Want Religious Freedom? Ditch the Assembly Line and Start Raising Mature Catholics

Want Religious Freedom? Ditch the Assembly Line and Start Raising Mature Catholics July 2, 2015

So my How to Prevent Same Sex Couples from Suing Us post garnered reactions pretty similar to all my other what if we did what the Church says we should do posts about catechesis (a smattering linked below).  The three main reactions are:

  • Nice idea, but priests have too much work as it is.
  • Nice idea, but how exactly do we make this happen?
  • Um. What??

But to give you an idea of how far off the cliff the Church has already fallen, a very fearless, no-nonsense, ardently faithful priest asked in a private forum, “So what if I do what you suggest, and the same-sex couple remains convinced that because they attend Mass and so forth, they are Catholics in good standing?”  This was super curious of a question, because I’m thinking, Father, I’ve been to your parish.  How exactly could someone attend your parish six months and some, plus your marriage prep, and not have figured this out?

So let’s talk about this.  These objections aren’t unfounded.  They are firmly rooted in the on-the-ground reality that nearly every parish struggles with.  Let’s take them one by one.

Priests Don’t Have Time to Do One-on-One Discipleship

This is a reality.  We haven’t had a culture of discipleship in decades.  It takes disciples to beget disciples, so it’s no surprise that vocations are scarce.  Pastors (and most priests end up being pastors whether they are cut out for it or not — someone has to fill that empty seat) have a crushing load of responsibilities, and not much budget with which to bring on good help even if they could get it.  When our Lord spoke of faith moving mountains, I suspect He had Father’s to-do list in mind.

So what about the other hundreds or thousands of adults in any given parish?  The answer I usually hear, and I have every reason to believe it is accurate, is I have nobody in this parish who could do that.

Of course not.  The state of adult faith is so weak we don’t even dare let parents catechize their own children, let alone entrust to Joe Pewsitter the job of helping a troubled, confused, questioning soul through the arduous task of coming to Jesus.

There is, it seems, literally not a single available person in most parishes who is capable of evangelization and discipleship.


How Would You Do This Anyway?

Problem: Even if you want to evangelize adults, bring them to Christ, and then form them into mature Catholics who can go on to serve the Church as fellow workers in the vineyard, where do you start?  If we were wondering what to do with all the spare catechists, it might not be so daunting.  But we can’t just abandon religious education for children, can we?  And that’s using up our six faithful and well-formed Catholics who aren’t actually on their death beds, and about two dozen other nice people who mostly don’t cause trouble.

Getting unstuck from where we are is a massive challenge.


Um, What Are You Talking About??

I had the advantage of returning to the Catholic faith through Evangelical doors.  I had a series of Protestant friends who tag-team ushered me towards the decision to follow Jesus, and I was primed for the faith by an on-fire pastor at an on-fire non-denominational congregation.  The moment when the Holy Spirit swooped into my life and dragged me to Mass with ears newly-opened to the Gospel?  I was praying it would happen in some dappled shadows-and-sunlight corner of a stained-glass chapel all by my lonesome, but actually it was a Baptist deacon who heard the call, led me to Christ, and urged me to make a formal act accepting Him.

And then in that very instant, I had an overwhelming urge to attend Mass and never looked back.

I am literally someone whose rock-solid, 100% Catholic conversion was handled 100% by Protestants.

Afterwards I was discipled by a combination of Protestant friends, one very fervent Catholic priest, and things I could read.  If I weren’t the kind of person who has to give up reading for Lent as a penance, I never would have learned a lick of apologetics, Theology of the Body, or anything else.

My education is unusual.  Most Catholics, I’m learning, have no clue what I’m talking about when I say that people need to be evangelized and discipled a soul at a time. They’ve never seen it done.


Self-Service Christianity

What we have instead is cafeteria-model Catholicism.  The soul-food service line consists of weekly Mass and a series of classes for designated life moments, intended to prepare us for the sacraments.  If you’ll just start where it says “enter” and followed the roped-off course, you’ll end up with something like the Catholic faith on your tray by the time you get to check-out.

The difficulty is that unborn and newborn faithful don’t begin spiritual life knowing how to put a nice square meal on their tray.

Getting mad that Joe Curious doesn’t manage to get the whole of the Catholic faith onto his plate would be like yelling at a two-year-old favoring brownies over salad when you pointed towards the buffet and said, “Go through line and get what you need.”

Humans have to be taught everything.  We have a few instincts, and those will mostly point us in the right direction, but we must either teach ourselves or have someone else teach us every single thing we learn.  (This would be the crux of that whole opposition to same-sex marriage, right? That children truly need their mother and father?  What exactly do you think the parents are needed for?  Laundry money?)

My fifteen-year-old can write up a grocery list, do the shopping, and come home and make the family dinner for a week, then do it again the next week and the one after, no problem.  But he didn’t get that way because we put him through a series of hourly meetings at programmed times.

