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Getting out of the Sacristy: A look at our pastoral priorities

We once could trust that many people would come to our institutions—schools, seminaries, and parishes—to be evangelized, but we absolutely cannot assume that today.

(Image: Jacek Dylag @dylu | Unsplash.com)

For the past several days, I’ve been with my Word on Fire team, filming for the Flannery O’Connor and Fulton Sheen episodes of our “Pivotal Players” series. Our journey has taken us from Chicago to New York to Washington, DC, and finally to Savannah and Millidgeville, GA. At every step of the way, we have met numerous people who have been affected by Word on Fire materials: sermons, podcasts, YouTube videos, and the CATHOLICISM series. Many have told me that their exposure to Word on Fire started a process that led them back to the Church. Now I’m telling you this not as an advertisement for my media ministry, but rather as an occasion to muse about what I consider to be a needful change in the way the Church thinks about its essential work.

Throughout all the years of my involvement with the Church, the parish has been taken as the crucial ecclesial institution. Talk to almost anyone involved in Catholic ministry over the past fifty years and you will hear ample criticism of lots of aspects of Church life, but you will, almost without exception, hear praise of the parish. I think here of Fr. Andrew Greeley’s lyrical evocations of the parish as a uniquely successful social and religious institution. Certainly within the context of diocesan priesthood, parish work is the unquestioned default position. Ministry outside of the parochial setting—hospital work, seminary work, teaching, administration, etc.—is acceptable, but it is generally seen as not quite what a diocesan priest ought to be doing. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming amount of our money, time, energy, and personnel go into the maintenance of parish structures.

Now please don’t misunderstand me: I love the parish and believe in its importance passionately. Worship, instruction in discipleship, the building up of the community, formation for mission—all of this happens typically within the parish. I did full-time parish work for several years, and I’ve been involved in numerous parishes for the full thirty-two years of my priesthood. Now as a regional bishop in the largest Archdiocese in the country, I supervise and regularly visit roughly forty parishes. However, I do wonder whether, given the unique demands of our time, it might be wise to ask a few questions about our hyper-stress on the parish.

Survey after survey has shown that the number of the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, is increasing dramatically in our country. Whereas in the early 1970s, those claiming no religion was around three percent, today it is close to twenty-five percent. And among the young, the figures are even more alarming: forty percent of those under forty have no religious affiliation, and fully fifty percent of Catholics under forty claim to be “nones.” For every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, roughly six are leaving. And even those who identify as Catholic are spending very little time in and around parishes. Most studies indicate that perhaps 20 to 25 percent of baptized Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis, and the numbers of those receiving the sacraments—especially baptism, confirmation, marriage—are in noticeable decline. Furthermore, objective analysis reveals—and I can testify from a good deal of personal experience—that a tiny percentage of the already small percentage who attend Mass typically participate in parish programs of education, social service, and spiritual renewal. The point—and again, this is to say absolutely nothing against those who do wonderful work within the parish—is that perhaps we should reconsider our priorities and focus, above all, on active evangelization, the great mission ad extra.

Pope Francis memorably told us to “get out of the sacristies and into the streets,” and to go “to the existential margins.” Especially in our Western context, the streets and the existential margins are where we find the “nones.” Two or three generations ago, we could trust that many people (Catholics certainly) would come to our institutions—schools, seminaries, and parishes—to be evangelized, but we absolutely cannot assume that today. But yet we still seem to devote most of our money, time, and attention to the maintenance of these institutions and their programs. Might it not be wiser to redirect our energies, money, and personnel outward, so that we might move into the space where the un-evangelized, the fallen-away, the unaffiliated dwell? My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum. But that’s a subject for another column.

The last time Cardinal George addressed the priests of Chicago, at a convocation just about nine months before his death, he made a prophetic remark. He told the Chicago presbyterate that, at the beginning of the Church, there were no dioceses, no schools, no seminaries, and no parishes. But there were evangelists. He said that, in light of our present challenges, this is worth thinking about. He was right.

About Bishop Robert Barron 141 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

41 Comments

  1. As I admire Bishop Barron, and greatly appreciate his emphasis on evangelization, and his Word on Fire, and particularly appreciate his critique of “Catholic” education, I put this question to him as a “credibility” issue that must be faced and fixed, or else appeals for evangelization ring hollow.

    The problem is this: The Church cannot appeal for evangelization when it has prominent “theologians” promoted in this pontificate who have for 40 years published books for seminarians and college students teaching our young people across 2 generations to disbelieve the Evangelists.

