Rebuild My Church

Imagine praying intently while all alone, and then hearing something – not a little voice in your head or heart, a but one outside of you which you hear with your ears. This happened to St. Francis many centuries ago. He was praying in the dilapidated church at San Damiano when he heard physically God ask him to rebuild and repair his church.

Image: Today, it is clericalism, abuse, and secrecy which are choking the church like a giant python. At first, he took this command literally, thinking that God meant that he needed to repair the church building there. In time, he realized that the invitation was far bigger, and probably a lot scarier, than taking on a religious building in ruins. It was to help bring about reform in the church at large.

Today, we need to also hear that same call to create reform, as our church is now in ruins from one abuse scandal after the next. In St. Francis’ time, there was no small share of corruption that he was intent on taking on, though it was of a different kind.  Today, it is clericalism, abuse, and secrecy which are choking the church like a giant python.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been letters and homilies in response to the current wave of abuse crisis news. Pope Francis issued a letter, made a number of statements during his trip to Ireland, and included, in one Mass, petitions that were specific to abuse.

Our bishop in the  Diocese of San Jose, Patrick McGrath, published a statement on the DSJ website which you can find here. While it conveys our communal sense of horror and grief and it calls for prayer, it falls short in that it does not promise transparency, which is sorely needed. The diocese here, like everywhere in the U.S., needs to open up its files and make known all credible accusations. It also falls short in failing to refer to the molestation, rape, and harassment of children and people in vulnerable positions – and for the cover ups – as crimes. 

As a diocese, we can and must do more than say words of commiseration. We must act.

Also in San Jose, it was heartening to hear the homily of Fr. Brendan McGuire of Holy Spirit parish in Almaden. You can hear his homily on the parish’s website,  or watch a video of it here: (I would have embedded it in this article as it is very worthwhile had that link been available.) Sadly,  it does not appear on the Valley Catholic website. Something far blander sits in its place. We can only guess that Fr. Brendan’s brave and honest comments were too much for the diocese, who wants to smooth things over, perhaps?

This is not something that can be smoothed over. It needs to be faced head on. And we, the laity, and some brave priests and religious, need to force the point. It is, after all, the church of the people.

Last week, I attended an insightful, helpful talk at Santa Clara University, given by Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, on the abuse crisis and what can be done. He spoke of putting the victims first, of the bishops and priests repenting, of transparency.

Talk by Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ - Outline of 4 things the church should do

The main points of what he said can be found in an article on the National Catholic Reporter:

The pope has gone beyond just making statements. He has been meeting with victims, he has been praying with them, making inquiries to learn what has happened. Pope Francis has more to do in the areas of transparency, and it seems he needs to put some systems in place, but he has been a leader among bishops.

For most U.S. bishops, it appears – and I hope I’m wrong – that it’s just a lot of talk. And we, the faithful, are sick of talk without action.

Do you remember Eliza Doolittle’s frustrated song to Freddy about how he’s all talk and no action?

Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?

Even where there are task forces, there are very few dioceses with a compensation fund set up for the victims. The only one I’m aware of the the Archdiocese of New York, which has shown outstanding leadership to put its money where its mouth is.  (If the Diocese of San Jose has such a fund, I am not aware of it.)

Masses across the country were a little emptier last weekend. The faithful are disgusted with the way bishops have handled the crisis and the way too many bishops and priests have behaved.  We need lay leaders to be on boards to which bishops are held accountable and to force better behavior.

We have been very fortunate to have Bishop McGrath as our local bishop. But he has been slow to act with transparency in this issue.

The first step in most dioceses – including our own, I believe, is to get a lay board involved in diocesan oversight, or a board which at the very least includes the laity. Perhaps it should also include members of religious orders who do not report to the bishop (they report to their religious superiors instead, a different chain of command). It is the laity and other outsiders who will break the bonds of secrecy and clericalism, will force transparency, will protect our children and the vulnerable. The board’s job should be to help effect transparency and accountability. It should also advise the bishop to do what must be done to help most us through the abuse cases.  The listening sessions encouraged by Fr. Reese are a good idea, if a very difficult one for most bishops.

We should also remember that many priests and religious are innocent and also reeling from the last 2 – 3 weeks of events. We need to encourage them to take breaks as needed. No one should be “on” 24 / 7, yet when we go into crisis mode, that is exactly what can happen. Burnout is a challenge in normal times. Care to avoid it must be intentional now.

