Seven Steps to a Church Worth Connecting To

The March 19 celebration of the feast of St. Joseph is in full swing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. An excited sophomore runs up to me. "Father Rick, Father Rick! I, like, never knew that, like, St. Joseph was, like, Jesus' foster dad."

I try to cover my shock and ask, "Who did you think St. Joseph was?"

"I don't know. Like some saint."

Bethlehem, shepherds, angels, manger, Magi, Baby Jesus, Mary: Did she miss all of them also?

The young woman in question attends St. Joseph's University, but she never found out who St. Joseph was. How could she have missed him? But she did, and her fellow students do, too. Another SJU student complained about the three required theology courses (recently reduced to two) but gushed that the course on Buddhism was "so cool." She had no interest in studying the faith in which she was baptized and raised.

Why is the Catholic faith in the United States such a hard sell to so many? One out of ten Americans-30 million people-a recent study reveals, describe themselves as former Catholics. Our only choice is to reimagine our pastoral approaches for our constantly changing social reality. We need to move from the image of Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in Going My Way ("Just Dial 'O' for O'Malley") to Father Cavanaugh in Rudy ("Kid, in 35 years of religious study I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: There is a God, and I'm not him.").

We need to move from unfair and cruel caricatures of nuns in Saturday Night Live skits to images like Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking as Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., a courageous woman ministering to those on death row and the family members of their victims. Most importantly we need more images of lay Catholics: The ever-prophetic life of Dorothy Day in the wonderful Entertaining Angels should be a must-see for every kid in Catholic school.

Too many in the institutional church are imagining a social reality that no longer exists. The Leave It to Beaver families of the 1950s and the urban-suburban parish paradigms of the 1970s and 1980s have shifted.

Only 23.3 percent of households in the United States are married couples with children; 26.4 percent of households consist of one person living alone. Just over 28 percent are couples whose children have grown. If our pastoral imaginations and parish practices are geared mostly to the "married couples with kids" paradigm, we are failing to address more than 75 percent of U.S. households.

We have to know and respect people's culture in order to change social reality. Culture consists in those relationships whereby individuals and communities establish identity: knowledge of ourselves and others, knowledge of the world, and what the world means. To preach good news with-not "to" or "at"-people, especially young adults, we have to appreciate and admire the culture they carry with them and not disparage or dismiss their values.

This means trusting that what is human in all of us is very good, and that God is working in the depths of our cultural souls to transform both us and our world. In this approach we lead with dialogue and resist wasting our breath on useless, unheeded, unheard monologues.

Here then are seven ways to make Catholicism culturally more relevant today.

Move from "pastor master" to "pastor servant."

We need to imagine ourselves less as a hierarchical church and more as a servant church. My old friend Brother Dennis Ryan, S.J. told me years ago, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." To reach people of all ages today we must be "pastor servant" in, not "pastor master" of, their lives.

An example of the pastor master approach is the recently ordained priest who preached one Mother's Day that the reason there were so few priests was that women in the church used birth control. Go ahead. Alienate the entire female population of your parish and see how long you last.

Authority in the pastor servant model is earned, not ascribed. "John Paul II priests" will learn what "Vatican II" priests learned long before them: No one cares that you're a priest if you can't communicate that you're a priest who cares.

What people need and want is a pastoral minister ready to work with the community to make the world better, more filled with faith and freedom than fear and fighting, more alive with hope and healing than greed and gluttony, more on fire with light and love than war and woe. Our church should be a place where Catholic leaders facilitate the service to others so many want to give.

Catholic colleges and high schools see many thousands of students provide millions of hours of service each year. Once in a while I hear such programs disparaged by a crusty cleric who wants to know if the kids go to Mass on Sundays and whether there's any faith formation or "Is it all just social work?" If the priest standing before the young people shows that attitude, don't expect the kids to pull themselves away from Facebook to come and listen to him preach.

A wise woman once told me, "You have two ears and one mouth. You should use them in the proportion that God gave them."

Know and respect the culture.

In the 1970s and '80s, Catholic missionaries, with Maryknoll leading the way, learned that it was not necessary to bring God to people around the world. Much more productive and fruitful for the faith was to discover how God was already there wherever we went. This meant understanding and working with people's cultures.

This country is no different. We are a multicultural church. Suburban teens are as complex a "tribe" as any St. Francis Xavier encountered in Asia. If a youth minister has never heard of MySpace or Wii, teenagers won't respect her, let alone listen to her.

Latinos, now almost 40 percent of U.S. Catholics, and many other cultural groups call for creative and sensitive pastoral approaches. Vietnamese Catholics are providing a huge proportion of candidates for the priesthood. What can these groups teach the whole church about how to raise young people willing to give their lives in service?

For middle-class households with incomes near the median family income of $50,223, life is good but tenuous. Most Americans uneasily eye the growing gap between rich and poor. Middle-class people know they are slipping, especially when they learn the after-tax income of the top 1 percent increased 228 percent in the past 25 years. The quick evaporation of their retirement accounts in the current financial crisis offers little comfort.

Most people fear losing their place in the social hierarchy. We worry about how to care for the elderly. Gnawing at our conscience is the uneasy sense that we are part of an empire and must foot the bill for being the planet's police force. How to keep marriages and families together and raise sane and healthy children occupies the thoughts and prayers of many of us. These issues are much more on peoples' minds than restoration of the Latin Mass or the canonization of some obscure saint.

Being a multicultural church is much more complex than having every ethnic group come to a special once-a-year Mass and serving "native" foods at the reception. As worthwhile as such celebrations are, cultural realities are much deeper and pervasive. Culture defines who we are, what we want, and how we are to be.

Be spiritual and religious.

None of what I'm saying here means we cannot challenge and change our culture. The gospel will always have something to say about the blind spots of any culture.

Just because the market economy says it's OK for investment managers to make millions each year while teachers are severely underpaid does not mean we must accept such a situation. Even Warren Buffett said it is crazy that he gets taxed at a lower rate than his secretary. While the alcohol, drug, and pornography industries addict millions, we should not remain silent. And Catholics must always confront racism and sexism in all cultures.

One negative cultural value in the United States that muffles and mutes Christ's challenging voice is the oft-stated mantra, "I'm spiritual but not religious." That's like telling someone, "I want to marry you, but I'm not into monogamy."

The practice of true love calls for full commitment. The practice of true and transformative spirituality entails the disciplined religious expression needed to make our spiritual desires and hopes real and operative in the world. I have never seen a hospital or school built and run by "spiritual but not religious" people, but we've all seen dozens of Catholic hospitals and schools. Mainstream religious communities (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) provide brick-and-mortar institutions that serve real people.

The "spiritual" people often have been mistreated and alienated from church by some ineffective priest or minister or some institutional rule that poorly or stupidly foists on people a practice at odds with the church's main message of love. But just because I've run into a bad cop does not mean I'll never call 911 when there is trouble. The few unscrupulous doctors and malfunctioning HMOs don't mean I am going to try to cure cancer on my own.

The antidote to bad religion is not no religion. The solution is to discover spiritual disciplines (religion) that support our becoming ever more authentic and attuned to our life choices and commitments. Religion and spirituality together are necessary to help us form lives and communities wherein we all can grow happy and healthy and holy and free.

Make mystery, magic, and meaning.

Here's the major challenge for today's church. The desire for eucharistic adoration among a small number of young people evidences a much broader and deeper desire for a sense of mystery in our lives. The success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy touches the yearning in our souls to live heroically and mythically.

Noted Jesuit liturgist Father J-Glenn Murray says, "Eucharist ought to take us by the hair and hurl us into the mystery of God." I've seen that happen often enough to keep me coming back, daily, hoping to experience the magic once again.

In 2003 I was in a crowd of 3,000 at the Saturday evening outdoor Mass at the School of the Americas protests in Fort Benning, Georgia. The pouring rain made the crowd huddle closer together to get under the tent and generate some warmth in the early evening chill. Songs were sung loudly and well, the responses were strong and heartfelt, the silence at consecration serene and majestic.

As I went to receive Communion, I realized where I was standing among the throng had been on relatively high ground. My feet were dry. Soon I realized that most of the crowd had been standing in two inches of water, and most peoples' shoes were soaked. But it didn't matter: The Mass drew us beyond ourselves and empowered us for the mission. That Mass gave a whole new meaning to walking on water.

Catholicism's "magic" helps us see the meaning and the mystery in our daily lives. Often I tell young people how much fun it is to be a priest. The joys of births, First Communions, transformative talks with teens and young adults (these usually occur at 2 a.m., on their schedule), the exuberance of graduations, the courageous struggles of peoples' lives, 50th wedding anniversaries, the wisdom of the elderly, moments of death-as a priest I get to see and hear it all, and all of it is marvelous to contemplate.

