Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Some suggestions for Church renewal

In a recent letter to members of Coming Home Network International, a Catholic organization for Protestant ministers at various stages of their journey "home" to the Catholic Church, as well as former Protestant ministers now serving in various lay capacities within the Catholic Church, Marcus Grodi, the head of the organization, solicited suggestions for Church renewal. For example, he asked for suggestions as to how the Catholic Church might improve what it's attempting in programs such as RCIA (Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults--ostensibly a program of catechetical instruction for those interested in possibly becoming Catholics), etc. Grodi's invitation to reflect on these issues got me thinking about my own experience in coming into the Church now over ten years ago. Here's what I wrote:


First, RCIA in our parish and many parishes, from what I understand, is close to disastrous. For whatever reason, parish priests are often reluctant to take the bull by the horns and impose a decent program. All too often, as in our parish, the program is placed into the hands of dissident nuns or ill-informed women (no chauvinism intended: it's usually women to whom priests entrust such programs) who are eager to contribute something but ill prepared to do so. We have had in charge of RCIA who suggested that responsible sex required contraception, that abortion was a personal matter of conscience, that the Bible is basically mythology, etc. The first suggestion, therefore, is that RCIA be placed in the competent hands of a leader who knows what the Church teaches and has a gift for teaching.

Second, most of the published manuals available for RCIA are rubbish. Our church has used many different such materials, and the ones I have seen are, at best, full of vapid banalities, and, at worst, flagrantly heretical. By contrast, a parish two hours away from us in Greensboro has a member of Opus Dei (a layman) running the RCIA program, and the only materials he uses are (1) the Bible and (2) the Catechism. Too many priests and catechists shy away from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), daunted by its size. They think of it as nothing more than a boring reference tool, whereas in fact it is a magnificently-written introduction to the Catholic Faith that could readily lend itself to inspirational devotional use. Also, using the Bible is helpful in showing Catholics and potential converts the biblical basis of the Catholic Faith. So my second suggestion is that the best materials to use in RCIA is the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Third, too often RCIA is left to degenerate into a kind of "socialization" of newcomers into the church community. The emphasis is on the horizontal, the vertical gets interpreted in light of the latest psychological fads about what constitutes healthy "spirituality," and controversial issues tend to be soft-pedaled or avoided altogether. This won't do. There's a place for social fellowship, but in RCIA it should be kept to a minimum. The objective is learning about the Faith. And a proper introduction to the "vertical" dimension should include an introduction to traditional Catholic devotions, such as the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, Liturgy of the Hours, and substantial books of Catholic prayers, like James Socias' Handbook of Prayers published by Scepter Publishers and used by Opus Dei members regularly. Also the tough issues must not be avoided, and in fact RCIA members are usually eager to learn these details. The aforementioned prayer book also addresses such issues in a tactful, straightforward manner.


There needs to be an ongoing catechesis of churched Catholics to supplement RCIA. First of all, such a catechesis needs to bring churched Catholics up to the level of most newcomers entering the Church who have undergone a proper introductory catechesis in RCIA. Second, it needs to take them beyond that introductory level by offering programs of study and enrichment that will further deepen (1) their knowledge of the Faith and (2) strengthen them in their journey of sanctification. There are a lot of good materials available, which I'm sure most readers are aware of in the first department, through good writers and speakers like Scott Hahn (with great video presentations through St. Joseph Communications, etc.; and Opus Dei, if you're familiar at all with its apostolate, has great resources to offer in the latter department. If you've ever gone to one of their evenings of recollection, circle meetings, or retreats, then you know that Opus Dei puts a big emphasis on growth in sanctity through growth in understanding and habituation of specific virtues. It offers very effective disciplines. See both the Writings of Josemaria Escriva and Scepter Publishers.

The need for such an ongoing catechesis is underlined by the fact that the priest's weekly homily of ten or fifteen minutes simply isn't getting the job done; and the proof is in the pudding: parishioners don't know much about their Faith. Here we can learn from folks like the Baptists here, who have set a wonderful example of traditions of adult Bible study in conjunction with their Sunday services that should be the envy of any Catholic parish.

Parish literature resources:

Parishes typically have some sort of tract rack or magazine rack, if not a bookstore usually filled with rosaries, books on Catholic piety, as well as a good deal of Catholic kitsch. Much of this needs improvement, not least of all the attention given to Catholic art in parishes. But here I wish to address parish literature resources. Too often parish tract and magazine racks are filled with relatively unedifying and worthless literature. In some cases, the literature reflects New Agey "spirituality," and in other cases it can reflect dissenting opinion. Our parish magazine rack regularly features magazines like US Catholic, for example, which are fundamentally problematic (see, for example, my critique of US Catholic). I have spoken with our priest about the downright dissident and heretical views in magazines like this, to no avail. But the point is: somebody needs to get a good grip on what sort of literature is permitted to be offered in the parish magazine rack, so as to avoid sending out conflicting messages about Church teaching. A parish bookstore can also be a great resource, provided a healthy sampling of substantial titles can be offered from publishers such as Ignatius Press, Sophia Institute Press, Scepter Publishers., TAN Publishers (though selectivity is required here), etc.

Retreat / Conference resources:

To anyone interested in the Catholic Faith, as well as to any Catholic interested in deepening his or her faith, I would recommend, as I'm sure many would, conferences such as those offered by Franciscan University, such as their "Defending the Faith" conference. For a list of conferences see 2004 Franciscan University Summer Conferences. Opus Dei also sponsors regional retreats for members and non-members several times a year (these are typically announced at area evenings of recollection offered monthly, which can be located, I think, by calling the Opus Dei's Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC: 202-783-2062).

Only once Catholics substantially understand their Faith and fall in love with the Lord through it, will they become effective in evangelization. The way in which the word "evangelization" has been used in most Catholic parishes, newsletters, and diocesan newspapers, would be almost laughable if it weren't also so sad. The things that are allowed to pass for "evangelization" are usually anything but what the Holy Father has been calling for, or what most Evangelicals understand. True "evangelization" is more than making sure newcomers feel "included" in the local parish "community." It is more than introducing parishioners to "Celtic Spirituality." It is certainly not introducing them to programs by groups like Call to Action or the so-called "Voice of the Faithful." Evangelization is sharing the Catholic Faith with those who don't know it, or, to borrow the words I once heard from an Evangelical minister, "one beggar telling another where to find bread" (the bread being, of course, the Bread of Life).

Parishes that have solid programs of catechesis, RCIA, etc., have exciting things happening. The Greensboro parish where the aforementioned RCIA program run by the member of Opus Dei brings in 40-50 well-catechized new converts into the Church every year. A diocese with such parishes typically is burgeoning with vocations to the priesthood and religious orders.

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