As a catechist, I get the need to teach the traditions of the Catholic Church and all of her richness. As a Catholic, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a variety of parishes and styles of parish communities while still maintaining a place of worship founded and grounded in my faith, most importantly having the Holy Eucharist present at Mass. As a Christian, I see the importance (and the severe need in this world) of evangelizing each person, with or without words, though with is more effective. As a youth leader, I saw just how desperate this mission is becoming.
I had the pleasure of hearing a wonderful sermon by Fr. John Capuci following the gospel reading about Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb. He spoke about being freed from one’s bindings, because Lazarus was freed from the tomb and released from his bindings, and truly saw life as much more beautiful after Jesus called him out again. Fr. Capuci went on to explain that many of us are bound in our lives and this keeps us from being free, whether it’s work, bad habits, or other hang-ups in life. He expressed his sincere concern for the well-being of his congregation in an open and loving way, without scolding or speaking sternly. He was excited about the love of Christ that’s available to all of us, and urged all who would listen to seek this and live in it more fully. It was moving, warm, and refreshing.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t hear other priests speak lovingly to their congregations, but there’s something particular about this sermon that struck me: he was evangelizing. Again, I’ve seen this done before as well, but in this instance, I was prompted to think a bit more on the approach.
As catechists, we catechize; we teach about the traditions of the Catholic Church. We tell our students about the Liturgy and how it works and why we observe certain holy days, etc. We also focus on Works of Mercy, especially in our confirmation program. Sometimes, in our curriculum, there’s room for evangelization. If you teach like me, you go off curriculum on a number of occasions to do this according the needs of your class.
For a moment, jump back a few decades or more with me. Catholics were in greater number and traditions were more fully observed. Families went to Mass on a more regular basis and people knew each other in church. We weren’t there to ‘put our time in’ and memorize the back of the shirt of the person in front of us. Religious Education was necessary to teach the children about the Catholic Church and her traditions so they could understand and carry those traditions on for their families, also so they could observe them themselves. Churches were full, more strict to be sure, but full. People went because either they believed or because it’s what people did, often times both. Sadly, that’s no longer the case for most.
I won’t dive into why things are different now or what happened. Let’s simply make the observation that churches are not so full anymore and most kids, or even adults, don’t know the reasons for most of our traditions these days. Many parishes are suffering due to lack of collections and lack of interest. People have fallen away. ‘Church’ is a thing their grandparents did and now they only go if they have to go to a funeral or a wedding (if it happens in a church!)
I see many of my fellow catechists stress the importance of Mass to their students, and I agree wholeheartedly, but you can’t get them to come without a purpose. Yes, continue to encourage Mass – absolutely! Continue to encourage Confession – without a doubt! Encourage all the beauty of the Holy Eucharist and the importance of coming to the Lord in this wonderful sacrament! Just give them a reason to do so, and saying ‘because God wants you to’ or ‘because you’ll learn to appreciate it’ isn’t good enough anymore.
My friends, are we catechizing instead of evangelizing? Are we saying, buy a cart, but not giving them a horse? Imagine if we could help them to unbind themselves, or (better yet!) help them to let Jesus unbind them from their hang-ups or whatever is keeping them from Christ! Imagine if we could facilitate that personal and beautiful encounter with Jesus Christ! They would be flooding the Church and showing up for every sacrament and filling every pew and singing every song at the top of their lungs!
What was most beautiful about Fr. Capuci’s sermon was that he was speaking to the un-evangelized and the evangelized alike. His words and his fire (Yes! He was on fire for the Lord!) were relevant to both the believers and the unbelievers and the not-so-sure-maybe-believers. It wasn’t if one could say, “He’s not talking to me today.” All could say, “His words mean something to me personally, because…” He also wasn’t up at the podium preaching sternly down at the people, demanding repentance. He was walking among us, lovingly asking us to open up to the Lord and let Him unbind us from whatever holds us back from His Love. Because, yes, the evangelized also have room to grow in Christ.
As a parent, I understand the need to correct my child. Also as a parent, I understand that simply yelling at him doesn’t help him learn what he’s done wrong or why it was wrong. Oh, believe me, I do yell at times, but my most effective parenting moments come when I’m quietly and calming teaching them why. “This hurts your sister’s feelings.” “That makes it hard for me to help you.” “I love you and don’t want you to get hurt.” I wish I could say I’m always good at this, but I’m a work in progress.
It may seem like this was directed at critiquing priests and their sermon styles. It wasn’t; please know that. It was a perspective check for all Catholics, not just priests or catechists. Are we preaching from a high podium about the importance of following the rules? Or are we speaking lovingly of the love of Christ and opening the possibility for a person to encounter Him more fully, thereby making the Mass and all the beauty of our faith more meaningful? The rules, in that case, will be followed more easily.
Jesus didn’t preach from the temple all the time. He came to the people, to the lepers, to the beggars, the shepherds, the sinners, where they were. He stayed at their houses and ate with them. He walked and talked with them. He understood them. He loved them where they were. He made them want to follow Him.
There’s a movement called the New Evangelization, but I like to call it evangelization. We want to reach the people where they are, especially since they don’t seem to be coming to us anymore. But shouldn’t this have always been our calling? Go and preach the gospel to all? Perhaps there’s a point to calling it new though, one I didn’t notice before. Perhaps many of us need to look at it all over again. Let’s start from scratch again, looking at our faith all over again.
There’s no need to stop catechizing, but perhaps we need to restart evangelizing first.
There’s a ‘quote’ by St. Francis of Assisi on preaching the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words, though there’s no exact proof that he said it. The notion speaks for itself, but if you’re interested in the history of whether or not he said it, you can start here.
If you haven’t, I highly recommend Rebuilt by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran or check out the website http://rebuiltparish.com.
Many churches have started to refresh their manner of outreach to the unchurched. Let’s continue to pray and support their efforts and encourage those who aren’t quite there yet. Our mission is never finished.