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
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
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?
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."
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.
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."
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)
the New Testament
City Full of Idols
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
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?
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.
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?
Pastoral Care of "Nones"
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.
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
isn't this the goal of Catechesis?
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"?
All Scripture is cited from the Vatican's website, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/__PYB.HTM#-43K,
accessed 27 February 2018
"Why America's 'nones' left religion behind," at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/,
accessed 27 February 2018. For an article that cites CARA research, see also https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/Story/TabId/2672/ArtMID/13567/ArticleID/20512/Young-people-are-leaving-the-faith-Heres-why.aspx.
For all the baptized, Parish Catechists, Diocesan Leadership who set
expectations for Catechists
For all the baptized, especially Parish Catechists
The General Catechetical Directory, 80 citing Catechesis trandendae, 5, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_17041998_directory-for-catechesis_en.html.
For those who teach (Catechists, High School Teachers, College Teachers); also
for Pastoral Ministers
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