What Has Power Over You?

American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that “nothing is more unbelievable than the answer to a question that is not asked.”  That is, if we do not care enough to ask the questions (who is God, what is the meaning of my life, etc.), then the answers will mean nothing to us.  We will not believe, simply because we do not care.

Anyway, this idea of the importance of the question is worth exploring further, but for now I would just like to use it to preface some very important questions from Romano Guardini in his book The Lord.  Here he is:

[W]hat is it that actually has power over us? What rules me? People, mainly. Those who speak to me, whose words I read; those with whom I associate or would like to associate; the people who give or withhold, who help or hinder me; people I love or influence or to whom I am bound by duty—these rule in me. God counts only when people permit him to, when they and their demands leave me time for him. God rules only in spite of people; when under their influence I am not too strongly tempted to feel that he does not exist at all. He reigns only inasmuch as consciousness of his presence is able to force itself upon me, to coexist with the people in my life….Things also rule in me: things I desire, by the power of that desire; things that bother me, by their bothersomeness; things I encounter wherever I go, by the attraction they have for me or by the attention which they demand. Things in general, by their very existence, fill the spiritual ‘space’ both within and around me, not God. God is present in me only when the crowding, all-absorbing things of my world leave room for him—either in or through them, or somewhere on the periphery of their existence. No, God certainly does not dominate my life. Any tree in my path seems to have more power than he, if only because it forces me to walk around it! What would life be like if God did rule in me? (emphasis added)

He’s right…a tree is more real to me than God!  Isn’t that absurd?!?  How can a tree be more real to me than the ever-living God?  This is the question; and even if we don’t find a satisfactory answer, we can’t let the question go or explain it away with easy answers (e.g. God wants us to seek him out, etc.).  Better to simply say “I don’t know!”  To me, this is a better path to wisdom: to stay with the question, to stay with the “contradiction,” and not reduce the problem (reality) for the “safe” ground of certainty.  It is only from here that we can launch out into the deep waters of faith with a little push, which also comes in the form of a question:  What would life be like if God did rule in me?  Imagine the possibilities!

St. Therese: Radical Innovator

I just read something wonderful from Jacques Philippe about the audacity of St. Therese. He writes about how she realized early on that there was no way for her to be a great saint in the style of those towering figures of the past. So she decided to find her own way–a new way.  St. Therese wrote,

“But I want to find how to get to Heaven by a little way that is quite straight, quite short: a completely new little way.”

Philippe observes the following,

“A little way that is ‘completely new.’ That is her most surprising expression. She has her nerve, this twenty year-old who wants to find a new way to holiness after nearly two thousand years of Christianity! A new path to Heaven…that really is bold! Had the theologians who pronounced in favor of Therese being made a Doctor of the Church actually read this passage?”

Love it!  It reminds me of a passage from de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence: “Today God speaks to us as he used to speak to our ancestors at a time when there were neither spiritual directors nor any systems of spirituality. To be faithful to the designs of God then comprised the whole of one’s spiritual life. […] Those spiritually inclined needed nothing more.”

If we are faithful to God’s designs, who KNOWS what “new” things will appear in the Church, even after 2000 years! It’s a matter of faith.

Evangelization before catechesis – The Arlington Catholic Herald

Evangelization before catechesis – The Arlington Catholic Herald.

Why do you suppose Blessed John Paul II talked about the “new evangelization” and not the “new catechesis”?

Until recently, I was the director of evangelization and catechesis at a large parish here in Denver. And in that time, it became clear to me that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning between those two terms and that (2) most parishes don’t fully understand that difference, and that hurts our ability to reach the people in the pews.

To put it simply, “evangelization” is the process of introducing someone to Jesus Christ. It is about sharing His good news with them, and inspiring them to make the radical decision to follow Him. It is the fundamental turning of the heart toward God, the reorientation of one’s entire life to live not primarily for self, but for Him. Evangelization is the “why.” Why do I renounce this world for the next? Why do I follow Christ?

