Commentators galore highlight the tragic decline of the Catholic faith among baptized Catholics. As our world becomes more secular, there exists a tepid indifference to Catholicism. The picture today is reminiscent of Jesus's strong words to the Laodicean Church in the Book of Revelation. The Laodiceans were neither cold nor hot in relation to God, just lukewarm. The reference to lukewarmness is an indication of what their faith was like – nothing going on. Whereas hot water can cleanse and purify and cold water can refresh and enliven, lukewarm water carries no value. The Laodiceans understood the Lord’s analogy because their city drinking water came over an aqueduct from a spring six miles to the south, and it arrived disgustingly lukewarm. Laodicean water was not hot like the nearby hot springs that people bathed in, nor was it refreshingly cold for drinking. It was lukewarm, good for nothing. In fact, it was nauseating, and that was the Lord’s response to the Laodiceans—they sickened Him, and He said, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (verse 16).
Saint Faustina also heard how this stale uninterest allotted Christ nothing but sorrow. In her mystical encounters with Christ, He told her,
"My soul suffered the most dreadful loathing in the Garden of Olives because of lukewarm souls," (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, no. 1228)
Nothing can hamper a relationship more than a bored disinterest. Imagine a parent goes to great lengths to rescue their child and then longs to be with their child only to have the child respond to the heroic loving parent with a shrug of indifference. Here, we are presented with a bleak reality in communicating the faith to others. While St. Thomas suggests how presenting the faith through joy can intrigue and captivate some, the blunt reality is that joy can rarely penetrate those caught in a lukewarm state. As evidence see Jesus’s proclamation to the Laodiceans in Revelation.
Rather than belabor over the hapless situation of lukewarmness in the faith, let us press forward to a solution. So, the question remains - how do you get one to go from no interest to some interest, to eventually a holy sense of urgency that falls deep into the faith and eventually experiences a heart ablaze with Christ’s message?
There is an ocean of opinions on how to move people from no interest to some interest in the faith. They include (but not limited to): make it fun, interactive, make it relevant, tell stories, focus on the positive, not the negative, use visuals, allow them to have their own experience, etc. Before getting bogged down in the countless suggestions to relate to children and adults, we will first understand why most of them have a bored disinterest in the Catholic faith. And rather than going through an exhausting church survey analysis akin to the Synod on Synodality, we’ll go straight to the Gospel to see why God’s message doesn’t resonate with them.
We often get so consumed with finding human answers to pressing questions that we forget that Jesus answered this question with depth and precision in His parable of the sower. Oftentimes pride lets us think that our measly human analysis is superior to a short parable by Jesus.
As, St. Matthew records this parable:
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil, and brought forth grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears let him hear.” (Matthew 13: 3-9)
Our Lord typically used parables to reveal and conceal divine mysteries. While we might not have the spiritual “ears” to fully hear the meaning of this parable, Jesus was kind enough to explain the parable to the often intellectually slow disciples (and us).
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the Evil One comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and then when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (Matthew 13: 18-23)
In looking at Jesus' parable, we can identify three impediments that parallel three sources. The path represents the devil. The rocky ground represents the flesh, and the thorns embody the world. These three images and their corresponding sources are the primary reason kids and adults alike hit the boring button with the Catholic faith.
Jesus goes to the source of these barriers to show us the primary cause of a soul that falls into a lukewarm state is the devil, the flesh, and the world. The Bible continuously reveals that the three obstacles to spiritual advancement come from the world (Matthew 13:22, 19:34), the flesh (your passions, Matthew 13:21, 10:22, 26:41) and, the devil (Matthew 13:19, 10:28). As well the apostle James declares, “This wisdom is not such as it comes down from above but is earthly [world], unspiritual [flesh], and devilish [devil]” (James 3:15, cf. Ephesians 2: 1-3).
In order to grasp the solution to our problem, we will dissect the scenario matter-of-factly. In the parable, Jesus first mentioned the obstacle as “the path.” It breaks down as follows:
The impediment: The path
The source: The devil (birds)
Solution: Scripture, prayer, the sacraments
As the word of God comes to those souls who are on the path, birds come and snatch the Word from the path rather quickly. The seed of God’s word isn’t able to penetrate the path because the path is quite hardened. As the path has been stepped on by many “shoes” over a period of time it ceases from being soft. Rather, the hardness of the path makes it easy for birds (i.e. demons) to grab God’s seed and never let it gain any traction in the ground. Today we are confronted with a flurry of confusing ideas from the culture. These erroneous messages of the culture act like numerous boots stomping on our soul, thus making the soul impenetrable for the seed to saturate in the ground. Behind all this “stomping” of mistaken ideas of the culture to incite a rock-solid path is none other than the devil. He has created a master plan to get people so caught up in the array of fake doctrines that when God’s word is delivered he can swoop in and take it, thus leaving little time for the Word to penetrate the average soul. Jesus mentioned that those along the path "don't understand" God's word. No wonder they don't understand God's teaching - they've been so compromised by a deceitful and dark source that when the light of God's teaching is presented they don't have a clue as to what it means.
When pressed with the hardened path dilemma a good landscaper knows he needs to grab a hefty tiller and go to work plowing through the rough layer. In the theological sense, the tiller that gets the job done is Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. It should be noted, the process of being tilled is not an uplifting experience for the path. In a similar vein, the soul that goes through a reformulation will initially be distraught from this encounter as the top layer of their soul needs to be cracked and stirred up. Here, the soul will have to let go of the popular philosophies of the demon infested world and allow God’s teaching to be saturated into them. In short, the soul needs to remove what they want to be true and accept what is true.
Exorcists agree the main way the devil manipulates people is through subtle temptation. Jesus gives us a good example of how to deal with the attacks of the devil. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus was tempted by the devil, Jesus quoted scripture as His own defense. We’ll notice that the devil cunningly tried to twist God’s word in his temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:6). Jesus saw right through this trap and continued to quote scripture back to the adversary. An interesting contrast is the way in which the devil incorrectly quoted God’s word when speaking to Eve in the garden. He was able to cause Eve to doubt God’s love for her and Adam because she wasn’t certain of exactly what God had said. This is a helpful reminder for us to learn what the Bible authentically teaches rather than distorting the scriptures to say what we want them to say.
Prayer also acts as a weapon to thwart off the devil. When the disciples asked Jesus why they weren’t able to drive out demons, Jesus answered that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). When Joshua and the Israelites were fighting against their mortal foes, the Amalekites, they were only able to advance through the intercession of Moses in prayer. Immersed in spiritual warfare, prayer acts as a resilient weapon in curtailing wicked ideas from entering our minds.
Another story will help clarify. In 1214, Saint Dominic, was in anguish because he was failing in his attempt to defeat the Albigensian heresy. After he had been praying and doing severe penances, The Blessed Mother appeared to St. Dominic with three angels and said, “Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world?” In holy awe and respect, Dominic asked for enlightenment on what this weapon would be. Our Lady responded, “I want you to know that, in this warfare, the battering ram has always been the angelic Psalter, which is the foundation of the New Testament. Therefore, if you wish to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter.” The Marian Psalter was a prayer developed that involved praying 150 Hail Mary's divided into groups of 10 by Our Fathers. Prayer beads were used to keep track of the Hail Mary's. Notice Our Lady’s message was that praying the rosary would allow hardened souls to turn to God. Here, we see that persistent prayer is a surefire way to allow the hardness of the path to soften up for God’s word to penetrate it. Collectively, members of the Church are instruments of God, so we can represent the tiller - an instrument that God uses to remove the hardness of heart on those who find themselves on the hard path.
The next obstacle we encounter is the rocky ground. In Jesus’s parable, when those on the rocky ground hear the word, at first, it sprouts up quickly. Jesus teaches that this growth is because they receive God’s word with the emotion of joy. Therefore, initially God’s message is met with enthusiasm. Very often people will cheerfully accept the uplifting parts of the faith (miracles, heaven, peace, God’s love). Yet, as we’ll see, taking in God’s word merely because at times it produces good feelings for us will prove to be a cheap faith that won’t last. In this setting, a person happily jumps on the faith train because the faith incites uplifting emotions, but when God’s word presents blunt challenges that are uncomfortable to hear, the sun will scorch them. Messages such as: you are flawed with sin, repent, do penance, fast, pray, go to church, offer your body as a sacrifice, etc. are met with uneasiness to an emotionally-laced soul. Then, their initial joy will burn out. In Christ's own words, these people have no root. They are missing the foundation of the totality of the faith because they are only seeking the faith for an emotional high.
Moreover, Jesus explained when tribulation and persecution arise from God’s word, one will inevitably fall away. It makes sense that this process of falling away is described with the word “rocky” for rocky insinuates that God’s word is hard, challenging, and involves a suffering of the self. Here, your wants collide with your needs. You prefer your wants over your needs so when the faith ceases to scratch your pleasure itch, the faith becomes of little interest and you go back to the messages of the world to satisfy your passions.
Church fathers tell us that the rocky ground represents the flesh. The word “flesh” in Greek translates to the word “sarx.” Sarx can be translated as disorderly desires. The flesh represents our disordered passions within us that cause us to remove ourselves from God’s message. This Biblical word refers to the “physical,” “natural,” and “lower” element of life; In short, the flesh is our lower appetites - that which we have in common with the animals. Being under control of the flesh one merely responds to whatever their sensual and emotional cravings have a hanker for. Of course, the flesh is only going to gravitate to what initially “feels good.”
