Being Missionaries to our own Children

Ronald Rolheiser
May 18, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

It is no secret that we're having trouble passing the faith on to our own children. Our churches are greying and emptying and our own children are no longer walking the path of faith, at least not public and ecclesial faith, with us. The most difficult mission field in the world today is Western culture, secularity, the board rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and entertainment rooms within which we and our children live, work, and play.

With this in mind, the religious congregation I belong to, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, held a symposium recently in San Antonio, Texas, which had as its theme: "Missionaries to Secularity"; perhaps more aptly subtitled: Being missionaries to our own children. John Shea, John O'Donohue, Robert Schreiter, Robert Barron, and Mary Jo Leddy were invited as special resource persons. Here are ten principles we enunciated there:

1) Secularity is both a restriction of consciousness and a widening and freeing of it. It is spiritually interested, but largely spiritually illiterate, not so much bad as asleep. Evangelization is very much about waking someone to another reality. Liberals and conservatives are asleep in different ways, liberal ideology is too privatized and conservative ideology too re-entrenched in authority and rules, even as our culture had replaced the ideal of a good life by the vision of having more.

2) How does one become spiritual without leaving behind the physical, the emotional, the sexual, the bodily? To move beyond churches that are weary, grey, and tired, we must move beyond clericalism, fear of the feminine, excessive dis-ease with eros, false reliance on authority, and reclaim our mystical and our intellectual traditions.

3) Jesus offers a model: He tries to wake us from both our distractions and from the ways we habitually fall asleep "out of sorrow". We need to begin our proclamation with what lies at the centre of our faith: Christ has died and has risen. We kill God, but God returns in a forgiving love and this is what opens up a new world. What's unique to Christianity is that God gives himself as friendship, love, forgiveness, non-violence, empathy, compassion.

4) We must listen to our contemplatives: our poets, artists, mystics, and returning missionaries. They will help tell us what's best and worst in secularity and help us form an alternative imagination, an alternative to the "myth-of-progress".

5) There are three levels to evangelization: i) The renewal of the evangelizers themselves; ii) a calling back of those who have heard the gospel, but it has not taken hold or been lost in some way; and iii) a calling of those have not yet heard the gospel. Our own children, mostly fall into the second category.

6) Today's secularity has a particular set of characteristics: i) It is an uneven terrain; ii) you cannot measure it simply by declining church attendance because there is still, in secularity, a strong, diffusive, belief in the supernatural, a believing without belonging; and iii) there is a resurgence of religious sensibility, carried by, among other things, our immigrant communities and the rise of religious movements.

7) Religious decline in secularity, may be the exception rather than the way the future is going. There are three different images of secularity that suggest this: i) Secularity as receding and eroding; ii) as a veneer, you poke deeply into it and see a teeming religiosity underneath, and iii) as an island within a sea of religiosity (in a world perspective). Inside of our churches we, too, are not homogeneous. We are not one generation but are two-and-half generations within a single generation. As well, we should observe how various counter-cultural groups are engaging secularity: fundamentalists, enthusiasm movements, social justice groups, the new conservatives. All these groups, both the right and the left, have three things in common: i) They foster and feed-off a sense of community; ii) they try to give clear form to life; and iii) they call for a clear set of actions.

8) We may not continue to keep our faith private. Evangelization must show itself publicly, like the medieval pilgrimages and processions and today's papal youth days. Faith must be expressed publicly, in colourful, romantic ways. We must stop building "beige churches" and build churches that express public faith. We are drowning in individuality.

9) Unless we can regain our own inner vision and define ourselves more by what we are for then what we are against we will continue to divide from each other. The Christian tradition offers that inner vision and throws light on a history and upon realities beyond the here and now and, most importantly, calls us to world citizenship, beyond our own backgrounds.

10) Finally, a few sound-bytes to chew on: