Bishop Thomas: Calling Forth Intentional Disciples

Bishop Thomas delivers the homily during the dedication of All Saints Chapel at Carroll College

Most Reverend George Leo Thomas, Ph.D.

Homily: All Saints Chapel Dedication, Carroll College
November 1, 2017

On September 22nd, 2016, the highly-respected Public Religion Research Institute out of Washington D.C. published their findings on the state of religion in America.

The study is entitled, Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back. The findings are corroborated by Gallup, Pew, and Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

I venture to say that every person seated here will resonate with the findings of this research, whether here at Carroll College, in your own family of origin, or within your circle of friends. The combined studies have produced these sobering statistics:

Only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing.

Another 38% hold onto their Catholic identity, but seldom or never attend Mass.

29% no longer consider themselves to be Catholic at all.

The final 3% are now part of a non- Christian faith.

Stations of the Cross, South wall of All Saints Chapel

If we apply these statistics to the national population, the results are even more startling. Ten percent of all adults in the United States are ex-Catholics, while only 2.6% are converting to the Church on an annual basis. Four in ten young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are religiously unaffiliated, a fourfold increase in one generation. In other words, “Nearly four times as many adults have left as have entered the Catholic Church in the past decade.” (Weddell p. 26)

When Catholics are asked about the reason they departed, the responses are many and varied, but a number of important influences emerge and show a pattern that should glean our attention. “No precipitating reason, but rather I just drifted away,” is the most frequently cited response. A variation on that theme, “I consider myself spiritual but not religious,” is a response endemic in the millennial generation. Specific reasons include banal liturgy, vapid preaching or disgust over the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Others point to vehement disagreement with the Church’s moral stance on homosexuality, women’s ordination, birth control, abortion or divorce and remarriage. To be sure, the combined studies are sobering and astounding when taken at face value.

From my vantage point however, they provide important keys for opening our doors and our hearts to those who have departed or simply drifted away from the Church in recent years. Over a dozen years ago, I became aware of the extensive social science research being conducted on youth and young adults in Seattle, Washington. The research conclusions jumped off the page and our Diocese began three pastoral initiatives that have paid high dividends for over a decade.

1. In her book entitled Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell states clearly and convincingly: “Catholics who leave, leave early. Nearly half of cradle Catholics who become unaffiliated are gone by age 18.”

In response, we ramped up our ministry to youth and young adults. We hired the best youth and young adult ministers we could find. We placed three of our finest priests on our college campuses, including our own highly regarded Fr. Marc Lenneman here at Carroll College. We infused resources into our ministry to youth through the Catholic Youth Coalition, Legendary Lodge, Justice Outreach Project, youth bible studies and parish and deanery youth programs.

2. A full decade ago, our research told us that we could no longer assume that religious identity and religious affiliation would be handed on within the context of family, or inherited by osmosis in the context of stable integrated family life.

In addition to the presence of skilled pastors and youth and young adult ministers, we saw the value of commissioning peer ministers and spiritual mentors, young adults who love the faith, and model Catholic discipleship in our campuses, deaneries, and parishes across the diocese. Our own Doug Tooke was the mastermind behind that productive effort.

3. The third insight comes from the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, and is also affirmed by research. I describe this as the unfinished work of the Church that, if left unaddressed, will aid and abet a pattern of attrition hemorrhaging, defection, and mediocrity.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated clearly and unequivocally that the primary and fundamental vocation of every baptized Christian is the universal call to holiness. The call to holiness is the sine qua non, the non-negotiable, the common denominator, the shared DNA that all the Baptized hold in common– the lay faithful, priests, deacons, bishops, women and men religious, no exceptions, no hold outs, no way, no how.

Large San Damiano Cross above the altar, All Saints Chapel

In the words of Saint John Paul II, “All of Christ’s followers are invited and bound to pursue holiness and the perfect fulfillment of their own state in life.” (Christifideles Laici, 44). This call is rooted in baptism and sustained in all the other sacraments, most especially the sacrament of the Eucharist.

In his seminal writing a decade ago, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles describes a generation of Catholics who are catechized but unevangelized. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is clear and definitive in calling Catholics across the globe to be missionary disciples who encounter Jesus Christ personally and deeply. In her book, Weddell also offers a stunningly important insight. “The majority of Catholics in the US are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Jesus Christ—personal discipleship– is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and again by the popes, councils, and Saints of the church.”

On this feast of All Saints, on the occasion of the dedication of the All Saints Chapel, and in light of these sobering research findings, I want to ask you individually and collectively, a challenging and difficult question. How are you spiritually at this juncture of your personal life?

Are you aware of this personal call to holiness? At this moment in your life, do you have that intentional, intimate and personal attachment to Jesus Christ as Lord of your life, or are you a casual, camouflage, occasional Catholic described in the literature?

I believe that the answers to these questions are pivotal in securing the future of the church, if we are to revitalize the heart and soul of the entire faith community. There are eight markers that active disciples of Christ hold in common with one another, markers that are present on this college campus, markers that I share with you on the Feast of All Saints:

Discipleship is an explicit decision, a radical decision, to follow Jesus Christ, and to claim him as Lord and Savior of your life. Have you made that intentional decision to follow him, and to welcome him as your Lord and Savior? Have you made that decision to follow him, intentionally, deliberately, and trustingly?

Discipleship is lived out in community. Disciples of Jesus do not go it alone. Are you walking in the company of other believers, supporting one another, challenging one another, praying for one another?

Discipleship is nourished in daily prayer, and sustained by Word and Sacrament, most especially Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, characterized by St. John Paul as Inaestimabile Donum, the church’s most priceless treasure. What is the state of and quality of your prayer life, the marker of friendship with Jesus Christ? Have you discovered that place deep within your soul, that sacred sanctuary where friendship with Jesus Christ is nourished and cultivated?

View from the balcony in All Saints Chapel

Discipleship is expressed through Beatitude living, the connection between faith and compassion, worship and charity, liturgy and justice, prayer and service, selfless works of charity and compassion, always with a preferential option for the poor. Are you walking the talk, or only serving the Lord in an advisory capacity?

Discipleship is marked by constant conversion, a change of heart. Are you responding to God’s amazing grace that heals the wounds of sin and selfishness, and sets aside all that diseases the soul and robs us of peace of mind? Are you encountering Christ, the Divine Physician, regularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Are you an agent of healing in your family and wider community?

Discipleship invites others to “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”, first by the example of a good life, and then by personal invitation. Is your life attracting others to discover Jesus Christ, and inviting them to live the Sacramental life of the Church? Discipleship is joyful, invitatory, emanating peace and happiness. “O Lord,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “Please spare me from sour-faced saints.”

Discipleship is never self-referential, self-enclosed, or self-congratulatory. It is lived out in communion with the wider community, and never loses sight of unity with the wider Church, including the See of Peter, the local bishop, and the people in mission territories.

Discipleship is at home with both faith and reason described by Pope John Paul as two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth. The intentional disciple is well-formed and informed, a student of the church and a student of culture and society. They understand the value of dialogue over diatribe, persuasion over polemics, invitation over invective, and a theology of the marketplace over a theology of the walled city.

I believe that intentional discipleship is what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had in mind when they described the universal call to holiness. I am more and more convinced that intentional discipleship is a force for the future, and an initiative that we as a diocese and wider Church must address.

All Saints Chapel is a visible symbol of our love and support of the young Catholic. It is a powerful reminder that you and I, by virtue of our Baptism, are being called into deeper and daily discipleship in the circumstances of our lives. My earnest prayer is reflected in the words of the psalmist as he prayed with all his heart: O that today you would hear his voice and harden not your hearts.