Training for Testimony is Missing in Many Parishes

credit – Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Catholicism has glorious liturgical and intellectual traditions, but because we have not excelled in training Catholics to give joyful witness to wonder of the Lord and our faith, they are among the best kept secrets around.

In certain denominations, giving witness is a major focus, and congregants are well-trained for it both through personal testimony (witness talks are common in Protestant liturgies) and in their musical tradition. Pastoring in African-American parishes for most of my priesthood has introduced me to this training ground. The “Black experience” is more relaxed with testimony and witness.

Even when I am in a store in an African-American area it is not uncommon for people to say to me, “You got a word for me today pastor?” They are interested in knowing about my church and tell me of their own. They ask for prayers and often engage in certain “call-response” acclamations. Someone will say to me, “God is good!” I reply, “All the time!” To which the response is “And all the time …” I then call back, “God is good!” Then we conclude the ritual with a joint “Amen.” Right there in the aisle of the local Safeway we “have a little Church up in here” as the expression goes.

The testimonies exchanged in this sort of tradition are not highly theological or complex, but they don’t need to be. It can be a simple and joyful statement such as this: “God’s been good to me,” or an expression of hope in a difficult moment: “God’ll make a way for you,” or “I know He’ll see you through.”

Much of this courage and relaxed sharing is the result of a certain kind of liturgical training. The giving of testimonies is common both in and out of church.

There is also the musical tradition that teaches worshippers to recall that God is in the blessing business and that His mercies are not exhausted. It also teaches that one’s relationship with God is transformative and that reform and healing should be expected.

The song “He’s Blessing Me” says,

He’s blessing me, over and over again, He’s blessing me, right here where I stand, Every time I turn around, he making a way somehow. Over and over again he blessing me!

You may not be able to see, just what the Lord is doing for me, but over and over again he’s blessing me! He’s in my heart and soul, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, Over and over again he’s blessing me.

The message is simple and yet attractive and beautiful. It trains people for joyful testimony and witness.

The song “He’s Done So Much for Me” says says,

He’s done so much for me,
I cannot tell it all….

He washed my sins away;
I cannot tell it all,

He walks and talks with me;
I cannot tell it all,

He gave me victory;
I cannot tell it all
, I cannot tell it all!

Other songs speak to conversion. One song says, “Something on the inside, working on the outside, I’ve seen a change in my life.” Another song says, “I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A change, a change has come over me.” Yet another song goes like this: “Great change since I’ve been born! … Places I used to go, I don’t go no more. … Things I used to do, I don’t do no more. … Company I used to keep, I don’t keep no more. … There’s been a great change since I’ve been born.”

These are just a few examples of the kind of “training” that many receive in the evangelical denominations. Frankly, we Catholics have received far less of this. As result, many Catholics are uncomfortable speaking about the Lord and what He has done. Sometimes we simply lack the vocabulary and the models that others have. Even more tragically, many are not even taught to expect a great deal from their walk with Christ. How many Catholics are told to expect a “great change”? Not expecting much often leads to not experiencing much, and not experiencing much makes it pretty hard for a person to testify to what he has seen and heard.

The Catholic faithful need to be better prepared for evangelization. This is more than manifesting joy; it also includes the ability to witness to a moral renewal that also serves to call others to soulful repentance. If we know deep down that we have been rescued from sin and from this present evil age, we are grateful and joyful and we have an experience to speak of that will encourage others.

As a concluding model, perhaps the following song is of value: “I really love the Lord. I really love the Lord. … You don’t know what He’s done for me. He gave me the victory. I love Him, I really love the Lord!”

Can you honestly say that? 

Don’t Forget the Old Evangelization

The term “New Evangelization” was originally used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to refer to the unique situation of the West, wherein we were not preaching the Gospel to a people who had not heard it, but were instead “re-presenting” the Gospel to a culture that had once embraced the Gospel and later rejected it. In essence, the term means “re-evangelization.”

In his “Latin Letters,” C.S. Lewis quipped that while the ancient Europe encountered by the Apostles and the early Church was a virgin awaiting her groom, Jesus Christ, modern Europe is an angry divorcée.

Reaching this quite different audience, of course, would require adjusting the way in which the message was delivered. “New Evangelization” was the phrase used to signify this.

However, many have taken up the phrase in a less restrictive sense and use it in the marketing sense of “new and improved!” This has opened the terminology to abuse and misunderstanding such that it comes to mean that we must mimic secular marketing principles and “mega-church” tactics. To some, it also means that we must alter the message of the Gospel by emphasizing what is popular and pleasant, while minimizing what is challenging and countercultural.

“Welcoming” has become the watchword for many in world of the misconstrued “New Evangelization.” Being welcoming is most often used to mean being nice, pleasant, unchallenging, and completely inoffensive. The only problem with this is that Jesus, as we shall see, wouldn’t qualify for membership on such an evangelization committee.

