A Recipe for Relevance
The KEY to reversing this isolation trend in secular society (and in the Church) is recognizing the most fundamental attribute of our human nature: we are social animals. By playing to that strength we will find a compelling “solution” that can make the Church relevant in society once again.
When separated or isolated (think solitary confinement), humans become depressed, mentally unstable and eventually despondent to the point of figurative or literal death. By substituting many superficial experiences for deep relationships, the society at large is slowly drifting toward an individual isolationism akin to solitary confinement. We know what happens next. Solitary confinement breeds human weirdness like a contagion.
If a few drops of water can help a man in the desert, a cup of water is better. If the water is cold, better still. An entire pitcher of cold water offers even greater satisfaction. A pitcher of cold lemonade provides flavor in addition to slaking thirst. A bottle of wine offers enjoyment that surpasses mere water or lemonade.
Where am I going with this? The clerical and institutionalized Church has wandered far from its fundamental role in society: it has stopped purveying “relationships of fine vintage” to the culture at large. It is no longer a critical source of truly meaningful human relationships that can penetrate our humanity deep into our souls.
Somewhere beyond the Sunday shibboleths of perfunctory Mass attendance, the Church must find a reason and reward for becoming a “highly engaged Catholic”. The “value proposition” which the Church must provide to secular culture in order to regain relevancy in that culture is simple yet eloquent:
It is the potential to bring each individual human into an experience of deep, intimate relationships and a sense of “belonging” inside the Church that will objectively surpass the lesser alternatives found outside the Church.
In a profound sense – while still offering the unsurpassed experience of the Eucharist – the Church has abjectly failed to nurture an equally profound recognition and essential sharing of Jesus Christ in each other. Catholics no longer give of themselves and share deeply who and what they are in parishes. The relational bonds of our shared faith are weakened by that reality. That has to be changed. How?
What concrete steps can restore the Church to the level of social integration so necessary for a strong, vibrant and essential network of meaningful Catholic relationships?
It’s time to get back to basics. The Early Church provides the quintessential model for “what worked”. Although the loss of the Millennial generation necessarily means that the Church of the future, maybe only 20 years out, will be both significantly poorer and smaller – it may become more like the Early Church by reason of that consequence.
Back to the Future
That’s a fascinating thought! Will the Church devolve back into the original form and strength by which it transformed a pagan world before? Will the modern Church thereby be forced to re-engage the primal power and mechanisms by which the Early Church once conquered pagan Rome? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is already at work! Prayerful discernment is always helpful here because the actions of the Spirit are extremely subtle.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor 12:9
The Church is first and foremost, a community. Without relationships, there is no community. While the primary relationship will always be anchored in Christ, the necessary corollary is the supernatural unity that Christ bestows among His believers sharing one Faith and unity in Sacrament.
How do you convince secular people who are “fine” that they are missing something? Simply offer a better “value proposition”: a meaningful and intimate community of interconnected and deeply loving Christians that offer “wine” as the alternative to the miserable relationship dilutions they’re being served in the “digital desert”.
If these vapid, meaningless social interactions of Tweets, Facebook and Instagram are challenged by a deeper and more satisfying alternative in the Church, the natural instinct of the human social animal will run to it.
Problem: The Church isn’t offering any distinguishable entree on the Millennial’s menu of potential superficial relationships.
The Church is getting beat on bandwidth and volume by Facebook only because the Catholic religious “product” is viewed as equally superficial but involving a lot more hassle. As we’ve discussed in Part I, there’s actually a lot of truth in this observation. The Millennials are extremely perceptive and pragmatic. If the Church will only offer depth as an alternative to Facebook’s bandwidth, human beings will instinctively gravitate toward the deeper side of the pool.
The deepest side of that pool is Jesus Himself – the Real Presence in the Eucharist. But you can’t take them to that next depth until you first engage their “value proposition”! First, we need to get them from where they are into the shallow end of the Catholic pool. The ultimate theological “value” proposition of the Real Presence is something they can’t relate to yet. If they did, they’d already be Catholics, right? So, we need to be more realistic. It will take time.
First offer them a reason to “leave Egypt” under their own power and by their own choice, one step at a time. How? Even the Chosen People got a lamb dinner before God directed them toward the Promised Land. It was a compelling menu entree. A sense of “belonging” within an objectively vibrant and breathtakingly intimate community is merely the first step of their banquet – the starting hors-d’oeuvres. The main course is still Lamb.
If it works, why not try it?
Secular society is not starving for “truth” or religious “doctrines”. It is craving – and has become infatuated by – “experiences”. These now substitute for meaningful relationships. But deep down – due to their instinctual human composition – all people (even Millennials) still need REAL human relationships to touch their soul!
What they have gained in bandwidth, they have lost in depth! The deception is artful. But it remains a deception. An illusion. And therefore, it can be uncloaked and revealed. Every illusionist is a pretender.
