The Numbers

Anything to Keep the Numbers Up

For several decades, the gauge of a successful parish rested on the numbers of people in the pews. The more people who came to church each week, the more the parish was called a success. In fact, many still see this particular number as the measure of success. To this end, there are many programs that do everything to get people to go to Holy Mass despite the fact that they do not really believe it is important to be there. Thus, we require families in schools and religious education programs to attend but such attendance is taken only as a check on a list to finish the program. No one is really asking about the quality, just the quantity. Of course, part of the problem has to do with the ability to measure -- how can we objectively measure a quality Catholic?

Unfortunately, what we have seen in the last few decades to fill the pews has been more along the lines of being like sales people than shepherds of souls. The theory is that if you get them there the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Parish leaders have tended to tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Or they have tended to implement programs that may have been filled with content contrary to the Faith. For some time, anything and everything was seen as good so long as it kept people coming to the parish. For the most part, groups were allowed to do whatever they wanted and experiment with different approaches. Those that had “mass appeal” were considered the better programs and were replicated in other places. Liturgies became parish specific and the content of prayers and songs became extemporaneous. It soon became an environment where the golden rule was “make sure you do not offend anyone.”

Because everything that tickled the ear was deemed suitable, no one checked the content of programs, songs, text books, and the like for doctrinal integrity. If it was generally liked and accepted by popular vote, then keep using it. The effect over time has been a deterioration of Catholic knowledge and a loss of contact with the core essentials of Catholicism. And now that the catechetical illiteracy is at its highest, the task seems daunting to those who must reel in the mistakes and abuses.

As often happens at points like this in history, it may be time for some contraction in order to re-instill the Splendor of Truth. It is always wiser to work closely with the 12 and 72 before trying to deal with the 5000. If we merely attempt a sales pitch loaded with pithy statements or gather together a shallow cross section of baptized pagans on the premise of fulfill a requirement, then we will see a growth in a depth and love of the core essentials. The effect will only be that the frustration and decline will continue to grow. In this regard, we are truly at a crossroad.

As we approach the Year of Faith and are called to a New Evangelization, it is a good time to work on addressing the breakdown. Due to the fact that the faithful were not fed the substance of our Teaching for several decades, they easily have grown lax in their practice and love of the Faith. The expectation of many who were products of the 70s, 80s, and 90s is that we should do anything to keep people from leaving. But at what cost? If people in the pews do not know or live the Faith, do we call that a success? As part of the Year of Faith, an instrument should be developed that measures the Catholic quality of those in the pews. Those currently in the pews should constitute the core group. Based on this test, we can ask, “Is the core group ready for the task of Evangelization?” It may mean having fewer people for a while but it would make the New Evangelization more effective in the long run.

A Needed Renewal

The Catholic Identity

So many today speak of the need to recapture the Catholic Identity in our schools and in our Church in general. Has anyone asked when and how that identity was lost? Unfortunately this Catholic amnesia has been growing for decades and the problem has become systemic. The reality is that many Catholics either do not know the Church Teaching on many key moral issues or have rejected the Teaching. To reverse this trend, much will have to be done.

The recent strategic plan for the schools in the diocese has mapped out its goals and the first part is to deal with Catholic identity. By far, this part of the renewal is the most important and needs to have all concerned parties on board with the Truth. If the key individuals are not 24/7 on board with the whole message, the renewal will fall far short of expectations and may even be hindered.

We should call to mind a few of the statistics from the year 2000 with regard to the beliefs held by Catholic School Religion Teachers: only 10% agreed with the Church’s teaching on Artificial Birth Control; 26% fully agreed with the Teaching on Abortion; 33% agreed with an all male priesthood; 54% agreed with the Teaching on the indissolubility of Marriage; 63% believe in the Real Presence.


Diagnosing Laryngitis

Bishop Aquila recently predicted that the state will continue to make attempts at silencing the Church. The bishop has certainly identified a serious issue that he sees growing in the future but did not admit how ineffective the voice of the Church has become in America today. Part of the problem is the fear factor that comes from the numbers game and the subsequent convoluting of the Truth. Proclaiming the Truth will certainly impact the numbers but if it is the Truth the impact will be positive.

At the heart of the preaching today must be the other-worldly dimension of Christian Faith. To approach the people of God with a this-worldly message will only succeed in driving the number down. No one crosses the threshold of a church expecting to hear the same rhetoric that the secularists promote. Yet too many of our own have allowed our message to be watered down with worldly rhetoric and the result has been the serious drop of those in the pews. The problem has been that for too long we have been preaching a counterfeit as if it were authentic. Even the untrained faithful can identify a fake. Today’s shepherds must also identify the counterfeit and note how it has restricted the faithful and themselves. But a return to the Truth will be truly liberating because, as we know, the Truth will set us free!

