We failed to nourish Catholics with ongoing adult catechesis at the parish level and we’re paying the price today, writes Fr Seán Smith
All this public attention the sacraments are getting was rolling about in my head, for a different reason, as I prepared my homily for the liturgy on the Sunday of the Year. I suddenly made the connection between who Jesus was addressing 2,000 years ago and the quality of sacramental celebrations today. As I proclaimed the Gospel, John 6:24-35, and broke open the word, I felt challenged to ask the question: “Are the sacraments social or faith celebrations?”
Many, priests, in particular, are asking the same question. Shortly before his recent retirement, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin warned us that “the sacraments risked being turned into ‘social occasions’ rather than celebrations of faith.” The truth is that, in most cases, the risk is now the norm and reality that needs to be addressed.
If surveys are any indication of the alarming state of things, about 90% of families, in this bracket, do not show up for the weekly celebration of the liturgy in the Republic. It may be lower in the North. We should not be surprised that for this group, the sacraments are more social than faith celebrations. The three communities in which I ministered confirm this. In one, with its own school, the turnout for weekly Mass was nil. The other two were below 5%. Let me be very clear: this is neither a judgment nor a criticism. It simply reflects the stark reality of where our Catholic people are right now and it is not their fault.
The Gospel was a continuation of the previous Sunday where Jesus fed the people. They witnessed the sign but missed the deeper meaning. They did the right thing but for the wrong reason. A ‘sign’ for John is never an end in itself but points to and leads to Jesus, to conversion and discipleship. They failed to see this. Instead, they witnessed the spectacular, a secular Messiah with power who would drive out the Romans. So, they tried to make him their king but he eluded them.
The same people pursue Jesus in the hope of more food, excitement, and entertainment but Jesus stops them in their tracks. Jesus engages with the people face to face; not via writing, emails, or text message. In any interaction with people, our ‘non-verbals’ speak louder than our words. He is totally honest and frank with them, challenging them to reflect on their motivation: “You are looking for me not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled”. Their intentions were good but way off course. The previous miracle made no impact on their spiritual lives. While Jesus had compassion for the physical needs of the people, he was no mere do-gooder or social worker. His mission was to raise them to a new level of awareness of the meaning and purpose of life. They have long-term, spiritual needs, that are more important than short-term physical. Even today most live only for this brief, fleeting life, ignoring the life that continues forever. Only Jesus can feed this life so we must turn to him for eternal life. It is to this level, to himself, that Jesus is calling the people in the Gospel.
My point here is that Jesus risked being unpopular and even rejected, by being open and honest with them. But they accepted his challenge. They didn’t turn away like those who could not accept his teaching on the Eucharist. Bishops, priests, and catechists can fear acting like Jesus because we don’t want to be unpopular.
The 90% or so of Catholics presenting their children for the sacraments is no different to the people in the Gospel. Like them, they are doing the right thing for the wrong reason, because they don’t know any better. Sadly, they have the experience but miss the meaning. While they mean well they are completely unfocused and in urgent need of guidance and direction. The sacraments will continue to be mainly secular celebrations devoid of faith unless we (bishops, priests, and catechists) have the courage, as Pope Francis says to, “smell the sheep”. Meet with them, dialogue with them, exhort, instruct and enlighten them. To leave them in their ignorance is to be guilty of bad shepherding. Like Jesus, we can do this compassionately and respectfully. Our body language will reflect that we are serious, earnest, and urgent so we do not need to say much.
It is important to clarify what we mean by ‘faith’. My experiences of faith at home, school, and the seminary were heavily intellectual. The focus was to fill our heads with abstract knowledge about God like creeds, dogmas, and laws. I deliberately mention God because little was spoken about Jesus. It is primarily through the human Jesus that we can have a relationship with God and because he was neglected faith was abstract. We still speak about ‘keeping the faith’ as if it were ‘something’ instead of a relationship with ‘Someone.’
Faith, described in scripture is primarily relational. Abraham’s head was not full of knowledge of God. Yet he is held up as the model of faith. He is the man of great faith because he put his trust in God and journeyed with God. To be in an active relationship with God is to be a faith-filled and faithful disciple of Jesus and we don’t need a lot of knowledge for that. What we do need is to know Jesus in the biblical meaning which is intimacy, like that of a husband and wife. Faith is first and foremost relationship, and this is what we must teach.
In the Gospel of John, faith is mentioned 99 times. Never as a noun but as a verb. A noun is static. A verb is dynamic. Faith for John is movement, discipleship, coming to a relationship with Jesus. When John the Baptist directed his disciples to Jesus, “The two disciples followed Jesus” (John 1:36). Seeking to know where Jesus lived, he invited them to “Come and see,” so they went and “stayed with him the rest of that day” (John 1:38-39). To come to Jesus is to believe in him. For John, to put one’s faith in Jesus is a total commitment to him, to be his friend, his companion, his disciple on the road with him.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI, gives an excellent definition: “Faith is not a product of our reflection; it is something new that we cannot invent but only receive as a gift; faith does not come from reading but from listening. It is a relationship with Someone. It implies an encounter with the proclamation; it implies the existence of the Other, whom it proclaims, and creates communion.” Unless bishops, priests, and catechists work at bringing our people to this level, to an experience rather than knowledge and, new insight into faith, sacraments will continue to be more secular than faith celebrations for the vast majority.
