The End of an Era

For over 30 years I’ve been involved in the RCIA program at St. Gabriel. It is a series of weekly classes that run from September through Pentecost in the spring and is designed for people who want to convert to the Catholic faith. Some Catholics also attend as sponsors or simply to use it as an opportunity to update their faith personally. I attended the program when I returned to the Catholic Church after having left for about eight or nine years and then I began teaching classes and have been a teacher continuously ever since.

I will not be returning to teach this year.

There are a variety of reasons. My health has always been a concern. I have chronic nasal and lung problems that can flareup unexpectedly. Couple of years ago I had a nasty coughing spell in the middle of teaching a lesson. For many years I’ve only taught lessons in the early fall more in the spring to avoid nasty weather. Become more and more difficult for both me and my dad to get out nasty weather. We had considered if necessary I can teach the classes via Skype. That would’ve been interesting.

Two years ago our pastor Fr. Larry Crawford retired and I told our Director of Religious Education Teresa Keith that I might not be back depending on how the program might change under a new pastor. I recognize that I was getting a bit old and set in my ways and wasn’t sure that I would want to continue if the program was significantly different from what I had been doing. I had started teaching under Fr. Paul Landwerlen and when he moved to a parish in Shelbyville our next pastor Fr. Bill Marks Was not heavily involved in RCIA. That meant that the program pretty much stayed the same. When Fr. Larry Crawford came a couple of years later he was very much enthusiastic about RCIA and heavily involved in the same way that Fr. Paul was. There are no a million differences between Fr. Paul and Fr. Larry but they approach RCIA very similarly. So I give that transition was very easy for me. But I knew that the next transition could be very different and it might be time for me to step aside.

As it turned out, Fr. Mike, our current pastor, is focusing his efforts on Hispanic RCIA and left the English version to continue as it was going. In fact Fr. Larry Crawford decided that despite his retirement, he still wanted to be involved in RCIA. That is how passionate he was about it. I thought that my role might expand greatly but with him coming out of retirement just enough to do the class, it was like everything was going to be 100% unchanged.

However in the middle of that year Fr. Larry grew ill and sadly passed away. I had to fill in for many of his classes but it was still the same kind of program that I had been involved in for many years so it was very natural and easy for me.

We have been suffering from a declining number of participants in the English side of RCIA as our population has grown more Hispanic. It would be typical for us to only have two or three participants each year. Part of the program is that you should build a small faith community among the participants before welcoming them into the larger community. They just weren’t getting the full benefits of the process in such a small group.

The archdiocese has been faced with a shortage of priests so they have instituted a program called Connected in the Spirit. It clusters parishes in groups of two or three in what they call a cohort. A commission established to see how these cohorts can best work together to meet the needs of their people well faced with the shortage of priests. Some parishes end up closing altogether. Some parishes have to share a single priest. St. Gabriel is a cohort with St. Monica and St. Michael parishes. When the final report came down, none of the three parishes were closing or merging they were encouraged to share programs.

Although we had not yet begun to implement this partnership at the start of classes last year, we decided to jump in anyway and reached out to St. Michael to see if they would like to partner with us to have a joint RCIA program. Faced with declining numbers of their own, they thought it was a great idea. They had a new pastor who had some ideas for involving their program as well. He wanted to get more people involved as teachers and so adding myself and other St. Gabriel teachers to the program fit in with his plans very well.

In August last year we had joint meetings between their RCIA team and ours. We worked out a pretty good curriculum that was a great mix of their previous program and ours. Both myself and our other teacher Dr. Jim Divita ended up teaching pretty much our usual lessons. Overall I felt that things went pretty smoothly.

This year however, the curriculum is is evolving more significantly than it has in the past. Without going into all the gory details, the program which is merged with have cut my participation basically in half. As I’ve said before, I knew that the program could evolve significantly during all of these transitions and that I would have to weigh whether or not I wanted to be involved anymore if the program changed significantly. The lessons which I taught in the spring were about conscience formation and making moral choices as well as the concepts of sin and grace. It was my adaptation of my favorite lessons taught by Fr. Larry. He had a unique, some would say radical, approach to the topics which I liked. But giving them up or having someone else take a different approach was no problem for me. However in the fall I taught a four-part lesson about Scripture. Although there were four individual topics topics, I saw it as one giant lesson that took four weeks to teach. Parts of it I had been teaching for the entire 30 years and all of it in its current form I had been teaching for more than a decade. I had fine tune the material by adding new things, removing what didn’t work, and adapting it based on how it was received. The lesson was so finely tuned that when we moved to St. Michael’s and our lesson time was reduced from 2 hours down to 90 minutes had a bit of a struggle adapting material. The idea of cutting in half ended up being impossible.

