Pope Leo X, when he was elected to the papacy in 1512- just prior to the Reformation -was alleged to have said to his brother, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Then, of course, in 1517, while a relaxed attitude prevailed in the Roman Curia, Martin Luther encouraged countless souls to leave the Church. And that they did. The Protestant Reformation was underway and Christian civilization would never be the same.
Almost 500 years later – especially during the latter half of the twentieth century –that same attitude had made a comeback; especially among those who work on behalf of the Church. Indeed, it is still with us today.
As for myself, I have worked for this same Church as a volunteer and as an employee, off and on, for the last 25 years in four different States. To be sure, I probably have been guilty of this “let us enjoy the Church” attitude from time to time. But over the years, the more I have seen this complacent attitude in my fellow co-workers within the vineyard, the less I like it. And the less I like it in others, the more I dislike it myself. For this reason, I try to remind myself why the Church exists to begin with.
For not a few Catholics, the Church has come to be primarily viewed as an end in itself; that is, as venue for one’s social life. If one were to visit some of our nation’s apostolates and parishes, an impartial observer might come away with the impression that the life of the Church is more about parish picnics, fish fries and fundraisers than it is about the hard work of winning souls for Christ. Now, do not get me wrong, such activities that center on food, fellowship and fundraising go a long way in building up Catholic communities. No argument there. But the question is: Where does the emphasis lie?
If Pope Francis were to answer that question, one can argue that he would say our attention is not where it should be. He once said, “When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.” He went on to say that the Church then becomes inward-looking. And by doing so it gives into a spiritual worldliness; one that leads the Church to live in itself and for itself. With this “ecclesiastical narcissism,” the missionary spirit is subdued and the serious and hard work of evangelization becomes less of a priority.
Perhaps, the family can tells us something about the priority of evangelization and conversion in our parishes. To be sure, the solemn duty to transmit the faith from one person to another finds its highest expression in the witness parents give to their children. Parents, more than anyone else, have the primary responsibility of forming their children after the likeness of Christ. Yet, the inspiration and incentive to do this originates from the local parish as well as the Church at large. In other words, what can be said about the family can be said about the parish.
So, how well do Catholic parents pass on faith in Christ to their children? According to the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (A Catholic Poll: CARA), only 8 percent of young people report that their parents talk to them about religion daily; whereas 20 percent say their parents do so at least once a week. About 14 to 20 percent do spiritual exercises such as reading the bible or praying the rosary on a monthly basis. And as far as parents encouraging their children to participate in the life of the Church, CARA found that their success rate is about 7 to 15 percent; that is, this percentage of Catholic youth surveyed participated in youth group and bible study activities on a semi-regular basis.
These statistics can tell us something about the average parish and its priorities. If the number one priority was conversion and repentance in parish ministries, then perhaps an ambitious evangelistic outreach would be more the norm. And most certainly, a higher numbers of parents talking to their children about Christ would be reflected in the numbers. But the numbers are low because the zeal to convert souls to Christ and his Church are not as high as it can be.
These priorities, whether it be a social one to enjoy or a missionary one to convert, is shaped by how we see the purpose of the Church. As for the Apostles and the Saints, the central mission of the Church is to prepare souls for heaven; that is, to make as many people love and follow Jesus Christ as possible. The zeal that inspires such an ambitious enterprise takes us outside of the Church herself and into the hazards of the world. And such an enterprise, no doubt, puts us in harms way. For that reason, there is a real temptation to make the Church into a kind of refuge from the world. As Bishop Sheen once said,
“The Church is not, and never can be, an end in itself. It is a means of salvation for the world, not just our own sanctification. We cannot save ourselves alone…The Church is the agent of salvation for mankind. It is not a refuge of peace; it is an army preparing for war. We seek security, but only in sacrifice; this is the mark of the Church and the hallmark of the cross.”
Indeed, if the Church is to be enjoyed as a social venue for its servants, then its missionary character eventually gets lost. The zeal and even the art of passing on the faith to younger generations will inevitably be hindered. But if, at the heart of every mission, exists a zeal for the conversion of souls and a willingness to beg God for such conversions, then not only will the Church fulfill its purpose by populating heaven, but the less important aim of drawing more people to parish picnics, fish fries and fundraisers will be realized too.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.