Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How DO We Reach People with the News that Faith has Something to do With Life?

Something I have been struggling with for the past couple of years is a sense that the Church is not doing a very good job of reaching many of its people in ways that truly foster a living faith.  It is a great source of frustration that catechetical ministers try harder than ever, but somehow we still  seem to be losing ground with many of the families that bring children pretty much only for formation for sacraments.

When we see classrooms full of students preparing for First Eucharist and Confirmation  who seldom, if ever, attend Mass - and who have difficulty articulating just why it is important that they prepare for and receive the sacraments - that tells us that many people reach adulthood without understanding the big "why" of faith and its practice and that they pass on this cluelessness to their children.  There seems to be a pervasive belief that sacraments are like diplomas that parents should make sure their children receive - so there is evidence that they were good parents and did all the expected stuff on the "good parenting list."  There is little sense that Sacraments of Initiation have anything to do with commitment to the Church and the faith community.

Even worse, some parents seem to think they can "custom-order" sacraments to fit their expectations - like the woman who screamed at me on the phone recently because she had just found out that her daughter would not be confirmed by a bishop. (This year, in our diocese, since we are waiting for a new bishop and our auxiliary cannot possibly do all Confirmations, pastors were given permission to Confirm in their parishes.) Obviously this was not the ceremony the woman felt she had paid for with her daughter's tuition and sacrament fee.  The obligatory photos with the bishop would not be available for her daughter's album.  Her tone and anger were the same as if she were scolding the florist for her daughter's wedding because she had heard there would be no roses available for the wedding bouquets.  It was as if this experience for her was simply a commodity - something to be purchased to provide her family with an expected experience and the expected memorabilia. She is far from alone in that attitude.

So, how DO we reach the kids while we still have them in formal catechesis - and the adults who need "remedial" formation?  By the authentic proclamation of the story of faith and true welcome into the community.  We have baptized and initiated people who have not necessarily experienced the kind of life-changing formation that leads to conversion.  We have failed to pass on the story. Frankly, if the Church is to continue, we need to do better.

By the "story" I actually mean, the stories. The BIG STORY of Jesus Christ, his revelation of the Father to us through his teachings, his life, death and resurrection - plus the authentic stories of people in the community who have a living faith. We need to proclaim the kerygma again and again, until people hear it.  The community of faith also needs to tell its stories.  The RCIA process, during which an adult is drawn into the embrace of the community through story, witness and an apprenticeship of relationship to community members willing to share their own faith is a perfect model of how this works.

In my own experience as a convert 24 years ago, I most remember the stories.  There was my sponsor, Don, who was schooled by religious sisters who instilled in him a living sense that God loved him.   There was Jerry, who as a protestant spouse of a Catholic dutifully attended Mass for 11 years with his wife, until someone finally asked him why he was not a Catholic... so he was one of the first to go through the restored RCIA. There was Sarah, who had been a faithful Catholic all her life, raised a large family, and had been active in liturgical ministry for years.  There was the dedication of Sister Theresa, who led the RCIA and enabled people to share their stories of faith and relationship to the Church.  As we studied various formational topics and broke open the Sunday scriptures, I not only heard the story of Jesus Christ and his Church, but I heard many stories from the life experiences of those on the RCIA team.

These stories and others, I remember, along with the loving welcome of the community of St. James parish in Rockford, where after the Rite of Acceptance, I was given a warm personal welcome by many individuals that I still treasure to this day. The connections I developed over the next few years were part of what helped make me truly and deeply Catholic, and propelled me into ministry.  I may not remember much of the specific doctrinal items that were presented during my RCIA process, but I clearly remember the stories, the people and the relationships.

So, how do we reach the people on the margins of the Church who need this experience of the faith stories and the welcome?  Another chicken-and-egg conundrum, I am afraid.  How does the community reveal itself to people who seldom if ever come to the parish - and then only to drop their children off?  If they do come to Mass occasionally, that is only slightly better - because they at least hear the Gospel.  However, the likelihood of them experiencing the witness of the community or any connection to it is slim.

That puts a huge burden on those "captive audience" moments - the parent meetings and other experiences when they are present.  Directors of Religious Education, Youth Ministers, and those who lead these kinds of experiences need to be authentic and powerful proclaimers of the Good News in scripture and story. We don't get many chances to reach people - so we had better not waste the opportunities we have.

1 comment:

  1. Boy, that is the whole thing for me! How do you reach the people that just don't care. It requires an entirely different tactic altogether. I think you're right though. Stories are an extremely important part of the process for reaching the people on the margins. And, it's exactly what people remember.