Be Real, People

There’s been a lot said lately by people more qualified than me about the current state of the Catholic Church. That its archaic. That it must change to keep people engaged. That the conventional wisdom of modern people is stronger than the doctrine of an institution that has survived thousands of years of in spite of the human brokenness of its members and leaders.

I honestly don’t have answers for any of the Churches critics, internal or external. I do know that I have made a conscious decision to follow Christ through the Catholic Church and to raise my children within it. Of all the adventures I have embarked upon in my life, this has by far been the most challenging.

When I began blogging and sharing how Christianity collides – sometimes rather harshly – with the daily life of my family, I truly believed I had found my role in the “new evangelization” the Church was talking so much about. I thought it was a great way to use the amazing technology God had given us to make the world a better place in my own little way.

I soon found that trying to navigate the intersection between adult life and Christian morality was not so easy. The more I explore, the more I realize how flawed I am as a Christian and Catholic.  I believe in decency, goodness and, as corny as it sounds, brotherhood. Even when, as I am currently, struggling to find these things within me.

I have been very blessed over the course of my life – for many years, I was one of those people who was hated by others, including my friends, because things often seemed to go my way. I got good grades from elementary through graduate school. I had wonderful family and friends. I was in good health, was motivated and innocent to a large degree of the harsh realities of living. I did not know how fortunate I was. The last ten years or so have brought me many challenges and battles for which I was morally unprepared.

A writer at heart, I thought sharing those struggles as I reconciled them with my faith would offer support and motivation to others facing personal hardships like mine.

May be it does.

But its done something else as well. Its made me more reluctant to wear my heart on my sleeve about my beliefs and experiences. We live in a world that wants conformity and homogeneity when it demands diversity. My most powerful stories of God in my life amidst my own numerous failings are ones I could never share here. Not because people might label me a religious fanatic. Heck, I get that by just going to Church on Sunday and being pro-life.

No. I can’t truly share because I must also live for the future in some sense. In many ways, I’ve already hindered myself through my writing. I’ve given the world reason to exclude me from social groups, employment opportunities, friendships, even family circles. It’s not because I’m trying to be Catholic – it’s because I share my un-perfectness in a world that demands flawless living. Funny concept for someone like me who spent my professional life “selling” businesses and ideas, and “putting the right spin” on straightforward things.

St. Paul faced great danger in his desire to spread the Gospel and God’s Word. Today, sharing our spiritual experiences in life can lead us to isolation. I often feel I have contracted Jerry McQuire syndrome, if you remember the old movie.  I know I have something to share, and my blogs do come from my heart. I just wish it was easier to know what’s right and get on with it like Jerry did in the movie. Or like Paul did in the New Testament.

I also hope I’m able to continue as Paul did in the face of adversity. Perhaps like he, I can learn to be happy with fewer friends and even fewer true companions on my journey.  Maybe I can learn when its best to keep quiet and best to share my life loudly. But more importantly, perhaps I can encourage others that the goal of life is not to be what society sees as perfect and acceptable. Perhaps we can never truly heal our own brokenness until we’re home with the Lord. But we can help one another cope through honesty and understanding.

 

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Go Where God Leads

In 1980, when I was eight years old, I stood in a beautiful Catholic Church watching tears pool in my mother’s eyes and slowly run down her cheeks. She did not wipe them away. It was one of the first times I remember seeing her cry. The church she grew up in, in which she married my father, was closing to make way for a new interstate highway.

A few years later, as a journalism intern, I wrote my first major published story on the closing of another church in that same neighborhood – this time it was the lovely Italian church down the street. It was during a first wave of Catholic Church closings and diocesan reorganization in Pittsburgh. It was 1992.

No matter the reason, watching bishops and priests decide to shutter churches and disperse parishes can be particularly painful for Catholics. Often parishioners of closing churches studied in the church school. Families celebrated cherished milestones – Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, weddings and funerals – beneath the church’s rafters. There are memories of Midnight Christmas Masses, Easter Vigils and myriad community events and gatherings. Parishes are real, living communities, often centered around a few buildings, a courtyard and lawn.

Like so many dioceses around the United States, Pittsburgh is again slogging through a reorganization of resources and assets. This time not only to address a dwindling and relocating number of practicing Catholics, but to brace for a loss of Catholic priests to lead its flock. The plan calls for closing churches and schools, combining other churches and schools, re-imagining the distribution of priests, growing the role of deacons and selling off superfluous real estate. As anyone would imagine, the effort is being met with anger, bewilderment and resistance on all fronts.

