Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Program for Parish Renewal (part 2)

I am beginning to see that this will probably be a four part post, not only because this subject is so interesting and important, but also because the journey from where we were to having the TLM took five years, a lot to sum up in two posts. In this post we will look at the early formative years at my parish—what my pastor did when he first arrived and was faced with a largely hostile congregation. This post will cover the period from 2005 to 2007.

Last time I gave a description of our parish as it had been for several decades until our pastor got hold of it in 2005. This begs the question: in such a liberal, progressive parish, how did a young priest known for his orthodoxy, liturgical precision and fidelity to the Magisterium get assigned there? It seems that this liberal parish would have been slated to get another liberal priest. Why send in a dynamic, young, orthodox priest into this environment?

I would love to say that it was because our bishop wanted to send an orthodox priest in there to reform the parish and bring it up to snuff. Unfortunately, this was not the case; in fact, I believe the opposite was true. Our parish had suffered under financial malfeasance for so many years that many believed it was very likely to be closed or clustered. I believe our bishop threw our pastor in here because the closure of the parish was seen as inevitable, and I think the attitude was "let's throw this guy into this parish that is about to close anyway; what harm can he do there?" I believe this is also how the Canons of St. John Cantius got started in Chicago. I think the assignment was a mixture of apathy and punishment. Anyhow, my pastor was put in there in 2005 when the previous pastor retired.


The very first thing my pastor did to renew the parish was to make alterations to the staff. This was two-fold: first, for fiscal reasons, he eliminated a lot of superfluous staff (such as the DRE's "secretary") and consolidated positions. Second, he hired a few key staff members who shared his vision and would be supportive. This meant letting go some older staff members, but in most cases they were ready to go. The old parish secretary was actively undermining the pastor and speaking ill about him publicly; she was consequently let go and replaced with a devout woman supportive of the pastor and his vision. I'm not sure how the old DRE was let go, but for this key position the pastor sought out a young person (all previous DRE's had been old, people who had made a life out of it) with a background in solid, Thomist theology. This happened to be a young man whom we now know as Dr. John Joy, a friend and alumnus of mine from Ave Maria, who is today a well-known Catholic scholar and the foremost expert on the subject of papal infallibility in the United States. But in those days, fresh out of undergrad, he was working as the DRE.

With some superfluous positions cut and two solid people hired, the pastor was forming a core team. A loyal staff of two in a parish of 600 families might not be a lot, but it was important for him to have somebody to go back to, somebody he could be confidential with and that would support him and back up his actions. This was just as much for emotional support as it was for strategic purposes.

So, the first thing he did was hire some loyal staff. The Youth Group, music and other staff positions were still in the hands of progressives, but this would change. I want to emphasize that my pastor did not care what the parish thought about his changes. To be sure, he tried to explain things to them and make peace where and when he could, but at the end of the day he saw his duty as being to God and he was going to attempt to restore the parish to orthodoxy regardless of what its people thought about it.


As my pastor began making these first changes, he distinguished himself locally by his orthodox, spiritual preaching. There were no sappy jokes here, no banal, empty homilies, no tired sports metaphors—solid, Catholic preaching about God, sin, redemption, morality, liturgy and the whole Gospel message. I would say that in the first few months, this solid preaching was what did the most to change the parish. As he preached on these themes week after week, the most progressive elements got fed up and began to either complain or leave the parish. Mind you, he was not trying to get them to leave, but only speaking the truth—yet, the truth was so offensive and "difficult" that they left. Meanwhile, word started getting around that there was good preaching going on in our parish (something apparently rare in the area), which started to draw a few curious families from neighboring parishes who were of a more orthodox-traditional orientation. Outsiders began to trickle in.


Our pastor fought a constant public relations battle. Even before he got to the parish, as soon as his appointment was announced, some started complaining about him. My pastor dealt with criticism and opposition in a very prudent way, which at times I did not agree with, but which hindsight has proven to be more correct than not. He chose his battles very carefully—on matters that could be compromised on without scandal or sin, he allowed compromise if he could make an incremental gain in some other area. Having obtained his orthodox DRE and secretary over protests of old timers, he was content to allow the progressive music director and youth director to remain in place for the time being. Having got rid of the embarrassing children's liturgy, he was willing to retain the guitars in the Mass—for the time being. He took a very slow approach, making gains and conquests where he was sure of victory, compromising when necessary and when it was not objectively immoral to do so, content if the parish was on the overall right "trajectory." The changes were incremental, and though each change irritated some folks, they never came so heavy handedly or so rapidly so as to isolate everybody at once; this seemed very prudent, as other priests had tried more rapid changes in similar situations and met with much more hostility (here).

Also important is that whenever our pastor was challenged, he always charitably and lovingly pointed out that he was doing so in obedience to the Church. If someone objected to the fact that he refused to have Masses outdoors, he was able to cite canon law to show why he didn't. If he was challenged about why he stopped using leavened bread for the Mass, he was ready with an answer from the Magisterium. In short, he never made it about himself or his own agenda, but about what the Church really teaches and what Catholics were expected to do. While many people choose to fight if they think it is about a private agenda, fewer were willing to do so if the argument was framed in terms of what the Church taught. He regularly used the Catechism during homilies (despite the arguments of some that it was "not proper" to use the CCC during a homily) and made papal encyclicals available for free to encourage literacy of papal teaching—these encyclicals, and documents such as Sacrosanctum Concilium, were also quoted in homilies.

This approach to public relations—incremental changes presented rightfully as simple obedience to the Church rather than a personal preference or agenda—moved the parish slowly but steadily in the right direction.


The turning point, in my opinion, really came when the homeschoolers started showing up. Father attracted homeschoolers in three ways: (1) his orthodox preaching and attempts to have a more reverent liturgy (2) his practice of allowing homeschoolers to receive sacraments at the parish without being part of the CCD program and with very minimal requirements, and most importantly, (3) he opened the parish facilities up to a local homeschooling co-op during the week and offered Masses for them on Wednesday and Friday mornings, encouraged that there were devout homeschool families on the premises for much of the week and attending Mass. A great many of these families would in time end up joining the parish.

This had the effect of altering the demographic of the parish. With each slow, stumbling step that our pastor made towards Tradition, some families quit the parish. For some it was the refusal to have a special Mass outside; for others it was liturgical things or preaching—everybody had their own "breaking point." But while these local families were leaving, newer families, homeschool and orthodox, were joining. Mantillas started popping up in the congregation (and remember we are talking about the Novus Ordo). Devoted families with younger kids were willing to drive farther to get here. The parish started to become a destination rather than a simple territorial unit; many of the local families that had been there for decades started to leave, but many started to join from further away, who drove many miles (in my case 22) to get to a parish where the preaching was good and the aesthetics were pleasant. The presence of the homeschool families—which would only grow in the following years—provided the pastor with the much-needed external support he needed to move the parish further along and at a quicker pace. Before this, it had been the pastor, his staff, and a very small portion of the parishioners against an overwhelmingly large and hostile parish body. As homeschoolers began to drift in from 2005 to 2007, the pastor gained more and more support while the progressive element slowly but surely began to weaken and erode.


One very important thing the new DRE did was revamp the whole religious education program. When he was hired, the religious ed program was in a sorry state. It had a lot of participants, but the quality was horrendous. The prior DRE told me that his first year on the job a Confirmation candidate, when asked what the Holy Trinity was, responded, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Catechists, by and large, were themselves uncatechized and of a progressive mindset; instruction consisted of coloring pages for the younger kids, skits for the middle schoolers and Lord knows what for the Confirmation class; at no time was there any sort of test or assessment. The DRE attempted to recruit volunteers who were orthodox and well catechized, or who were at least open to learning more about their faith and willing follow the pastor's vision. Once the DRE had his core of volunteers (which took a few years), he tried to retain them.

Besides this, the DRE, with the pastor's approval, got the religious ed program off of the horrid Pflaum weeklies and onto the Ignatius Press Faith and Life curriculum. Some parishioners whined about this, but as the Ignatius curriculum is highly praised by the USCCB, they really didn't have much to go on. Weekly quizzes were introduced and the catechists found creative ways to motivate their children to do them. I don't think the Faith and Life series is the best, but it is worlds above the Pflaum weeklies.

