Saturday, July 30, 2011

More on the Church's Need for a New Reformation

A Buddhist monk and a Catholic
Religious Sister stand together in
St. Peter's Square during the
Beatification of Mother Teresa
Another indication of an urgent need for Reform in the Church is the critical hemorrhaging of members.  The rapidly changing demographics as vast numbers of Americans move from the North East and Midwest to the South and South West as well as the huge influx of Catholic Immigrants from Latin America and the Pacific Rim has created a sort of shell-game that give the impression in some parts of the country that Church population is somewhat stable.  And indeed, because of the immigration the numbers are holding, unlike for Mainline Protestant Churches.  Even in the North East and Midwest, there is room for self-deception as complacent officials attribute the empty churches to the suburbanization of the Catholic Population and the decrease in family size from the post-war years where Catholic parents often had six or more children.  And, again, there is some truth to this.  But I am a great reader of death notices and when I find a McLaughlin or a Catanzarro or a Kowalski being buried from “Pine Ridge Bible Church” or having their “Celebration of Life” at McGinty’s Tavern and Bowling Alley –and I am finding a lot of these obituaries today—I realize that something has changed.   Several weeks back I did a series of entries on why people come (or don’t come) to Mass.  When people meet a priest at a social event they no longer feel any embarrassment or discomfiture at the subject of no longer being Catholic.  When I was growing up, admittedly in the Pre-Vatican II years, you heard “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”  And that was true. It was impossible to ever truly leave the Church.  O you might go somewhere else, especially if there was a divorce and remarriage issue, but you always trailed your Catholicism with you.  No longer.  I once marveled at how Protestants could be Congregationalists until they moved to a town where the Methodists church was closer and they became Methodists.  “Abide with Me” lent itself to playing musical chairs much better than “Panis Angelicus,” but no longer.  Today you find Catholics sliding comfortably into a wide variety of other churches, other religions, and no religion at all. 
    Several years ago I met a fellow on a retreat.  He had been in his younger years, long ago, a member of the Society of Jesus—a Jesuit—though he left before ordination, married, and raised a family.  He and his wife are devout and faithful Catholics.  During the Cold War he served as United States Ambassador to one of the Soviet Satellite States of Eastern Europe where his wife and he were driven each Sunday  in the Ambassador’s car, flags flying, to Mass at the Cathedral in public witness of his personal faith and the American commitment to Freedom of Religion.  He regularly called on the capital’s Archbishop or sent the Archbishop gifts of food, firewood, and other necessities the regime made it difficult for the prelate to obtain as a sign to the government that nothing untoward should happen to the Archbishop or it would be noticed by the American Embassy.  The evening I was a guest at their home, we were joined by their daughter, a Buddhist nun.  This woman, raised a Catholic in the most devout of homes, is no flake.  To the contrary.  Not only is she a known and reputable Buddhist Scholar, but a practicing and well respected physician who, among other clients, is the physician for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in her city.  I have since arranged for her to speak on a number of panels with Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic scholars on the subjects of spirituality and peacemaking.   I have never discussed with her the subject of why she found her spiritual home in Buddhism, but I am reminded of Richard Rohr’s quote: Much of the Western world has given up on the Church and is going other places for wisdom.  Unfortunately, in these other places they are sometimes “willingly filling their belly with the husks the pigs are eating” (Luke 15:16) But we in the church must ask ourselves if we have not been the parent who sent them away because there was nothing trustworthy or life-giving at home.  (Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, p. 26)  By no means do I want to compare Buddhism to empty husks--to the contrary--I am well read in Buddhism and appreciate its great wisdom and depth, for the most part quite compatible with our Christian faith and practice.  But the lack of appreciation among Catholics for our own profound mystical tradition and practice has left a hunger for many that drives them to look elsewhere for what is at home in locked cupboards.       I deeply appreciate Pope Benedict’s call to a New Evangelism, but it is in vain until we, as a Church, have a deep and soul-searching inner Reformation, individually and collectively.  After all, how can those who have not yet believed the Gospel be its heralds? 

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