No one wants their parish to close – emotions are high, especially where Pittsburgh’s landmark churches are concerned. There are fears about what might happen to those sacred buildings – in recent memory, one cathedral sold into private hands became a micro brew and restaurant, the brew works itself taking the place of the altar. Another was purchased by the SSPX for its Masses. Others for swanky, unique apartments and lofts. The one my mother cried over in 1980 is now a venue for weddings and corporate parties, the rectory a serene city inn (the highway planned changed, and the building was never demolished).

This time, though, there’s much more at stake than beautiful landmark churches in urban  neighborhoods. The Diocese needs to consolidate. Its retiring the old parish K-8 school model in favor of regional elementary/middle schools and kindergarten/preschools. Some parish school buildings will host the early elementary schools, others 1-8. No one seems to be happy at all with the decisions made to date – kids from one school don’t want to go to the others building, parents are complaining about additional driving distance, and alumni are more than upset that long-held sports rivalries will end.

We’ve only really worked through one section of the Diocese so far. Everyone seems to be worried about something. And everyone seems to have forgotten about the real reason parishes and Churches exist at all – to worship God.

We are human beings living in a human world. Things within the Catholic Church in the United States are changing, and sadly not for the better. Only about half of those who call themselves Catholics attend Mass regularly. Fewer give regularly in the weekly collection basket. Commitments to the priesthood are low, and it seems younger priests often reconsider their oaths after being ordained. Priests are needed in administrative capacity as well as for pastors – our parish priest is retired, but was appointed administrator when our pastor took a leave of absence.  When he developed a back problem this week, he had to call more than eight priests just to find a substitute for one Sunday Mass. Fewer and fewer families are sending their kids to parish schools.  American Catholicism is shrinking.

In many ways, the necessity of reorganization in all dioceses is a problem we Catholics made ourselves. We want the Church to be there for us, but we don’t want to be there for it. We bellyache about fundraisers, complain when asked to volunteer, we don’t support the religious staff, and carry on about how the Church needs to get with the times. I’m amazed sometimes that there still is a Catholic Church in the United States.

But it comes down to this – being Catholic is NOT about what building you worship in. It’s not about not liking the priest assigned to your parish, or not being able to carry on a basketball rivalry with the school across town. It’s about GOD. it’s about respecting the teachings of Catholicism and being active in spreading God’s love within our human world.

None of this is easy – focusing on God and trying to truly be a good Catholic is not easy. Neither is guiding a diocese of churches, schools, hospitals, monasteries, cemeteries, community centers, shelters, etc., with many human issues – economics, logistics, funding, facilities management, public relations, municipal relations, regulations, and so on.

But these are all human problems and concerns. We too often confuse the human part of the Church with God himself. I can’t understand the stories I’ve been hearing of families taking their children out of Catholic school and enrolling them in public because the reorganization of their parish didn’t turn out quite as they expected.  Of others church hopping because their beloved pastor was moved somewhere his help was needed more. Or even others who refuse to go to Mass at a different church building because of some old grade school rivalry where we didn’t talk to the people from such and such parish.

Catholicism is about GOD. It’s about this Holy Week we just began, and the sacrifice Jesus Christ made to save us from ourselves. How can we tell Jesus, who suffered the ultimate fate, that we aren’t willing to move to a new church building, welcome a new priest, or send our children to a better equipped school facility? Church reorganization is inevitable. With fewer Catholics, and fewer religious, we must re-evaluate our sustainability and act accordingly.

It’s not about our feelings of loss, our inability to understand “why did they do it that way?,” or our annoyance at the overall process and its demands on our personal comfort. It’s about running a Godly institution in an unGodly world. If we don’t understand that, or refuse to understand that, perhaps we should reflect on why we are Catholic. Is it for God or is it for our own comfort?

People are People

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the boxes we put ourselves in and the labels we put on those boxes. 

It’s somewhat amazing that in an era where we devote so much time to ensuring diversity in everything we do, that we actually end up driving people farther and farther away from one another.

My favorite incidence of this phenomenon this week is the idea that no white woman should have the audacity to wear hoop earrings. In case you didn’t know, those are apparently reserved for black women, and it’s wrong for white – or any other non-black woman I suppose – to appropriate black culture.

Huh?

If this is where we’ve come to in our culture wars, it should be clear that not one of us on this planet gets it. By sharing culture – music, art, fashion, food, and yes, even jewelry – we bring ourselves closer together and ultimately can find peace with one another.

