Go forth and make disciples! Print
Bishop Hying's Column
Thursday, Sep. 26, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Bishop Donald J. Hying's column

When I became a bishop back in 2011, I attended a nine-day conference in Rome for new bishops from all over the world, put on by the Vatican.

The best part of the experience was meeting the other participants, 16 other Americans, 25 from Brazil, and one bishop from Iraq whose predecessor had been murdered by terrorists. The informal conversations were often more interesting than the scheduled talks.

Dealing with declining Church

At lunch on the third day, I sat with a newly appointed bishop from a diocese in the southern Netherlands. He told me that Mass attendance there hovered at about two percent, mostly elderly people; he had no seminarians, so there was no future for the priesthood. It wasn’t so much that the Church had collapsed as that it had evaporated!

I asked him where he was going to start in such a daunting situation. How do you begin when everything seems so hopeless? What he said did not surprise me, but it has stuck with me.

He said that we need to go back to the Upper Room, to rediscover Pentecost, to drink deeply of the Holy Spirit, and then to go forth and speak of Jesus as if people have never heard of him, because in reality, many of them haven’t. I thought that his words were exactly right, and that is exactly what all of us are called to do. Speak and live as a witness to the risen Christ.

By any metric, the Church in the West is in decline. Lower Mass attendance, fewer marriages, Baptisms, Confirmations. Increasing numbers of young people are disengaged from the Faith.

We have many beautiful young people in our Diocese who are authentically living the Gospel and witnessing Jesus to the rest of us, but many others of all ages have never really encountered the Lord. How do we reach them? How do we even have a chance to speak to those who think the Catholic Faith has no relevance for their lives?

Passing on the Faith

When we read the final words of Jesus before He ascends back to heaven, we know that He commissions us to preach the Gospel to every creature, baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity, and make disciples. To live the Faith and pass it on to others!

For decades, we could rely on a vibrant Catholic culture to form our young people as followers of Jesus. Churches, schools, convents, seminaries, and rectories were overflowing. Parents practiced and taught the Faith at home.

In many essential ways, that culture is gone, and we cannot pass our Faith onto our children just through osmosis. We need to go back to the Upper Room and start from the beginning.

When you think about it, on Pentecost morning when the Church was born in an explosion of the Holy Spirit and those first followers of Jesus were anointed and sent as witnesses of the Gospel, all the Church had was its experience of the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

There were no buildings, structures, committees, endowment funds, advisory boards, or staff. There were no long-range plans, power points, papal encyclicals, creeds, or written Gospels. All of that would come later as the Faith developed and grew.

Going out on mission

Perhaps in this moment, the Lord is calling us to pray in the Upper Room, enter into a deeper relationship with the living Christ, and then speak and act most profoundly out of that spiritual center. If our current culture is most amenable to individual experience, we need to speak more lovingly and boldly of how we have come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

This movement from maintaining structures to going out on mission, from simply serving the people who come to Church on Sunday to also seeking out the lost and disengaged, from only living an individualized spirituality to witnessing the Lord to everyone in my life, from relying solely on schools and structures to form our young as Christians to actively teaching them ourselves is the essence of the new evangelization.

Every pope since Saint Paul VI has spoken of the urgency and necessity to embrace with fresh vigor and passion the task of the Great Commission: go forth and make disciples!

In the complex culture of this 21st century, we stand in a graced moment. We have a remarkable opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to people who have never really heard the Good News, to heed the call of our recent popes to harness the vast and powerful forces of global Catholicism to set the world on fire for Christ.

We can either wring our hands in despair and mourn the passing of the good old days or we can open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and live the Faith more deeply, passionately, and boldly than we ever have before.

As one who loves history, I often ponder the experience of Christians living during the collapse of the Roman Empire. The government was failing, the economy was crashing, barbarians were invading, all the traditional structures and principles which organized society were dissolving. It must have felt like the end of the world as they knew it.

Yet, out of all that chaos, confusion, and disorder, the Church built a new civilization, which evangelized the invading tribes, built monasteries, cathedrals, hospitals, and universities and, in short, Christianized Europe.

Could we be in such an opportune moment now, with both the opportunity and the means to unleash the power of the Gospel in a fresh and transforming way?