Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mt 19:21-22)
The gospel story about the rich young man always amazes me. The man is a model of Jewish piety, having assured Jesus that he has followed all the rules Jesus lists. It almost seems he’s boasting a bit when he asks Jesus for more rules to follow.
He reminds me of some inquirers I’ve met. They just want to know what it takes to become Catholic. They’ll come to all the meetings, learn all the rules, check all the boxes. How do I tell them it takes more than that to be a disciple?
What is in our hearts?
Jesus’s answer to the rich young man is a model. But not the way we might first think. There is nothing in Mosaic Law or Canon Law that says we have to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor to be holy. That’s not necessarily the answer.
Jesus’s answer to the rich young man is really a discernment question. He’s asking the young man where his heart is. What and who does he truly love? Inquirers come to us for a bunch of different reasons. But how do we know what is truly in their hearts?
Discerning an inquirer’s motivation is, for me, one of the hardest parts of this ministry. Not because the actual discernment is that hard, but because just asking the question is scary. What if I say something that causes the inquirer to go “away grieving” as the rich young man did? Wouldn’t it be easier, I sometimes wonder, to just put the person through the process, baptize them or receive them into full communion, and let the Holy Spirit worry about the heart stuff?
Not simply bystanders
It might be easier, but it’s not what Jesus did. And I don’t think it’s what we’re called to do either. Pope Francis teaches that in our ministry as catechists, we are not simply bystanders. We are supposed to be experts in the art of accompaniment:
The Church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life. (Joy of the Gospel, 169)
That last part about healing, liberating, and encouraging growth—that’s where discernment of what’s in the inquirer’s heart come into play. If they really have no interest in being healed and liberated and growing in faith—as the rich young man clearly did not—then they will likely turn away. It hurts to see that, as I’m sure it must have hurt Jesus to see the young man refuse Jesus’s invitation. But the alternative is to present Catholicism as simply a list of rules to follow.
If we can muster the courage to enter into a true, deep, spiritual discernment conversation with each person who asks how to become Catholic, we will be doing what God calls us to do in this ministry. And then we will be truly amazed at what the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us.
How do you enter into discernment with the seekers in your community? Does it come easily to them, or is it a difficult process? Share your thoughts in the comments below.