The return of the discussion about millennials going liturgical and the debates such discussions engender (see herehere, and here) underscore some of the popular confusion about forms of Christianity. It’s also a reminder of the ongoing challenge of proper catechesis. One gets the impression in some accounts that persons who want to move to another faith tradition have failed to understand their own. Caricatures like watered-down Christianity or ritualistic and lifeless religion become the basis for departing to greener pastures. We should be equally worried, however, that they might not understand the faith tradition that currently has caught their attention. It seems catechesis must become an ecumenical enterprise.

Not too long ago I had a conversation with a former student about some of her challenges as a pastor in a liturgical and sacramental form of Protestantism. She noted that some parishioners wanted to go “Pentecostal” without even realizing what that meant. They wanted to encounter God and thought that maybe raising their hands in the air would help. In response I wondered, “Did you tell these people that if they want to encounter God, they simply need to come forward to the Eucharist for God is there?” No hands need be raised except to receive the elements.

Having been catechized in a liturgical and sacramental tradition, these parishioners still did not seem to understand what it meant to say that Christ meets them in the bread and wine. Nor did they seem to get the fact that the liturgy itself is an embodied movement toward God requiring an act of consecration and commitment. To be sure, raising hands is another kind of embodied movement, but that’s it. There is no magic in it. The key, of course, is the disposition of the worshipper, because even though in the act of consecrating the elements the Spirit descends and Christ is objectively present, the gift of grace must still be appropriated in faith on the part of the believer. The richness of the liturgical life in its sacramental fullness was somehow missed by my student’s parishioners.

At the same time, in their zeal the parishioners seemed to equate Pentecostalism with bodily movements, which reinforces stereotypes of superficiality and subjectivism in the same way that charges of ritualism feed into stereotypes of lifeless performance and stale worship. These stereotypes also make it difficult to find common ground.

A few years ago the late Jeff Gros, a De la Salle Christian Brother who was deeply invested in ecumenism, suggested that he and I host a discussion about healing as a sacrament (or the Sacrament of Anointing) partly because it allowed us to leave aside temporarily the mode of divine presence in the Eucharist so as to come at the nature of a sacrament from a different direction. We discovered much agreement in the Catholic and Pentecostal views insofar as both grounded their understanding of healing in James 5 and the work of Christ to overcome bodily and spiritual infirmity, both saw the oil as transmitting the grace of the Spirit, and both saw healing of the body and the forgiveness of sins as being intertwined. We also noted how the Sacrament of Anointing stood within a broader compass in which the prayers of the laity, pilgrimages to sacred shrines, and special charisms of healing could also serve as conduits of grace to cure bodily infirmity. When one looks at it this way, the charismatic life and the sacramental life do not seem so distant.

No one wins when stereotypes abound regardless of what faith tradition is the object of such stereotypes. In fact, these interpretations of various faith traditions become obstacles to understanding. Participating in ecumenical enterprises has taught me the value of seeing every faith tradition from a number of different angles. Overcoming such stereotypes will require more than better catechesis about one’s own faith tradition. It will require a richer understanding of the alternatives. 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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