If You Build It, They Won’t Necessarily Come.

St Patrick went to Ireland.

St Paul went to most of the Roman world.

The apostles traversed the known world bringing the message of eternal salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ everywhere they went. With the exception of St John, they paid for their fealty with their lives.

Not today’s Catholics.

Somewhere along the line, the missionary paradigm shifted to the build-it-and-wait-for-them-to-come-to-us paradigm. Today’s discussions of evangelizing the world revolve around how to shape our catechesis of the people who show up for regular meetings at our churches. “How can we change our catechesis so that we catechize them into faithfulness?” is the question we ask ourselves.

In other words, we’ve abandoned the Gospel call to convert a lost world that is dying for lack of the saving grace of Christ. We’ve gotten so far away from it that we’ve even lost the ability to effectively convert the people who are sent to us or who come to us of their own volition, actively seeking conversion.

The working Catholic paradigm of converting the world is that we may — or most likely may not — build a church to house the people we already have, and if anybody else wants Jesus, it’s up to them to come to us. Worse, we turn people away for not qualifying, or in the case of our serpentine annulment process, because they can’t find everyone they need from their misspent pasts to fill out the right paperwork.

The miracle in all this is that, in spite of everything, the Church is growing. Year after year, our cathedral in my archdiocese is jam-packed through one mass after the other for the Rite of Election.

We are growing, not due to our missionary fervor, but due to the great hunger for God that runs throughout our lost world. People are hungry for the words that lead to eternal life. They want meaning and love in their lives. Most of all, they want to belong to somebody or something bigger than themselves. They want, they hunger for, Jesus Christ.

People are weary of the no-hope nihilism that our society offers them. They want a way out.

And we have the Way. We are not saved just for ourselves and our families. We have the only Way there is, and it’s our job to lead people to it.

Despite the full cathedrals at the Rite of Election, there are vast fields of lost humanity ready to harvest for the Lord that we ignore. They are, to be specific, everyone who does not come to us, requesting entrance, which, to be even more specific, is everyone who has not found some way to partly Catechize themselves.

Everything we do, from our indifference to converting people, to our diffident refusal to ruffle the feathers of those who oppose Jesus by talking about Him, says that Jesus is our private little g god and that there’s nothing about Him that other people need trouble themselves to find.

Sitting around and waiting for people to convert themselves and then beg us for entrance into our Church is the exact opposite of what Jesus told us to do. It eschews the example of the many saints that we quote at one another in our endless arguments during our internecine battles about nothing much.

The Catholic Patheosi have recently discussed Catechesis in depth and with their deep understanding of churchy things. Now, I am discussing, in my usual backwards way, what I think catechesis truly is. Catechesis is conversion, or it should be. As such, it is not limited to specific periods of formal instruction.

The base problem with our Catechesis is simply that it is not converting people. It is not even converting people who come and ask to be converted and who faithfully attend meetings in an effort to become converted. There are many reasons for this, and I’m not expert enough in this area to have ideas about the specifics.

But I can say from quite a bit of first-hand experience that when it comes to most of the world outside our church doors, we not only aren’t catechizing anybody, we aren’t even trying. We do not go to these people and talk to them about Jesus. We simply ignore them, as we ignore everybody else who doesn’t come to us first.

We need to forget the paradigm of build a church and wait for the world to come to us. Because more and more, even if we build it, they won’t necessarily come.

It’s hard to get into the Catholic Church today. You not only have to be the one to convert yourself, you’ve got to be the one to take all the initiative about joining. Then, you’ve got to jump through all sorts of hoops.

If you have a complicated past involving messy marriages — as so many people in this post-Christian age do — you may very well end up having to go through preparation for what amounts to a court proceeding to have your past legally expunged. If you can’t be a good enough lawyer for yourself in this court to get it done, you are not welcome at Christ’s table.

I have a suggestion on this, which I know will offend a lot of people. But perhaps the Church could begin the annulment process for converts by establishing a sort of triage system. If it was a common law marriage, or the person was married by a judge or in a church that worships satan or trees or whatever, then there’s no real reason for them to take the full canonical dose to get an annulment. Those marriages are invalid on their face. We also need a process for people who can’t go back decades and find everyone, or if they do find them, are physically afraid of them.

I’m not talking about Catholic marriages here. I am talking about marriages in the pre-conversion lives of converts; marriages outside the Church.

Ditto for things like baptismal certificates. A lot of protestant churches do not keep the extensive records that Catholics do. Many of them stay in business for a few years then close up and go away. If there’s a doubt in the pastor’s mind, then he should just give the convert a provisional baptism. Keeping people out of the Church over things like this is wrong.

The world is changing. We are going to be dealing more and more with people who have never heard the name Jesus; people who have been fully catechized, but not as we mean it. They are fully catechized in the nihilism of hook-up sex, do-unto-others-before-they-do-it-to-you-first, anything-goes post-Christian cultural dissolution.

It’s going to take more than the old build-it-and-wait-for-them-to-come-to-us paradigm if we seriously want to evangelize this new world. It will require the Apostolic fervor that built the Church in the first place.

My thoughts on what the Church needs to do in the New Evangelization are quite simple. Preach Christ. To everybody. And take down the No Room at the Inn sign.

Conversion Story: The Story of How a New York Jew Wrestled with Christ and Became Catholic

Benedict

I needed this.

I’ve been affected by the events of this week like everyone else. In addition to that, there’s been death and sadness closer in at my parish. Everything bugs me this week.

Right in the midst of my anomie comes this conversion story. Conversion to Christ is birth, re-birth, being born again. It is a person stepping in one move from death to life.

This particular conversion story describes something a little bit like the conversion I experienced in that it was instantaneous. God does that with some people. It’s as if He points His finger and says “You.”

When that happens, there is no denying the reality of it. I guess you could ignore it and say no, but you’d have to lie to yourself in a big way to do it.

This particular conversion story, is titled “The Story of how a New York Jew wrestled with Christ and became Catholic”. It describes the instantaneous and unbidden conversion of Roger Dubin. God said “You” to Mr Dubin in an airport while he was watching the announcement of Pope Benedict’s election as pope in 2005.

I won’t tell you more because it would spoil the story. I’ll put an excerpt below with a link to the rest. I hope it cheers your day as it did mine.

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From The Catholic World Report:

On April 2, 2005, there came the news of the death of Pope John Paul II. I’d always admired the pope for his courage in confronting the horrors of communism, and for aligning with President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in a united front that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Yet as a spiritual leader he meant nothing to me.

Nevertheless, Barbara and I found ourselves becoming involved in the events and the funeral as they unfolded on television. Even the typically skewed commercial coverage couldn’t disguise the tributes from all corners of the globe, and the love for the pope and grief at losing him from Catholics and people of every faith. At some point in the two weeks following, Barbara—a long-lapsed Protestant who’d never lost her regard for Christianity—turned to me and said, “You’ve got to get religion, Roger. You’ve been drifting way too long.”

Early on the morning of April 19, I left on a business trip, first taking the commuter flight from Prescott, our home since 2001, to the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. There was a wait before my next flight to the west coast, so I stopped for coffee, and soon after I arrived at the gate, the white smoke appeared over the roof of the Sistine Chapel on the television monitor. Sipping my cappuccino, I watched with a large group of travelers, interested—as a news hound mostly—in who’d been chosen. From my casual observation, however, quite a few in the crowd were Catholics, and far more invested in the outcome than I.

When the announcement was made that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected, people around me seemed to register either shock or joy. I had a pretty good sense of the reason for the split. In the days following Pope John Paul’s passing, I’d noted the avuncular and, to all appearances, mild-mannered cardinal playing a high-profile role in the funeral and related proceedings. I’d also heard quite a bit of commentary about his staunchly conservative stance as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, set in contrast to the “modernization” and “progress” many were hoping for and demanding. That hoary theme, complete with groan-inducing code words and liberal shibboleths straight out of American politics, brought on a depressing sense of déjÀ vu. “God’s Rottweiler,” some even called him, a denigration that struck me as both outrageous and naïve, though I knew almost nothing about him.

I’d been a senior corporate executive for many years, I’ve had my own consulting business since 1996, and I understood that the cardinal, like the centurion in Matthew 8:9, was “ a man under authority.” Which meant that whatever he’d done to garner his reputation had been undertaken with the guidance and approval of his boss. Yet the criticism fell on him, which also told me he was a loyal lieutenant, willing to do his superior’s will and take the hit himself without complaint. People who viewed it otherwise, I grumbled, likely had an axe to grind, or were reluctant to criticize Pope John Paul, or were simply fools.

That’s not very charitable, I admit. But remember, I was nowhere near being “Christian” in my judgments at the time. (Actually, I’m still nowhere near where I should be, yet I’m trying.) How often I’ve marveled since then at Pope Benedict’s kindness to everyone,even as he took on the agonizing work of expunging the “filth” from the Church and laying the foundation for renewal. How often I’ve wished I could feel his Christian charity towards the enemies within. But the rockiest rise on the road to becoming Christian, at least for someone like me, is learning to love as Pope Benedict loves—especially those whom you’d much rather smack upside the head and who richly deserve far worse. I suspect I’ll be wrestling with that one for a long time.

So there I was at the gate—standing now, with just a few minutes left before I’d need to board my flight. If I had to miss the introduction of the new pope, it was no big deal, though I was vaguely hoping I wouldn’t. And then Pope Benedict XVI walked onto the balcony. The camera zoomed in, his eyes seemed to look right at me and through me, and that’s the exact instant my conversion happened. (Read the rest here.)

The Sacramental Vending Machine vs The Highway to Heaven

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way …’” John 14: 1-6

 

Leah Libresco

When my colleague Leah Libresco enters the Church today, she will do so with the support and the presence of a sponsor.

Candidates for Baptism and Confirmation in the Catholic Church usually go through what is called a Rite of Election before their big day. During this rite, their sponsor vouches for them, affirming that they are, indeed, sincere in their desire to become Catholic.

The reason for this is ancient. In the early days of Christianity, there were those who would pretend to be converts in order to infiltrate the Church and then use the knowledge they gained to aid those who persecuted it. They were, in the parlance of the Cold War, double agents.

Back in the 1950s, there was a television show called I Led Three Lives about just such a double agent. It told the story of a man who pretended to be an ordinary citizen on the outside, was an active spy for the Communists in one of his inside identities and a double agent for the United States who was, in fact, spying on the Communists in his hidden, but true, identity. Evidently, a good many people once tried to infest the Catholic Church with their own version of I Led Three Lives  in much the same way back in the early days of Christianity.

Most Christians in those days led at least two lives; passing as best they could as ordinary citizens in their outside identity and living for Christ in their hidden, but true, identity. Thus, converts who go through the rite of election do so with a sponsor, who is a known Catholic in good standing and who vouches for their sincerity of intent concerning their desire to enter the Church.

Unfortunately, this part of the Rite of Election is no longer as archaic as it was, say, 30 years ago, not even here in the “Christian West.” More and more people seem to be attempting to enter the Church as what amounts to current-day double agents. They demand the sacraments of baptism and confirmation as if the Church was a sacramental vending machine and they’ve put in their dollar and deserve their sacrament in return.

These people approach entry into the Catholic Church with an arrogance they would never employ during pledge week at a university. The same people who will grovel and debase themselves to be part of a fraternal organization, think nothing of demanding entry into the sacraments without any requirements of genuine belief or fidelity. They are open and arrogant in their refusal to accept Church teaching.

History has made a turn into a full circle. We are once again back at a time when double agents inside the Church cooperate and aid those who want to persecute it. We have also come to a day when some of those who seek entry into the sacraments often do so with an arrogant assumption that this places zero responsibility on them to take this step with a sincere heart and genuine desire to follow what the Church teaches in their lives.

All of this makes the continuing rise in numbers of sincere conversions an even more powerful testimony to the love of Christ. One Leah Libresco is worth any number of false Christians. Leah is quite open about the fact that she is still seeking to understand certain Church teachings. Honest questioning from a sincere heart that is seeking to understand is not what I am talking about when I use phrases like “double agent.” The strongest followers of Christ grow from those who begin with honest seeking and the open hearts and minds of sincere questions.

Conversion is an on-going process. It’s a life-long process. None of us will get to the end of our growth in Christ in this life. Life in Christ is an ever-deepening miracle of love that grows and expands as we step out in our lives and live it. Questions, seeking answers to the confusions of living this faith in a fallen world, are a natural and honest part of it.

What is not honest are those who are not questioning but condemning the Church for teachings that fall afoul of the current world thinking. What is not sincere is someone who enters the Church with no interest in conversion for themselves and a hardened intention to defy the Church and support its attackers in matters of faith.

I found Christ while driving my car without any intellectual reasoning at all. Leah Libresco reasoned her way to Him in a way that reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ conversion. I think that speaks more to the kind of people Leah and I are than anything else. Jesus comes to you where you are. Then, if you give yourself to Him, He leads you gently to where He wants you to go. But the key is that you must give yourself to Him. He is the potter and you are the clay.

The Catholic Church has distilled its great wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian witness into simple, follow-able teachings that are accessible to the smallest child and challenging to the greatest scholar. I think of the Church’s teachings as a roadmap to heaven, and not just to the heavenly Kingdom but to heaven on earth as well. If we could truly follow the path of Christ in the here and now, we would re-create the paradise of before the fall.

But we can’t. Not now. Not yet. We are fallen people in a fallen world and there are tough times in life when the best we can do is just to hang on and do what God tells us. That’s when the teachings of the Church are most valuable. There are days when the confusions and griefs of life rob each of us of our judgement. There are times in every life when all we really want to do is just walk off, walk away and forget about it. Those are the times when this roadmap of Church teaching may be the only path we can see.

Go to mass. Say your prayers. Don’t lie, steal, cheat, rape, rob, kill or commit adultery. Care for the poor, stand for life, pray, even if grudgingly, for your enemies. Chose Christ by doing what He has told you to do, putting one shaky foot in front of the other … day by day by day. Stay the simple, clearly-defined course of Church teaching, and it will lead you through to the other side of whatever angst and dire is tearing at you. That is the truth of Christian living when the going gets tough as I know it.

I am not the intellectual wonderment of a Leah Libresco. I am just one of many battle-scarred veterans of living the Christian life in an openly hostile environment. In that world, sincerity and honest seeking is all.

History has made a turn into full circle and enemies of Christ attack the Church from within as well as without. But compared to the honest seeking of an honest convert who has truly found Him, they are nothing.

Welcome home, Leah. You are God’s gift to the rest of us.

 


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