Is Evangelization Inevitably Elitist?
Part 3: The Center: Discipleship
This is the third part of a series of essays on exploring evangelization as a broad and inclusive movement, not selective, and certainly not elitist. Part 1 raised the issue and explored scriptural and pastoral approaches that reflect trajectories from the Gospel. Part 2 elaborated on the breadth of evangelization by urging a solid center but, at the same time, drawing the widest possible circle of inclusion-within which all are called to conversion. Part 3 explores the center-discipleship-and how it calls all toward a core, given the different places and paces of people on the journey of following Christ.
“What are we inviting them to?” For the past thirty years, I have heard this phrase from earnest Catholics who raise the question when we, their co-parishioners, are thinking of inviting Catholics back to the Church.
There are two separate emphases behind this phrase. One: that something drove people from the Church, or from the practice of their faith – and how will we manage that rupture? Two: that, as Catholics, we don’t have much to offer is not much-so why bother inviting people at all? This second reason usually assumes the blandness of Catholic parish life: the so-so homilies, the less-than-friendly congregation, and perhaps some inconvenient doctrines that people want tweaked one way or another.
My conviction is that we have an enormously wonderful gift to share with people, both with those Catholics who are not active in their faith, and also with seekers who are drifting in their religious commitment-the gift of discipleship. If we can bring this gift more to the forefront in our Catholic life and worship, then I believe fewer folks will tend to drift from the Church, and more will be drawn toward it.
By concentrating on discipleship in our parishes, in a more explicit way, we can help them accomplish their fundamental task—to embody the Kingdom of God in their local area. Every parish contains the elements of discipleship—a discipleship that is open to everyone, whatever his or her situation in life, and whatever the intensity of his or her relationship to the Church might be.
A key element in understanding discipleship today is that it is a way of life. Because of this, it is not accomplished or finished at any one moment. Themes like pilgrimage, journey, life-long growth: these form the basis of discipleship. This is why discipleship is always an expansive and inclusive idea; we all have the incompleteness of our discipleship in common. Some of us are further along the road than others, but no one has arrived. But we are all on a journey that constitutes a way of life.
One enters this way of life, discipleship, through conversion. Adults enter through an explicit, articulated, deeply felt set of changes in their lives. The Catechumenal process in the Catholic Church is designed to help adults become aware of the working of God in their lives, the invitation to change, and the elaboration of those changes through the Scriptures and the rites of the Church. The various rites of the R.C.I.A express in external form what is happening internally. The rite of Acceptance, for example, in which a catechumen receives the sign of the cross in multiple places of the body, signifies the penetration of the Gospel message into the whole being of the catechumen, and the place of our physical bodies on the path to the Kingdom. It is an amazing rite to witness.
Children enter the Kingdom by being raised in an environment of conversion. The experience of discipleship does not come as a felt shift in their lives; it comes, rather, as an awareness, through formation, of the grace of God given in Baptism and developed through the way of life that children come to adopt. Although Blessed John Paul II, in “Catechesis in our Day,” noted how easy it is for children to grow without a sense of having responded explicitly to the Gospel, many other documents of our Church all point to the power of family life—potentially, anyway—to communicate the life of Christ.
Conversion, however it comes about, is the state in which we identify with Jesus Christ, in his Paschal Mystery (the ongoing process of dying and rising), in his vision of the Kingdom, in his way of life, and in his revelation of the fullness of God (as Trinity). This identity is never fully accomplished. It has both moments of clarity and confusion. While some saints have this identity marked on them literally in the reception of the stigmata, others, like Blessed John Henry Newman, quietly sing “Lead. Kindly, Light amidst th’ encircling gloom.”
These thoughts about discipleship point out two essential goals pastors need to accomplish today. One goal touches our ministry to Catechumens and seekers—helping them see the signs of God’s call to conversion, and helping them note the dynamics of conversion in their lives. The other goal involves all self-identified Catholics—helping them see the dimensions of discipleship which make their Catholic life possible.
This second goal is not as easy as it sounds. I was talking with a Sodality group once soon after the Synod on the New Evangelization of 2012. I used the phrase “personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” which, in accord with other Church documents, the Synod identified as the heart of evangelization. Looking at these Sodality women, who had just spent 45 minutes in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, I asked them, “Have any of you ever had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ?” They looked quizzically at me, as I suspect many Catholics would. “Don’t you think praying before the Lord is a personal encounter with Christ?” I asked. Then there came the glimpse of recognition.
In other words, Catholic life fundamentally consists in ongoing personal encounter with Jesus Christ, but many Catholics do not appropriate this on an experiential level. “Appropriate” means to own something on a conscious, integrated level. It’s analogous to children who do not explicitly appropriate the strong attachment they have to their parents—until, that is, they are lost, or hurt, or threatened with separation. Then the absence of their parent brings panic! The reality is there for many active Catholics, but not always in a consciously explicit way.
