Mission to places “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” is a defining aspect of the call to a New Evangelization, spoken of by Popes for over three decades (Redemptoris Missio, 33). While we often speak broadly of the people we are sent to in this mission field–our friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, and acquaintances among them–there’s indeed a tremendously diverse spectrum of “lost” and “sense of the faith.”
Bishop Robert Barron, summarizing one of his professors, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, observes:
with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form
These “odd and distorted” forms are in many cases the why and the what of a lost sense of the living faith. People lose a living sense of the faith because they only perceive or experience an odd or distorted notion of it. On a secondary level, as a person goes through the process of losing faith (even if an odd and distorted set of beliefs) the people around them are not likely to reach out to them with the true, radically Good News that grounds and founds the fullness of the meaning of Jesus Christ and his call to follow him as disciples, if those people also have an odd or distorted sliver of the Good News.
Curtis Martin of FOCUS ministries often recalls that when asking Catholic young adults, “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” the overwhelming response was, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” I heard Martin speak a few months ago at my own Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly and he explained further, that for many young adults, it was as if the deposit of faith was like a shinny, new, fully accessorized SUV. They could get in it, and maybe even coast a little down hills. It was so much that could seem so good.
As a Millennial myself, I think this makes sense for many in my generation. We’ve never had a strongly enforced cultural/institutional religion to rebel against (as many Baby Boomers seemed to). We certainly have lived in a world where a crumbling idea of the common good and various social compacts has contributed to human suffering. We’re caricatured sometimes as “non-committal,” yet the flip-side of that is openness, curiosity, and a willingness to explore new beliefs and ways of living. In short, the image of being behind the wheel of a brand new SUV works for the experience of many emerging young adults when it comes to encountering Catholicism as an adult.
However, here’s where the problem comes. At some point, that downhill incline ends. Rolling along in this great SUV comes to a halt. The driver has to get out, and start to push that SUV–maybe even up a hill, maybe push just to keep it from rolling backwards! In Martin’s words, this is because the driver had never been given keys to the ignition. Even the shiniest car can become a burden when the engine’s not running. A SUV without a running engine is a distortion of what a vehicle is meant to do.
So, what of other situations, especially in non-Millennial generations? There’s as much diversity within generations as between, but here are some adaptations of Martin’s SUV metaphor to describe some of the incomplete or distorted notions I’ve observed while while teaching Catholic adults:
- Pushing a lightweight sub-compact around. This person is in shape. They’ve been pushing around a lightweight sub-compact car for years. They can make the car move, and that’s good, because in their mind, you gotta do the moving to get to heaven. Most everyone around them is moving too–no matter what they’re driving (or walking, or biking). Except for those few maniacs who deliberately wreck their vehicle in spectacular ways (think mass murderers). Everyone’s pretty much earning heaven by being a basically good, moral, and civic-minded person. And they stop and think about it, “heaven” isn’t even really the point, it’s being a good person now that matters.
- Driving a hideously ugly car. This person is aware of how hideously ugly their car is. In fact, that’s kind of what makes it the right car to be driving. They put keys in the ignition and drive this ugly whale of a car around as if under daily orders to do so. Because the car is just so ugly and clunky, they assume the car’s manufacturer is like a rigid military commander–out to “catch” them not following orders if they don’t drive. They worry that even by following the car manufacturer’s orders, they’ll never please him. But, they drive on nonetheless, because Hell is awful and any driver turning the ignition key could accidentally end up there. You can never tell with car manufacturers.
- Cruising in a reliable sedan. This person loves their sedan. The values. The smell. The familiar dashboard. The owner’s manual in the glove compartment. The eternal reliability. The way other sedan drivers behave on the road. Yeah, maybe things were better when more people drove sedans, but nonetheless, the sedan is still the the only car that’s got it all. This person is exited to learn more and more about their sedan, even tips to show off the best of the interior design. They’d welcome anyone who wanted to take a ride, but that doesn’t happen very often because the invitation, “Sedan driving has the best sedan-values and best sedan rewards program” doesn’t seem to attract many passengers.
Now, all of these are metaphorical caricatures–all images “limp” at some point (as Barbara Morgan so often notes in her talks) and when it comes to evangelization of any type, “never accept, a label in place of a story” (Sherry Weddell). But, if these sketches ring a bell for you in terms of naming the wide range of the “baptized” that are an audience of the New Evangelization, I encourage you to dig deeper in your own setting. My list is not exhaustive, and may not fit your setting at all.
Really think about the audiences of baptized you’re trying to reach–what makes each unique? What unique theological affinities or distortions might each be prone to? What connects each group to the Church to begin with at this point in their lives? This process of imagining the baptized “lost” in your mission field (i.e. one example from Church of the Nativity) paves the way for being able to not only “smell like the sheep” (as Pope Francis exhorts pastors) but think like the sheep, and only then design your strategy accordingly. As Jonathan Sullivan has explained, there’s no such thing as “average” catechesis. And the same goes for the New Evangelization, especially when it comes to the audience of the baptized.