    A notorious case is Cardinal Kasper, whose 1974 book “Jesus the Christ” teaches (among other errors, this particular error being I believe material heresy) that the miracle accounts in the Gospels are “legends” (pp 90-91 of the 1974 edition). The book was re-issued in 2011 (without change as I have learned).

    Kasper states, for specific examples, that these accounts are fictions: Jesus did NOT feed the 5000; He did NOT calm the storm on the sea; He was NOT transfigured; nor did He raise the widow’s son, the daughter of Jairus or Lazarus.

    His book is used in seminaries and colleges throughout the world, and the book is specifically promoted by Cardinals like Cardinal Cupich. Sadly, the Pope also gives sweeping endorsements of Cardinal Kasper, calling his work “theology on its knees.”

    So the Church cannot expect young people to do anything but leave the faith, as they are doing, when Cardinals and Bishops and theology “professors” teach them that the Gospels are stocked with pious fiction.

    We cannot teach disbelief in the Evangelists on Monday, and expect people to take the Gospel seriously on Tuesday.

    In sum:

    • Brilliant, Chris!

      The problem has always been hierarchical with bishops and priests falling away from the faith and dragging the faithful with them.

      The interesting thing is the solution seems to be coming from the laity with lay groups and lay people donning up the work wear and getting down to the nitty gritty ofevangelization.

    • Silly me. I had no idea Kasper had written such a book and that seminaries used it.
      These are damn lies. Nothing less.
      The chilling message is that Kasper is still in the assent within this Vatican.
      What else can I say? Mordor draws very near.

  2. “But yet we still seem to devote most of our money, time, and attention to the maintenance of these institutions and their programs.”

    The Church, and the parish, is more than an institution to be administered. The emphasis on the parish is not wrong but it is wrongly misunderstood as the allocation of resources. It is the first locus, after the family, for the practice of charity towards other Christians.

    “Might it not be wiser to redirect our energies, money, and personnel outward, so that we might move into the space where the un-evangelized, the fallen-away, the unaffiliated dwell? My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum. But that’s a subject for another column.”

    Without serious liturgical reform what is the point of trying to bring non-Christians in? Those who are serious-minded will be more likely repulsed by contemporary Roman Catholic liturgy than not.

    And I’ve said this before, Roman Catholic churches have very little additional to say to men, as their current witness already says a lot about their capitulation to feminism.

    • SOL,
      I agree that parishes need to rework their liturgies and invest much more effort into them. But the liturgy, itself, rarely brings people into the Church. Instead, it is Jesus, Truth, and a relationship with an evangelizer that brings people in.

      • “But the liturgy, itself, rarely brings people into the Church.”

        Beauty is its own language, but 50 years of a disastrous reform in the Latin churches has obscured this.

        • Just an old guy a convert. I’ve watched the corporal works of mercy done by Catholics, slowly being take over by government social programs. I here Bishops say, not enough vocations, not enough money, but then Mother Teresa comes to mind in contrast. I hear reformation, renovation but never restoration. It worked for over 1900 years.

    • This piece is indicative of establishment Catholicism’s missing the boat: the sacristy and parish is where the parish priest should be! This seems to have a hint of the whole “activist” and activity mentality- priests and religious need to be “out” there “doing” stuff. It misses the fact that the greatest context & form of evangelization is the Mass and the sacraments, for instance. (And not necessarily from getting non-believers to attend.) For example, this is what will strengthen lay catholics to go out and evangelize, whose duty it is perhaps even more to do so, as they are the ones who are out in the world. If your average catholic could not care much about the salvation of others because they are not fed properly at their parish, then we’ve missed it. Also, do we actually think that a priest going out publicly evangelizing is going to be welcomed and bring any amount of people in vs. again seeing to it that his flock is properly fed to do so in arguably more and better ways? And what priest in your average diocese has time to go “out into the streets”, when he barely has time to get his basic parochial duties done? What we do not necessarily need is more information, e.g., if only we had more internet materials, more dvds, apps, social media stuff, etc… We are already inundated with such and this has been the approach for decades now and has arguably not worked. Until and if we strengthen our owns institutions- and this should therefore be the primary emphasis- we won’t get very far going outside of them.

  3. Or to put it another way:

    The Church souls not teach children on Mon-Fri that the Gospels are fiction, and then wonder why the children don’t come to Mass on Sunday.

