by Timothy Guthridge, C.PP.S., Director of Initial Formation
In early October, Cory Knapke and I attended a spirituality workshop led by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., the President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. Throughout the workshop, Fr. Rolheiser gave thought-provoking insights into our present culture and the Church’s desire to implement a “New Evangelization.”
Rolheiser described some of the complexities of our secular culture. One of his first comments was that the United States isn’t all that secular. There is more than adequate research demonstrating that over 90% of the U.S. population believe in God and more than 80% pray and believe the Bible is the “Word of God.”
Church attendance is another matter. Fr. Rolheiser quoted a statistic that about 40% of people in the United States attend church services. I have come across data suggesting that among college age people, church attendance is well below 25%.
There is no question that the Catholic Church in the United States in terms of church attendance is getting older and smaller. We are entering more of a post-ecclesial age. People still believe in God, but they are not experiencing the grace of God in the institutional church. Rolheiser mentioned that many young people treat the church like members of their family. They don’t want the church to go away, but they only want it around for their convenience—like at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, for example.
About two months ago, I attended a lecture by John Allen, in which he stated that in the United States about 13% of people do not affiliate themselves with any religious group or denomination. Fifty years ago, such a thing was unheard of. For many people, religion—or God for that matter—is simply not a part of their lives. Not that they’re atheists; atheists believe God doesn’t exist. For this 13%, God and religion simply isn’t on the radar. They are a non-issue.
This present phenomenon challenges our understanding of mission. In the United States, the parish and the Catholic school have been the backbone of the Catholic Church, and for decades mission meant sending priests and nuns to foreign countries to start churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals, and to feed and cloth the poor. Today, the mission field has changed. Countries in Africa, Asia, and South America are sending priests to the United States. The mission field today consists greatly of bearing Christian witness to those who have stopped practicing the Catholic faith (non-practicing Roman Catholics are the second largest church denomination in the U.S.!) and to young people who don’t find God’s grace and love in the Catholic Church and have no desire to seek it there. The United States has once again become mission territory.
Rolheiser pointed out in his workshop that there are various generational groups making up today’s Catholic population. He listed an older, pre-Vatican II generation; a Vatican II generation; and a John Paul II generation—plus a newer and younger generation that is not all that comfortable with the three previous ones.
I know most of the members of the Kansas City Province (myself included) are of the Vatican II generation. Sometimes I wonder how open we are to people who are not as excited about Vatican II as we were. Several summers ago, while I was taking graduate courses at Creighton University, a young seminarian studying for the Diocese of Houston, said to me, “You know you older priests (I was thrilled to learn that I had entered the ranks of older priests) think that Vatican II was a big deal. For us the Second Vatican Council it is just homework, an assignment, an essay test.”
The Earth has orbited around the sun a few times since 1965, and there are people presently in the Church who think that Vatican II Council documents are not the most important things in the universe. I don’t wish to depreciate the significance of the Second Vatican Council, but I am also aware the Church is in a very different place than it was in 1965, or for that matter, 1975.
Our Church is greatly polarized. If there is to be any hope of a new evangelization or renewal in the Church, bridges must be built and a greater sense of tolerance developed.
I have always been inspirited by people like Charles de Foucauld, who in 1901 moved to Beni-Abbes on the Morocco and Algeria frontier. He spent the last 15 years of his life living in the breach of Muslim-Christian terrorism and violence. He did not actively try to convert or proselytize. He did not tell other people what to think or do, nor did he demonize people who thought and worshipped differently than he did. He gave the best Christian witness possible by striving to stay close to Christ, and by being welcoming and listening to all. Though he was murdered by a group of Tuareg Senoussistes, he had a great impact on the hearts and minds of both Christians and Muslims by his Christian example.
Rolheiser shared some guidelines that he felt must be considered if there is to be any real “New Evangelization.” The first guideline is that we must take time to reflect upon the urgency and significance of Jesus’ mandate: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations….” (Mt 28:19). I am convinced that we may have to think about evangelizing our own nation, and not take Catholicism in the United States for granted.
Rolheiser talked about the need to reignite the flame of religious imagination. He spoke of the years before the Council as a time when the Church had religious imagination—reflected in saints, statues, music, and devotions, all of which touched people’s hearts. Today the Church has a plethora of documents and teachings, but not a whole lot to stir the embers of a heart seeking poetic fire and passion.
He also spoke of the need to emphasize both catechesis and theology, and that good theology must be rooted in strong catechesis. We have young men entering various seminaries who were not raised with good catechesis or a healthy sense of Catholic identity, and they desire to don religious trappings and prefer to learn basic catechesis rather than theology—and we act surprised. Rolheiser reminded us that the young people who are entering religious life today, as well as the Catholic young people who do not see the value of the Church today, are the people who were raised by people who were the children of the Second Vatican Council. They are the product of the Church we created.
If there is to be a “New Evangelization,” we must respond to various generations and types of Catholics and non-Catholics around us with respect, charity, and graciousness. The winning over of hearts takes place more through God’s grace than our own arrogance and egos. Sometimes we can make false gods of our own ideas, opinions, and ideologies, especially when we are convinced we’re right and other people are absolutely wrong.
True evangelization occurs through Christ. The more rooted we are in Christ, the more hopeful the possibility of a healthier Church. With all of its wounds, Jesus is as present in the Church today as in any other time in history. As Missionaries of the Precious Blood, let us continue to let the Precious Blood of Jesus stain our hearts and permit us to be transformed into the missionaries and prophetic witnesses that Christ calls us to be.