All posts by Brian Niemiec

What I Really Want from the Synod on the Family

Pope Francis and prelates attend the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See SYNOD-CONTRACEPTION and SYNOD-ISLAM Oct. 9, 2014.
Pope Francis and prelates attend the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See SYNOD-CONTRACEPTION and SYNOD-ISLAM Oct. 9, 2014.

By Brian Romer Niemiec

A few days into the Synod on the Family, and we have already seen a wide range of topics and opinions being presented and discussed in Rome. Any hesitation or passivity that may have been present at the beginning of the extraordinary synod last year has been thrown away.  It is no secret that these upcoming conversations are going to be a conversion experience for all involved if the synod is to speak with one voice at the end of its time together (naïvely optimistic, I know).

These hot button issues are incredibly important subjects to discuss, and I am very gratified by many of the people present at the synod for wanting to work through these topics to find a life-giving truth for the betterment of Christian families.  I was, however, even more delighted to hear some of the bishops request time to talk about less sexy, but no less important issues surrounding ways to support and strengthen family life within Church communities.

It is this question – one of many – that I am wrestling with now in my parish collaborative. I see families in both churches with various levels of need in the area of faith formation.  There is the family that comes to mass every Sunday, volunteers in a number of parish activities, and prays as a family at home.  There is also the family that shows up only to mass on weekends with Religious Education, and when asked why they attend class the oldest son responds, “Well, my grandmother thinks it is important, so my mom makes us all go.”

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Overlooked Points Pope Francis is Trying to Make

By Brian Romer Niemiec

Like many of you, I have been following Pope Francis’ visit rather closely.  Undoubtedly, his presence has impacted each of us in different ways, and I am very excited about the words and actions to come in the days ahead. As I sit here in my office with an unusual lull in activity, I am struck by two ideas our Holy Father has articulated, but are getting very little play in the news.

The first idea comes from his address to the U.S. Congress. While highlighting Abraham Lincoln, he emphasized unity, and Lincoln’s great struggle to bring union, freedom, and peace to a divided and war ravaged nation. Francis named the delicate balance of rejecting fundamentalism that threatens these great virtues that Lincoln fought for, while not sacrificing those same liberties in an effort to defeat these threats.

Within that balance, our Pope names the danger of seeing the world in non-negotiable black and white.  I am particularly caught by this because I am often far too quick to judge, especially in a political or theological situation. If people don’t think like me, I reject their ideas as closed-minded nonsense.  This line of thinking is all too common in our society. 24-hour news channels that cater to particular political views, blogs and podcasts that target niche groups, and seemingly endless gridlock in Washington reiterates to us constantly that dialogue is overrated, and if you don’t agree with me I have no time for you.

Unfortunately, there is a great danger in seeing things in black and white. When we see things in black and white we claim the moral compass; we claim to know what is righteous and what is sin.  And when we get trapped in that line of thinking, there is no more room for anyone else in our lives, not even God.  We declare our independence from what we view as wrong only to discover that we can no longer discuss and dialogue with those around us. Nothing anyone has to say is worth listening to.

Here is where the Pope’s message strikes deepest. President Lincoln in his first and primary purpose fought the Civil War to preserve the union, to keep these United States from dividing into isolation. Lincoln chose openness and dialogue, and that is where Pope Francis is calling all of us today. For too long I have looked down on those I disagree with thinking they are not as nuanced or educated as I am. Yet God speaks in history, and if I fail to speak with and be open to my sisters and brothers, how can I hear God? How can I grow? And most importantly, how can I live in union as a member of the Church and as a citizen of this country, if I fail to dialogue and work in communion to realize the Kingdom of God and build a more perfect union?

The second chord that struck me came from the address to the U.S. Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. While watching the reflection, I was unsure what the Pope was going to say, but I was deeply moved by the compassionate urgency he had while addressing the mission of the church in the United States. He acknowledged the heavy workload, the damaging reality of the sexual abuse crisis, and the corrosiveness of secular culture. However, he made very clear that it was in this context that all of us who minister to God’s people are charged with finding some way to evangelize, to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ as his disciples.

In my new job I am struggling to engage young adults in their 20’s and 30’s.  I have a loose plan, and we are having our first event in a few weeks. However, like anything new, I am having doubts about how successful it will be in bringing young adults back to Christ. I went through all of this training and education and I don’t have a sure answer for how to lead people to discipleship.  What if no one shows up?

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Why My First Funeral as a Pastoral Associate Made Me Nervous

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By Brian Romer Niemiec

In the Newton Catholic Collaborative there are between 200 and 250 funerals per year. As a result, it is often the case that one of the pastoral associates will lead the wake service, be present at the Funeral Mass, and lead the service at the cemetery. I have been shadowing my colleagues over the last month, and this past week I was deemed ready and handed my first funeral assignment.