As a kind of admonition and corrective to much of this, Eric Sammons has written, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did. Consider this passage:

We have a simplistic notion of what it means to love our neighbors. We think of it strictly as being nice to them. Yet … Jesus rarely ever appears “nice” as we moderns would define it. On the contrary he is usually abrupt, sparing with compliments, and willing to confront others directly about their failings. He appears not to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice about “how to win friends and influence people.” Yet he has a deeper love for every individual than we will ever imagine (pp. 51-52).

It would seem that Jesus never got the memo when it comes to many modern notions of evangelization. To be sure, many found in Jesus remarkable love and healing, but it was not the sort of saccharine and soft love (understood as mere kindness) that so many think of today. It was a strong, vigorous love. It was providing true healing rather than mere emotional relief.

Healing often requires difficult surgeries. Healing can hurt. It can disclose deep drives that require strong rebuke and aggressive therapies. Many people are looking for relief, but not healing. Jesus was in the healing business and was more than willing to assert that the cross was the necessary remedy for what ails us. A lot of this does not sit well with the welcoming, pleasant paradigm of evangelization.

In his book, Mr. Sammons goes on to remind us of the true goal of evangelization:

[We think that] if we are nice enough, everyone will want to be our friends. But that was not goal of Jesus Christ. His goal was to covert sinners, to rescue souls from damnation and bring them to their eternal reward in heaven (p. 52).

True spiritual health and final salvation are the goals. Hospitality and making people feel good and welcome have a place initially, but it’s a little bit like the dentist’s office. A nice waiting room, pleasant hygienists, soothing music, and a smiling dentist are all good, but once the pleasantries are accomplished, we have to talk about dental health and get down to the business of teeth cleaning, and checking for cavities and gum disease. If a dentist sees problems and says nothing because niceness is his goal, he is not being nice or compassionate at all. Indeed, by his silence, he is guilty of serious malpractice and unworthy of his title, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

It is the same with an evangelizer. An evangelizer is unworthy of the title if he leaves the call to repentance and conversion unspoken. Pleasantries and a welcoming environment have their initial place but if that is all there is, then there is no true evangelization taking place and it is outright malpractice on the part of the evangelizer, parish, or Church.

True love for others desires what is best for them, not merely what is apparently good or pleasant in the moment. The fundamental kerygma (Gospel proclamation) is summarized as follows: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These were the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry of evangelization. I seriously doubt that most parishes would even consider such a proclamation as central to their evangelization program.

In modern settings (and probably in Jesus’ day), “Repent” is not exactly a “welcoming” word, but it is a loving word nonetheless. “Repent” suggests (actually, it outright says) that there are problems and that changes are needed. Yes, there are some problems that need attention and some drives that must be called sinful whether or not it is politically correct or popular to do so. The transformative Word and grace from God can heal and perfect us, but we must come to believe the Gospel. To believe the Gospel is to accept the wisdom of the cross, which is absurdity to the world.

Thus, “Repent and believe the Gospel” challenges; it doesn’t always feel welcoming. Eric Sammons further notes,

Too many Catholics will avoid tough topics in the desire to remain “welcoming.” But this is exactly where we most fail in evangelization. In order to make disciples, we must be willing to push into uncomfortable areas … Only by doing so will we bring another to confront the truth. (p. 57).

Only the truth will set us free. Care and prudence will assist us in knowing how and when to shift from welcoming to making disciples, but we cannot forever remain in welcoming mode and call it true evangelization. The true Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; each of us, including the people we evangelize, is a little bit of both.

Be careful, then. The term “New Evangelization” is not always rightly understood.

I recommend Eric Sammons’ book as an important help in understanding that the “New Evangelization” cannot exclude the “Old Evangelization” established by Jesus and the Apostles, which must remain our truest model. It is not that there are no insightful aspects of the “New Evangelization” Just be careful not to embrace the new so much that the old is repudiated. Jesus’ approach was quite different from many versions of the “New Evangelization.” It would be an ironic twist if Jesus and His methods were not welcome in your warm, embracing, and welcoming parish.

At work here is the supreme evangelizer, even though He breaks almost every modern rule:

Are We Modern Clergy Even Remotely Close to St. Paul’s Description of the Earliest Preachers?

It is amazing to think that 30 of the first 33 Popes died as martyrs. Of the other three, two died in exile and only one died in his bed. It’s hard to imagine such suffering today among the lowliest of priests let alone Church prelates.

On the Feast of St. Thomas Apostle (July 3rd) we read this description of the apostolic life by St. Paul:

As I see it, God has put us apostles at the end of the line, like men doomed to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike. We are fools on Christ’s account. Ah, but in Christ you are wise! We are the weak ones, you the strong! They honor you, while they sneer at us! Up to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, poorly clad, roughly treated, wandering about homeless. We work hard at manual labor. When we are insulted we respond with a blessing. Persecution comes our way; we bear it patiently. We are slandered, and we try conciliation. We have become the world’s refuse, the scum of all; that is the present state of affairs (1 Cor 4:8-12).

