by Father Robert Lauder
Second in a series
I don’t think I am a negative person – a kind of “doom and gloom” Catholic – but I do spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on problems that make it difficult for people to embrace the Christian faith.
Anyone involved in evangelization should try to understand where people are in relation to the faith so that an intelligent decision might be made concerning the best way to present the faith. “The Joy of the Gospel” shows that Pope Francis is aware of the need to identify problems accurately before trying to solve them. He writes the following:
“There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life. … Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. Nor can we overlook the fact that … there has been a breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to the young. It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned … with the Catholic tradition. Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray. There is also a certain exodus toward other faith communities. The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.”
Personal, Not Private
Pope Francis’ list is provocative and can call us to reflect on our own faith. A sentimental faith life might make an individual feel good, but it does not have the depth that may be necessary in the contemporary world. Pope Francis is calling us to a faith that is more personal but not private.
Many years ago, the great theologian Karl Rahner claimed that in the future, the remnant of believers would have to be mystics in order to preserve their faith in a godless culture. I believe what he meant was that because there would be little or no cultural support, believers would need a personal experience of Christ. Perhaps the lack of cultural support might be the occasion for believers to be challenged to deepen their relationship with Christ.
Pope Francis is referring to a serious problem when he points out that many have become disillusioned with Catholicism. I observe this often. Whenever I give a lecture or retreat, someone will come up to me and say something like the following: “We have sent our children to Catholic grammar school, high school and college, and now they no longer attend Mass and are not having our grandchildren baptized. Nor do they ever bring our grandchildren to church.” Occasionally people will say that their adult children have joined another religion. Frequently, they’ll ask what they’ve done wrong or how they’ve failed.
I wish that I could give a simple answer, but I don’t think that there is one. Certainly there is little, if any help from our culture. I agree with Rahner’s prediction about the need for a deep personal faith. Encouraging people to give good example and to pray for loved ones who no longer identify with the Catholic Church is one way of cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
Each of the causes that Pope Francis mentions as contributing to the breakdown is worthy of attention. In our consumer culture, we are constantly being told, in both subtle and obvious ways, that our value as persons is determined by what we own, wear and drive. We are also surrounded by a relativistic subjectivism. Even to suggest that we know truths about God or that there are actions that are objectively immoral opens us to being accused of being proud and of thinking of ourselves as better than others.
It is not easy being a Catholic in 2014. Maybe it never was. Pope Francis is a blessing and grace in our lives, both by the way he lives and by what he emphasizes in his teaching.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.