This is an intriguing question with a strong autobiographical component. I might have worded the question a little differently, along the lines how one’s Catholic identity comes into play when making major decisions, for most of us are the product of a lifetime of Catholicism which is broader than our current parish of residence, and that full panorama of Faith experience comes into play—or should come into play—in our major life decisions. On the other hand, there are moments of unforeseen crisis or decision where we look to the local church for guidance, advice, counsel, or some other form of intervention. As a former pastor, I can attest to the fact that people turn to the Church before they will turn to anyone else, and nothing makes or breaks a relationship to the Church as the quality of our ministry in those special times. I was adequate to the task at times, for which I am grateful to God, and inadequate at other times, for which I am deeply sorry.
There are several ways to discuss this question, but the best way to do so is to address the quality of every parish’s continuous faith formation. Do we get an adequate formation in Faith and Doctrine to guide us in our daily living, such that we are gently and wisely steered in the direction of graced discernment? Are we cultivating a life of virtue, rather than just a few visits into the world of holiness? St. Thomas Aquinas describes the term “virtue” as the product or acquired habit of doing good things, be they examining one’s conscience, keeping one’s temper, or sharing one’s bread with the less fortunate. To live virtuously is to develop the habit of daily, frequent communion with the wisdom of God, through prayer/meditation, study, and good works, and, it goes without saying, participation in the sacramental life of the Church. If we live in such a state, our decision-making will be wise and pleasing to God.
So, the question becomes—how well does our Catholic parochial life help us to form virtue, to habituate communion with God in word and deed, to the point that our Faith becomes a pillar in our “important decisions in life?” In a word, haphazardly. I do not say this with disrespect. While parish life has changed in many ways since Vatican II, the DNA of a parish has not. The local church is where we attend Mass, make confession, celebrate other sacraments, attend elementary school or “CCD”/faith formation when young. The parish hosts several societies for charitable and social purposes. At a time of crisis, as when Margaret and I lost our Danny to a drunk driver twenty years ago, a parish [and diocese, for that matter] can respond spectacularly. But when recent popes called for a “new evangelization,” or Pope Francis set forth the practice of Synodality, the local parishes [and dioceses] scratched their heads and hoped that the challenge would drift away like our late afternoon Florida thunderstorms. These concepts were not embedded in parish DNA.
Where parishes struggle is in round-the-clock formation to the Catholic Tradition and, more importantly, to continuing spiritual formation to prayer, meditation, and virtue. We must concede that Faith formation of the young appears to be our greatest priority, but too often even here the emphasis seems to be on the product—conduct, i.e., morality—without the building blocks, the necessary tools of experience upon which to build virtue, such as an inner awakening to prayerful mysticism and the cultivation of the nearness of God. We teach children formulae but not a lifestyle, which is why we lose them as early as age ten, as some studies show, and certainly after Confirmation.
Adult faith formation has not enjoyed a resurgence after the Council because unfortunately the template for teaching the young the A-B-Cs of religion spills over into our treatment of Catholic adult life in most parishes—reinforcing for adults what was learned as children, and not very effectively even in childhood. This is complicated by yet another unspoken but real handicap of pastors, including myself back in the day. We assume that adult Catholic faith life stands synonymously with the church plant, i.e., all aspects of our faith life are centered around the church building[s]. This is true in the sense that the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life. But in hard numbers, 99% of our lives are spent outside of the church building, many of them in our homes and careers. To become a fruitful and holy Church, we must become a domestic church. Much work remains to create in the hearts of all baptized Catholics a healthy ownership of a “lifestyle of spirituality” built upon a commitment to prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and study.
When we consider the subject of Synodality, from the Greek “to walk together,” one of the most important things we share is our own journey to walk in the wisdom of God. Formation to a full adult spirituality is one of the unfinished goals of Vatican II, and I believe that Pope Francis has this goal in mind in his call to Synodality. The process of Synodality rides and falls on its ability to capture the deepest spiritual experiences and insights of participants. In an ideal church, we are fellow travelers, lifting our confreres by our words and deeds. Not all of us are expert navigators, of course, and here is where the synodal process has enormous potential—putting us in communion with those who have “walked the walk,” and done the homework of breaking open the Revelation of Scripture and the treasury of the saints. Imagine, for example, if one of the members of your group was a local Trappist monk. Consider the wisdom he would bring to the table from a lifetime of meditation, common prayer, fraternity, and work.
Unfortunately, the Church is not currently blessed with many of these special people whose lives are leaven for those of us laboring along the way. There are many pastors who would like to provide their people with the learning and the tools to cultivate an inner life of devotion and prayer, but honestly do not know how. Spiritual formation is a unique charism of the Holy Spirit. Over the next three years the bishops of the United States are undertaking a renewal of devotion to the Eucharist—with an emphasis upon its centrality and its importance—but I fear that this effort will bear little fruit if it is not accompanied by an intensive immersion into the Sacred Scriptures, that as adults we wrestle to honestly answer the question of Jesus, “Who do men say that I am?” Add to that the need for guidance to the riches of meditation when beholding the Eucharistic bread.
Because of a severe shortage of persons for whom spiritual guidance and development is a life’s vocation—such as spiritual directors, members of religious orders, and the like—the labor will fall upon us to find our way into a healthy spirituality that directs our lives in ordinary and extraordinary times. I need to mention a historical caveat—to enter a closer life with God requires a certain courage. Reflect upon the phrase, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” We know that as the saints drew closer to God, their own egos suffered greatly. In the final years of his life, St. Francis of Assisi prayed repeatedly, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” When the letters of Mother Teresa became public, there was shock that her spiritual life was much more complex and troubling than we had been led to believe. Encounter with your inner God is a journey we must do alone, but always in communion with fellow sojourners. Synodality at its deepest.