Recently, at a conference for Catholic leaders, I was asked by a young priest what I do. I told him that I help parishes strategize around how to create a culture of discipleship in their parish. He asked me how I do that. I told him that we like to focus on principles, not silver bullets, and train a group of leaders in the parish to create culture change by casting vision, building a clear path to discipleship, mobilizing leaders, and aligning key ministries with a discipleship-oriented vision.
His face fell. I wondered what I had said to offend him!
“If you had told me that you help a parish restore sacred beauty to the liturgy, I would have hired you on the spot,” he said and walked away.
Of Facts and Figures
This priest and I share in common a deep desire to see the Church renewed, for her to accomplish her mission more effectively. What should be our way forward today?
You know the statistics. A new and discouraging study seems to come out every few months that points to a state of decline for the Catholic Church in the United States. Two-thirds do not believe in the Eucharist. For every 1 that joins the Church through the RCIA process, 6.5 leave. “Nones” just surpassed Catholicism as the largest religious group in the U.S. If you thought Millennial statistics on affiliation are discouraging, wait until you hear about Gen Z!
Through a series of cultural challenges (read: crises) both within the Church and in the greater culture on account of the advent of secularism, the Catholic Church in the U.S. and in the West at large is currently undergoing a decline the likes of which we may never have seen before.
The default state of the Church should be growth! The grace given to Christ’s own Church is such that we should be constantly making new Catholics (through birth and adult converts) at such a rate that we are more than replacing our current numbers. As the statistics illustrate, we are not even close.
Personally, I am invigorated by the increased focus on parish renewal in our Church. There are so many great extra-parochial apostolates and movements in the Church, but I am convinced that the New Evangelization will not be accomplished until each and every local instantiation of the Church’s life and mission becomes a vibrant expression of that prophetic clarion call of John Paul II. There will be no “new springtime” without the renewal of parishes.
How to do parish renewal though? What went wrong in parishes; and, more importantly, how do we fix it? I hear three common solutions being proposed by faithful Catholics, as well as various apostolates and organizations:
- “Catholics don’t know their faith! We just need better resources and catechesis to provide stronger intellectual formation for all Catholics.”
- “The liturgy in many places is a disaster and forms Catholics to be indifferent to the significance and sacredness of Catholic sacramental life. If we only had a restoration of authentic Catholic beauty and culture, it would fix all our problems.”
- “This crisis is one of discipleship. Catholics don’t know or don’t have a relationship with God. What we really need is to renew parishes to be centers of missionary discipleship, where the kerygma is preached and people are invited to respond to the initial proclamation of the Gospel in intentional discipleship.”
Of False Dichotomies and Eating Our Own
Here is the issue, though. As more of us come to grips with this current state of decline, out of a genuine love of Christ and his Church, we might be tempted to propose “silver bullet solutions.” In a genuine desire for renewal, I see different groups becoming myopic in their allegiance to one aspect of the solution and, in so doing, developing false dichotomies that will eventually hamper our ability to pursue the authentic renewal of the Church.
The answer to the current crisis in the Church isn’t one but all three of the above. My concern has nothing to do with any one of the three solutions surrounding catechesis, liturgy, or evangelization, but with the words: “just,” “only,” and “really.”
What I see developing, as I talk to devout Catholics, is an adoption of a preferred path of renewal and a fixation on one solution to the detriment of the others, sometimes even pitting these solutions against each other.
A focus on intentional discipleship should not be anti-intellectual or anti-sacred liturgy. A focus on the liturgy should not neglect discipleship efforts or addressing serious intellectual obstacles in people. Emphasizing the rich Catholic intellectual tradition should not exclude the need for a personal relationship with God (what Newman calls “real assent”) nor the rituals and customs that are our heritage as Catholics.
If we are going to be a part of God’s intended renewal for the Church, we cannot think that these realities are opposed but instead mutually inform one another. We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Culture Eats Encyclicals for Breakfast
You may have heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A friend of mine in ministry likes to spin this famous business quote for the Catholic parish context, saying instead, “Culture eats encyclicals for breakfast.” If you read documents from the Second Vatican Council and the last three popes, you will find a vision for a Church prepared to meet all of the challenges of post-modernity, through every available means. However, in contemporary conversations about renewal, I see this false dichotomy emerging between "Catholic identity/culture" and "New Evangelization" type thinking. Are we supposed to be restoring pockets of Catholic culture or forming missionary disciples? Both. The Catholic answer is always both/and.
I meet many traditionally minded priests and parish leaders who are suspicious of "evangelization" or "discipleship" language because they worry that to pursue those goals would bring about an abnegation of what makes us uniquely Catholic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Honestly, I understand the wariness. We all still have a little PTSD from some of the iconoclasm of the post-conciliar years. What Bishop Robert Barron has called “beige Catholicism” denotes a Catholicism that above all seeks cultural relevance to the abnegation of what is uniquely Catholic. None of us wants a return to, as one friend put it, “kumbaya catechesis.” We want renewal to be accomplished in a way that does not hide what makes us Catholic but instead leads with it! We want to be confident that what the Lord has placed in his Church is something that will speak to post-modern hearts, that eternal truths and beauties are never culturally irrelevant.
