I serve on my parish council at a church in an affluent suburb of St. Louis. Our parish typically gives a generous amount toward various fundraisers, including Archdiocesan special appeals, parish appeals, and missionary and service efforts, locally and abroad. It certainly is a lot to be proud of and I’m so happy to be part of such a generous parish. But the work of building parishioners up in holiness is never-ending, and any critical look at our parish would likely point to “generosity of resources” as a potential crutch for underlying spiritual weaknesses.
In other words, are people giving but not really growing? Several inspired and dedicated folks here have done remarkable work to encourage spiritual development, including with Sunday education programs, service programs, the Dynamic Catholic program, bible studies, and so on. But certainly the question I ask myself is, are these the right things? They may be. What else should we be doing, instead of, or in addition to, these programs?
I was happy to see, while perusing the shelves at the library, a book on this very topic. Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter, written by a parish administrator and a pastor, recounts a successful attempt to jumpstart parish activity and Mass attendance through a programmatic restructuring and rethinking of the “Sunday experience.”
The authors explain that so many of their early attempts had failed miserably, so they ended up borrowing many ideas from Protestant churches with burgeoning memberships in an attempt to combat a “consumer” mentality to the Mass. Instead of “What can I get out of it?”, they wanted people to want to be at Mass, to be participants, and to grow in holiness. But first, they needed to get them there.
Some of the ideas talked about in the book didn’t make intuitive sense at first, but in all, the various parish programs seem to be oriented around increasing the interaction of the community with each other and to provide a place where Sunday worship is truly the beating heart of a loving and faithful community. My impression at the end of the book was of a parish that is alive, filled with programs, and filled with people happy to be there.
The story of this parish made me ask some difficult questions. Is it wrong to rethink the entire “Sunday experience” to increase Mass attendance? Is there ever a bad reason to be at Mass? If you’re at Mass to hear great music and to be with your friends, isn’t that better than not being at Mass at all? In short, just get them in the door, receiving the Sacraments, and God will take care of the rest. Right?
In trying to answer these questions for myself, I started to appreciate better what we could possibly call the “creative minority” position, which is that Mass should be “hard.” The “Sunday experience” is only about pleasing your senses inasmuch as it elevates them to the mystery of the Mass. It’s true that the extraordinary form is not as attractive to as many people, but it is certainly more conducive to holiness. Right?
Regardless of how we answer the question, we start to run the risk of plunging fully into Pelagianism when we believe man-made liturgies can actually make people more holy, simply by their attendance at Mass, be it ordinary form or extraordinary form. This relates to Pope Francis’ concerns in Gaudete et Exsultate, when he warned of “new Pelagianism.”
Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.
There was one theme from Rebuilt that I thoroughly appreciated here: what we do, as human beings, to increase in holiness has a lot to do with removing obstacles to God’s grace. It means removing barriers to growth, wherever they exist. Equally important is the idea that humans need help from other humans to grow. God works “directly” in the quiet depths of the human heart, but he also works through the efforts of others. Good liturgy is one way that happens.
For example, this can mean having music at Mass that is good and soul-lifting while not letting an anthropocentric performance distract from the sacred. It can mean making parish programs more accessible and enjoyable while not reducing the parish into a mere volunteer operation. It can mean giving more money in the collection while also giving more time to your neighbor in need.
Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, writes “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.”
But without having a view into the human heart, it would be problematic to look at any one metric, quantitative or qualitative, and think that a parish is truly succeeding in its mission. For example, I’ve seen recently some numbers being shared on Twitter that illustrate the differences in the reception of the Sacraments (marriage, Confirmation, Baptisms, etc.) from today vs. decades ago. Total numbers are way down, as we probably all know. If we are to believe that reception of the Sacraments alone is holiness, then it doesn’t take a sociologist or statistician to point out that the people receiving the Sacraments decades ago failed to reproduce holiness in their children. What seems more accurate to say is that the reception of the Sacraments alone is not a guarantee of holiness, even as the Sacraments are a necessary foundation for holiness.
For example, does attending a Catholic school help encourage reception of the Sacraments? Definitely, and especially among millennials.
Receiving the Sacraments is critical, but so too is what we do to support a person in the life of grace. If a community-organizing program is successful at getting people to go to Church on Sundays, but leads people away from a life centered on Christ, is it truly successful? If a program educates people about the powerful mystery of the Eucharist, but very few people ever show up, is that program truly successful?
I sincerely believe that part of Pope Francis’ personal mission has been to cut through this false dichotomy. Francis writes:
At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him.
But later, Francis writes:
Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of that kingdom… You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavour.
In Evangelii Gaudium, he points out that “in all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.”
I believe that what Francis is illustrating here is the need for evangelization to flow from the sacramental life. Everything we do to share the Gospel must be oriented to the Gospel, and in fact, our orientation to the Gospel requires that we evangelize the world. It’s not that complicated, but as Rebuilt shows, a lot of (unnecessary?) complexity can be added to a rather simple mission. We ought to be “passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.”
There are real risks here. We can become full of ourselves and think of all the joy in others because has been because of our own work, rather than the grace of God. Or we can be so desperate to fill our parish halls that we entice people through better music, better food, free giveaways, or the like. Francis warns us:
Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness. We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ.
There’s no quick or easy solution to evangelization. And not everything that “works” will work everywhere. The Rebuilt authors knew that too. But we must try, because it’s our life’s mission. The process of evangelization is never-ending.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.