Shepherds Today

The Last Bargaining Chip

Many pastors and parishioners today want to create or recreate their parish in a worldly image. For decades the Church has been besieged and infiltrated by the dictatorship or relativism and the effects have been devastating. It is imperative that Catholics take note of the process and admit how it has impacted. It is even more important that priests and pastors keep focus on the Nature of the Church in every moment of every day and remain faithful to Her alone.

The first problem many note is that they come to Mass but are not being fed. When asked, they complain that the homily was not good or they could not understand father. Such statements betray the catechetical failure in that being fed at Mass is with regard to the Grace communicated through the Eucharist. The starvation comes from those who approach unworthily and such seems to be expanding exponentially. Unfortunately, many priests take such comments as part of a popularity contest and try to “attract” more people to “his” Mass or “his” parish through entertaining the people in the pews. But playing with the liturgy and only giving “feel good” homilies betrays the reality of why Christ instituted the Mass in the first place.

The fact of the matter is that Christ established the Church and it is He Who acts at the Mass. It is His sacrifice on the Cross that feeds us. It is His Blood poured out that sanctifies. All priests and Catholics must begin from this position and accept the Truth. We are not in a sales game as the Church is not a product to be consumed or a place to be entertained. It is the vehicle for Salvation. Unfortunately too many priests in recent decades catered to the whims of those before them in an attempt to avoid offense and possibly drive people away. Yet more have left the Church during that period and the numbers continue to drop. Could the problem have stemmed from negotiating with the world rather than pursuing Salvation.

The problem today is that we have Americans sitting in the pews and, in many cases, not true Catholics. They approach the parish as a consumer and believe that they should get what they want. For decades, pastors and priests “negotiated” with aspects of the Mass and chose to entertain relativistic notions rather than uphold what the liturgy is.

Now, those who are dissatisfied with one aspect or another believe that they must take action if their wants are not met. This usually plays out in the numbers game... The two most common final bargaining chips made by parishioners today are: “I guess I have to changes parishes,” or “I am going to have to withdraw my financial support.” These are American bargaining chips, not Catholic. If all parishes and parishioners were truly Catholic, there would be little or no difference from one parish to the other and if such chips are played the result would be the individual endangering his or her own Salvation.

If all things Catholic are up for debate then playing the last bargaining chip would mean that Salvation is not the reason for the Church. Is this the Church people want?

Formation of Catholics

Baptism and Indoctrination!

One of the expectations that the Church has for someone to be Baptized is that they be properly trained in the way of the Faith as a condition for being initiated. In the case of adult initiation, this takes place before the Initiation itself. The Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) has been the standard since the earliest days of the Church. In this regard, if the person seeking Baptism is not fully prepared, the initiation into the Church should be delayed indefinitely until such time that the candidate is fully prepared. As is the case even today, there is a fully initiated Catholic who “walks” the journey with the candidate and is tasked with determining the suitability of the person for entrance into the Body of Christ, which includes a solid grasp on the Teachings of the Church.

In fact, every Sacrament has some requirement attached to it that those seeking it be properly formed for the particular Sacrament. As part of the Ordination ritual, the responsible formator is asked if the candidate is judged worthy. For those who wish to Marry, they must make a statement of intention as part of the ritual. At Confirmation, the pastor, who is tasked with overseeing their preparation, presents the candidates to the bishop. At the Initiation of an adult, the “sponsor” presents the properly formed candidate to the priest.

However, as we all are well aware, the initiation of infants has become the common practice in the Catholic Church. The presenters of the “candidate” are the parents in conjunction with the godparents and they are told that in seeking Baptism for the child they must raise the child in the ways of the Faith. In this statement we see the reason for the Canonical requirement that there is a “founded hope” the child will be raised Catholic. This founded hope requires a level of indoctrination (in the positive sense of the term) into the Faith as a way of life.

Yet today, in order to keep the numbers up, we are often asked to ignore objectively disordered situations in the lives of the parents that certainly challenge that there is a founded hope. Not attending Sunday Mass, divorce and remarriage, having a child out-of-wedlock, and same-sex unions are all instances of situations in which the lives of the formators of the newly Baptized are clearly problematic. Today, it is often the case that they are not challenged and questions are not asked lest they be alienated further from the Church, as if the objectively disordered situation of their lives has not already done so.

