“We’ve Never Done that Before”

Often the first reaction to a new initiative is “we’ve never done that before” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” I’ve heard that response in parishes, in schools and in other organizations. We’ve never done that before. Full stop. End of consideration of a proposal.

Change is always difficult, which makes it easy to dismiss new ideas and initiatives. But, as Einstein once observed, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

We’ve never done that before or we’ve never done it that way before, are perfectly fine words, so long as they are followed by a comma, not a period. We’ve never done it before, but let’s give it a shot. We’ve never done it that way before, but it seems like something worth considering.

This is especially true in the church when we are facing many of the questions we face today. For example, how to engage our young people. At a Catholic Campus Ministry Meeting earlier this year, Archbishop Chaput observed that “too often in the Church we expect young adults to simply fill the empty slots fo existing structure and ministries, even when some of the programs are obviously dead shells. Old methods of pastoral outreach predetermine the ways in which we employ new disciples. Then we’re surprised that nothing seems to change.”

The same could be said for other questions.

I’m not suggesting change for the sake of change. But we need to reflect on which of our “old ways” are working and which aren’t. And we need to be more open to consider new ideas and initiatives.


God Magnifies Our Gifts

The final keynote address of the National Convention of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association featured Archbishop Chaput, who spoke on the theme of Young Adults and Secrets of the Heart. While some of his comments were controversial, I think most people felt that they conveyed a refreshing honesty.

At one point in his talk, he used three passages from the Gospel to illustrate the challenges we face, both in ministering to young people and in our discipleship in general. One of those was the feeding of the multitude, and what he said is a good reminder to all of us. (The other two were Jairus’ daughter and the rich young man.)

Thousands of people are hungry and all that is available are a few loaves of bread an a couple of fish. Phillip and Andrew, he suggested, speak for most of the apostles when they point out the inadequacy of the resources. By their reckoning, there is simply not enough food to feed all those who are hungry.

Regrettably, Phillip and Andrew also often speak for us (and by us he included bishops, priests as well as lay people): We are tempted to give up because the gifts we have to offer seem out of proportion – grossly insufficient – to meet the needs of the community.

Yet, what Jesus did that day was take the offering and transform it to meet the needs at hand. He honored and multiplied the gift of food, no matter how meager, because it was offered selflessly.

Now, as then, God can use what we can offer – even what looks quite meager to human eyes – to create greet deeds. God can use us, the Archbishop observed, exactly as he used the loaves and fishes – the same way (he offered as examples) God used Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatious of Loyola, Dominic, Edith Stein in unimaginable ways.

God will magnify our gifts, no matter how meager. What we need to do is to let God do so by letting go of our assumptions, our vanities, our own plans.

The Role of The Laity

Continuing our adult faith formation series at St. Thomas Apostle on The Church and the Modern World (see prior posts here, here and here, I gave a talk last evening on Vatican II and the Role of the Laity.

Prior to Vatican II, there was a tendency to view the laity as a passive body. Church meant hierarchy and the laity were not seen as having an active role on the work of the Church. Vatican II sought to change that view, characterizing the Church as the People of God, which is made up of lay as well as clergy and religious. (“We are the Church.”)

Yet, despite the fact that it effected a sea-change in our understanding of the role of the laity in the Church and in the world, we hear very little about the Council’s teachings on this matter at the parish level. Thus, Bill Nolan and I thought it an important topic to include as part of our series, with the goal of encouraging participants to think more deeply about their vocation as laypersons in this post Vatican II world.

I began by talking about what the Council said about laity and then moved on to discuss some of the ways the Council’s teachings have been translated (and sometimes misinterpreted). I also talked about some of the challenges of our living up to what Vatican II asks of us. As usual, we left time at the end of the talk for people to engage in some small group discussion and questions and answers.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 35:51.) I refer in my talk to excerpts of several documents that I distributed to participants at the beginning of our session; that handout is here.

Participating in Ministry

We often use the term ministry to refer to the various ways in which we use our gifts on behalf of God in the world. I speak of my ministry as a spiritual director and retreat director, or of my ministry to my law students. Some are engaged in parish-based or other forms of pastoral ministry. Others engage in various other types of ministry.

