Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Rationalist and the Thresholds of Conversion

As Sherry has mentioned, we are gearing up for a special edition of the Making Disciples seminar for the archdiocese of Kansas City, KS and the diocese of Kansas City, MO - as well as our Colorado Springs Sunday evening - Thursday noon version July 26-30. As I was looking at e-mail in the library of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, where I'm giving a parish mission, I noticed a headline of the recent National Catholic Register titled, "From Atheist to Catholic: 'Unshakable' Rationalist Blogged Her Way into the Church." I thought it might be interesting to look it over to see if I might be able to identify any of the thresholds in her conversion story.

What an interesting experiment! While it's a short interview, there were some significant moments that bear mentioning. First of all, the interviewee, Jennifer Fulwiler, was a very intelligent young woman who grew up atheist and "was convinced that religion and reason were incompatible. Not surprisingly, she was also emphatically anti-Christian and, especially, anti-Catholic. 'Catholic beliefs seemed bizarre and weird.'"

The first threshold that someone like Jennifer has to cross is trust; normally, trust in a particular Christian. For her, that person was Joe Fulwiler (a non-practicing Baptist who later became her husband). She worked with him and got to know him and eventually began to date him. It wasn't until after she got to know him a bit that she found out he believed in God. Her description regarding how that effected her is important to note:
To me, belief in God was so unreasonable that, by definition, no reasonable person could believe in such a thing. I felt I could never be compatible with someone that unreasonable. Had I known that Joe believed in God, I would never have dated him.

interviewer: What was your reaction when you found out?

It gave me pause. Joe is too smart — brilliant, really, with degrees from Yale, Columbia and Stanford — to believe in something nonsensical. I also met many of his friends. They, too, are highly intelligent — some with M.D.s and Ph.D.s from schools like Harvard and Princeton — and believed.

None of this made me believe in God, of course, but I could no longer say that only unreasonable or unintelligent people believe.
I find it interesting that what she trusted was Joe's intelligence - not his faith; that would come much, much later. But this does point out that often effective evangelization is going to happen on the personal level and require a commitment to a real relationship over a long period of time (though not necessarily requiring marriage!)

I don't know how long she was at that threshold, but I suspect it was for awhile, because the next turning point in her conversion was triggered by a huge change in her life - the birth of her and Joe's first child.
I have always been a truth-seeker, which is why I was an atheist. But I had a prideful, arrogant way of approaching questions about life and meaning. I now realize that pride is the most effective way to block out God so that one doesn’t see him at all. Certainly, I didn’t.

The birth of our first child motivated me to seek the truth with humility. I can’t emphasize this point enough: Humility, true humility, is crucial to the conversion process.
Isn't it interesting that the story of the Fall involves the selection of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad (a semitic euphemism for "knowledge of everything") over obedience to God? Perhaps pride is, in a way, the first sin... But back to the story. Because Jennifer was intellectually oriented, the next threshold was particularly important. It is

And not just curiosity about the Church, or about the dogmas that Joe might have believed, but ultimately, curiosity about Jesus. Unfortunately, the interviewer didn't ask questions that could flesh out this threshold too much, but what Jennifer says is telling...
I had already begun thinking about the possibility of God’s existence.
I don't know if she was at the next threshold, OPENNESS, or not - there's not enough information in that statement. It may have been the beginnings of curiosity about Christianity.
After our son’s birth, I wanted to know the truth about life’s great questions — for his sake. For the first time, I was motivated to seek truth with true humility. For example, I began reading, studying, and thinking about the great minds. Most, if not the majority, believed in some other world, some higher power, a god or gods — something. Even the great pre-Christian thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates believed.

Another avenue of exploration: I always revered the great scientists, including the founders of the significant branches of science. Very few were atheists. Indeed, some of the greatest were profoundly believing Christians.

It could be argued this was because they were steeped in the Christian culture and beliefs of their times.

That ignores a larger question I began asking myself: Is it really likely that great minds like Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Descartes and others didn’t know how to ask tough questions? Do these people seem to be men who didn’t know how to question assumptions and fearlessly seek truth? Of course not.
It seems her intense curiosity and respect for the intelligence of the scientists she mentioned compounded to move her toward openness to the possibility of God's existence. But it sounds like she was at the threshold curiosity for awhile.
Was there ever an aha moment that finally made you abandon atheism?

Several, but one in particular actually shocked me.

I asked myself two questions: What is information? And: Can information ever come from a non-intelligent source?

It was a shocking moment for me because I had to confront the fact that DNA is information. If I remained an atheist, I would have to believe that all the intricate, detailed, complex information contained in DNA comes out of nowhere and nothing.

But I also knew that idea did not make sense. After all, I don’t look at billboards — which contain much simpler information than DNA — and think that wind and erosion created them. That wouldn’t be rational. Suddenly, I found that I was a very discomfited atheist.

Is that the point at which you began to believe in God?

No. But now I was a reluctant atheist.
I find the interviewer's comments and questions interesting. She seemed earlier to suggest that perhaps Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other believers might have been "cultural" Christians - and Jennifer presumed that they were too intelligent to simply believe without questioning. Then, the interviewer seems to hope that the discomfort Jennifer experienced over the apparent design of creation would lead immediately to belief. The story demonstrates the incredible patience required in personal evangelization. A kind of commitment that perhaps only a disciple - and a genuine, loving, friend - will be able to make.

Her story illustrates very well, I think, the transition from curiosity to OPENNESS
I had lots of questions but knew no one who might have answers: I had always consciously, deliberately distanced myself from believers. So, coming from the high-tech world, where did I go for answers? I put up a blog, of course! I started posting tough questions on my blog.

One matter stood out from the beginning: The best, most thoughtful responses came from Catholics. Incidentally, their answers were consistently better than the ones from atheists. It intrigued me that Catholics could handle anything I threw at them. Also, their responses reflected such an eminently reasonable worldview that I kept asking myself: How is it that Catholics have so much of this all figured out?
It's important to note that what happened here was Catholics weren't catechizing in a vacuum, but responding to the real questions that she had. The answers impressed her so much that she shared them with her Baptist husband, who was, in some ways, even more anti-Catholic (but ignorant of Catholicism) than she was. Both of them became intrigued and began to explore even more.

Unfortunately, the interview skips to the present, in which Jennifer speaks of her appreciation for community life within the Church - something she didn't experience as an atheist. It would be interesting to know how she crossed the thresholds of SEEKING (i.e., seeking a relationship with Christ and the Church) and the conversion that led to DISCIPLESHIP, which is expressed beautifully in this quote, “Conversion is the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his. Conversion to Christ involves making a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple.” National Directory for Catechesis, p. 47,48

If this idea of thresholds of pre-discipleship intrigues you, and you'd like to know more about them - and learning practical ways to help people like Jennifer respond to God's grace and move through them - consider attending Making Disciples in beautiful Colorado Springs!

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Muslim Conversions to Christianity

An interesting article appeared in Christianity Today online yesterday on the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. J. Dudley Woodberry is professor of Islamic studies at the School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and served in the Muslim world for many years.

