In the 1950s, on his Emmy Award winning series, "Life is Worth Living," Bishop Fulton Sheen warned believers – but especially Catholics – that during times of prosperity church leaders are apt to become administrators who sit behind desks. The emphasis is more on the office than it is on the mission field. However, during times of adversity, church leaders are more likely to be out there in the mission fields as shepherds with the people. And as for the laity, when talking about the Sacrament of Confirmation in a different address, Bishop Sheen reminded his listeners of the following:
“The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap…He place Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers.”
Followers of Christ are once again returning to a time of adversity. Prosperity has softened us up and turned us into administrators rather than shepherds and missionaries. We Catholics are beginning to realize that what we have been doing – or not doing – in the last fifty years has not been working. Case and point:
In a local Catholic diocesan newspaper, The Compass, it was reported that Mass attendance has dropped annually about 3 percent; and for the last 10 years, 21 percent. The total number of parishes in the Diocese of Green Bay that has shown signs of growth in recent years is 24. But the sum total of parishes that have decreased is 133.
However, the Church on a national level is no less promising. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell reported that there are four times as many people leaving the Catholic Church than entering it. From 2000 to 2009, the rate of adults entering the Church dropped 35 percent. If unchecked, the projected results are sobering. She said,
“If this trend does not change, in ten years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage. The Builders will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions – parish and schools – will be emptying at an incredible rate. Sacramental practice will plummet at a rate that will make the post-Vatican II era look good, and the Church’s financial support will vanish like Bernie Madoff’s investment portfolio.”
Nearly a hundred years ago, just when it was becoming clear that Christian civilization was becoming a thing of the past, Pope Benedict XV wrote: “By God's good pleasure, things are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being…” In other words, the causes which brought into being a Church capable of producing numberless converts and Christians institutions, are the very causes that will duplicate the same results.
I recently gave a presentation on an encyclical by Pope John XXIII, written in 1959. The encyclical was on St. John Vianney, also known as the Cure' of Ars. He was a priest who lived from 1786 to 1859 in France. He embodied the principles that made the Catholic Church so attractive in the first thousand years.
As stated in previous articles, during the first millennium of Christianity, over 70 percent of the popes were canonized Saints. This translated into great bishops, priests and lay people. But among the popes in the second millennium, roughly 6 percent were honored as Saints. If we were to ask the reason behind this differential, we would do well to consider why St. John Vianney attracted tens of thousands of souls to his parish Ars, France. Indeed, he spent about a third of his priesthood in the confessional.
However, before people travelled from distant lands to consult him, the holy priest prepared for them. He spent the first ten years of his priesthood – from 1818 to 1827 – begging God, in prayer and fasting, for the conversion of sinners. That’s right. Those first ten years were quiet and uneventful. But he took advantage of that time to intercede on behalf of his parishioners and those souls that would soon come to see him. And even after they came, he never neglected his times for prayer.
St. John Vianney used to say, "A priest must be especially devoted to constant prayer" and "How many people we can call back to God by our prayers!" For him, the emphasis was on the sanctuary or spending time before the tabernacle; not so much on the office or on meetings. He took for granted that prayer was the holiest of works. Far from being idle, to pray is to act on the First Cause of conversion. Just as prayer is a conversation with God, conversion is the work of God. The former gives fuel to the latter. Every ounce of supernatural life has to be drawn from him. Indeed, Christ is the life-principle of our work.
How many of us, who sincerely want to do good work for the Lord, spend more time in the office than in the sanctuary? Or it may be that we are so busy with external works, we neglect our own spiritual needs. But like the early Church Fathers who put prayer as their first priority, St. John Vianney never neglected his own spiritual needs because he was too busy serving others. Pope John XXIII warned the clergy in 1959 about the preoccupation with external works: “Priests in Our own day, are likely to attribute too much to the effectiveness of external activity and stand ready and eager to immerse themselves in the hustle and bustle of the ministry, to their own spiritual detriment!”
Part two to “The Cure of Mass Attendance Decline” next week.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.