Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to Give a Bad Homily

It helps to laugh at your problems sometimes. I don't know who wrote this hilarious satire or when it first appeared, but it hits the mark pretty well as to the poor level of preaching from our Catholic pulpits. Enjoy:

How to Give a Bad Homily

I'm not sure when Catholics became such terrible preachers.

You may object that this is a mere stereotype, but like many stereotypes about Catholics - we worship statues, we don't read the Bible, we run the world - this one is true. Yesterday, all over America, there were millions of Catholics who, if they were lucky, were merely bored by their priest's homily: there were many others who were alternately scandalized, horrified, grievously misinformed, or simply insulted.

It wasn't always this way. St. Francis of Assisi might have preached to the birds, but when he preached to people he helped establish himself as one of the pre-eminent Europeans of the Middle Ages. St. Bernard basically spent his life traveling around France, using his eloquent oratory to peacefully win back straying Christians who would occasionally convince themselves that Hey, maybe smelly Pierre from the hut next door is actually God. St. John Chrysostom was so good at preaching that we collectively decided his surname should be "Goldenmouth."

The days of John Goldenmouth are long behind us, though. Currently, Catholic preaching in general is about as robust as the St. John's University basketball program, although we don't have the luxury of blaming Mike Jarvis for the bad homilies.

Many Catholics have lamented this state of affairs, but I adopt a wait-and-see approach. As Karl Rahner wrote in Foundations of Christian Faith, the relationship of ordinary believers to the clergy is like that of the rest of the A-Team to Hannibal: we trust the plan will come together, even when that crazy fool Murdock does something that lands us in hot water.

In other words, there must be a method to the madness. Perhaps it's some kind of church-wide rope-a-dope strategy in which - just like Muhammad Ali - we'll lull our opponent into a false sense of security and then explode from the ropes in the 10th round with a flurry of devastating rhetorical right hands*.

With that hope fondly lodged in my heart, I therefore present this helpful guide for priests, deacons, and assorted talkers who are hoping to make their homilies just a little bit more awful.

Be Nervous and Easily Distracted
In any kind of public speaking, bearing is important, and to give a truly bad homily, your posture, mannerisms, and countenance should reflect this. Ideally, you should adopt the bearing of a nervous homeschooler sweating beneath the lights of a major spelling bee after getting stuck on the word "cthonic." Fidget. Hide behind the lectern. Speak directly into the Bible. Never, under any circumstances, look at the congregation.

A major boon to any bad homilist is distractions from the pews. Remember: a crying baby is a key ally in your effort to seem hopelessly outside your depth. At the first sound of a wailing youngster, you should freeze in place, as if the bishop has just entered the sanctuary tailed by the police, pointing at you and shouting, "Fraud!" Once this is done, it's important to lose your train of thought and mumble disconsolately for several moments, as if you have never seen an infant before, and the sight has left you terribly unsettled.

I was actually once at a Mass where the priest - who was nearing retirement, in fairness - responded to a crying baby by snarling, "Shut that kid up!" I doubt Chrysostom would have handled it that way, but in delivering a bad homily, that's kind of the point.

Inflection is a Tool of the Devil
When delivering a bad homily you will, like Phil Spector, want to go "back to mono" - monotone, that is. Your voice should be as calm and affectless as the Sargasso Sea; if at all possible, you should read the words of your homily the way 3rd graders read book reports when standing in front of the class. Never give any indication that one word or other should be emphasized in the endless gray slurry of diction you pour forth. Raymond Chandler once wrote that the American accent is "flat, toneless, and tiresome," and you should do your part to prove him right.

From God's Lips to Your Parish Bulletin
A homily is technically supposed to relate the message of Christ's salvation to a particular community, so why not spend the first 10 minutes announcing minutiae from that week's parish newsletter? Hey, salvation is important and all, but so is the fact that the Tuesday Teen Coffee Hour has been moved to 7:30 p.m. This approach has the double effect of making the homily unutterably dull and rendering the bulletin redundant, and is thus highly commended to bad homilists.

I once attended Mass at a parish in which the priest delivered a five-minute homily, four minutes of which were devoted to gripes about the difficulties of getting a zoning permit to install a new elevator. Then he ended with a variation of "God is good." Well said, Father!

Reach The Young People
Do popular songs on the radio remind you of Biblical passages? Is there some way a blockbuster summer movie can be said to show God's forgiveness? Is Jesus maybe a little bit like Spider-Man?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you're well on your way to developing one of the most popular techniques for delivering a bad homily: tailoring it to young worshipers by dumbing it down with a plethora of poorly thought out pop culture references.

When doing so, though, you'll want to remember to keep those references vaguely out of date, so that anyone in the pews who might possibly be reached by such a tactic will instead focus on their mirth at your use of "X-Files" terminology.

You'll also want to keep the metaphors as tortured as possible. Popular culture, like all Western culture, is indeed filled with allusions and references - sometimes self-aware, sometimes not - to Christianity. Instead of going for the obvious ones, though, you'll want to instead explain how Jesus is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the vampires are sins and they're not really being slain so much as forgiven, and of course Jesus is not a woman.

It's All About You
Many people think that worshipers come to church on Sunday to receive the sacraments, to be in the presence of God, or to learn about how Christ's salvific death changes their lives utterly. You, as the bad homilist, know the truth: People come to church to hear your funny anecdotes about bad drivers.

Ham it up! Play to the crowd. Test the material at the 7:00 a.m. Mass so you'll have a dynamite routine for the bigger 11:00 a.m. crowd. Why not? All the world's a stage, and everyone's paying attention to you. It must be because of your funny stories about waiting in line at the supermarket. Hey, that teaches us a Biblical lesson - wasn't Job supposed to be patient or something?

Don't Get Bogged Down in Scripture
Sure, the Church describes the homily as "an explanation either of some aspect of the readings from scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day," but have they ever tried to read some of that stuff? I mean, all the talk about vineyards and mustard seeds and fruit - you'd think this was 4-H Club, not the Catholic Church!

To give a bad homily, you'll want to seize on a single phrase in the Gospel reading to justify whatever subject on which you most feel like holding forth. For example: If Jesus warns against building a house on a foundation of sand, you can say, "And a foundation of sand is exactly what the makers of 'The Da Vinci Code' have erected," before launching into a tangent that quickly loses sight of any scripture, whether today's or otherwise.

But to give a genuinely awful homily, you'll want to ignore the Bible altogether, and just "shoot from the hip." Hey, maybe you'll want to quote from some other text: a half-remembered poem, perhaps, or a book by a conservative newspaper columnist. If you're really trying hard, you'll find a way to work in something from a Beatles song.

The goal is to make your homily "relevant." If you occasionally get worried about what may or may not be "relevant," try using this helpful rule of thumb: "Relevant" is just another way of saying "unrelated to the contents of the Bible."

It's Casual Sunday Around Here
Any homily that has a tone of solemnity is all wrong for what you want. You don't want people to see you as a priest ordained through God's grace to perform the Eucharistic miracle in which the faithful partake of the body and blood of Christ, you want them to see you as an easygoing dude around the office water cooler. Hey, just because none of St. Augustine's extant sermons include the phrase, "Boy, it's a real scorcher today, ain't it, folks?," doesn't mean you can't blaze new trails.

Dazzle Them With Jargon
Casual Sundays are great and all, but sometimes you have to remind the laity that you didn't go to priest school for eight years just to be called "Father Bob." In these instances, it's a good idea to reach for the theologian's favorite device: jargon. If you're feeling a little anxious about your role in the lives of the faithful, why not remind them why they need you by speaking Latin? A bad homily that relies on jargon will have all the qualities of a peer-reviewed article in an electrical engineering journal, and is designed to sail over the heads of anyone who thought the church might have something to tell them about bereavement, loneliness, anxiety, joy, or everyday life. But don't worry: somebody will appreciate your jargon, most likely the two or three intense young men scattered around the back occasionally wincing from the cilices around their thighs.