Should we not be more more concerned with the quality of the formation the child will receive and the extent to which the formator is living the Teachings of the Catholic Church in the objective order?

Access to Priests II

Why is it hard to admit?

There have been several recent “secular” responses to the dwindling numbers of priests but the distressing aspect of these responses is that they have come from internal Catholic circles. In this regard, many still call for the pseudo-solution to the problem and call for ordaining just about everyone under the sun. This error had been influenced by the instrumentalist school of thought that forms the secular part of our education system today. To identify it, this errant line of thought has many sentences that begin with the phrase, “if only.” For instance, there have been those recently who would claim that the problem would disappear “if only they would ordain married men.” Or they may say, “if only they would ordain women.” And the solution would be, “let’s give it a try and see what happens.”

These pseudo-solutions sound good because they offer a knee-jerk reaction to the numbers problem. But they do not admit the deeper problem and the need for experimentation is dangerous because failures in the Church endanger the salvation of souls. When we speak of a vocation crises, we need to admit that it is not just the priesthood and religious life to which we are referring. It has to do with the universal call to holiness and the failure we are now experiencing across the board. The effects of the crises are seen in all the walks of life within the Church. We not only have a problem with the number of priests and religious, the married are also manifesting a real crisis. Tie this in with the lack of Catholics in the pews and the result is what we see before our eyes. For this, there is no quick fix.

Could the problem really be that the faithful are generally not praying and coming before the Lord enough? Could the problem have something to do with the general catechetical failure?

Access to Priests

The Numbers Game VI

As the expression goes, numbers do not lie. In reviewing the Catholic numbers as they are, some conclusions need to be drawn. Of course, as has already been noted, there are a variety of factors that have brought about the numbers. With or without admitting these factors, there are some obvious trends that must be admitted.

At the top of the list is the trend that is already playing itself out in many parts of the United States -- the faithful have less and less access to a priest. Although many priests do their best these days to be available to the flock entrusted to their care, the dwindling numbers will limit that accessibility. This is an area that the priest himself will have to come to grips with -- he cannot meet the demands by himself and will have to accept his limitations.

It is not that the numbers have been better in the urban and suburban areas like the New York City region. Rather, the ratio of priests to parishioners has been about the same, or even worse, than other parts of the country. It is the large congregations that have kept the ratio somewhat in check. Thus, for the most part, there are almost no priestless parishes in our diocese.

However, that is changing quickly and may change faster than the people want. For instance, in this diocese, active priests over the age 65 comprise about 1/3 of the presbyterate. Within 10 years many of them will retire. Combine this with the fact that the seminary is practically empty leads us to the stark reality that parishes will soon be administered by non-resident priests.

The question is, “Are we preparing for this rapid change?”

Other Factors Anyone? III

The Numbers Game V

One of the mistakes made over the most recent decades is actually playing the numbers game itself. With a consideration of all the factors that have left the Church in this state, it is clear that the numbers have changed. What we must admit is that it is NOT the Church that has changed, only the numbers.

Too often we spend countless hours examining the numbers without admitting the factors that contribute to them. Yes, there are now generations of confused Catholics in the United States who prefer the cafeteria style of faith. Yes, there are dwindling numbers in the pews. Yes, something has gone wrong. But we must always recall that Jesus promised that the Church will endure through it all. The Church has NOT changed. The numbers are NOT the Church and we should be careful in believing they are. The Church is and always will be, even if many of the pews are empty.

The first error that we must address in the mind of many Catholics today is the composition of the Church. Christ is the Church! It is He Who established Her and it is He Who sustains Her. Those who enter the Church through Baptism are members of Her -- they are NOT the Church Herself. In Baptism, we are joined to Christ and His Church as members. Here is where the American culture has infected Catholics who claim that “we” are the Church. That ideology works in the democratic environment of the United States. The Church is not a democracy and those who are members do not exhaust Her existence. Rather, we humbly submit ourselves to Christ and His Church.

At this point, should we move away from counting and begin to focus on the remnant before us who wish to be faithful to the Teachings of the Church?

Other Factors Anyone? II

The Numbers Game IV

While Jones poses an important question with regard to the actions taken by the U.S. bishops, the real focus has to be on the catechetical system and what has been or can be done about the failure in this area since the council. Briefly stated, Jones reports that, at all levels of Catholic Education, from 1965 to 2002 there was a 94% drop in sisters teaching, an 89% drop in priests teaching, and an 86% drop in brothers teaching. For the most part, Catholic Education was supported by those were 24/7 on board with the message into the 1970s.

As the priests and religious left, they were replaced by competent lay professionals. These educators were certainly well trained in the area of educating youth but were they prepared as Catholics? At least in the beginning they were but in a survey from the year 2000 (page 79), “lay religion teachers in Catholic elementary schools” predominantly do not agree with the Church’s Teaching on Birth Control (90%), Elective Abortion (74%), Infallibility of the Pope (73%), and the Real Presence of the Eucharist (37%). In addition, nearly half do not believe in the indissolubility of Marriage and 70% do not accept a male priesthood. Yet the Second Vatican Council did not change any of these Teachings and clear statements have been made about these issues since then.

Again, it is important to look at generational statistics, which do indicate that older Catholics are more likely to know the Church Teaching in these areas than younger Catholics. If the bishops are to work toward a new evangelization, it will have to start with education.

Other Factors Anyone?

The Numbers Game III

The best we can say about the numbers Jones reports is that there is a real problem. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the total number of Catholics increased dramatically -- from 17.7 million in 1920 to 65 million in 2002, with 45 million in 1965. The most rapid increase was from the Second World War to the Second Vatican Council. Missing in the report on Mass Attendance is a breakdown by generation. Who are the ones going to Mass in the year 2000? This particular stat is missing but if one can guess, it is the older generations who were catechized much better.

When Mass Attendance is examined by generation, there is a clear difference by age. If the changes in the Mass were the reason, logic would say that the oldest group (the Pre-Vatican II generation) would be the most disillusioned by the change and would fall away. As Dr. Gray notes on the link above, “Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics grew up in an era where deliberately failing to attend Sunday Mass or other day of obligation, without good reason, was quite clearly communicated as a mortal sin. For the Vatican II and Post-Vatican II generations this has not been emphasized to the same degree.” However, the teaching in this regard was not changed at Vatican II and still remains in effect today.

Should we then be asking if there is another factor? Has there been a catechetical failure in recent decades?

Vatican II?

The Numbers Game II

The statistics reported by Jones are very important and need to be taken seriously. However, it should be made clear that his comparisons are to be taken as a measurable fact and not as cause and effect. Such is always the danger when dealing with statistics. Just reviewing the numbers as he reports them seems to indicate that the Second Vatican Council is the culprit.

In fact, in the section on Mass Attendance (pages 72-76) the commentary provided states, “If the post-conciliar changes had been the overwhelming success they very often are described as being, we would expect to see increases in Mass attendance.” While the numbers do indicate that there has been a serious decline since the 1960s, this decline is from reasons far more complex than the liturgical changes alone. Yes, the changes and, as we will see in the coming months, the poor translation of the Missal Romanum, certainly played a part, but it is not the council or the council documents that caused the drop, or the liturgical changes per se.

Anyone who lived through the era knows that there was much more to the decline than meets the eye. As one priest who was ordained just as the council concluded described what he observed, “It was like having an overwound watch spring let loose. Too many priests thought they had more liberty with regard to the Mass than they actually had. Much of what people did not like about the change was never in the ritual books... only in the minds of those who wanted it to be there.” Yet even with all the liturgical abuses that followed, to claim the new missal as the reason is far too superficial and oversimplified.

The Stark Reality

The Numbers Game

There is a very interesting book published in 2003 by Kenneth C. Jones titled Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II. Of course, anyone who even speculates about the Catholic numbers in America since Vatican II can guess what they will reveal. In reviewing the actual numbers, one could easily note that there are some very disturbing trends. The good thing about the book is that, for the most part, he does not interpret the numbers but allows the reader to draw conclusions based on the facts presented.

In the Introduction, however, he does make some very pointed comments. The first is, “Given these alarming statistics and surveys, one wonders why the American bishops ignore the profound crisis that threatens the very existence of the Church in America.” And in the following paragraph he notes that “at their annual conferences, the bishops gather to issue weighty statements about nuclear weapons and the economy. Then the return home to ‘consolidate’ parishes and close down schools.” He offers these statements and published the book in the hope that it will “spur action before it is too late.” Of course, the root causes behind these trends are far more complex than can be addressed in a short essay or document.

However, it is now 8 years since it was published and it does not appear that the forthcoming spurring has occurred. But interestingly enough, at this year’s conference the bishops issued a well worded document on physician-assisted suicide. It is a good thing they are finally playing catch-up on this particular issue because Jack Kervorkian assisted his first patient in 1990, some 21 years ago. Ironically, Dr. Death trumped the release of the document by dying 2 weeks before it was published. That is right, the person who could have benefitted most from the document did not live to see it published.

As for the numbers, it will be good to look at some of them and hope that the spurring begins soon!