As a priest reading this description, I don’t whether I should feel grateful, or ashamed and embarrassed. Frankly, nothing describes our life today less than what St. Paul described. We clergy live rather comfortable, even privileged, lives.

The bishops of the Church are typically surrounded by staff, often layers of staff, insulating them from the lay faithful, who have little hope of ever being able to contact or speak with him directly. There are titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture with insignias.

As for us pastors and parish priests, we are often protected by staff as well. We live in rectories that are often well-appointed. Unlike the faithful we serve, we have job security and few personal financial concerns. We are given food, shelter, health insurance, and retirement benefits, and the people of God are enormously generous with us. Staff stand ready to assist in our administrative tasks, and repair and clean our homes and churches. Many of us even have cooks and laundresses. We too have our titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture.

It is so different from what St. Paul described and himself experienced!

It must be said that there are many priests and bishops who are generous and who live lives of sacrificial service. Many work long hours and seldom are those hours regular.

However, few of us are hungry, thirsty, or poorly dressed, let alone wandering about homeless. Manual labor has become almost unknown to many of us. Perhaps things should be that way. It makes sense that in a settled Church, the faithful should care for their clergy and set them apart so that the clergy may pray for them, study for them, and do the works that feed and form them spiritually.

Of greater concern to me, however, is the inability and even unwillingness of too many clergy to suffer as a result of preaching the Gospel as St. Paul describes. Paul speaks of the apostles as persecuted, slandered, roughly treated, considered refuse, sneered at, scorned, last in line, and like unto those doomed to die in the arena. Lest we think that this is mere Jewish hyperbole, recall that St. Paul himself was cast out of many a synagogue, flogged, stoned, run out of towns, jailed, shipwrecked, and finally martyred. All of this was because he preached the Word of God.

Yet we clergy today can hardly bear to have an eyebrow raised at us. Too many of us play it safe when it comes to preaching. Perhaps we are afraid of upsetting our benefactors. Or perhaps it is just the human tendency to avoid conflict, to want to be liked and to fit in. Perhaps for some (I pray only a few) it is the fear that clerical advancement might be hindered by preaching too boldly or even just preaching clearly.

The lay faithful notice that many of us avoid Gospel teachings that are too challenging. They notice the retreat into abstractions, generalities, and even obfuscation. Indeed, they notice that many clergy dare not risk offense or the pain that comes from being the object of another’s anger and opposition.

Even if we modern clergy are far from Paul’s experience of homelessness and hunger, we ought not to be so far from his experience of persecution and suffering for the Word of God. As the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests and the Second Vatican Council teach, the Word of God is the primum officium (the first or primary duty) of the priest (See Presbyterorum Ordinis # 4). This is because no one can be saved who does not first believe, and faith proclaimed is necessary to unlock the sacraments. If we don’t get our preaching and teaching right and are not willing to suffer if necessary, then we don’t have anything else right.

I am less concerned about the fact that we clergy no longer live in abject poverty than that we may have become soft on account of the comforts that have been extended to us. Our comfortable lives have made some of us soft and given us the sense that we have too much to lose. Unlike St. Paul, we can hardly bear the slightest critique or scorn. We even fear that children won’t like us, won’t think we’re “cool.” It is hard to imagine most of us being willing to join Paul in jail, at the flogging post, in the stoning pit, or shipwrecked on the way to execution. We might even be among the naysayers who would say, “Paul is too extreme. He is too certain and argumentative.” Frankly, most of us modern clergy would find the real Jesus shocking, too.

It has been my experience that the people of God can handle strong preaching more than we clergy think. Indeed, many are outright appreciative of courageous, bold, and clear preaching. Even if we encounter resistance, though, we are supposed to preach anyway: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction (2 Tim 4:2).

We do not seek a fight or to provoke anger, but if we preach the Gospel in season and out of season, anger and fights often find us. Does the persecution on account of the Word described by Paul even remotely resemble anything we face in modern clerical life? And if not, why not?

What I say to priests, I say to parents, to elders, and to every Catholic baptized and sharing in the prophetic office of Christ.

The Stages of Evangelization, According to Pope St. Gregory the Great

Doubting Thomas, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena

In evangelizing souls (including our own), there are usually stages that precede conversion. In the past I have written on these stages and referred to them as “Mad … Sad … Glad.”

1.  Mad – In this stage, one may present as angry, resistant, or averse to the message of the Gospel or to some aspect of the Christian moral vision.

2.  Sad – In this stage, one comes to realize that worldly notions and promises are both false and disappointing—even harmful to one’s life. One is chastened, realizing that rejecting God and His truth was wrong. Although initially experiencing humiliation and a kind of depression, through the prayers of the faithful and the work of the Holy Spirit one can turn this sadness into a humility that is now open to the Gospel.

3.  Glad – In this stage, one is now open, through hope, to the wisdom and promise of the Gospel. One is joyful as the initial effects of the Gospel message bring conversion, transformation, hope, and a new vision.