"WWJD" Means "What Would Jesus Disapprove Of?"
There's a popular impression that the Catholic Church's theology consists of little more than an endless series of arbitrary rules invented and enforced by isolated old men with precious little experience of everyday life. As a bad homilist, it's your job to confirm that suspicion.

One way you might go about this is by presenting every aspect of Catholic teaching as self-evidently revealed fact. Sure, the Church might have produced some of the finest thinkers in history, people who went to great lengths to demonstrate the truths of revelation using science, logic, and philosophy, but those methods have no place in a bad homily. Your answer to the question "Why?" should always be, "Because God - and, by extension, I - said so."

It also helps if, when presenting conclusions without explaining the reasoning behind them, you just focus on the things people aren't supposed to do. Premarital sex, abortion, contraception, women's ordination, voting for bishops, eating meat on Fridays in Lent - sure, there might be reasons behind the Church's stances on all these things. But why should your congregants know that? Let them go to seminary if they're so curious! Remember: If people come away from your homily with a picture of God as a distant, disapproving, headmaster-like figure always saying "No," you're doing your job.

Here You Stand, You Can Do No Other
Have you ever read the Catechism? It's so full of stuff: do this, don't do that, believe this, salvation that. There's way too much there for anyone to fully digest, so you can be excused for not knowing or not believing everything the church teaches. After all, you're just one person, right?

So when composing your homilies, don't worry if something you're going to say is "unclear" or "inaccurate" or "openly heretical." Who's keeping track, anyway? If you feel like maybe people who commit suicide are beyond God's ability to forgive, go ahead and say so. Alternately, if you think it's silly that Catholics can't receive Communion at Protestant churches, don't be shy about letting the congregation know. The catechism may disagree with you on both points, but this is a democracy, right?

As a follow-up, be wary of "dogma nuts" who will approach you after Mass with minor, nitpicking complaints like "I thought we offered veneration rather than worship to the saints" or "There aren't four Persons in the Trinity." These "laity lawyers" may, technically, be correct, but stick to your guns: remind them you're the one infused with ordination, that your fingers were anointed, and maybe say something about papal infallibility. That applies to priests, too, right? If you're a deacon, you'll have to take a different approach: quickly change the subject by reminding these complainers they haven't yet volunteered for a shift at the Interfaith Cot Shelter.

Always End With a Flourish
A lot of priests end their homilies with a simple, "May God bless you." The bad homilist has a word for these priests: "Boring." Here are a few sample lines you'll want to end with if you're interested in truly nailing the bad homily:

"Don't forget to pick up your raffle tickets after Mass."

"Okay, now let's do that Creed thing."

"Remember, as Jesus said: Keep on keepin' on."

"See you next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."

"The person who owns a green Buick LeSabre, license plate 489-HFC: your lights are on."

"Let's go Jesus, let's go! (clap)"

"And may God forgive the local zoning board for their obstructionist ways."

"Shut that kid up!"

*Admittedly, this metaphor is not perfect. For example, who are we supposed to be boxing? One possibility: Satan.

Also: a tip of the cap to Kurt Tucholsky, author of the fine, sadly out of print essay, "How to Give a Bad Speech."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ethnic Catholicism and the Cultural Church

Interesting article here about a Staten Island Polish church which is celebrating both its 85th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of its pastor's appointment there. The article says a lot about the inherent problems of ethnic parishes and the mixed-up priorities of modern Roman Catholics.

A little background: St. Stanislaus Kostka church was founded by Polish immigrants in 1923 and flourished for many years until dwindling numbers forced the church to be put under the supervision of a neighboring parish and almost led to its closure. And why did its numbers dwindle? The original immigrant generation died away, the succeeding generations assimilated into American life and felt little need to cling to an ethnic parish, and the local Polish families who were the foundation of the church moved away as the racial makeup of the neighborhood changed. And since the modern American Catholic Church does not evangelize in the least, the parish was only saved by a massive influx of Polish immigrants following the collapse of Communism. And when these new parishioners had the opportunity to represent their parish and their Faith in an interview with the local newspaper, what did they choose to tell the community at large about their church and themselves?

Did they witness to their belief in Christ and tell how their celebrated pastor has ministered to their souls and facilitated their relationship with God? Did they talk about how the parish is primarily a spiritual community where Catholic believers of Polish descent can worship in their own language, and can preserve and deepen their faith in a strange and spiritually hostile land? No, there was hardly any of that boring religious stuff. Apart from an off-hand reference to Saturday morning catechism classes for children (most likely limited to First Communion preparation), this article made it seem like the raison d'etre of St. Stanislaus church is to be a social club and Polish cultural society.

What were these parishioners excited about? What did they tell us about their pastor's main priorities and projects? Well, we are informed that he renovated the classroom where children learn Polish and he gussied up the parish hall where dances and other events are held. The church also offers art classes and martial arts classes and has a general focus on preserving Polish culture, language and traditions.

I ask where are the Bible studies, the rosary societies, the prayer groups, the adult catechism classes, the charitable endeavors, etc, et al. How could you talk about your church's 85th anniversary and only think to mention the cultural/material services it provides? Yes, a church also ministers to our corporal needs, but when that aspect predominates among either clergy or laity, then something is seriously out of whack. I admit that the media can be selective in its reporting and the reporter did only quote a few people. But is there anyone out there so charitable that they don't think those quotes are representative rather than anomalous?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Meet me at the Mission

For the past few weeks, enigmatic little signs have been popping up on lawns all over Staten Island, outnumbering even the ubiquitous Obama/Biden signs. They simply read "Meet me at the Mission" and listed a web site, At first, I didn't know what to make of it, but I certainly didn't think it had anything to do with the Catholic Church. After all, "mission" is a word we usually associate with foreign lands, e.g. churches send "missionaries" to Africa to start "missions". If we use the word at all in an American context, it's to refer to some sort of evangelical charity located in the dingiest parts of our cities: "You can get a bed and a hot meal at the Salvation Army Mission in the Bowery." And the main reason I didn't suspect this clever advertising campaign had anything to do with the Catholic Church was because the modern Church just doesn't seem to_do_anything. It doesn't evangelize, it doesn't seem too excited about the Faith, and it doesn't seem to organize very many "extracurricular" devotional activities outside of the regularly scheduled Sunday Masses. I was sure this had to be some sort of Pentecostal membership drive. I was wrong.

I was surprised when I started to see these signs in front of Catholic churches. Still, I suspected that it all had to do with a diocesan fund raising appeal. I never got a chance to check the website since I always saw these signs while driving and couldn't remember the web address. However, the full story began to come out with a series of ads in our local paper, the Advance. A revival was coming to Staten Island!

According to these ads, the Redemptorist order was sponsoring a week-long mission to Staten Island in order to bring fallen-away Catholics back to the Church and to re-energize "our Catholic Faith". I was a little bothered that the phrase "our Catholic Faith" was put in quotation marks, as it seemed to imply that our Catholic Faith was an ironic, theoretical or even dubious concept, but I put it down to a bad copywriter. This was exciting!

This event was something of the order of being in Times Square on VJ Day or seeing the towers fall on 9/11. The Church was actually_doing_something- taking the initiative, taking action, being aggressive for the Faith. Never in my lifespan of some 30-odd years had I seen anything of the sort on Staten Island, or anywhere else for that matter. The Redemptorist Order was sending 35 of its priests (along with 1 Augustinian) to our Island parishes to conduct a week of preaching, reconciliation and revival. This seemed just what we needed. Staten Island is a place that has a large nominal Catholic majority, but the living Faith- with the exception of small pockets- seems on life support here. We've had several churches and Catholic grade-schools close because of low attendance. Sunday Mass at many parishes seem to be attended only by a sprinkling of senior citizens. The Catholic high schools seem well attended, but judging by the behavior of the students, it doesn't seem like much is being done there to impart the Faith in any meaningful way. The priests provide no leadership, the sermons we hear are universally abysmal, and outright public heresy is never corrected. With the way things are going, I can't see the Faith surviving for another generation. So I was extremely excited to hear that the Redemptorists were coming to town.