Since a reader had posted a query as to why Roman Catholics were not participating in a meeting on evangelization of Muslims, I thought it would be good to print the bulk of this article. It demonstrates the variety of ways in which Muslims are being drawn to Christ. The same means are also true for other non-Christians who seek baptism. The most important reason is the one that most Catholics are comfortable with – the witness of a truly Christian life (now how many Catholics are living exemplary Christian lives that are powerful witness to the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is another topic altogether…). But the other ways in which God has been at work in the lives of Muslim converts to Christianity are startling: answered prayers, miraculous cures, dreams and visions, exorcism, and the power of the Gospel message of God's faithful love. Dissatisfaction with the way they experienced Islam, especially when it was enforced by the state, was another significant reason that Muslims turned away from their faith and embraced Christianity.

"So what attracts Muslims to follow Jesus? Between 1991 and 2007, about 750 Muslims who have decided to follow Christ filled out an extensive questionnaire on that basic question. The respondents—from 30 countries and 50 ethnic groups—represent every major region of the Muslim world. (Copies of the questionnaire are available from dudley@fuller.edu.) The participants ranked the relative importance of different influences and whether they occurred before, at the time of, or after their decision to follow Christ. While the survey, prepared at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies, does not claim scientific precision, it provides a glimpse into some of the key means the Spirit of God is using to open Muslim hearts to the gospel.

Seeing a lived faith
First, we can look at the experiences that most influenced Muslims. For example, respondents ranked the lifestyle of Christians as the most important influence in their decision to follow Christ. A North African former Sufi mystic noted with approval that there was no gap between the moral profession and the practice of Christians he saw. An Egyptian contrasted the love of a Christian group at an American university with the unloving treatment of Muslim students and faculty he encountered at a university in Medina. An Omani woman explained that Christians treat women as equals. Others noted loving Christian marriages. Some poor people said the expatriate Christian workers they knew had adopted, contrary to their expectations, a simple lifestyle, wearing local clothes and observing local customs of not eating pork, drinking alcohol, or touching those of the opposite sex. A Moroccan was even welcomed by his former Christian in-laws after he underwent a difficult divorce.

Many Muslims who faced violence at the hands of other Muslims did not see it in the Christians they knew (regrettably, of course, Christians have been guilty of interethnic strife elsewhere). Muslim-on-Muslim violence has led to considerable disillusionment for many Muslims, from those who survived the 1971 war between the Bengalis of East Pakistan and the Pathans, Sindis, and Punjabis of West Pakistan, to Arab and Berber tensions in North Africa, and to Arab herdsmen fighting black African farmers in Darfur.

The next most important influence was the power of God in answered prayers and healing. Like most of the factors that former Muslims list, experiences of God's supernatural intervention often increase after Muslims decide to follow Christ.
In North Africa, Muslim neighbors asked Christians to pray for a very sick daughter who then was healed. In Senegal, a Muslim marabout (spiritual leader) referred a patient to Christians when he was not able to bring healing. In Pakistan, after a pilgrimage to Mecca did not cure a disabled Shiite girl, she was healed following Christian prayer.

Closely related was the finding that some noted deliverance from demonic power as another reason they were attracted to Jesus. After all, he is the healing prophet in the Qur'an and has power over demons in the Gospels. In northern Nigeria, a malam (what some might call a witchdoctor) used sorcery against a man who was considering following Jesus. The seeker became insane, and his extended family left him. But then he prayed that Christ would free him, and he was healed.

It helps to note that a third of the 750-person sample were folk Muslims, with a characteristic concern for power and blessings. It is also worth noting that the Jesus portrayed in the Qur'an is a prophet who heals lepers and the blind and raises the dead. Not surprisingly, many Muslims find him attractive. Of course, power and blessings do not constitute the final word for Muslims. The Bible also offers a theology of suffering, and many Muslims who follow Christ find that their faith is strengthened through trials.

The third biggest influence listed by respondents was dissatisfaction with the type of Islam they had experienced. They expressed unhappiness with the Qur'an, which they perceive as emphasizing God's punishment more than his love (although the Qur'an says he loves those who love him [3:31]). As for Islam's requirement that liturgical prayer should be in Arabic, a Javanese man asked, "Doesn't an all-knowing God know Indonesian?" Others criticized folk Islam's use of amulets and praying at the graves of dead saints.

Some respondents decried Islamic militancy and the imposition of Islamic law, which they said is not able to transform hearts and society. This disillusionment is broad in the Muslim world. Many Iranians became interested in the gospel after the Khomeini revolution of 1979 brought in rule by clergy. Pakistanis became more receptive after President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) tried to implement Islamic law. And Afghans became more open after Islamist Taliban conquest and rule (1994-2001).

As with Paul and Cornelius in Acts, visions and dreams played a role in the conversion of many. More than one in four respondents, 27 percent, noted dreams and visions before their decision for Christ, 40 percent at the time of conversion, and 45 percent afterward. Many Muslims view dreams as links between the seen and unseen worlds, and pre-conversion visions and dreams often lead Muslims to consult a Christian or the Bible. Frequently a person in the vision, understood to be Jesus, radiates light or wears white (one respondent, though, said Jesus appeared in green, a color sometimes associated with Islamic holy persons). An Algerian woman had a vision that her Muslim grandmother came into her room and said, "Jesus is not dead; he is here." In Israel, an Arab dreamed that his deceased father said, "Follow the pastor. He will show you the right way." Other dreams and visions occurred later and provided encouragement during persecution. A Turkish woman in jail because of her conversion had a vision that she would be released, and she was. A vision of thousands of believers in the streets proclaiming their faith encouraged a young man in North Africa to persevere.

The message is the medium
Next in attraction for Muslims is the spiritual truth in the Bible. The Qur'an attests that the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel (commonly understood as the New Testament) are from God. Even though Muslims are generally taught that these writings became corrupted, they often find them compelling reading and discover truth that they conclude must be from God. The Bible helped one Egyptian understand "the true character of God." The Sermon on the Mount helped convince a Lebanese Muslim that he should follow the one who taught and exemplified these values.

Respondents were also attracted by the Bible's teaching about the love of God. In the Qur'an, although God loves those who love him, his love is conditional. He does not love those who reject faith (3:31-32). There is nothing in the Qur'an like, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10), or, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

A West African was surprised by God's love for all people, even enemies. Likewise, although the Qur'an denies that God is a father (37:152), many Muslims find this a comforting concept. Particularly attractive to Muslims is the love expressed through the life and teachings of Jesus. The Qur'an already calls him faultless (19:19). Many Muslims are attracted to him by his depiction in the Qur'an and then go to the Gospels to find out more. A Saudi was first drawn to him at a Christmas Eve service in Germany—even before he knew German. Like many, an Iranian Shiite was attracted to Christ before he was attracted to Christianity. A North African Sufi found Jesus' portrayal as the Good Shepherd particularly meaningful. When Christ's love transforms committed Christians into a loving community, many Muslims listed a desire to join such a fellowship as next in importance.

Subconscious influences
For the most part, respondents did not say that political or economic circumstances influenced their decisions. But it's hard not to notice that Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, and Algerians became more responsive after enduring Muslim political turmoil or attempts to impose Islamic law. Christian relief and development agencies try hard to guard against spiritually misusing their position as providers of desperately needed goods and services. But natural disasters in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Sahel region inevitably put Muslims in contact with Christians trying to follow Jesus. It is no surprise that some of these Muslims also choose to follow Christ.