The Cursillo Community in Southern California – the most successful Catholic evangelization program I’ve ever seen – has been turning “mediocre” Catholics into dynamic Catholics for decades. Its simple mantra eloquently embraces the essence by which they attract and transform souls: “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ!”. They refer to themselves as the Cursillo Community! And they are exactly that!
You can attend only one Cursillo retreat in your entire life – only one. You will never repeat that experience again. But afterward, you become part of a voluntary fellowship of smaller gatherings that meet weekly. These “groups” encourage, confirm and catapult each participant into personal accountability for a dynamic faith commitment. Over time, these Group participants can reach an astounding level of intimacy, trust, and friendship by reason of what they share together. They become as close as blood brothers and sisters – sometimes, even more so.
I experienced that personally. I am a Cursillista formed by that same Southern California Community. No other Catholic faith experience has ever come close to the relationship bonds I formed with my “Groupies” over more than 15 years. It works. And it lasts.
You don’t have to meet with a Group each week. It’s entirely up to you. But you will want to by choice. Because Christ transforms the Group over time. You see it in them. And you see it in yourself. It’s an incomparable experience of the Catholic community in relationship. The success it has measured in the many members of the Southern California Cursillo Community is objectively apparent. This is the model for the Church at large.
The result has been “Cursillistas” spearheading parish activities and leading ministries in their own parishes. The number of Cursillistas involved in these activities is far higher than those of average parishioners. The Cursillo bonds established between individuals are in turn, strengthening entire parishes. That’s how it begins. Not with Bishops. Not with Parish “renewal” missions. It begins with Catholics in relationships.
Five Easy Steps
Let’s propose some practical steps by which the Church can emulate (and obtain the results of!) the Cursillo in Southern California.
First, transform RCIA into a “wine cellar” that offers not only Catholic doctrine but an equally important goal of forming deep bonding among the participants. RCIA is the path by which non-Catholics enter the Church. It’s their first impression of the Church. So, it better be a good one! Logically, the Catholic “value proposition” has to be evident and experienced in RCIA first. Begin there.
How do you do this? The following are only my ideas – but they reflect over 30 years of objective observation of “what works” in the Cursillo Movement, what hasn’t worked in the Church and almost three decades of involvement in RCIA as a convert. The following five easy steps can revolutionize RCIA and EVERY parish. It’s time for these changes. And each of you reading this can advocate these changes at your parish!
- Grow a “mini-Church” within Catholic Parishes composed entirely of Converts & Catechumens (and mentors).
Maintain their identity and active fellowship as a group within the parish AFTER confirmation and baptism. Each “generation” of converts builds and maintain their own shared identity within RCIA – they have journeyed together as a group and this unified identity should be reinforced and sustained rather than dissolved when they enter the Church.
They are not “separate” from the parish, but they will remain “distinctive” within the parish. There’s a difference. Parish distinctions are already engaged in music ministries, St. Vincent de Paul Societies, Adoration Guilds, Parish finance counsels and the Knights of Columbus. These distinct identities are a source of individual inspiration. They confirm a common purpose to be shared within that group. Without a purpose, you harvest only ambivalence.
- 50% or more of RCIA mentors and teachers should be former Converts or Catechumens.
Would you enlist a Ph.D. scholar who has never climbed to the summit of Everest to lead you simply because he is credentialed in geology, high-altitude physiology, has professional equipment and reads maps well? Then why are so many RCIA programs sponsored and taught by cradle Catholics instead of former Converts or Catechumens? Part of the “pay it forward” obligation of entrance into the Church MUST be the involvement of past Converts and Catechumens in bringing others into the Church. RCIA is best led by those who have traveled that path before.
- This ongoing community of Converts and Catechumens MUST bear a unique identity; a shared purpose that BONDS them to each other and to the Parish.
Too often RCIA “graduates” simply disappear into the pews. Their journey gets lost; their personal insights remain unharvested. We need to “recycle” their personal journeys for benefit of those who come later. Teaching and mentoring new converts while also maintaining a faith “sharing” accountability relationship with each other will focus and stabilize long-term bonds of common faith, mutual encouragement and extraordinary friendship.
The “pay it forward” ideal will become the central ministry and purpose of the RCIA. When RCIA becomes a “sharing” forum by which parishioners become directly involved in the faith journey of another person, the consequent relationships will eventually permeate entire parishes. No parish will remain filled with strangers. And parishes will be commensurately transformed.
A second purpose is also achieved. At most parishes, RCIA turns out a “product”, but doesn’t monitor the quality, functionality or durability of the results! As a rule, Catholic parishes don’t have any mechanism to provide “quality control” feedback” on their RCIA programs except through the collection plate. Do the “newbies” remain active Catholics? If they don’t, where did they go? Why did they go? Not one Catholic parish in 100 can answer these essential questions with accuracy. This astonishing and inexcusable fact begs a far greater question: what greater priorities are focusing Catholic parishes instead? The RCIA is the very life-blood of the future Church! No wonder the Catholic Church is hemorrhaging valued “customers”.
If the RCIA members remain individually accountable to each other, they will become the logical “first responders” in assisting, supporting and encouraging each other in their Faith. They will be self-monitoring in their accountability. If and when an individual needs additional spiritual resources or support, the RCIA members themselves can raise a flag and engage the Parish resources to help an individual. Nobody slips through the cracks. Right now, parishes don’t even know who is.
- RCIA must build Catholics in a community as an equal priority to providing faith instruction.
There is an urgent need to balance the current monolithic emphasis on Church doctrine as the sole focus of RCIA. Merely forming the intellectual constructs of Faith won’t necessarily form deep and lasting bonds of the heart. A community is an outcome of the heart, not the head. Catholic conversion is not an outcome of a DVD or recorded lectures. It is primarily the consequence of influential relationships with people you know, trust and respect. People who have helped you become “a better version of yourself” by their sincere love, understanding, and example of faith.
- Reduce the emphasis, financial and manpower resources squandered on parish “kiddie-catechism” CCD programs and focus those resources on adult religious formation instead.
Squandered? Isn’t that a rather harsh assessment? It’s the truth, so deal with it. Fact: the millennials attended these same CCD programs that the Church is still perpetuating through well-intentioned volunteers in every parish today. So, how’s that worked out? Ask any Millennial.
It’s not the good people teaching CCD that are at fault. It’s the intransigence of perpetuating mindless conventions that remain unspeakably irrational. These programs have allowed parents to abdicate their responsibilities of faith formation both in themselves and – by their own example of personal ambivalence – to their children.
Apply common sense. Who do kids look to as their primary examples and role models for socialization, priorities, and perspectives? The parents, right? So, when Catholics don’t know enough about the Faith to teach their own kids, how does the Church figure that CCD will somehow overcome the stronger influence of spiritual apathy exampled by those parents at home?
The kids end up embracing the behaviors they see in their parents. Arguing that at least the kids will get “some religion” is like teaching kids to build cute sand castles at the low tide mark. It lasts only until the tide comes in. Why not build a more solid foundation of adult faith in the parents instead?
Have you attended any parish where the cumulative man-hours spent every week in CCD kiddie-catechism programs equal those spent in weekly adult formation programs? No? It makes thinking people wonder why. Imagine how Catholic parishes would change if that were the case!
Section 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.” Parish kiddie-catechism programs by their very nature and existence define a contradiction and implicit circumvention of the Section 2223 mandate. The excessive manpower resources allocated by Catholic parishes to CCD programs have now proven objectively inconsequential for a whole generation of future Catholics. Time squandered? Yes.
The Millennials dramatically underscore the insanity of mindlessly perpetuating this CCD emphasis. Remember the definition of insanity from Part 1? Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is insanity.
It’s time to put the responsibility back where it belongs. Use a simple rule: NO sacraments will be administered to a child without an individual “challenge” examination of that child’s understanding and desire, sufficient to the sacrament, by direct determination of the priest.
A child can be educated for that examination by either the parent or the parish. However if enrolled in parish instruction, a parent will be required to attend every class with their child or attend an adult-level class taught at the same time. 90% attendance of child and parent is required. No exceptions. Otherwise, no sacraments.
Reality check. Catholic sacraments are a privilege, not a right. The only ones that will leave the Parish or raise a stink over this rule are the ones who should leave or will eventually leave anyway. No surprises there. Catholic parishes that have already implemented these reforms in Utah and California have reaped extraordinary rewards, both spiritually and financially.
If the Church will harness and harvest the benefit of enabling and training Converts and Catechumens to teach the Faith; to love those who come after them as they themselves have been loved – things will change.
RCIA can be a door through which the Catholic Church returns to relevance in our culture. This is where the “value proposition” for Catholicism in a secular culture must begin. The steps and methods proposed by this article offer a dynamic, sustainable and essential catalyst to bring about these results. Dare we reconsider our failed Catholic mechanisms? Can we concede that kind of humility? The Millennials have already answered those questions eloquently. We must change the priorities in our parishes. Now.
Once we leave our dead ideas and dysfunctional behaviors behind, Catholicism will again transform “ancient Rome” as it once did before. But time is running out. We must leave behind such things with haste. It remains our choice to journey to the Promised Land of a restored cultural influence.
What’s the alternative? Hard to say. Nobody remembers what happened to the Chosen People who chose to remain behind in Egypt…
Guest Contributor: Mike White is a Catholic convert, a real estate investment banker, lawyer, Cursillista and father of four boys. Having navigated an Exodus from California, he now lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with Mary Jo, his wife of 36 years. Mike teaches RCIA at his parish and writes on contemporary faith and economics issues.