Can parishes do more to promote devotion?

This blog exists because devotion and related themes like mental prayer, spiritual direction and the presence of God are not mentioned much from the pulpit by even the most zealous priests at the most engaged parishes.

But, does that need to be the case?

Could a parish do more to encourage devotion amongst those with the interest and capacity to embrace this glorious challenge?

Recently, my wife and I spoke with a member of the parish council at my church about our parish. While some of the ideas we discussed were particular to our parish, many would be broadly applicable, so I’ve laid them out here.

Where parishes focus now

Matthew Kelly’s book, Four signs of a Dynamic Catholic, described the state of your average parish in numerical terms. Roughly 7% of parishioners are “dynamic catholics,” meaning that they pray daily, study the faith, evangelize in some way, and give financially. These 7% are responsible for around 80% of the contributions and volunteer hours to a given parish. The remaining 93% of a parish have descending levels of engagement.

Kelly’s mission is to increase the number of dynamic catholics—to engage the 93%. Similar ministries have similar goals. For instance, Bishop Barron is focused on the “none’s” and those on the “existential peripheries” not on the 7%, although God knows that we have all been blessed by his wonderful content. A notable exception to this lack of focus on the 7% is Dan Burke’s and Avila Institute.

Of course, everyone would agree that the 7% are in need of on going formation as well, but the main focus is on the 93%. In parish life, this means that the 7% are charged with tasks related to engaging the other 93%. This is worthwhile and necessary.

But, what about helping the 7% grow in devotion?

Why the 93% receive most of the attention

Dynamic Catholic and ministries like it have good and less than good reasons for focusing on the 93%. First the good.

  1. There are more of them (obviously). When thinking about how to help people in the parish, helping more people is better all else being equal.
  2. The path to spiritual growth for the 93% is more concrete than it is for the 7%. I’m not saying that praying, evangelizing, studying and giving are easy, but they are more tangible than the total self-emptying required or the 7% to advance. For instance, it’s easier for someone to pray for twenty minutes than for them to pray always.
  3. Without intending to, many priests set a low bar for the 7%.  Relatively speaking the 7% have a solid spiritual life. And, even a monk could be described as having a daily habit of prayer, study, evangelization and generosity. Although these four things are profound blessings from God, there is more, much more to the life of prayer and discipleship. For example, even if one of the 7% has a daily mental prayer habit, they may have no idea about the stages of mental prayer, or how to pray always or how to deny themselves because, while these themes may be touched on from the pulpit, they are not explained in detail. Therefore, their progress is slowed.

Helping the 7% go from “dynamic” to devout

I believe that the effort to move the 7% from dynamic to devout should be just as important to a parish as moving the 93% into the 7%. Here’s why:

  1. If the goal isn’t total transformation in Christ, then our parishes are not faithful to the Gospel. “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” “he would have given you living water,” and “remain in me as I remain in you,” are just a sampling of the texts which point to the union that Christ wants with every believer. Most people experience this union as an abstract idea with little bearing on their day to day life. “God is in you,” we have heard many times. And, we believe it. Maybe we think it has to do with receiving the Eucharist or with certain experiences of consolation. No! No! No! Christ yearns for this union to be actual, sensed, life-giving. There is no gospel without this dimension and there is no growth past the beginning stages of the spiritual life without the contemplation that eventually blossoms into this union. Without this, the faith of the 7% will stagnate. It is stagnating as we speak.
  2. Jesus focused on the apostles. Yes, Jesus ministered to the crowds, preached and healed all especially the poor, but he focused on forming the apostles in a special way. In fact, Jesus said that He spoke to the crowds in parables because they “look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand” (Mt 13:13). On the other hand, with the apostles, Jesus explained the parables directly, saying to them, “blessed are your eyes, because they see and your ears, because they hear” (Mt 13:16). Everyone in the church is called to be an apostle, but the 7% are more open to that idea than the 93%, so parishes should respond to that openness.
  3. The 7% need one-on-one help. St. Francis’s most important word of advice in the Introduction to the Devout Life was to find a spiritual director. Yet, it is not common for those in the 7% to both have one and see him or her regularly. Without a spiritual director, progress in the spiritual life is slow and the more challenging aspects of the Christian life, such as poverty and humility, may never be addressed in sufficient depth. While not every parish priest is trained in this practice, could a “recommended” spiritual director be put in the bulletin? Perhaps there could be an information session on that topic where people are encouraged to find one.
  4. The 7% are open to receiving help. These seven percent are, according to Matthew Kelly, “students of Jesus and his Church, and proactively make an effort to allow his teaching to form them.” If they need more help, it’s at least in part because their leaders are not presenting them with the full picture of Christ and the life of discipleship. But, it’s not the 7%’s fault. They want help!

Practical ways to begin

Here are some suggestions that would begin to serve the spiritual needs of the 7%.

  • Oratorians often organize a “Secular Oratory” for lay people in their parish, which involves a year or more of concentrated formation and ongoing formational activities. A parish could replicated this.
  • Reading groups for spiritual classics. With the right leader, these groups can be transformative and lead people deeper into their faith.
  • Sponsor a retreat at a retreat center. Follow up with those interested in taking the next step in their spiritual life.
  • Reevaluate administrative duties. The 7% often have a lot of administrative duties related to the parish. To the extent possible, reduce administrative duties to facilitate the prayer life of the person.
  • Appoint a parish spiritual director and encourage people to try it out. Many people don’t go to spiritual direction because it is hard to find one and difficult to coordinate appointments. A parish-appointed spiritual director would make it much easier for people, so hopefully more would go to spiritual direction.
  • Encourage frequent confession and offer scheduled confession before and after as many masses as possible. It is much more challenging for a penitent to ask for confession than to go to a scheduled confession time. So, let’s make confession as easy as possible.

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