In many places, apostasy [from Islam] is tantamount to rejecting family, religion, culture, ethnicity, and nationality. Thus, many Muslim converts face persecution from family, police, or militants. Two friends were unable to fill out the questionnaire—one because he was apparently poisoned by his own family, the other because the government imprisoned him and later his tongue was cut out by a warlord so that he could no longer say the name of Jesus.

But Muslim converts to Christ know that such persecution can, in a mysterious way, be part of the best of times. Jesus, in fact, said it was a blessing. That's because with or without persecution, Muslims are discovering an experiential truth unknown to them before. As a Zambian Muslim exclaimed, 'God loves me just as I am.'"


Monday, October 1, 2007

Meeting St. Therese of Lisieux

Just wanted to let you know that I have a piece up on Catholic Exchange today describing my encounter with St. Therese. Click the title of this post or go here and share your own stories in the comments.

How did you first meet St. Therese?

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Am I Evangelized?

In response to a previous post on John Allen's observation that the last two popes have had an evangelical focus, one former Evangelical Protestant (now Catholic), asked me the elements of Catholic evangelization. I responded with some key points from Pope Paul VI's 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) [linked in the title of this post]. What hit me as I re-read that great teaching on evangelization was the question, "Have I been fully evangelized?"

That may sound like a peculiar question for a priest to ask, but let me briefly summarize a few points that Paul VI made.

For starters, the Holy Father wrote, "It [evangelization] is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to
preach and teach,
to be the channel of the gift of grace,
to reconcile sinners with God, and
to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection." [14]

That much most Catholics would not take exception with, I'm guessing. It seems to be much of what happens within our parishes. But, Paul also pointed out,

"She [the Church after the Lord's ascension] remains as a sign—simultaneously obscure and luminous—of a new presence of Jesus, of His departure and of His permanent presence. She prolongs and continues Him. And it is above all His mission and His condition of being an evangelizer that she is called upon to continue. For the Christian community is never closed in upon itself." [15]

This is our challenge today, and always. Because our reaching out to the world is not simply to do good works, like establish hospitals and schools, run soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or work to promote good stewardship of the environment, or oppose abortion and promote child welfare. The Pope makes it clear that these good works must be intimately related to the proclamation of Jesus as Savior and Lord.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. What are the aspects of evangelization that Pope Paul VI said must be included in its description?

These elements are:
1. "bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new: 'Now I am making the whole of creation new.'" [18]

But this transformation begins with the conversion and baptism of individuals, and eventually, through them, changing the judgments, points of interest, and even the thought of society.

2. Evangelization happens through the personal witness of individuals whose lives simply don't make sense if God doesn't exist. We are to be a leaven in society - a leaven that isn't invisible, however, but that raises questions; "Why is this person or these people this way? What or who inspires them to live so differently?" Catholics often like to repeat a line (incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach always. Use words if necessary." Francis could have said something like that because his life WAS so different from the rest of society. His life choices raised all kinds of questions that he was able to address through words.

3. That's the third element - that witness cannot remain silent. It must include words! "The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed." [22]

4. A fourth element seems to be the actual RECEPTION of the word (and Word) proclaimed. Our words can't truly be called evangelizing if our listeners and observers are not also moved by the Spirit to embrace a radically new life.

5. A life transformed includes, then, the desire to share the "Good News" with others; to speak of our love for the Beloved. "Finally, the person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn." [24]

In summary, Pope Paul VI, said of evangelization:
"Evangelization... is a complex process made up of varied elements:
the renewal of humanity,
explicit proclamation,
inner adherence,
entry into the community,
acceptance of signs,
apostolic initiative.

These elements may appear to be contradictory, indeed mutually exclusive. In fact they are complementary and mutually enriching. Each one must always be seen in relationship with the others." [24] To leave any out or accentuate one element to the detriment of another is to "impoverish or even distort it."

Here's why I'm asking the question, "Have I been fully evangelized?" Have I embraced a radically new life?

Of course, my life looks superficially different from most people's. I belong to a religious community. I've embraced celibacy as a way of life and find it fulfilling. I am a priest. But if I look at the roots of who I am (radical comes from the Latin "radix", meaning root) am I radically different from my non-Christian neighbor? I live quite comfortably, enjoy the respect and friendship of others – so much so that I know my preaching of the Gospel has been compromised to protect that good will.

Have I accepted the word and given myself to the kingdom so that I bear witness to it and proclaim it in turn? I seldom seek to speak of my faith with others outside the parish environment, where such conversations would be accepted. In other words, I speak of Jesus pretty much only in my "official" capacity as priest, and not simply as another believer.

And that's a sign of a problem. I know that I talk to others about my closest friends and members of my family. I want to introduce people I love to others. Can I say that is true with respect to my relationship with Jesus? Do I want to introduce him to people who do not know him? Do I love others enough to want to introduce them to the One who loves them enough to offer his life for them? Have I experienced the Good News in such a way that it really is good news that MUST be shared with other people who have not heard it?

When I consider these questions, and compare my life to the saints who could answer these questions affirmatively, I have to conclude that my evangelization and conversion are not yet complete. Yes, conversion is a life-long process, but it must be an intentional process, as is evangelization, and as yet it is not receiving my fullest attention. With the grace of God and fervent petitioning of him on my part (and with your prayers) that will change.

But all this means we need to re-evaluate our parish life. Are they focused on the mission of evangelization, and the formation of lay Catholics who are intent on embodying Christ's love in the world and bringing the Gospel to others? Or are we content with "we've always done things this way"? The pamphlet "Mission or Maintenance," written by Sherry Weddell and Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, and sold on our website bookstore is a challenging look at how our parishes are meant to be.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

The Hounds of Heaven

I've linked in the title to David Ian Miller's interview of Brother Christopher, 52, the head of the New Skete dog-training program and a monk since 1981. While the story's predominantly about the dog training program the monks founded, one section caught my eye - a passage about Br. Christopher's conversion. Here it is:

Br. Christopher: I majored in international affairs in college but became more and more fascinated with religion. One of the books I read at that time was "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton. That book really spoke to me personally. It told a story that I could identify with, about a young man finding himself and wanting to make his life as meaningful a response to God as he could.

Miller: So you weren't always religious?

Br. Christopher: I was nominally Catholic. Church wasn't really that meaningful for me when I was younger. It was something that I was obliged to do. It wasn't until I got into college that I started asking much more serious questions, and I went through a personal conversion that helped me to see the importance of spirituality in my life.

Miller: What sort of conversion?

Br. Christopher: I was in Europe at the time -- after my freshman year in college. I was planning to go on a year abroad program to Tunisia during my sophomore year. I was right where everyone said I was supposed to be from a professional point of view. I had plenty of opportunities, I was meeting a lot of fascinating people and I was in a program where I could basically set myself up for a career in the Foreign Service. Yet inwardly I was just incredibly empty and basically unhappy.

Miller: What happened?

Br. Christopher: I think that the more I lived with that, the more it caused me to humbly say this isn't much of a life, living without any kind of meaning, without any kind of values -- personal values that are grounded in something transcendent, and so it was just a very humble prayer: "God, if you exist, I can't believe in a myth. Please meet me at this level." And it happened in just a very remarkable way, where, all of a sudden, I just realized that God reached out to me. It was something that I couldn't deny or doubt, and it left me with sort of a peace that has been a part of my life certainly ever since.

This is a pretty common pattern among conversions. Something happens to upset our "business as usual" attitude. It could be the loss of a job or a girlfriend or boyfriend, a divorce, serious illness (think St. Francis or St. Ignatius of Loyola), or a move. People who "hit bottom" with drug addiction or alcoholism, or whose criminal behavior catches up to them and lands them in jail. All of these are what's known as "liminal space." Br. Christopher was immersed in a foreign culture.

The difficulty is, so much of our behavior is bent on keeping us from experiencing these liminal states. We work hard to keep our job, our health, our relationships intact, and often are fairly successful in doing so. And these are good things, don't get me wrong. But when they are stripped from us, we often begin to ask deeper questions about meaning and purpose, and these can often point us towards God.

The challenge for the Church today - and always - is discovering a way to invite Catholics to invite the Lord to enter our lives fully, as Brother Christopher did in his young adulthood. What's preventing us from asking the Lord TODAY, "Meet me here, as I am, today, Lord. I want to know you, love you, follow you. Help my unbelief!"?


Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Church's mission is....what?

Yesterday I spent a few hours with the Kenedy directory of the Catholic Church in America, which lists the various departments, agencies, parishes, and basic administration of each diocese in the U.S. I was looking for the names and addresses of the directors of evangelization for the dioceses in and around Colorado and Maryland, the sites of Making Disciples this summer and autumn. I figured we should send a few brochures to these folks who might be very interested in what we're discussing in the workshop.

Imagine my surprise to find that most of the dioceses I looked at did not have a director of evangelization. In some cases I ended up putting down someone who's in charge of RCIA for the diocese, or adult faith formation, or the director of catechesis. Why was I surprised? Because Paul VI made it clear that our primary purpose as a Church is evangelization!

"We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. …evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize…For the Christian community is never closed in upon itself…. Thus it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole." (Paul VI, “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” par. 14-15)

I was talking with Fr. Paul, the pastor of Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, this morning about my surprise, and he had his own observations. He told me that at a clergy meeting not too long ago, he had reported a little about what his parish is doing to reach out to the local community. He said there are 40,000 people living within the parish boundaries, with 2500 families (about 7,000 people) registered. The parish has identified about 1800 inactive Catholics and discovered that 72% of the people living in one zipcode in their boundaries are unchurched. 5700 new residents moved into their parish in the last year.

He told the clergy that as a result of a series of parish meetings during Lent they had decided to hold an open house on the feast of Corpus Christi and had sent postcard invitations to the 5700 new residents. 1500 door hangers inviting people to the parish fall festival will be placed on the homes within the zip code in which 72% of the folks are unchurched.

The parish staff is committed to form the members of its 70+ ministries into intentional disciples (whom Fr. Paul calls "employees of Christ.") They are committed to mobilizing all the registered parishioners to "deploy" them into their neighborhoods, workplaces and families where they can give explicit witness to their faith - even to the point of using words!

Last year the parish welcomed 70+ new Catholics at the Easter Vigil.

The response of some of the clergy?

"Why do you want more parishioners? You already have the largest parish in the diocese?"

I can sympathize with the priest who asked that question. As long as you think of the parish as a place where spiritual needs are met, rather than as a place of formation for intentional disciples who live their faith in a conscious way throughout their week, and who put their discipleship into practice through works of service and evangelization within the secular community, "more parishioners" means just more work.

But more Catholics who have a living relationship of love and obedience to Christ means the Church's mission is more likely to be realized. We talk about those we love. We imitate those we admire. And the way we give glory to God is through our worship on Sunday at Mass - and through our worship as we follow his commandments and apply our faith 24/7 Monday through Saturday.

The Church's mission is to proclaim Christ to the world. But I bet your parish priest has not had a course on evangelization. I bet your local seminary doesn't offer a course on it, either. And if you asked about it, the rector would probably say something like, "well, it's woven into different classes we offer."

Perhaps if we took our mission seriously, we'd weave all of our seminary courses into the overall purpose of the Church!

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Contemporary Signs and Wonders

In preparation for our new seminar, "Making Disciples," Sherry and I have been studying the kerygma - the basic Gospel message preached by Jesus, and then by the apostles. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God (and is that Kingdom in flesh and blood) and that the apostles preached Jesus Christ crucified, died, risen and ascended. With all the reports about signs and wonders becoming more and more a part of the expectations of Latin American Christians (both Protestant and Catholic), I found the beginning of the description of the kerygma in the New Catholic Encyclopedia quite challenging.

The article on Kerygma begins, "the solemn and public proclamation of salvation in Christ made in the name of God to non-Christians; it was accompanied by an appeal to signs and wonders to dispose the hearers to faith, conversion, and a return to God."

What's interesting to me, is that the sentence is in the past tense! Perhaps it is an unspoken expectation on the part of many Catholics that God does not work through signs and wonders anymore. Until recently I would say I fit in that category. And some might reasonably say it is "a faithless generation that asks for a sign." (Mt 12:39; 16:4)

Yet as I study the charisms of the Holy Spirit given to the baptized, I realize that it is ordinary for God to work through us so that his power and providential care reaches them, and that extraordinary - really supernatural - things happen. A lonely person receives the hospitality of a Christian and is no longer lonely. Someone suffering in a hospital bed receives mercy from a nurse or physician and not only is their suffering reduced, but they experience their human dignity restored. A young child is encouraged by a one-on-one interaction with their teacher and suddenly have confidence in their ability to learn and succeed in the classroom. Moments like these won't make the headlines of our newspapers, and may even escape our attention unless we begin to look for them. Because some of them may be opportunities to share our faith, particularly if the person asks us, "why are you doing this?"

The work of Mother Teresa and her sisters continues to be a sign and a wonder. So, too, the pro-bono work of a Catholic lawyer for a poor defendant, or the willingness of a pro-life family to open their home to one or more orphans or foster children.

In the Gospel of Luke (11:32), when Jesus is asked for a sign, he says no sign will be given but the sign of Jonah, and goes on to speak about the sign of Jonah as the repentance of the entire wicked city of Ninevah. I would not doubt that one of the greatest signs and sources of wonder for non-Christians is a life transformed by grace. Seeing someone radically change; move from darkness to light, from death to life may be one of the most powerful ways in which God opens up the hearts and minds of non-believers.

In fact, it is in witnessing just such a conversion that has opened me to the effectiveness of "signs and wonders" in the proclamation of the Gospel.

It may be an act of faithlessness to demand a sign as a prerequisite for my belief.

It may also be an act of faithfullness to expect God to use a sign to generate curiosity in and openness to the Gospel.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

MORE on Evangelization

I made a long comment on Amy Welborn's blog, Open Book, where another discussion rages about intentional discipleship, evangelization, and the personal relationship to Jesus. A lot of Catholics in the blogosphere are passionate about the Church, Jesus, the Sacraments, evangelization, RCIA, which is a hopeful sign. Too often, though, we end up sniping at one another in a most unchristian manner. Sometimes, it's because we can't agree on what to do first. I spent too much time on this to not post it here, too. I include a picture of St. Dominic Here goes...

