Some demons are harder to expel than others!
Jesus understood this and taught his disciples when they struggled to exorcize a mute spirit from a young boy. “This kind,” Jesus said, “cannot be driven out by anything except prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)
Some demons are troublesome, and when they sink their venomed fangs into us, they do not want to leave. Such a demon is often present in diocesan and parish life, wielding its dark influence to deaden and block our desire and ability to experience new life, transformation, and renewal.
I call it the demon of programs.
Though the denizens of Satan’s fallen realm prefer to work in the shadows, masking and hiding their presence whenever they can, still the discerning eye can spot their furtive and elusive presence. There are signs that one’s parish or diocese has fallen under the power of this programmatic demon to a greater or lesser degree:
- A tendency to see the right program as the primary solution to problems or the primary driver of engagement
- A repeated habit of executing programs with little personal preparation or followup with participants that ends up minimizing (or missing completely) the personal interior journey of the individual and the absolute importance of personal response to grace.
- An absence of forethought in how the various programs offered by the parish could build upon one another to help lead a person on a spiritual journey toward Christ, into discipleship, and then into a lifestyle of missionary discipleship.
- An organizational bias in favor of hiring and promoting administrative and operational gifts and skillsets, coupled with an excessive tendency to value and reward programmatic execution over spiritual fruitfulness.
Get with the Program
Now is the time when many of you who are reading this begin to push back and think things like “But we need good administration” or “we’ll never get anything done if we are not organized.”
And I completely agree with you.
Of course, spiritual growth and programmatic excellence are not mutually exclusive, but let’s face it, the Catholic Church is huge, and to meet the demands of the breadth of our members, we have become adept at creating programs and processes that move large amounts of people from one place to another (e.g., in our Catholic School systems, sacramental preparation programs, and catechetical offerings especially). This is especially true of the Church in North America, which largely grew from the influx of immigrants coming to the continent. To handle the flow of our people, we built structures (physical and organizational), processes, and programs that focused on producing fully initiated Catholics who could integrate with the surrounding secular culture.
We’ve inherited that programmatic mentality today, and often our first instinct when faced with things like declining attendance, fewer resources, and lack of participation is to “tune up” our programs and find ways to increase their efficiency.
And this is where the program demon enters.
In a parish or diocesan culture dominated by the programmatic demon, the efforts of pastoral leaders, staff, and key volunteers revolves largely around the efforts and activities central to running events, processes, and programs with little (or a substantially reduced) focus on where participants might be in the spiritual journey toward discipleship before the event in question and where they might be after!
The truth is that programs, events, homilies, and the like don’t make disciples. They can be particular moments of grace and catalysts for conversion, and they might even, through the grace of God, help someone surrender their heart Christ and become believers in Jesus and His church. But by and large, growth into the lifestyle of Jesus and His kingdom, learning and living the life of discipleship requires a particular kind of connection to those who are already disciples.
In other words, programs don’t make disciples, people make disciples. Or as I like to say, disciples aren’t mass produced; they are artisanal products. They’re handcrafted. This was fundamentally the model of spiritual multiplication that Jesus used!
Calling Max Von Sydow
So how can we exorcize the program demon and be set free from the Paradigm of Programs that often dominates contemporary parish and diocesan life in the West? The answer is as clear as it is radical! We must raise up a generation of men and women with missionary mindsets and practical skills who can accompany others fruitfully on the spiritual journey. This will be necessary not only to help set our parishes free, but this same approach will be necessary if we are to live fruitfully the Church’s mission to the world!
This is precisely what M3 Ministries offers to parishes and dioceses. And in the course of the last several years, we have seen first-hand how the presence of these ‘parish-literate missionary band of evangelizers’ challenges the current culture and brings their missionary perspective not only into their worship of God and daily life, but also into the meetings and plans of the parish community.
If we want to be free of the program demon, we must equip men and women who:
• Possess a deep understanding of The Great Story of Salvation (the Kerygma)—including how the Gospel Message applies to them, and how their story and The Great Story intersect.
• Demonstrate a desire to share the Kerygma (the core Gospel Message) with others and walk alongside of them into relationship with Christ.
• Understand the spiritual journey toward discipleship (the pre-discipleship thresholds) and have experience listening as disciples for where someone might be in those thresholds.
• Possess integrated knowledge of the evangelization process and can think about parish life through the “lens” of that process.
• Can concretely invite someone to surrender their lives to Jesus.
• Demonstrate comfort with the power, presence, and person of the Holy Spirit, and intentionally “partner” with the Spirit to release the power of the Kingdom of God in both natural and supernatural ways.
Of course, parishioners don’t need to be formed in
all these areas to be effective witnesses to Jesus. New disciples and longer-term
followers of Christ whose lives have been re-energized and renewed by the Lord
can profoundly touch the lives of others in Jesus’ name—without the benefit of
such missionary formation. However, a parish or diocese rooted within a
Paradigm of People consciously chooses to raise up these kinds of missionary
leaders, not as a pre-requisite or requirement to serve in a missionary capacity,
but so that the missionary activity of the whole parish will bear greater fruit.
In other words, leaders in a people-focused paradigm don’t hold back their
people from missionary activity until they complete all of the “necessary”
formation, but rather seek to build up the missionary skills and identity of
every parishioner so they can become even more effective and fruitful in
sharing Jesus with others.
If you’d like more help moving from a Paradigm of Programs to one that focuses on People, check out the latest book from M3 Ministries’ Executive Director, Deacon Keith Strohm. It’s called Ablaze: 5 Essential Paradigm Shifts for Parish Renewal. You can purchase it from Amazon.com by clicking on the link below the image.
And just like the mute spirit in the Gospel of Mark, if you want to exorcize your community from the program demon . . . don’t forget prayer and fasting!
“We have a really vital parish, just look at how many ministries there are!”
I have heard this declaration countless times over the last twenty years as a parish mission leader, speaker, consultant, evangelization trainer, and diocesan employee. On the one hand, I’m delighted to see the passion that people have for their community. On the other hand, I cringe inwardly and try to keep my eyes from rolling toward the back of my head when I hear this sentence fly out of people’s mouths.
It’s not that I think they are lying.
The people I meet in my travels are, for the most part, genuine, loving, caring men and women, and they honestly believe what they are saying.
The problem is that often times, they are wrong.
What do I mean?
The Engagement Trap
Many of our parishes are trapped in a Paradigm of Engagement. Leaders working from an engagement paradigm see their primary responsibility as getting people involved in the life of the community—which usually means
making sure people are present at parish events, supporting activities, and volunteering. Obviously, these things are desirable, but in a paradigm of engagement, they become the entire focus of leadership’s time and energy. In this worldview, the highest goods are involvement, volunteering, and activity. These become ends in themselves and often are not integrally connected to developing a relationship with Jesus or to mission.
Seen from this perspective, action and activity become confused with vitality. Leaders, key volunteers, and involved parishioners often evaluate the life of the community based on its level of activity. But if we look through kingdom lenses we discover something profound–motion is not synonymous with mission.
The human body— with its complex chemical, biological, and mechanical processes—offers some parallels in this regard. Your heart, for example, pumps blood through a network of interconnected arteries, veins, and capillaries. This cardiovascular highway has a very particular purpose, it brings oxygen to the organs and muscles of the body and removes waste, such as carbon dioxide. The arteries carry blood away from your heart, and veins carry blood toward your heart. If the arteries and veins simply decided to do whatever—for example if there was no rhyme or reason to the direction that blood flowed—your organs might die from oxygen starvation.
In short, biological activity without a particular organizing purpose can still lead to death. The same is true of a parish. Parishes with lots of activities, ministries, and socializing opportunities are not necessarily vital, alive, or transformed.
They may simply be busy.
The mission of the Church, however, is to make disciples. Therefore, if we want to gauge the vitality and life of our parishes, the real question we should be asking is not “How many ministries or activities do we have available?” but rather, “How many disciples have we produced?” Jesus called the Church into being to bear the fruit of discipleship.
It doesn’t matter how active a parish is if it is not producing that fruit. Therefore, the question of fruit bearing is the single most important question we can ask ourselves as parishes!
Consider the case of the barren fig tree in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Luke. This tree is alive, and yet it has not produced fruit for the vineyard owner. On some level, this tree is active. Sap and nutrients move between its roots and its branches, and yet it does not bear fruit. In a similar way, I have encountered parishes that are exceptionally active, and yet spiritually dead.
Breaking Free of the Trap
So how can parishes break free of the engagement trap? One way is for parish leadership to take an honest look at the action, activities, ministries, and areas of service to the world that make up their parish’s life. This can be a challenge because we all become attached to certain things in our parish–especially if they have been around for a decade or more. Looking at the elements of parish life through the lens of mission, however, means looking for fruit–real, tangible transformation, healing, and new life that are the hallmarks of life in Christ.
Here are some questions that can guide you to that fruit:
- How does this particular activity or ministry foster, nurture, or support an encounter with Jesus Christ?
- What are the concrete ways that this ministry contributes to the making, maturing, or missioning of disciples of Jesus Christ?
- Where does this ministry or activity fit within our parish’s discipleship pathway (i.e., a linked series of processes, events, and formation designed to help people move into discipleship, mature as disciples, and be equipped as missionary disciples)?
- Has this ministry or activity regularly produced intentional disciples of Jesus Christ over several years?
If you’ve applied these questions to some areas of your parish’s life, and you can’t come up with easy answers, don’t be frustrated. Chances are, you have a remarkable opportunity to reshape and redirect the focus of your parish so that it bears the fullness of fruit that the Lord desires from it.
If you’d like more help with that process, check out the latest book from M3 Ministries’ Executive Director, Deacon Keith Strohm. It’s called Ablaze: 5 Essential Paradigm Shifts for Parish Renewal. You can purchase it from Amazon.com by clicking on the image below.
While you are waiting for it to arrive, perhaps you could wrestle with this question: How does your parish’s registration process foster an encounter with Jesus Christ?
Because after all . . . it should.
It’s finally time to launch your parish’s evangelization program!
After what seems like endless months of planning, modifying, communicating, and prepping, launch time is here. You’ve read all the right books and been to all the right conferences, and you worked hard at picking the best possible program. The name tags are made, the pencils sharpened, and the small groups assigned. Now, all you have to do is keep the momentum going and parish transformation will blossom like flowers in springtime.
If you are like so many other parishes, your program may launch to great success and then seemingly disappear without much lasting fruit, ending up assigned to the dustbin of history as another reinforcement for the “we tried that before, and it didn’t work” culture so prevalent in parochial life. The truth is that cultural change is challenging and takes far more than a spiffy new program to occur.
Here are 5 reasons why your parish’s latest evangelization program won’t bear much fruit:
Maybe your parish is exceptionally active, and you have so many things going on that your latest evangelization program is just one more activity in the Greek-Diner-sized menu of competing events. Or perhaps you are under-resourced as a parish, and it took everything that you had to just get this latest program off the ground. Either way, chances are that your new evangelization initiative is not linked in a strategic way with any other parts of your parish’s pastoral strategy. It’s an outlier, and once people go through it, you don’t have any process, program, or event that builds upon what your parishioners experienced in any formative developmental way.
In other words . . .what’s next for the alumni of your evangelization program? What path do you have for them to take the next step toward (or in) relationship with Christ? Here’s a fundamental question I ask every parish that M3 Ministries works with: What is the specific pathway that your parish has available to help those who are unchurched encounter Christ, come to a decision to follow Jesus, mature as disciples, and receive formation to share Christ with others? In order to really bear fruit, every parish must have a clear plan accompanying people on the journey toward missionary discipleship. One program–even the most amazing one–is not sufficient.
It’s a Cattle Call
Catholics have developed a remarkable ability to create institutions, programs, and processes to move large amounts of people through specific experiences–Catholic Schools, RCIA, Religious Education of children, sacramental preparation–you name it, and we can catapult thousands of people through every major hurdle and come out the other side. The problem is that we never take the time to discover where each of our people are in their own spiritual journey before we load the catapult. As a result, we offer every single person the same experience as if they were all in the same place spiritually, and we very rarely help them discern if they are in the right place developmentally for a particular program to bear sustained fruit in their life. And we wonder why our programs seem to have little lasting impact.
