You may not be familiar with the term Atmosphere People but you know who these folks are. The term Atmosphere Catholics might be new to you as well but you have seen these people, you may have met some of them.
In the movies, we go to or the T.V. shows we watch Atmosphere People is the term used to describe the women and men, the girls and boys who provide background and make a scene look real. If the main characters are walking in a park, the Atmosphere People are the jogger who runs past, the nanny pushing a stroller, the guy on a bench eating lunch, the kid flying a kite. Atmosphere People rarely, if ever, have speaking parts. They don’t really add anything to plot development and they never appear in the credits. But if those central characters are walking through the park, sitting in a restaurant or sauntering through Times Square in New York City at noon and there is no one else around the scene just wouldn’t look very real. Atmosphere People don’t add anything to the storyline but if they weren’t there they would surely be missed.
Sometimes I think that just as we see Atmosphere People in the movies, we also see Atmosphere Catholics in our churches. The analogy between what I am calling Atmosphere Catholics and the Atmosphere People in the movies is not a perfect one but then no analogy is perfect (I guess that is why it’s an analogy.) However, there are definitely people in church each Sunday who seem to fit the description of what I call an Atmosphere Catholic.
Atmosphere Catholics are in church just about every Sunday and they seem to participate, even going forward with the assembly at Communion time to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet these people, these Atmosphere Catholics, who are present at Mass are not present elsewhere at the parish: they are not on any committees, they don’t attend prayer groups or Bible study and they aren’t involved in any of the various liturgical ministries.
Atmosphere Catholics don’t avoid greeting the priest after Mass but they are often the ones who stay for the final blessing but who are out of the church before the recessional procession walks down the aisle. Atmosphere Catholics are really more than mere background, the way Atmosphere People are in the movies but Atmosphere Catholics are rarely if ever actively involved in the life of the parish aside from attending Mass.
There are, no doubt, various reasons why some Catholics, some members of a parish faith community, become Atmosphere Catholics. Some may find that all they are capable of doing in regards to active involvement with the parish is to attend Mass on Sunday. Whether due to physical or time constraints they are just not able to do more. Perhaps these folks shouldn’t really be placed in the Atmosphere Catholic category. Some Atmosphere Catholics may have been raised believing that attendance at Mass – and thus avoiding the mortal sin that comes with intentionally missing Mass without a sufficient reason – is all that is required of Catholics.
Some Atmosphere Catholics may simply not know how to go about getting involved in parish life so they come to Mass, waiting to be asked to do more. After a time, if they are not asked, they become people who just attend Mass and do little else with the faith community and some Catholics become Atmosphere Catholics because they were never taught that going to Mass isn’t all that is necessary for living out our baptismal commitment.
I am not pointing a finger at these Atmosphere Catholics and I am certainly not trying to shame them in any way. In fact, if there is any finger pointing to take place I suspect that the finger should more appropriately be pointed at those of us in the parish who do know what it means to live out the promises made at our Baptism, who do know that there is more to being a Catholic than just attending Mass on Sunday. The finger should be pointed at those of us who see the Catholics at the margins of the community but who fail to make the effort to bring them into a closer relationship with the people of God. The finger should be pointed at those of us who fail to evangelize the Atmosphere Catholics we encounter in our faith communities.
The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines evangelization as, “the proclamation of Christ and His Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ’s command.” And the command of Christ mentioned in this definition is found in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells the Apostles just before He ascends to the Father:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
It is clear from Scripture that Christ commands us to baptize and teach. It is equally clear that in order to do what Christ commands we must proclaim His Gospel by word and by the example of our lives. So if we know what we have to do to be an evangelizing people, the question becomes who are we supposed to evangelize? The answer to this question is anyone and everyone who is ignorant of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t really matter if a person identifies themselves as a Catholic or as a Christian or even identifies with no religion at all. It doesn’t matter if the person has been baptized or not. If we are called to be an evangelizing people and if evangelization means we work to make disciples, we baptize and we teach what Christ taught then we are called to bring the knowledge of Christ to all who are ignorant of His teachings. Even being baptized in the Catholic Church is no guarantee that someone possesses more than a rudimentary knowledge of the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus they contain.
Most Catholics don’t have the opportunity to evangelize by proclaiming the Gospel through the spoken word. Most Catholics don’t have the opportunity to preach at Mass, teach a class on the Gospels or give a lecture in the parish hall. However, all Catholics have the opportunity – to say nothing of the obligation – to proclaim Jesus Christ by how we live our lives; all Catholics have the opportunity to evangelize by how we treat others and by what we say to other people. Jesus told His Disciples to love one another as He had loved them and that others would know who His followers are by how they love. (John 13:34-35) We evangelize, then, when we do what Jesus commands us to do when we love one another as He has loved us.
Evangelizing the Atmosphere Catholic
I think it is important to note that we don’t live according to the Gospels in order to evangelize. Rather, we evangelize by first living our lives according to the Gospels. Even if there were no people in the world in need of being evangelized we would still be called to live in concert with the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, there is no shortage of people in the world who are in need of evangelization, no shortage of people who need to encounter those who are disciples of Jesus Christ and who demonstrate their discipleship by the example of their lives. And some of the people in this world who need to be evangelized, who need to encounter Jesus Christ through encounters with His disciples can be found in our churches on Sunday morning.
A couple of years ago I went to a seminar on evangelization and one of the speakers gave a talk on “picking the low-hanging fruit” by which he meant that a good place to begin evangelizing is with people who already have some level of belief in the Catholic faith. While this speaker was referring to those Catholics who no longer practice the faith as being the “low-hanging fruit”, I think this term could equally apply to the people I am calling Atmosphere Catholics.
However, equating evangelization with picking “low-hanging fruit” strikes me as being inaccurate. If we evangelize by how we live our lives, by how we make Christ a reality in the world through the words we speak and the actions we take then it would seem that we are evangelizing all people all the time because we should be living the Gospel-centered life all the time. Despite my reservations, though, I think there may still be some merit in using the analogy of low-hanging fruit when it comes to evangelizing those who at a minimum still self-identify as being Catholic. Those who have some level of belief are “ripe for the picking”, ripe for evangelization. And perhaps the lowest of the low-hanging fruit is the Atmosphere Catholics. After all, it should be a fairly simple and straight forward task- although not necessarily an easy one- to bring those who already participate regularly in the liturgical life of the Church into the fullness of the Gospel-centered life that is the ideal lifestyle for Catholics.
The reality is that Atmosphere Catholic is just a term we can use to describe a certain group of believers, just as other groups can be described variously as “fallen away Catholics”, the “unchurched” or the “non-baptized.” And it does not matter whether we target one of these groups or no group in particular as we live our Gospel-centered, evangelizing life because we still have to pick up our cross daily and follow after Jesus
. As I said, we don’t live a Gospel life because we want to evangelize we do it because it is what Christ calls us to do. If we think that evangelization is a “something” to be accomplished then we are missing the point. Evangelization is not a task to be performed but is rather a way of life. We evangelize when our lives are a full-time expression of Gospel values. If we are content with being a people who do evangelizing activities rather than being a people who live a Gospel-centered, evangelizing life it may be that like those Atmosphere Catholics we are merely Atmosphere Evangelizers.