Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven, he gave a command to his Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mat 28:19). In our nation, in America, how are we doing with that? In the first chapter of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell presents us with some sobering statistics.
Only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic still attend Mass. Thirty-two percent (that’s almost 1/3) of all adults in the USA who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. At the same time, 10% of all American adults are former Catholics. Four times as many have left the Church than entered and the number of converts to the Faith has dropped by 35% between 2000 and 2009. Not only that, but 42% ofCatholics who have become unaffiliated said they don’t believe in God; most of these brothers and sisters of ours are gone by their early 20s and do not return. On top of all of this, nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe that it is impossible to have a personal relationship with God.
What are we to make of all this? The world says that the church is irrelevant. People in the world say that contemporary man has matured past the need for religion. Yet three months ago CNN spent days covering the visit of Pope Francis to the US-from the parked airplane awaiting his arrival to his departure back to Rome. The leader of this supposedly antiquated and irrelevant institution caused quite a stir during his days in our country. Maybe the Gospel isn’t quite as irrelevant as some would like to believe.
But still, 2.6% of Catholic adults have entered the Church whereas 10.1% of our brothers and sisters have left. Why? And what ought we do about it? Maybe there’s much we can do about it because maybe much of it is our fault. Sure we’ve received the word of God, particularly if we’ve been baptized. But what have we done with it. Let’s look to the example of Mary, mother of God. Let’s look to Mary whom we might call the first evangelist.
First, Mary pondered the word of God which she had received (cf. Luke 2:19, 51). She didn’t just receive it. She appropriated it. She let the word of God become part of her very being and the Word of God, Jesus, came to dwell in her very body. Rejoice! says Gabriel, you have been graced by God. Mary chooses, ponders, and she preaches. She has already chosen to live totally for God. Then, when God’s word comes to her, she is ready to receive it, to ponder it, to meditate upon it. She “considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:29). Then she related her emotions to God through in speaking to Gabriel (God’s messenger/mediator).
Having prayed well, pondering the word of God in dialogue with God, Mary goes in haste to help her cousin Elizabeth. She puts her prayer into action. She puts her love into action. And when she arrives before Elizabeth, what happens? By the preaching of her very presence grace happens. “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). Elizabeth is changed by her encounter with Mary or, more specifically, with Jesus through Mary.
Then, the opportunity arises for Mary to give a reason for the hope that is within her (cf. 1 Peter 3:15):
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior because He has looked upon the humility of His servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is His name.
And His mercy is from generation to generation for those who fear Him.
He has shown strength with His arm, and scattered the proud in the desires of their hearts.
He has brought down kings from thrones and lifted up the humble; the hungry he has filled with good and the rich he has dismissed empty-handed.
He has helped Israel His child, remembering His mercy, just as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His children forever (Lk 1:46-55).
Alluding to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, Mary tells the story of what God has done, both in the world and in her own life. We Christians today, then, ought to take Mary’s example. We must be very, very holy such that when others encounter us they can easily encounter Jesus. And we must, when openness is there, share the reason for our hope
The following posts in this series will give some practical thoughts about how that openness comes about and how we might better use our God given charisms to become, like Mary, effective “preachers” of the Gospel. They will draw on Sherry Weddell’s five thresholds towards what she calls “Intentional Discipleship.”
So let us beg God to make us holy like His Mother, and let us pray for every person we encounter in our lives, that they might see Jesus in us and that we might see them as the image of God who they are (cf. Genesis 1:27).
I am grateful to the priest who further distilled the statistics above and whose work I am quoting.