A reader writes:
I’m a Roman Catholic Seminarian studying for the Priesthood. I really appreciate your work. I just wanted to a) respond to your post b) ask you a question.
I think that you are essentially right; Catholicism and Orthodoxy both have the tools to survive the upcoming storm. But like a man with a big beautiful garage full of wonderful wood-working gear, it won’t really matter what fancy tools we have unless we use them. I think there are increasingly more young men studying for the priesthood (in the Catholic side of things) who are very faithful and orthodox Christians, and who want to use the tools at hand. Most of them are associate pastors and seminarians right now, but hopefully we will see some changes in the near future at the parish level.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that things will be easy for them. They will have to deal with a Church infrastructure designed in the 19th century which is rapidly fading; we have too many churches, built in a time when people had to walk to get to church, and not enough parishioners to support them all. I know a young priest who has four country parishes to minister to and is the vocation director for his diocese. I don’t know how he will be able to build a rich Catholic community with all that work, but by God he is trying.
Additionally, I notice in the commentary that some readers think that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is not capable of providing the rich liturgical backbone for any Ben Op community. I would disagree, though I will admit I understand why they say that; there are a lot of boring masses, and a lot of study, silly things can happen in a parish during the mass. But I think that the Ordinary form, done with reverence, can be just as powerful as any other Liturgical rite out there. I might be a little biased though, that is the rite I am studying!
Which leads me to my question: What should pastors and those studying for the priesthood do to build up rich, fervent communities of dedicated Christians? It sounds strange, but you often hear about discussion about what the Laity can do (which is fantastic) but I am thinking about the Ben Op from a pastor’s point of view.
What a good question. It brings to mind something a Catholic parish priest friend told me 15 years ago: that the laity has no idea at all about the crisis coming their way — meaning the priest shortage. The numbers don’t lie, he said, but the laity carries on as if what they have today is going to go on forever.
Anyway, I agree with you about the Novus Ordo, believe it or not, because I have seen it celebrated with great reverence — especially by Father Paul Weinberger out in Greenville, Texas. Making a successful Ben Op dependent on the Traditional Latin Mass is unnecessary and futile. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the TLM for Catholics who want it. I just don’t believe it’s strictly necessary. That said, that’s not an argument for me, but for Catholics.
What could priests and pastors (including Evangelical pastors) do for the Benedict Option? Here are some thoughts that come to mind:
- Prepare their congregations for hard times to come. No need to get all End Times about it — that would be counterproductive. But start talking in concrete terms about how important it is to double down on studying Scripture, church teaching, church history, and the lives of the saints.
- Build a culture of prayer and contemplation. Spiritual progress does not come without inner stillness, which is something very difficult to find these days. Churches tend to be very good at teaching people how to be Martha (that is, active in the world), but not so good at teaching people how to be Mary (that is, still, contemplative, present with Jesus). For many of us (this is certainly true about me), we think that we are doing the Lord’s work when we are reading theology or blogging, et cetera, when in fact we may be undermining ourselves and our Christian commitment by neglecting our prayer lives.
- Talk about what makes Christians different from the world, and the risk of losing our distinctiveness, and indeed our faith, through assimilation. Far too many of us prefer to live in a bubble, thinking that everything will always be this way. It won’t be. Which distinctives are important to hold on to? Where is the threat of assimilation coming from? How do we meet it?
- Take your parish school to the classical model. It falls to the Christian churches to preserve the heritage of the West. More importantly, classical Christian education provides a powerful counternarrative to what the world says the human person is. Education will be a prime locus of resistance to post-Christianity.
- Encourage community building, in part through doing traditional liturgies, communal prayers, and feasts. We need to thicken our communities, including our ties to the church of the ages, by reacquainting ourselves with traditional Christian culture. Read this Robert Louis Wilken essay for an idea of what we need to be doing.  I just received this e-mail from an Evangelical who runs a school:I attended a well-regarded evangelical seminary. While there we learned that one of the great errors of the old missionary movements was the transmission of culture in addition to the Gospel.Why it did not dawn on me (or anyone else) that the moment we cross a border with a book, we are importing a culture, I do not know. I suppose only knowledge heavy, analytical math types (my seminary had many) would think they can reduce the Gospel to the affirmation of propositions. To this day, many evangelical seminarians are great analyzers of the text but have trouble putting it back together into a story that affects the culture and inhabits a people. Do Greek Orthodox believers have discussions about leaving culture behind while taking the Gospel?After reading you and Jamie Smith, it is clear that culture is much harder to divorce from the Gospel than many had hoped or envisioned. There are cultural practices that either support or do not support Christianity. In typical evangelical Protestant ignorance, we abandoned traditional culture and norms without realizing that something would necessarily take its place! Its like abandoning liturgy but having the same you’ll-be-damned-if-you-change-it order of service every Sunday.
It is obvious to me now as a school principal that if we are going to direct the loves of our children that culture is the very thing we need to preserve. The practices of the old tradition were amenable to the necessary philosophical underpinnings of Christianity. Unfortunately, our youth programs in churches abandoned any adherence to the norms and traditions of Christianity and adopted progressive views of education from public schools. Youth group often amounted to nothing more than having a good time with emotive moments of commitment while transferring Christian content and encouraging children not to do bad things.
Take the entertainment god as an example. The love for unbridled and unabated entertainment enabled by the always-on-Internet has been co-opted by many youth pastors. All the while, this god requires us to think only of the pleasures of entertainment while ignoring that we are physical and spiritual beings with an obligation to self-sacrificial works which ennoble the soul. What good does it do to teach Christian content in a medium which teaches that pleasure is the ultimate goal of existence?
In my experience, Catholics are no better at this (despite having more resources), and neither are a lot of Orthodox churches. We all have to do better. All of us.
- Bring back fasting. Catechizing congregations on the importance of asceticism is critically important. All Christians used to fast at the appropriate times in the church calendar. They should again. It’s important.
- Don’t fear hard teaching. You will offend lots of people if you talk about what the church teaches, especially in the areas of sin that are most likely to have captured your congregation. If people leave, they leave. They were bound to do so anyway. If you preach right, you will call some to repentance, and you will encourage those who are trying to do the right thing — and especially you will encourage parents who are trying to teach their kids the faith. They (we) need to know that the church is behind us.
- Present the Christian life as a pilgrimage and an adventure. As something that cannot be reduced to rituals and moralism. As something that offers a real and powerful alternative to the emptiness of mainstream post-Christian culture. I did not know until I was an adult that there was more to Christianity than that, and that it was accessible to me as an ordinary believer, though I would have to work at it.
- Talk about real life. One grows weary of sermons that are perfectly good on paper, but that have no apparent application to the challenging lives people actually live.
- Challenge your congregation to get its hands dirty. I often tell the story about sitting around my Brooklyn apartment circa 2000, griping with some Catholic friends about the mediocrity of the institutional church and parish life. There was an orthodox Catholic priest present, and he said, “Everything you say is true, but you know what? That means that you guys have to step up.” He told the story about how his parents, raising him in the 1970s, could see the collapse of catechesis in their parish, and took it upon themselves to educate him and his siblings in the faith. The priest continued, “You can go onto Amazon.com tonight and order a library that Aquinas couldn’t have dreamed of, and have it delivered to your door. The resources are out there. Stop complaining and do something for yourselves.” I’ve never forgotten that. You, as a pastor, cannot be expected to do it all yourself. We in the laity have to step up. It was true in 2000, and it’s especially true in 2017.
Those are some thoughts off the top of my head. What do you orthodox Catholic, and believing Orthodox, readers think? Do you have some more suggestions? If you want to see the church liberalize, please withhold your comments on this thread.
(I wouldn’t mind hearing from conservative Evangelical readers too.)