Even though all is not well in the Catholic Church these days, we’ve been here before.
One particularly low point came in the early 1200’s: Rome was addicted to intrigue, belabored by scandal, besieged by enemies, and plagued by intractable problems. Just about that time a young man, who desired greatly only to serve God, sought guidance in the wreck of a ruined little church near the Italian town of Assisi. There, God spoke clearly, simply instructing him, “Francis, repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin.” With arresting obedience, St. Francis lost no time in undertaking the request; literally he began the repair of the Church exactly where he found himself that day in his parish. It turned out to be the first step in a period of amazing renewal.
Currently, the Cardinals are meeting in Rome to begin the work of electing a new pope. There is widespread interest and vast speculation on who that will be.
The scenario is so unexpected, accompanied by more than the usual intrigue and scandal, problems and enemies, that it is irresistible not to want to watch.
Of course, all Catholics want a good and holy man who has the energy and ability to effectively handle the mess at the Vatican Bank, stand up strongly to the abuse issue, and take on the other pressing problems at hand.
But the Church’s central challenge remains even after all these problems are addressed. That challenge is the precipitous loss in membership. And whoever the new pope is, that won’t necessarily change.
Think about it. Pope John Paul was, perhaps, the most charismatic pontiff in history, a searing intellect, an amazing speaker, a fearless leader, with rock star status he spanned the globe tirelessly. Pope Benedict has surely been one of the kindest, humblest of popes who has taught us with towering wisdom and insight. Yet, under both popes, the decline in membership has accelerated as never before in history. Both John Paul and Benedict could fill any stadium in the world, Meanwhile the churches in Rome are far from full.
In Europe, the Church is largely dead. In the United States one in three Catholics has walked away, making “former Catholic” the third largest religious designation in the country. It is not much commented on, but while the Church’s numbers can look robust in South America, people who are working in the trenches can tell you that “practicing Catholics” might be on the endangered list. Meanwhile, Evangelicals are making vast and important inroads there. The story on the African continent is everywhere hailed as the success story. Yet the sustainability of that success remains to be seen. With the increase in globalization, surely there is reason for concern that the patterns experienced elsewhere will be eventually seen there.
Reversing these patterns and turning that tide isn’t all up to the pope. It is a job that every pastor, parish leader, and interested parishioner shares. And that’s because the problem isn’t an international one, it’s a local one. The problem isn’t a problem of the Universal Church of Rome, it’s a problem for the little church around the corner.
The problem is a parish problem, and here’s the thing: it’s a cultural problem. Too many parishes have developed a consumer culture, in which it’s all about the people in the pews. Such congregations in turn lose their transforming power in parishioner’s lives as well as their relevance in the community around them.
Both John Paul and Benedict have done exactly what they should have done about the problem. As our teachers, they have insightfully taught us about it and as our leaders they have boldly marked the way forward. They have called that way forward the “New Evangelization.” It is about challenging people in the pews to grow in their faith and, in turn, to share their faith in their own neighborhood. Moving forward, if you’re a Catholic, this initiative isn’t all up to the pope, it depends on you too.
Michael White and Tom Corcoran are the Pastor and Associate Pastor of Church of the Nativity, in Timonium, Maryland, and authors of “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter”
(Ave Maria Press, 2013).