Sunday afternoon, following the beatification ceremony, I decided to wander back to St. Peter’s and into the square, to get a look at things from the opposite perspective I had in the morning (from the altar). To my surprise, but I suppose not surprisingly, the square and all the streets leading up to it were still filled with crowds of people, most waiting to get into the Basilica to visit the exhumed coffin of Pope John Paul. It turns out this went on all night long. The largest crowd ever assembled in the city of Rome gathered for Pope John Paul’s funeral. This was probably the second biggest, but with this many people, its hard to really know.
It is also striking, in a gathering such as this, in this place, to come face to face with the truly “catholic” aspect of the Church. There were Italians, of course, and Poles, Germans, a massive Spanish delegation led by the Spanish Royal family,English Catholics and those from Scotland and Ireland; Africans of every nation, Asians; I stood near a large Brazilian delegation singing songs and waving their national flag, a group of nuns from France were quietly praying next to them. And there were plenty of Americans, too (usually easy to pick out in the crowd). The commission that Christ gave his apostles, to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, has been served. His church can be found everywhere, as was so evident in St. Peter’s Piazza on Sunday. Nobody would have relished the spectacle more than Pope John Paul himself.
The great commission has been served, but it is hardly complete. In fact, standing in this crowd, with so much enthusiasm for the faith in evidence, it reminded me of the work there is still to do. If Catholic-Christians took their faith into the public square everyday, as all these people were doing on this day, how transformative of our society would we be, how different would our culture look. If instead of conforming to the culture around us, or insulating ourselves from it, we sought to engage it and renew it with the message of the gospel, how powerful a force could it be?
Besides the lack of impact the Church has in the culture, there is another problem, a growing problem: we are hemorrhaging members. The number of people who have left the Catholic Church is huge. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has recently put hard numbers to what was already a confirmed conviction for many of us: one in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination, they would be the third largest (after Catholics and Baptists). Put another way, one third of our members have just walked away from the Church. There is something seriously wrong with an organization that is losing members at that rate. If it continues, within a decade we will be a small, mostly hispanic denomination, with little relevance to the country or culture.
That’s the real view from the piazza.
[to be continued…]