What figure best shows how dire the Church’s situation is in the West? Is it Mass attendance among youth? Perhaps it is polls of self-professed Catholics that reveal little connection between the Church’s teachings and common practice? We know the Church is in decline, but sadly the Church’s response (and by Church I mean myself included) has been haphazard and a little sad. We look to bishops to be prophets, speaking out boldly for the faith, but many it seems are stuck in the mold of middle-management businessmen.
If there was ever a time that the Church needed saints, that time is now. To be sure, new evangelists are finding inroads for evangelization in ways that previous generations may never have fathomed. I’m thinking specifically of Bishop Robert Barron and those who use social media wisely to spread the faith. But, it would seem, these are men and women simply responding to the crisis of faith in the best way they know how. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that theirs is only a futile attempt to hold back the tide of increasing secularism. What we really need is a new Moses, a prophet that, with God’s help, can take us farther than we ever thought possible. What St. Francis did in the 1200s and St. Ignatius did in the 1500s, a new saint must do today.
But what would this saint look like and what would this saint be doing? The answer is not clear. If we were able to easily identify the next saint that could transfix our nations and cultures, particularly in the Western world, we would already be busy helping to do this saint’s work.
Some in the Church have determined that what the Church needs is a greater emphasis on catechesis. One of those is Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. In 2017, noting that wide swaths of Catholics lack basic knowledge about what the faith teaches including some of its most foundational beliefs, he launched an initiative to transform the Diocese of Tyler into a “teaching diocese.” He wrote that it is our responsibility to “hand that Faith on to others” through teaching and catechesis. A large focus of Bishop Strickland’s proposal was on the development of new “teaching materials” that are clear and informative, and an approach which never “confuses or obfuscates.” It’s clear in his concluding paragraphs that Bishop Strickland is not singularly focused on teaching as opposed to evangelization. But with so much emphasis on developing new materials and new programs and structures, the question is really whether this is the best path forward. Is this how the faith is best handed on today in this climate?
Handing on the faith can never be reduced to an exchange of information, as if well-polished teaching materials were at all of prime importance. Pope Francis often quotes Pope Benedict’s phrase, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Francis also wrote in Lumen Fidei, “Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.” To receive the faith, one has an experience that gives one an enriched vision of reality as it truly is, permeated with God’s love. Faith is not information in the sense that one simply “knows about” God or Jesus or the Church. If that were the case, then our world, with access to the Internet and seemingly limitless information, should be teeming with faithfulness.
It appears, in fact, that the opposite has happened. With an abundance of knowledge and information at our fingertips, we lack the ability to discern what is really worth knowing. It’s largely a function of time, which seems to be the only thing we truly value. If it takes time to read and to learn, we have to have conviction that it will be worthwhile prior to going through the hassle. (Speaking of which, thanks for your time.) It seems that nothing is worse to us than wasting time. Even despite all the value we place on our privacy, most of us apparently still value our time more, to the extent that we are willing to allow machines to collect loads of sensitive information about us so that they can determine what posts or articles or pictures we will like before we spend time on them. This is the state-of-the-art science of the eminently-personalized Facebook/Twitter/news feed that is peak “West.”
For a variety of reasons and with a variety of people and trends to blame–boomers, the bishops, generations of bad catechesis, the abuse crisis, secular culture, Catholic media itself–people have largely prejudged the Church as not worth their time. Consequently, information “about” is likely to be forgotten before it ever lands. Actually, it is my fault too, insofar as I’ve made it seem like all you get when you become Catholic is a bunch of stuffy, arrogant theology; continuous, bitter intra-Church sniping; and the stress of parenthood.
And so, it is necessary for us Catholics to stop trying to catechize, at least so long as “catechesis” is only communicating information “about” the faith. Decades of bad catechesis is not fixed by more or better catechesis. We have to get back to basics. Our task today is to somehow show or convince others that the faith is inherently a good thing, at least worth knowing about, prior to people taking even a single step on their journey to greater knowledge about the faith. As irreplaceable as information about the faith is, it is not the silver bullet for the Church’s problems. We maximize our efforts at catechesis when we teach someone who has already been encountered by God in some profound way and is ready to receive “knowledge about” the faith that enhances and enriches their newfound reality.
In this vein, Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, ”Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.”
And so the question remains, how do we facilitate that first or a renewed encounter with Christ? Over the years, the Church has laid out several robust roadmaps for evangelization, not least of which are Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium. But something prior is needed: the courage to actually proclaim Christ as Lord to all we meet. Pope Francis, quoting Pope John Paul II, writes, “There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord”, and without “the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ in all evangelizing work.” This courage can only be born of a deep conviction that Christ’s suffering, death and Resurrection means everything to you and me. Faith in Jesus and his promise must be allowed to transform us.
The way of evangelization begins with infectious joy and acts of selflessness that arise from faith-filled hearts deeply grateful for Christ’s sacrifice. This faith is a virtue, which means that one must be given the grace of faith and also one must practice at it. It requires “habitual openness to the transcendent” in prayer that makes us ever more conscious of the reality opened up to us through faith.
It is not one saint that the Church needs today, but millions of saints who can spread the Good News to neighbors, friends, co-workers, and fellow parishioners. These saints would certainly benefit from catechesis that helps them to be formed into the faith they received and live it out. At the same time, our information-laden world could use fewer “truth bombs,” fewer blog posts, fewer materials, and fewer debates–even ones with extremely clever arguments.
To evangelize, people need to see in us a possible future for themselves. This goes far beyond mere information. Are we happy? Do we behave in a way that is attractive? Do we do the things that only a man or woman who lives in hope can do? We could leave it up to the bishops. Or we could leave it to a computer to curate a listicle about the “right religion for you.” Or, we, the lay faithful, can be living examples of true Christian joy. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, “[I]if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”