Grappling with a response

wrestlingYou can find an excellent reflection on an article I wrote about parish-level evangelization at Practical.Catholic.Evangelization.  Colleen’s key insight is that intra-church politics serve to distract us from what is most important about Church.  Here is how she puts it,

“Though Starks’ article might seem like just a sociologist’s study. It’s not. He provides a powerful, essential reminder of what we must guard against in parish life–resisting the distracting temptation to become just another charitable organization or social club, and instead seeking authentic relationship with Jesus and others in all we do.”

Here is how one of my informants/interviewees put it in recognizing this problem:

I want to help people develop a relationship with God. I want people to have a relationship with God, I want them to be able to read the bible, and understand it in terms of catholic interpretation, and I want them to be able to celebrate the sacraments in a way that nourishes them. Those are things that are important to me as a minister. I think one of the challenges here, because of this parish and because of the style of preaching and because of the people who are drawn here; we can get sidetracked from those three things. We get sidetracked, like should women be ordained, and should gay marriage be sanctioned, and why is the bishop telling us what to do and we get really distracted by intra-church politics. That became really clear to me, not this confirmation but the year before, when at the end of year I had them write letters to the bishop asking to confirm them. And what they wrote about was that they didn’t believe everything the church teaches but live with it. They didn’t write anything about prayer, or God, or a relationship with Jesus, or a call to serve the poor, I said that most of the time what we talked about was what the church teaches about this issue and agree or do not agree, its ok if you don’t agree, and the same thing happens with RCIA, the people are so aware of the stuff the Catholic church preaches that they don’t agree [with], so we say that the catholic church is bigger than that and we don’t spend enough time talking about your personal relationship with God and scriptural liturgy…In terms of how I prepare my program, those are things I want, a personal relationship with God, being able to open up the bible and be able to worship with our staff members.  (bold emphasis mine)

My informant seemed more worried about the church becoming a political organization, rather than a charitable organization or a social club, but regardless, she recognized (as Colleen does) how focus on intra-church politics hollows out the essential mission of the Church.  This is insightful and calls for real reflection.

However, I worry a little in reading Colleen’s blog post that she may have walked away from my article with a skewed vision of parish leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s.  I worry that the questions I chose to ask and the quotes I used to make my point may have distorted her view.  So, I want to add some more quotes and context and respond just briefly to one statement that Colleen makes.  She writes,

What troubles me reading all of the comments from leaders at St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s is that Jesus Christ seems to be absent. I could easily re-write their statements centered around a nonprofit organization–and it would basically make sense. The parishes seem to function as nondescript organizations or social clubs, rather than the local church of called disciples (remember, ekklesia, the root of “church,” means to be called out).

I went back and looked at my transcripts and I want to point out that I (as interviewer) did not ask a single question about Jesus Christ.  Nor did I ask about vocation or discipleship or calling.  Indeed, from my perusal of the transcripts, it appears I never uttered the word Jesus- not even once, not even in a follow-up question.  My questions and my sociological focus on organizational and political issues surely shaped the discussions that arose in my interviews.  Still, Jesus did come up in conversations, as we can see in the quote above where my informant emphasized the importance of parishioners developing a relationship with Jesus for her ministry.

Let me give a few additional examples that illustrate how Jesus entered into my informants’ answers.  For instance, in trying to explain himself and his own identity, one informant referred to a quote from a theology text that especially resonated with him.

“It says something to the effect of ‘Among the constant necessary concerns of all living Christians, is that we have remained faithful to our origins in Jesus Christ, the purpose for which we exist, while adapting ourselves institutionally and individually to the requirements of our times.’ I think that captures what I believe best of all.”

Another in discussing the parish said,

“We embrace the entire mission of the church, which many parishes don’t. Jesus didn’t get put up on that cross just because… he got put up there because he pushed the limits and that means all the areas. I think that the liberal part comes out of the social ministry of the church, people see that as being liberal but in actuality it isn’t, but that’s how it gets defined.   Yes. And that’s where I was talking about the traditional versus the more progressive. I don’t like the terms conservative and liberal. When I first moved here it felt to me that the more traditional people were unwilling to listen to the more progressive. Lately I find that it’s the more progressive that are more unwilling to listen to the more traditional. In actuality I might’ve had that confused. When I look back on it and I say, what was really going on? What I think was really going on was the liberal/progress people threw everything out with Vatican 2 and said no you can’t say the rosary and what do you mean you want to have devotions to Mary and the saints, and adoration and things like that. Now I think what’s happening is that it’s the more traditional/conservative people who are saying you guys had 40 years, it’s our time to shine. It all goes back to people not listening to one another and I really believe that, I feel so strongly in Cardinal Bernardin’s common ground, I feel so strongly in the peace process in Northern Ireland, the peace process where it started with people just talking to one another, and I truly believe that we agree on more things than we disagree on, but we cant seem to figure out how to say, hey I believe in Jesus Christ and the other person will say I believe in Jesus Christ and where do we go from here?”

The same person went on to say:

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus was around, if I walked past him on a street corner what would I have done? Because I walk past these street corner prophets or preachers or whatever they call it and do I stop and listen to them? No I don’t. I don’t know what I would have done but I do have to believe that we believe that Jesus is our salvation and that God loves us and truly wants what’s best for us.

Clearly, these Church leaders are not seeing the Church merely as a social club…nor is Jesus Christ absent from their discourse or their parish, and yet…one gets the very real sense that even if not absent, Jesus is not fully present…that He needs to be made more fully present in order to transcend the current situation, which instead tends to distract us (or perhaps exhaust us) from doing what really matters.  I will end with one final quote from my interviews:

The only thing that holds Catholics together is the Eucharist. I think that is the one thing that defines us is the gathering in the Eucharist; it defines us as a community. All of the different dimensions of what that means, our understanding of it as the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our personal strength we derive from it, the mission for which it sends us. …I guess I see my role as priest and preacher in this regard to kind of make people uncomfortable by being accepted into the majority culture. My grandparents would not allow my generation to learn Polish, they were immigrants from Poland. They wanted us to be totally American. The goal of those people who immigrated in the 20th century was assimilation. Acceptance into the new culture. That comes with a cost. I think that Catholics have lost an awful lot in many situations in having been totally integrated. The tough parts about being Catholic; the things that really distinguish us are… lets get back to the Eucharist. I think the notion of Eucharist, the notion of mystery, the notion of the supreme, transcendent, in our society, in our culture is not easily accepted. Whereas that is the grounding…willingness to be humble before that transcendent power is the ground of our spirituality and faith. They’re not comfortable with mysteries.

The Church leaders I interviewed recognized that the Church was called to be more than just a social club.  And though the focus of my research questions surely reduced explicit discussion of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ was not entirely absent from the conversation.  And yet, these leaders still found it difficult to get beyond current hot button topics and disagreements.   They felt overpowered by a climate of cultural conflict.

In terms of prognosis, it would almost be better if these parish leaders did view the Church as merely a social club or if Jesus were entirely absent from their discussions.  Then we could imagine that an easy solution to the problem exists.  Unfortunately, recognition of the problem is not enough to overcome it.  Colleen is, of course, entirely correct in saying that we must “allow the urgency of evangelization and life-changing conversion to be the shared and essential foundation for dealing with conflict, culture, and identity.”  But successfully accomplishing this, despite the current cultural divisions and distractions, will be no easy thing!

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