Parting Thoughts on Formation in the Aparecida Document

brazil-popeFor several weeks we have been examining chapter 6 of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” Before we close this chapter, and move on to the third main part of the document, some thoughts on putting this into practice.

My feeling coming away from this chapter is that there’s so much important work to be done . . . and I’m not sure how to do it. What can we do?

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Some of us are directly engaged in the institutions considered as “places of formation for missionary disciples”: I am the head of a “family, first school of faith” I teach in a Seminary and a Catholic University.

But even in those institutions, it isn’t always easy to know how to promote formation. This chapter, for example, insisted on the importance of “initiation to Christian life.” Although my wife and I try to do a lot, it is striking to discover how difficult it is to get into our children’s souls. They sometimes tell me that they pray outside of family prayer times, but I don’t really know; I don’t know how engaged they are. (And, as Flannery O’Connor said, “stories of pious children tend to be false”: patting ourselves on the back for the games our children play or the sweet things they say is not the same as really forming them in the faith.)

This is all the more difficult in the university. I am fortunate to be able to proclaim Christ in my classroom – but how do I bring them to an actual encounter? I can talk about moral obligations, but how do I promote real moral conversion? I can talk about a lot of things: but ultimately, we are dealing with other people’s souls. And not only, as with my children, do I not have access to their wills, but in other contexts, I don’t even have access to most of their lives. I don’t know what goes on when they leave my classroom.

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I feel this all the more acutely as we move into other areas, like the parish and “small ecclesial communities.” It is easy – and perhaps helpful – to daydream about a really lively parish, where people are really initiated and formed as Christians. But in practice, priests are busy, I have put on events in our little parish that no one comes to, and even when I help with formation events in more lively parishes, there’s still the question of how you get people in the door, how you get them to listen, and how you get them to actually embrace what we are teaching.

We attend our neighborhood parish, in the belief that investing in a less-than-perfect parish is a witness to our faith in the truth of the sacraments, our fidelity to the Church, and our call to mission. But the weaknesses of our parish make it all the harder to get any great programs going. I respect those who go out of their way to find better parishes, but I’m not sure it solves the problem. Still the question is how to initiate those who are not initiated, and form those who are not formed. Abandoning the weak doesn’t solve much, and even in a great parish, there remain many who do not want to go any deeper than they have already gone.

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What to do? (This is a pep talk for me as much as for my readers.)

First, we can attend to our own formation. We can keep always before our eyes our own call to encounter with Christ, moral conversion, discipleship in Christ’s teaching, communion with other disciples, and mission – and continued development on the intellectual, spiritual, missionary, and communal levels. We cannot give what we do not have. If we work at our own formation, we never know what opportunities may present themselves, even in casual conversations.

Second, we can do what we can. Think of the music director. There’s only so much he can do, for example, to promote moral conversion, and drive people to confession. But he can do that: he can choose hymns with challenging texts, and the tunes he believes will draw people higher instead of coddling their complacency.

We too should do what we can. Last Sunday I chatted after Mass with an older woman, very nice, but not very fervent. What can I do to promote her formation? I can witness, by occasional words and by my public actions, my love of Christ, the moral transformation that love has brought about in my life, my commitment to the Church. Sometimes that seems like not very much. But at all times, we just have to do what we can.

Setting aside big programs, what are little ways that you can promote integral formation in your parish?

eric.m.johnston

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