My hope is that all of us who consider ourselves Catholic will hear the call to reform. Those guilty of abuse and cover up need to repent, and part of that, it seems, will be giving up some of the power they are used to having. Just as God spoke to Saint Francis in the church in ruins in San Damiano, so the Holy Spirit is whispering to us all today: rebuild my church.  How can we change course for our diocese, our church? That’s what we need to ask ourselves so that we are not also just words.

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When dreams die: a religious perspective

GraveyardMost of us experience the loss of dreams gone unrealized at some point, if not at many times in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a college application that got a rejection, a career that didn’t pan out, or a relationship that didn’t work.  Perhaps it’s ending up single or childless when you wanted to be married with kids.  Or maybe it was having an unexpected death or illness rob you of what you thought you would be doing or experiencing.

Significant loss, whether it’s a relationship, work, health, financial stability, or anything else, can tend to rock us to the core.  We know it can happen.  No one is immune from terminal illness, car accidents, layoffs, divorce, infertility or a host of other unhappy occurrences. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

And yet, we see a huge range of responses to these situations, these times when dreams die.  That is what I would like to focus on today.

Have you ever known people who seemed to have it all, but were always sad and complaining, and at least a little bitter & self pitying?  And at the other extreme, you may have encountered people who have endured tremendous suffering, but despite all challenges, did not let the depression or discouragement sour them?   (If you had to see yourself with this in mind, where would you fall?  I ask myself that sometimes.)

The crisis as opportunity

How to respond to the death of dreams is a very human question and it’s a deeply religious one too.  Imagine some of Jesus’ first disciples who were helping their father to fish…and decided to abandon dad and go follow Jesus instead!  How was this older man going to cope with both sons leaving him?  Consider Peter’s wife as he left her, and his work which sustained them, to learn from and accompany Jesus to who knows where.  You can imagine that these families had a shock and then the sense that the future they envisioned was gone – and we’re not even talking about the  eventual martyrdom of these early followers!

As I write this, we are close to Christmas, so let’s ponder Mary’s situation a few months prior.  She was betrothed but not yet living with Joseph.  She must have been so happy to envision her future life with him and the family which they planned to have.  Instead, an angel appears, tells her that she is blessed and that she is going to bear a child without benefit of Joseph’s involvement, but rather a miraculous and divine intervention in nature. Instead of freaking out, Mary asked for more information and allowed her dreams to be diverted to what God had in mind.  Talk about a leap of faith! So too for her Joseph, who came around after an angel visited him in a dream.  Both of them had dreams that they relinquished because of a sense that God called them to do so.

We don’t all have the aid of angels when our dreams are diverted by life or by God.  But like Mary and Joseph, we do all have the choice as to how we respond.  Will we be angry and bitter?  Will we consider it a way to grow?  Will we ask God to lead us through the confusion?

Confusion and dementia is one of my own fears.  Frankly, I do a lot of self-editing, and I’m more than a little afraid that my blunt nature could morph into rudeness if dementia takes hold of me sometime down the road.  I do not want to be mean.   One of my very earnest prayers has been to help me to be a nicer person so that’s my nature – and if at some point my judgement fails, I will not be mean or unkind.

I had a great aunt who was a very beautiful soul, and she happened to be a cloistered Carmelite nun in Carmel, CA.  She lived to be very old and near the end, in her mid 90s, was quite confused and forgetful.  At one of those confused times, one of the sisters said to her “I believe our Lord has taken your memory”. My great aunt said in response, “He can take anything He wants”.

What holiness it is to relinquish to God our own will, our own desires or dreams, our grudges, even.  Rolling with the punches is hard, especially when we are exhausted and discouraged.  It is at these times, more than any other, when I really believe our best course of action is to not try to go it alone, but to lean on the God who loves us and let that strength of God be our strength.

When I consider God as our source of joy, our sustenance and the one who helps us to overcome big disappointments such as the death of dreams, it is the words of St. Paul which come to mind: “in life and in death, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).  If we can allow ourselves to live for God, and not for ourselves, then the changes and challenges which we face can all be seen as working toward God’s good plan rather than our own.  And similarly, I love the passage from Acts of the Apostles, which we sometimes hear in Mass, which reminds us that in God “we live and move and have our being”(Acts 17:8).

The saying “let go and let God” sounds so trite, but in many ways it sums up a spirituality which allows us to not hang on to our own desires or dreams, but to try to hook our desires and dreams to God’s – which are sometimes not so clear for us to understand.

