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Communicating penance to “nones” and “dones”

    by Robert Z. Cortes

    The season of Lent is once again upon us and, invariably, the Church’s call to be reunited to God and do penance. Here’s a relevant question, though: who’s answering? But even more basic: who’s listening?

    The unwilling, disappearing audience

    These questions are apropos to serious Christians / Catholics, considering recent reports like that of the Springtide Research Institute. This recently founded center in the U.S. focuses on Gen Z and claims that “more than half of the Gen Z population has little to no trust in organized religion”(Escott, 2021). Since the U.S. is already arguably the most religious nation in the West, the finding suggests that, in general, the youth of the West cannot be counted on to answer the Church’s call to penance.

    The drift away from religion, however, did not begin with Gen Z. A considerable population of their predecessors, the Millennials, led the charge much earlier in identifying as “nones” or “dones,” respectively meaning not having any or are done with one’s previous religious affiliation. The book “Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America” by Steven Bullivant (2022) shows that the story of religion in general, as well as of Catholicism, in America is one of cooling off, if not of departures in the last two to three decades. So, don’t count on adults from the West either, whether to hear or to heed the Church’s call to penance.

    Even the “reliably Catholic” Church in the Philippines may have its own woes as well. While the flight away from religion may not be exactly the issue in our still-quite-religious nation (whether among adults or the youth), it is nevertheless true that the Church’s traditional teachings may now be falling on less-than-enthusiastic ears. And that is putting it mildly.

    For instance, in his book, “Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines,” sociologist Jaycel Cornelio (2016) points out that unlike before, when most Filipinos would readily conform to institutional Church teachings, young Filipinos now prefer “a different, more individualized approach to Catholicism,” one often not in keeping with the official Church position. The necessity of sacramental confession, of penance for the forgiveness of sins? “Well, maybe… but,” we can imagine many young Filipinos now saying.

    The very idea of penance itself doesn’t help in making it attractive to the modern mind. Secular sources like the typical dictionary, identifies penance with self-abasement, humiliation, hardship, a sort of death to self. In a society that now considers as greatest goods things that are tied to materialism, consumerism, and instant gratification, who wants any of those?

    Moreover, the definition of penance offered to us by religious sources such as the original Catholic Encyclopedia hints further why penance is so unattractive to modern society. It includes concepts like “sinner” and “hatred of… sin as an offense against God” (Hanna, 1907). In a world that’s becoming increasingly secular and individualistic, God has become a mere sideshow and “the other,” peripheral paraphernalia. So, why should one think that sin even exists, much less matters? Consequently, what’s the point of penance? This raises the first hard question: if the product is so difficult to sell, and the market that needs it doesn’t seem to care, why even try to sell it at all? It’s a question that seems to suggest the obvious, easier alternative: why not just “do apostolate” with those who already understand us? In other words, why not just preach to the choir?

    Preaching to the choir is the easy but lazy choice

    These questions should concern every responsible Christian because it is a question that strikes at the very core of Christianity. Every Christian, the Bible tells us, is called to mission, to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations…” (Mt 28:19).

    One practical answer to the first hard question is hard facts. If we follow the above logic, there’d be no electric bulb, no coffee, no airplanes, no PC’s, no vaccines. All these ubiquitous necessities were ridiculed and rejected by their original markets when they first came out (Nguyen, 2016). But the dogged perseverance of their champions in demonstrating their worth won the day. Now, those products’ ready availability is, in a manner of speaking, “saving lives.”

    Now, I guess every human being has in their very core a real desire to “save lives,” if given a chance. When the great Roman poet, Horace, wrote “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” (I have built a monument more lasting than bronze), he drew attention to the universal desire of leaving a lasting legacy in the world. Arguably, not even Horace’s poems (the monument he referred to), are as lasting a legacy as a human soul “saved.”

    By “saved” we mean “having been made to understand and appreciate the truth of what it means to be human and what the human being is worth.” As Socrates is supposed to have said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus, every man and woman we bring closer to the truth about himself or herself is a man and woman brought closer to salvation.

    And what is this truth?

    It is the fact that human beings did not create themselves, but rather created by God. It is the fact that we sin against Him and go through our lives often falling and fumbling bearing in ourselves the fruit of original sin, totally undeserving of the dignity we have been given. As G. K. Chesterton (1908) famously puts it, “original sin… is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” All the proof that one needs of human sin one “can see in the street.”

    The truth is also that man’s “unconditional dignity” comes from the fact of his likeness to God and of his being called “by grace to enter into communion with God” (International Theological Commission, 1982). For this communion to happen, fallen man and fallen woman need to begin by turning back to God in the spirit of penance.

    A last truth to consider is this: while your regular practicing Christian / choir Catholic will readily say “Amen!” to those truths, the alternative audience would presumably reject them to their peril. There’s the rub.

    This last fact seems to bring us back to square one, but it doesn’t. Rather, it tells us why limiting ourselves to “preaching to the choir” is a lazy alternative.

