When I returned to the Catholic faith, I landed in the hands of the right priest. He heard my confession, and then pointed me in the direction I needed to go. “Does your marriage need to be convalidated? We can take care of that. Let’s see . . . I like to offer NFP instruction to all my marriage-prep couples, here’s this free intro session coming up, you might be interested in it.” Gracious, pastoral, and completely confident in the truth of the Catholic faith. Is it easy? Not always. But that’s nothing to be afraid of. The truth will set you free.
People don’t arrive at the doors of the Church a finished product. It was a year later before my marriage was finally convalidated, and in the meantime I can’t say I was the model disciple. I was eager, sincere, and in love with God, but I didn’t do everything as I should have.
I didn’t walk out of that first confession with a perfectly-formed conscience.
We learn with practice. Father keeps teaching the truth, and we keep getting closer and closer to it.
Desperation Breeds Ignorance
Why does what ought to be a simple process — teaching people the Catholic faith — so easily go awry?
There is pressure in parish life to keep the programs running at all costs. Find a warm body, a willing volunteer — someone, anyone — because parishioners are counting on you to deliver the expected ministry. Religious education, we tell ourselves, is so important that it hardly matters who’s teaching, so long as we have an instructor in the room every week. They can use the teacher’s manual if they need help, right?
In that false sense of urgency, we staff the parish religious education program with catechists who don’t know the faith. When it becomes apparent that the instructor is out of his depth, the situation is awkward. There is a strong unspoken pressure not to upset the volunteers, not to question the rights of someone who has already been approved — in however slapdash a fashion — not to be seen as the one “running an inquisition.”
Internally, the logistics of paying parish staff adds a layer of pressure against reform. The existing staff are nearly always valued employees who bring many good talents and a genuine love for their work to the office each morning. Because budgets are tight, parishes are staffed with a core of paid leaders. It’s a managers-only human resources chart. There is no option for shifting this employee over to another department, or adding extra staff to a project to round out the talent pool. Every employee either stays or goes. Every department is thus run on the sole charism of the one paid staff member who is put in its charge.
Meanwhile, there is external pressure against preventative measures. There has been public backlash — featured in the national news — when a diocese insists that all its educators believe and practice the Catholic faith. What ought to be a routine shrug-of-the-shoulders situation, hardly worthy of mention, is instead a subject of national debate. It seems the general public feels it has a right to the running of a religion it doesn’t even believe.
This is the context in which adult faith-formation programs are taught (if they are taught at all), and children’s faith formation programs form each successive generation in the faith.
Love, Courage, and the Catholic Faith
The solution is simple and comprehensive: Put your Catholic on.
You don’t get the luxury of grown-ups arriving at your parish fully-formed and ready to go. They must be taught the faith from the pulpit, from the choir loft, and from their every encounter within the walls of the parish. Patiently, lovingly; distinguishing unequivocal welcome and respect from the firm mercy that is the sorting of truth from error. It is a grave sin to use the pewsitter’s ignorance as an excuse for scorn. Of course we are ignorant. Teach us.
It is right and good, Fathers, that you are patient and gentle with those poor souls who come to you week after week still barely managing to even want to be Catholic, but trying their best all the same. But of your leaders? Your catechists? You are the one who has handed over a portion of your authority to them. You are the one who is accountable for what they teach. Man-up this side of the grave, or pay on the other.
Of Whom Shall I Be Afraid?
For anyone with half a heart, the prospect of confrontation is unpleasant and unwanted. We don’t want to risk hurting the people we love. We didn’t choose to put this kind, giving, but utterly unprepared soul into leadership, it just sort of happened. (Yes: Catechesis is leadership. Your unpaid kindergarten teacher is a leader. Don’t forget that.) And now we must bring up this or that terrible correction, and bring it up knowing that we do not have the wider culture on our side; we don’t even have the opinion of the parish on our side.
It is horrid work. Work that is the fruit of desperate times.
Were evangelization the work of mere men, we would fail. Were we alone in this, acting on our own authority, our own rights, our own vision, our parishes would certainly fall apart.
But the battle is not ours. It is the Lord’s.
This post is part of the Patheos Symposium on the Extraordinary Bishop’s Synod on the Family. Click around the Catholic Channel for more columns on all things Family, Faith, and the Running of the Church.
Artwork: James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons