Why do many miss experiencing Jesus in our parishes? How can we change this?


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!



16 Replies to “Why do many miss experiencing Jesus in our parishes? How can we change this?”

  1. When I was young child my mother never failed to point out God working in our lives. We lived pay check to pay check and often the money would not last until payday. She often would tell me stories on how when she needed money for a doctor’s visit and had none she would pray in desperation for assistance and somehow it always worked out or when company was coming to visit and she didn’t have a dime to purchase a dessert she would pray to our Lady and somehow some way she would find money in a coat pocket or a dresser. It wasn’t always about material things either. She would pray for a sick aunt or uncle and they would get better and she would never fail to point to Jesus. She would then buy a bouquet of flowers ( a sacrifice) and have them sent to and placed in front of the Sacred Heart or our Lady. I cannot tell you the countless times we had violent storms and out came the Rosary and we would pray together, the entire family and the storm would pass and we would be unharmed. She taught me the Supernatural existed and it was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit along with the angels and the Saints who continually protected us. She would take us to Eucharistic Processions and say see that is Jesus coming get on your knees He is so good to us he deserves our reverence and respect. It never left me until this day. I see Jesus everyday working in my life. Our Lady, the Angels and the Saints are as real to me as any relative. I taught my Children the way my mother taught me. They are grown now and I often say to them do you see the God working in your life? And they always say yes Mom I do . The Church has lost the sense of the mystic, the supernatural, they need to speak about those little coincidences that are not coincidences at all. Do you remember A few short months ago we had a crisis in Syria. We were on the brink of war. The Holy Father called for a universal day of prayer and fasting. My parish took part in it . What happened? The very next day the crisis was diffused. Yet did you hear anything anywhere about the power of prayer and what affects it had upon a world crisis? Maybe we are to afraid to say what we believe and to speak about miracles in our lives. We have become a society to sophisticated to admit God still is very much a part of the world we live. All we have to do is look for him, he is there and alive as you and I!

  2. First problem, don’t tell people you were a member of the William Shatner fan club if you are trying to get them to develop a relationship with Christ. That is not a testimony. It is an immediate turn-off. Second problem is relating the life of Jesus to modern ambitions. In today’s occidental societies, personal material knowledge for pleasure and profit has become exploited and easily accessible. Suffering is more readily avoidable or easier to ignore for the moment, so people are desensitized to the spiritual nature of life. To a large extent, people today act on emotions with a lack of moral insight as to any real spiritual purpose in life other than the pursuit of happiness. Their purpose in life is either to consume mass quantities of carbon based materials or else try to battle the evils of greedy corporatist and save the planet from man made climate change. Modern society is geared to put spirituality out of the equation and the Church has been separated for quite sometime from having any major daily input or say so in the activies and lives of society as a whole. Jesus and a relationship with Him is becoming as fictional as Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise to a large segment of modern westernized society. You have to be skilled and captivating as a stand-up routine to make the people experience the spirituality of Jesus’s presence and your relationship with Him. Otherwise they just have to suffer like the rest of us and come to the realization of His love and presence in our lives through the teachings of the Church. It becomes a process more than a goal. There is no Buddy Christ and the Church is no place for a sports bar. Maybe when we become a third world nation more people will start finding their way back to living in Christ by being involved in the Church because it will then offer a refuge and relationship in our suffering.

    1. Lighten up on the Kirk stuff. It is a light hearted example. Maybe I should add another Category that Catholics should learn to be a little more light-hearted and relaxed. Remember too, I was a kid and it was the 1960s. Whatever terrible things you may have discovered about Trek/Kirk/Shatner in the meantime, I was 9 years old and 1969 is a long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. – To mix metaphors. A PUHLEEZE don’t launch a diatribe above evil cultural trends in that franchise. 🙂

      I think you woke up on the wrong side of the bed today Robert. Your whole comment is so dark and nasty. There are at least 7000 back in Jerusalem who have still not bent the knee to Baal.

    2. Did you just skip the whole subheading “Do people think this way about Jesus” Robert? The point you clearly missed or ignored is that when we are truly interested in something or someone, we are lit on fire to find out everything we can about them. Jesus should be that important to all of us. Considering Monsignor became a priest, I’d say his analogy is fitting.

  3. This is a wonderful piece, Monsignor! I have been teaching CCD to 4th-graders for several years now, but am considering switching to our Confirmation team, because I know how much our teens need to hear about a transformative, strengthening relationship with Jesus. The Catholic Church loses so many of its youth because they are not properly catechized. I know – I was one of them!

    When I finally returned to the Church it was all I could do to not stand up and walk back out the door. I was truly upset with how bored, disrespectful and indifferent everyone was around me. In the Baptist church that I had recently left, everyone was ON FIRE – for Jesus, the Word. We would sing praises to God for a half hour or more with all that we had in us. We would hang on every word of Scripture. In the Catholic Church, about half of the people mumbled the words to the hymns, the other half didn’t even bother to sing.

    Anyway, I realized that I am there for Jesus – to praise Him, worship Him, and receive His Life in Communion. I know God wants me to get out there and share my faith and experiences with others, so that’s why I stay involved with Faith Formation.

  4. Everyone must have a personal Pentecost,see Catholic Charismatic renewal…
    Apart from seeking GOD with all your heart…See Jeremiah 29….The Holy Spirit must be activated and powerful in each believers life…PEACE

  5. “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.”

    The problem I’m having with this notion of emphasizing a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus is that evangelical Protestants do this sort of thing better than we Catholics do. I am concerned that if the Church goes too far in the direction of emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus, the Church may become a clone of the evangelical Protestant churches.

    Some of the newly evangelized [including both new and old Catholics] might conclude that all of the Catholic sacraments and the Church’s 1,700 years of baggage are obstacles to having a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus and that they would be better off joining an evangelical Protestant church.

    Maybe my fears are misplaced, but I am genuinely concerned about the Catholic Church morphing into a Protestant clone if the Church goes down this road.

    1. anything can go too far, anything. That something can be exaggerated does not make it untrue. You’re supposed to meet and know Jesus and the Church Fathers you love both said and know that. Who cares if the protestors do it, it is our tradition that needs to be recovered.

  6. Most Catholic liturgies ARE boring and tedious. Why? Because its difficult to perceive God’s presence in a banal liturgy. Mysticism and vertical worship of God have been stripped from the post-Vatican II Church. There is more spirituality in a yoga class than in many parishes.

    1. Maybe, but the pre VCII were not usually celebrated in the way you think. Most of them were mumbled and rushed. Both the EF and the OF can suffer from poor “ars celebrandi” Have your preferences Nate but avoid the VC II canard, it is old and tired and the vast majority of Catholics have no idea what you are talking about, none whatsoever. They never knew the old church (and I don’t think you do either, or you would say fanciful things about that era). But your VC II stuff is old, tired, and irrelevant. Try living in 2014. Go to the OF masses and keep your peace, avoid the old attack stuff.

      1. We disagree about what is behind the spiritual malaise in the Church and I’ll leave it at that. Fortunately, in my diocese, there is a good bishop that enables the EF to be readily available as called for by Rome. Just wishing others were equally blessed.

    2. Nate are you really listening to the words at mass, Are you dressing for Church? Are you saying the responses? Do you believe that the priest is in persona Christi? During the Liturgical prayer can you imagine the heavens opening up and all of the angels in attendance or the Holy Souls in Purgatory present? When you go to communion do you really think that Jesus is on your tongue and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit? Are you grateful for all that Christ has given you in the mass? The love, sacrifice, forgiveness, feeding of the soul are some of the main ones. All this happens at every mass. It does not matter how much people are talking or how bad the music is or the dumb jokes or the too causal dress. What is in your heat is what matters.

  7. I was so in love with Jesus I wanted to be a nun, but I did not understand why there is suffering in the world, so I turned my back on Him (age 12), lived a disordered life for 30 years before realizing I needed my blessed Lord. Stepped into a Catholic church one October Sunday and found HOME. Oh, thank God for God (as goes the last line in Joyce Kilmer’s poem Thanksgiving). I refer you to my short conversion story here: http://www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com/2013/04/anniversary.html You should know that you have played a HUGE part in our family’s growth in our faith. I can’t tell you how many times we print out one of your posts, read and discuss it after supper.

    I’m going to do a little workshop with the 8th graders and will be using your testimony as a model.

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