Graduation season is upon us, when everyone from Ph.D. candidates to preschoolers don gowns and caps to accept accolades and degrees for their hard work. For some of these graduates, their work as students is finished. As humans, the quest for knowledge must never have a conclusion.
Sadly, for many Catholics, their completion of Catholic high school or their reception of the sacrament of confirmation marked a graduation from intellectual formation. Religion class was something to receive a grade for, like physics or world history. I haven’t opened a physics book since high school, and I would wager a guess that unless it was a required course for college or you pursued a career that required it, you probably haven’t either. For many, religion falls into that same category.
Over the course of ten years of teaching a wide variety of people, high school kids to retirees, I have ceased to be surprised by the level of knowledge many Sunday-Mass-going Catholics have about the Catholic Faith. I’m not talking about the cultural Catholics who only darken the door of a church for weddings or funerals. I’m talking about those who go to Mass on Sunday, who endeavor to raise their kids Catholic, and who even volunteer to teach religious education in the parish.
I used to be surprised. I used to have to hide my amazement when I would get questions such as, “How was John at the foot of the Cross? I thought he was beheaded by Herod.” Now I’m rarely shocked by what I hear or am asked. Some of the blame can be leveled at lack of catechesis that now goes back at least two generations. But when do we start taking personal responsibility for our lack of knowledge?
As Catholics, we need to pursue a knowledge of God. We can’t be satisfied with going to Mass on Sunday and not knowing what is happening in front of us – or why it is happening. We can’t be satisfied with a cursory knowledge of some of the Bible stories that we picked up in middle school or from homilies. We can’t be satisfied with an eighth grade understanding of Church history, Scripture, the liturgy, or Church teaching.
Would we be satisfied with an eighth grade understanding of math if we were an accountant? Would we be satisfied with an eighth grade understanding of anatomy if we were a nurse? While not all of us are called to work for the Church or be experts in theology, as members of the Church – called to be salt and light and leaven in the world – we have a responsibility to know Christ, to know His Church, and to be able to explain to our neighbor what we believe and why (1 Pt 3:15!).
John Henry Newman once wrote, “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity… In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit… You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it” (J.H. Newman, The Present Position of Catholics in England).
I want the same. That will change our world. That will change our culture. That will change our families.
We need to stop pointing fingers at Church hierarchy and blame them for the crises in our culture, countries, parishes, and families. Is the lack of catechesis play a role in where we are today? Of course. But the “measure of the Catholic spirit” is the laity. Where the laity is strong, the Church is strong. For most of us, that’s all we can affect. And that’s what we’ll be called to account for someday. So it’s time to start doing what we can.
When was the last time you picked up a non-fiction book? Our culture eats up information – news and trivia and meaningless gossip about current events. But we have ceased to seek true knowledge. We are too busy to read, we are too self-absorbed to search.
As Catholics, we must cultivate a desire for truth and a friendship with the silence that makes that desire quenchable. We must seek out answers to things we don’t understand. We must cultivate the soil in our souls so that we are capable of producing fruit a hundredfold (Matthew 13:1-23).
I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity. Because without it, we are a church that has already begun to wither.
“Poor formation represents a special danger in a society like ours where education in other areas is so advanced. In contemporary society, if religious formation does not come up to the general level of secular education, we are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs—even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture. We are going to be tongue-tied when our faith comes under attack. American Catholics need to rededicate themselves to the intellectual apostolate, not only for the sake of the Church’s mission, but for the sake of a country that has become dangerously careless about the moral foundations on which our freedoms depend” (Mary Ann Glendon, Traditions in Turmoil).
This isn’t a call for everyone to go get a doctorate in theology or become experts in canon law. This is an appeal to pick up a book on the faith, from a trusted, reputable source, and learn more today about Christ and His Church. We cannot love what we do not know…so the pessimist in me looks around and sees a laity that cannot love. The optimist in me knows that we have access to more resources – books, audio and video resources, podcasts, and Bible studies that are solid and approachable – than ever before. And it’s never too late to continue learning.