Who will restore the Church? Where will the renewal we all know is needed – and for which we long – come from?
I offer some thoughts for our prayers in Lent, with regard to the future in Broadway and Evesham. Throughout the country, Mass attendance is down. Financial contributions at the parish and diocesan levels are down. Catholic marriages and infant baptisms have been plummeting for many years. Sadly,we have allowed the sacraments to become little more than rites of passage and over many decades have been prepared to celebrate and administer the sacraments in our parishes and through our schools to vast numbers with no real faith or interest in receiving them. The Covid Pandemic has revealed the inherent weakness attendant upon this system but it has not caused it. The problem was already there! These trends did not begin with the pandemic but evidence from the last year suggests that the crisis has certainly accelerated the numerical decline.
Who will restore the Church? Where will the renewal we all know is needed – and for which we long- come from? I have said many times that if it is to come at all, authentic reform and renewal in the Church will come through and with the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Trusting that the Lord will preserve His Church, doesn’t require us to believe or expect that renewal will spring from Rome or begin at the initiative of one of the successors of the Apostles. History tells us that most great ecclesial renewals have not begun with the Pope. Most great reforms have not begun with bishops. The pattern, always, is that renewal reform and evangelisation begins with sanctity, wherever it is found. This and this alone will allow the Gospel to be proclaimed when linked with well-founded catechesis which is well beyond “Business as usual”
I read this recently in a newsletter from a parish in the United States: “Now, that churches are open, priests worry that this time is going to be a pivotal point where people who were not heavily engaged with the life of parishes and generally with the Faith will choose to disengage? The answer to that is probably yes for a significant number of people”.
If this prediction comes true, and it has certainly been the experience throughout our country then parishes will suffer.
People talk to me about when the “Sunday precept” might be restored. My answer is always the same. “The sense of obligation to be (in church) every week is definitely weaker today than it was even one generation ago,” I usually add that the restoration of the Sunday obligation will not and never could solve the problem.
However, beyond shrinking congregations, the present situation could fuel a broader decline in religious behaviour. People who stop attending church rarely develop or maintain spiritual practices at home; It is probably true that If there’s no community to give one a feeling of obligation and of belonging, it is very tempting to simply not do anything. An American Catholic commentator recently noted: (I think unwisely as I believe the problem is much more profound than diminishing congregations) “Churches will need to act fast to stop potential departures, But figuring out the right solution is a complicated task. I think it was much easier to close churches than it is going to be to reopen them.”
The point is this: the work of restoring the Church – addressing the urgent needs of the moment, earnestly seeking justice, restoring the battered Body of Christ – does not come before the work of proclaiming the Gospel. These works are one and the same. Now, in this moment of crisis, is not the time to set aside the work of evangelisation in order to deal with seemingly more pressing problems.
Charles Chaput, Archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia said: “Sin is part of the human terrain and a daily challenge to our discipleship. And if our hearts are cold, if our minds are closed, if our spirits are fat and acquisitive, curled up on a pile of our possessions, then the Church in this country will wither. It has s happened before in other times and places, and it can happen here. We can’t change the world by ourselves. And we can’t reinvent the Church. But we can help God to change us. We can live our faith with zeal and conviction – and then God will take care of the rest. The Lord is purifying his Church. Good, we say. It’s about time, we say. But are we willing to let Him purify us? Can we really expect the Church to undergo purification and at the same time expect that we, who are part of the Church, should be spared the pain and anguish of that purification? Who will restore the Church? He will. And if we are willing, he will accomplish great things through us”.