Monday, April 7, 2014

Intentional Disciples

Things have been relatively busy at St. Fidelis, but I’ve still found some time for reading. In the evenings, in particular, I try to have some “office hours” for students to drop by and ask questions and the waiting time in between students has become my personal reading time.

I recently borrowed a book from our bishop that he had referred to. The book is called “Forming Intentional Disciples.” I made reference to the author of the book, Sherry Weddell, in a previous post. I found her concerns, her tone, her language, and her insights all worthwhile. She, too, is from an evangelical protestant background, and I suspect that this helps explain why I feel more comfortable with the language she uses.

 I actually very much liked the book. I have been recommending it to people all around me. But I want to write about the parts of the book that made me uncomfortable, especially since these relate back to my evangelical background.

In the first chapter, Sherry talks about how “God has no grandchildren”. Using anecdotes and statistics from the Pew research center and CARA (which studies Catholicism in America), she forcibly articulated the point that most people who identify as Catholic in the United States do not claim that they have a personal relationship with God. This is the chapter which sets up “the problem.”

This makes me uncomfortable precisely because what sounds to some Catholics like an astonishing truth, I once considered to be painfully obvious. But now I realize that I feel defensive when I hear this, even when it comes from a Catholic author. I spent some time thinking about why I might feel defensive on this point.

I think one good reason is that I can clearly think of times in the past where I dismissed Catholics or other people in traditional churches as not having a relationship with Jesus only because their relationship with Jesus was not expressed in the same way as mine was. I can only speak for myself. I never went through an anti-Catholic streak like you can see quite prominently in some (relatively few) sectors of evangelicalism, but I think I still most definitely had a prejudice in my mind. I acknowledged that Catholics could be Christians, but I presumed that they were not “real Christians” until proven otherwise. Real Christians are people who have a quiet time with the Bible and a cup of coffee in the morning and sing emotional love songs to Jesus accompanied by electric guitars and drums. They are part of small groups called Bible studies and have varying levels of fluency in their own distinct dialect of English. If Catholics do all this, then they have a relationship with Jesus. If not, then they don’t.

I obviously identified this prejudice at some point and began to address it. This process began when I realized how these sort of observable phenomena did not correlate to a necessarily greater love of God or neighbor. It did correlate to how much time people had spent in the evangelical sub-culture, and to the extent to which they had been shaped by the material culture of books, cd’s, dvd’s, bracelets, and other consumable goods that help to create and perpetuate that sub-culture’s distinct dialect of English.

(I’m obviously speaking a little bit tongue-in-cheek here, but I guess I feel free to do so precisely because I haven’t completely dissociated myself from that quirky world. That distinct dialect of English is still my mother tongue, so to speak.)

I later realized that some people really did have a living relationship with Jesus that could be expressed in things like pilgrimages, praying the rosary, praying the Divine Mercy chaplet and so on. I have become more and more aware of how prejudice can affect perceptions of whether Catholics have a “real” relationship with God or not. Because of this, I feel defensive whenever I hear evangelical Protestants speak about how most Catholics just don’t have a relationship with God. I immediately think of my experience and therefore know that prejudice may play a significant role in their assessment.

But what I think I realized from reading this book, is that while such prejudice may still exist, if I’m honest with myself, it is also glaringly obvious that a great many Catholics really do not claim to have a relationship with Jesus. It pains me to admit this, but it’s true.  And when I admit it, I realize that I always recognized this in some way. I most certainly didn’t enter the Catholic Church with some sort of na├»ve idea that the Church was only comprised of living saints and pious Mass attenders. The general laxity of practice, ignorance, and spiritual mediocrity of Catholics was pointed out to me by Protestants and Catholics alike as I prepared to enter the Catholic Church (no offense meant to the Catholics reading this!)

Catholics, though, often speak of the need for catechesis (faith education) as the solution to these problems. Sherry Weddell I think rightly points out that the bigger need is for evangelization, because most Catholics have never made an intentional decision to respond to the love of Jesus and commit to following Him and living in Him.

It seems an odd reality, but I think it is a true reality: that Christ can be most closely followed and encountered in the Catholic Church, yet there are simultaneously millions and millions of people who have access to the Sacraments and the fullness of the Christian faith but have not had a transformative encounter with Jesus that renders that access meaningful to them. Jesus is there, but they have yet to encounter him in a decisive way.

Pope Francis has repeated the words of Pope Benedict XVI saying,

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est 1)

May God lead us to that decisive encounter again and again, and may He guide the Church so that she can reach out to the many baptized who have yet to choose to live out the new life already freely offered to them in their baptism.