Church Life

Vision for a Change

Archbishop Fulton J Sheen used to say, “Evil has it’s hour. But our Lord has His Day.” We must give the Devil his due before we can fight him like Hell. We must face reality, own up to it, if we are ever going to change it for the better. Karl Marx once remarked that the philosophers of the past were always trying to understand the world, “but the point is to change it.” But change without understanding is a false start. Chesterton would agree that we don’t know what we’re doing because we don’t know what we undoing. Our lack of understanding the problem means that all our activity will only lead to more problems. And the business of the Church will become reduced to busyness.

What is the problem? The Catholic Church in America is dying and the way we “do church” has failed us.

Catholics are leaving the Church as fast as they can. Adults cease following, cease believing. 70% of people who were raised Catholic no longer worship Jesus Christ, and of the 30% who still attend Mass, only 15% will be there any given Sunday. This is indeed the hour

Let us discard the illusions right now. The Church is hemorrhaging, and a great many people are busying themselves about with bandaids thinking “this will work!” or “this can fix it!” Others deal in outright denials of all the wounds our Church suffers. And those who are actually trying to do the good work of healing the Church? They are either personally torn down or they are drawn into political squabbles and petty debates, dissipating their energy and minimizing their effectiveness.

And yet here we are, doing the same things, offering the same things, saying the same things. We tell ourselves that it will get better because we are doing, offering, saying more. Staffers at parishes are running on fumes and our people are inhaling only the exhaust. It is a cycle that burns us out, makes us jaded, and even, when we are honest, a little bit resentful. We resent those who don’t show up consistently, or who never show up at all. After all, we plan. We organize. We push. And those come-to-everything people are the only ones that come to our thing, with fewer and fewer new faces. 

We respond to that by either losing heart or doubling down. Neither of which are actual solutions.

There is a line that most of you know, but I think it bears repeating. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” What we expect and what we get are two different things and they are growing further and further apart. “More” does not get us where we need to be going. After all, if the road you are on will not take you to the destination you desire, going faster will only make it worse. 

“Honey, we’re lost. We should have exited 20 miles ago. So go faster!” said no navigator ever.

70% do not care about their Catholic faith. 15% do, and 15% sort of do. The biggest shame is even if those statistics were reversed it would still be a shock and a failure. 

Failure.  

I hate that word. It is a label that is almost impossible to shake off emotionally and mentally. It stays with you. It sticks on you. It clouds and muddies your ability to envision the future. It hurts. It sucks. And yet, it also can liberate.

Failure liberates in two ways. First, you know with certainty that something does not work. Great! You know to stop doing that thing. Second, you now have the permission and motivation to change everything that needs to be changed. 

People hate change. Change is most hated in religion, especially a religion like ours where we have something called Sacred Tradition. Serious problems arise when we attach the label of “Tradition” to things that are not essentials, and by doing so we cause paralysis. Change and innovation in the Church are almost synonymous with heresy and heterodoxy to a vast number of people, clergy and laity alike. “But this is the way we do things. This is the way we have always done things!” is the refrain of those who have failed, but do not want to admit it.

You can insert anything into this category: the Baltimore Catechism, altar servers, homilies, fish fries, schedules, calendars, ministry management, etc. Once someone is used to it, even if it is killing them, he or she will still embrace it. Humans are weird like that. And we will go to such great lengths to keep things the way they are, even if the way things are is a failure. We do it because we are less afraid of the current failure that we know than we are of the future that we do not know. Familiar failure is at least safe. There is just too much risk in what is possible. But when things have failed this badly, when we are devastated this deeply, these are risks we must be willing and ready to take.

Because our Catholic Church has been tied to Christendom for 1,800 years, the missionary spirit in the old countries is well nigh dead. It was a Catholic culture where Catholics were accustomed to coasting. Our faith was not challenged except by other Christians. No big deal. Holiness for the laity was “pray, pay, and obey”. We were coasting. We were coasting in our catechizing, teaching the little children what the Church teaches, but almost never preaching to them the Person of Jesus Christ and the event of the Paschal Mystery.  