    • Yes, very good. And it can all be reduced to the question of who’s right and who’s wrong — or, what’s right and what’s wrong? Whatever happened to that teaching authority, which, presumably, must still be there somewhere.

  4. The single biggest priority should be rooting out the corruption–McCarrick et al, for example. “Uncle Ted” finally made The New York Times. Hmm, I wonder how much damage such corruption does to evangelization?
    .
    An aquaintance recently sent me information on a Latin Mass conference in our diocese (the diocesan authorities are not fans of the Tridetine Rite). That made sense, as I used to support the FSSP (like I did the Legion of Christ). But honestly, the Ick Factor is overwhelming. I really want nothing to do with the Church. And if I want nothing to do with it, why would I ever want to bring someone in?
    .
    I converted and was confirmed in 1996, but I often think I’ve fallen to the ol’ Bait and Switch con game. Of the money I’ve donated over the years, how much was used by powerful con artists like McCarrik to attack the powerless?

    • Hang in there KJG. As the great saint Teresa of Calcutta remarked when things were tough: “My job is not to be successful, it is only to be faithful.”

      • Faithful? To what? To whom? Praying is a good thing, but as long as people continue to give money to the Church and watch the Sunday performance (is it even a legit worship? I do not know), preditors will continue on as before.
        .

        • Well – I fully understand.

          And yet, there is a straightforward answer to that:

          Faithful to Jesus the head of the Mystical Body of Christ, and faithful to the faithful Catholics you know, among laity, clergy and Bishops, who make up that Body.

          And it is worth remembering that the number of faithful are fairly small in comparison to the unfaithful, as Bishop John Fisher found out under Henry VIII, when all other bishops abandoned the Church.

          Despite discouragement, read and live Psalm 23, and never give in to despair. “In this world you will have troubles, but fear not, I have conquered the world.”

          For my part, you will remain in my prayers.

          For he who endures to the end: “behold, I make all things new.”

  5. ” Furthermore, objective analysis reveals—and I can testify from a good deal of personal experience—that a tiny percentage of the already small percentage who attend Mass typically participate in parish programs of education, social service, and spiritual renewal.”

    So? “Programs” are not part of the structure of the Church, that I’ve ever heard.

    “The point—and again, this is to say absolutely nothing against those who do wonderful work within the parish—is that perhaps we should reconsider our priorities and focus, above all, on active evangelization, the great mission ad extra.”

    Much good it will to to evangelize actively when there’s no parish into which to bring those evangelized.

    “Two or three generations ago, we could trust that many people (Catholics certainly) would come to our institutions—schools, seminaries, and parishes—to be evangelized, but we absolutely cannot assume that today. But yet we still seem to devote most of our money, time, and attention to the maintenance of these institutions and their programs. ”

    Yes, we do, because you can’t just say “Oh, okay, you all are in one of our institutions, so we will now proceed to ignore you most of the time while we go out and “redirect our energies, money, and personnel outward.” He already mentioned how many Catholics leave the Church; this sounds like a way to make sure that more of them do.

    “My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum.”

    Actually, no; the “social media” are a massive drain of time and attention, and you’d do better to wean people away from the cesspit that they are rather than wallowing in it. Perhaps it would be better to form an “army of young priests specifically educated and equipped” to offer the Mass with reverence, to cling to the Truth and teach the Faith. Look at the statistics on how many Catholics who are members of parishes and do attend Mass don’t believe in the Real Presence; look at how many alleged Catholics are all in favor of abortion and pretended marriages between persons of the same sex. Maybe if a bit of effort was put into evangelizing *them* then they would help with the evangelizing of those who are in the “existential margins.” (Hey, I managed to type that phrase with a straight face! How impressive of me!)

    “The last time Cardinal George addressed the priests of Chicago, at a convocation just about nine months before his death, he made a prophetic remark. He told the Chicago presbyterate that, at the beginning of the Church, there were no dioceses, no schools, no seminaries, and no parishes. But there were evangelists.”

    *Because* of those evangelists, we have all those other things. In any case, there were dioceses, because there were bishops. There were schools, because people were taught; and seminaries, because priests were trained and ordained; and parishes, because people came together to celebrate the Eucharist. Did they look just like the bishops, schools, seminaries, parishes of today? No. So what?

  6. Before taking bishop barron’s suggestions seriously, would he please first tell us what he knew about mccarrick’s predation on young seminarians and priests and when he knew it.

  7. Before we take seriously BP Barron’s suggestions, could he please tell us what he knew about cardinal mccarrick’s sexual predations on young priests and seminarians and when he first heard about them?

  8. I am an 85 year old sinner/practicing catholic who has stumbled on to this page this morning due to my lack of knowledge of this lap top. If I may – I have just one question How did Cardinals Cupish and Kasper who seem to have such little faith become so prominent in our church? Thank you – Respectfully, Joan

    • Excellent question Joan.

      Read Rod Dreher’s series on this at American Conservative.

      And to the Archdiocese of Arlington, VA: Explain Bishop Paul Loverde’s destruction of Fr. James Haley, who had the courage to expose thieving, adultering and actively homosexual priests, all of which was true, and covered in newspapers, only to be hounded out of the priesthood by the sinister Bishop Loverde.

      • That is a lie. Bishop Loverde was an excellent and faithful bishop, on the sexual issues as in other things. There was nothing sinister about him. The accusations about Haley are innuendo and rumors spread by people who do not know the situation, or by those who were involved and had malicious intent.

  9. I agree with you Bishop on using other means of communication to preach. But my problem with your ministry is that you are charging for it. Instead of publishing all your work on YouTube you are selling it

    I guess Jesus wasn’t talking to you when He said take nothing with you and get out and preach

    My God be merciful to you

  10. We have become as those poor deprived souls predating the institution and commmisioning of the Church. Christ’s promises to be with us to the consumation of the world, saving us at all time from the gates of hell, seem to have got lost somewhere.

    Pope Francis should step up to the plate, grasp the nature of his endowment and heroically make use of it (we believe he’ll get all the help he needs in doing so). If he can’t start getting the Church back on track then maybe he, too, should do a Benedict.

  11. Sol has it right. The contemporary liturgy is unattractive. It is simply wrong-headed to work at bringing people into the Church when its liturgy can’t hold them and in some cases is positively driving them out. I admit for my own part that for decades I resisted concluding that the Novus Ordo can’t be fixed. But there it is: it has to be abandoned. Only the traditional liturgy has the capacity to attract and hold.

    • That’s the thing with these clergy and laymen for whom the latest fad is to wring their hands about millennials leaving the church, but they don’t offer any advice nor specific solutions for how to stop it. They can get a good lecture gig by lamenting the rise of the nones and the failure of catholic schools and CCD programs, and the bad liturgy, but they don’t offer solutions nor do they do anything in a parish to solve it. If they’re so smart, why don’t they work at a parish, fix things, and then speak to people about what they did that succeeded? It’s much easier to complain.I’ll tell you this much: making You Tube videos is not going to have a large impact. That’s just about run its course. If there’s no good parishes to go to, what is the point of having an army of priests on youtube, Instagram, facebook, twitter and so forth? That’s not ministry. That’s not evangelization. That’s a waste of time.

  12. Bishop Barron is wrong: the parish is irreplaceable as a locus for evangelization and it should be the top priority of every parish to celebrate Mass worthily and beautifully and have the best DREs and catechists they can find.

    If Mass is celebrated worthily and the parish has catechists who can actually teach well, word will spread and people will come. Friends will invite friends. Word of mouth is the best advertising, and meaningful encounters with the sacred at liturgy and with the truth at religious education will keep people coming back. People hunger for spiritual nourishment, but they aren’t being fed at hardly any parishes because the people in charge are either lazy or don’t know what they’re doing.

    If Mass has two-bit musicians with uninspired homilies and a social hall atmosphere, why would people go? If religious education only consists of watching Fr. Barron’s videos or the Great Adventure Bible Study or Formed.org videos, why would people go? They can do those things at home on their own time, and it communicates that the people on staff don’t have anything themselves to offer except pressing play on the video machine.

    If you build it, they will come. Most parishes not only aren’t building it, they’re dismantling it. Parishes must be the top priority for evangelization. Parishes are the local church. Besides, if the parish sucks then what the heck would we be evangelizing people to join? Make parishes excellent and attractive, and then go out into the world. If you’re going to offer people something, you first have to have something to offer them.

  13. Maybe if more priests/bishops/cardinals actually taught the TRUTH of the Catholic Church more people would be there?

    Instead it has become an anything goes, all things are equal mess. A priest in California told someone recently that everyone goes to heaven, regardless of what they do or how they live, because God wants everyone to come to the party. If that is the case what is the point of being a priest? What is the point of being Catholic? What is the point of Christ’s sacrifice? Why would anyone want to go to a heaven with a God who allows his son to die for absolutely no reason.

    The reason why Catholics stop going to mass is because it has become meaningless to a good number of the shepherds. If it is meaningless to you and just a chore why should anyone else care?

    What is the point of evangelization when you preach all mercy and no justice or not the fullness of faith? You want to preach “all are welcome” but not “now go and sin no more”. I believe you even wrote an article about this previously on this site about you need to be more like St. Peter and preach as he did in acts, cutting to the chase, that as sinners we have and crucify Christ and his blood is on our hands until we repent. Then, like in Acts, the Holy Spirit may convict and actually lead people to having transformed lives rather than fitting the Church to the culture and not raising the culture to the Church.

    Maybe you should stop worrying about the “where” of where you speak and worry about the Truth or the “what” of what you speak. Give people a faith worth living and dying for and maybe they’ll show up. There is enough nonsense in this world already without a watered down, meaningless, ambiguous faith.

  14. If LIFEteen and Steubenville youth ministry and conferences are so effective, why are millennials not staying in the church? Most kids leave after confirmation and high school youth programs? Are parishes wasting their money by pouring collectively millions into misguided, slick youth ministry programs? What does the bishop think about the ineffectiveness of those programs? Are LIFEteen and Steubenville rackets?

    • I don’t see any indication that it offers anything that a sentimentalist form of worship and spirituality which are inherently unstable.

  15. When done correctly, children are taught we are in this world to know, love, and serve God, and in this manner earn everlasting happiness in the presence of God in Heaven. Children are also taught the commandments of God and the commandments of the Church, which include attendance at Mass each Sunday. Children are also taught a healthy fear of God, and the obligation to attend Mass each week, under pain of serious sin. One does not need to enjoy going to Mass, but one does need to satisfy the obligation. As a child grows, as we each get older, and as crises in our lives develop, sooner or later an appreciation of the Mass develops, with the recognition that it satisfies our obligation and also allows us to raise our minds and hearts to God, in adoration, thankfulness, and plea, for gifts or mercy. It is nearly impossible to find a Mass nowadays that allows such recollection and gathering of thoughts, and quiet worship. The efforts of the local dioceses should be to educate the young, to teach the young the catechism, to teach him /her our obligations as Catholics, to teach them what it means to confirm our Faith, to teach them about Grace. These are parishes’ functions, through well-trained, faith-filled individuals, with the example, dedication, and support of the parish priest. Over the centuries many religious orders have been formed, each with its own charism. Their success has depended on their orthodoxy, dedication, honesty, sincere love of others, obedience. The sad fact is that many in these orders, just like many diocesan priests and bishops, have scandalized the faithful and, through their actions, have caused a loss of Faith and trust. The Church does not need to minimize the role of parishes. It needs priests faithful to their vocation, well-educated lay individuals, and a serious re-establishment of orthodox Catholic education, starting with the very young.

  16. One size never fits all. Not everybody has the skills to evangelize NCs to the church. Not all non-Catholics can be converted, especially if they come from a close knit, spiritual and loving NC family.

    What has concerned me the most is the after effect on the family of the converted. Marcus Grodi a former Protestant minister comes to mind. He is our prime evangelist with a bully pulpit on EWTN by having many guests who are of the Protestant cloth. Evangelization is somewhat akin to exorcism, you must be well trained.

    • “Evangelization is somewhat akin to exorcism, you must be well trained.”

      Pope Francis: Evangelization “by its very nature belongs to the People of God.”

      Catechism, par. 848: “”Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”

      Paul VI, 1975: “Families resulting from a mixed marriage also have the duty of proclaiming Christ to the children in the fullness of the consequences of a common Baptism; they have moreover the difficult task of becoming builders of unity.” (#71)

    • “Not all non-Catholics can be converted, especially if they come from a close knit, spiritual and loving NC family.”

      You mean like, say, Scott Hahn?

      “What has concerned me the most is the after effect on the family of the converted. Marcus Grodi a former Protestant minister comes to mind.”

      What do you mean? What about Marcus Grodi comes to mind?

  17. Bishop Robert Baron, when did you become aware of the stories of the sexual predator Cdn McCarrik?
    Why did you remain silent?

  18. All these great minds in action. Lets keep it simple silly! First the encounter; then repentence; mercy; mission!

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