Some time ago, I read Introduction to Christianity by Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, for a graduate class. The Holy Father mentioned an analogy that has stuck with me since then and become more and more relevant in my life as I continue to work in the Church. Essentially, the story goes that there is a circus which, through some unfortunate event, catches fire. As everyone works to fight this fire, a clown, already dressed for his performance with makeup, shoes and all, runs to the local village to get help. He arrives in the town square and warns them of the fire and the threat that it could spread and consume the village itself. The villagers, seeing the clown in his comedic dress, think that he is simply putting on a show and trying to get patrons for the circus. They laugh and think he is doing a marvelous job. The clown, now desperate, pleads all the more, but the more insistent he is, the more the villagers laugh and applaud his commitment. The theologian, says Ratzinger, is the clown who "cannot make people really listen to his message." The people feel that they are "already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance that has little or nothing to do with reality."
Now, all analogies limp. They aren't perfect. I am not a doom and gloom prophet proclaiming the end of the Church, burning to the ground like the circus, due to our inability, or stubborn refusal, to hear the warnings given to us. Instead, what I see as important in this story is the proposition that a large number of families who identify as catholic compartmentalize their faith. They go to Mass and listen to the priest's homily and say "what a nice performance" before going home, forgetting what was said and doing whatever it is they want to do. They act as if their faith has nothing to do with their everyday life.
I'll give you an example. One of my first phone calls from a parent came with a scathing rebuke of theology. A mother said that the kids simply didn't need "this theology stuff." Now, if you do not already know, theology is essentially the way we apply reason to our faith. G.K. Chesterton put it another way: "Theology is simply that part of religion which requires brains." This is important because we can only apply the tenets of our faith to our lives if, to use another analogy, faith and reason kiss.
Now, this mother seemed to be arguing that the children only needed to know that God loved them and that they should be good. I doubt she fully realized what she was arguing for and where it would lead. Whether she understood it or not, though, she was arguing for a faith based solely on feelings and experience. In other words, a show. Like many others, I think she was afraid that any serious study of the faith or use of traditional language would drive children away from the Church. I disagree.
Even better, I think our previous Holy Father backs me up. We can look to the words of Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio when he states that "it is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition."
As for the vocabulary of theology, it is challenging, but it is also rich in history and meaning. It would be a mistake to abandon it for the hope that a secular vocabulary would suddenly awaken our parishioners and children to the necessity of faith. In fact, Ratzinger himself makes this point when discussing the analogy of the clown as he says that "the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naive."
Having grown up with the very way of thinking that this mother promoted, I know full well that it does not work. It is precisely a challenge that young people are looking for, that the gospel requires to be taken up, and that I hope to propose to students in my work as a DRE. This blog will be a log of my experiences in doing so, along with some ideas about catechesis, information about the Church and her teachings and whatever else I think important. Hopefully it will be of some help to those of you reading it.