You don’t have to be a doom and gloomer to see that things are unravelling very quickly in our country. Two metrics are enough to prove the point: a drastic decline in the marriage and birth rates and the recent news that church-going Christians are now a minority within the U.S. Although William Butler Yeats wrote with the First World War and the 1918 flu pandemic in the background, his poem, “The Second Coming,” speaks as truly as ever:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What can we do? How should the Church respond as things fall apart and the center gives way?
The Church does not have to come up with a new or innovative mission statement. Jesus gave it to us before his ascension: “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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). Although it may seem that talk of discipleship in the Church is just the latest ecclesial fad, forming committed followers of Jesus Christ is the great task that God has given us. It can be hard for Catholics to comprehend the need for discipleship since we focus so heavily on the external. Our sacramental life and doctrine are a great gift, yet they have to be internalized to take root within us. We might be tempted to say that we are Catholic simply because we have received the sacraments or attended a Catholic school, even if we never came to know God in a personal way. Discipleship puts forth the call to make a commitment to follow Jesus and to share in the mission to proclaim the good news to others.
The Church’s mission could be taken for granted more readily when the surrounding culture supported Christian morality. As we all know, those days are long gone. To form disciples now, we have to paddle against a raging current. Even if more difficult, the mission to form disciples is more necessary than ever — as a rescue mission to save our children from a deeply inhuman way of life. We can say with confidence that only friendship with Christ can help us through the minefield of our culture. This friendship blossoms most naturally in the family, with the support of the parish and the school.
“Ours is not an age of change, but a change of the ages,” as the Pope likes to remind us. How can we help our kids to thrive in this brave new world where everything seemingly is up for grabs? They need to think and live like Christians, committing to follow Jesus before all else, even when it’s countercultural. To support them, first, we have to help them to recognize the joy of life, appreciating it as great gift that we have received from God. Second, we have to help them face the challenges of life head on with courage, seeing life as an adventure; true, one that’s full of danger and risk, but also one that invites us to do great things for God. Third, we have to teach them not only to be Christians, but also how to be human — to think and love rightly, rooted in healthy relationships and a commitment to what is greater than themselves as the only true path to happiness.
Our goal, therefore, has to be to teach our kids how to live as faithful Christians in the modern world. To do so, we have to become catechists of the Christian life, showing them how to make faith the center of our lives. If we don’t teach our kids how to live their faith in an integrated way every day, they will naturally follow the way of the world, floating with the stream. They need an apprenticeship in how to be a Christian today. Classes about the faith provide a foundation but are not enough to draw our kids into a Christian way of life, because following Jesus requires mentorship, with the role of parents by far the most influential. Living the faith together in daily life makes it come alive to our kids, shaping everything that they do in tangible ways.
This art of the Christian life includes prayer, work, character formation, and learning how to be strong in the face of difficulties. In addition, one of the key challenges we face in the family is technology. How can we be moderate in the use of technology, not allowing it to dominate us, but rather treating it as a useful tool? Emphasizing prayer and family time over technology makes an important statement about priorities. There must be a limit to technology’s saturation and a close monitoring of its content; technology is a good thing, but alternatives are just as important, forming the minds and imaginations of our kids by reading out loud together, singing, playing games, and spending time outdoors.
The world’s problems may be complicated and are certainly more than any one person can handle. Yet, the solution may be simple. Christ really is the answer, the true missing center that holds everything together and that can reintegrate the many things that have fallen apart. The rebuilding begins one person at a time. Jesus calls everyone to follow him — to become his disciple by imitating him and sharing in his mission. If we haven’t had the opportunity to say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation of becoming his disciple and growing in a personal relationship with him, now is the time! In the face of a brave new world, each one should be able to say, “I am a Christian and I will follow Christ, come what may.”
For more on how to form disciples concretely, see School of the Lord’s Service, a framework for forming disciples from the Office of Catholic Schools: archden.org/schoolofthelordsservice/.