Part 20: The culture of silence

Friday, February 19, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
By Father Samuel J. ESPosito

Part 20 of a weekly series.

There is a common assumption I have encountered in more than 35 years as a priest serving this local Church of Pittsburgh. Catholics, especially older ones, seem to believe that eight or 12 years of Catholic formation in parochial schools or religious education classes is enough for their entire lifetime.

If I mention that disciples of Jesus need to be life-long learners, the usual response is that we have already learned as children everything that we need to know about our faith. (Funny, I never hear professionals — whether doctors or football players — tell me that about their skills!)

We can see from the fruit of the past 50 years that this thinking has not and is not serving us well. Mass attendance, weddings and baptisms have plummeted. Many Catholics regard our faith as private, just between Jesus and me. We find it difficult to speak about him with others.

Let’s look at an example from Mark’s Gospel. In one scene, a leper, after being healed by Jesus, went off and "began to publicize the whole matter." That is a typical response to an encounter with Christ. This is such good news, such a life-changing event, that it cannot be kept private. So while our faith is certainly personal, it is never private. There’s a difference.

Among the 16 documents issued by the Second Vatican Council is "Lumen Gentium," meaning "light to the peoples." It’s about the role of the church as the body of Christ in the world.

This is exactly what biblical Israel was supposed to be. The people of Israel were charged to live in such a way that others wanted to have that same relationship with God. They were to hand down the story of how God had freed them from slavery and took them to the Promised Land. It is no coincidence that the council fathers used this image in "Lumen Gentium."

What do we do to shine light on who we are as followers of Jesus? How will our actions break the silence and start a conversation about what truly matters?

I think we have forgotten Jesus’ charge to encourage everyone to follow him. Instead, we have circled the wagons. We have focused our energies on maintaining the way we have always done church, while ignoring mission. We have failed to carry out Jesus’ command to "go and make disciples."

Have we grown comfortable with the shrinking numbers at our Masses instead of asking how we can grow them? Many believe that it is the job of the pastor or the director of religious education to fix that problem. Yet Vatican II’s call to universal holiness was meant to reinvigorate all the laity so that they would embrace their call to be disciples.

Baptism changes us. It’s not insurance or membership in a club, but a moment of grace that alters our identity for life. One author says we have "sacramentalized" our kids, but we haven’t "evangelized" them.

That is no surprise because we ourselves have not been evangelized! Many Catholics don’t even know that we can have a true relationship with Jesus.

Private religion is really no religion. We are the body of Christ, a community of believers. And that’s the best news around! Share it with someone.

Father Esposito is episcopal vicar of Pastoral Vicariate Region 3 in the diocese.

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