Father Eric de la Pena: “I will make you fish for people” (Mt. 4:19)

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Father Eric de la Pena: “I will make you fish for people” (Mt. 4:19)

One of the sad things I saw when I lived in upstate New York was a diminishing number of people at Mass on Sundays. Just in the diocese of Albany, there were more than thirty churches that closed in 2010. Sadly, that situation is not unique to that particular diocese — nor is this decline a unique reality in the Catholic Church. In fact, the PEW Center for Research on Religion and Public Life has reported a decrease of 70 percent in church participation across Christian denominations in North America. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are an increasing number of people who identify themselves as non-affiliated believers, agnostics and atheists.

Father Eric de la Pena

Father Eric de la Pena

We certainly live at an interesting time in the life of the Church in this country. The emerging religious landscape poses a challenge to those who still look to the Church for the proclamation of the faith. I also think that Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to the United States in a couple of weeks will force the American Church to ask, “Why still believe?”

Pope Francis’ vision of reviving the Church can help us a lot in making sense of how to practice the faith today. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope cautioned us to be careful in how we communicate the Gospel to others. He said that there is an “imbalance” when we speak “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.” In short, the Gospel we proclaim must embody the reality of God’s love which is revealed to us in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is in the experience of Divine goodness and love,  that is grace, that people are drawn back to the practice of faith, more than by any Church law or dogma. It is this “hook” which Christ gave to Peter and to us that will bring others back to the practice of faith and the fold of the Church.

I think it is providential that when the Pope comes to CUA, he will also canonize one of the first men to evangelize the country. Blessed Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary from Spain, was known for his tireless preaching of the Gospel to the Native Americans. His work in California successfully established the first nine Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma which covered a vast area of 700 miles. Moreover, Blessed Junipero was credited for protecting the natives from the abuses of the Spanish Conquistadors. He was a true father to them, not only in preaching the faith, but also in caring for their wellbeing and in generously sharing his life with them.

We truly owe it to ourselves to make our Faith alive and relevant in the public sphere like the early Church. We do this by making known to others not only the content of our Creed but more importantly why we believe it. Pope Francis and Blessed Junipero are great examples for us as we engage in the New Evangelization.

At The Catholic University of America, we seek to learn from their example. As we prepare for the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra, we are planning special opportunities for the community to venerate a first-class relic of Serra as a way to bring greater appreciation to our future saint. There will be veneration of the relic at Caldwell Chapel on September 15 and 22 after the 5:10 pm mass.

On our campus, we are also taking up Pope Francis’s message to return to the central message of the Gospel. The Office of Campus Ministry has a wonderful program of faith-sharing groups called RENEW. The groups foster evangelization among our students through weekly reflection on the Gospel—like the early Christians who came together in small groups in what were known as house churches. It is a great way for our students to become more committed to the faith by regularly pondering God’s Word together. It creates deep bonds of friendship and faith in the process.

May all our efforts to share the Catholic faith contribute to the new evangelization that we have been called to do.

Father Eric de la Pena, O.F.M. Conv., is an associate chaplain for faith development at The Catholic University of America.

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