I hope this comment allows all of us who are passionate about Christ and His Church to make some important distinctions which can be forgotten when we talk about evangelization, sacramental preparation, and discussions about the disposition of an individual with regard to the reception of sacraments.

There seems to be some disagreement about the nature and interrelationship between evangelization, proclamation and catechesis. Some argue the importance of catechetical content, others emphasize the importance of personal conversion to Christ, and so on.

All of these are important, but each has a particular role and place in the process of bringing someone into the fullness of relationship with Christ and His Church as it can be experienced in our earhtly life.

The National Directory for Catechesis recognizes that individuals fall into different categories with regard to what they need from the Christian community or the individual Catholic Christian.

Some people are in need of Pre-evangelization, i.e., preparation for the first proclamation of the Gospel. These include “non-believers, the indifferent.” The indifferent, I believe, can sometimes include people in our parishes. Pre-evangelization indicates that there are some obstacles that may need to be overcome before someone is capable of hearing and receiving the gospel. Sometimes that can be as simple as needing to trust a particular Catholic person who seems to genuinely care about me.

"Sharing the Light of Faith" (the old National Catechetical Directory) expresses this beautifully:

"Catechesis presupposes prior pre-evangelization and evangelization. These are likely to be most successful when they build on basic human needs - for security, affection, acceptance, growth, and intellectual development - showing how these include a need, a hunger, for God and His Word.

Often, however, catechesis is directed to individuals and communities who, in fact, have not experienced pre-evangelization and evangelization, and have not made acts of faith corresponding to those stages. Taking people as they are, catechesis attempts to dispose them to respond to the message of revelation in an authentic, personal way.

There is a great need in the United States today (1978!!) to prepare the ground for the gospel message. Many people have no religious affiliation. Many others have not committed their lives to Christ and His Church, even though they are church members. Radical questioning of values, rapid social change, pluralism, cultural influences, and population mobility - these and other factors underline the need for pre-evangelization." (Nat'l Catechetical Directory for the U.S., 1978, #34)

Once we have established some kind of relationship and have dealt with issues that might prevent the acceptance of the Gospel (which might be personal or philosophical), and individual is prepared for the initial announcement of the Gospel. This can include a wide variety of people: “Non-believers, those who have chosen not to believe, those who follow other religions, children of Christians, those who may have been baptized but have little or no awareness of their Baptism and . . . live on the margins of Christian life.” (Nat'l Directory for Catechesis, 2005, #49

Notice that proclamation is of the Gospel, which is about Christ! The intent is to foster the individual's relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior, which necessarily calls for personal conversion that is indicated by a change in one's life. This is the focus of the inquiry and precatechumenate stages of RCIA. If the RCIA process is to be a model for adult faith formation in this country, as the U.S. bishops suggested in Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, we cannot afford to ignore the question of whether or not an individual has committed their life to Christ. A judgment has to be made by each one of us whether or not this is true.

AFTER initial faith and conversion, one is ready for initiatory catechesis that introduces the life of faith, the Liturgy, and charity. According to the National Catechetical Directory, this is appropriate for “Catechumens, those who are coming to the Catholic faith from another Christian tradition, Catholics who need to complete their initiation, children and the young.” (49) But always, personal conversion is presumed in these individuals. If it has not happened, they are not ready to receive the fullness of the truth the Church has to offer because they have not received Him Who is the Truth.

The teaching of the Church regarding evangelization, catechesis and proclamation is beautiful, scriptural, practical, recognizes the essential role for grace - and remains to be put into effective practice in many of our parishes and in most of our lives. It requires patience, prayer, good people skills, grace, a lived relationship with Christ and His Church, time, attentiveness to others, selfless love. It wouldn't hurt if the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control (attributes that sometimes are lacking in Catholic blogs) were clearly to be found in us who would bring others to Christ and His Church.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Could the Gospel of John be evangelical?

While preparing last night to preach this morning, I looked at the "New Testament Message" commentary on the Gospel of John by James McPolin, S.J. At the conclusion of his commentary on the encounter in the third chapter of John between Jesus and Nicodemus, McPolin added a section titled, "The Gospel of Belief" which I found quite interesting. I'll share a bit of it with you.

"Faith is the key theme not only of Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus and the rest of the chapter but also every chapter in the gospel is about faith, from beginning (1:9-13) to end (20:30-31). Therefore it has been rightly called the gospel of belief. Still, not once does the abstract word "faith" occur in the gospel because there is only the personal activity of believing which is almost exclusively directed towards the person of Jesus. One may believe something about Jesus, for example, that he is Messiah and Son of God (20:30-31) or give credence to him by accepting as true what he says (2:22). But the element of personal commitment to Jesus is expressed in the most frequent phrase: "believing into" Jesus: "He who believes in (to) me has eternal life" (6:47; 3:18)

This "believing in (to)" Jesus goes far beyond accepting his message for it is a movement towards the person of Jesus, an attachment to him as the promised one and Son of God in such a way that the believer appropriates the very life of Jesus. Thus faith means to enjoy a life-giving relationship with him and to give oneself to Christ in dedication and full confidence.... Furthermore, believing in Jesus leads to "knowing" him; but this knowledge extends beyond the understanding of faith (6:69) and includes the experience of the person of Jesus in understanding and love, and a fellowship and communion of life with him (17:3)..."

Yesterday on Fr. Dwight Longenecker's blog, "Standing on My Head," he mentioned that he had been a speaker at the Evangelical Catholic Institute at which Sherry also spoke. He received several comments from people who were skeptical about EC - one, who was very concerned about orthodox belief, even went so far as to claim there was nothing on their website even remotely Catholic. But here's a quick quote from EC's welcome page:

"Jesus' ministry represented a continual invitation to a life of purpose and abundance that is discovered through communion with God, fellowship with His people, and mission to the world.

The Evangelical Catholic extends this same invitation, welcoming you to experience the profound love of God and to reflect that love in relationship. This transformational experience serves as the foundation and wellspring of our ministry, our deepest calling, and the very mission of the Church universal-calling people to interior conversion in Christ, helping people to grow in their faith, discerning and sharing our personal gifts in his Body, and transforming society by the power of the gospel."

I find it disturbing that a Catholic might read this and suspect that somehow it's creeping Protestantism.

We are hearing from the Gospel of John throughout this Easter season. Is our Catholic culture such that we don't recognize the call - the demand - for personal conversion and relationship to Jesus? How can I participate "fully, actively, and consciously" in the Mass if I'm not consciously seeking transformation in the encounter with Christ's body, blood, soul and divinity? How effective is the grace poured out upon me in any of the sacraments if I'm not willing to allow Christ to prune all that is unfruitful and un-Christlike from me? Can we say with St. Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me" (Gal 2:19b-20a)? How can I participate fully in the Mass if I'm not willing to offer myself in loving obedience to the Father with Jesus in his one, perfect sacrifice?

The assent to doctrine alone does not constitute a saving faith. Orthodoxy is necessary, but right doctrine alone does not save us. Otherwise, the Pharisees wouldn't have come under Jesus' critique. The Council of Trent, in chapter 7 on justification, says, "For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless..." Faith informed by love of God and neighbor, made joyful by the hope of salvation that is ours in Christ is a living faith - a faith that transforms our lives. It is a faith that is, at its foundation, a relation with Jesus.

