Recently a new class of persons has been appearing in religious polling: “none of the above.” They do not consider that they belong to or have come from any religious group; they are not any type of ex-anything.
Groups and organizations like the Pew Survey can give much better definitions. Some would call them either WASP or ex-Catholics, former or “fallen-aways.” They are generally middle class, middle aged. They do not necessarily deny the existence of God. Neither do they feel the need to offer any type of organized worship or devotion to him (or her).
They think religion is for the weak or the ignorant. These new-styled people can live very well for 30 or 40 years without any need or recourse to a higher power. They will generally consider themselves good people who pay their taxes, obey the (traffic) laws, cut the grass, dress well and are seen as “respectable.” They become indignant over child abuse, think gays or lesbians have a right to be happy and that an abortion is a woman’s right to choose.
Such are the many relatives and people who surround us in today’s society. Faith has become a personal option for those who wish to choose it — not something to be inflicted upon those who do not want or desire it. Should one ever tell these individuals that they will be prayed for, the one making the offer will either receive a quaint smile or a hostile reaction. Like, mind your own business.
The Gospel Is Supposed to be Good News
So what is the concerned Christian supposed to do? Especially in light of all eternity? Is private prayer sufficient? How do we break through stone walls and barriers?
First of all, maybe it is time to dial back the Scarecrow technique from the pulpit. It does not seem to be working anymore except to drive away some of our own members. Condemning abortion, gay marriage and divorce has not been much of a solution, but part of the problem! The Gospel is supposed to be good news, joyful and life supporting. Maybe it is time for speaking less, and acting more. It is like the kids who know what their parents want and expect. Shouting more and louder is not going to draw them closer. How can we bring them together and make them feel more at home? My father used to tell us that if we did not have anything nice to say to each other, we ought to keep quiet. It is time to promote, instead of demote!
All parishes need to be seen once again as much as life-affirming centers for nurturing growth and as spaces of worship, where the soul’s and society’s ills, whatever they may be, are met. If only spiritual needs are looked after, many a person will not find enough to sustain himself on life’s journey, so many are the concerns facing people today.
Since no one place can do it all, each locality can carve out its particular niche — whether it be helping immigrants or the elderly, the youth or the unemployed; the handicapped or the lonely and abandoned. Every parish needs to be perceived as a welcoming center of love and reception. If good liturgy, a prayer life and scripture study nourishes the soul, there are so many other human needs that have to be promoted so that hope is kept alive and inflamed. If man does not live by bread alone, neither will spiritual food suffice to get him to eternity (cf., James 2:14 ss).
Tender Mercy Will Melt Hearts
Strong condemnations have dried up too many hearts; works of tender mercy is what will melt them and bring back the most resistant. It is interesting that the Bible condemns almost 130 faults and sins, and somehow we have managed to single out and isolate less than half a dozen as the worst of all sins, pinning the scarlet letter on only certain kinds of unfortunate offenders. If silence can be golden, have some become afraid that to keep quiet on certain issues is to become yellow? May the Lord give us the wisdom to know the difference. Shouting louder does not always mean that one is more committed.
We cannot all kiss a leper, but we can sit and listen to someone whose heart has been broken or rejected. We cannot always console a victim of war, but we can give time to either train or visit those who are sick or shut in.
Time spent in prayer for those who suffer will produce consoling balm at the right moment when a gracious smile or sympathetic nod says, “I understand” and “you can count on me to be with you in your sorrow. You do not walk alone.”
Praying before the Cross takes us across that threshold separating those who live well and comfortably from the rest of suffering humanity. Only one who has drunk from the chalice of Christ’s sufferings will be at ease and comfortable in the presence of those who have been wrung through the bitter winepress of pain and evil.
We do not know what Pope Francis will bring, but his first early days have brought new life and energy, a new hope to many. His first gestures and symbols have been so rich and exciting. His actions have spoken louder than many pronouncements. Maybe the world has grown tired and weary of teachings and doctrines, and will only listen again after seeing example, will be inspired by actions when they see another one like the Galilean going about doing good. We all want to see the Bride of Christ come forth in renewed Splendor as the true servant of all the poor on the face of the earth.
Doctrine does matter. Living the Gospel, however, is indispensable, our first sign and test of faith. As the saying goes, if we do not walk the walk, the talk is not going to have much influence.
The only way to evangelize and melt frozen, indifferent hearts that have tuned out the Gospel is to show them acts of love and compassion, to overwhelm them with what we servants of Christ have always done best — follow in the footsteps of the Master on the way to Calvary. Greater love than this no man has than he who lays down his life for another. So we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers by spending them in service and sacrifice, promoting those who most have need. Not an easy thing to do. Even if you live in the suburbs, there are marginalized people near you. Jesus has left us an example to follow in his footsteps.
The Link Between the Eucharist and Evangelization
For centuries, Lex Orandi has been guiding our Lex Credendi. Once again we want a renewed Lex Vivendi shining forth, so that our Eucharists really do lead us out to mission and ministry. Benedict wrote about the importance of and the link between the spirituality of Eucharist and the evangelization of cultures, the vocations of the priestly, consecrated and lay states and its roles in the moral transformation of the faithful (Sacramentum Caritatis). In other words, as Dennis Billy has said, it is impossible to be a truly spiritual person without being ethical — and vice versa.
Poverty of Spirit has to be translated into some sort of lifestyle. Simplicity. Not so easily done in modern America. That is why it is hard to practice poverty while living in a palace. No wonder Mother Theresa was considered a saint while she was still alive and sought after. And her order had no vocation crisis either.
So only when the world sees changes in externals that represent true metanoia are people going to stop and ask, what is going on? Why are they doing that? What is motivating them?
Then — and only then — some will actually return and come to Jesus with open hearts to receive His abundant Redemption.
Father Kirchner, C.Ss.R., was ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in moral theology in Rome and is currently working and living at Liguori, Mo.