As a growing number of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation, it becomes ever more crucial for those who know the Lord Jesus to witness to what His death on the cross accomplished and what His Resurrection means: life, freedom, hope and peace.
As of 2021, about three in 10 Americans, according to Pew Research, claimed to have no religion. Indeed, self-identified Christians in the U.S. are down to 63 percent, a drop from 75 percent just 12 years ago.
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is the difference between knowing about our Lord Jesus and actually knowing Him personally.
Sherry Weddell, a convert to Catholicism and author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The path to knowing and following Jesus, delivered a stunner when I met her a few years ago. She said her research revealed that huge numbers of Catholics don’t think it’s even possible to have a personal relationship with Christ.
And that, my friends, is mind-blowing.
It’s also tragic, because if what we practice is all just a habit or an intellectual endeavor, then the future of Catholicism looks pretty bleak. Oh sure, you need to be catechetically formed (a big thank you to all our catechists) but if a personal encounter with Christ isn’t part of a believer’s life, sooner or later, faith starts to wither.
It’s sort of like attending the obligatory birthday party for Great Aunt Josephine: You have to be there, but you plot an early escape. You don’t really know her — you never experienced her love and don’t understand what it means to be related to her — so the gathering seems, well, unimportant. You’ve got better ways to spend your free time.
Do you see where this is going?
And this is where small groups of Catholics, gathering in the home around God’s Word, can make all the difference. Christ in Our Neighborhood, an evangelization program developed by Bishop John P. Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix, invites Catholics to meet for one hour, once a week, to pray through and discuss the upcoming Sunday Mass readings. All the resources are free and downloadable at dphx.org/Christ-in-our-neighborhood.
One of the things that’s so genius about this program is the kind of questions it poses week after week. The Gospel reflection question for Easter Sunday, for example, asks, “What difference has the Resurrection made in my life?”
Now for some people, that’s going to be a slam dunk. You might hear: “I used to be a bitter, angry person who didn’t care about anyone but myself. Then my life fell apart and I lost everything. Finally, I turned to God. You bet I’ve experienced that Resurrection power!”
For others, it’s a bit more daunting. I think if we’re honest, a lot of us might say that we’re not sure the Resurrection has made a difference in our lives. Or we’ve just never thought about it in those terms because our faith consists of simply doing as we have always done since childhood. We haven’t made a conscious decision to follow Christ and surrender our lives to Him. Maybe no one ever invited us to do so.
Going through the motions only works for so long. And I think that’s some of what we’re seeing in America. It’s not that people have such a quarrel with Christianity or Catholicism; they’re simply indifferent to it because it seems irrelevant.
If we look at the early Church, we see the early believers “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42.)
Notice the key phrase “communal fellowship.” Those who witnessed the resurrected Christ or who were evangelized by those who had, lived their faith in the context of community. When we share our lives — our doubts, our struggles, our joys and our fears with other believers — we grow in faith. Gathered as one in small communities, sharing God’s Word, our walk with Christ is supported and encouraged.
My heart is troubled by all the division right now in our world and in our Church. If we’re not careful, we can let polemics and controversy take over our minds and hearts, losing touch with the reality of God’s loving presence among us. He is truly present in every tabernacle and at every Mass.
In a total act of self-giving, the Savior of the world gave His Body and every drop of His Blood to redeem us; He makes the love of that self-giving present on the altar at every Mass, even if the liturgy or the music or the homily isn’t quite what we prefer.
Because to know Jesus is to know that He transcends all that. He’s bigger than all our controversies and debates. He is King of the Universe. Knowing that, and trusting in Him, we place all our problems and worries at the foot of His cross, knowing that He has defeated sin and death. And He invites each of us to know Him more fully, more personally, more intimately. He invites us to reform our lives and follow Him along the narrow way.
We can do that more easily when we’re regularly in fellowship with other believers who pray for us, encourage us, and share our burdens. The bonds forged in small groups centered on faith in Christ help build stronger disciples and in turn, stronger, more vibrant parishes,
God is calling each of us to continually draw near to Him so that we can know Him, so that we can share His love, His peace and His joy with the world. If you’re not involved in a Christ in Our Neighborhood small group yet, sign up here and become part of this movement that is revitalizing our faith and our parish communities.