Margaret and I returned home last night [Saturday, July 23] from a ten-day reunion with her family and sightseeing time in the lower Hudson Valley, primarily Westchester County. Although I have been in that region numerous times before, I still learned a great deal about the river and New York City, which we visited twice during our stay.
We had a hotel room on the river which, I discovered on a morning walk, is a neighbor to the Indian Point Energy Center, a three-unit nuclear energy plant. There is still routine exhaust smoke coming out of the facility, though it was officially decommissioned in 2021. As I understand it, though, you never just close a nuclear plant. In fact, anyone who lives within a ten-mile radius is eligible to get free iodine tablets from the government in the event of an “event” at Indian Point. I did not see any tablets at the coffee bar in our hotel room, so I presumed I could get some at the front desk by showing my car rental papers from Westchester Airport. You can never be too careful.
Travel is indeed a great teacher. On this trip I saw “The High Line” in lower Manhattan for the first time; in another first, I used the NYC bus system, and on the 14th Street Line shared space with a man holding a conversation with the ABC newscaster Peter Jennings, who died in 2005. I had my first meal in a NY Jewish Deli and later discovered the joy of a train ride on the Metro North when the air conditioning fails on the hottest day of the year [so far]. I got to the top of Bear Mountain State Park where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Certainly, one of the most memorable days was Monday when my sister-in-law took us to The Cloister Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan [near the GW Bridge access], a treasure of medieval religious art. The Cloister is the setting of James Carroll's novel of the same name, my inspiration to visit the site.
I like to visit churches, of course, and I was able to attend Saturday evening Mass near our hotel at Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and a parish four-day summer festival in Buchanan, N.Y. during the week. The former pastor of my home parish, now Most Reverend Stephen Parkes, Bishop of the Savannah, Georgia diocese, used to encourage us to bring him copies of bulletins from our travels, an excellent idea. Nowadays it is possible to visit about every parish in the United States as the bulletins are printed online. If you know how to decode bulletins—by what they report and where they remain silent—you can get a fascinating slice of parochial life across the country.
The Business of Bulletin Production
Bulletins were originally printed/mimeographed in the parish office, but after World War II several companies devised the current format of selling advertising to local vendors in exchange for publishing a more professional bulletin layout and the opportunity of parish businessmen and businesswomen to get exposure in the parish family. As a pastor, I had the same bulletin company rep for ten years in one parish and we worked well together, but my memory is that the deal was break-even. I cannot recall any profit to the parish aside from the printing and delivery of the actual product. The bulletin publication industry has much in common with professional sports—the bigger the market, the more money changes hands. I was a small market pastor. Some years later, when I opened my mental health practice, I applied as a vendor in my own mega-church’s bulletin. I was told I needed to sign a three-year contract for thousands of dollars. I was no longer in Kansas, Toto, and I could not afford to advertise in my own parish. By the time I could afford it, my clients’ health insurance contractors provided full regional on-line exposure and I did not need the bulletin, and it did not need me.
Will Bulletins Become Obsolete?
Most parishes have on-line presence to varying degrees, which raises the question of whether the hand-out bulletin will become obsolete. Two factors will determine that: first, with declining numbers of regular worshippers, will the current crop of bulletin providers remain in business; and second, will the current generations of churchgoers continue to demand an in-hand spreadsheet of certain personal parish data. For example, a staple of every church bulletin is a listing of all the coming week’s Masses with its specific intention—specifically, the name of a deceased for whom a monetary contribution or offering has been made to the celebrant of the Mass. We use the shorthand “Mass stipend” and the name of the requesting party is also highlighted. The idea that one deceased member of the parish gets “special grace in Purgatory” beyond the infinite merits poured out by Christ for all the living and the dead in every Mass, as the wording of the Eucharist Prayers makes plain, is more than a little theological stretch.
On the other hand, as Sigmund Freud observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and the Mass stipend listing in the bulletin is just a nice, Catholic thing to do, theology notwithstanding. Not to mention that taking the accompanying Mass card to the funeral home for the family has a much more Christian ring to it that, say, a medium-priced bottle of Merlot. Margaret and I send our stipend money to missionary religious orders such as Maryknoll where the offering is frequently desperately needed by the priest and the mission itself. In recent times I see that some church bulletins include an announcement that the tabernacle candle—lit 24-hours where the Eucharist is reserved—is burned “in loving memory” of a specific individual.
I have no idea what the standard Mass stipends are today in parishes. This is a factoid that is never published in bulletins because of the appearance of trafficking in holy things and the complexity of Canon 952.1 which states that a priest can accept more or less of the standard stipend determined by the bishops of a region. [When I was ordained in 1974, my region’s guideline was $2 for a low private Mass, $5 for a high or public Mass. Or as my boss instructed me, “Two or five, dead or alive.”] The standard local offering can be determined by phoning or visiting a parish office in most circumstances.
Some parish bulletins list the sick of the parish for the purpose of prayer. In the age of HIPAA there probably needs to be clear delineation that the public designation was made at the request of the family. Were I pastoring today, I would not publicly list the names of persons I had visited for the anointing of the sick, for example, without the expressed permission of the family. Of course, as the population ages, the sick lists grow progressively longer. One parish bulletin managed this situation thusly: “Names on the sick list will be included for four weeks unless the family contacts the office to request the names be included for an additional four weeks.” Those terms are more generous than my health care coverage which gives me about 72 hours to get better.
Do Bulletins Communicate Finances Well?
Parish bulletins treat of finances in a variety of ways—including avoiding the subject altogether. Where I attended Mass on July 16, the bulletin provided the collection total of the previous weekend, $4678 in envelopes, and $8098 from its EFT giving program. Doing quick math off these numbers, I figured the annual income at about $665,000. However, here again the data can be misleading. These figures come from the weekend of July 9-10, the heart of vacation season considering the parish’s location on the Hudson and near the mountains. On the other hand, what complicated the math further was an accompanying attendance table. The parish offered four Masses for the same weekend with attendance at 76, 56, 60, and 98, or a total of 290. Were I a new parishioner, I would like to have a bigger picture of the fiscal solvency of the parish operation—are these figures for offering and attendance typical or summer vacational aberrations? When I read in the paper about a parish closing anywhere in the U.S. with the usual local weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then I see the fiscal data of the past decade, I always wonder, “didn’t they see that coming?” Bulletins should, at the very least, provide parishioners with access to immediate and long-range information on the financial health of the parish and the diocese.
Bulletins—particularly on-line bulletins—can provide an excellent service by providing links to both the most recent parish and diocesan financial statements. The Diocese of Orlando, my home church now for 44 years, was recently nationally recognized for its on-line transparency in providing its annual audit for on-line review. [Curiously, my own parish’s most recent annual report on-line dates to the 2019-2020 fiscal year.] It is little known that the 1983 Code of Canon Law mandates a financial council of laity to work with the pastor:  Each parish is to have a finance council which is regulated by universal laws as well as by norms issued by the diocesan bishop; in this council the Christian faithful, selected according to the same norms, aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods. The spirit of the law is two-fold: the involvement of competent professionals in the management of the parish, and a measure of transparency in the fiscal dealings of the parish. Curiously, the “parish council,” which exists in many parishes, is a parochial recommendation of Canon Law, not an absolute requirement. It is, when taken seriously, an important facet of parochial life.
And while we are at it, check your diocesan corporate status. Most of us assume that, legally speaking, the bishop is the head of the diocesan corporation or “corporation sole.” But in some states and some dioceses this is not the case. See this instruction from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: “Each archdiocesan parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is an independent religious corporation established according to the Civil Statutes of the State of Wisconsin. The parish corporation is a civil body created solely for legal purposes. It has authority and competence only in those civil and secular matters for which it was created.” There are significant implications of such structuring when it comes to sexual abuse of minors and the allocation of awards to victims. If each parish is an independent legal entity, the potential exists for significant criminal and civil exposure that ordinarily is borne by the diocese. California was the first state to divest of the diocesan corporation sole model—in 2002, the year of “Spotlight.”
I came across one church bulletin which listed the names of the parish council members as well as the finance board members. This seems like a promising way to facilitate valuable information and to quash rumors, the bane of every parish. I did see something unusual and encouraging on the road—a parish bulletin that published a detailed account of its latest parish council meeting. Not all its minutes were encouraging; a lack of funds prevented several capital improvements from completion. On the other hand, there was a timely report by several members who participated in the diocesan synod listening sessions. The dates for future council meetings were posted in the same bulletin. One might say that such a practice is itself part of Synodality. The very existence of healthy and regular meetings/exchanges of pastor and parishioners is a healthy antidote to clericalism.
Are Bulletins useful for education purposes?
I would say that the bulletin—and the parish’s website—are often untapped possibilities. In some respects, a typical bulletin can model the worst type of education—little boxes of pithy quotes, or an insert on a profound subject, such as the Sunday Gospel that reduces the richness of Catholic faith and writing to the lowest common denominator in an extremely limited space. It is common to see links to FORMED, a traditional Catholic multimedia website established for home study. I have discomfort with a program that includes no reference to the present pope or his teachings. But more to the point, I am not sure FORMED is suited for a critical student of the faith or capable of introducing its audience to the historical depth of the Catholic Tradition.
At the very least, a church bulletin can vigorously promote adult participation in one’s own parish or a regional setting. This assumes, of course, that there are topflight Catholic adult educational opportunities in the parish or region. Catholic journalism of late has been focused on the dearth of Catholic intellectuals available to teach in Catholic universities, and this vacuum percolates down to seminaries, Catholic colleges, diocesan certification programs, and to parish personnel and volunteers. In short, we are in a religious brain drain. Much like secular colleges, we are producing religious technocratic Catholics, not the deep thinkers in the tradition of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.
