At the beginning of Advent at the Saturday Evening Mass our Parish performed the Rite of Welcoming for the RCIA Candidates and Catechumens. The Rite is formally known as the (combined) Celebration of the Rite of Election of Catechumens and the Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates who are preparing for Confirmation and / or reception into the full Communion of the Catholic Church.
Simply, this is a consolidated Rite of the baptized and unbaptized participating in RCIA. RCIA being the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or the pathway to membership for adults into the Catholic Church. As we like to remind participants regularly, RCIA is a process; not a program. The weekend’s celebration marks the end of an inquiry / discovery period of the RCIA process and begins the intentional acts of the participant in joint the Church. It also marks the Church’s formal acceptance of those participants as future Church members, and marks our acknowledgement as parishioners to participate in the formation of these participants as they move forward.
This year marks my fifth trek in helping to shepherd the future of our Church down this path to Christ’s cross (I like to joke with folks that maybe this year I will finally pass this class). However, it truly is a joy and a calling, and I would encourage anyone reading this to volunteer to be an RCIA sponsor. If you want to come to terms with your own Catholic faith and your reasons for belief, take the time to give of this journey to another who likely will have questions sometimes greater and deeper than your own. But of note here is that in coming back to this journey time and again you start to notice some trends.
One such trend is the irony that when we get to this point in the process, there is usually at least one participant who connects this Rite of Welcoming with the idea of Catholicism as a “Club,” and their personal experiences and feelings (usually not good) associated with being an outsider to this club. Of even further irony this year was that it was my candidate who brought this up to the group. Accordingly then I got to share with him my own similar experiences and feelings as a “Club” outsider when I participated in my journey into the Catholic Church, and then helped him with the “why” and “what” this is all about and the drivers of this misperception.
Regardless of it being a misperception however, the fact that this idea continues to progress in the world means that it continues to be a challenge to Church growth. Because in many cases, as it was with my candidate, it means that has kept some back from coming into the Church for years. Sadly, this means that understanding this misperception better is an opportunity for those both in and out of the Church.
So lets start with the question, are you a club member? Are you perpetuating the myth of Catholicism as a “Club?” Is this what Christ envisioned? Should we open our eyes and embrace change?
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
This wildly successful Independent film released in 2002, written by Nia Vardalos and directed by Joel Zwick is a Godsend of reference material in an RCIA program. Haven’t seen it? You should. The film explains so much of the differences of a faith experience coming from the world of Protestantism and moving into the world of Catholicism that I give prayers for it every time I participate. Now if you are reading this and have seen the film, can’t make the connection, and have an eyebrow raised in curious disbelief; I would like to invite you to come through the RCIA journey some time.
This film’s best use in RCIA is as an excellent analogy in understanding Saints and the Catholic Church’s use and love of Saints compared to protestant faiths. Saints are always – always – the first big theological river crossing in RCIA. In helping a participant understand why we don’t just pray to Jesus versus asking a Saint to pray to Jesus for us I bring up this film.
For understanding, we Catholics are like the big Greek family. Many Protestants come from backgrounds similar in nature to that of the small family, are marrying into the madness of the big family, and can get overwhelmed and confused in the immensity.
So Saints. The idea of the Communion of Saints sounds good and makes sense to people until you get to the part where we communicate with them. Then, they start to get that confused look on their face. See, most participants coming from a protestant background in the RCIA process are quiet comfortable with their relationship with God or Jesus. These people have spent their lives perfecting their understanding of this sacred relationship. Accordingly, outside of their marriage / parents / kids, this is one of the most intimate and important relationships in their life. Participants generally struggle then with the idea of adding an outsider to this very personal relationship, and the need for outsiders in general. And Saints, respectfully, as they have never existed in the Protestant experience are seen as outsiders.
So we start with that – their personal (sometimes called “individual” in protestant circles) relationship with Jesus Christ. I remind them that as a protestant this has been a primary focus point of their faith, and has been what their religious experiences – regularly supported by their prior church – have been centered around: An individual relationship with Jesus Christ. I let them know that this is great and that this also is a priority Catholic’s have as well. I then explain that what is different then with Catholicism is the idea and prioritization we put on the Body of Christ and our role as member of that Body.
This is a big paradigm shift for Protestants entering the Church: One vs. One of Many. Again, you are used to a world where that “individual relationship” is highly stressed. So much so that if you don’t have one as a Protestant, you can even start to get some anxiety about it (I have seen that happen). We Catholics, on the other hand, emphasize the Body of Christ (and our place in it) with the same vigor (a group experience). Protestants do have the concept of the Body of Christ as part of their faith experience, but in a different way. The Body to a Protestant is a conceptual issue regarding a collection of Churches, not a collection of people in one Church. This difference is to the same degree by which they see the communion versus how we see the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
What drives this need for an individual relationship in the Protestant dynamic? An individual relationship negates the need for an authoritative Church. Insert your own views on the Reformation here. Ironically in recent history, however, Catholics are starting to more emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus the way Protestants traditionally have. This stems from the the New Evangelization. Hence the success of such programs as CRHP.