A word often used for this kind of openness to the redirection of our lives is “non-attachment”.  That’s a term which is perhaps better known as being a Buddhist value, but in fact it is very much a Christian value also (it is referenced somewhere in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, but I’m sorry to not be able to cite it precisely).  What we are called to cling to is God, not the stuff of life.  Put most basically, putting God first is the heart of the very first commandment (which actually goes further – it’s not just that God is first, it’s that we are commanded to love God).  If we can do our best to love God and put God first, than all other attachments, including the attachment to our will and our dreams, get cushioned and put in perspective.

I have heard it said that when someone preaches, he or she is preaching first to himself or herself.  That applies here, to this writer, as well.  When I write about things, it’s because these are areas I’m working on myself, not because I’ve mastered them,  and because I’m finding them relevant in life and in faith.  “Let go and let God” – I think that’s a great New Year’s goal, or any any-day goal, for that matter.

Merry Christmas!


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The alienation of elderly Catholics

Growing Old Is Not For Sissies“Growing old is not for sissies,” my grandmother used to quip.  She would know as she lived to be just 2 days shy of her 100th birthday.

As people age, they tend to suffer a series of losses:

  • loss of the senses – hearing, sight, taste
  • loss of friends and relatives whom they outlive
  • loss of work or a sense of purpose (in many cases)
  • loss of driving and the freedom & independence that brings
  • loss of control over life generally with increased medical problems, doctor visits, perhaps where the senior needs to live for health or financial reasons
  • loss of a social life (with the living situation & end of driving)
  • loss of memory for many (or general confusion in some cases)

All of these can be a source for feeling left out and alienated.  But as they start stacking up, these mounting losses can pave the way for depression and at times leave the individual pining for death and remove the desire to go to church or feel like a part of the community.

What can be done to help regarding alienation, the elderly, and the church?

Some elderly people stop going to church or religious services even though in the past it was life-giving for them because the effort has become so great and once they get there, the acoustics may not be good for them to hear what is going on (and in many cases they may not be able to see what is happening either).  In a large place of worship, they may be too far away to be able to follow, so attending may be an exercise in frustration for them. They are surrounded by others but definitely feel alone. Continue reading

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Does being a public figure make you a public target? Pity the poor bishops.

My family is one of those expansive, Irish Catholic clans which has been richly enhanced by the presence of priests, nuns, brothers, and in far larger supplies, devout (but down to earth, not syrupy sweet) lay folks.  Spanning several categories, we have church workers, theologians, dedicated volunteers and others involved in a wide array of church activity and leadership.

Over the years, I had the chance to meet a lot of “leaders” of various types, and by association, hear about others who had a bigger presence still.  What surprised me very much as a teen was to learn how rudely some bishops, in particular, would be treated while out in public – it’s as if they had a big target on them!  (And this was long before the pedophilia scandal broke.)  Why is it that if someone is especially visible, total strangers feel entitled to accost them and say terrible things to them? We know that it happens to celebrities, so I suppose it shouldn’t be so much of a shock that it happens on a lesser scale to those who are likewise in the spotlight to a lesser degree, such as bishops and probably also priests, theologians and others.

I’m no church leader, and no star either, but because I do a lot of marketing (in my case writing on my many blogs) for my real estate practice, and do some public speaking on social media and realty related things, I’m somewhere on the low end of that continuum of being at least a little bit in the spotlight. It is sometimes odd to be out in public and find someone staring at me.  Jim, my husband, will reassure me that I don’t look bad or funny, it’s probably that someone recognizes me and is trying to figure out how they might know me.  Ok, that is not so awful, if a little weird sometimes. But recently I experienced one of the negative side effects of being known, so I wanted to mull it over here today, now that I’ve processed it a bit, and by extension, connect it to the faithful harassing church leaders because of their public position. Continue reading

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The Spirituality of Showing Up

Stone stepsThere are lots of quotes about the importance of showing up in life, in relationships, or in business.  But do we ever consider it in the context of spirituality?  I think it’s a worthwhile vantage point, and it’s something I’ve been working on myself.

Especially here in Silicon Valley, there’s an ethos of hurrying up, of being time efficient, of getting things done.  Showing up – and therefore spending time – is in many ways opposed to that fast pace of life that we have.

Spirituality refers to our relationship with God, most often experienced through one another, both those close to us and those not so close (sometimes even strangers). As with any relationship, time & effort are needed to nurture and grow spiritually. This can happen in terms of prayer, but also through action.  Ideally, of course, Christian spirituality should include both time spent in prayer and time given to good work or deeds.  (One spirituality writer notes that if our spiritual life is balanced, we should all crave time spent in prayer – a concept I understand, because we can all crave a good relationship with those whom we love,  but suspect is not often experienced among the faithful.)

