The other morning I received an email containing a witness talk that one of our students will give on an upcoming retreat. As is often the case when I read such talks, I was really moved by its sincerity, by its depth, and by the grace that made him able to write his testimony. What was so beautiful about his witness talk was how he continuously identified how God had been working in his life--oftentimes in and through others. He conveyed this incredible sense of God pursuing him, inviting him, and drawing him closer and closer.
Sometimes in our efforts to become holy or to have strong parishes and Catholic communities, we mistakenly think that we are the ones who will do it. We think that my efforts will bring about my holiness. Or, we think that our planning and strategizing will transform a dead parish into one filled with life. As one Psalm reminds us, however, "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor." It is, of course, a subtle balance. We have to cooperate with God's grace. We have to use well the gifts that he has given to us. We ought to be intelligent about our pastoral priorities. At the same time, however, we must always live like the Hebrew people, wandering in the desert, totally dependent upon the Lord to feed, protect, and guide us. Planning, programs, and strategies are all great as long as they are not a Tower of Babel built as a monument to human pride, but rather arise from a people humbly dependent upon the Lord.
The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel can assist us in our desire to build strong parishes. The Hebrew people had been exiled to Babylon because of their idolatry and wickedness. They had defiled their own land and were thus scattered and dispersed. How did they come back? Was it through their own holiness? Their own ingenuity? Their own strategies? No. The Lord says, "I am about to act." It was by God's grace that they were returned. And how does this return begin? The Lord says, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will pour within you . . . "(EZ 36:24-26).
The people returned. They returned to the land which the Lord had given to their fathers. Where there had been famine, the Lord now promised abundance. Before, the people were ashamed because they endured famine while the nations around them flourished. Why did this happen? Because of their iniquities, because of their idolatries, because of their sinfulness. They were the cause of their downfall. They were the cause of their shame. Places that had once flourished were now desolate and were mocked by all who passed by.
Does this not, in some way, teach us something about our parishes? I am not suggesting an exact equivalence, but is there not some lesson for us to learn from the Prophet Ezekiel? Is it possible that our parishes which were once thriving are not only empty because of scandals, secularism, and shifting demographics, but perhaps also because we are in need of a new spirit within us? Have we perhaps turned toward idols? Have we desecrated the land by our lack of holiness? Have we forgotten the Lord?
If so, then the rebuilding of parishes requires firstly a rebuilding of souls. Each of us needs to be rebuilt by the Lord. It is principally through the sacraments that God rebuilds us--sprinkles clean water upon us, cleanses us, and gives us a new spirit. While it is tempting to want to build great parishes, great parishes are the result of great conversions. Great conversions are the result of great graces. Great graces come from the Lord.
One of the things that is exciting about campus ministry is that young people are always willing to charge ahead and try something new. They are enthusiastic about sharing the faith and they are talented and creative in their methods. One thing, however, has become clear to us over time. No matter how good our slogans, how catchy our retreat names, how much we make ourselves present on social media etc, nothing--absolutely nothing--is more effective than a personal invitation. When one student who has been given a new heart by the Lord reaches out in love and friendship to another student, that is our most effective tool for evangelization. What works is when one student witnesses to the love of Christ and extends the hand of Christian friendship to another. What works is not when we try to do something purely from our resources, ingenuity, skills, and force of will. What does work is when we are so moved by our encounter with the Lord that we place all of those things completely at his service in love for others.
In parish planning, I suppose the thing that we can most do is to try and provide the best environment for allowing people to encounter the Lord and to be rebuilt by him: places where they can hear the Word, places where they can go to confession and receive spiritual direction, places where they can live the friendship of the Church, places where they can worship God, and spend time in prayer before the Eucharist. What we can do is to have a place where we have been rebuilt by the Lord and are moved to invite others to share in the joy of that experience. If we want such places, if we want parishes that are flourishing and strong, we have to begin by humbly allowing the Lord to rebuild us. We have to be cleansed from our iniquities and idolatries. When St. John Vianney arrived at his parish in Ars, the parish was stagnant and desolate. John Vianney knew that his parish would be rebuilt by the rebuilding of souls and that souls are rebuilt in the confessional, at the altar, and from the pulpit.
The salvation (or the rebuilding) of the whole world began not with the conversion of Rome. It did not begin in places of prestige or power. It began in the most desolate of all places. It began in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. God acted. Mary cooperated. It was there--in the smallest of all possible ways--that God began to rebuild the world. None of us would ever have ever devised such a strategy! It began by Mary hearing the Word and welcoming the Word. To build strong parishes, we need to be humble enough to allow God to rebuild us.
"Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, 'This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now inhabited and fortified.' Then the nations that are left round about you shall know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined places, and replanted that which was desolate; I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do it" (Ezekiel 36: 33-36).
Nothing will rebuild churches better than allowing the Lord to rebuild us. Our goal, however, shouldn't be on rebuilding parishes. Our goal, I think, should be on cooperating in the Lord's work of rebuilding souls. That seems to be the way he works. He rebuilds souls and then the ruined cities become inhabited. He is the Lord. He has spoken. And he will do it. This is very good news.