“Meet them where they are”; A Noble Goal


irst, let’s get our facts straight. “Meet them where they are” was considered a solution to a problem well before Vatican II.  This was a major theme in the Liturgical Reform Movement which dates back to the early 1900’s with individuals like Roman Guardini and Pius Parsch.  Why was there a strong interest in reforming the liturgy?  There was no heresy to defend against.  There was no strong heretic within the Church that needed to be excommunicated.  There was no significant confusion about Church dogma or the liturgy since the Council First Vatican Council was summoned in 1868.  What was driving this urge to reform and the need to “meet each person where they are”?  It’s a good (and fair) question with many answers.   Below are just a few suppositions.

Boredom: We’d be remiss to discount man’s fallen nature.  The tendency (for some) to become bored, agitated, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, and unmotivated. These feelings cause us to change things for the sake of change; modify things in the name of progress; attempt to enhance for no other reason than to feel like you’re improving.  We can all probably relate to this common reality. On a very basic, fundamental level, it is quite possible this defect in our nature was a strong force in the start of this movement.

Motivated Reasoning: With the best intentions, man will diagnose a challenge he is facing and project that challenge more broadly.  He thinks to himself, if he is having this problem, surely it is not him alone. Many others must be dealing with the same issue.  After commiserating with others, he declares a crisis and positions himself as the savior. This is often combined with another human defect- the desire to be part of something or part of a group.  As the crisis is sold from one person to another, and the solutions are offered, momentum starts to increase.  Before you know it, there is a “crisis” declared with a misdiagnosed cause.  We find ourselves on a path to fix something that might not need to be fixed with a solution that doesn’t serve the true cause of the original problem (if it existed in the first place).  We see this in many aspects of secular life.  Behavioral economists refer to this phenomenon as "motivated reasoning" and we are all prone to it.

A genuine need: Sometimes, there is a real need to change or modify things because a product or a process within a system no longer works in a new environment.  From era to era the human condition continues to change.  We know this to be true.  The 20th century was no different.  Our immediate surroundings, the technology, transportation, information flow and even our language is constantly changing.  This has had a profound impact on how we engage with one another and, in the case of the Church, how we engage with God and practice our faith.  This was surely perceived (maybe with good reason) in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.  We had just finished WW1, then WWII, and the world was hurting.  However, technology was advancing at a furious pace, science was progressing rapidly, TV and radio burst onto the scene and music, culture (and almost everything else) was “progressing”.  To top it off…we were about to land on the moon!  Man was drowning in “progress”.  He was engrossed and distracted by things of this world and losing interest in the God that created it all.  This was, no doubt about it, a legitimate concern for holy Mother Church.  Let’s remember, while guided by the Holy Spirit, these are in fact just men.

If you need further confirmation, start by reading the encyclicals of popes before St John XXIII. Going back to Leo XIII in the late 19th century or immediately before John XXIII with Pius the XII.  Pius XII was keenly aware of the inertia of the movement; he understood it; even agreed with it to some extent, but he also was concerned that change was not always the right answer and cautioned against rash changes.  (read Mystici Corporis, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Humani Generis, Mediator Dei).  When we humbly consider all of this, it is no wonder St. John the XXIII called for an ecumenical council and to discuss the role of the Church in society in the 20th Century.  It would be a “pastoral” council.

If we acknowledge the context and accept the challenges as real, “meet them where they are” is indeed a noble goal for the Church leadership.  The rationale is quite simple, “meet them where they are” is an acknowledgment of the diversity of God’s creatures and, when reaching out to our brethren, we must not assume the same approach will work for everyone. When making appeals to the faithful we mustn’t paint with a broad brush. We must make every effort to reach every soul as they are. Different people will require different means to make progress on their way to Christian perfection. This is undeniable and it is a very charitable aim.  In a way, we are not only required as Catholics to love our neighbor we must also try to know them so that we can minister to them.  This is therefore a fundamental truth and something we should indeed practice.

Could we go wrong with the implementation of this fundamental truth?  St Paul compared the mystical body of the Church to the natural body in 1 Corinthians Chapter12.  He told us “There are diversity in graces, but the same spirit and there are diversities in ministries, but the same Lord and there are diversities of operation but the same God, who worketh all in all.  The great Saint goes onto say “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.  And a little further on in the same letter “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” Acknowledging this diversity, if we treat all parts of the mystical body the same, some parts will suffer and therefore we all suffer.  So, with a profound YES, it could go wrong if we are not prudent and we design "reforms" that are over-reaching, off-target or unnecessary.

Taking from Don Gueranger, if we do not protect this charitable principle from “the two extremes of rigorism, which drives despair, and laxity which flatters sloth”.   If we are not careful, “meeting them where they are” can turn into “trapping them where they are” and “abandon others where they are”.  

To defend against this extremism in both directions, we need to keep in mind three risks: (1) make sure our intentions and tactics do not lead to false assumptions, stereotyping and even discrimination. Any of these unintended consequences would cause us, in the best case, to “under-succeed” and bring fewer to Christ or, in the worst case, result in people leaving the Church.  (2) When “meeting people where they are”, we must be sure not to underestimate the faithful’s capabilities and the capacity to learn and we also must guard against rigorously neglecting those who we consider to be more advanced. This would result in "trapping the where they are" and likely creating a lukewarm faith. This is not just a risk for the less advanced. Those who are more advanced are at the same risk (maybe more).  (3) Especially for pastors and those responsible for leading souls to that Beatific Vision, we must have a tailored approach to the pastoral care to the faithful. If a portion of the flock can thrive on being fed one bail each and the Shephard applies this calculation to the entire flock, those sheep that require more will not flourish. They will ultimately wander, grow sick and likely die. The same should be applied to the faithful. We must minister to the whole body with a mindset of “leave no soul left behind”.

The good news is we only need to trust in our Lord and use what He has provided us.  While creations must work hard and learn these lessons, they are common knowledge to the Creator. He has already given us all the tools we need to be successful.  He has given us hundreds and hundreds of saints from throughout the ages as examples of how to grow closer to Him.  Each Saint has become a saint in his or her unique way.  As a result, there is a great range of examples of how one could become a saint (which is the goal, is it not?). Consider St. Thomas Acquinas and St. Therese de Liseux.  These two saints couldn’t be more different, yet both are Doctors of the Church!  The Lord has given us many eras of sacred music, from Gregorian chant to praise and worship, many styles of sacred art, several distinct Rites for different cultures, several forms of the Mass, and many different orders of religious.  Both men and women have a multitude of way to serve the Church.  From religious vocations to marriage and the single life.  There is truly something for everyone.

Let us also remember, we are not special in that this is a new issue in the most challenging of times. That could not be further from the truth. Our forefathers struggled with this same issue and fought against imprudent reforms for centuries. Bottom line, this is not a new challenge within the church. You can find quotes from various doctors of the Church warning against making changes to how we pray, changes to the liturgy, translating to the vernacular, and the list goes on. We must remember unity does not mean "sameness", Let's not waste the tools given to us by the Lord. Let's not abandon our history and tradition. Let's build unity by acknowledging the diversity of the Lords creatures and utilizing  all the gifts He has given us.

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