US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Do this in memory of me, but do it well

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In an interview with U.S. Catholic, Bishop Kenneth Edward Untener shared his vision of a nourishing liturgy and united church.

You've written about the busyness in parishes these days. How is that a problem?

The problem isn't that people are necessarily working too hard, but in too many directions. Parishioners are becoming consumers, and parishes are marketing wares. So you have all these programs to meet all human needs, but there are problems: one, we don't have the answer to every need, and two, the church was never meant to be the sole agent of goodness out there.

We ought to focus on what we're about, and the most important thing a parish does is liturgy and prayer. But in practice, that isn't happening. I always want to ask priests, "What do you think about when you're driving?" Pastors are not thinking about how they can make the weekend liturgy come alive. They're thinking about personnel; they're thinking about planning.

The question we ought to be asking as pastors is: "How can I help people get closer to God?" That sounds pious, but I think that's the real question that ought to preoccupy me when I drive-not all of the organizational things.

How are you trying to improve liturgy and help people get closer to God?

One thing we have been emphasizing in the Saginaw Diocese is preaching. We have a required program for all those who preach, including priests and deacons, pastoral administrators and pastoral associates.

I gather a group of four priests and another person who preaches and ask them to audiotape their homilies in battle conditions: in church with babies crying and ushers in the back reading the bulletin. We get tapes of their homilies, too--including mine--and then get together to give each other feedback.

We do what golfers do after a match; golfers are dead honest. We talk for about two hours about one another's homilies, and then we go out and tape another one the next week. We do this for four weeks. I've been doing it for five years, and it has just really lifted up the realization of how important a homily is.

I also have liturgies videotaped. Here the purpose is not just to look at the presider, it's to look at the whole liturgy. One time I asked one of the camera people to keep the camera on the congregation during the whole Mass. It was total inaction; the poor people never get to do anything.

These efforts have elevated the awareness of the importance of liturgy--that you've got to spend creative effort. The objective of good liturgy is not good manners, it's prayer. You can feel it in the air if we're praying. But too often the presider is not praying, he's performing. It doesn't look like he's talking to God at all. He's reciting.

Another thing some parishes in our diocese do is the "four minute teaching" before the final blessing. We introduced that for two reasons. One is to stop priests from teaching during the homily. What should make the homily come alive is the illumination of the power of God's Word. Let God do it, not the brilliance of the homilist. And the second reason is that many Catholics are, through no fault of their own, relatively illiterate about our traditions and thirsty to know.

So I said, give me four minutes before the last blessing--four minutes because when you say five minutes, it's a euphemism for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. By the way, the presider doesn't have to be the one to do it. There may be somebody else more skilled in this.

What topics do you cover in these "four minute teachings"?

In the three or four parishes that are doing it fairly consistently, one is walking through the sacraments, another one is walking through the Creed, and another one is just taking whatever the people last week said they'd like to hear more about.

It might be "Did Jesus on the cross suffer more than anyone else, because I think my grandmother suffered more when she died of cancer?" or it might be "What is the difference between a cardinal and an archbishop?"

Why spend time on that? Because Catholics want to be literate. In one parish, I recently noticed how few people drank from the cup. So I spent four minutes talking about why we do it last week. You could hear a pin drop.

You said the most important thing we do in church is worship. Some people might disagree and say that the most important thing we do is when we leave liturgy and then go out into the world.

Well, first of all, I'd modify what I said: The most important thing we do is help people get in touch with God. We have the symbols that are meant to open us up to God, but we get stuck arguing over the symbol or the ritual.

This awareness changes the way we see the world. Spirituality is a way of looking at God, at myself, and at people in the world that changes the way I think and act. I'd say that the most important thing is for a parish to do that well so that people can be nurtured to make sense out of their week.

What are the key characteristics of a liturgy that feeds people's spirits? And what are the biggest mistakes that prevent that from happening?

The biggest thing that is not generally understood is that this is liturgical prayer. Liturgical prayer is the Catholic trademark, but it's been absent for a millennium because the Mass became an individual experience.

My nephew in Saginaw drove himself down to the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to watch the Red Wings hockey team on television against Philadelphia for the finals of the Stanley Cup. He could have watched it at home, so why did he go all that way? Because the crowd puts something in the air. There's something about doing this together. That's a close cousin to liturgical prayer.

The most evident liturgical prayer that I'm aware of is the veneration of the cross on Good Friday. You just sit there and watch people come to the cross. You watch the little kid go up and touch it, and this old person kisses it, and somebody else just stands there and looks at it.

If I'm attending Mass, I sit there at Communion and just watch the people and think, "God, they believe the same thing I do." That's liturgical prayer.

It's something you feel in the air, like my nephew did, and you can't accomplish that by terrific liturgical planning. It's got to be more than that. It certainly helps to have good music--and if the homily's not an irritation--but you could overcome that. I gave a talk once on how to pray well at a Mass that's not celebrated well.

So, how do you pray well at a lousy Mass?

Squint for a few minutes; take in the whole thing that is going on. Use the message, use the stained-glass windows. The Mass is a grand buffet of God's presence. Watch for a word in a song or in the homily or in a reading or in a prayer that catches you. Maybe that's how God wanted to catch you today.

The other thing is: When you pray, pray. Most people don't know that the song is a prayer, for example. I try to tell people to always think of whom they're singing to. Sometimes they're singing to each other, and sometimes they're singing to God, and sometimes they're singing to themselves. But you should know which it is, because you're praying.

On those videos of the liturgy that I mentioned earlier, I can always tell when the presider is really praying. Sometimes, for example, at the end of Mass the priest will wing a little blessing for a holiday or something, and it'll be obvious that he is really praying. Then I rewind to the eucharistic prayer, where his tone of voice and style are totally different. I'll ask him, "Whom are you talking to here?" I can tell when you're praying.

I can't tell you how to do it because everybody does it differently. It's really hard when you're the celebrant and trying to pray because really talking to God is like baring your soul in front of people. But real prayer is catching, and you can't fake it. That's why the most important preparation for liturgical ministers and preachers is getting close to God.

What about the "consumer mentality" of Mass-goers--that if they're not entertained properly, then they'll go somewhere else, that there's really no sense of belonging to this community?

Yes, like spectators. No wonder they feel like spectators, because in many ways that's exactly what they are. They get to speak for 126 seconds in a one-hour Mass, and over half of that is the Creed. You add up every word they say--I timed it with a stopwatch with a video of a Mass--and in a one-hour Mass, 126 seconds is all parishioners have to speak. Except to stand and sit, the first movement they had was the sign of peace, 48 minutes into the Mass. And the only other movement they had was Communion.

The simplest way to explain the Mass is to see the whole Liturgy of the Word as God moving toward us. That's when we are receptive to how God is acting upon us. But after the Liturgy of the Word, you begin the reverse--us moving toward the altar, toward God. What we're all doing is putting our lives, our joys and our sorrows, our fears, broken relationships--everything on the altar and joining with the Lord just as he took all his joys and sorrows and entrusted them to God. That notion of the congregation moving toward God, though, is often lost. It really is two separate motions, one is God toward us and the other is us toward God. Unless people feel that, they think the flow is all from God to us.

In the Saginaw diocese, one year we emphasized this movement toward God during Lent through almsgiving. Every week, parishioners were asked to bring something. I didn't want them putting things at the door. I wanted them to come forward during the Mass, not in a line but from all directions. They bring food, clothes, or sometimes a card saying they're going to work for justice.

One week I asked people to think of the one thing that stands between them and God, and then to decide to give it up. I had a week to think about that and I wrote something down for myself. That Sunday, I walked up and put my card on the altar. As a result of doing that, I was faithful to the pledge I made.

The ritual made all the difference. You don't just walk up to the altar and put something in and say, "I was just kidding." When people walk up with their alms, then their money isn't paying their dues, it comes out of their work, out of their lives, out of their homes. But when we pass the basket like people are paying their dues, the wrong people are moving.

