If you don't think missionary discipleship is the cure, you might not grasp the disease.
For this blog, I want to riff off of a recent Crux interview with the head of Communion and Liberation, Father Julian Carron. The interview itself is great, worth reading, and can be found here: https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2017/06/21/dont-think-francis-cure-dont-grasp-disease-cl-head-says/
The title of the interview was drawn from a remark made by Fr. Carron regarding why Pope Francis is such a compelling and controversial figure in our time. Even though Father himself is the head of an organization known historically for its conservative lean, he speculates that the reason many conservatives struggle with Pope Francis' gestures is that they may not have grasped the dire cultural situation in which we find ourselves in this post-modern era. Pope Francis is a radical antidote to a radical problem.
This idea made me think of parish evangelization, especially in light of a couple of conversations I have had lately. With any movement, including the "missionary discipleship/parish renewal" movement the Church is currently being led through by the Holy Spirit, there is the danger of language being co-opted for reasons other than its original intention. Now familiar buzzwords like "discipleship," "stewardship," and "parish renewal" are no exceptions.
Recently, I was told by a Catholic company that the best thing a parish can do to renew itself is to, "present itself as a vibrant parish," meaning, of course, buy their marketing products. Thousands of parishes, they claimed, have been already presenting themselves as vibrant parishes by using their products and are seeing amazing renewal because of it. The only thing I could think was that if their products are so effective, why are we seeing wide scale abandonment of the faith by consecutive generations?
I do not think that this company is maliciously attempting to swindle Catholic parishes. I just think they might not understand the dire nature of the problem we are facing. The rapid and mammoth cultural changes that have happened in the last fifty years, predicted by the Second Vatican Council, have left us with a situation where we need to get radical about the solutions we propose.
It can be hard as Catholic "insiders" to really think into the minds and hearts of those who are leaving the Church or still consider Her and Christ with suspicion, but it is clear that we will not bring them back by slicker marketing campaigns alone or seeming really active as a parish. That approach may have worked even as recently as a decade or two ago, but the world has changed even since then.
I think it's tempting, as overwhelmed parish leadership, to jump at the latest "quick fix" to turnaround a parish that has begun to decline. Given the uniquely challenging dynamics of the cultural situation in which we currently find ourselves, though, something much deeper is needed than painting a veneer of vibrancy over our parish life by implementing "best practices" from the business world.
Is organization health important? Totally. Do we often fail as a Church at marketing and communications? Yup. Should we get better at that? As soon as possible, please! I have seen parishes, though, that look extremely vibrant and do not seem to be making many lifelong disciples at all. Activity does not equal discipleship. Our marketing campaigns have to be at the service of a deeper call.
The only real solution to the current cultural context is a radical commitment as a parish to forming disciples. As Fr. Carron states emphatically in his interview, Christianity, primarily, is an event. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ stands deeply in the heart of human history as a event that we as a Church must help people to encounter and be transformed by. This process is slow, often painstakingly slow, and it requires much of us. Perhaps part of the motivation to begin this long journey toward forming intentional disciples will come when we finally recognize that it is, in fact, the only way forward.
Last year, as our family prepared to make a move, we had to sublet our apartment. A young couple, late 20s, not married (cohabitating), had just moved to the area from Boston and came over for a walkthrough of the place. I had to laugh a little wondering if the explosion of blatant religious imagery (icons, crucifixes, Mary statues, oh my!) concerned them a little but the awkward sideways glances at the walls were overall limited. We got to talking. Both were successful, worked in the tech industry, and were fallen away from whatever faith that they grew up in.
A conviction developed in me as we chatted. If I wanted to evangelize this couple, it would have to be done by me personally, and over time. I would have to develop a friendship with them. Go out for beers with them and my wife. Have them over for dinner at some point. Grow in relationship and trust and only after a period of months would they probably take me up on an invitation to some event at my parish that would be an encounter with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
This couple could not care less if the parish down the street "presented itself as vibrant." They likely would never step through its doors anyway - barring a great miracle. Best practices might work to create an overall more positive atmosphere for those already inside the parish. If we are going to renew the Church in the current cultural arena though, more than that is needed. We need apostles, people whose "sandals" are dirty from trying to bootstrap this thing.
I think about this couple sometimes and hope someone in the area is taking an active interest in helping them develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. I pray that this is the case.