As y’all can probably tell, I extensively read and write about the practise of the Catholic faith in the world today. Also, did I mention I was an INTJ? Maybe once or twice. That means I am a PROBLEM-SOLVER. I must know the answers, find the solutions. My brain and heart (what heart?) won’t rest until I find the perfect answer to the problems of the world. While there is no obvious, practical answer, I remain disturbed and not at peace.
Over the years, I have come to be more and more certain that the answer to everything is Jesus. Overly simple, but sometimes the truth is. In a more specific way, the Catholic faith, with its rich body of unchanging truth, the transforming grace of the sacraments and the beautiful witness of the saints through the ages. And yet this answer seems lacking.
Here’s the problem. There are over a billion Catholics in the world today, and more than 2 billion Christians… and yet the problems remain. The ugliness of human sin, the despair of lives without meaning, the repeated wounds we inflict on those closest to us, the indifference to suffering of others, a lack of true and fulfilling joy… It seems to pervade Christians and non-Christians alike.
I’ve seen it everywhere, in many of the Christian and Catholic circles I have spent time in, in parishes, communities, in movements and youth groups. And because of that, many are leaving the Catholic faith, often choosing the possibly more comforting uncertainty of agnosticism. Because if Jesus promised fullness of life why is it that so few Christians seem to be living it? It’s like we’ve got hold of part of the answer, but there are some crucial pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle. Everyone has opinions about what’s missing.
Here are some of the answers I’ve heard people come up with-
It’s the liturgy. If only we returned to a beautiful liturgy and better music in our Masses, that would bring people back to the truth, beauty and goodness of God.
Better catechesis and apologetics. It seems like most people have no clear idea of what the Church actually teaches, and even the idea of truth has been obscured. If we catechized young Catholics better, they would love truth and spread truth.
Spread of humanism over religion. Religion itself is the problem. If we taught people to just help people, and cut out all divisive references to God, then we will achieve self-fulfilment, true harmony and brotherhood among all people.
Practise of meditation/ yoga. If we set aside time for silence and meditation every day, we will find inner peace and an awareness of our own divinity.
I suppose it is superfluous to say I don’t agree any of these are real solutions (although some of them seem to have elements of truth). Many of these have been tried and found lacking.
Our Masses could definitely do with a big helping of beauty (I still cringe through most music selections). But I’ve heard of many ‘traditionalist Latin Mass Catholics’ who seem to lean towards exclusivity and being judgmental, so apparently beauty doesn’t protect from that. Truth and a love for and an understanding of truth are hugely important. But I’ve come across plenty of apologists who are obsessed with truth over love, and don’t seem to be drawing people into anything except an argument (that was me once upon a time).
Selfless service to humanity is one of the most desperately needed and Christ-like ways to live. Yet humanists seem to rely on their own inner goodness, which unfortunately falls short too often, and all too soon we come face to face with the selfishness and fickleness of most people, and even ourselves (if we’re honest), leading to disillusioned and cynical ex-do-gooders. Those who regularly practise some form of meditation do seem to have an edge over the rest, because silence is a good place to start to know ourselves and God. But too often meditation and yoga can only help with an experience, not a real transformation of the heart or the world.
So what has my brilliant INTJ-brain come up with as the two big missing pieces?
1. Entering into a personal relationship with Jesus and becoming intentional disciples
Yeah, yeah, sounds obvious. But it isn’t! From my experience, most Catholics are either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with talking about God as if He is a Person that they know. Ask a Catholic, “What has God been saying to you recently?” and see if that question confuses and confounds them. The bigger problem is that no one asks that question in Catholic circles.
And what is this concept of ‘discipleship’? It means being a Catholic is more than just a side hobby for one’s life. Full disclosure: I’m on Catholic dating website, and too many profiles seem to be of young men who seem to belong to a Catholic club that adds an interesting element to their normal life of job, family, travel and hobbies. But being a CHRISTIAN is so much more!
