Sometimes God asks us to let one of our little shoots go off in another direction even though we would like them to stay close to us.
Sometimes God sends us far from where we thought we would always be planted, and away from the home we knew.
Sometimes we must leave a home because it is not safe there.
Sometimes we must learn to walk away if the fit isn’t right enough to make us whole.
It can be a joyous wedding,, it can be a tear filled divorce. Or just God, who knows in ways we could never understand, that joyous or painful, the change, like childbirth, must come.
This post is both intensely personal for me, and intensely Catholic in it’s thoughts.
But it is in sharing our stories that we can come together and build the Kingdom of God.
This is an open letter to my previous bishop, my sending denomination, and my dear loved brothers and sisters in Christ.
Perhaps you remember when I was a member of the Outreach Committee, headed by Rev. Tom Belivaqua back when we were The American Catholic Church Of New England. One of the items I prepared for the committee was a marketing plan. Do you remember your comment upon reading it? “Brenda, you have written a plan for a church with 500 people. It is just too big for us.” Then there was that wonderful synod we shared with the Reformed Anglican Catholic Church, where everyone, including Rev. Mary Ramsden’s dog, gathered up at the altar for a picture…I can never remember who took it. I do remember however, talking excitedly about the day when our church would have so many people at national synod that we would completely fill that large open space, and then the cameraman would turn and capture all the folks who didn’t fit up there sitting in the pews.
I was as much in love with the idea of “big” church as any of you…Well, perhaps except for Robert Fuentes, but he had a big church of humans sent by God from another part of the Catholic Garden to start with, so I don’t know if that counts. It is different when you have just two dioceses, under 100 people, and not much more than willpower and dreams.
So there I was, sitting in the corner at last year’s National Assembly, and seeing how much TOCCUSA had grown. Oh, there were less of the “people in the pews” and somehow the entire House of Delegates and House of Bishops failed to make sure that Upper Room Faith Community was transported from Fall River, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut, but in the end the denomination had at least a few people from each diocese, and considering the cost of travel, that was in and of itself a grand feat.
I enjoyed the service put together by those members of St. Joseph’s Faith Community that were able to travel from Pennsylvania, even as I missed the many faces from that community I had grown to consider friends. It showed me that no matter how big TOCCUSA or one of it’s dioceses might get, that there was still going to be creative interpretations of all sorts types of sacred services. I was happy to see that the organic, bottom up, spirit filled movement of laity and clergy working together to create moments where humans can pray, sing, praise, ask, and be in close fellowship with each other and God is alive and well within TOCCUSA.
And yet, despite all that I saw that was good, and despite all the evidence that while TOCCUSA may grow to be one of the largest Old Catholic denominations in the US, something wasn’t right on a more personal level
Or perhaps I should say that something was right, spiritually, personally, and professionally, but it was going to require much prayer, discernment, and discussion to see fully the path that God intended for me to follow.
Just as TOCCUSA is not the same organization it was even two years ago, so too has time changed me. Who, when seeing me at that last ACCNE Synod, wheeling around in my wheelchair, could have imagined that one day God would reach down and return just a bit of feeling to my midsection? That out of the amicable end of my spiritual marriage to Carl, God would open the door to a man with an inner strength sufficient to see me through some of the darkest days of my life, only to celebrate with me as we made our epic journey over hundreds of miles by motorcycle, meeting and talking with Christians and Catholics of all varieties?
Once I followed Bishop Stephen in the Franciscan path of the Mercy of God Community, I have endeavored to remain present in the reality around me and to preach by example as much as possible. Who knew back in 2009 that my disgust at the media painting all Catholics by what one denomination had committed for sins, I would end up with an online community of over 1500 people, and that I would personally meet or talk on the phone with so many of them? That I would become a Contributing Editor of a magazine?
Yet, for all the miracles God has wrought, for all the opportunities he has given me, not the least of which is the gift of another child to love forever in my somewhat old age, God has not deemed it His will to cure me. In fact, I now carry a diagnosis that has the potential to end my life much faster and with much less notice than multiple sclerosis. In many ways, I spent too much time fighting against it, and not enough time respecting that God had allowed it as a reminder to me that the only day I truly have is today, and that there are so many suffering, lost souls that cross my path in each 24 hour gift of life.
Why did I find such comfort, solace, and the Presence of My Lord so completely during the service arranged by Bishop Micheal’s flock?
Because it was small, and that is where God has created a room so perfectly fit for me to grow and blossom until the day that He calls me home.
This is not to say that I do regret my time calling TOCCUSA home, in fact far from it. I expect that from time to time circumstances will allow me to be in the vicinity of a TOCCUSA faith community on a Sunday or Saturday night, and I will just pop in to worship with my extended cousins. However much I may have a certain amount of Utrechtian DNA within my Old Catholic beliefs, I am more than Utrechtian Old Catholic. I was, like you, an Independent Old Catholic, first, and that part of my Old Catholic faith is just as important and valid as the Utrechtian part. God, for some reason known only to him, has decided that at any hour of the day I may be presented with not just an opportunity to Proclaim the Good News, but an obligation to do so. It may be on the asphalt outside a karaoke bar with a 20 year old, in the grocery checkout line with a newly widowed 70 year old, or in a taxi outside a hotel in the rain with a young mother who is dealing with her father’s growing dementia.
Because I am now confined to home more often, God arranges to send people into my life that inevitably end up sharing either a meal or a mass with me, Brian, and whoever else has shown up. It will, most likely, never grow to be anything more than a house church, if it even grows that much. In all of my reading, in all of my studies, in all my prayer, and in all of my understanding of Eucharist being the center of theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, ministry, and life itself it became impossible to remain in a denomination that seeks to model a group of denominations that centers Eucharist around the parish mass.
Quite simply, if a denomination is going to say that it’s ecclesiology and theology is all based on the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ our Lord presented, taken, and consumed…well, one would expect that denomination to have legions of Eucharistic ministers doing nothing after Sunday mass but ensuring that at least one person who could not be inside the parish walls has a liturgy with communion. While TOCCUSA and the Union of Utrecht Old Catholic denominations have much to offer this world, that is not the path either have taken, and God would have stepped in and moved each of them if it was His will for TOCCUSA and the Utrechtian Old Catholics to interpret Eucharistic Ecclesiology in such a manner.
God has, to my utter amazement, given the task to me to do in simple little ways. Imagine, if you will the change that could occur in this world just on those Sundays I am healthy enough to go out, if my post liturgy action is to run, like St. Stephen himself, to the home of someone I know who watches mass on the internet, or makes do with a first Friday mass each month, in order to glorify God by making that one person, on that one day, part of a house church which is part of a denomination that is but one variety of rose in God’s Catholic garden! How much more of a servant of Christ can I be if all I do is stay alive enough to preside here at my home, even if confined to my bed, when God sends someone most in need of Jesus’ Word and Body to the door? It is the natural extension of all the times I have consoled the grieving, sat with those who are ill, visited those in prison to also be able to, if needed, provide a spiritual service that includes communion.
At the same time, God saw how on the rare occasions I could receive communion, how it only made me wish to be able to partake of it again. He also saw that between my challenges, my studies, the people God placed in my path, and my beginning professional career writing and engaging Catholics of all kinds to communicate, to gather together, to share…well, I needed a much more intensive level of spiritual direction than what I could have received by staying in a “big church” like TOCCUSA was becoming. Despite all the years, and all your efforts and mine, you have never been able to visit my home as my bishop, and it was only for too brief a time that Fr. Aidan was able to come once a month. While Bob has been a steadfast rock to me, and a great teacher of Utrechtian Old Catholic ways, his schedule, especially when he was working two jobs in addition to his duties for TOCCUSA made even monthly visits difficult.
One good outcome of that time however, was my “rediscovery” of then Monsignor Sheen’s Shield of Faith, the tiny booklet he wrote for soldiers under fire in the war, It has been of great comfort to me, especially during those times when our Sunday actually occurred on Wednesday nights. The old soldier’s tale is true: Sunday when you are in a combat zone is whatever day the priest or minister shows up, and is just as valid for any obligation as the staid parish mass that ends with coffee and donuts.
I doubt my little home based services, lay led as they are, will ever have a name, but if I had to choose, I would be very tempted to pick Sister Augustine, one of the earliest Old Catholics, as our patron saint. Her efforts were, like mine, driven by the responsibilities she had for others, and often included the most mundane tasks. Like me, she was criticized and persecuted by her “family” for her adherence to the beliefs of Old Catholicism. Like me, her voice was heard, but only by a few, and like I undoubtedly shall, she died in relative obscurity. And yet, the holiness of her life, her devotion to God, is so easily seen in her daily toil that I cannot imagine ever reaching the heights she portrayed so often. Next to my brother Francis, who ever guides me toward Christ, Sr. Augustine would be most deserving of a parish or a basilica, but the very human woman she was makes me confident that she and Our Lord would be satisfied with my tiny “God Bag” and my butcher block kitchen table that can seat no more than 6 people.
Thankfully, when Aiden was no longer able to be that spiritual guide who could visit me, my religious order provided more than a few souls to talk with and learn from. One of them, no longer very active as a member, was also a good friend of Bishop Steven, and we had remained friends from the day Stephen introduced us. While in the beginning Bishop David Dismas of the Diocese of Rumney Marsh mostly advised me on my studies and things pertaining to my ministry as a lay religious, I found during my prayer and time of discernment that his community, although small, is very close to what I would consider to be a very amenable blend of Utrechtian, Gallic, Roman, Independent, and Primitive Catholicism. I found sympathy for my physical complaints in the lives and day to day experiences of the residents of the facility where the Rumney Marsh community celebrates liturgy. I found welcome in the handwritten notes, and I found a theology and ecclesiology that could encompass at least some of my non traditional ways of “being church”. It was a combination that TOCCUSA and the Utrechtian denominations would not have been able to provide.
One benefit available at Rumney Marsh is that of Associate Membership for those persons, like Brian, who are committed to another denomination, but who by virtue of relationship, location, or other circumstances wish to worship with and be part of the Rumney Marsh Community. Because they accept the training and positions of other denominations for lay ministers, Brian is again able to offer Holy Communion, especially if I am unable to do so.
Despite already having received a private message asking if I am to become a bishop – a truly ludicrous thought considering my condition – I am only slightly more than I was when a member of TOCCUSA. By God’s grace, I have learned and retained enough to be an altar server, to preside at lay led communion liturgies. I am a Eucharistic Minister, and I remain a lay Franciscan religious. I am thankful for these positions in that they will allow me to bring Christ into the hearts of others.
While I wish I could have said goodbye in person, I wish even more that we Catholics could follow in the footsteps of some Protestant denominations in recognizing and celebrating that God sometimes sends one of our own to a new variety of rose in God’s garden. In such recognition, the entire sending assembly joins in prayer for the person called to a new field, that they will be successful in bringing the Good News to new ears. That is the one request I have: that simply TOCCUSA members pray for me as I move onto this latest chapter God has laid out for me.
I wish TOCCUSA, the Diocese of New England, my extended family at St. Francis Faith Community of Wells, ME every bit of goodness that comes with dedicated service to our God. Once my wedding celebrations have ended, I expect to extend you and Janet an invitation for an inter-denominational visit with myself and Bishop David, and I can promise a good meal, a clean table, and two dogs who will gladly accept whatever attention you might care to lavish on them.
It is my hope that in light of the amount of time I am confined to home added with my reputation for a mean lasagna or hand butchered and seasoned steak, that I will be able to meet in person many more of the New England Old and Independent Catholics before my time on earth has ended. I do expect to hang around long enough to see the first regional gathering of the online community that has built up, to which of course all Catholics will be invited, but in the meantime, I look forward to Facebooking and talking by phone or Skype with as many of my TOCCUSA friends as possible.
Let us each go forth one degree at a time, therefore, remembering 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (RSVCE)
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Peace and Joy to you always,
Brenda Eckels Burrows (Marquis), aMGC
Member, St. Nicholas Mission, Diocese of Rumney Marsh