Posted by: frroberts | May 12, 2015

Reverse the Catholic Curse

Sometimes a story is true.  Sometimes a story is just a story.  Sometimes a story is more than just a story.

Fr. Kim Schreck, whom many of you know from our parish mission, is one of my closest priest friends.  I will be visiting him for a couple days this week.  For four years we lived at the North American College in Rome and I have been a frequent visitor of his in Pittsburgh, both in his parishes and at his parents’ home.  During one of my visits we were enjoying espresso and talking about the priesthood at his parents’ house when the doorbell rang.  Fr. Schreck answered.  The people at the door were door to door missionaries from a local Evangelical Church.   Both of us were very casually dressed and did not look at all like priests.

“Come on in,” said Fr. Schreck.  “My name is Kim.  This is my friend, Red.”

I  was grinning because I knew that whatever happened over the next thirty minutes was liable to be very funny.

Fr. Schreck made some espresso as the missionaries began telling us about Jesus and about their church.  We played dumb as we listened to their sales pitch to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior and come to their Sunday worship.   Actually, they had some pretty good things to say.

One of my great faults is that I love to argue.  I put this character defect to good use when I was on the debate team in high school and college.  After fifteen minutes of talking about Jesus, the missionaries began to discuss the importance of belonging to a church community.  I could no longer just play along.

“I really like what you have had to say about Jesus and the Bible,” said I.  “I do have some questions for you, however.”

I began to turn the tables.

“What is the pillar and foundation of all truth for a Christian?” I asked.

The missionaries talked about how in 2 Timothy 3:16 the Bible tells us that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” and how a Christian should read the Bible every day.

“I love reading the Bible.” I responded.  “I do it at least one hour every single day.  But does not 1 Timothy 3:15 say that the Church, not the Bible, is the pillar and foundation of all truth?  Then I proceeded to point out that Jesus founded a Church built on Peter’s confession of faith and that this Church is the Catholic Church.

At this point things started to get a little tense.  One of the missionaries looked at me pointedly and asked, “Are you a Catholic priest?”

I smiled widely and said, “In point of fact, both of us are.”

“Well,” continued the missionary, “that must mean that you are both true believers.”  At which point he opened his Bible up to today’s Gospel and began to read:

These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

After closing his Bible, the missionary pulled a vial out of his pocket filled with clear liquid.  “This bottle is filled with poison.  You say that you are a true believer in Christ.  In fact, you believe that you are a priest of the One,  Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church that Jesus founded on Peter the rock.  If that’s true, you should have no problem drinking this poison.”  The missionary then slid the vial across the kitchen table directly in front of me.

I grew quiet and glanced over at Fr. Schreck.  For about five seconds there was an awkward silence.  Then my brother priest next to me pushed the vial back across the table and began to chuckle audibly.

“I will tell you what.  How about you drink the poison and after it kills you, I can lay my hands on you and raise you from the dead?”

The other missionary looked down at his watch nervously and observed that they needed to be back at their church for a meeting with the head pastor in five minutes and had to go.

Sometimes a story is true.  Sometimes a story is just a story.  Sometimes a story is more than just a story.

Today, on the commemoration of the glorious Ascension of Our Lord, we begin a four-part series of homilies on the Church.  This homily will start by painting the picture of the state of the Catholic Church both in the United States and our parish cluster.  The next three homilies will talk about where we go from here with specific reference to three topics: Spirituality, Eucharist and Fellowship.

As Catholic Christians, we believe that it is our ascended Lord’s will that there be “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.”  In other words, Jesus founded only one Church and that Church is the Catholic Church, His Mystical Body here on earth.  A little over fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council was very clear when it taught that:

the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation…Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (Lumen Gentium, 14)

Let us be clear.  Our Catholic faith is not necessarily that only Catholics go to heaven.  It is that Christ promised the Catholic Church the fullness of the means to salvation.  This teaching is not about condemning others but rather highlighting the great responsibility that each Catholic has to live out the faith and share it with others.

And how are we doing?

Judging from a recent Pew Study that I addressed in today’s bulletin note, we have plenty of room for improvement.  The statistics are sobering.  Almost half of those raised in the Catholic faith have left the Church.  When we look at people under the age of 35, almost 60% stopped identifying themselves as Catholics by the age of 25.  Were it not for immigration from Latin America, our numbers would be plummeting.

If we look at the numbers in our parish cluster, we see a similar trend.  Fifteen years ago in our two parishes, we had over one thousand people on the rolls.  When we send our numbers to the Bishop this fall, we will probably be somewhere between 650 and 700, which will include the influx of Hispanics that has taken place in the last two years.  That is a 30 to 35 percent decrease in just fifteen years.

We are kidding ourselves if we think that our area’s economic woes account for even half of that decrease.  The truth is that we are facing the same decline that is taking place in the rest of the Catholic Church in the United States.

What can we do about it?

This question took center stage during our parish cluster’s strategic planning process two weeks ago when Dr. Ann Roat came from the Bishop’s office to work with me and five other parish leaders on a Friday evening and most of Saturday.  While there were a variety of opinions and points of view, we agreed that our two parishes exist primarily “to devote ourselves to the teaching of Jesus.”   To the extent that we focus on other things than devoting ourselves to the teaching of Jesus, we need to change.

Saint Mary in Union City and Saint Joseph Winchester are not private clubs.  We do not have parish churches to offer a familiar setting for celebrations of births and weddings and mourning deaths of loved ones just as earlier generations in our families did.   We have parish churches to devote ourselves to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

What does devoting oneself to the teaching of Jesus Christ look like?

The best answer that the strategic planning team could reach comes from Acts 2:42’s description of the life of early Christians, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” 

Next we week we will start our discussion with what it means for us to deepen our prayer life and to experience spiritual growth.  We will commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost by looking at our parish cluster’s strategic plan for spiritual growth.

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