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Christmas pageants hand on the faith…or help restore it

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Last evening, I was talking to a friend, whose little boy is going to be a king in his church’s annual Christmas pageant. Mum, who is a generous volunteer and knows her way around a sewing machine, had just finished his costume along with those for half a dozen angels, who will be the chic-est heavenly messengers on the east side of Manhattan.

This brought me back to my pageant days many years ago in that very same parish. Our pageant was an extravaganza, directed by a Sister of Charity who could have taught Star Wars director J.J. Abrams a thing or two. My mother, another talented seamstress, used to note with sarcasm that the costumes my two sisters and I brought home to be “freshened up a bit” were usually in rags. She reckoned that by the time we three graduated, she had made over every costume save those of the carolers, whose Victorian outfits were rented, and the cassocks for the pope and two bishops. Yes, you read that right. These three were the climax of the pageant, following the flags of the nations of the world.  You had to be there.

If you are a baby boomer from East Manhattan, you know exactly which church pageant to which I refer. You might have been in it. Sooner or later, everyone in the school had a part because the cast was huge. You might even remember your lines and everyone else’s as well, because Sister rehearsed us relentlessly.

Today’s world is so jaded, with all the terrorism, poverty and divisiveness. It’s really a tonic, as another friend of mine would say, to go to a Christmas pageant. It doesn’t matter whether any of your relatives or friends is in the pageant. The joy comes from seeing the Nativity narrative come to life in the faces and voices of little children.

Check around and see which parishes are doing pageants and make plans to attend, even if you don’t know anyone there. Better yet, bring a friend, maybe someone who hasn’t been to church in a while. Children are great healers of unhappy hearts. And they are marvelous natural catechists. So…

“…let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Happy Christmas.


Friday, December 4th, 2015

Sr. Patricia McCarthy, CND, always is gracious in sharing with the Archdiocesan Catechetical Office the monthly columns she writes for Rhode Island Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.  Her December article is particularly timely, given the fear and distrust among many Americans of certain refugees and immigrants trying to make a life in this country. Unless we are Native Americans, we’re all children of immigrants. Few of us can claim with certainty that every single one of our ancestors entered the United States legally.

Sr. Patricia writes about a family we all know and love, a mother, step-father and child who had to leave their country, their relatives, and their friends in fear for the child’s life. They had to slip quietly into another country. They had to become strangers in a foreign land. When they finally came home and the child grew up, he gave his life for all people, not just those who looked and spoke like him.

Here is Sr. Patricia’s Christmas column. I hope you will read it and share it.

Augustine gets an app

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

That’s right. Now there is a wonderful mobile app of the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo, based on the celebrated translation by Maria Boulding, OSB, and created by Villanova University’s Augustine & Culture Program (ACSP). The mobile app development was a joint effort of ACSP, the Augustinian Institute, and the Computer Science department, in conjunction with University’s IT people. It is, as the University describes it, an “interactive sourcebook based on the Boulding translation.”
This translation appeared 1997 and won instant acclaim for its elegance, clarity and capture of the very essence of Augustine himself. Dame Maria Boulding was a Benedictine nun living at Stanbrook Abbey, an enclosed community on the Yorkshire moors in England. When I first began to read this translation, I marveled at it. Augustine, who had always been for me a shadowy and stern stranger, seemed to come to life from the pages.
One of the most interesting features of the Villanova Confessions app is a audio voice-over for the text. Several scholars contributed their time and talent, including some Villanova faculty members. The Rev. Peter Donohue, OSA, the multi-talented president of Villanova University, provided a voice for Augustine’s adolescence. And that was some adolescence!
When Augustine wrote his texts, the expectation was that these would be read aloud. Books were a rare commodity. So it was with the Confessions. The app is an opportunity to experience this great work of literature and faith as its author intended it to be. I think that Augustine, who died more than 1,600 years ago, would have been thrilled to see his works still valued in our time and available in our social media.

