Why has there been so much focus on the theme of discipleship among Catholics recently? The simplest answer I can proffer is that Pope Francis wrote Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of Gospel). In it, he summons the faithful to renew their lives as disciples of Jesus who are missionary in their joyful witness to the Gospel. He describes how Catholics can be stuck in an inward-facing, excessively institutionalized and even sour approach to their faith (EG 6, 25-26). In recent decades the Church, it seems, has become content with suffering decline as if the world around us has defeated the faith.
A deeper and more probing explanation for why the focus has shifted onto the theme of discipleship in recent years, however, is a growing sense that the Church (not everywhere perhaps) has lost her missionary impetus and has been failing to make disciples, even among her own people. What makes the story complicated, however, is how this loss of missionary impulse came about. In speaking about mission, I am not referring to apologetics or catechesis. I mean the deeply Christian inclination to spread the good news of salvation in Christ and to bring the redeeming grace of this message to the lost and broken (Luke 4:18). The problem is that few Catholics have a deep sense of purpose around the saving mission of the Church. In my observation, only one thing explains this: most Catholics do not realize that this is an essential part of being Catholic. Why is that? What happened here? This was not always the case.
In a culture of tolerance and relativism, the idea of mission, apart from a somewhat activist approach to social issues, has all but vanished for most pew sitters. The works of social service or advocacy, of apologetics or catechesis, are not identical to evangelization. Some might rally to causes but most do not feel any urgency to go out to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to others. For a variety of reasons, Catholics of the western hemisphere (especially) are uncomfortable with evangelization. As I have personally heard from many committed Catholics across the United States, evangelization is awkward, if not offensive, and seems to the uninformed, a Protestant thing.
As bold as this may sound, when Christians lose their sense of mission, it reflects an underlying weakening of adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and a lack of spiritual maturity. Yet ironically, it seems true that many believers will not witness outwardly to the Lord in this more intimate and ardent way if the Church’s evangelizing impulse has not touched them personally. Evangelization produces disciples and disciples tend to evangelize others. Evangelization is thus both a cause of discipleship and its fruit. Thus, if discipleship is in decline it is because we have stopped evangelizing. It is an internal cycle of deterioration, which I believe explains the rapidly declining demography of our parish registries.
Quoting Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis states, “there must be no lessoning of the impetus to preach the Gospel’ to those who are far from Christ, ‘because this is the first task of the Church’. Indeed, ‘today missionary activity represents the greatest challenge for the Church’ and ‘the missionary task must remain first.’” This is what Pope Francis has been clearly aiming at as he continues to put the concept of “missionary discipleship” squarely in front of the universal Church. Missionary discipleship is the heart of the New Evangelization. “All of us are called to take part in this new missionary ‘going forth . . . from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.’”
The crucial and timely importance of the New Evangelization is that mission is central to the identity of the Church and, for the faithful to champion the mission, all Catholics need to assume personal responsibility for the work of evangelization. The New Evangelization is not a programmatic solution to the Church’s missionary malaise, as all the popes since Pope St. Paul VI have indicated—although this is how it often seems in parish life. Rather, it is a call to a systemic change to the way we think and how we approach the pastoral life and ministry of the Church in our times. Little shifts in our rhetoric and tactics will not achieve the objective; catechetical programs alone, or better liturgy alone, are also insufficient. Rather, we need to form our people as disciples of Jesus Christ who possess the enthusiasm to reach out to those who do not know the saving grace of the Gospel.
For a number of years now, and over the course of many years serving in a variety of ministerial and teaching environments, a suspicion has grown within me that we can correlate the loss of the Church’s missionary impulse to a kind of tribalism that prevails within Church life since Vatican II. We have not been able to get the New Evangelization moving forward because there are too many internal rivalries about what it means to be Catholic. There is not even agreement about the Church’s mission, without which no organization can flourish. We have a weak sense of unity today; and as a direct consequence, we have no compelling witness. Church leaders and elites focus too much attention on intramural debates than figuring out how to advance the mission. The faithful are polarized between various theological paradigms. We talk about mission but do not seem to know how to get our people to go out to others.
While it is true that the Christian faith is not itself a paradigm, it is equally true that Christian leaders today and those they lead (Catholics included) operate within theological paradigms that contextualize what it means to be a Christian disciple. There are clear brand identities, political jockeying, and prejudices among the members, and it has shifted the focus of attention onto internal power struggles for primacy of influence within the Church. My hunch about this is that our current state of affairs results from the profound influence “modernity” has had on Christian peoples. While the faith is transcendent and universal, it is lived historically. What is most characteristic of modernity is its profound ability to dissolve unity in favor of particularism and individuality. The universal and transcendent is eclipsed by the culturally conditioned and subjectivity of experience. It should be obvious that a divided community does not grow.
I cannot see a way forward beyond the current impasse and into greater mission focus without first coming to terms with how conditioned our ecclesial experience is today by theological paradigms that isolate various elements of what God intends to be a unified Catholic whole. For Catholics, the years following Vatican II created a political vacuum within which different theological paradigms have vigorously rivaled one another for ascendency and the right to interpret the meaning of the Council. What ought to be the signature character of the Christian people, called to the unity of faith, is how we are able to work through our differences in the spirit of charity. There is something especially scandalous about Christian tribalism, and even worse, schism. It cuts to the very heart of what we as Christians claim for the world—social unity and the witness of divine love, the ministry of reconciliation (Colossians 1:21-23). In sum, the spirit of the modern age has fragmented the Church’s mission and thus weakened our missionary effectiveness.
How can outsiders take us seriously, much more, be attracted to our message or perceive among us any authenticity when we so evidently cannot get along over the essential matters we claim to profess? The Church has always been the home of diversity and a whole slew of charisms. This is not the issue. The fragmentation to which I am referring is more reminiscent of watching several sets of hands tearing a garment to pieces. Catholics have torn asunder particular elements of Christian life represented by different theological paradigms, and then juxtaposed these to each other. For example, we pit law against personal experience; authority against freedom; office against charism; the new against the old and vice versa; tradition against progress; the living against the unborn; Latin against the vernacular; history against truth; faith against reason—and the list goes on.
Where is Jesus in all of this? Is any of this about him? My conclusion is that the contentiousness is not about Jesus or his mission, since so many Catholics have just been moving along with the currents of change both within and outside the Church. Most of the older generation of parishioners are simply wondering why their children do not practice the faith anymore. Increasingly, more of our younger people just walk away and fall into the category of nones, dones, or the unaffiliated.