The Apostle Paul wrote about the wrestlings he had in his own life. He said, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, my flesh. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19) St. Paul refers to the flesh as a horrid battle wagging within him so much so that he declares, “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24). Living under the disordered desires of the flesh makes one an addict to many numbing carnal pleasures of our world The pleasures of the world do produce a short-term dopamine spike - a brief happiness high, but they end up turning one into an addict who's constantly pursuing a fake joy all the while sucking out God’s will. Sadly, while someone is under the influence of the flesh, God’s seed won’t be able to penetrate. St. Paul reinforces this sentiment. “To set the mind on the flesh is death . . For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot, and those that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8, cf. James 1: 13-14)
Both children and adults alike know their desires are flawed. Take a poll of people and ask them if they’d be comfortable if everyone knew their deep internal thoughts. Very few people would be comfortable with this scenario as we know our thoughts are a window into our distorted desires. One giveaway that signals that the flesh is running the show in our culture is the over-repeated phrase; “I feel like…or, I don’t feel like…” Rather than say “I think,” we say “I feel.” Suddenly the internal feelings of the flesh have usurped the rational avenue of the intellect as our ultimate guide in comprehending reality. That is, the “feeling” of the self heavily influenced by the flesh has become our benchmark. Yet, Jesus said to follow Him, we must deny ourselves, thus we must deny what we feel like doing.
But our body, our old mind, our worldly emotions, our corrupted will, our bad habits, will say, “I know what God says, but I don’t feel like …” or “But I want to …”. Here lies the internal battle.
During the War of 1812, U.S. Commodore Perry famously wrote to tell his superiors of his victory over the British, and he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is ours.” What is the solution to battle our flawed emotions inside? In Romans, St. Paul contrasts the flesh with the spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit provides us with certain gifts to combat the inner workings of the flesh (see Isaiah 11:2, Romans 8: 1-17, Wisdom 8:7). And St. Paul articulates that one of the effects of the Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5: 22-23). With self-control, Paul is tapping into the solution to dealing with the out-of-control flesh – discipline. Discipline means you don’t do what you necessarily “feel” like doing, but what you know God wants you to do. And when we don’t feel like doing what God says, we need to call out to Him for help.
Yes, developing discipline takes time. It begins to grow through rigorous, consistent practice. Here, one works as an athlete in training to cultivate the virtues in which the intellect and will control the passions (Romans 8: 1-5) rather than merely having one’s passions run the show.
In sum, the second obstacle breaks down as follows:
The impediment: Rocky ground
The source: The flesh
Solution: Receiving the Holy Spirit and developing the virtues
After addressing the inner struggles of the flesh, our next confrontation is the third barrier– the thorns. Jesus describes the thorns as “the cares of the world.” Here, the ideas of the world act as a hefty device that chokes up God’s word for the world’s message stands in stark contrast to God’s. As Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul” (Matthew 16:26)? Here, Jesus is implying that the messages of the world will strip away your God-given soul. Or as New Testament writers announce about the world:
"The wisdom of the world is folly to God" (1 Cor. 3:19).
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world" (Romans 12:2).
“keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
“to be a lover of the world means enmity with God” (James 4:4).
So, what does the “world” represent? It can be summed up as the overarching philosophy of the world. It’s popular opinion; it’s the media; it’s popular culture, it’s entertainment, it’s politics. It’s what “everyone does” and it’s what we will do if we do not purposefully choose to do otherwise. The whole “current” of this world is going in the other direction — away from God. Whereas the world merely wants to entertain and satisfy our pleasure itch, God wants to challenge us to make us saints. As Pope Benedict XVI comments, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”
The third scenario also mentions the "delight of riches" as an impediment. With pride comes greed which, in turn, makes one can a consumer of "things" rather than a servant of God. Of course, the message of the world can be likely summed up as an aspiration to pursue wealth and fame for happiness. This motto inverts that the way to happines goes through God, not the self through the allure of luxury and power.
The third impediment shows us that we are up against the onslaught of messages of the world that seek to drown out God’s word. Given the rise of technology, the volume of the world’s message has been turned up to deafening levels. With the world abuzz over consumerism, relativism, and gender dysphoria, the world's doctrine penetrates the majority of souls while simultaneously acts as a crushing thorn that obstructs God’s word from taking hold.
Enemy: The world - totality of the ideas of the world (there’s a lot)
The solution: The totality of Jesus’s teaching in the Church. “For whatever is born of God [the Church] overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4).
After these distractions are identified, then removed with precision, people will begin to be able to hear the Word. Recall in the parable, that the good soil is the one who hears God’s word and understands it. How does he understand it? The path, the rocks, and thorns have all been cleared out so it's easier to grasp God's teaching. While it may seem incredibly exhausting for a soul to remove these forceful impediments, the key hinges on how much that particular soul opens himself up to God to allow Him to work in him. After simmering in the soul, the Word moves one into action with a holy eagerness.
As lay workers in Christ’s vineyard be it as a parents, catechists, or mentors we can only help others remove their obstacles if we first remove our similar impediments (see Matthew 7:5). Moreover, patience is required in cultivating good soil. Just like the seed, growing unseen, the kingdom within us remains silent, hidden now but the seed eventually manifests itself to produce fruit. Once the path, rocks, and thorny weeds have been uprooted far from producing boredom, God’s word will incite much fruit - a joyful soul flush with life.