Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Shrinking, Growing, and Smaller but Purer

Over at the Archdiocese of Washington blog, our friend Monsignor Charles Pope asks, "What of the 'Smaller but Purer' Vision of the Church?" This follows a prior post asking "What do we learn when an Archdiocese chooses to close more than half its parishes?"

It is indeed troubling to see a progressive process of people leaving the Church in favor of other venues or secularization and, of course, addressing that is part of what the New Evangelization is all about. But we should pay attention to the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in a talk he gave in 2000 to a group of catechists, where he warns against the temptation of impatience.
Yet another temptation lies hidden beneath this — the temptation of impatience, the temptation of immediately finding the great success, in finding large numbers. But this is not God’s way. For the Kingdom of God as well as for evangelization, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed is always valid (see Mark 4:31-32).

The Kingdom of God always starts anew under this sign. New evangelization cannot mean: immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods. No—this is not what new evangelization promises.

New evangelization means: never being satisfied with the fact that from the grain of mustard seed, the great tree of the Universal Church grew; never thinking that the fact that different birds may find place among its branches can suffice—rather, it means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow (Mark 4:26-29).
Yes, there is a temptation to look at things and panic at all the empty seats and the thought of "we could do so much more if more people contributed more money and time," etc.

It is a temptation we should overcome and realize that we don't have to do everything all by ourselves, we can let God do some of the work too. That doesn't mean our kicking back and not doing anything, making God do ALL the work, as all too often we might do, but it does mean, with respect to evangelization, re-evangelization, catechesis, etc., doing what Augustine suggested with respect to our own lives and grace -- do what you can, as much as you can, and then ask God for help (grace) to do the rest.

But aside from that, I suggest that it is also a matter of perspective. Without being overly optimistic with wishful thinking, we need to look at things with a broader and more precise view in how we "count the numbers." We might have more than we realize.

It is not a matter of the Church being composed of only those faithful sitting in the pews, with "the world" out there being filled fully with pagans and idol worshipers and nonbelievers and anti-believers. Rather, the outside world is, if not believing Christian, then it is a society that is Christianized -- both areas that seem to be post-Christian, where the Faith seems to have lost ground to secularism (such as Europe and the United States), and those areas which never had many professing Christians. In both of these areas, even if they no longer profess Christ, still they are imbued with Christian ideals, Christian ethics, a Christian worldview. Here in the United States, even many of the atheists are Christianized in that their values are implicitly Christian.

The fundamental ideas of good and evil, right and wrong, helping the sick and oppressed, a desire for social unity, the inherent dignity of the human person, peaceful harmony amongst people. One of those ideas is the idea of forgiveness and mercy, even in war, such that, instead of entire populations being wiped out in genocidal retaliation in war, humanity has survived. Without getting into the debate of the morality of dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we might even suggest that without Christian morality, the world would have erupted into planet-killing nuclear war long ago. All of these are Christian ideals, they are not universal ideals. Indeed, we need only go to some areas of the world to see where these concepts have been rejected.

So, notwithstanding the fact that it appears in many places that we have returned to pre-Christian Rome, a culture of hedonism and violence, the numbers may not necessarily be as bleak as they might seem. There may not be as many Mass-attending and parish-active Catholics (and that is a valid concern), but there are many out there in the world who nevertheless have the embers of Catholicism still glowing within them, and there are many others who, although non-Catholic or non-Christian, are yet Christianized with Christian ideals and ethics, a Christianity without Christ I suppose, and these even include not a few agnostics and atheists.

The question is -- How to reach them? How to bring them the rest of the way? How to appeal to them in words they will listen to and can understand? What is the right hook to use to catch them and reel them in? How to act in ways they find to be admirable and worthy of emulating?

"Be prepared in season and out of season," counsels Paul (2 Tim 4:2). OK, if direct evangelization is not in season, if people will not listen or are unable to understand even if they do hear, then perhaps we need to resort to "pre-evangelization" during this out-of-season time. If they will immediately reject and run-away at the mention of the words "God" or "Jesus" or "heaven" or "hell" or "sin," perhaps we need to speak to them in their own language, that language of the residual Catholicism/Christianity of those who have become secularized, and the language of those Christianized ideals and ethics of right and wrong, helping one another, etc.

We need to make use of these pre-existing elements and use them as a way to get in the door, rather than have the door slammed in our face. We need to be surreptitious, we need to go around their pre-built defenses against us and our message if we are to succeed. Speak of Jesus without words, and in the words we do use, let them come to know Him without using that particular word "Jesus" just yet. We need to prepare the soil by:

(1) Encouraging them in the search for truth, encourage them merely to seek truth (the mention of "Jesus" can wait for a bit here, after all, God Himself waited thousands of years to prepare people to receive Him), which is what St. Augustine went through. During that search, his mother Monica had asked a bishop to speak to him and set him straight, but the bishop refused to do so. At that point, Augustine was not ready, he was "unripe for instruction," and to speak to him then might have only pushed him further away. Instead, difficult as it was for Monica (and Augustine), he had to struggle a little bit more before he would be ready, before the iron was hot enough for striking.
(2) Encouraging them in love, explain and help them to understand what authentic true love is (where the longing for the other is directed toward, not selfish gratification, but toward a gift of self, again, without scaring them off with the mention of "Jesus" or "the Church"), rather than the counterfeit that so many know today, and how the real thing brings so much more joy than the transitory superficial counterfeit that leaves so many broken people behind.
(3) In love and truth, disabusing people of the many falsehoods and mischaracterizations of so many things. Protect and defend the truth as pertains to the inherent dignity of the human person, of the living humanity of the entity in the womb, respecting the inherent dignity of woman in her fertility as being the true pro-woman stance, rather than the true anti-woman stance which seeks to suppress and destroy that which is unique to woman.
(4) Be a light of Christ by allowing Him to shine through you in your actions, exposing people to Him even if you have not yet said His name. This was often the approach of Mother Teresa.

It is this kind of pre-evangelization of appealing to those pre-existing Christianized elements of right and wrong, justice, help for the downtrodden, etc., that might be necessary -- both for those who have never believed and those who stopped believing (or stopped practicing) in favor of secular, worldly things -- before we can succeed in the new evangelization. Again, God in Salvation History and Jesus during His ministry did exactly that, often drawing people in by revealing God without directly mentioning Him, and only later being more direct. We must get people to drop their defenses, to open up their ears and open up their hearts ("Ephphatha") before we can proclaim to them the Good News of Jesus Christ, and that what is even more hopeful and joyous and life-affirming than mere believing in those philosophical and ethical ideals is to fully embrace He who is Love and Truth in relationship with Him.

And, as part of this, it is essential to clear out the rocks and weeds in preparation of the soil, we need to correct the many misunderstandings and misconceptions about the Church and the Faith, that we are anti-woman, anti-gay, a bunch of child molesters, full of greed for money and power, that our history is nothing but gleefully torturing heretics and suppressing science by locking up Galileo, etc. I am convinced that many of the stumbling blocks, if not THE NUMBER ONE stumbling block to people embracing the Catholic Church and Faith is this false understanding that they have. As Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen famously said, "Not one hundred in the United States hate the Roman Catholic Church, but millions hate what they mistakenly think the Roman Catholic Church is."

Part of clearing away the rocks and weeds of misconception is to remember that we are in the business of joy, and not complaining and moaning about how bad this is or that is. We proclaim GOOD NEWS, GLAD TIDINGS, REJOICE. We must go about our service in a positive manner, not a negative one.

All too often were a drifted-away Catholic or a fallen-away Catholic, or a non-Catholic to see and read what Catholics themselves say about the Church, about how this is bad, that is bad, they would run away and never look back. And rightly so. Why would anyone want to revert or convert after reading such stuff?

If all that people ever hear, from the progressive side or from the traditional side, is how awful and lousy this aspect of the Church is or that aspect of it is -- or we present Church teachings unenthusiastically or with a wink-and-a-nod that signals that we disagree with them -- then we are essentially locking the front door and pushing people out the back door. And then we wonder where everyone is.

Now, none of this calling people back home with the Lord, or inviting them to meet Him in the first place, will be easy. It will be hard and arduous work. It is work that will take the rest of our lives. Finding the right hook and the right time to go fishing is a task that will require a more dynamic approach than we might have engaged in before. And because we are all different, it is not a one-size-fits-all program that will work, but a case-by-case, one-on-one approach. We must be like Paul discovered that he needed to be -- "become all things to all" (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Perhaps beginning with ourselves, renewing and re-evangelizing ourselves. But it is not the work of drudgery, even if at times frustrating, but is the work of joy and hope.

And if we do it the right way, if we begin the work with prayer, with asking God to help us and accompany us along the journey, it will be even more joyful and quite a bit fruitful. Because, as we should tell people after preparing them, after getting them to drop their defenses, that truth and love which they seek and desire and need are not merely nice ideas, Love and Truth are a reality, Love and Truth are a Living Being, such that we do not simply have to agree with or believe in them, we can allow ourselves to become one with Love, one with Truth, and thereby realize the fullness of our potential and attain that happy life, that life of beatitude which all people seek.

(cross-posted at the ADW blog site)

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