9/13/2013 In Pastoral Essay, Bishop O'Connell addresses: "Learning Our Faith: A life-long process, a life-long effort"
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.
While working in Catholic higher education, I often heard the notion of inspiring “life-long learning” applied to marketing efforts within the academic enterprise. It is a good and right concept, well worth pursuing.
Unfortunately, within the Church -unless students are enrolled in Catholic schools or effective, ongoing parish religious education programs --- the process of faith formation, “faith learning,” all too often ends with the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation. I hear this from pastors and catechetical leaders all the time.
Confirmation is seen as “graduation from religion,” with young Catholics not only ending their participation in any formal Catholic educational experience but, sadly, ending their participation in any Church-related activities, sacramental and otherwise. Some estimates I have heard state that, perhaps, five percent of students confirmed go to Mass the following Sunday.
When asked why, these children in their youthful innocence and honesty simply reply, “My parents don’t go.” What is not important to and valued by parents, will not be important or valued by their children. That’s a fact. Yes, “children live what they learn,” good and bad. And the result? Catholic children grow into Catholic adults with an eighth-grade understanding (or less) of their faith.
Should anyone, therefore, be surprised that these same, now adult, Catholics cannot see and experience life through the eyes of a mature and active faith? Should anyone be surprised that what is thought about the Church and its teachings is the result of the lack of a current, active adult faith, a gap that is fueled by an anti-Catholic, anti-Church, anti-faith secular media aimed at exposing the Church and Catholic teaching to every claim of hypocrisy and irrelevance.
American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., once reflected that anti-Catholicism is the “deepest-held bias in the history of the American people,” the last “acceptable prejudice.” Should anyone be surprised that Catholic adults that have not continued to be formed in and informed by their Catholic faith cannot defend themselves or their Church’s beliefs in the face of society’s objections?
This “lack of a current, active adult faith” is precisely what the “new evangelization” is attempting to address. Thank God, the news is not all bad. Thank God, there are many deeply committed, active practicing Catholics who are eager to continue to learn and share as much as they can about their Catholic faith. Thank God, there are a number of excellent programs for Catholic adults that enrich and bring life to the parishes where they exist that can serve as models for what is possible in the Church in our Diocese. Thank God, it is not “too late” for the “new evangelization” to take root here.
If parents are to be, as the Church has always held, the “first and most important teachers of our faith,” effective programs of adult faith formation must be the norm and not the exception. As St. Thomas Aquinas reminded us, “no one can give what he/she does not have.”
But let’s not kid ourselves. For adult faith formation to be effective in our parishes, it takes a great deal of effort and work. And, even when the effort is present, it takes a great deal of motivation. Bad habits are hard to break. Change is never easy. What will it take to draw Catholics into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, the goal of the new evangelization? What will it take to inspire Catholics to make the Gospel their way of life, the goal of the new evangelization? What will it take to move Catholics to accept and believe in the Church and what it teaches, the goal of the new evangelization?
Good questions. Good goals. Difficult to answer. Difficult to achieve ... unless baptized Catholics have the will, the drive, the motivation to make it happen.
There is ample literature available for us to delve into the topic of adult faith formation, literature drawn from more experience and wisdom than I can muster. One need only search out the topic on the Internet and multiple resources become instantly available. But there are some very simple, very practical, very common sense ideas that can help move the process forward.
1. The bishop has to view this as a priority within his diocese and let that be known. The pastor and his team have to want an effective, successful program of adult faith formation in their parish or one that is shared by several, neighboring parishes. Desire gives rise to motivation. There is no substitute for convinced, clear, consistent and capable leadership.
2. The parish has to have something really good to offer and needs to make its availability known. “If you build it, they will come.” Preparation and training of personnel are “sine qua nons” (absolutely indispensable) for success. Personnel must be both responsible and accountable. The parish also must identify and allocate available financial resources as available and appropriate.
3. Adult faith formation needs to be convenient and accommodating to the intended adult participants’ schedules. The use of online resources and courses should be made available and accessible to reach a large adult audience.
4. Parish programs need to be welcoming, affirming and respectful of their target adult audience.
5. Adult faith formation sessions and materials used need to be geared appropriately to the age group concerned. Catechetical leaders, teachers and others involved in making presentations should be well-prepared and have some experience working with adults.
6. Program content should reflect what the Church actually teaches and not simply opinions, characterizations or ideologies.
7. Adult faith formation should lead somewhere: namely to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, a stronger bond with the Church, and a more complete understanding of its teachings.
8. Invite, invite and invite again participation from members of the parish and ask them to invite others. The pastor and parish priests need to make their presence, support and leadership known and felt.
A tall order to be sure --- a n d o n e t h a t welcomes additional suggestions to the parishes involved --- but one that is not only possible but necessary if adult faith formation has the chance of succeeding. And adult faith formation is critical to a truly “new evangelization.”