Throughout his interaction with the people, Jesus keeps them focused on his Father and himself. Not on knowledge but a relationship. This is faith in action. This is what it means to believe. This is faith as a verb. As St James warns us, “faith without good works is dead”. The first and most important work is a living, personal relationship with Jesus. And resulting from this relationship is reciprocal love in action. The first and most basic good work (liturgy is work) is weekly worship of God through offering Jesus, our high priest, to the Father, in the celebration of the liturgy, the Paschal Mystery. This is the bare minimum response Catholics are called to make. Sadly, the majority, around 90% of parents and children, are not responding. It is impossible therefore that the sacraments are faith celebrations. I repeat, this is neither a judgment nor a criticism. Nor is it entirely their fault. For centuries, we sowed sparsely and now we are reaping thinly. The diet of religious knowledge imparted through the schools, cannot sustain an adult. We failed to nourish them with ongoing adult catechesis at the parish level. No wonder we are paying the price today. On top of this, Ireland is a radically changed country as secular and pagan as any.
Through personally engaging the people, Jesus stirs a response in them. Though they still hanker after the bread that does not last, he keeps them focused on himself. He doesn’t let them off the hook and he will not be sidetracked. He creates a hunger, a desire and, a yearning, unrest and, dissatisfaction in them for the food that will last. “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” they ask. And his answer is “believe in the one he sent.” Notice he does not tell them to believe in things about himself (this is knowledge) but believe in him. This is faith. Accept him, embrace him, listen to him, be his companion and disciple. To believe in the one the Father has sent is to throw in your lot with him. It’s about a relationship with him. We see in Jesus the qualities needed in a good catechist to bring our lapsed parents into a relationship with him.
Bread of life
Continuing to explain how he alone is the bread of life (not physical bread), the people cry out, “Sir, give us this bread always”. Now that they are more enlightened, they can distinguish between what lasts and continues, between the fake and the real, between knowledge and relationship, and very important, between the good and the best. Many of us are trapped in the good and feel comfortable. But the good is the enemy of the best.
Jesus’ response to them is, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst”. To “come to Jesus” in John is to become his disciple, and to believe in Jesus is to be his disciple. There is a difference between believing Jesus and believing in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to take him seriously. A better question to ask is not, ‘do you believe Jesus’ but, ‘do you take him seriously?’ There is also a difference between a follower and a disciple of Jesus. Mainly through knowledge, a follower believes she or he has arrived. There’s nothing more to learn. I know all about God. A disciple is always a learner and never arrives at a full relationship with Jesus because, as Fr Karl Rahner puts it, “all relationships are unfinished symphonies”.
The present sad reality is that the vast majority of Catholic parents presenting their children for the sacraments, do not know that Jesus is the heart and core of all the sacraments. They speak about their children ‘getting’ the sacraments of Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation without any serious reference to him. They are rituals to do, to get, to receive but not faith celebrations. Some see them as just hoops to jump through. It would be much more effective to put all our emphasis on Jesus, the Sacrament, rather than impart knowledge about individual sacraments. As it stands we are putting the cart before the horse.
As Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, likewise, he is the vine and the sacraments are the branches (cf. John 15). Jesus is the sacrament of God because he is God in our flesh (cf. John 1:14), and we are one with him in his divine nature. “Whoever sees me,” Jesus says to Philip, “has seen the Father” (cf. John 14:9). Since the sacraments are concentrated in him, he is the source of sacramental life. Strictly speaking then, there is only one Sacrament: Jesus. He then must be our sole focus, beginning with a sacramental encounter at the Sunday Eucharist, the Paschal Mystery. It is here, the source and summit, the journey to celebrating the other sacraments must begin. We have to break with the mistaken perception that preparation for First Communion and Confirmation, begins a few months before the celebration.
The journey starts at Baptism. It continues with the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. With the children accompanying their parents from an early age, there is no better preparation for the celebration of the other sacraments. By the time they reach the age of seven, they have several years of solid formation and experience through the weekly sacramental encounter with Christ. Although they do not receive the Body of Christ, they do encounter him present in the Eucharist, in his word, in the congregation, and in the presider.
The first step in turning things around is honest admittance that we have a major crisis in our parishes and dioceses. Consider the annual exodus of the newly Confirmed from the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. Many say that Confirmation is graduation from the Church. Let’s suppose a diocese has 1,000 Confirmations annually and about 90% exit from the weekly celebration of the liturgy. For the 22 dioceses in the Republic that is 19,800 children alone. Factor in parents and siblings, to an average of four per family, and the number is a staggering 79,200 who do not show up every Sunday. What makes this more alarming is that this age group of parents, between 25-45, form the base for the future growth of the Church. But this foundation has been crumbling for years and continues at a rapid rate.
St John Paul II, called for a ‘new evangelisation’ of Catholics. The core, he said, of this new evangelisation is a “fresh encounter with Jesus”. Not more programmes! Jesus is the programme. Present Jesus to the parents and children; preach Jesus; teach Jesus; but most important of all, live Jesus. “We must speak more about Christ than the Church, than the Pope, than law,” Pope Francis warns us. Elsewhere he says, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’” Jesus is the event and the person. The prime place for this encounter is the weekly celebration of our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paraphrasing GK Chesterton, “It’s not that Jesus has been tried and found wanting. He just hasn’t been tried.” Try Jesus! For all in ministry, this calls for a paradigm shift from a static, maintenance, and administrative-style ministry to a dynamic, Jesus-focused, relationship, and a new evangelisation model.
Fr Seán Smith lives in Knock, Co. Mayo.