“Timing is everything,” it is often said, and if that be true, the time seems particularly right for a reflection on “Catechesis for Those Returning to the Church.” Consider the times in which we are living.
For starters, the message and mission of Blessed John Paul II invited the Church to embrace the challenge of a New Evangelization. Continuing that impetus, Pope Benedict has proclaimed a Year of Faith, beginning in October of 2012. The forthcoming Synod of Bishops is devoted to the same theme, “New Evangelization.” Private initiatives such as the “Catholics Come Home” media blitz have boldly proclaimed the rich history and blessings of the church and invited Catholics to take another look at the church, and many dioceses, including my own Diocese of Providence, RI have launched ambitious programs of outreach and evangelization.
But what do we have to offer those returning to the church as a result of the new evangelization? What approach will be most effective and long-lasting? What are the characteristics of a sound program of catechesis that will address the spiritual and pastoral needs of those who are coming home?
Well, on one hand, it seems to me that catechesis for those returning to the church is practically identical to the catechesis intended for all the members of the church, including those of us who have never left. We recognize, though, that those who have left the church, for whatever reason, need to be received with a certain measure of patience and gentleness. Sometimes they’ve been hurt or neglected; sometimes their life’s journey has been long and difficult. We need to remember the words of Jesus who said, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Lk. 15:7)
The foundation of all catechesis, however, including that intended for those returning to the church is the personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul stressed the importance of this encounter in his Apostolic Letter, “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” a document that serves as the Magna Carta of ecclesial renewal. There the Pope explains the starting point of the new evangelization: “It is not, therefore, a matter of inventing a ‘new program’. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition; it is the same as ever. Ultimately it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.” (29) I don’t think I’ve ever read a more concise summary of the Christian Faith. At the beginning and end of our catechetical efforts, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus, isn’t it?
Pope Benedict, in his own unforgettable words, puts it this way: “There is nothing more beautiful than to know Christ and to speak to others of our friendship with him.”
The friendship with Christ—an intense, intimate, personal friendship with Christ—should be appealing to those who have left the church, especially those who for some reason did not previously experience that divine friendship in the Catholic Church but found it in smaller, more personal, emotional and affective Christian communities.
It strikes me that in welcoming individuals back to the church we start there—simply by talking about Jesus Christ and what he has meant for us, and how he can be met in the community of faith. However, building upon that rock-solid, Christological foundation, there are other characteristics of catechetical evangelization as well. To be effective it needs to be clear, challenging, compassionate, and compelling.
First, our catechesis for “returnees” needs to be clear and accurate. I wonder how many people have left the Catholic Church because they had received incorrect information, or were laboring under a misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine or discipline. More than once I’ve heard someone say, “I left the Catholic Church because I was divorced and could no longer receive Holy Communion.” Or, “I left the church because Catholics don’t believe in the Bible.”
We recognize that sometimes the teaching of the church hasn’t been presented in a clear and consistent manner. Other times individuals have simply misunderstood the tenets of the church. In any event, any rapprochement with the believing community needs to be based on teaching that is accurate and authentic.
Next, the catechesis of evangelization needs to be challenging.
Some have suggested that the Catholic Church would attract more adherents if, for example, we changed our teaching about difficult topics such as abortion, contraception, divorce and re-marriage, the ordination of women to the priesthood, or celibacy for priests. But, we need to ask: is an easy church, devoid of any moral imperatives or challenge being faithful to its mission? Is it contributing anything of value to the moral well-being of the world?
I recall that a journalist asked Pope Benedict what we could do to make the church more “attractive” to the modern world. The Holy Father responded: “I would say that a church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path. Because the church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power.” In other words, the task of the church is to proclaim the truth—whether easy or hard, popular or unpopular, “convenient or inconvenient” as St. Paul charged. (II Tim. 4:2)
The fact is: we do no one a favor if we water-down or minimize the hard teachings of Christ and his church in a vain attempt to make them more palatable to modern taste.
Third, the catechetical approach for those returning to the church needs to be compassionate.
Here I mean that our outreach has to be attuned to the real life experiences of the returnees, sensitive to their needs and concerns. Good teachers, in the church as elsewhere, have to be careful listeners as well as articulate speakers.
Some folks who have departed from the church have done so not for doctrinal reasons but because of more personal experiences. Perhaps they had a negative personal encounter with another member of the church—clergy, religious or lay. Maybe they approached the church with a pressing, personal need or problem and were turned away.
It’s instructive to consider the many personal encounters Jesus had—with the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the sinner. Jesus was always alert to and responsive to their situation. He was a listener, a counselor, a companion. And while he clearly challenged others to live a moral and upright life, his starting point was the human condition. In short, he was compassionate. And so must our catechesis be.
Finally, it seems to me that our catechesis for those returning to the church has to be compelling, and by that I mean that it should inspire individuals to get personally involved in the life of the community. Folks who have enough interest and motivation to seek out the church, or return to the community from which they’ve been alienated, might very well have the motivation and excitement necessary to jump into particular activities. And that activity could be the magnet that ensures they’ll stay there.
What are some examples of compelling catechesis? Could returnees be invited and trained to assume some specific liturgical roles at Sunday Mass, or in the catechetical ministry of the parish? Could they be invited to volunteer in the social ministry of the church—working in soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, or pro-life ministries, for example?
In other words, our catechetical approach to evangelization has to be tangible and pragmatic, as well as verbal. Those returning to the church often are anxious to give as well as receive.
Let us return to “Novo Millennio Ineunte” for a final important reminder, and that is of the primacy of divine grace in our catechetical efforts. “It is fatal to forget that ‘without Christ we can do nothing,’” (Jn. 15:5) John Paul reminds us, and “it is prayer which roots us in this truth.” (38)
So, dear friends, may God bless your catechetical efforts, and may God’s grace complement your sincere desire to welcome our brothers and sisters back into the church, our family of faith.
This article is originally found on pages 14-15 of the printed edition.