If Jesus were on Facebook, he’d be the guy who sends friend requests to everybody. This creates a thorny problem, because you end up with a Church full of horrid slackers. Weak, pathetic, “spiritually flabby” as one Ash Wednesday sermon put it. It’s like joining the track team and discovering most of the team can’t finish the 100-meter dash. Walking.
What do you do with a parish full of out-of-shape Christians? Well, you can throw a temper tantrum, but that’ll just tip your hand — everyone will find out you’re one of the weaklings, too.
But let’s say you really do want to help coach along one or two friends in the faith: You want to help them get into spiritual shape, but without giving them a heart attack in the process. Where do you begin?
Are your friends even interested in growing in the faith? It’s important to distinguish childishness from insolence. Someone who is weak or young in the faith might have little capacity for “sitting still in class”. That’s different from a student who’s convinced that it’s simply not necessary to sit down and listen, ever.
- “I stink at the most basic of penances,” (that’s me) vs. “Who are you to tell me that Catholics should do penance?”
- “Wait? Is it Friday? But I want a cheeseburger!” vs. “Since when do I have to take my orders from some old man in Rome?”
- “I was going to pray, but my show came on,” vs. “How dare you ask about my prayer life!”
Childishness sets the stage for growth and maturity, given a firm but attuned mentor.
Recognize the limits of your own patience. When something comes easily to you, it can be difficult to appreciate why it’s such a struggle for someone else. Your temperament and life experiences dispose you to have relatively more patience for some situations, and less patience in others.
While it is good to grow in the virtues of forbearance and longsuffering, it’s not good to tempt yourself beyond your strength. If you find yourself devolving into anger and insults, it’s time to back away and prayerfully retreat.
You cannot help the weak unless you are experienced in weakness. Those who find they can easily take on significant discipline and penance are the natural athletes of the spiritual world. You look great, you look so strong, and you’ve got an impressive list of daily prayers to your credit.
Wonderful. To whom much is given, much is expected. Pray, fast, and give alms to the extent of your ability, and then quietly add just a tiny bit more: Enough that you, too, are utterly dependent on the grace of God, and you know it.
If you wish to be any good to the weak, you must yourself live at the point of weakness.
What is evangelization? I’d say it consists of proclaiming the Good News, and then following up with mentoring and community for new disciples of Christ. The Gospel is the foundation of any spiritual “fitness program” because it’s our reason, our motivation. Growth in holiness is our response to the love of God.
The model for this evangelization is in our Lord’s many “dinners with sinners.” At the well, at the dinner table, in the tax office, under a tree, in the courtyard of the temple, on a hilltop, by the seaside . . . wherever the people were who wanted to know Him, that’s where He met them.
But He didn’t leave them there. Our Lord never said, “Good job, Matthew, with shaking down your countrymen on behalf of the occupiers . . . keep at it!” No. He said, “Come follow me.”
As a parish takes on the mission of evangelization, it grows a culture of spiritual strength. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving become not foreign concepts but ordinary activities. The Precepts of the Church cease to be some remote ideal, and become, within the world of the parish, normal daily life.
It easier to get swept up into spiritual fitness when you are surrounded by others who are pulling you along with their momentum. Think of the difference in how easy it is to say morning prayer if you are on retreat at a monastery, versus if you are trying to keep house with four children four and under. The good news is that the struggle to keep the disciplines of the Church when we are being pulled every direction except towards God does build up an inner invisible strength, even if the outward progress is not very encouraging.
But that’s no excuse for our parishes to wallow in chaos, on account of how many secret saints such environments might produce. Do-it-yourself Christianity is a recipe for abandoning the weak among us to languish in their lonely pews. Community life, properly ordered, allows every saint to flourish. Fill those pews with disciples!
Copyright 2014, Jennifer Fitz