Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Renew Your Parish (Or Why I Do Not Like Corporate America)

I don't know if any of you reading this are frequent flyers at a Catholic parish.  I'm going to assume you are, seeing as how you are taking your time to read a rather mediocre Catholic blog.  Unless you are part of a wonderful exception, many of you are looking at your parishes and you find something... lacking.  Many, if not most, Catholic parishes need a sort of renewal, a revival, a re-inspiration (the root of that word being in the Holy Spirit).  Unless you are rather fortunate enough to live in a parish which exemplifies all that is a one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community, you and I and many, many other Catholic agree:  The average, everyday Catholic parish needs revitalizing.

However, most approaches I've seen towards parish revitalization have been less-than-great, ranging from the sorta successful to the miserable failure.  There are tons of different parish revival programs, classes, and regimens, and the one thing most of them have in common is that they don't really seem to work.  Now, I may be totally missing the mark, and you may be reading this thinking "My parish did such and such program and implemented such and such changes, and *poof* it saw staggering increases in parish life", and if that is the case, God bless you and God bless whatever person or group of persons who created such and such program.  However, if you, like me, have no experience of that sort, you must surely be asking "Why?  Why don't these parish revitalization plans work?

This subject was first brought to my mind when I saw a series of articles floating around the social mediasphere, articles like "MegaChurch or Catholic Church?" and "10 Ways to Put Megachurches Out of Business".  Read them, by all means.  They are bringing to light a real problem: the exodus of Catholics towards so-called "mega-churches".  More often than ever, Catholics are finding themselves in the pews (excuse me, I meant to say the cushioned, comfortable seats) of "relevant" houses of worship, and less than ever, praying on the old rickety wooden kneelers of their Grammy's parish church.  Unfortunately, as I read these articles, I found them laughably missing the point.  Allow me to explain why:

If fixing the problem of the average parish's slow decay were as simple as a 10 step, clearly outlined process, it wouldn't be much of a problem.  It'd be 10 separate, easily identifiable problems that correspond to 10 direct, identifiable solutions that, with some trial and error and fine-tuning, would be quickly and effectively implemented.  But its not.  The author's articles, which glimmer with the most golden of intentions, do not and will not solve the problem at hand, even if every single parish implemented it as best as they possibly could.  "Why?" you ask?  Because the author, like virtually every parishioner and everyone who sets out to fix the problem of parish decay, no matter how intelligent, looks at the problem through a corporate lens.

Let me step back here for a minute and give exposition.  The United States of America, home to most (if not all) of my readership, is absolutely inundated by the trend of corporatization:  the process of uniting different people to work cooperatively to achieve a common goal, namely, growing the corporation.  Corporations dominate the economical landscape; they have so inundated our lifestyles that we have a hard time realizing just how odd they really are.  Think about it:  Corporations, that is, business corporations, exist to be successful.  The moment corporations fail to be successful, they fail to exist anymore.  They are unconcerned with making humankind better, apart from the direct economic benefits of doing so.  The ultimate law of corporations is not towards humanity authenticity, but a relentless drive to gain and grow.  The corporation utilizes those within it to feed this goal, it promises them that, by making the corporation grow and succeed, that those individuals who comprise the corporation will also grow and succeed as well (insomuch as we define human success as economic gain).

Don't get me wrong, I don't find corporations to be the icy cold grip of the devil upon the throat of humankind.  I too enjoy the benefits and gains of corporate society as much as the next guy (special shout out to Dell Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., and Facebook Inc. for making my blogging possible).  But its not all hard to see that the corporation, despite its being comprised of humans, is eerily inhuman.  It is mechanical and artificial.  Corporations do not care about goodness, truth, or beauty any more than the extent to which they can be used to become more successful.  Corporations, despite being declared as "persons" in legal settings, do not feel, do not think, and do not love.  They just want to be more successful.  Period.

Decades of corporatization has not gone without its effect on our society.  When you ask someone on the street "What do you want most for yourself?", they usually say something along the lines of success.  People use corporate strategies to improve themselves and make themselves more competitive, so that they can be more successful, because, to them, the meaning of life resides in some re-iteration of achieving success.  For example, when you discuss your college education with relatives, they invariably ask "What are you going to do with that?"  Why?  Because education itself is but a means towards success.  Very few people are asking "What does it mean to be human being?  What does it mean to be me?"  "Me" is about succeeding.  Period.

Now, back to the parish.  Our parishes, along with most other Christian groups, are continuing to see themselves corporately.  This is probably unintentional, but the signs of it are rather clear.  Parishes are looking at their "problems" and asking "How can we be a more successful parish?  How can we have more successful ministry? How do we get more people present and engaged in Mass?"  These are decent questions, but any strategy to address these is going to be precisely that: strategic, designed to manipulate the situation and those in it to be more favorable to the strategist.  Parishes do not exist to be successful, they aren't meant to create strategies on how to grow their "business".  And yet, that is what they are doing.  By orienting themselves towards evoking an effect, no matter how noble that effect may be, parishes have utterly failed at religion and reduced themselves into spiritual businesses, peddling appeasement to whatever it may be that our souls may desire for the price of making the parish seem "successful".  This is why the mega-church is successful:  its the Wal-Mart of spirituality, it appeases spiritual desires and does so in a way we are oh-so-much-more comfortable with.

Ten step plans for parish renewal, no matter how well thought out they are, will never compete with these spiritual shopping centers, because the Catholic Church is not a business corporation.   There is no drive for success, there is no business plan, and there is no strategic plan for future expansion.  There is just Jesus Christ, and the profound call to authentic holiness he has for each and everyone of us.  So you want to make your parish better?  You want to make your parish life more vivacious and beautiful?  Good.  Live your life in profound and authentic holiness, and beckon others to do the same.  That's it.  When you stand before eternity, God will inquire of you about how you loved Him and about how you loved others.  There will be no questions about success, or about how you boosted parish participation, or about any plan for future improvement.  There will simply be God gazing into your soul, searching for the love of his Son radiating forth from you.

Don't believe me yet?  Look to Christ.  Jesus had no strategic vision.  He never uttered the word "success", at least not in the context that any of us would be comfortable with.  There was nothing corporate about Jesus Christ, no plan to achieve anything except the will of the Father who sent Him.  I don't think I really need to argue the point that Jesus was not a businessman in any sense of the word.  Yet, there has never been anything as successful as Christianity.  Christ made no attempt to be liked in the way our corporations attempt to be liked, so much to the extent that he was crucified, yet there has never been anyone so widely or passionately followed as Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ was first and foremost concerned with doing the the Will of His Father.  All the rest was secondary; every bit of real success about Christianity came to be because success was never the primary goal in the first place.

Revitalizing your parish is a noble goal, and it is dearly needed.  But its not "the goal."  There are plenty of ways you can make people like Jesus and Christianity more.  Study mega-churches if you want you know them.  The parish's goal is not to beat the mega-church at its own game (That is, to be more widely appreciated, full, and well attended), because it is a false game.  Parishes are not organizations with goals, they are not corporations whose purpose is to succeed.  Parishes are families.  The family is a community with no goal other than to be family.  The family is "successful" to the extent that it is a family and nothing else.  You want to make your family better?  Be who you are, a member of the family, and do so the best you can.  You don't implement a vision statement for your family, you don't measure your family's success in achieving your family's goal, because your family doesn't exist to serve a goal.   It exists to be a family.

You want to build your parish better?  You have to do the same thing to make your family better: be better.  Your parish is your family of faith, it is those people God brought you together with, typically without much say on your behalf, because "Its not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18).  Your parish isn't supposed to do anything except be a family of faith together, to grow in holiness together.  You have to strive to be holy if you want to make your Church better.  Its certainly a much more difficult and occluded process than any 10 step plan, but it is the only real way to revitalize your parish.  In fact, its the only way for you to do anything worthwhile.  Period.  Deo Gratias.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Faith and Fear

Why do people do evil?  It is fairly clear that "evil" exists, and equally as evident that humans are capable of inflicting evil.  So the logical question is "Why?  What meaning is there behind people doing evil?"

It is, by no means, and easy question.  Evil, by its very nature, is depraved of meaning.  That is why suffering aches our hearts and minds so much:  Suffering has no meaning, no matter how hard we try to say otherwise, there is no reason why people must suffer the way they do.  Evil is chaotic and legion, it lacks direction and harmony and purpose.  Evil is meaningless, because meaning flows from Truth.  Things are meaningful when they exists in consequential harmony with the Truth omnipresent in God's Creation.  When our lives sit harmoniously within Truth's cosmic scheme, they are resplendent with meaning, with purpose.  It is this meaning that allows us to look upon our own smallness and scale it against the grandeur of everything and maintain our sanity.  Evil, as previously stated and restated, is meaningless.  It flows not from Truth but from deceit.   So where then does the deceit come from?

