A place for disciples not seekers

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I continually wrestle with the fact our parish is not especially seeker-friendly.  I recall how I was as a seeker  30 years ago and recognize I probably would not have come back for a number of reasons:  no women up front; people standing or kneeling to recite prayers in unison from a book (how weird!); and the stress on believing and reciting creeds.

Twenty years ago, when I first started attending Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was ready for all of the above.   At the time, Annunciation permitted a kind of open Communion—if you believed in Real Presence in the Eucharist, you would receive.  I wonder now if I would have continued to attend services at Annunciation if we had the Catholic discipline we have now: that one must be a baptized Catholic in good-standing in order to receive Holy Communion.   I  totally accept this discipline now.  

I was reminded of this by a recent post by Fr. Christopher Phillips on his Atonement Online blog:

Some years ago I had a brief exchange of emails with an Anglican clergyman who lives a little distance away.  It’s an exchange I will always remember. His parish was, I think, part of the American group that had a pastoral relationship with some of the Anglicans in Africa. I don’t really understand all the connections, and I don’t know who’s in communion with whom, but he came across as a very nice man who plainly loves Christ. He was writing to express his interest in talking with me, so I let him know I’d be delighted to see him, and we suggested some possible dates and times.

One of my suggestions was a time right after one of the weekday Masses. “In fact,” I wrote, “perhaps you’d like to come to the Mass, and we can meet right afterwards.” That sounded like a great idea to him, and I thought we were set.

Then I got another email. “Am I ok for Holy Communion?” I knew what he was asking, and I wondered why he would even ask. “Sadly, no,” I wrote back, “I’m a priest under orders, as I know you understand, and I wouldn’t be able to administer Holy Communion to you.”

Here’s what he wrote back: “This is one of the things that stands in the way of real unity – the RCC treats other Christians as though they aren’t really Christians – denying them the Body and the Blood. This is especially problematic in light of the fact that you and I do nearly the same service, and our ordinations share many of the same apostolic roots, along with a common apostolic succession. That’s gotta hurt the cause of Christ in a world that desperately, desperately needs Him.”

In the run-up to our becoming Catholic, we lost some parishioners for the very reason that our discipline around Holy Communion would change.

Fr. Phillips acknowledges maybe he should not have invited the Anglican clergyman to attend Mass.    And one of the reasons why we have choral Evensong a couple of times a month is that it offers an opportunity for us to invite people to our parish to experience the beauty of our liturgy without telling them, oh, uh, please do not go forward to receive Holy Communion.  We also have wine and cheese in the parish hall afterwards for fellowship.

This spring, I attended the New Evangelization Summit, and Fr. James Mallon, spoke on the necessity of throwing out those old things that have not worked in attracting new people.  He is the founder of the Divine Renovation: from maintenance to mission movement that is based on his experience transforming a parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, using Alpha, small group ministry and providing opportunities for people to have a spiritual encounter with Christ before undergoing catechesis.  Fr. Mallon recognizes many new Christians are not ready for sacraments, so he advises they be brought into “connect groups” where they receive further teaching and mentoring to prepare them.

I wondered, if Fr. Mallon would tell us we should throw out our liturgy, our hymn books, our thees and thous because that’s the reason people aren’t lining up around the corner to get into our Mass on Sunday.   (To this day, frankly, it astonishes me that they are not lining up, but I digress).

Recently, I had a conversation with a Roman Catholic priest who used to celebrate our liturgy for us during the period after our parish was received into the Catholic Church in April 2012 until the first of our former clergy was ordained as a Catholic priest in early 2013.  He loved our liturgy and ordered our missal when it was published.   I spoke about my concern about our lack of a shallow end; that we are not seeker-friendly as such.

Your parish is a disciples’ church, he said.

Not every parish is meant to be for seekers, offering milk, I realize.   Our parish offers meat, and nourishes and equips us to go out into the world in a range of different apostolates from medicine, to teaching, to public service to vocations of marriage and family.