The balance between action & contemplation, or good deeds and prayer, is a much bigger topic than this blog can tackle, but let’s focus on action and specifically acts of “showing up”.

Showing up doesn’t have to be enormous.  It doesn’t require weeklong service projects abroad.  Those are fabulous ideas, and efforts, but what I’m suggesting is something more bite-sized.  Here are a few ideas.

Funerals: Attend funerals, not just of your loved ones, but the funerals where those you love are mourning.  Did your friend or neighbor just lose a parent, sibling, or best friend?  Show up as support for your friend, even if you never met her deceased loved one. Attending will signal your support, and that you were willing to spend the time for her. Funerals are hard, they often rip open our own old wounds, so many people avoid them. Go anyway, even if it’s difficult for you.  (And continue to be present long after the services are over, too.) Not only will you be supporting your friend, neighbor or co-worker, but your attendance will signal everyone else who’s mourning that they do not do so alone.  How different it is to attend a packed funeral versus an empty one! Showing up speaks volumes, and on many levels. Continue reading

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The Pact of the Catacombs, and understanding Pope Francis better

Pact of the CatacombsPope Francis seems to be the spirit of Vatican II personified.  In the couple of months in which he’s been our pontiff, we have experienced one new breath of fresh air after the next.

Can you boil down his message, as a person, to a phrase or two?  I’m not sure that it would do him or his charism justice, but what pops out the most to me is the word simplify.

Simplify the way to live.  (He’s at the Vatican guest house, Casa Marta, not the papal palace. Forget the ermine laced cape, the red shoes, the gold cross – take all of it down quite a bit to a more ordinary level.)

Simplify the paths to holiness. (A homily this week talked about “removing obstacles” which some in the church put in place between the people of God and the sacraments; on a somewhat similar vein, he spoke of meeting non-believers and atheists in the place of “doing good”, and that Christ has redeemed all of us.)

Simplify the faithful’s access to him. (The popemobile is without bullet proof glass. He says Mass for the employees of the Vatican – they do not have to “get tickets” like everyone else.  He drives his security detail crazy by mingling with people.)

There is much more, of course. But the simple approach is in line with his “poor church, for the poor” spirituality.  And it is 100% in line with the Pact of the Catacombs, signed by a few dozen bishops and theologians near the close of Vatican II.

To better understand the Pact of the Catacombs, I commend to you an article from 2010 – please read all of it, but here’s a helpful, brief excerpt:

On November 16, 1965, just days before the close of the Council, about 40 conciliar fathers celebrated a Mass in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla. They prayed to “be faithful to the spirit of Jesus,” and at the end of the celebration signed what they called “the pact of the catacombs”.

The “pact” is a challenge to the “brother bishops” to live a “life of poverty” and to be a “poor and servant” Church as John XXIII wanted. The signatories, including many Latin Americans and Brazilians, who were later joined by others, agreed to live in poverty, reject all symbols and privileges of power, and place the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry. The text would have a strong influence on the theology of liberation that sprouted up several years later.

Does this sound familiar? It should.  What we see in Pope Francis, and what was visible in him previously as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is this “life of poverty”.  The cardinals who elected the former Cardinal Bergoglio knew exactly what they were doing – inviting in the spirit of poverty and the spirit of service where in all of recent memory we’ve instead had the spirit of ruling monarch.  Here we have “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” lived beautifully.  The Pact of the Catacombs was signed almost 50 years ago, but we are seeing it alive in our day.  How fortunate we are to witness it.

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Holy Thursday

Today is Holy Thursday, the day we celebrate The Last Supper and also the sacrament of ordination and the priesthood.  Pope Francis gave a beautiful homily this morning on anointing, and that priests are to go out and find the needy, in essence, so that they can bring God’s love to them.  He tells his listeners:

We need to “go out”, then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. . . .It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord. . . (but instead) in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others

This was addressed to the ordained, but we Catholics are baptized as joining in Christ’s mission as prophet, priest and king  – all of us – so it applies well to the laity also.  (We do speak of “the priesthood of all believers”.) Where do we find God?  How are we to be in the world? Pope Francis says we should not only do self-help courses and be introspective.  We are to look outward and be people for others (very Ignatian), looking for those with the most need.  Or as in the Prayer of St. Francis, rather than look internally for what we ourselves might need, we are to look outwardly and see what God would have us do.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

We are not all ordained deacons and priests, but we can all look outwardly to see where there is need around us.  Sometimes the need is material, at others it’s emotional or physical – someone may need a lift to the store or to church, someone else may need company, reconciliation, an encouraging word or time to talk (or sit in silence).  All of us are called to be instruments of God’s grace, that is, to bring the transforming love of God’s presence to others.

