For all of my adult Catholic life I’ve heard a general complaint that in the past several decades the Church in the US has had a “failure of catechesis.” Often this is demonstrated by pointing to low Mass attendance, surveys about what Catholics believe about the Eucharist, and data showing that Catholics, by-and-large, don’t follow the Church’s sexual teachings significantly more than the general population does.
Without dismissing, or really wading into, those topics at all, I would like to propose that the greatest failure of catechesis is not about the sacraments or morality, but about who God is.
A couple of years ago, a friend proposed to me that the deepest lie, the thing that so much of our dysfunction rests on, is that we don’t believe that God is who is says he is. And every day I believe her more.
God reveals himself as the creator and sustainer of the entire cosmos. Jesus explicitly tells us that God loves us like a father loves his children. He tells us that God is like a father who forgives his selfish son before the boy can even finish his apology or a shepherd who searches for his wandering sheep “until he finds it.” Jesus reveals to us a God who chases us down, who loves us while we are still sinners, and who will humiliate himself to the point of death in order to save us. St. John proclaims that “God is love” and St. Paul tells us that God desires for all people to be saved.
This can sound like Sunday school preaching, but if we don’t get this right, we miss everything—everything—else about out faith.
If we don’t believe that God is who he says he is, we replace vulnerable prayer with performative piety because we don’t trust in God’s gentleness enough to be vulnerable with him about our real fears and desires.
If we don’t believe in God’s power and providence, we hide behind institutions and lawyers instead of taking responsibility for our scandals because we’re afraid of the consequences.
If we don’t believe in God’s goodness and desire to save us, we replace the process of growth in virtue and formation of conscience with simply trying to follow all the rules because we think God is waiting to send us to hell with just one slip up.
Honestly, I think that last point is crucial. Speaking from experience, when the constant fear of hell or mortal sin is removed, there’s actual room for honest growth and freedom.
I still hear Catholics talk about their salvation as if it’s an uncertain possibility, and not an anchor of hope.
During the funeral liturgy, in the Prayer of Commendation towards the end of a funeral, the priest says: "Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother/sister N. in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, he/she will rise with him."
We, as baptized Christians, have “sure and certain hope” in our salvation. That’s what God has told us about who he is and what we mean to him. But do you live your life that way? Or do you live in continual fear that God will damn you for one mistake? Who do we believe God is?
Only in the past few years have I really come to believe that God is who he says he is. God gave me that new faith in him through several different ways, and one of them was this video of a talk by Brad Jersak. I stumbled across this talk somewhere online. I have no idea who this guy is. I’ve never watched any of his other talks. But I’ve watched this one fifteen or more times in the past few years and God has given me real grace through it. I hope you have the same experience.
Thanks, Paul, for this reply. Yes, "we replace vulnerable prayer of our need with performance piety as purported a gift". You using my email address was invited by me. Keeping or allowing my thanks (need) and my invitations (gift) the right way round is my belief in uncertainty in God as "to be itself" (Latin: ipsum esse) as Bishop Robert Barron (Word on Fire) puts it, in covenant, non-presumed reciprocity of the Three Persons, father Son and Holy Spirit; each fully God. Lets keep in touch. Oliver Clark
Thanks for this Paul - this is so true and aligns with my own experience.