    To be sure, “the choir” needs timely reminders, for we all get lost from time to time. Yet because they are already quite settled into the message, it means that, in a sense, they don’t need “saving.” On the contrary, the difficult market of disillusioned Christians, lapsed Catholics, bitter “dones,” indifferent “nones,” uncatechized men and women who cross our paths – in other words, Pope Francis’s “peripheries” – yes, they do.

    Lead with deeds

    But they cannot be “saved” through the usual sermons, fiery exhortations, or even intense heart-to-heart conversations. Perhaps later, these may come in handy, even necessary. But almost surely, these are not the best starting points. Why?

    Too many words unnecessarily multiply the possibilities of corroborating a common complaint of those who have left Christianity, or would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. It is the hypocrisy of Christians. Christians, the “hypocrisy objection” goes, not only do not practice what they preach, but even do the opposite of what they say they ought to do. One Christian author succinctly rounds up the objection. “If Christianity is really supposed to change people, then why do some, who profess to believe in Jesus, set such bad examples?” (Velarde, 2009).

    To be sure, the “hypocrisy objection” against Christianity involves faulty reasoning, but disproving it is not the point here. In fact, a hard look at it might even show us the best way to initiate a conversation with our challenging audience and, hopefully, bring it forward.

    From the objection we learn that the most serious obstacle to starting the communication process with the distrusting and the disenchanted seems to be Christians’ bad example. But this is compounded by the fact that the bad example is preceded by the same Christians’ (ironic) exhortation to the opposite (good) action.

    This means that the more enthusiastically we lead with talking, the more hypocritical we look when, in fact, we fail to live up to the Christian doctrine we so enthusiastically preach. True, our failures may not actually comprise hypocrisy, but tell that to Christianity’s critics. The disparity between the talk and the (lame) walk is hardly the best place to start our communication.

    How about starting with good example instead? Do first the Christian action, and only then maybe talk about Christian doctrine. Deeds, even before words. Show the praxis, then afterwards explain the theory.

    Is it God and our sinfulness we want to preach? Let’s lead with the following few good examples. Live a life of authentic humility. Listen more and speak less of yourself. Overlook other people’s idiosyncrasies. Choose to see the good in others. Don’t’ take insults personally.

    Is it the call to communion with God we want to teach? Here are a few things we can first do before we speak. Live order in body and spirit. Tidy up your living spaces. Fix your closet. Live a schedule, and follow it. Spend time in personal prayer. Go to church. Sympathize with those in sorrow. Spread joy wherever you are.

    Is it penance we want to communicate? Here are some deeds we can precede our words with. Manage your temper. Stop gossiping. Return unkindness with kindness. Learn to deny yourself (or delay) some gratification: food, drink, social media, entertainment, etc. Let the big ego fast. Let not abstinence from meat on Fridays be a mere excuse to eat roasted salmon and shrimp putanesca. Spend less on yourself and give more to the collection bag. Be sober.

    All of the above done with love of God and for God. This is Christian apostolate led with action.

    If it isn’t obvious yet, the power of the praxis-first communication approach is that, with constancy and consistency, the communicator himself is transformed into and embodies the very message he is meant to communicate in speech. By the end of Lent, one would be presumably closer to the holiness one wishes to preach. And because the person who would speak of penance does so as one who is the very proof of its sublimity and beauty, one’s words ring truer.

    Of course, actually changing the hearts of “nones” and “dones” ultimately depends on  the action of the Holy Spirit and on their own free response. It is the Holy Spirit too, who will lead the way in inspiring the communicator of faith when to speak, and where, and how – if there is ever a need. This step will be the fruit of further discernment that, it is hoped, will push the conversation forward.

    Almost 60 years ago, the Canadian communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, coined a phrase that has had a huge impact in the field of communication. He famously wrote, “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964). As mediums of the Christian message, to do as much justice as we humanly can to the message of humanity’s need for penance let’s apply the communication framework of first leading with action and embodying the message we preach.

    If we do so, even if we fall short, at the least we can be sure that we have already taken a significant step towards not getting in the way.

    Not getting in the way, that is, of the “nones” and “dones” finally listening and, we hope, eventually answering.


    Bullivant, S. (2022). Nonverts: The making of ex-Christian America. Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

    Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy. William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.

    Cornelio, J. S. (2016). Being Catholic in the contemporary Philippines: Young people reinterpreting religion. Taylor & Francis.

    Escott, P. A. (2021, November 20). The Gen Z dilemma and challenge for the Church. Catholic Stand.

    Hanna, E. J. (1907, 1912). Penance. Catholic Answers.

    International Theological Commission. (1982). Penance and reconciliation. The Holy See.

    McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Gingko Press.

    Nguyen, C. (2016, August 2). 7 world-changing inventions that were ridiculed when they came out. Insider.

    Velarde, R. (2009, January 1). What about hypocrites in the Church? Focus on the Family.

    Robert Z. Cortes is an assistant professor in the School of Communication of the University of Asia and the Pacific. He finished his MA in Education Leadership in Columbia University (New York, U.S.A.) and his PhD in Social Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce (Rome, Italy) in 2019. He obtained a post-graduate degree in Ancient Philology from Polis The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and the Humanities (Israel) in 2021. His main areas of study and teaching include: communication and media ethics; the connections among media, culture, and society; and language teaching and applications.

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