Back just before Holy Week I read an interesting and provocative essay by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register. It is about the need to more clearly instruct Catechumens and those being received into the Church about spiritual attack. Plain and simple, the devil wants to destroy the faith of those who have newly entered the Church. And we need to be sober about this. Being sober does not mean we are in a panic. It merely means we are alert and have a mind that is clear as to the possibility, even the likelihood that the Devil will seek to snatch them from our hands. I want to quote from Ms Fulwiler’s article article and then give some personal experiences and concerns:
It’s a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We’ve all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with “The devil made me do it!” arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it’s good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.
In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I’ve been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. …it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.
This advice has been particularly critical in times of doubt. Twenty-five years of atheistic thinking patterns don’t go away overnight, and since my conversion I’ve had plenty of periods where I experienced doubt or spiritual dryness. In these moments, it’s been extremely important to understand how to parse through my thoughts carefully, separating reasonable points from lines of thinking that seem to stem from spiritual attack, bad moods or other distracting forces (I once summarized what I learned about that here). Thanks to this understanding, each period of exploring my doubts has only led me to a deeper knowledge of God and greater faith in the Church.
And so, as a new group of converts (and “reverts”) prepares to come into full communion with the Church this Easter, I hope that our RCIA directors talk to them about this issue. I hope they make Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recent article about the reality of spiritual warfare required reading, and emphasize the benefits of finding a trusted priest or trained spiritual director to help navigate the ups and downs of the ongoing conversion process. Because while the path to sainthood is a beautiful road where we find peace and fulfillment as we grow closer to the Lord, we must never forget that it is also a battle.
The Full Article is Here: On Spiritual Attack
I must say, this article caused me to pause and repent. For I, who know better, have not made it a practice to speak to my Neophytes and Newly Received about this. That has to change. And I also need to extend longer care to those who have newly entered the Church.
It is sobering for me to consider how many of the people I have baptized quietly slipped away from the Church in the years that followed. A couple of years ago I was looking at my notes from past Easter Vigils and gradually my mouth came open. For as I looked back over those notes going back fifteen years, I saw the names of many I had prepared for baptism and reception. But more than half were gone now. And of only a very few could I say, “Ah, they have moved and I know that they are in a parish there.”
I was, frankly, stunned. Some of them had been intense, joyful and excited to be baptized and received. I remember the joy of those congregations gathered at the vigil as, one by one the catechumens went down into the water. “Alleluia!” went forth the song, as each of them emerged from the font. And joy too was expressed for those received into full communion. And now half of them gone, quite certainly lapsed.
I cannot find any hard data on line, but, I have talked to RCIA “experts” who do work at a national level and they quietly affirm that, within five years, 50% of those who came through RCIA are no longer practicing the faith in any real way. I cannot show you the hard numbers, but I have personally found this to be true.
I have tried to be better about following up with those who have come through my classes who later go “off the radar.” I call them in, or speak with them on the phone: “You know what I taught you about Mass attendance, I’m worried about you….Jesus wants to feed you!” “Adam where are you….Eve, why do hide your face?” I get their sponsors on the job too. But it’s strange, a kind of lethargy seems to come upon some of them. They make promises to return, but often don’t. Or they come once, but then disappear again. Maybe I’ll see them in the store later on and josh with them, or be very serious, depending on the situation. But something has come over them. Most didn’t have some terrible experience, they just drifted away, they just lost the joy, or things just got routine.
But Jennifer Fulwiler, above, is on to something very important: they are likely under some level of spiritual attack. Demon, thy name is lethargy, thy name is boredom, thy name is sorrow and sloth, distraction and forgetfulness. Jesus warned:
Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mk 4:15-19)
Yes, spiritual attack is real. So is the world and the flesh.
I think, in the early days of RCIA we figured that those who entered in this way had a great advantage over “cradle Catholics,” for they had come to the faith as adults, and made a mature decision to follow Christ. Yes, they would remain firm. But we are waking up from that notion. We need to be more vigorous and sober in our assessment of what new and returning Catholics face. Satan is sure make some moves on them and, as Ms Fulwiler says, Twenty-five years of….thinking patterns don’t go away overnight.
In my own parish, thanks to the generous offer of a skilled parishioner, we’re looking to strongly enhance our mystagogia (post baptismal catechesis) and extend it for as long as two years. We’re also going to give more vigorous formation to sponsors and insist that they see their role as more than ceremonial and one that does not end with the Easter Vigil.
And I am going to begin to be more frank with my newly received and baptized as to the nature of spiritual attack, and the likely moves the devil will try. Further, they must be taught a deeper understanding of the drives of the flesh and influence of the world. Peter Kreeft’s article, hot-linked above in the quote from Ms Fulwiler, is a good place to start. CS Lewis also has some good material in the Screwtape Letters about how Satan seeks to knock out new converts like “low-hanging fruit.” I am grateful if you, dear reader, can add to the list of suitable material to help in this matter. Clearly the goal here is not to frighten them, but to instill sobriety and an ability to discern spirits and resist demons, all by God’s manifold grace.
Yet another thing we must do better is to draw new members deeper in to the life of the Church. While Mass attendance and regular confession are primary goals, it is also most critical that new members feel welcome and be encouraged to get involved in the wider life the parish. This will usually root them more deeply in the faith and ensure a greater fraternity that will help them in their walk: Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10).
And we need to teach them to pray. The danger of RCIA is that it can be top heavy on intellectual formation but almost bereft of spiritual formation rooted in prayer and the spiritual and liturgical practices of the Church. Here too, I need to do a better job of finding the right balance.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts and experiences in this matter. Perhaps your own parish is addressing this? Perhaps too, you are a recent addition to our numbers in the Church and would be willing to share the good things, and the short-comings of your formation and mystagogia.
We have to do better. My recent trip down memory lane was real wake-up call. In the early Church, we went from the rather sudden and quick baptisms of Scripture (e.g. Acts 2:39; 8:36) to a three year catechumenate. This was likely due to a bad experience the Church had with those baptized too soon. I am not sure I want to make people wait three years, but I AM more sure I want their mystagogia to extend two years beyond their baptism and reception. We need to walk with our new brothers and sisters a little further down the road than just a few weeks or months out of the font. Lord, have mercy on me for taking so long to know better.