Breaking News: Catholic Church (isn’t) Disappearing

francis and babyIt’s been a rough few years to be an American Catholic. If by “rough” you mean what’s been covered in the media. We’ve endured the sexual abuse scandals and we’re still healing from them. Parishes and Catholic schools, especially in the north, have been forced to close or consolidate. Our own federal government is attempting to force our Church to pay for abortions and artificial birth control—both of which violate our teachings and beliefs. Some women want to be ordained as priests. The LGBT community, which has won civil lawsuits concerning the definition of marriage, is outspoken (and sometimes violent) in their protests against our beliefs on family life. Many high-profile American Catholics (think Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi or Madonna) are strong supporters of abortion even though that goes against centuries of Church teaching. There’s a growing division in our country between liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, much like the red state/blue state division in our political lives.

Thankfully there’s so much more to the Catholic Church than what’s reported in the mainstream media. And our Church is much, much larger than just the United States. Despite the media’s consistent doom-and-gloom drumbeat reporting on the declining state of the Church, reality proves She’s alive and well. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads and believes Holy Scripture: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  Last week in Rio de Janeiro, more than 3 million young Catholics from around the world gathered to pray with Pope Francis. The number of Catholics in the world continues to grow. In Africa the growth rate is amazing: an increase of 6000% in the last century. The number of seminaries and priests in Africa has blossomed to keep up. In Asia, the number of Catholics has doubled in the last century. While the number of priests worldwide declined from 1970 to 2000, that number is now steadily on the rise. If there’s a real vocations story in the Catholic Church it’s not a story of decline, but of recovery. Here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta we have 36 men studying for the priesthood in our part of north Georgia. Religious communities and convents are also experiencing greater numbers of interested men and women. Here in the South, most Catholics have heard of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia or as they’re better known, “the Nashville Dominicans.”  These women teach in parochial schools and wear traditional habits. There are now more than 300 of them with 27 women joining just last year. Their average age is 36, which is quite young. So what’s going on in the developing world and in places like Atlanta and Nashville? What’s attracting more and more people to fully live their Catholic faith with such joy and commitment?

Some people attribute it to the lasting effects of the papacy of Blessed John Paul II—his charisma, his travels, and the establishment of World Youth Day gatherings like the one we just witnessed in Brazil. His legacy has certainly played a part in attracting and keeping young people excited about their faith. But there’s more to it. Decades of poor or non-existent catchesis are beginning to be replaced with programs geared towards parish youth, like LifeTeen and the Steubenville conferences and retreats. Some parishes have developed their own unique programs as well, but all these have some common threads which draw new people to the Church and keep people active in their Catholic faith:
1) Parish life is centered on the Sacraments. You don’t need fancy multi-media Masses and rock music. You DO need liturgies celebrated with reverence and dignity. You need Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. You need pastors and catechists willing to teach the truth of our faith without compromise. If our young people know the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist they’ll be joyful, lifelong Catholics.
2) Confession is offered before Mass and at several other times during the week, not just on Saturday afternoons. Penance is the love, mercy and forgiveness of God and needs to be available when folks can come and not just at a time which may be convenient for the priest. We love our priests, but we need more of them to think “inside the box” in this case.
3) Pastors and priests live their vocations joyfully and are great examples of answering God’s call of love and service. They talk to young people about their vocations and invite them to consider a religious vocation.
4) Our Christian calling extends beyond the walls of our parish church. Look at your parish ministries. How many of them exist mainly to serve the parish? How many of them reach out to serve your community? The poor, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the families struggling to make ends meet, the unwed expectant mom who might be thinking about an abortion: these are our neighbors whom Jesus calls us to love and to serve.
If we center our parish life on the Sacraments, on service, and on sacrifice, we won’t be able to build new schools, new churches and new seminaries fast enough to keep up. What a wonderful set of “problems” to have!

“…resplendent in faith, hope, and charity [we] manifest Christ to others.”
                                    —Blessed John Paul II

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