I think it is difficult to be a practicing Catholic today and not notice that many facets of our faith are under attack at home and worldwide. Whether it is the challenges to our freedom to proclaim the teachings of the Church, or whether it is the very real and insidious systemic killing of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, our outlook can begin to seem more than a little bleak. Article after article talks about how to make the Church more relevant, what needs to change in the Church, and how to make the Church catch up to the times – how do we make the Church thrive again?
For my part, I think the best answers to these questions are presented by those who participate in the Forming Intentional Disciples movement. I call it a movement, because I believe it to be a holy work of the Spirit and not just a book or a program. Having worked in various levels of ministry, it is my absolute belief that the corporatization of the Church is leading to its demise. Sherry Weddell from the Catherine of Siena Institute has been working with others around the world to breathe the life of the Holy Spirit back into the Church. Their basic premise? Create disciples of Jesus and we don’t need to worry about the perfect marketing campaign or program. I absolutely agree.
Here are three ways from my own experience as a convert and as a minister in the Church that I think we can begin to lift the cloud that seems to hang over our heads.
- Put the focus back on Jesus. No, really. I know the Church exists because of and for Him. Do others? Maybe it is the circles I associate with because of my former ministry work, but it seems to me that the large percentage of conversation when it comes to the Catholic Church is on internal affairs and moral teachings. This may be harsh, but frankly, the world does NOT care. It does not know who Jesus is, so to care about the internal happenings and seemingly ancient teaching of the Church is a stretch. Yes, of course we must have people who are about that business. In my experience, though, the balance is sorely off. When we have those who are devotedly addressing the intricacies of the Church in the public sphere, we are seen as self-righteous and out of focus. What we need is a different balance. More people need to be shouting from the rooftops without fear that Jesus is Lord. More people need to be inviting people to open their hearts and life to Christ, because He is good and there is peace and comfort and healing. All the public bickering does nothing to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, and that is what the Church is all about.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 1 Corinthians 1:12-17
- Remember your own story, and use it. We can’t effectively claim Jesus as Lord if He has not had a transforming effect on our own lives. Our stories are our most valuable tool. Take a look at the Scriptures. Story after story of the works and wonders of Jesus, of lives transformed by an encounter with Christ. This did not ended with the last page of Revelation. People need to know that God is alive and working in our lives today. They need – and many are dying - to know that there is still healing and wholeness in Christ. If we aren’t willing to, with discretion, share the way in which Christ has transformed us, how are we to convince another that it is possible? If we make it about the rules, the teachings, the customs – while they are all beautiful in their own right – we miss the mark. If we think of Jesus as the One with whom we have the closest relationship, the one friend we want everyone to know – how do we introduce Him? I’m not going to share the house rules with someone who has never been in the house…and even sometimes those who go timidly or with reservations. No. I am going to tell them about my friend, and how His great love for me has changed my life. I will share why my experience of faith has made me less hesitant to say yes when He asks, and what my own existing reservations continue to be. (In my story, an assent to faith does erase the questions that arise from my humanity. I think Jesus understands, and is patient with me.)
- Desire mercy, not judgement. People are in love with Pope Francis (and yet others revile him) for reminding us that as a Church, we are a hospital for sinners. That is you, me, and the whole world. In this climate, we have to work overtime to be certain we claim our sin, that we do not put on false airs about our salvation – it is a grace, not a work of our own. It is available to me, and it is available to you. Jesus has changed me, and he thirsts for you. That’s the story, folks. Whatever you have done, whoever you are, God is waiting for you to turn to Him. He is waiting with forgiveness, with acceptance, with love…and so are we. As ambassadors of Christ, we have to be vessels of mercy and love. I, for one, cannot wait to see the fruit that comes from the Year of Mercy. It is time for God’s mercy to overcome the world.
- Listen and remain. I understand, I really do – it almost seems necessary to be on the reactive end of things. We seem to be losing the battle when it comes to morality, to liberty, to life. It didn’t happen overnight, however, and we will not fix it overnight. For as many people who spout off against the Church out of ignorance and malice, there are as many who have been genuinely hurt by the frail humanity of its members. God is at the core of our being. When someone is hurt by a supposed emissary of God, that wounds to the very soul. When teachings are lorded over people’s heads that run contrary to their experience, that wounds to the very soul. When it seems we are as an institution picking on people, what has happened is that our members have forgotten to love and listen to one another. Whether it is the issue of homosexuality, fertility, women in the church, the sexual abuse scandal, or any other volatile topic, we seem to want to be so sure that we are right, that we forget sometimes that they are not just issues – there are people whose souls are intimately connected to the topic at hand. While again, it is important that the world hear the truth, it is equally important that people feel heard. As a Church, we have to listen without judgement to the experiences of those who are opposed to us or our teachings. More than just listening, we have to be willing to remain in relationship with them. Our doors must always be open. This doesn’t mean that people will choose to continue to walk through them, but we cannot be the ones to turn away, whether their lives appear to change or not.
What I offer above are suggestions based on my own experiences, and serve as much as a reminder to me as a word to another. They are not meant to address the whole spectrum of evangelization. They are not meant to dismiss the importance of the inner workings of the Church. They are not offered as a sure-fire solution to bring people to Jesus, because frankly that is beyond my ability. I offer these words as a point of reflection for us as a Church and disciples in the world.
Do people who meet you encounter Jesus?
Do they see someone who is generally joyful?
Does your life look different than the world around you?
Are you quick to speak or quick to listen?
Do you show compassion on those who are struggling?
Have you ever invited someone who is spouting off against the Church to a conversation about their experience? Would you now?
Maybe none of this relates to you. Maybe you are the person who is called to debate the intricacies of the Mass. That is fantastic! I simply hope that in contemplating the points above that if God is calling you to more, you will consider it. Jesus thirsts, and He needs us to be out there inviting the world to share in His love and mercy. Will you answer that call?