Discipleship or Bust!
One of the buzz words of late has been Discipleship. It seems to me that everyone is coming to the correct assessment that something is terribly wrong in our education and formation programs and it is time for a change. For some, the proposed change often takes the form of denying the Tradition and making superficial changes to everything we hold True. For others, it is a radical call for a more militant approach to the Faith. However, the change needed is not in theology or ecclesiology, but in a recapturing of the evangelical spirit of the early Church. A brave priest in Wales, Fr. Garesh Laython, has assessed the problem and is willing to make changes NOW. He posted the homily he gave this past weekend, which he entitled Young Disciples, and used the opportunity to outline some changes his parish will be making in the coming weeks and months.
His assessment of the situation is dead on and his proposed changes are laudable. Of course, not every parish in the developed world can or will use the same methodology, but all of them should be pursuing some change to the current formational system because, simply put, what we are doing currently is not working. In any evaluation of a system of religious formation, the method must take into account the cultivation of Disciples. Yes, today we are very good at sacramentalizing, but not evangelizing. This is the very core of the problem. If I understand his point correctly, it is time to stop the sacramental conveyor belt and return to a more fundamental proclamation of the Gospel. This proclamation must take place within the community of the Faithful.
If I am correct, the only way to stop the conveyor belt is to return to the early Church model -- one filled with personal witness and encounter. In the initial proclamation of the Gospel, there were no "programs" to be instituted or "standards" to be met. The first criteria was, and still is, Faith in Jesus Christ. The second criteria was, and still is, encounter with Jesus Christ. Both of these criteria were met, and should still be met, through a community of believers on Fire with the Holy Spirit. It is this type of community that a new convert must encounter, and it is this same community that was, and still is, the avenue of encounter with Christ. Such an encounter cannot be measured with objective standards because it is a highly subjective experience. Without a real encounter and subjective conversion, the newly initiated eventually will fall off the conveyor belt at the end, and will most likely never be seen again.
So now is the time to stop the conveyor belt mentality before more souls are lost.We must regroup and stir the flame of Faith in those around us. With the Faith renewed in us, then we can return to forming our young (and old) to be Disciples for Christ. In every way, encounter with Jesus is both communal and personal. Just because someone has been through a catechetical program, or just because someone regularly attends church, or just because someone has received the sacraments does NOT mean the person has Faith or Encountered Jesus Christ. In fact, having heard some of the homilies given, this rule should also apply to priests and deacons. This may be why Pope Francis devoted 25 paragraphs to homilies and homily preparation in Evangelii Gaudium (see paragraphs 135-159). However, such a discussion is a topic for a different post.
In his most recent Wednesday audience, Pope Francis offered some thoughts on the Sacrament of Confirmation. In his remarks, he made an important clarification about better preparing our young for the Sacrament itself. He said, "Naturally it is important to prepare those being confirmed well, leading them towards a personal commitment to faith in Christ and reawakening in them a sense of belonging to the Church" (italics added). He then spoke of the Gifts we receive from God in the Sacrament and promised to speak about each of these gifts in the coming weeks. I do look forward to his exposition on these gifts and how they relate to living the Christian life in the world today. In his audience, he spoke about sacramental living, not sacramental receiving. He spoke about the Holy Spirit pervading the whole of life, not just the sacramental moments. Here is the challenge we face today as those tasked with religious formation -- to assist those in formation to become a faithful disciple of the Person Whom he or she encounters in the Sacraments.
Clearly, the pope is not attempting to change the doctrine on the Sacraments, but is reminding us that the Sacraments are not something we merely do -- we become what the Sacraments are meant to bestow. The Grace of the Sacraments is, and should always be, transformative. But for such Grace to transform, it must be sown in rich soil. A heart that is not on fire with Faith in Jesus Christ is a heart that has not encountered Jesus Christ. A heart that is not on fire when approaching the Sacraments is a heart that is closed to encounter with Jesus Christ. A heart that is not on fire is a heart that has not been cultivated to be rich soil.
To put our young on the sacramental conveyor belt does not insure conversion or the stoking of the flame of Faith. Like in a factory, a conveyor belt only moves an object along, and the object is manipulated by workers as it moves. The object itself is passive in the process and is judged in the end as only having received the "components" necessary to be sent off. We must end this mentality and begin introducing those who come to us to a lively Faith Community that introduces them to Jesus Christ. Our process must move toward being fruit and covenant based (I will explain this more in future posts). We must get away from the standards based programs we promote today, which are the basis for the current conveyor belt mentality.
Here is the challenge we face -- we must end the mentality of those seeking sacraments from being passive recipients on a conveyor belt to becoming active disciples on Fire with the Holy Spirit! In this regard, we can only give what we already have. If we ourselves are not on Fire, we cannot spread that Fire. May we all pray together:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.