WELLESLEY — Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley was the keynote speaker at Boston College’s “Handing on the Faith” conference, Sept. 17. The event was attended by around 250 people who listened to the hour-long speech that was followed by a question-and-answer session with the archbishop.
The event was held at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley to avoid a crowd of almost 40,000 attending a football game on the BC campus that evening.
“Passing on the faith is not an option, it is an imperative,” the archbishop said in his address.
His speech touched on a variety of aspects related to transmitting faith to the next generation, with particular emphasis on the need for evangelization and for Catholics to be credible witnesses of the faith.
Noting that God charged Israel with the Great Commandment, the Shema, that includes the requirement to pass on faith to their children, the archbishop said the experience of Pentecost was key to understanding the requirements of passing on faith.
“[It] requires the courageous proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, a call to conversion, an invitation to discipleship, and a challenge to be on fire with a mission received from the Risen Lord,” he said.
“It is not enough to be spiritual, as people like to say today. Pentecost is not about a religion of the warm fuzzies. It is about answering a call to be part of something bigger than ourselves,” he emphasized.
Throughout his address, the archbishop stressed the importance of prayer.
“Faith without prayer is a contradiction; it is information, it is doctrine, it is history, it is not faith,” he said.
“Discipleship is about living with Christ, in a faith community striving to model our lives on His teaching and example and then to pass on the faith,” the archbishop continued.
Commenting on the Didache, a first century book commonly referred to as the first summary of Christian doctrine, Archbishop O’Malley explained that teaching the faith is always a process of mentoring. In the early Church the Didache, which means “training,” was memorized by mentors who used it to instruct catechumens.
“We are not transmitting our own theories or notions but speaking — and hopefully witnessing — the word of God, the word of life that cannot be received as we hear information. The mentor was expected to illustrate, inquire, question, listen and challenge the candidate in such ways, that not only the words but the deeper meanings of the way of life were being suitably assimilated at every step,” Archbishop O’Malley told the audience.
“They also prepared their novices for the rejection by their friends, relatives and by the dominant culture which was hostile to the Gospel teachings,” he added.
The archbishop continued, “In today’s world, evangelization must be Didache, training, in a way of life which is increasingly alien in the secular world where our concern about unborn children or the sacredness of marriage makes us appear quaint or even nettlesome.”
Speaking about the need of adult faith formation, Archbishop O’Malley praised the apostolic movements “for their success at communicating a deep spirituality to their members in the context of close-knit communities.”
He said the movements energize their people to be evangelizers.
“Our challenge in the new evangelization is to transform secularized Christians into apostles and evangelizers,” he stressed.
During the question and answer session, the archbishop was asked about the need to reach out to the great number of young adults studying in the Boston area. The archbishop, after crediting some programs already experiencing success, acknowledged that evangelizing college students was “a great challenge,” and hoped that the apostolic movements will also help to reach “our young people” in Boston.
He cited the group Communion and Liberation as an example of an organization that has been able to inspire large numbers of Catholic youth. He recalled his recent address to around 5,000 youth in Rimini, Italy where, according to the archbishop, 700,000 youth meet for a week every summer to participate in debates, concerts, speeches organized by that international movement.
The archbishop devoted a portion of his speech to identifying the three main groups that are the focus of the new evangelization: Active parishioners, the unchurched and the inactive Catholics.
He stressed the importance of the RCIA in reaching out to the unchurched.
He also said the Church needs to help active parishioners to have “a deeper understanding of the faith and enjoy the richness of the Scriptures, the Catechism, the social encyclicals, the spiritual masters and the tradition of the Church,” he said.
But, the archbishop said, the greatest challenge the Church faces in its task of evangelization is reaching out to inactive Catholics.
“There are at least 17 million in the U.S. who, for reasons great or small, have stormed off, dozed off or simply fallen through the cracks.”
The archbishop said it is important to use the sacramental celebrations inactive Catholics may still participate in — Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals — “to make them feel welcomed and at home.”
“There needs to be discussion at the level of parish councils, archdiocesan pastoral councils, priest councils as well as other groups in the Church concerning an appropriate way to reach out to inactive Catholics,” the archbishop said.
The archbishop also spoke of the need to present young people with living examples of faith.
“They need to know the truths of our faith, but they need to know how to live those truths,” he said.
“Young Christians need mentors just as the Didache called for mentors to accompany the neophytes of the early Church,” the archbishop continued.
“Our young people need to see the ideals of the Gospel lived in our lives. One of the worst results of the current scandal in the Church can be a cynicism about the call to holiness in the Church. We run the risk of being overwhelmed by the bad example of priests and bishops. We need to remind people that there have always been saints and sinners in the Church,” he said.
The archbishop concluded his address explaining that students need to experience beauty. Quoting Dostoyesvsky’s “The Idiot” — “Beauty will save the world” — he said there is a need to demonstrate to the next generation that being Catholic with a sense of personal vocation and a communal mission is “a beautiful life.”
“Our mission is about helping people catch a glimpse of the beauty that saves and to have an appetite for that beauty,” he concluded.
The keynote address came in the mist of the two-day “Handing on the Faith” conference which according to BC’s website, brought together, around 20 prominent Catholic scholars and leaders to discuss the three dimensions of handing on the Catholic Faith: the context of contemporary American culture that fosters or renders difficult the task of handing on the faith; the content of the faith that we seek to pass on to future generations; and the modes of communication apt to convey the beauty and truth of the Catholic tradition.