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Why It All Comes Down to What Catholics Will Do and What They Won't Do: A Letter to Catholics
By Deal W Hudson
September 23rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
Our faith is a gift, not a threat. Our faith does not teach us to follow the rules and we "will be just fine." Our faith does not teach us to view the good life as a road burdened by the weight of dreary obligations. Our faith does not teach us to just get by, to be there, follow the rules, and keep the obligations. Our faith is not that of a tribe, into which we happen to be born. Our faith is not a list of minimum requirements that get us into heaven. That kind of faith will never be Evangelical, will never appear attractive to the newcomer, and, most importantly, will never come close to representing the living tradition. Pope Francis I, I believe, is trying to remind us of this too and being misunderstood in the process.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Everything I am about to say could be wrong. I may be basing what I say on too personal and too restricted a sample of parish life and Catholic experience. I may also still be carrying the expectations of a Catholic convert still fond of his Evangelical roots.
That is where I first discovered Jesus Christ, answered an altar call, worshipped Him loudly in song, relished the warmth of the church community, and embraced the expectation that every Christian should evangelize. There, too, I learned the faith we shared was something not to be held privately but to be shared in a way that might win converts or reinvigorate those who had fallen away.
When I entered this Body over 25 years ago, I did so for many reasons. But my foremost reason was the teaching that at Mass I would encounter the Real Presence of Christ.
As a lifelong Protestant, and as a young Southern Baptist minister, this article of belief hit me like a bombshell. No longer would worship be an act of remembering, a celebration of absence, as it were. I regarded this as the true destination of my evangelical journey that began with an altar call and a full immersion baptism.
I did not believe at the time that I was leaving anything behind, but rather I was blessed with the opportunity to appropriate the fulness of the Christian faith as found in the Roman Catholic Church.
The mystical and mysterious transformation of bread and wine was something even more than the body and blood of the redeeming Christ; it brought us the living, resurrected Christ. Catholic worship promised to be more than a tragic remembering mediated by symbols. Rather, it offered a joyful celebration of the Divine Comedy of Christ's body becoming His Church.
In the figure of John Paul the Great, I saw this promise made manifest. His witness confirmed to me the truth I had encountered in my reading of the Patristic, Medieval, and Modern Fathers of the Church -- Augustine, Aquinas, Newman -- and in the work of Her artists, poets, novelists, composers, philosophers, and film makers. And of course Her saints.
After my conversion, I was warned against the post-Vatican II Church. But when I read those documents, I saw in them the same majestic intelligence and beauty I had glimpsed again and again as I approached and entered Her doors. I was encouraged by their pastoral mission, that is, to revive the felt sense of connection with and understanding of Her tradition.
Over the past 25 years I've studied, observed, and participated in the ongoing struggle to fulfill that mission, from the "message hijacking" of the media, to restatements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI quelling the last gasps of liberal dissent. That narrative has been retold many times and held aloft as the primary cause of the Church's problems with catechesis, education, leadership, and liturgy.
There was a time when this was true and needed to be told. But the Church in America has come to a place where we need to let go of this narrative as the source of Her problems, its complaints and condemnations, to free ourselves to see and start addressing what stands before us.
Or, to put it succinctly, the problem is no longer guitars and hasn't been for a long time. The problem, as I see it, is that Catholics don't know how, and probably don't really want to be Evangelical, that is, live their faith evangelically. They don't want to proclaim the Good News.
Look at it this way: If you were a potential convert, or merely curious about those Catholic Christians, who unlike everyone else claim that Jesus Christ is really, not symbolically, present during the celebration of the Mass, how would you feel after visiting and observing a typical liturgy in an American parish?
I say typical because I know there are numerous exceptions -- but not numerous enough to be described as typical.
The typical can be described in various ways: lukewarm, obligatory, humdrum, mechanical, lifeless, tepid, tired, flat. The newcomer, the visitor, might be prompted to wonder if these Catholics really believe Christ is present, or perhaps they've grown so used to His presence that they no longer feel the need to dress for the occasion, or to smile, to sing, to pray, to praise, to wonder, to gaze, or to be moved.
At least the guitars and the liturgical dancing were an attempt to quicken the pulse of those attending Mass and stem the tide of youth lost to the Church.
As far as I can tell, the higher pulse rate of most Catholics is being saved for other activities, which explains how quickly the sidewalks and parking lots clear after Mass. Those who carefully backed into their parking spaces being the first to escape, of course.
The truth is that if you followed them home and sat at their table, you would find out they are not zombies after all!
But the visitor, whether merely curious or pondering conversion, would have left Mass anonymously. No one would have taken special notice of his or her presence. No welcome would have been given. The visitor would have sat in the parking lot after Mass having not met a soul, having witnessed a listless liturgy, blank-faced congregants, and left wondering whether ever to return.
"Is it just this parish?" he will wonder. "Perhaps I was here on a bad day."
In short, our visitor did not feel the evangelical welcome or the evangelical pull of a faith community interested in his life or the ultimate disposition of his eternal soul. In fact, our visitor left the parish still respecting the Catholic faith for its doctrinal majesty but wondering why there was so much slippage between the cup and lip, as it were.
Or as the poet T.S Eliot put it, "Between the idea and the act falls the shadow."
The idea of being Catholic appealed greatly to our visitor who left wondering if there was a parish, a Catholic community, of deeper belief and greater vitality, one that would extend the hand of welcome, even friendship to a stranger.
What makes so many parishes like this? Why is the sense of just "going through the motions" good enough? Perhaps it's all we know, or expect. But I can tell you that others expect more, and it's merely that they come from Evangelical backgrounds, like myself. We were made to want more, in fact, we were made to want God Himself.
My fictional visitor, by the way, is a composite of people I know, whose conversion to the Catholic faith I have either been an agent in or who I observed closely -- there is not a single convert I know who is not disappointed in the lived reality of parish life.
For example, one close friend, a woman who entered the Church at middle age in spite of the disapproval of her husband and three children wrote me, "At first I was somewhat amused that parishioners backed their cars into the parking spaces in order to make a quick 'get away.'"
Then she realized that was a symptom of a deeper problem, a lack of a felt community. When she realized that no one was welcoming members and visitors at the front doors, and the priest didn't ask if there were any visitors present, she volunteered to be a greeter, which she has done ever since, at a suburban parish outside of Atlanta, GA.
Her conversation with friends and acquaintances who are "fallen away" Catholics replicates my own: When asked why they left, they always site the sense of Christian community they now feel having joined a Protestant denomination -- "this is without exception."
She concludes, "We, as Catholics, are doing something wrong and should follow the example of our Protestant sisters and brothers. They honor Christ by dressing appropriately for church services, meet and greet all who enter to worship, make certain to follow up with visitors, and linger after services to enjoy fellowship with others....We can do better -- we 'need' to do better."
Another convert I know puts it more bluntly, "Catholics make it very hard to be Catholic." Her disappointment, like mine and that of my friend, is felt most sharply at the great feast days of Easter and Christmas when the pews will be full, but the combined voices offer no more volume to "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" or even a Christmas carol. I remember one Christmas when I realized I was the only one singing "Away in a Manger" in a Mass of over two hundred.
There are many reasons why Catholics don't sing -- Rev. Thomas Daly wrote an excellent book on the subject over twenty years ago -- but it was the late Cardinal Avery Dulles who gave me the most satisfying explanation over lunch many years ago.
"Catholics in the US, many of them European immigrants," Dulles told me, "viewed the Mass as something mysteriously set beyond them. Catholics attended Mass to witness a ritual being enacted in front of them on the altar -- they did not participate, they observed. There was nothing required of them except to be there, follow the rules, and fulfill their holy obligations."
Catholics, unlike Protestant Evangelicals, he explained, were at Mass because it was part of their ethnic and family identity, not because they had had life-changing experiences. Thus, it was natural for them not to view their faith as something to be shared. You were a Catholic by matter of birth, and your life as a Catholic was one part loyalty to your "tribe" and another part the sense of holy obligation instilled in you "by the nuns."
Perhaps this is why I have often gotten the question: "Why would you, or anyone, choose to be Catholic?" As if being Catholic was a burden to be shed, a burden that no rational person would voluntarily take upon himself.
I have heard this question, often asked in a tone of genuine consternation, even anger, and have wondered how it is possible the Christian faith could be imparted entirely in terms of obligation, not of a personal desire born of charity. For me, Cardinal Dulles had nailed it that day: "be there, follow the rules, and fulfill their holy obligations." That's far from the Church I had discovered, far from the Church Herself.
It's impossible, I believe, to practice your faith evangelically if your only message is obligation. Why? That's not Good News and it's not what Christ himself proclaimed.
Read once again Matthew 11:28-30:
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
This is the Christ who calls us to His Church, the One who reached down to us in our sin and guilt and lifts us up in His forgiveness, the One who draws us to Him by His love, by His sacrifice. This is the Christ whose Real Presence we celebrate.
Good News is what Jesus said (John 8:2-12) to the scribes and Pharisees when they brought him the woman caught in adultery whom they intended to stone: to the Pharisees he said, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first. And to the woman he said, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more."
Imagine this woman's exultation, her joy in Christ's forgiveness, her relief at being saved from the wrath of the righteous. Also imagine how much more likely it is that she would have started to love Christ, and because of this she was more likely to "sin no more."
Jesus had told her to start following the rules, but in the larger context of His love, His forgiveness, His acceptance. Jesus did not tell her to obey, He told her to follow Him, to seek Him, to love Him, and live in a way that flowed from all of that.
Our faith is a gift, not a threat. Our faith does not teach us to follow the rules and we "will be just fine." Our faith does not teach us to view the good life as a road burdened by the weight of dreary obligations. Our faith does not teach us to just get by, to be there, follow the rules, and keep the obligations. Our faith is not that of a tribe, into which we happen to be born. Our faith is not a list of minimum requirements that get us into heaven.
That kind of faith will never be Evangelical, will never appear attractive to the newcomer, and, most importantly, will never come close to representing the living tradition.
Pope Francis I, I believe, is trying to remind us of this too and being misunderstood in the process. Take his comment about being "obsessive" on the topics of abortion, marriage, and contraception. All he means is this: It's not the first thing you have to say to those outside the Church, or disagree with within the Church.
The reaction of "conservative Catholics" proved he was right -- too many good Catholics have become so "on the lookout" for signs of dissent on those issues that everything has become a smoke signal.
The same goes for Pope Francis' comments on atheism -- the Church has long recognized the possibility of baptism by the Holy Spirit. As for his comments on homosexuality, we should not be building walls between ourselves and those who we want to reach.
As Pope Francis puts it, the Church should see itself as a "field hospital after a battle." Why? Because people are broken, and our ministrations, not our condemnations will help to heal them. The Holy Father explains it further when he says, "The Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently..."
First we have to build a foundation of faith that reveals the unity and consistency of our teaching on abortion, marriage, and contraception. This is what Pope Francis I means when he warns that we are "losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
Remember his example of humility after the conclave. Pope Francis bowed to the people in St. Peter's Square and asked for our prayers. He knew what was waiting for him.....the suffering. It wasn't long in coming. It came when he called upon Catholics to have greater mercy for those who sin and those who lack belief.
(This text is taken from a speech delivered on September 21, 2013 at the Ave Maria Communications and Baraga Broadcasting Conference, "A Papal Challenge: Build the Church. Bless the Nation.")
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