In an unprecedented move for a purely religious news story, the Advance even gave the Mission front page, above-the-fold coverage. You can read the story here. I was a little disturbed at some of the things the priest heading the Mission chose to talk about though. With his great opportunity to reach a hundred thousand people or so, for some reason he chose to criticize the Church for not emphasizing God's forgiveness towards women who've aborted their babies. He spoke at length about those divorced and remarried Catholics who might still be able to receive Communion because their first marriage was before a justice of the peace. Bizarrely, he mentioned how he doesn't think that many people are angry at the priest pedophile scandals. Another Redemptorist interviewed compared the mission to a "pyramid scheme." OK, obviously our priests are clueless about public relations, but someone must have known what they were doing to get free publicity like this, and I was sure the Redemptorists would excel at the actual mission.

I wasn't at all familiar with their order, but after a little Googling, my admiration for them swelled. In the first place, they were founded by one of my favorite saints, St. Alphonsus Liguori, who wrote one of the most spiritually edifying books I've ever read, "How to Converse Continually and Familiarly with God" and who was an all-around giant of the Faith. Appropriately enough, his Redemptorists specialize in missionary activities, preaching and soul-winning. These guys are God's special forces. Of course it was up to God to decide whether their efforts would have any effect, but I was certain that I would at least get to hear some great preaching, for once.

I think I can tally on one hand the number of good sermons I've heard from Catholic priests throughout my entire life. I don't know the reason why our priests are such horrible- and I mean horrible- preachers. They have years of advanced education, so they have no lack of knowledge. They've dedicated their lives to Christ by becoming priests, so there shouldn't be a lack of motivation in their hearts. They have a friendly audience and ample opportunity, yet their preaching is, almost without exception, uninspiring, boring, senseless and really just plain stupid. They couldn't do a worse job if they were deliberately trying to destroy our faith and, unfortunately, I think that's the result of such universally abominable preaching. I think bad Catholic preaching is one of, if not the biggest problem in the Church today. Remember, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom 10:17). It's sad to say, but you will hear better preaching from any random fundamentalist you find flipping through the radio dial or on TV, not to mention the ones you can hear in your own neighborhood. I believe that's one of the main reasons why their pews (or at least rows of metal folding chairs) are filled with so many ex-Catholics. However, I was fairly certain that the Redemptorists would not let me down. After all, soul-stirring preaching is their stock in trade

I couldn't make the Monday night mission, so I attended on Tuesday night. I will leave the name of the church anonymous, so as not to implicate any specific people. The crowd was disappointingly sparse, and even more disappointingly elderly. This was obviously the regular Sunday bunch. Even though there were so few of us in the large church, we had arranged ourselves in the traditional Catholic seating pattern: as far away from all other people as possible. A 64 page booklet was passed out beforehand which included Scripture readings, Catholic prayers, a guide to examining one's conscience, etc. Good so far. Then it began.

The Redemptorist priest came out from the sanctuary with the parish priest and an altar girl. A large bowl of water was placed on a table in front of the altar. We started off with a hymn- a weird, feminine, operatic type of hymn that no normal congregation could ever possibly sing, so we all basically sat silently as the organist carried the load. ("Why Catholics Don't Sing" is an excellent critique of dreadful modern church music, by the way). That was par for the course at this parish, so I didn't think much of it. We then recited some unfamiliar prayers from the booklet we had received. The priest then prepared to read the Gospel text from which he'd preach, by swinging the censer around the pulpit. It was at this point when my antennae went up and the mission went downhill, because before he began to read he told us that we could all sit down if we wanted to. We were already standing, and as Catholics we are used to standing during the Gospel reading. It's our tradition and it shows our reverence for the words of Christ. It was obvious that the people were all very confused and disturbed by his unorthodox permissiveness. Why on earth would he tell us something like that? So he could pose as our liberator from oppressive church rules? So he could play the "cool" authority figure, like the substitute teacher who lets the students sit in a circle rather than in rows? That had to be one of the most asinine things I'd ever heard in church. We all remained standing for about 10 seconds, unsure of what the crowd would do, but as a few people began to sit down, the rest of us lemmings followed. I thought I would remain standing as a sort of protest against such disrespect for the Word of God, but I eventually lost my nerve and sat down too. I noticed one middle aged woman who remained defiantly standing though. I salute that brave woman and wish I had her courage. She showed that she had a steel backbone and the spirit of a Joan of Arc. Even though I believe in traditional gender roles and oppose women priests, that doesn't mean that I don't think women can lead. That woman preached a better sermon by her example than any speaker could have done, and I'll never forget it. It was certainly better than anything I heard that night.

