The task of evangelization — proclaiming the Gospel of Christ — has always been an urgent one. Jesus accepts no excuses for not following him immediately when would-be disciples ask permission to say goodbye to their family first or to bury a dead father. This seemingly harsh response underlines the fact that now is the only and opportune moment for discipleship, for preaching the saving message of Christ.
In our present historical moment, this precious task takes on an even greater urgency. Let me cite some disturbing statistics. Here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 62,000 fewer Catholics participate in Sunday Mass than did so in 2000. On any given Sunday (with the exception of Easter,) only about 30 percent of our baptized Catholics are in the pews. In Boston, ground zero of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, it hovers at 16 percent.
Imagine inviting 10 guests for dinner and having only three show up, so you spend the evening looking at seven empty places. A multitude of reasons would explain this dramatic drop off, but none justify doing nothing about it. Clearly, fewer young people find Mass compelling enough to participate in it.
The majority of members of the large evangelical churches are former Catholics, invited in by a co-worker, neighbor or friend. Clearly, we need to offer basic and profound catechesis so that our people can both understand and live their Catholic faith.
People who leave the Catholic Church either do not believe in the faith or they do not understand it. Basic knowledge of the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a must. We are blessed with many holy and effective school teachers and catechists, but we must do much more in this area. How many Catholics, for example, know even the most basic things, such as the four evangelists, the seven sacraments, the 10 commandments and the four marks of the church?
The vast majority of engaged couples coming forward for marriage in the church are not attending Mass, are cohabiting or sleeping together, are contracepting and know very little about the faith. On top of this disturbing trend is the downward spiral of people who even want to get married at all. Marriage preparation is an opportune moment to walk with these couples, befriend them, offer them compelling formation on faith, marriage and sexuality, and draw them into the community. Post-marriage follow-up is as important as the preparation.
Thankfully, vocations to the secular priesthood are moderately on the rise, but we have a ways to go before we are able to replace those we lose to death or retirement. With a few exceptions, however, vocations to religious life have plunged precipitously. In many religious communities, the median age is in the 70s or higher. Part of the reason for this decline is the wonderful emergence of lay ministry within the church; the laity are using their gifts and living their baptismal call in unprecedented ways and we thank God for them. Nevertheless, we will always need and benefit from the evangelical witness and service of religious within the Body of Christ.
Few Catholics under the age of 40 find parish life, as they experience it, to be compelling and interesting. One could argue that they need to be more pro-active and get involved in things, but few people will come forward on their own without an invitation or a friendship to encourage them.
How can our parishes be more welcoming to all the people who do not fit the “married with children in the school” mode? Many parishes are doing amazing things in the area of service work, Bible study, and prayer groups for men and women. We need to lift these up and duplicate them.
I share all of these statistics, not from a gloomy, depressed, hand-wringing mood, but rather to offer a realistic picture of the religious culture and historical moment in which we find ourselves. How can we re-propose the Gospel of Christ to a world that seeks the truth, but perhaps without knowing it? How can we help people navigate through some pretty tough obstacles:
n Basic lack of effective catechesis – ignorance of the faith
n Secularity – the exclusion of religion from public life
n Relativism – any belief system is as good as any other
n Materialism – the dismissal of spiritual questions and realities
n Promiscuity – the fundamental misunderstanding and misuse of sexuality
n Clergy sexual abuse crisis – a lack of trust in Church leadership
Despite all of these challenges, I would not trade places with anyone from any other time in history. We can either wring our hands in despair and decry the end of the world as we know it or we can open our hands in welcome to a new world being born.
Now is the evangelizing moment; now is the time for Catholicism to muster her vast and varied energies to proclaim the Lord Jesus with renewed conviction and fervor. We thank God for all of the dedicated laity, permanent deacons, religious, and priests who passionately profess the faith day in and day out. May their numbers increase through our evangelizing efforts and the power of the Holy Spirit!