Is Evangelization Inevitability Elitist?
Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
This questions comes up in several ways very often when dealing with parishes or organizations. It’s a difficult question to face. And one that can easily be answered incorrectly.
I remember asking one prominent leader in evangelization, a priest, if he thought that his parents were evangelized. He shook his head to indicate “no” and explained that he did not think his parents were disciples in the sense in which the Church calls Catholics to be disciples today. This rather stunned me. If they weren’t disciples, if generations of Catholics over centuries, weren’t disciples, then have we developed a very high, almost exclusive, definition of discipleship?
A few years ago, it was popular to cite some words of Pope Benedict to the effect that the Church had to become smaller, had to shrink, in order for really committed Catholics to show themselves and support each other. This seemed to lead, as I looked at it, to an attitude in which priests were somewhat willing to see Catholics slip away because they weren’t true Catholics in the first place. I remember one bishop bringing this point up to me when I was giving a presentation in his diocese. “What do you say to this?” he asked me. I answered that Pope Benedict has not yet attended one of my seminars!
Pope Benedict was widely quoted as expecting a “smaller” and “purer” church. Any search engine will bring up numerous references to this line of thinking. He did say, in 1969, long before he became pope, the following:
“It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges.” It will start off with small groups and movements and a minority that will make faith central to experience again. “It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
This view refers more to the de facto reality of a Christianity losing its influence than to a deliberately smaller church because it has excluded the mediocre. Nevertheless, the notions of “smaller” and “purer” remain ever coupled with Pope Benedict’s vision for the Church; any Internet search shows this.
I have also often observed what happens in parishes. Some group of parishioners get “more involved” through one or another process—perhaps the Cursillo movement, or a prayer group, or some parish program. This group then starts looking at the rest of the parishioners as somehow “doing less” than they should. As this smaller group starts to talk, they infer that the rest of the parishioners—who come to Mass and maybe even serve in one or another ministry—aren’t really committed, or aren’t really evangelized, or aren’t really disciples. Once this starts, you can bet the process of doing evangelization ministry, or renewing the parish, will come to a standstill.
Sherry A. Weddell, in her influential book “Forming Intentional Disciples” (OSV, 2012), says that “In calling Catholics to a deliberate discipleship and intentional faith, our goal is not to create a community of spiritual elites. Rather it is to create a spiritual culture that recognizes, openly talks about, and honors both the inward and outward dimensions of the sacraments and the liturgy (p. 122-3).” This refers to her argument that Catholics receive sacraments externally without the inner transformation and conversion that they imply. “The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized (p. 46).” On page 186 of the book, Sherry Weddell shows how small she believes conversion and discipleship can be. “If roughly 2 percent of your parishioners are intentional disciples today, why not shoot for 4 percent five years from now? If you think that roughly 5 percent are disciples right now, what could you to help raise that percentage to 10%?” In other words, it would take a parish five years to double its number of “intentional disciples”; obviously, intentional discipleship, while offered to the many, is accepted only by the few. By assumption, if it takes five years to double the number of intentional disciples, discipleship is not a mass movement. Just the opposite.
Looking at Our Assumptions
As we work our way through our vision of evangelization and discipleship, we have to be critical at every level to debug the presumptions, and unintended consequences, of our approach to church involvement. If we keep raising the bar, do we not automatically at least marginalize, if not exclude, more and more ordinary Catholics? Is it not possible to use ideas of disciples in a more exclusive way rather than, as Jesus seems to have done, use those ideas in a more inclusive sense? Jesus reached out to tax collectors, prostitutes, and those excluded by the current interpretations of holiness in his day. Some of the approach of Jesus and his followers might be helpful to reflect on.
No parable, I think, says more about life in the early Church than the Sower and the Seed. It’s the opening parable of both Mark’s and Matthew’s collections. The seed that is not productive seems to be a rather straight description of those things that led followers away from their commitments to Christ: wealth, shallowness, or fear of persecution. But of the seed that is productive, there clearly seems to be a sense of gradation: not all the seed produces the same. As Mark puts it: “It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” And Mark wryly adds: “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear (Mk.4:8-9.” Matthew varies the words just slightly, making the same point: “But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear (13:8).”
We note carefully: it is the good seed the produces in varying quantities. We hear “thirty, sixty, one-hundred,” but are we not also encouraged by the parable to hear “ten, twenty, forty, or seventy”? In other words, the increased productivity of one range of seeds does not exclude the lesser productivity of the other seeds. This indicates a wide acceptance, in the early Church, of different levels of discipleship, without there being an assumption that everyone had to fulfill the highest expectations—that everyone had to produce a hundredfold. Surely there’s a huge difference between the seed that falls on bad soil, yielding nothing, and seed that produces. But that should not obscure our noticing the differences produced by seed that falls on good ground.
In Mark 12, Jesus is approached by a scribe who overhears how well Jesus is responding to those who were disputing with him. The scribe asks Jesus about the greatest commandment. When the scribe endorses the answer Jesus gave, Matthew tells us then “…Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, [and] he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God (12:34).’” This phrase deserves to be tossed around in our apostolic minds for quite some time. Obviously the scribe belonged to a group that is, as Matthew says, “disputing” with Jesus. All the scribe does is recite back what Jesus said to him. Yet this seems to be enough for Jesus to recognize the scribe as somehow drawing close to the Kingdom of God. In other words, wherever insight comes, it should be recognized and celebrated.
Even more, Matthew’s great parable of the final judgment (25:31 ff.) should give all believers pause. In this image, the king gathers all the nations of the world (the word “nation” has a special kick for Jewish thinkers because they were the “gentiles” and, therefore, presumably not chosen) and divides them as a shepherd might, between sheep and goats. When the King narrates why the sheep are entering the Kingdom (because the fed, clothed, and visited him), the hearers are shocked. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” In other words, the righteous, the saved, are not even aware that they are doing the king’s will. They are not even aware of their righteousness, or even all the motives for righteousness. Of course, they fed, gave water, helped, and visited. The accursed, the goats, did not do these things for Christ’s “least ones.” Can it be that people are involved in God’s grace without even the dimmest recognition of it? Can it be that God’s grace is far wider than those who are consciously followers, and, even more, than those who are “intentionally” followers of Christ?
Luke’s “Good Thief” should make us ask what and whom in his community this unexpectantly attentive criminal referred to. Were there early Christians who got only a glimmer of Christ, but that seems to have been enough? And look at Paul’s tolerance for preachers who preached out of false motives—“as long in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed.” How does that standard hold up when it comes to strict orthodoxy? We Catholics in particular need to recall how often, in our Eucharistic Prayers, we refer to those whose faith only God “alone” knows.
Can We Think of Discipleship in a More Inclusive Way?
Of course we need to call all Catholics to the fullness of discipleship, expressed through their involvement with the Word of God (conversion and relationship), prayer (private and communal through Liturgy), community (connectedness with other disciples in faith and life), and service (reaching outward to those who are not being served, helping all live a fullness of life). We can never let up on this. Catholics need to be continually called to more explicit commitment to Christ, which includes a more open sharing with the world of the grace that comes from Jesus. Catholics need ongoing conversion as part of their being followers of Jesus.
But rather than setting up criterion and then judging each other according to those, can we just presume an ideal and acknowledge that, inevitably, we all fall short of that ideal, even the most committed and active disciple? And that, as part of a continuum of discipleship, all Catholics may be exercising a “more or less” involvement with their faith and faith community. Instead of, for example, thinking of our children who tend not to attend Church as much as the pre-1960 folks as if they were fallen-away cretins, maybe we could think of them as people to be invited to fuller discipleship given the variations of their lives and experiences. Cannot we not think of these people on a continuum with the more active? Can we demonize them a little less?
In this more inclusive model of evangelization and discipleship which I am trying to sketch, we don’t have “true” disciples and “not disciples,” but a church in which, at different times, we are producing fruit that may range from 5% to 95%, to use the Gospel’s metaphors. What we do as a Church is continuously call ourselves to produce more, whoever we are, as part of our baptism. What we see in each other are the seeds of discipleship, some of which have sprung into plants, and others still lie latent. What we acknowledge about all of us is our ongoing need for greater conversion, for reconciliation and Reconciliation, and the expression of God’s grace in more explicit ways in our lives.
Are there stages of discipleship? There certainly are phases of discipleship in all our lives as we look back on our faith lives. They may not necessarily follow those that Sherry Weddell outlines (trust, curiosity, openness, conversion, intentional discipleship) in any strict order. At varying times in our lives as disciples we’ve experienced deepening trust, or been drawn along by curiosity about one or another aspect of faith, or powerfully experienced Jesus’ presence, or, perhaps, have powerfully experienced something like God’s absence (e.g., our own “dark nights” of the soul), or have been clear in the direction of our vocations, or have been confused. Catholic mystics have taught us well about phases of discipleship. Our Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, experienced years of what seemed like internal confusion as part of his journey in faith—and came to see this as the work of the Spirit. The Spirit, Hecker would say, can work through all—and many different—phases of our spiritual lives.
Might a more-inclusive attitude like this end up enabling lax discipleship? Perhaps. But giving the impression that evangelization and discipleship is something almost “elitist” might do more than enable lax discipleship; it might lead people to dismiss Church, discipleship, and evangelization altogether. Everyone remarks about the growing number of young people who respond “none” to the question of their preferred faith. Part of this growth is surely a pushing back at churches that seemed to be pushing against them, as “American Grace” (Putnam and Campbell) show us.
Of course it’s too premature to generalize on the ministry of Pope Francis. But one thing is clear: he is not into exclusive or exclusivising notions of faith. “Open up the doors,” he says. Let’s get away from our small-minded approaches. He mentions the unmarried pregnant woman who comes to get her baby baptized—how, in place of some of our post Vatican II approaches, we should celebrate this woman and warmly welcome her and her child. He washes the feet of Muslim women. He prays with evangelical pastors. It’s as if Francis is pointing out a vast ocean of divine love and grace, and inviting us all to swim in it, and to let as many into that ocean as possible, however wet any one person is able to get.
In Evangelii Gaudium, his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization, Pope Francis sounds a very open note in #3, one that should get our full attention:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”
Something like this more inclusive approach might be a key ingredient to put into our thinking about, and doing, evangelization.