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When I first arrived in Colorado Springs, Sherry told me it is sometimes referred to as "the Evangelical Vatican." Driving around town, I couldn't help notice all the churches on streetcorners and malls. They range in size from megachurches like "New Life" with 15,000 members to tiny ma and pa housechurches that might become megachurches in 20 years.
I even went on a fieldtrip to New Life one Sunday after Mass with Sherry to see what it was like (that might be another blog post someday!) Apparently, many of the members of these churches are former Catholics and Catholics who "double-dip," going to Mass sometimes and to the Evangelical church on other weekends.
In the December 2006 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fr. Gerald Mendoza, OP, of the Southern U.S. Dominican Province has an article entitled, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" that I'd like to comment upon. But first, a brief synopsis of his points.
Fr. Mendoza comments on the millions of Hispanic Catholics who are leaving Catholicism for Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. According to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua, Nicaragua, the number of Protestants in Latin America has grown from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985. Only 15% of Latin American Catholics actively practice their faith, and if the trend present between 1960 – 1985 hold, fully one third of Latin America will be Protestant (mostly Evangelical) by 2010. In our own country, anecdotal evidence indicates that 30% of the 35 million Evangelicals are former Catholics. Sherry has told me of "seeker-friendly" megachurches like Bill Hybel's Willow Creek in Chicago that have special classes aimed at fallen away Catholics, who make up the vast majority of former Catholics who become Evangelicals.
The mission of the early Church, Mendoze writes was "unapologetically missionary and evangelical. It would seem that the almost exclusive purpose and mission of the twelve apostles, as well as the many other disciples that accompanied Jesus…was, ostensibly, an on-the-job-training program meant to disseminate the Good News or evangelion, so that God, in his indefatigable love and desire for a personal relationship with his creation, might reconcile it to himself." Mendoza moves through a quick overview of the medieval and post-reformation attitudes towards evangelization, Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World, and concludes with a quote from a homily of Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Vatican household, on the tendency in our contemporary situation to preach a "new gospel" focusing on "self-knowledge, self-expression, self-acceptance, self-justification, self-realization, in other words, self-fulfillment instead of the self-denial and self-forgetfulness that lies at the heart of Christianity."
But why do Catholics leave? Mendoza outlines four reasons
1) lack of active participation in Mass. 2) lack of scriptural and theological understanding (in part, because of 1). 3) lack of appropriate and effective Catholic catechesis, due to the emphasis on sacramental preparation of children, leading to theological sophistication at the elementary or junior high school level. 4) anemic parishes that are often large and impersonal, and poor preaching.
These may, in fact, be reasons why Catholics leave the Church, but I find these to be no more than symptoms of an underlying problem, which Cantalamessa addresses in a December 2 Advent Homily to the Papal household (http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=81035) that Sherry quoted in her January 4 post. I'll requote a portion of it, but the final sentence is the one that touches upon an answer to the question of this post.
"The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself…This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit."
In the preaching, catechesis, sacramental preparation, service projects, and community-building events that take place in our parishes, perhaps we've forgotten or obscured the "primordial nucleus" of the Gospel message that awakens faith. It is the transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus, made possible by his grace and the hearing of the basic message of the Gospel, that sets hearts on fire with faith and love. It is intentional discipleship that compels people to desire to encounter Christ in the Mass and other sacraments and to rely on that encounter to continue as his disciples. It is intentional discipleship kept alive by a daily reliance on grace that fuels the Catholic Christian's desire to learn more about Christ in the Scriptures, and to seek the teaching of the Church as a guide for daily life. Dare I say it - it is intentional discipleship in our clergy that leads to inspiring, challenging, creative, passionate, orthodox homilies.
Fr. Mendoza suggests that we can learn something from how evangelicals evangelize, but when it comes to his solutions for how we can stem the tide of Catholics becoming Evangelicals, he offers the "same old, same old." 1) Prioritize the evangelical mission of the Church, including "a new, special consistory…to strategize and establish a new office in the curia to assist with Catholic evangelistic efforts or to reform the existing Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples." Offer moral and financial support for lay evangelistic movements and organizations (the Institute could use some of that support!). And where our expertise is deficient because we've ignored evangelization, he suggests drawing upon successful Evangelical programs. 2) Establish an international movement to bring home lapsed Catholics with a national plan for each country established by each national conference of bishops with the support of the Vatican and mandated participation by each diocese. 3) Establish diocesan and parish offices of adult education and catechesis to foster mid-week adult religious and scriptural educational programs.
None of these solutions seem very promising to me. The typical Catholic response to problems is to create a program. That worked in this country when many Catholics were poor immigrants who lived in Catholic cultural ghettos. Unless we heed Fr. Cantalmessa's observation of the need for preaching the heart of the Gospel and inviting people into a lived relationship with Christ, these programs won't be as successful as they could be. Unless we identify our intentional disciples in our midst, support them, hold them up as the norm for Christian living, and give them tools with which to evangelize others, we will continue to see the seed of faith planted in the hearts of baptized Catholics bloom in Evangelical churches.
Intentional disciples who live and speak about their faith have a much greater potential for successful evangelization than a program. For one thing, they encounter people who are fallen away. By definition, fallen away Catholics aren't present in our parish churches when we advertise our programs in the bulletin! Furthermore, successful evangelization begins with a trusting relationship – either with an individual Christian, or with the Scriptures, or with an institution like the Church. This is perhaps one reason why our frequent commenter, Gina, is soured on the idea of talking about her faith. She's been accosted with questions about her relationship with Jesus by strangers whom she does not trust.
For the same reason, catechetical programs won't be successful until we begin to develop a culture of intentional discipleship. Every campus ministry I was involved with had over 1500 registered parishioners made up of students, university faculty, staff, administrators, plus local folks. Every year because of the tremendous turnover due to graduations, drop outs, transfers, incoming freshmen and graduate students and the general mobility of well-educated Americans, we re-registered every parishioner. Every year we invited people to express what offerings they'd be interested in. Usually a good percentage of people would say they were interested in Bible study, but when we offered bible studies, only a handful – often less than fifteen people - showed up. I don't think my experience is unusual. People who remain uncatechized in spite of the offerings that already exist may well do so because faith is not the highest or even a high priority for them. That's not the case for intentional disciples.
Relying upon the bishops to come up with a plan of evangelization may not be a great idea unless they collaborate with those who are involved already in direct evangelization. The bishops have a lot to teach about the principles of evangelization, but few have experience in the field. With how many unbelievers and fallen away Catholics does the average bishop get to meet and establish a relationship? I certainly didn't meet many as a pastor.
I am grateful Fr. Mendoza is asking the question, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" Too often we ignore that it is happening at all. And while their faith and their relationship with Jesus might be awakened in the megachurches that are popping up everywhere, Catholics who leave the Church are missing the supernatural supports of that faith and relationship: the Sacraments, the wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian experience and teaching, and the communion of saints - that cloud of witnesses living and deceased who support us with their prayers, example, and love. Their ongoing journey of faith may be more rocky than it need be.
Dr. John Berkman, professor of moral theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA (with whom the Institute is affiliated and where Fr. Michael Sweeney currently serves as President) is offering a really interesting series of presentations at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle, Washington.
It takes place January 19, 20, 2007.
The topics are
"Happiness, an Excellent life . . .and Work? Taking Care of Ethical Business Wearing One's Ethics on One's Sleeve
Mike L, Blessed Sacrament is another one of our "agents" :-}. Fr. Michael Sweeney and I started the Institute there nearly 10 years ago. It is the gorgeous old gothic church with the green copper spire that you can see as you drive past the University district on I-5. Blessed Sacrament is run by the Dominicans of the Western Province and is committed to becoming a center of all that we have been discussing on this blog.
I'll be there on February 2/3 to help teach a Called & Gifted workshop. If you are going to be in the Seattle area, check out one or both events. You won't be sorry. And I'd be delighted to meet any readers of ID.
No, I'm not talking about a Public-Works-type charity job! Nor am I talking about spending more time within the walls of the parish in a paid position (do those exist?). If, as members of the Body of Christ, we really are stewards of each others' vocations, then our communities should focus a great deal of their efforts on not only forming laypeople for our mission in the world, but also helping us discover our specific vocation and providing opportunities for us to connect with jobs in the secular world that allow us to live out that vocation.
Imagine, if you will, a multi-disciplinary formation program that includes gifts discernment, linked to a vocational discernment process, which in turn connects to a comprehensive Vocation Placement Center--all located within the parish community. What do I mean?
As a lay member of the Body of Christ, I should receive formation regarding the dignity, juridiction, power, and authority of the Lay Office in the mission of the Church. My home community should be a place whereby I can, in conjunction with the community, discern and discover my own giftedness, as well as discover a better sense of the personal call God has given me to labor in the world on His behalf. Let's say I belong to a parish that provides me with such things--what happens next? How can I utilize what I have discerned and discovered in a practical way so that I can actually undertake my mission in the world?
The parish consists of hundreds (if not thousands) of lay people with varying degrees and types of secular competence. With the exception of maybe a handful of priests, deacons, and pastoral staff, our primary call is to live and work in the world. It's what we do. Therefore, as good stewards of the mission of the Church and the vocation of its members, we should 'deploy' our secular competence to help connect lay people with work consistent with the call God has given us to be in the world.
One such form that this 'deployment' could take is a Vocational Placement Center--which could include an up-to-date database listing open jobs in the local community, a resume and gifts database of parish members, interview skills and resume writing workshops, referral services, mentors for young adults beginning their preparations for secular service in the world, and a fairly comprehensive web of networking, just to name a few things off the top of my head. The goal of these Centers wouldn't simply be to find jobs for those who desparately need one. Rather, they would be holistic services designed to connect the gifts, talents, competence, and call of individuals to secular positions within the world in an effort to help those individuals respond to Christ's call of evangelization and transformation of the world!
We are the business owners and business leaders, the non-profit employees and directors, the welders and plumbers, and workers within our secular communities. If we pooled our experience, talent, and contacts together at the parish level, there is no telling what could happen. Imagine a cadre of fully formed, Spirit-led and Sacrament-nourished lay apostles connected to the jobs that best utilize their gifts and best express the vocation that God has called them to. How much more would we as parishes, as the Church inserted into the neighborhood, be fruitfully living out our call to "transform society's structures . . .(and) restore to creation all of its original dignity? (Christifideles Laici)
What would it take to make such a thing happen?
Keith et all:
One of our Called & Gifted teachers, Mary Sharon Moore, is actually starting an interesting parish-based initiative in this area called Awakening Vocations. Her website is http://www.awakeningvocations.com/. Check it out!.
St. Justin Martyr in Seminole, Florida describes itself as "committed and passionate disciples of Jesus Christ and his Church". According to their website, they offer a regular series of Discipleship courses. Take a look around their website and get inspired.
Leadville, Colorado is a perfect setting for human drama.Leadville started life as a classic, wild-west town full of miners in search of fabulous wealth.It is the highest incorporated town (10,200 feet high) at the foot of the highest mountain range in North America.That means that it is short on oxygen and long on superlatives.The steeple of the exquisite Victorian Catholic church (where the famous “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was married) is, naturally, the highest church steeple in North America.In the grip of an 24-hour stomach flu, I recently earned the distinction of throwing up on the lawn of the highest town hall in North America!
Every August, hundreds of outsiders descend on Leadville to kick the inherent drama of the place up a few notches.They have come to attempt the highest ultra-marathon in North America: The Leadville Trail 100, “the race across the sky”.Runners seek to cover 100 miles across mountainous terrain that rises as high as 12,600 feet and to finish within 30 hours.They begin the race in the pre-dawn darkness at on Saturday.To be counted as a “finisher” you have to stagger across the finish line before the gun goes off at on Sunday.To finish on time, runners cannot sleep, and must run or walk all night up and down steep mountain trails in temperatures that routinely drop into the 30’s.This past August, 199 runners – 51% of those who started - finished on time.
I first heard of the Leadville 100 from the bemused owner of a bed and breakfast in a tiny mountain town which serves as one of the race’s primary aid stations.The poor man described dazed runners who were so exhausted that they had to be pushed in the right direction or they would simply miss the trail.The whole thing sounded so extreme - so utterly crazy - that I couldn’t believe that rational human beings would take part.I have since found out that nearly every person – including those who now run it - reacted that way when they first heard about the Leadville 100.Everyone thinks it is crazy - until you witness one - and what I have come to think of as the “Leadville Effect” hits you:
When a community promotes, models, and intentionally supports outstanding achievement in its members, people change . This transformation, and the extraordinary achievement that results from this transformation, is what I mean by the “Leadville Effect”:
People begin to see themselves differently and the world differently.
What they assumed to be “normal” and “possible” begins to change.
The result: “ordinary” people begin to imagine, aspire to, and accomplish extraordinary things.
Let me try and explain.
First of all, no one attempts the Leadville Trail 100 alone.The secret of the race is the very high level of community support behind each runner. There are a minimum of two supporting workers for every participant.Hundreds man aid stations all day and night, handing out water, Gatorade, power gels, cookies, and hot potato soup to all.Volunteers time runners in and out of aid stations, weigh them and assess their condition, give them a chance to warm themselves, to change their clothing and gear, and if necessary, insist they stop before they hurt themselves.Teams on mountain bikes follow behind the runners “sweeping” the trail in the dark to make sure that all stragglers are found and no one gets lost.
In addition, most runners have their own personal team of supporters.Many have “pacers” who can run beside individual participants for the last 50 miles.Pacers are not competitors but often run the equivalent of an ultra-marathon themselves simply to support someone else.Throughout the night, pacers can be heard softly talking, encouraging, challenging; making sure their runner keeps hydrated and doesn’t get lost, and if necessary, telling their runner when to quit.Family and friends, often wearing matching sweatshirts with mottos like “Ted’s team”, met the runners at aid stations with specially prepared food, changes of clothing, and sun block.They massage and bandage battered feet, provide dry shoes and socks, and a stream of encouragement.
The whole drama culminates at the finish line between 9 and on Sunday morning.The uber-athletes have long since finished and gone but the crowd just keeps getting larger and more exuberant.They know that the last hour is the most moving because so many of the late finishers are ordinary men and women who are attempting something extraordinary, perhaps for the first time in their life.The “race across the sky” is not just for the young and extraordinarily fit.Runners in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s finish every year.Finishing Leadville is not primarily about speed; it is about courage and heart and the power of community.
At the finish line this past August, I could not help but notice a large support team of perhaps 40 people all dressed in brilliant scarlet t-shirts.On the back of each shirt was the phrase “already finished”.I was intrigued and asked a couple of the team members who they were supporting.They pointed to the writing on the front of their shirts “In loving memory of Daryl Bogenrief”.Twenty five year old Daryl had been killed the summer before in a white water rafting accident.His young wife of 10 months, Angela, was running the Leadville 100 in his memory.A few minutes later, word spread among the team that she was two miles away with only an hour remaining.Instantly, Angela’s army set off to meet her.
I waited by the finish line.The minutes passed.One by one, runners crossed, often running hand-in-hand for the last 100 yards with the spouses, children, and friends who had made their achievement possible.Grizzled, grey-haired men broke down and wept in joy and relief within seconds of finishing.Each one was cheered vigorously by the hundreds of on-lookers who had by this time formed a kind of human tunnel around the finish.But I kept my eye on the ridge of the last hill, looking for signs of Angela.
Then I saw it: a scarlet phalanx formed at the crest of the hill a quarter mile away, and began to marching steadily towards us.As the group drew closer, I could see that they had formed a solid, cheering, human wall around a young woman with long brown hair.Angela’s pacer was beside her.Her friends were carrying all her gear but a single water bottle, freeing her up to focus on one thing alone: finishing.Angela was limping but her face was radiant, as she crossed the line 18 minutes before the final gun went off.
The power of the Leadville experience has stayed with me because it has such obvious implications for the formation of lay apostles.I know many “Angelas”, men and women who are doing astonishing things for the Kingdom of Godbecause and only because they have the active, sustained, enthusiastic support of the Christian community – a sort of ecclesial Leadville effect.
Last summer, I received a letter from a recently retired pharmacist named Claudia who had attended a Called & Gifted workshop in a South Carolina parish. As a result of her discernment, she had volunteered to serve as a lay missionary in Tanzania.There she would teach pharmacology at the very first medical school in the country. Claudia’s mission: to enable Tanzanians to qualify for funding for AIDS medications by training them to administer the drugs in question. This woman’s skill and expertise could conceivably save the lives of an entire generation and change the course of a whole nation. When I told her story at a small group gathering in my parish in Colorado Springs, one woman blurted out “She’s like Esther! Who knows but what she has been prepared for such a time as this?”
Claudia is an Esther and she has obviously been prepared for just such as time as this.And yet, the irony is that such a possibility was beyond anything Claudia had ever envisioned for herself. As Claudia put it, “I was deliberating what to do next and whether there might be some purpose for my life.” Discerning her charisms “set me on a path that I’d probably taken years to find on my own.”It was an experience of a discerning Christian community that enabled Claudia to first imagine, then aspire to, and then do the extraordinary thing that will change so many lives.
Our Catholic parishes are filled with anointed but unconscious Esthers and Dominics, who have been prepared for purposes beyond anything they can now imagine. As Catholics, we have a beautifully rich theology of evangelization.But our evangelical imagination as individuals and as a community is stunted because we haven’t seen it livedat the local level.Can we imagine what Holy Spirit would do in our midst if our parishes were spiritual Leadville’s, challenged all the baptized to imagine, aspire to, and live their God-given vocations?
"As is almost always the case, our wonderful Church documents presume or propose a culture of intentional discipleship, but if one does not exist in a parish, we have a bit of a catch-22. How do we foster intentional discipleship if the lived reality of the local parish is not actively promoting it?"
(I suppose my being struck by that shouldn't surprise me. It is the question that moves this entire blog, after all ;-))
But what I kept thinking about when reading this question is that part of the challenge rests in how we can communicate an experience.
What experience, you say? The encounter with Christ.
I personally like that way of speaking of this experience. Admittedly, it may be due to the context in which the meaning of this phrase was driven home for me, but it has always felt less saddled with the baggage of what most Americans identify as "classically Protestant" expressions, like "a personal relationship with Jesus" or "accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior". Even, today, when I hear those phrases, I must admit that I first and foremost think of the personal and (honestly) an almost ethereal Jesus. But "encounter?" For some reason, there's flesh there. And where I find Him in the flesh is in His people, in His Church. Cardinal Scola said much the same in his address* at the 2nd World Congress of Ecclesial Movements this past Pentecost, where he described the encounter with Jesus Christ as a "personal and communitarian event" (emphasis added). At least for me, the phrase "encounter" more easily brings this to mind.
But, I think, it is that experience, the encounter with Christ, that is part of what makes intentional discipleship possible. After all, how do you, exercising your freedom, choose to follow Christ if you have not first met Him? And is not to follow Him but to encounter Him anew each day? And here, I am talking about the existential of being a Christian. An active following that is the following of a Person, not, as then-Cardinal Ratzingercommented, an adherence to a Christianity that's been reduced to some "intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism ...".
Of course, once could say that this is precisely what the Church as been proposing through the ages: the apostles sharing their experience of His presence with others and inviting them to partake and then those others sharing their experience of Him with the next generation. But in some pockets (and, admittedly they are some really big pockets today) what is being offered to people is precisely what now Pope Benedict warned was not really Christianity. And when tested, it fails to satisfy, it falls short, and thus doesn't sustain and change a person.
(Okay, I know what you are thinking. Did he use all of these words to basically just restate Fr. Mike's question? Well, what did you expect, programmatic answers from me? Heh. Not likely. The best I have ever managed is to return to Christ's own reply to the question of St. Andrew and St. John: "come and see." )
* Sorry that the link is in Italian, but I couldn't find an English translation anywhere.
** The external link here is a hat tip to Fr. Julian Carron,and the title of his article on education, that inspired the lens of this post.
I have to schuss my way across town before dawn this morning to Focus on the Family again to do another ITV presentation for the Diocese of Dodge City, Kansas. We have our third major snowfall in three weeks yesterday and I'm praying that the major roads are possible this early. This is the most snow I've seen in six winters here - or in my entire life. The Mississippi Gulf Coast where I grew up isn't exactly known for its snow storms.
It is very beautiful. But this time, I have to drive myself. At least the traffic will be light! Ah, the glamour of the mendicant lifestyle . . .
If you see this, your prayers for a safe arrival and return would be most appreciated.
“There are at least three things I’ve learned from Evangelicals,” Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif told Again magazine. “First, it is possible to be ‘sacramentalized’ but not ‘evangelized.’ By that I mean it’s possible to be religious but lost.” The second, continued Nassif, who teaches theology at North Park University in Chicago, is that the Orthodox “need to focus on the centrality of Christ, not the centrality of ‘Orthodoxy’,” and the third is that “the most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need for an aggressive internal missions of rededicating or converting our priests and people to Jesus Christ.”
Sherry mentioned in another post a story I tell in the Called & Gifted workshop about someone asking me if I "had accepted Jesus as my personal savior." Of course, as a cradle Catholic, it made me very uncomfortable. I instinctively knew that there were presuppositions behind that question that I did not share, so "yes" somehow wasn't appropriate. That is, I couldn't point to a specific date and time when I had been "saved." But "no" wasn't appropriate, either. After all, I prayed in my own words (silently, and particularly fervently before tests in school and in life). I can still recite my first extemporaneous prayer, which quickly became my bedtime prayer, "God bless mommy and daddy and David (my older brother) and Barbie (my older sister) and Penny (the dog) and myself." I learned rote prayers that I could pray aloud with other Catholics. My wonderful parents made sure they never missed Mass, so consequently I never missed Mass. I even played Mass as a kid with my older brother and sister (as the youngest I was relegated to communicant). There were reminders in my home about Jesus: a crucifix in my room, with last year's palms behind it; a book of prayers by my bed; a holy water font at the door. I went to Catholic gradeschool and CCD (how'd that happen?), gave up something during Lent, was an altar boy… the whole nine yards.
In some ways I grew up in a Catholic culture not unlike the one described by Paul McLachlan at a Catholic Pages website article linked here. You might say, as one participant proposed on this blog, that I picked up Catholicism by osmosis. In fact, my identity was Catholic enough that I have never really seriously being anything else. Sherry jokes that in my case, everything about this kind of Catholic culture "worked" and I'm not only still a practicing Catholic, but a priest, for heaven's sake (well, actually for my sake and yours, and completely by the grace of God).
But I know there are many children who grew up very much like me who are no longer Catholic. Some may even call themselves, "recovering Catholics," while others have joined Protestant denominations, or dabbled in New Age stuff, or started their own evangelical church in their basement twenty years ago which grew into the megachurch down the street. When I was involved in campus ministry, it sometimes felt like the Catholic students I was least likely to see were those who had gone to Catholic schools. They might have been at the local parish, but I met some who, when I asked why they weren't at Mass, responded, "Father, I spent X years in Catholic schools – I've done my time."
As someone who has entered the Church from evangelicalism, Sherry is more acutely aware of this kind of Catholic culture than I am. She mentioned the "don't ask, don't tell" atmosphere with regard to sharing our faith with each other that I never really thought about. It was the way we did things.
Over the last two years or so, I've begun to question if there aren't really two parallel Catholic cultures. One is the "cultural Catholicism" I experienced and benefited from, the other the Catholic culture envisioned by bishops and Popes and derived from the Scriptures. An example of what I mean follows. It's from the 1985 U.S. bishops document on Campus Ministry, "Empowered by the Spirit". In speaking about the importance of Christian community on college campuses, the bishops wrote
"The Church gains credibility when the dream of community produces genuine commitment and intelligent effort. - In the ideal community of faith, the Mystery that rules over our lives is named and worshiped.
- Dedication to Christ is fostered, and openness to all truth, goodness, and beauty is maintained.
- The life of the Spirit is nourished and discussed.
- Positive images of God, Christ, Mary, and the afterlife warm the heart and structure the imagination.
- The common good is emphasized and personal development encouraged. Individuals experience true freedom and at the same time accept responsibility for the well-being of the group.
- Traditional wisdom is available and the best contemporary insights are valued.
- Prayerful liturgies enable us to praise God with full hearts and create a sense of belonging, as well as nourish people for a life of service.
- Members are known by name and newcomers are welcomed.
- Unity of faith is celebrated while legitimate pluralism is recognized.
- Individuals find both support and challenge and can share their joys and sorrows.
- The members hunger for justice and have the courage to fight the dehumanizing tendencies in the culture.
- The community knows the sorrows of life but remains a people of hope.
In this ideal community of faith, the members are of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32) and receive the spirit of wisdom which brings them to full knowledge of Jesus Christ who is the head of the Church (Eph 1:17-23)." Empowered by the Spirit, 37.
When I was involved in campus ministry, reading passages like this both thrilled me and exhausted me. "Who's going to make this ideal a reality?" I'd ask myself and my staff. Now I know the answer - intentional disciples! As is almost always the case, our wonderful Church documents presume or propose a culture of intentional discipleship, but if one does not exist in a parish, we have a bit of a catch-22. How do we foster intentional discipleship if the lived reality of the local parish is not actively promoting it?
The culture described above goes beyond surrounding our living environment with sacramentals. Not that sacramentals are bad. They are wonderful - able to sanctify almost every moment of our lives. However, their connection to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, from which their power is drawn, "sanctifies the lives of those who are well-disposed," (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 61) i.e., for those whose faith is alive and well-formed. Once again, we come up against the importance of a conscious daily choice to follow Christ which is the presumed foundation for a full Catholic life. I have some thoughts on how we can promote intentional discipleship in our parishes which I'll post in a few days. I'm interested in reading your reflections and comments, however.
How many of us had a not so merry Christmas? I've talked to several people recently who have told me "This was the hardest Christmas of my life." Some of us come from tough backgrounds. Many of us have experienced inexplicable, and seemingly undeserved loss and sorrow in the course of our life. What is the Christian response to "life is hard and then you die?"
Take a look at this quote from a parish bulletin reflection by Fr. Paul Francis, CP of Glasgow Scotland (hat tip: Amy Welborn) which seems so relevant to our discussions about effective witnessing:
"It is sad but true that many people experience very little love in their lives. Summing up the meaning of the years that make up a human life, the Psalmist says: “And most of these are emptiness and pain; they pass swiftly and we are gone” (Psalm 89:10). The answer to the emptiness and pain of life is found only in the love of God. The love of God remains the remedy for all the evils of this world; as Catholics, that is what we believe.
What can we do in the face of the emptiness and pain that is part of so many people’s lives? The great Carmelite mystic, Saint John of the Cross, said “Where you find no love, put love and then you’ll find it.”
Often we are more concerned about the love we receive from others than the love we give to others. As long as we devote ourselves to looking for love, we are missing the point of Christmas. Love in all its fullness has come to us in Jesus; our task in life is to be bearers of that love, to bring love to the places where otherwise it would not be found. And experience teaches that those who bring God’s love to others always receive God’s love in their own lives."
Have you had the experience of trying to "put love where there is no love"? What happened? What has enabled you to experience the love of God? How did that affect you and your situation? How do you foster the virtue of hope in your life? How has God provided for you in the midst of tough times?
A lot of struggling folk out there need the encouragement of hearing your story.
I do a lot* of work with pastoral leadership, helping them transform parishes into communities where intentional formation for mission is a priority. Oftentimes, as we have noted here on Intentional Disciples, this requires:
Working on the fundamental evangelization of much of the community
Building a culture where the discipleship of individuals is nurtured through prayer, study of scripture and Church teaching, faith sharing, opportunities for spiritual growth
Beginning the process of spiritual gifts discernment and vocational discernment
Forming a generation of formators, those who will continue the work of formation at all levels of the parish
Aligning the strategy (multiple-year plan) and structures of the community to support these priorities
among many other things.
Given the work that needs to be done in these areas, what are the top 3 things that could (or should) occur in your parish to move it toward becoming a community where disciples are intentionally formed and the mission of the parish to the local community is prioritized? I'm looking for practical, hands-on suggestions on the things that would need to happen within the parish of your most recent experience.
*By "a lot" I mean that the work is distributed among only a small number of parishes, but the depth and time-intensity is quite heavy.
Roz Dieterich made a wonderful observation in the discussion on Osmosis, Conversion and Catholic Culture? that I wanted everyone to see:
Fr. Mike's observation on the often-missing elements of effective "silent witness" is important. In my view, too few Catholics are themselves fully converted (in the sense that our lives have been changed to be fully centered on Christ) nor are we often in the midst of true Christian community. In that situation, it's not likely that we would radiate the joy that would cause others to desire it, nor would it be comfortable for us to express our faith to others in a natural way.
If our love for God becomes stronger than our fear, it will be much more natural for it to be expressed in our interactions. If not, being open about the things of God can seem artificial and make us self-conscious, as though we're walking around in our underwear.
Some of the most powerful instances of witness I've seen have included things like asking the other if it's all right to pray for their difficulty, gently inquiring whether the other person has considered the possibility of a loving God, or even a remark such as "It seems you have a non-negotiable assumption that there is no God. Is that true?" Each of these, in the right situation, could leave the door open for a comfortable and effective conversation if the other person is interested.
The question we should ask ourselves ought not be "Do I really have to talk about Jesus to others or is it enough for me to just try to be good?" Instead, it should be, "Since God has brought me into the kingdom of his Son, is there any action I can take that will cooperate with His desire to share himself with the people in my life?"