By Emily Stimpson
Is history repeating itself? In 1822, Catholics in the United States were few and far between.
Making up barely 10 percent of the population, they lived scattered across the country, far from each other and, usually, far from a priest. Many received the sacraments only once or twice a year. Many more were drifting away from the faith, converting to "Bible churches" or lapsing into a general state of unbelief.
Poverty-stricken dioceses could do little to stop the decline of the faith. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life were almost nonexistent. Institutions and structures to support the faith were few. The prospects of the Catholic Church in America looked grim. But then, the Church universal stepped in.
Starting with the vision and contributions of a young French woman, the Venerable Pauline Jaricot, the Church's elder daughters in Europe sent money, priests, Religious, whatever and whoever could be spared, to minister to Catholics in the United States. Their efforts reversed the course of Catholicism in America, enabling it to become self-sufficient and self-supporting in less than a century. By 1908, the Holy See declared that the United States was no longer official "mission territory."
But today, 186 years after Jaricot founded the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the state of the Catholic Church in the United States bears more than a passing resemblance to its 19th-century counterpart.
As Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), pointed out, the exodus of Catholics from the Midwestern and Eastern industrial cities created a diaspora similar to that of 1822. Still a minority -- about 22 percent of the U.S. population -- Catholics are once again scattered across the country.
Vocations of native-born priests are also comparatively few. According to Gautier, recent years have seen only a third as many young men graduating from the seminary as the Church needs to replace her aging priests.
Many of the priests the Church does have divide their time between multiple parishes, with more than 3,500 U.S. parishes currently without a resident pastor. In some cases, these priests are like the circuit-riding priests of old, driving long distances across dioceses to reach the cash-strapped parishes they serve.
Then there is the declining practice of the faith.
According to data collected by CARA, Catholic baptisms and marriages are down, the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly hovers around 23 percent, and the percentage of Catholics who go to confession at least once a year is a mere 26 percent.
Even those statistics paint a somewhat falsely optimistic picture as they account for Catholics of all ages. Siphon out Catholics born before 1961, and of what remains, only 15 percent to 17 percent attend Mass weekly or more. The rest, like their non-Mass attending parents and grandparents, have left the faith to embrace Protestantism or, as often as not, no faith at all.
And how is the Church universal responding to the problems in the U.S. Church? At least in one very important way, much as it did two centuries ago -- by sending priests and seminarians to meet the pastoral needs of the faithful.
According to the latest research from CARA, almost 5,500 international priests currently serve in the United States, sent here by their native dioceses in Vietnam, Mexico, India, Nigeria, Poland, the Philippines and other nations across the globe.
Foreign-born vocations also continue to climb. According to a May 6, 2008, press release issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in less than 10 years, the number of non-native Americans ordained to the priesthood by U.S. dioceses has risen from 22 percent to 32 percent. Perhaps most notably, this past May the Archdiocese of Chicago ordained 13 men to the priesthood, but not one was born in the United States.
Of course, the seeming semblance to the American Church's earlier plight doesn't mean that the United States should be officially declared "mission territory" post haste. In fact, Father Michael Roach, who teaches American Church history to seminarians at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., believes that day is still a long ways off.
Noting that compared to a century ago, the number of "no priest counties" are few and the number of Catholics limited to attending Mass only once or twice a year because of a priest shortage are even fewer, Father Roach stressed the relative health of the faith in America.
"For all our problems, the Church has a level of prosperity and strength today that far exceeds what it had in the 19th century," he said. "We're very privileged, but most don't realize that."
The Pontifical Mission Society would agree. Today 1,150 dioceses in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are still considered "mission territory" by the Society. Most of those dioceses are in poverty-stricken regions, where local Catholics, like American Catholics two centuries ago, cannot financially support the earthly structures the faith depends upon to spread and thrive. Those are structures that the wealthy United States now has in plenty -- schools, parishes, seminaries, newspapers, publishing houses, and more.
But whether or not the United States is on its way to becoming official "mission territory" anytime soon, it remains de facto mission territory, both by nature of its current problems and, as Catholic theologian Scott Hahn points out, by nature of its very existence.
"We have to recognize that the whole planet is mission territory," said Hahn. "The Church's mission is always going to be advancing in fits and starts in different places at different times. The earth is a battleground, not a playground, and we can't let ourselves think otherwise about any place on it."
In the "battleground" of the United States, Hahn sees the Church's modern-day missionaries -- both native and foreign born -- facing many challenges earlier missionaries did not. Topping that list, he said, is "an aggressive form of atheism the likes of which most of us never imagined, even 10 years ago."
"It's anti-theism, not just atheism," he continued. "The tonality of the discourse has dropped to an unbelievably low level, and there is such a preferential option in universities, publishing houses, and bookstores for people who espouse those views. Answering those challenges requires a new level of intellectual rigor on the part of Catholics."
Comparing the United States to the proverbial "rocky soil," Hahn also noted that earlier missionaries were evangelizing a culture that was adamantly Christian, albeit Protestant, while missionaries today find themselves in a more secularized and much wealthier world.
"With as much material comfort as we have, so many are no longer capable of recognizing our grinding spiritual poverty and need," he said.
Msgr. John Kozar, national director of the Pontifical Mission Society in the United States seconded Hahn's concerns, noting that, "The culture today makes it very difficult to get people to make a commitment to anything -- a commitment to Christ, his Church or a parish community. There are so many distractions. In many ways it's much more challenging than what missionaries faced 150 years ago."
But, those challenges, he continued, for all their gravity, are exactly the kind of challenges that so many of the foreign born and international priests are uniquely equipped to handle, mainly because so many of them come from materially poor but spiritually wealthy countries.
"They bring such a deep and active sense of the faith with them," he said. "They've suffered, lost family members in persecutions. They're living witnesses to the power of the faith."
To illustrate the faith culture from which many of these priests come, evangelist and speaker Sean Forest described a 70-year-old grandmother, "thin as a rail," who walked hours to come to Mass when he brought a priest to the Haitian village near the orphanage he founded. He also described other Haitians who cross mountains to get to Mass, and villagers who unfailingly come to church dressed in their best clothes, ready and wanting to participate in the two-hour plus liturgy.
"These people are true believers," he said. "The priests that come from regions like this have a well-balanced heart and mind. They see a bigger picture of the Church, having first-hand experience of the plight of the poor and the grace of God. They know our efforts aren't enough. With them, it's all about the power of the sacraments."
Of course, as Father Roach pointed out, the motives of today's international priests and the missionaries of two centuries ago are somewhat different. In the 19th century, priests and religious arriving on America's shores saw themselves as "part of a great movement, as working to win the world for Christ."
"Today," he continued, "that's not the cry of most."
Instead, he explained, many priests come because their dioceses have an excess of vocations or because of the financial support that can make its way back to their dioceses via a priest serving in an American parish.
Nonetheless, Father Roach agrees with Msgr. Kozar that the influx of international and foreign-born priests may be the very thing that once more reverses the decline of the faith in America and ultimately prevents the United States from becoming official "mission territory" once more.
"These priests, especially the ones going through seminary here, are learning our ways but bringing their own rich understanding of the faith. This is a great window of hope for us," he said.
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.