Finding New Portals for Faith: Toward Pastoral Care of "Nones"

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Finding New Portals for Faith: Toward Pastoral Care of "Nones"

Sister Marie Kolbe Zamora


This article is designed to help the reader reflect on St. Paul's attitude and methodology as a missionary disciple in the discourse he gave at the Areopagus and then apply this attitude and methodology to today's situation. The title "Finding New Portals for Faith" Toward Pastoral Care of 'Nones'" proposes the principal take away from the article, i.e. like St. Paul we must be alert to discerning unexpected portals to faith within the very structure of thecity full of idols.

Learning from the New Testament

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. […]Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:16, 22–23)1

This illustrious text may well be one of the best places in the New Testament from which to draw wisdom regarding how the Catholic Church might pastorally care for the ever-growing category of religiously unaffiliated persons called "Nones." What can we glean from this text?

First, the citation began with verse 16 in order to remember the "exasperation" that even the great Apostle Paul felt at the presence of a "city full of idols." Our own exasperation at our own "city full of idols" finds us in good company. In fact, Jesus Christ promises his own comfort to those who "mourn" all that which is contrary to his Father's plan (Matthew 5:4). If, like St. Paul, we can live our own "mourning" in the key of a missionary disciple, our "mourning" in the Spirit will move us to find ways to connect with those who have joined the "city of idols."

Second, we see St. Paul roaming pre-Gospel Athens; that is, we see St. Paul in the city full of idols. In other words, St. Paul did not wait for believers to come to him. Driven by the conviction that Jesus Christ was the only one in whom all of humanity could be saved, St. Paul moved beyond the boundaries of his religious community and deliberately placed himself in dialogue with those who lived in the city full of idols.

Third, and this is genius: the very thing (idols) that had exasperated St. Paul served, in the end, to build a bridge between the Gospel he preached and his listeners. In the proliferation of idols throughout their city, St. Paul discerned that the Athenians were, in fact, a very religious people. So attentive was he to their pagan religious practice that he noticed a shrine "to an Unknown God," a shrine that would have been missed by someone who chose to be distracted by his exasperation: "What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you."

St. Paul began his famous discourse in the Areopagus by praising the Athenians for their religiosity, using this religiosity as a portal into a conversation about the one living and true God who "does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands." (Acts 17.24) St. Paul even enlists the help of pagan poets to help him communicate the message that we have been become sons and daughters of God. (Acts 17.28)   

Applying the New Testament

New City Full of Idols

We live in a new city full of idols. A materialist approach to life has, in many (if not most) public sectors, eliminated the possibility to think about or discuss non-material reality. Pew research has indicated that many of those who self-identify as "nones" say that a "lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention 'science' as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said 'I'm a scientist now, and I don't believe in miracles.'"2 Anecdotal experience of youth in the college classroom indicates that youth arrive at College more unable than unwilling to discuss non-material reality such as the soul and God. However, youth love to speak and express themselves. Once youth are helped to see that words are, essentially non-material realities that are linked to other non-material realities called thoughts, the doors to speaking about the soul and God begin to open. It is simply a matter of discerning the door in the culture that can serve as the portal to faith (or pre-faith, in this case).

"Nones" Within and Beyond the Church's Boundary

St. Paul's commitment to moving beyond the borders of his religious community in order to "seek and save the lost" moved him to deliver his discourse at the Areopagus. It seems evident that those who identify as "Nones" are probably not going to be coming to any form of parish catechesis or faith formation. Are we willing to move beyond the borders of our religious community to meet the "Nones" on their own ground? Are we prayerfully discerning those within our faith community who, like Silas and Timothy, have been given the gift to evangelize and are we willing to support them in their efforts which will more than likely be un-conventional?

As devoted Catholics / Christians, we are often disturbed that "the young" and / or "the world" do not "understand Christian teaching". We spend much time arguing with one another and "the world" over our definitions (both dogmatic and moral). The assumption we make in these arguments is that if "they" understood our definitions and teachings, "they" would agree with us regarding what is right and wrong, live moral lives and fulfill God's will. In reality, however, not only is "the world" not paying attention to the Church's definitions, but the world actually seems to be deriding us as we wring our hands over the non-acceptance of our definitions. The "Grey's Anatomy" generation is not interested in our definitions; definitions are not their point of departure; LIFE and life's experiences are this generation's point of departure.

We in the Catholic Church have probably become too comfortable with taking theological definitions as the starting point for our understanding of faith. This has been the case for over a thousand years, and it is consummately present in the work of the great scholastic theologians St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. Those of us who belong to "The Greatest Generation" or the "Baby-Boomer" generation have been formed to first learn definitions and then to apply them to life. If, however, we wish to reach "Generation X", "Generation Y" or the "Millennials", we need the courage to rethink our situation and embrace this paradigmatic shift. Like God in the Incarnation and like St. Paul, we must be willing to communicate ourselves according the mode of those who receive our message and not according to the modes with which we are comfortable.

To help us embrace this paradigmatic shift away, I would like to focus for a moment on two texts from John's Gospel:

John 10:10  I came so that they might have life (zoe) and have it more abundantly.

John 14:6   Jesus said to him, "I am the way and the truth and the life (zoe). No one comes to the Father except through me.

If Jesus, "the way, the truth and the life", came that we might "have life" (i.e. zoe-life / divine life), then the Gospel and the transformation of life the Gospel makes possible are exactly what this generation seeks, even though they may  not recognize it. "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23)." Have we failed to be examples of the transformation / divinization that "zoe" life makes possible and so have failed to love the "Grey's Anatomy" generation? And in failing to love this generation, have we failed to introduce them to the transformational life and love of the Lord Jesus?

Toward Pastoral Care of "Nones"

If we are to pastorally care for "nones", one major insight3 to keep in mind is the paradigmatic shift in the culture away from definitions and toward experience. Relational experience must become our point of departure as we pastorally engage "nones" – even in the classroom. We must learn to teach the Nicene Creed in the key of relationship and we must earn a hearing for our teaching by conveying a real experience of love for those to whom we speak.

The caution[4] that this essay offers is related to the insight: as missionary disciples, we do well to avoid approaching "nones" with anything that can be perceived as an ulterior motive. We must engage the humanity of each relationship on its own terms and through the genuineness of our friendship, introduce others to a life changing relationship with Jesus Christ. This seems to be fully in line with Catechesis trandendae and the GCD: "The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ."5And isn't this the goal of Catechesis?

Jesus Christ's "didactic" example is this essay's recommendation for a best practice6. In the Gospels we see Jesus asking far more questions than he is asked; and of all the questions he is asked (near 200), he might have answered 10 of them.7 The asking of questions that invite a person into dialogue with what is being taught (a skill that must be learned) creates space in which transformation, and not merely the exchange of information, can happen. Maybe we need to become comfortable with asking "Catholic Questions"?

[1] All Scripture is cited from the Vatican's website,, accessed 27 February 2018

[2] "Why America's 'nones' left religion behind," at, accessed 27 February 2018. For an article that cites CARA research, see also

[3] For all the baptized, Parish Catechists, Diocesan Leadership who set expectations for Catechists

[4] For all the baptized, especially Parish Catechists

[5] The General Catechetical Directory, 80 citing Catechesis trandendae, 5, at

[6] For those who teach (Catechists, High School Teachers, College Teachers); also for Pastoral Ministers

[7] In this regard, see, for example Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question, Abingdon Press, 2014. I am unaware of a Catholic contribution to this topic.


Sister Marie Kolbe Zamora is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. She earned a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, is chair of the Department of Theology and Ministry at Silver Lake College, and collaborates extensively with the Diocese of Green Bay in the leadership formation of missionary disciples.