Friday 19 August 2011

A Question

I'm now at the end of my sabbatical and will be returning to the Valle Adurni in a matter of a few days. Naturally, especially once the book was finished, I have been reflecting on all sorts of things to do with the parish, and one of them worries me particularly. I would like to solicit your advice, and that of my clerical brothers especially.

A phenomenon that seems to be on the increase is that of the 'temporary convert'. What I mean is that somebody approaches me with a view to becoming a Catholic. For a year or so, he or she regularly comes to Mass, and attends all the preparation sessions where I myself do all the teaching (and I can assure you that it is thorough). I do my best to ensure that each convert has a 'friend base' in the parish; if he or she knows nobody, I try to introduce him to others and make sure that he never feels at sea. The time comes for the reception; he makes his first confession; he professes his new faith with fervour, he receives his first Communion with devotion…

And next Sunday, he's not there. He's already semi-lapsed. From time to time one may see him around; he might appear at Mass when there's nothing more interesting to do, but with decreasing frequency. Not all are like this, of course, but the proportion is scary.

I know very well that other priests experience the same thing, and no doubt they beat themselves up about it the way I do, which is why this matter is not addressed on blogs and things.

A few Sundays ago, we listened to the Parable of the Sower. And it struck me, for the first time, that this parable is mis-named; by thinking about the sower and the seed, I had missed the point that the parable is actually about the soil. If our potential converts are the seeds sown by the sower, we, the Church, are the soil in which they are planted. And is our parish thorny, stony, rich? Are we good soil in which they might grow?

So, I think that I might rejig things a bit. What if I were to begin the course with a retreat? To take people away to a monastery for a weekend, to learn how to pray before they learnt the content of the faith. I think that perhaps it is too much to assume that people will pray without lots of encouragement. And maybe if they pray, the faith will root more deeply in them. The new Catechism ends with prayer, and I have followed that pattern until now. What if I were to begin with it?

And has anyone else any good suggestions?


Thomas Beyer said...

I think one of the most effective ways to encourage a parishioner to participate more actively in the parish life is to find them a service niche. This is something Episcopalians, for example, do extremely well. There's always something to do at an Episcopalian parish, whether that be singing in the parish choir, doing sacristy duty, taking up the collection, bringing the elements forward, reading the Lessons at daily Mass, or even sweeping the Narthex floor. It makes the person feel like they have a stake in the parish, a responsibility to it.

It's even more effective if there's a group who can help hold him responsible so Father doesn't have to babysit him--a group which he'll directly disappoint should he fail to deliver.

It's like living in an old European village where if Farmer Johann didn't work hard to produce the corn for the harvest, everyone went hungry.

I did a post on my blog PopSophia recently called "Celebrating the Prosaic" about how this inter-subjective, reciprocal relationship is at the heart of a Christian communion of love.

Rita said...

Father, a few thoughts from the pew,

It may have nothing to to with the holiness of your parish or your programme of instruction. I've have a hunch that a lot depends on that all important second confession. One that too many converts never make. Too ashamed to go to the priest they've trusted to take them through reception into the Church because they're too ashamed of the speed with which they've fallen. Then, justifying to themselves that the sin is "no big deal", they drift away.

May I suggest a deanery based laminated card that fits into a wallet that has confession times of all priests in the deanery on one side and what to do in confession on the other. Make sure the "befrienders" in the parish are regular users of a confessional and are able to talk about confession in a realxed, routine sort of way.

It won't be the only reason but it might be worth thinking about...

Joseph Shaw said...

The phenomenon you've identified is very interesting - it certainly puts the statistics on receptions into perspective! I knew that people have less 'brand loyalty' these days but this goes beyond that. I'd be very interested to know what other priests have to say, but on reflection I suppose I've seen this kind of thing myself - I'm introduced to someone new to the faith, the parish, or whatever, and then they disapear: and actually this seems to happen to *most* of them.

Anonymous said...

As a convert myself, I would like to echo Rita's comments. It is extremely difficult, and humbling, to make one's first confession as an adult. The rewards, however, are great, once one gets used to it!

Anonymous said...