About everyone I know seems to belong to a book club, and I am hearing of Catholics forming study groups, even independent of local parishes. I belong to a Trappist reading circle organized by Mepkin Abbey for those who have made retreats there. We meet monthly via Zoom to discuss segments of our current read, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. [And why is Merton excluded from FORMED?] Perhaps this is the wave of the future for faith formation and adult education, and again it dovetails with the synodal model of communal growth of faith and exchange of insight.
A church bulletin cannot educate us, but it can become a nexus of grassroots education by carrying recommendations of theologically challenging books and journals as well as links to distinguished on-line Catholic education programs such as the renowned University of Dayton’s “Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation” led by Sister Angela Ann Zukowski. In any case, observing my own parish, I see that most bulletins are left in the pew, as the reader has most likely perused it to see who died in the past week. The goal here is to make the bulletin worth taking home.
Another Christmas Eve-Christmas Day observance in my parish. I always had the impression that many more people attend Mass on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day than on a typical weekend of the Church year. My thinking until recently was one-dimensional; I assumed that everybody was too busy or too poorly catechized, to attend Mass weekly, and that the Christmas and Easter extras were just a friendly nudge away from attending more often.
What I am coming to see is that distance from churches is the new norm, in Roman Catholicism and in Christianity in general. I did a little research online to get a picture of church membership and participation in the United States. Take your pick: PEW Research and CARA [the Catholic research center at Georgetown University] provide an in-depth picture of the trend away from both formal membership in a church and frequency of participation among those who maintain an affiliation. Briefly, the number of Americans who identify as “Nones” or having no religious affiliation at all has risen to about one-third of the American population. CARA’s most recent data [2015; 2020 report delayed by Covid] indicates that 23% of Catholics attend weekly Mass; when the number of Catholics who attend about once a month is added, the total is 49%, meaning that half of those who identified themselves to researchers as Catholics do not attend at all or come only for Christmas and or Easter. This is an enormous number of Catholics who go it alone.
If it is any consolation, the drift from Catholicism is not as immediately acute as it is for other branches of the Christian family. CARA’s numbers, taken at five-year intervals since its survey began in 1970, show a massive decline in Catholic practice but it is spread out over the past fifty years. Mainstream Protestantism [Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc.] has suffered the greatest losses in the twenty-first century. Evangelical and independent churches have also declined. Catholicism has seen less dramatic declines in the immediate past, though remember that the Covid epidemic has not been factored in yet to the statistical picture, and visual-anecdotal evidence suggests that one “long hauler” impact of Covid may be a significant decline in Catholics physically returning to regular worship. PEW’s commentary observes that while Catholics tend to have the largest exit numbers of members, these losses are softened by a higher birthrate and an inflow of Catholic immigrants, but a close look at CARA’s numbers does not support that take.
With this background I turn again to Exit Interviews, specifically Chapters 20 and 21 on church strategies and winning the hearts of those who have left their worshipping communities. In the preceding post [beneath this entry] I covered the author’s advice to churches on how to think about disengaged Christians and some avenues of rapprochement to those who have exited formal Christian communities. Chapter 20 offers several worthwhile considerations, but I would say that William Hendricks’ presuppositions rest on the idea that those currently disaffiliated are in a temporary state of mind and could be reunited with an ecclesiastical community with appropriate outreach.
Chapter 21 addresses those who have left Christian churches and, in an insightful turn of phrase, “those who remain in the institution [church] but endure…a low-grade virus of discontent…. On the whole, they are disappointed with their spiritual experience…yet they are not dissatisfied enough to leave—until some crisis comes along that forces the issue.” [p. 291] One may argue that the clergy abuse scandals and the Covid crisis represented such tipping points for many Catholics, but my personal encounters with longtime friends and coworkers never cease to surprise me. The strongest sentiment I hear—from Catholics who have left and Catholics who ponder leaving—is the perceived failure of parishes to address the spiritual hungers and the moral dilemmas of adulthood.
Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Holy Family, the homily at the Mass I attended was offered by the celebrant who focused on Pontius Pilate and an assortment of myths about him. Why? What did this have to do with St. Luke’s noble narrative of Jesus in the Temple with the priests? I have no idea. What was doubly puzzling was the vested presence in the sanctuary of a happily married deacon with a family; what a fitting candidate to preach on this Feast of the Holy Family. But alas, it was not to be. As it is scientifically proven that poor sermons always last longer, about halfway through this one I discretely leaned over to my wife and said, “Do you have any rope in your purse? I want to hang myself from the rafters.”
I looked around the church at the several families who had brought their children and I wondered how useful this exercise was for these young souls, or for their parents, for that matter. The 2018 CARA/St. Mary’s Press study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Disaffiliation of Young People from the Catholic Church” found that the youthful process of disengaging from Catholicism begins as early as age 10. Put another way, this is the age when a troubling number of young people decide that “there is nothing here for me to invest in.” It is interesting that back in 2018 several critics of the study—and even the language of the study itself to some degree—blamed this early disengagement on the failure of parents to actively participate in weekly Eucharist. This begs the question of why and how the parents are disenchanted.
The question that Hendricks asks in Exit Interviews—why did you leave? –is exactly the question that we Catholics, as an institution, never ask young people and never ask adults, because there is nothing in our theology to address the issue of a sacrament so poorly celebrated that it actually becomes a countersign of what it intends to convey. Put another way, liturgy can become a sacrament of discouragement for many of us who grimly endure experiences of “what might have been.” [I have never experienced this personally, but I read reports from around the country that the pulpit is used for political profiteering or weekly excoriation of sexual weakness, which is actually an abuse that should be reported to the bishop.]
As a Church, we have tolerated poor preaching for a good many years on the grounds that the celebration of the Word of God at Mass is somehow secondary to the Eucharistic Prayer and the reception of Communion. Put another way, we do not equate poor preaching with failure to distribute communion, although theologically speaking, one can make that argument. For it is the preaching that awakens both belief in the Real Presence and hunger for communion. So, what happens when generations of lukewarm celebration of the Word at Mass begin to pile up and become the norm? Is a Catholic permitted to “go his own way” to seek a deeper union with God?
Hendricks observes that those who have left institutional churches have often networked with other fellow faith seekers to study Scripture and other religious texts [he cites Thomas Merton’s works, for example] in place of membership in an institutional church. He is opposed to this as a permanent solution. “Is this a model to follow? Of course not. There are no models when it comes to trying to grow as a Christian outside the institutional church.” [p. 295] I had to smile when I read a Protestant commentator quoting an old Catholic maxim, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Of course, the official Catholic teaching still holds that a Catholic is obligated to participate in the life of the Church, but this leaves us with the statistical reality that about half of those who publicly identify as Catholic are not actively engaged.
We honestly do not know why, with any scientific certainty. This population would be one of the most intriguing groups to engage in the upcoming synodal process called by Pope Francis. I doubt that this would happen, because the synodal consultations in the United States have been less than energetic in many dioceses, even for those who are highly active or leaders of their Catholic assemblies. The Vatican directives on the synodal process instruct that “special care should be taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded: women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith.” The pope, evidently, would like to hear from the 50% of alienated U.S. Catholics in this consultation process. Not all bishops are comfortable with this.
For myself, as frustrated as I may be with the Church, honesty compels me to admit to myself that everything I have learned about Christ and the mysteries of salvation has come down to me through the Church, either through my Catholic family or charismatic ministers, education system, and treasury of sacred writing and theology. I would not be the man I am today without that heritage. I feel enthusiastic about passing along what I have received. But I have respect and understanding of my many friends who, for many distinct reasons, have sought different communities of faith or, in Thomas Merton’s literary example, have gone off to the woods to build their own chapels. There are days I have pondered taking a Eucharistic sabbatical, too. In the next post on Exit Interviews, I will talk more about the ownership of one’s faith, spirituality, and conscience before God vis-a-vis membership in a structured religion.
Back on November 20, I posted the first entry on William Hendricks’ Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church . I checked the book’s Amazon site this AM, and the book is available used in hard cover or paper for under $10 from networked small book dealers. Hendricks, as you may recall, interviewed sixteen persons who had left their Christian churches or, in some cases, had been pressured to leave. The author summarizes his impressions and recommendations in the final two chapters, and today I want to look closely at Chapter 20, “What Churches Can Do.” [pp. 273-288]
I noted in the earlier post Hendricks’ observation that churches spend too much time at the front door and not enough time at the back door, i.e., we are always looking for new fresh faces while the disenchanted are leaving unnoticed. I can say that as a pastor I was guilty of this failing; it is always an “upper” when a new family joins us for Sunday liturgy, usually expressing dissatisfaction with a previous church and/or pastor and telling you how much better you are, or your church is. On the other hand, when someone was disengaging from me as pastor or from my parish—either discretely or by a dramatic letter—it was hard to work up the enthusiasm for a pastoral visit that was bound to be lengthy, critical, and at times passionate. That said, Hendricks’ research found that on average a person leaving a congregation expects an outreach or reaction from the church within a six- or eight-week window before making a final break.
Hendricks makes a good point that none of the sixteen people he interviewed were new converts. All his subjects had been church members throughout their adulthood, so they had “skin in the game,” so to speak. Moreover, they were all dissatisfied with their spiritual progress. Whose fault is this? Churches historically tend to slough off crises of faith on the weakness, disobedience, or other inadequacies of the frustrated believer. But the author raises the painful question of whether the churches do an adequate job in the ongoing spiritual formation of adult members. I recall about thirty years ago when I hired a consulting firm to assist in saving a Catholic elementary school in my parish. The first piece of $30,000 advice was this: “Retention, retention, retention!”
Parishioners grow. Cultures change. The tired recipes of parochial life are not keeping up with the spiritual and psychological needs of longtime members. Hendricks uses an interesting example. “People no longer evaluate Christianity based on whether it is true, but how it is true. As my friend Doug Sherman says, today’s question is not whether God exists, but what difference does He make?” [p. 277] One reason the churches are losing members, he argues, is the absence of age-appropriate faith formation. “Yet spirituality is probably the foremost theological category in people’s minds today. If the church lacks a cogent doctrine in this area, it will keep losing credibility—which is to say it will keep losing people.” [p. 277] No Catholic parish or diocese I am aware of offers an ongoing faith formation that parallels the human life cycle. While it is true that God’s revelation is unchanging, we experience it from very distinct generations and outside circumstances.
I can relate to Hendricks’ point from my personal experience. At the age of 40 I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and promptly fell into clinical depression, a common occurrence when one stops “self-medicating.” My psychiatrist referred me to a therapist on his staff, an Episcopal woman whom I met with weekly for two years. A spiritual person herself, she walked me through a rediscovery of my own soul, making me read St. Augustine’s Confessions and other Christian treasures of conversion while I reviewed the direction of my life and made decisions for the future. She provided the faith formation and the psychological support I needed as I passed through a sloppy stage of human development. To be frank, I sensed at the time that someone outside the Roman Catholic community might be more honest with me about the decisions I needed to make, such as leaving the active priesthood.
Hendricks is a bit flip when he observes that “the church is in the people development business” [p. 277] but essentially he is correct. If the church is not meaningfully engaged with every one of its members through the full spectrum of life and experience, we will continue to lose church members. Hendricks refers to a “theology of persons” in which spiritual development and human development go hand in hand. If you look at your church bulletin, you may notice that our parochial formative ministries are lopsided toward the young; we are still living with the 1950’s sacramental model of cramming in “the essentials” before Confirmation and crossing our fingers that everyone has enough gas to cross the finish line of the faith many years hence.
Following along this line of thought, Hendricks pinpoints a problem that has troubled me for years, i.e., how do we engage all our members in opportunities to exercise their unique baptismal gifts, those charisms mentioned frequently in St. Paul’s letters? He writes “I’ve heard countless pastors and church leaders cry that they cannot find enough volunteers, and therefore the work of the church goes undone. Their tendency is to blame the people. But could it be that the people are merely responding to a woefully inadequate theology of spiritual gifts?” [p. 279]
In my lifetime I have seen a considerable growth in the numbers of Catholics who involve themselves in social outreach ministries, and of course the religious education programs of all parishes are now conducted by lay volunteers instead of religious sisters. However, the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation confer divine gifts upon all the initiated, and this is an area where an entire rethinking is in line. Truth be told, the Church does not know how to facilitate the good will and the talents of its members, nor does it have a “theology of volunteerism” nor a systematic concept of how to engage all members in meaningful missionary work. By this I am referring to the skill of diagnosing how every member can serve in the name of Christ. The recent Vatican declaration restoring the order of catechists, Antiquum Ministerium  and specific directives on the requirements of the catechetical ministry issued last week are a step in the right direction, though I think that current catechists might blanch at the evident call for professional excellence in this ministry. Pope Francis’ vision of catechetics will take a generation or more to implement. But that is as it should be.
Certainly, the Catholic Church is always in significant need of volunteers [and decently compensated professionals] to competently maintain the ministries of a parish mandated by custom and Canon Law. But it is wrong to suggest that baptismal gifts can only be exercised within a parish structure. Those with specialized skills may best exercise them in Christ’s name in collaboration with other faiths or civil ventures. During the Covid crisis medical personnel are working far above the call of duty; this is an exercise of extraordinary baptismal service that we never talk about from the pulpit. Other careers, such as law enforcement, are rich in opportunities to live baptismal goodness and courage. The critical point is to reinforce the importance of every member in the collective mission of the Body of Christ. A failure to do this only reinforces the old “pray, pay, and obey” handle about traditional Catholics. Catholics want to play a meaningful role in the Body of Christ; they also hunger to be fed the spiritual guidance necessary to make prudent decisions.
Hendricks makes more important points on how churches can retain and enrich their members. I will highlight them here:
A church must maintain a theology of grace. The author puts it this way: the preaching and message of any church must put God’s saving grace at the center. Hendricks decries “preaching grace while demanding works.” [p. 280] The author comes from an Evangelical Protestant tradition that, going back to Luther, holds the primacy of God in personal salvation. Hendricks is critical of churches and clerics who pay lip service to the mystery of God and demand adherence to a bureaucracy of hoops to salvation.
The term he uses is “legalism.” “Legalism is keeping people out of the church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church.” [p. 280] In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, many [I included] hunger for mystical communion with God’s grace but find ourselves tangled in preoccupation with doctrinal purity, moral rectitude, and intramural legal considerations. [I recently began working with adult candidates for Confirmation, and I did raise an eyebrow on the paperwork required for a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit.] But far worse is a maverick moralism/legalism that scandalizes huge swaths of society. Last week the Catholic Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, issued an instruction to its parishes that transgender people cannot be baptized or receive other sacraments “until they have repented.”
Redefining Community: Churches are used to dealing with large numbers of people, to thinking collectively. But Hendricks reminds us that “most people can only relate personally to a handful of others.” [p. 283] It may be my psychological training run amuck, but I am always discomfited by Catholicism’s casual use of the term “community.” There is a dissonance in the pew, or in the rearview mirror, when church leaders talk about community when very few of us feel deeply connected or personally impacted. I cannot help but observe that in my own parish the congregation cannot even agree on whether to wear facial masks to Mass.
I used to instruct large groups of people when I worked in my diocese’s catechist training program. After taking five years off, my parish asked me to conduct the formation meetings for adult candidates for Confirmation. I had five candidates for a five-week series. My biggest takeaway from the experience was my inability to get to know them better personally, to hear their faith journey stories—adult Confirmation is always a conversion of sorts. In short, my vision of church is shrinking, which I believe to be a good thing, albeit a significant challenge to achieve. Were we to see our parishes as collections of little communities, I believe that fewer of us will drift away, unloved, and unnoticed.
Teach people theology. Hendricks observes that “As I conducted these interviews, and as I listen to people talk about spiritual issues today, I was stunned at how much ‘folk religion’ there is on the street…popular but inaccurate ideas about what our faith is and how it applies. Folk religion is marked by simplistic formulations of supposedly Biblical truths. It is essentially ‘McDoctrine’—spiritual fast-food of proof texts and cliches that are filling and fattening, but not particularly nourishing.” [p. 284]
How true in the Roman Catholic setting. We are heirs of the greatest treasury of religious thought in the Western World. But there is no systematic structure for continuing adult education and faith formation built into Catholic pastoral life. And, given this vacuum, a sincere Catholic who sets off on a personal online exploration of Catholic theology will lose his way in a maze of literature and websites that would never find its way to the bookshelves of a decent Catholic college. This is particularly true in the computer age; Hendricks wrote these words in 1993. One of the goals of adult faith formation is precisely the skill of critiquing works that are true to the Catholic theological tradition and meet the muster of peer review.
Catholics have a particular challenge to face; sad to say, I am not sure that many Church leaders are comfortable with a well-read and thoughtful adult membership. No better example of this is the lethargic response of dioceses in the United States to Pope Francis’ call to “Synodality,” a worldwide conversation/consultation of the pulse of Catholic life at the grassroots. I suppose this reluctance to converse with the regular members is symptomatic of clericalism, i.e., the laity have nothing important to impart to the ordained. But by the measure of completed years of schooling, Catholics are the best educated cohort in the United States. The tragedy is that parishes have nothing to offer that is comparable to the competence of doctors, teachers, CEOs, and other professions. Boredom leads to frustration and often to the door.
Think about it: when is the last time a book was cited or recommended from the pulpit?
I have not done justice to all of Hendricks’ insights. But there is enough here to enter another discussion: can a Catholic make a go of it independent of a parish? Hendricks addresses the question of living without a faith community in Chapter 20, “You’ll Never Find the Perfect Church,” the third entry on this blog stream which will appear shortly.
While doing research on “ecclesiology” [the theology of the nature of the Church] I kept seeing references in footnotes to a 1993 work called Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church. The author, William Hendricks, is a Protestant writer and church consultant with degrees in communications, media, and theology. Much of his professional life has been devoted to the organizational renewal and rehabilitation of church congregations and organizations, particularly among the independent Christian Churches. Hendricks, whose work took him around the United States, was in an excellent position to observe the exodus of churchgoers thirty years ago and the considerable concern of pastors and church boards to staunch the bleeding. In 1993 he composed his eighth book--what he calls in his preface his most difficult—on the stories of those who have disengaged from organized Christian Churches.
Hendricks decided to seek out those who had left their institutional churches and find out why they left. It is not clear precisely how he selected the sixteen interviewees for his book, but they are a fair national cross section of Christians from primarily nondenominational, independent, and/or mega-churches. Ideally, I would have liked a book devoted to Catholic departures, but I have not come upon this kind of work yet. [Ironically, I did come across a 2020 study of Catholic boys who left the seminary, which should be coming across this desk with the next Amazon Prime delivery van.] As I have progressed through Exit Interviews thus far, though, I do see interesting points of convergence between the individuals in the book with what I see happening among Roman Catholics, i.e., most commonly a drift toward a more individually cultivated spirituality, with or without an attachment to a structured church community.
As a consultant to pastors seeking to rebuild their dwindling congregations, Hendricks noticed that most churches erred in their approach to keeping themselves above water. As he put it, their efforts were totally engaged at the “front door” of their churches, getting new people in. [To Catholic readers, does this sound like “The New Evangelization?”] No one, he observed, ever stands at the back door, metaphorically speaking, to ask why others were leaving. He cites the research of Dr. John Savage of L.E.A.D. Consultants, who found that “once a person decides to leave a church, there is a six-to-eight-week window of time during which he waits for someone from the church to contact him. He wants someone to listen, and he also wants to know whether he is even missed. If no one contacts him within that period, he moves on.” [p. 132] In about all of Hendricks’ interviews, this was the case except for those instances where the interviewee was strongly urged to move out of the congregation, officially or informally.
