Our mission (as Church) is to bring about that meeting that can change lives, that can make disciples. Then, as a loving mother Church, we are to nurture and guide those disciples into fruitful holiness in Christ.
Christ Healing the Blind Man
Have you heard former Catholics—now evangelical and fervent in the Lord—say things such as: “I had to leave the Catholic Church to find Jesus”? Have you heard anyone say, “Once I got out of the Catholic Church, I really heard the Gospel—and I got born again, and I got saved”?
We in the Church need to listen to such troubling claims; we need to take them seriously. It would not be helpful or charitable to dismiss quickly the persons or their stories with: “You couldn’t find him in the Church because you weren’t looking for him,” or, “The Mass is filled with the Gospel! It’s proclaimed in every Mass we offer.”
It may well be true that when these people were in the Church, they weren’t looking for Jesus. If they had searched, they would have found! The question for us—for the Church—is: Whose responsibility is it to insure that Catholics can and do “find Jesus” in his Church? I assert that it is not the responsibility of children to find their own food, to prepare their own meals, and to feed themselves. It is not the responsibility of children to educate themselves, to nurture and bring themselves to maturity, to make boys into men, and girls into women, to make disciples of themselves under the Headship of Jesus Christ. It is not the responsibility of children to make soldiers of themselves, to prepare for the coming battle, and to face the enemy at war with them in the world.
No, it is the responsibility of parents to raise their own children, and it is the responsibility of the Church to make her children, of any age, into disciples of Jesus, bringing them all to maturity in him. This is our mission: “Make disciples.” It is our responsibility, those of us still in the Church, not merely to rest in the truth that Jesus is in his Church, and will be so until the close of the age; but to bring men and women, boys and girls, into real personal authentic communion with him, with Jesus Christ. It is our responsibility to bring persons to the living truth of his Presence! It is our responsibility to bring about the meeting with him that only God’s grace can effect; and to bring about the formation and maturation in God that only God’s grace can enable.
I suspect that there are many people today in the Church who are not looking for Jesus, nor have they yet found him in a living, conscious, and personal sense. They have not yet “just drifted away” (which is the case for most former Catholics, using their own words). They remain in some sense in the Church, although not in the “full, conscious, and active participation” that they ought to be, and that we all need.
I suspect there are many like this—in the Church, but remaining in her only outwardly. As is the case with those who left the Church, these remaining only outwardly think that what they have found in the Catholic Church is all there is to be found. In this presumption, they are dead-wrong. How many who are still in the Church today are the future “former Catholics” of tomorrow? How many who are still in the Church today have tuned-out from their call in Christ, remaining only “outwardly” in the Church, perhaps from habit, or perhaps from family or ethnic loyalty, or perhaps “for the children,” afraid for their children in the shadow of the darkness of this darkening world.
It ought to be no surprise that so many Catholics drift away from the Church, if they know no reason to stay! About a third of “cradle Catholics” (32%) leave. About half of that 32% (18%) are now in other religious communities. The other half (14%) gave up on religion altogether. 1 These numbers speak poorly for our goal in catechesis which is: to bring about a real personal meeting with Christ our Savior.
… the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity. 2
Our mission is to bring about that meeting that can change lives, that can make disciples. Then, as a loving mother Church, we are to nurture and guide those disciples into fruitful holiness in Christ. We can be a Church of mission, of fruitful motherhood; or, we can be a mere bureaucracy concerned with maintenance. Pope Francis spoke of the contrast between these two, saying that:
The Church cannot be merely “a babysitter who takes care of the child just to get him to sleep.” If she were this, hers would be a “slumbering church.” Whoever knows Jesus has the strength and the courage to proclaim him. And whoever has received baptism has the strength to walk, to go forward, to evangelize and “when we do this the Church becomes a mother who generates children” capable of bringing Christ to the world. 3
When we Catholics become “a slumbering church”—merely maintaining outward structures of an institution, but failing to make, to form, and to send out disciples of the living Lord—then, it is no wonder that many drift away. Man is made for life, and life is found in Christ. Life in him begins in being reborn—born again—born from above. This new life is not membership in a temporal institution; it is supernatural participation in the life of God. A man must be born again to see, to enter, the Kingdom of God.
