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    A View from the Pew

    Feast of Famine? Vatican II Parish Reality Check

    The Feast or Famine? A Vatican II Parish Reality Check

    Yesterday’s View from the Pew took an ironic turn. Knowing that the readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A contained some of my all time favorite scripture passages, I eagerly drove to a parish whose liturgical environment spoke clearly of its faithfulness to the document Built of Living Stones (2000) and whose liturgy contained a Children’s Liturgy of the Word, a Sending Forth of Communion ministers of the Eucharist to the sick, and a well trained liturgical staff who understand Vatican II and embodied what the Church teaches through its robust documents. Bravo, gang.

    On this particular Sunday, God’s outreach invites us to feast without cost on food and drink that gives life even to the hungriest among us in the opulent reading from Isaiah (55: 1-3).  Psalm 145 affirms that the hand of the Lord feeds us through gracious mercy and compassion and freely satisfies the desire of every living thing. Paul tells us in a letter to the Romans (8: 35, 37-39) that nothing will separate us from God’s love, not even famine, distress or persecution. Grace becomes ours for the asking.

    Crowning this gorgeous triptych of scriptural sumptuousness, we hear that Jesus must feel profoundly saddened and angry over the political and unjust death of his cousin, John the Baptist at the hand of Herod’s daughter Salome.  The gospel informs us that Jesus wants to do exactly what we want to do when we receive terrible news: go away to a quiet place, to grieve and pray to God. We might imagine that Jesus prayed for the strength to bear the heavy burden of responsibility that this sudden circumstance now places squarely on his shoulders. John is dead; to whom do his disciples and the growing mass of followers now turn? To Jesus, whom John baptized and proclaimed as the Lamb of God. They flood Jesus when he disembarks off his getaway boat. Upon seeing the enormous crowd, Jesus “was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”  (Matt: 14: 13-21) We hear that everyone ate and became satisfied with food, producing a surplus from the gathered scraps after the massive gathering shared their meal. (For a really great exegesis on this gospel, see Megan McKenna’s Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible, Orbis Books, NY. © 1998.)

    The lector lacked the passion that inspires the beauty of the readings and the gratitude that I anticipated as I heard these beautiful readings proclaimed. We sang a seasonal substitute psalm rather than the anticipated psalm of the day.  The robust content of the readings of the day, both in spoken and sung word, contained the potential to knock us to our knees with thankful praise at the magnanimous love and generosity of God toward us all, without cost. God feeds us at no additional charge: we simply need to show up, like the vast crowd, and Jesus takes pity on us and gives us what we need in due season. Just like that. News like this should have driven us into the streets shouting at the top of our voices. Surprised that this ‘on the ball’ parish failed to meet my (high) expectations), I waited for a stirring homily. Another bolt from the blue awaited me.

    The presider preached from the center of the sanctuary rather than from the ambo. I simply did not expect that posturing from this competent and liturgically astute priest. He really caught me off guard. Jesus preached from the place of the Word in the temple, where our liturgical practice finds its origin. Even renowned preachers like Walter Burghart, S.J. or Henri Nouwen used a text to crack open the Word - from the ambo. If someone can explain why this center stage practice exists, I would really appreciate knowing the answer. But the biggest surprise lay in store.

    I just about began to whole heartedly enter the homily when it took a turn into another terrain. The presider introduced a member of the Financial Council to give the Fiscal Annual Report. Stunned at the irony of this coupling of ‘free grace’ and fiscal responsibility, I glanced around me to see everyone’s reactions. Some slumped. Some moaned. Some shifted. A few people left the church and headed for the restrooms. Oh no, I thought. I don’t need to hear this. Or do I? What message could I glean from this unexpected posturing of fiscal accountability featured within a homily about God’s grace and assistance at no cost? God never disappoints me.

    In a nutshell, the annual fiscal report, made available right next to the bulletin at the multiple entryways of the church, broke the costs of the parish finances into groupings, much the same way any business or household would do. Cost of living increases for hired staff, operations, mortgage payments, extra expenses, building maintenance fees, activities, food expenditures, and investment income --- all expenses reflected the costs of a Vatican II parish in this post-modern day era. The report truthfully reflected that although the parish books accounted for over 1,000 families as members, the total giving of the parish reflected less than half of that number in fiscal accountability. Moreover, this parish with one pastor contained two churches and two parishes, each with their own operations budget. I wondered how one man could faithfully and energetically serve two parishes as a sacramental leader and administrator without burning the proverbial candle at both ends.

    Why do we expect, as Catholic Christians, to be fed, nurtured, served, led, awakened, impassioned and motivated by really good pastors and their staffs when we fail to walk the gospel line and fully and actively participate not only from our location in the pew but as fiscal stewards? Does an average household live on love alone and depend on the grace of God to feed the kids, pay the mortgage and energy bills and take care of the property? Or do we pray for the grace of God to feed and nurture us so that we can do our work to feed the kids, pay the mortgage and utility bills? If Catholic Christians want a vibrant parish with a competent staff (and this one is), why do we sit back and let somebody else do the heavy lifting? Are we feasting at the expense of someone else? Vatican II envisioned a church alive and responsive, not only in its liturgical worship but one that embodies fiscal responsibility and stewardship of its own community as well as our responsibility to share not only our prayers but our food with the world. “Feed them yourselves,” Jesus commands us in Matthew’s gospel. Do we?

    Feast or famine --- which church do YOU want?