Is the Gospel of John evangelical? Of course! The word evangelical comes from the Greek for "Good News!" And, of course, it's Catholic. After all, we included it in the canon of inspired texts!

Let's hear the call to become Beloved Disciples of Jesus that is contained on each page. Moreover, let's respond to that call.

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Do you believe?


Acts 10:34a, 37-43
I Cor 5:6b-8
Gospel_Jn 20:1-9

The Catholic scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, observed that the Gospel of John is a story of encounters of individuals with Jesus. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the woman at the well in Samaria, the cripple at the pool of Bethesda, a woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, even Pilate. Each of them encounters the light that has come into the world, and each of them judges themselves based on their response to the encounter with that light: do they move away, or do they continue to come toward the light.

In this enigmatic Gospel from John we have three individuals now confronted with the empty tomb, and we are presented with two reactions. Mary Magdalene, the one person present at the tomb in all four Gospel accounts, comes in darkness mourning her dead Lord and discovers his tomb open. Without even looking inside, her response is to presume that some of Jesus' many enemies have stolen his body.

Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb. The beloved disciple sees the burial cloths there, and the cloth that covered Jesus' head rolled up in a separate place and believes.


Was it simply because of his love for the Lord?
Was it because grave robbers wouldn't have stopped to unwrap the corpse of Jesus?
Was it because he remembered that when Lazarus was raised he had come out still bound by his burial cloths – a sign that he would still need them someday, while Jesus would never need his again?
Was it because of grace?

Perhaps it was all of these, or something else. We don't know.
The evangelist simply tells us that the beloved disciple believed Jesus was raised from the dead not because of an appearance of the resurrected Lord, but because of the empty tomb!

What's Peter's response?
We don't know exactly from the text; one could argue he did not believe or he did based on what's said and not said, but the answer isn't nearly as important as the question, "what's his response?"
Because the text raises a question that is addressed to each one of us, "what's YOUR response?"

When we believe something to be true or not, it effects our behavior.
If I believe the weatherman's report of thunderstorms, I take my umbrella to work.
A woman who doesn't believe her husband's claim to work late day after day hires a P.I. to investigate.
What is your response to the empty tomb?

What is your response to Peter's claim that "everyone who believes in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins through his name"?

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his family and friends, listened to Peter's summary of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that Peter could see no reason why they shouldn't be baptized.
They became intentional disciples of Jesus.

Paul, whose own life dramatically changed after his encounter with the risen Lord, reinterprets the Jewish Passover, which celebrated an escape from slavery to new life, new freedom, in light of the resurrection of Jesus.
He told them their lives must change as a consequence of their belief.
He tells us, "let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

Shouldn't the belief that Jesus has been raised from the dead change our lives?
Shouldn't the belief that our sins were nailed to the cross and left there generate a response of gratitude?
Shouldn't the resurrection of Jesus be the Father's validation of the truth of all that Jesus said?
And doesn't that mean, then, that we have to take all of Jesus' words with deadly seriousness?
Doesn't the empty tomb mean, then, that we really must love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, comfort the dying, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, forgive 70 x 7 times and not ask, "does this person deserve to be loved, prayed for, comforted, fed, clothed, visited, forgiven?"
We can't ask that question, because Jesus never asked it.

Doesn't belief in Jesus' resurrection change everything?
It did for the beloved disciple, and eventually for Mary Magdalene, Peter, and a host of others whom we'll hear about during this Easter season.

So if our lives aren't changed, really radically changed, like theirs, what then, do we really believe?


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Happy Lent!

A man has become successful in his business at the expense of the relationships with his wife and children. One day he realizes this and on the way home he buys his wife some flowers and prepares a little speech. As soon as he crosses the threshold of the house, he offers his wife the flowers and says, "Honey, I've neglected you far too long." Her heart soars because she's been praying for this day. He continues, "I'm going to give up coffee for the next six weeks or so, and then start drinking it again."


At the beginning of every Lent, I hear people talk about what they've given up for Lent: coffee, chocolate, their favorite TV show, etc. When I ask if they've given them up for good, they look at my like I'm nuts. Lent has become a season in which lots of Catholics think we're supposed to suffer. The logic is, I guess, "since Christ suffered for me, I'm going to suffer a little for/with Him."

Unfortunately, I think that misses the point. It makes us the focus, rather than our Divine Lover. Lent is to be a season in which we "reform our lives" with the help of God's grace, and consciously do something to renew our relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. So if coffee is somehow interfering with my relationship with God, then by all means, I could give it up. Perhaps I spend $30 a week that I could give to the poor and spend the ten minutes each morning I'd be in the Starbucks line in prayer in my home instead. But why would I renew my Starbucks addiction on Easter Sunday?

This Lent, why don't we carefully rethink what we're going to do as a discipline. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are all meant to shift our focus from us to others, including Our Lord. Turning away from sin and selfishness may very well cause some initial suffering, but that actually changes as the new behavior becomes a habit. So consider carefully what you're going to do (or no longer do) this Lent. Is your new behaviour helping you draw closer to God and other people? Is it something that is addressing a vice you have, or an activity that is helping develop a virtue. Then it's a worthwhile discipline, and should be something that becomes a part of the rest of our life, not just the rest of Lent.

God bless you!


Saturday, February 3, 2007

Totalitarian Faith Enfleshed

Br. Matthew's post made me think of an example of "totalitarian faith" as expressed in a particular person's life. Would that it were my own... Nevertheless, here's an example.

About two years ago, I met a young adult male, then 33 years old, who I'll call Adam. Just six months previous to my meeting him, he had undergone a huge conversion that had radically changed his life. He had quit drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, swearing, and was attending daily Mass, praying throughout the day, reading scripture and studying the catechism. All of this was due to an encounter with the love of Christ, which itself was an answer to five years of graced prayer in which he asked to know that love. I don't know that I've ever seen someone so beautifully changed by Christ.

But I was a little unsettled in some of our early conversations. I had learned to be wary of the enthusiasm of new converts. They want to do all kinds of crazy things, like enter religious life or the seminary – so we require them to live their faith for a few years before doing something precipitous. His enthusiasm was wonderful, but I wanted Adam to be prepared for the fact that this fervor wasn’t going to last. One evening while we were sitting at the kitchen table, I gently tried to warn him to be prepared for his spiritual intensity to wane. I likened it to the infatuation we have when we first start dating someone. Adam responded indignantly: “Why should my love for Jesus simmer down? I don't want it to. I don't ever want to forget what God has done for me. I don't want to go back. I don't want to lose God."

I was struck silent. I didn't have an answer. What I had just witnessed was the virtue known as "the fear of the Lord." Not a fear that God would punish, but a fear of losing a relationship with Him.

So I began to re-read some of St. Paul's letters. I figured Adam's experience was like Saul's encounter on the road to Damascus. I read St. Paul saying to the Ephesians, "you must lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking." (Eph 4:22-23a)

And "May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, and may charity be the root and foundation of your life. Thus you will be able to grasp fully, with all the holy ones, the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love, and experience this love which surpasses all knowledge, so that you may attain to the fullness of God himself." (Eph. 3:17-19) Both of those quotes sounded like Adam's experience.

