3 Sep 2017
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
The Church is changing, as it always has been. And, for many of us, that reality is the cross we’re given to carry. The Church is changing.
In 1970, Professor Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI) wrote a book called “Faith and the Future.” In it he said: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”
Last weekend we talked a little about how the Church was prospering up until the late 80s and early 90s. But since then she’s been in a massive decline—in all areas of her life. The Church is in a free-fall; she’s becoming smaller, as Ratzinger said it would—not because the Church should become smaller, but because she’s unable to sustain herself in the “crisis of today.”
Ratzinger continues: As the number of [the Church’s] adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.” We see this happening quite a bit today. The “social privileges” he mentions includes especially the viability and the relevance of the Church in the view of others.
Take, for example, the authority of the Church. When it comes to morals, politics, education, study, and so on, the authority of the Church is severely handicapped. It’s kind of like the Prophet Jeremiah; the Church has a message for the good of others, but the usual response seems to be only “decision and reproach.” Either that, or the Church simply becomes the butt of jokes...”she will lose many of her social privileges.”
Ratzinger also writes that the Church “will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in [times of] prosperity.” And by that word “edifices,” we can take it to mean parish communities as well as their church buildings. “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” And, of course, we know that to be true only too well—as does any parish which has been merged, or downsized, or closed entirely.
The Church is changing; she’s getting smaller and smaller. And for a people of genuine faith, the fact of that is a heavy cross to accept.
One of the saddest things to hear is a grandparent who’s heartbroken because the kids or the grandkids don’t go to Church. And they oftentimes think it’s their own fault, as if they weren’t faithful enough themselves to be a good influence on the kids and grandkids. But, in reality, there’s something much bigger happening—the Church, in general, is getting smaller.
And the Lord isn’t necessarily happy about that. After all, he’s the one who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.” The Lord wants a robust Church of committed disciples. He doesn’t want that community to shrink. But, at the same time, the Lord isn’t willing to compromise himself in order to get others to follow him. He doesn’t go into “crisis mode;” he just remains steady and true.
Saint Paul picked up on that when he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” If we’re too worried about being on board with the latest trends in religion, or if we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the youth because our worship is too outdated or our teachings are too old-fashioned, well we’re almost ensuring that the youth will go and that the Church will get even smaller.
I remember watching a video once about vocations to the priesthood. And they were interviewing a young man who was considering life as a friar or a monk. And he described one religious community where all they did to try to win him over was shower him with excitement and balloons, a party and the latest in music. They were trying to draw him into the Church by using everything but the person who’s at the heart of the Church; namely, God.
The Church is getting smaller, and that can be a cross to accept and to carry. But it’s a cross that won’t crush us—as long as we don’t go into “crisis mode,” and as long as we keep our priorities and our focus straight.
You’ve probably read in the bulletins (and you might remember a homily in which I mentioned this), that we’re looking at relocating the tabernacles at our Greenleaf and Askeaton churches. It’s not a move “backwards;” it’s a move that hopefully will serve as a visual reminder of just who exactly is our priority and focus as Catholics; namely, Jesus—Emmanuel, “God among us,” in the flesh.
The Second Vatican Council in 1965 did some wonderful things for the Church. One of which is that it reminded us—especially the laity—that all believers are members of “the faithful.” God is present in the Eucharist, in the priest, in Scriptures, in all the sacraments, and in...the gathered faithful. It’s why there’s been such a push in church architecture to have the seating arranged such that the people would be able to see themselves.
But in our Post-Modern world that’s characterized by radical individualism, and self-absorption, it’s good to have a visual reminder of who gathers us and why. It might not seem like much, but where we put the tabernacle can help us keep our priorities and focus on what’s at the heart of the Church; namely, Christ and sacrificial love of God and neighbor.
And this cross we’re given to carry here in the 21st Century—the shrinking of the Church—is a chance to renew ourselves after the example of Christ’s sacrificial love.
Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1970 that “in all [this societal change and crisis]...the Church will find her essence afresh, and with full conviction, in that which was always at her center:” faith in the Holy Trinity and in the enduring presence of the Holy Spirit among believers. And that’s a good thing. This particular cross isn’t all bad.
He also wrote that the Church “will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.” Again, that’s a good thing. It means that the Church and the parish—even if it’s smaller—will be a community of intentional followers of the Lord. And a community of really intentional disciples who put the Lord first is what makes the Church grow. So, it’s not all bad.
Ratzinger wrote that 21st Century Catholicism “will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” It’s going to take a lot of work and dedication to be a Catholic today, and we don’t have the support of the larger culture.
When students are preparing to go off to college, and they wonder how their faith is going to continue on, the response is: “You’re going to have to take responsibility for that yourself.” You will be a faithful Catholic if you want to be, and if you’re personally committed to God and his community of the faithful. And that really goes for all of us. Being a disciple of Christ as a part of the Church “will make much bigger demands [today] on the initiative of her individual members.”
Gone are the days when the parish consisted of a church, a priest, a cemetery, a school, a ladies’ society, a men’s group, the church choir, and the congregation gathered on Sunday. This is a very different world today, with a different understanding of what it means to be a parish, what it means to be a Church, and what it means to say, “I am a Roman Catholic.” And it’s not all bad.
It’s a cross we’re given to carry here in the 21st Century—the shrinking of the Church. But, like the Cross of Christ, it brings a certain hope of renewal and rebirth. At the core of the “true Church” is love: sacrificial, selfless love. If we possess that, if we nurture that kind of godly, neighborly love, the Church may get smaller, but it will not go away.
Nothing triumphs over sacrificial love. That is our faith; that is our reason to be calm and at peace, even as the Church continues to change. If we rest our heart on the Heart of Christ, all will be well. All will be well.