Meeting the Master

Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt

When discussing the problem of the Catholic Church one of the main culprits is “poor catechesis”. The lukewarmness of the laity, the misguided political correctness, the sentimentality, and bland, suburban do-gooder mentality prevalent in the pews is all blamed on “poor catechesis.”

“If only the people had been taught what the Catholic Church really teaches. Then we’d be okay!”

I’m the first to agree that there has been some very poor catechesis in the church, however, I’m not sure the problem is completely the fault of the religious publishers, trendy nuns, poorly educated Directors of Religious Education, left wing theologians and unconcerned pastors.

There is also a problem amongst the laity themselves. The best way I can describe this problem is an attitude of “I’m a cradle Catholic. Don’t you try to catechize me!” How many adult Catholics have taken the trouble to have any form of religious education after being confirmed? It would be interesting to know. Catholics still make up the largest religious grouping in the United States. Why are Catholic publishers not selling millions of books like the Evangelical publishers do? Because Catholics don’t read about their faith. How many adult Catholics have taken the trouble to go on a retreat, a conference, a seminar to learn more about their faith and grow in their knowledge and love of God? Not many.

Ignorance of the faith? Absolutely. Poor catechesis? Absolutely. Who’s fault is it? Just as much the laity who don’t have the level of commitment or interest necessary to do anything more than turn up for Mass on Sunday (when they don’t have anything better to do)

Underlying this complacency is the lack of a real, life changing experience of Jesus Christ. They encounter with the One who changes everything has not happened. The typical Catholic in the pew has been sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have even been catechized (and often not too badly) but not evangelized. They have yet to be converted. Excuse this former Evangelical from lapsing back into Prot-talk, but many Catholics have yet to “meet Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior”. They have not looked up from the fishing boats of their ordinary lives and heard the call of the Master to leave their nets and follow Him.

Furthermore, there is a deep seated resistance to such an encounter. “I’m a cradle Catholic. Don’t you try to evangelize me!”

The bottom line–and this is a message hammered home by Pope Benedict and Pope Francis–is that the Christian adventure is about the encounter with Christ. All the sacraments, all the catechesis, all the liturgies, all the good works of the church, all the theology, all the spirituality, the canon law, the devotions and disciplines–all of it is a structure or a method or a framework for the soul to encounter Christ, and to walk in the way with  our hearts burning within us.

How does this evangelization take place? I have just been keynote speaker this month at two conferences focussing on the New Evangelization and my talk each time revolved around the way we transmit the faith. Why are you a Catholic today? I’m a Catholic Christian because of the example of my parents and because of a few radiantly alive Catholics. People who lived the faith and loved Christ and his people. They were not especially pious or holier than thou. They were simply alive in Christ, and what they had is what I wanted.

Benedict XVI calls this “attraction”. It is the supernatural attraction of a soul to Christ seen in another person. It is the moth being drawn to the light and the metal drawn to the magnet. It is as natural and real as water flowing downhill or the sun rising and setting. This abundant and authentic life is not something which can be manufactured with a method or produced with a gimmick. It is not something which can be taught, but is something that can be caught.

This attraction happens as a side effect of sanctity. It is the result, not the first aim of the would be saint. Pope John Paul II outlined the way in his pastoral letter Into the New Millennium  where he says that this flows from the heart of contemplation. A person spends more and more time with Christ until Christ’s glory is reflected in that person’s abundant and whole life. They become like the thing they worship, and Christ in them draws others to the everlasting encounter.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Augustine

    And the current state of things is not the fruit of the post-conciliar Church. Rather, its roots are found before VII. The difference is that at about the same time as VII ended, there was a major shift in the culture from basically Christian to post-Christian. Before this shift, it was easy to cruise along and pass as a Christian; afterwards, the culture would challenge the believers to take sides and many made their implicit choices explicit. To think that when seminary deans and professors quit overnight after VII, people who had never heard any Mass but the Tridentine one and who had been taught by the Baltimore catechism, were the product of VII is patently false. The Zeitgeist of today was already the Zeitgeist then; they just didn’t have a solid foundation, most likely Fideism, a heresy rejected by Paul VI, which plagues many otherwise good Catholics to this day.

    • Chesire11

      The unprecedented material wealth and power enjoyed by the United States after decades of war and depression seduced the people into a lazy epicurean world view. Authority – especially institutional authority – was discredited in the mayhem and aftermath of the first half of the century.

