Living Virtues for Pre-Evangelization: Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

Have you ever witnessed a sporting event where a tremendously skilled team or player makes an amazing play–but blundered on the “easy” part?

Think of a baseball player who hits a home run, and then misses tagging second base. Or, a basketball team that executes the perfect in-bounds play to sink an easy layup with one second left on the clock–only to discover that the player in-bounding the ball had her foot on the line. Or, a football team that returns a kickoff for a touchdown in overtime, and then has the big touchdown called off, because twelve players were on the field.

Touching second base. Keeping one’s foot behind the out-of-bounds line. Having the correct number of players on the field. These are the “easy” things, yet when taken up in the excitement and challenge of something much greater, we can fumble on the simple things.

Evangelization can be the same way. In recent decades we’ve seen renewal only the Holy Spirit could work, as phrases like “intentional discipleship” and “relationship with Jesus” have become the typical talk of many ministry leaders. More and more Catholics in North America are experiencing Cursillos, Alphas, ChristLife, and other experiences that facilitate encounter with Jesus and encourage disciples to become missionary–sent to transform the world.

Yet, the simple things–like talking to others with a genuine interest in their lives, not merely in order to share our own interests–can become inadvertently overlooked. And it’s a reasonable mistake. My head can become so filled with all of the “big” things I need to do to evangelize, that I forget to live out those simpler attitudes or actions.

Fr. James Martin’s 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, offers an example of unpacking some of those seemingly “easy” habits of attitude. Fr. Martin’s focus comes specifically from the Church’s exhortation to accept those with “homosexual tendencies” “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2358). His reflections offer concrete examples applying these virtues to relationships between the “institutional” church (i.e. clergy and those in official positions) and LGBT communities.

Fr. Martin’s method of unpacking a short, catechetical exhortation to accept others “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” also has wider applications in our mission as evangelizers that can powerfully impact both our relationships with those we seek to evangelize and our fellow laborers in the vineyard.  For example:

Respect

Fr. Martin’s method is to go word-by-word, starting with respect. He asks what this word we so often toss around means, concretely–in practice. He reflects that respect includes recognizing, naming, and becoming aware of the gifts of others. More broadly, this is a reminder that in evangelization, it’s not about sitting around developing amazing pastoral plans or apologetic rhetoric while waiting for “them” to become suddenly interested in “us.” No. Just as God takes the initiative to know each of us, personally–we as evangelizers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” must take the initiative in showing respect to the “others” in our lives and communities (2 Cor 5:20). We are also called to prayerfully and respectfully listen to our bishops, especially when they challenge us to a blind spot, or elements of the Catholic faith we find to be less intuitively important or interesting. In the Disciple of Christ- Education in Virtue series developed by the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, our actions of respect flow from the Holy Spirit’s gift of piety as we cooperate to cultivate the human virtue of justice in our own lives.

Compassion

Compassion is another term it’s easy to toss around as we move on to more “advanced” evangelistic plans, but worthy of reflection to avoid hitting that home run but forgetting to step on second base. Compassion, as Fr. Martin highlights, is about experiencing with, even suffering with or standing with another in difficult times. Genuine listening, engagement with others, and asking questions are the concrete, ordinary ways others come to experience true compassion through relationships with us. Anna Keating’s elderly neighbor at the start of her recent essay, “The Perfect Family is an Idol,” models compassion (and sensitivity, more on that later). Compassion also means seeing church leaders “in the context of their complicated duties” as we work together to grow missionary disciples in our parishes and dioceses (p. 58). As the Education in Virtue series points out, compassion goes hand-in-hand with kindness.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity sometimes comes across as an abstract, intellectual outlook–to be “sensitive” to someone else’s thoughts. This misses the deeper, harder meaning–that sensitivity is about another person and their feelings, their very self. As Fr. Martin observes, “it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance” (p. 40). As evangelizers, this means living a virtuous life with basic affability, so that reasonable people would want to have us in their lives as friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, and experience comfort in sharing feelings with us. Sensitivity as evangelizers also means taking responsibility to consider who is speaking and how they are speaking in our relationships with those who labor in the same vineyard.

Friendship
Image: Kleinefotografie, CC BY 2.0

In conclusion, remember that respect, compassion, and sensitivity are certainly not the only simple things that are easy to forget when we’re (for good reasons!) enthusiastically caught up in the desire to be one with Jesus Christ, reaching out with his Gospel to the whole world. As individuals with unique gifts, we also have unique weaknesses, and some fruits and virtues might be harder for me to model than for you.

Though written with children in mind, the Education in Virtue series of reflections unpacking the human virtues is a rich resource for going further, asking how am I called to embody human virtues in a way most fruitful as an evangelizing missionary disciple.  Where am I called to grow? so that my stumbling in the little things does not hobble the good desires God has placed within me to be part of His larger vision of evangelization. How am I to live virtuously, so that when the Holy Spirit “hits a home run” that I cooperate with, I don’t forget to “tag second base” along the way 🙂

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Designed For (Not Merely Accommodating) Families

According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 42% of American households include children age 18 or younger. Depending on where exactly you live, the number may be higher or lower, but even with variation, this is a significant proportion of the population that many local churches would love to serve and retain as growing members of a church community.

Design
Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

Yet, in many churches, things aren’t designed with parents (single or married) in mind. We aim to accommodate families of all shapes and sizes–but even best accommodation can feel just like that, an exception or compromise that still doesn’t leave families with children feeling like this was really designed for them, that they belong here.

 

What might designing for parents look like?

Some visioning…

In a Parent-Friendly Church…

Preparation for Baptism of Infants

is an opportunity to connect parents, especially new parents, to a community for belonging. It’s not a one-time “instruction” of information for parents to passively listen to, with few intentional opportunities on-going connection to others.

Mass

is a privileged place of formation and encounter with the Lord for parents–something parents can be richly nourished from so that they can be the primary catechists and witnesses within their own families. Parents can choose to have children worship with them at Mass or be engaged in an age-appropriate way elsewhere. No parent should experience Mass with children as a burden that requires them to focus so much on keeping young toddlers quiet in the pew that they cannot first and foremost be taken up fully into the liturgy themselves. Mass is also not something that parents need to drag older children to or placate them about Mass being “boring” because homilies are designed for adults, not older children. Mass is a joy and refreshment for the entire family.

Places for Families During Worship

are inviting, child-friendly spaces–not “cry rooms” where visibility for young [=short] children is limited, seating is designed for adults, and the means for a child to be engaged are oftenfewer than in the pews.  

Scheduling

is designed to give families maximum time together, so that parents can be witnesses to a joyful Christian life and have the time to pray and engage in catechesis within their families. This means offering opportunities at a lower frequency, in ways that involve parents/family, on multiple days per week, and with intentional overlap of offerings for different ages to minimize disruption.

The Entire Parish (Not Just Parents) Serves Children

In this, parents feel the love of the Christian community surrounding them with support, rather feeling that they must be the VBS, catechesis, and childcare volunteers all the time (simply because they have children). 

Parents Have Real Ownership in Children’s Initiation

A parent’s discernment of a child’s readiness to receive a sacrament of initiation or participate in the sacrament of reconciliation has an ordinary place in parent life. This cultivates a perception of partnership and emphasizes the empowerment given uniquely to parents through the sacrament of marriage and the Holy Spirit.

Major Parish Events

are designed from the start with the outlook a large proportion of the target audience has children, and that these families want to attend. Design includes content, location, and scheduling.

Service Opportunities

are offered not only for adults, but for families–both internal and external to the parish.

Ongoing Discipleship Paths

are as obvious and convenient for adults with children as they are for others. Adult discipleship paths are designed to synchronize with the schedules and needs of parents with children.