I’ve been thinking since Sunday about how we speak about our ministry. People often speak of doing ministry or engaging in ministry. Near the end of Mass on Sunday, however, the youth minister, who was leaving the parish and thus was being recognized by the pastor and the congregation for his work, commented that ministry was not something he did, it was something he participated in.

Participate and do suggest different things. I think that is true on two levels.

First, speaking of doing ministry makes it easy to think it is my task that I am going myself. In reality, all of our ministry is a participation in the ministry of Christ. It is Christ’s plan we are participating in – and we do so with his assistance. Indeed, we couldn’t do it without his assistance.

Second (and this was the sense in which the youth minister discussed the difference), doing ministry suggests a separation between me an those whom I serve. Participating in ministry explicitly acknowledges that this is something I undertake with those that I serve and with the rest of my faith community.

It is a very slight word difference – do vs. participate – but one that I think matters to what we think we are doing, and therefore, in how we approach our ministry.

Walking the Streets with Jesus

We are all familiar with the oft-quoted passage from Micah that begins by asking the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” The answer the passage gives is: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

What it means to act justly, show mercy and walk humbly will mean different things for each of us, but all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ must grapple with what it means for ourself, must ask ourselves: How can I live justly? How and to whom to do I show mercy? And what does it mean for me to walk humbly with God.”

John Green tells us how he thinks about those questions in Streetwalking with Jesus: Reaching Out in Justice and Mercy, a powerful account of his ministry over the last two decades with Chicago male prostitutes. His book is a series of reflections on the questions posed by Micah. Green intends with his book to challenge us to “step off the tracks” on which we’ve been “chugging along,” to help us discern how be better make choices that will deepen our own sense of mission.

I loved this book. The stories of the men Green encounters in his ministry are heart-breaking. They are also thought-provoking, and both the stories and the material at the end of each chapter that comes under the heading “Digging Deeper,” (which includes links to songs performed by Green’s wife, which are well worth spending some time listening to, as well as passages and questions for reflection) encourage the reader to struggle with some tough questions. (And I confess, I continue to struggle with some of the questions that surfaced during my reading.)

The book also offers some important reminders for those who seek to live a life of mission. I’ll mention only a couple here. One of the most important is that our efforts may not always succeed. Working in the ministry he does, Green has ample experience with putting a lot of effort into individuals who, despite all efforts, can’t escape from their lives of prostitution and/or addiction. Yet, he continues his efforts. All we can do is do ur best to fulfill our calling; the results are up to God and we have no control over them.

Second, is that what those on the margins need is less our money than our time. That is not to say we shouldn’t donate to worthy causes; ministries like Green’s need cold, hard cash to do the work they do. But people also need someone to whom they can tell their story…someone who will show them that someone cares about them.

Third, is the reminder that all of our choices reflect “justice decisions.” Whether it is where we live or how we choose to use our time and our resources, we need to exercises an intentionality that involves prayer and discernment about the consequences.

Finally, is that the role of the prophet is to “point people to the present – to spotlight where God’s people fell short of His road map for living. Living a prophetic life is not about revealing the future (as our common use of the term “prophesy” might suggest), but about “highlight[ing] the way forward, by asking pointed questions that demand heartfelt answers.”

The book is worthwhile picking up for your own summer reading. As I was going through it, it also struck me that it would make a good book for group discussion or even a retreat setting. I highly recommend it for either setting.

I received this book through the Catholic Company reviewer program. Check out their site for other good reads or gifts.

Emotional Objectivity Plus Active Relationship

One of my Facebook friends posted the other day this quote of Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist who was one of the founders of systemic therapy:

A “differentiated self” (an emotionally, relationally healthy person) is one who can maintain emotional objectivity, while in the midst of an emotional system in turmoil, yet at the same time actively relate to the key people in the system.

I wonder how many of us qualify as emotionally, relationally health persons under that description. In the midst of emotional turmoil around us, it is easy to lose our center, so to speak, and be carried off by the waves around us. Alternatively, the price of maintaining our own equilibrium is to withdraw from those around us.

