Four weeks from today I will be moving to my new assignment at St. Mary’s of the Lake and St. Benedict’s. As I prepare to lead them, I continue to reflect on what it is that God calls us to. As I think about what God calls us to, I think we find an answer in the gospel reading we just heard on Trinity Sunday. Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” God wants us to share the gospel with the world.
In “Hopes and Dreams“, I wrote about some of my thinking on this. Ultimately, our goal is to lead people to God, to “make disciples of all nations.” The question is “how do we do this?”. We can spend a lot of time looking for the silver bullet, the “program” that will bring everyone to church and do it quickly.
We, at least I, want to see the fruit of our labor quickly. I am know I am not alone is this as Fr. James Mallon writes, “Sometimes, however, we desire fruit so much that we rush and try to make things happen right away. That is what happened to me as a leader working toward parish renewal. I was not particularly interested in changing structures, systems, or cultures; I did not know anything about that. I just wanted fruit” (Divine Renovation Beyond the Parish. Frederick, MD: The Word Among Us Press. 2020, page 16). Yes, we seek fruit and the time to act is now. However, we need to act in a way that sees the big picture. We need to invest our efforts for the long haul while acting in the moment.
To do this we need to think about our goal, to lead people to God. It is not a matter of what we want from the people. It is what we want for them, to know God (see Mallon, 16). In the former, what we want from the people, we focus on maintaining the church as we know it. In the latter, what we want for the people. We need to move from maintenance to mission. Fr. James Mallon writes, “While maintenance focuses on feeding the sheep we do have, mission focuses on reaching those outside the flock, A mission-focused Church is concerned with the needs, hopes, sorrows, joys, and eternal destiny of all men and women-especially those furthest from Christ and his Church” (14).
We need to work on our mission. However, in doing so, we must never neglect maintaining what we have. In fact, by strengthening the faith of the people we already have in our parishes, we are strengthened in our ability to reach out to those who do not come. We need to balance maintenance and mission for “both are essential” (Fr. Mallon, 14). We also need to consider our priorities in choosing our next steps. For instance, when I arrive at St. Mary’s/St. Mary’s, I need to take the time working with the staff, councils, and parishioners to see what they are already doing well at and where their weaknesses are. Only then, can we discern what the next steps are.
In terms of maintenance, we must also think about what it is we are talking about maintaining. Is it the structures, the finances, and buildings of the parish? Or is it the faith of the people in our parish? The former, structures and finances, can become an “ecclesial vampire” (Fr. Mallon, 28), draining our energy. However, when we direct our efforts to “maintaining” the faith of the people (which includes caring for our physical resources), we can be spiritually fed ourselves when we see them grow in faith.
Again, it is what we want for the people, not from them (see also Fr. Mallon, 39). Yes, we want our parishioners to be an active part in our ministries. However, we want them to do so not simply out of obligation but because they feel a sense of belonging and want to work together to lead people to God (see my article “A Question to Ponder”).
We live in a world that no longer sees Christian values as foundational to its existence (see my March article “We Need to See as God Sees”). Seeing the values of the world as different than our own, it may be tempting to withdraw ourselves in isolation to protect ourselves (see Fr. Mallon, 44). We need to ask God to give us the courage to visibly live out our faith in the world. This is a vital part of what it means to witness to our faith. We must visibly live our faith if we expect others to come to know Jesus.
Thus, instead of isolating ourselves, what we need to do is build bridges (see also Fr. Mallon, 45). I remember the last the construction project I worked on as an engineer was a bridge that was over a small gorge. The width of the gorge was less than 100 feet. However, it was 90 feet down to the bottom of the gorge. There was no way to cross the gorge without a bridge.
We can use this image to understand what we need to do. On one side, we have secular society that is surrendering itself to relativism where there is no truth. On the other side, we have our Christian faith. We need to bridge the two, not for us to cross to relativism but rather to lead others to Christ.
We need to reach out to them. This is not an easy task. They often don’t want to listen and it is not for us to force them to. What did Jesus do? He did not establish an office and wait for people to come to him. He went out to them (see Fr. Mallon, 56, 82). This can seem difficult. I do not want to be the one going from house to house, knocking on doors to talk to people about Jesus. I don’t expect everyone to literally do that. What we do need to do is to be visible in our communities as people who believe and live our faith. We need to show we care about the people around us. We need to be a faith community that is part of the general community around us. It includes serving the poor. It can be in helping our neighbors who are not able to do everything for themselves. It can be in promoting the dignity of all life from the beginning at conception to its natural end in this world at death (see my video series, Treating Life with Dignity and Love). Do not be afraid. No one person has to do everything. God just asks each of us to do our part, allowing God to bring it all together.
One final word for this article. Lately, I have been written a lot about this sense of mission because the thoughts I express flow naturally from what is going on in my life, namely preparing to move to a new parish. In a sense, in these articles, I am thinking out loud. I know several of you are reading this article are members of St. Luke’s parish that I am leaving. You have one perspective. Other readers are parishioners of St. Mary’s/St. Ben’s where I am going. You may read this wondering what I am going to change. Do not be afraid. It is not my goal to change stuff. Things may change but I wait for God to lead us. Still other readers are members of neither parish who have another perspective.
I have written more than intended. I hope it is what God wants. I hope these articles are of benefit to you to know where God is leading you. May we all do what the Lord asks of us to lead people to him.