By: Bert Ghezzi
On the recent Fourth of July weekend, 3300 Catholic bishops, priests, and lay leaders gathered in Orlando. They came together to reflect on and respond to Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis’s revolutionary apostolic exhortation on the duty and joy of evangelization. They also came to try to understand the causes of the church’s great 21st-century crisis and find a way to fix them. And I was privileged to be among the leaders, representing ChristLife.
The convocation recognized that the Catholic Church is suffering from a critical membership hemorrhage. Speakers in plenary sessions and many of the breakouts acknowledged reports that for every person joining the church, six leave. That’s the poorest loss/gain ratio among all Christian groups. The bleed out is worst among Millennials. Half of Catholics born between 1982 and 2004 have left the church. Many claim no religious identification and have come to be called "Nones."
At the final plenary session, Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop of Santa Barbara and the founder/director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, said that causes of the drain include:
- Scientism which falsely claims to explain all reality and so denies the transcendental;
- the "M’eh" culture which regards all religion as a fairy tale and “Who cares, anyway;” and
- Secularization, which substitutes living for power, pleasure, honor and wealth instead of for truth, goodness and beauty, that is, for God.
Over four days, many speakers suggested potential solutions to resolve the crisis. One striking note came from a youth leader who shared that once a young "None" approached him and said, "Stop calling me a problem—I’m a person." And another panelist urged that just as parishes have adopted a preferential option for the poor they must now adopt a preferential option for the Nones (and the "Dones," the older drop outs). At root of all recommendations was Pope Francis’s call for all baptized Catholics, especially the laity, to do evangelization as "missionary disciples:"
All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients…. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are "disciples" and "missionaries", but rather that we are always "missionary disciples" EG, 120.
As missionary disciples, the pope sends us to find and accompany people on the peripheries. There we will meet the unbaptized, the lapsed and inactive Catholics, the Nones, the Dones, the agnostics, the atheists and others. And we will show and tell them how the Lord Jesus will fill the hole they feel in their hearts. So, we are commissioned to bring women and men into a personal relationship with Christ. Missionary disciples implement Pope Francis’s charge: "I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day" EG, 3.
I was glad to be a part of the ChristLife team at the convocation because the ministry makes a significant contribution to forming missionary disciples. As we were setting up our booth I even joked with Dave Nodar, the founder and director of ChristLife, that we should post a banner declaring that:
Over the weekend we had many opportunities to share with bishops, pastors, DREs, catechists, youth leaders and others how ChristLife prepares people for mission. I enjoyed engaging in conversations about ChristLife’s threefold video-driven process that brings people into a personal relationship with Jesus, forms them in discipleship, and trains them in evangelization. I smiled when a pastor raised his eyebrows when I shared that in eight years 80,000+ have gone through the courses in 730 parishes in 37 U.S. states and 9 countries. ChristLife’s process is bringing renewal to people and parishes everywhere—launching a small army of missionary disciples.