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January 23, 2003 Edition

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Notes from the Vicar General
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Grand Mom

Time pressures at Mass:
Can we keep watch one hour?

photo of Msgr. Paul J. Swain
Notes from the 
Vicar General 

Msgr. Paul J. Swain 

There is serious discussion about reintroducing passenger rail transportation to the Madison area.

Without judging the feasibility of current planning, it raises for many wonderful thoughts of earlier days when train travel was regular, relaxing, and romantic.

Recently riding AMTRAK, I discovered both the fun of train travel and the demise of its relaxing nature. It was fun to ride through the countryside, observing the rural and urban landscape without the pressure of driving in heavy traffic.

"Someone recently wondered why it is that we are so willing to stay tuned for unexpected overtime when the Packers play, while we remain anxious to leave when worship goes 'overtime.'"

Also part of today's train scene is the pervasive use of cell phones that make the train an extension of the office work environment.

A gentleman was talking to himself, which was once thought to be odd. He was simply taking advantage of hands-free cell phone units that allow talking on the phone while at the same time doing something else, such as working at a laptop computer.

As we rode through the beautiful scenery, one fellow was angrily denouncing whoever was on the other end of his line. No thought was deemed inappropriate to share with his fellow travelers.

Impatience and the pressure of efficient time management describe the world in which most work. It raises the question: do we bring to church the pressures of the secular world? Do we bring efficiency guidelines to our prayer life?

Efficiency guidelines for prayer

For instance, how long should Mass "take," 45 minutes? An hour? In most parishes, the back pews empty long before the final blessing. There is a sense that Mass ought to take an undefined yet fixed amount of time. It suggests we only have a limited amount of time to give to the Lord this week.

There are many aspects that can affect the length of Mass - the readings, the prayers, the homily, the music, reception of communion, a baptism, moments of silence. Which is less worthy of our time?

Someone recently wondered why it is that we are so willing to stay tuned for unexpected overtime when the Packers play, while we remain anxious to leave when worship goes "overtime." What is it that is so much more important that we must keep prayer time to a fixed and minimal time period?

How long should Mass 'take'?

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked his disciples to remain and keep watch while he went off to pray about the Passion, his sacrifice for our redemption. When he returned he found them asleep.

He said to Peter, "So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

When we impose standards of the world on our prayer life, including Mass, we may miss the powerful gift of the Spirit that will sustain us when we face the inevitable tests that come in life which technology cannot help. Sometimes to uncover that grace may take an hour or more. Can we keep the watch that long?

By the way, I write this column on my laptop while traveling on a plane, anxious to get to a place where I can use my cell phone. Just kidding. However, the thought crosses my mind, do we priests, do I practice what I preach? Can I keep watch for an hour?

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Catholic Schools Week:
A good time to reflect on faith formation

photo of Barbara Sella
Eye on the 

Barbara Sella 

In the November 2002 issue of First Things, Mary Ann Glendon argues that inadequate religious formation lies at the heart of the current crisis in our Church

She says, "A poor formation presents a special danger in a society like ours where Catholics have lost most of their old support networks, and where education in other areas is relatively advanced.

"If religious education falls short of the general level of secular education, Christians run into trouble defending their beliefs - even to themselves. They are apt to feel helpless when they come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in the general culture."

Some drift from church

It is certainly true that many Catholics have drifted from the Church because the religious formation they received in their youth was unable to withstand the hard questions and heavy pressures that an adult person inevitably encounters in life.

Even the best youth ministry can rarely sustain a mature adult faith without the aid of further formation, for the explanations we were given as children can rarely satisfy us as adults.

Life-long project

Faith formation is a life-long project. And this is an especially critical matter for parents, since we have the greatest influence on the religious formation of our children.

As parents we don't have to be experts in church history, liturgy, or moral theology to inspire in our children a thirst for a greater understanding of our faith.

Each of us can inspire by our actions - praying, reading religious works, and discussing questions of faith openly with our children (to name just a few). Our example, more than our formal training, can be a powerful witness that ongoing faith formation is a necessary and rewarding part of being an adult Christian.

But what is the value of faith formation beyond defending our beliefs? Pope Paul VI in his 1965 Declaration on Christian Education reminds us that this formation doesn't just help us to mature as human beings, but it can also change us in at least five other ways.

How faith formation can change us

First, it deepens our awareness of, and appreciation for, the gift of faith. Thus, the more we learn about our faith, the greater our realization of how profoundly it affects and transforms every aspect of our lives.

Second, a Christian education helps us to worship God more fully in the liturgy.

Third, ongoing religious formation helps us to conform our lives more perfectly to Christ's and to contribute to the "growth of the Mystical Body." Just as our needs and circumstances change over time, so must our understanding of how to follow Christ. What may have been appropriate when we were single young adults may not be appropriate when we marry and have children.