      Short answer: we began to store up the things of this world.

  • $50360981

    I’m an adult convert from mainstream protestantism to the Catholic Church. I have actually read the entire Catechism. And yet I still can’t say I have experienced “Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” as the protestants say. I still don’t know what that means. The Catechism, in the section on prayer, seems to equate this experience with prayer itself, but that just isn’t connecting inside my head/heart. I accept and assent to all the Church preaches, teaches, and believes to be revealed by God, yet I still don’t “feel saved” if you will. I live as best I can by Christian morality and principles, even to the tithing of my gross income and charity work of my own two hands, yet that feeling is still not there. I am ever so grateful that the Catholic faith is not emotion-driven, yet I wonder: What am I missing?

    • Nan

      Welcome home. You might not be missing anything. Jesus Christ died on the cross to atone for your sins. I don’t think it’s necessary to “feel” saved; I’m on my second round with the Catechism and I don’t remember anything about “feeling saved.” Going to Mass every Sunday and making good confession at regular intervals are requirements. Do you listen for the still, small voice of God? Many hear it at Adoration or if your parish doesn’t have Adoration, sit quietly in a pew; He’s in the tabernacle. He loves you.

      • OneTimothyThreeFifteen


    • Paul Sho

      Hi! try this. Develop the habit of reading at least one psalm every day on your own. Follow the footsteps of King David – God’s favorite in the Old Testament. Good luck.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Speaking as someone received into full communion with the real Church from outside, I have to say the problem is the Evangelical ‘need to get’ which was an expectation in the air you breathed. Its classic expression lapsed-Catholics pick up from their new ‘friends’ as their reason for joining a Protestant Church: ‘I wasn’t being fed’, or as my cradle Evangelical friends say, when they go from Anglican to Baptist, or Baptist to Pentecostal, ‘I left that church because it didn’t meet my need’.

      ‘Friends’ actually don’t come into it because, of course, they cease to ‘meet my need’, too. They are merely objects in the experience but that respond to me and give me hugs, smiles and stuff. But I drop them when I join the new ‘church’ that’s the one that will ‘definitely meet my need’ this time.

      I don’t know anyone who’s left the Church and joined, say, a Methodist Chapel with a congregation of 25 little old ladies, who believe and act like true disciples, but have no lively music or dynamic preachers.

      Instead, they join the same ones that all those who used to attend that Methodist Chapel now attend, where they ‘get fed’. It’s not necessarily emotional, although it often is, but they do need some sort of transaction, or else they’re off to somewhere where they do ‘get’.

      The only thing you’re missing, I suggest, is not Christian.

      As a Catholic, ‘you’re life is not about you’, as Fr Robert Barron succinctly puts it. In a sense, unlike Protestants, we are not saved as individuals. As the Catechism puts it, [781]:
      ‘He has, however, willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness.’

      Sad to say, but below is the closest thing I can think of which corresponded to my experience of being an Evangelical. How dopamine-driven it was, and how I reacted when God didn’t answer prayer, just like the experience of constantly losing, then suddenly, an answered prayer gave the rush of ‘getting’ and then the downer to crave more, which, like my Evangelical friends, leads them into the more sensational (of the senses):

  • Chesire11

    I think that part of the problem lies with the instinctual revulsion many Catholics feel toward the vulgar sentimentality that is so often flaunted by some evangelicals, and their immodest assertion that their salvation is already a done deal. Toss in the excesses of the televangelists, and it makes many people leery of the personal encounter.

    • Obpoet

      Their salvation is a done deal. Christ has already paid it forward. Who are you to say otherwise?

      • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

        Where is ‘paid it forward’ in the Bible? Don’t know what that means even!

        I think you are merely expressing the interpretation of those within Protestantism you agree with, because other non-Catholics would disagree with you. Isn’t that a real problem for the so-called perspicacity of Scripture?

        If it is, then what authoritative grounds do you have to assert your authority or interpretation as supreme? If not, then Chesire, like anyone else, can read whatever they like from Scripture and you can’t criticise it without undermining your own principle.

  • Pat Gohn

    Faith caught not taught is how I got here. Once I knew Jesus, I just naturally wanted to know more about him, his teaching, and the Church. Great post, Fr Dwight! Sharing!

