The Catholic Church faces tremendous challenges in these times. Scandal, division, corruption, money, lack of faith and understanding, and secularism. These are among the many reasons why numbers are dwindling so rapidly. Young people especially are leaving in record numbers. So then, how do we attract people to stay? How do we draw people back?
In recent weeks, my family and I marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. While reflecting on the Christ-centered way she lived, elements of the Christian life emerge that serve as a guide for our Church today: a personal relationship with Jesus; faithful, yet creative teaching; joyful hospitality; and an openness to people on the margins.
We were blessed to have my mother, Barbara Vaeth Shaughnessy, for 89 years. A mother to eight, grandmother to 24, and a high school religion teacher by trade, she taught by her words and deeds not just what the Christian life is, but how to live it. Christianity was not reduced to a set of moral rules or a socio-political program for my mother. Rather, she was a witness to the centrality of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship, cultivated by a strong prayer life, is the key to a Christian life joyfully lived.
Responding to the call of Jesus to follow Him, and allowing Him to become our Lord, Savior and best friend, is what matters most. Everything else is but a footnote to this reality. This is what I was taught by my mother from a young age. She was able to teach this because she had that relationship herself. Although we Catholics often focus on important matters such as doctrine, liturgy and moral theology, our faith is ultimately about a relationship with a person. Christ should be the center of everything in our lives and in our Church. If we lose this focus, our lives and our Church will go askew, lacking mission and purpose.
Taking our eyes off Jesus is at the heart of every scandal and division in the Church. My mother had great trust in Jesus and His Church despite witnessing many scandals and divisions herself through the years, including situations involving priests who had even served at our home parish. Belief in the divine inspiration of the Church never wavered, and my mother remained devoted to the Church and active in many parish ministries until the end. To move away from the Church was to move away from Christ Himself. As Peter responded to Jesus when asked if the apostles would prefer to leave rather than deal with the struggle: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6: 68-69).
My mother taught for decades at Catholic high schools and it was important to her that she taught what the Church taught, even if it was unpopular. Identifying herself as a “preservative,” she wanted to preserve all that was right and good in the Catholic tradition. She taught authentically and creatively, and always attempted to engage students in multiple ways using prayer, drama, music or whatever worked. Developing caring relationships, she met students where they were, all the while drawing them to Christ and His Church. When one knows Jesus, as my mother did, one is compelled to share this knowledge with others.
My mother was also a person of great joy and had no doubt about where this joy originated. She was joyful because Christ was within her. Her joy was especially manifest when playing with her grandchildren or welcoming people for a meal. She had a true gift with children because she had that childlike faith in God. Hospitality to all, including to strangers, was always evident. My mother was unafraid to befriend those on the margins and respond to their needs. In her later years, she befriended many diverse residents of her apartment complex. When she died, many of these residents shared with me and my siblings what an impact her kindness and generosity meant to them.
We face enormous challenges as a Church. Let us look to those great personal witnesses to help guide our future. I am blessed to have had a mother who lived such a joyful, Christ-centered life and hope that I can be this type of witness for my own children.
Anchor columnist Peter Shaughnessy is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier parish in Acushnet.