Church Life

How We Teach the Sacraments Matters: Three Spiritual Journeys

Right now we define "a good Catholic" as someone who has good attendance at mass. But part of what I'm trying to do here at LayEvangelist.com is to push this even further. We need to connect the reception of the sacraments to having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Too many Catholics receive the sacraments, especially the three sacraments of initiation, without connecting them to the Person of Jesus Christ. But the sacraments are the mysteries of Christ's life carried over into the very life of the Church and each individual.

Though Sherry Weddel's book, Forming Intentional Disciples, is filled with powerful insights, something that has affected my ministry most of all is this notion of the Three Spiritual Journeys, and their tragic divorce in Catholicism:

Normative Catholicism involves three concurrent spiritual journeys that, in practice, are often treated as separate:

  1. The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship.
  2. The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation.
  3. The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).

But because they are external, corporate, and memorized, people who don't have a relationship with Jesus Christ are left feeling disconnected to God because of the formalism of the liturgy and the sacraments. The thing is, the liturgy of the Church presupposes a personal prayer life at home. Community worship is supposed to extend and support the personal worship.

But for many Catholics their personal prayer life consists of a few Paters and Aves and the rest is liturgical. And thus, boring. There are no depths to the words spoken from the altar because their is no depth of living faith being actively cultivated in the hearer's heart. They are bored because they are disconnected between the words they say and the realities that unfold.

And when you are bored with something, you do not look hard for resolutions when conflicts come up. "Oh no, Billy has a Sunday soccer game in another city? I guess we will miss Mass." "Oh no, the Houston Texans are playing (and losing) a home game this Sunday? I guess we will miss Mass." When you are bored, you look for excuses to get out of it. When it isn't life-giving, every excuse is a good excuse.

So here is my solution to remedy some of this problem, and yes, it involves talking. 

The kerygma is the basic proclamation of the Gospel, the proper response is reception or rejection. That's the reactions that Jesus had everywhere He went. After the kerygma, we have the didache, or the teaching, of the Church, also called the "Law of Love." This flows from the Gospel, but rarely to it. You don't get to swim upstream in the River of Grace. Or, to put it more biblically, if you enter the sheepfold by anywhere else except the gate, you're a robber and do not belong. "So Jesus said for them again, 'Amen, amen I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.'" (John 10:1-10)

It is the preaching of the kerygma that imparts faith. You cannot jump to the teachings and expect the response to be that of faithful entrustment. If all we are doing for Catholics is sending them through spiritual journeys 2 and 3, but skipping 1, we are failing them. We are creating a Church of agree-ers instead of assenters, and agreement is only temporary. As soon as the parish priest, catechist, or Pope says something fully in line with Church teaching, but not with the indvidual, you have disagreement, then dissent, then dissertion.

In order to connect Catholics to the person of Jesus Christ and to connect Jesus Christ to the sacraments, we need to strip away all of our fanciness and teach the sacraments from this kerygmatic perspective. I have been doing this for several years, but it was not all that intentional. As a youth minister, I used every opportunity with parents to give them the basic gospel message, and when I had to talk about the sacraments, I would usually give two separate talks and smash them into one: part one, the kerygma; part two, a catechesis on the particular sacrament. Nothing really to connect the two.

What I am proposing today is to teach the sacraments (heck, every subject) from an intentially evangelistic perspective. In your parish you have so many opportunities to do this, all you need is to feel the urgency to do it. Look at all of the areas where we can bring in the proclamation of the Gospel:

  • Baptism Preparation for the parents of the infants getting baptized
  • RCIA, you would think this one would be a no-brainer, but few get evangelized in RCIA
  • First Reconciliation Preparation, for the parents again
  • First Holy Communion Preparation, and for the parents again
  • Confirmation Preparation, for the teens (our diocese confirms tenth grade and older)
  • Marriage Preparation courses-  what opportunities during theirmeetings with the preist or deacon!
  • Any ethnic celebration like a Quinceanera or the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (I love living in Texas!)
  • Weddings and Funerals

The point is to make an intentional, direct, and explicit connection between the Person of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, and the individual receiving the sacrament. Church ceases to be boring when it becomes a true source of life. How many more ex-Catholics are we going to have that say, "No one ever told me I could have a relationship with Jesus Christ. It was always stand-sit-kneel."

These people end up hating the Catholic Church because it never gave them Jesus. But it is just the opposite when good Protestants convert to Catholicism. Have you ever noticed that? The ex-Protestants all say, "I loved my Protestant upbringing. I got to know Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now I how the fullness of His Church in Catholicism." The difference is that personal discipleship, that first spiritual journey. The tragedy is the other two journeys in the Catholic Faith are meant to build up, support and grow that first journey.

Enough lamenting!

If you want a practical example of teaching the Eucharist to parents of kids making their First Holy Communion, check out this talk I gave recently on my podcast: Eucharistic Kerygma.