The Problem with the Prevenient: Low Expectations are Killing the Faith
by Guest Author, Fr. Anthony C. Neusch
“The most important lesson that you can learn in this class is this: ‘Children will succeed at the level of your expectations, if you are willing to help them attain success.’” It was the most important thing I have ever learned, and it wasn’t said in any of the five years of seminary, but in an Introductory Educational Psychology class. As a priest, I return to these words regularly. Where are my expectations? For myself? For the people who work on my office staff or as teachers in my grade school? For the children placed in our care? For the people sitting in the pew? What are my expectations and what am I willing to do to help those in my care access and exceed them?
I would like to offer a brief reflection about expectations and support to meet and exceed them. I want to root these thoughts in just one word found in the Prayer Over the Gifts for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception “prevenient.” This single word proves that I and my brother priests have, for the most part, failed generations of faithful Catholics. I have personally heard or read several bishops and many priests use this single word to point to the failure of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. They say things such as, “Who uses the word prevenient anymore?” or, “The use of the word prevenient is proof enough that there is no concern about the reality of the American Church.” Or my personal favorite, “I mean, I know what it means. But I have had eight years of seminary study. There is no way that the normal person in the pew could even begin to understand what that word means.” This good brother didn’t even try to pronounce it in his denunciation.
You Get Less Than You Aim For
Too many of my brothers have set the bar too low. And worse, in setting the low bar, they have added derision to those good people we are called to serve. It is bad enough to tell someone, “Let us dumb this down for you,” but to imply that because it has been dumbed down that then the recipient of the truth is incapable to understand that “through a singular gift of God’s salvific grace, Mary is preserved from all stain of sin through the sacrifice of her son, Jesus Christ upon the cross,” is a travesty of the grossest kind. Has our desire to know about salvation completely stolen our ability to know salvation? The continued attempt to make the Faith palatable, to serve pabulum, to offer only the most beige, benign version of truth has led us to this place. It is as if the teaching office of the Catholic Church continues to say to her people, “Just wait until you grow up a little. You don’t need to worry your pretty little heads with that. Just sing and dance with drums and tambourines. Jesus loves you; he would never choose to be separated from you.” The problem is that we are the ones who choose other than Christ. If, we as priests, only continue to offer the lowest hanging fruit, soon there will be nothing to feast upon.
If our expectations have been set so low, and I fear that they have, then the result is a sacramental ministerial priesthood with no zeal. Why should I have a fire for souls when through our own lack of formation and evangelization the faithful have been assured of their own personal salvation through the virtue of niceness? We have all heard it, “I am a good person, and I believe in God; He would never allow me to enter into Hell.” To encourage the lowest common denominator of Christian knowledge can result only in the mediocre Christian life. The truth of the matter is simply this mediocre Christians do not have the power to draw others to Christ and they rarely have the ability to maintain their own Christian life. Mediocrity is not the friend of the Priest of Jesus Christ, it is his sworn enemy. When mediocrity is encouraged, nurtured, and expected from the lay faithful, then the Ministerial Priest is even less than that. The real vocation crisis, to marriage or orders, is rooted in mediocrity. Good enough is good enough for me.
The Remedies for Whitewashed Mediocrity
What is the solution? Besides prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? I offer two. The first, a return to a healthy dose of Catholic guilt. The second, we must love and allow ourselves to be loved. The psychologized Christian life – with its eschewal of all feelings negative – is the driving force of our current predicament. We joke about Catholic Guilt. Instead we should celebrate it. Guilt, Catholic or otherwise, is one of the natural gifts of the knowledge of the Divine. Even people of no faith experience guilt. This natural guilt helps me see that I am not all I think I am. Natural guilt points me to my own moral failings. I recognize that maybe I shouldn’t have said that, or done this. Catholic guilt takes me one step further: I shouldn’t have said that because I am loved by Jesus Christ. I shouldn’t have done this because it hurt someone who is loved by Jesus Christ. A society without guilt is a society without love.
We must again return to a love for neighbor, a love that hurts. The walls of protection we have built up to shield us from the feelings of guilt and hurt also shield the heart and soul from the gift of love. Never before has the World, East and West, experienced such a privation of friendship. True life-giving friendship is rooted in the school of love. Relationships of every kind are rooted in love. True love is a mutual, intimate, and reciprocal self-giving. This love is nurtured by authentic transparency and sacrifice, and in an age when most communication is filtered through electronic devices of one kind or another, in desperate short supply. We are quick to show pictures of last night’s dessert, and not as quick to share our own personal burdens and struggles with a person who may truly understand our palpable hurt.
My expectations for my parish and school are as high as heaven; I desire nothing less than sainthood. My vocation is to grow holiness. Sometimes even in the people around me. My great devotion to Blessed Pier-Giorgio Frasati is rooted in a single quote: “To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth, that is not living, but existing.” As long as someone in the Catholic Church continues to use her teaching authority to promote and promulgate the idea that Christian existence is sufficient, evangelization efforts will lead to nothing. The good news is that every day people strive for holiness. Holiness is attractive. Holiness is beautiful. This generation’s great saints are in the making. Through God’s gift of grace, may we be found to be numbered among them.
Fr. Anthony C. Neusch (Tony) is a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo and Pastor of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Hereford, TX. He has a B.S. Interdisciplinary Studies with specializations in Math and Art for West Texas A & M University, Canyon, TX. He received his Masters of Divinity, Magna cum Laude from The University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ May 29, 2004. He currently teaches in the Diocese of Amarillo’s Catechist Training Program and Permanent Diaconate Formation Program. He may be reached at frneusch -at- gmail -dot- com.
This article, The Problem with the Prevenient: Low Expectations are Killing the Faith is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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