Invisible heroines and heroes

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

This coming Sunday, the Catechetical Office will honor women and men who, week in and week out, year in and year out, minister to children and families in parish religious education programs or to those who are entering the church each year through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Bishop Gerald T. Walsh, vicar for clergy, will preside at the annual Catechetical Recognition and Certification Ceremony in the beautiful chapel of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in Ossining.

Catechists who are certified through levels one and two of catechist formation and who have given 25 years to the ministry, receive the Catechetical Medal of Honor. Many continue on and they, too, will receive special recognition from Cardinal Dolan. Those  who have completed certification at various levels – one, two, three and four (three and four are intensive Bible study) – will receive their certificates. Those who direct or coordinate the parish programs and who have completed the first part of the Catechetical Leadership Program, Basic Leadership Training, will receive their official pins. Catechists of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based early childhood religious education method, also will be certified at levels one, two or three.

However, whether or not they are receiving certificates and awards, this day honors salutes more than 9,000 people who are handing on the faith to just under 92,000 children and youth in the Archdiocese of New York. They are not always visible to the general population of a parish. However, most of these people are volunteers, who have other jobs or a houseful of children or both. They give more hours than most people realize to the ministry of religious education.

Each parish is mandated to offer 50 hours of religious education classes a year, including five hours of family catechesis. Our catechists and program leaders give up evenings and weekends to get the proper training in theology, spirituality, teaching methodology and administration.

The catechists prepare lesson plans and follow up each class, just like religions teachers in Catholic Schools. For each hour they are visible in the classroom, you can be sure they have put in several more hours behind the scenes.  The parish coordinators and directors of the programs, who are like school principals, don’t always get recognition for all the work of running these programs, which educate children from pre-K to eighth grade in the faith. They are busy all the time. The prep and follow-up of administering a religious education program is labor intensive, whether there or 40, 400 or 1,400 children (yes, that many) in the program. Just think of the record keeping alone. This is no once-a-week job for someone without proper training.

So as we salute these selfless women and men this Sunday, we should all give thanks for their gifts and for their willingness to answer God’s call to this vital ministry.

Make “Trick or Treat” a good deed opportunity

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

This coming Saturday evening, many of us will be doling out candy to countless little witches, pirates, Ninja turtles, Star Wars characters and, of course, the ever-popular princesses who knock on our doors, crying “Trick or treat.”

The origins of Halloween are an example of inculturation as a means of evangelization. Halloween or All Hallows Eve, the eve of the Feast of All Saints, is definitely of Christian origin, but many of its customs are believed to derive from the Celtic pre-Christian feast of Samhain, which means end of summer and the start of long, dark nights. This was the time, according to the Celts, that the barrier between this world and the next was “thin.” It was believed that the souls of the dead could pass through to revisit their homes and families.

In the ninth century, the Christians wisely moved the Feast of All Saints, which had been celebrated during the spring, to November 1, to take over the old feast of Samhain. The night before All Saints, All Hallows Eve, became a time to pray for the souls of the dead. It was a wonderful way to do away with many of the pagan beliefs and customs of Samhain without declaring war which, as we know only too well, never works.

Halloween came to America with Anglican and Catholic settlers. The Puritans, of course, would have nothing to do with it. The mass migration of Irish and Scots in the 19th century solidified Halloween’s place in the United States, although not especially as a religious feast. Now, practically no one thinks of its religious origins or pre-Christian superstitions either. For example, goblins originally were nasty little demons. Now they are the bankers at Gringot’s, the bank where Harry Potter’s account is located.

However, there are ways to bring back a Christian influence to Halloween. Yes, I suppose you could change the costumes but the kids usually have their hearts set on a character. Here’s an easier way. Let them trick or treat to raise money for a good cause, such as a food pantry, a homeless shelter program or any other Catholic charity that benefits those in need. Be sure to get some identification from the charity you are supporting so that the donors will know you are on the “up and up.”  Of course, you will be with the children to keep them safe. They will be doing a Christian work of mercy and avoiding stomach upsets, too. Then, on Sunday, they and you can celebrate a happy All Saints Day.

