To protect his identity, we’ll call him Frank.
Though we’ve had many over the years, I distinctly remember one particular conversation with Frank. He was as happy, peaceful, and self-confident as I’d ever seen him. The reason: he had discovered Buddhism.
We talked for hours as he recounted the peace he found in practicing meditation and detachment. I was conflicted. Frank had struggled with various types of anxiety and depression for years and watching him experience real freedom from these illnesses, I couldn’t help but be happy for him. Yet, I knew that this life-long Catholic could not find ultimate peace in turning away from Christ’s Church to follow the Buddha.
As a member of the body of Christ, I couldn’t help but wonder where we had failed him. So, often, many Catholics speak of people leaving the Church for another denomination in shallow terms. If they leave for a mega-church, well they just wanted to be entertained. If they leave for an Eastern mystical tradition, well they just never really understood the Eucharist or what religion is really about.
All of these things may be true, but surely each conversion away from the Church can’t be so shallow. These are human beings after all. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples (which I highly recommend), Sherry Weddell compiles and reflects on research she and others have done about why people leave the faith. She argues that more often than we think, Catholics are not joining evangelical communities or falling away because they don’t care about their lives or religion, but because the way they’ve been taught about Catholicism is not giving them the relationship with Jesus that they (even unconsciously) so deeply to desire.
Frank had attended Catholic schools his whole life. He had remained a “pretty much every week” Mass attendee throughout the years in a very culturally Catholic area. I am unafraid to say that he had been failed every time he walked away from these Masses where someone (be they priest, lay person, religious sister) lacked the courage to preach the reality of Jesus Christ to him.
You see, the plight of so many in modernity is what various authors have labeled the Weltschmerz. It is a feeling of sadness that results from recognizing that evil exists in the world and, therefore, the physical world cannot satisfy the demands of the soul. Each person who struggles day in and day out to discover meaning in a soul-sucking job, or lives in poverty, or has been ostracized from their community begs for this injustice to be remitted. However, I would claim that on some level, each individual who mourns and weeps in this valley of tears experiences the Weltschmerz. I might be so bold as to claim, it could be even claimed as a sort of virtue. This experience of dissatisfaction can be a deeply powerful impetus for discovering an actually satisfying worldview. Weltschmerz can be the seed of the eternal in our hearts which, if properly attended to, can grow into a profound relationship with the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit which will banish all sadness. And every tear will be wiped away.
For Frank, he experienced this Weltschmerz and did not find the antidote in Christianity as it had been presented to him. The detachment of Buddhism presented him with an escape from the world-weariness in his heart, and he took it. Herein lies the greatest tragedy and the platform for the New Evangelization. The New Evangelization is not first and foremost the utilization of new technologies but is a re-focusing on the message itself so that the power of the Gospel is again preached in a way that is deeply satisfying and profoundly affecting to the human heart. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “To evangelize means to show this path – to teach the art of living.”
The failure of our preaching and evangelization has been our failure to present Catholicism as THE “art of living” that is effective to people in their daily lives. Frank and his conversion to Buddhism simply incarnates this failure in real life. His experience of Catholicism was of it as some sort of myth; it lacked a reference point to “the way things actually are” and therefore could not provide the answers to cure his world-weariness. He had to go elsewhere.
The tragedy of this whole story is that it is not Buddhism but Catholicism which is the actual “art of living” which contains that for which Frank continues to search. It’s like having an infection and leaving the hospital to look for antibiotics because the doctors did not tell you that they had them, but instead just invited you to a Gala. There is nothing in Buddhism or another other religion which reflects some aspect of the truth which is not found in Christianity in spades, if someone were to have the courage to offer it to Frank. Christianity is laden with the answers of the great problems of our lives. The Gospel drips with the kind of truth that could set Frank’s heart free in such a way that he would not even need to escape from reality because reality itself would contain the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The most beautiful part of Catholic doctrine is that it is, in fact, true. It represents the way things actually are in and beyond the known universe. If we truly believed with our entire lives the things that the Catholic Church teaches about Christ and His mission. and if those things became the worldview by which we ordered our existence, we would experience a joy that the world has rarely seen. Our sins really CAN be forgiven and Jesus really DID give us His Body and we really WILL live on into eternity and we really SHOULD find ourselves called and effectively called into redemption.
Christ did not call us to go and make cultural Catholics of all the nations. We need to make disciples.