Fourth, by being conscious of, and engaged in, what we profess, we "bear witness to the hope that is in [us]." That is, our lives can become a source of inspiration for others.

Fifth and finally, an educated faith helps us "in the Christian formation of the world," as we strive to "contribute to the good of the whole of society."

Blessed with faith

We are blessed to have a faith that engages the whole person - spiritually, morally, socially, and intellectually. We are blessed to have a faith with a long and rich intellectual tradition. We are blessed that for centuries one of the hallmarks of our tradition has been, in the words of St. Anselm of Bec, "faith seeking understanding."

Catholic Schools Week is a good time for all of us, whether or not we have children in Catholic schools, to commit ourselves to a deeper understanding of what we profess.

Barbara Sella is associate director for education and social concerns for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

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Oldest story is still best:
Learning from women of Bible

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer
Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Even though I always have a good book on my bedside table, it's a delicious treat when I find one that is so outstanding that I must share it with my readers.

One of my Writing-Your-Life-Story students gave me the novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Although it was published in 1997, it has grown in popularity by word of mouth rather than advertising.

It's a biblical story, and we know from watching movies based on the Bible how a fertile imagination can bring biblical stories to life for us. This one differs from stories such as The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, however, because it focuses on the powerful women behind those illustrious men in the Bible.

"This one differs from stories such as The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur . . . because it focuses on the powerful women behind those illustrious men in the Bible."

'The Red Tent'

The Red Tent is the gripping story of Dinah, youngest daughter of Jacob, and his first wife, Leah. Told through Dinah's eyes, we learn what the Red Tent is: It is the menstrual tent, a place where women are required by law to spend three days each month secluded from the male society.

This may sound like a punishment at first, but gradually the reader comes to realize that for these women it is a welcome escape. It is a time to gather strength from one another, to share stories and wisdom gleaned from life experiences. (Sort of like getting together in our Council of Catholic Women meetings or even for an afternoon of bridge.)

It is a place that a girl can enter only after she has had her first menstrual period. The Red Tent welcoming ceremony, as Dinah experiences it, is somewhat shocking, but nevertheless meaningful and loving. In the Jewish world it makes the Bar Mitzvah, the male's coming-of-age experience, look sissified.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph and the many-colored coat, thanks to the Broadway musical (or for us older folk, the colorful Bible History Stories we read in Catholic grammar school). We know how his older brothers sold him into slavery and how he became a seer for the King of Egypt because of his ability to interpret dreams.

Story of Dinah

What we don't know is the story of his half-sister Dinah, who suffered a far worse fate at the hands of those same brothers. Here is how she explains that discrepancy in the prologue of the book:

"We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you.

"This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.

"This is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known story of my father, Jacob and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother.

"Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that seems to say I was raped, and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged."

A loving relationship

As it turns out, Dinah's story demonstrates what a loving relationship she had with her "four mothers," the four wives of Jacob. Diamont pictures these wives not as competitors, as those of us living in a monogamous society would suspect, but as women who recognized and appreciated their differences.

Leah, the eldest daughter of Laban and Adah, is usually regarded as a poor substitute for Rachel, the real beauty that Jacob was after. In The Red Tent, however, we see Leah as a strong woman, skilled in maintaining a household, and the productive mother of seven sons and one daughter, Dinah. Rachel becomes the successful midwife and teacher of midwifery to Dinah.

(A Family Tree in the front of the book helps the reader keep these multiple marriages and births straight.)

Biblical drama

It is when Rachel takes Dinah with her to Shechem on a midwife mission that we meet King Hamor and his handsome son Shalem. He and Dinah immediately fall in love. The seduction scene is told with good taste, showing the mutual attraction, and the sad parting and longing when Dinah must return home.

Within a few days of her return, King Hamor sent a messenger to bring her back for his son. Leah and Jacob agreed to let her go, and sent her brother, Levi, to deliver her to the palace safely.

The queen herself drove the two lovers together purposely by clever scheming. She wanted a grandson, so she arranged for them to have conjugal relations for months before the offer of marriage reached Jacob.

Although he was offered a handsome price, his greedy sons demanded a much greater price: that all males including the king and prince be circumcised. Despite the compliance of all the males, the brothers staged a murderous attack in which all males, including Dinah's beloved prince, were slaughtered in their beds.

This struck me as being much more dramatic than Joseph's story, forcing me to grab the Bible and see for myself if this story was true. Sure enough! It merited only a line or two, but it's there.

Still, the writers of biblical stories never picked up on the drama, the grief, the burden carried by this brave woman, forever to be isolated from her family. Thankfully, Diamant has done that with great compassion and literary skill.

It takes a woman to tell a woman's story, I guess.

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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