With all the new life and hope around us, it comes with a jolt to be reminded that we are still part of an overwhelmingly “maintenance Church”. By this I mean a model of pastoral practice that has worked for the Church for centuries, in Western countries with majority Christian cultures. So much of what we are still doing in our parishes operates out of this old model. In majority Christian cultures, the faith was handed on in families, schools and communities often by a kind of cultural osmosis. In such contexts, parishes did not need to provide much catechesis. A short sacramental programme sufficed to prepare children to receive First Communion or Confirmation. And they continued practising, as members of a cultural, or even tribal, “club”.
But the rules have changed. They changed decades ago, but we have been slow to read the signs of the times and to change how we do things. Parishes that continue to operate as they have always done will surely die: their parishioners have not been prepared to weather the harsher, post-modern climate, their inner connection to Christ and his Church is weak, and so what is there to keep them? They gradually drift away.
In Richmond, we know that changing our model is a necessity. We know that “self-referentiality” is a sickness, and that the only cure is to turn out from ourselves. Evangelisation is not about us, so it is the most wonderful healing for the Church.
This new model is very joyful. It breaks through questions of structures, institutional concerns and committees… It is concerned only with building a network of disciples and communicating Jesus. There is so much structural baggage that can be shed.
And yet… in order to move a parish gradually and sustainably towards a discipleship culture, there is a period of transition. You find yourself with one foot in the new world of evangelisation, and yet one foot still needed in the old world. While you build a culture of discipleship, the programmes of sacramental preparation still need to be maintained, despite your awareness they are not fit for purpose. Eventually I hope we can move away from programmes altogether. (And this is from someone who has written one!) We would like to work towards a youth ministry that is weekly and ongoing, and in which a young person simply asks for Confirmation when they are ready. But, in the interim, we have to prop up the “maintenance Church”, keep it going, and make it as evangelistic as possible.
With one foot in both “worlds”, we experience what Fr James Mallon calls, the “house of pain” (read more in chapter 3 of Divine Renovation). The structures are still in place that give the “consumers” a foothold and a loud voice. When we are providing these programmes, I feel that we are still in “their world”, following the rules that worked in the 1950s, but that no longer work in a post-Christian society – that have not worked over the past several decades. Yet, there are those who want to keep to these rules because it is what they have always known and it suits them. Do they know or care that the Church is dying? Like the priest that Fr Mallon mentions in his book, many priests find themselves presidents of middle-class social clubs. How did the Church become so sick that this is her reality? And why, oh why, do Catholics cling to this reality with all their strength?
My dream is of a parish with such a strong and joyful culture of discipleship that consumerism is swallowed up (ahem, consumed, if you will), and becomes an experience of the past. I mentioned in my last post a church plant that my evangelical Christian cousin is involved with. Part of my heart longs for such a venture, straightforward evangelisation which is, on the whole, comparable to the missio ad gentes. But new evangelisation is much tougher in my opinion, because it is the re-evangelisation of the baptised: “Many Europeans today think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all” (Pope St John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa, 47). As we all know, this is hard work. It is hard, and many don’t dare even to begin.
We are paying for the mistakes of those who have baptised but who have not made disciples. Yes, they too were just following the rules. But still…where were the shepherds keeping watch, sounding the alarm when change was needed, even if it meant disturbing the peace?
As we move determinedly forward, realising, as we put one foot in front of the other, just what is needed to change the culture, I’m reminded of any big upheaval that we might undertake in life to make necessary changes. Think of a hoarder who has filled his house with junk over the years. One day he realises he cannot go on like this and takes steps to clean up. The process is difficult and painful and he has to deal with a lot of emotional junk. But he knows he has to make the change and he pushes ahead. Or a mum who has been over-indulgent with her children and then realises one day how badly behaved they are. She realises she has to make changes to how she is raising them, or it will be too late. There is backlash and hysteria, and she has to deal with a lot of her own fears, but she knows she has to push ahead to put things right.
Friends, we can’t keep doing business as usual. If we do, we’ll simply go out of business. Push through the pain – it’s the only way.