We contented ourselves with intellectual agreement and cultural reinforcement with the Church, and because that became the norm for centuries, we missed the shift in the culture around us. We missed the secularism. We missed the atheism. We missed the hedonism happening to our own kids, and happening to us, subtly. Evangelization engages culture. We were just assuming it, and our assumptions have been proven dead wrong. 

Christendom is shattered. You and I both know this. There is no longer an alliance between Church and State. There are no shared moral values and principles. There is only hostility in the public arena now. You and I both know this. You are here because you know this. But why on earth do we keep acting, thinking, and speaking as if this alliance still existed? 

What is the model that no longer works? What are we doing over and over again that isn’t working? What is the status quo of almost every single parish in the United States today? 

We might curse the lack of attendance or the complete noninvolvement of the parents in their child’s faith formation. We might complain about the lukewarmness that surrounds us and the secularism that attacks us, but the one remedy that we actually do have, the one tool that we can use that will actually change the whole world, especially this country, is the one thing we don’t do. 

We do not do this as a parish. We do not do this as a diocese. We do not do this as individuals.

We do not evangelize.

Let me be clear here, offering a bunch of religious education classes for the already initiated is not the same thing as evangelizing. Making people smarter is not the same thing as conversion, repentance, and Christian maturity, just as being a hearer of the Word is not the same thing as being a doer of the Word. In fact, in the eyes of Jesus Christ, it is far worse! Better to not hear, than to hear and not do!

We can translate that into parish-speak: better not to offer anything, than to offer a class or event that does not center on evangelization. If not-evangelizing led us down this dark road, then evangelization is the most effective U-turn we can do. But we don’t do this. We are too scared. It isn’t in our cultural Catholicism to be a missionary, even though every lay person is called to evangelize by Vatican 2 and every pope since! It isn’t in our blood because it isn’t in our brains.

So we must put it there.  

Let 2014 be the year we fought back. Let 2014 be set in the history books that, 50 years from now, a Catholic student reads about “the great Catholic revival in America.” Let it start in Texas and reverberate out to the other states. 

Inspired yet? 

Here’s how we go about building up the Church and beating down the culture of death and darkness. First, take the priority off of everything else we are doing during the week and put the priority on the Sunday liturgy. If you were a business where 98% of your customers would show up in your store once a week, wouldn’t you make that the best moment in your store’s week? And here they all are, at Mass, on Sunday, and they are required to listen to you! Invest in amazing Sunday liturgies. Not hip ones, not trendy ones, not fancy ones, not flawless ones- amazing ones.

Second, start immediately pruning away all that is not essential to your parish’s mission, especially when it comes to faith formation. Simplify to edify. Simplify your class schedule. Simplify your pre-reqs. Simplifying your policies and handbooks and emails. 

But take this even further. Prune away good things that are not the best thing. It is not required for your parish classrooms to be booked 24/7 in order to have a healthy parish! In fact, that is probably a sign of sickness and insanity. Busyness does not equal holiness, nor does it equal effectiveness.

Third, examine the content of every book you teach from, every homily that is given, and every class or program that is offered and throw it away (or, less dramatically, put it on hold) if it does not engage in kerygmatic proclamation. Catechesis is about maturing someone deeper into the mystery of Christ. Kerygma is about introducing people to Jesus Christ and being in a relationship with Him. We have the ultimate tragedy in our parishes today where people are being catechized who were never evangelized. Without the kerygma, there can be no response of faith. Just because we teach a bunch of stuff and it is retained does not mean we are making disciples out of people.

Classrooms make smart people, not necessarily mature disciples, and I say this as a guy who would love to spend his entire existence as a student. The kerygma, the basic gospel message, can stir up faith and cause a powerful and positive response in the hearer to become a doer. Only the kerygma can do this, but so rarely do priests preach the kerygma, so rarely do catechists teach the kerygma, that this faith lies dead or dormant in the hearts of most people in our classrooms and the pews. Faith remains inactive, or “dead”, as St James puts it. Only the kerygma (not charisma!) can stir up this gift into flame! 

This is the primary place for us to evangelize. Take the existing structures, simplify them, and refocus the content of their teaching to be kerygmatic. Preach the saving message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ over and over again. Connect everything- from First Sacrament reception  to marriage prep and to Advent homilies- to the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. 

