We were blessed this past weekend to have Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, visit the Archdiocese of Washington and speak to priests and lay leaders. Her work is a great blessing to the Church in calling us back to “job one,” which is to make disciples. In Catholic parishes evangelization is too often relegated to committees or tossed into the “we’ll get to that next year” file. Weddell’s mission is to create greater urgency in this most central work of the Church.
Rather than present her thoughts (which are admirably stated in her books) in this blog, I would like instead to put forth a few of my own (which echo hers, and I would argue, those of Jesus Himself). Sadly, there are many issues that keep people from experiencing Jesus powerfully in our parishes. There are also some practices we ought to better observe in order to better manifest the presence and person 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 the typical Catholic parish would reveal little to indicate an awareness of this.
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 appearances of celebrities? If people believe that Jesus is alive and ministering in this moment, why do so many of them look as if they’re waiting for a root canal? It’s as though they wish the whole thing would be over as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Some argue that many people are just reserved by nature, but most of these same people are animated enough at football games or in political discussions. The answer seems to be more due to a lack of vivid faith and a failure to understand that the Liturgy and Sacraments are encounters with the Risen Lord Jesus.
B. Perfunctory – Further, in terms of the spiritual life of many of the faithful, it seems that even where there is observance of norms (e.g., attendance at Sunday Mass, or confession on at least an annual basis), it is done more out of a sense of duty than with eager love. The bare minimum is all that is done, only enough to “check off the God box.” It is almost as though they are placating the deity rather than worshipping and praising the God to whom they are grateful and whom they love. The upshot is that the sacraments are considered tedious rituals rather than transformative realities or true encounters with Jesus.
C. Low Expectations – Many people place more trust in Tylenol than they do 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 the other sacraments? Almost never.
Much of the blame for these low expectations lies with priests and catechists who have never really taught the faithful to expect much. At best there are vague bromides about “being fed.” Little is taught about radical transformation and healing.
D. Unevangelized – The general result is that many in the pews have received the sacraments, but have not been evangelized. Many have gone through 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 are far from the normal Christian life of being in personal, living, and conscious contact with the Lord.
Given these common problems, what are we to do?
II. Principles and Practices
A. Clarity as to the fundamental goal of the Church – 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 is about more than just “membership.” To become a true disciple is to have a personal, life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. It is to witness to 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. We cannot and should not reduce discipleship to mere 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 or to merely 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 bear witness to how the Lord is doing this in their own lives.
If they are in touch with God, they ought 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 (authority) means more literally to preach “out of one’s own substance.” The summons is to speak from one’s own experience as a firsthand witness who can say with conviction, “Everything the Church and Scriptures have always announced is true, because in the laboratory of my own life I have tested them 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 below from Fr. Francis Martin speaks to this practice. Preaching, teaching, and witnessing with conviction are essential components of renewal in the Church.
C. Cultivate Expectation! – Most people expect to meet, and have met, people who have changed their lives, and yet they don’t expect much from their relationship with Jesus Christ.
If ordinary people can change our lives, then why can’t the Lord Jesus Christ? Most people seem to think that having a tepid spiritual life, experiencing spiritual boredom, and having only a vague notion about the truths of faith are all normal. Really? Is that the best that the death of the Son of God can do for us? That we should be bored, lukewarm, 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 the woman who came up to Jesus in the crowd thinking that if she just touched the hem of His garment she would get well. Jesus was amazed that one woman among the large crowd had actually touched Him. After she explained He said to her, “Your faith has healed you” (Luke 8:47). Who has such faith? Who has the expectation to be healed, to be delivered? King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long!
D. Catechetical refocus – We have tended to teach the faith more as an academic subject than as a relationship. And hence we have focused on and measure success based on whether we can do things like list the seven gifts of the Spirit or the four marks of the Church. Certainly there is 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 with relationship. We need to get people (children and adults) excited about Jesus and joyful about what He has done. Then the motivation to learn will come naturally.
Back 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. Then I wanted to know all about Shatner: what he thought about important issues, when he was born, and what his favorite hobbies were. Fascination drew me to a mastery of all sorts of facts about Captain Kirk and William Shatner. You didn’t have to make me learn this stuff; I sought it out eagerly!
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. Although our intellectual tradition is important and essential, without starting from a relational interest, we might as well be attempting to build on no foundation at all.
Jesus said, “Come and see” as an initiation. The details of the creed came later and were important, but relationship was first. Friendship precedes all the facts; they can 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 in your life? What is He doing in your life now? Have your children ever heard you say that 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 are actually get someone to “buy in.” But then comes the tough question: “Well, that’s all good news, but how do I know it’s true?” And that is when you have to be able to answer, convincingly, “Look at me!” It’s not enough to state the facts and to quote others. You have to know what you’re talking about, and relate it personally and convincingly to others.
The bottom line is that we have to be converted, and having experienced conversion, go forth as those who know the Lord, not just know about Him.