Our love affair with technology often takes the blame for the social distance of the modern era. After all, it’s easier to say what we want to say (i.e., be insensitive to anyone and everyone) from behind a screen. There’s truth in that – I know I’m guilty of saying things online I’d never say to a person in the flesh. Who isn’t?

But self-separation really isn’t as new as the latest tablet or phone. We’ve been doing it forever really, so it makes sense to think people are farther apart than they’ve ever been. Society decides who they don’t like, and then they pounce. When we don’t know the type of person we’re attacking, it’s easier to stereotype and “normalize” ostracism. 

I’m pretty sure that now a days, no one really wants equality. Every “group,” be they women, religious, atheist, blacks, gays, trans, hillbillies, millennials, hipsters, liberals, conservatives, married, single, etc, etc, wants to claim some level of superiority over everyone else. Like it or not, equal DOES mean all lives matter. Even unborn ones, old ones, and dare I say it, Muslim ones.

I’ve become sensitive to this lately watching my husband maneuver through life. He is a middle-aged white man. With a beard, who likes coffee, and working outdoors. He goes to church, owns guns and trucks, and likes big dogs. He grew up on a farm and understands American laws at all levels. I guess you could say he’s the guy everyone wants to hate and blame these days.

But like anyone else living under any other label, there’s more. He works long hours at a job he’s good at, but, like so many, he is disrespected everyday. He struggles with his own health issues. He supports our family financially to the point of exhaustion. He’s all about “girl power,” being the biggest cheerleader our two tween daughters have, urging them to strive to be all they can be. He fights the system where he sees it failing people, especially kids. He provided extraordinary end-of-life care for both is his parents, and had been rock solid in love and support for a wife plagued with illness and depression.

Maybe he’s not so bad after all. Like a lot of other plain white bread guys I know, he’s working hard at life with absolutely no time to worry if someone is black or white or yellow or green or purple. Yeah, he’s worn and broken in spots – just like EVERY LAST ONE OF US. 

So it’s this simple : people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and conditions. We’re all here for a reason and we all count. People who do wrong should faces consequences – not because of their “type” but because they have somehow hurt another.  What we should be doing is encouraging one another to do right – in though, word and deed. Because in the end, we are all the same. 

Who would have thought that in our modern, enlightened world that we’d still have trouble understanding this?

The Melody of Life

My maternal grandfather, who died when I was about two years old, loved music. My mom always talks about how he would play records in the living room when he came home. These weren’t just any records, they were the old glass ones, even before the vinyl we often reminisce about. He also loved movies – he used to set up a screen and play old cartoon reels for the neighborhood kids, who’d sit on the stoop in front of his row house on Pittsburgh’s North Side. 

I’ve been thinking about his this week. I never really got to know him, except through stories, but I think he’ll be smiling with my beautiful grandmother this weekend up in heaven. Saturday afternoon is the Pittsburgh Diocesesan Honors Band concert. Three of his great grandchildren will be playing in the band.

Anyone who knows me, knows my oldest daughter plays the trombone. She has a great talent for it we discovered somewhat accidentally. She plays in her school band, but through the tutelage of a great teacher, she is also active in the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a pretty amazing organization, and she’s played in some impressive youth concerts.

But this Honors Band concert may be among the most special. She’ll have two cousins, daughters of my mom’s nieces, playing flute and clarinet alongside her. I like to think they each inherited my grandfather’s love of music, and through it, are stewards of our family ties, pulling those of us who have scattered apart somewhat through the daily necessities of life, back into the same space again to enjoy something wonderful.

Since I became a parent 12 years ago, I have discovered, over and over again, through the magic embodied in the development of my children, the unspoken, and often unnoticed importance of family. In our world today, family, parenting and the natural sacrifices it entails are often looked down upon, and sometimes ridiculed. I saw a story today in which some “great thinker” decided being a stay-at-home mom should be outlawed. In reality, maybe we should think of requiring it! Remember those days when we agonized over other people raising our kids? But I digress.

Watching a child grow is like watching a thread weave it’s way into beautiful embroidery. I love looking at my children and seeing traits of the people I love emerging in their personalities. Of course there are my habits and those of my husband – somehow they always seem to portray the very worst of mine (which miraculously has helped me to grow in God’s love). But I also see my brother, my mom, my dad, Bryan’s father, oldest sister, and brothers in my girls all the time. I never knew Bryan’s mother, but from what I’ve been told, she’s there as well, turning them into lovely young ladies. It’s a familial collage that makes them who they are, without them evening knowing it.

