We discussed two days ago on the blog how the Church is the Body of Christ and is the place where we first and foremost find Him. We cannot really have Jesus without his Body, the Church, despite the privatized claims of many. Just as it pertains for a head to be together with its body, so too it pertains for Jesus the Head of Church to be united with his Body the Church. So, Jesus is at one with his Church and the Church is the place where we first and foremost find his presence.
But to say we find him here does not mean that all people DO find him here. There are many issues that keep people from experiencing his presence here. There are also some practices we ought to better observe in order to better manifest the presence of Jesus. Let’s consider first some problems and then some remedial practices.
I. Problems – If Jesus is present in his Church then this is most evident in his action and presence in the Liturgy and Sacraments of the Church. Yet any cursory look into a typical Catholic parish would reveal little to indicate an obvious awareness of the presence and action of Jesus in the Liturgy and Sacraments.
A. Bored and Disengaged? The assembled people, including the clergy, often look bored, distracted, and mildly irritated at having to endure the event. Where is the alert joy that one sees at sporting events, or at the visits of famous people? If Jesus is alive and ministering in this moment why do so many look more as if they’ve come to get a flu shot? It is as though there is a wish that the whole experience be over as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Some will argue that many people are just reserved. But most of these same people are animated enough at football games or in political discussions. The answer seems to be more related to a lack of vivid faith and understanding that the Liturgy and Sacraments are encounters with the Risen Lord Jesus.
B. Perfunctory? Further, in terms of the overall spiritual life of many of the faithful there is a perfunctory “check off the God-box” observance wherein those who observe norms at all, such as Sunday Mass or yearly confession, do so more as a duty than with eager love. The minimum is sought and only that is done. The box is checked and one seems relieved that the “duty” is done. It is almost as though one is placating the deity rather than worshipping and praising the God they love and are grateful to. The upshot is that Sacraments are thought to be tedious rituals rather than transformative realities or real encounters with Jesus.
C. Low Expectations? Expectations are also low when it comes to the Sacraments. Many put more trust in Tylenol, than in the Eucharist. When they take Tylenol, they expect something to happen; they expect there to be healing, for the pain to go away, or the swelling to go down. But do these same people have any real expectations about the Eucharist or other Sacraments? Almost never.
Much of the blame for these low expectations lies with the priests and catechists who have never really taught the Faithful to expect a lot. At best there are vague bromides about being fed, but little else is vigorously taught about radical transformation and healing.
D. Unevangelized? The general result is that many in the pews are sacramentalized but unevangelized. That is to say, many have received Sacraments and gone through other Catholic Rites of passage but have never really met Jesus. They have gone through the motions for years but are not really getting anywhere when it comes to being in a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. To a large degree the Lord is a stranger to them. They barely know him at all and are far from the normal Christian life of being in personal, living, and conscious contact with the Lord.
II. Principles and practices - If these be some of our common problems, then what are we to do? Perhaps some of the following principles and practices can point the way.
A. Clarity as to the fundamental Goal of the Church – Clearly the fundamental mission of the Church is to go to all the nations, teach them what the Lord commands, and make disciples of them through Baptism and the other Sacraments. (cf Matt 28:20).
But making disciples and being disciples are about more than just “membership.” To become a true disciple is to have a personal, life-changing, and transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. It is to witness and become a witness of the power of the Cross to put sin to death, to bring every grace alive, and to make of us a new creation in Christ. This must become more clearly the fundamental goal of the Church. We cannot and should not reduce discipleship to membership.
The goal is to connect people with the Lord Jesus Christ so that he can save them and transform their lives in radical and powerful ways.
B. Conviction in Preaching – Those who preach, teach, and witness to others cannot simply be content to pass on formulas and quote others. Priests, parents, catechists, and others must begin to be firsthand witnesses to the power of God’s word not only to inform, but to perform, and to transform. They must be witnesses of how the Lord is doing this in their own lives.
They ought, if they are in touch with God, to exhibit joy, conviction, and real change. They must be able to preach and teach with “authority” in the richer Greek sense of the word. Exousia (the Greek word for authority) means more literally to preach “out of one’s own substance.” Hence the summons is to speak from one’s own experience as a firsthand witness who can, with conviction, say, “Everything the Church and Scriptures have always announced is true, because in the laboratory of my own life I have tested these truths and found them to be true and transformative. I who speak these things to you, along with every Saint, swear to you that they are true and trustworthy.”
A firsthand witness knows what he saying; he does not merely know about it. The video from Fr. Martin below speaks to this practice. Preaching, teaching, and witnessing with conviction are essential components of renewal in the Church.
C. Cultivate Expectation! – We have already noted that most people don’t expect much from their relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of us expect to, and have, met people who have changed our lives. Perhaps it was our spouse, or a teacher, or maybe a professional contact who helped us launch our career.
But if ordinary people can change our lives, why can’t the Lord Jesus Christ? And yet most people think that having tepid spiritual lives, spiritual boredom, and only a vague notion about the truths of faith is normal. Really? Is that the best that the death of the Son of God can do for us that we should be bored, tepid, uncertain, and mildly depressed? Of course not!
We need to lay hold of the glorious life that Jesus died to give us, to have high expectations and to start watching our lives be transformed.
Consider, as an image, the woman who came up to Jesus in the crowd and said, “If I just touch the hem of His garment I will get well.” Jesus was amazed that one woman from among a crowd of thousands who were bumping up against him, one woman actually touched him. He said to her, “Your faith has healed you.” (Luke 8:47). Who has the faith, who has the expectation to be healed, to get well, to be delivered? King Jesus is a-listening all day long!
D. Catechetical refocus – We have tended to teach the faith more as a subject than as a relationship. And hence we focus on and measure success based on whether we can list the seven gifts of the spirit, or the four marks of the Church. Now, of course faith has a content that must be mastered, but without relationship to Jesus most people lose command of the facts shortly after the test.
We need to begin more with relationship. Get people, both children and adults, excited about Jesus, and joyful in what he has done. Then the motivation to learn will come naturally.
Some years ago (in the late 1960s) I became a fan of Star Trek. Captain James Tiberius Kirk was all the world to me. Even though he was a fictional character, I wanted to know all about him: where he was born, what he did, and what he thought. When I discovered the actor who played Kirk, I joined the William Shatner fan club. I then wanted to know what Shatner thought about important issues, when he was born, what his favorite hobbies and activities were, etc. Fascination drew me to a mystery of the facts about both Kirk and Shatner. You didn’t have to make me learn this stuff; I was way ahead of any requirements!
Do people think this way about Jesus? Usually not. And why not? Because we do very little to cultivate this fascination and joy. We teach more about structures, rules, and distinctions than about Jesus. Again our intellectual tradition is important and essential, but without starting from a relational interest, we might as well be building on no foundation at all.
Jesus said, “Come and see” as an initiation. Creedal details came later and were important, but relationship was first. Friendship precedes all the facts, which come later.
Where in our catechism do we inculcate a love for, respect of, and fascination with Jesus?
E. Come on, Testify! - Catholics are terrible at testimony and witness. What is your story? How did you meet Jesus? What has he done; what is he doing in your life? Have your children ever heard you say you love Jesus? Do they know what he has done for you? Do parishioners ever hear their priests testify? Arguments and proof have their place, but without personal testimony and conviction, these truths remain abstractions.
There may come a time when, through argument, you actually get someone to “buy in.” But then comes the question: “Well, that’s all good news. But how do I know it’s true?” And that’s when you have to convincingly answer, “Look at me!” It’s not enough to state facts and quote others. At the end we have to know what we’re talking about, personally, and convincingly.
Bottom line, that means we have to be converted, and having experienced conversion go forth as those who know the Lord, not just know about Him. I gave my testimony story here How I met Jesus. What’s your story?
Some problems and practices. How say you? Add your own!