National Catholic Register

Commentary

America’s Entrepreneurial Spirit — at Church

After living in England for 25 years, I’ve been given the opportunity to return to my native United States.

BY DWIGHT LONGENECKER

July 16-22, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/17/06 at 10:00 AM

 

After living in England for 25 years, I’ve been given the opportunity to return to my native United States.

My experience of the Catholic Church in America at the dawn of the 21st century has been an eye-opener. The Church in England is, for the most part, complacent, slow to act and suspicious of change. The new ecclesial movements are either politely ignored or held at arm’s length as somehow “not English.”

In America it is a different story. In South Carolina I have found a Catholicism that is dynamic, upbeat, entrepreneurial and pro-active. Here are a few examples:

Gary Towery, a retired director of the Agency for International Development, decided he didn’t want to spend every day all day at the golf course. A convert of 40 years, Gary re-discovered a more vital faith and was asking God what to do when “Catholic Radio” came into his head. He knew nothing about broadcasting, and was on a steep learning curve about his own Catholic faith. Before long he became associated with Mediatrix SC Inc. — a not-for-profit corporation founded to bring Catholic radio to South Carolina. A local Protestant radio station came up for sale and he started to raise funds to purchase and operate the station. Gary now volunteers full time.

St Joseph Catholic School started 13 years ago when a handful of Catholic parents decided that the upstate needed a Catholic high school. They rented a house from a local Protestant pastor, begged or borrowed blackboards and books and started ninth grade with 13 students. They added a grade every year, made lots of mistakes, learned from those mistakes and kept growing the school. There was opposition from the locals, misunderstanding from fellow Catholics and huge risks all along the way, but now St. Joseph’s is in the top 20 Catholic High Schools in the nation, has 420 students, and runs a full curriculum and extra-curriculars on a beautiful 34-acre campus.

At St Mary’s, the downtown parish in Greenville, a young married couple decided that the parish needed a ministry for 20-somethings. So they started one. Disciples of Christ meets weekly for Bible studies, monthly Rosary and sponsors a theological lecture and discussion series called “Theology a Latte” that attracts 50 or so local people.
Carl and Jessie Eisenmann commented, “We wanted to run a group that was as efficient and upbeat as a successful business, but with the heart and soul of a strong Christian fellowship. We’ve created a model that can be replicated. We have 200 people on our mailing list, and members across the upstate.”

I could multiply the examples for pages, telling of the individuals I’ve met who have written books, started colleges, universities, publishing houses and websites; I could mention the guys who have started their own apologetics apostolates, the sixth grade girl who has raised thousands of dollars for pro-life work, the couple who started a Catholic bookstore, the freelancer who sells second-hand Catholic books online or the teenagers who work with the homeless.

All this freewheeling energy and enthusiasm is completed by existing parish and diocesan ministries with energy, enthusiasm and creativity.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Church in America is truly heartening and inspiring. It’s also a vital expression of the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Ordinary church members are getting up and getting on with the job. They are living out their baptismal calling to be full-fledged soldiers of Christ.

Like every good thing, however, it has its downside.

One of the problems with the entrepreneurial spirit is that it can be, well, a little bit Protestant. The typical Protestant knows what is best for him spiritually. He sets off on a quest for the perfect church, and if he doesn’t find one he starts one himself. Sometimes this same “I-know-best” attitude can be the shadow side of the enthusiastic new movements. Some who have more zeal than knowledge and more passion than wisdom can end up creating a group that becomes exclusive. Individuals who feel strongly about their particular brand of Catholicism can become divisive, sectarian or even cult-like.

Happily, Catholics have an authority structure that should save us from drifting into the bickering and divisive sectarian mentality.

All of our enterprises are meant to be built on the solid rock of Christ’s authority expressed through the ministry of Peter. Whatever our enthusiasms and projects, they must be subject to the mind of the Church. This is rarely easy. Church authorities often seem unimaginative, overly cautious and uninspired. They ignore, marginalize or block our pet projects. Sometimes they seem to be working for the other side. Nevertheless, we do not go and “do our own thing.”

The real obedience to the Church I have discovered in Catholicism has been amazing. I realize there are many disobedient Catholics, but coming from a free-for-all evangelical background, I cannot express how impressed I am by the spirit of obedience I have discovered among ordinary Catholics.

The beautiful truth is that when their own enthusiasms and projects are tried and tested through obedience to the Church, their efforts are deeper and stronger than they ever would have been without such a trial.

Our example in all of this is St Francis of Assisi standing barefoot in the snow. Derided for his outspoken preaching, rejected from his town, suspected of heresy and persecuted for his views, he stood in the wilderness of winter waiting for the attention and approval of Pope Innocent III. It was this approval — so long in coming — that sealed the apostolic authority of his work and propelled him to the stars.

Dwight Longenecker’s latest book,

Christianity Pure & Simple,

 is a basic introduction to

the Catholic faith.

It is available from http://www.dwightlongenecker.com