Q: Archbishop J, what is the path to renewal?
Renewal requires that we understand that we face a fundamental challenge requiring us to respond in new ways. The question: What is the fundamental challenge that we are facing? And, how do we respond differently?
In 2007, when I was Vicar for Administration, we learnt that only 17 per cent of Catholics were going to church. This was a shock to many. It was a call to enter into a deeper mode of reflection to grasp the challenge we were facing and to find new solutions. In 2017, by the time I arrived as archbishop, the percentage of practising Catholics had shrunk from 17 per cent to 14 per cent. Thus, in 10 years we lost 3 per cent of practising Catholics.
There are many ways to interpret this. From my perspective none of them offers a comforting narrative that allows us to continue with business as usual, considering a high number of our Catholics are in the older age group and will not be active in the next 10, 20, or 30 years’ time. Some of the loss is natural attrition because we have not been filling the church from below. But the question is why not? To ask the question differently: Why has transmission of the faith to the new generation been so difficult?
The simple answer is that we have been a Church whose main focus was maintenance for many decades. Because of this, many arms of the Church have lost the Catholic DNA. In many parts of the Catholic world, the secular DNA is more vital and present to our people than the Catholic DNA.
By Catholic world I mean, the family, the school, the ecclesial and religious communities, the parish, and its ministries. When the family is devoted to the teaching of the Apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayer then we will see life flourish in the parish, the groups and the school (Acts 2:42).
The Catholic DNA
I want us to begin to imagine a Catholic DNA that is the basic building block of Catholic life, wherever Catholic life is flourishing. DNA gives us specificity—the colour of our hair, our body type, our height, the colour of our eyes, health risks, etc. It comes to us from our parents at the moment of conception. It shapes so much of who we are. We could ignore it but that does not change the fact of its existence—doing what it is doing in the secret places out of sight.
Our Catholic DNA is given to us at baptism when we are joined into the Body of Christ as a member in that body. From that moment the Catholic DNA is at work in us, whether we are aware of it or not. This life of grace permeates all our being. But it could lay dormant in us, inactive and not affecting us in any fundamental way. Or, it could be ignited and produce a very different reaction to our usual response.
The DNA we received from our parents is given and is active whether we like it or not. The Catholic DNA on the other hand is gift from God and it only acts if we give it our consent. This is the value and curse of free will. God will not force us to do anything. God will invite, cajole, seduce, but never force.
So, the Catholic DNA is given as free gift from the moment of baptism. It stays in us either dormant or active. Our choice makes all the difference. St Ignatius of Loyola called this Christ Life. The unstoppable life of grace given to all disciples of Christ. This life of grace is more powerful than the life of sin, of sickness, of death and destruction. But it requires our cooperation, our ‘yes’. It is present in all baptised Catholics, but dormant if we have not yet consciously chosen Christ.
That life of grace given to us at baptism, if nurtured, grows into an ecosystem that brings about the fundamental transformation in the individual Christian and the whole Church. It is an ecosystem because it is self-sustaining: It is complete and requires many parts working together in harmony. It is actively graced by God’s Holy Spirit in real-time for the good of the whole Body of Christ.
David L Fleming SJ describes Ignatius’ vision in three dimensions—life, work, and love. It requires that we share Christ’s life, think like Him, do what He does. These are three levels of inner transformation or conversion.
St Paul speaks about this understanding of grace at the heart of all life. In 1 Corinthians 2:14–16, the apostle makes the distinction between the person without the Spirit and those who have the Spirit, and so have the mind of Christ. Remember, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate will teach us all that Jesus said and remind us of Jesus’ words (Jn 14:26).
The Spirit also comes with gifts for mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world” (799).
Missioning involves inviting families to think with Catholic imagination, to believe that Christ Life is at work in them individually and as a family, and to accept the grace of the Holy Spirit for transformation and mission. Then, families, schools, ecclesial and religious communities, parishes, and all Catholic groups will begin to share Christ Life—to think like Christ and do what He does.
There is a Catholic DNA to be awakened and activated by inviting Catholics to understand their identity in Christ and what has been given us in Christ.
When the family reignites the Catholic DNA, a missionary ecosystem will emerge. Then, all parts of the Catholic world will begin to activate the Catholic DNA. This will create a self-sustaining ecosystem, which will begin a process of transformation and renewal that will be phenomenal.
Reflect deeply on your life and that of your family. Is the Catholic DNA at work? Is it strong, weak of failing? Earnestly ask God to reignite the Catholic DNA in your family and in each member.