Thursday, January 12, 2012
The New Evangelization: Charging Ahead Patiently
Probably like a lot of folks, I sometimes regret that a great many things about the culture are worse now than they were before. Some are the kind of mundane things that aren't earth-shattering. For instance, when I was younger, my mother would take my brothers and I everywhere via mass transportation. And, the rule we learned was simple: If there were a woman or an elderly person without a seat, we gave up our seat. Basically, my brothers and I never never sat down. Men didn't wear hats indoors . . . ever. Gentlemen hold doors open and let others go in first.
Then, there are the more notable declines. Mass attendance is down. Catholic schools that once had long waiting lists are closing. Basic catechetical knowledge of the Faith is sorely lacking. I notice it in little ways. For instance, in the old days, if somebody said, "Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord," a chorus would respond, "and let perpetual light shine upon him." Now, when I say that prayer at a graveside, almost nobody answers; just a little sign that there's a decline.
I was really blessed when I was growing up that the Catholic school that I attended, Sacred Heart in North Quincy, Massachusetts was really solid in its Catholic identity. Most families who attended the school also attended Mass. We were taught primarily by Sisters of St. Joseph who were definitely of the old school. They had names like Honorius, Benignus, Jude, Conan, Eustolia, Longinus, Romula, Rosamond, Georgita, and others. With names like that, you were guaranteed that you were not getting "Catholic Lite."
But, most of my generation of Catholics were probably already suffering from a deficiency of good Catholic teaching. And then, my generation began to teach what we didn't know to a new generation. Our generation--who didn't know much--was put in charge of teaching others. And so, that new generation knows even less. It goes to show, that it doesn't take too long before what took generations to build is reduced beyond recognition.
When I first became a priest and would hear confessions of young children, I'd feel awful for them. They'd come in and it was fairly obvious that they had no idea what to do. And I'd have to begin the long process of trying to extract from them some sort of mention of a particular sin. I'd ask, "So, what do you want to confess?" They'd look puzzled. I'd say, "What do you want to tell God you are sorry for?" They'd stare or perhaps shrug their shoulders. Eventually, after I had worked long and hard to help them make some sort of confession, I'd have to ask before I assigned a penance, "Do you know the Hail Mary? No? Okay, how about the Our Father? No? Okay . . . don't worry. That's okay."
The staff at our parish school and the staff of our religious education program have done a remarkable job preparing our young people to receive the Sacrament of Penance--which they receive on a regular basis. The students come in, begin their confession, articulate their sins with clarity and with a recognition of what sin actually is, and they express contrition. I've been struck as time has passed by, how well-prepared they are. Last year, a priest was assigned to our parish and I am always happy when he comments on something that he's noticed. Recently, he commented how well-prepared all of the children are when they come to confession. That delighted me. It confirms for me that the hard work that these teachers have done is working.
I recently received a note from my Religious Education Director in which she expressed her delight that she too is seeing the hard work pay off. The men and women who teach in her program are people who themselves are trying to grow in the Faith and are constantly seeking to be educated in the Faith. This makes a huge difference. They confront a very difficult situation. Many of their students come to class, but they never go to Mass. Perhaps the only time some of them hear about the Faith is for that hour in their classroom. That can be daunting. And yet, these folks love the Faith and these children so much that they are willing to keep working at it.
Many of the teachers that my DRE mentioned are folks who themselves have taken classes to advance their own learning or who read voraciously about the Faith. They are people who attend daily Mass or who come to adoration. The DRE has done a great job by creating a community among the teachers. They are not individuals who are dropped into a room one hour a week and expected to keep the kids entertained. They are a community of teachers who are missioned together. And, they are doing a great job.
One thing has become clear to me. All of this takes patience and hard work. The tide is certainly against us. We cannot presume a basic knowledge of the Faith and we have to avoid the temptations of growing angry or impatient about that. I remember the nuns I had in school and how silly I thought so many of their rules were or their making us practice genuflecting repeatedly or forcing us to make the Sign of the Cross just right. But, these little things built a foundation upon which others could build more substantially later. By introducing us to the basics, they made us part of the Catholic culture. They made us capable of feeling at home in a church. We knew to bless ourselves with holy water, to genuflect, to say, "Good Morning Father." We would always know that if we ever were in dire need of spiritual help, we could always go into a confessional and say, "Bless me Father for I have sinned."
The challenges are great. In many ways, Religious Education of young people today is not directed at building upon the foundation that was laid by another. Today, Religious Education is about building the foundation. Is this hard work? Absolutely. Do I wish that I could go back in time and be part of a different type of evangelization? Not for a second. Christ has called us to bear witness to Him to the people of today--in the present moment, in their circumstances, in their particular culture. It's totally awesome to think that Christ loves us so much and trusts us so much that He has given us this charge. We are so blessed to be part of the New Evangelization.