Thus, conversion is a process, a kind of extended conversation. Notice that the same root, conversio, is in both words. We often want to think of evangelization as a moment, or a point of success in winning a soul for Christ. But rare indeed is the convert who is willing (or even able) to go from zero to a hundred on the disciple scale.

This is true not only with bringing souls to Christ, but also with the deeper conversion of lifelong Catholics. Sadly, as we know, not all Catholics agree with all of the teachings of the Gospel and the Church. Here, too, the stages of conversion typically apply; a longer conversation is usually necessary to conform them to the faith. Though possible, it is rare that one conversation or one sermon will draw a person from dissent to orthodoxy. The longer conversation between the individual, the Church, and God is usually necessary.

St. Gregory the Great reflected on the return of St. Thomas the Apostle (whose feast we celebrated earlier this week). He described, in a very brief sentence, the stages of St. Thomas’ conversion from unbelief to belief:

Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? (St Gregory the Great, Pope Hom. 26, 7-9: PL 76, 1201-1202v)

As Pope St. Gregory described it, St. Thomas went from “absence” (unbelief) to an ever-present faith in four stages:

1. He came and heard. For reasons unspecified, St. Thomas was absent from the first appearance of the risen Lord to the Apostles on that Easter Sunday evening. Although not at that Sunday gathering of the Church, he still knew and had relationships with others who were there. It was they who told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

For a variety of reasons, many people today do not gather with us on Sundays. Sadly, they miss an encounter with the Lord. They do not hear him speak in His Word or offer us His Body and Blood. They do not receive His blessings through the priest. But they do know us. It is from us that they must hear the joyful shout, “We have seen the Lord!” Evangelization typically breaks down right here because most Catholics do not talk like this. They go to Church, come home, and say little or nothing about it. But if we are going to bring back the Thomases we know, this must change. We have to become more aware of how we encounter the Lord in every liturgy and learn to witness to the fact that the Lord is changing our life through this encounter.

I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word made Flesh in Holy Communion, and experiencing deep fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cell of anxiety no longer constrains me. The Lord delivered us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

What is your testimony? Thomas was restored to the community by the testimony of others who had seen the Lord. And though he doubted, he heard the call to “Come and see.” To whom have you testified? Whom have you invited?

2. He heard and doubted. St. Thomas heard but doubted—but at least he heard! And he accepted the invitation to come the next Sunday.

In his expressed doubts and his demands to see and touch in the ordinary human way, we see the common human longing to experience God in tangible ways. The extreme form of this is a kind of radical empiricism or scientism that says, in effect, “If God does not tip the scale in my laboratory or light up the retina of my eyes, He is not real.” There is not enough space to debunk that in this post, except to say that as God is not physical, He is not weighed on a scale. There are many metaphysical realities that are very real. For example, justice, love, and mercy are certainly real, but you can’t weigh them on a scale or see them out for a walk. Since they are not physical, they are seen in their effects, though not in themselves. It is the same with God. He is not some other thing in the physical universe; He is existence itself.

Thomas’ insistence to see and touch is more commonly expressed in the desire of most people that faith and the experience of God be tangible, that it be palpably experienced rather than just a bunch of abstractions, generalities, and slogans.

It is not wrong to insist that if the faith we announce were real, it would have real effects on our lives and bring about transformation. This is why our witness cannot simply take the form of reciting slogans or even creeds. While the content of the faith must be clearly and accurately proclaimed, its effects must also be evident in order to evangelize effectively.

Rightly or wrongly, the mere advancement of arguments and ideas isn’t going to move most people today. They are looking for a tangible experience of truth; they want to see how the faith we proclaim has touched us and how they can touch it as well.

In this second stage, we learn that it is important to listen to the doubts people express and their need to touch and see the truth, not just hear it. Good apologists listen carefully and compose respectful answers. As any good apologist knows, though, mere arguments seldom win the day. An apologist must also be a witness to the power of the Gospel to set us free. The Gospel must be tangible: able to be seen, touched, and encountered in us who teach and proclaim it. We cannot simply present answers to questions. We have to be witnesses of the power of these truths to set us free.

3. He doubted and touched. St. Thomas, though excessive in his demand to see and touch in a merely physical way, expressed a common human need. Jesus rebuked Thomas’ demand to see in a purely ordinary and physical way. He praised those who come to faith without seeing in this way. However, this does not mean that there is no legitimate need for evidence. That is why Jesus sent out witnesses.

In an extraordinary way, the Lord met Thomas’ need, so that he might believe. He also cautioned that the ordinary way of encountering the Lord is not going to be through physical seeing and touching. Rather, we will encounter him in the Liturgy, the sacraments, His Word, and prayer and unity with His Body, the Church.

This must still be tangible for people, though. When people do encounter the gathering of the Church on Sunday morning, is Christ’s presence tangible? Are the expected effects of the true presence of Christ on display? Is there joy? Is the transformative power of Christ seen in the lives of the faithful? How?

We ought to pray and work for parish communities that feature transformed Catholics rather than bored believers and tepid troops. The Church is a bride, not a widow; the Mass is a wedding feast, not a funeral. What can a doubter touch and see in our parish? If we are alive, reverent, attentive to the Lord, eager and joyful to be instructed, and grateful for the Eucharist and what the Lord is doing in our lives, then the Thomas who comes into our parish will see the Lord step forward and say, “See and touch …. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”

4. He touched and believed. We have largely done our work in following these stages, perhaps just a few concluding questions. Although Thomas’ need to see and touch is excessive, it is not wholly illegitimate.

How can people see and touch the Lord in our life and the life of our parish? What evidence will unbelievers find in us and in our parishes so that they can touch and believe? Can Christ step forward in our lives and in our parishes and say to unbelievers or to the weak in faith, “See and touch my hands and my side. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”?

These are just some thoughts based on Pope St. Gregory’s stages of evangelization. You should be a witness!

The Paradoxes of Evangelization: Why Simply Imitating the Worldly Marketing Schemes May Not Be the Answer

J.F. Millet, The Sower

In the Church throughout the world today, we are more focused on evangelization — and rightly so. A huge conference is planned next week in Orlando on the topic. Yes, it is “job one,” and Jesus could not have been clearer: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:18-20).

However, even as we become more serious and practical about effective evangelization, we must also remember the paradox and the mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. We can and should strive to learn “best practices,” what makes for dynamic parishes and effective outreach, but even when many of these things are in place (e.g., good liturgy, dynamic preaching, Eucharistic adoration, welcoming parish), growth does not always come; sometimes numbers may even continue to decrease. Conversely, even in parishes where the liturgy is perfunctory, preaching is weak, and devotions are hurried, there may be significant growth. I know parishes that should be growing, but are not; I also know parishes that are growing almost in spite of themselves.

There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,

This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).

Thus the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious and works “we know not how.”

Only one thing is clear: we must sow the seed. That’s “job one.” Indeed, we must work ardently to “scatter seed.” By extension, we should do our best to prepare the soil well, and after sowing the seed, cultivate. But much that is mysterious lies beyond our knowledge or control.

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good or bad marketing does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of God, wins the day. Consider this passage:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).

Yes, this passage is certainly a paradox! Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says we engage the world:

  1. The cross, not comfort – Many today say that we should speak more tenderly in this tender age. We should be more positive, less demanding, more merciful, more known for what we are for than what we are against. Sugar and honey attract more than do vinegar and gall. But St. Paul and the Holy Spirit didn’t get this memo, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified,” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so, let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
  2. Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. But in this, we must not simply equate learning with Godly Wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, the ignoble, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  3. Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but as any good apologist knows, apologetics is explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. We run the risk of trying to make the faith too agreeable to others. We can end up subtly watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was his opening word. Whatever prudential methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
  4. Pure more than palatable – Faith that is made too “palatable” is almost certainly not the faith at all. Now this may be in violation of “Marketing 101,” but God is not in receipt of the world’s memos. True evangelization is often paradoxical because it does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this work just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith in the usual manner using various media, training, and the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries as to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.

How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing.

Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say, often in tension with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonderment and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work, often in spite of us, to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Is Jesus exhibiting good evangelization here? You decide.

Six Cultural Trends that Challenge the Modern Evangelizer

It is critical for us who would preach the Gospel to ponder what sorts of presuppositions our listeners bring to the conversation. Today, sadly, there are many trends that have poisoned the culture and thus make our task much more difficult.

But difficult does not mean impossible. It helps to describe modern mindsets, not to despair of them, but rather to look at them with some insight rather than being only vaguely aware of them. If we are more clear on the presuppositions that people bring to the table, we can better direct our message to them and ask them to consider whether or not these notions are helpful or even right. For indeed, most people carry their preconceptions subconsciously. Bringing them to light can act as a kind of medicine or solvent, which will assist us in clearing the thorns so that the seeds of truth can be sown.

I list here six presuppositions; I’ve tried to avoid an overly philosophical analysis, instead using a more descriptive approach. The first few may be familiar to you, but the last three are less often discussed. Feel free to add to this list in the comments box. I will discuss a few other presuppositions in tomorrow’s post.

I. Secularism – The word “secular” comes from the Latin saecula, which is translated as “world,” but can also be understood to refer to the age or times in which we live. Secularism is excessive concern about the things of this world and the times in which we live to the exclusion of the values and virtues of Heaven and the Kingdom of God.

Hostile – It is not merely a matter of preoccupation with the world, but often of outright hostility to things outside the saecula (world or age). Spiritual matters are often dismissed by the worldly as irrelevant, naïve, hostile, and divisive. Secularism is an attitude that demands all attention be devoted to the world and its priorities.

Misplaced Priorities – Secularism also causes those who adopt it to put their faith beneath worldly priorities and views. In this climate, many are far more passionate about and dedicated to their politics than to their faith. Their faith is “tucked under” their political views and made to conform to them. It should be the opposite—political views should be subordinate to faith. The Gospel should trump our politics, our worldview, our opinions, and all worldly influences. Faith should be the doorkeeper. Everything should be seen in the light of faith. Secularism reverses all this and demands to trump the truths of faith.

Secularism is the error through which one insists that faith give way when it opposes worldly ways of thinking or worldly priorities. If faith gets in the way of career, guess which one gives? If faith forbids me from doing what I please and what the world affirms, guess which one gives way? The spirit of the world often sees the truths of faith as unreasonable and unrealistic, and demands that they give way, either by compromise or a complete setting aside of faith.

As people of faith, we should put the world and its values on trial. Secularism instead puts the faith on trial and demands it conform to worldly thinking and priorities.

Secularism also increasingly demands that faith be privatized. Faith is to have no place in the public square of ideas or values. If Karl Marx said it, that’s fine, but if Jesus said it, it has to go. Every other interest group can claim a place in the public square, in the public schools, etc. But the Christian faith has no place. Yes, God has to go. Secularism in its “purest” form demands a faith-free, God-free world. Jesus promised that the world would hate us as it hated Him. This remains true, and secularism describes the rising tendency for the world to get its way.

To make this world our priority and to let it overrule our faith is to board a sinking ship with no lifeboats. With secularism, our loyalty is primarily to the world. This amounts to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” If the world is really all that matters then we are the most pitiable of men, for everything we value is doomed and already passing away.

II. Materialism – Most people think of materialism as the tendency to acquire and need lots of material things. It includes this, but true materialism goes far deeper. In effect, materialism is the error that insists that physical matter is the only thing that is real. Materialism holds that only those things that can be weighed on a scale, seen in a microscope, or empirically experienced (through the five senses) are real. The modern error of scientism, which insists that nothing outside the world of the physical sciences exists, flows from materialism. (You can read more on that HERE.)

In effect, materialism says that matter is all that “matters.” The spiritual is either non-existent or irrelevant to the materialist. This of course leads to the tendency to acquire things and neglect the spiritual. If matter is all that really matters, then we will tend to want large amounts of it. Bigger houses, more things, and more creature comforts are amassed in order to give meaning and satisfaction.

In the end, however, it is a cruel joke, because All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccles 1:7). Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. [It] is meaningless … The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:10-12). But never mind that; the materialist will still insist it is the only thing real or relevant.

The error of materialism is ultimately tied up in thinking that matter is all that exists and that man, a creature of matter and spirit, can be satisfied with matter alone. Materialism denies a whole world of moral and spiritual realities that are meant to nourish the human person: goodness, beauty, truth, justice, equity, transcendence, courage, feelings, attitudes, angels, and God. These are ultimately spiritual realities. They may have physical manifestations to some extent, but they are not physical. Justice does not walk through the door and take a seat in the front row. Transcendence does not step out for a stroll, give a speech, or shake hands with beauty. Such things are not merely material.

To deny the spiritual is to already be dying, for the form of this world is passing away. To deny the spiritual is to have little to live for other than today, for tomorrow is uncertain and one step closer to death.

III. Individualism – The error of individualism exalts the individual over and above all notions of the common good, and our need to live responsibly in communion with God and others. Individualism exalts the view of the individual at the expense of the received wisdom of tradition.

Individualism demands autonomy without proper regard to the rights and needs of others. It minimizes duties to others and maximizes personal prerogatives and privileges. It also tends to deny a balanced notion of dependence on others for human formation, and the need to accept correction and instruction.

Individualism also tends to be defiant and declare, “I will not be told what to do.” Hence there is little notion of being required to conform to the truth or even to reality. The notion that I should live by the “creeds of dead white men” is rejected as absurd, repressive, and even unhealthy.

Most individualists think of themselves as having an intrinsic right to make their own religion, to invent their own deity, and even to craft their own reality. In the past these sorts of things were called idolatry, syncretism, heresy, and delusional thinking. But today many in our culture celebrate this notion as a strange form of liberty, not seeing it for the isolation that it is, and not recognizing that they are consigning themselves to the status of spiritual orphans.

Personal freedom and autonomy have their place and should not be usurped by government or other collectives, but freedom today is often misunderstood as the ability to do whatever one pleases rather than the ability—the power—to do what is good. Freedom is not absolute and should not be detached from respect for the rights and welfare of others. Individualism ultimately scoffs at this idea.

Never mind that excessive and mistaken notions of freedom have caused great harm in our culture and that it is often children who suffer the most. Sexual promiscuity, easy divorce, abortion, substance abuse, etc. are all abuses of freedom and cause harm to both children and to the wider society that must often seek to repair the damage caused by irresponsible behavior. Individualism still scoffs at this, refusing to acknowledge any personal responsibility for societal ills.

