We See Differently When We Change Our Focus

When I began my blog now many years ago, I was inspired by lines from T.S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding –  For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.

I was convinced we needed to change how we observe and speak about our cultural and church experiences. That need is just as true today as it was back then. I am not so certain I have always done a good job moving ahead with another voice but I continue my reflection and efforts.

A few days ago, in fact, in a discussion with friends about contemporary church issues, it stuck me how easily we can slip into simply repeating the same old stuff we have been saying again and again. That is just reiterating “last year’s words.” Older people do that. But younger people as well. We all need to change the conversation. Changing the conversation requires a new focus – a changed perspective – about what is really important.

Since the 1990s, large numbers of U.S. Americans have left Christianity to join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” The Catholic Church has lost the most members in the unchurching process. According to Gallup the percentage of Catholics who say they are a “member” of a church has dropped by nearly 20 points since the year 2000.

The conversation? The perspective? In November 2021 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a three year Eucharistic revival initiative, which will culminate with a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in 2024. The goal is to have 80,000 people or more at the national congress. The revival includes the development of new teaching materials, the training of diocesan and parish leaders, the launch of a revival website, and the deployment of a special team of 50 priests who will travel the country to preach about the Eucharist. So far the price tag is $28,000,000.

The U.S. bishops were shaken by the revelation that only about 30% of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence. One of the patron saints for their Eucharistic revival is the Spanish bishop, Manuel González García (1877 – 1940), who was known as the “Bishop of the Tabernacle.” He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. Garcia described Jesus calling to Catholics from the tabernacle: “Are you going to come for a visit? Will you look at me? Will you spend time with me?” 

Is the Catholic Eucharistic revival a good contemporary focus? The  bishops believe that, by emphasizing the Real Presence in the consecrated bread, fallen-away Catholics will be brought back to church. I would rather see our bishops emphasizing the Eucharistic community, gathered around the Table of the Lord as a compassionate and supportive group of caring friends. In Eucharistic celebrations, they – we – are encouraged and sustained by the presence of the Lord as Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.” 

Changing the conversation, I suggest, means looking at and questioning past and present in new ways and developing new strategies and new patterns for church life. For today and for tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking deeper questions. It means last year’s words don’t necessarily work today, when they are locked in last year’s mentality and language.

Some proposals for contemporary refection and action: 

(1) Look less at the church as an institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? What does it mean for you to experience God today? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the women and men in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? My wife and I once belonged to a parish like that. We met in small groups in our homes for prayer meetings, Bible study, and discussion groups. Our son, like all the children in our parish, made his first communion in our home with the local neighborhood parish group. Later all first communicants gathered in church with the entire parish community for their solemn first communion celebration. We all recalled the early Christian household communities in which the heads of the households – women and men — presided over informal Eucharistic liturgies. We can make it happen again.

(2) Look deeper than the shortage of priests and the questions about women deacons and priests. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have qualified graduate students, with short-term ordained ministry, helping out in university parishes? Why not ordain women and men for small or large group parish ministry? Perhaps a parish could have many part-time ordained ministers who also have “regular” jobs? In the past fifteen years, many “progressive” seminaries have been closed by conservative retro-minded bishops. Are today’s seminaries in touch with contemporary life? Perhaps such old-style seminaries are not the best structures for the formation and education of contemporary ministers?

(3) And why not elect diocesan leaders for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms for bishops, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? In fact, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical leadership responsibilities to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (woman or man) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared ministry and decision-making is great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4) Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of knowledge and belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. More likely dark brown. What about all of those very white, blue-eyed, and rather androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was Jesus God? Early Hebrew Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. They understood Jesus as the revelation of God’s graciousness and love. The revelation of God’s intimate link with humankind. Didn’t Jesus reveal as well authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our religious language tries to point to his uniqueness. The most important thing we do know about Jesus is that his ministry and his message was about love and compassion and not at all about power over people. 

(5) Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t, for example, ordained ministry “valid” in all Christian traditions?  What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? The goal of ecumenical collaboration today must be forgetting the old denigrating stereotypes of “other churches” and growing in our respect and appreciation for “the other” and learning from all traditions. 

