Ecclesial New Year Resolutions from the SLS Conference

Photo by  Jamie Street  on  Unsplash

By Renée Roden

On New Year’s Day, my mom texted the family group chat New Years’ greetings and followed up with the question: “What are you going to do to make those around you happier this year?”

I paused. I spend a lot of time focusing on how can improve (trust me, I’ve got a long list), but I hadn’t thought of making New Year’s resolutions that focused on what I could do for others . What resolutions could I make to bring more joy to others’ lives, not just my own?

Later that day, I got on a plane to fly to FOCUS Ministries’ Student Leadership Summit ( SLS 2020 ) in Phoenix, Arizona. SLS is a biennial gathering of 8,000 college students, campus ministers, bishops, lay ecclesial ministers, and seminarians.

In short, SLS was an inspiring kick-off to the new year. As I reflected on my experience at SLS, several News Years resolutions came to mind. Not resolutions for my own self-improvement, but resolutions that I can do to make myself a better member of the Church, resolutions that we could all commit to that might make our Church a little better and happier.

1: Avoid Political Divisions

In 2014, the Jesuit media company America made the decision to avoid using the titles “conservative” and “liberal” as adjectives to describe Catholics. In standard American political discourse, those titles apply to members of the contemporary Republican Party and the Democratic Party. And while they may be appropriate to describe American political divides, those political divisions should not be the colors with which we paint other Catholics. At the Catholic Imagination Conference in September at Loyola University Chicago, Editor-in-Chief Matt Malone reiterated this commitment during a particularly contentious conference session.

America’s editorial decision is a great witness. In a highly polarized political climate like our own, it’s often difficult to resist letting our political systems become the foundation of our imaginations. It’s hard to not fall into homogenous camps of people who agree with you and easily lump people who hold different views into an opposite party.

Paul says that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile “neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Our identity as Catholics is as truly one in Christ , united at the Eucharistic table. Our most fundamental identity is as the Eucharistic community of believers gathered at the Mass.

It’s easy to see the politics of the United States creep into our ecclesial discourse. It’s far too easy to let our secular divisions divide us. SLS reminded me of the continued importance of emphasizing our common unity is in the Mass, in the liturgy, and in Christ.

In a contentious election year, we can all make a commitment to remember that our unity  in Christ far outweighs any cultural, social or political divisions between us.

2: Create Digital Hospitality

I’m a pretty analog person. For most of my life, my LG flip phone cemented my reputation as a card-carrying Luddite. I’ve only had a smartphone for just over a year, and it’s definitely my least favorite possession.

Working at DeSales has been a great way for me to challenge myself to answer the question: is good technology actually important for the Church?

Currently, one of DeSales’ big projects is ParishCentral, which offers user-friendly websites for parishes. DeSales believes that a dynamic, healthy parish welcomes people in, and one of the most important places to meet people is on your digital front porch.

As you might expect, since working at DeSales, I’ve become a lot more attuned to website design when searching on Google Maps for Mass at a nearby Church. I’ve become more cognizant of the layout—is it intuitive to use, are pages indexed clearly?—I notice when Mass times are easy to find, or when the website has specific schedules for Holy Days of Obligation (often when I’m looking for Mass!). And I’ve definitely gotten more frustrated when I’m clicking through a confusing maze of webpages just to find the Mass schedule.

One of the first things I noticed about SLS was its welcoming, streamlined website, clearly organized and easy to navigate. Leading up to the event, the team sent regular emails will helpful reminders, packing lists, and parking information. They prompted us to download the SLS app that served as the conference program booklet. On the app, participants could engage in social chatter, view resources and information, and curate our own personal conference schedule. The app’s UI design was accessible and fun, and the user experience made it simple to navigate the multifaceted conference.

Scanning across schedule details in the SLS app, I realized that good technology is equivalent to something I find personally meaningful: good hospitality. Hospitality is one of the most ancient of Judeo-Christian of virtues: it harkens back to a pre-technological era. If you were traveling and showed up at a house as dusk was approaching, there was your option. No Airbnb, no Google Mapping for “hotels near me.” All you had was the house in front of you and the hope that its tenants were welcoming and generous people.

Hospitality is a virtue that demonstrates trust. It’s a virtue of those who honor the men and women who show up at their house as family. “Each guest is God’s guest,” as a Turkish saying goes. Hospitality shows your guests that you are trustworthy, you are prepared, and you care about them.

The slick technology showed conference-goers that SLS had prepared: that they had the knowledge, the staff, and the ability to put on a huge event, it showed they cared about making the event as accessible for the guests as possible. In a huge multifaceted conference like SLS, the activity of the event could potentially become overwhelming. SLS executed their technological tools seamlessly to guide their guests through the experience almost invisibly, to make them feel at ease, and able to strike up connections with other guests—just like a good host.

I definitely care about hospitality: about throwing a great party, making people feel welcome, and giving friends and family a space to gather. How can technology help me—and our Church—translate our commitment to hospitality to the digital sphere?

3: Keep a Missionary Focus

On the third day of SLS, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller gave a homily that diagnosed the Church’s current problems as a result of cleaving too much to contemporary culture rather than the Eternal Word. Adapting to the Zeitgeist, or the “spirit of the age” rather than adapting to the “spirit of God” will leave us lost and confused.

In a way, the Cardinal’s point echoes Christ’s rebuke of the rich young man: “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). Only God can ever be the measure of what’s good—goodness is not a measure of how “perfect” we are, but of how close we are to God. And we cannot try to shore up our own value in the metrics of success and happiness used by a materialistic, capitalistic society. But the Cardinal’s point could also be taken the wrong way.

A good question that Catholics can put to themselves is: where is God in our culture? 

The Catholic imagination is a sacramental imagination. The Catholic faith always looks outwards, into the world around us, knowing that God can be found there. The Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things” reminds us that the Author of Creation is found within creation.

A danger, I find, in large Catholic gatherings like SLS, is that participants can sometimes develop an embattled and embittered mentality.

While gathering together with people with whom we share common values is a deep joy, gathering together with like-minded people can also, unfortunately, foster an echo chamber or an unhealthy sense of “us against them.” The God we worship came into the world not to condemn, but to embrace the world (John 3:17). Incarnation, which we just celebrated at Christmas, is God’s radical entry into the world, into a specific culture, time and place.

God’s arrival in a small, dirty cave in an over-crowded Bethlehem taught us exactly where to look for God: in the messy and seemingly profane world around us.

The Christian life is built on the twin practices of contemplation and action . Christ’s three pillars of the virtuous life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Mt 6:1-18) are born out of the intersection of contemplation and action.

We are called to spend time with the source of love and light: Christ, our God, but then we have the same mandate to go out to all the world and share that light and love.

Our role as Christians, as missionary disciples, isn’t just to bring non-believers to the Eucharistic table, but to bring the Eucharist to the world . A truly missionary Catholic doesn’t just bring non-believers to confession and Eucharistic adoration, but rather brings the freedom and liberation of Christ, which we receive in the sacraments, out to a world in need of grace. Empowered by Christ’s love, we are called to free those oppressed by poverty, addiction, racism, sexism, and all structures of sin that plague our world.

“ Christ has no body now but yours,” says St. Teresa of Avila, urging us to work for the good of others in the world, “No hands, no feet on earth but yours.” It’s up to us, like Christ, to “proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to the captives and … to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18).

As we enter the new year, a good resolution—for myself and for the Church—is to be not afraid, to go out into the world, knowing that we have something to share with a culture in need of our love.

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