People like to know things.  Knowledge is power, not so much over others, but over ourselves, over our own existences.  People are perfectly comfortable with those things that they know.  Its the stuff we don't know that tends to scare the ever-living shit out of us.  It does not take an astronomer or a philosopher to see that the cosmos is absolutely huge.  The expanse of Truth reaches far greater than any man's ability to know it, even if he were given until the end of time to explore it.  Truth is fundamentally Mystery, that is, its nature is to be beyond knowing, to supersede knowledge entirely.  Its not that Truth doesn't exist, its that Truth is "more" than existing.  (If you find this idea mind blowing, you're on the right track...welcome to the wonderful world of philosophy).  We love to know the Truth, and yet, we do not know the Truth, we cannot know the Truth.  We may one day come to exhaust the reaches of our ability to know,
 and we will still stare into the face of Truth, ever mysterious, ever beyond.  Truth is not known.  Truth is believed in.

Critics seem to think Faith is an aversion to knowledge, a form of dishonest certainty keeps us from having to admit that we don't know.  They seem to think faith is a lie, ignoring that which we know exists in favor of embracing that which we really really want to exist.  This idea may be true for the "faith" of some, but Faith, real Faith, this notion could be no further from the truth.  Real Faith is not undermined by knowledge; you can know as much as you please and then some and still have Faith.  Faith exists where the human hunger for Truth and the human capacity to know Truth diverge, where knowledge fails to reveal the Truth simply because it cannot.  Ultimately, we have to look out into the cosmos, into the farthest reaches of existence and ask ourselves if it is all coldness, darkness, and hostility, or if the Truth, if Reality Itself is something far kinder to us.  There are only two possible responses: Faith and Fear.

Faith is asserting that Reality is Good and True and Beautiful, concepts not graspable by knowledge.  Faith looks into what cannot be known and responds with trust, with a profound assent to Goodness which cannot be known to be.  To be fair, there is no reason for us to have Faith, at least not from our end of existentialism.  (Yes, I did just suggest a bipolarity to existentialism.  More to come on that later...perhaps) As the anti-theist claims, Faith is illogical, because logic doesn't even begin to apply where and when Faith is required.  Faith is not us discovering truths, but discovering ourselves in and through Truth.

If Faith is gazing toward unknowable Truth's face and trusting that it is, in fact, good and favorable to you, Fear is the exact opposite.  Fear is gazing toward unknowable Truth's face and believing that it is unfavorable towards you, or worse: indifferent towards you.  Fear is the fundamental realization that the person/thing/entity ultimately responsible for you and your well-being is you, that nothing out there cares more absolutely for you than you (and/or your loved ones, should you be so fortunate to love and be loved).
Fear prompts us inward, it sets our priorities to ourselves, our preservation, our own purposes and meanings.  Reality is no longer our concern, because it is not concerned with us.  Instead, we craft our own realities; microcosms in which we really matter and have a sort of meaning about our lives.

Ultimately, this results in evil.  When we create our own, false realities of false truths with false meanings, we deceive ourselves.  True meaning comes from knowing you are consequential and harmonious with Reality, deceit comes from a Fear-driven attempt to build a reality in which all things are consequential and harmonious unto you.  Ultimately, this is a meaningless existence; it lasts as long as you force it to and only to the extent that you can make it exist.

Fear deprives our actions of Truth.  It causes us to reject God, to reject the cosmic reality he created and our role in it, and robs it of real meaning.  Why do people do evil?  Why do they do things that are meaningless and cause suffering?  Because somewhere in the vast depths of their soul, they are so very very afraid.  Each and every one of us, every miserably ordinary sinners suffers from the same fundamental issue:  like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we face Truth naked and afraid.  We gaze into Eternity and are forced to choose Faith or Fear.  This is the departure point of religion, and must be relived at every moment of every day, even if in the smallest of ways.  Every day, we have to look at the world around us and resist the temptation to be afraid, to reject reality and make our own in the comfort of our mind.  We must consent to Faith, to go beyond knowledge and assent to an infinite and eternal Truth that some how, some way, finds you meaningful and harmonious.  Such is your square one.  Go forth and Faith.