It is only recently, with the publication of Sherry Weddell’s landmark book, Forming Intentional Disciples, which introduced the concept of key pre-discipleship thresholds to the Catholic world, that we have a language and conceptual framework for seeing more specifically where people actually are. The work of other apostolates, like FOCUS and their Discipleship Roadmap, have expanded this understanding to the post-discipleship journey. The reality is that people in different thresholds and places on the journey require different things, and offering people something for which they are not developmentally able to receive can cause them to “go backwards” or stall in their journey toward missionary discipleship. In other words, how will baptismal prep at your parish be different for someone in the Threshold of Trust versus someone who is in Seeking?
We rarely do any followup or debriefing with those who come through our evangelization programs. Often, our parishioners have positive experiences and may even move through some thresholds, but we never walk with them after and help them unpack that experience. We either end the program abruptly when it is done, or quickly move on to the next program. When we offer experiences and programs that make an impact and then don’t nurture that change within people, we guarantee that the fire kindled within them will eventually die. It is imperative that we take the time and walk with people post-program. It is as important as providing the program itself in the first place. Personally, I like to ask men and women who complete a process or program: “How did this experience influence, change, or deepen your relationship with Jesus?” and “What can I do for you to help you grow further in this area?”
Sometimes we embrace mediocrity in the Church, believing that good content and great intentions mean that we can get by with ho-hum execution. The good news is that most evangelization programs today are high-quality and possess phenomenal multimedia resources baked into them. But I’m not just talking about video quality or handout design. Good execution means paying attention to every facet of the program experience–from ease of sign up, to meeting hospitality, environment lay out, small group facilitator discernment and formation, communication with participants, and just about anything else you can think of. In the 21st century, we are competing with countless other activities and experiences for the attention and time of people. This isn’t about making our programs more entertaining, but rather providing the best possible experience for our parishioners and guests. Why invest money, time, and resources into a program that you are just going to run on autopilot?
Evangelization programs should have as their goal the making of disciples. Running a program without explicit understanding and agreement of this reality on the part of leadership leads to less fruit. When evangelization programs are run to try and keep people engaged or get new people “involved,” they often do not bear lasting fruit. Furthermore, we know that only a disciple can make a disciple. Unfocused evangelization programs often lack the presence of disciple facilitators who understand the disciple-making process. Without disciples facilitating the program and intentionally accompanying participants, the program will not have as much of a long-term impact as it could. This intentional accompaniment includes a willingness to invite others “in the present moment” to drop their nets and follow Jesus if the situation warrants that kind of invitation.
The good news is that our evangelization programs do not have to fail. By taking these five factors in to account during the planning and execution of your parish’s program, you will help that program yield sustainable long-term impact.
I’ve traveled all over North America serving the Church during the last 25 years, and I’ve learned a few things.
The most important being the fact that our parishes are filled with amazing, generous, gifted men and women who are not yet disciples of Jesus Christ–not through any fault of their own, but because we as pastoral leaders have not done a great job of proposing relationship with Jesus to them (and living it out for them to see).
Yes, there really is a crisis of discipleship.
But it is aided and abetted by a related crisis–a crisis of leadership.
If evangelization and accompaniment are the core components of the engine that drives parish renewal, leadership is the essential fluid that cools and lubricates that engine, allowing every component to perform at maximum efficiency. Without authentic leadership, the engine of cultural change fails to start, overheats, or blows a gasket, thereby coming to a complete stop.
Just look at the current manifestation of the sexual abuse crisis we are living through right now. Clearly, the causes of this abuse and cover up issue are complex and interrelated, but you can be darn sure that poor leadership on the part of our shepherds has helped to move us to this place today. Healthy things can grow in a healthy climate, and nothing has quite as profound effect on organizational climate (also called culture), than leadership. Just talk to anyone who has volunteered or worked in a parish for any length of time–chances are they will have run in to an unhealthy climate (or two…or three). Such toxic environments stunt growth–personal, professional, and spiritual. They spread division, woundedness, bitterness, anger, and hurt like a virus, and they act in direct opposition to the Church’s mission.
If we are going to take the New Evangelization seriously, and truly live out the Church’s mission, we need to form, raise up, hire, and nurture authentic pastoral leaders who can bear great fruit. The hard truth is that many of our parishes are not led well, and the blame isn’t simply on the pastors, priests, and deacons. Our entire leadership culture often suppresses innovation, uses intimidation and manipulation masked in pious language, promotes mediocrity, and is more concerned with external data (numbers of people who go through our programs and processes) than spiritual fruitfulness. Often, our parishes live, lead, and struggle out of silos rather than focused and generous collaboration.
The context of our current crisis only highlights the dire necessity of leadership transformation. There are no other options–we either embrace a fundamental change in how we govern and live out our common baptismal life as parishes, or we just accept the fact that our future fate will be one of decline, retrenchment, and a growing irrelevance to the secular world.
Responsibility for such a change in leadership begins, first and foremost, with each of us. To that end, we have identified 7 Qualities of Fruitful Pastoral Leaders in an attempt to help individuals and groups of parish leaders begin this journey of transformation. You’ll find the 7 Qualities listed below. In addition, we have also created a free, downloadable Leadership Resource to assist you. This resource not only contains details on the 7 Qualities, but it also sets out some critical reflection questions that you can use individually or in a group setting to form and support your personal development as a leader or the growth of leaders at all levels of your parish. You can download the FREE resource by clicking here or by clicking on the image at the bottom of this blog post.
Note: We chose to use the word fruitful rather than simply effective to highlight an important reality–leadership isn’t simply about positional excellence but about individual and communal impact. Fruitful leaders not only change culture…they change people. In addition, each of these 7 Qualities rests upon the foundation of vision. Not every leader in your parish has the ability to see, articulate, and promote a new vision, but all leaders internalize the vision of the community and live it out in such a way that others are drawn in.
7 Qualities of Fruitful Pastoral Leaders
- Discipled: First and foremost, a fruitful pastoral leader must be a disciple—one who has had an encounter with Jesus and intentionally chooses to follow Him in the midst of His Church. The discipleship process can not be understood “from the outside.” Fruitful pastoral leaders understand the spiritual journey toward discipleship and know how to help others entrust their lives to Jesus.
- Invested: Effective pastoral leaders invest intentionally in the mission of the community or organization. They are present and proactive in the process of helping their community live out that mission. In addition to this “mission alignment,” authentic leaders invest in the people they serve, seeking to build them up—even when it isn’t convenient.
- Relational: Fruitful pastoral leaders understand that, ultimately, their role is to foster their own relationship with Jesus as well as the relationship of others with Jesus, and they create cultures that prioritize those relationships. One of the key ways they do this is by accompanying others relationally. Even if their role has a large administrative component, they never lose sight of the reality that it is all about Jesus and the people they serve. This extends to their colleagues and other staff members; effective pastoral leaders build a web of authentic relationships and choose to work collaboratively rather than in silos.
- Accountable: Pastoral leaders who bear sustained fruit in their ministry prioritize accountability. They hold themselves responsible for delivering on their objectives and expect others to do so, too. Working in team, these leaders do not hesitate to hold their team members accountable, and when difficulties arise, they do not scapegoat or shift blame; they step up, take responsibility, and look for solutions. Accountable pastoral leaders do not hesitate to have difficult conversations with team members, peers, and their own leaders to bring clarity, reinforce healthy boundaries, and address issues.
- Discerning: In order to bear the most fruit, effective pastoral leaders intentionally discern the direction and will of God for themselves, their community, their ministry, and in relation to the people they serve. This begins with prayer and attentiveness to the movement of God, coupled with a growing detachment to their own plans and visions. Discerning leaders prioritize prayer as a leadership team and seek the will of God together.
- Surrendered: Effective pastoral leadership begins with the deep understanding that nothing can truly grow and move forward on our own power; all depends upon the power and presence of God. Fruitful leaders intentionally invite the Holy Spirit to move in their ministries, expect that He will show up, and leave room for His direction and supernatural action.
