My New Year’s Wish for the Church

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 2009

In the twenty-five years since I became a Catholic, I have continuously wondered why there is so little evangelism. I speak of the Church in this country, of course, though the observation would apply to Europe as well. I think I have finally located one source of the problem.

My New Year’s wish for the Church is that by becoming aware of two attitudes – dutifulness and complacency – we can start to renew our parishes with a spirit that greets those we know and welcomes those we do not.

Non-Catholic churches are filled with baptized Catholics who went elsewhere to find a spiritual home. Teenagers and young adults drift away after years of coming to Mass with their parents. These Catholics who no longer practice their faith, or have found other church homes, rarely speak ill of the Church; rather, they talk about a lack of “connection,” of feeling “anonymous,” and the experience of “not being fed.”

Yes, there are adult converts to the Catholic faith, but their number represents a trickle of what it could be if our Church was genuinely evangelical.

What do I mean by “evangelism,” “being evangelical,” or having an “evangelical spirit”? Is this just another example of a convert haranguing the Church for not being what it never was? Not at all. What I am proposing is something that arises naturally from the very nature of our faith and the mission of our Church. Does not our faith contain a story that begs to be told? Is not our Church a place that should greet and welcome all who come to its door?

Evangelical Christians are motivated to share their faith because they are taught that every person’s eternal salvation is at stake. Are Catholics taught any differently? No. Yet our behavior and prevalent attitudes would suggest otherwise. Evangelicals treat everyone who comes to their church as a customer (for lack of a better word) – strangers are welcomed at the door, recognized during the service, and often invited to lunch afterward. Put simply, they make a concerted effort every Sunday to build their community by extending it to others.

So what is getting in the way of Catholics sharing the story of their faith and consciously seeking to build the parish community from week to week? The problem is not our teaching, but the unnecessary attitudes mistakenly fostered by that teaching. In my opinion, these attitudes can be expunged through a more joyful engagement in the liturgy.

The Church teaches that certain aspects of religious practice, from Sunday Mass attendance and Holy Days (Canon 1247) to confession (Canon 989) are obligations. The consequences of not keeping these obligations can be a mortal sin (Catechism 1855) and the loss of sanctifying grace.

When all Catholics are required to be at Mass on Sunday the attitude can become: “Well, I have to be here and so does everyone else.” Let’s call that attitude dutifulness. That approach explains the lack of welcome on the part of congregants and priests alike. Why say, “I’m glad you are here,” when everyone is obliged to be here?

I am well aware that the teaching on the obligation is not intended to encourage such an attitude, and it is clear that there are other factors to consider (such as the need for liturgy that lifts the spirit of those in the pews). Nevertheless, there’s no debating the fact that problems arise when Catholics approach Mass as a duty.

The second attitude stems from Catholic teaching about the sacraments as they are entrusted to the Church (Catechism 1131) and necessary for salvation (Catechism 1125). Our priesthood is what “guarantees that it really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church” (Catechism 1120). This teaching was one of the Church’s great attractions to me as a convert. But this often translates into an attitude of “You have nowhere else to go if you want true salvation.” Let’s call that attitude ‘complacency,’ which in the extreme becomes smugness.

Catholics are not a people who are deeply disposed to sharing their Faith and are often put off by what they consider aggressive habits among their Protestant brethren. But our religion should motivate us to evangelize, though our styles and methods might be different. As Catholics, we are taught that the “Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.” And we are also taught the Church and its universality is “a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity” (Catechism 831).

So great a gift demands to be shared. And to those who come to our parish door in search of that gift, they should be met not only with a “welcome,” but also with a celebration of the Mass that satisfies their hunger for God.

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