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

If You Build It, They Won’t Necessarily Come. February 20, 2014


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.

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19 responses to “If You Build It, They Won’t Necessarily Come.”

  1. We face a more difficult task than the Apostles and missionaries of the past. Most people today have heard about Jesus and the Church, but they have MANY misperceptions about them that need to be overcome. For many, these misperceptions are so thorough that you could almost say that they are “inoculated” against Christianity. You are right, though, difficult or not difficult, it needs to be done. Primarily, though, it is our example that will speak volumes. As the light continues to go out in our culture, our light will become easier to see.

    “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 don’t know if this is a particularly fair statement. Anyone is welcome in the Church, because everyone is a child of God. If one is willing to give up sex until the situation is resolved, they would be able to receive Communion regardless of the messiness of their marital situation. It speaks to the low degree of fervor (and the sex worship of our culture) that this isn’t even a consideration for most. It is to be faithful to Christ’s words about divorce and remarriage that the Church has the annulment process. That said, you do have a point that the annulment process could perhaps be streamlined.

  2. Well said. My personal belief is that many parishes can adopt the welcoming methods of many successful non-denominational churches and traditional protestant churches without losing our Catholic identity. Fellowship in many of the churches I’ve been a member of has been practically non-existent. Congregants come in, mime through Mass for an hour, and then within 5 minutes of the blessing and dismissal, the parking lot is practically empty. New members or visitors, while sometimes recognized during Mass, aren’t courted into various activities. There’s many great ideas out there, but it just takes dedicated members to see it through.

  3. I love this, it is exactly what we should be doing. Though I’d point out with annulments, we already are. I have a Knight in my council who just got his third degree. He was baptised about a year ago because we thought we were going to lose him then- at age 28 he had severe heart problems, went through open heart surgery in October.

    He was married prior to his conversion, but his wife left him when he got sick (so many leave their spouses over illness these days).

    He’s been told that his annulment is guaranteed- abandonment is not something we hold people up for. And of course, since he hasn’t remarried….he’s ok taking the sacraments, even with my current priest who is a Canon Lawyer and a stickler for the law.

  4. Different diocese Ted. I had a friend who was turned down when she wanted to convert because she couldn’t get her ex to fill the forms on their common law marriage. The priest told her to come back when she got the forms filled out.

  5. Say WHAT? That priest was way out of line. If she is not remarried, there is absolutely no issue. If she is re-married, then she should still be able to join the Church. The issue of Communion would then be an open issue depending on some things I mentioned in my post, but it sounds to me as if that is improper. By the way, no one should ever be kept from an annulment by money. That is not supposed to happen, period.

  6. I’m wondering if evangelization and catchesis are really 2 different things. I think much of the world has been evangelized – they’ve heard the Gospel and know about Jesus Christ. They have the means to learn more (be catechized) and be converted even if they are indifferent or hostile. These are the people of rocky ground, poor soil, and thorns.

    With regard to Catholic annulments I am wondering if we don’t have a very dichotomous message about the Eucharist. According to Pope Francis (I think) the Eucharist is food for the healing and strengthening of sinners not a prize for the holy. And yet, withholding the Eucharist because someone has made a mistake they can’t undo or until someone jumps through a bunch of hoops seems rather like winning a prize to me. Most especially since we say that the Eucharist is what our Catholic Church has that no other church does. If we can’t let people who want to come to the Eucharist come aren’t we just saying that they might as well go down the street and worship at the Lutheran or Episcopal church and get the same thing?

  7. Ken, I was talking about things I have seen, in particular one case where a woman tried to enter the Church. She had been a devout Christian for a long time and felt called by God to convert. In her youth, she’d been in a common law marriage — that it was common law was actually easy to document. At the time of this common law marriage, neither she nor the man were Christians. She later found Christ and changed her life. Years later, she remarried.

    When she tried to get the annulment of her common law marriage that the Church required for her to convert, it took her a long time to fine the ex. Then, he refused to cooperate with filling out the forms. There was also a question of physical danger.

    Her parish priest told her she could not convert because of this and to come back when she got the forms filled out. He dismissed her out of hand.

    Among other things wrong with this situation is that it puts the question of whether or not someone may convert to the Catholic Church in the hands of what may be a vengeful ex spouse.

    She was humiliated and wounded by the whole process, but particularly by this priest’s rejection.