Like the motto of one community I’ve been involved with: “All of my life for the rest of my life.” It means re-ordering EVERYTHING in one’s life and seeking God’s will in everything. How many Catholics are truly willing to ask God what HIS plan is for their lives, rather than telling Him their plan and asking Him to bless it? How many are willing to ask GOD if they should have another child, or give up a lucrative job opportunity or a promotion, whether they should emigrate, or spend their leisure time differently, or change how they spend their pay cheque?
The true disciple says, “Lord, I will go wherever you want me to go, do whatever you want me to do, say whatever you want me to say, and give up whatever you want me to give up.”
I see the obvious lack of this element everywhere I go – Catholics on social media are quite happy to talk or share posts about theology, apologetics, devotions, saints, chastity or virtues. But I have rarely comes across any who talk about their own walk with God. Same for priests in their homilies. We hear tips for self-improvement, generic exhortations to love others and be better people, sometimes good theology, but I have rarely heard a priest talk about how God has convicted him in prayer. Youth groups are about personality development and a platform to showcase our talents, instead of falling in love with Jesus. No wonder people leave the Church- they have not yet met the God we talk so much about!
2. A life lived closely to the poor:
I HAVE met many Catholics who have fallen in love with Jesus and talk about Him in a personal and intimate way. Almost all of them have had a personal encounter with Jesus through the Charismatic renewal. I can pretty easily spot those who have – and it’s not the ‘Hallelujah’s and ‘Praise the Lord’s they shout at random moments. Just kidding, most don’t do that.
But I do see a comfort with prayer and God’s Word, they are often in Adoration chapels, they are not visibly uncomfortable with the concept of evangelization, they often seem more open and interested in what God is doing in the world today. Other Catholics often seem more cynical and negative, or more comfortable with Christianity as a theory, not a love affair.
But. Too many Christians who are into their faith still stop short of a truly obedient counter-cultural witness to the world – the witness of a life lived in solidarity with the poor. I don’t mean that Christians are not generous to the poor. Many are – they will write cheques, create foundations, sponsor orphans. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest charities in the world.
But most of us want to remain in our comfortable bubbles, our social circles of equally privileged friends and family and communities. We do our bible studies and prayer meetings and conferences and retreats. And we give a small percentage, making sure that it will not affect our hobbies and lifestyles. We live in our (sometimes metaphorical) gated communities occasionally making a quick awkward visit to an orphanage at Christmas, and then rush back to our comfy lives and our ministry among those like us. Gospel poverty is for a select few, we say, like Mother Teresa.
James 2: 15- 17 says, "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." That's not really an if. Our brothers and sisters ARE naked and DO lack daily food."
If we unstop our ears, we can hear clearly that God is calling us to far more. Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, most of the saints, the words of Scripture shout out plainly that unless we prioritise the poor, we are far from the Kingdom of God. As long as the poor continue to suffer, and we Christians continue to go about our business, our witness will never have power.
I speak prophetic words here – if each of us individual Catholics, as well as our parishes and communities and youth groups will give our HEARTS to God (not just our intellectual assent) to enter a real relationship with Him, and pledge Him unreserved obedience, and if we will give up our privilege to help carry a small part of the burden of a suffering world, making friendship with the poor a normal part of our lives, we will begin to see REAL renewal in the Church.
No more lip service or hypocrisy, but an unquenchable fire; an irresistible attraction to a world that is looking for authentic witness; power to our words about the saving power of Jesus Christ; a real joy and peace that the world cannot steal or replicate; spiritual fruitfulness, conversions, and visible signs and wonders.
I speak so confidently because I have a seen a small portion of the Church live this life of radical discipleship and gospel poverty, and I can see the difference in their lives. They still have problems and suffering, but their lives shine with Gospel joy. I know it’s easy to write about, and far more challenging to live out (don’t tell me, I’m still working on it). But let’s begin by admitting we have a problem, and asking God to show us the next step.
Highly Recommended Reading
Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell
Happy Are You Poor by Fr. Thomas Dubay
A Poor Priest for the Poor: The Life of Fr. Rick Thomas SJ by Richard Dunstan
Divine Renovation by Fr. James Mallon
The Hole in the Gospel by Richard Stearns
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne