Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Practice in Full Gear

I dream of a "missionary option," that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today's world rather than for her self-preservation
 - Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 27
Try as I may to put a limit on my own admitted tendency toward reading too much of the momentous into something that may be purely mundane, I just cannot break the habit. It's been with me a long time, a kind of quixotic playing-at-prophecy, which I really do think a fundamental kind of silliness about my worldview. On the one hand, I'll admit, it does have a certain charm and helps me to sustain the Chestertonian habit of wonder at the world and seeing old things new. And perhaps sometimes it genuinely is a conduit of graced insight, an exercise of the gift of prophecy contained in my sharing in Baptism through Christ Jesus. But I fear that most often it's a bit of tilting at windmills, a spur that is a useful and quick expedient to avoid acedia but not a true virtue rooting out the underlying problems. But then sometimes I figure - so be it. If I play the fool, I might as well play boldly and thoroughly.

The thing is, I've been sitting with Pope Francis's new exhortation Evangelii Gaudium since it first hit the internet, and the whole time I've only been able to feel like this is a really important moment for the Church.

Then I started, as I am wont to do when I think I've felt that vibration, that twitch on the thread, to try to trace and to follow that thread, to pick it up in what's come before. This is where I usually play the fool like I said. This is where I'll try to explicate the phenomenon, to try to explain why this is so momentous, where the ripples can be seen in, say, the former papacy or in the culture or - whatever. The habit, which serves well for maybe certain kinds of research or scholarship, is probably annoying from someone trying to comment on culture, though: and that's all that this blog is supposed to be about doing. And it is fighting this temptation, often enough anyway, that ends up keeping me away from bothering to blog at all.

So I'm not going to do that this time. Because something else has occurred to me recently, in study and prayer over this document: that there's something akin in this tendency of mine to a sports team that never practices in full gear before suiting up for the real game. Of course I need to theorize about culture - about how to restore Catholic culture and Western culture generally, about how to recover so much that's been lost, about the challenges that our milieu offers that may be unique and unforeseen, about which philosophies (like Distributism and Personalism) are best suited to meet those challenges - but the problem is that mere theorizing never gets me into gear and begins to test, to experiment, with those hypotheses. Tracing the thread of why this "moment" is here is one way of working out my vocation in the world, sure. But then, maybe there's another way: another kind of practice. Practicing in full gear. Getting in some hits. Maybe taking a few. And then reviewing the film. (Okay, you get the metaphor, sorry.)

So, here it is: I'm issuing a challenge, for myself and for anyone who wants to undertake it along with me, to take Pope Francis's words to heart in a really practical way.

The idea for this experiment arose for me when considering the season. At this time of year you will hear maybe more often than at other times of year snide remarks about "the Christmas and Easter Catholics." You know who I mean: those people who only come to Church on the major holidays.

"They should be ashamed of themselves," the Church Mice say. And I won't deny it at all: the Church Mice are right. They should. All sinners should, for their sins. But year after year the disputes arise over practical and pastoral approach in this regard: sure, they should feel ashamed of themselves, but is it any good for them to feel like we think they should be ashamed of themselves? Will that be liable to make them, in fact, ashamed of themselves, or just to think we're jerks and give them another reason to not want to come to Church the rest of the year? But if they do feel that way, is that our problem? ... and on and on. [And I hope that the presentation of the debate here registers my ambivalence and isn't mistaken as favoring one side over the other(s) - because I really don't know.]

It's a tough question, to be sure. But I don't want to raise that debate here, much less settle it. I don't want to address it at all. That's just running drills. I want to put on some gear and call a play. [And as a note aside here, I can't claim this idea as my own: it was actually urged by the Bishop of my own Diocese, the Diocese of Allentown, as a practice for Catholics of the Diocese to mark the Year of Faith. I'll admit that I didn't take his advice, and that's a shame. But now I want to try out what he proposed, but with a spin in the spirit Pope Francis has commended in his exhortation (and by his example).]

So here's the play:

We all know somebody who doesn't attend Mass despite the obligation to do so. Or at worst, if we don't know somebody in that predicament, maybe we know (or in the absence of totally knowing at the very least have a pretty shrewd idea about) somebody who hasn't been to the sacrament of Reconciliation in a pretty good while.

We tend not to make these things our business. But I think Pope Francis is challenging us to be missionaries in precisely this way (and so many more). And this is the easiest thing I can think of that puts the spirit he's advocating to the test: let's make it our business. Pray about, discern how, and then approach one person who needs to be 'evangelized' this way and do the work: make the suggestion, have the conversation.

But beware: don't just rush out to the first person you think of. Think of anyone you can, first; but then (a) pray for all of them but (b) try really hard to narrow it down and to figure out who the easiest 'target' is. Too often in spiritual endeavors we set ourselves up for failure, especially early on. We should make a practice when trying to grow in virtue of picking achievable goals. So don't pick the person most likely to fly off the handle. Don't pick the person for whom it will likely leave a weird mark on your relationship for the rest of time and render things never the same again. No. Pick the person who in the worst case scenario says, "Nah, bro, I'm just not really feeling that right now," such that - in that event - you'll be okay (at least for the time being) letting it drop there and you'll both be "cool" with the outcome.

See, it's the last bit of the plan there - about picking the easy target and what identifies that - that I couldn't really work through to last time I thought about doing this (when the Bishop of Allentown recommended it). But it is a key component because it isn't the last step.

Because the last step... well, second to last, really... is praying again. Regardless of the outcome: praise God, thank Him, and give Him glory. I'm not going to tell you how to pray, of course - that's a sub-plan that I'm keeping private in my own case as well. The point is, though, we need to return from this encounter to prayer, realizing that if it was a positive outcome it was God's work and that if it was a negative outcome it's still in God's hands anyway and we need to chill out. [And, although I did say I wouldn't tell you how to pray, I will make so bold as to add this as a, shall we say, 'practical necessity': don't forget Mary, especially if it has been a positive trial. She is the help of Christians, present at any conversion, and deserves recognition because if not Baby Jesus cries, the end.]

So, I said that wasn't really the last step, and here's why:

Because we need to share our experience and discuss our trials. This, in a sense, is really the most important part of the test. Well, that is to say, from my vantage point, considering it as a test. Obviously, yes, the conversion/recovery of a Christian soul and prayer and, well, all of that is of greater importance.

But I want this to be a proof of concept and that requires us to communicate and, well, 'commune.' I am firmly convinced that in a way we have been issued 'marching orders' by our Holy Father - but it's up to us to figure out how to deploy and some other tactical nuances. This is my proposed way of doing that.

Who's with me?


  1. I'm commenting on my own post. Because it's my own blog, and I can. Also: I want the com-box to be used. As opposed to, ya know, not.

    So, already in another forum the objection (albeit jokingly) has been raised, "But Pope Francis said we shouldn't proselytize!" I'm responding here because even though the individual meant it as a joke, it is something I could see someone raising as a legitimate objection.

    I think the easy answer is that what Francis means always requires contextualization lest it lead to distortions of meaning. Thus, "we shouldn't obsess over abortion" doesn't mean "go get an abortion!"... and so on.

    Proselytizing can and (if we're honest and have our finger on our pulse of language and usage) does bear a negative connotation: it refers to "that guy" who awkwardly approaches you randomly in the airport and asks if you have some time to talk about Jesus (which he pronounces, invariably, "Jay-zuzss"). So, yeah, don't do that.

  2. Joe, I'm passing along the suggestion! Let's hope people catch on.


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