Evangelization and discipleship are not about kumbaya catechesis; and parish renewal can both lead with the language of intentional discipleship and still be done in a way that also accentuates our rich Catholic intellectual and liturgical tradition. Preaching the kerygma and inviting people into a life of discipleship and making the mission of the Church to evangelize the core mission of our parish is not about watering down the faith.
In his book, Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel gives us a handy tool for discerning how to pursue renewal in a manner that retains an authentic Catholicity. First, ask, “What is this thing?” Authentic renewal should always be based upon the objective truth of something. Second, ask, “How can I re-discern how to approach this reality in light of mission?” In the current cultural moment, the Church is being forcibly moved from being culturally accepted to a perpetual state of Missiondom.
I think mission and Catholic culture actually go hand-in-hand. The Benedictine monasteries, which were responsible for so much of the preservation of culture (both Catholic and secular) after the fall of the Roman Empire, also sent the missionaries that evangelized large parts of the world, including Ireland. A focus on rebuilding pockets of Catholic life and culture is not a bad step to take, as long as it does not stop there. Community exists for the sake of mission, and mission for the sake of community. We need a more integrated approach to renewal.
A Challenge, If You Don’t Mind
If you will allow me, I would like to briefly challenge each of the three “camps.” At some point in my life, I have fallen into each of them; so, I feel justified in getting to issue these mini ferverinos if you find yourself using words like “just” and “only” when you discuss the needed renewal of parishes.
If you are an evangelization/discipleship person, consider that vibrant liturgical richness can serve the process of evangelization from pre-evangelization all the way through catechesis. It cannot replace the invitation to a personal relationship with God; and though it is not a silver bullet for evangelization, beauty in the liturgy does stand as a counter-cultural witness to the depth of the mysteries we profess. Also, the Mass is not really intended for initial evangelization and so we probably will not be able to effectively repurpose it to serve that end. It is a liturgy for the initiated, and there are other places in parish life amenable to being “shallower ends of the pool” and more accessible on-ramps.
Additionally, in this Information Age, it is important for our evangelization efforts to be tinted with a rich appreciation for the serious engagement of the intellect (not intellectual snobbery) that has always characterized the Church’s mission from Paul’s days in the Areopagus until now. Challenging catechesis, then, has not only retained its important place in our mission, it it is more essential than ever. Though I still find the Socratic method to be the most effective method of engaging in intellectual conversations (e.g., Where do you think we come from? What is the meaning of life? Why is there something instead of nothing?), in our cultural moment, a working knowledge of fundamental theology and apologetics is no longer a nice add-on for the evangelist who desires to be effective. It is instead a non-negotiable.
Some questions for you to consider:
- Do I see the rich Catholic liturgical tradition as a hindrance or a help to my attempts to build a culture of missionary discipleship? Do I think that one mutually excludes the other?
- Do we offer robust catechesis and spiritual formation to those who have been the beneficiaries of initial evangelization-type initiatives or do we leave people in the shallow end of discipleship?
If you are of the opinion that a beautiful liturgy is all that is required for renewal, as I have heard before, I would invite you to consider the Church’s teaching on the efficacy of the Sacraments. To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1131), the sacraments “bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” The impact of the sacraments in the lives of those present depends on the faith present in participants. If our goal is to help people worship more reverently, we should also work to arouse personal faith in our communities. I have seen too many good Catholic kids, who come from good Catholic families and grow up in really solid parishes with great catechesis and amazing liturgies, fall away from the faith. Initial evangelization is still crucial to arouse the faith that will enable baptized Catholics to subjectively lay hold of the graces that we know are objectively made available in the Mass. Nowhere in the Church’s documents does it say, “If we just celebrate the liturgy more reverently and beautifully, that satisfies all of our evangelistic responsibilities.” Instead, the Catechism (quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium) states, “’The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church’: it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion. It can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful” (1072).
While no one should ever question the importance of a restoration of the liturgy, think of the hipster coffee shop down the street from you, for example, and all of the people currently sipping lattes inside its doors. Ask yourself if all that is required for all of those people to give their entire lives to Jesus Christ is for us to celebrate the liturgy properly. Rather, the missionary call of the Church to make disciples of all nations is her very identity: “The Church exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 14). If this is the universal Church’s identity, then it is our individual parish’s too. We fundamentally do not exist for ourselves. Love is to will the good of the other. Both for those within our walls and outside, beautiful liturgy—though vitally important—is not sufficient by itself.
