Smaller, Purer, More Devout? (Part 2)

July 15, 2008

One of the great temptations of every clergyman is to focus all of our efforts on getting the most bodies into the pews. Driven by this temptation leads one to measure his effectiveness by these numbers.

Trust me, we struggle with this everytime we open those double-doors to process down that aisle at the beginning of Mass, as we fight off that sinking feeling, seeing open spaces in parts of the church.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “God has not called me to be successful, he has called me to be faithful.” These are words I need to carry with me always as I accept the call to lead our people away from the powerful evangelizing efforts of the world, and into the devout life with our Lord.

A perfect example of this occurred this past weekend. It was one of those weekends when I just let go and let the Holy Spirit run amuck within me as I (HE) gave the sermon. Oh, yes, I called out the ills of our culture. This time I even called the beast by name as I spoke the words (wait for it … ) “abortion and contraception.”

To make a long story short, I was driving home the point that we, as Catholics, welcome the truth and dig deep to find it. While the world, referring to us as followers in blind obedience, withholds such truths as the right to view an ultrasound prior to making a final decision to abort.

While greeting people after that Mass, I’ll not forget two reactions. A very wonderful and devout man (actually a transplant from a local liberal parish) came up to me and grabbed my hand and pulled it tight to his chest (somewhat uncharacteristic for him) and said that was one of the finest homilies he had ever heard. Less than a minute later, a mother and her three teenage daughters made a point to dart by me to avoid greeting me, with heads lowered and scowls of anger evident. Frankly, I’m not sure they will ever be back again. Of course, my sinking heart trumped any encouragement I received from the affirming man.

These are incredibly difficult times … so much is at stake, beginning with the slaughter of 50 million innocents world-wide every year, through to the epidemic of secularism hardening the hearts of our loved ones.

Possibly at no other time in history were the words of our Lord more true when he said: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt 10:34-36).

I know a former evangelical pastor who is very disturbed by the way I, my bishop, the pope, and some priests like Fr. Corapi take on the culture. His motive, within that whole “mega-church mentality,” is to fill those pews –“We can’t help them if they’re not around,” he might say. However, this “mile-wide-inch-deep” approach has it’s members leaving in droves as they reach a point where they are no longer fed or “challenged.”

In fact, Willow Creek, the mother ship of the mega-church movement, recently admitted (repented) that they had made a mistake, as they realized they were filled with programs, but were not helping people to live their faith in any serious way.

We must take our lead from such figures as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He let his son go in order that he may come to his senses on his own. This is also the story of all those dealing with a loved one caught in the slavery of addiction. The solution for helping is never to diminish expectations and, thereby, enable the destructive behavior, but to let them go and fall on their own, if necessary, in order that they may come to their senses on their own. The proposal is strength, not compromise.

We too, as a Catholic Church, slipped into this failed experiment over the past 40 years. In our attempts to take the pastoral (enabling) approach, we lowered the bar and diminished our standards to offend the least amount of people.

And so, in our attempts to fill our pews we have become a vacuous, no-demand, no-standards, no-requirements, no-guilt, do-good enterprise of sloppy sentimentality. Ironically, this accomplished the opposite as it drove many away because they saw only mush in our churches — we stand for little, if anything, anymore. The second largest group of baptized U.S. Christians are non-practicing Catholics … mush is not working.

The remainder of that scripture passage I quoted above is, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:37-39).

This is our Lord Jesus Christ proposing strength, with no concern for numbers. In fact, throughout salvation history, God has always preferred a small, faithful band of followers, rather than an armada of lukewarm, half-hearted on-lookers. Christ says in essence: “Either you’re in or you’re out – CHOOSE!”

As difficult as it will be to see even more leave as we propose strength once again, I believe — as our Holy Father is modeling so well — that the standard must be as high as Christ wants it to be — no less! We must raise the bar and encourage our loved ones to reach for the stars … “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matt 5:48).

Please pray for those who are doing the MOST loving thing — no longer enabling by compromising with the world, but a proposal of strength to join in changing the world.