Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bill Dunn

In recent months, the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford implemented its pastoral planning process, which resulted in many parishes' being closed or merged. This unprecedented restructuring has produced a lot of upheaval in the lives of area Catholics. It also has produced a slew of letters to the editor in local newspapers.

Many people, upset that their lifelong parishes were closed, have not been shy about expressing their anger in print. Some of the letters accuse the archbishop and various clergy of being deceptive and dishonest. Other letters accuse individual pastors by name of being self-centered and unsympathetic toward the plight of the faithful, who must endure these drastic changes.

But it seems many of the angry letter-writers are being rather self-centered, too. A lot of the published complaints focus on matters of personal convenience, such as changes to the Mass times or being required to drive farther to get to Mass. By far the most common lament goes something like this: My parents and grandparents helped build this church! How dare you close it?!

However, I have yet to see a letter to the editor mention the root cause of the parish reorganization process, which also happens to be the most serious and heart-breaking issue facing the Catholic Church in New England: the fact that hundreds of thousands of precious souls have drifted away from the faith.

The statistics are undeniable — and frightening. Since the mid-1960s, weekly Mass attendance in the Hartford Archdiocese has dropped 69-percent. In other words, compared to a generation or two ago, less than one-third the number of people go to Mass nowadays.

The dramatic decrease in Mass attendance has produced a short-term, “here and now” impact: the closing and merging of parishes, and the inevitable angry letters to the editor. But the long-term, “there and then” impact is far more serious. When hundreds of thousands of people refuse to go to Mass anymore, they are clearly rejecting the teachings of the Church, which means they are rejecting the mercy and grace offered by the Lord, especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

To put it plainly: these people are literally putting the eternal fate of their souls in jeopardy. How can the closing of a few dozen parishes compare to thousands and thousands of souls lost for all eternity? If the letter-to-the-editor writers want to complain about the pastoral planning process, why don’t they mention this tragic situation?

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Hey Bill, aren’t you being a bit dramatic with all this eternal damnation stuff?

Well, in reply, let me ask a few questions of my own: Why does the Church even exist? I mean, why did Jesus establish the Church in the first place? Is it because he wanted us to have a place to hold weddings and funerals and potluck suppers? Is it because the Lord knew that people have an instinctive need to be part of a local community where they can socialize and complain about the leadership?

No, the Church actually exists for one simple reason: to make saints. Jesus founded the Church to spread the Good News and get precious souls into heaven for all eternity. If you still believe the Gospel message is true, when Mass attendance drops by 69 percent, it’s not an unfortunate development that requires structural reorganization. It is instead a heart-breaking, life-and-death tragedy.

So, if you are unhappy about the changes going on in the archdiocese and are compelled to write angry letters to the editor, go right ahead. But don’t forget to mention the saddest thing of all: the countless number of friends, relatives, and former parishioners who no longer are in communion with the grace and mercy and salvation offered by God.

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

Christmas Day is coming soon, so it’s time to prepare for those “visitors from the east.” No, I don’t mean the Magi, the mysterious visitors who “traversed afar” over “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star,” to pay homage to the child Jesus. (How often do you get to use the words traversed, moor and yonder in the same sentence? Thank God for traditional carols and hymns, without which our modern day vocabulary would be reduced by now to nothing but grunts and screeches.)

The visitors who will be coming soon are the folks who attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter. Maybe they should be called “Chreasters”? (Pronounced “kree-sters.")

I conducted a scientific survey recently (which consisted of talking to three people after Mass, one of whom was myself), and I discovered that those of us who attend church on a regular basis often can be a bit resentful toward the twice-a-year Chreasters.

“Holy mackerel,” we grumble as we drive into the church parking lot. “There’re no more parking spaces! I’ll have to park on the street.”

Then, once inside the church, we mumble to ourselves, “Hey, who are those guys sitting there? That’s my regular pew.”

For the rest of Mass, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with total strangers in an unfamiliar pew, we barely pay attention to the joyful liturgy. Instead of having our souls and spirits in tune with the Lord as we celebrate one of the two most momentous events in world history, the Incarnation or the Resurrection, we instead sit there with clenched teeth and bad attitudes.

Sometimes a similar attitude is present even in the sanctuary. Over the years I’ve heard priests and deacons remark, in far too sarcastic a tone of voice, “Well, I haven’t seen some of you since last [fill in the blank: Easter or Christmas]. We do this every week, you know.”

Hmm, I wonder if the obvious annoyance expressed by regular church-goers might be part of the reason the Chreasters only go to Mass twice a year?