Likewise, catechesis is not accidental to living out the rhythms of the Church’s liturgical life. The National Directory for Catechesis says, “Catechesis both precedes the liturgy and springs from it.” Catechesis must precede our reception of the sacraments but then, also, a mystagogical catechesis is necessary for believers to continue to fall in love more deeply with God in the mysteries they celebrate regularly.
Some questions for you to consider:
- Do we prioritize initial proclamation of the Gospel in our parish or do we only speak to people who already “get it”? Do we build welcoming community that can on-ramp those who do not yet know Christ and his Church into a vibrant Catholic life?
- Is our community growing due to a large number of converts becoming Catholic at Easter or is our growth only due to other devout Catholics driving a distance on account of our liturgies?
If you are one of those people who thinks that if everyone in the world just studied John 6 they would become Catholic immediately, perhaps it is important to note that people are more than their minds and assent/belief is something far more complex than merely being told what the Church teaches. The handing over of your whole life to Christ and the Church, which is the call for all of us, is more than just a matter of the head. When asked why he never became Catholic, one of the great minds of our times, C.S. Lewis was reported to have said, “If you had grown up in Belfast, you'd understand and wouldn't ask me that question.” Bias and life experience can impact a person’s willingness to convert. A robust New Apologetics is crucial for the advancement of the New Evangelization, but any apologist worth his/her salt will tell you that you can give people the right answers but winning a soul is a much more complicated affair. Catechesis often depends first on initial evangelization for its efficacy, followed by liturgical fruitfulness for the completion of its aim: the full transformation of a Catholic!
Some questions for you to consider:
- Do I appreciate the necessity of preaching the kerygma and inviting people to respond to it? Am I comfortable and effective sharing my personal witness and testimony, in addition to sharing the intellectual answers that come from my studies?
- When I think of “evangelization,” do I immediately think of “apologetics” or do I see a larger role for other methods of outreach as well?
- Do our parish’s faith formation efforts speak to all four types of formation (intellectual, human, pastoral, spiritual) or do they lean exclusively toward the intellectual side?
I would love to see more parishes really attempt all three in a robust way: a parish that is laser-focused on pre-evangelization and initial evangelization for anyone who is not yet a disciple (which would be most people, both in the pews and without) while offering beautiful, sacred liturgies along with a vibrant catechesis and formation for those who have been evangelized. To me, such a vision for renewal would become...symphonic.
Bringing the Point Home
To conclude, I will let you in on a secret. I do work with parishes to build a culture of evangelization and discipleship and so I am partial to that aspect of the solution. I personally do think that fixing the crisis of intentional discipleship is the first step and will actually help Catholics hunger for a more reverent liturgy and more vibrant catechesis. The crisis at the core of so many other crises in our Church today is the lack of discipleship in baptized Catholics.
For me, we must maximize the effectiveness of our initial evangelization and learn to form intentional disciples. Here is why: (1) Most people in our communities and most Catholics are not intentional disciples, (2) very, VERY few parishes are actually good at initial evangelization both for baptized Catholics in their pews and those in their community, and (3) the Church tells us that disciples are formed through initial evangelization. If this is what most people need, and if we are terrible at it, we must get better at this. This will require patience, accompaniment through the thresholds of conversion and, above all, a culture shift from being parish cultures that are primarily ordered toward maintenance to instead being radically oriented to mission. This will require strategy, intentionality, and time.
Pope St. John Paul II made this point very clearly when he wrote, “it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is conscious and personally lived. The renewal of faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ” (Ecclesia in America, no. 73). Since the Church has been saying for a long time that initial evangelization is always the “first thing,” we must put “first things first” again.
The topic of parish renewal demands that we are willing to stand in the tension of the Catholic “both/and.” We cannot let our passion for one aspect of renewal lead us to denigrate other crucial aspects. The three solutions above can be three pillars on which the stool of renewal can stand but none have the capacity on their own to be the silver bullet of renewal. We have a responsibility as parish leaders to build amazing cultures of formation and liturgical beauty AND do the slow, messy work of building relationships, initial evangelization, and preaching the kerygma to those who are not yet intentional disciples.
Truth, Beauty, or Goodness?
Faith, Hope, or Love?
Holiness, Community, or Mission?
Discipleship, Catechesis, or Sacred Liturgy?
In the words of the Little Flower and echoing the expansive vision of Holy Mother Church, I say, “I choose all.”
Tim Glemkowski is an alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville and has his MA in Theology from the Augustine Institute. A frequent speaker at conferences and parish/diocesan events, he currently serves the Church as the president and founder of L’Alto Catholic Institute (laltocatholic.com) and the president and co-founder of Revive Parishes (reviveparishes.com). Tim is the author of the book, Made for Mission: Renewing Your Parish Culture (2019,) from Our Sunday Visitor.
 George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 92-93.
This article originally appeared on pages 33-36 of the printed edition.