Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sailing First Class

Last month, I wrote about a chance encounter with a young man who wanted to be Catholic. At the time, I wondered whether it was truly a chance encounter or whether the Holy Spirit brought us together. Shortly after that event, I did something rather out-of-character for me. Our pastor announced that an Adult Formation/RCIA class would be starting on Tuesday evenings and repeated on Saturday mornings. He billed the class as being appropriate for non-Catholics interested in exploring the Catholic Faith, Catholics who had been away from the Church, or Catholics wishing to learn more about their faith. Falling into the third group, I decided to attend.

Normally I would be reluctant to give up an evening each week to attend a class. Much of my free time is occupied with various meetings or activities. I like to attend a weekday evening Mass or two each week, and my service on a civic board and other groups also eat up the minutes. All of this in addition to a full-time job and household chores make free evenings to relax a welcome respite. Still I felt a compulsion to go.

Father and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on certain matters, mostly regarding the liturgy and occasionally the general operation of the parish, including the lack of orthodox catechesis. There were times when anger and frustration were interfering with my maintaining an appropriate frame of mind at Mass. My normal reaction to conflict is avoidance. While that may be a bad solution in most cases, here it worked for me. I let others in the parish fight the battles while I gained some peace of mind. I have a short memory and my discontent diminished quickly.

About this time, I was surprised to see Father boldly recommending a diocesan conference featuring Scott Hahn. Dr. Hahn is a Catholic convert who speaks gloriously about discovering our wonderful Catholic liturgy. I had been listening to Dr. Hahn and reading his books for several years. He seemed to be very orthodox in his views and having Father endorsing his conference was an exciting new development for me! Perhaps attending the class would give me an opportunity to develop this common interest into a new and better relationship with Father.

One of the unfortunate results of our poor catechesis is the lack of participation by our parishioners in anything beyond weekly Mass attendance. Fearing I would be the only one in the class, I enlisted another parishioner who often shares my opinions to attend also. As expected, the three of us were the only ones there. We spent the first session lamenting the fact that we have no one in RCIA again this year. During the discussion, we mentioned several acquaintances as possible candidates for conversion.

Both my classmate and I sing in the parish choir. The following Sunday, one of the persons she mentioned in the class surprisingly showed up for Mass. He was a young man in his twenties who had attended a Catholic college and sang in the college choir while he was a student. She introduced him and asked me to help him find the hymns we would be singing. After Mass, she introduced him to Father and invited him to our Tuesday session. He said he was interested and would like to come. After we all parted, I congratulated my friend on bringing this prospective new Catholic to Mass. She replied by telling me she had not talked to him recently, and in fact, she thought that I had talked to him! Wow, I thought. Maybe the Holy Spirit IS working with us. I went away invigorated and looking forward to our next Tuesday session.

About the same time, I mentioned the upcoming class to another Protestant friend of mine. We have engaged in periodic religious discussions over the past couple of years. He is very set in his Protestant ways, so I was surprised when he expressed a desire to attend the class. A conflict prevented him from attending the first meeting, but I told him he would be welcome to come the following week.

When it came time for our first Tuesday class, the young man never showed. We waited for awhile and I began to wonder whether he may have expected one of us to pick him up. Knowing where he lived, I went to his house where I met his parents in the front yard. I explained why I was there and they said he was lying down. About the same time, another gentleman drove up also looking to give him a ride. Seems the young man had been attending a Protestant meeting on Tuesday evenings, one where they probably do not think too highly of Catholics. It soon became apparent that he did not intend to go to either meeting this evening. His parents were very cordial in explaining that their son had been experiencing some problems and they were all going through a difficult time. I told them we were there to help in any way we can and to call on us any time they feel the need. I have been praying for them.

When the following Tuesday arrived, neither one of our contacts were in attendance. My Protestant friend had a change of heart and decided not to participate. This did not really surprise me as he has occasionally expressed intent in the past and not followed through. Several weeks have passed and we have had no further interest indicated by either person. If the Holy Spirit did bring us together, why did this not work out? Did we do something wrong? Did we neglect to do something we should have done? How does one continue to pursue potential converts without seeming overbearing?

The class is continuing with the three of us. Father is using Bishop Charles J. Chaput’s book, Living the Catholic Faith for the text. We also have a study guide written by Father Daniel J. Mahan. These may be excellent materials, but I am wondering whether this type of study is profitable for drawing people closer to the Church. My early impression is that this study is good for people solidly grounded in the Faith who are looking to enrich their spiritual lives. Having only two parishioners in attendance leads me to believe most of our congregation is not there yet.

The Church is a vehicle, much like a ship crossing the ocean. She can transport us to our final destiny if we stay safely onboard. In some ways, this study presumes we are full steam ahead and need to familiarize ourselves with all the ship’s amenities. Subtitled Rediscovering the Basics, Bishop Chaput’s book is a great refresher for those committed to following orders of the ship’s captain. Unfortunately, many Catholics are today adrift. They have never been properly catechized and even this most basic manual may be beyond their horizons. Many do not follow Church teaching and some have abandoned ship altogether.

All of us are at different places on our spiritual journeys. Some of us never leave the port. I sometimes wonder if our priests who form catechetical programs are not so far spiritually removed from the floundering Catholic that they fail to connect. The Catholics who need formation the most simply miss the boat. Either they find class material less than inspiring or they lack the motivation to seek any kind of spiritual development.

Most Catholics will eventually find themselves under fire for holding some “non-biblical” belief. Christian Fundamentalists are often aggressive in their evangelization of others. Catholics not knowing how to respond may start to doubt their faith. They may cower away, leaving the criticism unchallenged. Worse, they may fall away from the Church. Perhaps they were agnostic growing up or simply never learned to defend the Faith. A Catholic education, even seminary training, does not necessarily enable one to defend Church teaching. Catholics may know what, but they may not know why.

When a Catholic comes to the realization that there are solid defensible arguments for the Church’s position, they often become excited with the desire to learn more. The common criticisms of the Catholic Church fall into patterns which most every Catholic can refute with some basic instruction. The Catholic apologists gaining the most converts today are often converts themselves. Once people realize what the Church is, and become convinced of her authority and authenticity, attitudes may change abruptly.

For this reason, I believe we should focus on basic apologetics initially to get Catholics excited about the Church. Once they experience the joy of knowing they are aboard the great ship destined for eternal life, the real formation can begin.