Continued from last week…
Last week I ended by noting that two out of three young people in this country still identify themselves as members of a religious group. If one makes the criterion for membership actually participating in religious activities and living in a certain way, then I suspect that religion in general and Christianity in particular is a rare phenomenon among anyone under 25 years of age. When I was young, 60 years ago, people were Catholic or Protestant, and a very few were Jewish. That’s what you were. There were no options. The very few who didn’t participate in a religious community in some way were pitied. They were odd. Those who professed atheism or some exotic eastern religion were feared and ostracized.
Then came the council in 1962. I was 12 years old. They were glorious heady days. We were returning to the days of the early Church. Liturgist simplified the liturgy because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. They turned the altars around because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. Everything was about a return to the first glorious days of Christianity. I have since come to think that much of the vaunted return to early Christianity was historical and scholarly nonsense. In one sense, however we have returned to the first days of the Church. We are a small and much persecuted minority. According to the sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, by the end of the first century there were perhaps only 10,000 Christians in a population of 60 -70 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
No one was a Christian because of social pressure. One was Christian because it was true. My priesthood was fashioned out of a Christian culture. Yours will be fashioned out an anti-Christian culture, just as was the priesthood of the apostles. This is the whole difference. I think that we the clergy and especially the bishops live in a fool’s paradise. We somehow think that there are people who by nature and birth are Catholics. It’s just not true. No one is born a Catholic. No one ever was. When I was young and the Church started hemorrhaging members, older clergy and my seminary teachers were fond of saying, “They’ll be back. When they have kids of their own, they’ll be back.” That was fifty years ago, we are now into our third generation of former Catholics. They aren’t coming back. There is a certain nostalgia that many have about sacraments of initiation. Parents still want their children to be baptized and receive the three C’s (confession, communion and confirmation), but they are less and less interested in getting married or buried in Catholic ceremony and they aren’t at all interested in Sunday Mass especially if it interferes with a sports program.
Perhaps I’ve already said this, but it is rare for a bishop to see an empty church. They usually visit a parish for an event, and the church is full. The whole extended family comes for confirmation and the party afterward. They probably won’t be in church next Sunday, or the Sunday after that. In an immigrant parish, there is still a lot of life and a few young people, but after a generation in the government schools where they are taught that religion is at best ridiculous and at worst evil, the newly arrived will be just as jaded as their new country.
We must face the facts. The 2nd Vatican council did restore us to the days of the early Church, and perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit intended. We are a small persecuted minority in the modern world. Sure, the press still notices when something interesting comes out the Vatican, but in general no one is paying attention to us. The average Target-shopping, pizza-eating, sports-watching, twice-divorced, shacking-up, normal human being pays no attention to what we, the clergy, say or do -- unless it’s on a police blotter or the evening news. They love a good scandal that validates their complete disinterest in us. The Roman mobs noticed the Christians only when they were being thrown to the lions. The modern mob notices us only when we are being thrown under the bus, sometimes for perfectly good reason.
Don’t get me wrong. The church is flourishing. Asia and Africa are filled with vital convinced Christians. So is South America, but there the vital convinced Christians tend to be ex-Catholic evangelicals. The Church is dying only in the developed world. So, what does this cheery assessment have to do with the diocesan priesthood?
The diocesan priest in the future must be as much apostle and evangelist as pastor. Until we stop assuming that people are born Catholic and until we become adept at bringing people to conversion to Christ, the Church will continue to die in this country and other “developed” countries. Right now, we are wasting our time quibbling about moral and liturgical questions about which no one on the real planet is concerned. I am not saying these things don’t matter. I have an increasing tendency to traditionalism as I age. What I am saying is they don’t matter to those who aren’t Christians, and fewer and fewer are Christians.
We are asking the world the wrong questions. Until we get comfortable with a much more basic question, nothing will change. That basic question is “Are you saved?” To which question the world will answer, “From what?” The whole question should be, “Are you saved from death?” We have learned to postpone death, to hide death, to forget death, but no one, so far, can avoid death. We hold there is one exception: Jesus of Nazareth.
You will have to be an apologist for the hope of eternal life. Your priesthood will demand so much more than mine has demanded of me. You must be steeped in Scripture and in history, but above all you must be steeped in Christ. You must be holy, not just to appear pious, but to be genuinely holy. It was said of the first Christians, “These men have been with Jesus.” When I was lad, a good priest was perhaps a good administrator, or very pastoral, or a good preacher. None of these things will be enough.
Your task will be to offer the world a way to escape death, and this you can do only if you yourself have escaped death, and the only way I know to do that is to radiate the presence of Christ. To do this you must dedicate yourself to prayer, study and charity. As the end of my life draws near, and I see yours just beginning, I think I would have lived my life very differently, had I the chance. I would try much less to impress people, and I would try much harder to immerse myself in Christ. I would try to be less the church man and more the saint.
When your life draws closer to its end, may it be said of you, “He has been with Jesus.”
P.S. Study history. Start with three books: Dr. Rodney Stark’s “To Bear False Witness,” Mike Aquilina/Jim Papandrea’s “Seven Revolutions” and Crocker’s “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church”. These three books will help you dispel much of the anti-Catholic mythology you will be taught in Catholic schools and in state school. As for bible study, start with Jeff Cavin’s Great Adventure. Self-appointed scholars hate it, but his premise is before you tear it to pieces with avant-garde scholarship, you must know the story and the timeline. It’s what in the olden days we called Bible history. Also, learn some Ancient Greek and Hebrew. It’s easier than you think and it is wonderful to be able to see what the text is actually saying.