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Feeling like you belong at Church

In Silicon Valley, there are so many opportunities to attend Mass that it’s very easy to drift from Mass to Mass and yet never feel a sense of belonging to the particular group with whom you are worshiping. This is a large metropolitan area.  What can you do to forge a sense of belonging?  It will take a little effort, but it’s well worth it.

Just like any other community, such as a neighborhood or work environment, relationships with people don’t just happen.  Here are a few tips for Catholics wanting to feel more “at home” in their parish community – especially for those who’ve just moved to the South Bay.

  1. Find your best fit. Initially, you may do some “parish shopping” to find a community that feels most comfortable to you and your own spirituality.  Here we have Mass and community in many languages, for instance.  Seek out where you will be able to thrive and give.  It’s ideal if you don’t have to travel far but no matter what, put some intentionality into finding the match and then decide to become an active member of that parish, attending Mass and functions there frequently.
  2. Be a regular. Try to go to the same Mass each week, make a point of meeting people (and write their names down if you want to).  When you begin to call people by name, it will do a lot to increase both your and their sense of belonging! (Many Catholics in our diocese only go to Mass once a month.  To feel that sense of being a part of the community, I encourage you to go weekly.  In our hectic lives it is a struggle sometimes but well worth it on many levels, for many reasons.)
  3. Don’t pray & run. Ever notice how many people are present when Mass begins, at the homily, and after communion?  Some folks run in after it starts and run out before it’s over.  That’s a poor idea for many reasons, but one of them is that it makes a sense of belonging hard to achieve.  Arrive a little early, say hello to a few people.  Linger after, especially if there are refreshments which are there to encourage community building.  Friendships take time – to feel that sense of belonging, you will need to slow down a little and meet people and cultivate friendships.
  4. Volunteer, join a group, get involved. If you can volunteer, you will meet people quickly.  Not much time?  Become a greeter.  You may only need to be at the church 15 minutes before and after Mass, so this is easy if you are alone especially. Most parishes want someone at every door to welcome people to Mass.  In some places, these are the ushers – and I have found that in a few parishes these are almost exclusively men.  But give it a try.  You will start to recognize others and be recognized by them too.  And that is the beginning.If you have kids or a somewhat reluctant spouse or friend in tow who don’t really want to go to Mass early, consider some sort of involvement outside of Mass times. Many parishes have a wide variety of groups for spiritual growth, for ministry to others or just helping out at the parish grounds.  My grandmother was a member of the altar society at her parish in Santa Cruz as my grandfather had over 100 rose bushes (a retirement hobby) and they could be put to very good use at the church.    There are classes too, some of which are occasional and others which may run for a few weeks.  I have seen many “mom & me” groups at churches too.  Find at least one group, class, committee etc. and dive in!

One of the best ways to feel loved is to be loving. So too with parish communities – spiritual leaders are sometimes drafted, but more often step up, on their own, to do a job that needs doing.  Want to feel welcome? Find a role where you can provide that to others.  You’ll be surprised at how fast you will feel as though you belong.

Have a great parish where you felt really welcomed?  Or a success story of making newcomers feel at home fast?  I’d love to hear the stories here!

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The Season of Hope free musical concert series in San Jose

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph, the seat of the Diocese of San Jose, hosts an annual free musical concert series, “The Season of Hope”, each year in the church.  The December 2011 schedule begins on Dec. 12th and runs nightly through the 23rd with performances from 7:30pm to 8:30pm. Each year, different groups and individuals are showcased, so there’s lots of variety.

Find the entire lineup with details and some links on the parish website:

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“Nuns for Fun” presented by the Sacred Heart Men’s Club

“Nuns for Fun”, a classic rock and Christmas program, is presented by the Sacred Heart Men’s Club this upcoming Friday, December 9th. The group says “If you liked the movie, Sister Act, you’ll love this musical review!  Performing will be Nine Nuns & Their Band (a.k.a. The Boys In Black).  The photo on the card makes it clear that these nuns are the guys from the men’s group. I can only imagine!
The show runs from 7:30 to 10pm (doors open at 6:30pm)
Sacred Heart Parish
13716 Saratoga Ave, Saratoga, CA 95070
Friday, Dec, 9, 2011
7:30 PM (dors open 6:30PM)

More Info

Tom Clerkin

408- 418-TKTS to order tickets in advance

$15, $20 and $25 seats remaining

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