Thursday, March 10, 2011

Evangelization, Spiritual Gifts and Community

"To be Christian is to be human correctly."

Or so states one blogger, synthesizing the teaching of then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization: To evangelize is to teach the art of living; to be be Christian is to be human correctly.

We follow Christ as His disciples, learning from Him not only what to do but how to be. We are to be like Him. We are not to be pollyannas or plasticine people, because each of us is unique and unrepeatable. It is logical and beautifully amazing that as we each turn our gaze to the one Way, the penetrating light of the one who made us, we find freedom to love in the way that is unique to ourselves.

How does that work?

It seems to me that the key is the process of discovering and developing our spiritual gifts. St. Paul invests quite a bit of ink (in 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4 and Rom. 12) in teaching that we are not all the same, and that the Holy Spirit graces each of us in different but complementary and interdependent ways.

When I was a Lutheran, we talked quite a bit about discovering our spiritual gifts. It may have been because it was the mid-80s, and we were responding to the uproarious changes happening all around us because of the charismatic renewal. While doctrinally rejecting the reality of "charismatic gifts" of speaking in tongues and prophecy, and any other such phenomenon as experienced as the renewal spread throughout the Church, my denomination was still open to the fact that the Bible had lots to say about gifts. I just share that because it seems ironic: it was not my pentecostal nor Catholic brothers who first taught me to think in terms of operating in gifts as a mode of discipleship and stewardship.

But in those days, I never really got beyond filling out a spiritual gifts inventory form and filing away whatever bits of insight it may have given me into the back of my mind somewhere. And I can see now why it never took me anywhere. Spiritual gifts really need to be discerned, developed, and lived out in the midst of Christian community.

Community is something I didn't have and "didn't get" in those days. Indeed, many Catholics today are in the same boat.

When I took a Catechetics class with Barbara Morgan at Franciscan University back these 12 or so years ago, I remember her calling upon the adult converts in the group (myself included) to testify to the truth of her assertion that Catholics don't really get what "fellowship" is. (She could have used the term "community" as well.) That was one of those moments for me that I've never forgotten. How do I put it into words. She recognized, on one hand, something that is central, key, vital, vibrant, crucial, and EXISTING, in the faith life of many, many a non-Catholic Christian. On the other hand, she recognized that many, many a Catholic Christian, has not a clue what is even being referred to when one says this.

But this is the premise around which the New Testament needs to be understood: that we live our faith in community. Because living faith in community is part of what it means to be human correctly.

Now, I honestly believe that many good things have happened since the late 1990s when this conversation in class with Barbara Morgan took place. In my own experience and in what I see all around me, I believe that for some, community does exist in a Catholic setting. But I don't believe that every parish lives this with a fraction of the vibrancy that is possible.

What am I talking about, anyway?

I mean that each Catholic should find, preferably within his own parish, a setting where he finds his faith, hope and charity sparked to life by encounters with other believers. A setting where people are free to share their hearts, friendship, daily joys and sorrows, needs, and service to one another, and together to share with others outside the group -- to reach out in service. And in the process, to undergo ongoing conversion.

For this to happen, parish life must be more than attending Mass together and praying for each other. That is of course indispensable, but it is not interpersonal. As a friend of mine often puts it, Mass is communal but not social. It also cannot simply be a matter of working together, as, say, a Women's Group might cook for fundraisers. It also isn't simply a group of friends who go out for coffee. All of those things are great, but community, koinonia, is a spiritual sharing that isn't purely social or service-oriented. I like the definition of koinonia: "communion by intimate participation." This word is used in the New Testament to describe how those early Christians shared life together. I am blessed to have an experience of this within my own parish. But it shouldn't be unique or rare. It should be the normative experience of every Catholic.

When we move toward this kind of living with each other, it becomes more and more clear that people's unique gifts have a place, a fitting role to fulfill, in the life of the community at large. No one needs to feel guilty because they aren't like someone else, and Mary/Martha judgments can calm down as we learn to appreciate both our own gifts and those of others, and to accept our own and others' limitations. This is the only context in which discerning spiritual gifts makes any sense.

The Catherine of Siena Institute has a program called Called and Gifted which I very much want to be a part of some day. It focuses on equipping average Catholics to discern their charisms and to begin changing the world!

There are so many different aspects to the art of living, and God graces us with the means for each of us to do so in a way that brings us life. Each of us needs to learn how to best make a sincere gift of self, and to teach others how to do this as well. This IS what it means to evangelize, to spread the gospel.


dkkjr said...

awesome!! love this!! thank you for sharing your heart.

Willa said...
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