Monday, May 11, 2015

New Evangelization: Have you ever been experienced?

It's easy to forget that Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was the post-synodal exhortation for the XIIIth Ordinary Synod of Bishops, held in the autumn of 2012. The subject of this synod was "New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith." It seems to me that this New Evangelization is a subject we often address with a lot of sentimentality and very many good intentions, even while failing to grasp the enormity of the challenge and the only response to this provocation (see "Papa Francesco calls on the Church to emerge").

I read three things recently about the Church in Ireland that, I believe, help us scope out, as it were, the challenge provoking us to the New Evangelization. But before proceeding to those I want to examine our situation in the United States a bit. While there are significant cultural differences between Ireland and the United States, despite the fact that people from the U.S. are often viewed and depicted in Ireland, Great Britain, and Western Europe as naïvely and even gullibly Christian, here, too, Christianity has begun a steep decline. A recent Washington Post piece noted "the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years to about 71 percent." Over the same period "the share of those who are not affiliated with a religion has jumped from 16 percent to about 23 percent ..."

When one factors in the the inability of many Christians in the U.S. to distinguish between being Christian and being "an American," the kind of thing that leads to what Hank Hanegraff refers to as "the Osteenification of American Christianity," a cross-less, often Christ-less variant, it's easy to predict an even steeper decline in the coming years as people realize the hollowness and downright falsity of such a "faith".

As far as Catholicism in the U.S., as anyone who has spent time in pastoral ministry can tell you, like in Ireland and other places, it is not really a way of life to be taken seriously and lived for many people. It's more of a cultural marker for some who come from ethnic backgrounds that are traditionally Catholic, or merely a non-demanding way of identifying one's self when asked, "What religion are you?" Having spent the last 20 years pouring enormous energy into RCIA, I never ceased being amazed at the number of people who went through the lengthy process of becoming Catholic only to quickly lapse into non-practice. The lapsing of converts is not merely a local phenomenon, but a national one.

The first of the three items is a review of Irish writer Lisa McInerney's first novel The Glorious Heresies. It was reviewed by Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph. I have not yet read McInerney's novel, but I certainly plan to do so. I was struck by two things from the novel that Seymenliyska shared in her review. The first is a quote by the character Jimmy Phelan, the boss of Cork's criminal underworld (the city in Ireland in which the novel is set), described in the review "as a wistful Celtic Don Corleone" - "If we lived in a world where good deeds meant anything I’d have played along but this isn’t that kind of world."

The second thing that struck me in the review of The Glorious Heresies was an excerpt from a confession made by Jimmy's mother, Maureen, to a priest. Maureen conceived Jimmy out-of-wedlock and so was exiled, which was often the fate of pregnant young women in Ireland at the time. Her exile left Jimmy to be raised by her "churchy" parents, about whom Seymenliyska, presumably taking her cue from the novel, wrote, turned Jimmy, "born a little cherub out of wedlock... into a veritable monster..." "Times were tough," Maureen tells the priest, "and the people were harsh and the clergy were cruel." She continues, "The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us."

McInerny, who rose to prominence as a blogger (of all things) with her blog Arse­­­ End of Ireland, published an article recently in The Irish Times on Catholicism in contemporary Ireland. This is the second piece that struck me. What she wrote in her article compares favorably with the third piece, which appeared in the Catholic Herald: Jon Anderson's "Post-crash Ireland desperately needs the faith."

McInerny began her piece by pointing out that, according to the 2011 Irish census, 84.2% of people in the Irish Republic "self-identified as Roman Catholic, which would make anyone unfamiliar with our idiosyncrasies assume that we’re a fairly devout bunch." She went on to note curtly, "We are not." She provided a catalogue to support her contention:
Irish people are in favour of divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, IVF, pre-marital sex, the ordination of women priests, Father Ted, and having a few scoops on Good Friday. We also tend to be sceptical of the existence of Hell, the need for celibate clergy, the idea of a virgin birth, transubstantiation, the tenet that we are born in a state of sin, and the assumption that the only way to deal with paedophilic priests is to move them to the next county and hope no one notices
She then proceeded to observe that for her, and a good number of her Irish compatriots, the Church holds nothing but "outdated notions of tradition and creed." Indeed, on 22 May the Irish Republic will hold a national referendum to amend the constitution in order to permit same-sex marriage. What Anderson noted supports McInerny's case: "All the polls are suggesting that the measure will pass easily."

In her newspaper article, McInerny addressed something Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin dealt with several years ago: baptism (see "Archbishop Martin on acting in accord with conscience"). "We want our newborns baptised," she wrote, "but not a hope in Hackballs Cross are we bringing the scamps to Mass. And if we do we’re definitely ducking out as soon as the priest is distracted by Communion formation."

Anderson began his piece by noting that even though the Republic of Ireland has been in a steep economic decline since 2008 and more recently rocked by political corruption scandals that threaten its once-stables government, the Church "has been so battered by its own scandals that it has had little to say on the state of the nation" and, anyway, it is not "clear that the nation wants to listen to it." He noted a 2013 survey indicated that 34% of Catholics in the Irish Republic attend Mass weekly. While this may seem a promising figure in light of the even lower numbers throughout much of Western Europe, it "is in stark contrast to the figures of over 90 per cent in the 1970s." In the Archdiocese of Dublin weekly Mass participation "currently stands at around 18 per cent." But in the poorest parts of the city, "it is much lower still." He cited Archbishop Martin to the effect that some areas weekly attendance at Mass is as low as 2%.

Circling back to Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, we see from the very beginning that above all else the New Evangelization requires repentance, metanoia, a change of heart and mind:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ" (par 2)
The first two sentences of Evangelii Gaudium tell us why the New Evangelization can never be a metericized, corporately-managed, program, or, worse yet, another marketing and/or "branding" enterprise: "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew"(par 1). Joy is what seems to be lacking in the experience of so many when it comes to the Church.

Towards the beginning of Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus caritas, he wrote something else that I think is key: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par 1). In other words, to be "evangelized" is to have an experience. Therefore, only those who have been experienced can be evangelizers. Hearkening back to Von Balthasar's brief exposition of esperienza in Dante's Divine Comedy, which, he asserted, Dante used frequently "oscillating between its ancient meaning of 'mystical experience of God,' the even more ancient Irenaean sense of 'experience of grace through experience in the flesh of its opposite' and a third, new sense - 'experiential exploration of reality' - which looks towards modern times" (The Glory of the Lord, Vol III, 12), we have a sound base on which to build- everyday human experience. Only in this way can we hope to overcome what Anderson observed in his article, namely that many Catholics, not just in Ireland, but also in the U.S., "believe in Jesus in the same way that Hindus believe in Gandhi, as an interesting historical figure who said inspiring things."

Who do I think can serve us well as models for the New Evangelization? I propose Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Jack Kerouac. In addition to Evangelii Gaudium, Johannes Baptist Metz's The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Post-Bourgeois World can serve as a guide for the New Evangelization.

Great, now I want to watch "Father Ted," about which show Will Gore recently wrote for the Catholic Herald:

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