I arrived at the wake service a little nervous and worried about making small talk, and about what I was going to say during the reflection. After all, I’m an introvert. I hate small talk. I’m not good at it and I never will be. What am I supposed to say, “Sorry for your loss, but at least the Patriots won…?” I don’t even route for the Patriots!

But, before I knew it, I was through the door, meeting the family, and starting the prayer service.  As I worked my way through the beginning of the service, I realized that some of the family members had started crying. For some reason the raw human emotion of the moment took me by surprise, and then I started to get really nervous. I had been planning to talk about salvation, resurrection, and all the great cheery theology that we believe in as Catholics during my reflection, but that wasn’t what this family needed. They missed their sister/mother/grandmother.

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Is it Ethical to be a Professional Football Fan?

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By Brian Romer Niemiec

As I wait in breathless anticipation for Thursday night’s first NFL game (I have Antonio Brown in one of my fantasy leagues) I was asked a very disturbing question by a friend of mine at dinner this past weekend, “Brian, do you think it is morally acceptable to be a professional football fan?”

Now, I know you are thinking that I need to find new friends.  And you may be right. After all, in one holiday weekend I went to the Boston College/Maine game, yelled at the TV screen Saturday night cheering on Notre Dame, and sped home from the airport Monday so my Ohio State loving wife could see her Buckeyes run away from Virginia Tech with the help of Cardale Jones and the acrobatic Braxton Miller in the second half.  I also spent far too much time checking my fantasy teams when the NFL doesn’t start for another three days.

My friend’s question should not have stuck with me through my football heavy weekend, but here I am writing about it this week.  His question has stayed with me because, well, he did make some good points…

  • Money – A quick Wikipedia search told me that the NFL rakes in $11.2 billion a year. More than any other league in the world. That, of course, doesn’t include the money that exchanges hands through gambling and other peripheral football activities. With the United States and the world facing problems with immigration, migration, poverty, war, and environmental degradation 11.2 billion dollars could probably be put to a lot better use.
  • Domestic Violence – It’s not just the high profile cases of the last few years, and the leniency given by both the league and the law, but it is most importantly the macho cultural attitude that surrounds some players and is embraced by young men everywhere. NFL players set an example for young men and women to a degree almost unprecedented in current society. For many, these men are their biggest role models, and they will go to great lengths to look and act like their idols.  Are we really comfortable with how some members of the NFL act out in society and on the field?
  • Gambling – It’s not even week one in the NFL, but I have already seen too many commercials advertising fantasy football gambling; whether it be by season, week, game, or player. The amount of money and number of players in these games will only continue to grow in the next few years.  As more and more people try their luck, what happens to the families and children of these gamblers when their luck finally runs out?

Now even after all of this, I’m still a huge football fan, and my fantasy team is going to destroy Ellen Romer Niemiec’s, Matt Keppel’s, and Fr. Matt Janeczko’s. However, I am now more uneasy about the professional manifestation of my favorite sport, and I will be on the lookout for these effects in my parish collaborative.

My only worry now is that there will be other sports that I love which will also come with moral quandaries. What could possibly be next? Golf, my second favorite sport (hint: golf courses can use up to 1,000,000 gallons of water a day. I’m looking at you California)? To quote Winnie the Pooh, “Oh Bother!”

The Real Parish Life in New England

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By Brian Niemiec

Be doers of the Word. Last Sunday’s second reading.  It was a phrase that had been stirring in me for a long time.  My tenure at Boston College had been incredibly life-giving and fulfilling, but I had begun to sense that it was not the ministry I needed to be doing now. I love working on the administrative and strategic level. It was a true joy to meet women and men alive with the faith of Christ, and committed to turning that faith into a life-long ministry.  Yet, God was leading me somewhere else.

Since the last time I wrote for this blog I have not only gotten married, moved apartments, and mostly failed to speak French on our honeymoon, but I also have a new job. I am a pastoral associate at Our Lady Help of Christians and Sacred Heart Parishes in Newton, MA, or the Newton Parish Collaborative as it is also know.  Each of these parishes have their own ministries, personalities, and preferences, but three years ago they officially merged and now share a common pastoral staff of priests and lay associates.

I have been here for about four weeks, and while I am certainly excited about my new ministry, it is quite different than what I expected.  Mostly because, I did not quite know what to expect. The most surprising discovery was the vibrant life that certainly exists in both parishes (albeit in different ways). Masses are well attended, religious education classes are overflowing, and there are seemingly more ministries, committees, and groups between the two parishes than there are stars in the sky.  The pastor is wonderful and deeply passionate about his parishioners, and the rest of the staff is equally caring and competent. In every way we as Church normally judge churches, I found myself a real winner!

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Why Holy Saturday Isn’t a Day of Sorrow

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By Brian Niemiec

One of my earliest memories of Holy Saturday was asking my father why Grandpop only ate bread and water on the Saturday before Easter.  I don’t even remember my dad’s response, but every year my Grandpop would eat only a little bread and water as he waited for Easter morning.  I used to think that his practice was a continuation of the fasting and repentance that the Church practices on Good Friday.  Yet this simple meal for a humble and loving man speaks less to fasting, and more to the true nature of Holy Saturday.

