We are all called to be an authentic witness to the gift of our faith
by Bishop Joseph F. Naumann
On March 25-26, Benedictine College hosted its 11th Annual Culture Transformation Symposium.
The theme of this year’s symposium was: “See how they love each other: community and the new evangelization”. The closing keynote speaker was Sherry Weddell, who is the co-founder and executive director of the Catherine Institute of Siena and the author of “Making Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.”
In her presentation, Ms. Weddell contrasted the sobering decline of Christianity in Western Europe and the United States with the explosive growth of the church in Africa and Asia. She confessed that she was not surprised by the results of the Pew study which revealed that an alarming percentage of American Catholics, who attend Sunday Mass, do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the world. Eucharist.
Ms Weddell shared that the results of the Pew study matched her own personal experience of her conversations with the thousands of committed Catholics from across the United States who confided in her about the lack of a personal relationship with God.
Ms Weddell, who grew up an evangelical Protestant, has been criticized by some for allegedly trying to influence Catholics to adopt a Protestant spirituality. These critics fear that Ms Weddell is promoting a Christianity dependent on feelings or emotions detached from the magisterium of the Church and the authenticity of sacramental life.
Ms. Weddell was raised from childhood through young adulthood in an anti-Catholic Protestant milieu. However, her path to conversion to Catholicism actually began when she felt the real presence in the Eucharist as a young adult, while visiting a Catholic church.
In fact, Mrs. Weddell’s view of the importance for Catholics of encountering Jesus and cultivating a personal relationship with Our Lord aligns closely with the teaching of several of our recent popes.
Saint John Paul II warned the church, as we entered the third millennium of Christianity, not to be obsessed with developing new programs. Instead, the Holy Father invited Catholics to focus on deepening their encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has frequently reminded Catholics that the foundation of our Catholic faith is not found in our doctrine or our dogma.
Obviously, Pope Benedict was not saying that dogma and doctrine were not important. After all, he had been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was the architect of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict also rejected the idea that Catholicism was primarily about living an ethical life. Living a virtuous and moral life is the fruit of our faith, not its foundation.
Pope Benedict held that the foundation of our Catholic faith is an encounter with an event – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, our Catholic teaching will have no meaning and living a virtuous life will prove impossible without an encounter with Jesus Christ, without a friendship with Jesus, without being in communion with Our Lord.
Some fear that over-emphasis on the importance of an encounter with Jesus will make Catholics enslaved to emotions or feelings, weaken our appreciation of the need for the Church’s magisterium, and diminish respect for the spiritual power available to through the sacraments.
Of course, one must be wary of a faith based solely on sentimentality. At the same time, faith that is devoid of encounter with the living God will be lifeless and listless.
The magisterial teaching authority of the Church remains essential for discerning the authenticity and meaning of our encounters with Jesus. The sacraments are meant to provide opportunities for meaningful encounters with Our Lord. Authentic and active participation in the sacramental life will nourish our friendship with Jesus. This is true of all the sacraments, but especially of Holy Communion – the very term implies intimacy with the divine.
Catholics should prayerfully read the Bible with an expectation of God wanting to share his wisdom and truth with us.
We must implore the Lord to reveal himself to us through our experience of sacramental life, making his presence known to us. Of course, our expectations and experiences of his grace must be received with humility and informed by the teaching of the church and the wisdom gained over 2,000 years of living the gospel of Jesus.
In her presentation, Sherry Weddell recounted what she called a generation of French Saints during the years 1592-1660 who transformed the Church in France, Europe and Canada. This group of devout Catholics included a bishop (Saint Francis de Sales), priests (Saint Vincent de Paul and Father Jean-Jacques Olier), religious (Saint Louise de Marillac and Saint Jeanne Françoise de Chantal) and lay people (Madame Barbara Acarie, the Venerable Jérôme le Royer and Madame Jeanne Mance).
This small group of dedicated Catholics evangelized thousands to return to or join the Catholic Church; founded religious orders (the Vincentian Fathers, the Daughters of Charity, the Sulpicians and the Sisters of the Visitation); improved the training of priests; developed a network of charities for the poor and health care for the sick; and founded what became the city of Montreal as a center of evangelization and apostolic activity.
It is amazing what the Holy Spirit was able to accomplish through a relatively small group of committed Catholics who, through a life of fervent prayer, encountered Jesus and were guided by the Holy Spirit.
Sherry Weddell believes, despite all the challenges facing the Church in our country, that the United States is uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for the renewal of the Church in Western culture. I believe Our Lord wants to use northeast Kansas as one of the centers for this revival of Catholicism. We are blessed with incredible priests, religious and laity who have encountered Jesus alive and are living his Gospel with zeal and joy.
Each of our parishes has the potential to be an evangelistic community. When our Catholic faith is lived with fidelity, energy and joy, it is naturally attractive. A relatively small group of parishioners, who have encountered Jesus through personal prayer and the sacraments, can trigger pastoral activity within the community.
Jesus desires friendship and fellowship with each of us. We have what every human heart longs for. Each of us is called to be an authentic witness to the gift of our Catholic faith. Together we can help transform our increasingly secularized culture with the truth and beauty of our Catholic faith.
We have the ability to set the world ablaze with the hope and joy of the gospel of Jesus.