March 10, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Church welcomes all, including new members and ‘recovering saints’

I receive a lot of anonymous mail. Most of it is not very interesting, and I don’t usually read unsigned mail.

But there have been a couple of letters that caught my attention. One person wrote that I “better teach our priests karate and jujitsu because these are dangerous times for priests—and we have too few as it is!”

Another person sent a dollar bill and said it was alms in lieu of paying “some small debts.” The dollar was “to satisfy the debt in the eyes of God.” There was a postscript to the note: “I am not so much interested in the winning of new converts as I am in the care of and recovery of the saints, the sheep of his pasture—the stray and the stolen, and the lost sheep.”

On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and on the first Sunday of Lent in the Rite of Election at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, we formally elected a good number of catechumens to prepare for reception into the Church and the Easter sacraments of initiation, namely baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist.

These are people who have never been baptized and formally received into the Catholic Church. At the same ceremony, we also formally elected a large number of candidates seeking full communion with the Catholic Church and the sacraments of the Church. It is a thrill to welcome all of these folks to our community of faith. The cathedral was packed for each of these three ceremonies.

The census count of membership in our archdiocese continues to increase; in fact, we are experiencing growth that is more than ordinary. Yet, it is also true that we lose members of our community of faith.

It is not unusual for parents to want to talk to me about their anguish because their child or children no longer attend our Church or they are attending another Church.

Many reasons are given. Sometimes, the difficulty concerns a second marriage. Sometimes, the other spouse of a mixed faith marriage prevails in the decision to worship in his or her Church. Sometimes, the reason is disaffection about strict teachings of the Catholic Church. Once in awhile, it is because of alleged mistreatment by a priest. Sometimes, the reason is, in fact, reaction against allegedly severe parents. Sometimes, they attend another Church because it is the “Church of choice” of co-workers or friends.

What about “the care and the recovery of the saints” mentioned in the anonymous note? More often than I care to hear, parents and grandparents feel their children and grandchildren did not receive the religious education needed to sustain their adult faith or to withstand the pressure of today’s secular culture. Some feel we sacrificed solid teaching about the doctrine of our Church and reasons for it, and put too much emphasis on self-esteem and the art of interpersonal relations. And they contend that much of the content that was offered was selective at best. I think they have a point.

Over the years, we have been carefully reviewing and evaluating our programs of religious education in our schools and in our parish programs, and the textbooks that are used. We are encouraging our catechists and teachers of religion to expect no less from students in faith formation than we would expect of them in other serious academic courses.

We will continue to do so. A new U.S. catechism for adults is about to be published and promises to be a good resource for teachers, RCIA programs, and young adult and adult faith formation.

There are fine adult religious education programs in many of our parishes. They offer an opportunity to “fill in the gaps” or to refresh the mind about the teachings of our Church. Our religious education directors and catechists work hard to provide for adult needs. Lent is an especially good time to participate in these programs.

A good number of our parishes sponsor special outreach programs for those who have become disaffected and alienated from our community of faith. Perhaps our Archdiocesan Evangelization Commission can encourage parishes to seek ways to offer these programs on an even broader basis.

For some people, the best way back to the practice of their faith is not by participating in programs. For some, the best way back is to look for a priest who is a careful listener, a kind (yet straight-forward) questioner and a compassionate confessor. Believe me, we welcome everybody, both new members to our faith and “the recovering saints.”

Lent is a time of special grace. God’s most generous gift—in fact, his greatest gift—is his mercy. That’s why Jesus died for us. And more than ever, our priests want to share that gift. †


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