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We are all called to be an authentic witness to the gift of our faith

Joseph F. Naumann is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

On March 25-26, Benedictine College hosted its 11th annual Symposium on Transforming the Culture.

The theme of this year’s symposium was: “See how they love one another: Community and the New Evangelization.” The concluding keynote speaker was Sherry Weddell, who is the co-founder and executive director of the Catherine of Siena Institute and the author of “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.”

In her presentation, Ms. Weddell contrasted the sobering decline of Christianity in Western Europe and the United States with the church’s explosive growth in Africa and Asia. She confessed that she was not surprised by the results of the Pew study that revealed an alarming percentage of U.S. Catholics, who attend Sunday Mass, do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Ms. Weddell shared that the Pew study results corresponded to her own personal experience from her conversations with the thousands of engaged Catholics from across the United States who have confided with her a lack of a personal relationship with God. 

Ms. Weddell, who grew up as evangelical Protestant, has been criticized by some for allegedly attempting to entice Catholics to adopt a Protestant spirituality. These critics fear that Ms. Weddell is promoting a Christianity that is dependent on feelings or emotion detached from the church’s magisterium and the authenticity of the sacramental life.

Ms. Weddell was formed from childhood into young adulthood in a Protestant anti-Catholic milieu. However, the path of her conversion to Catholicism actually began with her sensing the Real Presence in the Eucharist as a young adult, while visiting a Catholic church.

Actually, Ms. Weddell’s view of the importance for Catholics to encounter Jesus and cultivate personal relationships with Our Lord corresponds closely to the teaching of several of our recent popes.

St. John Paul II cautioned the church, as we entered into the third millennium of Christianity, not to be fixated on the development of new programs. Instead, the Holy Father invited Catholics to focus upon deepening their encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

Pope Emeritus Benedict frequently reminded Catholics that the foundation of our Catholic faith is not to be found in our doctrine or dogma.

Obviously, Pope Benedict was not saying that dogma and doctrine are not important. After all, he had been the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was the architect of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict also rejected the notion that Catholicism was primarily about living an ethical life. Living a virtuous and moral life is the fruit of our faith, not its foundation.

Pope Benedict maintained that the foundation of our Catholic faith is an encounter with an event — the dying and rising of Jesus. Thus, our Catholic teaching will make no sense and living a virtuous life will prove impossible without an encounter with Jesus Christ, without a friendship with Jesus, without being in communion with Our Lord.

Some fear that too much emphasis on the importance of an encounter with Jesus will make Catholics slaves to emotions or feelings, weaken our appreciation for the necessity for the church’s magisterium and diminish respect for the spiritual power available through the sacraments.

Of course, we must be wary of a faith that is based purely on sentimentalism. At the same time, faith that is devoid of encountering the living God will be lifeless and listless.  

The magisterial teaching authority of the church remains essential in discerning the authenticity and meaning of our encounters with Jesus. The sacraments are meant to provide opportunities for significant encounters with Our Lord. Authentic and active participation in the sacramental life will nurture our friendship with Jesus. This is true of all of the sacraments, but  especially of holy Communion — the very term implies intimacy with the divine.

 Catholics should read prayerfully the Bible with an expectation of God desiring to share his wisdom and truth with us.

We should beg the Lord to reveal himself to us through our experience of the sacramental life, making his presence known to us. Of course, our expectations and experiences of his grace must be received with humility and illuminated by church teaching and the wisdom acquired through the previous 2,000 years of living the Gospel of Jesus.

In her presentation, Sherry Weddell recounted what she called a generation of French saints during the years of 1592-1660 who transformed the church in France, Europe and Canada.  This group of fervent Catholics included a bishop (St. Francis de Sales), priests (St. Vincent de Paul and Father Jean-Jacque Olier), religious (St. Louise de Marillac and St. Jane Frances de Chantal) and laity (Madame Barbara Acarie, Venerable Jerome le Royer and Madame Jeanne Mance). 

This small group of devoted Catholics evangelized thousands to return to or join the Catholic Church; began religious orders (the Vincentian Fathers, the Daughters of Charity, the Sulpicians and the Visitation Sisters); improved the formation of priests; developed a network of charities for the poor and health care for the sick; and founded what became the city of Montreal as a center for evangelization and apostolic activity.

It is astonishing what the Holy Spirit was able to accomplish through a relatively small group of engaged Catholics who through a fervent prayer life had encountered Jesus and were guided by the Holy Spirit. 

Sherry Weddell believes, despite all of the challenges the church faces in our nation, that the United States is best suited to be a catalyst for the renewal of the church in western culture. I believe that Our Lord wants to use northeast Kansas as one of the centers for this revival of Catholicism. We are blessed with amazing priests, religious and laity that have encountered the living Jesus and are living his Gospel with zeal and joy.

Every one of our parishes has the potential to be an evangelizing community. When our Catholic faith is lived with fidelity, energy and joy, it is naturally attractive. A relatively small group of parishioners, who have encountered Jesus through personal prayer and the sacraments, can ignite pastoral activity within the community. 

Jesus desires friendship and communion with each of us. We possess that for which every human heart yearns. Each of us is called to be an authentic witness of the gift of our Catholic faith. Together, we can help transform our increasingly secularized culture with the truth and beauty of our Catholic faith.

We have the capacity to set the world on fire with the hope and joy of the Gospel of Jesus.

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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