called to contemplate the ways in which we participate in the suffering of others–whether we do it actively and consciously or passively and unaware–and to seek conversion of heart and mind and reconciliation with those we have harmed. The point is not to beat ourselves up, but to allow ourselves to let go of whatever keeps us from Christ. One of the beauties of Hope Sings is that it gently and thoughtfully points out some of the unconscious ways in which we live in a closed, limited world. It might not be active prejudice that is the problem but a lack of awareness. We can live easily without ever interacting with people who are different from us–racially, economically, politically. We may never know what we are missing out on because of our isolation. Encounters with musicians and writers such as Holiday and Cone are a window into other worlds. If we open enough windows, we can let in the light of day and a fresh breeze. We may even be inspired to take a walk outside and see the world in new ways, to see places we never noticed before.

Lighting the fire

palm burning 2014

Yesterday after our 8:30 liturgy, we began the final few days of preparation for Lent by burning the palms from last year, making the ashes that will mark our foreheads this Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is one of the most well-attended liturgies of the year, perhaps an indication that all of us realize somewhere deep inside that we are in need of conversion.

The parish will begin reading and discussing Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line. I’ve only read a few chapters of the book so far, but in those few pages I’ve encountered a great deal of food for thought. We live in a world that often stresses differences–and not in a positive way. Rabbi Abie Ingber, in speaking to my students at Xavier University, says that we need to move from tolerance to celebration. We tolerate an itch. We  celebrate human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. Graced encounters.

As we read and fast and pray this Lent, may we grow in our appreciation of the diversity of God’s creation and learn to sing a new song to the Lord.