Pope Francis at World Youth Day
in Rio de Janeiro
An interesting article in the New York Times this morning about the Church in Latin America. On the one hand there is new vitality for the Catholic Church South of our border. Sixty years ago the nations of Latin America were dependent on missionary priests and sisters from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Today, while the Churches of Europe and North America are lacking in sufficient clergy for their own needs, the former missionary countries of Latin America are actually sending vocations to the United States. At the World Youth Day last year we saw the tremendous energy of the Church in Brazil and surrounding countries. The key to renewal has been threefold: the growth of small base communities (communidades de base) where people reflect together on the scriptures, the culturalization of the liturgy where an intelligent participation in prayer is made more easily accessible, and liberation theology where the lived experience of the faithful is brought into dialogue with the ancient tenets of the Church. That is the good news.
The bad news is that while sixty years ago you had a Church that was dead in the water with no vocations, with 15% Mass attendance, and with a symbiotic relationship with right-wing dictatorships, you also had 90% of the faithful identifying themselves as Catholic. Today you have almost 20% of the population identifying as Protestant and another 11% saying they are religiously unaffiliated.
Secularization is a problem throughout the developed world and it should not be surprising that the majority of those who identify themselves as without religious affiliation come not from the poorer elements of society but from the upper Middle Class that have more in common culturally with North Americans and Europeans than with the poor of their own countries. As a Church we need to develop a strategy to effectively address the challenges secularism presents to society. But perhaps the more pressing thing to look at is why there has been such a shift from Catholicism to Protestantism. The New York Times article says:
Latin Americans who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism most often said they did so because they were seeking a more personal connection with God.
I think this is something that we must pay great attention to as I believe holds the solution not only to the loss of Catholics to Protestantism in Latin America but to the empty pews here at home.
I remember running into Pastor Lon Solomon of McLean bible Church in McLean Virginia about fourteen years ago. I was on a “Footsteps of Saint Paul” pilgrimage in Greece and Pastor Solomon was leading a group of his congregants on a similar expedition. Our different busses both pulled into the same restaurant for lunch. I am not sure quite how the conversation started between us but he told me some interesting things about McLean Bible. I was familiar with MBC as I have at various times lived in the Washington DC metropolitan area but Pastor Solomon told me that perhaps half of his 13,000 members were or had been Roman Catholics. (I say “were or had been” as a number of them—including some friends of mine from Great Falls—still consider themselves to be Catholics only that they more often attend McLean Bible Church rather than their local parishes.) why are Catholics being drawn to Evangelical Churches like McLean Bible? To be honest McLean Bible is no hell-fire and damnation church. But people want a deeper and more personal relationship with God than they are getting in most Catholic parishes. The sad thing is that if we Catholics knew our own heritage, we would be the target churches for those who were seeking that relationship.
I mention McLean Bible, let me also mention Tara Brach and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington DC. Dr. Brach teaches Buddhist Vipassana meditation. Her Wednesday night teachings, held at River Road Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda MD draws hundreds of people each week. It draws young people—people in their thirties and forties—the sort of people that we aren’t seeing in our Catholic and Lutheran and Episcopalian and Presbyterian Churches on Sundays, the sort of people we usually associate with “secularism.” Dr. Brach, in fact, offers a spirituality that well suits the young and the intelligent in today’s world. And on my visit there I was surprised to hear her cite not only Buddhist scriptures and teachers, but Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as well as Thomas Merton and contemporary Catholic authors.
Catholic author, the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, writes:
….we are reaping the rewards of such repression. 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.
We have a rich heritage of spiritual authors that we keep as if under lock and key. Can’t we see we are only beginning the renewal called for at the Second Vatican Council? What has happened so far is mostly “clearing the ground” so that we can build a strong Church for the future.
Again, I have reservations on George Weigel’s book, Evangelical Catholicism, but his basic premise is, I believe, spot on.
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord.
As a Church, as the Community of the Body of the Risen Lord, we need to provide people with that friendship—that personal relationship—with Jesus Christ. We have the scriptures, we have the Liturgy (the sacraments), and we have a rich tradition of spirituality (prayer)with which to do this. We have the tools. Pope Francis is right, we need to stop the screaming about abortion, about same-sex marriage, about the “evils of the modern world” and pick up the tools the Holy Spirit has given us to deepen our own faith and to bring that living faith to others. The protection of human life, the moral and spiritual renewal of society, will all follow.