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The Church in 2019: danger and opportunity

An audience at the Vatican: Francis will be spending less time in Rome this year (CNS)

The Church may be growing and indeed thriving across the world, but the next 12 months will not be easy for the Holy Father

Let’s start with the good news. In 2019, the Catholic Church is likely to grow by around 15 million souls, taking the total number of Catholics past the 1.3 billion mark – the highest figure in history. If last year’s trends continue, the Church will expand on all inhabited continents, except Europe. Most of the new Catholics will be in Africa and the Americas, but two million or so will be in Asia. The number of diocesan priests will increase modestly everywhere apart from Europe. There will be more permanent deacons on every continent. Women’s religious orders will attract more members in Africa and Asia. The total number of lay missionaries will increase, especially in the Americas.

From kindergartens to universities, the Church will help to educate some 68 million youngsters worldwide this year. It will care for millions of other people at more than 3,000 rehabilitation centres, 5,000 hospitals, 15,000 elderly care homes and almost 10,000 orphanages.

It is important to keep this in mind as we consider the formidable challenges facing the Church in 2019. As Benedict XVI put it at his inaugural Mass in 2005, “the Church is alive. And the Church is young.” Those of us who live in countries where Catholics are a minority need to remember that the Church is vast and it is, on the whole, thriving.

So, to the bad news: 2019 is likely be dominated by the abuse crisis. The world’s attention will be focused on the unprecedented gathering of bishops’ conference presidents in Rome on February 21-24. Pope Francis called the summit in response to new paedophile priest scandals in the United States, but also in Chile and almost every other country where the Church has a significant presence. The Vatican dramatically heightened expectations when it asked the US bishops to delay measures to tackle abuse until after the Rome meeting. Many hope that the Vatican will impose stringent global child-protection norms and unveil a clear mechanism for holding to account bishops who mishandle abuse cases.

The trouble is that the summit may prove to be little more than a glorified workshop. As they are meeting for just three days, the bishops will have little time to reach a consensus. Vatican media are nevertheless likely to hail the meeting as a major turning point, especially if the summit endorses the so-called “metropolitan model” for disciplining bishops. Secular media, however, are unlikely to applaud when they realise that this model involves bishops investigating other bishops, with only a token role for laity.

Hamstrung by Rome, the US bishops may be unable to take the drastic steps they need to quell the crisis. There will be more horrific grand jury reports, more raids on diocesan chanceries, more dioceses declaring bankruptcy and more episcopal resignations. Lay people will leave less money on the collection plate, forcing dioceses to cut services, including to the poorest.

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The Roman Curia, meanwhile, will be bracing itself for the most sweeping changes in decades. At some point this year, Pope Francis is expected to unveil a new apostolic constitution, provisionally known as Predicate Evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”). It is intended to make the Curia more efficient and responsive to the needs of the local Church. It will also seek to reduce clerical careerism, possibly insisting that priests return to their diocese after five years’ service in Rome. But some are already grumbling that the changes are driven less by high-minded principles and more by the need to cut costs after the Vatican lost significant US funding last year, amid concerns over financial transparency.

Pope Francis seems determined to spend as little time as possible in Rome this year, gaining some respite from the pressures of the abuse crisis. In January, he will attend World Youth Day in Panama, once again visiting the Americas without stopping off in his native Argentina. The following month, he will become the first pope to set foot in the Arabian Peninsula when he visits the United Arab Emirates. In March, he will head to another Muslim country, Morocco. In May, it will be the turn of Bulgaria and Macedonia. He will almost certainly add further trips to his 2019 calendar. Possible destinations include Romania, Mozambique, Uganda, Indonesia and Japan.

Francis has made no secret of his desire to visit China. In 2014, he said that, if he was invited, he would be willing to go “tomorrow”. Could he make the historic trip this year? It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.

Although China and the Holy See signed a “provisional agreement” on the appointment of bishops in September, significant obstacles remain. To the Vatican’s alarm, China has increased its persecution of Christians and the two states are yet to establish full diplomatic relations. Chinese officials are said to be wary of a papal visit, recognising that John Paul II’s trips to Poland helped to undermine the Communist Bloc.

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Pope Francis will have another opportunity to make history in October when he presides over the Amazon synod. Officially, he has summoned the region’s bishops to “identify new paths for the evangelisation of God’s people”. But many believe that the synod’s ultimate purpose is to relax the discipline of priestly celibacy.

Supporters of the change argue that the Amazon – which has a population of 2.8 million spread over an area larger than India – is facing a “pastoral emergency” due to a shortage of priests. The proposal? Ordaining viri probati (married men of proven quality) on an ad experimentum (experimental) basis.

The synod will be watched carefully by bishops around the world, especially in Germany, where many are eager for married clergy to address a dearth of vocations. If Rome endorses the Amazon idea, German bishops are likely to seek permission as well.

This would, in turn, provoke more conservative hierarchies, which would argue that celibacy is a matter of universal concern and therefore should be debated by a worldwide synod of bishops. The furore could make the debate over Communion for the remarried look tame.

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The number of officially recognised saints will grow in 2019, as it does every year. Blessed John Henry Newman may be among them. In November, the Vatican approved a second miracle attributed to the Victorian theologian’s intercession, paving the way for his canonisation in 2019, possibly in October.

Other Causes expected to inch forward include those of Fr Ragheed Ganni, the Iraqi priest martyred in 2007; Chiara Corbella Petrillo, the young Italian mother who died in 2012; and Fr Jacques Hamel, the priest murdered by Islamists in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in 2016.

Over the next 12 months, we will be reminded frequently of the worst that Catholics are capable of. But these 21st-century holy men and women suggest that even today there are saints among us.

Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald