A Conversation with My Cousin
Recently I had a conversation with my cousin who runs a pro-life ministry helping unwed pregnant mothers who are in broken situations to find a home and a life. He does amazing work and has helped heal a lot of lives and saved a lot of babies from the abortion mills of Houston, Texas.
He was asking me about the in’s and out’s of being a Catholic lay evangelist and how it was going. “Too often,” I told him, “Catholics are so busy catechizing- which means taking a person deeper into the mystery of Jesus Christ- that we overlooked the fact that they have never, ever been invited to fall in love with Jesus in the first place. That initial proclamation and invitation just never happened.”
“I never heard a Catholic talk like you,” He said to me. “My parents left the Catholic Church because no one mentioned having a personal relationship with Jesus.” The practice of the Faith was just mechanical, mindless, and culture-based.
Half-Way Houses of Sorta Faith
We see so many Catholics who do not seem to care much about their faith. They are quick to identify themselves as Catholic and maybe they go to Mass regularly, and not just Christmas and Easter, but they do not seem to have that living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Whereas, when you look at many non-denominational Christians, the basic Gospel message is repeated over and over, and the message of an intimate relationship with Jesus is central and undeniable. Evangelization is really the whole point of doing church for them.
And yet, we say that the Catholic Church is the “One, true Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostle Peter”. Why does it seem that so many are not alive with faithfulness and devotion, but are the frozen chosen?
We can point to two factors that the non-denominational communities do not have, and that Catholics have in spades, that may contribute to this. First is the use of ritual and the second is cultural Catholicism.
The danger of rituals, like the liturgy, is that one’s familiarity with the external form can lead an individual to mindless recitation. You know what I am talking about every time you pray the Rosary and get distracted. Sure, you are still saying the words out loud, but your brain is in a totally different place. Mindless reciting is a common experience, and thus a frequent criticism of liturgical prayer. Isn’t that just ‘vain repetitions’ that Jesus warned us about the Sermon on the Mount?
The other danger is cultural Christianity. Mass, the Rosary, being Catholic- all of it becomes just another thing that we do. It is not special, not set apart. It is like Catholic school students who can confuse having a relationship with God with getting an ‘A’ on a Theology test. Faith becomes just another subject that we take. This is no good. Many people may be in the Church but that does not mean they are of the Church.
There is more to the story, though.
But when we think about liturgy, rituals, and cultural Catholicism, I think that we can end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We are not seeing the BIG PICTURE with these criticisms.
My cousin is awesome. Did I mention that? He is really on the front lines of pro-life ministry, saving babies by housing mommies. He is doing this ministry with the members of his family, 24/7. It is great.
Reflecting on our desire to end to abortion, I made a little, but important, connection.
The ultimate goal of pro-life work is not just to save one or two babies in Houston. It is not to provide medical, monetary, and moral support to down-and-out pregnant moms so that they feel they are able to choose life. It is not overturn Roe v. Wade, pass pro-life legislation in the states and in Washington, D.C. It is not even to end all abortions in America. These are all proximate goals for the pro-life movement.
The ultimate goal, the end game, is to create and foster the Culture of Life; to make abortion not just illegal, but unthinkable.
Cannibalism is unthinkable. You don’t sit around on a Friday night with your buddies saying, “What do you want to do tonight? Go see a movie? Go to the pool? Eat someone’s flesh?” It just is not an option for normal people.
We want a culture in America to be so filled with love of life that abortion ceases to be an option. We desire to have a pro-life culture, to have the values, principles, and reasons for choosing life to be inculturated, ingrained in the very fabric of the culture.
The same is equally true of Christianity. The goal here on earth is not just my own personal salvation, but is the complete transformation of the whole culture from the inside out with the Gospel. Therefore, we can honestly say the task of evangelization is inculturation. We want cultural Christianity.
Liturgies are similar. If one wants to be mindless and distracted, then yes, ritual-type prayers are the best way to go. While you can be distracted in spontaneous prayer, it is much harder. Acknowledged.
That said, the purpose of prayer is intimate union with Christ. Ritual and liturgy are repetitious, but it does not necessarily follow that they are mindless or vain. Who would object to their spouse saying “I love you” every day? Now, if one is careless, you could be saying “I love you” without really meaning it, as a knee-jerk response to hearing someone else say it to you first.
The thing that robs it of power is the internal disposition of the speaker. The same is true of prayer.
Ritual prayers are actually meant to free up the mind to higher forms of prayer, to speak those familiar words with one’s lips while mentally diving deeper into the mysteries that prayer reveals. For instance, the Third Joyful Mystery’s repeated Hail Marys on the tongue of the fervent become a gateway to profound meditation on the realities of the Incarnation and birth of the Savior. That is hardly ‘vain’.
Also, memorized prayers are the paths to communal prayer. The word ‘liturgy’ means ‘a public work’. It is an inherently communal celebration. One voice cannot come from a congregation in spontaneous prayer. Just think of your favorite hymns or songs. Their power is not just in the praying, but in the whole community with one voice praying together. Again, that is hardly ‘vain’.
The Best of Both Worlds
Just imagine along with me what the Catholic Church in America would look like if every single parish became - through and through - an evangelizing parish.
There would be the wholesale renewal of the Church today. Every Catholic would know the basic Gospel message and respond. RCIA classes would surely overflow with catechumens. Individual Catholics would fall in love with the Scriptures.
Even better still is when this vital relationship with Jesus Christ is amplified and intensified through those seven privileged channels of divine grace called the Sacraments. Forget mindlessness, there would be “full, conscious, and active participation” of the laity in the liturgy as a result. The fullness of that personal relationship would be realized every time an evangelized, catechized member of the Church walked forward to receive the Blessed Sacrament. There are already plenty of people living this out. We just need it to become inculturated into the life of the parish again.
If you want to prevent liturgies from becoming mindless repetitions, then preach Christ. Make Him alone the center of our prayers, our celebrations, our catechesis, our communal “I love you” to the Savior. I trust fully that He never tires of hearing us say that to Him.