Renewing the Church: Yes, we do have a plan.
The reaction of some readers to yesterday’s essay (How can the laity renew the Church?) was that it was a cop-out—a refusal to do the heavy-lifting of actually formulating an effective plan for the renewal of the Church. I was afraid this was going to happen when I wrote:
I have not provided a concrete proposal as an answer. This is because I do not know the answer. In fact, I do not even believe there is an answer.
But we have to begin by reminding ourselves of the question I was answering. In short form, it was this: “How do we expect…deeply committed lay leaders…to precipitate a sea change in a far too stagnant Church?”
We must also remember the context of the question:
- Given that the renewal of the Church depends today in large part on neutralizing or excluding large numbers of the Church’s own members who deliberately reject her teachings on faith and morals…
- And given that the cause of renewal is led by the laity who, by their very state in life, are excluded from governance of the Church…
- Then: How do we expect those in the forefront of renewal to bring about the necessary change?
I defy anyone in the world to answer that question with a practicable and predictable point-by-point human plan. Take the following plan, for example, which encompasses the most obviously logical approach:
- As lay persons with children, we will devote our primary energies to raising our children using the methods and environments which have been proven to result in the next generation having a Catholic faith commitment at least equal to our own.
- As lay persons without children we will devote our energies to convincing and enabling other Catholic families to do the same thing, at least as a secondary responsibility, insofar as possible.
- As a favored means of success we will do our best to establish or make available to Catholic families schools at every level which will support parental efforts to raise their children in the Faith and give them a superior education, including philosophical and theological education, while preparing them to withstand and respond to the widespread false assumptions and attitudes which dominate our culture. We will do this all the way through college.
- We will encourage our children to seriously consider vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. If we are single we will also discern whether God is calling us to such commitments as well. Moreover, we will place a particular emphasis on supplying dioceses with good priests.
- Finally, we will do everything possible to sustain these important efforts through multiple generations, not only because this is necessary and good in itself, but so that we may effect the improvement, in logical order, of the priesthood, the episcopacy and the papacy. As these improvements occur, the renewal of the Church will continuously accelerate.
If you want a clear five-point plan for lay persons who must operate without much hierarchical guidance, then look no further. This is it, and there is not a lay Catholic in the entire world who can escape its obligations without sin. It may not sound like the surefire shortcut to renewal we were hoping for. It may in fact sound rather obvious, rather lengthy, rather dull and, in the end, inescapably uncertain. But it is the most important and most dramatic plan known to anyone who has ever sought to cooperate with God.
Is this the strategy?
This is also the method that we see being used all around us (if we have eyes to see) by those who have launched new lay apostolic initiatives since the 1960s, leading directly to many improvements: In the domestic church; in new Catholic schools, colleges and campus ministries; in media apostolates which not only strive to strengthen and convert others to the cause of authentic renewal but also produce materials to be used both at home and in parishes and dioceses.
But I beg you to recognize how this strategy was born, how its details were filled in, and how it has achieved all of its successes since the close of the Second Vatican Council. It grew in direct proportion to the number of men and women who responded to ecclesiastical disaster by praying more, examining themselves very closely, and making a daily effort to live in the presence of God and discern His will of the present moment. Thus and only thus have so many flowers bloomed that the whole landscape is gradually being filled by the grace of God. It may be a painfully slow process, and an uncertain one. But as St. Paul put it:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. [1 Cor 3:6-8]
Inescapably this involves a large measure of human uncertainty coupled with an even larger measure of trust in God. This is why, in the previous essay, I quoted Our Lord’s very pointed words: “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps’” (Jn 4:37).
If we are discontented with this answer, if we need something more direct or more concrete, or even a more specific set of marching orders, we can begin by learning about the various approved efforts at forming sub-communities for those who care deeply about the Church and yearn to live their Faith in a wholehearted, vibrant manner. A parish or diocesan men’s group, a women’s group, a group devoted to prayer or Scripture study; a Knights of Columbus council, a chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; the Legion of Mary, a charismatic community, a third order, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei: All these and more come to mind as ecclesiastically approved communities which can provide lay persons with a bit more spiritual and vocational structure in confusing times.
But the most important point I can make about the five-point “strategy” I outlined above is this: It is not designed to be a specific plan to effect the surefire reform of the Church. No, it is neither more nor lest than a basic specification of our baptismal promises. These are, in effect, the promises each of us has made—not as a commitment to some human plan of renewal which will be taken up or set aside according to our own perceptions and goals—but as a commitment on which our whole future depends. For this is what we have promised to the One—the only One—who can say: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5).
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