Pastoral trends

What is our project?

02 Nov 2008

What are we supposed to be doing as a Catholic community in our time and place? At one level, of course, our Catholic Christian project is always the same, and the gospels and Catholic tradition describe it well. At another level, though, each time and place has its own particular project, just as each of us may be said ultimately to have our own particular purpose. Our family lives, personal gifts, careers, and life situations are all different.

The same is true for the church. Just consider: The project of Catholics in California during the late 1700s was to build up the missions, while the project of Catholics in the 13 colonies was to establish a certain level of respect and avoid persecution. The project of Catholics in the big cities of the United States during the years of large numbers of European immigrants was to build parishes and schools to engender pride, identity, and commitment.

Today, the U.S.--and numerous individual parishes themselves-are more diverse than ever before. It is now especially hard to say that a single project or even a predominant one exists for the Catholic community in the United States.

But surely there are unique projects for specific Catholic parishes and groups today and particular purposes to which Catholics and their faith communities are called. How much time do we spend discerning our purpose or carrying out our project? The projects of past generations are easy to take for granted today; they appear so obvious to us. And of course the tasks of previous generations do seem clear-from hindsight. But not necessarily for those generations and perhaps most of all not for us today.

That does not, however, absolve us from identifying our purpose, nor does it suggest we have no particular purpose or special task in building up the church in our time. It simply suggests we need to know our purpose as church and as a Catholic faith community and Catholic people today all the more--and then to seek it.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

It wasn't feeding me

07 Dec 2008

THAT'S THE TYPICAL EXPLANATION for why Catholics stop attending their local parish. Perhaps they stop attending regularly, or go to another Catholic parish, or maybe--more likely than we might admit--they start attending a congregation that is not Catholic.

What attracted them? The music, the preaching, the welcoming atmosphere, the programming for teens. Note that in both cases what drives people away or attracts them elsewhere is not theology, church rules, or other things that are beyond any particular parish, pastor, or pastoral team. Catholics who go elsewhere do so not because of the things we can't easily change but because of the things we can. Yet why aren't we feeding those who go elsewhere?

Perhaps we're not even trying. That's not to say we're not working hard. But sometimes we work harder to keep the staff happy than to meet parishioners' needs, to listen to a few of the loudest voices in the parish than the much vaster, but quieter, mass of parishioners, the ones who vote with their feet.

The purpose of the parish is to advance the mission for which the church exists: proclaiming the reign of God, transforming the world in Jesus' name. That means the worship we enjoy and the word that is preached is not an end in itself but is in fact more than that: to so connect with people and express their deepest longings that it moves us all forward in carrying out the mission day after day, interaction after interaction, for the renewal of all things in Christ.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Is bigger better?

04 Jan 2009

The small church is dying in the United States. Protestant megachurches are growing. New and growing Catholic parishes are built to be large and getting bigger, while others consolidate. Why? In part, to benefit from economies of scale and to respond to the diminishment in numbers of priests, parishes are larger and churches are built bigger than before.

We know this; we see it every day. But what does it mean concretely? And is bigger better? It may not be good to have few parishes that have an intimate family feel and to gain so many parishes that have a large-scale corporate feel or even a somewhat alienating and intimidating feel. Yet the trend within Catholic parishes and Protestant megachurches alike is the same: towards bigness.

So it seems appropriate to ask how bigger might be made better. The answer is not to make parishes smaller--not only can that not be done but it would also sacrifice economies of scale and the services that only a megachurch can deliver--but rather to make parishes feel smaller by being more responsive and developing groups with a capacity to be more intimate within an overall rather anonymous setting.

The large-scale parish is a funnel for connecting with today's Catholic, wide and open at the top but narrower and tighter towards the bottom. That's why the Catholicism is both the single largest religious group in the United States today and yet feels like such a small world where everyone knows each other.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Don't get lost in translation

22 Feb 2009

Preaching is about translation, ministering is about mediating. In the speech-act of preaching, the call is to translate a text from its scriptural context to ours and do so in a way that somehow speaks to the diverse experience of those hearing—by planting seeds and opportunities for hearers to do a critical part of the translation themselves, connecting the dots to their own lives. In the relational act of ministry, the goal is to mediate the presence and call of Christ in human interaction, to share the experience in a way that makes the presence a lived presence.

Yet preachers are seldom translators and ministers seldom mediators. Preachers instead seek to tell, ministers to do. But it is neither exposition nor tasks that matter in the end.

It is about interconnecting, networking, binding together. How are we thinking about the interconnectedness of our ministries, of our communities? Instead of telling or directing, can we share stories or metaphors that might better capture the realities in which we live our faith? How can we see what we do tied to what is done elsewhere in the world church today, or across the centuries? How can we connect it to the surplus of meaning in scripture or the unfolding of our collective history or our own lives?

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Baptized and evangelized

08 Mar 2009

“Muchos bautizados, pocos evangelizados.” "Many are baptized, few are evangelized." That is not simply something that might be said in Spanish-speaking countries, as it often is. It is a challenge faced by the church universal. It also leads us to consider what we might do differently. To what degree have we a misplaced relative overemphasis on baptism compared to our emphasis on evangelization?

If the church is to be built by baptizing everyone first and worrying about deeper evangelization later, that might not be such a concern. That was the so-called Christendom model of centuries ago: As the rulers and leaders, and thus the whole society, is baptized, perhaps evangelization would follow. It often did; sometimes it did not.

But that is not the case today. Neither Christianity in general nor the Catholic Church in particular is necessarily protected and affirmed on a societal level, endorsed by rulers and leaders, or seen as the religion expected of all. Our time is far more individualistic and pluralistic. Evangelization, in other words, is exactly what needs emphasis today. It is not enough to baptize and hope for the best. Perhaps today is a time when we need to be a bit more sparing of the sacrament and a bit less sparing of the word.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Reconfiguring religious communities

05 Apr 2009

Is reconfiguration moving chairs, adjusting slots—or building new possibilities for relationship? What is it doing more: destroying or creating a life-giving culture?

Religious communities, parishes, and much else in church life have been in processes of reconfiguration over recent years. In many cases reconfiguration is said to be a way to reclaim a missional, charism-driven focus. Yet above all it seems driven by numbers and resources, with the usual thinking that reducing structures or amalgamating them somehow leads to net savings.

Such structural thinking can, unwittingly, ignore community and community culture even while claiming to value these things. A simple accounting might suggest that merging parishes or religious communities or combining provinces or congregations into one will save money and related resources. Culture and community, however, are both the currency and the engine driving religious entities.

When cultures are damaged or weakened in clumsy amalgamations, the losses can be much greater than mere dollars and cents. Instead of “right-sizing” we might unintentionally provoke spirals of decline. As people exit, voting with their feet, or simply stay in place yet are disengaged, mission-driven organizations can face great weaknesses and losses, even irreparable ones.

The greatest danger is when structure is placed above culture, rules above relationships. Rules are important; structures are vital. Yet, like the sabbath, they are at the service of humanity and not the other way around.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Faith and networks

03 May 2009

Culture sustains Catholicism and our Catholic communities of faith, but not in the way we often think. Culture is not so much about static content—how we think about something—as much as it is about what we do and with whom we do it. Culture is about actions that sustain and enrich networks. Similarly, faith communities are not so much assembled groups of people as they are an interconnection point of many diverse networks.

That has major implications for those in pastoral ministry. In this light, preaching is about connecting with intersecting networks, giving an opportunity to reach people present and not present, close by and far away. But it also means that successful preaching depends on recognizing the diverse networks gathered together, and the actions and practices that express those networks.

Ultimately, faith is spread—or impeded—by networks. The collective actions and practices of networks engage faith in some ways, and in other ways disengage it. The challenge for preachers and for pastoral leaders in general is to cultivate a sixth sense that can see those networks and understand their practices.

Yet how often do we engage in the hard work of building these skills? How much do we mentor one another, the more experienced taking the time with the lesser experienced? These networks, these patterns of relationships, are critical—and just what are needed.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

The leadership instinct: Love and fear?

07 Jun 2009

It has been said many times that love depends on trust, a trust that is open to risk-taking. In this sense fear is the opposite of love—that which prevents us from loving. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, pastoral actions, even preaching, can carry an undertone or motivation stemming from fear. If fear is the shadow side of love, and love the strong side of fear, we can’t show love if we have fear. It’s either one way or the other; either we are going to offer love or live in fear.

Fear in pastoral leadership can stem from many sources for which one legitimately may have reason for concern: a fear of an erosion of influence, a fear of declining commitment or financial support, a fear of losing control.

Pastoral leadership is not immune to the choice between love or fear. If we wish to let go of fear, we need to have a bigger story that allows an openness to risk-taking and an openness to trust. The leadership instinct must frame reality and hear the story in this way if the possibilities promised by love are to be embraced.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

We are all theologians

05 Jul 2009

Have we ever really thought about what it means to do theology? On the one hand theology is rightly and justifiably understood as an academic exercise left to those who read, teach, and create big books. On the other, theology must be understood as something all believers must do if our tradition is to remain vital.

Theo-logy, after all, literally means “God-talk.” How do we share a word about God? How do we talk about God? One thing is clear: We must talk about God if God is to be talked about. Theology in this sense cannot be left to the professional academics precisely because it is too important.

Theology—how we talk about God—must be modeled by preacher and hearer alike. It is tied to witness and discipleship, discipline and relationship. When we find ourselves tongue-tied in God-talk around children, we know we have a problem. When we find we cannot say why our Catholic faith means so much to us when we talk with neighbors or coworkers, we know have a problem.

We need to own our reality: We must be theologians—God-talkers—or we will fail to witness to the gospel.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

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Catholicism is a living tradition

02 Aug 2009

Catholicism changes. The Catholicism of the previous generation is different than that of the one before it—and the one after it. The same is true for individual Catholics: They are different in their Catholicism precisely because Catholicism is a living tradition.

People see different aspects of tradition to be more or less relevant to their situation for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes that phenomenon is mistakenly called “Cafeteria Catholicism,” with the implication that Catholics are deliberately jettisoning certain parts of the tradition in favor of other pieces of it. That’s one way of looking at it, of course, but it can be wrong and deceptively oversimplistic: Such an understanding fails to capture the complexity of a living tradition.

Dead traditions are of purely historical interest because they are no longer being passed on. When a culture, a set of meanings and practices, when Catholicism is “handed on”—and that is exactly what traditio means in Latin—it will always be a personal and very human process, somewhat uneven, shaped by the situation in which it is transmitted and received.

In the past two millennia being Catholic has meant something very different to people in different times and places. Yet because it does mean something very particular to those in different times and places, it is a living tradition. And that is precisely the point.

A living tradition will always have unique contexts, particular circumstances, and a special emphasis. A human person, a parish or faith community, or a given historical moment is not a collection of vague generalities but of specific pressure points. It is at those pressure points, those places of pain, of sensitivity, where the tradition will be heard and understood in a special, even more real, way.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

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Lex orandi, lex credendi

06 Sep 2009

If, as the ancient principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi” says, the “law of prayer is the law of belief,” then we need to pay attention to the “how” no less than the “what” of prayer. This maxim, after all, suggests that we might not, really, believe that we are universally connected across time and space as the Body of Christ if prayer is individualistic and isolated, or if we pray in a way that connects us with our local community and particular group without breaking through to a larger, more universal experience of human interconnectedness in our prayer.

But this saying has a larger implication: It points toward a relationship between practices and understandings. We might think that right practice is based on right understandings. But we could have it backwards. It may be that right practice—“lex orandi”—leads to right understanding—“lex credendi.” In any case it's possible that we underestimate practice and the power of practice.

If we did not underestimate the power of practice, there would be far more well-celebrated liturgies, well-attended Masses, deeply engaged worshippers, highly prepared celebrants. But instead we seem to assume that as long as our hearts (or minds) are “in the right place,” all else will follow—even if we are not, really, in the right place. No wonder we can’t seem to convince our young people. Or ourselves, often enough. Prayer, worship, needs to come before belief, before understanding. It might just be that understanding and belief are a by-product of the practice of right relationship, not the other way around.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Preaching to a place of pluralism

04 Oct 2009

Preachers address people who make many different choices and who live their lives in many different ways. There has always been human diversity, of course; in the past, people groups were different one from another, but diversity was not nearly as strong within people groups.

That is what marks the reality of the preacher and pastoral leader today. All of us live in an age of choice, and the choices before us are immense and bewildering. Many avoid choice, finding it hard to make long-term commitments. For example, far more people marry—or are ordained—later in life.

Teens often turn off church or enter upon a time of seeking in college—and beyond, as adolescence is extended into early adulthood. At the same time, more young people come from religiously mixed, non-practicing, or a religiously seeking household. That is not especially unusual for U.S. culture, which was arguably founded on choice. Religiously, believers in the United States have long "denomination-hopped," and Catholicism is increasingly seen as one denomination among many. Oddly, the challenge here is not only to retain those one can retain at any particular time. It is also to plant the seed and the memories that will lead those who are exiting to consider returning when the time comes.

The preacher more than ever might just have that one moment, that one opportunity, to connect with someone. There is little room to maneuver for today's preacher or presider. Each moment should be understood as potentially the last such moment for those in attendance—today, more than ever.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

All religion is local

01 Nov 2009

Even though politicians in general may be often held in low esteem, one's local political representatives may be held in high esteem. While trust in the church as a whole might decline, confidence is one's own pastor or bishop might continue to be high. The observation of a wise Catholic politician—"all politics is local"—could be applied to church life as well.

What does that imply for the preacher or pastoral leader? Consider how much energy is spent on connecting to questions and concerns that are far beyond the local—when it is precisely the local that energizes and sustains the community. In the case of a family, parents might have terrific respect as people outside the family but are hardly building a healthy one. A bishop might make great contributions to the church universal yet not attend to the life of the local church with wise and effective leadership. A pastor might preach beautifully in abstract terms yet fail to cultivate the intuition and pastoral engagement necessary, one person, situation, and sacramental moment at a time, for the parish to flourish.

If that is not done, religion will not be experienced, because all religion is indeed local. Religion, re-ligare, re-linking, re-connecting, needs a wise, engaged, pastoral word. It is not about structures in the abstract but relationships in the concrete and particular, in their messiness and localness.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

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Cultivating Catholic commitment

06 Dec 2009

When does a person commit to being a Catholic? The answer used to be easy: by being born into a Catholic home. The membrane between Catholic and non-Catholic used to be thick, and above all Catholic culture used to be stronger and richer than it is today.

This diminishment of Catholic culture is not altogether a bad thing: It reflects an increased emphasis on individual choice, freedom, and conscience as well as the sheer acceptance of Catholics within the wider culture in the United States. But that means certain realities are here to stay. The sacrament of Confirmation, insofar as it is received in early adolescence, is likely to continue as a "farewell" ceremony rather than an initiation into greater, adult engagement with the faith. Merely being born to Catholic parents is, today, hardly a guarantee that one will grow into Catholic faith and tradition. There will, of course, remain those Catholic young people who do follow such a pathway into profound commitment through family life, socialization, relationships, and personal choice at an early age. But it simply is no longer the "modal" way.

For many, young adulthood is now becoming a critical point of entry in its own right, a time when people feel free to act on their own and explore deeper questions. Those who are connected to Catholic resources—whether through family ties, an openness to the church through early socialization, a pride in a Catholic college or university or high school they attended, friendship ties, or simply a positive ministry presence—will look more closely as they consider deepening their commitments. Some will never pursue more than a passing relationship. But others will make the choice for a deeper and more engaged relationship. That will happen for many as young adults rather than as teens, and the need for parishes to recognize this new way of entering into Catholic commitment is immense.

Entering into Catholic commitment as a young adult, however, holds out no promise of becoming the new "modal" way of doing so. Simply put, we have entered a time in world culture when there is going to be no magic bullet, no single program or approach. "One size fits all" is over; there is no typical path of entry.

What is certain is simply that young adulthood has the potential to become a major new point of entry—if and when local pastoral leadership takes the necessary steps to invite, receive, and engage. The language of invitation, engagement, positive support, and serious challenge will be critical for this emerging era.

© 2009, Bryan Froehle.

Religious but not spiritual

24 Jan 2010

How often do we hear people make the claim that they are “spiritual but not religious”? That, of course, is obviously false. To be spiritual, to care about things of the spirit, might not lead toward engagement with organized religion but it will certainly steer one toward following some sort of discipline, however open-ended, and address some set of fundamental questions, however truncated. To be spiritual one has to be religious.

Studies, by the way, confirm that: People who are surveyed tend to be “religious” at some level if they are self-described as “spiritual.” That is not the problem. We should rejoice, after all, if people identity “spirituality” as important to them. Rather than suggesting religious indifference it may be the surest way to avoid religious indifference.

But what about those who are “religious but not spiritual”? That is a much more significant issue. How many churches have people who are faithful to their religious obligations but fail to cultivate spirituality? This is the heart of the problem today. When religious people are not spiritual, it is not much of a step—in their generation or the next—toward becoming neither religious nor spiritual. Perhaps the challenge facing preachers in a postmodern society is not so much to reach those who might happen to be claiming the unusual identity of someone “spiritual but not religious” but to help those who are religious become spiritual, or more deeply so.

Here the problem is the flip side of those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Such people emphasize their spiritual side so much that they overlook the religious dimension in themselves. Those who are religious, on the other hand, assume they are spiritual: They do not deny it in their self-description—yet in their actual practice they might be hardly spiritual at all.

The critical question is practice: the actual practices in which a person engages and the ways to engage a person in practices. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for the preacher, then, is to connect scripture with the everyday and extraordinary spiritual practices open to the ordinary person.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

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A liminal moment

07 Feb 2010

Sometimes the word postmodern is used to describe our times. Sometimes we talk of a new globalization or an emerging church. Whatever we call our era, we have the sense that we are on the threshold of something new—socially, culturally, ecclesially. It is not a reality that is entirely new; it is not something that hasn’t been experienced before in different ways. But we know we are on the threshold of a new, emerging moment. Perhaps what is most clear is that we know the future of our parish, our church, our society will look different than it does now.

We are in a threshold moment, anticipating a future different from our present. If we were to use a word sometimes found in sacramental theology or mystagogy, we might say we are in a liminal moment, which is to say, literally, a “threshold” moment.

That is the task of pastoral leaders and preachers at all levels and places today: to prepare the community of faith to flourish in this liminal moment and beyond. That means cultivating a certain humility, even faith, in the midst of this remarkable transition before us. It means embracing the church that is emerging and growing up around us, not arrogantly rejecting the gifts of past experience and insight and yet not insisting on using words and ways designed for contexts long gone.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

People groups, varied and diverse

07 Mar 2010

Pastoral leaders used to envision themselves speaking to families, and that was more often than not correct. Parishes counted the numbers of families who belonged, and donations and participation happened through families.

Take a look today in any parish, at any liturgy. The model people group is no longer the nuclear family. The people groups are highly diverse as well: Parishes have an extraordinary and increasing pluricultural reality. What is perhaps most striking is the number of persons present who seem to be one parent and a child or two; individual persons; or other combinations of people. Whereas once one might have seen a vast majority of attenders in full nuclear family groups—mother, father, children—today one instead sees a remarkable mix.

Today there is an enormous variety of people groups. They are cross-cutting tribes, intersecting, drawing people in. But they can also be divisive, pulling people apart, making it hard to connect in community. Preachers and all involved in worship leadership need to be careful to see the complexity and variety of people groups with which one is in dialogue in the sacramental moment, in the worship situation, knowing that few of us and—the truth be told, none of us—are every really alone when we approach the altar. Others in our people group are with us, and we with them. People groups give us context and insights as we approach our future.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Generations: Connecting young with the old

04 Apr 2010

Change in human organizations, including the church, happens in “generational time”; change does not happen overnight. It takes a while for us to get used to something new and beyond the old. And that’s a good thing. There is something in the old we need to hold onto and something in the new that quite properly takes some time for us to adjust. We do not so much change as watch new generations rise and claim their particular place in time.

The next generation will not know much of their great-grandparents or great-great grandparents. It won’t be shaped by them, except indirectly. But it will be shaped by their parents and, sometimes even more so, their grandparents. People are living much longer than they need to live to reproduce themselves biologically. Yet grandparents are the key to reproduction—cultural reproduction. At their age they might not be generative biologically but they are generative culturally.

That is why a parish depends on its wisdom figures. Yet often it is precisely the older generation that is not connected with the younger generation. The challenge for today’s faith community is to find ways of connecting the young with the old. That is how healthy change happens, organically, passing on a living tradition in connection with those who have gone before. The risk is change that is not healthy; that would be extinction—loss of tradition rather than transmission of a living tradition—or, more typically, a heritage but not a living faith passed on, received, and treasured.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Invitation by example

02 May 2010

Studies confirm that vocations to priesthood and religious life depend on personal invitation. When fewer priests report inviting young men to consider priesthood, for example, the number entering seminary seems to decline.

There is, however, another, perhaps even more important factor: Vocations also depend on inspiring example and personal witness more than simple invitation. That may seem obvious, but it is an often overlooked factor. Young people are looking for qualities of dedication and approachability and a sense of peace and contentment more than simply being asked to consider a life as a priest, sister, or brother—or as a lay ecclesial minister, or any particular life calling for that matter.

That may suggest that the most we can do to lift up vocations in the next generation, whether vocations to religious life and church service or simply as faithful followers of Christ, will be in how effectively we witness to who we are rather than what we do.

This conclusion comes out in studies of the clergy. When priests are asked to rate themselves in terms of what they do and the pressures they feel, the result often shows low morale or division. When they are asked the same question in terms of priesthood or their sense of themselves, the result is typically one of high satisfaction and contentment. The question for vocation and for building a church of high commitment may well be in how we can effectively integrate the two.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle. Originally posted 7/04.

A commitment to reversing church decline

06 Jun 2010

The proportion of people who are Catholic is likely to collapse over the next two generations—unless, of course, the way we see and do church changes. We are currently living in the “lag time” after church life has ceased to be part of official culture and official society and before we as church have figured out what to do about that. Think about it: There are really no more “Catholic countries,” no more “Catholic cities”; even “Catholic families” cannot be taken for granted. A spouse might have been raised in a different faith tradition, or none; children might not attend church, or have joined other traditions.

We live instead in a time marked by personal commitment. That has the great strength of being deeply internalized but also has a shadow side: Inevitably many will miss an opportunity to even encounter faith in a meaningful way. Mass-based institutions, whether Catholic schools or collective practices of other kinds, can give a certain minimum formation, but their roles have long since become diminished. In any case, such institutions were only effective insofar as they reflected official society, culture, and of course the family itself. Catholic schools are useless for formation if children do not already come from seriously Catholic families.

The proportion of Catholics who attend church will always decline, and the proportion of baptized Catholics will always decline, if the only Catholics who attend and the only ones who baptize their children Catholic are ones who themselves were born Catholic. Simply put, in that imaginary church—and that is what it is—Catholicism, like any religion, is doomed to decline when official culture and official society no longer work to automatically make someone Catholic. And progressive diminishment is not healthy. It is not what it means to be church or a disciple of the Lord. Christianity, one might say, is not called to diminishment!

But before trends of diminishment can be reversed, we need to catch up with the reality that being Catholic is no longer—and will not again become—axiomatic with birth, with culture, or with a whole society. We need to turn to the personal, to practice a conversation of the heart of individual persons, and in so doing build and renew an enduring community of faith.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Practice, practice, practice

04 Jul 2010

Why do we “need” to go to church? Putting theological questions aside for a moment, it is reasonable in our time to look at regular religious practice with new eyes. In a time of concern for efficiency, we know why we go to work or why we go to the grocery store. But why do we need to go to church when we effectively find ourselves doing the same thing, week after week? Why all that repetition? Doesn’t repetition just make it boring and irrelevant?

Maybe repetition is precisely why we need to do it. We need the practice, the repeating. When it comes to going to church, it seems, we sometimes fail to appreciate what we have learned about human physiology and how the human brain works. Nerve endings need to “fire to wire.” If we don’t fire those God-connecting, religious-experiencing senses, they will not come together nearly as richly and powerfully as they could. Neural pathways are not guaranteed: We “use them or lose them.” It is similar to the ability to speak a difficult language: much easier if we have learned it and consistently used it from a very young age. If we do not develop those nerve endings, those religious instincts for connecting with God and neighbor and all creation, our capacity to do so will become a shadow of what it otherwise could be.

Of course God’s grace is always there, and miracles of transformation do happen. But it is in the little steps of regular practice of the presence of God, each week, each day, that we truly enter into new possibilities as human beings. It’s simply how we are made. People would not scoff at violinists, ballplayers, lawyers, or doctors who practice their discipline, carefully, regularly, over years, repeated. They need to practice. Just as we need to go to church.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Growing together

01 Aug 2010

We live not during the end of denominationalism but rather in a time of the denominationalization of everything: de-nomination, that is, the way truth is named. It is said that Protestant churches, even individual denominations such as Baptists, “grow by dividing.” People break away from one church congregation to form another, thus “growing” the church. Or people break away from one denomination to form another, one perhaps, but allegedly more true in some way.

Such a trend, unchecked, cannot ultimately grow anything other than egoism. But narcissism is precisely something deeply endemic in our time. This problem of creeping denominationalism seems to arise when truth is identified as something that can be possessed, described, controlled. But truth is not that way, of course. Truth is relational, experiential, something felt no less than described. Truth is a practice, a way of being and doing. It is less to be named in a way that divides than to be shared in a way that unites.

That is the sacramental impulse, the sense of communio so central to the Catholic instinct. That is why so many say they are Catholic even if they do not attend, even—even!—if they think they “disagree” with church teaching, there is a sense of belonging and relationship, however tenuous. The degree to which Catholicism is and remains a church of “here comes everybody!” is the degree to which we can outlive the chaos of denominationalism—with our Catholic sacramental chaos!

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Card-punchers

05 Sep 2010

Are there any “card-punchers” who attend your church? These folks are the ones who fill the pews regularly, week after week, yet at the same time have a kind of “quick-in, quick-out” approach. They might have been raised in a time when preachers emphasized the mortal dangers to the soul of not attending, teachings forgotten or even rejected, perhaps, but still deeply embedded in their psyches. They may have simply been part of a generation taught to value loyalty and a sense of duty, and so there they are, with a sense their weekend would not be complete, would not feel right, without church. They are going to attend, but they want things a certain way, above all not to interfere with the rest of their weekend. In Catholic churches, card-punchers are often seen in especially high proportions, perhaps at a Saturday evening Mass: well-timed before a nice Saturday evening dinner, not likely to interfere with golf or gardening or any other Sunday activity.

What offends these steady, loyal attenders? Not surprisingly it is often a sense of breaking a deal. If things take too long, or otherwise go outside expectations, this group’s antennae go up. With regard to worship, predictability is desired and mediocrity is acceptable, but higher demands can be a problem. Stewardship that challenges people to a higher financial commitment than the same, unchanging less-than-the-price-of-a-movie-ticket contribution can be a problem with this crowd. Preaching that sets off a certain timer in people’s heads, or that somehow trespasses into people’s comfort zones, can be a problem. Singing past a second verse does not impress. And so on. All that is not to attack those who might fit this description: They comprise some of the most loyal, deeply committed members of the community. But that does not mean that questions might not be asked of card-punchers.

First, why should we be surprised if their adult children do not attend regularly? Their children, after all, saw years of attendance about being nothing other than making sure that it did not interfere with the rest of the weekend, was relatively brief, and did not challenge. Second, to what degree do card-punchers become the default arbiters of what is acceptable in church life? Maybe because of a certain fear of offending this stalwart group of faithful attenders, but more likely because the celebrant, the priest-presider, the musicians have all over the years grown to enact and develop a second sense of expectations based on the concerns of card-punchers.

Yet the vast majority of Catholics don’t attend Sunday worship regularly at all, perhaps precisely because card-punching does not attract them. But often things seem boxed into a dynamic of mutual expectations each time we come together for worship. How can we get out of that box? How do we build a transformative community that does not simply give to those who are there but also reaches out effectively to those who are not? Maybe that is really the question. It is not about card-punchers, whoever they may be. It is about us.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Hollowing out and sorting out

03 Oct 2010

We live in a time of “hollowing out” for religious institutions. We see the ranks of volunteers getting thinner. The most strongly committed are among the oldest members, something we also see among priests and laity. Frequently we see fewer and fewer middle-aged people—as well as few young adults. Maybe there are teens and especially younger people with families, but a smaller number of them. Activities take place, but with less energy; we keep on doing what we’ve done, but with fewer people and even whole generations missing in action.

Demographic dynamics are shifting. Commitments that used to come broadly though a culture, enter the young, and stay for life are largely ending. Young people are making their own decisions—and delaying marriage and family. People enter religion once—but less so, of course, then in the past—through their families. The really important times, however, are late teens and emerging adulthood.

We also live in a time of “sorting out” for religious institutions. People identify what sort of religious person they are and want to be, including the kind of worship and church experience—music, prayer style, theological emphasis, decision-making approaches. And if they connect with a religious institution in their teens or, increasingly, in their emerging adulthood, it will be the “sort” that connects with them.

“Hollowing out” and “sorting out” are especially part of the Catholic reality, and Catholics can especially be successful in these areas. After all, the Catholic tradition is about unity in diversity, with two millennia worth of experience to draw on. There are different ways to pray, different traditions, different approaches to engaging different “sorts.” As we say at the start of the Mass, we are connected in the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” but we know that the Holy Spirit has given many gifts. Yet if we are truly in the image of the Triune God, we ultimately need to be related to each other, in deep, profound communion, in the common call of Christ, in the shared experience of the Eucharist.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

The power of play

07 Nov 2010

We learn it as children, but then we forgot: The power of play. The joy of taking on roles we can only imagine, of stepping outside ourselves. It is good, of course, that we grow into mature adults—that’s essential for us to become true disciples and not merely believers.

But sometimes we “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak. We need to recover and hold onto that imagination. It is the sheer playfulness and delight of children that is close to God’s plan for us as creatures and which need not be lost to us as adults. It is really the whole point of God’s plan in some way, isn’t it: to restore the lost innocence of the true relationship between creature and Creator? It’s part of the Reign of God proclaimed by Jesus—the Kingdom that is both now (in the Resurrection of Jesus) and not yet (in the final coming of the new heavens and new earth preached by the prophets, by Jesus, by the epistles, and in the Book of Revelation).

Only a vigorous religious imagination, inspired by the experience of God and springing from a living practice of faith, can point us to our truest selves. Maybe that’s why we don’t pray as we wish we did, or worship always with the heart we desire, or connect with others in the way that Jesus showed. Maybe we see it all as so much work that can be put off or avoided—thinking like the adults we are. What if instead we saw the life to which we are called as play and the Holy Spirit as our constant playmate? Let’s go out and play in the fields of the Lord!

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

From the baroque to the disenchanted and back again?

05 Dec 2010

Recall a richly decorated church built years ago. Or imagine that you are in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. You are surrounded by the baroque—ornate images full of imaginative power. A thick visual cloud, full of life and energy. Scratch the Catholic imagination a little and you’ll see: Catholics still bleed baroque, full of amazing images of the saints, angels, the power of God, and the vision of the heavens. At the same time, of course, we know that modernity is an age of disenchantment, of loss in that sense. That’s really what we typically mean by secularity—a loss of that religious imagination with its power to penetrate our lives and give such meaning to how we see the world.

Today many Catholics naturally try to recapture that baroque imagination. Yet that time is past, and our church is much more than the baroque; just think of it: The baroque and even St. Peter’s was really only the work of the past few centuries! Like the baroque and the Catholic religious imagination associated with it, so many other forms of the religious life have come and receded. They do not finally go for Catholics, but live on in various recesses. We have the centuries-old Benedictine spirituality, Franciscan spirituality, the spiritual insights of the ancient churches, such as the Maronites of Lebanon, the Church of St. Thomas in India, and so many others.

But the baroque can no longer have the overwhelming hold on our religious imagination that it once did—times have changed. We are not even in modernity any more but rather in postmodernity, a time when we encounter so many other religious narratives in an experience of religious pluralism, some of which offer us real insight into ourselves as Catholic Christians. We have begun to color our world again with living multidimensional images, making up for the monochrome of modernity.

That is the task we have today: not to go back to a baroque past that is no longer with us but to paint a Catholic religious world full of living color, of vision with saints of today and hope for tomorrow. A truly global, deeply eschatological vision. Christian imagination can never be tilted toward our time but must see into God’s time and God’s purposes and yet be grounded in our reality and with our human eyes and hearts and spirits.

© 2010, Bryan Froehle.

Religion rightly understood

23 Jan 2011

Religion is about connecting, not control. We know this intuitively, yet how often in history has religion been more about control or only the “shall nots” of faith? How often have we ourselves wanted to control people—our children, for example, teens and young adults, new immigrants—in making them go to church or be the kind of Catholic we want them to be?

That attitude is not surprising and not altogether bad—a distortion of a basically good instinct. After all, it reflects our passion for church and our conviction about how life-giving church is for us. Yet perhaps as a result so many people today see church as a place that forces, controls, and fails to listen.

Shame on us. Re-ligare means to “re-connect.” There are other ways of looking at the word religion, too. Re-legere means to “re-read”; re-lego refers to a “choice.” Religiens itself is merely the opposite of negligens, that is, “diligence” in place of “negligence.” Religion rightly understood is about our faithfulness, not the faithfulness of others. It is about connecting, not controlling.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

Is being Christian second nature?

06 Feb 2011

As disciples of Christ we are asked to go well beyond our “human nature” and aim toward a higher, second nature. But such grace builds on nature. What exactly, we might ask, is at the heart of our human nature?

A few years ago Christian Smith, a sociologist now at the University of Notre Dame, and Alisdair MacIntrye, also at Notre Dame, each wrote a slim book making their separate cases. Both built on Aristotle’s notion of humans as “social animals” but went beyond it. According to MacIntyre, we are “dependent, rational animals.” Smith describes humans as by nature “moral, believing animals.” Rather than treating those statements as arguments, consider what we can learn from these reflections.

We humans depend on one other, from infancy to old age—and also, though we often deny it, in the time between our young and senior years. We are profoundly relational. We are also ordered: Our actions and our thinking are (usually) rational. We expect people to be fair, and we hold ourselves to a sense of fairness as well. And we are believing: trusting without seeking explanation. Unlike the child who asks “why” a thousand times, we more mature adults simply believe and act accordingly.

Without our human nature we could not live into the grace we have received. We are called to discipline ourselves toward a “second nature” of habit in thought and action. But first we would do well to see the beauty of the “first nature” that has been inscribed in our very selves as creatures.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

Risking trust

06 Mar 2011

Humans literally cannot live without it, yet we fear its implications in our lives: Trust. Trust is important for everyday life; we trust that everyone will stop at the red light. Trust is also at the heart of our faith. The very center of it is based on a shocking act of trust. Jesus models trust everywhere in scripture but most profoundly when he goes to his death: “Not my will, but yours.” Are we willing to say that? Are we willing to trust?

Can we risk all, including our lives and those things that have most given us life—even what we sometimes see as “fixed” church structures? If we cannot be in the full freedom that Jesus models for us, do we really live in trust, in faith?

Fear is the enemy of trust. Mere “distrust” is not the opposite of trust—“distrust” can simply be honest realism. Trust in God—who is Love itself, as John says—is the only way to combat the fear that otherwise rises up in us. When we lead, and live, from fear, all hell breaks loose. Fear is about us and our attachments. Trust is about God, is other-directed, and puts our fears in their place.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

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What—and who—is truth?

01 May 2011

The great message of Hebrew scripture may be summed as “God is God, and we are not.” That statement is not about an abstract principle but a relationship, even more so in the New Testament. Truth for the Christian is not a thought-system, but a person: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” That is not to say that we cannot express truths in ways that are more adequate than others, nor is it to deny that truth, in itself, exists. But the disciple of the Lord understands that truth is revealed to be the living God.

We can learn something from the three critical dimensions of truthfulness: one we might call “grammaticality,” “acceptability,” and “meaningfulness.” Grammar has to do with the “rules”—the right terms, the right expressions. One can, after all, express truth in ways that are grammatically correct—for example, in complex theological language—yet utterly pointless when those being addressed do not know that “grammar.” Thus something might qualify as unacceptable and meaningless as a truth statement but yet be a perfectly grammatical truth statement. Similarly, truth can be expressed in ways that are acceptable even if not perfectly “grammatical.”

It is sometimes said that our culture does not seek truth. But it is not only our culture. We are always tempted to live as if we do not really trust in God who is truth itself. The point is not to lament that few people know basic truths but rather to affirm that we are called to deeper relationship with the Lord of Life who is truth. This properly “relativizes” things: It is not about possessing or knowing truth but about our transformative relating to truth. And what most conforms to truth most also must conform to love, modeled in the very person of Jesus. After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

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Learning from social communications

05 Jun 2011

Print media is contracting—but not because it is getting replaced by online media. It is dwindling because it is mass media. What is happening is that the massification of communications appropriate for the industrial era has given way to targeted and more fragmented communications.

That does not mean that all print media is dying, nor that the future for all online media is uniformly bright. What it does mean is that we are back to “village” or “guild” communications where social networks are much more central. For that reason, print magazines built around targeted audiences are not facing the same challenges as newspapers oriented toward an undifferentiated population within a large metropolitan area.

Evangelization is a specialized form of communication, and all efforts to build community in any particular parish or other Catholic faith community obviously depend on communication. Yet have we really “gotten the memo” on the move from mass communications to social communications? Parishes were once almost uniformly dominated by the concerns of young families, places for the education of young children. Today, boutique parishes have emerged in a natural process; parishes of young families continue to be found, yes, but there are also parishes that are primarily ports of entry for immigrants, places to celebrate particular cultures or traditions, and parishes where burials far outnumber baptisms.

What are we doing today to build up communities in the same way that social communications build up communities of conversation? We cannot expect that people will come simply because they are there in a particular area any more than we can expect that people will read a metropolitan newspaper because they live in a particular area. But by reaching out to people’s aspirations and culture, by building relationships virally, from friend to friend, we can truly build church in our time. Merely adopting Facebook for evangelization is not enough. The church has to “become” Facebook.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

Engage culture or counter it?

03 Jul 2011

We know we have to engage the culture if we are to preach and teach effectively and if the gospel is to take root in our time. But the problem is often a category error: We are confused over just what the category of “culture” really contains.

Put simply, we fail to adequately define culture, and that creates a world of problems. For some culture is mostly the idea of “high culture”—inevitably a kind of pecking order of domination because some cultures are “higher” than others. The aspiration here is to aim “higher” toward a “superior” culture. Classical music is “higher” than pop music; Gregorian chant is superior to contemporary church music, and so on.

But that is not the only problematic definition of culture that has pernicious effects on the way we see the world and how we proclaim the gospel. There is also the idea of culture as a complete, fixed, and closed system to be contrasted to other fixed and closed cultural systems. Such a definition sees culture as bound into the essence of a people-group rather than an open, ever-changing set of symbols and stories related to action in the real world.

Such an understanding locks things in place in our social imaginary, resulting in harsh, condemnatory countercultural approaches. If culture is an unchanging essence, then some cultures—many cultures—are just wrong and to be opposed. Such approaches prevent us from seeing that we, too, are cultural beings, and instead preserve a pleasant fiction that we are somehow above or separate from culture.

Yet if we are truly to transform culture, we have to enter into it. We have to offer interpretative resources of symbol and story, of action, to nudge our culture, and ourselves, ever more toward transformation in light of the gospel. Until we see culture as a friend, similar to us in our dynamic yet fragmentary selves, we will not be able to play any role in its loving transformation.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

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A monopoly not to be taken for granted

07 Aug 2011

The church is not a baseball field. We cannot say, to borrow a phrase the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” But in the sacramental economy of the church there is nowhere else to go besides the church for those who want the sacraments of the church.

That is obvious. But think of the model from which it comes: Christendom, that is, European Catholicism at a time when all people in a given territory were Catholic and life without connection with religion was barely thinkable. That, of course, is not quite how things are today. But the church thinks in centuries, and so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of catch-up to do.

Until that happens, the trained talent of those in church ministry, ordained as well as lay ecclesial ministers, will be mostly within the walls of the church building, waiting for people to come for programs and worship.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

Mystics or nothing

04 Sep 2011

The great theologian Karl Rahner is said to have observed that in the future all of us will be mystics—or non-believers. In other words, in our time and certainly in times to come it will not be enough simply to accept the faith one has inherited. One must enter into the depths spiritually and practically. Faith cannot simply be an identity; it must become practice—that is, deeply entwined in one’s everyday actions and self-understanding.

We know that is true, but what have we done about it? How much do we truly work to build up structures that make disciples as opposed only to teach or pass on an identity? How much do we ourselves take on disciplines that truly reflect a modeling of that mystical turn where those who claim a Catholic Christian identity will be religious virtuosi responding to the universal call to holiness? If we don’t model that call to action, who will?

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

It takes 19 times to know

02 Oct 2011

Approximately 19 times of encountering a new idea are necessary before a person truly knows a new idea. Extensive exposure to something new—hearing it, saying it, thinking it, trying it out—is absolutely required in order to expand one’s horizon.

Yet how often do we drop one thought only to go on to another, jump ahead from one chapter to the next and from one profound insight to another, failing to pay the price necessary to truly absorb a new idea or insight?

That is true in our personal lives: We find ourselves multitasking, rushing from one thing to the next. Yet the research is clear: Multitaskers are highly distracted, never really sufficiently concentrating on any one thing long enough.

It is dramatically true in our faith life as well: We hear a particular scripture reading proclaimed, reflect on a particular image—and move on to the next thing. So many people have spent so much time in church or in religious education classes and yet so often very little has been learned. The key for presiders, preachers, and all charged with religious teaching might not really be a “content-full” approach but a “content-smart” approach. That would involve identifying the one or two key things that are truly central—and helping people to encounter those one or two things 19 times!

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

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And the jaws of death . . .

06 Nov 2011

We are told that the jaws of death will not prevail against the church, but we are never told that the church will continue to exist in a certain place forever. Consider all the historical cases where once the church was more present, even the places where the church was extinguished, as in North Africa many centuries ago.

Let’s do a thought experiment. What leads to the death of the church? Is it theological conflict? Not necessarily, because conflict is a sign of life—like it or not, and of course most of us would rather avoid conflict. Only those who are engaged enough to care enter into such conflict.

The critical point is likely more about apathy than about conflict. Why do people become apathetic, “without feeling,” in terms of church? That is probably much closer to the answer and worth considering, and the answer in all likelihood lies with how conflict and difference are dealt with more than in their absence. Where communities live well with difference, conflict may occur, but it does not kill the community. But where difference is unacceptable, structures and relationships become brittle, ossified, fragile. Church can lose resiliency, even shatter. It has happened before.

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

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Strategic planning: See grace first

04 Dec 2011

Just about anything we encounter has a shadow side, one that points toward problems, challenges, and even what seems like impossibilities. Each thing also has an element of grace. Grace, given its source, might sometimes appear relatively small within the problematic side we can see all too easily. So what will it be?

Just about anything we encounter has a shadow side, one that points toward problems, challenges, and even what seems like impossibilities. Each thing also has an element of grace. Grace, given its source, might sometimes appear relatively small within the problematic side we can see all too easily. So what will it be? Will we see predicaments so much that we fail to see the imprint of the Creator in the first place? Or will we look to the grace and gift that is in something, its strengths and new possibilities, even as we see the complex realities that are also there and which we cannot fully disentangle?

Furthermore, to what degree must we admit that the problem side of things is profoundly related even to what gives life in a particular situation? How many of us know someone—ourselves?—whose very gifts are tied up with what makes us difficult at times?

Eyes that see problems quickly become expert in seeing problems, and more problems, without end. Seeing grace first does not diminish the reality of the difficulties in a situation but it does allow us to respond properly. Only by harnessing the gifts in any situation as so many God-given levers will we see the capacity to respond. Failure to see grace in a situation, however, is not only unhelpful, it is sacrilegious: We are profaning the sacred, the presence of the Spirit. By seeing only problems which we somehow must then “fix,” we are putting ourselves close to a situation of idolatry. We need, as they say, to “let” God be God.

For this reason strategic planning best starts with a reflection on the gifts and strengths we find in a situation, not the problems that must be resolved. By identifying and nourishing those gifts and strengths, we will be able to put the difficulties in context and deal with them. Such planning is truly strategic!

© 2011, Bryan Froehle.

All is not well

01 Jan 2012

We should be dissatisfied with ourselves as church. Not despondent, but certainly not smug. We all know the numbers: Something like one in three of Catholics who come in the front door through the sacraments of initiation go out through the back door. Or that something like one in ten Catholic young people attend Mass regularly.

We should be dissatisfied with ourselves as church. Not despondent, but certainly not smug. We all know the numbers: Something like one in three Catholics who come in the front door through the sacraments of initiation go out through the back door. Or that something like one in ten Catholic young people attend Mass regularly. Or that older adults who once attended frequently now attend less. These things are not terribly exceptional in themselves. We live in a time of cultural change, and religious change is part of it. Older structures, including ritual practices and symbols, no longer have the same automatic attraction. That is not a cause for despair.

What is odd is that we don’t seem to be doing much of anything in response. How often do parish leaders and parish organizations ask themselves what they could be doing differently? We might know how to ask people to join church groups or take on leadership roles of one kind or another—we have to, really, if the groups are to continue and the roles performed. But do we seek out people who have disengaged and ask them why? Do we even care? Maybe that is the more basic question: Why don’t we do these things?

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

When one plus one does not equal two

05 Feb 2012

It is not uncommon for a school, parish, or even religious community to be closed and merged into a neighboring school, parish, or religious community. What is uncommon is for the result to have more active students, attenders, or members than the previous entities had when they were separate. In some cases that is simply because combining declining schools, parishes, or religious communities cannot mask the overall trend: they are passing away.

In other cases, sadly, underlying negative trends may be heightened precisely by the merger itself. In other words, the medicine may be worse than the disease. That is not to deny pressing financial exigencies: Sometimes the only thing that can be done is to combine, risks and all, so that the mission may continue.

But consider: When a community is declining, does it always make sense to expend energy in order to prolong it just a few years more? Are there other ways, so to speak, to give once-proud structures, organizations, and communities a joyful Christian burial? Could the energy spent in keeping these dying models alive be given to new initiatives that might be more firmly rooted in the realities of our time and the foreseeable future? And when a hasty merger of two schools, parishes, religious communities, or other ecclesial entities happens, only to have the overall health of the successor entity decrease more rapidly than previously, how much was really saved?

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

Secularity is the child of religion

04 Mar 2012

We live in an age of secularism, and many who once would have identified as Catholic are now “nones” who espouse no religion. The odd thing is that many core beliefs and practices of so-called secularists have all the telltale marks of religion, even a specific religion.

Those who are secular nonbelievers are the children, or children’s children, of believers. Their values and ways of looking at the world, even their critique of religion, often reflect the same values they inherited. Even more, the rejection of a religious heritage often happened for religious reasons. The church was not seen as sufficiently loving, for example, or hypocritical. Sources for a discussion of love or hypocrisy are found in the gospels and in all scripture; one does not need to look far beyond that. Typically, a person leaves the faith not because of doctrinal or dogmatic issues but more often due to ill treatment, a sense of unfairness on some issue, or simple slow drift. Religion is more in danger when people lose the habit of it over time and there is no effort to retain and reengage them.

But if secularity is our child, maybe we have a right to claim this child and find ways of keeping the engagement of those who are engaged. Church growth happens most, after all, by keeping those we have rather than attracting new members from outside the fold. Yet how often do we celebrate the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and those entering the church while failing to see those who are no longer in church and once were?

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

The stickiness of sacramentality

01 Apr 2012

Perhaps two-thirds of those raised Roman Catholic remain so throughout their lives. That this number is not 100 percent is troubling, but that various studies suggest that this figure is perhaps normal for any religious organization in the United States is interesting.

Perhaps two-thirds of those raised Roman Catholic remain so throughout their lives. That this number is not 100 percent is troubling, but that various studies suggest this figure is perhaps normal for any religious organization in the United States is interesting as well. It seems that in spite of the fluidity of religion in the U.S. today, and in spite of the fragmentation that marks personal identities today, sacramentality is sticky. People remain Catholic, as Andrew Greeley used to say, because they like being Catholic. The sense of religiousness that involves the connections between family, place, and spirituality, tied with an experience of universality, seems to continue to attract and hold people’s attention.

What else brings them back—whether to church each week or simply to that ongoing sense of somehow being Catholic? As the data suggest, it is far easier for those in ministry to drive people away than to keep them through what they say or do. The experience of being Catholic is much bigger than words that are preached, written, or read. In fact it is much more a question of relationships, of ways of being, that account for the stickiness of Catholic identity.

The first way to enhance sacramental experiences might simply be to stay out of the way—in other words, to create a space where sacramentality can simply be. The second might be to learn from people how they experience being Catholic and what makes being Catholic special to them and central to who they are.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

Things aren’t what they used to be

06 May 2012

Describing one’s own time as one of breakdown and collapse is a consistent and characteristic mistake in social and church commentary. It’s similar to the tendency of the older generation to describe the next in disparaging ways, and in both cases it may spring from the relative age or point of view of those making the critical observation.

As we get older, we look around and see that the world we once knew is no longer there and that in fact the illusion we once had of its permanence is just as gone as the illusion we once had of ourselves being somehow exceptions to the way of all flesh. It is helpful to be able to see the source of our illusion and to know that it results from the degree to which we so often highly esteem our contexts and values. But that breakdown is not the point.

A focus on breakdown carries with it a certain mythical element: Once there was a time of perfection or near perfection, and now it is all lost. Any careful examination of history shows that not to have been the case; one is far more likely to describe the present time as decline or crisis or transition because one is experiencing those things, than because it actually is. Just consider how well-used terms such as decline, crisis, or transition have been throughout history!

There is a theological problem here. The Christian is not called to look only toward the past but to the future as well, to the advent of the Reign of God that is both now, in our time, and not yet. The Christian is called to see God’s providence in the present, not as having been spent and dissipated in the past. We can’t have it both ways. Which will it be?

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

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How to understand the Trinity

03 Jun 2012

Our little brains cannot hope to enter into the whole reality of God’s promise! We see as through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). For this reason theological language is best expressed often in practical theological engagement rather than speculative theological constructions. A proper understanding of the Trinity, therefore, enters into an engagement with relationship and forms of relating rather than speculative understandings of unity in diversity.

The main thing, really, is to avoid distortion: Trinity, not “Tri-theism.” Once we stray into territory like that, we know that our expression is no longer adequate.

The point is not to have perfect theological understanding but rather to avoid distortions that take us from an adequate theology. An adequate theology is certainly not a “good enough” theology—it is instead at the upper limits of our ability as persons to express and to engage God in God’s deepest self. That is surely not the work of the head, or of the heart, or body. Rather it is the work of the true worshipper, when we are prayer-full. Any adequacy in our theology ultimately comes from our practice of right relationship with God—which in turn connects us with all creation and most certainly with our sisters and brothers.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

Beyond the “being” of God

01 Jul 2012

Is God a great big “Skydaddy” ready to step in with magical superpowers? Scratch the surface of many religious people and see if this isn’t the ordinary understanding of God; an old white man with a long beard looking down from above.

What this vision of God suggests is nothing other than a situation of “arrested development.” When a child has this image of God, it is cute; when an adult does, it is tragic and bodes poorly for the future of faith. More than the professional atheists of our time, people of faith need to model “apophatic theology”—a fancy way of saying “negative theology,” the so-called via negativa. We can use terms like “loving father” to describe God, but these are metaphors. The simple fact is that God is not a “being” at all, if by being we mean something that has a beginning and an end, in time or in space.

We live in an era when simplistic understandings of God are being attacked by those outside the church. How much better would it be if we inside the church combated these foolish, wrongheaded notions as well? Or are we afraid that if we simply demolish the image of God as Skydaddy, we will have nothing left to replace it? On that score, we have nothing to fear: The Abba of Jesus and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is far bigger than Skydaddy. But if we don’t help people become adult disciples, they will merely “graduate” from children’s catechesis and then exit mentally, often even physically, never to return.

If, on the other hand, children were to watch their parents and the entire faith community of which they are part engage the reality of God in a way that does not grasp at God but rather responds to God, what then? Maybe then young people might have models of an adult faith that will sustain them, lead them toward Christ, and build a flourishing Catholic life.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

Faith: A value proposition

05 Aug 2012

One of the distortions that can appear under the capitalist system is to reduce everything to dollars and cents: The worth of something is the same as how much one can be paid for it or its use to make something else for which one will be paid. A similar distortion can appear when people of faith value themselves as ends in themselves rather than as creatures of the Source of all value, God. Consider how those who can afford it spend all they can to keep themselves as alive and youthful as long as possible. Such a faith depreciates beauty and truth and is ultimately idolatrous, a circus mirror of distorted vision and values.

Capitalism can sometimes allow for the means to separate people from one another in false, self-satisfied, pseudo-self-sufficiency. Today the worker can be thousands of miles from the manager; economic relations are disembodied. What about the religion of those who live well in their little bubbles, disengaged from real life? Will they be religiously engaged? On the other hand, do those who work and struggle on the margins, far from this fantasy world of self-sufficiency, not have faith?

That is one of the challenges for the church in our time: to effectively bridge these worlds. Without such bridging, faith will continue to be badly distorted, loosened, and lost in the global North, certainly among the well-educated and well-paid. Without right relationship, we lose ourselves.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

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Church and social media

30 Sep 2012

Communication is about communio, fellowship. That means it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet how frequently do we see social media, including social media in the church, as a work of the Holy Spirit? Twitter feeds, Facebook, journalism, public relations—aren’t these privileged places where the work of the Holy Spirit is being done today?

That is surely why Pope John Paul II prophetically described the New Evangelization as “new in its methods.” Few aspects of contemporary life exhibit as many new methods as social media. Certainly, newspapers and magazines are being buffeted by the dramatic changes provoked especially by the internet. Yet for all that, too often we go slowly, and that is both a fact and complication of the relationship of social media to the church today. Church magazines and newspapers have not disappeared, weekly parish bulletins are still printed and distributed, and investments in new forms of social media have simply not taken off in usage as expected by some.

Here’s the problem: Most church leaders and Mass-attenders are just not early-adopters and nothing is going to make them so. Many can even be located at the other end of the spectrum—resistant to change. It would be a massive waste of energy and investment to expect that situation to change.

The bulk of church approaches to new media have tended to simply adapt what already exists in traditional media—which is mere duplication: Existing readers remain, and only a very small minority move to adopting online forms of existing church media. Such readers would have mostly continued to read in the traditional form. The much bigger problem is how to reach entirely new generations and unreached persons with new means and products while simultaneously continuing the current forms. That makes unusual demands on social media specific to a church context.

Perhaps it is time to ask those older readers of newspapers, magazines, church bulletins, and the like for ongoing, long-term investment in enterprises built for new forms of social media and designed for non-reached younger readers. The vast number of older readers cannot and ought not be asked to change their habits. Yet they cannot pass on the faith of the church by simply paying for the existing media and its ongoing maintenance. There must be creative new products and new networking to build the body of Christ in our time. That is the New Evangelization. And that is definitely the work of the Holy Spirit.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

An abundant gospel in a time of institutional scarcity

04 Nov 2012

The single greatest trend in parish life today is scarcity: fewer personnel available, fewer parishioners attending, and, above all, fewer resources. Everything is relative of course in this regard: Some new parishes are being established and some parishes are growing, even dramatically. But those individual cases do not overall trends make.

The most common organizational response to such trends is fear, but it does not need to be so. The challenge for our time is to proclaim a gospel of abundance within an organizational context of scarcity. This gospel—of hope, faith, and love—should win out before suspicion, distrust, and disconnection.

It will not do, however, to deny real trends of scarcity and real declining numbers with happy talk that refuses to see things as they are. It is quite clear in the gospels that Jesus is not about happy talk. What Jesus offers instead is a focus on fundamentals.

Gospel fundamentals come down to witnessing and living the Reign of God, not maintaining old structures for just a few years longer so someone else might close them down later. It is not for nothing that Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60).

Today’s trends of scarcity and diminishment are a clear message that the cultural and social ground around us is quaking. To struggle to keep structures functioning which are barely prepared for survival is foolish. It is time for a proper Christian burial: to let dead and dying things go and creatively build new possibilities even while selectively retrieving and retrofitting critical ways and structures of the past.

In the words of church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”

Parish trends of scarcity might just be nudging us to do creative new things for the first time, in conversation with the past but looking fearlessly to the future strengthened by Christ’s witness and the life of the Spirit.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

New opportunities, “New Evangelization”

02 Dec 2012

Today the church has fewer and fewer of the “grandmothers and grandfathers” of the faith who came of age in a previous time and who can share their formation in the current era of the life of the church and the nation. We are losing a great deal of the commitment and witness of that generation, but we are also living increasingly in an age of a blank slate when we need to write the future.

The church has experienced both a great loss—the disappearance of past cultures of faith—and has a great opportunity—to build up a new culture of faith, particularly in a broader culture that is no longer so sure of itself and the rejection of God and religion that once marked intellectual life so virulently. There is also the potential to make common cause with other persons of faith from across the Christian tradition and beyond into all religious traditions and all persons of good will.

Rather than moving to the barricades of squabbles long past, the church has the chance to spread the gospel anew and make the world a more just and humane place. That is the task of every generation and, especially during a world-historical turning point such as today's, it is the task of the New Evangelization.

© 2012, Bryan Froehle.

Vocation awareness: Discerning one’s life vocation today

06 Jan 2013

Identity is the crucial issue of our time. We cannot inherit it, we have to make it. In that sense we do indeed construct our reality. But as the African maxim says, “I am because we are.” No personal sense of identity is formed on one’s own. Just as shame is a primordial social emotion—there is no shame without reference with others—so, too, is identity fundamentally social.

And what is identity if not another way of saying one’s purpose? The connection with vocation is clear. In the past the world was relatively more sociocentric and the individual person was buffered, surrounded by social “mirrors” others and the larger culture offered. Vocation was more clearly given: God’s purposes could be more readily seen in reflection from the other.

Not so in these more opaque times: Exposed as individuals, less embedded in relational contexts, we are more likely to struggle with vocation. We cannot see ourselves definitively as one way and not the other. We shift in and out of focus for ourselves and are open, even at astonishing late ages in life, to holding onto an odd claim that we can somehow change into something entirely different from what we are.

At any rate, many refuse to make final commitments precisely because they cannot convince themselves that one identity is enough or even possible. It is not that courage is lacking; it is that in a time of heightened individualism it takes much more courage than ever to embrace an identity or commit to a vocation. For identity and vocation, only a definitive embrace from the depths of conviction and trust will do.

When we pray for vocations this month, whether church vocations, marriage, or any major life decision, we need to pray for communities that can truly give the gift of courage to those in discernment.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

Vocations to consecrated life: Community needed

03 Feb 2013

Vocations to consecrated religious life in the context of a religious institute are always a vocation to a community. A vocation to a spouse is different. Both are vocations within communities, but the second is fundamentally to a person. In a one-to-one relationship the other always has veto power. One person can abandon the other at any time. A community is different: There is no unilateral veto power. Even if a person decides to leave, the community continues. It is not for nothing that there are periods of postulancy and novitiate to get to know the community.

Obedience is founded on this communal reality far more so than the personal power of an abbot, abbess, or other religious superior. After all, such a voice is ultimately only legitimate through the community, not on her or her power alone. That accounts for the beauty of religious life. Rather than the intimacy and mutual self-giving of a spousal relationship, consecrated religious life lived within religious institutes is self-surrender to a necessarily unequal relationship between one person and a larger community of persons. In this way a relationship with a religious community is truly eschatological, pointing to the perfection of when we will be all in all. It participates in the cosmological "sign-value" of what it means to be church and live within the Body of Christ.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

What the church can learn from improv

03 Mar 2013

Christian life is a team sport. As the African saying would have it, “I am because we are.” No one can be a Christian by oneself; faith is shared and always in communion with God and one other. Yet Christians have to adapt constantly, improvising as they go along, just as in a team sport where there are basic rules and strategies but constant moments of unpredictable play and rapid decision-making.

Christian life can learn much from improvisational comedy methods as originally developed at the Second City troupe in Chicago. Improv comedy famously works only one way, the “yes, and” way. A comedian starts spontaneously to set up a situation—and the other comedian(s) onstage need to enter into the action to move the situation forward and together discover the funny bits. Improv comedy stops dead in its tracks if the second comedian responds not with a “yes, and” but rather with a “no, and.” The situation is destroyed and all plausibility eliminated. What was going to be mutually improvised is now individualistically destroyed. Perhaps the second comedian with be able to make the first look bad, but there will be nothing funny done together, nothing created in common.

The same is true of the other sort of response, one all-too-often seen in church life, the classic passive-aggressive response: “yes, but.” One might imagine that such a response is somehow more Christian than the simple denial, but it actually turns out to be even more destructive of created community because its approach undermines the very dignity of the other. A simple “no, and” might imply a lack of respect and an impossibility of plausibility for a particular situation. The “yes, but” is destructive of the inherent dignity of the other, a put-down or denigrating attempt to control and reduce the other through shame. The gospel engages people where they are at, affirms their dignity, and shows them the more excellent way. “Yes, and” represents the promise of a dynamic of affirmative orthodoxy behind much of the new evangelization. It is nothing other than the classic Catholic instinct of the “both/and.”

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

For Latino Catholics, it’s all in the family

07 Apr 2013

In social psychology, a “master frame” a way of organizing and seeing the world, typically though mental images or narratives. This concept helps to explain what makes Latino Catholicism so special. While “conversion” might be justly described as the master frame of Latino evangelicals, the master frame of Latino Catholics is belonging.

The experience of Catholicism in Latin America gives a sense of belonging to the wider culture, which in turn is deeply steeped in Catholic values—though that is not to say that all the cultural values are Catholic!—offering and underlining a strong familial sense. The Virgin Mary is important because Mary makes it all family. Reflecting that familial sensibility, dignity is inherent in any and every member of the family. It does not need to be earned and cannot be lost. Whether people practice their faith regularly or hardly at all, they are still members of the family. If they express their faith in one way or another, engaging this devotion or that, they are all part of the family. When Latinos leave active engagement in church life or even Catholic affiliation and identity altogether, it is not due to some esoteric teaching or intellectual problem. It is because they were not made to feel part of the family.

Pastors of Latino Catholic communities need to realize that they are not primarily CEOs of medium-sized corporations offering religious services nor an enforcer of rules of the larger church, though they might do both these things. Following this “master frame,” a pastor is the head of the family. We hear the word in Spanish and English but maybe we need to let it really sink in: padre, father. That is not about the domination of an alpha male; that is about family. That is about Mary: maternal love that accompanies us wherever we go, whatever we do.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

Megatrend: Church and society

05 May 2013

The megatrend in religion today is how church connects to larger society. Is the church part of official society? That was the ruling understanding since the time of Saint Augustine, up to the 1960s. The idea was that Catholicism would ideally connect to a culture in every bit as official a way as the government or the army. This conclusion logically flowed from the principle of one faith and one baptism but contrasts completely with an understanding of the independent modern person and free association.

The church cannot live protected any longer within official society, and the Second Vatican Council recognized that some 50 years ago. In a time marked by an extensive globalization, once officially and quasi-officially Christian societies have embraced pluralism, and other societies where Christianity has never been accepted officially can only be swayed by appeal to the principle of religious freedom grounded in the primacy of the well-formed conscience.

Such pressures have moved the church with lightning speed toward a location within civil society as one voluntary association among many: special to be sure, but as a voluntary association. That fit with how religion has worked in the United States for centuries. Not surprisingly it was the great U.S. Catholic moral theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. who was so critical to Vatican II’s embrace of religious freedom. The church in the U.S. offers something special to the world church today. It also means that the structures and understandings of the church universal face a great lag as they work though the accumulated understandings of more than 1,500 years of being church. Critical questions must be asked, ones at the center of an effective New Evangelization. What must change if the church neither is nor aspires to be among the official powers of society?

In the past this position has given the church a presence as a monopoly but also produced the real problem of being a “lazy monopoly” where the need for evangelization was much less. On the other hand, what must the church do if it is not be become a purely voluntary association within civil society where it ultimately has to offer a product or message or service to be bought and sold like any other good?

What if religion, and the church, is really located and sustained within the symbolic universe of human culture instead? Whether “official” or “civil” society, religion and the church are, now and always, a critical piece of human self-understanding and symbolic life—truth with a capital “T,” not dominating as an official society nor competing as in a civil society but redeeming, as in the gospel.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

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New social media and church messaging

02 Jun 2013

Social media in all its forms is now ruled by the expectations created by the internet. In the past, decision-makers could tightly control and share private messages while the broader public could not possibly know any particulars with reliability. As broadsides and newspapers developed, communications became printed and public opinion emerged as something entirely new in this sense. Charles Taylor, the great Catholic philosopher, points out that the public sphere as we know it simply could not have existed before the era of mass-distributed information. Note, however, that though mass-distributed such information was generally from only a few sources, both in terms of those who regulated information and those who ultimately oversaw the machines that printed it. Such information could be, and was, limited and manipulated by both the distributors of information.

Today the internet has made everyone a potential reporter and everyone a potential direct recipient of information. Everyone can simultaneously be a recipient, aggregator, and spreader of social media. The boundaries once so clearly established in an earlier time have melted away. Distortions in information today are common, but they too regularly melt away in the sea of receiving and giving of information.

These changes have come quickly for a church that famously thinks in centuries. Until only very recently could church life consist of cautiously parsed communication in carefully targeted ways to very limited publics from a distance. Leaders learned to control information and work with those who control the distribution of information, all for the good of the church. Much of the church’s ways still reflect that sort of communication. All these approaches to social media were appropriate to their time and media culture, and such lags are inevitable as things continue to change.

Today, however, only one approach works: full and complete clarity. Opaque communications that were once appropriate are now self-defeating, and there is no turning back. Ecclesial culture and ecclesial communications will need to adapt and change. The only way to get the message out for the good of the church is to get it all out, all the time. It is no longer a question of funneling information but of pouring it out, constantly, that it might be received in its fullness.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

Family: It’s complicated

07 Jul 2013

The surest way to predict who is at our churches today is to know family status. You already know the kind of family most likely to be in church: those that have a mother and father who grew up in the same religious faith and with similar levels of commitment, who have never experienced divorce or break-up of prior long-term relationships, and who have multiple children together with each other but with no one else.

The process reproduces itself, except that each time there can be fewer people because some who were raised this way do not enter into these kinds of relationships and then end up making other life choices. The problem of such attrition is a real one and ultimately can bankrupt a church of members if it runs to its logical conclusion. But there is a bigger question, one especially appropriate for our context, where the nature of family life itself has changed as dramatically as a few generations ago when the nuclear family was "invented" in place of the extend family.

What happens when the pattern of family life which is the backbone of church life today is no longer the modal pattern in society? What happens when people develop meaningful relationships with others who do not share their family faith origins? What happens when massive proportions of people simply don’t marry at all or marry later but yet live in all sorts of relationships? Many delay having children, or have only one, or have a child quite intentionally in later life without being married. It’s complicated. What is a loving church supposed to do? Is it complicated, too?

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

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Society and the church

04 Aug 2013

Re-ligare, the source of the word for “religion,” means to “reconnect.” A big question in church life today is precisely how church connects to the larger society. Is the “church” part of official society? That was the ruling understanding since the time of Saint Augustine—up to the 1960s! The idea was that Catholicism would ideally connect to a culture in every bit as official a way as the government or the army. That concept flowed logically from the principle of one faith and one baptism but contrasts completely with an understanding of the independent modern person and free association.

The church cannot live protected any longer within official society, and the Second Vatican Council recognized that some 50 years ago. In a time marked by an extensive globalization, formerly officially and quasi-officially Christian societies have embraced pluralism, and other societies where Christianity has never been embraced officially can only be swayed by appeal to the principle of religious freedom grounded in the primacy of a well-formed conscience.

Such pressures have moved the world church with lightning speed toward a location within civil society as one voluntary association among many—special to be sure, but still a voluntary association. This development fit with how religion has always worked in the United States. Not surprisingly it was a great American Catholic theologian, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who was so crucial to Vatican II’s embrace of religious freedom. This shift means that the church in the United States offers something special to the world church today. It also means that the structures and understandings of the church universal face a great lag as they work though the accumulated structures and understandings of more than 1,500 years of being church.

Critical questions must be asked, ones at the center of an effective New Evangelization. What must change if the church neither is nor aspires to be among the official powers of society? In the past that official status has given it a presence as a monopoly but also produced the real problem of being a “lazy monopoly” where the need for evangelization was much less. On the other hand, what must the church do if it is not be become a purely voluntary association within civil society or the so-called nonprofit sector where it ultimately has to offer a product or message or service to be bought and sold like any other good? What if religion, and the church, is really located and sustained within the symbolic universe of human culture instead?

Whatever their roles in society, religion and the church are now and have always been an essential piece of human self-understanding and symbolic life—Truth with a capital “T”: not dominating as in official society nor competing as in civil society but redeeming, as in the gospel.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

Stewardship: Do you have any idea?

01 Sep 2013

The problem with the idea of stewardship is just that: an idea, or at least that is how it is understood and presented. We can talk about stewardship as a “way of life,” but that is also—an idea. Stewardship does not work as an idea. It only serves when it is in relationship. And it is not enough that it be a relationship with Christ. That all too readily can become just another idea as well.

Stewardship works when it is a simple expression of relationship in community. When it does not work it is either because it is seen as an abstract idea—or when community is merely an abstract idea and not a reality. Become a truly full, active, conscious community, a truly Eucharistic one, and all else will follow. Talk about the idea of stewardship and work hard to spread the idea of stewardship—and not much will happen.

Change takes place when the time is right and the context truly supportive. It is not about new ways of putting forth ideas but rather living those realities. Truly Eucharistic communities will quickly become stewardship communities. When we attend to the fundamentals, everything else follows.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

What is the state of the laity?

06 Oct 2013

“We would look awfully foolish without the laity,” as Cardinal John Henry Newman once famously said. What is the state of the laity? The question is best asked as Newman suggests: relationally. How do those who are baptized but not ordained relate to the ordained, and vice-versa?

The state of the laity is the state of society is the state of the church. As such the church cannot be said to be outside of society, an “essence” removed from the messiness of history and persons. In some regions and cultural groups, laity and the ordained are quite connected, but in others they are not. In some places a lively faith and rich religious imagination and devotional life and culture nourish the laity, but in other places they do not. There is a fundamental challenge here, and it is to diversity. Precisely because the laity are so different, and the context of church life so different, those who are ordered to the needs of the faith community—the ordained—cannot hope to relate to the only ones who can comprise the faith community—the laity.

There is no “state” of the laity because the people of God are dynamic, not static. Just as any understanding of God must be dynamic because God is love, and love is dynamic, so, too, for the people of God. The problem comes up when the church is envisioned as Saint Peter (briefly) did: unable to change and adapt. When Saint Paul’s work brought in uncircumcised Gentiles by the thousands, the work of the Spirit was revealed in a laity which is constantly changing, as doctrine develops around the unchanging, final self-revelation of God in Christ. Ask not about the state of the laity but about the dynamic engagement of the ordained with the people of God. Or how it may be so.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

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Be Catholic, be compassionate

03 Nov 2013

Catholic beliefs are about Catholic loving. The ancient English root of be-lieve, as Marcus Borg, the American Protestant biblical scholar and theologian, reminds us, is “be-love.” We have to see belief as an affair of the heart as much as the head. Catholics do this instinctively. One can make a case from survey research that the underlying Catholic understanding is a “master frame”: Catholics stay Catholic, as the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley famously and succinctly said, because they like being Catholic.

The simplest word to describe the Catholic “master frame” and sums up its creative, sacramental imagination might be compassion. As a great teacher of Catholic theology once said, all the wisdom and insight of scripture comes down to: “God loves us and wants to be intimate with us.” Sin is not about setting up rules we cannot possibly follow in our weakness, nor is the world God-forsaken. Rather, God is present everywhere, the very ground of our being, which is love, and God’s compassion is the desire that we be happy, freely living into the virtues and God’s great compassion.

That is the source of all our dignity and worth, inherent in us, and which explains why we love as Christians do. It is not about earning respect but rather seeing that we live in God’s grace. Not a naïve, groundless optimism, this master frame of compassion is seeing all of life and all God’s good creation and plans for that creation in a way that is “according to the whole”—that is, Catholic.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

There's no "mystery" when it comes to faith and reason

01 Dec 2013

Faith and reason are not at loggerheads, as much philosophy and cultural understanding of the past three centuries would insist. Such an understanding comes from the Protestant view which imagines a believer taking a stand on their own. That has a real beauty and a real truth but it also contained the seeds for a radically relativized and privatized understanding of faith. In other words: Faith is fine but it is ultimately a private logic beyond any conversation with reason, which is always a shared logic.

So sometimes today we see Catholic beliefs as odd little things that we just ought to believe. We fail to link them together, usually because we fail to start from practice. We neglect to trace out the faith-reason link in lived religion. For example, we can say the Trinity is a mystery, if by that we mean the modern understanding of mystery as something not subject to reason. Suppose, however, you think of it more from the practical standpoint: The Trinity is a very reasonable and adequate way of saying that “God is love,” because Trinity is ultimately about relationship within God’s very self. Or what about the Incarnation, God becoming human, the obvious reality that flows from the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection and presence among us. Catholic understandings of Mary are similar—basic truths that flow from the Incarnation: truths about the person who bore the Incarnate One in her womb. These beliefs central to our faith are disarmingly simple and easily accessible to our reason.

The problem comes when we implicitly accept the idea that faith and reason cannot be in profound harmony. If the word Catholic shares the same roots as the word holistic, as indeed it does, it cannot be otherwise. Catholic must witness to the “wholeness” of the intimate linking between mind and spirit, faith and reason.

© 2013, Bryan Froehle.

Games worth playing

05 Jan 2014

Sunday sports—from children’s games to watching football and beyond—famously pose challenges for churches, but maybe on a deeper level something else is going on here: Maybe they share something.

Experiencing God’s presence in the Word and Eucharist is of course very much more than a mere game could ever be, but consider: Games in general, whether on the field or in massive multiplayer online role-playing games, are a way of constructing a world and disciplining oneself to a rule or way of life. The liturgy is like that. The Mass is a divine game where we all have our roles and all need to be full, active, and conscious participants if we are to fully realize the potential of the encounter. Both a Mass and a game are highly predictable yet always different.

We know that if the game goes well and works as we hope it does, we will to go out to transform the world, whether to new levels of sporting behavior, team-building, or shared collective identity within the workplace, neighborhood, and society in general. Prayer is like that, and so is liturgy. Both get us out of ourselves, connect us with others, and even put us in a profound rhythm within God’s good creation.

Yet it is not liturgical games that draw crowds but football games, video games, little league games, golf games. People might do both—but which one has their attention and excitement? All other games seem to have people who practice constantly, participants who are excited, more than ample resources, and an expectation that something potentially beautiful and deeply engaging is going to happen. If this were not the case, would people participate? Oddly we comfort ourselves oftentimes that the Mass was “good enough” or “did not take too long.” If we use the language of mediocrity, perhaps we should not ask why people do not participate but rather why they participate at all.

Sports are hardly a sacrament, but there seems to be plenty of communion taking place and even real change: players get better, fans get connected, and all see a glimpse of what the world would look like if true team-play defined our world. The Eucharist is the sacramental source and summit of the Christian life, but do we play it for the transformational moment it is?

© 2014, Bryan Froehle.

Interfaith dialogue: In-different ways

02 Feb 2014

There are those who say that ecumenism has run its course, and they are right. The ecumenism of high-level conversations between theologians and church leaders has taken place, and though continuing, it has done what needed to be done and what it set out to do. Immense changes for the good have occurred, but ecumenism, real ecumenism, has not really begun at the level of ordinary life, nor has true interfaith dialogue done so.

The reason is not rising intolerance, though some feel a palpable sense of threat and fear on behalf of their religions today. The enemy of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue today is indifference. Ecumenism fails when indifference is confused with tolerance and when faith forgets that it is about trust and turns to fear. In a time of indifference all we have is a dialogue of the deaf, and that is no dialogue at all.

In an odd way true ecumenism and interfaith dialogue depend on resistance specifically to false ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue thrive insofar as the distinctives of each faith tradition thrive in living communities of faith. The product of ecumenism is the practice of a lively faith.

© 2014, Bryan Froehle.

The church and the financial system

02 Mar 2014

You vote not only on Election Day. You vote every time you spend money. The financial system is not only open to scrutiny for major bad acts of major bad actors, but for every act, large and small, including your own.

You vote not only on Election Day. You vote every time you spend money. The financial system is not only open to scrutiny for major bad acts of major bad actors but also for every act, large and small, including your own. A sacramental church that lifts up God’s good creation and materiality must have something critically important to say to those systems humans use to mobilize work and control the world. And it must go beyond simply passing judgment on those at the top, though without ever forgetting their responsibility.

Catholic social teaching springs from the five crucial principles of common good, stewardship, subsidiarity, participation, and solidarity. All these principles flow from the dignity of the human person. And all have something very direct to say about the financial system. It is true that Catholicism proposes principles rather than policy solutions to particular issues of the day, but the principles on offer are so powerful that there often needs to be little debate about the how the people of God ought to engage the financial system.

The Catholic vision behind such principles is that they are universal and objective because they are accessible through reason. If you start with the understanding that laws are built into our very nature, or flow objectively from who we are as persons, then human constructs have no priority, and understanding of the financial system founded on an ideology of the market and not the human person has no place in the relationship between the church and the financial system.

Faith and revelation are not necessary by themselves, standing alone, to understand the dignity of the human person but rather are complementary and build on the reasonable understanding of the nature of the human person. For this reason the church has something to address to the financial system that is not only from it particularly but on behalf of all humanity. The financial system does not exist on its own but rather in service to humanity.

© 2014, Bryan Froehle.

Dialogue needed about parish ministry

06 Apr 2014

Priests are happy—but morale is low. Pastors find encouragement from their parishioners—but not enough from their fellow pastors. Parochial vicars—associate pastors—often become pastors only a few years after ordination—but with little mentoring and often feeling like a “fifth” wheel, being neither pastor nor having a specific role in specialized ministries. Religious educators have a strong and vital role in parish life—but frequently do not have the benefit of any advanced study or understanding of the faith or the task of education. Pastoral associates and parish life coordinators have an important presence in a majority of dioceses in the United States—but often lack clarity about their role. Youth leaders are often present in parishes today—but often seem to understand faith and ministry priorities in different ways than other generations. Parish groups are present and sometimes thriving—but more in spite of, then because of, coordination and connection with broader parish structures. While these realities are not the experience of all, they are, statistically speaking, the common experience.

In a way that is as it ought to be expected: Church is not perfect, and within the church there are certain predictable issues that seem to be built into things and occur again and again. For example, “clerical envy.” In a relatively flat hierarchical system such as Catholicism, particularly given the paternal symbolism associated with the role of bishop, it is no surprise that priests are sometimes jealous of each other or that sometimes the one who performs more is criticized more. The difficulty is when we do not talk about the challenges we face on a daily basis, even when they are built into the system itself. If those in ministerial leadership, parish activities, and church life in general do not bridge these gaps by acknowledging them and talking about them, no one will.

© 2014, Bryan Froehle.

Participation is more than a laughing matter

01 Jun 2014

A rabbi, minister, and a priest went into bar . . . we know a joke is going to follow, don’t we? We even get ready to laugh a little and reset our tension and stress a bit. That is what both good ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are also about. It can only happen when we know and are comfortable in our identity as Catholics. Whoever would wish to do ecumenism or interfaith dialogue must know their identity the way an ideal rabbi, minister, or priest would. Only those comfortable with themselves can laugh at themselves in an authentic way, and only such a person can even have a serious conversation with another person with an equally strong identity regarding their differences of identity.

Anything else is a game of pretend. Is it not pretending when parents go through the motions of dropping their children off to CCD, or even themselves attending Mass, but are not really being present to what is happening? When we act as if we are at an empty ritual our children sense that, and it is hardly a surprise that such children grow up to become absent altogether. That is not simply the responsibility of children; it is the responsibility of parents as well. Similarly, bad ecumenism that is merely a toleration based on pure indifference is useless. So, too, is the failure of nerve apparent when religious leaders speak of mutual respect for the other without exhibiting deep engagement in the very strangeness of their religious convictions and in the very strangeness of the other's practices.

© 2014, Bryan Froehle.

More than Mass times

21 Sep 2008

Catholics have more than one way to pray and more than one sacrament. Yet it often seems as if our only prayer is the Mass and our only sacrament is the Eucharist. According to some liturgists, the worship style mainline Protestant churches use was adapted from a form of evening prayer and preaching Catholic churches used in the 15th century. And today we have the Liturgy of the Hours, Taizé prayer, solemn benediction, an increasingly common praise and worship style, and all sorts of other traditions.

But one would hardly know it from the schedule posted at most Catholic parishes: “Mass times.” Mass and Eucharist itself are indeed the source and summit, but endless repetition punctuated by Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent runs the risk of taking the splendor and majesty of the Mass for granted rather than letting it truly be the source and summit of our worship.

Similarly, in so many of our churches it seems as if our only instrument is the electric organ, played in a certain style. But our church has been around for two millennia and instruments of all kinds have come and gone, just as singing styles have ebbed and flowed. In our own time there is increasing use of electronic and digital media, something to which the church will adapt and become accustomed in the same way it has done case with other great cultural and technological transformations.

Today, worldwide—never mind across different time periods—we know more than ever that Catholicism is about unity, not uniformity. Yet if we were truly convinced of our unity, comfortable in our Catholic diversity, and focused on building a flourishing church, wouldn’t we more frequently have different sorts of public worship during the week, different ways to worship through music, and a true openness to catholicity, the universality of human expression?

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Seek an encounter with the Divine

20 June 2016

It is not that church teaching is changing—our way of being formed in church teaching is being transformed. We used to believe that if we just taught enough doctrine, all would be well. The result would be orthodox believers. But that was actually not a result of the method, of the teaching of doctrine. It was because there were other supports—the extended family, a whole culture. It took a village and we never knew it. Today we find that just teaching the facts of the faith is not enough. It never was. It does not work. It never did. What worked was encounter and experience: encountering God, experiencing the presence of Christ in our lives, feeling the unity that only the Holy Spirit of God can bring.

It is not that theology is changing—our theological method is being transformed, our very way of understanding. In the past, logical claims flowing from philosophy and theology could root the core teachings of our faith, leaving theological method to be a matter of abstract reason. This should not be rejected outright: faith and reason are friends, not enemies. But the point of theology is friendship, encounter, relationship. Theological method today increasingly turns to experience and encounter in specific contexts and people, flowing from a personal encounter with the One who is Revelation. It is not enough to know about Christ, today we must know Christ. We always did, of course. But this encounter was part of the same village that we can no long assume exists, a densely woven cultural world that could easily bring us to a matter-of-fact encounter with Christ. Today we need to seek such an encounter. Such intentionality is both the gift and the challenge of our time.

Where is religion going?

01 July 2016

Religion’s obituary has been written prematurely for the past two centuries. Religion, defined as a set of beliefs that allows us to make meaning of the world, is not dying, though it doesn’t look like it did in the past. What has happened the past few centuries and especially the past few decades is a process whereby cultural, organizational, and political power has exited the churches. The powerful links that connected people to “pray, pay, and obey” is approaching a vanishing point.

This means that the power of churches to define a set of beliefs that allow majorities to make meaning of the world is simply not there. But people continue to make meaning. We humans are meaning-makers! Human beings are simply unable to live without meaning. Religion connects us. Religion springs from such meaning-making. The difference is that more and more meaning is produced by smaller groups and by individuals rather than by large institutions.

Today, religious meaning is simply more diverse, more plural than ever. Religion is not ending but transforming, moving from a time of a few major well-defined options to countless options within those options, variations everywhere. This is not a diminishment of religion but only the diminishment of the ability of any one group to control sacred space. This is not freedom from religion but a new freedom we have today for religion. The challenge is that in the old way, the major religious options applied to whole societies and entire groups. Today each person has an opportunity to realize religion and the claims of religion in freedom. Which is not easy to do.

“Not an era of change but a change of era”

15 August 2016

Those are Pope Francis’s wise words. How many times have we heard that we are in an era of change, a time of crisis. Not so! Crises, if they are actual crises, and change, if it is actual change, comes and goes.

But in this new era, what we once called change is the new normal.

The powers that held back change and diversity are greatly diminished and not about to rise to monopoly power again. This is new. The emerging synthesis of our time is precisely that there is no synthesis! There is only diversity, pluralism, multiplicity. There is no one superpower, there are only the diverse regions of the world, the nations in all their varied ways of doing and being, intersecting, interacting.

This is a radically new time and the way of imagining, the social and religious imaginaries of the past, will be of limited usefulness. They are more likely to deform than inform our responses in a helpful direction. One thing is for certain: the era for big solutions, big struggles, and one-size-fits-all responses is over. What we need are not consistency in answers but to be consistently seeking the questions, respecting the contexts and responses of others even while we offer different responses to similar questions. It is no longer about uniformity but unity, not about oppositional duality but an embrace of multiplicity.

The end of Protestantism?

15 October 2016

Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Independent Christians still show healthy attendance numbers. But in a way “Protestantism” as a concept is at an end. The term has less and less traction for ordinary people.

Surveys show this: fewer and fewer people describe themselves as “Protestant” as the years go by. People say they are “nondenominational,” “Christian,” “evangelical,” and so on. There is a multiplicity among Christians where there once was a duality: Protestant and Catholic.  The one not only implied not the other, it needed the other for its very existence. Without Catholicism, there could be no Protestantism. And without Protestantism, what would Catholicism have been these past 500 years?

If this is the end of Protestantism, might we also say it is the end of Catholicism as we have known it? Certainly it is the end of simple oppositional thinking and self-definition. Both Protestantism and Catholicism in that sense have collapsed in lockstep with the collapse of their old foils, a previously overly defined, massive unity that no longer exists.

Today there are evangelical Catholics, charismatic Catholics, traditional Catholics, devotional Catholics, cultural Catholics of one place or kind or another. If this is the end of Protestantism, it is also the end of a one-size-fits-all Catholicism. We now experience a truly world-wide and yet highly diverse, locally expressive and globally united, Catholic faith, an  expression of the faith that is more relevant than ever, more suited to our time than ever--unless of course we lock ourselves into a past that no longer exists.

Revitalization?

15 November 2016

Imagine a field where people gather to worship for five hours every Saturday night–70,000 of them. Imagine busy city churches packed, every day. Imagine rural churches expanding rapidly into multiple thriving communities. Imagine preachers whose every word, musicians whose every note, enthrall with spiritual power. Imagine young people committing themselves to living in community for the sake of the gospel. Imagine deeply engaged young people worshiping in vast public sports arenas. Imagine extraordinarily large, flourishing gatherings that annually resource people in ministry and inspire adults on their faith journey.

This is the global Catholic community today—from El Shaddai in the Philippines to packed urban churches and burgeoning village chapels in Africa, from new ministries growing and maturing in Latin America to remarkable youth ministry gatherings in the United States and the throngs who gather at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress each year.

Yes, the Church is dying in some ways, but also growing. Diminishing here, thriving there. Which narrative do we choose? How does that narrative play to our anxieties and fears, our hopes and dreams? Or do we embrace each and every narrative in its complexity and beauty? Do we think being Catholic is about a universal narrative, a single story line? Or do we think of it embracing the whole, cata-holos? Which is of course what the word actually means. An organic whole that is always vital and re-vitalizing.

Irreconcilable differences

15 December 2016

We humans are basically all the same in what matters. All created in the image and likeness of God. All loved beyond all telling. For this reason, racism and sexism are in a fundamental sense sacrilege against the God who creates and loves all of us, no exceptions.

But it is an error, however well-intentioned, to then make the claim that all religions are basically the same. Not because there is not truth to be found in all religions—how dare we make claims that would restrict God’s action, God’s grace, in the world! In fact, this is exactly where the problem is.

Religions are not persons. They are not in the image and likeness of God. Religions are in fact different paths, different ways of pursuing truth. They lead to different places, even if some might say that all go more or less toward human flourishing. But religions are not the same. To claim otherwise it is an act of disrespect to the human beings who are on that one particular path.

Religions are irreducibly different, one from another. Hinduism aims to liberate the soul from ceaseless reincarnation. Islam is about surrender and submission. And so on. This does not mean that people cannot learn about liberation or submission from these religions. But the paths are different from the Christian path of salvation. The only one who can say all religions are the same is the one who does not personally know any of them intimately.

Be a witness, not a control freak

15 December 2016

When we compare our times as Christians today to those of the first centuries of Christianity within the Roman empire, we tend to imagine a distorted picture. We think of epic persecutions and dramatic successes, remarkable growth and change. And then we imagine ourselves today in an epic story. This is not the point.

Roman persecutions were real, but actually quite sporadic. Christians lived in relative peace and were for the most part ignored. Christians were perhaps 10 percent of the population by the time the Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity on his deathbed. And Christians did not become the majority in the Roman Empire until well after Christianity became compulsory.

What is the actual lesson? What can we learn from those times and ours? Not that our time is one of anti-Christian persecution like Roman times, nor that our time is one of epic growth like Roman times. We can’t read those things into that actual past for the same reason we can’t read into the history of Judaism that God granted the Promised Land through a series of successful and blood holy wars. Such narratives instead tell us about those who told such narratives—and, yes, the divine truths of accompaniment and faithfulness revealed in the narratives themselves.

Yet deep insight can be encountered in the simple comparison between ancient Roman times and our times. We can learn how to live the reality of pluralism, of being surrounded by many options, including religious sensibilities that have little embrace of the transcendent. We can learn to reflect on what it means to be a presence, a witness, but not a controlling or dominating one. And not to covet nor wax nostalgic for control or domination. We can best follow in the footsteps of our ancient Christian ancestors precisely by living in religious pluralism and dealing with diversity in ordinary, non-apocalyptic ways, building up the community without embracing accounts of exclusion or exclusivity. The Reign of God is a mustard seed.

God has no grandchildren

15 January 2017

As children of God, we either have a personal, direct relationship with God or not. We can never get such a relationship merely be inheriting it from parents who were children of God! Every person, every generation must make a choice to respond to God’s grace, or not.

This observation comes from a theologian, David Bosch, but it really goes right back to the scriptures. Just because one was part of God’s Chosen People was no guarantee that one would not become faithless or worse. Don’t we make the same mistake today? Aren’t we somehow surprised when our children are not “grandchildren” of God merely because we live as “children” of God?

Inserting children into an institution, even a church school or other church programs, is never enough. It cannot “make” them children of God! It might even lead them to reject what they find there, particularly if they sniff hypocrisy or manipulation along the way. What is helpful is something else: remembering that being a “child” of God is first and foremost a relationship. To what degree do we model such a relationship with our children? To what degree do we help them see that it is God’s love that they are experiencing? To what degree are they able to connect with a community of disciples sharing what it means to be a child of God? Everything else is merely an adventure in missing the point.

Pursuing gospel truth

15 January 2017

What a claim! What a powerful phrase! The “gospel truth.” But what is it, really?

The meaning of gospel truth upends our expectations. As affirmed by the church from scripture and tradition, gospel truth is not about factuality. Of course, the gospels narrate real events and are overflowing with real meaning. But gospel truth goes well beyond this.

Gospel truth is the sure communication of the Holy Spirit received and passed on within and through the community. It comes from God, who is love. Gospel truth is about vitality–life! The abundant life that is given in Christ Jesus! Life and love. “Gospel truth” is ultimately about a person, about the truth of God’s love, a truth that pursues us. Grace. Thus, Jesus proclaims the gospel and we as Christians carry on that ministry of teaching and healing, living the gospel. More to the point, we “live in” the gospel. Which is to say we “live in Christ.” Because in Jesus’s climactic suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus became the message itself. The messenger I the message. To live in Christ is to be about gospel living. The way of the gospel becomes the way of Christ: completely inseparable, one and the same.

Christianity is about more than a set of truths, however beautiful they may be. It is more about pursuing truth—the pursuit of a truth always beyond our little cantaloupe-sized brains and all-too-often Grinch-sized hearts! In the final analysis, the gospel truth is that it is not we who are pursuing truth, but truth —God!—pursuing us.

Jesus IS Justice

15 February 2017

Various church documents famously use the Latin-derived term “constitutive.” The gospel is constitutive of justice. Or, faith is constitutive of justice. So—Justice is the gospel, and the gospel is justice.

But we have been good at what might be called constant “adventures in missing the point.” We human beings have reduced the gospel to an escape plan from this world. Or to a purity code. Or to an endless, impossible chasing after human perfection. Or to Jesus to an enforcer, ever-present to make us feel guilty when we fail in personal morality or interpersonal relations. It is not that God does not have a plan for us that goes far beyond this moment nor that sexuality is not a gift of God to be deeply respected and well-lived, nor that we should not pursue holiness.

But all these things, and more besides flow from the central, defining focus of the gospel, which is on justice. Jesus is proclaiming the coming of God’s Reign, a rule of justice, one that we can and must begin now. Justice is restoration of broken relationships with God, but also with humanity and the entire cosmos. Yet it is more than that – justice is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the cosmos, for humanity.  Jesus was a preacher of the end times – an itinerant, eschatological preacher – precisely because no one could be so close to God without knowing that God is going to clean up the world, bringing justice in a definitive way.

Justice is nothing more or less than “right relationship.” This means relationship as God would have it, the God who is love. No more oppression, no more hunger, no more violence of any kind. Our feet guided in the way of peace, once and for all. In the Resurrection of the Lord, we see God’s definitive coming, God’s justice. This is the justice heralded at the start of Jesus’ public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19). It says nothing about an escape plan nor a purity code nor a chasing after perfection. It says a whole lot about proclaiming and living justice – from which everything flows.

Truly justice is constitutive of the gospel.

Resurrection = Incarnation

15 February 2017

We celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord alive among us each Sunday, from late on Saturday to the very last moment of Sunday, and then we celebrate Holy Week, and then the 40 days of Lent, to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord. Truly our time as Christians is taken up with celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord! Indeed, every time we pray and call upon Christ, every time we experience walking and confiding in the Lord, we are celebrating the reality of the Resurrection!

But there is more. Consider Christmas. What is Christmas without Easter, without the Lord’s Resurrection? The stories of Jesus as a baby make no sense without knowing the end of the story – Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of God. Only a people who had lived the strange mystery of the Resurrection could begin to understand the Incarnation. Surely it makes no sense to call Jesus the Son of God unless he is risen.

Incarnation and Resurrection are really one, a single story, of God’s redeeming justice, the very missio dei in the world, God’s spirit poured out, dwelling among us, serving us, calling us to the very fulfillment of all creation. Alleluia! He is Risen Indeed! Truly, Christmas is Easter foreshadowed.

Strong institutions keep the richness of Catholic tradition

Unity, not uniformity. We live in a time of choice. We have many choices, and people are likely to make different choices at different times regarding religion and their Catholicism.

Some call this cafeteria Catholicism: Give me a little more social justice, a little less sacrament of Reconciliation, and lay off that bit on Mary, please.

We are now realizing that this way of doing things is simply how people go on constructing their religious meanings and how they have done so all along. Catholics of different ages, genders, education, ethnic backgrounds, occupations, and all sorts of other forms of social differentiation emphasize aspects of the tradition in different ways. Yet all are Catholic.

Rather than a new phenomenon, it is something quite ancient, quite typical. For much of our history, such meanings were constructed at a group level, at the level of families, towns, and nationalities. Now they are constructed more at the level of the person, and that person might even say, if asked, that he or she rejects certain aspects of the Catholic tradition. But they give this answer really because he or she was asked. Without being asked, one tends to focus on what engages and gives life rather than a critique of what is weak or uninspiring.

The key is that the tradition and the local church and Catholic institutions be robust and varied enough so that all the elements that make up the richness of the Catholic tradition, all the elements that might be creatively understood and assimilated, are thriving and present. The key is to create strong institutions and strongly networked institutions.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle

A crosscultural symphony

It does not matter if you are a full-time farmer or a backyard gardener. You know the truism: Purebred plants might somehow be more, well, pure, but they do not flourish the way hybrids do. The same is true for religion, and perhaps nothing illustrates this fact better than the “here-comes-everybody” Catholicism characteristic of the United States. Pastors often find themselves called to be conductors of a vast crosscultural symphony. As a result, parishes with people of many different ethnic traditions and religious expectations, often with the leadership of priests of backgrounds and cultures very different from many of those they serve, thrive. This situation is not a fluke but rather a sociological truism: Pastoring across cultures makes pastoring more effective.

Failing to recognize different cultures, however, can spell disaster. Sometimes those different cultures are age-related or education-related, or tied to certain ways of being family. Sometimes cultures can include specifically religious differences, but ones that we hardly realize characterize those at Mass—someone with a cousin who belongs to a Protestant mega-church, a child who married a Methodist, the daily Mass attender whose father was a Presbyterian and whose best friend is Pentecostal. Sometimes these realities are as obvious as Hispanic Catholic religious traditions mingling, at times uneasily, with Vietnamese Catholic religious traditions or those of other lands. But they all produce hybrids—of expectations, of meanings, of style. And those hybrids are nothing to be ashamed of. They are in fact what makes distinctively crosscultural Catholicism flourish in the United States while more monocultural European Catholicism fades.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Engaging the individual

Today, families have fewer children than in the past, and for many the birth of the first (or only) child occurs relatively late in life, or even after many years of marriage. It is a worldwide phenomenon. In Mexico today, for example, the fertility rate of women in their 20s has come to look like that of the United States.

Smaller families, later in life, increasing numbers of those who will have no children: All these things underline the end of a de facto family-based pastoral organizing principle. Look in church at the number of individuals worshiping and at how the number of families with two spouses and school-age children is relatively rare. Yet have we adopted pastoral strategies to bring in these individuals? Among Hispanics one continues to observe proportionally larger numbers of families, and this will be the case for the next few decades. And it is precisely this group for whom Catholic schools are not always affordable and for whom catechesis and youth ministry continues to often be overlooked.

Individuals attend church, not families. Even those who attend as families are ultimately presenting individual needs and points of view. The challenge for the pastoral leader is how to engage these individuals.

This task may not be so hard. It may be that what brings people to church, after all, is church. Seeing those assembled for worship not as young adults, not as families, children, Hispanics or Anglos or African Americans or Asians or Native Americans, but as disciples seeking community, leadership, and challenge. Offering a place for the ever-deepening formation of those in their midst, including adults modeling their discipleship for children—this may be what church can be about in a time when there is no one default model of need.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

Retrieving the insights of See-Judge-Act

See-Judge-Act. This simple slogan is the hallmark of our tradition. It was indelibly associated with Catholic Action, a significant movement of the mid-20th century. At its core, this movement was about living the faith in the world. In some places around the United States and around the world, thousands and tens of thousands of members participated, and it decisively affected generations of Catholics. The time of this movement, however, is long past. And, as with any moment in history, one can always critique it.

But See-Judge-Act is something we need to retrieve for our own time. How seriously do we reflect on our faith in everyday life? How much do we even “see” things that call for our serious reflection in the light of faith? How well do we evaluate the situation in which we find ourselves? This is far more than a simple “What would Jesus do?” reflection. Judging a situation requires that we use our reason and critical thinking skills. We need to see situations in their real complexity and to ask questions social scientists ask. What are we really observing? How did this particular situation come to be? Why did it come to be this way? We need to do “thought experiments” like the great social theorists.

What would happen to this particular situation under one set of response or another? Finally, at what point are we ready to commit to act? What actions, and what ways of thinking, feeling, and praying about those actions most reflect the wisdom of our tradition as Catholic Christians? See-Judge-Act calls us to see our reality with the eyes of faith, analyze our possibilities like a social scientist, and apply the firmness of purpose that we claim to have as baptized, committed Catholics. This simple process of thinking so fundamental to Catholic Action has a lot to teach Catholics in action today.

No matter how we’d like to go back to an (apparently) simpler time when movements like Catholic Action were so strong, we can’t. But we can retrieve some of the great insights of that time and build them into our own.

Nostalgia is for sissies—it feels good to imagine but really gets us nowhere. Retrieval is what’s needed—but the hard work of identifying and applying insights of the past that speak to our own time is for the brave, those willing to face an uncertain future.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Transform the world as adult disciples of Christ

WHAT IS “LAY MINISTRY”? Is it what the director of religious education or the youth minister does? No! Ministry means service, and service is something we all do. Yet when Catholics are surveyed about lay ministry, they tend to name what unordained professionals do in church or a church setting. Depending on how one counts, there may well be more than 60,000 of this kind of minister in the country. There are more than 60 million of the kind that the term lay minister really refers to—Catholics who are living their faith in the world. This is why official churchspeak calls paid professional ministers by that infelicitous term “LEM,” or lay ecclesial minister. The point about service, after all, is not so much what we do in church, but what we do outside of church. That’s how the world gets transformed. And that’s what lay ministers do: transform the world as adult disciples of Christ.

Words and phrases are important, because they shape how we see the world. Perhaps the most noteworthy power God gave Adam in the creation story, after all, was the power to name. In our Catholic tradition, it is remarkable how important the right words can be. The particular words and phrases, shapes how we experience the world and empowers—or restricts—us as actors in the world.

To what degree does imagining lay ministry as something that is only for those in church restrict us from truly acting on our faith as the world-transforming ministers we are called to be? Probably about as much as imagining that God only has a “vocation,” or special calling, for those who turn to priesthood or religious life. In the year 2003, about 645,426 people were confirmed as Catholics. If only about 544 go on to be ordained as priests, the number ordained in 2003, does that mean that almost 645,000 of these Catholics have no calling in life, no vocation? Perhaps it means that their vocation is to lay ministry as defined above.

Words are powerful. If we don’t name a reality, we can’t make it happen.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Faith communities: embracing the culture

No faith community can be a pure faithful remnant. It is sociologically impossible: It confuses a theological “ideal type” with the messiness of everyday human communities that are constantly changing. Any dynamic situation will have its ebbs and flows, its strengths and weaknesses, its advantages and disadvantages, its purities and impurities. That is why the present is a great time for the Catholic Church and for pastoral leadership: It is one of opportunities, of gains and possibilities as well as losses and declines. But when we start to identify only a subgroup with having the truth or being more pure in the faith, we become sectarian and move away from being church. If the church can be defined, as James Joyce famously put it, as “here comes everybody,” then we must truly live with everybody in various states and understandings.

A church engages the culture, accepts the culture, even embraces the culture because only in that embrace can a true interaction leading to transformation take place. There is much, for example, to be said for the Amish way of life, but ordinary pastoral communities and leaders cannot truly approach their ministry from a sectarian point of view. Ordinarily parishioners and leaders themselves are deeply marked by the culture and think in terms of the culture. Our greatest values are tied to an achievement-oriented culture that prizes individual freedom and voluntary social ties.

Many things that seem negative in our society simply come from the overenthusiastic application of these values. Perhaps instead of rejecting culture, faith communities can transform it by bringing the same level of enthusiasm to other values within our same culture. After all, these are the values and behaviors we’re best at. And many of them can be very gospel-affirming values indeed.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

Catholics agree on the basics

When was the last time you heard Catholics dividing into separate camps over who believes in the Trinity, or whether the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus is central to the faith? Probably not a whole lot. But how often do we hear of differences in Catholic practices and expressions of belief? Is this really a critical problem? We are after all in a time of world cultural development many call “postmodern,” a time notable for differences and diversity. The internet and other modern communications tools, not to mention transportation and production technologies, make it impossible to say with Henry Ford that people can have any color they want “as long as it’s black.” Instead, people can pretty much have any color they want—and can and do seek out the expression of faith that makes the most sense to them and gives them the most life.

Yet in essentials, in survey after survey, Catholics are pretty much in agreement on the basics—and on social ethics, a strong respect for human dignity, and a sense of compassion for others. People do seek diversity in expression of those values today, possibly at rates higher than in the past, possibly not. But in any case we should not be afraid of this situation. Rather, we should welcome it. The glass is not half empty: It’s mostly full. We’re just imagining that the glass is larger than it really is. When we look at essentials, there is very considerable similarity. If we overemphasize areas of difference, they will seem to be larger to us. If we put them in proper perspective, we can see the unity we all have, as members of the church universal, globally, across the generations today, through the past, and into the future.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Reframe an alternative story

Reframing. That’s the task of a preacher, as a sociologist might put it. To help people get out of the box, or frame, in which they have put themselves and in which they see the world.

Social theorists suggest that we can be very good at conspiring with others, without even consciously doing so, to create a world that makes sense to us, that is safe and comfortable—and from a Christian perspective completely misses the point. Our frames can allow us to look at our lives and our worlds in such a way that we miss the evil, the unsettling, the unjust, the unhealthy. If the gospel is what it is—Good News calling us to see the world and ourselves and God as they are—then the task of a preacher is to partner in our reframing from ourselves and our (small) world to the reality of the communion of the saints and the church across time and space.

We cannot reframe, however, merely by questioning our frame or by giving a series of abstract prescriptions. Framing is built around images and stories, things far deeper than simple ideas. This is why merely offering “propositions” can never be as powerful as “poetry”—that is, communicating the essence in imagery. Reframing, in short, depends on offering an alternative story.

And that is precisely what we have in scripture. It is not enough for us merely to hear scripture; we have to image, even embody scripture. Interconnecting the story of scripture with the story of our lives is what reframing is all about. This is the task of the preacher. And ultimately of every Christian.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Nourish the culture of learning

Catholics are very good at forming children in the faith. Compared with Protestants, Catholics have a proportionately stronger presence in catechesis and education programs within a parish or school setting.

But recent data suggests that a typical Protestant congregation has about five times more of its members enrolled in adult religious-education programs, study groups, lectures, or other experiences than a Catholic parish. Perhaps these two realities are linked.

Do a thought experiment. Think about the most vibrant parishes you know, where liturgical participation is high, stewardship strong, and vitality most clear. They probably have a good religious education program for children. Now think again. Most all probably make strong efforts to advance adult faith formation as well. This observation suggests that a focus on children is most effective within a community that reaches out to the adults and models the development of adult disciples at the same time as it passes on the faith to young people.

Because culture ultimately sustains programming, the first call for pastoral leaders is to encourage and nourish the culture of learning for all members on which good, long-term religious education efforts depend.

© 2004, Bryan Froehle.

It’s the culture!

Sociologists and politicians alike for years have seen churches as fertile breeding grounds for social change organizations. There’s only one problem: That’s not what churches do.

According to a study by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona, church is about creating a culture and engaging the culture. Individuals who participate in church life belong to cultural communities and are moved by cultural content. For this reason Michael Emerson, a University of Notre Dame sociologist, finds that multicultural faith communities are often among the strongest and most vital faith communities. When a worshipping community has to think critically about the cultures it is engaging and what will most authentically speak to those cultures, it is most likely to create strong bonds of solidarity through its liturgical life and everyday activities and social encounters. But if we have been listening to Pope John Paul II’s focus on culture, we would already be working on inculturating the gospel in our communities and working to create profound cultural encounters at all levels of parish life.

This is why poorly planned music, disengaged preaching, and a low level of connection within the congregation leads to declining Mass attendance, diminished levels of giving, and low enrollment in RCIA, youth ministry programs, and Catholic education in general. It’s the culture!

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

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Growth or decline, there are no accidents

There are two options in social life: grow or decline. Think about it. So many of us are constantly gaining weight and losing weight, or fighting a battle of eating a little more here, a little less there. Human populations are the same way: They either increase or decrease. Over human history, obviously, populations have grown dramatically. And now, as we know, many populations in Europe as well as Japan, and later some other places as well, are more likely to decline dramatically instead of grow.

The point is this: There is no stability. Populations typically do not level off any more than middle-aged folk keep the same weight and shape they had when they were younger. All things human, including things social and ecclesial, grow or decline. They do not stand still.

Do not believe it when people talk about declining numbers in church attendance or declining numbers of ordinations and say they are “leveling off.” This is a fiction. There is no magic constant percentage of folks who should attend Mass or who, all things being equal, will pursue a vocation. Either the number is going up or it is doing down. And if you don’t want it to be going down, you have to do things to make it go up.

There are plenty of examples in history of places where the Christian community was established, or where there was once a vibrant Catholic community, and where that community no longer exists. And there are other places where the reverse is true. Again, neither situation happened by accident. But it is likely that folks in the former situation came to live with decline by simply telling themselves that the declines were leveling off.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

A healthy balance, part I

How often have we heard from sociologists that Catholics tend to have a strong communal orientation? Or that many Protestants often incline toward a simplistic Jesus-and-me theology? All true, of course. But surprise! Many Catholics got their communal sense from having grown up in ethnically based cultures and communities that emphasized oneness while their large parishes created a lived experience of, well, isolation and individualism. And many Protestants worship in relatively small church communities and often ones that have a strong sense of civic responsibility or connectedness to boot. ​

The result? Many Protestants are quite communally oriented. And Catholics? Well, many Catholics can be very much of a me-and-Jesus mentality, too. It is quite consistent with many Catholic cultures to approach God to “ask” for something or even to promise God we will do something in exchange for a favor or special intention. It is hard to say, in fact, that much of the purpose of Catholic devotional life and spirituality has not been precisely to create a sense of direct relationship with Jesus—and Mary, of course.

Of course, this is not a bad thing. Nor is it particularly “Protestant.” Maybe these two extremes offer false choices for both Catholics and Protestants. Maybe it is really a question of a healthy balance of the two. Maybe pastors with parishes that are strongly communal should help to make sure that folks are not depriving themselves of deepening their personal relationship with God. And maybe ones with faith communities that have a strong sense of personal relationship need to be challenged to also connect to the communal side of Christian life.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

A healthy balance, part II

Is Catholicism really more communal than other faith traditions within Christianity? Let’s not rest on our laurels or count on what we often tell ourselves. The fact is that Catholicism’s rich sacramental tradition is deeply communal, as are the stories we tell and values we share. But the actual experience of parish life is not. Quite typically it can be quite the opposite. Parishes are often quite large and have bureaucratic processes that replicate the bureaucracy of centralized church structures.

If we want people to experience a sacramental church that is truly communal, we need to intentionally create parish experiences that foster such understandings. We need to identify existing practices that create community—such as an annual festival, for example—and build on what works. We need to build connections among smaller groups within parish life that are of a communal nature. We need to preach and teach about community.

Community does not come naturally and is not a magic outcome of a sacramental system. In the past, it flowed as much from Catholic immigrant communities and ethnic traditions that were often close to forms of peasant communalism in a European past. It seemed to be natural to the Catholic tradition, but in reality it was a product of wider cultural forces, ones that were intentionally embraced by the parish.

Today the parish needs to find new ways to embrace communalism wherever it can find it. The future of the church is not something that will arise accidentally. It will come about as we work for what we want.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Saved by science?

SOCIAL THEORISTS say we are in a “postmodern” moment of history—that we live, as French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard puts it, in a time of “incredulity toward metanarratives.” The metanarrative is a master story, and in the so-called modern era, the metanarrative was science. Through human reason we would have “better living through science,” as Monsanto’s corporate motto proclaimed.

But now we know that science can lead to destruction as much as progress. The writer Brian McLaren and others point out that postmodern skepticism is not a bad thing for Christianity. The gospel of science and inevitable human progress, after all, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ; without even noticing it, our world reframed the Christian story of salvation into the human fantasy of “saved by science.” We might even say that our postmodern culture is reeling with hurt, disturbed, betrayed by the failure of the metanarrative of science, human progress, even democracy. But where does this cynicism, this incredulity toward metanarratives put us? Is the Christian story also threatened as our culture rejects metanarratives we can impose to make sense of everything?

A metanarrative dominates and seeks to dominate, overwhelming all the little stories with the power and control of its story. And we cannot do this anymore: We live in a time of incredulity toward metanarratives, toward power and illusions of human progress. That’s why today is an amazing moment for the Christian story. Because the story of Christ is not a super-narrative of control and power in a human sense. It is a redeeming narrative, one that does not impose itself and that we are free to reject, even nail to a cross.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Marriage prep: More important than ever

What are the biggest challenges Catholics experience in the first few years of marriage? Balancing job, family, sex, and finances. These are the conclusions of a comprehensive study in 2000 by the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University. Sociologically, expectations for the marital relationship are higher than ever and failure is therefore all the easier. Spouses are simultaneously best friends, contributors to the household’s short- and long-term economic health, and the focus of romance and sexual pleasure.

As Catholic couples get married later in life, come from smaller families, enjoy relatively higher levels of educational attainment, and aspire to levels of economic success, older models that sustained marriage preparation become less effective for those all-important first few years of marriage. These trends are often particularly pronounced for non-Hispanic Catholics. Young couples particularly lack a lived experience of effective models of marriage that relate to their own lives and the new types of pressure on their marital relationship. This means that Catholic marriage preparation programs, still among the most important such programs within American religion in general, are in need of a rethinking.

The most essential preparation for Catholic couples today is to learn how to balance their expectation of job, family, sex, and finances before they marry, and to know that these concerns will be central to whether their marriage succeeds or fails. And it is within the context of marriage preparation that they will see how their faith relates to their marital relationship and their expectations and aspirations.

© 2004, Bryan Froehle.

Simplify the message

The challenge for pastoral leaders is not lack of imagination, but the need to control it. Too many ideas and focal points become a hopeless, meaningless collage. Pastoral leadership needs to come back to the same themes again and again, getting out the same messages if they are to have any impact. Religious leaders are good at one-on-one interactions, but this is not how the ordinary Catholic interacts with church leaders. A preacher or presider might be at the same Mass only every other Sunday, sometimes less. Parishioners might attend only once or twice a month, and those who do attend might be distracted or focused on something entirely different from the message conveyed in words and ritual. Parents who attend school meetings or religious education meetings come together only a few times a year, or only once a year. Most Catholics hear messages infrequently, and the medium is very often the message. How many articles in the parish bulletin come back to a common theme? Or are they simply random, more or less reflecting the calendar and generic liturgical themes?

Parish organizations, social activities, devotional groups, and other gatherings can be challenged to talk up one or two themes over a long period of time. The challenge for pastoral imagination, then, is not having too little imagination, but having too much. The most successful pastors are often the most accidental—those whose strategic vision just happens to coincide with the needs and orientation of the faith community. Often pastors do too much and see too many possibilities and nuances. They can learn much from those accidental successes by limiting and simplifying the message.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Speaking to independent thinkers

In the 1950s, a survey reported that what Catholics valued most was obedient children. By the 1980s, Catholics most valued children who could think for themselves. In the 1950s, working for a large organization meant obedience to those in authority and respect for the institution. Today, we move from job to job in an information-based economy organized more like the internet than a traditional corporate or government bureaucracy. And we all know we don’t have jobs for life and that our employers and the government do not necessarily have an unshakable loyalty to us or respect for our needs. So we’ve come to raise children to think on their own, to be creative, not to rely on others, and not to be especially obedient.

No wonder we can’t seem to figure out how to keep teens, young adults, and so many others attending church regularly! We’re assuming that they are obedient, the way those who have great institutional loyalty think—and the way most church and lay leaders who were raised in the 1950s think. This worldview is simply not one found in the current generation and is unlikely to be found in the future.

Children are children precisely because they are dependent and can be forced to be obedient; perhaps we could say that as a church our default mode for issues of evangelization and church attendance is a hidden, unspoken desire that parishioners be a little more obedient. But if we want to raise up a generation of Catholic adults who are comfortable with living their lives in a way that reflects their dependence on God, then pastoral life is going to need to speak to those who think for themselves. It is going to need to be a community of adult disciples.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

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Individuals at a communal experience

A generation or two ago Catholics practiced their faith more than those of other traditions; today, in general, they do so less than those of other traditions. A generation or two ago, Catholicism was expressed and transmitted culturally. Today religion is not, in general, expressed and transmitted as effectively at a cultural level. Religion is more personal, less collective.

Religion for evangelicals and some other Protestants has often been more personal than collective. This situation has been a good fit for those traditions in a time of globalization and an increasing emphasis on personal choice, as people live further from families of origin, marry later, have fewer children, and identify less with neighborhood-based subcultures. Catholics are still getting used to this change—but where they have, for example in certain parts of the South and West where they are relative newcomers, or in newer suburban areas, they have made the transition fairly well, and the church, relatively speaking, is flourishing.

Catholicism will no longer do well if we expect it to simply be socialized into the next generation by some sort of near-automatic process; it has to be accepted by each person, one at a time and on an ongoing basis. It is no longer enough for Catholicism to be life-giving in terms of a particular cultural or ethnic group or identity; it must be life-giving for an individual person or the small group or network of which that person is a part. Catholicism and religion in general is not in difficulty if it resides in the person; there is plenty of room for religion at this level. This realization is not to deny the communal and sacramental nature of Catholicism. Today, however, we enter Catholicism individually, and then as individual persons come to a communal experience of tradition.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Vocation: Is invitation enough?

Vocation to priesthood and religious life depends on personal invitation. Studies confirm this. When fewer priests report inviting young men to consider priesthood, for example, the number entering seminary seems to decline. However, there is another, perhaps even more important factor. Vocations depend on inspiring example and personal witness more than simple invitation. This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. Young people are looking for qualities of dedication and approachability, a sense of peace and contentment more so than simply being asked to consider a life as a priest, sister, or brother—or as a lay ecclesial minister, or any particular life calling, for that matter.

This may suggest that the most we can do to lift up vocations in the next generation, whether vocations to religious life and church service or simply as faithful followers of Christ, will be in how effectively we witness to who we are, rather than what we do. And this conclusion comes out in studies of the clergy. When priests are asked to rate themselves in terms of what they do and the pressures they feel, the result often shows low morale or division. When they are asked the same question in terms of priesthood or their sense of themselves, the result is typically one of high satisfaction and contentment. The question for vocation and for building a church of high commitment may well be in how we can effectively integrate the two.

Behind the model of parish life

What models do Catholics have of parish life? Is a parish fundamentally a social gathering? In this case, sacraments become markers of what it means to be part of this social gathering. Or is it more participation in a common cultural event? In that case, weekly liturgy can be beautiful and empowering for many but more as participation in a common spectacle or ritual. Or is a parish a place that promotes and shares right thinking about the world, sharing meaning and passing on Catholic teaching and doctrine?

Another model for many is that parishes are really the places where social change can be organized. Just think back to the days when almost all success came from Catholic parishes that mobilized their people. And certainly for the 5 to 10 percent of Catholics who can be defined as deeply social justice Catholics—those for whom Catholic social justice teachings are absolutely central—parish is precisely this. Or are parishes institutions that fundamentally are about preserving and reproducing themselves—simply carrying on patterns to maintain a functioning physical plant of school and church?

Parishes may be any of these models, and far more besides.

The question is: What is behind the model? Is there something deeper that brings people there and produces commitment from those in ministry? And if parishioners and those in ministry understand parishes in different ways, how will the parish function? Clearly, leadership and community are both key—but understanding how people think of parish life is even more fundamental.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Several parishes in one

Pause for a moment and imagine the typical “people group” at the 4:30 Saturday evening Mass. And at the 8 a.m. or late morning Sunday Mass. Then think about a Sunday evening Mass—if, of course, there is one. By the way, research shows that Sunday evening Masses have disproportionately larger numbers of younger adults and teens, and when this Mass time is not available, they simply attend less.

As you envision these assemblies, do you see the same people? Or do these different Mass times reflect different ages, generations, family situations, even gender?

But is the preaching and music the same? If so, it is likely that your parish is reaching one people group relatively well—but has declining attendance within the various other people groups.

Your parish is likely, sociologically speaking, several parishes in one. If the cultural repertoire of the parish is artificial, it is not truly reflecting the culture repertoire of the real Catholics who actually or potentially make up the parish.

Sometimes the problem is that a parish leader of song or liturgist knows only one style. Or parishioners come from a different culture. Something must be done in these cases: The leader of song could be shared with a leader in another parish who has a different style. People could be directed to a neighboring parish that has a young adult Sunday evening Mass or a different style of worship.

Of course, this is probably what a number of parishioners are already doing—voting with their feet.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

What do Catholics look like around the world?

What do Catholics look like around the world? One thing is for sure: They don’t look like the crowd in a typical parish in the United States. Catholics in the United States comprise just six percent of all Catholics worldwide—and a very odd group of Catholics at that on any number of measures.

What trends best describe Catholics around the world in the 21st century? Three words come to mind: poverty, pluralism, and pentecostal. The bulk of the world’s Catholics now live in great poverty. The greatest proportion of Catholics worldwide is now found in the so-called Global South: Africa, Latin America, Asia. But have we realized that the greatest growth has tended to be in countries that are not majority Catholic, and in countries where Catholics are the majority, they now constitute a significantly smaller majority than in the past? So pluralism is increasing. And pentecostal: In a major recent survey of religion in a number of countries across the Global South, Catholics were very likely to identify as “charismatic” and to resonate with practices and beliefs often termed “pentecostal.”

This is all very interesting for those of us in the United States as well. The greatest growth in Catholics today is among impoverished Latino immigrants. And in the United States Catholicism has thrived, some would say, precisely because it had to present itself as a minority religion in a pluralist framework. Finally, the United States is arguably the birthplace of pentecostal Christianity (1906, Los Angeles) as well as the Catholic charismatic movement (1967, Dusquesne University). In addition, Hispanic Catholics, Filipino Catholics, and others supply large portions of the Catholic charismatic movement in the United States.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Look at the whole picture

Religion is not doing poorly in the United States today; Catholicism seems to be. But Catholics should see this development as encouraging news! Not because Catholicism is doing poorly, but because it can easily do better. We are not in a situation such as Europe; religion is flourishing in the United States. And Catholicism is thriving in many ways and in so many places in the United States.

We often see Masses attended by disproportionate numbers of older Catholics, children dropped off for catechesis by parents who we never see, and parishes with declining collections and increasing expenses. Or at least that’s what we think we see. We miss the sheer growth in the numbers of Catholics in numerous dioceses, the growing parishes, the engaged youth and excitement about being Catholic.

The Catholic story is simply too big and too complex for it to be seen in only one dimension. And the overall story of religion in the United States is hardly one of gloom and doom. Faith has a place at the table, and there is much to be learned from the growing churches of the various faiths in this country—including Catholic churches. It is true that there are many Catholic parishes where the news is not good, but this is not the wider story of religion and hardly the final word on Catholicism in these United States.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

The flip side of stewardship

Catholics don’t really “get” stewardship when it is presented by itself. But they do understand two things: helping to meet particular needs (a building, retiring debt, and so on) and responding to God’s call through heroic service. What they don’t understand is the more Protestant appeal to tithing or even some interpretations of the appeal to give “time, talent, and treasure.” This may be because Catholics can often hear a traditional, Protestant-style stewardship appeal as a demand to be a good dues-paying member of a club or an invitation to extreme demands that could sacrifice family well-being. The Catholic vision of church is something different from and involves communal commitments that see parish participation as part of a wider sense of belonging to church and connected to broader communal and familial relationships.

So what works? Stewardship needs to be presented as the flip side of “evangelization” (another topic that doesn’t work very well for Catholics if presented in isolation). Stewardship needs to be presented as consistent with the “vocations” message. When Catholics see the call to stewardship as fitting within God’s invitation and our response, in community and the presence of the Lord, then it all makes sense.

Making the connection

Modernity ended sometime in the last decade or so, though arguably it was on its way out just when it was at its height during the 1950s and 1960s. Today we live in “postmodern” times, where, it is said, there is no single universally accepted truth, no single dominant discourse or culture, no “last word” to which all must accommodate or assimilate. It might seem that everything was easier for Catholic leaders and church life in the modern period. People attended church regularly (as high as 75 percent of all Catholics, compared with 25 to 33 percent today), knew their catechism, and shared a common culture. Uniformity was very much a trademark of modern culture, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. But do we remember the struggles the church experienced in the modern period? The Reformation, followed by the Council of Trent and the Tridentine Mass that made uniform countless aspects of church life, but only after much struggle and much loss; the loss of European intellectuals and the loss of the European working class; the struggles between different ethnic and cultural groups over the direction of the Catholic Church in the United States?

We tend to remember only when the modern age and the church were a good fit. This fit was never perfect, of course, and it was never preordained. It took leaders and ordinary folk to connect church life and the gospel to their lives as Catholics. And often the ordinary folk were the leaders, and the leaders followed the paths set out by the ordinary folk. The conclusion is a simple one: We are living in a time of transition today, and pastoral leaders and ordinary folk alike are called to create a new way of linking the gospel to culture, parish faith communities to everyday life.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

The worship business

Pastors and other pastoral ministers have a core business: the worship business. Consider the facts: Revenue derives largely from collections at worship, and the typical experience people have of leadership is in worship.

All the other enterprises within a parish flow from the core business of worship. Yet how much time do pastors give to worship? How much time do preachers give to preaching? So many often act as if their core business is not what it actually is. Perhaps for this reason Mass attendance is declining. When major corporations falter, they often turn back to the “core business.” For the church, what are the “fundamentals”?

Good preaching and worship are not entertainment, we are often told. Religion is not meant to be therapeutic; that is, it is not meant to speak to one’s personal needs. All true, of course. In fact, it might be better said that good preaching and worship need to first be good entertainment—and then go far beyond. And religion needs to first speak to one’s personal needs—and then pull one far beyond.

To reject the notion of entertainment would imply that worship and preaching should not be engaging, because entertainment, if nothing else, is engaging. And to reject the notion of therapy outright would imply that religion is not concerned with authentically knowing and responding to individual, personal human needs.

Ministry is not about money, of course, or ordinary human respect, but money and respect can be fairly good indicators of what we really value. Preachers and leaders of worship would do well to make sure that their work is at least entertaining and—at a minimum—therapeutic, a baseline on which the rest of the edifice is built.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

What can we still learn from See-Judge-Act?

See-Judge-Act. To what degree can we learn from this old rallying cry of Catholic Action? In the mid-20th century it was a buzzword in Catholic circles to say that Catholics had an obligation to see a situation and know it for what it is. They needed of course to act, but that action should come after careful judging of the situation.

Such judgment flows best from Catholic principles. In the case of society and human social organizations, including the church, there are five principles. These five are discussed in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church but are really found in numerous sources and traditions within the church. They all flow from a meditation on the inestimable human dignity of the person and are as follows: common good, stewardship, subsidiarity, participation, and solidarity.

These principles imply that Catholics should ask certain questions of every social, organizational, and church situation in which they find themselves. To what degree is the common good of all being enhanced? Do all have access to power and other scarce resources, especially those who have most limited access? Are decisions being made at the most local level possible, at the level of those who are most affected? Does everyone have, and understand that they have, both a right and a duty to participate in every decision at every level that most affects them? Finally, how connected do ordinary people feel with these critical decisions that affect their well-being and ours as members of the church?

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Generativity is not an option

What do you want to leave behind? Maybe it is more true for men—or not—but it is sometimes said that in the first season of a man’s life he is busy proving what he can do and leaving his mark on the world. Only after that, beginning perhaps in his 40s, can he then take stock of what he is about and, now at a different level, take on certain things and let go of others, including the illusion of things that are simply not authentically his. At this stage and beyond, he is able to be truly “generative,” to give life to others as a mentor and guide.

Generativity is not so much about biological reproduction as personal relationship, a relationship that often involves some form of initiation. At least that is often said to be true of men, perhaps because their gender is not physically endowed with the capacity to bring forth the next generation. And so men, it is said, give live to others—exercise generativity—when they have reached a point of wisdom and understanding, not before.

All of that may or may not be true about human beings. But what about us as church? How generative are we and our structures? Do we have room to mentor, to initiate others, whether they are interested in a particular vocation or simply the universal call to holiness? A church is no exception to other social organizations—if it cannot be generative, it will be among the declining and dying. We either grow or diminish. Generativity is not an option. To refuse it would seem to be a death wish. Or blasphemy. Or both.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Preaching in a time of political choices

Catholics do not always agree on political choices: At a national level, about half vote for Democrats and about half vote Republican. But a clear majority say they take their faith seriously when they think about political choices, even on politically contentious issues or ones that strike at their personal interests, and even on issues where an individual Catholic might not take a position that parallels that of the U.S. bishops. Catholics look to their faith as a resource and to the tools of moral reasoning it offers as something they can use in weighing their political decisions. Research shows that Catholics understand the complexity of issues, and that there is a hierarchy of issues. What they look for from the church and church leadership is not the simple statement of support or lack of support for a particular candidate or point of view, but the reasoning, compassion, and spiritual wisdom their faith offers when it comes to political decision-making. Studies of Catholics show that the kind of preaching they seek makes connections between their faith and the decisions they need to make in everyday life and in the public square.

The end of a parochial system

Parish life is the key building block of Catholic life. This is not in question. However, the parochial system is changing significantly—possibly even ending as we have known it.

At a time of fewer priests and dramatic changes in culture and ministry, a pastor-assignment process designed for the old parochial system no longer seems to fit the reality. At a time when more than one in three of all Catholics who worship on a weekend drive past their territorial parish on the way to worship, parishes can no longer be seen as homogeneous sacramental service stations. The figure is much higher for young adults, of whom only about one in five attend Mass weekly. They tend to shop for parishes that attract them and stay away from ones that do not.

Parish registration, a custom borrowed from the Protestant tradition in the United States, captured almost all U.S. Catholics in the mid-20th century. That time is long past. Today parish registration captures between a half and two thirds of Catholics, depending on location, and this continues to shrink. Increasingly, parishes find that the worshipping community is not the same as the registered community. This need not be a bad thing—like any organization, parishes can only do so much, and there is much to profit from specialization. Today’s parishes increasingly relate not as part of a system, but as a network, more dynamic, less formally linked. This is what some people mean when they worry about a creeping congregationalism in today’s Catholic Church. It is not, however, a true congregational polity on the Protestant model. It is simply the end of a parochial system.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Focus on the basics

Quality of worship, youth programming, and hospitality. A recent survey suggests that Catholics who leave Catholic parishes and join Protestant congregations do so because of those three factors.

The reasons suggest a need for a simple focus on the basics. Have we hired the best possible musicians? Have we taken on the courage to rotate musicians and let stale or problematic musicians or liturgists go? Is the music well-chosen, singable, reflective of the community at a particular Mass? Is the homily and overall style of the presider inviting, engaging, and reflective of the community at a particular Mass?

Youth programming involves a commitment to hiring or raising up youth leaders from within the community, a commitment to understanding the different approaches to youth ministry, and learning what parents see as their greatest concerns in passing on the faith to their young people. Hospitality requires finding friendly, committed people and putting them in the right place. It also requires finding the kinds of community members who have been around for many years and have a sixth sense for knowing the names, faces, and stories of parishioners. Greeters are, after all, ideally networkers who can connect a new person or family with others who have long been in the community. Hospitality also requires finding people who can put on that “sales” face and a “marketing” cap.

Maybe that’s what is most sad about the findings regarding why people leave Catholic parishes: Addressing these three areas requires focus but little else. What is even more interesting is that if any two of these are addressed well, the third tends to take care of itself.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

Nostalgia doesn’t work, part I

Conversion is a “turn toward,” a facing to the future. But are we willing to take the risks conversion entails? Today we find ourselves in a kind of in-between time, a transition time as a church. We might call it a “liminal moment” where we know the old paradigm of the past few generations is no longer what will sustain the church of the future. We know that things are changing, but we don’t quite know where they are going, or what things will look like at the other end.

From the perspective of pastoral sociology, the surest recipe for disaster is nostalgia, an emphasis on what we have known before or on an idealized past. We need to let that go. To focus on the past underlines the fact that folks in ministry, like church leaders at the highest levels, are a kind of gerontocracy, a leadership distinguished by their age and ability to collectively think of peak moments that are not so much socially and ecclesially important as biographically and generationally important.

The majority of Catholics in the United States today were born after the Second Vatican Council. Their engagement needs to be in the living reality of the present, hopefully one deeply informed by the council but by no means mired in a kind of time warp. Telling the old Catholic campfire story—European immigrants huddling in the big cities, building remarkable institutions, and moving into the middle class and social and political acceptance and leadership—is arguably insulting and insensitive to a generation of the youngest Catholics for whom only a relatively small majority has any blood connection with those European immigrants. The next generation is sure to bring a majority of Catholics who are decisively Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African American, Native American—and where being Irish or German or Italian is simply less common and far less important as a cultural marker within the church. This doesn’t mean that culture is unimportant; far from it. It does mean that the way we often frame it is hopelessly nostalgic.

Nostalgia doesn’t work, part 2

The best way to destroy the values that sustain today’s Catholic institutions is arguably to maintain them with the least possible change. To maintain Catholic schools without rethinking funding patterns, parish relationships, and structural, cultural, and community issues is to move toward a situation where more and more schools close for lack of funding, and the only Catholic elementary schools become those associated with large, wealthy parishes—hardly the values on which Catholic schools were founded.

To maintain Catholic parishes without rethinking community based less on territory and more on chosen affiliation growing out of work, culture, age, and socio-economic or other ties is to move towards parishes that are sacramental factories, all alike on the outside and lacking a true community life.

If nostalgia is a dead end, what works? What about retrieval? How about rethinking how certain tools or visions that worked in the past might speak to the challenges of the future, without putting them into a straightjacket of pre-conceived expectations?

For example, eucharistic adoration might seem like hopeless nostalgia—until we see research that shows that young adult Catholics in the midst of their transient, stressful lives feel the space created by eucharistic adoration gives them an opportunity to slow down and address their spiritual needs, period. So not surprisingly, many churches and university chapels are finding that setting aside such space speaks powerfully in a culture of choice and pluralism—and in ways potentially very different from how eucharistic adoration would speak to other, past and dead, cultures.

Or, perhaps, what about a reflection on how our Catholic parishes and schools and dioceses and families and people of the 20th century came to be what they were—and aren’t any longer, since that time is past and they cannot be what they once were: that they were created by creative, individualistic pioneering pastoral leaders, bishops, priests, sisters, laypeople—who did not necessarily know where things were headed but knew that they had to build something new for a new time? Retrieving the kind of energy, enthusiasm, and evangelical spirit that builds community and shares the faith might be a good place to start.

Believing implies belonging

According to figures just released by the Pew Research Center, some 13 percent of the U.S. population is secular, with no religious identity at all. The largest group, some 15 percent, are relatively uncommitted white mainline Protestants. The next largest group is relatively uncommitted Catholics, which is about similar size. In other words, within the U.S. population, only about 9 percent are committed Catholics.

Although the United States is indeed perhaps the most religiously involved and committed country in the so-called “global north,” only a minority are strongly committed. Catholics trend in this direction as well, although not as strongly. Many who belong, in other words, do not participate. They and their children are increasingly likely to “believe” but not “belong.” But this does not mean that the greatest stirrings of our time are about the quest for meaning and the turning toward spirituality. It simply means that many are opting to be spiritual but not religious.

Religion and spirituality, however, are not divorced from the other; believing implies belonging, and belonging involves participation at some level. The task for the church is to pepper these perceptions across society, to reclaim these concepts and understandings through catechesis, community experience, and ritual. Secularization is a myth, not a reality: We are not necessarily moving toward a culture of greater aloofness from organized religion. These proportions instead reflect cycles and changes over time. Organized religion, Catholic life, and church experience simply need to reconnect with culture in a new way, at a new time.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Parishes as faith communities, first and foremost

Sociologists have seen a parish as many things over the years: as primarily a place of teaching or a place of cultural socialization or even as a ground for social movements and activism, or as a basis for social and political life.

But what if they were all wrong? What if a parish is fundamentally a . . . faith community? Then, instead of focusing on organizational elements or socialization patterns or forms of teaching, we might take a look at the experience of faith within a worshiping assembly. We’d look at the kinds of cultural elements parishes bring into worship, the kinds of concerns and pressures leaders and parishioners experience.

We would focus on that moment of worship and be careful about the assumptions we make about those at the worshiping assembly from one particular moment to another.

A key focus, in fact, would be on the voluntary aspects of faith communities—no one is making people attend; ultimately they choose to do so, and to contribute to the life of the faith community. This sort of perspective is in fact increasingly common among many sociological thinkers—and yet oddly less so among leaders of faith communities themselves.

How many times do pastors and other parish leaders focus on organizational questions or issues of teaching and education or even of social justice, without starting from and always coming back to the experience of faith within the community? Perhaps this could be put more sociologically: If a faith community cannot sustain the experience of faith within the community, it will not be able to sustain itself.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

Mass: Not the only form of worship

MASS IS NOT THE ONLY form of worship for Catholics. It is central, the source and summit, but hardly the only form. For most of the church’s history it would hardly seem necessary to point this fact out when the Mass was celebrated in language that ordinary people could often not understand—and barely hear. (Just imagine the change wrought by good sound equipment over the past half century!) Catholics excelled, after all, in creating devotions, whether the stations of the cross, benediction, novenas, rosaries, or all sorts of other forms.

Yet today we act as if the only form of worship is the Mass. At a time when fewer Catholics attend Mass, it might be good to ask if the problem is not, perhaps, with the Mass per se, or the celebration of it, but rather an expectation that it be a one-size-fits-all worship.

Of course all Catholics should attend Sunday Eucharist, but perhaps they should also have an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of flavors of Catholic worship, traditional or just developed, that express the truths of the faith in particular ways suited for particular groups of people.

Music, scripture, and preaching will clearly be significant elements for some of these sort of possibilities—but it will also be critical to cultivate local leaders of these forms, and to recruit dynamic leaders of such worship from outside the parish as well.

The goal, after all, is continued, dynamic revitalization at all levels of parish life, practice, and engagement.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

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Concerning Catholic identity

We are rightly concerned about Catholic identity. At a time when more and more young people say that all religious traditions are the same, it is more important than ever to know what makes up Catholicism’s distinct configuration of the Christian tradition.

But that should be done with care. As an exercise, ask young people to list some things that are central to Catholicism. They will typically name the pope, Mary, the Eucharist, and a host of rules. No mention of Jesus. No mention of the Resurrection. As William Cahoy, professor of theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, points out, that is typical. When Catholic identity becomes the same thing as Catholic distinctives, we are in as much danger as when we think it’s all the same. Garbage in, garbage out: When survey questions are written appropriately, we can see that Catholics recognize and appreciate key aspects of Catholic identity such as the Eucharist.

On the other hand, some data suggests that Catholics do not necessarily have as strong a sense of being a follower of Jesus as of the pope. Clearly the magisterium is tremendously important for our Catholic identity, but the information indicates that stress on the fundamentals of practice and belief is no less critical.

The next time you talk about Catholic identity, think about fostering prayer life, reading scripture, and building a relationship with Jesus. To focus exclusively on what makes us different, the data suggests, may lead to as much impoverishment of our rich faith tradition as focusing on a generic sameness.

© 2008, Bryan Froehle.

Everyone matters: Catholicism is about pluralism

15 March 2017

The sheer mystery that is Church makes it more than a mere organization and quite capable of embracing across time and space.

Evangelicals were instructed to grow their churches on sameness by Donald McGavran, one of the key founders of “church growth theory” among evangelicals. Called the “homogenous unit principle,” the idea was to start churches where the members would be alike and so more effectively reach people of that group. This is not to deny that the gospel is for all – each church was simply to focus on a single people group. This is not quite the Catholic approach.

“Here comes everybody” in the memorable phase of James Joyce, is more the Catholic way. Everyone is there: all cultures, all backgrounds. Thus there are 24 self-governing churches within the Catholic Church, seven major liturgical traditions, and more.

The critical reason for all this stems from the Catholic notion of sacrament – both Church as sacrament and the effects of Baptism as sacrament. The sheer mystery that is Church makes it more than a mere organization and quite capable of embracing across time and space even those with tenuous ties. The permanent, indelible effect of Baptism after all is that once baptized, a person has very little recourse: the Church simply will not give up to the very end. If that person ends all formal religious practice or joins some other tradition, that person with very few exceptions is seen by Catholicism as Catholic.

Catholicism’s wide embrace is there for all. Everyone matters, all belong.

SHIP

15 March 2017

Spiritual, Human, Intellectual, Pastoral. “SHIP.” These are the four pillars of Catholic seminary formation, long since integrated into formation for deacons and lay ecclesial ministers alike. But these are really pillars for all disciples.

Spiritual, Human, Intellectual, Pastoral. “SHIP.” These are the four pillars of Catholic seminary formation, long since integrated into formation for deacons and lay ecclesial ministers alike. But these are really pillars for all disciples, not merely ministers, and they are for the church as a whole, not merely individuals.

Oceangoing vessels follow a direction but not a road. And they are subject to buffeting and rerouting on the high seas. Only the delusional look out and see a road ahead on the watery sea! To make a path on the high seas requires formation. This is what “SHIP” offers: the four critical dimensions of formation in a single vision.

Spiritual formation is ultimately about practices that go far beyond simple prayer and enter the sacred terrain of personal connection with God. It is about a Person not a set of propositions.

Human formation engages the psychological in a holistic way. The point is to be relational not rigid. This requires an openness to a lifelong  seeking after wisdom.

Intellectual formation builds on a disposition to wisdom and demands study. But it is really about entering into the story of the larger narrative of the faith. It is about understanding as well as knowing.

Pastoral formation grounds one in the care of souls, the salvation of all who cross one’s path, who are entrusted to one’s care. This fearsome task requires an open heart and willingness to act, even to take risks, for the greater good. Pastoral wisdom is about trust not fear.

This SHIP is for a task bigger than we are. SHIP forms those in ordained ministry and guides those in all ministry, but it is far more than that. SHIP is what steers the Barque of Peter, the craft in which we sail. The craft is beyond us, and also is all of us, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, responding to the call of Christ in spiritual formation, human formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation.

What is our central focus?

Today, 75 percent of homes have no school-age children. Thirty years ago it was just the opposite. When a large majority of households had school-age children to be formed and raised, it was not surprising that Catholic parishes could unite around the needs of the Catholic school and CCD program. A large number of households with children had something in common. Parishes focused on “doing something for the kids,” and it worked.

The model based on very high proportions of Catholics with school-age children could succeed with relatively limited leadership. The overriding need and the structures required were obvious; everything grew up organically, in a taken-for-granted style around a common need.

Nothing could be more different today. At a time when most households no longer have school-age children, people bring a diversity of needs that often overwhelm parishes and pastoral leaders. Having a large number of households without children means that they have very little in common. Pastoral leaders need to make hard decisions: What common interests are to be a central focus?

We may therefore see good reasons to embrace the emergence of increasingly specialized parishes—some focused on youth, others oriented toward young adults, some with a strong focus on certain kinds of musical styles. The simple truth is that a number of ministry needs cost money and valuable talent. Parishes have limited funds and can only invest strongly in some areas. Logically, this situation would lead either to a mediocre parish life that tries to be all things for all people, or a specialized parish that does something especially well.

© 2005, Bryan Froehle.

Generations affect church connection

Baby Boomers, otherwise known as the “Vatican II Generation” because they experienced both pre-Vatican II Catholicism and the impact of the Second Vatican Council as they were coming of age, are quite different from the younger generations of Catholics.

Simply put, Catholics of the Baby Boom started all in pretty much the same place—the Baltimore Catechism, regular Mass attendance, and so on—and have ended up in very different places, building links to the church, close or loose, as they have gone about their lives.

Younger generations present a contrasting picture. They started out in very different places, but those who are found in church and who identify with Catholicism today tend to have more similarities than differences. Things that might have been issues for Baby Boomers are not issues for them in quite the same way.

In short, our church origins—our “stories” of church while we were growing up—are patterned quite differently depending on the generation to which we belong. And how we define our connection with church today depends also to a large extent on the generation to which we belong. Preachers and presiders would do well to keep this in mind.

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Believer to disciple

15 April 2017

All human beings believe. We have to believe, we have to have faith. We have to trust another. We might not trust everyone or even believe in much, but no human being can get through the day, can live, without belief in others. Similarly, no human being can get through the day, can live, without belief in key meanings. We are, as Alisdair MacIntyre would have it, dependent rational animals.

Belief is not the issue. What is the issue is the movement from belief to discipleship, from basic belief to deeper commitment. Discipleship carries real costs in terms of autonomy, responsibilities, commitments. Discipleship affects what we do, who we love and how we love, our very lives. It is really no surprise that believers resist the move to discipleship.

We live for love

15 April 2017

We also die for love. We stake our lives on love. We live in love. Jesus knew this, and this is how Jesus lived—and died. Yet oddly we sometimes think that if we just said more, talked more, had clearer ideas, it would be enough.

Soldiers on the battlefield report the same thing: in the final analysis, they do not live or die for idealistic notions or abstract ideas. They live or die for people they love, for their friends and comrades.

Yet still we argue instead of tell stories. Still we fight over words instead of celebrate love. And we lose the debate. It is not about the love of logic as much as the logic of love.

Attendance challenges

01 Dec 2004

"Chreasters”—That’s what some folks call them: Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics. And many of them will be in church this month. But what about the 5 to 15 percent of all attenders who show up on an irregular basis? Think of it: presiders, musicians, preachers, and liturgists have one chance to show how powerful communal worship can be for about one in 10 of all attenders.

But even if all aspects of the liturgy are truly exceptional, what many Chreasters and the occasional attenders on the way to being Chreasters also need to see is hospitality, invitation, caring, and outreach: how participating in a faith community can meet their needs for faith and community in a way that nothing else quite can. This means seeing a ministry of hospitality and parish communications as crucial. Finding ways to market and mail or call people is invaluable, and having a parish life that its parishioners and presiders are proud to share is of course most vital of all.

The key for raising attendance on ordinary Sundays, then, is a compelling liturgical experience. But the key for tapping into the Chreasters and those who are moving toward the Chreasters is sharing a sense of a welcoming community that understands and meets needs both sacred and profane. These two dimensions taken together represent the surest measures for a truly vital parish. In other words, acting in a way that engages less-than-regular attenders will be just what’s needed to build up the faith community.

Have trust, give permission

01 Dec 2005

Leaders need do only two things well: have trust and give permission. This statement may seem like an oversimplification, but consider: Leadership is relational. The bonds of solidarity between leader and follower determine the effectiveness of an organization. Leaders who trip up are the ones who tend to be overconfident or insecure. In neither case is the leader connected by strong bonds of solidarity to others.

Trust is key for a pastoral leader who has few other stocks in trade: All a pastoral leader has to offer is pure leadership—those bonds of solidarity, or trust. Pastoral leaders often make a mistake of trusting indiscriminately, rather like a strong but groundless belief, and then being forced to withdraw or limit their trust. The better way is to have trust grow organically and carefully, well-tended, not willy-nilly in a hothouse environment.

Permission is different and more important. Trust is something the leader has; permission is something the leader gives. The leader is the custodian of a certain degree of power and legitimacy within a community—certainly within a faith community. Success for the leader’s organization, however, depends on dispersing that power and legitimacy, giving permission, if you will, to the possibilities and energies represented by the assembly. The task of the leader at that point is more about creating the conditions for this permission to be best exercised. Effective pastoral leadership channels the voice of the community, and, speaking for the community, permits members of the community to do what they would not have thought otherwise possible.

Effectively leading worship

01 Dec 2006

The words we use are vital for understanding ourselves and the meaning we give what we do. When discussing liturgy, a term Catholics use, presider, may not be clear enough for our limited imaginations, and perhaps preacher is too specific. Worship leader possibly fits best. A priest who presides and preaches is effectively leading worship. The worship leader is really responsible in a very significant way for the quality of prayer experienced at that gathering by an entire collectivity.

This is very serious stuff. It is not so much about “officiating” as it is about an emotional and spiritual authenticity and connectivity. A worship leader needs to cultivate a kind of “EQ,” an emotional quotient like the IQ or intelligence quotient. Why? Because the worship experience is holistic, not fundamentally of the mind but of the interrelationship between head, heart, and spirit. We all know this: Just see what happens when a tape of a bishop reading a message is played in place of a live preacher. On second thought, don’t: We all know what happens, and the results are not usually very edifying.

Leading worship is also about cultivating an awareness of the assembly. Pauses and voice intonations make a difference, as do musical choices and use of instruments, including the instrument of the human voice, but timing and a sense of emotional connectedness is most important. Love is the human experience of intimacy in a spiritual, personal, and communal way. This is what a worship leader is communicating, and this is the key to success. How many objectively bad preachers have there been, after all, whose congregations nonetheless feel very deeply fed? Because they know the worship leader loves them, and loves the Lord, from the depths.

© 2006, Bryan Froehle.

Parish networks

02 Dec 2007

Innovations happen when a person who knows two very different areas well introduces a learning from one area into the other, even if it seems at first completely disconnected. Innovations are neither good nor bad in themselves; they are simply something new.

So a parish pastoral council leader who sits on a nonprofit board might bring in a way of meeting and doing business that is influenced by an experience of the nonprofit board. A pastoral musician who also plays on the side in a Protestant church from time to time might take certain music or styles into a Catholic Mass. What sorts of innovations do you observe in parish life? Which ones are helpful and which ones less so?

Dynamism in organizations requires a certain kind of network. Radial networks—ones that connect out to many others, like outward embracing spokes on a wheel—are much more dynamic than the other type.

The other type of network is interlocked. Such a network is inward looking, interbred, tightly connected. It is one more often associated with fear than hope, more afraid of loss of strong ties than in connecting to others.

Radial networks seek out new connections and build in new ways of doing things. They are expansive and optimistic about the future, seeing more value added the more communal connections increase. What kind of parish is yours?

© 2007, Bryan Froehle.

Parishes: Develop a hybrid model

01 Jan 2005

The years since the close of the Second Vatican Council have been conflicted and somewhat messy, in contrast to the era of Tridentine Catholicism. However, the Second Vatican Council did not so much destroy Tridentine Catholicism as recognize its passing—and that it had been essentially on life support for many years. Tridentine Catholicism, resting on cultural underpinnings that had long since dissolved, collapsed unceremoniously, and no amount of exertion can recreate it nor its social foundations. Catholicism has moved from a one-size-fits-all model to a plurality of models fit for distinct groups, particular communities, and individual commitments.

Think now of thriving parishes. Parish life in various countries will continue to be successful to the extent to which gospel values and the sacramental vision of Catholicism are successfully woven into the needs, aspirations, and social and cultural realities of the communities they serve, whether in terms of the smallest units of Catholic life to the largest. The next several decades will see many more closings and consolidations of parishes in Europe, North America, and Australia, given fewer priests and the changing nature of Catholic parish life in these cultural areas. At the same time, an already pastorally diverse third world Catholicism will become even more diverse.

There is simply no “one” right way, no “one” model that a “truly Catholic” or “successful” Catholic parish follows. Instead, the leadership and members of a faith community have to understand themselves and develop their own hybrid model.

Religious trends reflect who we are

01 Jan 2006

A major new study on teenagers and the life of faith led by Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina suggests that, in general, Catholic teens are less connected to their faith then teens of most other faith traditions. He suggests that this is the case because teens reflect their parents’ level of commitment.

We get what we want. If we want to predict the faith life of our young people, look at the generation that is raising them and the way the faith community of which they are a part lays out its lived expectations. Excluding statistically inevitable exceptions such as deeply practicing and highly committed families whose children leave the practice of the faith, consider instead the more representative statistical average: Children whose parents sporadically attend and who themselves sporadically attend or not at all. Or children of parents who attend out of a somewhat resented habit but cannot express or share faith with their children in a credible way.

Trends in religious practice reflect who we are, and what we want. Think of the young person who feels a vocation to be a priest, sister, or brother, or who wants to work for a service or justice organization and accept low wages rather than pursue a high-paying position. How many parents would discourage the former and encourage the latter?

What about Catholic elementary and high schools, and colleges and universities? Catholics have surely supported those schools because they formed communities of faith, but has the real selling point for the tuition and pride often been because they give young people a leg up in the march toward success? It’s not that success  is a bad thing: It’s only a question of what we really want.

The church needs disciples

01 Jan 2007

We’ve got enough believers. According to a poll, about 90 percent of all people in the United States believe in God, 82 percent are Christian believers, and about 21 percent are Catholic Christian believers.

What we don’t have are enough disciples. Older people who do more than go through the motions of Mass attendance. Young people who pray at all. Note that both are believers. It is the level of discipleship that is the issue. And the lower levels of discipleship among the younger generation may be explained—news flash!—by the models of discipleship they experienced growing up. This is not to suggest there are not many deeply committed Catholic Christians today; rather, declining Catholic commitment is the problem. We don’t get more committed Catholics by raising up another group of believers. We get committed Catholics by raising up committed Catholics.

This goal presents structural and relational challenges. First, relationally: Commitment comes from communities that invite and sustain commitment. Communities must foster relationships and truly deepen a sense of communion if commitment is to flourish. How many parishes are large, and growing larger, without any plan to help parishioners get beyond an anonymous experience and connect with the nameless people they stand next to in the pews?

Structurally: Faith communities that focus on creating cultures of belief, and do great work socializing the young into the faith, might need to completely shift organizational priorities. A long-term view might suggest, after all, that it would be better to have parishes that exclusively create adult disciples than parishes that exclusively form cultures of belief for the young.

Offer a challenge to young people

What happened to your confirmation class last year? Did they “graduate” to adult roles and responsibilities in your parish, or did they simply “graduate” and process out of the church, once and for all? For how many of our teens does confirmation become a sacrament of exit rather than fulfilling its promise as a sacrament of initiation?

Is this the outcome we really want? If not, youth work has to focus on three things, three things it often does only unevenly. As scholar Carol Lytch points out, it needs to provide a sense of belonging, offer tools with which to build meaning, and develop competencies.

Catholic youth ministry often does the first fairly well but fails to give challenging tools to young people to build meaning in their lives based on Catholic teaching and tradition. Pizza, sports, and movie nights can help build belonging but hardly build disciples. And competencies are not developed without creating roles and hard expectations for young people.    

The reason our young people often leave after Confirmation, perhaps, is that they are not being challenged. Maybe the place to start would be with Confirmation itself. Is Confirmation offered as a culturally Catholic milestone in the life cycle, a kind of Catholic “graduation” exercise that will be given to all who ask? Or is Confirmation a challenge, a worthy “first job” that will only be given to those who are truly ready and responsible? Do we even care? Which option resonates most with pastors? With the religious education program? With the parents? What do we really want from the next generation?​

Relate to a new generation of Catholics

01 Feb 2005

Today’s teen and college-age Catholics are the “nurtured” generation (born 1982 to the present) who came of age at a time of kid-focused marketing. They are also truly a “post”-Vatican II generation. For them, Vatican II is a part of history. It’s not personal, and they’re not invested in it, even though, of course, it colors all we do as Catholics in the 21st century. But for them it is far more background than foreground.

Today’s Catholic young people belong to a generation more worldly in some ways but less mature in others; more connected to their parents as primary support agents and as friends but less as adult authority models. As a result, church leaders aiming to develop the commitment of today’s young people need to attract the family as a whole, not simply teens, if they are going to make a significant impact. Pastors, preachers, and ministers throughout the church need to provide comfortable, nurturing experiences—and won’t be successful with strong authority models that expect obedience or presuppose unquestioned authority, because that is simply foreign to a teen’s life experience.

Pastoral leaders interested in connecting with the culture of young people and finding ways to shape future Catholic commitment at a time of declining attendance will need to carefully reflect on how life experiences shape the religious imagination—life experiences, family relationships, and understandings of social and religious institutions (as something to serve them rather than to be served) very different from previous generations. Simply remembering what it was like “when I was your age” is not helpful and in fact is counterproductive.

Religion, not therapy

01 Feb 2006

A commonplace observation about religion in the United States is that it is therapeutic. Churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, are said to grow on a model of meeting needs and selling a product. Provided we understand the limitations of any metaphor, considering religion as a marketplace is not especially problematic, and it certainly is not very new. The problem for pastoral life is when the focus moves toward an entirely individualistic approach: The church that emphasizes helping people meet “my” needs “now” is not especially sustainable. Think of people who enter a religious community, a professional field, or a relationship because it will help them meet their needs at that moment or resolve some problem or help them live with some issue. Once that need, problem, or issue is resolved, they check out of the religious community, profession, or relationship.

Not surprisingly, many communities see a certain rotation of people in and then out of active participation and attendance. Many come seeking a therapeutic approach to a faith community and religion and then disengage when they’ve taken what they wanted or when they find that they cannot simply take what they want. A community cannot be primarily about members getting their problems solved and personal needs satisfied. A faith community must respond to those who come purely for their own needs or their own personal concerns, not by rejecting them (everyone comes with needs!) but instead by stretching members of the community.

A community is most itself when it stretches itself and pulls people outside of themselves. This is hardly therapeutic in the traditional sense. It is certainly not solely about the individual. But yet once people find themselves stretched they may discover that therapy isn’t necessary in the first place!

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Defining Catholic identity

01 Feb 2007

Much emphasis falls today on Catholic identity and seeking out a Catholic distinctiveness. But all too often we turn boundaries into bludgeons. Catholic is something that seems uniform, something that seems tied to traditions and ways of being that can be separated from non-Catholic Christianity. But how much of what non-Catholic Christians do or think is truly “not” Catholic? Is something that originates within Protestantism something the church should avoid—even if, in fact, it reflects values and understandings found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

To do so seems to be a contradiction of the Catholic genius—Catholicism means universal and embracing of that which is or can be in communion, after all. Catholicism is not a remnant religion—claiming only distinctive characteristics that no other Christian tradition has. This inclusiveness is, in fact, what makes Catholicism distinctive. One can confuse Catholic identity with a focus on an inheritance from medieval or baroque European Catholicism, or uniform liturgical worship as the current liturgical texts for the Roman Rite legislated.

But Catholicism is more than European: Most growth today is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And its liturgical worship is hardly uniform: Well more than a dozen rites other than the Roman Rite are recognized, and in many dioceses in the United States one may find parishes “of Anglican use,” using the Anglo-Catholic Book of Common Prayer. In Africa, various bishops’ conferences, with Roman approval, have issued adaptations of the Roman Rite that involve prayers to ancestors and hosts of other innovations that speak to the community of faith in a profoundly sacramental, storytelling, sacred way. In this they are all distinctively Catholic.

What is our brand identity?

01 Feb 2008

If Catholicism were a brand, what would its brand identity be? And how well would the brand be doing? When people think “Catholic,” what would we like them to think? What do they actually think? What can be done about that discrepancy?

Businesses brand themselves all the time, very much on purpose and with a great deal of investment. What image do we want to put forth? What images do we want people to have in mind when they think of Catholicism? When they think of the parish?

The point is not that the church is about “spin” or that the church should think in such business-oriented terms. After all, salvation—and the sacramental system—are not for sale. The point is rather that ordinary businesses are more focused on their mission, oftentimes, than the church is. And ordinary businesses that simply produce ordinary goods and services often attract the allegiance of people far more effectively than the church.

This situation is odd, to say the least. Surely something can be learned by thinking about these questions.