We need to make sure that those teaching the faith in our parish schools and catechetical settings are not just warm bodies, but are also disciples of Jesus Christ. The catechists on the front lines need to be modeling and speaking about having a relationship with Jesus Christ over and over again with the kids they teach. They will learn it through testimony and witness. This means we need to invest in the spiritual lives of our catechists, and not just their calendars. 

While we are at it, look at every adult faith program and stop them all. Most adult faith formation programs or classes originate in a piecemeal way. One person comes to the pastor and gets permission to do a bible study at the parish; another comes and starts a prayer group, and so forth and so on. It is a patchwork quilt with no unifying mission or purpose. After all, those types of programs are usually geared towards the already initiated, which means there is no kerygmatic proclamation, just more education, more catechesis, and no evangelization.  

You need to evangelize the adults. In fact, you need to evangelize them more than the kids. Shock! But that’s our main point of failure. We assume faith in the adults and we catechize the kids, hoping they will retain the info and remain in the Church as they get older. Only that is not happening at all. They are leaving the Church as soon as they become adults and most never look back.

This infant paradigm of evangelization and catechesis is exactly what is failing us. This is the status quo left over from the old days of Christendom where parish culture and community culture were the same thing. Everyone was Catholic and had the same values and beliefs, for the most part. The expectations we place on this infant paradigm of evangelization does not reflect reality, but we keep trying it over and over again. This is insanity.

We need an adult paradigm of evangelization. When we actually shift to this paradigm, it means that our only assumptions are: one, that everyone needs to be evangelized regardless of how they were raised or label themselves; and two, we expect that God will show up and do amazing things when we preach His Son. 

 

An adult paradigm scales back all of the purely educational classes and narrows in on relationships, retreats, classes and other events that invite people into taking a first step with Christ. The balance we must achieve in our adult faith formation is this unbalanced: the kerygma is front and center in the majority of programs, with catechesis-centered classes and events taking a minority place. 

Furthermore, on top of offering evangelism-centered classes, a parish implementing an adult paradigm of evangelization would create a “discipleship track” where the uncommitted can commit, and intentional followers of Jesus are motivated to keep growing in holiness, spirituality, and intimacy with our Lord. Now it must be said that simply completing the “discipleship track” does not automatically equal being an intentional disciple. But the idea here is movement: you teach and equip in order to send them out. There is spiritual progress at every level and every staffer and clergy is ordered towards parishioners’ spiritual growth.

And finally, we need to introduce the most difficult change for most parishes because it is outside the norm of standard catechetical practice and common parish experience, but we need this, especially as our congregations become larger and larger. With these huge numbers at Mass people will feel isolated and anonymous and the parish will feel like a crowd, not a community, and so we need to intentionally make our parishes smaller as they get bigger. 

We need small groups.

We need to put a priority on small groups above all of the other adult faith formation offerings. There needs to be an exclusivity of intent, that is, people need to know small groups are the first thing we do as a parish after the Mass. Each person in the pew needs to know it like muscle memory: “This parish is all about small groups.” 

(Many churches with successful small groups have a complete non-competitive model of adult faith formation, which means there is nothing else offered in terms of standard educational/catechetical classes outside of small groups for adults. This is risky for parishes that are used to having Bible studies and book studies and whatnot meeting weekly. But the risks tend to generate huge rewards.)

The goal is to stop doing the same tasks in the same way. We all have our mission statement from the lips of Jesus Christ Himself: “Go and make disciples”. Our task is simply stated, but difficult to undertake. We know from experience and from the best Catholic theology that discipleship cannot be undertaken apart from community. You need people to challenge you, support you, pray and care for you, as well as hold you accountable. Left alone, we often either think too highly of ourselves or too lowly. We become scrupulous or blind to our own sin. We need people to be mirrors, holding up the truth to our own eyes, as well as being a window, letting in the light of God’s grace and mercy. 

Evangelization, intentional infrastructure and community are the three tent poles through which we can been to right the ship of the parish. It will not look the same in every parish because different people will be bringing their different gifts to the table. But the one thing that will happen is the spiritual growth and maturation of our parishioners. Some will not like this change. Many might even view it as a threat to their previous work and mission. But God’s glory is more important, and it is better to obey God rather than men.