It “changed movies forever.”
That’s the accolade given to the writing and direction of Steven Spielberg, whose visionary genius brought us Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. With haunting theme music and dazzling special effects, the film has been deemed a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” cinematic feat.
It has religious power, too. I recall my college philosophy professor expounding on the symbolism of light and dark, the supernatural allusions in the sights (the mountain) and sounds (the tonal call), and the energizing depth of human desire and longing at work in this film.
I don’t know whether Pope Francis has seen the movie. I doubt he’s familiar with classifying alien encounters according to three kinds (sight, evidence, and contact). But the pope does show a penchant for proclaiming “encounter” as a defining experience for Christian life.
With a Thomistic philosophical bent, Pope Francis describes the missionary disciple as “a self-transcending subject, a subject projected towards encounter: an encounter with the Master (who anoints us as his disciples) and an encounter with men and women who await the message.”
The first disciples experienced this transformative encounter directly; the Master called, and they followed. We who are His disciples today are privy to a different encounter, not as close but no less real, through our parish experiences.
The Catholic Leadership Institute is studying the extent to which parish encounters transform the faithful. The Disciple-Maker Index – an ongoing survey completed to-date by more than 111,000 people across 24 dioceses in the U.S. and Canada – provides helpful data about what draws people to a close encounter with the Master and just how close those encounters are.
Respondents self-identify among four groups of disciples. The first (5%) consider themselves Catholic but are not significantly affected by that. The second (27%) practice their faith but without a sense of knowing Jesus personally. The relative majority in the third group (35%) “have personally encountered Jesus Christ and (are) growing as a disciple.” Those in the fourth (33%) esteem their relationship with Jesus Christ as the most important in their lives.
What makes the difference between simply practicing the faith and growing as a disciple? A close encounter with the divine! According to DMI data, the top driver for having this experience is a parish’s effort at forming disciples by way of three particular kinds of encounter: the personal, in terms of the parish clergy; the communal, with respect to the parish populace; and the liturgical, by way of the parish Mass.
The first encounter begins with the clergy. People have always looked to encounter Jesus in those ordained to ministry. Specifically, those who see today’s pastors as providing strong leadership are four times more likely to report an experience of spiritual growth in the faith. Yet only about half of all respondents (53%) strongly agree that they would recommend their pastor to friends, and fewer (40%) would recommend the other parish priests.
People also encounter the Lord through interaction with others in the parish community. Evidence of this second kind appears in people feeling “welcome and accepted” in the parish; those who do so appear twice as likely to assert they are growing as disciples. But only 44% of all respondents report strong agreement that this kind of encounter is happening.
The third, and closest, kind of encounter takes place liturgically. Each week, in the proclamation of God’s Word through reading and preaching, and in communion with God through the Eucharist, a parish offers people spiritual contact the Lord. When the liturgy uplifts parishioners, they are almost twice as likely to claim growth in discipleship. However, while 90% of DMI respondents report attending Mass weekly or more often, only 36% strongly agree that their Sunday experience is “vibrant and engaging,” with the same percentage strongly agreeing that homilies connect to their everyday lives.
Forty years ago, one movie featuring a mountaintop experience changed science fiction forever. Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council initiated a new way to experience the Church in the world. The data today suggests that, at the parish level, everyone plays an important part in this spiritual experience, with clergy and liturgical ministers leading the way.
But the survey also shows that we still have a way to go to reach the religious mountaintop. Stay tuned for the sequel! Our next post will dig deeper into the DMI to explore how parishes can help everyone make the journey toward a close encounter of the divine kind.