For me it’s a beautiful song reminding me to be thankful to all the inspiring people in my life whose love I often forget about when I’m in the depths of despair. I’m honored to have the personalities and experiences of each and every family member of mine, near or far, as part of my own. I can’t wait to hear those three girls playing my tune on Saturday.

Who do you think YOU are?

The French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had a theme in his writing that unfortunately resonates still today. If you’ve ever read the play “No Exit” you know well what it is – “Hell is other people.”

This idea has been on my mind, as recently I’ve realized one of my greatest challenges in being a true Catholic is learning to love all of God’s people. I wasn’t always this way. I once loved meeting new people, being in the thick of crowds, and so on. As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself doing things to avoid “people.”

I’m not talking necessarily about specific people in my life. We all make mistakes, disagree even with good friends and family, and if we’re honest, know we can be more annoying than comforting at times.  Sometimes we just don’t want to be together. 

I’m talking more about society and it’s ever shifting ideas of what is acceptable. People today truly believe they are personally more important than anyone else, and they act on it. Not when it comes to big things, like political ideals, religion, etc., although we see it there as well. Where it’s really hard to take is in everyday situations.

For instance, I’ve noticed lately people racing each other into restaurants in order to get on the wait list first. Others racing each other to the closest available parking space. I even had a woman race me to the cart return at the grocery store one morning. We want to be first at everything, it seems. 

Lately, I’ve had to fight my way through grocery store isles past people who have stopped to have long conversations with neighbors without stepping out of the thoroughfare. Watched younger drivers honk their horns impatiently at slow-walking elderly people crossing streets and parking lots. Just recently, taking my daughters to an activity, I was amazed to see one parent block half of the entrance road to a sports facility with her SUV, and remain there until her child’s lesson ended, some 45 minutes later. (There was plenty of parking in the lot.)

Have we lost the ability to be considerate of others? How hard has it become for us to be aware of our surroundings enough to be polite to someone else? Or is it that we’re so self-absorbed that we don’t even notice other people?

It seems to get worse all the time. I had an elderly woman going about 80 on a motorized scooter side swipe my daughter on the Boardwalk at Walt Disney World one morning. I’m not sure which was more at fault. My daughter walking in the middle of the nearly empty pathway, gawking at Lord knows what, or the scooter speeder, who refused to move over, even though she definitely saw the child (she was yelling “move! move!” as she zoomed by.)

I’ve always been big on teaching my girls about “presence,” partially for safety and partially out of respect for others. They get it, but don’t seem to understand why they should care when other people obviously don’t. 

We often talk about improving our world, and most people seem to think you have to make the news to be heard. But really all you have to do is be mindful of what’s happening around you. Hold that door for the older person or pregnant woman – or anyone else. Don’t cut in line before someone who you know won’t challenge you. Be patient with an overworked waitress who forgets the ketchup. 

In other words, don’t sweat the small things other people trip over in life. Even when they’re making things inefficient for you. Like the people in airport security lines who never know the rules or wear boots with twenty different closures on them when they travel. I actually got behind a guy one day who had no picture ID. At an airport. After 9/11. 

We all do things that annoy others. Living and breathing in close quarters with the people of the world is trying. We all do things different. I’m trying to lighten up this Lent. Maybe if we all try, we’d see that we can get along on bigger things.

Lent with My Dogs

For Lent this year, I’m going to try to be more like my dogs.

Now before any of you very serious traditional Catholics run for the Rosary beads, hear me out. I’m not talking about eating out of a dish on the floor, barking to go outside or visiting all of the other dogs in the neighborhood like my Great Pyrenees does. No. What I’m talking about is learning from my dogs about some of the amazing things they do that people seem incapable of doing.

People who know me well know I spend an inordinate amount of time with two very white dogs – the aforementioned Pyr, and an aging, yet very playful, West Highland White Terrier. If you don’t know me well, you might guess this from the fact I’m constantly covered in white fur.

I like them better than I like most people. Even when the Pyr drools all over my leg for a pretzel or the  Westie erupts into peels of high pitched barking every time the washing machine switches cycles. Its not because they’re cute and furry, although that does help (especially when one of them just ate an entire birthday cake or switched the gas on the stove on trying to get to an apple pie).

It’s because dogs know how to love unconditionally.

