Monday, June 27, 2011

Sacramental hostages

(Photo is of my maternal grandparents - she converted to Catholicism to marry him.)

On the Deacon's Bench there has been some conversation about marriage preparation — should widows and widowers do the same preparation as twenty-something first time brides and bridegrooms — and in Ireland a priest has suggested pushing back the age of First Communion to the late teens. What should the Church do to prepare people to fruitfully receive the sacraments?

Ashes and palms are the bookends of Lent in the Catholic Church, threads that weave together two liturgical years, pulling us hand over hand deeper into the Paschal mystery. The palms that we held aloft at the end of Lent one year are burnt for the ashes to ushers us into the next year's season.

These two sacramentals not only hold together the years, but they are sometimes the last threads holding Catholics to the Church. People come to be marked with ashes or to get a blessed palm branch who might not even edge into the vestibule on Christmas or Easter. (Based on CARA's data, roughly 1/3 of Catholics who come to mass rarely if ever, still come to get ashes.)

Is it perhaps because there are no obstacles to the reception of those sacramentals, those bits of grace? We ask no questions, impugn no motives, other than a desire to participate in the life of the Church, to be part of the Body of Christ in this way if no other. The branches are still rooted in the vine.

However, if you want to be married in the Church, or bring your child for baptism or to receive the Eucharist your relationship with the Church can become almost instantly adversarial. Approach via the parish web site, or by checking the bulletin and you will often be presented with a list of requirements and restrictions and demands. Most often there will no explicit connections drawn between the requirement and the desired sacramental encounter. We ask a lot of questions and more importantly, we assume a lot.

It's the assumptions that bother me. Yes, it may indeed be true that most brides select a church for the photographic backdrop it provides. Or that parents are bringing their child for Baptism because they want (are expected) to throw a huge family party. Or that the parents of potential first communicants are woefully uncatechized. But is that how we should greet everyone - by assuming that they are shallow and ignorant and wish to mock the sacraments? Will they not sense our patronizing attitude?

And what of the bride who was raised in the parish, the parents who are not having a large baptism party, the parents who are well catechized and faithful, the mature widowed who want to remarry? You will have to have your bulletin signed to show you went to Mass. You will have to take 40 hours of basic catechetical instruction, no exceptions. You must take a mandatory pre-Cana coursewith the twenty-somethings and learn about budgeting and family planning or a "remarriage" course where you can learn about fidelity and the importance of developing covenantal love (trust me, such instruction would not have made my first marriage last one second longer - I stood there very faithfully while the ER staff tried to resuscitate my husband; and it was quite clear how deep that covenant went was when it was severed). The message we send them is that regardless of what you say, we don't believe you or trust you. We don't care about your preparation for this sacramental encounter, we just need to tick a box. If you really want this sacrament, you'll suffer through something pointless. That's not preparation, that's ransom.

It's not clear to me that this adversarial and regulation driven stance serves either population well. The Sacraments are not cheap grace to be dispensed without thought, but in trying to be certain that they are taken seriously I wonder if we don't take them seriously enough. Sacraments are not a seal of perfection, but a source of grace that perfects.

We can get it right, see the guidelines for the Diocese of Sacramento: The pastor and his delegates must welcome the couple as Christ would, that is, with “a warm and caring, positive and joyful attitude of hospitality” (Faithful to Each Other Forever, p. 59).


  1. Thank you for this. I wrote about the elderly widower seeking to be married in the Church and you have articulated and broadened this theme in ways I was unable to. Thank you! This whole topic deserves a much bigger conversation.

  2. I know confirmation is not the same but as a leader of a confirmation group I sometimes feel that some of the teenagers concerned are trapped by their parents need for them to be confirmed (so that they can marry in the Church) rather than their own needs. I am end up with some bored occasionally rebellious teens who are forced to attend a class they would rather skip. Despite my best endeavour to give them a genuine choice to say No, I am sure that some of them just "do" the sacrament to get it over with and their parents off their back.