Within the context of the film reference and Saints, I explain that in many ways growing up Protestant is like growing up as an only child. As such they are coming from a “small family.” Coming from a single child home they would see their relationship with their parent (Jesus) as everything and unique to them. Therefore this becomes their conduit relationship by which they learn to see and understand the world around them. I then respectfully ask that they understand this also means, without knowing it, they are also positioning Jesus as being a single parent in their expectation of his behavior and his relationship with them. Which is to say that they are expecting, like a single child would, Jesus to see his relationship with them as an individual relationship which he would need to be protective in it’s uniqueness over all others. Which, if you read the Bible, isn’t exactly true.
Now as a member of the Body of Christ, we Catholics know that we are being raised in a large family household. We wake up every day with real brothers and sisters in Christ and are a family of believers. So I ask them to humor me and for the first time see Jesus as their Lord knowing that they have 8 other siblings in their family. Jesus still is that loving Father they have come to know, but they are no longer the only kid in the house. Dad loves us all equally. I challenge them with the idea that you wouldn’t look at the other 8 siblings and say, “I don’t need you in my life. I only need Mom and Dad.” I also, challenge them with the idea that maybe, on occasion, Dad might use some of the siblings to help raise the other kids? Not because he needs too, not because he wants less of a relationship with you or because somehow your relationship with him has become less than what it was, but rather simply because he can. Furthermore, by incorporating your brothers and sisters into the relationship dynamic, Jesus helps us better understand ourselves in relationship to one another and our calling to live more like him to them.
So, as I see the light bulb come on, I then ask them to now change the 8 siblings to 1 Billion, and then welcome them to the global Catholic Church. We have a lot of brothers and sisters who share the same father, and we who become “our brother’s keeper” share in the responsibility of the family to help Dad take care of the family. So, not only am I encouraging you to learn about some of your older brothers and sisters (which we call Saints), but also I am asking you to be a brother or a sister to your siblings (and stop thinking about just yourself in this family – ha!).
But now what about how this film relates to the Rite of Welcoming? Lets look at it by changing that question to be: As the Big Fat Greek Family, what is our responsibility to the new brothers and sisters in our family?
In explaining the Catholic “Club” I explain to participants that in reality, when you break this social concept down to be being more naturally inclusive, most cradle Catholics don’t know what they don’t know. See, they have grown up in a world in which they have never seen things from the small family perspective. Meaning, they have never related to the world from the perspective of an individualized parental relationship. Nor is this true then when it comes to their faith.
Let me explain this by an example: Lets take our friend, brother and fellow parishioner Charlie Sharp. Charlie comes from a family of 19 kids I think? Charlie acknowledges that he never new a time growing up that his mother wasn’t pregnant. Think about that for a moment. Mom was always with a baby. That would really affect your sense of expectation of your relationship with your Mother wouldn’t it?
So how would Charlie relate to a kid whose Mom had only one child and doted over him or her all the time if he grew up in a world in which his Mother naturally was always drawn in focus on the next kid coming into the family? “I love you dear, now can you move over please because we need more room.” Charlie then has never seen the world from the perspective of a spoiled kid, and arguably then nor could he recognize the anxieties in behavior demonstrated by someone coming into a new Church situation and not getting treated as they would have expected from their previously personalized experiences. Such as: “Oh Hi, you must be new here, let me show you around and give you a tour.” Yeah, lets face it, Charlie sees more people coming into the Church and likely just starts moving to the middle of the pew. (Love you Charlie – thank you!)
Now please don’t dismiss this expectation that many Protestants have coming into a new Church. Why? Because Protestants see the world from a small family perspective. If you walk into a small family as a stranger you are going to stand out. You get approached, challenged, greeted, and / or recognized as being the outsider. Try walking into a protestant service sometime and count the number of times you get greeted and welcomed. My wife, a life long Catholic, always was disturbed by this when we attended protestant services. She just wanted to be left alone and go to her seat. Good luck.
It is also very normal in protestant services to have guests stand and introduce themselves. Then everyone in the congregation welcomes them. Admittedly, this can be a Catholic thing too, if adopted. I have been to Mass in both Columbia, MO and Lake of the Ozarks, MO and been asked to stand and introduce myself as a visitor.
Now, having defended the “club” in its perceptual ignorance, I then admit that ignorance isn’t bliss. That despite the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know, I let the participant know they are right. Folks in our Parish should be more welcoming to new members of the Church or even strangers they see at Mass for that matter. After all we are all, as believers in Christ, called to share the good news. Our responsibilities to the Body of Christ go beyond the walls of the Parish to any and all that seek Jesus. And just like the single child needs to be aware of the other siblings in the house, sometimes all the kids that have been sleeping in one bedroom need to be welcoming of a another child who moves into their room from down the hall as the family continues to grow.
But one of the biggest hindrances to our ability to do this is what I call the problem of the Three-Cow-Catholics.
The Problem of Three-Cow Catholics
It has been my observation that there is a behavior in Catholic circles that I identify as people who are Three-Cow-Catholics. What I mean by this is that they are like three cows standing in a field. Their issue is communal in nature as there are three of them. Which also implies that it is an action issue and an action that takes place when they move into groups.
As simple and noble cows, they could be in the wrong pasture, they could even be on the wrong farm, but when it comes to their individual choice of location they see themselves as where they need to be as long as they are standing between the same two cows they have always been standing between. For some, this has been true nearly their entire lives. They look left, they look right; every body is where they should be: therefore they’re good and nothing else needs to be done.
So the first thing these parishoners do when they get to a Parish event, is drop their spouses and go stand between the same two cows they always stand between. Because that is where they have trained themselves over years and years to feel comfortable. Notice I didn’t say husbands. I didn’t say wives. I said spouses.
Rarely do Three-Cow Catholics take ownership of their individual responsibilities as a Christian to be an ambassador of the faith, let alone an ambassador of the Parish or even the Parish School. They do serve the body of Christ admirably, many times without thought and with Reverent joy. But rarely do they venture far outside their comfort zone (the left cow and the right cow), and so they would rarely see those who may need their leadership and understanding in situations where faith leadership is needed.
Arguably now, and in their defense, these Catholics have never been lead to believe they are needed for this. They likely never saw their parents, or other parishioners model such evangelical behavior. The “New Evangelization” was not part of their Catholic School or SOR experience. And full Catechesis, sadly, well…..probably not.
Such social Catholics also have been raised in a world in which their faith experiences and lifestyle experiences overlapped significantly. Given this significant structural overlap, such situations regularly having many of the same people always in attendance. Therefore there became little differentiation to them as what is about the body and what is about them. It is, in concept, the opposite problem of expectation in the large family versus the small. Where you make those group experiences all about you as an individual.
So in walks a stranger to the world of the Three Cow Catholic and what happens? Not what happens at a Protestant church. No big greeting or handshake or hug. No welcome. Many times not even a smile; but not always. Arguably, at best, simple social courtesy and a respecting of others personal space. The arguably generous act of simply not bothering someone as you go about your day in your world.
And “The Club” is born.
My Church is Bigger than your Church
You may have noticed that the largest Church in the United States is the Catholic Church. You may have also heard that the second largest Church in the United States is former Catholics. That is quite a measure of size differential when you think about it. The Church next to us in size is simply all of us who got mad and left.
So you come from a small protestant Church and you are feeling called to the Catholic faith. As you enter for the first few times of any Parish the best information you may have of what to expect is from all the former Catholics at your old Church who still hate the Catholic Church. Personally I can share that when word of my interest in Catholicism reached the ears of these same people in my life, many wasted no time in either trying to “save me from Catholicism” or to quickly tell me what kind of an idiot I was being. One might reasonably argue then that if we as a Parish community cared, as Christ calls us too, to love and welcome those curious and seeking the Cross; we might – if we do nothing else – go out of our way to insure that we don’t make all of those former Catholics right in their ascertains about the Church. We could, on the other hand, make the experience of the curious so wonderful, that they go back and bring home the angry and embittered former Catholics to the Sacraments we all so desperately need.
We also, as the Body, might recognize a behavioral and perceptual difference between being in a Church the size of the Catholic Church and coming from a protestant Church. It begins by recognizing that most Protestants, despite the attention they get in our minds, don’t attend big mega-churches. In reality, most intentional Protestants attend small denominational Churches: Churches of less than 100 active members. (Yes. There are that many small Protestant Churches.)
So if you are one of those small church Protestants, your view of your faith and your ownership of the evangelical process take on greater responsibility. Think about it. When through one person you can increase those in the faith by 1%. What you you have to do to increase the Catholic faith by 1%? Think of the impact of adding a whole family. So your expectations of how you will be treated when you consider attending a different church can be strongly influenced by how you would have treated some one coming into your former church. Many times you would be glad to have them and be going out of your way to make them feel welcome. My wife and I experienced this every time we moved to a new community and looked for a new Church. At times it was almost heartbreaking if you tried out a new Church, didn’t like it, and saw those there throwing themselves out to you to come back.
Now, it hasn’t been that long ago that many in any Parish to consider being an ambassador of the faith and welcoming those new to the faith to be the Priest’s job. If you still feel this way let me share with you now how wrong you are. It’s easy in a Church as massive as the Catholic Church to defer the responsibilities of most any duties to others. It’s easy to hide in numbers, believe others will do it, and let the mantle of responsibility pass you by. But as the program in our Parish is so eloquently called, “That man is you.”
The Calling of the Faith
In his Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei Pope Francis writes: The fullness which Jesus brings to faith has another decisive aspect. In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Accordingly then, Pope Francis continues: Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing. So we, as the faithful, should see others (and those new to the faith) as Jesus sees them.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangeli Gaudium Pope Francis also reminds us: The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
He therefore challenges us all directly: In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.
Simply, we are all called to be a witness for Christ, especially to those who are seeking him.
Now, this really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for us. For as we are called to be the heads of our domestic churches, we in turn represent those churches when we come to Mass. If the same person came to your home and asked you about Jesus Christ how would you respond? Would you witness your faith? Would you open yourself up with the same Christian heart you share with those in your household? Would you? The good news is they are coming to our collective home, the home we call the Parish.
So what do you say? Let’s welcome them in.