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In her book Alter Girl: Walking Away From Religion Into the Heart of Faith (Group Publishing, Inc., 2017), Andrea Syverson chronicles her journey from committed Catholic to spiritual traveler in an ever-evolving relationship with Jesus.
In writing this blog and otherwise being involved with efforts at Saint Mary’s Press Research project to provide a listening ear and also give voice to persons whose spiritual journeys have led some to part ways with the Catholic Church, I’m struck by the thoughtfulness, prayerfulness, self-honesty, and persisting spiritual affection and yearning and dedication of many I’ve encountered. Andrea’s book echoes much of what I’ve heard.
With Andrea’s permission, for this week’s blog I am excerpting three passages from her book. Each constitutes a few words of advice to the Catholic Church (and really to Christian churches regardless of denomination), from someone who has left the Catholic Church but hasn’t left caring about it.
On the Importance of Being a Welcoming Church
“I think people who’ve been attending liturgical churches for a long time don’t realize how intimidating it is for a rookie (or someone just ‘kicking the tires’ . . .) to walk into a church and be perplexed from the start. Many studies have been done on this topic, and churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes have been found lacking in the ‘Welcome, glad you’re here!’ department. . . . Churches don’t mean to be this way, but many times they are. . . . If churchgoers realized how much gumption it takes for tirekickers to change their Sunday morning routine, enter an unknown space, and slide anonymously into the last pew, they’d make more of an effort to run out and greet them in the parking lot, just as the father in Jesus’ famous parable welcomed home his prodigal son. God goes all-out for his sheep and expects the same from us.”
On How Jesus Evangelized
“Recently, when I was visiting my mother-in-law’s small country church, the young pastor gave a sermon about these three verbs: believe, behave, belong. He used those words to describe how most traditional churches do business these days. First, they let outsiders know their beliefs, then they explain how they behave, and finally, they tell those people, ‘If you believe and behave as we do, you can join us.’ Most churchgoers think there’s nothing wrong with the order of these verbs. They, too, were raised this way.
“But the pastor demonstrated that this is the opposite of how Jesus lived. Think about Jesus’ interactions with people: He first connects with them (the woman at the well, the leper, the tax collector) and expresses his loving concern for them; then he invites them into a new set of beliefs and ultimately into a new way of living. Only after they feel loved, accepted, and encouraged do the people begin changing their ideas and finally their behavior. Belong. Believe. Behave.”
On What I Didn’t Learn in Catholic School
“I walked away with 27 years of Catholic education and private devotion without the security of knowing that Jesus is crazy about me, that he thinks of me specifically as his beloved. I also didn’t know . . .
- that he wants a deep friendship with me, a side-by-side, let’s-do-life-together relationship.
- that he gives me abundant grace and extravagant love, even though he knows I’m a sinner.
- that he unshackles me from religious rules and regulations and invites me into a spacious and free life.
- that he wants me to be whole in mind, body, and soul.
- that he doesn’t want me to run myself ragged trying to earn my way into heaven.
- that he wants me to be still, to go directly to him in deep trust, and simply abide in him as I ‘learn the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:28–30) from him, and, then, as he calls me, to feed his sheep.
“No, if all this is plain and simple Catholic doctrine, I’m afraid I did miss it. I feel called by God to not let others miss it.”
A proper examination of conscience might lead us as Church to ask ourselves three questions: Have we been welcoming of ‘outsiders’? Have we put loving concern, acceptance, and encouragement before rules and regulations? Have we taught the abiding, extravagant love of Jesus for each and every one of us as Lesson #1?
Jerry Ruff, Senior Editor and Writer
Saint Mary’s Press Research