- Empowering: Fruitful pastoral leaders know that they do not have all the gifts necessary to move and transform a community or organization. Therefore, they seek out, nurture, and support others with the gifts that are necessary. These leaders are not threatened by the giftedness of others—even when these gifts exist to a greater degree than their own—and they actively work to grow others into leadership roles.
Living these qualities out will not be easy–especially in the beginning. It will take much understanding, compassion, frank and honest discussion, and trust to change our leadership culture. But doing so is one of the most powerful ways that we can cooperate with the supernatural life that God has given His Body, the Church. When I first met Fr. James Mallon’s parish, St. Benedict, a few years ago, I commented to him that the secret sauce of the Divine Renovation model was that they wedded the very best in human organizational leadership principles with a reliance on the supernatural life of the Kingdom.
Are we ready to commit to such a shift in our own leadership? Are there other qualities of fruitful leaders that should be highlighted? We’d like to know. Drop a line in the comment box. And don’t forget to download our FREE Leadership Resource by clicking the image below:
Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We all know that Joseph is a powerful saint and a tremendous example to husbands and fathers everywhere.
[Full Disclosure: Joseph is my confirmation name, and I picked St. Joseph as my saint for confirmation because I felt badly for him. Between Jesus and Mary, Joseph often looked to me like he was “forgotten.” Out of pity, I asked him to be my companion–and he has shown himself to be a powerful advocate and friend throughout my life.]
As I was saying, we generally view St. Joseph through the lens of fatherhood and familial love, but today on his solemnity, the Church offers us an opportunity to see within his life a fundamental principle of the Gospel. If we embrace this opportunity, we will “right-side” St. Joseph. In other words, instead of taking an image of St. Joseph and burying it upside down so that we can sell a home [can we STOP doing that, please?], with the right openness, we can allow the image of Joseph to turn our own lives (and the lives of our parishes) upside down with the power of the Gospel.
What do I mean? Let’s take a little dive into today’s readings!
In Chapter 4 of his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul takes some time to reflect on the fruitfulness of Abraham’s life. In it, Paul writes: “It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” (Romans 4:13) Paul understands that the new life promised to Abram by God in the Old Testament did not manifest simply because Abram carried out God’s commands. In other words, Abram became Abraham, the father of many nations, not because of Abraham’s actions, but because of something called righteousness.
Righteousness really means “right relationship” with God–a real and intimate union and integrity with the One who created us. Because of the Fall, this union with God has been ruptured beyond our human ability to repair it. Any restoration of this relationship must come from God, and St. Paul identifies this divine restorative action upon us as righteousness. Because righteousness originates entirely with God, it cannot simply be produced by our actions and activities. This is why Paul acknowledges that Abraham’s righteousness “comes from faith.” At some point, Abram entrusted himself to the Lord, and that intentional decision to make the Lord the center of His life allowed him to receive the righteousness of God.
I can already hear you thinking “But Deacon Keith, by your own words it is the activity of Abraham that produced righteousness. He did something (turning his life over to God) and then was transformed.” That might be true if Paul didn’t follow up his statements on Abraham’s faith with more reflection: “For this reason, it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham . . . .” (Romans 4:16)
Both Scripture and Tradition are clear that Faith does not originate in the human will, but rather it is a gift from God. Therefore, even our desire and ability to make this act of entrustment to the Lord comes from God, from the Divine Life he offers us (which we call grace). The action of God’s grace upon us before any engagement of our own will is called Prevenient Grace in our Tradition. This grace gives us the desire and openness to say yes to the Lord, and this desire is transformed into the theological virtue of Faith at our baptism. In God’s goodness, we can continue to cooperate with that virtue of Faith throughout our lives, and this cooperation will bring us closer to union with God.
The Trap of Performance
Why is this such a big deal? Why am I even spending this much time on righteousness, grace, and activity? The truth is that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters, those we serve at the parish level, and those we know in our own lives, have fallen into the trap of “performance Catholicism.” In other words, they believe that Catholicism is primarily about following rules. As long as they do Catholic things, as long as they simply fulfill their obligations, they’ll be “safe.” This kind of faith becomes almost entirely transactional. I do “Catholic Thing A” so that I will get to heaven. I push this button by doing “Catholic Thing B,” and I pull this lever by doing “Catholic Thing C” and the gates of Heaven will open. But what Jesus Christ and my relationship with Him has to do with it is very, very unclear.
Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI had some powerful things to say about this kind of performance Catholicism:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. —Deus Caritas Est, 1
For Pope Benedict XVI, there is more to Christianity than just intellectual propositions, moral truths, and proscribed actions. Rather, the heart of Christianity is Jesus, who is the Father’s Love Incarnate. This Jesus invites us into relationship and no amount of “doing Catholic things” (even things like the Mass, devotions like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or activities like scripture study, etc.) without intentionally entrusting ourselves to Jesus and living out this relationship will, ultimately, save us. The activity that flows from that relationship, our “works” are the manifestation of that saving faith in our lives.
Calling All Patriarchs!
But what does all of this have to do with St. Joseph? Well, today’s gospel reading from Matthew takes on new dimensions in light of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through this epistle, we can see the remarkable parallels between Abraham, our Father in Faith, and St. Joseph. Like Abraham, to whom the Lord spoke and through whom He promised new life would flow, St. Joseph also hears from the Lord in a dream. Joseph, being a good Jew is troubled by Mary’s pregnancy, and since they were betrothed but not yet married, he planned to set her aside quietly, so as not to place shame upon her. But the Lord counsels Joseph not to “be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” (Matthew 1:20-21) The Lord’s promise to Abraham is new life, the generation of a people, and the Lord’s promise to St. Joseph is that through the Holy Spirit, Mary will bear the one who will offer new life to the world–and it is through Joseph, that this messiah will receive a name (1:21).
Like Abraham, it isn’t simply the following of God’s commands that allows Joseph to bear this fruit, but the intentional decision to follow the Lord and place his trust in God as the central relationship in his life. Through grace, Abraham became our Father in Faith, and in a very real sense, through grace St. Joseph becomes the Father of our Faith in Jesus Christ. If we look to his image in scripture today, the invitation over our life becomes clear: God is speaking to each of us personally and calls us to make an intentional decision to surrender our hearts to him. This is the Gospel of Righteousness . . .that salvation comes not through our own goodness or efforts, but through our relationship with the one who left heaven in search of us and merited for us the new life of God’s Kingdom. We don’t earn it, and all we need to do is receive it and allow it to take more and more possession of our hearts.
Our journey through this earthly pilgrimage is not simply a solitary one, we are called and saved as a people (1Cor 12:27). As those committed to the transformation of our parishes how can we help change the very culture of our parishes so that they become places where our brothers and sisters regularly have the opportunity to be changed by the power of the Gospel? St. Paul is pretty clear later on in Romans when he proclaims that “faith comes through hearing.” (10:17) Therefore, a critical question we must ask ourselves as leaders and committed disciples of Jesus is “Where in our parish life together is the gospel message (The Great Story of Salvation) being proclaimed in such a way that people have the opportunity to respond to it?”
One way to answer this question is to do the following:
- Gather together as parish leaders, ministry coordinators, or concerned disciples and make a list of all the parish ministries, activities, and offerings.
- Then identify those specific ministries, activities, and offerings that explicitly proclaim the gospel message and invite participants to respond. It is important here to be very honest and clear. Make this determination not based on what the ministry should do or is supposed to do, but answer based on what is actually happening within that area.
- When that is complete, go through those areas that are not currently proclaiming the Gospel and discuss what changes could be made to 3 or 4 of those areas in the next 6 months to make them proclaim the gospel message.
- After those areas have been modified, return to your list and take a look at 3 or 4 more areas that aren’t proclaiming the Gospel and work on them.
The reality is that we can never proclaim the Gospel message too many times. Often, it takes people 7 or 8 exposures to The Great Story of Salvation before people start to seriously wrestle with it. As we begin to shape our parish life together around proclamation of the Gospel, we will see the culture of our parish start to shift and change.
So today, let us “Right-Side” St. Joseph, and ask him to pray for us so that, like him, we might intentionally entrust our hearts to God and cooperate with the righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ!