The Examined Life
Make it personal
Millions have headed for the exits without getting the best of what we have to offer.
"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” is among the first religious questions I remember being asked. From the time I was 5 until I went to seminary at 19, the well-meaning Southern Baptists in my native Tennessee repeatedly sought my answer—fearful, perhaps, that my Catholic faith might not be enough to get me to heaven. I had standard responses, from a simple, “Yes,” to (as a teenager) the more coy, “What do you mean by personal Lord?” When they asked if I’d been saved, the best I could come up with was, “I hope so.”
After all, one thing I learned from my tradition was that “being saved” was a process, one best worked out within the confines of Mother Church. Sunday Mass with Father Henkel, Catholic school with principal Sister Mary Janice, and our tiny Tennessee Catholic community were all we needed to keep us on the straight and narrow. And for me, those tried-and-true institutions worked, more or less. Thirty years later Catholicism is still home for me.
That’s not the case for quite a few Americans raised Roman Catholic. And “quite a few” is an understatement according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew found that almost one in 10 Americans are “former Roman Catholics”—almost 30 million people.
What’s that, you say? Thirty million? So what went wrong? It’s easy to blame the “lapsed” for abandoning the faith, and some probably are just not interested. But rather than point fingers, it’s probably worth asking why they left.
One of those “raised Catholics,” an acquaintance of mine, gave me his reason: “No one told me God loved me until I was 24,” he confessed. “Really?” I thought. Surely he had just missed that day in CCD. Either way something important hadn’t gotten through. Like quite a few former Catholics, he found his way to an evangelical megachurch. The first thing they told him was that God indeed loved him—personally.
Two of my brothers gave me similar stories. Though they had received pretty much the same Catholic education I had, both remember a more judgmental God than the one I got to know. They were both educated well after Vatican II—when Catholic education allegedly got all warm and fuzzy—but a heavy dose of guilt still stalks their religious imaginations.
Yet neither has given up on a relationship with God. One constantly amazes me with his natural spiritual insight. The other still regularly goes to Mass but admits being hungry for more. “I’ve thought about going evangelical,” he recently told me. “But I’m just a little thirsty. I don’t want to drown!”
The truth is, I hear more from people who are thirsty than I do from people who are angry or don’t care. So why would so many walk away from the community where they might find the living water Jesus promises? I think it may be because they’ve never been offered the water in the first place.
I, on the other hand, have been lucky enough to experience some of the best of Catholic tradition, pretty much because I was in the right place at the right time. As a seminarian for five years, I got a great theological education, training in prayer, spiritual direction, mentors, experiences of service, and opportunities to reflect. Once I got a taste of the good stuff, I sought more like it even after I left seminary.
In other words I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior.” (Those Baptists were on to something after all!) But in my experience at least, most Catholics never get those chances, and that’s a shame. I imagine there’s a good number who might like to take a crack at centering prayer or learn how to meditate with scripture or even make an extended retreat. But where would they go to do it?
In the end there are probably a lot of reasons why so many have left the active practice of Catholicism. Still the sheer number ought to provoke some soul-searching among the rest of us. We at least need to be meeting people halfway, and we could start by leading not with a list of dos and don’ts but with what is most attractive and inviting about the gospel: the basic good news of God’s unconditional love for us and God’s desire to know each of us personally, with all our strengths and weaknesses. If there’s one thing Catholic tradition has, it’s the tools to foster a relationship with “your personal Lord and Savior.” What we need are new and creative ways of sharing them.
Bryan Cones is the managing editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the May 2008 (Volume 73, Number 5; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.