Individualism, because it rejects the collective wisdom of the ages, also leads to the iconoclasm of the next problematic area: the hermeneutic of discontinuity.

IV. The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity – The word “hermeneutic” refers to the interpretive key by which one sees and understands the world. Thus, the phrase “hermeneutic of discontinuity” refers to an interpretation that the wisdom of previous generations is flawed, erroneous, naïve, and so forth.

It is true that no past era was perfect or all-wise. Nevertheless, there is an accumulated wisdom that has stood the test of time.

But those possessed of the hermeneutic of discontinuity will have none of it. It is old, and therefore bad, irrelevant, unenlightened, bigoted, naïve, superstitious, backward, medieval, etc.

In the Church, we are just emerging from a time when anything “old” was dismissed as “pre-Vatican II.” There was a presumed break and a great chasm with the past that we “ought” to observe, that it was somehow “wrong” to quote St. Thomas or the Council of Trent.

There is a widespread, arrogant, modern notion that we have “come of age.” We confuse our technical knowledge with wisdom. But our arrogance cuts us off from the collected wisdom of our ancestors and we make mistakes that were long ago recognized as harmful and foolish.

Here, too, as the Church “re-proposes” the Gospel, she is proposing the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the ages. Yet a modern world, often locked in the hermeneutic of discontinuity, scoffs merely on the basis that what we propose is ancient rather than modern.

Regardless, we must continue to insist upon and preach the wisdom of God, in season and out of season. We must refuse to be swayed by false notions of and demands for relevance. The true meaning of the word relevant is not “modern” or “hip.” The word comes from the Latin re (again) + levare (to lift). And thus, it means to take up again what was dropped or which fell by the wayside.

Our job is to persevere and by our persistence to keep the wisdom of God ever before humanity like a burning torch. We must preach the Gospel in season and out of season and not confuse ephemeral notions with wisdom. But neither should we imagine that there is nothing good today or that something is bad simply because it is modern. Jesus says, Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Mt 13:52).

V. Neo-Nominalism – There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals—things that can be illustrated by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects since they do not exist in space and time. Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only subsequent to particular things. The term “nominalism” stems from the Latin word nomen (name).

The modern and lazier version of nominalism, which I will here call neo-nominalism, holds that words (nomen = word) are simply arbitrary sounds we assign to things, and that they reflect us more than they reflect anything we call reality. In a more sweeping way, whole categories are also dismissed.

Thus, for example, words and categories such as male, female, marriage, abortion, euthanasia, etc. are just words we assign; they are mere human constructs that do not exist in reality. So, many claim the right today to move beyond human words and categories such as male, female, marriage, and so forth. They also claim the right to assign new words to describe these realties. Abortion becomes “choice,” “reproductive freedom,” or “women’s healthcare.”  Unnatural acts of sodomy are called “gay” (a word that used to mean happy) and anal sex is celebrated as an “expression of love.” Same-sex “pseudo-gamy” is called “marriage.” Suicide or killing of the aged or imperfect is called “euthanasia” (a word that mean means “good death” in Greek). Sexual identity is now called “gender” (a grammatical category of nouns in nearly one-fourth of the world’s languages, not a word for human sexual differentiation).

Neo-nominalism claims the right to define new reality and scoffs at the humbler proposition that we ought to discover reality and conform to it. Nominalism casts aside such humility and claims the right to merely define reality by inventing new words and thoughts and then imposing them on what really is. And thus we get endless absurdities such as LGBTQ (and Lord knows what letter will be added next). We have bizarre notions such as being “transgendered,” a concept that denies human distinctions that could not be more obvious and are literally inscribed in our bodies. But the neo-nominalists will not be troubled with reality.

The next and even more absurd “edge universe” for many of them is the so called “trans-human” movement, in which even the reality of being human is dismissed as a mere construct. People will claim the right to start calling themselves other species and (presumably) the right to engage in all sorts of bizarre consort with animals, the “right” to develop cross-cloning, etc. After all, who is to say what is “human” to these neo-nominalist iconoclasts?

For them, there is no reality per se, just human constructs that are fungible. So-called “reality” is merely to be toyed with and defined according to the latest whim and need for self-justification through the re-describing of what is actually happening.

Neo-nominalism gets dark and absurd very quickly, as we are observing every day in our increasingly indecipherable “anti-culture.”

VI. Hedonism – This is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys meaning “sweet.”

Of course pleasure is to be desired, and to some degree sought, but it is not the sole good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.

But hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. Hedonism is directly opposed to the theology of the cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the Cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be ‘condemned’ to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read ‘our’) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)

The shock expressed in these rhetorical questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” to the modern hedonistic mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living. And anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.

When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or is required of us! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

And indeed many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if the priest dares mention that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, contraception, and so forth are wrong; or if he preaches about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at any notion that might limit the pleasure others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like a distant planet or a strange, parallel universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reworked Jesus and cannot conceive that He would want them to be anything but happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” And on this basis, all sorts of sinful behavior should be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.

Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to have that long conversation with people.

I will discuss four other modern trends in tomorrow’s post (reductionism, scientism, “designer” religion, and arrested development).

The Evangelical Quality of Joy, As Seen in an Animated Short Film

joyAll of us have wounds and imperfections. Some of us make do, even living joyfully in spite of them. Others of us brood or withdraw.

An old saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln goes, “Most folks are about as happy as they decide to be.”

An old Stephen Foster classic, “Some Folks,” goes as follows:

Some folks like to sigh,
Some folks do, some folks do;
Others long to die,
But that’s not me nor you.

Chorus:    

Long live the merry, merry heart
That laughs by night and day
Like the Queen of Mirth,
No matter what some folks say.

Some folks get gray hairs
Some folks do, some folks do;
Brooding o’er their cares
But that’s not me nor you.

Yes, happiness is an inside job. We tend to think it depends on externals, but usually it doesn’t.

Consider the video below. A young boy is injured but in a way that is only revealed near the end. He appears withdrawn and almost coldly cruel.

Enter a dog, who is also injured. And yet the dog is indomitable, joyful, and engaging despite his injury. He almost seems unaware of it. The dog is persistently joyful, eventually winning the young boy over with his exuberance.

What about us? Are we joyful Christians? Are we indomitable in the face of trials? Or are we bitter, withdrawn, joyless, and cynical?

Just remember that joy has a way of winning souls. Decide to be happy in Christ.

How to Draw Your Children Back to the Church – A Reflection on a Wonderful New Resource

blog11-19One of the more common heartaches people express to me is that their adult children no longer attend Mass or have any relationship with the Church. Many of these parents sent their children to Catholic School and brought them to Mass every week. Yet despite these efforts, many of these young adults were drawn away from the Church by the lure of the secular world, often during their college years or shortly thereafter.

It was typically not some dramatic event or one particular teaching that caused them to leave the Church; they just drifted away. Perhaps it was that going to college or graduating meant that they moved out of familiar patterns. Perhaps it was a new schedule or the need to work on Sundays. But regardless of the reason, they started skipping Mass. One week missed led to several weeks, then months, and then years. And so they drifted, with the currents of the world, away from the Church and the Sacraments.

During the years away, they may have found “reasons” that they don’t like the Church or feel connected to her. Perhaps they disagree with a certain teaching or practice. But the initial problem was more likely just a drifting of sorts, which then became alienation fueled by a world hostile to our teachings.

So what are parents to do? Nagging can be counterproductive. Admonitions that the Church considers missing Mass a mortal sin (and we do) seem too self-referential to many college graduates, who were raised in a culture that insists on the right of every individual to craft a “god” on his own terms (we used to call that idolatry). For most moderns, the right to craft a “god of my own understanding” or to discover the “god within” is indisputable.

Even to many who still have some semblance of faith, sectarian religion and dogmas are anathema, considered too rigid. It is axiomatic for many who call themselves “spiritual” to think that they have a perfect right to craft their own god and their own truth in their own way.

But this is the only world that most young adults have ever known. They never experienced the era of denominations and of high Church attendance that some of us older folks did. Quoting Scripture and the Catechism to them has little impact. Speaking of rules or commandments is often dismissed as scolding and being unkind.

So again, what are parents to do? I wrote earlier this week about using the Socratic Method, and surely that is a good model. It relies on posing questions that seek to engage the person to explore some of his own premises. For example a parent might ask, “Why don’t you go to Church?” Suppose the response is, “I just don’t get anything out of it” One might then ask, “What do you want to get out of it? What are you looking for?” Or one could follow up by asking, “What do you think the purpose of Mass or going to Church is? How do you see it?” And one continues along these lines, keeping sermonizing to a minimum. One listens, but seeks to engage the adult child in exploring his own views to determine if they are valid.

Thanks be to God, a new and thorough treatment of how to get your children back to the Church has just been published by Brandon Vogt: Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to Church. It examines all the usual scenarios, from drifters to dissenters, from the disaffected to the merely disconnected. There are print, online, and video components to assist in developing a “game plan” that may need to extend over a long period of time.

At the heart of the parents’ “game plan” must surely be their own witness of what going to Mass, receiving the Sacraments, praying, and Christian fellowship have done for them. So in his book, Brandon helps parents to clarify and craft their own witness. He also helps prepare them to respond to some of the more common reasons people provide for having left the Church and the practice of the faith. He discusses the twenty biggest objections to Catholicism. In effect, he advises the parents to stop pushing and start drawing their adult children back to Mass.

I hope you will find the book (and other resources) as encouraging and helpful as I did. Most of us who are trying to draw others back to the Church need a long-term game plan. We need to be prepared for a long, patient, and respectful conversation that speaks the truth in love and witnesses to the beauty of the Catholic faith. I think the resources that Brandon has assembled are a great gift to the Church.