Of course, the importance is the reality. How many people were shocked to hear, years after her death, of the doubts and lack of feeling of Mother Theresa? Similarly, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, so confidently pious throughout her life, confesses that, as death came upon her, she had doubts. No one questions the reality of the identity of these women with Jesus Christ. Their lives cannot be explained without this identity. The light is there despite the “encircling gloom” that sometimes can beset a Christian for long periods of time. Discipleship depends on commitment, not the vagaries of feelings.
So our pastoral goal is to help people recognize, develop, and explore the multiple ways in which their lives participate in the mystery of Jesus Christ. “Multiple” means both in frequency and intensity. It affirms the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in all lives, even in those people who may seem further from the practice of their faith. It aims to help people wherever they are, providing the access points for people to deepen their relationship with Christ as members of his body.
This discernment is, of course, essential to the Catechumenal process as seekers and inquirers look to Christ to bring clarity to their personal experiences and searching. It is likewise essential in all of Catholic life, as believers experience ongoing formation and as Catholics are invited to draw near to the deeper currents of their faith.
A Way of Life
I have long appreciated four elements to discipleship and, together, they provide the fundamentals of a way of life. In some ways they parallel the Catechism of the Catholic Church (belief, sacrament, moral life, and prayer) but the emphasis is different because the Catechism does not primarily deal with the context of daily Christian life, only its pillars. The four elements that I identify are the (1) Word of God, (2) relating to God through Prayer and Worship, (3) living our discipleship in Community, and (4) all of this geared to a life of Service. These elements, with their implications, are open to every Catholic, in varying degrees of intensity, producing fruit of “thirty, sixty, or hundred-fold”—or numbers lower, or in between!
The journey of conversion means adopting this way of life in greater stages, all the while acknowledging that what happens in someone’s spirit is not always accessible or clear. Some people are raised in very limited, even brutal, circumstances. What does identity with Christ’s Paschal Mystery mean for them? Others are raised in very pious, religiously intense households. Their journey of faith might include major bumps, even seeming rebellions, as people react in different ways to their upbringing. I note, again, how many of those we call “nones”—not accepting a religious identification—were raised in fairly conservative Christian and Catholic households. A journey, then, may have its zigs and zags.
But let’s look at these four elements which form the framework for the way of life which we call discipleship.
All discipleship has roots in the Word of God. This means something different than obsessing on the literal words of the Bible. Rather, the Word of God, present in creation and incarnate in our flesh, is a Person, Jesus Christ, and all that his person can mean. The Hebrew Scriptures point to Jesus; the Christian Scriptures give us glimpses of him. But Jesus cannot be contained because he is the “fullness” that fills the universe (Eph. 1:23). The Word of God does, through the Scriptures and through the work of the Spirit of Jesus alive in the world, brings people into relationship with God. This relationship is the basis of conversion and of Christian growth.
Disciples dwell in the Word of God, letting the power of the Scriptures slowly bring the reality of God more fully into their lives, and letting the person of Jesus challenge and console them through different periods of their lives. How many Catholics experience the Liturgy of the Word as a call to conversion? As an invitation to encounter? As guidance on a way of life? How many Catholics continue their “obedience” to the Word (cf. Rom. 1:4)—that is, their deepest hearing of the Word—into daily practice, into preparation for the Liturgy, into a consciousness that allows them to put on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
<p”>The Word obviously is not primarily connected to explicit study of the Scripture, although this certainly helps the process along. More important than knowing the exegetical background of a passage is letting a passage interpret our lives, challenge us, and call us more deeply to conversion. All preachers know that, even after forty years of preaching, they have barely scratched the potential of the Scripture. This comes not from lack of knowledge; it comes from the way Scripture interplays with lives that are continually unfolding. As lives unfold, so does Scripture’s meaning.
Prayer and Worship
Our relationship with God flowers naturally into expression. Prayer and worship are the greatest signs of our relationship with God. Prayer is the felt, ongoing openness that believers have toward God, showing itself through petition out of our need, and through adoration out of our joy. Catholics certainly pray; patterns of prayer tend to stick to us. How often have I seen people near death still moving lips in synchronization with the words of the Our Father? Pope Francis’ emphasis on popular religion, echoing much of Paul VI’s thinking, shows the importance of cultural forms of prayer that come to frame a life.
But Catholics need to be invited beyond these cultural forms precisely because the test of faith today is more than cultural. For all the social context of faith, today demands from people a distinct personal context—one of involvement, engagement, decision, and conscious pursuit of our relationship with God. Catholics also need to exercise a range of prayer experiences to broaden their experience of God. Personal prayer, for sure, on a daily basis; prayer in quiet spaces; prayer with family; prayer with small groups and co-ministers; and experiences like retreats. Most Catholics pray, but not in the consistent way that discipleship invites them to.
Personal prayer needs communal worship; communal worship finds its energy in the personal prayer of parishioners. Each kind of prayer shows our relationship to God, but on different levels. Worship pulls me out of my personal space to involve myself with the Scriptures read aloud, challenging the community, and holding a congregation accountable for what they hear. It also pulls me out of my personal space toward those communal symbols that have marked Christian life from the beginning. Catholics think of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of their spiritual lives. The sacred bread nourishes us in powerful intimacy with Christ; it also pulls together, as a magnet, all the other prayer dimensions of our lives. The sacraments, par excellence, bring disciples face to face with the Paschal Mystery and its call to commitment and acceptance.
Many Catholics absent themselves from worship; today’s greatest growing trend is for an erratic attendance at Mass, with a more “monthly” than “weekly” emphasis. Such a trend cannot be good for discipleship, because it takes a follower of Jesus away from consistent hearing of the Scriptures, and consistent reception of the most powerful Sacrament we have. Calling people to conversion means inviting them to think about how much more the Mass could bringing to their lives; and, just as much, how much more their presence means for the celebration of God’s redemption and love. Worship is far more than what “someone gets out of it.” It’s about who we are, as a community, in relationship to God’s revelation of love in Jesus.
Discipleship cannot be lived alone. It needs community for its vitality and nourishment; and it needs community as the field in which personal conversion is tested and verified. This remains a huge challenge for Catholics who, relying on a “presumed community” from a common cultural or ethnic heritage, mostly take for granted the presence of others. Twenty-five people in twenty-five different pews, with each person in his or her own space, not attending to the presence of others, do not make a convincing image for people today.
The life of discipleship drives one beyond oneself, in generous self-giving to others, working out the inevitable conflicts and tensions of community through a process of personal and group growth. One of the particular challenges of community today involves getting Catholics to feel free to engage with people different from themselves. Apart from cities, Catholic life can become pretty homogeneous, with similar people hanging out with others just like them. Community welcomes the other, seeks to stretch, reaching beyond itself, to precisely those folks who look different. The whole New Testament shows the morphing of a small group of ethnic Jews, many from Galilee, into a multi-national community of people from different nations and social stations—all forming one Body in Christ. This dimension of discipleship says that Church (community) is part of our way of life, not an addition or a distraction.
This final component of discipleship might be the most important because all of God’s Word, all our relationship with God, all of our prayer and spiritual growth, and all of our connection with others in community—all of these allow the Holy Spirit to continue, through us, the ministry that Jesus began with the inauguration of the Kingdom.
God was going to do something different in Jesus—“to proclaim Good News to the poor” is how Jesus put it—and the Jesus who washes feet calls every follower to roll up sleeves and risk dirty hands in order to show God’s love for those most marginalized. Jesus comes to the outcasts, the physically and spiritually broken, those separated from society through leprosy or social stigma, announcing the presence of God in their lives as well. Undoubtedly the Gospels reflect here something of the picture of the first Christians—the Samaritans and tax collectors, the physically limited and spiritually isolated, the mélange of wealthy patrons with people from the street.
Service is hardly one-directional, with the gifted helping the seemingly ungifted. Service rather shows that all have gifts to give, that in our very generosity to others, we allows others to enrich us back. Numerous people in ministry narrate about how they get so much more than they give, whether it’s religious education, or youth ministry, or serving at a soup kitchen, or visiting nursing homes. Service likewise shows itself through the “secular’ vocations we have, because disciples can live these vocations as acts of kindness to others—as a building up of the Kingdom.
Evangelization and Discipleship
The structures of discipleship are open to everyone. In many ways they touch the lives of Catholics, although often with subtlety and indirectness. These elements are elastic because they extend from the newest convert to the faith to the holiest monk on the planet. They can be trivial in a Catholic’s life—certainly a tragedy—or they can be the central memory and imagination of a believer—certainly the ideal.
Between the extremes, we all stand within a circle, with discipleship the magnet that defines the circle—our fullest relationship with God through Jesus and his Spirit. But we stand in different places within the circle, some of us quite close to the center, many of us seeking the center more, and far more many only haphazardly looking at the center every now and then. But, because we are a community, each of us is bound with the other. The stronger among us have to bring the weaker ones along. hose further along on the journey stake out paths for others who seem further behind, leading them along by our prayer and our care.
Evangelization certainly means that disciples who are more blessed in terms of Catholic life—more explicitly involved in God’s Word, in prayer, in community, and in service—cannot look upon our blessedness as a triumph or trophy. Rather, this becomes a position, a stance, from which we draw others, from the attractiveness of our lives, seeking to extend what blesses us to be a blessing for others. In the Kingdom, we share our gifts, so envy has no place. People rich in one dimension help enrich people that appear more lacking. Disciples rejoice in the joy, peace, and grace that comes to the lives of others.
This is where the passion of the Gospel, the fervent desire to share the Gospel, comes from. It’s the sweep of Love, divine Love come in Jesus Christ, and now shared in his Spirit, that compels us all to look beyond ourselves, our needs and insecurities, even our own growing in grace. We look beyond ourselves as Jesus did, seeking to touch everyone, until the world, with its messiness and its promise, becomes filled with the glory of the Spirit. “Go out and teach the nations.” Indeed, only when we see discipleship as the broadest sweep of grace and love will we appreciate the thrust of Jesus’ command.