Did this have the effect of boosting religious ed enrollment? Actually, the opposite. People started pulling their kids from the program, and the CCD classes would steadily shrink in size under myself and my predecessor, from about 155 down to 25 by 2010. I don't think this was bad—in general, I have noticed that parishes that are more progressive or where the Faith is not really preached generally have bigger CCD programs. I think this is due in part to the fact that CCD flourishes in environments where the teaching of the Faith is abdicated by parents. The kids who stayed behind got a better religious education, but the program would shrink, as parents and kids didn't really like the real Faith being taught. They were happy to enroll their kids year after year when they were doing coloring pages and skits, but once the Faith actually was being taught, many kids thought it wasn't "fun" anymore and pulled out. My attitude to those folks was good riddance. I disagree with CCD programs the way they are run today anyway and wished I could have just abolished the whole thing.

However, the shrinkage of the CCD program does not mean that religious education was not happening. Quite the contrary. Many more parents were choosing to homeschool for religious education, usually with superior results than what a lay-run parish CCD program would have offered. Plus, the entire character of the parish was becoming more oriented towards religious education. Liturgies and other events were more formative. If anything, the overall level of religious education went up even as CCD enrollment dropped.

But anyhow, the DRE John Joy tackled a much needed reform here. He built a solid core of catechists, led by an exceptionally stellar volunteer who taught First Communion classes, got the classes on a solid, orthodox curriculum with assessments to test progress and in general put the classes in a direction that was much sounder.


Finally, shortly before I arrived, the pastor fired the old music director (a non-Catholic who allowed drums in the choir loft) and hired a classically trained and very orthodox young woman who took liturgy very seriously. The drums and guitars were immediately and perpetually banished and we were treated to a good repertoire of English hymns on the organ—still no Latin, still no chant; remember, the idea was to move the parish incrementally. But now a powerful new member was added to the core staff. She knew chant and was capable of doing it, when the time came. Many protested the firing of the old music director, but by this time the pastor's authority had been more firmly established. For as many people as protested the firing of the old director, just as many praised the hiring of the new one, who was not only orthodox but much more skilled in her art. And even if we were only getting English hymns with organ, they were infinitely better than the trash the prior music director was dishing out.

MID 2007

Let us pause to see where we are—by mid-2007, a year and a half into the pastor's tenure, a core staff was in place that supported the pastor internally, while orthodox preaching and the welcoming of homeschooling families had drawn a considerable amount of devout families to the parish who not only supported the pastor, but wanted him to go further in reforming the parish. The CCD program had been revamped, a new music director hired, and the traditional Faith was being preached. Some people left the parish, others complained, but the pastor was usually able to explain these changes in a way that was charitable and made it clear that this was not his personal crusade but what the Church asked. As of yet there was no Latin, no communion rails, no TLM...but there was a more reverent Novus Ordo, at least traditional English hymns, and a congregation willing for more.

In Part 3 I will go over 2007-2010, how I came aboard, the introduction of Latin, the liturgical changes and the introduction of the TLM.


EtVerbumCaroFactumEst said...

Wonderful! Can't wait to read the final part. One question--how did Fr. G get rid of girl altar servers?

Anselm said...

Actually, I can answer that question, and I thought the pastor's move was brilliant on this one: he simply introduced the classical cassock and surplus garb for the altar boys, which girls are not permitted to wear. This led of its own to increased interest in serving among the boys and decreased interest among the girls, until in the end only boys were left.

Anonymous said...

We're going through the initial stages of this experience with a new, young, conservative Pastor. It is tearing this Parish of 5000+ families apart, with many long-standing parishoners leaving weekly for neighboring Catholic Churches. Is this fair? I don't think so. And the above comment about the altar servers... the most loyal servers are the girls! You make all of the above changes sound like a well thought out plot to run "progressive" (aka dedicated, active) Catholics out of Churches we helped construct during building campaigns, etc. There is room for all Catholics in all Churches and that should be the approach of every Bishop and Pastor.

Latin? Jesus preached in Aramaic...maybe that's the language you ought to consider if you want to go back to the "old" days!

Anonymous said...

A fine example of the method father Z often states, "brick by brick!" God bless this great pastor! Bring back the Catholic faith.