The Gospel reading was the parable of the Prodigal Son, which was appropriate for that night's theme of reconciliation. Unfortunately, the sermon was the same twaddle I hear every Sunday, only longer. At least the priest's delivery was slightly animated, which is in contrast to the whispering monotone in which sermons are usually delivered in my parish. However, the content was the same utter dreck. I certainly understood all the words that were spoken, but they just did not meld together into any one cogent idea. It was disorganized, fatuous and just plain incoherent. I'll save my in-depth analysis on the subject of preaching for another time, but suffice it say that this experience was extremely disappointing and dispiriting. I found myself giving thanks that it didn't seem like there were many fallen-away Catholics or non Catholics present because they would certainly never come back after hearing that.

After the pulpit punishment, we sang some hymns, one of which was, incredibly, even singable. Then the priest made us all go to the center aisle where we had to shake hands or wink at the people from the other side of the church and then change sides with them if we chose. The point of this ridiculous exercise escaped me, but I think he tied it in to Republicans and Democrats "crossing the aisle". As I was sitting down, an old woman told me how nice it was to see a young man in church, since she doesn't see many these days. I thought to myself that it was no wonder young men don't go to church if this is what the church offers: effeminate, unsingable music, sermons that are nothing more than gibberish, spiritual slackness ("you can sit if you want to") and queer, touchy-feely, New Age rituals that focus on man rather than God. Many books have been written about the feminization of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant), and this was a great example tonight. What healthy-spirited man could tolerate these treacly ceremonies, this overload of estrogen, this dearth of reverence and spiritual awe? What draws a man to religion is black and white ideas (good and evil), a clear, challenging call to action of some sort (e.g. this is how you please God, this is how you get saved), an adherence to tradition and immutable truths, a gravity and seriousness appropriate to the circumstances, a focus on something that is greater than ourselves (honor, principles, the Church, salvation, God), and a religious leader who has the masculine qualities of leadership. Instead, the atmosphere at Mass and Catholic events like this mission all too often feels like an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. Am I being rude and abrasive by saying these things? Yes, but ask yourself why so many of our churches are made up mostly of old women and die hard loyalists like myself who nevertheless can barely get through Mass, even with a lot of teeth gritting and desperate prayer. Men, and younger Catholics in general, are rejecting the feel-good, happy-clappy church of the 60s generation and want something more substantial, more strenuous. We want our old Faith back.

The less said about the rest of this mission, the better. At one point, the priest held up a huge bowl of water like he was raising the Host and told us we were going to engage in a new ritual of sorts. All I could think of at that point was "Don't drop it!" because that would just make the priest and, by extension, the Faith into a laughingstock. He managed to place the bowl back on the table and explained that we were to come up and- I believe- bless ourselves with the water while publicly proclaiming some resolution, like "I will love you better, Jesus." This new fangled ritual seemed silly and unnecessary to me. We Catholics have such a rich devotional heritage. Why do the Redemptorists feel the need to reinvent the wheel? In keeping with the disorganized and fumbling way in which the mission was conducted, the priest interrupted the beginning of the water ceremony and mentioned that we'd also be having confession, which was good. However, in yet another unnecessary concession to unsought novelty, he explained that we didn't have to use the old-fashioned Act of Contrition we learned growing up but could use the updated version as found on page 22 in our booklets. As the people grudgingly began lining up to anoint themselves, I made my escape.

