Letter to Jennifer “Jen” E. Russ, enough already…
It’s time I ended this harangue and moved on to other cultural train wrecks. I apologize for what has become a helpless, whining meander on my part, but my confusion was summed up nicely by a blues musician who just returned from touring Outer Mongolia with a Christian rock band. (I am not making any of that up. He is constantly traveling the world sharing the Gospel by means of music. I think he is on his way to China in a month or two.) He said all the meetings and committees are just a recognition that the Church is dying and no one knows what to do.
I don’t think the Church is dying. He doesn’t either. He said that where it has been recently persecuted, it is thriving. It is among most Europeans that it is dying. In the term Europeans I include the citizens of Europe, especially Western Europe and their colonial descendants, the Americas, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English-speaking. Christianity flourishes in South America – the protestant evangelical/Pentecostal variety, not the Catholic – but among us Europeans the cloud of God’s glory seems to have moved on.
It’s time to get used to it. We have rejected the culture of our forebears. This means that to be culturally Catholic or Christian is completely impossible because the culture is dying. One can no longer be Catholic because one is Italian, or Spanish or Belgian. One can only be Catholic or Christian for that matter because it is true. It is time to drop the fantasy that because one has a baptismal certificate one is a Catholic.
When I was boy, in another century, one was excommunicated – that is booted from the church – if one failed to receive Holy Communion during the Easter season. One could only receive communion if one was in a state of grace, which meant assisting at Mass on a weekly basis and, if married or sexually active, living in a faithful and sacramental marriage. That meant for most of us one could only be Catholic if one went to confession at least once a year. To fail to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion annually meant, in effect, to no longer be a Catholic.
I have no idea which of those assumptions is still true. We redefine things constantly in hopes of keeping the body count up, but we are fooling ourselves. In an urban area of 8 million we count two million plus as Catholics. We claim that 20% of Catholics go to Mass every Sunday. It is probably more like 15 percent if one includes tourists, occasional participants and pastoral padding of the statistics. Let’s see, 15% or 20% of an area population of 8 million. I think that comes to about 2.5 percent or less. We are already a Church that has faded to insignificance in this part of the world. Face it.
Why has this happened? There are a lot of reasons. If I could pick one, it would have to be the sins of the clergy. The clergy have always sinned, but there are times when the sins of the clergy become so offensive to God and to the people that reaction is inevitable.
In the Middle Ages there were a lot of holy priests. Still there were enough who thought the faith was their private plaything that the reformation and the centuries of religious war ensued. Similar things happened with the decadence of the 6th century that a religion roared out of the east and swept away most of the Christian world. The Cathars were such a contrast to the decadent clergy of the twelfth century that, had it not been for the poor and holy followers of saints Dominic and Francis, the Church would have perished. And now we in the 21st century are paying for the sins of 20th. I am not referring to the sins that are so popularly reported by the vultures of the press. The scandals of the late 20th century were only symptoms of the rot. The rot had already festered for a century and more. We slowly lost the vision of piety that inspired the first missionaries to this land and we cannot recoup until we recover that piety.
The faith is not about breaking the whole world into small discussion groups. It is about holiness, and that holiness has to begin with the clergy. About the early disciples, the Romans were wont to say, “…these men have been with Jesus.” Until once again that be said about me and my fellow clergy, the decline will continue inexorably. I have two reasons to hope: St John Paul the Great and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the horror of the 20th century the Lord gave his orphaned children both a father and a mother. Of them it could be said, “These had been with Jesus.”
Evangelism is to bring people into a saving knowledge of Jesus, the Messiah, not a theological, a social, a political or historical knowledge, but a SAVING knowledge, a knowledge of Him that causes us to be ashamed of our sins and to long for the change that only grace can achieve. It is not a knowledge that conforms His image to current perversions, but a knowledge of Him that delivers us from the perversity, violence and ugliness of these times. “Be not conformed to this present age but be transformed by a renewal of your mind.” (Rom 12:2)
To evangelize is not complicated. It is simply to learn how to pray with people. If we talk about Christ, we are wasting our time, but if we can get those who are lost to talk to Christ, they will be saved from this dying culture of death. To evangelize is to move a person from saying “Him” about Christ, to saying “you” to Christ.
It is that simple. All the committees in the world won’t help an iota, but one mother Teresa and one Karol Wotyla who could invite people to trust Christ by their very presence and make all the difference. If we don’t learn to be holy and to invite people to meet the One whom they see that we truly love, the Catholic Church in America will become an arcane club, interesting only to historian and medievalists. If we the clergy do not repent and return to the Gospel, the thing is up. I have one more cause for hope. I believe the Lord will give us a second chance.
It seems the Church flourishes in persecution. I believe that He may just bless us with real suffering, it seems to have already begun in Canada and Europe and America, where an increasing number of laws threatened those who would be faithful to the faith that we have received from Christ and the apostles. I suspect that being a Christian in the post European world will become very uncomfortable. Perhaps sooner than we think we will have, as Pope Benedict suspected, a smaller but holier and, I would add, more real Church.
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
The sky is darkening and it has already started to drizzle. I suggest we get out the umbrellas.
The Rev. Know-it-all