Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Forget the nit-picking

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There are times, in all of our walks with God, in Catholicism, when we have something to say. There may be a matter, at church, to be blunt, that we don't much like. There may even be scandal. Sometimes, it's just a personal preference. We may be agitated at the length of a homily. Or the music. Or the lack of statues. We may not care for how much a priest ad-libs.  It's normal to have preferences. And it's okay to express opinions. In fact, if you feel strongly about something, you should express your view.

Speak up. Just remember to do it gently (and respectfully). And forget the nit-picking. Sometimes we become so involved in the minutiae of churchgoing that we forget the essence of what Christ taught (love, patience, longsuffering, kindness). Be in the frame of compassion. Before putting anything to paper, or in an e-mail, or the fax, put yourself in the priest's or bishop's or deacon's or vicar's position. Imagine how you would feel if you were on the receiving end. Would it come across as petulant? Or caustic? Would the tone ruin your morning (or day)? Of course, we should do that in communications with everyone. The Golden Rule. But we must be especially respectful in expressing ourselves to those in a position of Church authority.

At the same time, if something is wrong, pray about it and if still compelled, don't hold back. We know many who have lobbied to reinstall altar rails or kneelers. It is good to speak up, and essential if something truly wrong is transpiring. Do folks chatter too much in the pews before Mass starts? Is disruption caused because some folks want to hold hands during the Our Father while others may not? Is there kneeling and reflection -- or loud entertainment -- after reception of the Eucharist? Is Holy Water available? Are there enough times for Confession? Does your church try to have Adoration?

Let your (gentle, kind, but strong) voice be tallied. Years ago, up north, we expressed concern over a priest who was not elevating the Host during Consecration. He was simply raising the paten, and hardly doing even that. This is an issue because the elevation is a particularly powerful time for prayers, and it was also an issue because it said right in the Missal that the Host must be held up in a way such that everyone in the congregation all can see it.

While the inquiry at first met with resistance (from the pastor, who said the priest could interpret Mass anyway he liked), we persisted and the priest ended up elevating Communion properly when we respectfully faxed him the Missal. At the same church, we raised concern over the shortness of an altar girl's dress -- and soon after (again, following a bit of initial resistance) altar servers were made to wear long white robes. It added to the sanctity. (We were less successful in our attempt to halt the use of clowns doing the Stations around the diocese during Lent; you can only take certain matters so far.)

But some issues cry out for persistence. Is there something New Age in your church? Was something said contrary to Church teachings (or instruction of the Magisterium)? They are legitimate issues and points of discussion. The wrong way: a tone of confrontation. Do bishops need to hear from us? Sometimes. We were reminded of that in reading a note from a viewer on the West Coast (no need for names) who raised a concern over a priest who -- on the Feast of the Holy Family -- had given a homily on what constitutes a "good family" and had said:

"There is a stereotype in our society about what constitutes a good family. Some of the elements of this good family are 1) two parents who love each other, who create a stable environment, and who provide for the physical, emotional, and educational needs of their children and 2) children who are balanced, who contribute to the well-being of the family, and who involve themselves in various community activities. That's the stereotype," said this priest. "But as we know, families come in many shapes and forms -- and can still be 'good.' These families might be 1) one-parent households, or 2) blended families, or 3) families with gay parents, or 4) families with grandparents who act as parents," and so on.

It was a homily that was in need of immediate correction, and this the viewer tried to do. When the priest would not listen (saying politely that "diversity" was important to his parish), the viewer wrote three times to the bishop after consulting about proper etiquette with the St. Joseph's Foundation. Unfortunately, as can happen, the bishop at first failed to respond; then, through a chancellor, defended the priest's words, relating through her (she was female) that he was "satisfied" with the priest's response. As the viewer said, "This was disappointing and made me realize that our priests can believe and say whatever they want without being accountable or facing the consequences."

Well, not usually. But it happens. And when it does -- when, after prayerful, polite letters -- a serious issue (not nitpicking, but a real concern) is not addressed, the next recourse is one few avail themselves: a letter, call, or fax to the Papal Nunciature, or Nuncio, in Washington (or Ottawa, or wherever is your capital). That's the Pope ambassador to America. And from past experience, we can tell you that when a priest knows that's a possible avenue, the reply to a complaint is often much different.

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