Why do people leave the Church? Pope Francis recently used this question as a starting point in a discussion with the Brazilian bishops as reported recently by Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt here . The answer the Pope gives is:
“Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.”
He goes on to suggest that:
We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”
When I read such words I must say I am driven to almost total despair. Whenever I read some thing like the Church needs to do more to enter into a “conversation” or a “dialog” I have little hope much good will follow. We have been losing ground ever since we started to talk like that! Oh perhaps there is some truth in it of course. There is a sense that the Church is not “generating meaning” but not for the reasons one might suspect. It is not generating meaning because it no longer can give a coherent elevator speech of why it exists. You do not hear Evangelical Christians talk this way. The do not say “Christianity no longer gives meaning” and wring their hands over it. They do have an elevator speech.
An “elevator speech” is of course a brief overview of something designed to be given in the span of an elevator ride of say 30 seconds to 1 minute or so and briefly describe what your business has to offer.
St Paul’s elevator pitch is described in Acts 17; 22-32:
So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op′agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, 28 for‘In him we live and move and have our being’;as even some of your poets have said,‘For we are indeed his offspring.’29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”
A typical evangelical Christian would say something like the 4 Spiritual laws used by Campus Crusade for Christ:
1. God LOVES you and offers a wonderful PLAN for your life
2. Man is SINFUL and SEPARATED from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
3. Jesus Christ is God’s ONLY provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
4. We must individually RECEIVE Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
Notice in both cases we have the basic outline that Man is in some sense separated from God, and needs repentance and Christianity is the way to union with God, which of course is our end. Since all men will die, Christianity then is concerned with our ultimate eternal fate and how to avoid hell and attain heaven.
Back in the day when Catholicism was healthy we had a pretty good elevator speech summed up in the Baltimore Catechism: in question and answer format:
1. Who made us? God made us.
2. Why did God make us?
God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
3. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.
4. From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God?
We learn to know, love, and serve God from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who teaches us through the Catholic Church.
So all in all pretty simple it again comes down to we need Christianity and the Church to help us get to heaven.
All other answers and styles distort the message, and in fact are not consistent with what Christianity is. Christianity will not necessarily make the pains of this life go away, or make us happier other than by helping refocus our attention to the fact that this life is of course temporal, and therefore both its joys and sufferings are limited, swallowed up at the end of the day in death. Something the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes makes pretty clear:
For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath, and man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity.
Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return.
So at the end of the day the Christian message is the answer to this. We have an eternal destiny, therefore our lives are not meaningless. We are headed to eternal bliss or eternal catastrophe and what we do in this life determines our final end. God has given us a pathway via Christ and his Church to eternal life, but it is up to us to choose this path. We can choose otherwise. To the extent this is the message, it will be interesting,it is certainly useful. To the extent something else is the message it will be an incoherent mess. I leave it up to the reader to decide how much current Catholicism is talking about the central message and how much is lost in a post Vatican II happy clappy touchy feely dialoging and conversing Catholic Church that bears a relatively remote rhetorical connection to “Classic Catholicism”. Maybe we should get back to the mission statement we were using back in the Baltimore Catechism days. Back in those days the Church was growing not shrinking, we knew what we believed and we taught it, and we were not engaged in so much navel gazing in attempting to be relevant.
While we are at it consider the practice of saying 3 Hail Mary’s in the morning and the evening so that we might avoid mortal sin and that we might have final perseverance, that is die in God friendship.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.