I’ve been observing them now for some time and I’m really not sure exactly how they do this. I know they don’t forget things – like when they’re punished, or dog shamed, or where the treats are. And I know they aren’t stupid – the Pyr can open doors with knobs and the Westie can hide his toys successfully from the Pyr. And I saw a lab on tv last week open an armoire refrigerator and find the peanut butter.

It seems that when they greet me with uncontrolled enthusiasm at the door, watch over me when I’m sick, snuggle with me at night and try to sit on my lap (the big one, not the little one), its truly because they love me and are happy in my presence.

I don’t know a human, even those who I love and love me most, who has never been angry with me, showed me distain, let me down or felt unloving toward me at some point. I have a way of torquing everyone I know off at some point. That’s just me. And I’ve paid for it in human relationships (hence my preference for animals).

But Max and Penny, those white furry angels, forgive me anything – unnecessary vet trips, tripping over them, buying the wrong treats, staying out too long, etc, etc. Sure they’ll show annoyance, but they’ll be back in no time for an ear or belly scratch, or in the Pyr’s case, a full body hug, like nothing ever happened.

I wonder often in their presence about this amazing trait. From what other dog lovers tell me, this is a hardwired thing in almost all breeds. They know how to forgive and forget. They KNOW nothing in life is more important than the power of love. No wonder dogs are man’s best friend. Its too bad we’re not more like them. Or learn more from them. Incredible were the masters.

So, my Lenten promise to be more like my dogs. I will be making more concerted efforts to love people without conditions or limits. To forget about the things that rub me wrong and remember that I myself am broken. To spend more time out of my house and my yard and with other human beings. And to learn more about my own shortcomings in loving other people for who they are – the image of God in a crazy world.

And a Little Child will Lead Them

Everyday, I continue to be amazed by what I learn from my children.

A few days ago, one of my girls told me, rather matter of factly, that for over a few weeks now, she’s been “sitting alone” at lunch. From that, I understand sitting with other kids, yet relatively invisible to them. Apparently, she moved to the other end of the table from the girl she once felt her BFF to see if the girl would notice she was gone. The girl apparently, without even noticing herself, had stopped talking to my daughter at lunch sometime ago, in favor of talking to someone else.

Big deal right? Right. Don’t feel sorry for her. My child, strangely, doesn’t seem to have an issue with this at all. When I asked her who she sat with now, she calmly laughed and said, “no one.” I could feel the tears stinging my eyes. Most mothers probably would, too. After all, what’s worse than being a tween with no true triends? Not much – I’d been there done that. She wanted to know why I cared so much when she really didn’t.

My daughter is something of a rare bird. Unlike nearly everyone I know, at 11 years old she knows who she is. Other kids aren’t interested in what she’s interested in. But she doesn’t care. Her thoughts, ideas and activities may not be “cool” with the other kids, but she keeps at them. She doesn’t need to engage in “attention getting” antics. She’s moving out of what’s supposed to be “cool” to doing stuff she’s good at. To a point where she is becoming amazingly talented. 

I’m in my mid-forties, and only now am I learning to live without caring what others think. I’m trying to do this by basing my life on my Catholic faith. I suck at it. But I keep trying, using my 20 years of Catholic education and a recent return to the study of my religion, to keep me going.  Ironically, I feel outcast among the very Catholics and faith community I grew up in. I’ve been labeled judgemental for reminding people what our religion says and requires of us. At the same time, I’m being terribly honest about my own sinfulness. (Want to know something? Just ask.) NOT a good mix. 

My 11-year-old daughter is my role model. It seems she was able to hear what I was telling her when we talked about not fitting in. She heard “Do what makes you happy.” “Know what you won’t accept.” Yet I never heard myself telling her. My other child, who has taken more than her turn in the barrel of bullies, gets what the older one has done. Now, she’s healing.

It’s mom who is struggling to put her faith in God and trust him. It’s all part of that dying to self thing I blog about so often. I made a life out of pleasing people – being an apologetic for corporations and organizations and anyone with a public relations “issue.” It’s funny to think that back in college when I started that career path, I promised God I would use my powers of persuasion to do his work. Be careful what you promise! It seems these days, the only one less popular than me is God himself.

So I’m turning my eyes again to my daughter – the one I prayed for when God didn’t see fit to bless me with a child. The one I begged for over five long years. The one who showed me anything is possible with God. Is it any wonder she’s named “Sara?” It’ll be hard, and I’ll likely keep losing friends as he uses me, and I’ll continue to cry, and pray for those who reject me and him. 

But as my beautiful Sara reminds me, who else do I truly need approval from but him?