We will need many more Catholics trained for ministry as the number of priests continues to decline. My suggestion and plea to the leaders of our church: Treat women well, really well. Women get liturgy. Women get church and community. Women will work themselves to the bone to prepare incredible celebrations of God's love and mercy.

Women do most of the church work now. We need to challenge our men. The guys may not want to put ribbons on the altar, but they will show up to build anything and will generously give of their time and money, especially when it involves taking kids anywhere, from the beach to the ball game. The mystery and magic of the church is that it is people who are loved by God. Getting people to relate to one another in Christ is more magical than anything J.?K. Rowling ever imagined at Hogwarts.

Become a "pro-choice" church.

"For freedom Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1). The prophetic pro-life movement, while courageously challenging those who would allow the murder of children in the womb, saw their opponents co-opt the term "choice" to describe abortion advocates' stance. In reality the choice is life. To deal death is disaster. We need to show the world that ours is a religion and spirituality of choice, choosing freedom and faith, life and love, hope and harmony, peace and prosperity, joy and justice for all.

Ignatian spirituality consists of processes for discerning, making, and living with choices. "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," says Albus Dumbledore in Rowling's Potter series. We admire those who choose what is right and good, even more when the choices cost. Living life while consciously making cultural choices is not easy, but it is cool.

Freedom is the gift God gives us, the gift that enables us to be those who choose our future. Pope Benedict XVI is absolutely right when he says, "One could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom." Thomas Merton wrote, "The Christian lives by love and, therefore, by freedom."

Our church will survive and thrive to the degree we fashion a church wherein freedom is fostered.


These cultural challenges can only be met by prayerful people. At its root, prayer is the practice of paying attention to God. Give prayer the time it deserves. There's no way our faith can be cool or Catholic or good if we do not root ourselves in the discipline of prayer.

Mother Teresa said it best: "The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service." The words Silent and listen are spelled with the same letters. There's a message in that. Pray, love, and serve.

Prayer is a risk because prayer is transformative. To seriously enter into the practice of prayer is to risk having our desires change. Prayer at its best changes what we want. The sanctifying, deifying grace of God makes us want what is best for us and for all the world.

How does one pray? Any way that works. Prayer does not have to be fancy or professional. Prayers of petition are the most common form of prayer. There are as many ways of praying as there are people, but some practices have proven themselves over the centuries: daily Mass, the rosary, praying over the Sunday readings, the psalms and the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, the extraordinarily simple yet demanding discipline of centering prayer, prayer groups. All are sane and tested methods of opening ourselves to God.

There are unconventional ways of praying, too: See a movie with Jesus; write someone a letter while in prayer mode; create a dialogue with the Holy Spirit; draw pictures for God. The imagination is the arena wherein we can often most powerfully experience God.

Others have gone the prayer route before us. Get an experienced guide. Jesuit Mark Thibodeaux's Armchair Mystic (St. Anthony Messenger Press) is a great starter book. Anything by Anthony DeMello, S.J. is worth reading and pondering. The best book I've ever read on prayer is Franciscan Richard Rohr's amazingly brief and deceptively simple Everything Belongs (Crossroad).

What does prayer do? Practiced faithfully, prayer frees us from all that keeps us from becoming what we desire to be; prayer frees us for the work God wants us to do; and prayer frees us to be with the source and goal of our existence, our all-loving God. Prayer gives us the grace and the power to do what we could not do on our own, from stopping smoking to keeping a marriage together.

Keep a sense of humor.

The ability to laugh is the greatest proof we have for the Resurrection. Yes, life is difficult. There is much pain and sadness. Most agree that the debacle in Iraq has been a blunder of incalculable proportions, and all sane people prefer peace to war. But there are also spring days, 6-year-olds, and saxophones. Luckily, most of us need not fear famine. To look at the world and smile rather than frown is the best medicine for the soul.

A priest once got in an elevator and saw Groucho Marx standing there. With pomposity the priest proceeded to address the comedian. "Mr. Marx, I'd just like to let you know that I am well aware of the joy and laughter you have brought into the lives of millions."

Groucho replied, "Gee thanks, Father. I wish I could say the same for you guys."

Pope John Paul I was with us only a month, and the world warmed to his smile. Mother Teresa served with love and always smiled. Despite difficulties, life is good. We have to keep our spirits up because the future looks bumpy at best.

The average priest in the United States is somewhere between 65 and 75 years old. By 2018 roughly half the priests presiding at Mass next Sunday will no longer be serving. How we imagine and prepare for a lay church now will greatly influence the survival of the church as community and institution beyond the 21st century.

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