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Apologia for Evangelicals

By Fr Martin Sirju

I’ve been rather dismayed by priests and laity who do not see the positive impact of evangelical Christianity on the world and on the Catholic Church in particular. Their view of evangelical Christianity is often an occasion for an apologia for the great achievements of the Catholic Church.

I was particularly annoyed at a photo that appeared on one of the many chats I’m on that showed a picture of a 90 per cent empty Catholic church and a full evangelical church with the slogan that that is what happens when one Church—the Catholic Church—preaches the truth and the others don’t.

Really? Who on earth believes that nonsense?

There is a reason why people look at TD Jakes, Rick Warren, and Joyce Meyer. They are great preachers. They have excellent content, great delivery, wonderful clarity mixed with humour and people get the message. Why else would people look at them? Because their message is “simple”? That’s Catholic people hiding behind disguised triumphalism.

So, I am indeed impressed and edified when I see some of the things they have done. Firstly, despite all their flaws, evangelicals saw the crying need for good leadership.

The holiness of the pastor and how he leads his parish are two distinct issues. The evangelicals took leadership seriously long before we did. Thank God Archbishop Jason Gordon often emphasises its importance.

We priests were meant to believe because we were placed in a parish, we were by divine fiat born leaders. We were not. We were pastors of our parishes according to Canon Law, but leadership was a separate issue. That only dawned on me when I was reappointed to San Fernando parish in September 2016.

It was during one of the parish consultations in San Fernando Parish Hall in 2017 that one young man got up to read his group summary on the topic ‘Clergy and Vocations’.

He said with some hesitation: “I give our priests full marks for answering our questions and carrying about the liturgy, but they do not seem to realise that leadership is a separate issue.”

Evangelicals study leadership, have regular updates on it, and their leadership is regularly evaluated, especially when they belong to an evangelical organisation of churches.

Then there is the comment about money. Of course, here I have some issues with them. There is the prosperity gospel mentality among many evangelical pastors, true, but not all of them are so inclined. Most don’t own jets.

But have we ever considered that many in-the-know people have said that after the clergy sex abuse scandal, the other one that is slowly coming to the fore–but this one involving many lay people–is financial scandal?

Jesus’ warning against mammon was not only for evangelicals but for us too. Just Google the topic and you will see much intrigue and accusation, and some conviction, in matters of corruption and financial impropriety in our own house. The conveying of huge sums of money to the Vatican in lieu of promotion.  Benedict XVI saw it and did not touch it. Francis did and is facing those raging bulls. Time will tell who will win that battle.


Where’s the music?

Music—the greatest liturgical disaster since Vatican II. Here the evangelical churches are galloping ahead of us. We have so many boys and girls graduating from Catholic secondary schools who have excelled at music and singing.

One would think our churches would be overflowing with them. Fat chance! Where are they? Pursuing other musical exploits in the secular field. One of our problems is we do not have sufficient training in liturgical music, nor can we afford to adequately pay our musicians in most instances.

But there is another problem. Based on what I have been exposed to, I do not hear many excellent pieces of modern liturgical music. But I hear lots from evangelical churches that have been slowly integrated into our liturgical tradition.

What we most likely may presume to be Catholic hymns are really evangelical compositions, often of the African genres, coming from North America, that are moving minds and hearts and keeping many thankfully. Young people love them and that is enough reason to keep them once they are not marked by theological error.

One can feel an awkward disconnect though–there is no Eucharistic hymnody since these are produced by evangelical Christians. When it comes to the post-Communion meditation, there are just no modern successors to ‘O Bread of Heaven’ and ‘Soul of My Saviour’. Here the Church is still in gestation; I know they will eventually come.

Let’s now talk social work: ‘Evangelicals do not do outreach like the Catholic Church’. You will be surprised by the amount they do. The Acropolis Medical Centre in San Fernando gives you an idea of how evangelicals are thinking. They are into a whole array of community work and social outreach here and in other parts of the world–education, migrant ministry, working with the homeless, with youth in hot spots, the mentally ill, and engaging in ecumenical cooperation.

They are fully aware in some matters they cannot mission alone; they have to partner with other Christians as the many problems affect us all.

One of the criticisms launched against evangelicals by Catholic clergy is their ‘Jesus and Me’ spirituality. It’s all about Jesus and me. The communal is sidelined or given low priority status.

As in many instances in which that is true, it is also not true. There are evangelical pastors interested in climate change and the environment as much as we are.

They are interested in the body politic, in justice and peace struggles, in bringing about the reign of God on Earth. And when I listen to Pope Francis, trust me, there is a lot of ‘Jesus and Me’ talk.

Finally, evangelical pastors are seen as less educated than their Catholic counterparts, spend less time in academic formation and do not really know the Bible. All of that has changed considerably.

Amos Yong is a formative figure in disability theology and William Lane Craig puts the fear of God into atheists. Evangelicals are writing on leadership, theology, scripture, homiletics, church history, mission, and many other areas.

Some of their books on spirituality and leadership (e.g. Ruth Haley Barton) are also used by Catholic clergy and laity.

Yes, we can point to many flaws in their modus operandi, but they are for the most part on the right track. They will soon be our main ecumenical partner. So, I am wont to ask at this point: where is the Spirit dwelling more? With them or with us?


Fr Martin Sirju is the Vicar General and administrator of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception