Lessons from a Catechumen

This coming Wednesday, our Church begins observing the wonderfully reflective season of Lent. Though the major tenants of this season are prayer, fasting and almsgiving, among young adult Catholics in the U.S. Lent is usually associated with ashes on our foreheads, giving up something or adding something to our lives, no meat on Fridays, 40 somber days and nights, the color purple, and “Operation Rice Bowl,” that all ends with the Triduum celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. For those of us cradle Catholics, born into Catholic families and baptized as infants, this yearly adherence of Lent is filled with mixed emotions as people integrate more reflection and prayer into their lives, continue old traditions or develop new ones, or fight with what can sometimes feel like meaningless impositions on our lives. Certainly, each of the traditions and rituals have their origins—usually very justified and important ones, but we cradle Catholics often forget why Lent started in the first place and the reasons why we have such traditions.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Western world was converting to Christianity in droves, the Church formalized and made universal the practice of Christian Initiation. One of the many stages of this process was a final period of retreat, reflection, purification and enlightenment for the Catechumens that lasted 40 days and 40 nights—to follow in Christ’s own desert experience. Once this practice became common, parish communities were invited to follow the catechumens through Lent—a word that means “Spring”—in a modified retreat practice of their own. When the R.C.I.A: Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults process was restored by the Second Vatican Council as the normal way adults prepare for baptism and was approved for use in the U.S. in 1974, our Church’s emphasis and Lent practices were meant to return to its early Christian roots.

This past year, I have been blessed to again coordinate the RCIA program at my new parish. Our only catechumen has been a true inspiration for me, and I sincerely look forward to using Lent as a time to follow her. Continue reading

Ghosts of Advents Past, Present and Future

Well, here we are less than two days before the Christmas season starts and at the end of Advent. Now, I really have to ask myself “where did the Advent season go?” Sure, I knew Advent was coming. Before Halloween was over, stores were selling Christmas decorations, so the gem of the Christian Tradition that is Advent had to be coming as well. Yet, since the first week of November, I’ve been running one of the longest marathons of my life. While taking 6 graduate courses at once (this is NOT recommended), I also chose to attend both the Call to Action Conference and the SOA/WHINSEC Vigil at Ft. Benning, Georgia held only two weeks apart and a collective 36 hours roundtrip of driving on top of the marvelous and life-changing activities in between. Following that, I had to write about 200 pages worth of research papers, study for and take my final exams, and devote time to the candidates and catechumens in my parish’s RCIA program which I coordinate. With all of that, I have unfortunately not had the chance I usually do to reflect on and enjoy our Advent season. My prayer life has been reduced to “God, thank-you for your many gifts…” as I collapse into an exhausted sleep nearly every night. This is not the way I have prepared for the celebration of the Incarnation ever before in my life, and I hope not to again in the future, but I certainly have gained some needed insight this year.

I have always loved the Advent Season because we get to hold both our past and future in our hands at the same time. With the darkest days of the year forcing us inside, we are offered a time to reflect back on the joys and sorrows of the year as well as the mystery of God become human nearly 2000 years ago. We then get the opportunity to revel in our lives with God today and prepare the way for the future coming of Christ and the Kin-dom of God.

On Gaudete Sunday, the St. Louis NextGen Faith Sharing group gathered, and while we were sharing a bit about how our Advents were each going this year, I began thinking about the past Advents of my life. I am so thankful for the ghosts of Advents Past because they allow me to uncover the many meanings of Advent 2008 and the advents that may come as we await our future in God.

As a child, my diocese used blue candles instead of purple to remember the aspect of Advent in which we are all called to travel with Mary, the first Theotokos—“God bearer,” through whom we learn the lesson of saying “yes” to God, and praising and thanking our Creator for the blessing of the Incarnation. We are all then called to bring Christ into the world through our own actions and words. In the fourth grade, I may have played the Angel Gabriel in the Christmas pageant at school which taught me to preach the Gospel, but I began the lesson of being a theotokos in spending several days in Advents past volunteering with one of my local anti-poverty organizations.

I learned the lesson preached by both the Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist during my first year of college. I sang for the 9 PM Mass as a part of the Chapel Choir Ensemble, and we had prepared some traditional and contemporary pieces for the first Sunday of Advent. At the last minute, our conductor chose to turn the lights out in the chapel and send Andy, our long-haired, peace loving, Catholic hippie tenor up to the balcony to welcome in the Advent season by being a voice in the wilderness singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell. Sure, it might have been a little theatrical, but it struck a spiritual chord within me that comes back every first Sunday of Advent. During this season and throughout our lives, we are called to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Christ in our own lives, and we are also to be like Isaiah, John and Andy by helping others understand the importance of Christ’s presence and work today. We are surrounded by the wilderness, and whether we live on a farm in Iowa or in the heart of New York City, we must be that voice crying out Emmanuel—“God with Us”.

Advent 2008 has been a lesson in truly being present to the people around me even when I have a list of things to do that has never been so long. Though I may not have been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to the people around me or to my God, this Advent taught me to cherish even the small opportunities I am given. Since we never know when the time is coming, and just in case there are no more Advents, I have done my best to be here now in the brief moments of this advent. If there are ghosts of Advents future, I hope they will offer me the opportunity to be present, watchful, and give me more time to devote to this preparation season.

May the end of Advent and this Christmas season encourage us all to live this difficult and most blessed Christian life throughout the year. Peace be with you!

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

Catholics Got a Bad Rep: Modern Catholic Apologetics

After 21 consecutive years of attending one Catholic school after another, I made the deliberate choice to earn my Masters in Social Work-a predominantly secular degree-from a non-religious institution. Though I would not trade my Catholic education for anything, for I would not be either where I am or who I have become today without those schools, I know I had been partially secluded from some realities of society because of my Catholic lens. Certainly, I did not leave my Catholicism behind me when I walked onto to this new kind of campus, but I needed to be taught from a different perspective. After nearly two months at this non-Catholic affiliated school, I am fully living the tension of being Catholic in an anti-Catholic world.

From the time I wore a plaid jumper at St. Patrick’s elementary to the day I received my M.A. in Theology in the shadow of Our Lady’ Golden Dome, I was aware that the Catholic Church historically has not been well liked in the U.S. and still today has much more negative stigma than positive associations among both non-Catholics and former Catholics (“recovering Catholics” as they often refer to themselves). Jay P. Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience recounts the story of the Catholic Church’s role within U.S. society from the first missionaries in the Spanish and French settlements, to the establishment of Maryland as a Catholic colony, through the flood of European Catholic immigrants, and into the present. Though we rarely experience lynchings or have crosses burned in our yards any more (for the KKK began “admitting” Catholics into its membership in the late 1960’s), being Catholic is still not an easy path. Dolan argues that Catholics never really found their footing in the U.S. until the election of John F. Kennedy as president (which allowed most Catholics to transition from working to middle class), yet most historians believe that JFK won In Spite of his Catholicism. In 1928, Al Smith certainly lost the presidential election to Herbert Hoover because of his Catholic identity, and afterward Smith lamented that “the time hasn’t come when a man can say his beads in the White House.” Since the death of JFK, no man or woman has again been given the right to pray their rosary at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, and I don’t think that is coincidental.

The problem with us is that if we are truly Catholic, that is really living the Gospel of Jesus, we do not and should not align with either the religious right or the secular left. More liberal mainline Protestants see us as too entrenched in Tradition while conservative Evangelical Christians rarely recognize our salvation and think we worship Mary and the saints (which is NOT true). On the other side, secularists clump us in with all “Religious Fanatics” (i.e. Evangelical Christians) even though many Catholics greatly differ on issues such as Evolution (Catholics DO believe in evolution-as God’s way of creating), a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible (Catholics believe Scripture is the inspired Word of God but do NOT believe the Bible is literally, word for word, true), and issues of Salvation (Catholics do NOT believe that non-Catholics or non-Christians are doomed to hell).

So I continue to live in the tension of both trying to change the oppressive and outdated aspects of the Church I love while also defending the Gospel, Tradition, community, and beauty of Catholicism to a society that still refuses to accept us. Without a doubt, this modern Apologetics is another chapter in the 2000 year Catholic experience that I doubt will change soon. For though it was definitely easier to spend my days at a Catholic university surrounded by people who typically agreed with my same core beliefs, I am confident that I am living the Gospel better by being a voice for Christ and the Church in an anti-Catholic America by working to change our bad reputation in the way I live my life.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

Democracy in Action! Well, sort of…

It is now officially autumn in an election year, and interested voters and observers around the world are following the candidates and are eager to hear what they have to say during the scheduled debates. Three debates are slotted for the presidential candidates, while one debate is set for the vice-presidential candidates. In past years, the primary focus seemed to be on the presidential debates, but with the media’s intense fascination with Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, viewers around the world are expected to tune in on Thursday, October 2nd to watch her take on the Democratic party’s veteran senator, Joe Biden. In fact, for weeks now, the BBC website has had a permanent link to pre-VP debate information on their main page.

Considering this new found attention for the VP debate, I thought I would offer some observations on how this extravaganza is affecting the lives of those at its host university. After twice holding the presidential debates in recent year (1992 and 2000), Washington University in St. Louis was awarded what many originally saw as a consolation prize: the VP debate. Now that things have changed in regards to vice presidential “importance,” our campus is flooded with reporters, items are for sale everywhere (t-shirts, mugs, pens and even sweat pants…), and the grounds and maintenance crews are working overtime repainting walls and curbs, replacing dead flowers, and surrounding campus (and it’s a fairly big campus) with temporary aluminum fencing, pounding stakes in for secondary vinyl fences, and creating a protest pin (which members of the local Catholic Worker have already pledged to be in). The Athletic Complex, the actual venue for this shindig, is already closed for preparation that will include bomb squad sweeps, secret service details, and other anti-terrorism activities. This means that students will be unable to use the fitness facilities until October 6 even though the debate will be over on October 2. On the day of the debate itself, traffic, including the public bus I take to and from campus, will be banned.

Now, I would not mention these inconveniences if the benefit of this debate truly outweighed their annoyance. For all that the staff (so many maintenance workers have been in the grueling sun for days!), faculty and students have to do or put up with for this debate, getting to attend such an affair would make it all worthwhile. But of course, there is a catch. Of the thousands of tickets available for this debate, it is estimated (though not guaranteed) that only 200-300 will be given to the university. Over 7,000 of the 12,000 students have entered the ticket lottery for one of these coveted tickets, and odds are obviously slim.

Now, even if I were “lucky” enough to be selected in the lottery for a ticket, the debate will be nothing more than a pre-fabricated, staged dialogue between two candidates who have been given the questions ahead of time and have exchanged answers with the other political party. A moderator is asking questions, and in effect there will be no debate. It is just two politician-actors putting on a show. The candidates won’t even engage one another; they will perform for the audience and “smile pretty” for the camera. For more information on the death of the American Presidential Debate, see PBS’s website.

So what on earth does this have to do with being a young adult Catholic? Reports are estimating that the Millennial Generation will have the largest showing ever in history in representing young adult voters who have traditionally been the least likely to show up at the polls. As Catholics, we are called to live out the Gospel of Jesus in all we do and work for a better world as we glimpse the Reign of God. One primary way of having a voice in the world today is by voting. So if you haven’t yet registered to vote, please do so, and make democracy really happen…not just a lot of show like this debate is bound to be!

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

Sexuality Obsession Impeding Action against World Poverty

Recently, Anglican Archbishop and South African Nobel peace laureate, Desmund Tutu, was addressing a conference of church leaders organized by the Christian charity Tearfund where he accused the church of allowing its “obsession” with homosexuality to come before real action on world poverty.

“God is weeping,” Tutu said, to see such a focus on sexuality when “the world is hurting. The world is hungry. The world is diseased. The world is riddled with corruption and conflict, and we ought to be where our Lord would be. Our Lord would be constantly moving in this world, doing acts of kindness [and] healing.” As a result, the Archbishop said, the Church is “quite rightly” seen by many as irrelevant on the issue of poverty.

Desmond Tutu went on to say “I am ashamed to be associated with a church that persecutes people who are already persecuted,” specifically referring to sexual minorities. He said that “it is not a matter of theology; it is a matter of justice” that the church “accept that we agree to differ” on the issue of homosexuality and focus on the 30,000 people who die each day of poverty. Yet, he believes in justice for sexual minorities and says “I will stand up and say for myself that I oppose homophobia.”

