Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching — 2 Timothy 4:2.
The Call to Remove Barriers
In his recent visit to the USA, Pope Benedict XVI challenged all of us to live out the Catholic faith in courage. Some of his most pointed comments were to the shepherds of the flock in the USA, our Spiritual Fathers — the Bishops. He told them:
“This leads me to ask how, in the twenty-first century, a bishop can best fulfill the call to “make all things new in Christ, our hope”? How can he lead his people to “an encounter with the living God”, the source of that life-transforming hope of which the Gospel speaks (cf. Spe Salvi, 4)? Perhaps he needs to begin by clearing away some of the barriers to such an encounter. While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior. Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death? Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”
One Example of a Barrier to Encountering Christ
I was very pleased by the challenge that Pope Benedict XVI made to our Bishops in this regard. As a lay Catholic who spends a significant amount of time in the work of evangelizing and assisting others into or back into the Catholic Church, one of the most troubling barriers that I have encountered is the behavior of prominent Catholic priests, theologians, lay people and even some bishops when their actions and words contradict the teachings of the Catholic faith.
It is not uncommon for me to spend a significant amount of time with individuals searching for the fullness of the truth about God and man’s relationship to Him. I tell these individuals that what they are searching for is found in its fullness in the Catholic faith.
Through the Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses Apostolate, I am able to provide them with copies of the Bible and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Many of these individuals are former Jehovah’s Witnesses and former Catholics who left the Church primarily because they never knew what the Church really taught. Others were raised in a very anti-Catholic environment and through the Grace of God encountered Christ at least partially in some Protestant denomination after leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For these individuals, it has usually taken years for them to even consider attending a Catholic Church in their community or approaching a priest to speak to them about coming home to the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, for some, when they finally reach that point they encounter a priest, a religious, or lay pastoral associate who tells them that the Church supports some teaching or action that is contrary to what the Church officially teaches through the Catechism and through Scripture. Even more scandalous, these encounters with dissent usually happen during Mass or during some very poor version of the RCIA program. On more than one occasion, individuals considering the Catholic Church have the made the following comments to me:
“Does the Church that wrote The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually exist?”
“I would really like to join the Church that wrote the Catechism. Where do I find that Church?”
Some of these souls are so stumbled by these encounters that it causes a significant barrier for them in coming home to the Catholic faith and encountering Christ in His Fullness.
Removing the Barriers: The Role of the Laity and the Religious
“Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel” — Pope Benedict XVI.
The challenge above, while directed to the Bishops of the USA, also applies to the laity and those called to the consecrated life. We cannot treat our faith as merely a private matter between us and God. It must fundamentally change the way we behave in all aspects of our lives. It is most troubling when different polls by the secular media seem to indicate that the opinions of lay Catholics on the most pressing moral issues of the day are out of step with the teachings of the Church and when our behavior relating to divorce, contraception, and other issues is no different than that of most non-Catholics.
It is the role of the laity to bring Jesus into the culture through our families, through the way we conduct our businesses and the way we vote. On more than one occasion, I have had individuals contact me asking for help to enter the Church who tell me that the first person they encountered on their way into the Church was a faithful Catholic layperson who gave them a personal encounter with our Lord through the way he or she lived out their Catholic faith. Never discount the importance of this!
One gentleman who had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness telephoned and asked me to explain the Mass to him. He had attended Mass, seemingly out of the blue, one Sunday and I asked him why. He told me that it was because of his Catholic friends who lived out their Catholic faith so beautifully and he wanted to know what it was that they had and what it was that they experienced every Sunday when they went to Mass. A barrier to this man encountering Jesus in His fullness was removed by the faithful behavior and charitable words of his lay Catholic friends. Obviously, these lay Catholics allowed their faith to permeate every aspect of their lives.
I have also had individuals tell me that their journey back to the Catholic faith started when they encountered a religious sister or brother who helped them when they were in serious material, physical, and spiritual need. The love these consecrated souls shared with them through their hospitals, soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, and other apostolates resulted in an authentic encounter with Jesus and these individuals wanted more. Another barrier to an encounter with the Lord was removed.
Removing the Barriers: The Role of the Bishops and Priests
I have discovered through the experiences of working with fallen-away Catholics that some of the most significant barriers are those that have been placed there by the actions and inactions of priests and religious. I have already given one example that I encountered in the work of evangelization but there are others.
Philip Lawler in his excellent book, The Faithful Departed — The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture chronicles what has become in recent years the largest barrier for those wishing to encounter Christ in the US Catholic Church and that is the sexual abuse scandal. Here we have priests, who through their priestly ordination are called to be Christ to all, abusing children, and bishops, who have the fullness of Holy Orders, protecting the abusers and not the children.
The amazing thing about Lawler’s book however is that he demonstrates, if it can be believed, that the sexual abuse scandal is a huge symptom of a much larger problem and a much larger barrier that needs to be removed by our Bishops if Catholics and non-Catholics are to encounter Christ in His Fullness through the Catholic Church. This barrier is the failure of some of our bishops to teach us and expect us to follow the faith in its fullness.
If you have ever complained to the bishop of your diocese about a priest who has been promoting dissent in your parish only to discover that your complaining, not the priest’s behavior, becomes the problem, then you know what type of barrier to encountering Christ this becomes.
If you have ever had to explain to your non-Catholic Christian friends and family members why your U.S. Congressman or Governor supports abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research, so-called “gay marriage”, and is still considered a Catholic in good standing with the local bishop, then you also know what type of barrier this becomes to encountering Christ.
And, ultimately, if you have ever had to complain to the archdiocese about the behavior of a priest toward your child and discovered that the bishop has moved the abuser to another parish where it is reported that he may be abusing again, you also know what a barrier to encountering Christ this is.
Lawler demonstrates how, unfortunately, many of our bishops have become more like politicians and CEOs and less like the pastors they are supposed to be. Unfortunately, some of our pastors seem to be more interested in their popularity within the secular world and the diocesan bank account than in saving souls and removing the barriers to our encountering Christ in His Catholic Church.
A Plea to Remove the Barriers
Each of us has opportunities to be Jesus to someone each and every day. Sometimes we will succeed by the grace of God in doing so and other times we will not. Even though our failures to remove these barriers may be great, as they have been in recent years, there is no need to lose hope or to despair.
Our Holy Father is familiar with these problems and I have no doubt that He will deal with these issues as he is able. He will take the lead as the Vicar of Christ and continue to remove these barriers.
I would ask that all — bishops, priests, consecrated religious and laity — continue to pray that we may all receive the graces necessary to remove the barriers that may exist in our lives and in our communities. Everything must fall that keeps us and others from encountering Christ and His Church in its fullness.
The “Welcome Home!” Catholic Conference sponsored by The Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses will be held in Weirton, WV on August 1st -3rd 2008 at The Holiday Inn Hotel and Resort — about 15 minutes from Franciscan University in Steubenville.
The goal of this conference is to:
1. Help support Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who are Catholic.
2. Assist former Jehovah’s Witnesses who are interested in investigating the Catholic Church.
2. Help Catholics who have lost loved ones to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
3. Equip Catholics to effectively deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses both apologetically and socially.
For more information and to register visit www.catholicxjw.com/welcomehomeconference1.html.