“Catechesis,” which happens after evangelization, is the nuts and bolts of instruction — the “how.” It is where we learn in a systematic way what we need to do in order to follow Christ, how to live as a Christian, how to grow in faith and love and grace.

Catechesis, then, presupposes evangelization. It would make no sense to teach people how to live a certain way if they don’t understand why they would want to live that way. It would be like giving someone a road map to a place they have no interest in going. They’d have no use for the map. They’d be more likely to use it to line the bird cage than they would be to actually follow it.

And here is where I see the disconnect in most parishes.

Most churches operate on a presupposition. They assume that their congregations consist of the “faithful” — people who have been evangelized, who have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ, who desire to become “new creations” in Him. They are gathered together to pray, to worship and to learn how to deepen that relationship. The church’s catechesis exists to help those people, who have already made the decision to follow Christ, to follow Him more closely.

Only, in many cases, that presupposition is wrong.

It may have been true, in previous generations, that a majority of the people in the pews on Sunday mornings were fully evangelized, committed Christians who had given their lives to following Jesus Christ. That may still be the case in some evangelical congregations. But it is not the situation in the average Catholic parish here at the dawn of the 21st century.

I believe that there are a lot of people in those pews who have never been evangelized. They’re probably sincere people, for the most part. They’re there. They want to be “good.” They want to meet nice people, maybe please the grandparents, maybe fulfill some kind of obligation. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the power of Christ to transform their lives. They don’t see the need for the radical, life-altering transformation that He offers.

It’s no wonder our catechesis doesn’t seem to be getting us too far. We’re offering them a road map to a place they have no interest in going.

And hence, the primary need in the average Catholic church is not for catechesis. It’s for evangelization. As Blessed John Paul II said in “Novo Millennio Inuente,” “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian Society’ which, amid all of the frailties which have always market human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” Our mission fields are no longer in far-off lands. They are right here, in our own cities, amongst the people who gather with us for Mass on Sunday mornings. Those are the people we need to introduce, or reintroduce, to the truth about salvation in Jesus Christ.

Hence the need for the “new evangelization.” There’s nothing really “new” about it, in the sense of new information. As John Paul II himself said, “The new evangelization does not consist of a ‘new gospel.’ … Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept.” What we need to do is to restore the ancient truths, in all of their splendor, and release them from the extremes of sterile question-and-answer catechesis on one side and “Kumbaya and felt banners” emotionalism on the other. We need to speak those ancient truths in ways that are relevant to our modern culture, without watering them down or losing what is essential in them.

How do we do that? Unfortunately, there is no road map for that. It isn’t just a matter of purchasing the right curriculum or scheduling the right programs. It is a matter, first of all, of allowing ourselves to be transformed in Christ. It is about becoming witnesses — showing them what transformation in Christ looks like, and inviting them to pursue the same through the power of our example.

To quote John Paul II one final time: “The new evangelization is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” The first goal of parish ministries should be just that — to facilitate a “personal and profound” meeting between worshippers and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already met Him personally, or that they even know much about Him. Because I’m betting that, in many cases, they haven’t.

But I’m thinking that, if they got to know Him, they’d probably really like Him.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.

Hello blogging …

Aside

Hello blogging world!  This is my first blog post.  My main reason for starting a blog is to give myself a place to store and share ideas, articles, random snippets, and anything else that interests me.  If it interests others as well, even better!

Since I tend to over-think things, I’m trying to let this, my first blog post, flow like a stream of clear, cool water. So far so good!

I guess you could say this blog will be something of an intellectual diary. (The word intellectual makes me want to throw up, but anyway, that’s what it is.)  I find myself thinking crazy (not literally) thoughts throughout the day, and I keep thinking, “I should write that down.” So, that’s what I’m doing.  I’m going to try and track down those crazy thoughts through my head and see where they lead.

Anyway, that’s all for now.  Ultimately, this blog is about living well, and right now, life is calling me somewhere else.  So, until next time…!