My Homily for Sunday of the 18th Week of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Whenever we hear reports from the Pew Research Center or other surveys about religious practice in America we get bad news. We’re frequently informed of the exodus of people from churches and synagogues around the country. Tons of ink will then be spilled over why people don’t come to church any more and what we need to do to bring them back. Well, I’m happy to give you some good news from St. Ann’s. We seem to be doing something right, especially for our young people. For example: we are a relatively small parish, only getting between 500 and 550 people on a weekend, yet our teen club has 20 high school students who attend meetings on a Wednesday night twice a month and are very into the faith and spiritual element of the meeting; they don’t just come to see their friends and get free pizza! Two young men who went through our teen club when they were in high school have now begun a young adult group for people in their 20s. They too are looking to create a group with a solid spirituality and Catholic identity and not merely a social club. They have had about a dozen young people showing up and have been attracting an ever-growing number. One of our men recently asked if he could begin a men’s holy hour during our monthly nocturnal adoration. He attracted 18 men for their first event and are hoping for 40 this weekend. We have 22 young people signed up for our Youth Pilgrimage to Rome this summer. I have clearly explained to them the difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation, that we will have daily Mass and prayer along with visits to the sites of Rome, and they are actually looking forward to that part of the journey and not just eating gelato! But probably the most amazing thing to note is the number of people coming to our ChristLife program. We usually try to limit the group to 70 participants because of the size of Fr. Anthony Hall, where the sessions take place. Last Thursday for their opening session, they had people lining up outside hoping to be allowed to join. The current count is 102! And of that number, the majority are younger people, many in their teens and 20s! While some are from other parishes or people with no religious affiliation looking to learn more about Jesus, the majority are our own parishioners. That means that nearly 20% of our regular Sunday parishioners are coming to ChristLife! That is truly amazing! The Spirit is on the move here in St. Ann’s, and I am very pleased to let you know that! Perhaps we can serve as a model for other parishes.
Of course, the big question to ask is, “what are we doing right?” Why are we succeeding in reaching young people? I think a big part of the answer is that we’re not dumbing down the message. If we were only offering sport programs, dances, and trips to Six Flags, we could end up saying we’re being popular and a source of entertainment for teens and young adults. But we do more than that. They come looking to be challenged by the Gospel. Jesus was not a wimp, and he never called people to follow him by giving them sweet-tasting bromides. He showed them a completely different way to view life and to value what many people reject. Naturally, to follow what Jesus says means we have to make a radical change in our outlook on life and live by a completely different set of standards. Many people are not willing to do that and leave the Church for that reason. The mistake I believe many parishes and churches have made is to avoid the challenging topics and give people soft talk, or “Catholic Lite” every Sunday. I have always used the term “marshmallow theology” to describe this approach, giving homilies that are sweet and tasty but have no nutritional value whatsoever. Everybody loves a marshmallow once in a while, but try to live on marshmallows and you soon get sick of them! So toning down the message and just doling out platitudes is not going to win many people over. Oh it will suit the people who don’t want to be challenged and want to be allowed to bask in their own delusions of how holy they are. But that will never produce disciples. Sure, I’ve had some people leave St. Ann’s and go where they get the sweet nothings they want to hear. I let them go. We need warriors for Christ, people on fire with the Holy Spirit who are willing to be bold and be Catholic and who are not afraid of the challenge of the Gospel, and there are many other people who have told me they come to St. Ann’s because they get an authentic experience of Christ. That’s what we try to do at St. Ann’s. I believe our success is faithful, prayerful worship that is worried about the quality of our prayer rather than how quickly we can get people out the door, and a weekly challenge to radical conversion in Christ, reminding people of Jesus’ tremendous love for us, that he loves us so much that he doesn’t want to leave us where we are but wants to challenge us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. When we allow Christ to change us, we grow in character, in dignity, in peace, and in joy. Our lives find meaning, and we naturally see the meaning in the lives of others and desire to call them to share in the joy in Christ that we have found. I believe the young people who are active here at St. Ann’s see that. They get that in order to know Jesus they need to think and act differently. They see through the mistake of soft teachings and want to be challenged to be better people. Once they see the results that a life firmly lived following Christ makes they see how true it is. They hunger for more and want to share their faith with others so that they can share the joy they know. That’s why they’re here.
So if anyone complains to you about the lack of interest in the faith by young people, please tell them that it is not true of all young people, and that at St. Ann’s we have many young people willing to be disciples of Christ, and if they are the future of the Church, the Church is in good hands! Tell them to challenge our young people to think like Christ and don’t patronize them by feeding them platitudes. If people complain they get nothing out of Mass or that their parish has nothing to offer them, tell them to find a parish that provides authentic worship of Christ and where they are challenged to follow the truth of Christ and to make the radical changes necessary to be disciples of Jesus. If they do that, they will find, God, they will find meaning in their lives, and they will find peace.
This article was published in the ChristLife Magazine at the request of Dianne Davis and David Nodar of ChristLife.
As Christians, our “mission statement” is very clear: “Go out and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Any parish that is truly striving to be faithful to our call to be disciples and to have a missionary spirit rather than simply being stuck in maintenance mode struggles with the question of how to bring in people who have left the faith as well as reach people who have never known Christ. When we especially think of the question of people who have left, there are so many different ways we have tried to reach out to them. My experience, however, has convinced me that we’ve been addressing the symptoms and not the malady. Lots of people, for example, say that they’re bored at mass or they don’t get anything out of it. While this is true, we’ve responded in all the wrong ways to try to make them “get something out of mass.” We’ve brought in puppets and balloons, we’ve told jokes and done shtick, all to no avail. As a priest I’ve tried all the gimmicks that are touted with the promise that they will get people to come to mass. Perhaps they work for a time, but none of them offers the permanent effect of faithful discipleship. I was told for example that if you want to get teenagers to come to mass you need to have a rock mass. So we did that. We got all of the teenagers who had ability to play musical instruments together and set up a rock mass once a month on a Sunday night and we rocked the church! That place was jumping and many of the people there enjoyed it very much. But what we noticed month after month was that it never brought any other teenagers back to church. The teens who told their friends about it found it was not enough to get them to start coming to mass. They weren’t staying away because they didn’t like the music – that was the reason we told ourselves. The real reason was that they didn’t come to mass because they saw no value in it. When it comes to little children and getting their parents to attend mass, we were told that we should have special masses for children because their parents will come. This is true – to an extent. When children are doing something at mass the parents will come, but that doesn’t make them come back the next week.
I have come to realize that all of the things that we’re trying to do to bring people back are simply addressing the symptom and not the malady. People are not staying away from church because they don’t like the music or because the priest is boring; those are the excuses they use. No, they are staying away because they don’t realize why we go to mass in the first place and why they need to be there. Most people don’t like to go to the doctor, but they go because they know it is important for them to do so. They don’t complain that they don’t like the music they play in the waiting room or that the doctor is boring and doesn’t tell jokes. If someone actually were to use that as an excuse for why they don’t go to the doctor, I doubt that anyone would tell doctors to learn good jokes and start playing different music in the office. Why, then, do we think this is the answer for how to bring people back to mass? This is not to say that we don’t strive to provide prayerful music, homilies, etc., but that we don’t make this an end in itself.
I have come to believe very firmly that the only way we are going to get people to return faithfully is to get them to see that “I need a regular relationship with Jesus that I will find not by praying on my own at home, but that I will find when I come to church every Sunday to receive the Eucharist for the forgiveness of my sins, to unite myself with Christ in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and be strengthened by my fellow Christians as we journey together to follow Christ and be a community.”
We’ve had lots of wonderful programs that have attempted to provide precisely this, yet many of them in my opinion have failed. I’ve used lots of retreat programs that had people giving personal witness talks about the power of Christ in their lives and the things he’s done for them, and they can be very powerful. The problem is that not everybody’s witness talk is appropriate, and some are questionable in their content or in their interpretation of what God actually did for them. I’ve heard people say things that have made me cringe. In order to make sure every talk is appropriate the priest has to listen to every talk through beforehand to accept, modify, or reject it. Not only do most priests not have the ability to dedicate that much time to this, when he does suggest changes, some people’s feelings get hurt. Other times programs tend to become a clique. The people bind nicely to each other in the name of the program, but not in the parish and in the church, and it ends up creating a sub community of the parish rather than encouraging participants to be active members of the Church Universal. They tend to refer to each other as “my ‘Such-and-Such’ Program brothers and sisters”, but not “my fellow parishioners”, and certainly not, “my fellow Catholics.” Being members of the ministry program frequently becomes the end in itself to the exclusion of parishioners who are not part of the program. When this happens the program has failed in its stated purpose. It has brought people closer to each other but not together in Christ. They may strive to bring other people into the program, but it often becomes apparent that they are more interested in membership in the program rather than in the Church. ChristLife is different.
We started using Christ life a year ago, and like any other program I was optimistic but also skeptical, because I’ve been down this path before. What pleases me about ChristLife is that the heart of the program is not personal witness by individual volunteers but rather the videos that ChristLife provides. The videos are solid in their theology, but also touching. They have a way of communicating the need for Christ in his Church in a common sense manner that combines the beauty of being part of a community with an authentic encounter with Jesus. The programs do not turn in on themselves, having the people do merely a group huddle, but are founded firmly on Christ. Yes, there is certainly group sharing, and yes there is a great sense of community, but it is a community founded on Christ and not merely on membership in the group. We had members as young as twelve and as old as their eighties who started seeing the work of Christ in each other. ChristLife does what we want to do as a parish and what we need in a program: it brings people together in Christ. So many of the other programs have brought people together but the “in Christ” portion of it was somehow missing.
I am very happy with using ChristLife in our parish, and we are now planning to use it as our pre-catechumenate in hopes that people will experience the need for Christ and develop a desire to know and follow him before entering into the formal catechesis of the RCIA process. ChristLife is far less expensive than many of the programs that we have tried and the support from the Christ life staff is fantastic. The people on the ChristLife staff see their work as a ministry and not merely an occupation. I strongly encourage the use of ChristLife in every parish, as I think it is the only program out there that truly addresses the real malady and doesn’t merely spend time putting Band-Aids on wounds.
Someone recently asked me a question that I found to be quite profound: “Father, do you think there is any hope for the world?” (This question actually came from a young man who came with his fiancée to make arrangements for their marriage.) I was floored by such a deep question at a wedding interview. I told him, “Well, any hope we have can only be found in Christ. It won’t come from Washington!” In the midst of a presidential election year, we will continue to hear many promises from all the candidates for President until Election Day. We will listen, and we will ultimately each vote for the person we feel offers the most hope for America. But you know what will happen? No one we elect will deliver 100% of what he or she promises. We know all too well that much of the time candidates say what they know we want to hear in order to get our vote. At other times they promise things that they firmly believe they will be able to provide, yet once they get into office and face the reality of the situation, they realize they can’t fulfill the promise, and sometimes they even espouse the very opposite position to what they promised. Rarely do they actually make good on their promises. I don’t mean this as a blanket condemnation of all politicians but as an observation of fact: it is very hard for even the most honest politicians to keep the promises they make. That is because we are all fallen individuals and do not have all knowledge of reality. Only one person does – Jesus – and yet too often we listen to everyone but Jesus. For some reason that we’re hard pressed to explain, we dismiss the Gospel of Jesus as too “pie-in-the-sky” and unrealistic but we listen with devotion to politicians. We tend to see the Gospel as something that would be nice in a perfect world but which is not practical here and now. Dismissing the Gospel because the world is not perfect is like being lost and having a GPS but not using it because you’re lost! Does that make any sense? The Gospel is precisely the way to make the world the place we long for it to be. So why don’t we listen to Jesus. There is a plethora of reasons people will offer, but underneath them all is one common denominator: we are not in love with Jesus. We don’t trust him because we don’t really know him. We believe in him, but without falling in love with him, we don’t make him the foundation of our lives. I am convinced that we will only know true peace when we come to love Jesus with all our hearts and make him the center of our life. We cannot make the world love Jesus overnight, but we can learn to love him ourselves and change our own lives to have the meaning and purpose for which we always yearn.
Here at St. Ann’s we are introducing a new program entitled “Christlife.” it is a seven-week retreat series that will take place on Thursday evenings from 7:00 PM -9:30 PM in Fr. Anthony Hall. Our first session entitled “Discovering Christ” will talk about precisely these things. We will not dwell on specific beliefs nor enter into catechetics or any hard sell of Jesus. Instead, we will talk about what life is all about and why we need a Savior, specifically Jesus. You will be fed a great meal and then we will have discussion about life and the role Jesus should play in it. Our team has people of every age from 15 through elderly adults, both male and female. If you live near Yonkers, come to Christlife! It may change your life! If you don’t live in our area, look for Christlife where you live. Catholic parishes are offering it all over the country. Make a commitment that will pay off for the rest of your life and into eternity! Come to know Jesus, and you will come to know yourself!
Here is the video from session three of our Catholic Basics refresher Course. The battery ran out toward the end, but it’s only missing about a minute or two.
I am very pleased to announce that, at the suggestion of several young people I know, I will be leading a Pilgrimage for Youth to Rome this coming July. It will be open to anyone who is currently in 7th grade through those 39 years old. The flyer below gives all the information. If you’re interested in attending, simply sign up and send in your deposit. I hope you can join me in Rome!
Yesterday I had the 8th grade boys help me prepare the stage for Saturday night’s extravaganza. We had to replace half the floodlights in the ceiling, which had been dead for years. Now finally we have full color lights on our stage. We also renovated the sound cabinet, which had no handles on it. Whenever we needed to open it, we had to pry it open. While installing the handles, we opened one cabinet which seemed as if it had been sealed for years. What we found was a veritable time capsule! We found a role of smarties that was green moldy, programs from old shows, (one of the boys’ mothers recognized it as a show she witnessed as a student), and several other items. But by far the most fascinating was the discovery of an ambry (the box in the wall of a church that holds the holy oils) still in the box it was shipped in! It was addressed to Msgr. Ferme, the founding pastor of St. Ann’s, and the newspaper wrapping it was dated June 22, 1960! The boys were fascinated reading newspaper accounts that mentioned Truman and Eisenhower and Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. It was truly amazing!
So here’s the deal: last night the teen club practiced their skit of “Match Game 2012” that they’re performing Saturday night. I think it’s going to be hysterical! So everyone, come on down to St. Ann’s Saturday, May 12th at 7:00 PM for our Second Annual Variety Show. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for high school students, and $5 for children. I’m confident you will find it well worth the price of admission!