Saturday, August 23, 2014

Passing on a Living, Vibrant, Intentional Faith to Our Children

I have been encouraged by the presence of many young adults at the 6:30 AM and 8:00 AM liturgies at my parish this summer. Most of them are back from college, though some work or go to school locally and will continue their weekday Mass attendance when their peers have departed once again.

Their presence speaks a certain message of hope to a Church that is told time and again that it has no meaning or relevance for the young.

Of course that is a lie: young adults are as hungry for truth, goodness, and beauty as much as anyone else. By nature, we humans are religious beings. We will worship and adore. It is in our very being to do so. The question is, who or what will we worship and adore?

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission

For those other young adults who have drifted from the Church, who will barely if ever darken the doors of the church while in college, I wonder: Will they ever come back? It used to be reasonable to think so, but according to some sobering statistics we can't count on it any longer.

Intentional discipleship makes all the difference.

The parish staff recently did a retreat based on the book, Forming Intentional Disciples, authored by Sherry Weddell, a respected catechetical leader. I shared some of her insights at our catechist Kick-Off gathering. I began with some alarming statistics cited in the book, statistics that tell the story of a Church lacking “intentional disciples.”
“A study of the Pew statistics concerning adults who were raised Catholic is sobering. Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still ‘practicing’--- meaning they attend Mass at least once a month” (Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, italics hers).
Weddell cautions,
“Catholics who leave, leave early. This is especially true today. Nearly half of cradle Catholics who become ‘unaffiliated’ are gone by age eighteen.” 
It is clear then why forming and grounding our children in the Faith at an early age is important. While it is certainly no guarantee that our children will practice the Catholic Faith as adults, we are responsible for forming and equipping them to do so. 

Weddell asserts that while in previous generations we could be somewhat confident that the sacraments of matrimony and baptism (for their own children) would, to some degree and with some measure of success, bring young adults back home to the Church, according to statistics this confidence is no longer sustainable. In fact, young Catholics are far less likely to get married in the Church than in they were in the past.

This is why I am so encouraged when I see young adults attend daily Mass, living intentional discipleship.

So, just what does “intentional discipleship” look like?

Weddell describes intentional discipleship:
“This is the decision to ‘drop one’s nets,’ to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.”
I would say that the intentional disciple is one who, with grateful love, recognizes and responds to the invitation of Jesus Christ to fullness of life. The intentional disciple makes a personal decision to follow Christ and lives that decision through a conscious engagement in the sacramental life of the Church, prayer, service to others, and growth in personal holiness.
Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission
Cultural vs. intentional Catholicism- a change in mindset

The problem is that for so long we have operated with a mindset that serves to foster a sort of “cultural Catholicism” rather than an intentional Catholicism. "Cultural Catholicism" simply doesn’t work to encourage a living, vibrant experience of faith.

We mistakenly assume that when one is raised Catholic one will automatically remain so, or at least come back home to the faith at some point. But according to statistics this simply isn’t necessarily true, and being a baptized member of the Church means so much more than calling oneself Catholic and going through the Catholic “motions,” even if it is for all of one’s life. Early Christianity was called “The Way,” not “The Club.” This implies a certain mode of living rather than simply a mode of belonging.

How many of us not only drift from the sacraments, but see God as an impersonal “force,” in direct contradiction to the central doctrine of our Faith (The Blessed Trinity) which tells us that God is love, and how many of us fail to grasp the essential message of the Gospel, which assures us that God is with us?

According to Weddell’s research,

“Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God; only sixty percent of Catholics believe in a personal God.”
Often, even some of those who are still coming to church, sitting in the pews, wouldn’t consider themselves intentional disciples and might even find the designation off-putting.

Weddell quotes Catholic author Ralph Martin, who states that:

“… we can no longer presume that those coming for the sacraments still understand what it means to be a Catholic or are even committed to such. Nor can we presume that they even know who Christ is and have made a commitment to him as savior and Lord. Nor can we presume that what they are seeking when they come for the sacraments is indeed what the sacraments are intended to effect.”
There are many in our number who might feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we may know Christ intimately, as Friend, and that we may experience His love personally as well as communally. For some, the Eucharist is not perceived as the encounter with the Living Jesus Christ that it truly is, else why would so many in our ranks shirk the Mass on any given Sunday in favor of some other activity?

One of my close friends used to tell our youth group that for forty years of his life he was a “good Catholic" who went to Mass and tried to live the morals of the Church reasonably well (the ones that made sense to him, he said). When he went on a Cursillo retreat at forty years old and found out for the first time in his life that the Lord loves him and desires a relationship with him personally, it transformed his life. It is astounding that he could be a “practicing” Catholic for forty years and not know that God desired a relationship with him! He always assumed God was “out there somewhere;” he didn’t recognize that God was a real, intimate reality in his life. To him, Jesus was more distant teacher than Intimate companion and Divine friend.

Once he discovered God’s love in a personal way (which always leads to a deepening to the communal realization of His love), he became an amazingly engaged Catholic man, active and alive in his faith. It was remarkable to witness.

No one would choose a halfhearted practice of one’s Faith. Most of us truly want to excel at whatever tasks we are given, and would never consciously aspire to mediocrity in any endeavor, let alone the most important talk there is, following our Lord Jesus Christ to heaven and bringing our families with us.

But sometimes we simply don’t realize that God is calling us to a deeper place, a more profound encounter with His Reality, which leads to a living, vibrant, intentional faith. Until we discover the awesome, unfathomable love of the Father, we risk going through the motions and checking off marks on our “holy card.”

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission
So how do we foster in ourselves this living, vibrant, intentional faith?

Jesus said quite plainly, “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33).

The simplicity of that statement eludes us sometimes.

If we seek a relationship with God, he will not disappoint us. He will respond to our seeking with all of His heart. 

"A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ez 36:26, RSV).
If we commit to faithful participation at Sunday Mass, if we attend to daily prayer, strive to practice Christian virtue, receive God’s mercy in regular confession, spend a few minutes every day reading the Gospels, live the Gospel by serving our community, and participate in fellowship with other Christians we trust and may open up to, we will find life in abundance opening itself up to us in ways we never knew possible. It is guaranteed, because this is the living of a relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to His Father (and by virtue of our baptism, ours), by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am encouraged by the presence of so many young adults at daily Mass because their presence tells me something important: the young Church is stirring, moving, striving.

There are young adults out there who take their call to intentional discipleship seriously. They can teach us; they can lead us. Their presence is an occasion of hope for a father like me, whose greatest dream for his children is no less than the eternal happiness of Heaven.