Catechesis for Children

doesn’t feel like something parents have to force reluctant children to attend because it feels like another school classroom to them.

Locations Matter

Driving takes time. Families in many parts of the U.S. don’t all live near the parish. In a parent-friendly parish, off-campus locations near where families live are utilized to reduce transportation time/burden on families.

Okay, this is just the start of painting a vivid picture of designing for families, in contrast to merely “accommodating” families as an afterthought to our events, schedules, and parish systems. What would you add to the list? 

Pre-Evangelization Inklings: Tough Mudder

Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?

Indeed. Why?

From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community.  As he explains, Tough Mudder events,

“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”

Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.

This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. An inherent world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship? Share your thoughts and experiences!

Tough Mudder
Image by zapmole756 via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0

 

Alpha Recipe Deep Dive: Meal and Conversation

Don’t mess with the Alpha recipe. 

If you’re gearing up to run Alpha, I hope you’ve heard that message. It’s an important one. Don’t tinker with the Alpha recipe. Don’t think that your situation is “special” and people don’t need open conversation, time for a meal, or shallow-entry music, etc.

But why? What’s so special about a meal? About open conversation without “teaching”?

  • A meal is hospitality, plain and simple: whether catered or home-cooked it’s giving of one’s own resources to others, requiring nothing in return.
  • For many in the U.S., meals are inconvenient…a burden of time and coordination that seems a bridge too far for many or an implied pressure. By providing this, we’re giving nourishment beyond the physical.
  • A meal and conversation is credibility…it’s saying I’m willing to sacrifice time (something of peak value in our culture!) to simply be with you.
  • It’s face-to-face. It’s a level playing field. Many people, due to past hurts and barriers, will never experience the sanctuary or Mass this way [at least at first!]
  • Teaching says, “I know” (and you don’t). Conversation says, all of our experiences matter. And this isn’t fake. To God, all of our experiences do matter. God wants to gather up and redeem them all in Him!
Dinner party table decoration
by Elin via Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/8ZFQAR)

Peter and Paul: Conversion Models

Today we celebrate two great missionaries–Peter and Paul. Often when we talk about conversion in the Christian life, there can be almost a rivalry between the idea of our life-changing conversion as a particular moment (i.e. I remember  on such-and-such date, praying to Jesus with my whole heart and soul, for the first time, telling Him I was ready to be his disciple) or a process that happens over time in a way that we can’t really pinpoint a date or even month when it happened. A “this” or “that competition between moment and process, however, is plain ridiculous. But, it’s a temptation we Christians seem to be prone to!

The lives of Peter and Paul give us examples of both.

When the divine voice speaks to Paul in Acts Ch 9, Paul responds, “who are you?”

Now, Paul had never been on a “quest” for God. He may have been like many of us, raised up in a religious setting (for him the Pharisee revival within Judaism), always remembering praying, worshiping in Temple, etc. Yet, at this moment he hears God speak through his Son, and asks who are you? Paul knew the voice of God enough (from his life of prayer) to know this was God–and yet still had this new question, who are you?

Paul remembers this specific date and time. He speaks of it again and again to others. It’s a touch point for him. A concrete, real experience of conversion that gives his life a new and definitive trajectory that he doesn’t waver from. Paul gains a sense of his specific calling and mission, and an understanding of where God’s plan is headed, that God will be gathering the scattered of all the earth–even the Gentiles!–into one family.

