Coming, returning to, or growing in faith in the new year, The Anchor, January 18, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
January 18, 2013

Every year is meant to be a “year of the Lord” (anno Domini). Since 2013 takes place during the Year of Faith, however, all of us are called to make a special effort to dedicate it to the Lord. It’s a year in which we’re called to grow in faith, walk by faith, and spread the faith with love, so that this year will be the holiest, most faithful and most apostolically fruitful year of our life.

When the Year of Faith began, we looked at how faith is fundamentally a total, loving entrustment of ourselves to God, and on the basis of that commitment, to all that He has revealed. We also examined how in this holy year, Pope Benedict has prayerfully challenged us to grow in both aspects of faith. He hopes that, strengthened by faith, each of us can take up our role in the New Evangelization, the re-proposal of the beauty of the Christian life to those who, for whatever reason, were once exposed to the Gospel but who were never captivated by it or who, through secularization, scandals or other reasons, have lost the fascination and faith they once had.

This New Evangelization has two essential preparatory stages.

First all those who practice the faith need to be more profoundly evangelized. For many Catholics, Christ remains at the level of a doctrinal abstraction, a teacher of moral truths rather than the Truth incarnate, a figure of the past rather than the present, a paramedic for spiritual emergencies rather than the most defining reality and relationship of our life. Many of us have learned the faith as if Christianity were a classroom or a series of religious rituals and moral duties instead of a way of life and love in which each of us is supposed to be able to say progressively with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ Who lives in me.” Since we can only give what we have, the first step in the New Evangelization is for the evangelizers to have a real friendship, a true intimate communion, with Christ. That’s what the Year of Faith is meant to enable and enhance.

The second step is that those who have been evangelized must be comfortable and equipped to be able to pass on their faith with sensitivity, patience and fervor as the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them.

Over the years many people have come to speak to me, with tears in their eyes, to describe how their spouse, kids or grandkids, no longer practice the faith and no matter what they try, they can’t persuade them to return. When I ask how they’ve tried to persuade their loved ones, many have replied by telling me that they, somewhat literally, try to scare the hell out of them, informing them that their illicit relationship or voluntarily missing Mass is a mortal sin that will lead them to the inferno. Others have said they talk about religious duties and seek to make them feel guilty about their lack of response to God’s goodness. But these approaches normally don’t bear much fruit because most people today respond negatively to what they perceive as scare tactics or guilt-tripping and these arguments only reinforce the caricature of faith they have.

Even more challenging than trying to persuade born-and-fled Catholics to revert to the practice of the faith is to try to propose the faith to those who have grown up without God in their life at all. How do you share the faith with atheist immigrants from China or North Korea, or children who grew up in the home of thoroughly secularist parents who taught that all religious is mythical, or those who grew up in situations like the skateboarding teens in front of St. Anthony’s in New Bedford who used to ask me why I dressed funny because they had never seen nor heard of a priest?

Many Catholics don’t know where to start in order to evangelize people in these categories, because before we can discuss Jesus, the Sacraments and the Christian life, we need to meet them where they’re at and have credible answers to their basic questions about whether God exists, whether there’s meaning to life, whether and why there is good and evil. Even Catholics who would be competent debating justification with Lutherans, explaining the beauty of Marian devotion to Baptists, and defending Trinitarian theology before Jews and Muslims, don’t know where to begin to engage those who at this point have no faith at all and often, for that reason, are in situations contrary to their own good.

During this Year of Faith in preparation for the New Evangelization, it’s important that every Catholic be given an opportunity to receive formation in both of these areas, so that, more deeply rooted in Christ and firm in faith, they can speak credibly and persuasively about the gift of faith to others.

There’s a great program that delivers on this double need. It’s called the Alpha Course for Catholics and a team of parishioners and I are planning to launch it at St. Bernadette’s on Wednesday nights at 6:45 p.m., beginning January 23. I’d like to invite you to participate in it if you feel a hunger for this type of training and are able to get to Fall River.

The Alpha program was originally developed by Anglican priests at Holy Trinity Parish in London to share the Gospel in a non-threatening and relaxed way with those who had no faith and to invite those who had stopped practicing back into the Christian community. It came to be so successful in introducing or reintroducing people to the central truths and way of the Christian life that, beginning in the early 90s, it began to spread all over England, into other countries, and into various Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church. Since, there have been more than 60,000 Alpha courses run in 169 countries, proposing or strengthening the faith of more than 19.6 million people, including courses for Catholics in 74 different languages.

During the Vatican’s Synod on the New Evangelization and the Transmission of the Faith in October, Alpha for Catholics was looked at as a model not only for reaching those with no faith at all or weakened faith but also for strengthening the faith of practicing Catholics and helping them learn how to propose the faith in an appealing way to others without watering it down.

Alpha for Catholics is a 10-week course that includes a meal, a 45-minute movie, and then small group discussion each night. It examines in a contemporary, irresistible way the basic Gospel message and the essentials of living the Christian faith: who Jesus is, why He died, faith, prayer, the Bible, God’s guidance, good and evil, talking about Jesus to others, healing, and the importance of the Church. In the middle of the course, there is a retreat focused on getting to know the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to fill us and help make the most of the rest of our life. There’s no cost for the program, except a small free-will donation for the food.

If you’d like to participate in the course, or if you know any friends or family members who might be interested in giving the faith a second look — or a first one — please know you’re warmly invited. Please just send me an email so that we can make plans for food.