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Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron addresses the 2015 World Meeting of Families in 2015. Barron’s core contention is that the Catholic faith is beautiful. CNS photo/Jeffrey Bruno

The Mustard Seed: Beauty of the Church isn’t found in rules

  • December 12, 2017
Living a Christian life, too often seen as adherence to a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” is better understood as creative participation in the artistry of the Holy Spirit. Each of us is given a mission in God’s eternal plan, a mission we are called to carry out with love, creativity and joy.

Over the years, I have grown convinced that the manner in which we present Catholic moral teaching pushes more people away from our faith than it draws toward it. 

In my previous column in The Register — which focused on the debate over sex education in Alberta Catholic schools — I said the best Catholic teaching is not legalistic, but invitational. We ought to call believers and non-believers to the fullness of life in Christ more than steering them away from the path to perdition.

Since then, I have read much of the new book by Bishop Robert Barron, America’s foremost evangelizer, co-authored with Catholic journalist John Allen. In To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, Barron maintains he wants to draw people to Catholic faith and practice because it is so beautiful, good and true “that your life will be infinitely better because of it.”

Many people today, he says, find an emphasis on the true and good to be off-putting. Emphasizing the true and the good is often seen as a way to control the beliefs and actions of free human beings.

Barron’s core contention is that the Catholic faith is beautiful. The art and architecture it has produced are also beautiful. He wagers once people encounter that beauty, they will want to know what made it possible.

“A huge swath of Catholics” only know the rules of being Catholic, he says; they have not experienced the beauty of the faith. Because of that, our efforts to promote and defend the faith fall flat. We offer defences of moral norms rather than a poetry which expresses our love for Jesus and His Church. Internal Church discussions often become wrangles over sex and authority.

“I don’t want to be part of the outrage machine,” Barron says. “You have to begin with the positive.”

Who would sign up for a club fraught with internal dissension? People flock from our churches with only a relative few seeking to enter.

Despite the comforting belief that people will return when they marry or want their children baptized, Barron doesn’t buy it. They’re not coming home.

During my own recent candidacy for the Edmonton Catholic school board, I visited several parishes. One conclusion I drew is that our local Church is in good shape largely because of the number of Asian and African immigrants who now populate the pews. 

I am also impressed with the young Canadian-born Catholics who offer new energy to parishes. They articulate the faith with greater fluency than my contemporaries and I did at their age. But the numbers of the young pale in comparison with that of the old-timers who have died or are in deep retirement. 

For the Catholic faith to be a vibrant contributor to Canadian culture, it should be painted with brushstrokes that attract rather than alienate. Promotion of an encounter with Jesus is the foundation for all enduring faith. We need to tell the grand love story which has enraptured millions over the Church’s 2,000 years. Only once souls have been touched by the beauty of Jesus Christ will they become eager to delve into the truths and way of life which draws us nearer to Him. But as long as the cart drags the horse, our journey will be slow and uncomfortable.

Nor is effective evangelization a means for packing the pews. Western culture is dying the slow death which is inevitable when its spiritual dimension is neglected or destroyed. Unlike the fall of Rome, we will not have to wait for the barbarian hordes to storm the gates. The barbarians are already here, fast gaining in power and influence.

The Holy Spirit waits in the wings, eager to light a fire on the Earth. For that fire to burn, some of us need to strike a match. Barron is one of the matchstick lighters, casting light, not on the moral law but on the beauty of the Catholic faith, the beauty that can draw our fellow men and women into a love affair with Jesus.

(Argan is a writer in Edmonton.)

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