If the role of the leader is to ask the right questions, what central questions should church leaders be asking today?

Any leader in the church should first of all recognize that Jesus Christ is not retired and that we acknowledge that Jesus is the leader of the church.

So right away, that changes my position. I'm not replacing Christ, I'm trying to be a waiter for what Christ is trying to serve through the Spirit to the people. I'm not the cook; I'm the waiter. I always say homilists should approach the readings like waiters and say, "What is the cook serving today?" That's what you serve.

It shouldn't be, "What does this give me an opportunity to talk about?" That's the wrong question--but it's the question most homilists ask. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It should be "What am I compelled to say?" and "What is the Lord saying?"

So church leaders should be asking the question, "What is the Lord calling me to do, calling us to be, and calling me to help us be?" But the temptation is to let ego get in the way. The question isn't "How can I get through this meeting?" but "How can we do something real at this meeting?" It isn't "How can I make this parish weekend come off well?" but "What can I say to these people?" Those are two very different questions.

I can tell you from 18 years of being a bishop, it took me a long time to shift to the right question because I want to be a friendly bishop, a nice bishop. Then it gradually began to dawn on me that, no, I'm supposed to be one of the instruments of the Lord.

Do you think church leaders are preoccupied with not looking bad?

I can only speak about the U.S. bishops. I truly, truly don't believe that, by and large, bishops are hankering for a larger diocese or for an escalating ecclesiastical career. But there is a reluctance to be a person who speaks in a critical voice about the church, about the Curia, about Rome, about the Vatican, about the pope. People assume that's because bishops are careerists, but I don't think that's true.

For collegiality to work, bishops have to act like bishops. It won't work otherwise.

When I was young, growing up in Detroit on Belle Isle, I was part of one of those four-person rowing crews, each with one long oar. The person sitting closest to the stern is called the stroke, and you've got to follow the stroke, because if you don't, you'll get hurt bad. You're going so fast, and those oars are so long, if one of them got tangled, it would just come back and break your jaw. So the stroke sets the pace.

In the church, the pope is the stroke, but he's part of the crew. His job is not to tell me how to row, but to keep us together. That's why the pope exists, for the sake of communion.

The coach over in the launch is the one telling us how to row, and that's the Holy Spirit, for the sake of analogy. But the system only works if the rest of us are pulling hard on our oars, because if we said the stroke is the better one, let him do all the rowing, we'd go in a circle. We have to have all four rowing equally.

Actually the stroke doesn't have the best view--the guy in the bow has the best view. So we talk. We talk before the race, we talk after the race, and we talk during the race. We might say, "Let's pick it up a couple of strokes."

So that's what I mean when I say bishops have to act like bishops. The pope is a member of the college of bishops. I would never do anything to fall out of communion with the church. I would never directly disobey the pope; he's the stroke. I'll disagree with him at times, but not to the extent that it would break unity.

I'm the bishop of Saginaw, so I decide certain things. I decided that we could have altar girls back when that was still a problem.

These are the kind of decisions bishops can and should make. Which is not to say that I'm going to start having Coke and potato chips instead of bread and wine, or that I'm going to ordain a married man, because that's something the communion of the church is going to have to deal with. But why do bishops seem to act as schoolboys when some of these things come up, like the English translation of the Lectionary? Bishops are not timid souls. This one is a great mystery to me.

The popular image of authority in the church is the pope as the CEO of the branch offices. I wrote an article once, in which I said that this is not the ecclesiology of Vatican II. People think of the pope as the one and only Vicar of Christ, but traditionally the title applies to every bishop. After the article, I had some bishops say to me, "I didn't know that."

Throughout the United States, there's all this talk about the polarization of Catholics, but it seems your diocese is relatively free of it. Is that true?

