By FATHER JOHN HYNES
All of us have had or heard conversations like this among fellow Catholics.
“My son and his fiancé plan to wed on the beach; a friend of his has a certificate to officiate.”
“Melissa has been going with her friends to a born-again Christian assembly, she says she never felt so close to God.”
We read in the obituaries for people with familiar Catholic names, who went to “Loyola Prep” or “St. Charles parish” will be buried after a “celebration of life” with no religious ceremony. It is evident, even if you don’t read the statistics, that some Catholics in the U.S. are ceasing to attend Mass and leaving the Church.
What is happening, and why? And what response are we to make? All of us, as Pope Benedict said, are “collaborators in the work of evangelization.” For 45 years, beginning with Pope Paul VI, and continuing through Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, we have heard of the need for a “New Evangelization.”
Since 1980, the First World (western Europe, United States, Canada, Australia and Japan) has experienced a loss of membership in most churches.
We live in a “post-modern” mentality today, skeptical about every “dominant narrative” of establishment, whether that be banks, corporations, the media, health care, government, political parties, or religion, not least the Catholic Church. Each is presumed to be spreading its own version of the truth, to serve its interests. A young person readily concludes that everything is relative, there is no absolute truth.
How to understand the crisis of Catholicism? A clue came from Pope Paul VI, forty-five years ago: “Modern man listens to the witnesses, not teachers.” Witness means that a person whose life has been transformed by Christ now proceeds to share his experience with others, in action and in word, so that they may have the same new life. We have many Catholics who know the teaching of the church, but have not experienced a personal relationship with Jesus. He remains chiefly an object of knowledge. In short, one must become a disciple to be a firm Catholic today.
This becomes clear when we parse the final command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19 “Going out into the world, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit … teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” The key is “make disciples.” It is clear that teaching can only be done effectively to one who is already a disciple: someone formed in faith who is ready to form others.
What action is needed? What is our basis for hope? “Affliction leads to endurance, endurance to proven character, and proven character to hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5). What is the Holy Spirit saying to the Church, i.e. to you and me, to all of us?
We must realize that in the Catholic church, all the baptized are called to be disciples. That is, all are responsible for the church, its growth, its health. Four popes, since 1974 have called for “Evangelization” and a “New Evangelization” to the areas of the world where faith is in decline.
What is a disciple? He or she is a person who has encountered Jesus Christ in a person-to-person way and committed their life to Him. A disciples’ witness/discipleship is lived out in two ways. The first is their readiness, in an understanding and respectful way, to personally share their faith in words with another person, we call this “Evangelization.” The other way is through actions of justice and compassion, action on behalf of human dignity, that helps to transform our earthly society according to God’s plan.
If “discipleship” sounds extreme, consider what Pope Benedict said: “To be a Christian is not to accept a certain body of doctrine and moral teachings; it is to accept the person of Jesus Christ into your life.” If “evangelization” sounds uncomfortable, consider these words by Pope Francis; “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the share and become excited by the prospect of communicating life to others.”
No, we don’t have a magic process to form these intentional disciples. But, yes, we are coming to understand the Gospel better. The chief task of a parish, and a pastor, is to form intentional disciples. Let’s all work at this in hope. We can’t see what we hope for. But we know what we hope for is real.
(Father John M. Hynes is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wilmington).