    She finally found another priest who agreed to let her convert. His comment to her was, I think, exactly correct: “Nothing is greater than the mercy of Christ, not even Canon Law.”

  8. This is sad on so many levels and one of the reasons I wish the Church was less legalistic and more pastoral – our clergy don’t even do a good job at legalism. So ultimately what is the lesson here? Just keep priest shopping until you find one who is sympathetic and willing to (mis?) interpret canon law to your liking?

  9. Even then, she should have been able to enter the Church. I don’t think that is a correct interpretation of Canon Law. I’m glad she found another priest who was more reasonable.

  10. I have a problem with this. The Apostles did not go out into the void preaching Jesus to people who never heard of Jesus Christ before. To the contrary, the rumour of Jesus’ death and resurrection had gone around the Jewish communities of the whole Mediterranean, and the Apostles, if we judge from the case of St.Paul, went to put the case of Jesus and Christianity to communities that had already heard of Him and had very strong views. Indeed, in the case of Corinth Paul found a Christian community already formed by a man called Apollos, who had never met Jesus but had believed on account of what he had heard;and we don’t need to doubt that this was the only one. Some of the Christians Paul found in Corinth (that was a Latin-speaking city) had been expelled from Rome by Claudius years earlier, because – says the historian Suetonius – they were eternally rioting at the instigation of Chrestus. In other words, years before either Paul or Peter reached Rome, the Jews of the empire’s capital were split between a Christian and an anti-Christian party.

    St.Patrick (whom I have written a book about) was the second bishop of Ireland, following a man called Palladius, and the Pope who sent Palladius (and Patrick, who was originally a priest in Palladius’ following) was Celestinus, who in one of his letters had clearly stated that you simply don’t send a Bishop to any community unless they ask for one. IN other words, there were Christians in Ireland before Palladius and Patrick, numerous enough to form a community and apply for a bishop; and in my book I argue that the sending of Palladius was the result of the flight to Ireland of a large number of Pelagian heretics, who formed communities of considerable size and importance, especially in Munster.

    What I am saying is that it is unprofitable to stand at street corners and shout Jesus. Nobody will listen, and you will build up the image of a kook, which will be one further obstacle in the work of evangelization. The only missions that work in the long run are those that build on a base of previously existing knowledge, or hearsay, or curiosity. Failing that, all you can do is live well and hope others notice.

  11. Lay folks really do need to do more in the areas where it is our purview to do more. Sometimes we expect the priests to do everything bit that’s not fair. And once in awhile the priests create unnecessary obstacles.
    Had a friend coming back that I spent a lot of time talking about the faith with. She needed short form dispensation from a prior marriage, current marriage blessed and confirmation. She also had a baby coming. The priest was putting her off to great pain. While in town preaching to confirmation teens I prayed and spoke to him about my friends confirmation. He lied and acted like a petulant child. So she moved to our parish and we hooked her up with a Monsignor and let him know that we can’t chase people away when they sincerely come to us with sometimes messy situations. He was wonderful to her, she was confirmed, her marriage blessed and baby baptized. Het saint was the patron for journalists as is her profession…yahoo!

  12. That priest was an idiot and ought to have been carpeted by his bishop. This seems to me a clear case of Pauline Privilege.

  13. My brother-in-law married by a justice of the peace the first time with no clergy at all. That marriage was viewed as invalid and it certainly was. It took several months for him to get appropriate letters because his parents had died, his first, civil wife kept “forgetting to fill out the paper work” and the justice of the peace no longer exists. Then he had his first sacramental marriage, also begun as a civil marriage.
    It was tough, but he did it.
    What I don’t understand is why a non-Catholic has to go through so many trials to come into the Church when so many of those intentions are not sacramental. I also do not understand how a common law arrangement could be anything like a marriage in the eyes of the Church. How is that not just cohabitation?

  14. There is a legal difference in most states Anne. Here in Oklahoma, if you say you are married in an official document, then you in a common law marriage. That means, among other things, that you would have to get a divorce to end the marriage. However you deal with it legally, I don’t see how anyone could confuse it with a sacramental marriage. That’s why I say that is the person can show that the union was common law, there isn’t any need to put them through all sorts of other evidence gathering to grant an annulment.

  15. I see what you are saying. Besides maybe letters saying the person was in a common law marriage, then civilly divorced, I don’t think it should be that strenuous. It will be difficult no matter what, but I don’t think we need to make it harder. I agree with you. Isn’t that the pastoral aspect?