To date—I have six interviews to read yet--none of the subjects in the interviews had specifically left Roman Catholicism as adults, though some were raised Catholic and had opted or drifted to other church communities where they experienced crisis or dissatisfaction. If I can draw from my own experiences, Catholics as a rule tend to drift away from their church, a process which research has shown can begin as a disaffiliation as early as age 10. The interviewees in this book have more pronounced breaks in adult years that have impacted them enough to provide coherent narratives. There is excellent research from St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate [CARA] at Georgetown University on the “disaffiliation of young Catholics”  but nothing comparable for Catholic adults of which I am aware.
Among the case studies in Exit Interviews are several stories of young adults who were attracted to specific churches in their teens, college, and young adult years and became deeply involved in the church’s ministry, up to and including such ventures as overseas missions. In these cases, the young enthusiasts were scandalized by mismanagement and/or misconduct of the leadership. One respondent told Hendricks she had not been paid in a year. In other cases, the “team” became riddled with internal strife that hurt and offended the young idealists, a condition that leadership seemed to tolerate. Others were not psychologically prepared for the ardor of ministry. It is worth noting that some churches rotate young converts into ministry with minimal training and preparation, which is a recipe for trouble.
For others, their disenchantment centered on issues surrounding preaching and authority. An educated IRS worker complained that preachers of his experience were noticeably short on Biblical scholarship and regularly defaulted to a repetitious moralism. [A major Catholic preaching habit, sad to say.] This same government worker raised the issue of a gulf between the soft certainties of pulpit talk and the hard realities of the working world. No one seemed capable or interested in connecting religious life of Sunday with the rough and tumble of the real world. The author comments that “precious few resources exist to help believers think intelligently about what difference biblical truth makes in the marketplace.” [p. 58]
Church congregations themselves can be their own worst enemies. Hendricks argues that small country congregations, which can appear to be delightfully bucolic and desirable, can generate their own brand of judgmentalism and exclusiveness, because of their size, intimacy, and isolation. The wife of a minister of such a rural church described how the local church turned on her husband—and indeed, on his entire family. Hendricks explains that “uneducated people, which rural areas often have, feel distrustful of trained and educated professionals, for a variety of reasons.” [p. 65] He might have added the Freudian principle of transference, which in our case would be the projection of needs upon the pastor. Many congregants recreate their leaders mentally into roles which fulfill their own needs. Thus, the pastor becomes in the minds of some members the ideal husband, the father I never had, an exclusive sympathetic close friend. When a minister or priest cannot meet these lofty expectations—and he should never try, despite the gratification it might bring—there is a rage of betrayal in which the transferring individual leaves the church, convinced that he or she had been unjustly ignored by the pastor.
On the other hand, the megachurches carry their own vulnerabilities which lead members to lose heart. I noted earlier Dr. Savage’s study of the 6–8-week window after a member stops attending. In a megachurch—and I belong to a Catholic one, with thousands of members—it is exceedingly difficult to meet even the most basic of needs, such as funerals, weddings, etc. To discern who is silently disenchanted and/or contemplating leaving is quite a challenge for the leadership. [In the old days before EFT giving, at least a Catholic pastor could take note when the weekly church envelopes stopping appearing in the collection basket.] On the other hand, some megachurches are so well structured and staffed that one may get the sense of belonging to a corporation and feeling lost in the shuffle. In either case, what we see is a struggle to meet the needs of “community experience” and “belonging.”
I could go on with other examples and genres of departure from the book, but I would recommend that you may want to read this work yourself. [The second-hand market for this book has bargains, such as these here at the book’s Amazon site.] The common denominator of all the interviews is discontent, pain, spiritual emptiness, and not knowing where one belongs in a Christian assembly, or even if one belongs in a structured church at all. Hendricks is aware that the prevailing attitude among many church goers and clergy toward those who have departed and/or are not actively worshipping in a congregation is not always favorable or compassionate. The “popular wisdom” is that the departed have lost their faith, cannot forgive an institutional slight, or are plain too lazy to commit to weekly worship and community membership.
Hendricks addresses these and other points in his excellent closing chapters, “What Churches Can Do” and “You’ll Never Find the Perfect Church.” I will post on his commentary in a follow up but coming from a Catholic vantage point I would offer a few preliminary thoughts about departures from the Church. In the first instance, the only recent reliable research, the St. Mary’s/CARA 2018 study, seems to confirm the idea that Catholics drift away. This study is worth parsing for what seems to happen in the lives of young Catholics around the age of puberty, Truth be told, I think that Catholic youth begin leaving the Church at an even earlier age.
Consider the three points of contact that an eight-year-old Catholic has with the Church: his family, the Mass, and religious education. On the first point, there is reliable polling to the effect that only 20-25% of Catholics attend weekly Eucharist, which strongly suggests that domestic Catholic formation is at best shaky. On the second point, we need to be honest and ask ourselves what a youngster takes away from Sunday Mass when he does attend. One obvious point—so obvious I feel embarrassed bringing it up—is that most children cannot see the altar, because we continue to build or refurbish churches in the long, rectangular style rather than in arrangements that foster full visual access to the mysteries. Sacraments are “outward signs,” meant to be seen and experienced. Typically, a child experiences Mass staring at the backside of the adult in front of him. And can we honestly say that our children take away anything meaningful from the typical sermon?
On the third point, those young people who do attend parish religious education receive instruction from minimally trained volunteers—other kids’ parents, ironically—to the tune of about twenty hours per year. On the matter of religious education, I refer to Kenneth Woodward’s 2018 article, “Losing Faith.” Woodward, the Newsweek religion edition for nearly forty years, highlights the decline of religious formation in the home among other factors in the departure of the young from the Church. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference conducted by Woodward a year after this article was published. Woodward put it to us this way: “Every generation of Catholics knows exponentially less than the one before.”
The inability to form the young to remain Catholic seems self-explanatory. For active adults who decide to leave the Church, the question is more complex. It is hard to research the question because churches historically do not like to pay for unwelcome news. So, we do not have accurate figures on whether the clergy abuse scandal, which came into prominence in 2002, led to a wholesale exodus. Anecdotally it seems to have had impact, but this varies from diocese to diocese depending on the intensity of the problem. At any rate, it certainly accelerated a departure already in progress.
I do recall a remark from a religious journalist a few years ago. He observed that “the Catholic Church is extremely vulnerable to one more crisis.” In 2020 that crisis may have tipped the scale, specifically the Covid epidemic. For Catholics across the country went for extended periods without the regularity of weekly Eucharist, and it appears that a sizable number of Catholics who may have been on the fence about the efficacy of the Mass came to realize that he or she could indeed live without it. This correlates with an observation that Hendricks makes in his book, that for every member of a religious community who leaves, there is at least one more contemplating it.
It is true that many Catholics have left the Church for some of the same reasons Hendricks cites about other Christian communities: direct clashes with church authorities and human resource issues. Disagreements with official Church teachings on everything from birth control to women priests have had a long-term alienating impact. The human resources issue gets little ink, but because there are fewer catechized Catholics, the hires at the parish and diocesan levels are not fully equipped for their paid pastoral duties and consequently the turnover rate among lay ministers is high. As a private practice psychotherapist in my diocese, I have treated a fair number of lay and religious employees who have been overworked or discharged from what I would consider no-win job placements.
In a few days I will post a second set of reflections on Hendrick’s book—including the question of whether an individual can craft a Christian existence while separated from a formal worshipping community. I am seeing Catholics attempt this, and Hendricks observed the same thing thirty years ago among the individuals he interviewed.
1. All things belong to God. God made everything, including the heavens, the Boston Red Sox, and the Catholic Church. Let God do the worrying. Don't do God's heavy lifting. Do an honest day’s work and sleep like a baby.
2. There are serious problems in the Catholic Church. People are leaving and/or they don’t send their kids to Mass. That is not your fault. Solving this problem is far above your pay grade. We pay bishops for that. Enjoy the folks you work with, even if just two show up.
3. Do you remember the Pythagorean Theorem? You learned it in school, and you have probably forgotten it in adulthood. Keep that in mind when you are preparing catechism class. You will relax more.
4. What do you remember from school days? Probably the teachers who respected you, loved you, challenged you, and impressed you with their excitement for their discipline. Go, thou, and do likewise.
5. Everybody loves a good story. I saw on Facebook where a catechist was asking for help in teaching the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Why not tell the story of a saint or a hero who demonstrated those fruits instead?
6. I hear people say we should “teach the Catechism.” This is very confusing and probably impossible. Jesus gave us two great commandments. The Catechism has 2,865. I’ll stick with Jesus’ way.
7. The introduction to the Catechism from Pope John Paul II states that the Catechism was written specifically for bishops and publishers. It is not a teacher’s manual no matter what you are told.
8. If your assigned curriculum isn’t cutting it, buy, beg, or steal a copy of Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone by Father James Martin, S.J. You and your students will learn to pray together, and they will have an experience to carry them through life. They will thank you forever.
9. Buy yourself some commentaries on the Gospels. [Write me and I’ll give you some titles if you don’t know any.] The Gospel stories are a goldmine. Teach Jesus. The rest will fall into place.
10. Let the parents know that you are serving gourmet coffee on the grounds during the catechetical time of their children. I show up anywhere there is free coffee. [You can put out an offering basket if your parish won’t spring for it.] Give them a comfortable place to sit and you have a ready-made evangelization audience ready to go, all caffeinated and eager to interact.
11. Throw in a platter of Costco chocolate chip cookies with the coffee and I’ll volunteer to work in your program.
12. As the Bible instructs, you should have leftover coffee and cookies at the end of the night. God feeds abundantly. No sin to throw out extra coffee.
13. Your students may be very embarrassed that their families don’t bring them to church. Console them. Don’t shame them.
14. Research shows that even unchurched parents want their kids to “grow up moral” and so they send them to church programs, even if sporadically. It’s something, anyway—maybe actual grace.
