Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Catholics Leaving the Church is a Problem of the Heart

The Road to Emmaus
This week a new Pew Research Center study was released, and it showed that the number of Christians in the United States is declining sharply and that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing. For anyone who is even slightly observant, this is not surprising.  I suppose, however, seeing graphs and numbers makes things more realistic to people.  As such, social media has lit up with commentary on this study.

I do not approach this study as a statistician, a sociologist, an historian, or as a disinterested observer.  I'm a priest.  In a few days, I will have spent the last eighteen years serving either as a parish priest or as a college chaplain.  My observations are from that perspective.  Some will argue that the cause of this radical decrease is due to social media, secularism, post-Vatican II craziness, liberalism, conservatism, Hollywood, academia, the Church's moral positions etc.  Others will say that the real problem is that the Church does a lousy job in its public relations.  Others will identify the sexual abuse scandals as the cause.  I'm sure a thousand other reasons will be listed too.  Why should everyone else have all of the fun?  I want to throw in my reason too.  I'm not saying that everyone else is wrong.  I'm just offering one possible reason for the decline: The absence of Love.

The reasons that will be offered as to why so many young people are choosing not to be Catholic or who are choosing to leave the Catholic Church will be many.  And most of them will have some element of truth to them.  But, in the words of St. Paul, I would like to point out a more excellent way.  While new modes of media, greater excellence in music, improved homilies, more articulate catechesis, better business practices, transparency, and all sorts of other product delivery ideas might help, something more fundamental is lacking.

If we have all the eloquence of angels, a snazzy Facebook Page, an easy to navigate website, an efficient staff, a clever marketing scheme, a mission statement that dazzles, a parish center that has every conceivable gadget, and the most "relevant" message around, but don't have love, then we are nothing. All of those things are great if they arise from and serve love. But, none of those things, nor all of those things, can replace love.

In the face of mass defections from the Catholic Church, our inclination has been to focus almost exclusively upon product delivery. "If only we improved our messaging, delivery, and image, then we'll be successful." But, maybe we should be focused upon the product that we are trying to deliver.   What impresses me about the kids at the BU Catholic Center is that they are not trying to "sell the Catholic Church."  They love one another and try to love others.  Not a fake love.  Not a love that pretends that there is no such thing as sin.  Not a love that pretends like there are not difficulties.  No, they have an authentic and honest love. While others might disagree with what they believe, they are nonetheless intrigued by and attracted to the love that marks their life.

I fully recognize that I'm not genius when it comes to what's the right answer to drawing people back to the Church. I can only speak from my own experience. What saves me in my life is love. When I talk about "The Church," it is not in some theoretical and vague manner. For me, "The Church" is the place where I have experienced love most authentically. It is in the Church each day that I encounter Christ through the friendships that He gives to me. And these friendships answer the desire of my heart for authentic love. On many occasions in my life as a priest, I have enjoyed the company of friends who do not yet fully adhere to any number of the Church's teachings (which I have articulated in homilies or in conversations). Perhaps some disagree with teachings regarding marriage, homosexuality, or divorce and others cringe at the notion of the necessity of the Sacrament of Confession or that we are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday. I think that they know I love them. And, I feel privileged that they consider me to be their friend.

The more excellent way for us to evangelize is for us to love one another. I don't mean love one another in a way that is professionally scripted by an advertising company. Becoming too sleek in our carefully crafted messaging can give the Church the slimy feeling of a used car lot. I don't mean loving one another in a way that sets aside the Gospel. I mean that we need to live out of an authentic love. We need to be a people who lives out of the experience of being loved ourselves.

My contribution to this whole conversation about the sharp decrease in Catholics in the United States is that it is a problem of love. This problem can't be solved by bureaucrats, statisticians, or by professionals. It is a problem of the heart. There is no quick or easy solution. The real solution is that we all need to be continuously educated in authentic love. What's missing is the grandeur of the new humanity that comes only through Christ and His Church. 

We can come up with all sorts of marketing solutions to our problems. But, the real problem is a problem of the heart. This is not just a parish based problem. It is a problem that runs throughout the Church. Bishops, priests, and lay people are too focused upon their plans, strategies, and ideologies rather than upon loving the people in front of them. Again, I do not mean the type of love that sounds canned or is used as a strategy. I mean an authentic love that makes one say, "Whatever these people have, I want it for my life." 

On the Road to Emmaus, the two disciples had not yet recognized that it was Christ who was walking with them. But, they recognized that they were part of something that corresponded to the desire of their heart. When Christ acts as though he were about to leave them, they beg him, "Stay with us!" Why did they want him to stay? Because, as they walked along together and broke open the Word of God, inside of them their hearts were burning. Something new had been introduced into their life. They were being loved in a new way.

We want people to experience the Catholic Church and to say, "Stay with us!" This is a cry of the heart. This is the cry that comes from the experience of encountering the love of Christ. Our best hope for drawing others to Christ is to show them the more excellent way of love. This love is not something that we mandate, create, or organize. It is something that is given to us, something that surprises us, something that draws us beyond ourselves and that compels us to follow. The way to draw others to the Church is for those who are in the Church to live this joyous cry of the heart ourselves. We need to have hearts that are educated by love; hearts that are burning within us and that cry out to Christ, "Stay with us!"

No comments:

Post a Comment