US Catholic Faith in Real Life

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Do parishes need to get their priorities in order?

In sacramental matters, parishes should welcome people with open arms instead of the third degree.

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By Claretian Father Rosendo Urrabazo, the provincial superior of the USA Province of the Claretian Missionaries.

One day a woman came to our church office just wanting me to bless her 3-year-old son. Boy, did he put up a fight. The only offices he knew were medical offices, and he thought I was going to give him a shot. Unfortunately, that little boy is not the only Catholic intimidated to visit a church office.

I strongly believe that we must show more flexibility in dealing with people who are coming to the church, especially when they’re coming after a long absence or for the first time and when they are coming with a desire for the sacraments. We who work in the church need to do much more to welcome people in a spirit of hospitality and need to worry much less about who is “worthy” to receive the sacraments.

Would Jesus today stick to strict office hours? Would he refuse to baptize babies if their parents couldn’t go to the required classes? What would he require of people before breaking bread with them?

Our new Pope Francis has been asking us to spend more time among the people and less time putting up obstacles for them. Six months before his election as pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio used unusually blunt language when he criticized priests refusing to baptize children born to single mothers. He called priests who deny the sacraments to people because of their life circumstances the “hypocrites of today” and “followers of the Pharisees,” and he chastised them for “driving people away from salvation.”

Unfortunately, I have heard too many stories of people who were “driven away from salvation” because of how they were treated by a priest, a sister, a lay catechist, or a church secretary.

My brother has of the Catholic grammar school, and his primary memory of those years is the harsh discipline of the religious sisters who taught him there. Another brother was not allowed to cross the stage at his high school graduation because my dad was in arrears with some tuition payments. Neither one frequents the church anymore, unless it is for a wedding or a funeral.

As the story of the little boy’s fear of the church office shows, we have to be sensitive to the previous experiences of people. When someone comes to the church office, we have no idea what their day has been like, what they have had to do to get to the church, or what their past experience with the church has been.

The person who receives them—be it a receptionist or the pastor—must be aware not only of the rules of the church but also how to give each person a welcoming smile and listening ear. It has been my experience that that first conversation sets the tone for the pastoral experience. A gruff person can give the impression that you are a bother and that their job is to protect the priest from you. Unfortunately, sometimes that actually is the role they have been assigned.

Many people come to the church office to arrange reception for one of the sacraments, most often baptism or marriage. While working in a Guatemala mission, a newly ordained priest from the United States insisted that couples and godparents come for five pre-baptismal sessions. But these people lived in a village that was two days’ walking distance away. A more experienced brother in the community talked to the young priest about doing the catechesis in some other way.

Sometimes the demands of a particular parish are clearly out of line. I know a priest who would not baptize a baby if the parents were not married in the church. Sure, that would be nice, but that is not a requirement for baptism.

So much depends on how people are approached. The baptism of a child, especially the first child for a couple who have not been close to the church, could be the beginning of a religious life within that family. Rather than focusing on requirements why not focus on invitations to further growth in the faith.

If couples are confronted right away with regulations, they will perceive the church as legalistic and overly concerned about compliance with rules. I remember telling one couple who were just living together and wanted to baptize their little boy that I would work with them to make it possible for them to receive communion with their newborn when he makes his first communion. With this in mind, they agreed to go on an Engaged Encounter weekend.

I have had couples come to me who wanted to get married but who were rejected by other parishes for such spurious reasons as not being registered in that particular parish, or because they needed some special dispensation or even an annulment in order to proceed.

One couple told me that their priest “didn’t do annulments as a matter of principle.” I don’t know how many Catholics have left the church and gone to other churches because of our laws about divorced and remarried Catholics. We need to find ways to be much more pastoral and understanding of people’s lives and the difficult decisions that they must make at times.

We should not make a difficult situation worse by heaping upon couples a lengthy annulment process. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the importance of order and adhering to the norms of our church, but I think that local pastors should be given more leeway to make decisions based on the facts and circumstances of the people in front of them.

A priest has the authority to witness the sacrament of marriage, should he not also have the authority to declare it null and void? Wouldn’t more people be willing to come forward and talk about their marriage relationship with a local pastor or trained married deacon rather than a diocesan tribunal?

Pope Francis has called the church to be “a facilitator of faith and not an inspector of faith.” We should take a close look at all our rules and ask if they really serve to “facilitate” faith.

I take the pope’s call to mean that we should help people grow in their faith from whatever starting point they happen to be. No one is born fully formed in the faith; there is need for progress and development for all of us.

I remember how, after completing my doctoral studies as a young priest, I was sent to a downtown parish. I was still unpacking my bags when I got called down to the church office. A young couple had come in with a little girl, who was carrying a young chicken. Apparently, that day the parish had celebrated the annual blessing of the animals and the family had arrived long after the ceremony. The little girl was very sad that she could not get a blessing for her pet. So what could I do? I blessed the chicken—and I blessed the entire family. I thought, if only my professors could see me now, after all those years of graduate studies, blessing a chicken!

Since then I have blessed hundreds of cars, houses, businesses, and animals of all kinds. I have realized that part of our prophetic ministry is to bless those whom society marginalizes or holds to be of little worth. Now when I greet people, I ask myself what I can do to bless them and their work and their family and their dreams.

Jesus said to give freely what has been given freely to us. Can’t we cut back on the rules and behavior that exclude people and do what we can to bless and include people, especially those who suffer from exclusion in our society?

I have learned that the church teaches best by being and doing for others. Only then does the Word make sense. And only then do the rules help to facilitate the faith of her people.