We know one thing for sure about the Chreasters: they haven’t given up completely on the idea that Jesus is important. Oh sure, maybe they’re at church on these special holidays because they were practically dragged there by their spouses or children. But plenty of people nowadays never go to church—no matter how much their loved ones beg—because they have completely lost their faith.

The Chreasters still have a spark of faith smoldering somewhere deep inside. That’s a good thing! Jesus himself said faith the size of a muster seed can move mountains.

Is it possible that the smoldering spark of faith inside some Chreasters gets extinguished when they get the cold-shoulder treatment at Christmas or Easter Mass? Are some of these twice-a-year Mass attendees about to become never-again Mass attendees because the devoted followers of Jesus seem to be just as indifferent and unfriendly as the people out in the cold, cruel secular world?

Let’s try something different at Christmas Mass this year. When we see folks we’ve never seen before, instead of ignoring them or giving them an icy smile that clearly sends the message, “And just who are you?!” let’s offer a big, welcoming smile and sincerely say, “I am SO glad to see you here!”

They may be so startled by our hospitality, they’ll have to check twice to see if they accidentally drove to the wrong church. No matter how afar they traversed over field and fountain, moor and mountain, we need to make them feel at home. Who knows? They might surprise us by coming back next week.

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

World War II documentaries are fascinating. When the documentaries describe a bleak time during the war, say, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor or the relentless bombing of London, my heart goes out for the people involved. At that moment in time, they did not know how things ultimately would turn out. Maybe Imperial Japan would conquer the entire Pacific, including California. Maybe the Nazis would reduce London to rubble and invade Great Britain.

However, when watching these war documentaries today, we know how things turned out. We know the Allies eventually prevailed and democracy and freedom were victorious. It was a gruesome and costly affair with countless casualties, but in the end the good guys won.

 I’m reminded of this scenario when people lament the fate of the Catholic Church. Things are somewhat bleak these days, especially in the United States and Western Europe. Mass attendance is down; churches and schools are being closed; there is a severe priest shortage; and millions of people who were raised in the faith have drifted away and no longer believe the key doctrines of Christianity.

 You can make the case that we are in the middle of this dire time in history, and we have no idea how it will turn out. Maybe the forces of secularism will prevail and the Catholic Church will just fade away and someday cease to exist.

 Do you remember Pan Am, Oldsmobile or Blockbuster Video? Whoever thought those famous brand names would no longer exist? Many people predict the Catholic Church will be just like them: big and vibrant at certain points in history, but then shrinking and eventually fading away to just a memory.

 Well, I’ve got some good news for you: the Catholic Church is the only institution in the history of the world that has been given a divine guarantee of success. Jesus Christ himself promised that the Catholic Church would be victorious in the end. We read about it in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16.

 This is where Jesus founded the Church and he named Peter its first earthly leader. He said, “You are Peter (which means “rock”), and upon this rock I will build my church. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and I will give you the keys to the kingdom.” By the way, that’s why St. Peter is often depicted as having a large set of keys.

The phrase in the middle often gets overlooked. Jesus said this about his Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

 Jesus proclaimed a divine promise that the Church would succeed. He declared the Church would be victorious in the battle against the forces of darkness. After all, Jesus is, and always has been, the one and only head of the Catholic Church. The popes are merely Jesus’ temporary servants on earth. Do you think he’d ever let his own Church die?

We can view the Catholic Church the same way we view World War II documentaries. Yes, there are bleak moments during this struggle, and yes, there are many casualties — after all, whenever a precious soul walks away from the faith, Satan cackles with glee. But when the battle ends many ages from now, we can be assured the Church will be the victor. Jesus gave us that promise.

Unlike with viewing documentaries, we cannot sit in a comfy chair and just watch. We are soldiers in the midst of this particular battle. We have to sacrifice blood, sweat and tears — and especially pray. But as we fight, we already know the outcome: Jesus’ Church, the Catholic Church, will win.

 Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he explains how the Spirit of God can transform us. “You are not in the flesh,” he writes, “on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

In many of Paul’s other epistles, he discusses the difference between living by the Spirit and living by the flesh. For example, in his letter to the Colossians, he writes: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust ... greed ... anger ... slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (Uh, oh. I hope Paul didn’t hear me recently when the Red Sox blew a lead late in the game.)

Paul’s list of no-no’s seems downright impossible to avoid, especially nowadays, when our secular culture encourages that behavior. Many of us are convinced it’s so difficult to avoid sin, we really don’t try very hard.

But here’s something most people don’t realize: Living a life of sin requires much more effort than living a life of virtue. I once read about a young woman in New York City who was into the wild nightlife scene. Each evening she would find herself involved in drinking, drugs and casual sexual encounters. It was wearing her out, both physically and mentally.

Finally, she sought help from a therapist, who said to her, “You know, you don’t have to keep doing that stuff.” The young woman was stunned. “You mean I don’t have to do what I WANT to do?” she asked. It was a surprising revelation and a major relief for her. Just because she had the opportunity to live a wild life, she didn’t have to do it.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest ... For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” When Jesus calls us to follow him and live a life of virtue, he doesn’t call us to DO a lot of painful, difficult churchy-type things. He simply calls us to break free from our slavery to sin.

Throughout history, no one has ever equated being a slave with a life of luxury and leisure. Slaves are routinely worked to death at an early age. Well, it’s the same with being a slave to sin. The workload is enormous and the cost is high — both physically and mentally — and the result also is an early death.

In addition to the obvious, here-and-now price to be paid for being a slave to sin, there is a far costlier there-and-then spiritual price: eternal damnation. As a wise man once said, “No matter how many years you live, you’re gonna be dead a whole lot longer.”

If, as Jesus taught, our souls are eternal and live on forever after our bodies have died, then there is nothing more important than making sure our souls end up in heaven rather than hell. This is the primary function of the Church: to make saints and get as many souls as possible into heaven.

It’s important that our local parishes are in the business of making saints. We need to help and encourage each other to break free from the slavery of sin, and we need to spread the joyful news that God’s Spirit can dwell in us and transform our lives. Paul said this is what we must do, and Jesus said it’s easy and not a burden.

So, let’s fill our parishes with hope and joy, and let people know that it’s not a burden to become a saint. (As long as a certain someone stops swearing at the TV during Red Sox games.)

Over the years, when people asked me to pray for them, I usually would, but within a few days I’d forget about it until the next time I saw them. And then, of course, I’d feel guilty about forgetting. So last year I finally decided to start a prayer notebook. I write down a person’s name and the reason he or she needs prayer. The vast majority of people in my notebook need prayer for healing. When you get to be my age, there is no shortage of friends and loved ones with health issues. I’m soon going to need a second notebook.

Anyway, the other day as I was praying for the people listed in my notebook, I realized many of my prayers have changed from healing requests to “repose of the soul” requests, because, sadly, they have died. Some of the people I’ve prayed for were healed, while others were not. This got me pondering once again an age-old question: Why bother to pray?

One view of prayer is portrayed in the movie “Shadowlands,” a biography of the famous Christian author C.S. Lewis. During a crisis in his life, Lewis explained to a friend why he was praying so fervently. He said, “I don’t pray for God to do my will; I pray that I do His will.”

When you think about it, God is indeed sovereign and omniscient; he is outside of time; he already knows every single event of our lives — past, present and future. Which means, I suppose, it would be futile for us to beg God to do one thing when he’s already ordained that something else is going to happen.

But is that the only purpose of prayer, to ask for the strength to accept our inevitable fate? In the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that we should ask God for what we desire, and that our prayers can change God’s mind.

For example, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus in desperation, begging him to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus completely ignored her. But she would not take no for an answer. Finally, Jesus exclaimed, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And he healed her daughter.

And don’t forget the famous episode during the wedding feast at Cana. When the party ran out of wine, Jesus’ mother Mary went to him and explained the embarrassing situation. Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”

Mary just smiled at Jesus, like only a mother can. Jesus finally relented and performed the miracle of changing water into wine. It’s very clear that Jesus had no intention of performing his first miracle at that wedding feast, but because of a sincere request, Jesus changed his mind.

So, is God sovereign and omniscient? Yes. Does God already know every single event of our live — even our future? Yes. Therefore, is it futile to try to change God’s mind with prayer? Definitely no!

Jesus tells us we must have childlike faith. God is our father and we are his children. We should approach God as a child approaches a loving parent, filled with trust. Maybe our prayers should have two components: We should ask for the grace to handle the trials and tribulations of life; but even if every prayer is not answered to our liking, we should continue to pray for what we desire, knowing that God delights in answering our persistent, sincere and faithful prayers. And whichever way things turn out, we should rejoice knowing it is God’s will for our lives.

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

It’s now the summer vacation season, and one of the great things about being Catholic is that no matter where you go on vacation, you can attend Mass.What’s that? You don’t go to Mass while on vacation? Really? Uh-oh, that’s not good. Vacation is an opportunity to get away from work for a while, but you’re not supposed to get away from God, too. I think we need to have a little private talk, after you’ve read this

For the rest of us who do attend Mass on vacation, it’s interesting that regardless of where we are, the Mass is the same. It really reminds us that our Church is indeed universal. The basic structure of the Mass doesn’t change from region to region, or from country to country. The Mass is the same whether you are visiting such vacation spots in the United States as Miami, San Francisco or New York, or whether you are visiting an exotic foreign culture, such as Miami, San Francisco or New York. 