Needless to say, I didn't attend any other missions. I was curious but just too discouraged to go through that again. As I said, there were 35 priests on the Island, so I can't judge what happened at their individual missions. They all might have been wonderful. I'm simply relating what I witnessed, which was a disaster in my opinion. I can't imagine anyone getting anything out of what I saw that night. I don't report this with the intention of harming the Church, but helping it. I have a feeling that the priests running this mission (and priests in general) receive nothing but praise from the old ladies and therefore think that they're doing a grand job. Things really need to improve if the Church in America is even to survive, and that's not going to happen without some harsh feedback, self-examination, hard work and reform.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Today I begin something I never thought I'd do: blogging. What I'd previously mocked as a pathetic exercise in narcissism and digital anti-social pathology, I now feel compelled to attempt. And why? Probably for the same reasons a lot of people blog: I need to release some steam by verbalizing my frustration with a certain situation...I feel utterly alone in my opinions and want to cry out to the world for some echo of acknowledgement and agreement...and I optimistically (perhaps megalomaniacally?) think that perhaps I can change things, if only a little, by speaking home truths from a global soapbox and coalescing like-minded people into a force for reform. And what is this situation, this problem that has stirred a normally reserved and retiring young man into action? Well, although there are many things about this fallen world I think are worth ranting about- political, social, cultural, etc. - the subject I want to focus on here is the parlous state of my church, the Catholic Church, as I see it on the parish level in my hometown of Staten Island, NY.

The problems of the universal Church are well known to the informed Catholic: falling membership, doctrinal anarchy, lack of vocations, sex scandals, etc., but I want to talk about the things I witness Sunday to Sunday from the pew and see if there are other people out there who see things the way I do. And what I seem to be witnessing is the suicide of the Catholic Church. I want to talk about why this is and what we can do about it.

Rather than reproduce and comment on national and international church news, I would like to relate my experiences and impressions as an individual Catholic trying to live his Faith in a particular community. There are several publications which do an admirable job reporting and commenting on Vatican pronouncements or clerical scandals or theological controversies, but I have rarely seen any reporting from the perspective of the man in the pew. What are his experiences? How is his faith? What does he think? Does anyone even care? Whether anyone cares or not, we shall soon see, but this Catholic will at least get some things off his chest.

If all politics are local, as the adage goes, then religion is even more so. Most people don't know who their Congressman is, but the parish priest has a central role in a Catholic's spiritual formation. Of course the Faith is implanted at the cradle and the hearth (e.g. the family), but it's nourished, informed and preserved at the altar. It is the clergy that dispenses the Sacraments, guards the truth of the Gospel, and is responsible for the spiritual well-being of the Church. For that reason, the parish priest is such an important factor in our spiritual lives. A good priest will build up a godly flock; a bad priest can cause souls to be lost. Unfortunately, I have seen all too much of the latter category and it is for that reason that much of what I say will deal with the actions of our priests.

Yes, we the laity can be rather pathetic, but let's remember that a fish stinks from the head. James 3:1 says that the teachers (i.e. religious leaders) will be judged more harshly than others. The Church is suffering from a crippling lack of leadership. That can be seen in bad preaching, apathy, weakness, irreverance, general incompetence and outright heresy. I hope this blog will be read by priests, who I don't think get much feedback from their congregations. I think our current problems began in the priesthood, and if our Church is to experience a renewal, it has to begin there as well.

Although I do hope to reach fellow Staten Islanders, I think the experiences I will relate will probably be familiar to many other American Catholics. So I do look forward to exchanging ideas and commiseration with my brethren both distant and dear. Therefore, a description of this strange locality might be in order for non Staten Island readers.

Staten Island is one of the five boroughs that make up New York City. It has a population of around 477,000, at last count. It has the largest percentage of Italian Americans of any county in the US, which has earned it the nickname of "Staten Italy". Due to the large number of Italians, as well as Irish, Polish and Germans, Staten Island has a large Catholic majority. I recently read that around 62% of the island is nominally Catholic, but I find that number perhaps a bit low. I live in the most diverse section of the island and I never even knew a non-Catholic until I went away to college. Staten Island is known for its insular worldview and conservative politics. It's the only borough to regularly vote Republican.

As for myself, I will start out being publically anonymous. Perhaps we will all get to know each other better though.