As a lay RCIA catechist, I understand just what you're saying because I see it myself. Some I never expect to remain committed, because they have obviously submitted merely to please a parent, or a spouse, pending or present. Others stop coming round and I have no idea if they have found another parish or have lapsed. All are truly in crisis, beset by influences temporal and spiritual. I invite them to be aware of this, and to call on the graces of their confirmation. I pray for them and have invited them to find an active place in the parish community, but I can't hold their hands 24/7. You are quite right, Father: self-reproach for the (evident) failures troubles me too.


Fr Ray Blake said...

One of my predecessors used to receive dozens here every year, in the twelve years I have been here I have not met a single one of his converts.
So maybe it is not new.

B flat said...

Father, I may have misunderstood you; forgive me if this is so.
The parable you mention is indeed about the soil, rather than the sower and the seed. The last two are consistent and one. It is the soil which is variable. The soil is ourselves individually, our hearts.
I believe the phenomenon you write of, is the shallow soil on rocky ground, and so what is sown springs up, but quickly withers and dies.

Perhaps you should include this parable in your catechesis, together with Our Lord's explanation of it. The trials of life will break down the stone of our heart and Grace will make of it a fertile soil, if we remain patient and faithful through all difficulties.

Latin Mass contact said...

I think Rita and her thoughts from the pew raise some good points.
In addition I think a regular visit to the convert's home and/or invitation to the presbytery/church after the conversion ceremony would help the neophyte/ new Catholic to feel at home and continue to feel at home.
As a child our PP was a regular visitor, as he was to all the other Catholic people in the parish. When he moved to another parish visits from his successor slowly ceased and Parish Mass attendance dropped to the point where eventually a once vibrant parish became a chapel of ease to its former sister parish.
Every soul matters.

berenike said...

The first conversation with a priest about becoming a Catholic, RCIA, the sequence of sacraments - there's always something to look forward to, something else to "achieve" (bad word, but I can't find another). Then suddenly it's all over. Nothing else to work towards. All the Spirichewal Books talk about the graces of sensible consolation that the beginner receives, and that they then dry up. I suppose the external experience of the convert is a little like that. Before one is received, there are many sensible encouragements, many things to work towards. Afterwards - boring old grey everydayness.

I think your retreat idea is a good one, to help people make that jump into the reality of the faith. A strong beginning prayer life might tide them over the dry patch of post-reception external greyness (if that is what the problem is), and a retreat is always good for dragging the psychological motivations that skulk in dark corners, into daylight.

Anagnostis said...

An interesting post, Father. Somebody on Facebook (a Catholic) was mocking the Orthodox recently for our allegedly low "retention rate" of converts in the US. It seems pretty good in my own parish, but of course we're not talking about the same sorts of numbers. Personally, I think people should be discouraged from converting until they're at least 50 and too long in the tooth to succumb either to prideful failure or busy, ideological "hobby religion" (which is, possibly, every bit as bad).

In our particular circumstances we tend to get both earnest "seekers", disaffected Christians of other communions (not the same thing), and people one suspects are going through the motions for family (i.e. marriage)reasons, in roughly equal proportions. We take an equally uncompromising line with all of them.

- What are you looking for? If it isn't Jesus Christ (as He really is) you're simply wasting your time.

- In order to find out what you're looking for, you will have to spend a period of preparation (purification), honestly confronting your sins, passions and addictions and beginning to keep the commandments as the basic, minimal condition of proceeding further.

- During this period you must begin to read Scripture regularly, especially the Gospels, to fast, pray, and participate as far as you are able in the Church services.

- Reception is the beginning, not the end, of your journey. You can't put on Orthodoxy like a new suit of clothes. It isn't an ideology or an argument. If you're looking for a refuge from the disorders in your present communion, understand that you'll certainly run into another set of disorders here. This is not Catholicism-minus-the-Pope, nor Protestantism-with-liturgy. All of your existing theological baggage - ALL OF IT - however hardly won or insouciantly worn - goes overboard, without exception.

- and so on and so forth. Catechesis begins with the person of Jesus Christ. We don't discuss in detail the Sacraments, the Holy Trinity, the Theotokos or any of the "inner Mysteries" until the Gospel of Christ's victory over death has been exhaustively delivered.

Marianne said...

Father, I am a catechetical co-ordinatorand work closely with the priest responsible for RCIA. We run a pre-catechumenate, enquiry sessions all year round. This is our 'soil preparation', an unlimited time, minimum ten-twelve weeks. Some stay in this group for two years, we look for genuine signs of conversion, encouraging them to come to a particular Sunday Mass accompanied by catechists ( all fully trained, Maryvale graduates), and integrating them into parish life. An individual enters the catechumenate when he is ready to genuinely declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and continues to speak through the holy Catholic Church etc etc. Some have been coming to Mass for years with Catholic spouse, others have no Christian experience at all - we have had Muslim, Bhuddist, Hindu etc converts. Each individual has regular one to one meetings with the priest. As you so rightly point out, prayer is so important and begins in the enquiry period, increasing in the catechumenate- we teach them how to pray and include all forms as part of the catechesis. In reading the Church's documents one sees that the whole process of the RCIA is for the sake of conversion and includes three essential components- the catechetical, the liturgical (using all the rites of the RCIA) and the pastoral. Although we provide everything we can, faithfully incorporating all that Church asks of us, continuing catechesis in a neo-phyte year, opportunities for spiritual growth through Retreats and prayer groups, encouragement to partcipate in charitable outreach, pro- life initiatives, social activities etc etc some still lapse to different degrees. In the end there is free will and the evil one targets them. I don't think there is any one cause or answer, it is a perrenial problem. May I recommend this article from the Association of Catechumenal Ministry, a group from the USA who I have worked with and who are involved in the new Maryvale RCIA training programme.They highlight some of the main reasons for lapsation.

Anonymous said...

Do the "temporary converts" expect too much. After entering the Church, do they expect immediately to be carried around on a cloud surrounded by cherubim? Even the Apostles did some long, hard slogging up and down the mountains of Palestine.


Ben Whitworth said...

After I was received into the Church with several other people at the Easter Vigil (at the London Oratory), we had a few follow-up meetings afterwards (grandly called Mystagogy) and a celebratory dinner at Whitsuntide. It just gave us a bit of extra support in those first few weeks when the stabilisers had been taken off, and a chance to ask those awkward questions which, for whatever reason, we never quite had the confidence to bring up before we were 'home & dry'.

Catholicus said...

Given that no other priests seem to share your experience, it would appear that you are simply a very bad priest!

Pastor in Monte said...

So it would appear.

Fr Ray Blake said...

I think Catholicus is troll.

Lapsing converts is certainly one of the things our deanery discusses, at least over lunch.

In a way Catholicus is right, we are all bad priests, but then we are also bad Chistians and bad converts.

Maybe Anog. is right, first of all we should search for conversion of heart before we begin formal catechesis. Perhaps the problem is indeed general badness, that actually needs addressing, and also a real ardent desire for Christ.

Pastor in Monte said...

Catholicus may well be droll, but is he right?

Anagnostis said...

No, he isn't, but even if he was, it's not what matters. The priest isn't responsible for everything!

Consenting to discuss the Blessed Virgin, or the filioque, or the Philokalia with people who are still going home and logging on to porn sites, or shouting and swearing at their spouses, or thieving from their employers is not only wrong, it's absolutely absurd. Until one has resolutely embarked on the process of purification none of these things can be approached in the spirit necessary even to begin to understand them. Similarly, "philosophical preparation" is not only totally unnecessary, it runs the risk, in the absence of purification, of communicating ideological "religion" merely.

People first encountered Jesus as a Jewish man, Israel's messiah - not the "pre-existent Logos" (we don't let people discuss St John's Gospel until after baptism). Christianity appears on earth first as an announcement of the King's victory over sin and death. That's the necessary taxis ("order") of things. I always make prospective converts read the Gospel of St Mark at least twice - that stark, apocalyptic confrontation of Good and evil, Life and death - then we go on to the prophesies and the old Testament types and figures, with allusions to the Divine Liturgy as they arise. I had one very rough and ready, hard-drinking English builder who was "marrying a Greek girl" - who took to this approach like a duck to water. He expected to be bored. It had never occurred to him that Jesus was someone before whom grown men fell flat on their faces, or that the primordial tragedy underlying everything was death itself. He's now plus Orthodox comme sa femme!

berenike said...

