Are you a disciple or a customer?
Just one verse each day.
How much is the typical parish like a contemporary convenience store (7-11, Sheetz, Tiger Mart, Stuckey’s, etc.)? Better said: How much is the typical parishioner (Mass on Sundays, more or less; Mass on holy days, sometimes; envelope in the basket, usually; confession—sometimes, maybe…) like the typical customer at the typical convenience store? The similarities, I believe, are many, obvious, startling and discouraging.
Most often, a customer drives to a convenience store, gets what he wants (gasoline, soda, cigarettes, etc.) and drives off as quickly as possible. That’s the whole point of a convenience store, isn’t it—to be convenient? Fill up as effortlessly as possible, and move on to what is really important.
Imagine that at a trip to the convenience store, the clerk asks you to help stock the shelves, sweep the floor, etc. What would you do? Couldn’t you easily imagine yourself sputtering and say, “That’s not my job! That’s what I pay you for!” Then imagine that the clerk asks you—no—pleads with you to help promote that particular convenience store as well as the home office of the franchise. The clerk asks that you identify yourself to all the world as a proud devotee and ardent advocate of this convenience store brand. Would it be hard for you to imagine yourself running away from that shop and its crazy clerk? Would it be hard for you to imagine yourself bringing your business to a different store or even a different franchise, one that was less demanding? After all, the convenience store is meant be a convenience for you, not the center of your life!
Now let’s look at Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary, and their 2.5 children, going to Saint Typical’s parish, pastored by Father Cheerful. What does the Ordinary family want? They expect Father Cheerful to manage Saint Typical’s efficiently—that is to say, that want the “services” (in the broadest sense of the word) to be quick, simple, undemanding, unobtrusive, in a word, they want convenience. They want to go in, get what they came for, and get out. Just like a trip to 7-11 or Minit Mart.
What if the new assistant manager, I mean, “parochial vicar,” Father Earnest, suggests that treating Saint Typical’s like a drive-through isn’t good for the parish and isn’t good for you. There’s lots of work to be done, and not enough hands to do to the work. In fact, young Father Earnest preaches regularly about how the parishoners must donate their “time, talent and treasure.” Father Earnest often laments, privately and even from the pulpit that, “the same few people do all the work around here—and that’s not fair.” (If Father Earnest is feeling desperate, he might even trot out the “God-Can’t-Be-Outdone-In-Generosity” Tactic, in the hopes of having you believe that donating to the parish is a smart investment scheme that will obligate God to do you a favor.) What is the likely response of the Ordinary family and of those like them?
Well, if what I’ve seen and heard over the years is any indication, what they will likely do is nothing. What they want, and they want it conveniently, is to get what they came for at Saint Typical’s and to get out. They have no reason and no desire to do anything other than that. If Father Earnest is persistent in his requests, to the point where Sunday mornings at the parish are feeling less convenient, the parishoners/customers are likely to complain to the pastor, Father Cheerful.
Father Cheerful may well be thought of as the branch manager of the local 7-11. He’s there to provide a service, a convenient service, and, towards that end, will do just about anything short of setting the store on fire to minimize (and, ideally, eliminate) customer complaints—up to and including getting rid of the new assistant manager, Father Earnest.
Father Cheerful knows that if you allow too many customer—I mean, parishioner—complaints to pile up, they might find their way to the regional manager (the bishop). The regional manager knows that his franchise is dying out. The customer base has been dwindling year by year for decades. The last thing he needs is some upstart assistant manager to alienate the remaining customer base. He will almost certainly support the branch manager in doing whatever needs to be done to ensure that the remaining customer base finds the local shop to their liking, that is to say, convenient. And if Father Earnest needs to be sent to a more remote location where he can alienate fewer people, so be it.
Is this depiction of typical parish life as commerce at a convenience store a fair one? Yes—and no. Yes it is, based on what I’ve observed throughout my life as a Catholic. Yes it is, based on what I’ve heard from parishoners and priests—both the contented and the discontented.
But, no, the depiction—really, the caricature—of parish life above, although I insist that it is accurate, is not quite fair. The problem with it are the tacit elements that allow one to infer that if only we applied better managerial solutions to the problems of parish life, we’d have a higher degree of customer satisfaction, a higher degree of parishioner participation in parish functions, and we could arrest the decline in the number of practicing Catholics. The real problem, we face, however, is not a managerial one; it is not a problem of maintenance. The real problem is one of mission and of discipleship.
