In the period of time that I’ve been a priest, our diocese has engaged in at least seven evangelization and spiritual renewal projects. These various projects were responses to the observation that increasing numbers of people are leaving the Church or demonstrating no interest in church participation. Those various projects took varied approaches to the issue of declining church attendance, but all intended to provide the faithful, the fallen-away, and the unchurched with a more adequate knowledge of the Catholic Faith.
For a long time, I participated enthusiastically in these projects. Recently, however, I have had some doubts about the basic assumption behind the Church’s current evangelization and catechetical efforts. I wonder if the cause of decreasing interest in organized religion is really a lack of knowledge, or a lack of ministry outreach, or a lack of opportunities for involvement.
It’s easy to make the judgment that a person or group has an inadequate understanding of God or the Faith. Anecdotal evidence seems to support this judgement. I wonder, however, if the assumption that lack of religious practice results from lack of knowledge is merely a misinterpretation of facts. One might assume, for example, that the people in the Gospels who failed to believe in Jesus did so as the result of an inadequate knowledge of God. The facts recorded in the Gospels, however, can be interpreted to mean something entirely different from the conventional assumption.
The magi, who were astrologers to the royal court of the Persian Empire, saw celestial signs indicating an extraordinary exercise of Divine power. They followed a star in the hope of finding a new King of Israel; they were surprised not to find the newborn King in Jerusalem, the usual home of Israelite Kings. They asked local experts and went to Bethlehem to worship, but departed as soon as they found the child. They represented the fulfillment of the prophecy by Isaiah that the gentiles would see the light of God’s glory by means of the People of Israel.
Herod also looked for a new King of Israel, but not because he welcomed such an event. Herod spent most of his reign as vassal King worrying that he might lose his political power to a rival. Today’s Gospel reading indicates how deeply Herod feared potential rivals. The Gospel says, “he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Mt. 2:3) Herod was so unhinged that his fear and anxiety had a detrimental effect on the entire city.
Despite his overwhelming fears, Herod’s judgment about the tenuousness of political power was an accurate one; nothing lasts forever. In the face of this obvious fact, Herod chose to feel threatened. Herod’s advisors chose fear, as well. They made an accurate judgment about Herod’s capricious temperament and decided to redirect Herod’s anger toward Bethlehem and its residents, with mortal consequences for the infant boys of the town.
The Gospel author saw clearly all that the magi, Herod, and his advisors saw. Representing those who became Jesus’ disciples, the Gospel author chose to see Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of prophecy.
Everyone mentioned in today’s Gospel reading saw the truth clearly. The difference was made in their responses to the truth. This, I think, is a more accurate interpretation of facts than the conventional assumption that some people lack adequate knowledge of God. I think it might be the case that everyone sees the truth about religion and religious practice; the difference in individual behavior is not based on knowledge of truth but on one’s response to the truth.
Everyone, I think, sees the truth clearly. Like Herod, some are discouraged by the tenuousness of human existence; they choose to try to coerce others to assuage their fears. Like Herod’s advisors, others scapegoat those with less political power or material resources. There are, however, some who choose to recognize in Jesus the Incarnate presence of God. These are not driven by fear or despair or avarice for gain; these offer God fitting worship and proclaim the good news of reconciliation.
What should the Church do about declining church attendance and decreasing interest in organized religion? Perhaps, the most effective response is not the most obvious one. Perhaps, the necessary change has to take place in the lives of those who continue to practice organized religion. Perhaps, we need to acknowledge that the truths about human existence and God’s will to save are clear to see, but the appropriate response to truth is not so clear. Perhaps, those who continue to participate in organized religion need to provide the world an example of discipleship.
It’s very easy to fall into anxiety about other people’s choices. There is anecdotal evidence to support pessimism about the future. It’s often convenient to look for scapegoats for one’s perceived problems. None of these, however, are acts of faith.
The Gospel author, representing all disciples, saw in Jesus the fulfillment of prophecy about God’s desire to redeem creation. Rather than making harsh judgments about the motivations or perceived failings of the unchurched, perhaps it’s time for church participants to remedy the lack of faith in their own lives.