In my pastoral experience, I can vouch that years ago, a number of converts, initially became motivated to become Catholics more through witnessing crowds and families, in hail or shine, attending Sunday Masses, rather than through reading or enquiring about the Faith, as much as this is most important, too.
A community that witnesses Christ in a gathering of worship is an effective missionary motivation, and a good example to others. Faith is caught, not taught.
There are three dimensions to Catholic life: word, sacrament and community.
A sacrament is always celebrated in and of the community. A sacrament without this connection is like a fish out of water. Indeed, the binding force of evangelisation within the mission of the Catholic Church is the Eucharist; it always has been.
It is very unfortunate that in recent years the traditional devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament has been subtly sidetracked, or diminished considerably through liturgical abuses that weaken respect for the Mass and reduce church attendances.
In Australia, we owe our inherited faith to those Catholic pioneers who, in heart-rending conditions of a harsh, untamed land, excessive heat, long distances, primitive means of transport, and religious prejudices, bravely defied all obstacles and preserved the devotional religious practices.
They rejoiced if they were fortunate enough to have a Mass at least once a year, celebrated under a gum tree in the outback in some central spot accessible to Catholic families who, like the priest, travelled on horse and buggy many kilometres to share the Eucharistic celebration in an atmosphere of evangelical spirit, typical of the early missionary Church.
For them, it was the Mass that mattered; it inspired them to feel spiritually fulfilled, happy and resourceful even in their poor conditions.
Today, with all our commodities and amenities, we do well to admire their staunch faith and learn from them to accept Christ in his totality, not in parts or on our own terms, and to do them justice for the many sacrifices they endured.
The Holy Father, in his recent encyclical on the Eucharist, speaks out in very urgent language about the liturgical abuses that are detrimental to the authentic mission of our Church. He writes: "No-one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands. It is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and universality."
Many practising, faithful Catholics complain about the vulgarity and casual behaviour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in our churches. The recent Vatican Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, states: "Any Catholic has the right to lodge a complaint about liturgical abuses to the Bishop or to the Roman Pontiff on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist."
During the recent Australian Bishops' ad limina visit, the Holy Father warned the Bishops to "ensure that the priests used the texts of the Missal, Lectionary and Ritual as they are, unchanged, without deletion or addition."
By lowering standards, nobody gains. St Paul had to address fiery words to the community of Corinth because of grave shortcomings in the celebration of the Eucharist, resulting in schisms, emergence of factions and distortion of the Church's mission (Cor. 11:1, 34).
In his Apostolic Exhortation to Pastors, the Holy Father stresses this point: "The Church was born of the Paschal Mystery. For this very reason, the Eucharist, which is an outstanding sacrament of the same paschal mystery, stands in the centre of the Church's life. It is the responsibility of pastors to encourage, by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic Adoration - exposition of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass - as an inestimable value of evangelisation for the very life of the Church."
The mission of the Church is a holy enterprise of major concern to us all. In the current volatile secular society and fragmented Christian communities, it is our duty to be on guard against certain radical innovations and unauthorised ecclesial changes that challenge the Magisterium in the guise of "updating".
In the context of modernising, some intellectuals misinterpret the meaning of the Church, moving gradually from the sacred to the secular, questioning the basics of Christian belief.
Questions on abortion, artificial birth control, homosexuality, promiscuity, sexual abuse, social injustice, family breakdown, etc, and the Church's teaching on them, are aired almost daily, in print and electronic media. Mostly, the Church is criticised for its role, ridiculed as old- fashioned, and invariably given loads of advice.
Anybody with a bit of sense would know that it is the intrinsic goodness of things that determines their worth, not their age. Our Lord founded an apostolic Church and commissioned it to teach and preach the Gospel to the whole world. His order was to inspire and instruct the world and not to conform to it.
Throughout the centuries, in its mission of evangelisation, the Church has taught eternal truths, and constantly taught that it has no power to change them. This means that not only will it not modernise its teachings, it cannot.
In regard to ecumenism, the Holy Father made it very clear in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint that "Catholics cannot settle for anything less than the visible unity of the Body of Christ as their ecumenical goal". He continued: "The greater mutual understanding and the doctrinal convergences already achieved between us, which has resulted in an affective and effective growth of communion, cannot suffice for the conscience of Christians who profess that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. The ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is to re- establish full visible unity among all baptised."
Our Lord advises us to engage in much more than good relationships. He calls on his followers to engage their lives totally, not partially, with God in a loving relationship. Therefore, it is fundamental to adhere to and abide by the authentic teachings of the Magisterium, which is the only guaranteed guide in doctrinal matters.
During my 21 years as a parish priest, I encountered one depressing experience of having to deal with a parish that was spiritually run-down, despite its robust parish council, efficient school board, good teamwork and its sport and fund-raising activities.
There was no problem with these, but I became terribly concerned about the poor Sunday Mass attendances, confessions and devotions. School children did not even know how to make the sign of the cross, let alone how to say the act of contrition.
When I complained about this sad situation, one male parishioner suggested in jest that we install a keg of beer and soon the church would be full. I replied: "Small minds, small talk; but soon I will have you on your knees in the church."
Without any consultation, one Sunday morning I announced during Mass that I planned to have an hour's adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, each day of the week; and I asked for volunteers to join me.
Over the following month, the roster of adorers kept increasing, until upwards of twenty parishioners attended each day, with an inspiring follow-up of a improving Mass attendances on Sundays. Within twelve months, this once spiritually run-down parish had been transformed.
During my five years in that parish, I also saw three young parishioners enter the priesthood.
I learned that no amount of glossy material efforts can replace the essential elements of the sacraments and spirituality, which are at the heart of a living Catholic parish.
I am convinced that, these days, more than ever in the past, the majority of Catholics want to hear the truth, and to feel sure they are on the right track. They want their priest to be holy and dedicated.
Our generation badly needs fresh courses about the authentic teachings of our Church. They seem to have missed out on it, or received it in distorted form. Given our intellectually high standard, particularly in technology and science, it is ironic that so many Catholics feel unable to respond even to the most simplistic forms of secular fundamentalism.
It is expected of the glories of our faith that we can give reasons for the religious and moral position we hold. Both laity and clergy should be realistic and brace themselves in the realm of orthodoxy, and defend Christ and his teachings on common grounds, without shifting camps.
It is also high time that those responsible for the sacraments have tender consideration for those devout and loyal Catholics who are obliged to roam from parish to parish in search of a priest who celebrates Holy Mass with dignity and true reverence, according to the officially approved rubrics of the liturgy.
It is good to be optimistic but, facing such things as widespread drug addiction and the culture of death, the Church is compelled to counteract our society's pagan lifestyle with a strong missionary spirit like that of the early apostolic era.
The Church is experiencing difficult times, and naturally we often feel perturbed. However, our Church's calling is to share in the life of our Divine Saviour, whose own life was marked by crisis as well. When at the Last Supper Jesus gathered his disciples around him in a bond of supreme charity, Judas had already sold him, Peter was about to deny him and most of his disciples would run away.
Jesus' life seemed to be drifting towards failure and defeat. But it was at this moment of crisis that he performed that most hopeful gesture. He took the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: "This is my body given for you; take and drink, this is my blood."
Every Holy Mass enacts the memory of this crisis, endured and transcended. We are not to fear the current crisis. The Church was born in crisis, and through its history has endured severe crises. The Church is a divine institution and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.
On one bitterly cold but moonlit evening, a young couple knocked at my presbytery door that faced a bay, and asked me if they could sleep under the presbytery verandah for that night, as they had no money and nowhere to go for shelter. I gave them a cuppa and toast, and I asked them if they preferred to sleep in the garage which I furnished with facilities for an emergency accommodation like theirs.
They told me they were lapsed Catholics, both university drop-outs, living in a de-facto relationship, and that they were drug addicts beyond hope of medical cure. I listened patiently and assured them both that they were not beyond Christ's mercy and redemption, which is readily available to all those who ask for it. I promised to pray for them and bid them goodnight with all God's blessings.
In the morning, before I offered them some breakfast, I asked them if they would care to come to the church and attend my Mass. They obliged and came. Afterwards we shared some food and a chat, which I hoped would do them some good spiritually. They gave me a hug and I responded with a smile and an assurance that the Catholic priest is always there to help people in trouble or need, and that the Church is good.
Indeed, the Church is in the middle of it all. Through our godparents, at Baptism, we made promises to God to be faithful to Him. In our adult life, we repeat the same promises publicly during the Easter ceremonies. So, renewed with the Holy Spirit, let us take up the challenge, and courageously be worthy witnesses of our Church to the world, and profess that we are Eucharistic people.
Father Sebastian Camilleri OFM OA, MA, PhD, is Chaplain of the Assisi Centre in the Melbourne Archdiocese.