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Taking advice

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The Third Commandment, "Remember to keep holy the Sabbath," seems to have slipped off the radar screen for many of us. While we don't have any firm demographic data to draw on, the old "interocular test" (that is, just looking around) suggests that a large portion of the meager 17 percent who regularly attend Sunday Mass have grey hair, collect Social Security and can remember the Ed Sullivan Show. Noticeably AWOL are teens, 20- and 30-year-olds.

This drop off in attendance and interest is not our problem alone. The mainline Protestant churches, such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, have an even more severe problem. The exception, however, are the Evangelical Protestant churches, which for 25 years have had dramatic growth. While these churches have varying theologies and take many forms, they are characterized by one thing in particular: they are committed to evangelizing. They reach out and tell their friends, neighbors and strangers the good news of the Gospel.

We asked some Evangelical friends, "Are there things about how they come together, how they worship and live out their church life from which Catholics can learn?" One major difference is familiarity with Scripture. As Catholics, the center of our faith life is the Mass and the seven sacraments. For Evangelicals, it is the Bible, the study of which makes them vividly aware of the life and works of Christ. Through their reading of the Old Testament, they sense their connection to the long history of our Jewish older brothers, and the events that led up to the coming of Christ. Too many of us sit in church passively observing what is going on at the altar, while our fellow Christians do that -- plus spend hours weekly forging a personal relationship with Christ through study of the Bible.

Our parish experienced a painful loss this year when our deacon, Dr. Scott Abercrombie died. Not only was he a powerful preacher, but several years ago he initiated an after-Mass Bible study group. He was a convert to Catholicism, and as a young Southern Baptist in Arkansas, Scott had years and years of Bible study. His love for, and intellectual fascination with, the Bible was profound. However, it was a rare class that he didn't shake his head at the biblical illiteracy of his cradle-Catholic pupils.

Bible study not only addresses a huge hole in the education of Catholics, it can be an extremely unifying force in a parish. It fosters not only friendships, but a shared sense of parish ownership.

"Ownership" and church involvement is another admirable characteristic of our Evangelical neighbors. We Catholics often see ourselves and our parish as being at the bottom of a large pyramid with the pope at the top, followed by cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns and then us, the troops in the pews. We take our orders and instructions from above. Historically, the Catholic Church in America has been very much a "ghetto church," where the parish priest was the authority on all things religious and secular. In our modern world, that passivity and deference is crippling. The Church needs our skills. It needs our hearts, and minds and hands. Make no mistake: We are not being critical of our Church's hierarchical structure, but rather attitudes among clergy and laity which inhibit the structure to operate more effectively.

It is here again where the example of Evangelicals is helpful. Most of them have this vital sense of ownership. As individual church members their church laity sees itself as the "priesthood of all believers." There is not that huge psychological gap between priest and people that exists in some of our parishes.

A third quality from which we can learn concerns the link between ownership and money. While many Catholics are generous contributors to the Church, many comfortable parishioners are equally comfortable putting in a dollar or two in the basket on Sunday and perhaps five or 10 at Christmas and Easter. We take the survival of the Church as a given, and important financial decisions seems to be made behind the closed doors of a distant chancery office.

The call to tithe is a distant echo to most Catholics. While some Catholics annually give a tenth of their earnings, their numbers are few. In today's tax happy world, where over 50 cents of every dollar earned goes to one tax or another, few can entertain such a notion. Still, many evangelicals do tithe.

Last year the one thousand members of a downtown Boston evangelical Church collected $4.5 million. That works out to be an average yearly contribution of $4,500 per parishioner. As a result the church is able to sponsor lots of programs and local charity work. Most impressive, 40 percent of the total goes overseas for missionary work.

While Catholics can feel confidence that our Church carries the truest rendering of the message of Christ and continues the evangelical outreach of the Apostles, that doesn't mean that we don't have a ton to learn from our Christian sisters and brothers.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.

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