Actually, I don't think the polarization is as rampant as people think it is. First, let me say something about Saginaw. We haven't got the kingdom built there, and we have all the joys and sorrows of the church, but I'd say that there's been a momentum in Saginaw. There is a good spirit there that goes back to my predecessor, Francis Reh.

Overall, I don't think that ours is a polarized church. I think that's the lens through which a lot of news stories are written because they always have to get the other side. When I have a Mass in the Civic Center with 5,000 people, and six people picket, you know the six people will be on the evening news.

The people who are against you, sometimes in a hateful way, have loud voices. Like the time the group Roman Catholic Faithful took out a full-page ad in the Saginaw News calling me a "heretic."

How do you deal with that, spiritually?

You take it to prayer, or you get ulcers. I think there were times when Jesus was heckled too and I try to connect with that.

I think that's part of my job--to do what ought to be done, and when people criticize you, to love more. But it hurts. I'm thick-skinned, in a sense. I still play hockey--I sometimes say, "It's my chance to get un-Christian for an hour." But it hurts most when it's somebody who was formerly friendly.

There are a lot of people out there who probably are with you in theory, but don't necessarily show it in action. What advice would you give these timid parishioners?

They have got to learn to speak up on the deeper issues. Catholics, of course, generally don't have a tradition of doing that. I think they need to be more attentive to what's going on and try to do something about it. They don't have a strong enough that we are all in this together.

We talk about the sense of the faithful, but we don't generally ask the people about what is important to them. They're not used to being asked. I love to ask people, "If you were the pope and could do one thing before you die, what would you do?" That makes for an interesting dinner. But we have no way to tap into the sense of the faithful on a large scale.

And if you were pope, what would you do?

I'd ordain married men. I would want to do something that would make the rest happen. I think if we ordained married men, and did it without a schism, that would open up access to ordination on a much larger scale.

Do the so-called "liberals" get too caught up in critiquing the church?

I worry about self-selecting audiences gathering to hear a predictable speaker give a predictable message. The horror stories--depending on whether it's an audience of liberals or conservatives--will be different as to why the bishops or the clergy or the pope is so awful, but the effect is the same.

I think the purpose of giving a talk is to widen horizons to force us to think. I want to go to a talk to learn something, not hear new horror stories about the same thing. Everybody leaves thinking just what they thought when they walked in, they just have fresh ammunition.

The people I respect the most are those you don't know which side they're going to come down on. One of the things that's hurting us is that we don't have a responsible conservative voice in the U.S. Catholic Church--not that there aren't responsible conservatives, but they don't want to be identified with the extremists. And so they're not as vocal as they ought to be and they're hesitant to speak up. I am challenged most by someone who will take what I consider a surprisingly conservative position.

I have this group that I call my Theological Squad--about six or seven theologians. I pick a topic in advance, we get together for dinner, and that's it. You can say anything you want. We're good friends, and we can shout at each other, say that their position is heresy, and have a wonderful time together. But you never know which side people are going to come down on regarding issues.

I remember we had a great discussion when the topic was "Does God, in God's infinite plan, eventually want the whole world to be Christian?" With a question like that, you can have a terrific time. But what I learned is: You've got to have respect. The answers aren't as simple and predictable as you might think.

Why did you decide to become a priest?

I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or go the corporate route. But it seemed if I chose one, it would narrow me. I thought I might give the priesthood a try because I had this sense that it had wide horizons. You are a writer and a speaker. You deal with large groups of people and with people one-on-one. You work with young people, with old people, with rich people, with poor people.

It is so nice to be able to settle into something and not have any of my family or friends expect that every year my salary is going to get bigger or that I'm going to get a better office or open up branch offices or move up the corporate ladder. I don't have to be looking over my shoulder for a better career opportunity.

Actually, I'd love to be a pastor of a parish.

Well, some priests are saying they'd love to be the bishop.

Not anymore. Now bishops are like kamikaze pilots.

You heard about the bishop who died and went to hell? He was there two weeks before he knew it!

Kenneth Edward Untener was Bishop for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan from 1980 until his death in 2004.