Is Evangelization Inevitability Elitist?
Part 2: The Wider Path
Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
This is part 2 of a three part reflection which basically tries to raise questions about how evangelization, and the “new” evangelization, can come across. In part 1 I raised questions about how we can look elitist, raising the bar and, indirectly, writing many Catholics out of the ranks of “disciple.” In part 2, I want to explore broader patterns of inclusion and exclusion, urging certain attitudes upon evangelizers. In the final part I will talk about discipleship in more detail.
Catholicism, like all Christian forms of expression, has to parse out some biblical tensions that pull in opposite directions. When Jesus says that the path to salvation is narrow (Matt 7:13), that “many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14),” doesn’t this amount to a kind of gloomy Calvinist viewpoint? Or whereas Mark says that those who are not against us are for us (Mk 9:40), Luke says that those who are not with us are against us (Lk. 11:23). The end of Mark’s Gospel has this phrase: those who refuse to believe will be condemned (Mk. 16:16); on the other hand, 1 Timothy tells us that God “wills all to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4)-a pivotal concept in much Catholic thinking in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to Karl Rahner, S.J., and other theologians.
This means that Christians have always had an option in reading the Scriptures. We can read them narrowly, emphasizing the radical demands of the Gospel, with only a few being saved. Or we can read them broadly, emphasizing the more universal and inclusive dimensions of the Scriptures. Because our Scriptures come to us after being strained through early conflicts with some segments of Judaism, internal conflicts which we can peek at in First Corinthians and the Letters of John, we can easily look at one line, or one direction of thought, as if it said everything. Yet every believer has to read the Scriptures from the viewpoint of a Redeemer who came for the outcasts and the marginalized, who upset established religious categories, and who affirmed that humankind was not made for the Sabbath, but just the opposite (Mk. 2:27).
Inclusion and Exclusion
Looking at lines of inclusion and exclusion in Christian history makes for sober reflection. In the early Church, lines were pretty clear—but for sins that basically were deemed gravely contradictory of Christian life—adultery, apostasy, and murder. The sense of participating in the local Catholic community was undoubtedly strong; sins were no secret to others and must have been experienced in a strong social context. Undoubtedly parables like the weeds and the wheat come from the experience of Christian communities that realized there will inevitably be imperfect elements (Mt. 13:36 ff.).
Most of Christian—and particularly Catholic—experience throughout history looked something like this: large groups of people identified with Christianity in a general way, with small segments of the faithful attempting to live out a more radical form of Christianity. So Christians would particularly esteem monks who, in the early 200s, headed out to the desert to fight the demons and become ideals of the wider Church. In this kind of system, with an ideal center clearly drawn, the culture could live with somewhat fuzzy edges as everyday Christians lived in closer, or farther, contact with their faith.
We can easily imagine what Catholic life was like, say, for people in the centuries before St. Pius X (+1914). St. Pius “democratized” the sense of participation in the Eucharist by encouraging frequent communion and extending reception of communion to children once they reached the age of reason (around seven). Before then, those Catholics who did go to Church on Sunday hardly ever received communion. Receiving the Eucharist was reserved to large feasts—an earlier acting out of the “Christmas and Easter” scene which we still see in our parishes today. Church law had to nudge Catholics to “make their Easter duty” and go to communion once a year. Congregations like the Paulists, Redemptorists, and Passionists sent missionaries around precisely to get “hickory” Catholics (i.e., hard as wood) to confess their sins and receive the Eucharist. Saints like Thérèseof Lisieux were allowed more frequent communion—she was an exception to the norm.
This “holy center but fuzzy edges” model, which had flexible lines of inclusion and exclusion, was greatly shaken by reform movements that began long before Vatican II. More frequent reception of Holy Communion meant a greater attention to one’s spiritual state by more of the faithful. One doctoral thesis I read a while ago gave statistics of those going to Mass in St. Augustine Florida in 1943. 80% of Catholics attended, but 40% received communion. (Now 40% of Catholics tend to go to Mass, and almost all of them receive Communion!) Stories about getting men involved in Church among the Irish and Italian immigrants show the hold-over of European attitudes, particularly the anti-clericalism of Italy. Mario Puzzo’s Godfather has the women in Church while the mean are, well, you know.
The End of Double-Decker
This made, in effect, a double decker system of religious expression. Segments bought into an intense discipleship reflected through religious life, ordination, or strong devotions on the part of a chunk of the laity, but whole other segments stood on the edges. They benefitted from the devotion of the fewer, occasionally involved themselves in Church, and hoped that the Last Rites would arrive not long before they died. St. Pius began an assault on this double decker image, and Vatican II finished the job. After Vatican II, we were all called to holiness, and the meaning of membership in the Church had higher stakes. Now we didn’t want people to “show up” for Mass (remember, if you arrived by the Offertory and stayed until the priest’s Communion, it was only a venial sin); we wanted full and active participation in the Mass. We wanted Catholics to hew to a common holiness that extended from the Pope down to grade school children. We wanted Catholics to be disciples.
This meant that the old double-decker view of involvement in Church no longer would work. Various Catholic movements brought ideas of reform, arising from deep medieval roots but best expressed in the Protestant Reformation, to flower in Catholicism. “Reform” meant that we lived out completely what we said our values were. No slackers allowed. It also meant that the whole group had to go about enforcing these values among all its members. Charles Taylor, in this monumental “A Secular Age,” describes the process:
And, indeed, it is clear that the Reformation was driven by the spirit of Reform in an even more uncompromising mode. One of its principal talking points from the very beginning was the refusal to accept special vocations and counsels of perfection. There were not to be any more ordinary Christians and super-Christians. The renunciative vocations were abolished. All Christians alike were to be totally dedicated.
Seen in this light, the Reformation is the ultimate fruit of the Reform spirit, producing for the first time a true uniformity of believers, a leveling up which left no further room for different speeds. (77)
It’s the “no room for different speeds” that tends to push us towards exclusivism. Our pastoral experience since Vatican II has been to apply various norms and expectations to ordinary Catholics—with a view to allowing or forbidding them one thing or another. I continue to hear horror stories, at least from the bride’s point of view, when priests refuse to allow a marriage because “you are not registered,” or because “I do not see you at Mass.” (Have we noticed large numbers of Catholics not even bothering to get married in the Church recently? I wonder why.) We likewise go through contortions with parents and godparents around the baptism of children. Priests cringe when a potential godparent asks for an endorsement saying that she or he is a faithful Catholic; are they being duped by this potential sponsor? Confirmation children ask priests to sign bulletins to prove the children have gone to Mass; after Confirmation, however, it seems rare is the teen involved in Church.
Of course we are calling people to standards, but this raises basic questions: 1) what are the standards to which we call people? And 2) what do we do with people who do not quite reach some of those standards? Does God ask a minimum of us—say, what old-time theologians extracted from the Letter to the Hebrews—basically belief in God and belief in judgment (Heb. 11:16)? Or does God demand everything? Are we all supposed to be Isaac lugging Jacob up the hill, looking for kindling to start the fire, making the super-heroic sacrifice?
A Wider Approach
I’d like to propose an approach that might help us keep the varied values in our Gospel tradition. It seems to me that evangelization demands that we have a clear center, something that articulates the idea and ideal of discipleship. Without that clear center—what it means to follow Christ—the energy of the whole group is zapped. (Part 3 will explore this.) Saints, popes, bishops, theologians, and many spiritual leaders have helped us articulate this center. And, yes, Isaac is at the center—in the form of Jesus, giving himself as a gift in selfless love.
At the same time, this paramount ideal plays out variously in the lives of believers. The image is not: you have to do exactly what Jesus did. Rather, the more nuanced Christian image is: Jesus gave himself on behalf of all of us. Jesus, then, accompanies us on our journey, giving us strength when we grow weak and weary, to give ourselves. We die together with Christ in myriad ways, some of them unrecognized; but we do so because of the strength that Christ provides us.
So a clear ideal is at the center, but, like Jesus, we have to draw the broadest, most inclusive, circle that we can and, within that circle, consistently call all Christians to deeper conversion. It is our job to be as generous in this call as possible. It is our attitude to give people all the breaks that we can. It is our stance to operate out of mercy—because operating out of strict justice would eliminate all of us. “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice,” says Jesus (Mt. 9:13). God knows the expectations, but also the weakness in human hearts. Mercy is God achieving the justice for us in his Son, Jesus; reconciliation is our receiving that mercy as a way of life.
Mercy, then, can look like Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan woman which, for all its drama, leaves some of the details totally up in the air. Did she leave the one she was with, who was not her husband? What did Jesus expect of her? Changed as she was, was she still to make the best of her situation, given its compromises? Here’s an example. Many priests, for several decades, felt free to advise a “pastoral solution” to some divorced Catholics, particularly those who could not, for one reason or another, have their marriages formally annulled. Almost always there was some good reason to believe the prior marriage was null, but some fact could not be sufficiently proven. So priests encourages some to receive Holy Communion because it was the best they could make of their situation. Many priests today no longer feel that liberty. Hence, some of the musing coming even from Pope Francis.
Likewise, Pope Francis makes a point of being willing to baptize the children of unmarried women. He will not refuse baptism to a child because of the actions of the mother. In effect, he is helping someone maintain contact with the Church and giving the child a chance to grow up with some of the influences of faith. Deciding the opposite—refusing baptism—may uphold some ideals, but this may also deprive a child of a chance to form a relationship with Christ, and give a mother a reason to check out her local evangelical congregation.
We have to hold on to a clear notion of discipleship—following Jesus with our whole being—without using this as a way to exclude people. Holding onto the center, we have to draw the biggest, most inclusive, circle that we can.
Who Is Evangelized?
Do Catholics just receive sacraments without being evangelized? Without recognizing the implications of discipleship? I am sure they do. I would also guess that many Christians read their Bibles without recognizing the implications, without seeing the call to discipleship. When, after all, is the sacrament really grasped? I have been receiving the Eucharist for sixty-six years. Do I understand it? Accept it? Live it? In many ways I do—it’s my way of life—and in many other ways I do not. The years ahead, however many or few I may have, will give me more insight and time for conversion, but I will never have full insight, nor will I ever be totally converted. That’s why I have to trust in Jesus Christ. “I am only a sinner,” says the Pope.
If we draw the largest circle we can, then we include people in a broader sphere of influence. We cannot predict what will happen under that influence. What makes someone experience deep spiritual renewal in one year, but not the previous ones? What makes someone who has experienced conversion reverse that course later in life? Who says that someone who has experienced conversion, and then turned away from Christ, is not able to turn back again? The tenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is particularly instructive: Paul looks to the mishaps of the Jewish people in the desert as a warning for the somewhat erratic members of the Corinthian community: if they could fail, so can you (1 Cor 10:1 ff). There is no final state of accomplishment on this side of heaven. I remember reading about Paul Claudel who re-affirmed his Catholic faith simply listening to hymns sung at Mass one Christmas.
So we evangelizers have to take people where they are, work with the situation that is presented, understand the limitations that others live with, and provide as much acceptance as possible. This will, of course, be messy. Pope Francis’ references to us being medics in a battle zone, with broken bodies all around us, surely points to triage as a basic stance of evangelizers. Messy clearly means that some lines will be blurred, some questions unanswered, some issues unresolved. Behind the messiness, however, we look for one direction: is there a heart seeking God and open to be touched by God?
It’s always shocking to read about the “seventy times seven times” formula that Jesus lays out for Peter. How often must I forgive? Translation: how often must I let others off the hook when they have violated some ideal, inflicted hurt, or made a mess of their lives? Jesus sees no limit to the number of times because that is the logic of mercy—we keep forgiving with the hope that, at some point, a breakthrough will happen. Because if we do not forgive, if there is no mercy, then the possibility of breakthrough starts veering toward zero.
The Pope’s call for attitudes of joy, beauty, happiness, and acceptance certainly speak to what a more expansive evangelization would look like. Emphasizing the essential points of faith—Jesus’ Paschal Mystery—brings a proportion to the message we are bringing. Here’s a quote from “The Joy of the Gospel”:
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing. (35)
None of this means that we stop inviting people to the fullest discipleship they can live. Movements of reform and renewal constantly spring up in the Church, stirring flames among coals that looked cool and gray. But these reform movements—Cursillo, Charismatic Movement, Neo-Catechumenate, Opus Dei, Christ Renews His Parish, etc.—do not become norms. Nor do they become the prime objects of evangelization, as if becoming involved in a movement were the point of the Gospel. Movements do not become parallel, shadow parishes, any more than religious or clergy become members of a different Church. There is only one movement—the Kingdom of God, with the Catholic Church as its greatest servant. Our service to the Kingdom means ongoing reform, of course, but also ever-present openness to where people are, and what they can do at points in their lives.
Our calls for renewal and transformation cannot leave us feeling smugger about our journey, and disdainful of the journeys of others. “Sinners Welcome,” written by the poet Mary Karr, seems to me to be a great starting point for reflecting on a non-exclusive, broad and welcoming, evangelization. Or phrases like, “We are a church, not of the perfect, but of the forgiven.” To quote Francis again: Holy Communion is not a prize for the perfect. Saints who have shown conspicuous sanctity find more sin in their own hearts than in the hearts of others.
In the never-ending rumblings in recent years about the meaning of Vatican II, continuity or discontinuity, one of the key observations observers have made is this: there was a total difference in style—and style, exactly, is what’s new in the message. Not doctrinaire, not issuing anathemas, not making proclamations, but rather in dialogue with a world which the Church loves—which Christ loves—we Catholics now approach with openness, dialogue, and affirmation.
This, obviously, remains a difficult lesson, but one that Francis is, fortunately, pushing on us, particularly on us evangelizers.