Though Tutu has already used his voice many times over and been honored as one of our era’s great prophets, this speech rang especially true for me. He may have been talking specifically about the Anglican/Episcopalian Church’s now long battle over homosexuality, but his message really speaks to the wider Church, that is all of us who are striving to be modern disciples of Christ. In this election season, we will hear about the conservative’s list of “non-negotiables” that Catholics are supposed to vote by according to their ideology’s theology, but most of these issues are about personal morality. I believe governmental laws should focus much more on our communal wrong doings and welfare. Like Tutu, I am appalled that poverty, disease and war are not “non-negotiables.” I become ill when I hear lifelong Catholics say they have never heard of Catholic Social Teaching. It is OUR SIN as a Church that these tenants are “the best kept secrets” of Catholicism. We continue to let people die of famine, curable ailments, and war but are obsessed with issues of sexuality that have no bearing on our communal lives.

I am often asked by other social workers, feminists, and community organizers how I can be Catholic. They rightly see so much oppression, injustice, and hurt within and caused by the Church. It seems more often than not that I, like the Anglican Archbishop, am ashamed of being associated with a church that continues to add to the hurt and “persecution” rather than being where Christ was in his day and where he most certainly would be today. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a few reasons that keep me in the Church, but it is almost a daily struggle to keep turning back to those greater and richer reasons of why I must be Catholic while remaining associated with a hierarchical organization that adds to people’s pain. Like Tutu, I realize that it is only by staying an active and faithful disciple in the Church and working for change, both in the world and Church, that I will help to bring about much needed healing. I just pray that my association with the church isn’t adding to the persecution.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

“Vocations”

As one of my friends from college was packing up her apartment for a move, she stumbled upon an item that recalled our friendship’s beginnings. When people ask me how we met, I usually tell them that we lived in the same dorm my freshmen year, but in truth, most people, Catholic or not, could never really understand what built our friendship.

Sure, it is true that we lived in the same dorm, along with 400 other women, but we grew close because we were the odd young women who seemed to have a “special” interest in faith and spirituality. We enjoyed not only going to Mass, but actually wanted to help plan it and volunteer for events put on by our college’s campus ministry. What really brought us together, though, was that we were designated as “vocation discerners.” Many in the Catholic world constantly urged us to “seriously discern religious life.” From high school on for both us, one in the urban Midwest and the other in rural California, had little old church ladies, priests and nuns envisioning the day we would take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience long before we knew the difference between an apostolic sister and a contemplative nun. My friend was even given the worst CD-Rom ever created: “God’s Design.” This was the found item that spurred my friend’s 2,000 mile call and left us belly laughing as we relived its horrid format of a Santa Claus looking God leading the vocations discerner through an amusement park of prayers, religious life, and tips for the soon to be priest or religious. The most memorable advice included something to the effect of “After selling all of your belongings, be sure to have a farewell party with all of your family and friends because you will never see them again!”

Though well intentioned, these folks (the creators of the CD-Rom included) pushing us into religious life never gave us an alternative to being faithful and spiritual women other than becoming vowed religious. Certainly, I am not chastising anyone of those people who felt the need to tell me that I “would look great in a habit” or “make a better school teacher than the mean sister” they had in grade school, but I never once had someone say to me, “Becky, you would make a great lay ecclesial leader. We need strong and faithful women like you!” No one ever even told me that the laity have a mission of their own within the Catholic Church. It is a mission that I now realize, after years of “vocations discernment,” that I am truly called to live. I actually stumbled upon Vatican II’s beautifully written role of the laity while writing a paper in college: “The laity…are given this special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that it can become the salt of the earth…All lay people…are at once the witness and the living instruments of the mission of the church itself… [and] have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater extension of the divine plan of salvation to all people of every time and every place (Lumen Gentium, 30).”

I am certain that there are faithful women called to vowed religious life within a community, and we must support those who are discerning God’s call, especially those who are young and find it increasingly difficult as religious communities continue to age. I have been guided, mentored and loved by many of these fantastic sisters, but as a Church, we must not continue to perpetuate the notion that the only way for a woman to be a truly faithful Catholic is to become a vowed religious. We must encourage and constantly remind all people that each of us has a vocation vital to the mission and life of the Church, and when asked to “pray for vocations” also pray for passionate, devoted and faithful laity as well.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.