Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Preacher or Teacher

I find myself feeling very frustrated these days. Seems to me very few Catholics know even the basics of their faith. Even those who are active in the Church, serving on pastoral councils, parish commissions, Knights of Columbus, Christian Mothers, you name it, most approach these services as political or social rather than spiritual. Yes, I am generalizing, perhaps unfairly, but I have seen little evidence to think otherwise.

The Church has been in existence 2000 years. Up until a few hundred years ago, being Christian meant being Catholic. The faith was handed down from generation to generation. I received my Catholic Faith from my mother’s side of the family that immigrated from Czechoslovakia some five generations ago. As the Church protects the deposit of Faith from error over the centuries, Catholic parents have taught the Faith to their children. When one person in a family loses or rejects the faith, the Faith is then likely lost to that persons descendants. Most of the millions of good Protestant families out there probably have a Catholic ancestor who for some reason left the Church.

I look around our community today and see many Catholics who just quit going to Mass and are not raising their children in the Faith. In most cases, their ancestors preserved the family faith for 2000 years only to have one of their descendants break the chain. Barring a personal conversion, that precious Catholic Faith will be lost forever to their future descendants. How sad.

Why does this happen? I blame ignorance for the most part. Most Catholics are poorly catechized. Anyone truly understanding what the Catholic Church is and knowing the reality of eternity, would never leave the Church. I was bothered by a conversation I recently overheard between two very active Catholics speaking of receiving Communion in Protestant churches. One spoke of attending an Episcopal wedding where everyone was invited to receive communion. She was asking the other Catholic if it was okay to do so. He told her he didn’t see anything wrong with it, and had himself received in a Lutheran church when traveling with another person. Another told of visiting a dying relative in a hospital when a woman Episcopal minister came in an offered to perform a communion service. Their response was that it couldn’t hurt, so they did it. I did speak up, trying to charitably explain why it was wrong to do so, but they seemed to think Catholic rules were too restrictive.

When attempts are made to provide catechesis for adults at our parish, the people who need it most never attend. Those who do are already seemingly grounded in the Faith. Hence my frustration. What can we do to evangelize people who are already Catholic, let alone those who are not? I have said this before, but I truly believe education from the pulpit is where it must begin. That twenty minute homily each week is the only opportunity we have to light the fire. Priests may need to take a different approach to homilies, shifting modes from preaching to teaching.

Our current pastor writes his homilies in manuscript form and reads them to the congregation. I can understand why he may prefer to do this. He and I are about the same age, and I know how easy it is to lose my train of thought as I get older. Working with a prepared text allows the author to organize thoughts and edit them for content. He can say exactly what he wants to convey without fear of leaving something out or speaking in error. Yet in doing so, he loses effectiveness. What is gained in the transmission may be lost in the reception. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone read a lengthy script.

In speaking from the heart, the priest engages the congregation in a way that captures the attention of the listener. People are more likely to remember details from a conversation than from a speech. Catholics are more apt to accept Church teaching if they know the history and understand the origin of doctrine. Catholic belief comes from Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magesterial Authority of the Church. The Liturgy of the Word gives the priest plenty of opportunities to take an apologetic approach to his homily by explaining how Church doctrine developed from God-breathed revelation.

We have not had a Catholic school at our parish since 1972, and religious instruction since that time has been inadequate. Every Sunday as our altar servers arrive for Mass, I see them walk right past the monstrance completely oblivious to the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Some of them will make a mechanical curtsy in the general direction of the tabernacle, but they clearly have no concept of where they are. This often happens in view of their parents and catechists. Seeing the same young faces behave the same way week after week leads me to believe they are not being properly formed, probably because their parents and those teaching them were not properly taught either.

Our hope lies in the parish priest being able to inspire a desire in his parish to grow in faith. Those who are spiritually distant are unlikely to respond favorably to verbal chastisement or criticism from the pulpit. That is not to say the message should be sugarcoated. Rather, many need to be lovingly taught the very basics of the faith, as though they are children hearing them for the first time. It may actually be the first time for some. 1 Peter 3:15 comes to mind again. Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence. With understanding comes appreciation and the desire to know more.