A Lenten Message from Patrick B. Sullivan, President of Association for the Rights of Catholics
Recently, I was visiting my niece in another state. When Sunday came around, she invited me to attend church with her. She warned me that it wasn't a Catholic church, if that was all right. I assured her that it was more important that I go with her that day. When we arrived at the church, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The building looked more like a shopping center than anything else. Everything seemed to be very well organized. The child care center was set up by age group with clear signs for each. The children were given tags that identified them, so they could be scanned, making it much easier to retrieve them after the service. We entered what was much like a theatre with a stage in the front. While we were waiting the jumbo screen was showing the previous week's NFL games.
The service began with music presented by a rather professional sounding group. The words were projected on the jumbo screen, but the congregation was not singing. I didn't get the impression we were supposed to do that. After a couple of songs, a gentleman that I assumed was either a business manager or organizer, said a few words about some recent endeavors and future activities. The gist of his main report was the steady increase in membership. Especially significant, was the number of young people who were active in the community. This was followed by a presentation by the person I think was the pastor but didn't really introduce himself as such. The talk was about personal growth and achievement. He encouraged us all to become better spouses, parents, and neighbors. Most of all, we could achieve great things if we just have faith.
This prompted me to reflect on the status of the Catholic Church itself. According to the most recent data provided by the Pew Research group, there is a significant decline in the numbers of practicing Catholics, especially among the younger population. This has been noted as a huge matter of concern for many. Anyone who is paying attention should notice the diminishing congregations and the aging of those left. I know that whenever I attend the conferences dedicated to reform such as Call to Action and others the percentage of grey-haired participants is rather striking. The obvious shrinkage of membership in ARCC is well worth noting. We on the board frequently discuss the need to get younger members. We have tried for years without much success. Although, I am pleased that we have recently added two younger members to the board.
My thoughts went to a different place that day, however. What is it exactly that we are hoping to save? If we want to sustain or even grow our numbers in the church, we must be clear on what it is that we are really advocating. My theologian colleague, John Dick, has written in his reflections that we share in our newsletter and on our site about the true roots of the church. As I read through his reflections, I asked myself whether that is what we are still doing, or have we gone on a different track. My point is, are we correctly focused on the "why" of our faith tradition? It seems to me that the whole purpose of the tradition is to bring about the Reign of God. This is the central message of the Gospel. While we certainly hear about those ideals each week, I am not so sure that we are authentic in our purpose. Most of our energy seems to circle around the preservation of the institution and not on being truly committed to the calling of Jesus of Nazareth. The vigorous discussions, or more accurately, arguments are focused on specific language or practices in our liturgy.
During the past three weeks, we have been hearing about the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-26), loving our enemies (Luke 6:27-36), and not judging others (Luke 6: 37-42). These, to me, are central teachings of our faith. In the Sermon on the Plain, we are given four blessings and four woes. They call us to a level of self-giving and warn us of the hazards of self-congratulation. This goes to the heart of my reflection. If we are to be poor, hungry, weeping, and hated to bring about the Reign of God, then we must be willing to look at ourselves honestly with humility. To my mind, this means we must be one with those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. Given what I see and hear much of the time, I am not so sure we are doing that. The following woes caution us against self-satisfaction. If we just go around essentially boasting that we are the one, true church, I wonder if we might be going down the wrong path.
Thinking again of the need to increase our numbers, especially among the young; I believe we need to consider carefully to what we are recruiting them. Is it a church of blessings or one of woes? I don't think we will be successful if we are not particularly faithful to our calling. The young people are seeking purpose. Yet, we show them our medieval traditions. We are witnessing profound shifts in the concepts of relationship and inclusion. Yet, we offer staid views of sexuality and belonging. I recognize that there are many of the faithful who do follow the gospel teachings to the best of their abilities. The point is that it is vital that we become more vocal about what it means to be followers of the gospel. Every Catholic has the right to be supported in the journey to be empowered by the Spirit in bringing that to fruition. The very concept of a hierarchy is contradictory to that message. Instead, every one of us should be taught the true meaning of the gospel and not be subjected to the manipulations of clericalists and dogmatists.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself [sic] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:35) This is our calling. It is also our right to be supported by a community that lives out the Sermon on the Plain. As we begin this season of Lent, let us recommit ourselves to seeking always to be merciful. Let us also be humble in seeking ways to open ourselves to the Spirit and become the church that does not need to recruit members but, instead, is an open door through which all may enter.