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The Heart of the Matter

How do we engage the people who may not return to church?

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Whatever meeting you attend or article you read, you hear the question, “What will the Church be like after COVID-19?” You probably have pondered the question yourself on many occasions. No one has the answer to that question. Yet, at a ministerium meeting, I heard a young Methodist minister say, “One thing I know. People will not return through the front doors for worship.”

That took me back for a moment. How will we survive another round of loss? On the ride home, I began to think about the implications of his statement. Will that be true for the Catholic Church? Will that be true for our families in faith formation?

In the last two decades, we have lost many people who believed in God but their primary relationship was with the Church. Through catechetical documents and reflection on that experience, we must reclaim the truth that the primary relationship needs to be with Christ, and supported by the Church. We have recognized the need to accompany people at every age and stage of development for lifelong conversion.

In the new Directory for Catechesis, we are repeatedly reminded that the kerygma is the proclamation of faith that is written on our hearts. The directory quotes Pope Francis, “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (No. 58). More than ever we must pray for the Holy Spirit to gift us with creativity and dynamism to proclaim this good news. Do we have the courage to listen for the Spirit’s voice?

Summer is often the best time to open our hearts to change. While many programs are happening in faith formation, Vacation Bible School, summer catechesis and ongoing adult programs, you may be able to carve out some time to dedicate to a “retreat” with the faith formation staff and appointed volunteers. This time away is not for personal spiritual growth, but for visioning and planning.

Working under the premise that most people will not be returning through the front doors, how do we engage them?

Here are some questions you might ask. Where do you find people in your community gathered? How do you empower parishioners to meet other parishioners in their neighborhoods? What do you do to facilitate servant discipleship in neighborhoods? If a deeply serious issue for young people ages 16-25 and people age 75 and over is loneliness, how might you facilitate servant discipleship?

Perhaps hold annual parish days of gathering that reflect upon: What does Jesus’ love mean for/to me? What does Jesus’ death mean for/to me? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean for/to me?

Sponsoring a dynamic speaker for public-school parents’ night around the topic of child development can be followed by several podcasts on your parish website. Your focus on the human need for relationship, spiritual development and self-efficacy would welcome parents through the back door.

After two days of making room for the Spirit, you will probably be flooded with ideas. Implementing any of them may require shifting resources (especially time) from other ongoing programs. The question of what needs to go to embrace something else is a serious one. It requires great trust in the Spirit and an honest assessment of what is successful and what is not.

Another place to focus is on sacrament preparation. I would make the case that the sacraments are not understood as worship for a number of our families. They have come to be seen, or we might say reduced, to wonderful family rituals. Incredulously, the sacraments have now become a back door. This seems unimaginable for those of us who understand and experience the sacraments as the most intimate encounters with the Trinity.

Creating preparation that honors the varying places where people are in their faith journey is essential to forming intentional disciples. What are the questions you ask around the preparation for all sacraments?

Finally, research teaches us that one of the most transformative experiences in human existence is being of service. Is there a service resource person in the parish — someone who can direct people or families to one-time or extended experiences for families or specific age levels?

Of course, this in no way mitigates the need for systematic and age-appropriate catechesis. The directory consistently reminds us that formation happens around the tasks of catechesis: leading to the knowledge of the Faith; forming for life in Christ; teaching prayer; as an introduction to communal life; initiating into the celebration of the mystery.

What this requires is a real shift in mind-set. All that we have described is not a “back door,” for any authentic encounter of Christ cannot be diminished. It requires giving validity to other approaches. Are we flexible enough? That is the question that gets to the heart of the matter.

DR. JO ANN PARADISE is a national speaker, writer and thought leader in the field of faith formation.

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