Three years ago, Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute published a very important book, “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.” She offers a clear alternative to the maintenance/managerial approach to parish life (i.e., be convenient and avoid customer complaints at all costs). Instead, she says that we are called as individual Catholics and as Catholic parishes to the mission of becoming disciples of Jesus and making more disciples of Jesus. That mission is time consuming, demanding, soul sifting, exhilarating, fruitful, exhausting and glorious—in other words, it is wildly inconvenient. And it is also our only hope for parishes, especially parishes in decline.
The follow-up book is an anthology edited by Weddell called, “Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.” There various authors who have begun the inconvenient and life-giving work of forming Catholic parishes rooted in discipleship and mission tell of their trials and progress. They state that, “The overarching goal of parish renewal is this: to create a community where it is easier for individuals to become intentional disciples and make intentional disciples.”
Intentional disciples of Jesus are much more than merely nice, generous “practicing Catholics” who help out at parish fundraisers and decorate the sanctuary at Christmas and Easter. They deliberately seek to know and love Jesus, in and out of “parish-time” (whether just-Sundays/holy days or more), with other disciples. They seek to prepare themselves and each other to go out into the world of business, education, politics, culture, etc., with a mission to seek, invite, evangelize and form others to be disciples of Jesus. They are at work as lay apostles in the world. (Read Russell Shaw’s, “Ministry or Apostolate? What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?” The answer is, “Mostly, the apostolate—laity at work in the world, bringing people to Christ and His Church.” See also his later, “Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church,” whereby he seeks to, awaken the “sleeping giant” of the Catholic laity as apostles in the world.)
Our task of moving from parish-as-customer-service to parish-as-the-place-where-disciples-and-apostles-are-made is one of urgency, fidelity and hope.
It is a task of urgency. Even as those who shrug off the decades of declining religious and priestly vocations with the assured, “Well, it’s the Church of the laity now,” we must respond with tough love and hard facts. In the United States, at least, the Church is not becoming the Church of the laity; it is becoming the Church of no one. The second largest religious group in America is that of fallen-away Catholics. The year with the highest number of adult converts to the Catholic Church in America was 1964. Adult conversions have been on a 51-year decline! Clearly, the managerial/convenience model of parish life is not working, and the disciple/apostle/mission model has not yet superseded it. Why is this a matter of urgency? Consider this prophetic statement from Belloc’s, “The Great Heresies,” written in 1938:
“The Catholic observer would deny the possibility of the Church’s complete extinction. But he must also follow historical parallels; he also must accept the general laws governing the growth and decay of organisms, and he must tend, in view of all the change that has passed in the mind of man, to draw the tragic conclusion that our civilization, which has already largely ceased to be Christian, will lose its general Christian tone altogether. The future to envisage is a pagan future, and a future pagan with a new and repulsive form of paganism, but none the less powerful and omnipresent for all its repulsiveness.”
In the West, at least, a culture that is powerful, omnipresent, repulsive, and anti-Christian has arrived. We must form disciples and communities prepared to bring people into the Ark of the Church while there is still time.
This process of discipleship/apostolate, as I noted above, is also a matter of fidelity. Jonathan R. Wilson calls for Christian communities that, “…will live their lives before the watching world in such a way that our history as a church will be acknowledged in confession and repentance. Such confession and repentance requires an intentionally disciplined way of life that makes such practices integral expressions of life together with God and one another, not a marketing program or public relations ploy.” In other words, disciples of Jesus have no choice, if they are to be true disciples, than to live together, pursuing grace and virtue together, repenting and worshipping together, and seeking to make disciples together. Fidelity is not a tactic—it is a matter of our Christian identity.
Finally, the work of forming parishes of discipleship, that is, as communities of lay apostles in conjunction with clergy and religious, is, as noted above, a matter of hope. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, in his, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” offers this call, a call both sobering and reassuring: “Yes, we turn our eyes to Our Lady of Fatima, requesting of her the contrition that will obtain for us the great pardons, the strength to wage the great battles, and the abnegation to be detached in the great victories that will bring the establishing of her Reign. We desire these victories with our whole heart, even if to reach them, the Church and the human race must undergo the apocalyptic – but how just, regenerating, and merciful – chastisements she predicted in 1917 at the Cova da Iria.”
Through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, may every Catholic parish answer the call to conversion and witness, to the formation of disciples and the missioning of apostles, so that when the Son of Man returns, He may find faith on the earth. (Luke 18:8)
When I write next, I will tell you about the annual conference of Courage International, where I will be one of the speakers. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.