My Meeting with Our Pastor, Father Michael Flanagan

St. Clare

On Thursday morning, February 26th, I had a 45 minute meeting with the pastor of our church. The ostensible reason for the conference was to discuss Fr. Flanagan’s decision not to publish two homilies I had submitted for the St. Clare Parish Blog. Of course, we ended up talking about matters far beyond that presenting issue. Among them were the weather and U.K. basketball, The Joy of the Gospel, homilies, parish renewal, and the nature of scripture study in seminaries these days. The discussion left me hopeful.

The Weather and U.K. Basketball: Fr. Flanagan is puzzling about how to get emergency messages out to the parish. He decided after the 8:00 a.m. Mass on Ash Wednesday, to call off the evening Mass because he found icy conditions in the parking lot so treacherous. There are professional services he’s considered purchasing for emergency notifications. But they’re probably not worth the cost. Currently, he plans to update his parish e-mail list.

As for U.K., he had watched the game with Mississippi State the previous night. We agreed that the Cats will probably finish the season unbeaten. We’ll see.

My Homily Submissions: Here Fr. Flanagan said that it wasn’t that he had any reservations about what I had said in the posts. It’s just that the Parish Blog isn’t intended for purposes of expressing opinions of parish members. It’s more of an information source. True: the Blog does publish articles from more official sources such as “Vatican News,” and other articles published elsewhere. But the Blog is not the place for expressing opinions of parishioners. “If you want,” Father suggested, “I can check with the Diocesan Director to see what official policy is.” I observed that in the light of the pope’s instruction in Evangelii Gaudium, such checking doesn’t seem necessary. The Apostolic Exhortation, I reminded him, calls for parish autonomy which respects unique local situations, resources and needs. Any objection “from above,” I said, could be met by appeal to the pope’s words.

“In any case,” Fr. Flanagan said, “you’re welcome to come to our Tuesday night discussions of the coming week’s readings.” The discussions are held from 8:00-9:00, are well-attended and enthusiastically received as the most valuable event on the weekly parish calendar. I’m considering taking Father up on that offer.

The Joy of the Gospel: Fr. Flanagan has read the document and is looking forward to Sunday night discussions during Lent. (Although he probably won’t be able to make the pot-luck part, because of his commitment to celebrate Mass at the college beforehand.) He’s turned over leadership of the discussion to Nanette Navarre. We both observed that few people had signed up for the discussions. But Fr. Flanagan said that his experience of parish trends shows that people are reluctant to sign up for events ahead of time, but then show up in substantial numbers.

For my part, I said that I was sorry that the pastor was unable to attend last year’s Lenten discussion of the pope’s Exhortation. I was surprised, I said, that so many people attended and that so much dissatisfaction with parish life found expression – particularly about homilies.

Father pointed out that the Vatican has recently published weekly guidance and suggestions for homilies and approved points of focus,  and that he intends to take advantage of that resource.

Parish Renewal: Using my prepared summary of Evangelii Gaudium highlights, I reminded Father that the pope has called for radical change at the parish level. “Everything must change,” was the theme, I said. But as far as I can see nothing has changed.

Fr. Flanagan agreed that the pope’s document is radical. But it’s not that nothing has changed. He pointed to the Tuesday night discussions of the upcoming Sunday’s liturgy of the word.

In the end, though, we agreed that very little has changed. We were unable to put our fingers on exactly why.

We then turned to the practical suggestions I had listed on page two of my Joy of the Gospel summary. We agreed that the first items in my list were impractical (e.g. a September three-night “revival tent meeting”). But, I suggested, we could do the equivalent this September using the pope’s visit to the United States as an occasion for implementing radical parish changes in the spirit of the Apostolic Exhortation. We could, I said:

  • Encourage people to travel to the papal events.
  • Have an elaborate supper in the parish hall for purposes of viewing Francis’ televised speeches to the UN, and to the U.S. Congress. At a final gathering, the parish could view the papal Mass concluding Francis’ visit to “America.”
  • Have the attendees of the actual events give a report to the parish at another elaborate supper following their return – with Fr. Flanagan sharing his experiences by way of a “State of the Parish” report calling parishioners to a program of joyful renewal where “everything will indeed change.”
  • Sponsor a formal “calling out of gifts and charisms” as part of that radical change – thus taking advantage of the liturgists, artists, poets, musicians, and homilists in the parish. (And if homilists couldn’t share their ideas at Mass, perhaps we might at least post their reflections in the Parish Blog.)

Throughout all of this, Fr. Flanagan was shaking his head in mild affirmation. I found that encouraging.

Scripture Study in Catholic Seminaries: I remarked in general that the scripture scholarship of the last 150 years has not really trickled down to congregations in the pews. I recalled that in my seminary days (1954-1966) – especially after Vatican II (1962-’65) and then in my after-ordination graduate years in Rome (1967-’72) – everything was based on biblical studies. Increasingly, in the major seminary we were exposed to form-critical and redaction-critical studies. Similarly, nothing worthwhile in theology today omits taking into account the work of the Jesus Seminar or by liberation theologians. Nevertheless, none of that seems to influence homilies – anywhere since the very conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Congregations are treated as if the Bible were simply to be read at face value. That’s not really treating us as adults or helping us understand the relevance of faith to science, history, and world events.

Fr. Flanagan said that seminaries still (of course) centralize scriptural studies. He also agreed that modern scholarship doesn’t play much role in most homilies. Neither of us was able to pinpoint exactly why.

Conclusion: Our meeting concluded after 45 minutes. On my way out, we discussed Peggy’s and my decision to attend the Hispanic Mass on Sundays. Father Flanagan observed that he’ll be celebrating that Mass too (once a month) to give Fr. Ulysses a well-deserved break.

In parting, I gave our pastor an inscribed copy of my The Emperor’s God. We said we’d see each other in church and at this week’s discussion of The Joy of the Gospel.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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