Watching all of the political craziness that surrounds the 2016 presidential campaign as it currently unfolds, commentators seem to be focused on a common theme: people are angry. Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike are angry with Washington, D.C., and the direction our government and our country have taken in the last decade. So many candidates make promises that none of them keep. And they are not helping calm people’s fears.
What does the future hold for our nation? Only God knows.
Similar sentiments are emerging in the Church. More than anger, the word I would suggest within the Church is confusion. Our Church has long held certain teachings and beliefs that are being called into question daily by an unrelenting wave of secular relativism. Society, especially the media, seem to be moving the faithful in contrary directions. Catholics constitute the largest portion of our nation’s religious population, about 25 percent.
Surveys and opinion polls, however, have all revealed that “folks in the pews” are not as convinced about Church teachings and beliefs as they once were. Doubts and “confusion” are not only creeping into Catholic moral behavior and practice but are also reaching into some of the Church’s core beliefs and doctrines. It is interesting — and somewhat alarming — to note that the second largest portion of our nation’s religious population is former or lapsed Catholics, about 10 percent.
What does the future hold for the Catholic Church in our nation? Only God knows.
As a Catholic priest and bishop, I would be less than honest if I said I was not concerned, even worried. The numbers of registered Catholics who attend Mass in our Diocese on the weekend hovers around 17-18 percent. That is not encouraging. Why are they not participating?
Many studies have suggested inadequate preaching as a large part of the reason. While I have no doubt that uninspiring homilies may contribute to the downturn in some cases, I cannot believe that it sufficiently explains the exodus. That it is mentioned at all as a contributing factor should be a wakeup call to all of us responsible for preaching to do a better job. I believe we are conscious of that criticism — our priests and deacons have been discussing this for several years now — and are working harder preparing and delivering good homilies.
Others point to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its mishandling by Church authorities as the reason for declining numbers. While a tragic and deeply troubling part of its history, the Church has been more aggressive than any other organization, institution or profession in its effort to make the Church both accountable and safe. Even one instance of abuse in the Church, however, is one too many.
Still others say that the Church and its teachings have become irrelevant in contemporary society. I have to disagree strongly with that assertion. Just turn on the evening news or pick up the paper or follow current trends on the Internet, and the values of the Gospel and the Church seem more relevant and necessary than ever. But people are quick to say otherwise. Add to these concerns other issues like the ordination of women or the lack of welcome felt by gay Catholics, and there seem to be multiple reasons — or excuses — to attempt to explain what has happened in recent years.
It is important, however, to recognize the fact that the Church has endured for 2,000 years despite the problems it has encountered, the leaders who have let her down at various points in history, the social movements and revolutions that have rocked the “Barque of Peter.” Catholics believe in Jesus’ assurance to Peter that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you (Matthew 16: 18);” in Jesus’ promise at his Ascension that he “would be with you always until the end of time (Matthew 28: 20);” in Jesus’ commitment that he “will not leave you orphans” ... that he “would send another advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be with you forever (John 14; 16).”
St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into his grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5: 1-5).”
There is an old saying that has been attributed to St. Augustine: “pray as if everything depends upon God but work as if everything depends upon you.” The Church is both divine and human. It is God’s work, indeed, but it must truly be our own. In these often confusing times in the Church, let us never forget that. “Let us hold to the hope we profess without wavering for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10: 23).” And we should be faithful in return.