(6) Seven sacraments. Today we know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the Christian community not the historical Jesus. I have just written a little book about this. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers really “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official witness. OK, so what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? In earlier days non-ordained people did most of the anointing of the sick for centuries. Maybe today’s lay ministers should just start doing it? 

(7) Moving beyond the old worn-out on-and-on discussion. It is time to act. Changing the conversation can also mean moving from conversation to change. And we must realize today that change rarely comes from the top. In the RCC tradition, for example, change starts at the grassroots level. People see the need and make the change. Women’s ordination is a good example. The change begins. Institutional leaders at the top complain and condemn. Nevertheless, the old pattern is proven historically: change is made; change is condemned by leadership; change endures; leadership allows the change as a limited “experiment;” change becomes more widespread; and finally leadership allows it as “part of our tradition.” 

These are just a few thought-starters… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life, because it brings a new focus, new conversation, and a new change. 

27 thoughts on “A New Focus and a New Conversation

  1. Much appreciate your ideas. The issue is: how to make them a reality? There will not be much sympathy from Rome! Maybe we have to begin ourselves- but trying always to keep in communion with the wider church!

    1. Many thanks Mary. Yes. And we need groups of supportive friends. Right now fir example, LGBTQ advocates say that while many Catholic secondary schools are working to support students, there is still a harmful trend of new diocesan-approved policies or guidelines on gender identity and sexual orientation. Parents and teachers need to collaborate.
      Jack

  2. I greatly admire the contemplation, study and effort you have made for so many years on ways to preserve and revitalize Catholicism. Your guidance on the ways to do this are nothing short of brilliant. The future is another matter.

  3. Thanks, Jack, for all your questions. These are great discussion starters on what it means to be church in our modern world, what it means to carry on as Jesus would if he were here. While the bishops’ Eucharistic focus would turn our sights backwards, your words lead us in the present and point us towards the future. Like Betty, I so appreciate your scholarship, teaching, and dedication to developing the larger Christian message for the world. May you continue for many years!

  4. Thank you, Jack, once again for not only focusing on a real issue, but providing a path forward to facilitate examination of key items associated therewith. There might be an opportunity to differentiate between unity and uniformity. You allude to this in your remarks connected with ecumenical expressions, but it might be a whole topic for another post. Continue with your excellent work! You have so much to offer.

  5. Thanks, Jack, for a refreshing (and progressive) look at what Catholicism could be — from my Protestant perspective, by someone (me) who spent his last two years of high school at Jesuit preparatory school. That experience changed my life. Since graduation, I have spend life on a journey toward Progressive Christianity.

  6. John, I appreciate your creativity. One clarification I would make is your statement that bishops were concerned that Catholics do not believe in the “real presence” anymore. I think what the results of the polls concluded is that many Catholics do not believe in the teaching of bishops re transubstantiation. That poll also used the image of symbol and as you know symbolic presence is also real presence. Eucharistic presence is sacramental presence and that means under signs of bread and wine. That can readily be presented as “real presence”, just not transubstantiation. As a former professor of sacramental theology, it upsets me at the lack of clarity and nuance of the US bishops and many of their followers.
    Perhaps my point fits in with your point that we need to look at things differently, including the language we use regarding sacramental presence. Peace, Louie

  7. Thank you for your refreshing thoughts and ideas regarding a real renewal of our Church. my husband and I have talked at great length about some of the very ideas that you are expressing so beautifully. They make so much more sense and sound like they are truer to the mission of Jesus than what we have been doing for so many years. People have been leaving the church in droves . It’s not really about the church it’s about faith in Jesus Christ. And living the way he wants us to live. I think in the past we have been mistaken as a church but then people were different in the past. In today’s world our people are more educated and able to think for themselves and question the rigid rules and standards. I think your ideas are amazing and will release throw open the doors and windows of the church to welcome more people into the arms of Christ. Thank you so much!

  8. Your thoughts are very provocative as is your blog! After much study and discernment I have concluded that the bottom line for Jesus was the Golden rule and Loving “God” with your whole mind, heart, and soul. I see no need for anything else except one’s own spiritual well-being which should bear much fruit in service and ministry to others. We must consider the sciences as explanations for the universe and our world- psychology, the neurosciences, biology and genetics explain how and why humans behave the way they do. Sin and Grace are human constructs that empower the few in charge and contribute to fear and guilt for the rest. More at another time. I would like to have a conversation with you at your pleasure.

  9. Oh, Jack, I love this so. Such wish there was a a RCC near me where something like this was a possibility. Alas, with our Kalamazoo Diocesan priests being trained at the Detroit Seminary, all we seem to get are those who would prefer to turn the altar back around and have all Masses in Latin again. Ugh! When I sing at funerals, in our parish, the safest time for me is just before Communion, when our priests always feel the need to slap the non-Catholic mourners in the face by telling them they are non welcome at the Lord’s Table because they don’t believe in the Real Presence. Sometimes they are invited to come forward for “a blessing” by crossing their arms across their chests to indicate. Such Christian behavior! Again, Ugh!

    1. So sorry for the typos. I really need to proofread before posting.
      Second sentence “Sure wish . . .”
      “When I sing at funerals, the “saddest “ time for me . . .”
      “They are “not” . . . Rather than “non”

    2. Pat Squires – thank you for your remarks. I went to daily mass on Tuesday at GVSU’s St Luke University Parish – and for the first time, I saw our new, young pastor celebrate the Eucharistic Prayer – ad orientem – although he was actually facing WEST not EAST. I was dumbfounded by this throwback to my childhood – only to top it off with the final song sung in Latin (I don’t believe there were more than five people in the congregation who had a clue what was being said).
      What is our institutional church’s fascination with worshiping in a language rooted in a people who assisted in the sadistic murder of Jesus, the cruel and heartless martyring of Christians, the oppression and killing of countless non-Romans, etc. There is no way Jesus turned His back on the people He was thanking God with during a meal or that He prayed in the language of his oppressors. God and St John XXIII must be shedding tears.

  10. Dear Jack,

    I lunched this week with the senior retired priest in our diocese. He is a “Vatican II” progressive and is admired far and wide for his gifted oratory, his realistic understanding of true spirituality, and his thoughtful and challenging expectations for the laity to live meaningful Christianity. In short, he is what we all want from our priests. He said that about six years after ordination, several of his colleagues left the priesthood disillusioned with what they were expected to do as priests. He then surprised me with his admission that he, too, “left” the priesthood, but that he never stopped being a priest. He simply followed the Spirit to minister to God’s people in a way that enabled them to live as true Christians. What strikes me most about your words today is that he lives his priesthood as you are describing in your vision for the future church.

    Of all the pieces you have published, this is a blueprint for a truly inclusive, inviting, inspirational Catholic/Christian community. It brings hope that we can truly experience a world of love and harmony without having to simply follow rules, formulas, and procedures that define us as “good Catholics.” I am, with your permission, sending him a hard copy of your words for his reaction and comments. I am sure that he will be most impressed by your analysis of how to “reconstruct” our stodgy, entrenched, and narrow visioned institutional church. I dearly hope that I will be around to see that your vision will be turned into action and transform us into a Christian community in the truest sense.

    Thanks again, dear friend, for touching us with the truth.

    Peace,
    Frank

  11. Thank you, Jack – oh, how I wish that I could find a group of Catholic Christians to continue this discussion.

  12. Most surveys about fallen away Catholics that I have seen draw the conclusion that it was unkind actions by clergy or fellow parishioners that caused the breach. Eg, hierarchical collusion in CSA ( clerical sex abuse) or unwillingness to accept families with sexual minority members.
    So how are more 40 hour Devotions or web seminars about dogma or doctrine supposed to remedy the situation??
    I would like to see a requirement or at least 2 years of weekly 5 hrs of community service for any candidates to seminary!! That way, they have internalized the notion of service better thzn all the courses on “filioque” disputes !!

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