With Benedict XVI stepping down from the chair of St. Peter, the Roman Catholic church has entered a period of intense self-examination and soul-searching. Some voices in the secular media have taken the opportunity to recast the events of recent days in light of what to them is clearly a church utterly bereft of leadership, direction, and purpose; that it has been abandoned by God and thrown into chaos and confusion; that the world is witnessing the final gasps of an outdated and irrelevant institution, mercilessly cannibalizing itself in a flurry of in-fighting and dirty politics. It’s the kind of writing that makes headlines and sells newspapers. I really don’t think it’s as dire as some of them are trying to make it. But I am also convinced our predicament forces our people and our leadership to ponder some very compelling issues moving forward.
While I was away for a few weeks this past month, I was attending a sabbatical course on Parish Leadership Skills for Today’s Ministry, and I have learned some things I believe will be useful for me personally and for my ministry as pastor. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard, from my instructors and my brother priests in the program. The challenges we face in church ministry are not all that different. We are conscious of our own human limitations, the egregious mismanagement and mistakes of leadership brought to light in recent years, the hemorrhaging ranks of the faithful, the unpopularity of the gospel message, the drought of authentic Christian discipleship. But there was also a lot of optimism in their voices. The richness of our Catholic heritage needs to be explored and celebrated. If we were truly convinced we possess something worth sharing with the world, we can indeed be effective bearers of good news. Unfortunately, we often do not know what we have. And those who head out the doors are simply unaware of the magnificent treasures of our faith.
In research data we examined at this leadership course, a majority of those who claim to be Catholic in the United States, something like 71% admit that they do not practice their faith; 29% say they do. That’s you. Of the 29%, only a quarter, about 7%, say they are highly engaged, meaning they do more than just come to church on Sunday. The remaining 22% say they practice their faith by force of habit or at the barest minimum. 7%. That’s the portion of the American Catholic population willing to admit they participate actively in the life and mission of the Catholic parish, and as it turns out, is the same portion that contributes 80% of volunteer hours and financial support toward the parish achieving its stated purpose. The statistics are appalling, but they give us important information to ponder if we are to remain relevant in this modern age.
In this Lenten season, we pause to look deep into our spiritual lives and examine where God invites us to grow. Those who take seriously this invitation will make the effort to try something, anything, to grow in the spiritual life. The challenge is that very often the road ahead looks rough and steep, and few of us think we have what it takes to make the journey. So some will not even try. Instead, we need to understand that the journey of discipleship is not completed overnight. Progress will come slowly as long as we persist, as long as we persevere. And we make the journey together as a people and with God’s generous help. So we cannot forget to call on him in prayer.
If we want to understand more deeply how to live the values of the gospel, and how to be better disciples, we also cannot neglect opportunities to explore the faith, to ask questions, and to learn. Some of that learning can take place when we read a good Catholic book on our own, or when we participate in adult learning programs. As long as we learn, and at the pace we find most comfortable, we are growing in wisdom and understanding. We will voluntarily pursue our hobbies and issues in the news that catch our attention. What would it take for us to also pursue some learning about our Catholic faith? Just a little bit each day, so we expand our knowledge a little each day as well.
And as we grow in relationship with God through prayer and learning, we will feel the need to reach out to others in greater generosity, by becoming more patient, more forgiving, and more welcoming. Perhaps we will see ourselves contributing more to the causes that are important to us, as a way of expressing our gratitude for God’s generosity on our behalf. And we need to support each other, encourage one another, and celebrate each other’s achievements, no matter how small.
Eventually, the experience of renewal in our faith will compel us to share the good news with those around us. Most of us already do that with everything else in our lives that we like – movies we’ve watched, books we’ve read, music we’ve listened to, restaurants we’ve enjoyed. We are not ashamed to tell our friends about the new Bond movie, the new season of Dancing with the Stars, the new offerings at Starbucks. When we tell others what has made a difference in our lives, we are sharing good news! Would we be as willing to share the good news of our faith, that we have discovered joy in prayer, that we have found peace in a better understanding of the church’s teaching, that we have found satisfaction and fulfillment in helping those in need?
The Samaritan woman at the well in today’s gospel did not leave home knowing that her encounter with Jesus would change her life. She made the trip to the well in the middle of the day precisely to avoid human contact. Most everyone else fetched water in the cool of the early morning. Perhaps she was not comfortable with the other women prying into her personal life. Perhaps she was tired of their gossip. But when she encountered Jesus, he helped her to recognize her deeper longing for meaning, her desire to draw closer to God, and her sometimes haphazard attempts at finding fulfillment and happiness. She probably did not consider herself part of the 7% who saw themselves as highly engaged in the practice of their faith. Instead, she was content to plod along lazily each day, knowing there was much in terms of spiritual growth and personal fulfillment that was beyond her reach, believing she was fine just getting by. But Jesus showed her the deep thirst she had for meaning, and happiness, and God. He convinced her he had something to offer her, to raise her from her mediocre existence, and give her new energy, new enthusiasm, and new purpose.
And “she left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?’” That brief encounter with Jesus was deeply refreshing and life-changing for her, and she had to tell everyone else. Eventually, the people would come to faith on their own. “We believe because we have heard for ourselves.” If many more of us were changed by our encounter with Jesus, there would be more of us than just the 7%. Imagine.
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013.