With great interest, I listened to the upbeat homilies and presentations online from the U.S. Bishops’ July Convocation on Evangelization. Everyone seemed to be on the same page by emphasizing our call to share the joy of the Gospel; welcome our immigrant brothers and sisters; tend to those in the periphery; accompany people one on one; and so forth. While all of this is good and necessary, there is still one thing missing. And let me boldly add, even with all our best intentions, programs and technology, we cannot begin to succeed in evangelization, in a noticeable and sustained way, until we recognize this overlooked problem and make it a clear priority.
Before we dive in, though, it’s important to reveal a somewhat contrarian perspective. I’m a deacon in my hometown, a middle-class community adjacent to Cambridge and Boston. When I look at my extended family members and friends who do not go to Mass, and people in the pews who do not participate in parish life outside of Mass, I do not see wounded people in need of a Church hospital.
Yes, life is difficult and can be extremely challenging and traumatic at times. But for the vast majority of middle-class people, we get through the tough times and life remains pretty good. We have careers, opportunity, cars and houses; feel secure with high quality health care and professional emergency services; and enjoy big screen TVs, sports entertainment and vacations. Basically, I live in a time and place where, practically speaking, we don’t need God.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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So, what I see in my parish and community is not an overcrowded emergency room of sinners, nor streets full of people crying out for God’s caring mercy. Rather, I see a population of basically healthy people and families who are drifting farther away from our Lord Jesus. And they feel no compelling reason to return because they are fairly content where they are.
Underlying their contentment is the problem we are failing to address and it’s the one thing missing. For decades people have been infected by an increasingly steady stream of doubts and false beliefs. This onslaught is so pervasive that I don’t think one can grow up in our culture without one’s faith being distorted or lost. At a particularly low ebb is our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
For example, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell notes that the majority of Catholics who became unaffiliated with any religion, did so because they stopped believing in Church teachings.
And regarding people in the pews, the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) conducted a survey of my hometown parishes last year. The survey presented a series of statements where the responses ranged from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.”
Presumably our most motivated parishioners completed the questionnaire. In the section on personal religious belief, 52 percent did not strongly agree that the Church is critical to our relationship with God; 59 percent did not strongly agree with the teaching authority of the Church; 47 percent did not strongly agree with Jesus’ moral teachings as taught by the Church; and 38 percent did not strongly agree that Scripture is the word of God. If this reflects the faith of the most motivated, then what about the other two-thirds going to Mass?
During the review of parish survey results, the CLI consultant made an important analogy to help us understand the significance of “Agree” versus “Strongly Agree.” He said, suppose you were visiting a city for the first time and asked local colleagues to suggest a place for dinner. If they strongly and enthusiastically recommended a particular place, you’d probably go. But if they only agreed this place is OK and that place is OK, you might take your chances and not go to either. Another way of looking at this is to ask: how can someone have a deep personal relationship with Jesus, without trusting his words?
Therefore, a general lack of enthusiasm and motivation is a serious symptom of doubts and disbelief affecting parish communities. Thus, we cannot create deeply vibrant, evangelical communities without addressing their apprehension and helping them to fully believe.
Hence, the thing we must do, is present a case that it makes sense to believe as a Catholic, and which addresses the major doubts and false beliefs infecting people.
Initially, however, it will not be easy to get the attention of the lukewarm and absent middle-class while presenting this case. Most will not be interested because life is pretty good and they intuitively believe everyone goes to heaven. I constantly see this presumption of eternal life, especially during eulogies. While I hope to God he will have mercy on us all, this presumption is not consistent with the Gospels and New Testament.
In fact, we are doing the faithful a great disservice, and shrinking our Church, when we do not present and uphold the complete drama of eternal salvation, for example, that we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
Please note, I’m not talking about threatening and terrorizing people during homilies. Rather, we need to kindly and patiently uphold all God’s words and invisible realities, and help people to see how this ties together and makes sense with everything we know about life. This is part of the case we must make and the thing we must do. As soon as people begin to believe that eternal life is at stake, and that God wants us to join Jesus and help him save souls, they will be motivated and excited. Otherwise, as a Church, we’re just offering another feel-good option to people who already feel pretty good, and will therefore continue to shrink.
Having said this, we must recognize that helping people appreciate Church moral teaching, and helping them believe in the reality of Satan, fallen angels and hell, can be daunting because some who have not heard this will get upset. But it can be gently done. We only have to be willing to take some heat. Consider this anecdote.
In 2007, while the U.S. was fighting in the Middle East, our son, a high school senior, decided to join the Marines. Since he was 17, both parents had to sign his papers. My wife who worked at Harvard then, was upset and scheduled a meeting with an Air Force general on faculty. For over an hour, the general kindly and patiently listened as my wife cried and poured out her heart. But he did not give ground; he didn’t say, for instance, tell your son to wait a few years.
Soon after the meeting, my wife signed our son’s papers and became a terrific Marine mom. In fact, as I type this article, my wife is greatly supportive of our youngest who is halfway through training on Parris Island.
I realize that presenting a case claiming it eternally matters for people to believe and become fully practicing Catholics, will be a long struggle with unpleasant moments. But we are running out of time to evangelize lukewarm and not-practicing Catholics.
During the Convocation, Bishop Barron said for every person joining the Catholic Church, six are leaving. Also, in the survey of the parishes I serve, 80 percent of the respondents were 46 years old or older. So, time is very limited to turn people into disciples because we are hemorrhaging.
Therefore, I recommend that we courageously and repeatedly make our case to the people attending Mass. Then, as they grow in the fullness of faith, encourage them to invite their loved ones to Mass, like their children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters and friends. And not only invite, but that they should be tactfully persistent without being afraid to apply pressure.
In short, faithful parishioners from middle-class families need to start having conversations with their loved ones who have drifted away from Church while there is still time. Because as Jesus becomes more forgotten, it’s going to get harder to do.
Author’s note: As an illustration, and to this end, I have drafted a case for our faith, including video presentations, and have placed links to it on my project webpage JohnBeagan.com.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Jesus Teaching His Disciples” painted by James Tissot, circa 1890.