For years I've been immersed in Catholic media and the ongoing conversation within the Church of how to carry on as the Church. And, of course, in the West, at the heart of this conversation is the fact that within the next generation half of the pews will empty.
When I travel, I always get asked by parents how they can get their adult children back to church. It's an epidemic. We know this.
And we can talk about catechesis and community and leadership and orthodoxy and the sacraments and the fullness of truth. We can complain about politics and how we need more preaching from the pulpit. But here is the core problem. Here is the practical reason why people are not convinced of the Catholic faith anymore:
We Catholics don't look or act any different than non-catholics. It's that simple.
The question we must answer is "if Catholicism offers a better way, why don't Catholics' lives seem any better?"
If we believe our faith and action in this life has eternal consequences, why don't we act like it? If the God of our universe, the Creator of everything, is truly present in the Eucharist, why don't our actions show this?
If our relationship with God is truly the most important relationship, why don't our daily schedules reflect that? If our marriages and families are our greatest blessings, why do we sacrifice them for our careers?
If God has a plan for us, why do we make so many plans without him? And why are we not on our knees every morning thanking, praising and giving over to him every moment of our entire day?
If Catholicism is true, why isn't everything we do ordered around this Truth?
The incongruity between what we claim to believe and the lives we live is revealing. Any honest outsider can surely tell that we can't possibly believe what we say we believe. Not only is our religion a fraud, but so are we Christians.
That's what Catholics as a whole communicate about Catholicism.
This was summed up half a century ago at Vatican II: “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 43)
Where the solution will *not* come from
If you are waiting for the institutional Church to stem the tide and fix this problem, you're missing the point.
Sure, we need inspirational leadership. We need solid catechesis. Our official organizations need to be more professional. We need to do "community" and fellowship better. Our leaders need to understand investment and ROI. They need to be more accountable and less wastefully bureaucratic. We should operate in all things with excellence because "excellence" itself is a Catholic thing. And we should embrace all things along the way that are true, good and beautiful and which serve the mission of the Church.
But such things will not fix our problems by themselves.
People can find well-run, professional, inspirational organizations and great communities anywhere. Christ gave us His Church for so much more. What we must focus on most is what the Church does best. Our competitive advantage. What nobody else can do like the Catholic Church does: Create saints.
Saints are beacons of Christ to the world. They are the most tangible fruits of the sacraments.
How many saints is your parish creating? That is the ultimate metric.
Saints will not lose their faith because of your bad liturgical music. They can suffer bad preaching, small budgets, poor management and every single one of the many fools we have in this hospital for sinners. They will still be there at Mass, quietly and slowly winning the world for Christ. Slowly transforming the Church. Recruiting other saints and fixing all of these other problems (and yes, they are problems that need fixing) in the process.
A saint is a powerful weapon in this culture war and every war to come. They are compelling in every age and from every angle. They need few words to be understood. They need no defense. They need no money, glory or fame. They have but to be themselves and the world can't help but change.
But we've gotten bad at making saints.
Because we've gotten bad at teaching. And I'm not talking about what we say in the classroom or preach from the pulpit. I'm talking about our example.
The best teachers show. As children we learn more by what we see our parents do than any words they ever say. We've forgotten this when it comes to handing on the faith.
We see this deficiency everywhere, online and off. How many times have you seen charity preached in anger? And orthodoxy preached in uncharity? This is the fruit of pride, not the fruit of a genuine concern for souls. We have fallen in love with knowing we are right and called it loving our neighbor.
My parents' generation left the Church without leaving the pews. And now they wonder why their kids find it silly to stand in the pews of a church they never really understood professing creeds they never really believed.
And so we find ourselves scrambling for ways to teach the truth. To instruct the ignorant. Demanding orthodoxy. If they only knew what they were leaving! But we go about it all wrong. We attack all the symptoms without really getting to the heart.
Instead of lecturing people that they have to go to Sunday Mass, inspire them to want to go. Instead of telling them to dress more appropriately for Mass, give them something worth dressing up for. Instead of telling them not to be unchaste, fascinate them with chastity. And on and on.
It must not only be an affirmative orthodoxy, but also an active orthodoxy.
Instead of talking about how beautiful the faith is, show them its beauty. Instead of insisting upon how good the Church is, be Good. Instead of lecturing about truth, live a life transformed by it.
You don't have to beat people over the head with the truth. You just have to open them up to it. Prepare the way. Then get out of the way. Open the cage door and the Truth will speak for itself. It will roar like a lion, who - once encountered - needs no help being taken seriously.
Taking Catholicism seriously
If we want the world to take Catholicism seriously, we must first take it seriously ourselves. That means making radical changes to the ways we live our lives. We need more people to answer the radical call to sainthood. We need saints. Not just saints of the past, but your sainthood.
When the world sees you, they don't have to see a saint, but at least let them see a sinner set on sainthood. We shouldn't need to tell people we're Catholic. They should smell it in our sweat. They should see Christ radiating authentically and naturally from every move we make. If they can't, we need to shut up and stop talking about what's wrong with everyone else and we need to start living a more compelling life.
We need an army of saints willing to live a radical life for Christ and others. Saints are compelling. Empty words and prideful lectures are not.
I, too, want to live a more compelling life. In order to do that, I've decided to cut back on a lot of my side projects and other writing commitments (including discontinuing my blogging here with the outstanding folks at the Register) in order to simplify my life, focus on my faith and make room for a project I have felt called to for some time now: The Radical Life. If anyone wants to join me, you can check out the beginnings of it here.
Each of us have been called to live a radical life. To be a saint.
"If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!" - St. Catherine of Sienna