I happened on extracts from a memoir describing a Russian congregation of Dominican sisters, working in a Byzantine-rite Catholic parish in Moscow between the wars. Here's what it says about the reception of converts:

A great deal was demanded in our parish of those coming home to the Catholic church. Men were instructed by the parish priest, women by a sister or by the Mother Superior. Care of the new Catholics did not cease after their reception. The sisters visited the newly received women at home, gave them reading material, talked with them. Male converts were visited at the parish priest's request by older parishioners. The parish priest laid a moral obligation on each convert not to restrict himself to the catechism, but to study Catholic teaching further. [The sisters translated into Russian all manner of Catholic texts, and made several copies of each, which among other things were lent to converts.]

John L said...

I can't understand this phenomenon. I am a convert myself and after the difficulty involved in thinking though conversion and making the decision to do it, lapsing just was not on my mental landscape. Maybe coming from regular Anglican practice to regular Catholic practice made a difference, as no new moral issues arose; there was just the pleasant surprise of finding moral struggles easier with more means of grace.

Anonymous said...

I am saddened by your post because I, as a convert of some years standing, had no idea of this problem. I simply don't understand how, or why, lapsation should occur so early. It is beyond me.I can only suggest some possible reasons.

1) Perhaps some converts feel that they should worship (for whatever reason) in other parishes than the one in which they were received and thereby effectively disappear into the relative anonymity of a new setting.

2) Years ago I remember that one of the reasons given by Anglo-Catholic clerics for disuading prospective converts was to say that, if things did not go well, there was a danger of atheism.
Maybe that problem is now anachronistic because converts within this category would have come from a solid doctrinal background. Today this is less likely and converts come from many religious backgrounds, or none.

But I think the problem might be real for some. To enter the Church means embracing the fullness of truth. There is nothing to equal it. But should a convert experience a subsequent crisis of
faith it is going to be difficult to find anything else to fill it and lapsation may stem from this or a similar cause. But surely not so early?

3) Confession is one of the principle graces and consolations of the Catholic life. But I wonder if converts for whom this is a new experience think it is optional because of the chasm of unfrequented confessionals and the conspicuouness this might engender. Perhaps, like many Catholicis these days, they go to confession in strange churches in order to preserve their anonymity. I rememer having my knuckles rapt by an Opus Dei priest for not going to my parish priest, implying that I lacked true penence and humility. His presence in the confessional was, in this case, inadvertent but he had a point.

4 Converts always remain converts, never quite Catholics. Gushing women say, 'This is John Brown, a convert, you know.' years after being received. It is part of bearing the cost. I am constantly being reminded that I am a convert once it has leaked out. Those who persist in this mentality have no idea how galling it is for converts, but how ill-mannered. All sincere converts want to be is Catholics, nothinh more, nothing less. Forgive me for being crude, but years ago I rudely responded that I would rather be seen as a convert than as a 'crap in the cradle Catholic' of the Tablet-reading persuasion.

5 Maybe some converts find the Catholic life too hard and simply give up.

These are only superficial suggestions, nothing more, but I am distressed that convert lapsation appears to be more frequent than I could have possibly imagined. I think it is emblematic of the unseriousness of present time.

Anonymous said...

Re-reading my previous post I am appalled by the number of spelling mistakes and liererals that infest it. It was written hurriedly before lunch.

But all I want to say, is that for some converts, being regarded as a convert rather than a Catholic is not part of the cost, but the cross. Whatever sensible consolations converts receive (and they are many) bearing the cross is part of the cost of conversion.

MC Man said...

I think that the problem is not so much the Priest as the parish environment,the cliques who monopolise parish life with their endless commitees on Liturgy etc many of them set in a post Vatican 2 liberal way of worship, boring hymn selections at sunday Mass, unwillingness to help organise occasional chidrens Mass .Neither appealing to the younger familys or the Catholic with more traditional views,Converts coming into the Church expecting to find reverance in church, good liturgy,stimulating music, (chant or more modern music) often get a shock so they shop around to find some where they will feel more comfortable I dont think a Retreat will help on its own,the overall parish experience needs to be better.

Anagnostis said...

I was thinking today about a nice young lad, liberally tattooed and pierced, who came over to us a year or so ago. After reading this post it struck me that I hadn't remembered seeing him for a few weeks. Before leaving church, I ducked into the altar and there he was, on his hands and knees, hoovering.

john-of-hayling said...

Father, an argument by analogy: suppose you lived in a town in the middle of the A&B diocese - say Crawley. You are also a football fan - you could attend decent matches at Crawley Town along with a few hundred fellow fans. But - that is not 'cool' - you want to be on the winning side - so you buy a Man U strip and parade around Sainsbury's and watch the boys on Sky. Your disappearing converts could be like that. They have picked out Papa Benedict's team as the winners (-the Pope in the role played by Sir Alec!) - they want to join, but then find that they are expected to keep turning up!

berenike said...

Have any of these comments been of any interest or use, Father? Or are there points that you think are not what you are looking for for one reason or another? I'd be interested to know. I just had a phone call from a sister who studied theology with me and who is now working in schools as a catechist, and very discouraged. I thought about this post and comments thread as we spoke.

Pastor in Monte said...

Yes, several points have struck me, and I shall be thinking about them a lot.
I do not believe that I am the only priest with this experience: I have often heard it spoken of.
But I am very aware that I am going to have to do something about it. I must try to remember to report back.

berenike said...

I forgot to mention: I'm most intrigued by the neocats (or "neons", as the Polish nickname has it).

They seem to have some amazing conversions, and ongoing ones - people really grow. I went to a series of open catecheses they run in my parish every year, and was very impressed by their presentation of the point of Christianity without either using churchy jargon or (I though, anyway, but I think I'm less sensitive to that sort of thing in Polish) being slick and Christian-Union-y. I hope I am organised enough to go again this year, but this time taking notes!

I hae ma many and serious doots about them, but I think there is a lot to be learned.

Anonymous said...

To begin with a contemplative retreat is an excellent idea as it would take people away from the ‘secular’ into the ‘spiritual’ world.

I think if you come from a ‘faithless’ environment it is hard to learn how to pray and even harder to consistently place God at the centre of your life.

I converted - but in hindsight it was a very shallow, thoughtless and therefore superficial conversion easily undermined by the distractions of the perceived ‘real world’.

I found a six weekly trip to a Spiritual Director succeeded in focusing my mind on spiritual matters – maybe your converts would benefit from a Spiritual Director from the very beginning.

Pastor in Monte said...

That is the sort of first hand testimony I was hoping for. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

My pleasure - I found Ladywell Convent a rich source of retreat, spirituality and direction.

oenophile said...

An acquaintance of mine who had no religion decided to become a Catholic. He went to instruction with a priest who, while good and orthodox, perhaps failed to recognise the extent of this young man's ignorance, and the possibility that his motives were a mixture of the social and the aesthetic. The catechumen didn't challenge anything he was told, didn't ask much by way of questions, and was eventually baptised.

This despite his being a practising Freemason with zero intention of quitting the Craft, who would subsequently express indignation when challenged about it by friends (Catholic and non-Catholic). The same chap, it soon became clear, also had an enduring appetite for obscene conversation, which he showed little inclination to abandon.

Result? Merely occasional Mass attendance within the year, and a lot of non-Catholics informed that "I'm a Roman Catholic" by someone simultaneously recruiting for the local Lodge and talking filth.

I don't know how many of the lapsed in such circumstances are guilty of outright deceit of this kind. I suspect most aren't, though I don't doubt that mixed motives often play a role. What I am certain of is that - barring a more intensive examination of candidates, which is unlikely to help with the habitually dishonest - priests should not blame themselves for such cases.

People can, and frequently do, choose to squander the graces God has given them.