What then should we do?
It is no mystery, nor great unsolved puzzle, what we ought to be doing as Church. We ought to be doing what Jesus sent us to do:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)
We do a good job of the first step, “baptizing them”—that is, initiating them into Christ. We do a very poor job after that of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”—that is, of bringing them into maturity in him. Our work in the Church is:
… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children… (Eph 4:12-14)
We do a good job of offering the sacraments, but a poor job of teaching the meaning of the sacraments—not only the theological understanding of them, but their actual place and part in the Christian life, their place and meaning in our own personal and individual lives. We sacramentalize, but do not catechize. We dispense, but fail to help enable that right disposition in those receiving the sacraments, that is necessary for the sacramental grace to bear fruit in them. The Church dispenses, in the sacraments, holy divine grace! Yet, that grace must be rightly received, to bear the fruit for which it is given. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches:
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ, and his Spirit, acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. (CCC §1128)
And, specifically concerning the Eucharist—the “Source and Summit of the Christian life” (LG 11):
The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord, and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit, and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself, and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward. (CCC §1098)
Indeed, “To attribute the efficacy of prayers, or of sacramental signs, to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (CCC §2111) Right disposition is needed. Here, the Church has failed some of her members. We do not teach, or form, rightly. We do not help disciples receive the graces the Church pours out to them. How can the rain penetrate the ground, to enable the roots of planted seeds to take in the life of the good ground, and the vitalizing energy of the sun, if the ground is hard from the busyness and anxiety and cares of the world? The precious rain runs off, wasted, and life in the ground is stifled.
Scripture shows us the general structure of a vital church. After the powerful preaching of Peter following the Pentecost out-pouring, the early Church devoted themselves to the formation needed in Christ:
So, those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:41-42).
This four-fold formation is parallel to the four “pillars of the faith,” and to the four-fold structure of the Catechism: Creed, the moral life, the sacramental life, and the life of prayer. These four pillars must form the structure of the New Evangelization that the Church is called to in our time. But this four-fold structure of formation in Christ must—must—follow and build upon the supernatural encounter with God experienced by Peter’s hearers, as he preached the Gospel of Jesus to them. The beginning must begin at the beginning. In other words, we dare not assume that the Catholic congregation before us, or around us, actually lives as though Jesus is Lord. We dare not assume that they are, at this time in their lives, disciples of Jesus. We dare not assume of them that they have been “struck to the heart” by the Word of God, as Peter’s hearers were. They have been sacramentalized, yes; but, have they been evangelized? Have they been catechized? Have they been formed in Christ?
Taking the New Evangelization seriously
The first step in the New Evangelization must be the personal encounter of individual Catholics with the Lord Jesus, in the power of his Presence. Infant baptism is a beautiful practice, and one that presumes a Catholic formation for the child in a loving Catholic home, leading to a Catholic education—whether in home schooling, or through a strong Catholic formation in the parish. Such Catholic foundations can then be further built upon in a Catholic environment, and formation in adult life.
Such strong and normative Catholic formation cannot be presumed, however, by pastors, or by bishops, or by mission priests. Concerning the four pillars of the faith, many Catholics are embarrassingly weak in all four of them: Creed, Sacraments, Moral life, Prayer. Yes, Catholics are baptized and confirmed, and those practicing do receive the Eucharist when they are present for Mass. But are they formed in the faith? Do they have a formation in the faith that is founded upon a vital, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ?
Many baptized Catholics were raised in a nominally Catholic home by a parent, or by two parents, who knew very little of the faith. Many experienced a childhood much more strongly influenced by their non-Catholic friends, by non-Catholic music, by the television, and by secular public schools, than by Christ and his Church. Many were sacramentalized, but minimally catechized, and their disposition when receiving the sacraments is uncertain at best. Many were, simply put, not formed in the faith from childhood, and into their adulthood, and so now are deeply wounded and weakened souls, in great need of the Church to be loving mother in Christ to them.
Many Catholics need to have a life-transforming encounter with Jesus. Protestants would say these Catholics need to be “born again. ” But, that is not quite right, for they have indeed been born again in Baptism. Their problem is that they have been gravely neglected children since their rebirth in Baptism. They were not fed, nor nurtured, nor formed in Christ as they should have been, and as they deserved. They are now spiritually malnourished, and practically illiterate, and educationally disabled in the things of God.
Many Catholics have never had a personal, life-transforming encounter with Jesus—and they do not realize that they need such an encounter! They do not realize (that is, there is not the reality of certainty in their souls) that Jesus came as a man, and died on the Cross so that they—personally and individually—might come into a personal and life-transforming relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And, they do not realize that such a relationship is God’s intention for them. His intention for them, in creating them, is an eternity in the communion of divine love. They do not know in their hearts that Jesus loves them, and died for them, that they might have life. Many Catholics, I fear and believe with deep sadness, have no clue about their call into holy and supernatural life—or what that even means.
John Wesley (1703-1791), an Anglican priest, is usually credited, along with his brother Charles, as founding the Methodist movement. He preached powerfully for revival, in his day, dwelling on and insisting upon the theme, “You must be born again.” 4 The story goes that he was asked by an impatient man in attendance at one of his revivals, “Mr. Wesley, why do you keep on preaching ‘You must be born again’?” Wesley replied, “Because, you must be born again.”
Wesley also preached a sermon characterizing “The Marks of the New Birth,” 5 so that persons might discern whether, or not, they actually have this new life in Christ. He lists the defining marks as a living faith, a living hope, and a living love. Of course, this is completely consistent with the Church, as she teaches that Baptism, indeed, confers the new life, with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in potency:
The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace, the grace of justification:
—enabling them to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him through the theological virtues;
—giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit;
—allowing them to grow in goodness through the moral virtues.
Thus, the whole organism of the Christian’s supernatural life has its roots in Baptism. (CCC §1266)
Conclusion: We need revival!
Many Catholics lack zeal for the Gospel, and a sense of intimacy with Jesus, as former-Catholics-now-Evangelicals lament. These many Catholics could never “share Jesus” with friends or strangers, or evangelize as their “born-again” former fellow parishioners can. But, Catholics do not “need to be born again,” as charged. We need revival.
Catholics are all “born-again” Christians. Many, sadly, are spiritually malnourished, weak, and disabled. Most—except for those who have fallen into mortal sin—have within them the precious treasure of sanctifying grace. We have the potency of full and fruitful life in Christ; however, our hearts only flicker like a candle threatened by the wind.
We need, we await, the burst into flame of true zeal for his name. We need to meet Christ as adults. He awaits us in prayer, in Scripture, in the confessional, in the Eucharist. We need to meet him, to know his voice, and feel the grasp of his hand on our lives, our families, our works, and our futures. We need revival. We need passion worthy of his Passion. We need lives worthy of his death.
Bishops, priests, deacons: please do not waste the sacred ambo on mere platitudes, or moralisms, or budget needs. Every “problem” the Church has, or will ever have, has its resolution in Christ. It is to him that we must turn. Relationship with him is the one thing needful; without him anything and everything is futile. We must meet him, and find ourselves anew in him. Apart from him, we can do nothing. Preach him! Ground every parish activity—explicitly—in him! When our parishes meet him, then the rest can follow: formation in the pillars of the faith, growing in a life of prayer, living the liturgy out in the secular world, bringing his saving light into homes, into families, into workplaces, into nations, into the world. In Jesus Christ, we can arise.
 Pew Research Study. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-chapter-2.pdf
 L’Observatore Romano, April 18, 2013, “The Church is not a babysitter.”
 See, for example, his Sermon 45 – http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/45/
- Pew Research Study. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-chapter-2.pdf ↩
- Catechesi Tradendae 5. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_16101979_catechesi-tradendae_en.html ↩
- L’Observatore Romano, April 18, 2013, “The Church is not a babysitter.” ↩
- See, for example, his Sermon 45 – http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/45/ ↩
- http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/18/ ↩