    It always makes me sad, and I wonder how I might do better by these teens.

  3. Michelle, you have written such a thoughtful post... not that I would expect any less. It is a good compliment to Allison's original post, the one that Greg Kandra linked to.

    There is so much to say here, I don't know where to begin. I will say this - as the parish secretary, I am typically the one who is privileged to experience these inquiry encounters, as I like to think of them. (Our website and bulletin simply point one to call the parish office.)

    These are moments of real grace, whether the person is terrified to call a church (often) or whether they are the embodiment of entitlement. All humans are blessed with dignity, whether that is apparent or not - and so I try to respond with that in my heart.

    I usually begin my conversation by saying "I am going to ask you a few questions and they are not meant to be blocks or impediments. They are meant to guide our conversation, OK?" Then I repeat that and ask if they belong to the parish - again repeating that this is simply to guide our process.

    And guide our process it does. My work is such a privilege because I feel like I am so richly blessed to stand on such holy ground. Many people just want their sacrament. Most - more than some might thing - want something more, but just don't know how or where to begin.

    Parishes that, with all due respect, use regulation as an impediment of grace break my heart. However, we all make our meek adjustments and God continues to work on us all.

  4. Margaret and I were married in traffic court. We were not church goers at the time and I am glad I did not face the assumptions that would have been thrown at us. I doubt if I would have jumped through many hoops. A UCC minister has assured me that God enjoys being in traffic court. I have blogged about his importance to me and he was a man who was very open to providing the sacraments to those who sought it. He did it with much love and grace.

  5. @Stratoz, you say perhaps the best thing of all, intentionally or not. Perhaps one of the problems with marriage specifically is that what is essentially a civil matter is conflated with church.

    A reasonable solution might be to look to our European brothers and sisters, for example and marry civilly and then and only then, move on to church if it so moves us.

    That is still an option here, but while priests and ministers and rabbis and so forth are justices of the peace, the issue remains.

  6. Fran--- After ten years, Margaret and I and a minister and maybe God (does God like to hang out in churches?) renewed our vows.

  7. I will limit my reaction to one story. My sister-in-law wants (wanted?) very much to return to her Catholic roots and, having never been confirmed, began an RCIA class.

    The priest's reaction, upon discovering in one of the last sessions that she is married to my brother -- not baptized, divorced, just becoming interested in a life of faith and uncertain how to go about it -- virtually assured their complete alienation from anything Catholic.

    I love the recognition that"God enjoys being in traffic court."

  8. Oh @Robin... I am so sorry. Those stories are the worst. I am so sorry.

    And yes- traffic court is likely a place where Jesus would be. It is a wonderful image that Stratoz gives us.

  9. Like Robin I have a "sister story" and my sister is farther away from the Catholic Church than ever (hers was with a misinformed, though passionate, Deacon).

    I am sad that more people don't have the opportunity I do to be around our Pastor, Fr. Kevin Johnson at St. Louis Parish in Tallahassee. He is the embodiment of Christ's love as shepherd and brother.

    He is traditional and fully Roman Catholic. He is not in the least bit squishy or relative. However, he is filled with love: of God, of His Son and of humanity in all our broken, twisted and even hopeful frailty.

    He welcomes questions, he soothes doubts, he prays for our souls and our bodies and our lives. He smiles. He shakes hands. He kisses babies.

    Over the course of about 8 years he has restored to me some idea of what Paul was probably trying to do back in the day.

    My prayer for anyone is that they keep looking - Fr. Kevin is not alone.

  10. I dealt with two issues today that had me carrying this post (and Allison's) in my heart!

  11. Fran, I am so glad that you greet people with warm and gracious hospitality (but I'm not surprised!); and glad that the conversations here and at Allison's blog are a help

    Stratoz...Oh I love the image of God in traffic court.

    Gaye - I worry about how we pass on the faith, too, but am glad you are trying!

    Robin -- I have a similar story with my SIL -- and Cindy, yes, there are wonderful parishes and pastors out there, and persistence can sometimes help.