A few months ago I was contacted by a concerned mother. I say ‘concerned’ but a better word might be ‘desperate.’ Her son, we’ll call him Ryan, was enrolled in their parish’s confirmation class but had announced that he didn’t want to be confirmed. It was becoming a big fight in the house. She was concerned not only for him, but for his younger siblings who look up to him. His grandparents were beside themselves.
She asked if I would please talk with him, if he was willing. I said sure, and we met halfway between here and their parish. Ryan is intelligent, articulate, charming, and has no intention of making Catholicism any part of his life after he moves out. I saw evidence that he doesn’t understand Catholicism quite as well as he thinks he does, but neither does he seem show the slightest bit of curiosity about it.
His mother is very devout, and you can imagine how she feels. Some of you don’t have to imagine, you know all too well. She’s wondering what went wrong. She tried to make faith a part of family life every day. She brought him to church and catechism. She did all the things Catholic parents are supposed to do. Yet now, before even reaching adulthood, her son is discarding it easily and deliberately.
In Ryan’s defense, the only difference between he and many of his classmates who were confirmed is that he’s a few steps ahead of them. If they are a typical class, ten years from now fewer than half of them will be seen anywhere near the Church. I could recite a lot of statistics here, but you know the story as well as I do. Most of the attention is paid to young people and whether they continue to practice the Faith as adults. But we also see it all time among adults of all ages. People who have filled a pew every week for years or decades, who suddenly cast aside the practice of their Faith for reasons that make you ask, “Really? The martyrs died horrible deaths rather than abandon their Faith, and you threw it away over that?”
There’s no checklist for making a faithful, lifelong Catholic. There are children raised in homes that pray a daily family rosary, attend Catholic schools all along, get straight A’s in catechism class, serve at Mass, and attend every single youth group activity -- who, by age 20, discard it completely and never look back and don’t even seem to miss it. And then there are children who are rarely taken to Mass, whose family never prays together, not even grace before meals, who as adults embrace Catholicism with zeal and passion. If there’s someone in your life who’s slipped away from the Faith, be not afraid. People return to the Church every day. The Holy Spirit abandons no one. Pray, and trust.
Is there anything we can do besides prayer? Well, we’ve got opinions about that. Do we ever! Some people will immediately launch into a list of all the ways the Church must change. Others will be very eager to assign blame. But instead of describing how the church ought to change, or how everyone else ought to change, let’s look back to Pentecost. Actually, let’s look back to just before Pentecost.
An hour before Pentecost, all the pieces were in place. They had the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. They had the beginnings of the Sacraments He instituted. They had the Apostolic structure He ordained. And they were sitting in a locked room while the world went along its merry way.
That’s my new acquaintance Ryan, and others beyond counting. All the pieces are there. They’ve been exposed to the Faith, they’ve received the Sacraments, they’ve gone to catechism, they’ve grown up amid the Apostolic Church. But the thing is not alive in their hearts.
We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because that was the day the Church came alive. We call the Holy Spirit the soul of the Church, because it is that spark of life, the breath, the circulation, the thing that separates a living thing from a dead thing. An hour before Pentecost, all the pieces were there, but it wasn’t alive. An hour before Pentecost, the disciples were holed up in a locked room. An hour after, they were in the streets risking their lives, launching the movement that would outlast one empire after another. That’s the difference the Holy Spirit makes. That’s the Church coming alive. Nothing less than that same Pentecost fire will suffice for us today. To aim at anything less is to aim at failure.
So there’s our answer: what we need, what the Church cannot live without, is the continual descent of the Holy Spirit. We can strive to build the foundations, to get all the pieces into place. I think of building a fire. We can carefully provide the best conditions, set everything up for success, arrange things to be advantageous. But in this case, we can’t light the flame. Not as a parent, not as a priest, not as a friend. The spark is between the person and God. The spark is the Holy Spirit.
We should continue to wrestle with the questions of church life: as parents, friends, priests, siblings, in parish meetings, at the dinner table, in serious conversation at all levels. All those opinions we have should be sorted through. How can we teach the Faith more attractively? How can we communicate the beauty of Catholicism? Those are critical questions but they only go so far. It’s a lot like trying to set two people up together. Maybe you just know they’d be perfect for each other. You can arrange the meeting, you can do all sorts of things to encourage it, but falling in love is up to them. Catechesis, passing on the Faith, is just like that. We can arrange the meeting, we can provide encouraging conditions, but we can’t make someone fall in love. The most we can hope for is to be on fire ourselves, and to be contagious.
I always try to include something in my sermons that gives people something concrete to go on. Something that answers the question, “what difference does this make in my life right now?” But in this case, there aren’t Seven Biblical Steps to Getting the Spirit. There’s no list of best practices. There’s no checklist or procedure. There is only you, deciding whether you want it or not. The Holy Spirit has never turned down an invitation and He never will.
I’d like to leave you with a story that comes from Russia, from the Orthodox Church. It’s about a priest and a parishioner who hadn’t been seen at church lately. The priest went to see him. The man invited him inside, and they sat near the fire to warm from the cold Russian winter. Several awkward moments passed: the priest not knowing how to begin, the man embarrassed. They sat staring into the large mound of embers glowing red-orange in the fireplace. Wordlessly, the priest took up the fireplace tongs, grasped one coal, and set it to the side apart from the others. The two men watched as, while the mound continued to glow and pulse, the coal that had been separated dimmed and dimmed until it was grey and cold. Still without speaking, the man reached out to the priest and took the tongs from him. He moved the coal back into the center, where it began to glow once more. The priest stood up and said, “So I’ll see you on Sunday.”
There are all kinds of places where the Spirit is burning brightly in our Church, in our Diocese, in our Parish. You don’t have to look far, it isn’t hard to find! So if it ever begins to feel a bit chilly where you are, draw back close to the fire. Remember: the Holy Spirit has never turned down an invitation, and never will.