Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Philadelphia (Credit: Shakzu, iStock)
One of my favourite pastimes as a priest is listening to my more experienced (read: older) brothers talk about the Church of their youth. In urban centres like Philadelphia, the Catholic Church dominated the landscape – physically, through the glorious edifices constructed in an era of rapid growth – and in many other ways. They tell stories of hundreds of high-school students entering seminaries and religious communities every year, of masses so crowded with the faithful that pastors had to build “lower churches” so two masses could take place at once. They tell stories of family life revolving around Church and school, of Holy Name Societies and sodalities, of an endless train of weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Amid much that was truly good and wonderful about that time, I know that those stories don’t paint the entire picture. How do I know that? Well, for starters, there have been two decades of fallout from the sexual abuse of minors by clergy – much of which took place during those so-called “golden years”. I know it because of the precipitous decline in mass attendance in recent decades. I know it because many of those men and women who became priests and sisters left their ministries and communities.
Each Sunday at Saint Francis de Sales Church – one of those magnificent edifices built in the golden years of growth and prosperity – I have the privilege of leading a vibrant and diverse congregation in worship of almighty God. Many come each week even in a pandemic: rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal. At de Sales, stonemasons worship next to lawyers and graduate students. Though I only arrived a few months ago – during the pandemic summer – I have grown to love hearing the stories of so many people who have made this parish their home. Some stay for a few years then move to the suburbs or somewhere else in the country. Some have been here over 80 years.
At one time, Saint Francis de Sales Parish had about 5,000 registered households on its rolls. And its next-door neighbour – Most Blessed Sacrament parish – had the largest elementary school in the world. But about 15 years ago, the two parishes were merged together, and currently there are about 350 Catholic households in the parish. In the half a century since the golden years began to fade, the neighbourhood has undergone dramatic change, and the “row home Catholics” moved to the suburbs. But demographics do not tell the whole story. Neither does the pandemic.
At most, the events of the last year have only accelerated trends which were already well under way. Many parishes are reporting about 50 per cent of their normal Sunday congregations have returned (and let’s recall that in many places, rates of attendance were abysmal before March 2020). I don’t foresee all or even most of that 50 per cent returning to consistent Sunday attendance after the pandemic. Good habits are easy to break, after all, especially when mass is available from the comfort of one’s living room with a cup of coffee.
At its core, the current crisis is not demographic in nature. It’s not about church buildings or budgets, or about a temporary fear of large indoor gatherings. Ultimately, this is a crisis of faith. We – which is to say the West, ie Europe and its descendants – have lost the faith, collectively speaking.
The reason people don’t go to mass, in the end, is not because of financial impropriety, frustration with liturgical music, or mean priests. Those things can facilitate an exodus, but they do not create one. If a person does not believe in the divinity of Christ, in the real presence in the Eucharist, or in the indefectibility of the Church, then that person simply will not go to mass on a consistent basis. More to the point, they will not give of themselves for a faith they no longer truly claim as their own. The mission for our time, then, is to re-propose the faith to a culture that has lost it.
Many point to the internet as the way to evangelise the culture today. While I value the power of technology, I am also aware of its limitations. While amassing online followers may feel to my generation like building disciples for Christ, it really is not. First, our Lord was always wary of large crowds and public spectacles. He often included hard sayings in his public preaching as a way of forcing the spectators in the crowd to make a decision for or against him. He clearly preferred small groups like the twelve. And he frequently went to deserted places to pray.
There’s another temptation technology offers. We must be wary not just of the fickleness of the crowd, but of the way can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve “done the work” of evangelisation by posting a homily or tweeting a Bible quote. Even worse is when one tries to use priesthood as a platform to blast out hard-edged political opinions or niche liturgical preferences – get over yourself!
Real priestly ministry is guerrilla warfare. It takes place one conversation at a time, one Pre-Cana class at a time, one funeral homily at a time. Really forming someone in the faith takes “many tears” and occasional sleepless nights, as Saint Paul discovered. I am far from perfect at all this, but I know that it cannot be done on Instagram alone.
The New Evangelisation – called for by five successive popes – is not just about saying the things we’ve always said but in a digital format. Rather, it means that every faithful Catholic Christian must take up the call to be a missionary. For many, this takes place not online, but in the home, which is the most important locus for the transmission of the faith, save only the church building itself.
There are many signs of hope. Many movements and apostolates have sprung forth from the Church in recent years. Some seek to reform traditional forms of religious life. Others embrace a lay missionary spirit, either to far-flung locales or college campuses much closer to home. Other groups have found attractive ways to present the truths of the faith using traditional and new media. All this is the work of the Holy Spirit, the first dawn of a new missionary age prepared for by Vatican II and cheered on by the popes and bishops who faithfully implemented the Council.
Still, the good old days aren’t coming back in my lifetime. And actually, there is a certain liberation in admitting that. It means we can spend fewer resources on maintaining the institutions of a different era, and instead focus on building new bonds of communion among people of faith. Some of those institutions that served us well will, sadly, fade away. The rest will be transformed to better serve the work of the New Evangelisation: re-introducing Christianity to a culture in the midst of a long, dark winter.
Being a priest today is essentially the same as it has been for 2,000 years: preach the Gospel with boldness, celebrate the sacraments reverently, lead our brothers and sisters in charity. That is how we will write a new story of renewal and fruitfulness. That is how today’s sowers will scatter the Word across the fields of late modernity. While there is much rocky ground, I am also convinced that a new era of heroic holiness is upon us. Whoever has ears ought to hear.