Being ‘Relevant’ in the Modern World

The question often comes up: “How do we make the Church relevant in the modern world?” It is an important question, but also a dangerous one. It is easy to confuse ‘relevance’ with ‘being trendy’; as I wrote about previously, our first duty as disciples is to the Gospel and we can’t make the mistake of compromising the truth in our search to find relevance.

There are plenty of protestant mega-churches that have struggled with this problem. Rock concerts and hipster fashion will get people in the front door, but it won’t keep them in a pew. When the novelty is gone, so are they.

And it isn’t a new problem either. This great article from Christianity Today back in 1984 (link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1984/august-10/hard-questions-for-robert-schuller-about-sin-self-esteem.html) talks to Rev. Robert Schuller, the pastor behind the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, about his focus on self-esteem: “His supporters say he has found the wavelength of the secular mind. His detractors say he has lost the gospel.”

Where is Rev. Schuller’s enormous, worshiper-filled Crystal Cathedral now? It is now the Cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Orange (renamed Christ Cathedral). The self-esteem focus that was trendy in the ‘70s and ‘80s fell out of favor and that, among other factors, caused Rev. Schuller’s church to fall on hard times.

I point this out not to be triumphalist about Catholicism--we have certainly had our own issues--but to make a point about being relevant. Latching on to modern trends won’t sustain a church for the long haul...and it won’t sustain an individual disciple for the long haul that is our Christian life.

Ancient Roots

So, how do we remain relevant in the modern world without running into the same issues? 

The answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. The very thing that makes Catholicism relevant in the modern world is not any embracing of new trends, but rather it is our ancient roots.

Of course, I am not advocating a return to the Early Church or to High Middle Ages (or a return to anywhere, for that matter.) We must continue to address the questions of modern life and interact with the modern world and all of its problems (and blessings!) The key is the perspective from which we engage that world: a perspective that is firmly grounded in ancient wisdom.

A large part of that grounding is through the doctrines of the Church—those core beliefs of faith that remain constant throughout the ages. Those doctrines may develop slowly as we come to understand them more fully, but they never arbitrarily change. The fundamental truths that lie at their core persist and have given Catholics in every age a firm foundation upon which to build lives of discipleship.

The same wisdom that inspired the Early Church Fathers continues to inspire the Church today. The theological brilliance and insight of St. Thomas Aquinas and the other scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages continues to shine brightly for us today.

We are inheritors of the great gifts given to us by our fore-fathers (and fore-mothers!) We don’t need to get in a time machine to go back, but rather rely on their wisdom and insight to help us find the way forward just as they did in their time.

Seeing our Blind Spots

This preservation of our Catholic heritage becomes the solution to an enormous problem. 

Every time period and culture has its own unique set of ‘blind spots’, areas where shared assumptions cause people to miss the obvious. We are no different. An important way of recognizing those blind spots is to understand the wisdom of people from other times and cultures—people who see things differently than we do.

They had their own blind spots, of course. We can see the “splinter in their eye” pretty clearly in many respects, but they can also help us remove the “log from our own” (see Mt. 5:5). Maybe the noise and hurry of our own age need a little insight from the Desert Fathers who lived out heroic poverty and celibacy in the deserts of Egypt during the 4th century:

“Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved” 
St. Anthony of the Desert

I am not recommending that you throw everything away and move out into the desert as a hermit like St. Anthony. Yet in considering his perspective, we can start to see what might be lacking in our own. It is this treasure-house of wisdom that keeps Catholicism decidedly ‘un-trendy’!

A Counter-Cultural Perspective

So if we, as individual disciples, operate from the heart of the Church by deepening our knowledge of our own heritage, we can learn some valuable lessons about where to focus our energies. If we experience the lives of the great saints like St. Francis, St. Theresa and St. Augustine, we will not only learn some valuable facts about the faith but, more importantly, we will come to see our own lives with new eyes. In the process, we will find ourselves becoming decidedly counter-cultural in our outlook. 

This countercultural message is the very thing that keeps the faith relevant. When people find themselves tired of the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern life, we represent the alternative: an ancient, intelligent and spiritually deep approach to finding hope, peace and meaning. In ten years of teaching RCIA, this has been a common theme among people coming into the Church. In Catholicism, they didn’t just find a new religion, they found a new way of life.

We need to rediscover it, too.

Authentic Catholic Culture

As an individual disciple, cultivating this way of life is about more than learning doctrine. The wisdom of the ages is to be found not only in the formal teachings of the Church, but also in the writings of her saints, in Christian art and architecture, in traditional music and in the various historical roots of our liturgies and devotional practices.

For instance, is the Rosary irrelevant in the modern age? Have we ‘moved beyond’ formula prayers?

Here’s a news flash: many of the Church’s greatest mystics—people who had ‘moved beyond formula prayer’—continued to stress its importance, especially for those beginning to become serious about the spiritual life.

“Vocal prayer must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to; what he is asking; who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer – however much the lips may move.”
Saint Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle

The Rosary, with its mysteries to be contemplated, is precisely a way of doing what St. Teresa recommends. Furthermore, there is the overwhelming data: this prayer has been helping people to successfully grow in their devotional life since at least the 13th century—through many different times and cultures.

Maybe it is worth giving it a try? It might be more relevant than you thought.

This is just one example of how we can re-discover Catholic culture in our own lives. Read the lives of the saints. Try out some ancient devotions. Embrace your identity as a Catholic Christian, with all its ancient roots!

If you do, you will find yourself becoming an extremely relevant and counter-cultural witness in the modern world.

May the Lord grant you the grace of discovering the beauty and relevance of your own heritage!


Some Resources to Get Started

Writings of the Saints

The Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure

St. Augustine’s Confessions

Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales

The Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius

Life of St. Teresa of Jesus (autobiography) 

Justin Martyr’s First Apology to Trajan 


Traditional Prayers and Devotions

The Rosary 

The Morning Offering 

Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus 

The Anima Christi 

The Divine Office