Each Gospel account to a greater or lesser extent portrays the Apostles in a less than flattering light. Throughout the ministry of Jesus we come to understand that at many times these twelve men were not the sharpest knives on the first century Palestine cutting block.  A particularly challenging concept for them was the Resurrection.  Jesus told them that the Son of God must be killed, and on the third day he will rise. He tried parables. He tried stories. He tried allegory. He tried the direct approach, and yet the Apostles were at a loss. 

Due to their lack of comprehension (and faith?), the Apostles fled in fear during and after the crucifixion. Even Peter, the rock of the future Church, denies Jesus and lurks in the shadows; not daring to get too close.  The first Holy Saturday was not a happy occasion. The followers of Jesus hid behind a locked door, and worried if they too would be sentenced to death.  It was only after Jesus’ resurrection, when he appeared in the midst of the disciples, did the true joy and meaning of the last few days make sense.  

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More than PreCana – Part II, Why Marriage Scares Me Sometimes

By Brian Niemiec

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Last Wednesday marked four months until my wedding with Ellen on July 25th. So many things are starting to happen now, and I am really excited to embark on this amazing adventure! Lent has given me the space to more intentionally pray and sit with this big life change that is approaching, and while I cannot wait to marry Ellen in July, there is a piece of me that continues to be nervous. For a while I had trouble putting my finger on it. I started thinking about how final this was, and what would happen if life didn’t work out the way I planned. What if marriage didn’t live up to my hopes, dreams, and expectations? I started sounding very… well… selfish.

Most of us who read and write for this blog are all too aware of the pervasive individualism that is at the very heart of our society. Consuming goods for our pleasure, and spending time in ways that satisfy our wants is a very well taught lesson in American life, and this lesson is indeed at odds with what is required in a marriage. Yet, I think the hardest thing to overcome is not the standard social norms (at least we can name those), but rather the experience of living the glamorized single life.

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What Not To Say When Talking About Confession

By Brian Niemiec

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This week’s homily on sin brought up a host of questions during our RCIA class. Are some sins worse than others? Why do we need to confess to a priest? Why does the Pope go to confession so often? Now, truth be told, I was a little off my game that morning. It had been a late night, but my co-catechist and I were doing a fairly good job of breaking open a subject we had not prepared to talk about.

Then, however, came the question, “But are little sins every now and again really a big deal? I mean as long as you are generally a good person, aren’t a few sins here or there ok?” Well, I fell flat on my face, and found myself waste deep in relativism. Thankfully my partner saved me from committing the greatest sin of any minister: leading the faithful astray.

My big blunder in the vocal vomit of my answer was forgetting Jesus.  In my attempt to reassure this person that we are all human, and mistakes and sins are part of that humanity, I had forgotten the all-important challenge of being ever more human, that is, to be ever more like Christ.  The Pope goes to confession so often because he has grown close to Christ in his life, and encountering the person of Jesus so intimately, he more easily recognizes the imperfections that you and I tend to miss completely. Continue reading What Not To Say When Talking About Confession

O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God

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By Brian Niemiec

We made it! The last countdown for Christmas begins today with the first “O” Antiphon. “O wisdom, O holy word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet gentle care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Wisdom has been used as an image for God throughout scripture, and for me it is something that I really struggle with.

Have you ever taken one of those personality tests? Myers Briggs, Enneagram, etc…? My office took the Strengths Finders test last year, and of the 35 options my number one strength was self-assurance. At this point I don’t remember what the book explained it as, but I know that I often thing I have the right ideas, tools, and experiences to solve and fix most problems that come-up in my life. In all honesty, I sometimes have a hard time discerning between self-assurance and arrogance.

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Does Anyone Else Feel Depressed About the State of the World Today?

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By Brian Niemiec

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I had far too much time on my hand, so I started to read the New York Times at my parents’ house. Bad idea. I ended up feeling rather depressed about the state of the world. War in the Middle East, Ferguson, MO, corruption in Iraq (and everywhere else), domestic violence, and the depressing articles went on and on.

As I was reading this bleak picture of humanity, I realized how easily this explains the indifferent and gloomy selfishness that pervades our society. There is an overwhelming amount of pain and suffering going on in the world today, and we are exposed to all of it thanks to instantaneous and comprehensive media and social networks. No wonder apathy reigns in American society, and events and issues that should move us to compassion often make us shrug our shoulders and bury our heads in our own little worlds.

Yet, my new-found interest in newspaper reading was in stark contrast to the Thanksgiving season and the readings from the first Sunday of Advent. We have heard for a number of weeks now about the coming again of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of all creation. These readings which are filled with hope for the future will continue to dominate the Sunday readings until we seamlessly transition from the second coming of Christ to the infancy narratives later on in the Advent season.

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