  • Cheryl

    I live in a very Catholic area. But most of these people don’t have the desire to go beyond attending Mass on Sunday. They are apathetic to building a stronger relationship with Christ. They would rather fill their days with the pastimes of the world. I’m not perfect, but I fight so hard not to be like that. And the result is, that I feel like an outcast or a weirdo, because I want more than a superficial relationship with our Lord.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Yep. That’s exactly what it feels like.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    Excellent piece! Definitely one of the ones I print off…

    Yet again, you point out it’s a matter of metaphysics, not Epistemology.

    Secularists, Atheists, and Protestants – i.e. anyone who bases their religious or non-religious belief on Ockhamism, and therefore the Reformation and Enlightenment, which are its children – talk about ‘belief in God’, and so they should, because it’s as far as their humanistic/reductionist razor reaches. Ockhamism hits a ceiling through which it cannot pass.

    To ground the debate on ‘believing in Jesus’, as they do, would be the same as always prefacing my comments about my mother in Epistemological terms, e.g., ‘I believe in my mum’ – which sounds stupid, but that’s because to talk about her in that manner is to reduce her to something merely conceptual – yet it’s the way most people talk about Jesus. They ‘believe in’ their religion, as they ‘believe in’ science, but not as they encounter real things in the world. I don’t ‘believe in’ the beautiful woman I just saw walk past me, nor the mountain in front of me, nor the awesome sunset which transfixes me. I encounter them. The problem is that it is legitimate to talk about science in that manner, but not these real things in the world, nor religion (because it’s not a mental construct, projection, or Linus’ blanket).

    To use the language of belief, in this sense, is already to admit to some degree (and therefore concede victory to the secularist/atheist/protestant worldview), the unreality of what one’s talking about, and concur with them it’s a subjective, conditional, and conceptual entity, not a reality. It is, in a sense, to trivialise it completely, because it makes makes ‘Jesus’ something I could be mistaken about, yet I wouldn’t think I’m mistaken about the existence of my mother. That is why the ridicule of ‘blind faith’ by Dawkins and his coterie has grounds, because we see it all around us in anything which smells of Protestantism (Ockhamism). This ‘Modernist’ worldview is as toxic to the fulness of reality (revelation) as Ricin is to humans.

    Paradoxically therefore, I would suggest we need to become far more ‘materialist’ or concrete in our religion: become earthy. At that point, genuflecting, bowing, kissing a crucifix, etc., are visceral, are real, they are no longer ‘as-if’ but are.

    We don’t mistake the wax effigy of the policemen (crucifix) for a real policeman (Christ on the Cross), as Elizabeth Anscombe put it, because we don’t make a category mistake. I can visit Jesus in the tabernacle, just as I am really present at the First Mass at every Mass. In this instance, the issue is one of time, not matter. In the former, it is one of super-nature, and super-nature is exactly that: something super-substantial rather than merely substantial. in other words, it is a greater reality, when most people think of the ‘supernatural’ as some thing less than reality (sub-natural?).

    At this point, one realises the reality is a super-reality, it’s nothing like ‘things that go bump in the night’, which supposedly can move things outside us, but something so real it transforms us sacramentally, and really, within. We are – literally – no longer the same, whilst a change of belief, at best, is simply cosmetic.

    As the Bible implies, God’s own always believe God, they don’t believe in God. That’s the language of encounter.That’s how it should be with us.

  • Terri

    I was raised Catholic, quit practicing (all forms of organized religion); about 14 years ago I started going to a Baptist church that some friends went to; after getting a good basic bible education I advanced to a mega non-denominational church because I was seeking more knowledge. I am a practicing Catholic again; but I can’t say that it is because of anything the church at large has done. Each step on my journey has been because individuals have taken the time to have a personal conversation with me; and sadly this happens more often in the evangelical churches than it does in the Catholic church. Also avenues for further study seem to be more prevalent in the evangelical church than the Catholic church. The Catholic church has the fullness of the Gospel and yet we don’t seem to want our members to gain that fullness for ourselves. Evangelicals preach relationship with Christ and back it up with ways to achieve it. Most of Catholicism still seems to be focused on learning the rules and parroting them back.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Yep. And sadly ‘Traddies’ (Old Catholics) have perpetuated the very problem you outline. They mistake the form for the substance (integrism), and that’s why so many of them misread Ratzinger.

      We have to read Ratzinger and Vatican II through a Newman lens. The parroting you mention is what Newman called, ‘Notional Assent’, and what Benedict is referring to, as mentioned by Fr L, ‘Real Assent’. The thing is, they look almost the same from the outside, until you scratch the surface.

      Many Traddies like to think of the Newman/Chesterton century (1850-1950) as if it were a Golden Age of the Church because the priests wore funny hats and petticoats outside their cassocks, but they don’t ‘get’ Newman or Chesterton. Reading Frank Sheed is the best way to grasp this problem. The laity was riddled with fear and superstitious hogwash and clericalist to the hilt (‘Whatever you say, Father’). It did so much damage from which we still haven’t recovered, and did what it did to you – and hundreds of thousands of others.

      Traddies are our equivalent of Calvinists/Puritans (Jansenists), and for some reason, because they embody that ‘Old Catholicism’, they look like what you would expect Catholic™ to look like, based on the prevalent stereotypes, particularly as they are articulate, educated, and love high culture, which reinforces the stereotype as being the real McCoy.

      The Traddie/Clericalist mindset has a vested interest in keeping the laity ignorant, and has done so successfully for generations, not the Church. They want to keep it like a Gentleman’s Club, and you only need to know some traddies to see the manifest snobbery of it all. They want to perpetuate a form of Ecclesial Aristocracy, not a genuine Ecclesial hierarchy.

      Being in England, one only has to look at the Judiciary to see the same, masonic-like, mindset at work.

  • Obpoet

    Is it time to introduce Sunday School to the Catholic Church?

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Did you read the article? :)

  • ForChristAlone

    The end game of catechizing and evangelizing the people of your parish is not at all difficult to do.

    #1 Let’s start with catechesis…How many of the parishioners in tens of thousands of Catholic Churches across these United States enter the church on Sunday ( or Saturday, if Sunday is reserved for golf) and occupy themselves with reading the weekend bulletin containing gems such as when the Ladies Social Tea will meet this week. Instead, why not have a one page explanation of some central teaching of the Church inserted into the bulletin. If you’re going to read something before Mass, read something worthwhile. And besides, a one page blurb would not be too time demanding and taxing for most parishioners. It could also be translated into Spanish. The pastor need not do this; give the job to the DRE who submits it to the Pastor for review (it also allows the Pastor to assess the DRE’s level of catechesis). In a few year’s time, you’ll have a heck of a lot better catechized Catholics sitting in those pews.

    #2 As far as evangelization is concerned – helping members of the parish come to a persona; relationship with Christ and then to go out and give witness to what has happened in their lives – the pastor need only convene a working group of members of the parish who are called for service because they believe that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I would think that at least 10-15 people in a Catholic parish might be found who qualify. The pastor should work with them in coming up with some plans to evangelize the rest of the parish (and others who do not yet know Christ). Perhaps this team could implement a program such as Alpha for Catholics in the parish. But charge this core group with fulfilling the very mission of the Church – evangelizing. Maybe just start with 12 – that’s what Jesus had to work with.

  • johnnyc

    I guess the Catholic blogosphere is tiring of blaming traditionalists and are now moving on to blaming cradle Catholics for the ills of the Church. Father, good catechesis starts with the Gospel. Preaching the whole Gospel. That includes the messy stuff that people don’t want to hear. Our Holy Father alluded to this recently…..

    “There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this
    and others, say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness’.
    They do not read this, no? It is true that at that time, they could
    confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there
    was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as
    if to say: ‘All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally
    ill’. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible,
    and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the
    victory of God over the devil.”

  • johnnyc

    Jesus and His Church are one and the same, no? Jesus’s message includes the formation of His Church and the saving Grace of the sacraments. That’s in the Gospel. Baptizing saves. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Faith. How much more of a personal relationship with Jesus can you have on this earth then in the Eucharist. So any evangelizing should done with that in mind. Talk about poor catechesis, Why do we want to separate Jesus from His Church? Wasn’t that what Luther did? Wasn’t that the aim of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II crowd? Separate Jesus from his Church then you can get rid of or change doctrine. Why do we feel the Catholic Church needs to become more protestant to attract protestants?

  • Guest

    I am a member of a diocesan curia, specifically the
    catechetical office. I know some of you might be cringing now but I have only
    been in this position for a few years so relax. Father, you nailed some things
    right on the head. Cradle Catholics, including average Joe, the catechists at
    his parish, and his DRE simply do not value continuing education/formation in
    the faith of the Church. Their are exceptions of course but the majority feel they don’t need formation.
    Catechesis presupposes the relationship has begun i.e.
    they have already accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Savior. That is the reason Blessed JPII called catechesis the “maturation” stage of evangelization in
    which the message that has been heard hundreds of times is probed deeper and
    deeper (See Catechesi tradendae). We are in the habit of taking short cuts; from skipping over the initial proclamation of the Gospel (including the Story of Salvation History) and going right to catechesis; all the way up to the universities where uncatechized or poorly catechized individuals are studying theology before securing the foundation of their faith on divine revelation. At all levels we have been putting the cart before the horse for years.

    I do have hope! The efforts now directed at implementing the
    New Evangelization are doing first things first. The initial proclamation of the
    Gospel is taking pride of place as it should. This should bear much fruit. I
    propose one caution: having first things first is good but we also need to make
    sure we put second things second and third things third. When the newly
    returning disciples arrive at our parishes after having been caught by the new
    zealous fishermen what will they return to? If pastors, priests, catechists and
    DREs do not participate in catechetical formation because they “don’t need formation” then the New Evangelization will surely fail (see Synod Propositions 28-29). The relationship between Evangelization and catechesis must be understood and appreciated in order for successful discipleship. Recall that when the disciples on the road returned to Jerusalem Jesus appeared their too and
    continued to teach them (Lk 24:36-49). Catechesis is a life- long process
    because growing in knowledge and relationship with Christ is a life-long

  • Katalina

    I hate to have to point this out Father but Vatican II and its murky worded documents which can be interpreted in any way is the reason for the state the Church is today and or the last half century. The MODERNIST heresy kept in and this has got to be faced and dealt with by not just the laity but more importantly the Church leadership.

  • Dennis Neylon

    As a cradle Catholic who wandered off from the Church, drifted back and forth and finally came home to stay, I think there are a number of unadressed issues in “teaching” the faith to Catholics.
    The first would be the near total lack of adult classes in the faith outside RCIA. Other than a weekday morning men’s bible study that conflicts with my work schedule, my large, well run parish offers no ongoing study of our faith for adult men. There are couple programs for women in the evenings, but that’s it. Since I returned to the faith, I gained great blessing from a class in the Catechism taught two years ago (there was talk of more studies but nothing has happened). I gained as much from the RCIA course my wife went through after deciding to convert based on what she learned from me as I went through the catechism class. There needs to be a much greater emphasis on learning the faith for adults who think (as I did) they know their faith. The very small Baptist congregation my wife brought me into when we married had two or three classes a week, depending on the season.
    Second, there needs to be a push to get the Catholic message out. The internet is an awesome tool and means — I only wish some of the sites and teaching I get now had been available 30 years ago when I was wandering. To this day, while I can tell you where three Catholic bookstores are near my home, I have no clue if there were any anywhere near my hometown, which I lived in until 28 and which had four parishes. As a wild thought, what about Catholic bookstore/coffee shops as a way to “spread the word.” We have to get the message past the Catholic ghetto walls around our websites, radio stations and tv.
    Three, we have to start reaching out to the mainstream media so they understand who and what the Church is about. Maybe bishops could take local reporters to lunch or dinner now and again and develop relationships with them — it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Catholic bloggers could reach out to media in their communities as well.
    Fourth, what if we had classes similar to RCIA for those who do come back. It’s not so much that things changed while we were gone, as that we could use a refresher class (like RCIA or a catechism class). One protestant church I attended offered an “Inquirer’s” class, which was for people thinking of joining. Perhaps classes offered to the community at large on Theology of the Body or Catholic Social Justice (say Rerum Novarum to Present) might be a way to reach out as well.

  • NumberPicker

    “Catholics still make up the largest religious grouping in the United States.” That should say, [Catholics make up the largest *single* religious group in the United States.] Protestants outnumber Catholics 10 to 1.
    Also, according to Zogby and Pew Research, atheists/humanists now number about 1 in 5 Americans. It won’t be long before the un-believers will be a larger group than Catholics.