I asked myself, "Had Paul's love for Christ, initiated on that lonely stretch of road, 'simmered down?'" He boasted that, "five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one; three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperiled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fastings, in cold and nakedness. Leaving other sufferings unmentioned, there is that daily tension pressing on me, my anxiety for all the churches." (2 Cor. 11:24-28)

Of course, we know Paul eventually could add imprisonment and beheading for his faith in Jesus to his list of trials. No, rather than "simmering down," that relationship with Christ only grew stronger through the years, as any good relationship does.

Then I read Galatians, and came across these words, "I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal 2:19b-20)

What had always sounded like an exaggeration was what I was witnessing in Adam. He'd practically said as much. I was ashamed to realize that my own love for Jesus – a love that had led me to give my life as a religious - had waned. I had lost what passion I had had for Christ. I had taken back the life I'd once offered. And I had taken that loss of zeal as normative.

Now when I think of intentional discipleship, I often think of Adam, and how Christ has changed (and continues to change) his life. Is it too much for us to hope to know something of the love of Christ in this lifetime? Are we willing to take the Gospel seriously enough to allow it to challenge our "common sense" and even change us? Are we willing to cooperate with God's grace to love each person we meet as though Christ were standing before us? Are we afraid of no longer "fitting in" with our families and friends if we our faith, expressed as a relationship with Christ and His Body, becomes the center of our life?

I find myself shaking my head as I read the Scriptures these days, because it seems clear to me that Adam's behavior is much closer to what Christ asks of us than my behavior. Jesus teaches a crowd and his disciples, "Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will preserve it." (Mk 8:35) It would seem that only one who is prepared and willing to risk all for Jesus and for the gospel will truly become himself or herself. It would seem that if we are to know Jesus intimately, we have to answer his call. Certainly my friend Adam has learned a lot about Christ in a short time because he tries to take Jesus at His word, and tries to cooperate with God's grace in order to live according to that word.

Adam's not afraid to speak of what Christ has done for him, and his words are supported by his actions. Both have evangelized me, so that I am seeking a renewed relationship with my Lord.

Is it possible that our expectations of what it means to live as a Catholic Christian are set too low – especially for ourselves?

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Introducing myself

I'm "the other" Sherry, i.e. not Sherry W. At her urging, I herewith introduce myself.

I am a history professor's wife and homeschooling mother of 3 girls. My husband and I entered the Church together a year after we were married; we were both from an evangelical background. We've been friends of Sherry W. for 16 years, and been co-conspirators of sorts in the development of the Catherine of Siena Institute and other efforts to nurture the apostolic awakening and formation of lay Catholics. I've taught the Called and Gifted worshop, and conducted gifts discernment interviews with around 200 people in person and on the phone over the past several years. I'm part of a group of folks in the two parishes here in my small Appalachian Ohio town that is working toward implementing the Church's guidelines on formation that are given in the new Directory for Catechesis.

In the church I was raised in, you couldn't sit through a single church service without hearing a basic version of the kerygma, and being invited to visibly respond to it. I can't remember not knowing that God loved me; that sin separated me from God; that Jesus died and rose again so that my (and humanity's) sins could be forgiven and I (and humanity) could live a joyful-though-not-easy relationship of intimacy with God that would last forever; that saying Yes to God's invitation (and receiving Baptism) would make me a child of God, heir of heaven, and co-worker with God to spread that message to every single human being. I took my time with saying "yes"; I was baptized at sixteen. But I knew what was at stake in that "yes".

What I found in the Catholic Church built upon and fulfilled that foundation in many unexpected ways. I deeply love the Church's teaching, history, and life.

Now I am raising children in a parish culture where that proclamation is not ever-present in the way it was for me, though Jesus is Here, and my children know that. That proclamation is not easy to hear in my parish -- and it is not a bad parish by any means. The Mass, and the Church's devotional life, assume it -- but the generation I am raising (and every other generation) needs to hear it proclaimed.

I want my children to be fully Christian, fully Catholic, to discover and live their vocations to the full -- and to help that happen it seems that I have to be part of changing the world, and to change the world, I have to be part of making all that beautiful teaching of the Church live. So be it. I am utterly inadequate to the task, but He delights in using the inadequate to do remarkable things.

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Some thoughts on justifying faith

I sometimes wonder if people who stumble across our blog might wonder just how Catholic it is with all the talk about intentional discipleship and the personal relationship with Jesus. That language often invites rejection from Catholics who fear a "me and Jesus" stance towards faith that disregards the importance of community. I would propose the contrary. Intentional discipleship impels us towards community.

In the 16th century, when the Reformers cried, "justification by faith alone," the bishops at the Council of Trent decreed that only faith that is active in charity and good works (fides formata, i.e., "well-formed faith") possesses any power to justify us (Gal 5:6, 1Cor 13:2). This well-formed faith, which is our response to grace, is what Sherry and I are calling intentional discipleship. The teaching of Trent stated that a faith lacking in charity and good works is dead in the eyes of God and insufficient for justification (James 2:17).

The Church's teaching tells us that the faith which justifies the believer begins with a firm belief in what God has revealed and is intimately linked with a conversion of heart and a desire to live a new life. That new life is characterized by love for others and contrition for one's sins and the adult to seek baptism – or, if already baptized – confession. Both of those aspects of a new life require me to have a regard for and participation in community. Real love is not just a sentiment, but a desire for the good of others that leads to action. Contrition for sin requires that I examine my relationship with others and begin to see how I have harmed them by both actions and the lack of action. Intentional discipleship is anything but, "me and Jesus."

So what does it mean, then, that the lines for confession are so short these days? I suggest it's not just that we've lost a sense of sin, which is definitely a part of the problem. But we've also lost our sense of honest self-awareness as well as a sense of adventure! We may well have also lost the communal aspect of being a person of faith as well. We're complacent and self-satisfied with the way things are – particularly the way WE are - and aren't ready for the radical change to which God invites us.

An article appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette January 2 that caught my attention. It was entitled, "You're Not That Hot," and reported that researchers have discovered again and again that many people systematically misjudge their competence, virtues, relevance and future actions. We consider ourselves to be smarter, luckier, better looking and more important than we really are. Might as well add "more moral" to that list.

Until we begin to emphasize that faith is the beginning of God's work of transforming us, calling us to a new life, life in its fullness, we will not only see short lines for confession, we'll find a dearth of intentional disciples. The Gospels relate how Peter, Andrew, James and John abandoned their lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. They were literally willing to "live without nets." That's what we must be willing to do, too. By "living without nets" I mean not only the willingness to change careers, if necessary, as those fishermen did, but to live without relying upon the "common sense" attitudes our culture teaches us and our egos crave. We must be willing to abandon ourselves to the teaching of Jesus that remains so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive: loving our enemies; loving our neighbor NOT as we love ourselves, but as Christ has loved us (Jn 13:34); imitating Him who came "to serve, not to be served" (Mt 20:28); forgiving those who offend us. This is not "me and Jesus" faith.

Of course, we cannot do this on our own, but only in cooperation with God's grace. We cannot do this without the support of a rich sacramental life in which we encounter Christ's presence among us. We cannot do this well without the support of other intentional disciples who are on the same difficult, yet joyful journey. Finally, we cannot do this if our lives are not saturated with prayer, including the quiet prayer of contemplation in which we present ourselves to God as we truly are: needy, poor children who depend upon our Father for everything. All of these are integral to the formation of a well-formed, justifying faith.

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Monday, January 8, 2007

Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?

When I first arrived in Colorado Springs, Sherry told me it is sometimes referred to as "the Evangelical Vatican." Driving around town, I couldn't help notice all the churches on streetcorners and malls. They range in size from megachurches like "New Life" with 15,000 members to tiny ma and pa housechurches that might become megachurches in 20 years.

I even went on a fieldtrip to New Life one Sunday after Mass with Sherry to see what it was like (that might be another blog post someday!) Apparently, many of the members of these churches are former Catholics and Catholics who "double-dip," going to Mass sometimes and to the Evangelical church on other weekends.

In the December 2006 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fr. Gerald Mendoza, OP, of the Southern U.S. Dominican Province has an article entitled, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" that I'd like to comment upon. But first, a brief synopsis of his points.

Fr. Mendoza comments on the millions of Hispanic Catholics who are leaving Catholicism for Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. According to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua, Nicaragua, the number of Protestants in Latin America has grown from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985. Only 15% of Latin American Catholics actively practice their faith, and if the trend present between 1960 – 1985 hold, fully one third of Latin America will be Protestant (mostly Evangelical) by 2010. In our own country, anecdotal evidence indicates that 30% of the 35 million Evangelicals are former Catholics. Sherry has told me of "seeker-friendly" megachurches like Bill Hybel's Willow Creek in Chicago that have special classes aimed at fallen away Catholics, who make up the vast majority of former Catholics who become Evangelicals.

The mission of the early Church, Mendoze writes was "unapologetically missionary and evangelical. It would seem that the almost exclusive purpose and mission of the twelve apostles, as well as the many other disciples that accompanied Jesus…was, ostensibly, an on-the-job-training program meant to disseminate the Good News or evangelion, so that God, in his indefatigable love and desire for a personal relationship with his creation, might reconcile it to himself." Mendoza moves through a quick overview of the medieval and post-reformation attitudes towards evangelization, Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World, and concludes with a quote from a homily of Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Vatican household, on the tendency in our contemporary situation to preach a "new gospel" focusing on "self-knowledge, self-expression, self-acceptance, self-justification, self-realization, in other words, self-fulfillment instead of the self-denial and self-forgetfulness that lies at the heart of Christianity."

But why do Catholics leave? Mendoza outlines four reasons

1) lack of active participation in Mass.
2) lack of scriptural and theological understanding (in part, because of 1).
3) lack of appropriate and effective Catholic catechesis, due to the emphasis on sacramental preparation of children, leading to theological sophistication at the elementary or junior high school level.
4) anemic parishes that are often large and impersonal, and poor preaching.

These may, in fact, be reasons why Catholics leave the Church, but I find these to be no more than symptoms of an underlying problem, which Cantalamessa addresses in a December 2 Advent Homily to the Papal household (http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=81035) that Sherry quoted in her January 4 post. I'll requote a portion of it, but the final sentence is the one that touches upon an answer to the question of this post.

"The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself…This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit."

In the preaching, catechesis, sacramental preparation, service projects, and community-building events that take place in our parishes, perhaps we've forgotten or obscured the "primordial nucleus" of the Gospel message that awakens faith. It is the transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus, made possible by his grace and the hearing of the basic message of the Gospel, that sets hearts on fire with faith and love. It is intentional discipleship that compels people to desire to encounter Christ in the Mass and other sacraments and to rely on that encounter to continue as his disciples. It is intentional discipleship kept alive by a daily reliance on grace that fuels the Catholic Christian's desire to learn more about Christ in the Scriptures, and to seek the teaching of the Church as a guide for daily life. Dare I say it - it is intentional discipleship in our clergy that leads to inspiring, challenging, creative, passionate, orthodox homilies.

Fr. Mendoza suggests that we can learn something from how evangelicals evangelize, but when it comes to his solutions for how we can stem the tide of Catholics becoming Evangelicals, he offers the "same old, same old."
1) Prioritize the evangelical mission of the Church, including "a new, special consistory…to strategize and establish a new office in the curia to assist with Catholic evangelistic efforts or to reform the existing Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples." Offer moral and financial support for lay evangelistic movements and organizations (the Institute could use some of that support!). And where our expertise is deficient because we've ignored evangelization, he suggests drawing upon successful Evangelical programs.
2) Establish an international movement to bring home lapsed Catholics with a national plan for each country established by each national conference of bishops with the support of the Vatican and mandated participation by each diocese.
3) Establish diocesan and parish offices of adult education and catechesis to foster mid-week adult religious and scriptural educational programs.

None of these solutions seem very promising to me. The typical Catholic response to problems is to create a program. That worked in this country when many Catholics were poor immigrants who lived in Catholic cultural ghettos. Unless we heed Fr. Cantalmessa's observation of the need for preaching the heart of the Gospel and inviting people into a lived relationship with Christ, these programs won't be as successful as they could be. Unless we identify our intentional disciples in our midst, support them, hold them up as the norm for Christian living, and give them tools with which to evangelize others, we will continue to see the seed of faith planted in the hearts of baptized Catholics bloom in Evangelical churches.

Intentional disciples who live and speak about their faith have a much greater potential for successful evangelization than a program. For one thing, they encounter people who are fallen away. By definition, fallen away Catholics aren't present in our parish churches when we advertise our programs in the bulletin! Furthermore, successful evangelization begins with a trusting relationship – either with an individual Christian, or with the Scriptures, or with an institution like the Church. This is perhaps one reason why our frequent commenter, Gina, is soured on the idea of talking about her faith. She's been accosted with questions about her relationship with Jesus by strangers whom she does not trust.

For the same reason, catechetical programs won't be successful until we begin to develop a culture of intentional discipleship. Every campus ministry I was involved with had over 1500 registered parishioners made up of students, university faculty, staff, administrators, plus local folks. Every year because of the tremendous turnover due to graduations, drop outs, transfers, incoming freshmen and graduate students and the general mobility of well-educated Americans, we re-registered every parishioner. Every year we invited people to express what offerings they'd be interested in. Usually a good percentage of people would say they were interested in Bible study, but when we offered bible studies, only a handful – often less than fifteen people - showed up. I don't think my experience is unusual. People who remain uncatechized in spite of the offerings that already exist may well do so because faith is not the highest or even a high priority for them. That's not the case for intentional disciples.

Relying upon the bishops to come up with a plan of evangelization may not be a great idea unless they collaborate with those who are involved already in direct evangelization. The bishops have a lot to teach about the principles of evangelization, but few have experience in the field. With how many unbelievers and fallen away Catholics does the average bishop get to meet and establish a relationship? I certainly didn't meet many as a pastor.

I am grateful Fr. Mendoza is asking the question, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" Too often we ignore that it is happening at all. And while their faith and their relationship with Jesus might be awakened in the megachurches that are popping up everywhere, Catholics who leave the Church are missing the supernatural supports of that faith and relationship: the Sacraments, the wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian experience and teaching, and the communion of saints - that cloud of witnesses living and deceased who support us with their prayers, example, and love. Their ongoing journey of faith may be more rocky than it need be.

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