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Does your parish really welcome potential converts? Here's a test.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 14, 2013

What does Pope Francis mean when he speaks critically about the “self-referential” church?

The Pope has warned repeatedly against thinking of the Church as a club, a benevolent group, or a non-profit organization. He has insisted that the Church cannot be understood solely in terms of beliefs or rules or patterns of behavior. He has reminded Catholics that the Church is not something that we own or control. The Church belongs to Christ; we are only stewards—and fairly inept stewards, at that.

The “self-referential” church loses sight of these essential truths, and pays more attention to the human, material needs of the institution than to the divine mission. These human needs are real enough, and may sometimes be pressing. So even dedicated Catholics can slip into the self-referential attitude, and come to think that they are doing their best to serve the Church when actually they are only satisfying some bureaucratic imperative. Above all, the “self-referential” church looks inward, to protect Catholic institutions, rather than looking outward to fulfill the command given to us by Jesus Christ, to “make disciples of all nations.” Energetic apostolic work is the surest way to escape the clutches of the “self-referential” church.

During the past year, as I worked on a book about successful initiatives in evangelization, I noticed an enormous disparity in the way different Catholic individuals and institutions approach potential converts. Some allow people to enter the Church, and feel that they have discharged their duties when the converts are registered in a Catholic parish. Others encourage people to join them in the Church, and are not satisfied until the new converts are as excited by the faith as they are, and ready to join them in seeking new disciples for Christ.

How do you—or how does your parish, your diocese, your parochial school, or your religious order--respond to someone who shows an interest in entering the Catholic Church? The response might be a good way to judge whether or not you have been trapped by the “self-referential” church.

The first question, of course, is whether you are ever approached by friends and acquaintances who are interested in Catholicism. If you aren’t, maybe you’re hiding our lamp under a bushel basket. Many of your neighbors are probably searching for the truth, longing for spiritual support, aching for redemption. Father C. John McCloskey has written that our challenge is Winning the World, One Friend at a Time; he has a number of useful suggestions on how it can be done. If an entire parish is failing to spark interest in the faith, something is definitely wrong. The parish may be focusing its energies inward, forsaking its missionary duties.

But let’s suppose that a neighbor does ask about the faith, or a local resident shows up at the rectory to inquire about becoming a Catholic. What sort of attitude will that potential convert encounter? The first response could be critical; it could encourage someone to continue down the road to the Catholic Church, or it could scare him away.

Consider how we respond to people at a first meeting, under different circumstances. Let me give three examples:

  1. You are an employer, meeting with a job applicant. You try to be friendly, but remain carefully non-committal. You ask some questions, give him an application, and thank him for his interest. Even if you don’t say the words, he gets the message: “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
  2. You are a clerk at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, dealing with someone who wants new license plates. He has a right to those plates, and you’ll provide them, but you really don’t have time to get to know him. There’s a long queue at the window, and you want to get things done quickly. You’re businesslike, even curt. Fill out the forms, please. OK, everything’s in order; done. Who’s next in line?
  3. Your adult son is bringing his girlfriend home for dinner, and he’s let you know that she’s not just any girlfriend; he’s shopping for a ring. You’re excited. You’re anxious to meet her, to find out all about her. You want to love her; you want her to love you. You’re ready to welcome her into the family.

Needless to say, the young lady will meet with a much warmer reception than the job applicant or the man who needs license plates. And the same sort of warm reception should be waiting for anyone who expresses an interest in the Catholic Church. Everyone is welcome; there is no limit to the number of converts the Church can accept. The screening process is minimal; the only “qualification” is sincere faith. Yes, there is a bit of paperwork to be done, but it’s far more important to get acquainted with the individual, to come to know his needs and expectations and concerns about the faith. Like the young man’s girlfriend, the potential convert is not someone we have chosen, or someone we are asked to judge, or even someone we need to put through a bureaucratic process. It’s someone we’re asked to welcome into our family.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Aug. 18, 2013 10:42 PM ET USA

    As far as I can tell, the RCIA leaders in our parish have no real framework by which they understand the process of conversion to Catholicism from various starting points of belief and unbelief. Instead, they have a program of study they've been (sort of) trained to administer, and that's what they do, regardless of how well or how poorly it works with particular people. A bit like a chef who has a few recipes but no real understanding of the art of cooking.

  • Posted by: unum - Aug. 17, 2013 6:30 AM ET USA

    Phil, You hit the ball out of the park on this one. Most of the parishes I have been in haven't even thought of the subject much less acted on it. I can only add that the Holy Father is truly serious about this subject. He raised the subject of how to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics who are interested in returning to the Church are treated during his recent press conference on the way home from Brazil. He understands that we raise obstacles when we should extend a warm welcome.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 16, 2013 8:15 PM ET USA

    What's adverted to here is the same way we were treated when we ask for instruction in the mid-70s (before the advent of RCIA). A friend finally called the local parish priest who was ignoring us and scolded him so that he finally took us seriously. I thought things were supposed to be better in the post-Vatican II church?? What good has all that "hope and change" (to coin a phrase) been?

  • Posted by: amber3287 - Aug. 16, 2013 8:01 PM ET USA

    I think there are big problems with the RCIA process as it is in most parishes... 9+ months of weekly sessions with lay leaders (usually women) doing emotional scripture study and lightweight explanations of Church teachings is a sure turn off for most men who might otherwise be interested in entering the Church. Having been through the process myself, I have a hard time recommending it to anyone else - except as something that must be suffered through in order to be able to receive Christ.

  • Posted by: leeanne50 - Aug. 16, 2013 7:29 PM ET USA

    Just as important as how the Church greets potential new members, is how they treat them after joining.

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