My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Previously we have discussed the first two declarations of our fourth diocesan synod, in which we declared our commitment as a diocese to the discipleship and stewardship way of life and pledged to set all pastoral initiatives in relation to holiness.
Today we will consider the third declaration of our diocesan synod: “The art of growing in God’s grace is the key to growth in the church. Building a culture of growth in the church starts with inviting people to experience the love of Jesus Christ … . This growth looks not only to build up the number of followers of Jesus Christ, but also — and more importantly — for Christ’s followers to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus Christ and in their commitment to observe all that he has commanded us to do.”
This declaration is taken from my second pastoral letter, Ars Crescendi in Dei Gratia Latin for “The Art of Growing in God’s Grace,” issued on Sept. 14, 2015. Growth is at the very core of the great commission of the church that Jesus gave to his disciples, as we read in the conclusion of the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
This great commission, which applies equally to us today as it did to the disciples two thousand years ago, addresses both the quantity and the quality of the disciples that Jesus seeks. Both are essential. It is not enough to have a lot of parishioners who have no depth to their faith, nor it is sufficient to have only a small number of believers, no matter how fervent their faith.
In terms of quantity, Jesus makes it clear that he did not intend to found a small private club of elite members who would meet behind locked doors in the upper room in Jerusalem where they had celebrated the Last Supper. They were to go out to all the world, both the Jewish world and the Gentile world of every race, nationality and ethnic group.
The same is true of our parish communities: our parishes are not private clubs where membership is restricted to a select few. We cannot be content simply to maintain what we have. If we are not looking to grow by diligently and systematically seeking new parishioners to join our Catholic communities of faith, then we are not fulfilling the Lord’s great commission for us.
In terms of quality, Jesus asked first of all that his followers be baptized. There is a commitment involved through the sacraments of initiation to be faithful followers of Jesus and active participants in his community of faith, not just passive people who make a cameo appearance at Mass only when they feel like it.
The disciples of Jesus are also to teach new followers of our Lord to observe all that he commanded. The task of teaching our faith to others is not relegated to a special class of teachers. This task of handing on the faith to others is every Christian’s responsibility, especially with regard to parents and their children. It is not enough for parents to drop their children off at the parish schools of religion or even to enroll them in Catholic schools and then sit back and expect the catechists and classroom teachers to do all the work of handing on the faith to their children. Parents are the first teachers of the faith, and this must take place first and foremost in the family home. When parents abdicate this responsibility, it is not surprising that their children will not practice the faith, no matter how good their catechists and religion teachers are.
This sacred task of being a missionary disciple of our Lord also pertains to everyone, not just the clergy and consecrated religious. It is not realistic to expect that the pastor will be able to bring in new parishioners all by himself. In fact, the laity are often in a better position than priests and deacons to extend the invitation to join the church to their own family members, neighbors and co-workers.
The field of faith is fertile for growth. We only need to plant the seeds of faith, and the Lord will take care of the rest.
May God give us this grace. Amen.