I remember the first few times I attended Annunciation.   It was a small community, and the average age was much older than it is now, but what made me want to stay was the beauty of the Mass and the reverence of the priests, especially Bishop Robert Mercer, in the way they honored Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.   Holiness attracted me.  Theology conveyed in the ballet of genuflection that imparted a sense of being lifted to the worship of heaven attracted me.  Oddly enough, two friends who I introduced to the parish around that time on separate occasions had the same experience and became members in short order.

My Roman Catholic priest friend said we need to do a better job of getting the word out.  I am looking forward to doing that once I have retired from journalism later this year.

 

 

2 thoughts on “A place for disciples not seekers

  1. Oddly enough, I am so old I can remember when the Episcopal Church practised closed Communion! It was their abandonment of that in the 70s tha – added to the Ordination of Women – was cited by many for leaving it. It was seen as a sign that they had lost the Catholic sense of teh Eucharist!

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  2. This post is asking some very good questions. As a church, we must always seek the ways of renewal under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that inevitably raises the question of whether a status quo that evolved in a different time, under different circumstances, is the right approach now, in the current situation.

    But let’s back up a step. When we enter the church, we’re taught to dip our fingers into the waters of baptism and form the sign of the cross, accompanied by the unspoken words “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” — which come directly from the formula of the sacrament of baptism. The first words of the mass, after the hymn or psalm and antiphon that accompany the entrance procession, are those very same words taken from the very same source. This is quite deliberate — we gather to celebrate the Eucharist precisely because we are baptized into the death and resurrection of our risen Lord (see Romans 6:3-4). The ancient custom is to dismiss those who are not yet baptized from the assembly after the recitation of the creed, before the General Intercessions — and the rubrics in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) still explicitly provide for this. This very practice is the reason why the General Intercessions are often also called the “Prayers of the Faithful” — only the faithful (that is, those who are baptized) remain present at that point in the liturgy.

    Indeed, this practice embodies a major difference between the liturgical tradition of the Catholic tradition and the Evangelical Protestant tradition. In the Evangelical Protestant tradition, the central element of the service is the sermon — and it’s directed primarily to unbelievers and seekers who have not yet come to Christian faith. Current Catholic practice evolved in medieval Europe, where pretty much everybody was baptized soon after birth and catechized as children, and thus presumed to be faithful believers — which obviously is not exactly the situation of the current day here in North America. Rather, we have many neighbors who are completely unchurched and many more who, though nominally Catholic, are uncatechized or whose catechesis is woefully deficient and thus see nothing wrong with promiscuous or deviant lifestyles of worldly pleasure that are completely contrary to Christian faith. There’s no doubt whatsoever that our approach to ministry must adapt to the needs of the present situation. In particular, we need to recover the church’s mission of evangelism and institute substantive programs of spiritual formation for our members.

    In this regard, I echo what Pope John Paul II pointed out in his last homily on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord — that, in all four gospels, our Lord’s baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, and that this fact says something very profound about the significance of our own baptism that far too many have missed. But I digress.

    The question is how best to respond to the present situation. I’m not convinced that there’s a “one size fits all” solution that every parish or mission can adopt, but there are several critical elements in a comprehensive plan.

    >> 1. We need to institute ongoing formation based upon the concept of discipleship for all of our members that will bring our marginal members to a real commitment of faith and equip all of our members to evangelize the unchurched. (Evangelical Protestant denominations tend to be very good at this, and I’m not above taking lessons.)

    >> 2. We need to institute programs of evangelization and formation of the unchurched in every parish. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (“RCIA”) is the ideal framework for this.

    >> 3. And, tragically, there are too many dioceses in which the first step of the process must be to remove clergy who are unfit from ministry, at least until their deficiencies are corrected (and, in some cases, permanently). Of course, this requires identification of replacements or substitutes who can fill the void….

    JTOL, it might not be a bad idea to institute something analogous to an Evangelical Protestant service and fellowship hour to which members of a parish can invite their unchurched friends, perhaps even moving Sunday mass to a late afternoon evening time slot so the evangelical hour could be on Sunday morning. However, the fundamental nature of the mass as a gathering of believers is not going to change.

    Norm.

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