Catechists are told they keep the memory of God alive

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Still filled with joy and excitement of having welcomed Pope Francis to New York, our faithful parish catechists and catechetical leaders flocked to Cardinal Spellman High School last Saturday for the Bronx edition of our annual Catechetical Forums.

Bishop Gerald Walsh, the vicar for clergy and a faithful friend to the catechetical ministry was the principal celebrant of the Eucharistic Liturgy at the opening of the Forum. Citing an address from Pope Francis to catechists, Bishop Walsh reminded our catechists that it is they who keep the memory of God alive in themselves and revive it in others. His homily was so wonderful that we asked his permission to share it with you. He has agreed and here it is.

By the way, the Catechetical Forum for the Upper Counties will take place on Saturday, October 17, at Sacred Heart Parish in Monroe. The Rev. William Cosgrove, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in New City, will be the principal celebrant and our keynoter will be Dr. Joseph White, writer, editor and national consultant to Catholic publisher, Our Sunday Visitor.

Whether you are a catechist, a director/coordinator of religious education or someone who wants to know more about the faith and how it is handed on to our youngsters, please do join us. If you have children, you might be especially interested. Here are the details of the Monroe Catechetical Forum.

Hope to see you there.

Linda’s Lesson

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

On Monday morning, the catechetical ministry in New York lost a superb catechist and catechetical leader, Linda DeMarkey, who died after a short illness. For more than 30 years, Linda served God’s people. She was a walking, talking, teaching example of our motto, “Handing on the Faith with Excellence.”

I thought of what I could say of Linda. I could go on and on. She, however, would have preferred that I use this blog to promote excellence in catechesis. So that’s what I will do.

When Linda was a director of religious education at Holy Innocents Parish in Pleasantville, she attended our formation courses. She earned a master’s degree in religious education, too. She saw to it that her catechists attended catechist formation and other enrichment opportunities. Yes, those catechists were volunteers but that didn’t mean they could take their roles lightly. Linda instilled in them the importance of being the best prepared catechists they could be. She later became our Central/Southern Westchester regional director, teaching in our Catechist Formation and Catechetical Leadership programs and reaching a wider audience. She was a fabulous presenter.

I think Linda would want me to deliver this message to all directors and coordinators of religious education. Attend the leadership courses we offer and do all you can to make sure your catechists earn at least Level One and Level Two catechist formation. Even better, invite catechists who have already earned certification at these levels to continue to Levels Three and Four: the New York Catholic Bible School program, which she loved dearly and served as registrar for the last several years.

Linda believed passionately in the importance of a strong catechetical program to the children and families of parishes. She also knew that a catechetical program is only as good as its director/coordinator and its catechists.

So, follow her example. Make yourself the best catechist or catechetical leader you can be.

Our children deserve the best religious education we can provide

Monday, August 31st, 2015

With all the changes that parishes are experiencing in the process of “Making All Things New,” this remains constant: the obligation to provide our children and youth who do not attend Catholic school with the best education in the spirituality, teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. They have as much right to this as the children in Catholic schools. They are not second-class citizens of this archdiocese. Neither are their families.

The key to providing this is, of course, is a high-quality religious education program, led by a professionally prepared director or coordinator of religious education. The program is only as good as its leader. That is why the Archdiocesan Catechetical Office offers training to men and women who have accepted the invitation to serve in this ministry. If you are one of those people, you are not just responding to your pastor; you are responding to the Holy Spirit. To help you respond, I urge you to take advantage of the Catechetical Leadership Program.

Being a director (someone with a master’s in theology, religious studies or a related field) or coordinator is not a one or two or three-day a week job. There’s more to this than opening the doors and turning on the lights. You have to build a team of qualified, faith-filled, reliable catechists. Remember, they will most likely be volunteers, not paid employees. You have to develop relationships with families. You have to see to the safety of the children while they are attending the program. And more. You are, in effect, the principal.

The Catechetical Leadership Program is divided into two parts. Basic Leadership Training is designed to provide the administrative and leadership skills. Advanced Catechetical Leadership will provide the theological formation needed by every religious education leader who doesn’t have an advanced degree in the field.

By the way, the Catechetical Leadership Program also has a track for parish directors and coordinators of the RCIA, the process by adults and children who achieved the age of reason become fully initiated members of the Catholic Church.

The Basic Leadership Training Program starts September 19. Visit the website to find out more, as well as whom to contact regarding enrollment. If you are a new director or coordinator, you’ll be glad you did.

I am on vacation but…

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

…I must tell you that yesterday I took my first look at St. Patrick’s Cathedral without the scaffolding. It looks exquisite and inviting.
The icy white Tuckahoe marble, which earned the church some brickbats from the architecture critics in 1879 when St. Patrick’s opened, has mellowed to an easy-on-the-eyes cream color, due to the marble’s iron oxide content. The off-white Tavernelle marble floor compliments the Tuckahoe stone beautifully. The effect is almost ethereal, especially when daylight filters through the freshly repaired and restored stained glass windows. Each of the side chapels has been cleaned and skylights, which came as a surprise to everyone, have been uncovered. Like everything else, the Stations of the Cross have been carefully brought back to their original beauty. I saw one of the artisans carefully washing a Roman centurion’s face. Just a few more details need to be seen to and the Cathedral will be ready to receive its distinguished visitor from Rome next month — along with everyone else, of course.
I stood by the information desk for a while, watching people streaming in and out. Even the “regulars” were pleased. As you know, it takes a lot to make a New Yorker happy. I thought of all the people who helped to build this beautiful church, beginning with the laying of the foundation stone on August 15, 1858. Certainly, there were some of what we today would call major donors. On May 25, 1879, those VIPs would have been invited to the official opening.
However, there were others who probably were not among the nearly 7,000 people in the church (no pews yet) that day. These were the people who gave much less but for them, the sacrifice was greater. I’ve been told that many of them were young Irish women, who had found employment as servants in houses of the famous New York 400, supposedly the best of New York society. But those poorer people probably stopped in after the great and powerful had left. St. Patrick’s was and still is very much their church, as beautiful as the medieval Irish abbeys and cathedrals which had either been converted to the Church of England or simply destroyed after the Reformation and Oliver Cromwell swept across Eire. However, this St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, U.S.A., could not be taken away from them. Not ever.
They would be so happy to know that 136 years later, other Catholics – possibly even their own descendants – had cared enough to restore their Cathedral. I don’t know if this is America’s parish church, as some call it. But I’ll tell you this. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is an immigrant’s church and since ours is a nation of immigrants, it belongs to everyone.

Happy Feast Day, Iggy!

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Am I being disrespectful to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus? His feast day this coming Friday marks the 459th anniversary of his death.

Not at all. I am just enjoying the Loyola Press website, Find Your Inner Iggy. There’s even a very contemporary drawing of the saint. I have to admit this did initially give me pause. I had always pictured Ignatius as the heroic figure on the wall of the apse in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where I grew up.  That Ignatius was a little beyond me. Iggy, on the other hand, is more approachable.

Ignatius remains a lively presence in today’s church, speaking as a friend to generations of Catholics, Christians, non-Christians, even non-believers, through the multi-media ministries of his companions.  The Jesuits remain relevant to every generation, especially young adults, because they have followed their founder’s directive to find God in all things – including social media.

So Happy Feast Day, good companion. You look better every day!

More Ignatian websites:

Thinking Faith – published by British Jesuits
The Jesuit Post – published by Jesuits in formation
America Magazine
Sacred Space – daily prayer in a multitude of languages, courtesy of the Irish Jesuits
Loyola Press – a Jesuit Ministry and great site for family ministry
The Jesuit Collaborative —  an innovative organization helping people grow closer to God through Ignatian sprituality