One of things that priests do often is celebrations with families at key moments of their lives: baptisms, weddings, funerals for example. It is at such events that the extended family comes. There is no priest who hasn't looked at the gathered family and notice that it is obvious that the overwhelming majority had quit the practice of the Catholic faith. It is not just the young ones, but the much older as well. It is easy for us to look at such a situation and wonder what went wrong...with them. What act of rebellion led them to abandon such a well presented and well witnessed to faith? Did we not have great classes and programs? What is deficient in these people? I know this, because I thought those things early on in my priesthood. I was among those who saw this and either used the opportunity to do nothing or to berate (subtly) the disbelief of the gathered. Was I ever wrong! Now, I look at the situation and wonder if and where we as a Church failed. Where did we who were in charge of faith development (parents and clergy) fail to make a compelling case for not just a religion, but the relationship that is the very center of our Catholic faith? Maybe, in some cases, the fallen away person did have great role models and compelling witness and chose to abandon the faith anyways. Let's be honest though, more often than not it was a lack of such things that allowed the person to drift off in hopes of finding greener pastures.
Human beings are social creatures. We crave relationship. It is not enough for us to talk about the theories of relationship, we actually crave to be in such. It drives the desires to interact, to make friends, to date, to marry and so on. This desire is what drives the creation of families. It builds towns, countries, and empires. Healthy people know these relationships will have peaks and valleys, good days and bad days, times of intense emotion and times of incredible dryness. Deep within the person is a desire to be in relationship with something beyond themselves. This desire drives us to faith, and when that desire goes unmet or is betrayed, it leads to a great anger and bitterness.
Our Judeo-Christian faith is based on one central premise: He who created us, loves us, and desires a relationship with us. He reveals Himself in our history. He does so through angels, judges, and prophets. He gives us a written testimony through the Scriptures. He creates a way for us to come to understand Him and encounter Him. Primary to that encounter is worship. Worship is our way of returning to God the love He first shows us. Our God is not content with a singular relationship with us; no, He wants us to love whom He loves...He wants us to love the entire group whom He calls His family. The Bible is rife with familial bond terms: spouse, father, mother, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters...all pointing to the deepness of a desire for a loving relationship He wants with us. This relationship, built upon love, has a certain look to it, will act in certain ways which all speak to the heart of all Scripture and Church teaching: LOVE. Love is a complete self emptying for the sake and good of another. This love has no strings attached and sets no conditions. All of the 'rules' point to what love looks like. They do not, however, replace the actual duty to love. Religion is the knowledge...faith is the lived relationship.
Therein lies the rub. Do we present Catholicism as primarily a religion or as a relational faith? Is it primarily a set of rules to follow so as to check off obligations so as to get some merit badge or is it a continual self giving which draws us deeper and deeper into an eternal relationship? If we present a mere religion, we do a tremendous disservice, if not tremendous violence, to God's divine self revelation. God wasn't looking for us to dissect Him but for us to come to know Him. If faith gets reduced to a memorization of facts in which we will give you various certificates to prove you went through training (talk about an act of violence towards the sacraments!), can we not but wonder why those who do stay do so? Faith is not an academic subject. Coming to know the teachings of Christ and His Church should lead to ongoing conversion and alert us to what a healthy loving relationship with God and His people look like. No more than religion can be reduced to 'do what you feel' (which was kind of the mantra for several decades...and they did what they felt...as they were leaving our doors) can it be reduced to a mere scientific dissection.
This changes everything. It changes how we present faith and what its obvious end is. If faith is about an encounter with religious knowledge, then we will continue to have the problems we have. Does this mean we cease having religion class? Absolutely not! But what is the end in mind? A grade or a relationship? Perhaps taking a different approach in the dissemination of the content of our faith might be looked at: approaching it as not merely a giving of a particular type of knowledge (which by comparison seems disconnected from others types of classes) but as the type of dynamic in building a friendship or in courtship. This is much harder to do. It cannot be taught coldly out of a book, but must be a lived witness by the instructor.
I am trying to flesh this out in practice. That requires that I engage more in deepening my relationship with God and being extraordinarily conscious of how I behave and respond to situations. In the beginning of this column I talk about those uncomfortable moments at funerals and weddings and such. What do I do now? The homily includes a strong call to seek relationship with God and the beauty that this relationship brings. Instead of a wagging finger or a closed hand, a open hand reaching out is actually symbolic of the relationship to which we are called. As we engage in the new evangelization, we must begin from the premise that what we present is not a mere religious choice...but a call to a relationship that God eternally calls us to and has created us for. Let's start there...at a relationship with God and His people....as our intellectual nucleus and let it lead beyond the sterility of mere intellect (which IS needed by the way) and to the dynamic reality of a lived and growing relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.