15. If your pastor or supervisor keeps putting more projects on your desk, smile and say “OK, which one of my tasks do you want me to drop in order to do this one?”
16. Don’t let anyone guilt you into working too long. It is the pastor’s responsibility to find and train new people for ministry. Canon Law says that the pastor is the senior catechist of the parish.
17. If your students are attending a penance service, they are often impressed to see the teacher go to confession—and really impressed if their parents go.
18. Don’t be intimidated if your priest complains “the kids weren’t prepared to make a proper confession.” I was a pastor years ago. It was my job to help anyone of any age make a fruitful confession.
19. You don’t need to throw a Christmas party. It’s Advent anyway.
20. Some of the best textbooks for adult education programs are novels by the great classic Catholic authors…from Graham Greene to Caroline Gordon to Flannery O’Connor to J.F. Powers to Toni Morrison to James Carroll to Walker Percy to Louise Erdrich to Phil Klay to…well, you get the picture. Stories of sin, conversion, repentance, deliverance. There’s a lot of checked boxes.
21. The more you read and study theology, the more enjoyable your ministry will become.
22. Your parish should provide you with funds for your ongoing training and learning expenses. Don’t buy the “we can’t afford it.” A parish that doesn’t prepare its ministers doesn’t deserve them.
23. A corollary of #22…they have seminarian collections, right?
24. Go to your diocesan gatherings and workshops. You’ll enjoy the support, they have coffee, and the networking will help you advance your career. Tell your pastor you are going. Don’t ask. If he gives you a hard time, tell the bishop. He’s paying for the coffee.
25. Reflect often on the fact that you are educating children and minors because their parents can’t. Prod your pastor to preach about that.
26. Be nice to the parishioners. But take your phone off the hook after hours.
27. Remember Mother Teresa’s advice: “We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.” And to laugh, too.
For more ministerial handholding, visit "The Catechist Café" on Facebook or www.catechistcafe.com.
Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium  is a remarkable book that I stumbled upon during a search for new books about Ecclesiology, the theological study of the Church itself. I devoured about half of it during the Memorial Day weekend. This work at hand is a collection of essays by Australian theologians and scholars. As Nigel Zimmerman’s preface explains, there are not a lot of theological institutions of higher learning in Australia, and the Australian contribution to worldwide theological studies is often overlooked. But Zimmerman explains that the theological community in “the land down under” has developed its own identity as it addresses its work for the twenty-first century. The Australian theologians, Zimmerman comments, are “not always well recognized and their work is sometimes overlooked because it does not sit easily within the calcified categories of left and right that has become the dominant paradigm over the last two generations.” [p. xiv]
Anyone who reads the papers or ministers in in the United States is painfully aware of the “calcified categories” of left and right in the Church. In the United States, for example, there are bishops debating whether President Biden may or may not receive holy communion while in Britain there are Catholics demanding to know how Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be married sacramentally after his two divorces. Underlying both questions—and many, many more like it—is the structure of the Catholic Church itself, i.e., how it derives its authority, how it manages itself in the present day, and what are the frontiers of reform. This is the branch of theology known as “ecclesiology,” and our Australian brethren have successfully identified this branch of the sacred sciences as the squeakiest of the wheels of the Pilgrim People of God.
In terms of ecclesiological crises, the circumstances surrounding the abuse of minors—ranging from the poor screening and formation of clerics to the behavior of ordained ministers to the mismanagement and cover-up by bishops—is the most serious ecclesiological issue facing this generation of Catholics, for it casts doubt upon the Church’s ability to manage itself and to carry out its mission effectively. The abuse crisis complicates the nature of the relationship of the priesthood to the laity of the Church, i.e., what powers accrue to the lay baptized person in terms of the care and holiness of the Church? It is worthy of note that general knowledge of the abuse crisis did not originate from any agency of the Church, but from civil courts in Texas and Louisiana in the 1980’s and, most famously, from the Boston Globe in 2002, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s 2018 investigation of the state’s dioceses.
When something goes this badly in a health care facility, for example, it is referred to by the facility and its investigators as “a signal event” which requires an analysis of what went wrong and what mechanisms within the institution need changing to prevent it happening again. America was witness to the recent mother of all law enforcement signal events, the murder of George Floyd, a year ago, and the country remains transfixed on how to prevent such miscarriages of due process in the future while preserving the effectiveness of the law-and-order establishment. Along the same lines, reformers within the Church continue to argue that the clerical culture of the Church prevents the transparency necessary to keep good order within the Church, and this concern includes matters of stewardship of finances and provision of necessary spiritual services. More specifically, the teaching of the Church that deacons, priests, and bishops are ontologically different [different in kind] as “other Christs” seems to provide cover for a “creeping infallibility” as one theologian put it, that obfuscates the need for lay wisdom and accountability.
Solving the ecclesiastical problem begins with a common understanding of the nature and structure of the Church. I suppose as Catholics we were all raised with the mental template that Jesus ordered a church and here it is, with a few historical alterations along the way. Hopefully, by high school faith formation one has digested enough of Scripture and history to grasp that the evolution from the upper room at Pentecost to the billion plus institution of two dozen rites has been quite a ride, and the Church’s self-understanding has evolved considerably over two millennia. By the time I undertook graduate theological studies [1971-1974] Vatican II had recently completed, having issued two documents on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium [“Light to the Nations”] in 1964 and Gaudium et Spes [“Joy and Hope”] in 1965.
The first essay of Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium opens with a history of those documents and how they have been received and treated over the years since the Council. The author of the essay, Tracey Rowland, discusses one of the most basic issues of the Church: the balance between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the Church’s juridical commission—still entirely clerical--of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ. [p. 3] Or, put another way, how is the balance struck between the Spirit’s presence of holiness in all the baptized faithful and the exercise of authority by its duly ordained leaders, the divine Spirit and an imperfectly human institution? To our question earlier, how a Catholic maintains faith in the authoritative structure of teaching in the face of scandal, Rowland quotes Dorothy Day’s quip that “though the Church does sometimes play the harlot she will always be her mother.” [from Day’s “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter,” 1967]
Rowland cites the descriptions of the Church in Lumen Gentium and observes that Vatican II never quite explains the marriage between the model of the Church as “The People of God” and the model of the Royal Priesthood. Vatican II did break considerable ground by introducing a new model or paradigm, that of the “people of God,” a significant break from the pyramid model of authority that has stood for centuries. One of the areas of conflict in catechetics and parish life is that most Catholic texts since 1964 have identified the Church as “the pilgrim people of God,” much like Moses and the Hebrews in the desert, collectively en route to a glorious future with Christ at the end of time. However, the uncertainty of pilgrim-hood runs counter to the immediate timeless structures of law and authority derived by the Church from its early association with the Roman Empire and later as master of Christendom from the medieval era.
Rowland and many of the other contributors of Ecclesiology highlight a trend throughout the second half of the twentieth century of Church teachings emphasizing the unity of the Church [Communio], dating to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis in 1943, summarized quite well here, and continuing through Vatican II and the papacies of Paul VI [r. 1963-1978], John Paul II [r. 1978-2005], and Benedict XVI [r. 2005-2013]. A Church without internal unity ceases to be a sacrament of the living Christ, although the maintenance of communio has sometimes been pursued with an excess of uniformity and suspicion of innovative doctrinal and pastoral contributions. Interestingly, Pope Francis [r. 2013--] has opted for a different term, “synodality,” to describe the dynamic of the Church. Pope Francis has convoked a worldwide synod on the meaning and exercise of synodality, which he hopes will result in a greater participation of all the baptized in the Church’s twin missions of holiness and service.
I will review Ecclesiology and the Beginning of the Third Millennium when I finish the book and return from vacation early in July. It is a difficult book at times and some of its contributors go off on esoteric tangents, but some of its essays are intriguing. The opening historical survey is best, and other good ones include a treatment on the nature of Confirmation and another, “Catholic, Inc.: On the Mechanized, Managerial Body of Christ.” If you would like an easier introduction into ecclesiology, I recommend Ecclesiology: The Church as Communion and Mission  by Morris Pelzel. This text was written as a 120-page overview. You can sample this book on its Amazon site. Those of you currently in ministry, education, and catechetics may wish to refresh yourselves on ecclesiology given the pope's plans for the next two years.
If he lives long enough, Pope Francis may put forward a new direction for ecclesiology in terms of how the Church thinks of itself and exercises its daily existence in the identity and service of Christ. A thrust in the direction of consultative governance would be resisted by many, though not all, bishops of the United States, particularly those who enjoy their power but do not enjoy accountability. The continuing strains in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which meets in a few days, are a festering wound in both the communio and synodal models of Church life.
When Pope Francis issues his pastoral letter on Catechists this week, I hope he puts in a good word for CCD, or the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. This was the title of all religious instruction outside of structured university and seminary studies, dating back to 1536. In that year, the Abbot Castellino da Castello inaugurated a system of Sunday schools in Milan. Around 1560, a wealthy Milanese nobleman, Marco de Sadis-Cusani, having established himself in Rome, was joined by several zealous associates, both priests and laymen, and pledged to instruct both children and adults in Christian doctrine. Pope Pius IV, in 1562, made the Church of Saint Apollonia their central institution; but they also gave instructions in schools, in the streets and lanes, and even in private houses. As the association grew, it divided into two sections: the priests formed themselves into a religious congregation, the Fathers of Christian Doctrine, while the laymen remained in the world as "The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.”
In 1884 the American Bishops—concerned about anti-Catholic bias in the public schools--established the principle of a Catholic school in every parish at the remarkable Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, ensuring that the education of youth would be conducted by professional teachers/catechists and preserving the standards established in 1560 by the original CCD. The same plenary council mandated a national Catholic university, eventually my alma mater the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., as well as a national catechism, the aptly named Baltimore Catechism.
The American Catholic school system was without equal around the work for nearly a century. However, even at its zenith after World War II there were many Catholic youths who could not attend, for a wide range of reasons. Sheer geography and physical distance were a factor, particularly in rural parts of the nation where parishes were small and widely separated. But there were pastoral factors, too. Some families were estranged from the church for marital or other reasons and elected to use the public school system. While tuitions were low or, in my case, nonexistent, support of the Sunday offertory was expected. In the 1950’s my Catholic school closed at noon on Mondays so that the religious sisters and brothers could use the facility to teach Catholics from the local public schools in an arrangement called “released time.” The “CCD kids” were depicted in a bad odor by my Catholic school teachers; we were warned that if we had any valuables in our desk, we should take them home or they would be stolen by the public-school Catholics.
Despite the poor attitudes, the fact remained that a large percentage of Catholic youths were catechized by professional teachers—most of them religious women--steeped in the nuances of Catholic life and worship. But in the early 1960’s a “perfect storm of troubles” began to bubble up for the schools and the released time religious instruction programs that depended upon them. In his treatment of these times in The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry  Father Berard Marthaler comments that “despite the euphoria of Vatican II, by the mid-1960’s many Catholics had grown pessimistic about the future of Catholic education in the United States.” [p. 45] To unpack this assessment would require a book unto itself, but statistics bear out that the mass exodus of women religious from Catholic school teaching for ministries to the poor or to exit religious life itself began in the 1960’s and has led to a near total absence of religious from Catholic schools and parishes in 2021.
As a rule, religious community sisters were paid much less than lay counterparts, and their departure led to greater school budgets and increased tuitions. Pastors and bishops grew fatigued of maintaining ever increasing costs, and tuitions became a greater factor in the decision to place youngsters in Catholic schools. Whether the American Church could have sustained its schools with greater focus and commitment in the years immediately after Vatican II will be debated by historians for years to come. What we do have in hand is a remarkable document from the U.S. bishops in 1972, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” [See my Amazon review of the document here.] TTAJD is a remarkable work, almost utopian, in several respects. It sets adult education at the top of the formational pyramid while reemphasizing the value of established Catholic schools. It extends the catechetical umbrella to Catholic colleges and universities, naming departments of theology as intrinsic to both the world of academia and the general intellectual life of the Church.
TTAJD, in its teaching on Catholic schools, emphasizes the unifying element of faith and religious experience in all the academic disciplines. This is a return to the university model of the Medieval era, the age of Thomas Aquinas, where all the arts and sciences point to the wisdom of God within the language and principles of each discipline. Consider the principles of scientific method, the replication of theories to establish their credibility. But it is also true that in TTAJD the bishops make a Faustian bargain, delicately extricating themselves from the Council of Baltimore’s 1884 school mandate with the assertion that, while Catholic schools were the preferred formation of choice, other possibilities might suffice. “Although the document recognizes ‘inherent limitations’ in part-time programs offered for young people who do not attend Catholic schools, including parental indifference and scheduling problems, it acknowledges that they have ‘considerable strengths that should be built upon.’ The fact that [free standing religious education programs] depend largely on volunteers, for example, contributes to the building of a Christian community, provides creative planners to develop innovative approaches, and expands opportunities for Christian leadership and service.” [Marthaler, p. 46]
TTAJD acknowledged that at the time of its composition “many within and without the Church wondered whether Catholic schools had a future” and bishops reaffirmed that “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the threefold purpose of Christian education among children and young people.” [p. 46] But this endorsement did not bring forth a national restructuring of the existing school systems in terms of attracting new generations of students, long range fiscal planning, or most of all, a renewed commitment to the academic excellence of religious instruction. The remaining schools, for the most part, faced a perilous road ahead simply to survive. Statistically, Catholic schools have closed in disconcerting numbers since 1972 and even more so as dioceses declared bankruptcy after the clerical abuse crises in 2002. In February 2021, ABC News reported that two hundred Catholic schools in the U.S. closed their doors during the Covid epidemic, noting that there are now 5,981 Catholic schools in the United States, compared with more than 11,000 in 1970. For a fuller treatment of the Catholic school situation, this 2009 piece from the New York Times, “For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis,” summarizes the years since “To Teach as Jesus Did.”
So how does this play out for catechists? While trends rarely have “critical mass” moments, one can argue that since 1972 the Catholic Church in the United States has passed the baton of religious education to volunteer catechists—and not simply for the young, but for adult students of the faith as well. Put simply, the odds are overwhelming that any Catholic in the United States who receives religious instruction of any sort is receiving it from a volunteer.
I have served as an instructor for my diocese’s catechetical certification program for nearly forty years. I have great respect and affection for these ministers of religious education, and one can only imagine where we would be without them. I wish that our Church would be more candid with them about the history of faith formation in this country and help them appreciate the load they carry and the challenges they face. The catechists I know worry about their performance, about “getting it right.” Most do not know that they are carrying a burden for which their predecessors were trained in considerable depth and enjoyed a support system much greater than those available to catechists today.
Perhaps the simplest way to address the challenges to catechists is to list them.
Fifty years ago, a religious sister teaching CCD typically carried, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, some years in the school classroom, a teaching certification by the state, and a lifestyle immersed in the past and present of the Church, with years of institutional formation in postulancy, novitiate, and formation to vows. A parish volunteer rarely enters the catechetical ministry with this background.
Catechist training and certification programs, given the limited time available, can only scratch the minimum of the sacred sciences. When I retired from teaching in 2016, my diocese offered ten hours in the Hebrew Scripture and ten hours in the New Testament, two disciplines that form the basis of the study of theology and church life. There was little or no opportunity to introduce reference texts, responsible web sites, or useful periodical. By contrast, as professional teachers, religious sisters of earlier years had access to regular updating and professional workshops as well as an array of mainstream peer-reviewed journals and updates provided by reputable Catholic presses.
Religious education classes are offered in something of an educational vacuum, with time for only the most rudimentary catechetical data. Catholic schools, by contrast, offered then and now an integration of religious belief with the other arts and sciences, as well as contemporary issues with structured time for discussion and research.
Religious education classes suffer from a minimum of “face-time,” in comparison with daily Catholic school instruction. Aside from the limitations of a roughly 26-hour school year, teachers tell me that attendance is erratic, and continuity is difficult to sustain. [In TTAJD, the bishops cited the “voluntary nature” of religious education as one of its strengths; in practice, only the students take advantage of voluntary attendance.]
Catechists today do not have the institutional clout that religious teaching sisters enjoyed. This is particularly true for salaried catechetical administrators and parish overseers of catechetics. There is no contractual protection nor is there realistic due process when an administrative catechist runs afoul of a micromanaging or dictatorial pastor. Parish employees in general rarely possess realistic job descriptions or meaningful work evaluations; on the contrary, it is commonplace for additional ah hoc responsibilities to be routed to the religious education director.
There are several unique factors of twenty-first century American church life where catechists must brave new territory. One of these is the polarization of “left and right,” or progressive and conservative elements of Catholic parish life. Such divisions have been with us since Vatican II, but in recent years such divisions have become ensnared in the U.S. culture wars, which needs no explanation here. Consequently, the presentation of Scripture, Morality, Liturgy, and the other theological disciplines require a studied impartiality that was not the case when I began ministerial work in 1970.
Coupled with this challenge is the reality of social media. Church ministers, including catechists, become easy prey to unjustified on-line criticism when teaching the “hard saying of Jesus.” But pedagogically speaking, the internet is awash in amateur and outdated church material. Catechetical instruction must now include insights into orthodox and peer-reviewed material from Catholic news services, educational enterprises, and publishing houses. Or, put another way, development of the skill of undertaking sound research.
There is another hard truth for today’s catechists—Catholicism is ill. Attendance at weekly Eucharist is now recorded at 20-25%. When I entered ministry a half-century ago, about 50% of Catholics attended regularly. Recent research indicates that about 30% of Catholics understand the full nature of the Eucharist as the real Body and Blood of Christ. A few years ago, I attended a conference where a nationally famous religion journalist observed that since Vatican II each generation of Catholics is exponentially less educated in the faith than the previous one. While the decline in the number of ordained priests has been known for years [it was discussed at Vatican II, in fact], the moral clerical failures that have come to light in the last quarter century may be more damaging in terms of trust and, not to be forgotten, financial resources for the ministry.
For about twenty-five years I was a member of the Franciscan Order, and my training corresponded to the first decade after Vatican II. All religious orders were expected to reform after the Council, and I remember distinctly how the superiors of my order used to proclaim, “Start with the young, and they will lead us!” Today I look back and recognize that this was a self-serving strategy—kicking the can down the road so that the rank and file would not be unduly discomfited.
I think that any efforts down the road to revitalize the Church may be tempted to adopt this strategy, “if only we teach the kids better.” No, a true renewal of the Church—which of necessity includes a deeper understanding of the Scripture in adult life—must begin with adults. In his new pastoral letter on catechists issued May 11, Pope Francis speaks of the catechist as a community leader—or as I used to tell my student catechists, “You are the best educated Catholic in any roomful of parishioners.” This assumes a mastery of the Scripture and the Catholic tradition that we have not yet prepared you for.
One of the biggest complaints about liturgy is the generally poor preaching. A major reason for bad sermons is that priests are not reading. Again, recent research has found that young people begin their discernment to stay or leave the Church around the age of ten. Poor preaching is leaving its mark even on the young. If you are not reading and studying as an indispensable part of the catechetical ministry, your teaching will be as big a turnoff. But, if you commit yourself to the life of scholarship that teaching involves, you will become a true apostle in the New Evangelization, the embrace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I had lunch this week with my good friend Mike. We get together on the patio of a local Panera’s restaurant for salads, cinnamon buns, and Hazelnut coffee every few months. Mike and I are contemporaries [mid 70’s] and we first met about ten years ago when I was teaching the catechetical certification course for the diocese and Mike was working on his certification to teach in the religious education program of his parish. When the diocesan face-to-face instruction program was abandoned in 2016 in favor of syndicated on-line instruction, Mike and I kept in touch as he has assumed broader responsibilities for instruction in his parish, working with middle school youth. Right now, like teachers across the country, he is manfully struggling with virtual learning at a time when many of his students are already on-line all day with their regular public-school learning. It is no easy task for him.
I belong to several national on-line religious education and parish ministry support groups, in part to keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening with parish ministry across the country. What is distressingly evident is how many parish catechists, schoolteachers, and ministers plod through their responsibilities “one page ahead of the students,” as the saying goes, not from an absence of dedication but from an absence of training and experience. But more than that, catechetics and parochial ministry operate from an absence of “the big picture” of the rich tradition of Church history and Biblical Revelation. Catechists seem overly anxious about imparting data—what is a mortal sin, how to make a good confession—without a rootedness in the theory and history of what they teach. How does the human mind and conscience work? What is evil? What does the Bible understand by the terms sin, forgiveness, redemption? In short, we are going through motions without an understanding of the world of religious reality behind the data. Our catechists—and, truthfully, our preachers—are “teaching for the test.” Ask any schoolteacher—retention of factual data rarely survives summer vacation.
What distinguishes Mike and others like him is an innate sense that there is more to the faith than his elementary course material or the slow drumbeat of parish life he is exposed to, and he finds himself in a position of seeking a deeper knowledge of theology, very much on his own. During our lunch this week he had many questions about the nature and function of bishops, how they are appointed and the nature of their authority. [John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (2008) would have answered nearly all his questions about bishops, but who routinely advises our catechists--or any Catholic adult--on such resources?] Mike has lived his Catholic life under some poor bishops and some good ones—we agreed we are fortunate to live under a particularly good one right now, John Noonan in Orlando. Like many bishops, though, Noonan is handicapped in fully servicing the needs of Catholics like Mike by a multitude of roadblocks, the biggest one being that for generations now since Vatican II our educational efforts have been targeted to the lowest common denominator, such that the money for quality Catholic education in all its forms is hard to come by.
There are attitudinal challenges to be met. Shakespeare was right when he wrote that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance” and many years later Einstein observed that “information is not knowledge.” A seminary professor in my own time hit the mark when he opined that “piety comes and goes, stupidity remains forever.” [The faculty may have been discussing my theological progress fifty years ago.] All these points are pertinent to Catholic life. From what I hear from the pulpit and see offered on many websites, Catholic parish life rests content on commonplace information and simple piety. If you have ever wondered why sermons as a rule seem so pedestrian, one answer is the limited knowledge that priests and deacons bring to the pulpit; they are reduced to repeating what they know.
The argument is made that raising the bar, drawing from the more profound Catholic sources of yesterday and today would “confuse the faithful.” This was the argument I heard from my diocesan director when I protested that our theology courses for catechists and others should aim higher than the lowest common denominator. I pointed out that many of our students were college graduates or comparably skilled, and that we were certifying them for responsibilities previously filled by professionally trained religious women. Moreover, most of us live in a society grappling with complex questions. I was teaching a sexual morality class a few years ago when some nurses taking the course asked about the morality of parents allowing their children to undergo sex change surgery. I was caught off-guard, in part because I didn’t know this was a general practice, and I had not come across case studies about this in my moral theology reading. As a psychotherapist, I was able to speculate that there was a civil and ethical question about a minor giving informed consent. But, like it or not, this is the world we live in, and adult Catholics—particularly its ministers and teachers—need a level of competence to offer moral insight and make prudent decisions.
The “brain drain” in Catholic life is acute in all areas of theology, to questions as basic as the identity of Jesus Christ. He was born, lived, and died a Jew. How do his words make sense in the New Testament if we do not understand the world of the Old Testament? It was my contention then, as it is now, that religious ministry—and especially adult faith education—should be of a college level or very close to it. This challenge becomes more critical as religion is coopted into the American culture wars; the fact that some Catholics in the U.S. are “scandalized” by Pope Francis is an indication that Church teaching and theological discourse over at least the past century, if not further, has not percolated through to the general mindset of Catholics. In many cases Pope Francis is repeating centuries old teachings of saints and popes that never made their way into religious education or adult faith formation.
The “dumbing down” of Catholic life to formulas and data obliterates our millennia of rich experience and thought, not to mention art and architecture. It leaves Catholic adults with incomplete options, such as an overemphasis on piety and devotion that cherry picks the Bible and the Catechism and results in a shallow evangelism vulnerable to misunderstanding and extremism. It is little known that the Church condemns a denial of reason in the exercise of faith, a heresy known as fideism and most recently condemned by Pope John Paul II. In other words, the exercise of reason—the study of Scripture and Tradition—is the necessary partner in a life of faith.
I am encouraged that there are many Catholics like my friend Mike, hungry to enrich their faith and ministry for a greater appreciation of the wonder of God. This Café blog was founded with them in mind [though I find myself reading and studying more than ever to meet this challenge and discovering more of what I don’t know.] But my work is a drop in the bucket compared to what the institutional Church needs to be about in leading its people to wisdom. In the second installment I will do some daydreaming about access to theological study for all adult Catholics, and particularly for those who currently exercise ministry or hope to do so.
On December 8, 2020, Pope Francis declared “The Year of St. Joseph.” I was a little confused as to why the date of December 8 was chosen, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, but the day coincides with the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s declaration of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. Later, Pope Pius XII declared Joseph the Patron of Workers, and Pope John Paul II honored him as the Guardian of the Redeemer. Pope Francis, while incorporating these historical honors into his own 2020 Apostolic Letter, “With a Father’s Heart,” brings the memory of Joseph into the twenty-first century in a very pointed way.
In his Letter, Francis describes Saint Joseph as “a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a father who is creatively courageous, a working father, a father in the shadows.” Although we take Joseph for granted as a major Biblical figure, our image of the man is constructed with remarkable little help from the Scriptures. Joseph is not mentioned at all in the Gospels of John and Mark, and little in St. Luke. We would not know that he was a carpenter except for a tiny fragment in Matthew 13:55. Joseph’s major role in the family of Jesus is chronicled only in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, which itself is overshadowed by a parallel account in Luke’s first two chapters, where Mary’s obedience is the pivotal devotional point highlighted consistently in the beads of the rosary.
But In Matthew’s narrative Joseph is the pivotal character in the Infancy account. Mary says not a word. The angel communicates to Joseph the nature and meaning of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph is described as a “just” or “righteous” man who is willing to stretch the boundaries of what is the legal thing to do in favor of what is the divinely inspired thing to do, provide protection and dignity to a young woman who, to all appearances, is pregnant outside of marriage. Joseph will continue to listen to this divine inspiration when he protects his family by fleeing into Egypt to avoid Herod, and then settles in an unfamiliar region of Galilee. This is the last we hear of Joseph, the assumption being that he raised, supported, and trained his [putative] son in the ways of Jewish life.
As Pope Francis puts it, Joseph is “a father in obedience to God: with his ‘fiat’ he protects Mary and Jesus and teaches his Son to “do the will of the Father.” The pope goes on to describe Joseph as an “accepting Father” because he “accepted Mary unconditionally,” a critical witness in this world “where psychological, verbal, and physical violence toward women is so evident.” Francis goes on to underscore Joseph’s trusting in the Lord, even events he did not understand, “setting aside his own ideas” and reconciling himself with his own history. Joseph was “able to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations, and disappointments.”
In our time when the needs and rights of aliens—a basic concern of the Old Testament—has become a point of contention in the United States, Francis calls Joseph “the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution, and poverty…every poor, needy, suffering, or dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person is ‘the child’ whom Joseph continues to protect.” From St. Joseph “we must learn…to love the Church and the poor.”
The Church has long venerated St. Joseph as the Worker, and in 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1 of each year as a counterbalance to the celebration of May Day in Communist bloc countries. In his A Marginal Jew I  Father John Meier describes the work of a carpenter in Jesus’ day as a physical one, specifically the framing of new homes with trusses. [pp. 278-285] Both Joseph and Jesus would have been strong men for this kind of labor. If St. Luke is correct, the work was also sustaining; Joseph would not have been summoned to Bethlehem for a tax census were his profits insignificant. Pope Francis goes to great length to encourage sensitivity to a “renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which St. Joseph is an exemplary patron.”
I see on a variety of catechetical and religious websites numerous requests for ideas on how to integrate the year of St. Joseph into parish life. There are several opportunities here to be drawn from the figure of Joseph as he comes down to us from Scripture and historical devotion in the Church:
Critical Bible Study: The only Scripture text which speaks of Joseph at any length is Matthew’s Gospel, and come Christmas we are prone to pass over it to Luke’s narrative for our study and reflection, as Luke more closely fits the narrative we carry around in our head. But Matthew focuses on the character of Joseph, referring to him as “a just man,” a powerful accolade in Hebrew literature. It is Joseph who, after making his mind up to take his courageous step to divorce her quietly and sparing her the wrath of the law, receives the divine assurance and revelation that he has done the right thing. Joseph continues to receive divine enlightenment on how to protect his family throughout Matthew’s narrative.
The story of Joseph is a case study in the importance of critical analysis of the Biblical texts. Matthew has significant doctrinal and moral reasons for composing his Infancy narrative as he did, not least of all to emphasize how a just man, a descendant of Abraham, played a critical role in the Redemption narrative by being the kind of man he was.
The treatment of women by men: Color me old fashioned, but I judge another man by how he treats women, whether that be in the home, the marketplace, or the church. There is great wisdom in Genesis in describing creation as a fruitful duality, “male and female he made them,” and I am grateful for the women in my life who have saved me from my worst self and nurtured me into a better self, past and present. The society of Joseph’s time was patriarchal in its customs and laws, which only underscores his “manning up” to protect his beloved from the consequences of a time when the scales were tipped against women.
There is a Pro Life consideration under this by-line. In her 2019 bestseller Heartlands, an autobiographical description of rural poverty in her native Kansas, Sarah Smarsh describes in some detail the Saturday night struggles of the teenaged girls to convince their boyfriends to use condoms, against the emotional pleadings of their partners to please them. I do not need to spell out which sex bears the greater cost in these moral missteps. Respect for women is not just a public rubric.
The dignity of work. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened what has long been a problem in our country and elsewhere, i.e., the chronic difficulties of making a living and supporting a family. I would add to this reality another factor, that some jobs and some careers are more rewarding than others.
I would be lying if I said I had an answer to this human dilemma. It does seem that on such matters as job safety, wages, health care, and childcare, for example, the boundaries of the discussion are arbitrarily set to “market conditions,” i.e., what is profitable.
Curiously, there is a rather large body of Church teaching on the rights of workers and the divine necessity of fairness to laborers, in no small part attributable to the example of St. Joseph, venerated as “The Worker” in our compendium of feasts. From Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum  to John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens , the Church is on record as teaching the basic rights and protections of workers, rights that would probably be viewed as too progressive or generous in American capitalist culture. A review of Catholic social justice teachings on the work force seems a fitting exercise for the Year of St. Joseph.
Protection of the Alien. As noted above, Pope Francis describes Joseph as “the special patron of those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution, and poverty.” Despite the Old Testament’s frequent call for mercy for “the alien and the orphan,” the United States has had a troubled history with aliens seeking entry into our country to build a better life. In very recent times, our national policy toward aliens has actually created more orphans.
The year of St. Joseph presents an excellent time for public discussion of a moral and just process by which immigrant may be processed into American life. At the very least, applicants must receive due process of law. But beyond that, reconciliation and affiliation of the estimated 11,000,000 persons currently in our country would be entirely consistent with our Biblical roots. I am thinking, too, of the DACA population, many of whom have been assisted by Catholic social justice groups and/or graduated from Catholic schools and colleges.
We can only imagine how Joseph and his family depended upon citizens and even civil officials during their sojourn to foreign Egypt in flight from Herod. While there is plenty of room for debate about the details, the principle of welcoming and integrating well-intentioned seekers of admission and integration into our country today is fully consistent with a Biblically based faith. And come to think of it, most of us would not be here today if our ancestors had been denied at the gate.
John, known as the “Baptist” in several but not all New Testament references, remains one of Scripture’s most intriguing figure. Our catechetics and preaching have led us to consider John as religion’s greatest advance man. The term “precursor” was one of those linguistic challenges of early religious education, up there with tabernacle, transubstantiation, and other terms given us in youth to unpack as adults. I was well on my way to middle school before the terminology of the Feast of the Circumcision was explained to me, in benign and generic ways. In a nutshell, our 1950’s religion classes depicted John as a strange and wooly character of the desert who baptized imperfectly until Jesus came on the scene to reorder the washing rite into our familiar sacrament of Baptism for the forgiveness of original sin.
My youthful religious education took place in an age when independent Bible reading of the texts was neither taught nor encouraged. I had no idea that around the Western World scholars were studying the Bible, Jewish history, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other sources, and discovering what a complex man it was whose path crisscrossed that of Jesus of Nazareth. As the Catholic Biblical scholar Father John Meier reminds us, John had a life before Jesus, and there is good evidence that his movement continued long after Jesus. [A Marginal Jew II, p. 22] In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles [Chapter 19: 1-7], Paul comes across a community of the baptized who tell him: “We have never even heard that there is a holy Spirit.” Paul deduces that these are followers of John, now long dead, suggesting that John’s message and ministry was a true entity unto itself.
Meier’s commentary, which I laid out in some detail in the previous post on this stream below, notes the distinct ways in which John interacts with Jesus. The four Gospels each take a different vantage point for the relationship of John’s ministry and Jesus’ community. These differences are not necessarily contradictory; what they do show is the variety of ways each evangelist attempted to explain John and his role in the dramatic unfolding of God’s saving intervention. Meier maintains that the degree of difficulty across all four Gospels argues strongly for the historical reality of John, for no one would have gone to the trouble of inventing a figure so enigmatic as to create a world of puzzlement for the Christian Church.
Last Sunday’s Gospel was taken from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Absent any Infancy narrative, Mark begins with John and Jesus meeting as adults. The description of John—the rugged solitary figure who lives off the land and attracts large crowds with his call to repentance--Mark’s description of John, whom he calls “the Baptist,” draws from the prophesies of Isaiah, the precursor going ahead to prepare the way of the Lord. Mark’s Christology or understanding of Jesus is that of One who has come to usher the new day of the Kingdom of God, and the Markan account of John fits very well with that understanding of Jesus. Mark gives us no idea of the relationship between John and Jesus prior to the baptism, and he does not speak of the two men encountering each other after the baptism. [There is truly little discourse between the two in all the Gospels.] But Mark is the only evangelist who provides a lengthy narrative of the death of John, killed by Herod. Interestingly, when Herod came to hear of Jesus and his works, he comments in Mark 6:16 “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” Even after his death, John remained a widely revered figure.
Matthew’s Gospel is one of two that contains an Infancy narrative of Jesus’ birth, but there is no mention of John until the two men meet as adults in much the same way as Mark had described earlier. However, Matthew is the first to describe John’s ministry in considerable detail, notably his fiery preaching. In Matthew’s Gospel John’s words are directed at Pharisees and Sadducees, easily identified populations within Jewish society. John castigates them with the colorful phrase, “brood of vipers.” He accuses them of laxity and indifference, scoffing at their reliance upon their bloodline to Abraham as a kind of assurance of divine favor. “For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” John warns that the one who is to follow him will baptize with the holy Spirit and with fire, separating wheat from chaff in one final judgment.
This depiction of John from Matthew’s pen reinforces the evangelist’s understanding of Jesus as the new Moses, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. John’s damning critique of a complacent Jewish leadership reinforces the conversion of other Jews to Christianity. Matthew’s audience was a church of Jewish converts to Christianity; in the face of persecution Matthew attempts to rally them into remaining faithful to Jesus, in whom all the Scriptures have been fulfilled. Matthew is the only evangelist to include a “transition clause” between John and Jesus at the time of baptism, almost a passing of the baton. When Jesus presents himself for baptism, John protests. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus replies that John should “allow it for now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Biblical righteousness is a rich theme in the Old Testament, with its root understanding as devotion to God’s revealed Law, the Torah. Later Jesus himself would claim that “I have not come to destroy the Law and the prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.”
Luke’s Gospel is the only one to integrate John into the Infancy narrative of Jesus, long before his preaching and baptismal ministry. The pairing of the conception narratives in Luke 1 presents a powerful theological statement about both men. John’s birth is holy and marginally miraculous, but he is conceived naturally; the high priest Zechariah is his father. Jesus, by contrast, is conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary, the true Son of God, and the ultimate Spirit-filled preacher of the Father’s message. Even the preborn John recognizes Jesus as divine, and “leaps in the womb” when his mother Elizabeth is visited by the pregnant Mary.
As in the Gospel of Matthew, Luke devotes his third chapter to the preaching of John, nearly a verbatim retelling of Matthew’s account, suggesting a common source available to Matthew and Luke. [This hypothetical text is known as the Q-source.] Luke, whose Gospel has a universal flavor, gives clues that Gentiles may have also sought the baptism of John, as the evangelist cites soldiers and tax collectors—agents—of Rome—in John’s audience. Interestingly, Luke’s narrative relays that John was arrested by Herod and evidently not present when Jesus is baptized, suggesting that John may have had a circle of believers who assisted him. This may explain, too, why John’s disciples came to Jesus instead of John himself, to ask Jesus “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” [Luke 7: 18-23]
This enigmatic question of John is not viewed as a challenge to Jesus’ credentials, but perhaps more of a “gentle transition.” It is a linguistic opening for Luke to portray Jesus as the one who is God’s final statement to the world. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Luke’s reference is Isaiah 61, the apocalyptic forecast of deliverance of the poor and suffering. Luke’s inclusion of Isaiah’s language is a redirection from John’s message of future wrathful judgment toward an unspeakable outpouring of divine mercy as personified in Jesus. It is worth noting that Luke’s is the only Gospel to include such portraits of mercy as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Continuing in Chapter 7, Jesus goes on to praise John as the one who has gone ahead of him. “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
In the final Gospel, we have the Evangelist John depicting the Baptist John in the very first chapter. Again, the Evangelist John does not have an infancy narrative; the first meeting of Jesus and John [the Baptist] occurs in adulthood. The author opens his Gospel with the famous Christological hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” From a literary analysis, this hymn as it appears in John’s Gospel is broken in several places by an editor, with references to John the Baptist, as in 1:6-8, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He [the Baptist] was not the light but came to testify to the light.”
At the conclusion of the hymn the Evangelist describes John in much the same way as the previous Gospels do. When Jesus appears on the scene, John makes his famous profession of faith, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The term ‘lamb” has multiple meanings. The NABRE Bible commentary says this: “The background for this title may be the victorious apocalyptic lamb who would destroy evil in the world (Rev 5–7; 17:14); the paschal lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Ex 12); and/or the suffering servant led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin-offering (Is 53:7, 10). In any event, it is the strongest and most detailed affirmation of Jesus from the lips of John in all the Gospels.
The Gospel of John is the only one which states that the Baptist had disciples, and even more remarkably, he encourages two of them, including one named Andrew, to go off and join Jesus as a disciple. [1: 35-37, from this Sunday’s Gospel.] Another curious point in the Gospel of John: the evangelist does not mention the actual baptism of Jesus, but in John 3:22ff. we hear that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing in the same locale as John. This disturbed a disciple of John, who complained to him that “everyone is coming to [Jesus].” John replies that “this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase and I must decrease.” As the Gospel of John is the final one of the four, these words of the Baptist in John 3 are the final message of John the Baptist in the New Testament.