just asking

What do you ask of God’s church? What’s supposedly in it for you? Why are you here? Did you ever stop to reflect on these questions?

Over the course of the year, there are a handful of families who, for whatever reason, are unable to make one of the scheduled baptism preparation classes. Our parish is always willing to make reasonable accommodations. Although I do not assist with the scheduled monthly classes, I’ve been delegated to facilitate these sorts of individual preparation meetings when they are necessary.  This is one of my favorite things to do. I learn so much from the families I’ve been honored to assist.

The curriculum is simple. I believe that a parent is prepared for their child’s baptism when they can make sense of the signs perceptible to human senses, and when they have enough information to consciously engage in the ritual dialogue.  For most families, preparation takes less than an hour.  We review the entire rite, with periodic pauses to discuss important sacramental signs and to reiterate complex ecclesial language in more relevant terms.

The signs and symbols in the Rite of Baptism are great conversation starters, and what follow has always been interesting. We’ve talked about oil as a skin protectant, and how, even today, oils are used for therapeutic purposes. We’ve talked about life in outer space, and how the evidence of water is its first indicator. Sometimes, when we smell the Chrism, a mom and I will agree that it smells like Aveda Oil (one of my favorite luxury hair products,) and we’ll agree that sometimes a small luxury helps us to feel special- as we should, as chosen people of God.  We talk about the priesthood of Christ which we share in baptism. We talk about how essential light is to the growth of plants, and to our own human health.

All of these signs, and the related tangential reiterations relate to one central question that is asked at the beginning of the Rite:

What do you ask of God’s church?

In order to correctly answer this question, I give the parents a little homework before our appointment. I ask them to discuss with one another the hopes they have for their child, and to be ready to continue the discussion at our meeting.  While no two responses have ever been identical, nearly every parent has expressed that they want their child to be successful. What is most surprising is that no parent has ever equated success solely with amassed wealth. Ultimately, we come to an agreement that “success” is actually living as God has called us. Success is living in the kind of freedom one can only find by listening to God, and responding to God’s call. Simply stated, success equals freedom.

In recent years, I’ve dreamed about the possibility of starting my own business. As this dream turns into a realistic personal goal, I’ve started asking potential clients very specific questions which would help me determine the viability of this endeavor.  While I was looking over some of the responses, I was reminded of the importance of the seemingly insignificant question which predicates the expressed desire for sacred freedom.

So, what do you ask of God’s church?

I’ve worked in several parishes for pastors with varied styles of leadership. I’ve never thought to ask any of my former pastors this pertinent question. I’ve been to many meetings related to various aspects of parish life, and some very critical meetings about pastoral planning. No one has ever asked this question. I’ve had the opportunity to present this question to parents at confirmation preparation meetings, but I’ve never asked this of the confirmation candidates at their retreats.  My parents answered this question on my behalf at my baptism, but since then, no one has ever asked me to answer for myself.  Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the homiletic ladder truck had yet to level the post-conciliar bonfire of creativity that kindled in the influential priests of my childhood. Despite the five-alarm preaching, none of them dared to ask this question.  Furthermore, if I wasn’t so enthused about sacramental preparation, I probably would have lived several decades without ever pondering the answer for myself.

The pastoral climate of today is challenged by so many factors. Revenue has decreased. There is a shortage of clergy personnel.  Workload continues to remain constant, employees turn over and despite the abundance, the coworkers in the vineyard become fewer and fewer.  Sometimes, the fear-mongering of  the negative things “people are saying,” is so eminent that an overwhelmed pastoral practitioner might not want to know any more about what their parishioners ask of God’s church.  Sometimes, the emotional stakes are so high.

I’m no stranger to these moments. I wonder how the outcome could have changed if I had simply stopped and posed the question:

“What do you ask of God’s church?”

At the very least, it would have been an unusual diversion.

So, what do I want? I know what I want.
I want to be the quirky,  loving and authentic self God dreamed up after a field trip to a Berthold Brecht play starring Karl Rahner and Bjork. I want to be successful at being me. I want to be free.

What do you want?

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