About a decade ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Austria. No, not the place with the kangaroos; I mean the place in Europe, with Vienna and Mozart. It’s the country where everybody speaks German, except for the shop owners in the tourist areas who speak perfect English and can instantly convert dollars to euros in their heads, and can, for example, convince a naïve bumpkin from Connecticut that paying 30 euros for a commemorative “Sound of Music” coffee mug is a real bargain. Even though Julie Andrews’s face is kind of faded now, I still use that mug. 

When we went to Mass in Vienna, we recognized all the parts of the Mass, although everything was in German. The sound system was lousy, so even if we could speak German we probably still would not have understood much — and this made us feel even more at home.

There is really no excuse for not going to Mass while on vacation. Of course, there’s no excuse for not going to Mass when we’re home either, but that doesn’t stop many Catholics from coming up with very creative excuses. The most common excuse for not going to Mass while on vacation is: “I don’t know where a church is, or when the Mass times are.” Actually, the most common excuse is: “Oh, my head! How many piña coladas did I have last night?”

But nowadays we can’t use the ol’ “I don’t know what time Mass is” excuse. There are websites that can instantly tell us the church locations and the Mass times. One website is called simply, Masstimes.org. You just type in the city and state, or the zip code, and it lists all the Catholic churches in the area and the Mass times. It even tells you what language will be used. However, the website does not describe the quality of the sound system.

So, during your summer vacation this year, take time to relax and get away from the stress of work for a while. But don’t get away from God. Make sure you go to Mass. You’ll have a chance to be in communion with the creator of the universe. You’ll also be able to thank said creator for the blessing of being able to go on vacation in the first place. After all, a lot of people can’t afford that luxury. And going to Mass still will be worthwhile even if the sound system stinks.

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.

dunn adoration candles may17Dear friend: We miss you at church. Yes, we really do miss you.

Life is very hectic nowadays, and often the weekend schedule is so busy there isn’t enough time to squeeze in Mass. Also, a very popular idea in our culture is that it’s OK to be “spiritual,” but not religious. If people just think about God once in a while and pray to him on their own, without going to church, that’s perfectly fine.

Well, Jesus never said anything like that. In fact, he did say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn 6:53)

What exactly does that mean? For 2,000 years, Christians have understood that Jesus’ words mean we must partake of the Eucharist. By virtue of a supernatural miracle, the Eucharist truly is transformed into the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ. And the Eucharist is not something we can have while at home, or while walking through the woods, or while thinking about God and being “spiritual” on our own. No, unless a person is sick or homebound, or there are some other circumstances, the Eucharist is available only in a sacred space, specifically in a church and specifically during Mass.

Jesus founded the Catholic Church when he said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18)

It’s interesting that Jesus entrusted his perfect message with an imperfect organization. Apparently, he figured if the Church was perfect, people might be tempted to worship the Church rather than God. So, despite many instances, especially in recent years, when both Church leaders and laypeople have sinned and caused terrible scandals, the Catholic Church still is strong. Jesus is the head of the Church, and Jesus promised that not even the power of hell will destroy it.

Contrary to what is often said in our popular culture, the Church actually is a very humble organization. Catholics know that everyone sins and falls short of God’s perfect glory, and so we realize we need to take part in the sacraments on a regular basis and receive God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

Many people claim that Mass is very boring, the same ol’ thing every week. Well, contrary to how our popular culture views virtually every human activity, the Catholic Mass was never designed to be a wildly entertaining experience. It was designed to be sacred worship.

To be fair, quite often the homily at Mass can be very inspiring, and quite often the choir and musicians are fabulously talented. But even if Mass seems a little boring, that’s fine, because it is still the only way to receive the body and blood of Our Lord. Mass is the unique vehicle God created to allow struggling sinners (that would be us) to come into full contact with the Savior of the world. If we could only see how much the angels and saints in heaven rejoice during every single Mass — even Masses that seem boring to us — it would take our breath away.

In a spirit of humility and fellowship, we sincerely ask you to consider joining us once again. Come back to Jesus’ Church. Come back to the faith your parents and grandparents taught you. Come back to the holy sacrifice of the Mass and receive the flesh and blood of Our Savior in the Eucharist and be part of our parish community once again.
We miss you at church. Yes, we really do miss you.

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.