Are you a disciple or a customer?
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the managerial/convenience model of parish life is not working, and the disciple/apostle/mission model has not yet superseded it.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)
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.