One of the joys of Easter is witnessing the entrance of new sisters and brothers into the Catholic Church. Just like beaming newlyweds remind older married couples of when they first fell in love, these new Catholics remind us what a precious gift our Faith really is. But what happens when the celebration fades into memory and the challenges of being an active Catholic in today’s world kick in?
Sadly, what often happens is that new Catholics grow discouraged and drift away from the Church they had been so excited to join. Fresh from the community experience of the RCIA process, they suddenly feel themselves isolated and anonymous in their new parish. No one reaches out to welcome them or invite them to something or get to know them. No one seems to miss them when they’re not there on Sunday. They’re like Saint Paul waiting for Ananias.
Now, it is true that we don’t know exactly how many have this experience and walk away. No national surveys have been done. But the anecdotal evidence is undeniable. Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, has heard a ton of it. “We know,” she writes, “that many converts ultimately ‘drown’ in the vast, lonely Catholic ocean.” Isolation is unhealthy for anyone’s faith, but it’s fatal to the faith of the brand new Catholic.
This is why overcoming isolation – spiritual accompaniment and fostering a deep sense of “belonging” – is at the heart of evangelization.
Pope Francis calls this building a “culture of encounter.” As he said in his homily at Madison Square Garden last year, God the Father “frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness, and brings us to the school of encounter.” The school of encounter: that is what our parish is called to become.
As with everything in the Christian life, we can only give what we ourselves have already received. “When we go to proclaim Christ,” the Pope told the young people at World Youth Day in Rio, “it is he himself who goes before us and guides us. When he sent his disciples on mission, he promised: ‘I am with you always’ (Mt 28:20). And this is also true for us! Jesus does not leave us alone, he never leaves you alone! He always accompanies you.”
What he then says to the priests who were there accompanying the young people could have been addressed to those of us who have accompanied our new sisters and brothers throughout the RCIA process, and who have welcomed them into the Church:
“You have come to accompany your young people, and this is wonderful, to share this experience of faith with them! But it is a stage on the journey. Please continue to accompany them with generosity and joy, help them to become actively engaged in the Church; never let them feel alone!”
In The Joy of the Gospel, he addresses this call to each one of us:
“The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.”
“Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow. … Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples.”
It doesn’t take much:
- a smile and kind word of welcome
- a simple invitation to a parish event, bible study, prayer group, or outreach ministry
- an introduction to peers in the parish to help them establish faith-based friendships
- an inquiry into any needs they might have that require prayer or any other kind of support
But it can make the difference between a new Catholic sister or brother finding fullness of life in the parish as a missionary disciple, or leaving and becoming another sobering statistic. Let’s resolve this year “to accompany them with generosity and joy,” to “help them to become actively engaged in the Church,” and no matter what happens, to never, ever, “let them feel alone!”
What are you doing in your parish to accompany your sisters and brothers who entered the Church this Easter?