We did it by first putting a few foods on his highchair tray, then taking them away when he got tired of eating and started throwing them.  Slowly over time we introduced him to more foods, taught him to use silverware, allowed him to pick out a snack from the fridge, then to make his own sandwich, and so forth.  When he started the Summer of Cooking, we were there to provide coaching as-desired so that he wasn’t completely on his own at first.  Even now that he’s an established cook who knows recipes we don’t, he still sometimes asks for guidance, and we’re there to provide it.

What we did was disciple our son in the art of eating and then cooking.  This is a personal process.  Our other children ate different first foods, had different challenges with table manners, and have built up their skills on a different set of recipes.  You can’t say, “Every child will need this amount of practice with a fork and knife, and will be able to cut his own steak at the age of ____.”  That just isn’t how humans are.  Our children are different people with different interests, talents, and needs.  You can’t raise children on an assembly line.

You can’t raise spiritual children on an assembly line either.

Cafeteria Congregations Cook Up Cafeteria Catholics

The assembly-line mentality is so deeply engrained in Catholic thinking that whenever an evangelization or discipleship problem is discussed among parish professionals, it’s guaranteed that at least one person will propose a better assembly line.  Parents presenting their children for baptism don’t know the faith?  Make them go to more classes! Longer classes! Start them sooner!  Have them fill out attendance forms!

It is utterly foreign to most Catholic faith-professionals that you might sit down with a parent and listen to them for an hour. Find out what that person’s questions are.  Find out what’s going on in that person’s spiritual life.  See what that person needs and then try to meet that need.

And of course we have no one available to do that work if we wanted to . . . because the cafeteria method doesn’t produce mature Catholics.   It produces people who at best aren’t starving to death.

Soul At A Time Discipleship Is the Only Solution

I’m going to be very blunt.  Pastors and religious educators lament that they cannot offer one-on-one discipleship because they have no mature Catholics to carry out the work . . . and then they continue to pour every parish resource into a system that has proven it cannot produce mature Catholics.

We’re terrified of trying something new because it requires taking energy and money away from the system we have, and what we have is keeping the pews more or less full.  But what the pews are full of is the spiritual equivalent of neglected children being raised in one of those horrible orphanages where you’re lucky to still be alive in ten years.

If you want to raise mature Christians, you must do the things it takes to raise a mature Christian.

You must decide that there is at least one soul in your parish actually worth saving, and sit down and evangelize and then disciple that soul.  And then the two of you can start on two more.

That is how it works.

(Actually an informal batch process workshop does fine — parents sometimes raise as many as a dozen or two dozen children to maturity over the course of forty years.  You don’t have to wait until one soul is full-grown before you invite the next one into your life.)

How Can This Happen at a Parish Like Yours?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are an ordinary overworked faith-formation professional with hundreds of kids you have to push through sacramental prep or the bishop’s going to fire the lot of you.  That’s reality.

If you have not a single available mature Catholic in your parish, pick victim #1.  Someone who has promise.  Head on straight, seems to be serious about the faith, lots of potential.  Someone who, when you propose what I’m going to suggest, accepts your invitation: Spend an hour a week with that person, meeting for the express purpose of helping that person grow stronger in the faith.

You don’t need a program, but if you thirst for one, use something flexible like this free retreat workbook that helps you identify the person’s actual spiritual needs.  You could read through the Bible or the Catechism together.  You could just meet each week and pray together, then you sit there listening and answer questions and propose resources of interest, and then pray again.

You can do this one-on-one, or you could form a small group of would-be disciples and meet for a couple hours a week to grow in the faith together.  Your mission is to work steadily on helping each person, whether it’s one person or five people, reach maturity.  Don’t quit until your friend reaches that point where he or she can be the person you trust to help another person grow in the faith.

If you have one mature Catholic who can get free for an hour a week, put that person to work.  That might be a person who can do full-on discipleship described above. But how about this:  What if while the kids were in religious ed, you kicked aside that pile of boxes next to the secretary’s desk, then invited parents to huddle around one of those mini DVD players watching a Father Barron video, because the janitor’s closet has brooms in it and there’s not a single other square inch of parish property available?  (Or you could use the other square inches and a big TV if you have such luxuries.)

And then, get this: After the mature Catholic hits “play” on the DVD, he or she steps out into the hall and sips on a beverage.  And then this one parent wanders out, and the mature Catholic listens while the parent tells her tale of woe. Why she hates the Catholic church.  Why she can’t get to Mass.  Why her husband left her and her dog is ugly.

You create a situation where one person in your parish can actually be evangelized.  One person can be excused from the assembly line.

Got more resources?  Great, use them.  Put more mature Catholics to work bringing more lost souls out of obscurity in the pews and into a relationship with Christ. But if you can only save one person from your infernal assembly line, start there.




Related Posts in this Series:

File:Brooklyn Museum - Christ on the Cross Adored by Saints Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena (Recto) - Lorenzo d'Alessandro da San Severino.jpg

 Artwork: Lorenzo d’Alessandro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  You know what? Catherine of Siena did it this way.  You can too.

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