Looking at Peter’s life, we see more of a process of conversion into God’s plan for us to be missionary disciples to all the world. Peter encounters Jesus, recognizes his own unworthiness, and follows Jesus as Lord early on (Lk 5:1-11). Later, Peter stands out among the Twelve, making a clear confession of Jesus as Messiah–the Savior sent of God (Mt 16:16). Yet, Peter falters from his discipleship, strays from following Jesus most profoundly in this three denials leading up to Jesus’ saving death on the cross. Peter repents and returns to Jesus’ love, however, and through this on-going process of conversion starts to grasp the breadth and depth of truly missionary discipleship. Of how far God’s love is meant to go. Of the Twelve, Peter is the one who hears God’s communication of how non-Jews are to become part of God’s family. While praying before lunch one day, Peter hears a divine voice say: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15).  And he doesn’t know what to make of it. But, as Peter continues to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead, it becomes clear. God’s plan is for a radically open discipleship that can even include the “unclean” Gentiles! Peter goes on to passionately advocate for this stance of missionary discipleship between the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). And yet, Peter pulls back from this missionary discipleship later on, as we hear from Paul that Peter “began to draw back and separate himself” from Gentiles (Gal 2:12). Nonetheless, Peter recovers. Again 🙂 and goes on to participate in God’s mission fully, even to the point of giving his own life. Peter offers us a vivid and authentic portrait of conversion as a process.

The important thing for Peter, for Paul, and for each of us, is that our conversion to becoming a disciple of Christ happen. And that once we follow Jesus as Lord, we become fully open to his Holy Spirit, leading us to be missionary disciples in the world around us. There’s no need to think our conversion more or less “real” than any other believer’s, so long as we know the love of God and know of our relationship with Him and the mission God empowers us for.

Petrus et Paulus
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., cc-by-nc-2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/4NBuEa

 

Resource Review: “Living as Missionary Disciples”

Have you ever wanted a CliffNotes version of doing evangelization in parish life? Look no further. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently released the leadership resource Living as Missionary Disciples, a rich, yet concise, guide to the theological foundations of evangelization that includes a practical framework for understanding the process and fundamental planning questions all of the baptized must ask if we are to participate in renewing the entire Church in North America, and turning from a maintenance to missionary way of life.

What is evangelization all about in our modern American setting?

“The New Evangelization is a call for all of us to have a deeper encounter with Christ, best expressed in a simple, confident, informed, and joyous witness to the faith, which attracts others and invites them to wonder what secret is motivating the Christian disciple” (p. 7).

The necessary first step is encounter. Our faith journeys take many forms and routes. Each of us proceeds at various “speeds” throughout our life–sometimes drifting or disinterested, sometimes feeling like we’re stalled, and other times on fire with zeal. But whatever our journey, a moment of personal encounter with Jesus as Lord and Savior must happen. And that encounter propels the rest, grounds us throughout all else that follows as a believer becomes a disciple, and a disciple becomes a missionary–one who is sent into the world.

The heart of being sent in this way is captured succinctly in our quote above–sending has been effective when others are attracted and wonder what that something is that makes the Christian believer tick. If what we think is encounter is parish life is not producing that authentically confident and joyful “witness to the faith” that does indeed “attract” and inspire curiosity, then we should wonder what’s going wrong. We should wonder God might be calling us to do, to participate in transforming our parishes from maintenance to mission.

catechetical-sunday-2017-clip-art-web-posterThe Good News is that Jesus is our Friend and Brother, always welcoming each of us when we choose to “come and see” (Jn 1:46). When we encounter Him we are empowered to follow (Mt 9:9), remain (Jn 15:4), and go on to make disciples of others (Mt 28:19).

What Living as Missionary Disciples succeeds in keeping at the forefront is that, “the goal of the New Evangelization…is always geared toward others” (p. 8). If there’s no outward flow, we should be concerned. The New Evangelization is not merely a spiritual reality–something interior that fails to impact the material world around us. No, our evangelized, transformed lives are meant to provoke curiosity and inspire desire for more in others.

If you’re not enthusiastically certain that your parish is setting the conditions for truly living as missionary disciples in our world, start the conversation this summer. Share Living as Missionary Disciples, and if you’re a leader in any way, shape, or form, check out these worksheets to spur discussion with key volunteers. The movement from maintenance to mission in your part of the world might begin with your parish.

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?