I did consider starting fresh and taking the approach “Chris you’ve been given 2 sessions of 90 minutes each. What do you want to teach in that time period? But I just couldn’t get the enthusiasm and energy to start over after I had been doing things the same way for so long. I guess I’m just plain getting old and set in my ways. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks but it’s not worth the effort.

So I decided this was a good opportunity to step aside and let the program go in a new direction. While I’m not very pleased with the recent process of this evolution, even if the process had gone better it might have likely ended up with the same curriculum and I would’ve made the same decision to step aside.

Teresa has suggested that we might have some other adult religious education opportunities that would be some-one-time-programs that I could present. That sounds like an exciting opportunity. I could get much more enthusiastic about creating something new and interesting from scratch rather than taking apart a program that I had perfected over 30 years and trying to disassemble it.

The bottom line is I still have a desire and ministry to share my faith as a teacher in the Catholic Church. We will just have to see what new and interesting ways we can accomplish that.

The Riddle of the Blood of the Lamb

When I teach RCIA classes at St. Gabriel Church, there are two lessons which I call my “guaranteed failure” lessons. In the first, my task is to teach the entire Old Testament in one 90 minute class. I guarantee that I will fail to do so. The following week I’m supposed to teach the entire New Testament in a single class and I similarly fail. But I tried to hit the high points of each.

One of my favorite parts of my New Testament lesson is a section where I’m describing John’s approach to Jesus. One of the terms he uses is “Lamb of God”. A lamb is an animal used in the Passover sacrifice and by describing Jesus as God’s Lamb he is saying that Jesus is God’s sacrifice that saves us. In John’s vision of what it’s like in heaven as laid out in the Book of Revelation he refers to the Lamb.

The Book of Revelation is sometimes called the book of the apocalypse. In Revelation 7:1-17 John is literally describing the apocalypse as seen from heaven. The Angels are commanded not to destroy the world until the believers have been saved and accounted for. The angel marks the seal of God 144,000 people. That is 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. There are some denominations which take this passage so literally they believe that only exactly 144,000 people will make it to heaven out of all of the billions who currently live or who have ever lived. I think I’m a pretty good person and assuming I don’t screw up my life any worse than it already is my really plan on making it to heaven. But to be one of only 144,000 out of everyone who ever lived… I’m not too fond of those odds 🙂

Most Scripture scholars will tell you that numbers in Scripture almost always symbolic and not to be taken literally. In particular the number 12 is used to describe “the people of God” because in the Old Testament you were among the 12 tribes of Israel, you were one of God’s people. So the number 12 means “everybody”. Given that interpretation the number 144,000 might best be described as “everybody times everybody times 1000”. It’s John’s way of saying everybody. Yes I mean really everybody. I really really really mean everybody. Get it?

I generally buy into the “numbers are symbolic not literal” school of thought but there is an alternative explanation for that number. If we had 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes as the passage says, you could literally think that of the original 12 tribes of Israel in Old Testament days there might only be 144,000 of that population in heaven. I might be able to buy that argument of literalism were it not for the next passage says “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes…”

This so-called uncountable multitude also is worthy to enter heaven. If the 144,000 was literally the chosen people of the Old Testament then the uncountable multitude is everyone else beyond the Jewish people including as it says people of every race and nation. Being part of an uncountable multitude I like my odds a lot better.

One of the elders in heaven then asked John who are these people in the white robes. John’s attitude is “You are asking me? I’m just a visitor here. You should know.” The elder says in verse 14 “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Say what?

“… made them white in the blood of the Lamb”

book of riddlesOkay wait a minute… The first time I heard this passage I had a flashback to when I was five years old. For Christmas I received a book titled “Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles”. It was a children’s book full of riddles designed to make five-year-olds giggle with glee and I did many times (and still do when I think about it). Among the gems were…

Q. What’s big and red and eats rocks?
A. A big red rock eater (seen on the cover image on the right)

Next riddle was…

Q. What’s big and blue and eats rocks?
A. No… They only come in red.

They never did tell you what was big and blue and ate rocks but it didn’t matter because you were giggling at that point. Anyway on with our story… One of the riddles was “If you put a white hat into the Red Sea, what will it become?” Of course every five-year-olds says “Red” but the answer is “Wet”. And you’ve just taught geography to a five-year-old by explaining that the Red Sea isn’t really red. Later in life I learned that Indiana geography is just as messed up. White River isn’t white. South Bend isn’t south. North Vernon isn’t north. And French Lick is not all as wonderful as its name implies either.

So when the Book of Revelation says that white robes were washed in Lamb’s blood and made allegedly whiter… I said “wait a minute… This is another one of those Red Sea jokes is its?”

This riddle remained unanswered to me for many, many years until one day I was sitting at my kitchen bar eating lunch with my mom and watching TV. We were flipping around the dial looking for something to watch (pre-cable only four choices) and ended up landing on a cooking show on PBS. The show was called “The Frugal Gourmet” and featured a gourmet chef named Jeff Smith. Not only is he a chef, is also an ordained minister. He starts telling the story about lambs and adoption and sacrifice etc. and I said to my mom “Oh my God that explains it! I now understand how being washed in the blood of the lamb makes you cleaner!” And I told her the whole story about how I never knew how to explain that an RCIA and the story about the Bennett Cerf riddle book to which she of course said something like “How the hell do you remember a joke out of a book when you were five years old?” I just never forget a joke I guess.

The problem was… I didn’t think I could remember his explanation. It must not have included a joke. As I said this was in the pre-cable area of television and thus very much pre-DVR. I might’ve had a VHS VCR in the living room but the odds that I would’ve been recording that show would be zero. So there was no way to back it up and hear the explanation again or take notes.

At the end of the show they promoted his book “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” which you could get from PBS or your local bookstore. The next time I was in a bookstore and looks for it and found a paperback. Much to my joy it contains the story he had told on the air. Now every year when I teach the RCIA lesson on the New Testament I tell the entire above story and then read the following passage from “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine”. Hopefully it’s brief enough to qualify as fair use.


Quote from “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” — “The image of adoption was connected with the image of blood… But see this! In the old shepherding communities, all would have understood this image because all knew the problem of the shepherd. He would check his flock in the morning and find a new lamb. . . but the mother had died during the night In another portion of his flock he would find a mother, sitting silently beside her child stillborn during the night. The mother would die of a broken heart and the orphan would die from lack of sustenance. All logic would tell you to put the orphan under the care of the childless mother. . . but the two would know they were foreign, and they would not accept each other. The moment of wisdom came when the old shepherd, this old Jewish philosopher and theologian, would see in this event the nature of our relationship to the God We are so separated from God, he said, that God is dying of a broken heart and we are dying from lack of sustenance. And it seems that nothing can be done. We are foreigners to one another. But one thing can be done. It is still being done by shepherds. If you slit the throat and drain the blood of the dead baby and wash the orphan in the blood of the lamb, the living mama smells her own and moves around so that the orphan can suckle, can come home to the table. This image of the blood of the lamb being the symbol of adoption was common in the early traditions, and it remains common in the Church.”

So now it all makes sense. Because we are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God we are made worthy to be in his presence in heaven with John and the elders and the Angels were going around stamping people on the head and doing robe laundry.

Whenever someone is baptized as an infant we always dress them in white garments. As adults when we baptize we give them a white garment. In the baptismal rite there is a line that says something about “Receive this white government and bring it unstained to the judgment seat”. This is the Scripture passage to behind that prayer.

I still don’t know what’s big and blue and eats rocks.

Epilogue: Recently I began to blog about all the various wheelchairs I’ve owned over the years. I’ve been blogging about it in preparation for a new wheelchair I will be getting soon. While looking through photos of me in the old wheelchairs I found this one shown below from Christmas 1960 showing me proudly holding the now famous Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles. You can click on the image to see it larger then you can see the cover matches the one I showed above. Just for fun (and to check out the publication date on the book) I did a search on and found several used book resellers had copies in reasonably good condition for sale. While writing this blog, I couldn’t resist anymore and I ordered one which was shipping was just over $12. Maybe later in the book and answers the big blue rock eater question and I just don’t remember but I’ve not got my hopes up. I will post a comment here with the book arrives.