I and twelve other pastors, have been meeting recently to embark on a period and plan for renewal in our parishes. which focuses back on the fundamental mission of the Church, and of our parishes, and which seeks to restore a kind of back to basics approach to Church life.
For too often many parishes are reduced from being lighthouses to clubhouses; from being thermostats which set the temperature of culture, to thermometers that merely record the temperature; from being places where Christ is central, and it is his wedding, to being places where Christ is merely an invited guest at our wedding feast.
Too often we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We spend all sorts of energy and resources arranging spaghetti dinners and Superbowl fellowships, and too little time feeding our souls and taking heed of the true spiritual contest between life and death.We argue with each other over minutia such as what color to paint the Ladies restroom or who didn’t clean the kitchen, and and have no real answers to the world’s arguments against us. We contend against each other instead of instead of the principalities and powers in the high places.
Well you get the point. So easily we get lost in the weeds. And even as numbers continue to erode in most parishes, we just do “business as usual.” It’s time for some renewal and to act differently. Thus twelve parishes are coming together to begin to pray and reflect on our central mission and how to act both locally and regionally to better live our of our mission and get back more whole-heartedly to the the basics pillars of Church life.
And what is the central mission of the Church? Stated briefly it is to bring people to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ; it to disciple them in such a way that they enter into a life changing and transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. This is our fundamental task. It is not merely to have meetings in the hall, dinners in the cafeteria, sponsor fundraisers etc. As the Pope recently warned, it is not enough to give turkeys to the poor at Christmas, we have to give Christ, and feed the poor not just materially but spiritually.
Our fundamental mission as a Church is to lead people to encounter Jesus Christ in such a way that they are changed. The life of the Christian and the Church. This personal and communal encounter with Christ is offered through Word, Sacrament, fellowship and prayer. And that leads us to the fact that the transformative relationship with Christ rests on four pillars or practices.
These four pillars, a kind of four-point plan, are found in Acts 2. Peter has just preached a sermon where he warns his listeners to repent and believe the Good News. In effect he has led them to encounter Jesus Christ. They, having encountered him in his Word, are now cut tot he quick and ask what they must do to be saved. He said to them: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:40-41).
Now they are baptized and in the Church of the Living of God. And unlike some of our Protestant brethren who hold a kind of “once saved, always saved” mentality, the text does not stop there. These new disciples now have a life to lead that will help them be ready to meet God, that will help them to set their house in order. And so in the very next verse we read:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
So here is our “four-point plan” for setting our house in order once we have come to faith. There are four components listed below, four pillars if you will:
- The Apostles Teaching
- The Breaking of the Bread
Please note that the text says that they “devoted” themselves to these four pillars of the Christian life. The Greek word is προσκαρτερέω (próskartereo) which means means to continue to do something with intense effort, despite difficulty. It means to devote oneself to, to keep on, to persist in. It is from prós = “towards, and krátos, = “prevailing strength”). Thus what is described here is that they are consistently showing strength which prevails. They are staying in a fixed direction. They did not merely practice the four pillars occasionally, or when they felt like it, or when the time seemed right. They were consistent, they were devoted to this four-fold rule of life. Lets look at each pillar in turn as we consider how to set our house in order:
- The Apostles Teaching– This first pillar of the Christian life is fascinating not only for what it says but also what it does not say. When we think of the “Apostles’ Teaching” we first think of the four Gospels and the the New Testament Epistles. And these would surely be true components of the Apostles’ teaching for a modern Christian. But notice that the text does not say that they devoted themselves to Scripture, but rather to the Apostles’ Teaching. For a Catholic, the Apostolic Teaching consists not only in the New Testament Scriptures but also the Sacred Tradition which comes to us from the Apostles and which has been understood and articulated by the living Magisterium of the Church. The Protestants would largely interpret this first pillar as an exhortation to read our Bible every day and base our lives on it. This is a true understanding but only partial . The early Christians as you recall did not have the New Testament in final form from day one and could not have lived this text in such as way. The Bible as we now have it was not yet completed edited or canonized. Yet they had received the Apostolic teaching through having it preached to them by the Apostles and their deputed representatives, the bishops, priests and deacons. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess 2:15). Therefore the Catholic application of this first pillar is truer and fuller wherein we are devoted to the Apostles teaching not in Scripture alone but also in Sacred Tradition as passed down and interpreted by the living magisterium of the Church. To live this first pillar with devotion means to set our house in order by carefully and diligently studying what the apostles handed on to us. We do this by the daily and devoted reading of Scripture and/or the diligent study of the faith through the Catechism or other approved manuals. We should make it a daily habit that we are reading scripture and studying the faith, attempting to grow in our knowledge of what God has revealed through his prophets and apostles and then basing our life on what we learn and repenting of what is not in line with the revealed truth. Pillar number 1 is being devoted to the Apostles teaching.
- The Fellowship – the word fellowship may be a little weak here as a translation of the Greek: τῇ κοινωνίᾳ (te koinonia). The more theological or sacred way of translating this word is probably ” a communion.” It would seem that members of a bowling league could have fellowship but the sacred gathering of the faithful in the reality called the “ekklesia” or “Church” is better termed a “communion.” or in Latin “communio.” It is a gathering into one of the members of Christ’s Body the Church, a communion also of Christ with his Bride the Church. The early Christians, according to this text devoted themselves to this communal gathering. Hence the second pillar of the Christian life whereby we are helped to get our house in order is “fellowship,” or better, “communio.” The Commandment is clear: Keep holy the Sabbath. It doesn’t make sense to think that we can disregard one of the Ten Commandments and then claim our house is in order. Some argue that this commandment does not say explicitly that we should be in Church on Sunday. But Leviticus 23:3 says regarding this Commandment, “You shall do no work and you shall keep sacred assembly, it is the Sabbath of the Lord.” Sacred assembly means “Church” it is the fellowship, the koinonia, the communio. No way around it. God expects us to be in his house on our Sabbath which is Sunday. The Book of Hebrews also says, “And let us not neglect to meet together regularly and to encourage one another, all the more since the Day draws near.” See here how the Last “Day” and being prepared for it is linked to “meeting together regularly.” So the second pillar of the Christian life is to get our house in order by getting to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. In the Mass we both encourage others and are encouraged by them. We also receive instruction in the Word of God by the anointed and deputed ministers of that Word, the bishops, priests and deacons. We also fulfill the third pillar to which we now turn our attention
- The Breaking of the Bread – The phrase “the breaking of the bread” in the New Testament usually meant the reception of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. The worthy reception of Holy communion is directly connected to having our House in Order for there are wonderful promises made to those who are faithful in this regard. Jesus makes a promise in John 6:40 that Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I will raise him up on the last day. That’s quite a promise in terms of being ready! Jesus is saying that frequent reception of the Eucharist is essential preparation for the Last Day. Jesus also warns us not to stay away from “the breaking of the bread” or Holy communion: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you (Jn 6:53). Without Holy Communion we’re not going to make it. Gotta receive regularly to be ready! We cannot claim that our house is in order i we willfully stay away from Holy Communion. By extension we must allow this reference to one sacrament (Holy Communion) to be a reference to all the Sacraments. Clearly a Catholic approach to this third pillar of preparation would include being baptized and confirmed. It would include weekly reception of Holy Communion, regular confession, anointing of the sick when necessary, and, where possible, the reception of Holy Matrimony or Holy Orders. The Sacraments are our spiritual medicine. We have a bad condition called concupiscence (a string inclination to sin). It is like spiritual high blood pressure or diabetes. Hence we have to take our medicine and be properly nourished. The sacraments, as our medicine help us to avoid dying from our sinful condition. So the Third pillar of the Christian life is to get our house in order by receiving Holy Communion worthily every Sunday and the other Sacraments at proper times.
- Prayer– This final pillar requires more of us than just saying our prayers in some sort of ritual sense. The Greek word here is προσευχαῖς (Proseuchais) and is best translated just as we have it here: “Prayers” However the Greek root proseuche is from pros = toward or immediately before + euchomai= to pray or vow. But the prefix pros would convey the sense of being immediately before Him and hence the ideas of adoration, devotion, and worship are included. So prayer is understood more than just verbally uttering or saying one’s prayers. What is called for is worshipful, attentive and adoring prayer. Prayer is experiencing God’s presence. Jesus says of prayer that it is necessary for us lest we fall: Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Hence the fourth pillar is prayer whereby we putt our house in order through regular, worshipful, attentive and adoring prayer of God which serves as a kind of medicine lest we fall deeply into temptation.
So here are four basic pillars of preparation for the day of Judgment. It is a kind of back to basics plan for the Christian and for the Church. This serves as a basic vision for twelve parishes that can benefit from getting focused and learning to share a common vision so as to work together regionally and better serve our area. Parochialism is less possible today given the steady erosion of parishes. We have to have a common plan and work together. Pray for us.