In the parish where I serve we are struggling toward an all-year round enquiry group and an all-year round catechumenate. But we’re not there yet. So are we move pretty rapidly through the season of Easter with its primary focus on mystagogy – the pastor in me is already starting to think: ‘And who will we have next year, and where are we going to get them from, and why will they be coming?’
They come as a result of many points of contact, of course. Some are people who have a new and encouraging contact with the Church through our parish Parents and Toddlers group; others through the meeting with priests and catechists in the baptism programme or through marriage preparation, or through the First Holy Communion programme; still others coming because of contact following the death of a family member. People coming from all sorts of ‘Church’ encounters, who have caught the scent of something, got a taste for something and think there is something good here, something beneficial, considering ‘maybe this is something I should investigate more.’
And far be it from me to gainsay the value of these encounters, but there’s a little something in me that niggles. It’s all a bit ‘Churchy’.
I’ve nothing against Church. I happen to think it’s very important, and that the institutions and the community of the Church have an awful lot to offer – indeed much more than I’ve probably realised. But what concerns me a little is that if it is Church that attracts, rather than Jesus, we might be selling the gospel short.
Of course the Lord calls people in all sorts of ways. I just wonder, in a society that is so weak on community and belonging and moral values maybe the attractions of a community such as the Church are such that sometimes, and inadvertently, they might obscure the attractions of Christ himself.
I recall hearing that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard criticised the clergy for being prostitutes of eternity – people who sold something precious, indeed sold something that should never be sold, but should only be offered, and received, as a gift freely given; as a gift which opens both the one who gives and the one who receives to an extraordinary and ennobling intimacy and experience of profound personal communion one with another. Might our happy and committed RCIA groups sometimes become a substitute for the Kingdom rather than a resource that sustains us as we search for that which we cannot give to each other but which must always come as gift from God.
The Lutheran pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer seems to have had a concern similar to Kierkegaard when he warned Christians against he called ‘cheap grace’. In The Cost of Discipleship he wrote ‘Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.’
Bonhoeffer knew the danger of a Christianity that was merely a socialisation, that created comfortable Christians but failed to create disciples willing, precisely, to follow Christ and willing to pay the cost of following him. ‘Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. … There is trust in God, but no following of Christ.’
Now our Catholic theology of Church would want to challenge the idea that Church is simply about socialisation. We confess the sacramentality of the Church, Christ present under the form of, as, us in our social relationships and in our union with him: the Church is a source of grace and not only a human phenomenon. Again, I’m grateful for what I receive and have received from Christ through the Church, and am happy for whatever I can do to help other people to recognise the richness of what the Church is and what she has to offer. But, again I wonder, what it is people come looking for and why? And what do they find that we set before them? The Gospel or something less?
I note the language of RCIA 36 in which the Church establishes what the work of the period of evangelisation and precatechumenate consists of:
Faithfully and constantly the living God is proclaimed and Jesus Christ whom he has sent for the salvation of all. Thus those who are not yet Christians, their heart opened by the Holy Spirit, may believe and be freely converted to the Lord and commit themselves sincerely to him. For he who is the way, the truth, and the life fulfils all their spiritual expectations, indeed infinitely surpasses them. (RCIA 36)
One reading of RCIA 36-47 (the section treating of the period of evangelisation and precatechumenate and the rite of entry into the catechumenate) suggests that our task in the period of evangelisation is (simply?) to evangelise: ritualisation and indeed socialisation come later: that the Church’s expectation is that people are to come to a relationship with God in Christ first. Then (and only then?) are we to help them come to an appreciation also of how the community of the Church is and can be an authentic expression of our relationship with Christ.
Does it have to be either/or? Can it not be both/and? Maybe it can be. But for myself, just at the moment, I wonder about what it actually is.