To not let our minds be disturbed by the insanity we sometimes find ourselves in the midst of but to still be able to minister to those around us – to love and extend compassion, wisdom and blessing to those who are part of the insanity around us (either as causes of the turmoil of innocent bystanders of it) is not easy.

Yet, we see models of exactly that not only so often in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of so many of the saints. Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker houses of New York City. Isaac Jogues and his companions among the Iroquois. Damien of Molokai advocating for the needs of the leper’s in Hawaii.

We might profit from spending some time looking at our own behavior when in the midst of an system in turmoil and ask God for the grace to be able to maintain our internal peace at the same time that we remain present in an active way to those around us.

Lack of Formal Theological Education

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness.  I’ve been impressed at videos I’ve seen of Armstrong speaking and have a number of her other books on my bookshelves.  In the process of writing my own book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I was particularly interested in this book, the story of her difficult adjustment to lay life after leaving a Catholic convent and what she learned about God and herself through her exploration of comparative theology. 

One of the things that caused me some hesitance when I started training as a spiritual director and began giving retreats was my lack of formal theological education.  I had read a lot on my own, but, apart from the basic theology courses I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown, I had not studied theology as an academic discipline.  Those who were mentoring me kept assuring me that I had much to offer and that what I was being called to offer people was not academic theology, but aiding them in deepening their relationship with God.

Thus, I was interested in what Armstrong had to say about her own lack of formal theological training, given the subject of her books.  She writes

I think I was lucky not to have studied theology or comparative religion at university, where I would have had to write clever papers and sit examinations, get high marks, and aim for a good degree. The rhythm of study would have been wrong – at least for me. In theology, I am entirely self-taught, and if that makes me an amateur, that need not necessarily be all bad. After all, an amateur is, literally, “one who loves,” and I was, day by solitary day, hour by silent hour, falling in love with my subject….Occasionally…I would experience miniseconds of transcendence, awe, and wonder that gave me some sense of what had been going on in the mind of the theologian or mystic I was studying. At such a time I would feel stirred deeply within, and taken beyond myself…

I was, moreover, discovering that many of the great theologians and mystics whose work I was studying would have found the idea of a purely academic degree in theology rather odd.

She goes on to explain that in both Islam and Judaism, study was inextricably linked with “a heightened awareness of the divine presence.

Her comments struck a chord with me.  Part of it is my conviction that “head” study divorced from affective experience is of limited value in terms of our spiritual growth.  Hence, the appeal to me of her description of Islamic and Judaic study.  But I also think there is something to the notion of “amateur” that appeals.  And it is not just the idea of the amateur as one who loves, but of a humility that comes from viewing oneself as an amateur.  I would doubtless bring different gifts to the table if I were formally schooled in theology, and it is good that there are people in the world who have such training.  But, like Armstrong, I have come to think that for me, it is not bad that I am self-taught.

Although this book sat in my shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up, once I did start it I couldn’t put it down.  One can learn much by reading of this woman’s spiritual journey.


There are times when I feel like I get no work done because the work I planned to do when I began the day gets pushed aside as a result of various interruptions.  People come by to talk, the phone rings and somehow the day passes without “getting any work done.”  My sense is this is not an uncommon reaction.

Joyce Little, in her book, The Church and Culture War, has an observation that is very helpful in those moments.  She writes,

“What we fail to understand is that if [interruptions from our work to deal with the demands others make on us] are a waste of time, then Christ’s life was a waste of time.  For when we read the Gospels attentively, we discover that the story of his life is one long sequence of interruptions.  The blind Bartimaeus interrupts his departure from Jericho, a woman interrupts his dinner in the home of Simon, the leper, a centurion interrupts his entry into Capernaum, Jairus interrupts his meeting with the crowd, the woman with the hemorrhage interrupts his atttempts to get to Jairus’ daughter, his disciples interrupt virtually everything; even Mary interrupts his enjoyment of the wedding.  The list could go on and on….Those were not interruptions, of course.  Those were precisely the people he came to help, the thihgs he came to do.  When so much of his work consisted of attending to those who interrupted him, why should we suppose our own lives to be any different?”

St. Vincent captured the same idea when he spoke of the need to “leave God for God.”  It is good to be reminded of this need now and then.