Catholic America

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I confess. Each Sunday, as the lector proclaims the Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Word, I am distracted.

The people in the congregation distract me — in this sense. My eyes fall on that couple who so earnestly wished to begin a family. Finally, they rejoiced to learn that a new life was on the way, but, after premature birth, the baby died. Then, I look at the man, not yet 60, losing mobility each day due to multiple sclerosis. He no longer can work, and this presents difficulties. Yet, he is at Mass each and every weekend with his stalwart wife.

I see an elderly couple. He fought in the Pacific in World War II. I know how proud they are of their five children — and of that grandson who is in the seminary. Their pride comes from their faith. All across the church are familiar faces, the countenances of good, faithful Catholics who are familiar simply because they never miss a Sunday Mass.

I have no authority to canonize saints, and certainly not the living, but along with so many other priests, blessedly and thankfully, I have some nominations for sainthood to make.

Sunday Mass is an edifying and indeed spiritually challenging experience. Pray God that I, in my priesthood, may be worthy of the task of shepherding those children of God that the Lord puts in my path.

All this inspiration admitted, I cannot allow myself to forget that, for each person devoutly praying in the pews before me, two or three or maybe more are not present, are disinterested and even may be disappointed in the Church, for whom the Gospel, and dare I say it, what they know of the Lord Jesus, is not refreshing and not engaging.

This rather dark observation is not at all unique to the parish where I serve. It is a national phenomenon, even in those geographic areas of the United States, the South and the West, where religion is doing well.

This statistic is mentioned. After Americans who identify themselves as Roman Catholics and show some interest in the practice of their religion, the second largest religious group in the country is composed of baptized Catholics who are inactive or who, bluntly, have left the Church.

Think about it. There are more “fallen away” or former Catholics in America than there are Baptists, or fundamentalist Protestants, or Presbyterians, or Lutherans, or United Methodists, or Episcopalians, or Mormons, or Disciples of Christ, or Seventh-day Adventists.

Then, increasing in number, are the unchurched Americans. Polls always show that the majority of Americans are theists. It is institutional religion that is on the decline. The inevitable pattern is that when institutional religion loses ground, belief in a Supreme Being, or in an order of life founded in such a belief, begins itself to diminish.

Very likely, unless something happens, in a generation the majority of Americans will not profess belief in any supernatural, eternal being.

Absolute morality as a standard of behavior already is in free-fall.

In June, I joined the priests of my own Nashville diocese and the priests of the Diocese of Knoxville for a weeklong conference on young Catholic American adults, held in the convention center in Sevierville, Tennessee, at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The presenter was Dr. Timothy O’Malley, a theology professor from the University of Notre Dame with a special interest in young adults (defined as 18 to 28 years of age) and a son of the Knoxville diocese. (It was heartwarming, but not unexpected, to hear him speak of the influence upon him exerted by the priests whom he knew in his own youth. Dr. O’Malley is a strong Catholic. This was clear. What an opportunity comes to us priests in the youth whom we encounter — to whom we are sent by the Spirit!)

I found the lectures fascinating — but not uplifting. Challenging they were, but they were not uplifting. Although there may be laudable fervor in many places, religious practice among young Catholic Americans is on the way down.

By chance, packing for the conference, I had included a copy of “Young Catholic America. Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church,” by Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill and Kari Christofferson (Oxford University Press).

Since I found the sessions with Dr. O’Malley so interesting, and since the television in my room was always on the blink, I spent much time with “Young Catholic America.” It makes clear that the picture that I painted above of the devout and the reliable in the parish in which I serve on weekends is not complete.

The overall culture has laid a deep imprint upon the lives of all Americans, including Catholics. For example, divorce is a way of life. All too many young Catholic Americans are reaching adulthood after spending some years at least in one-parent homes.

Cohabitation before marriage, or no thought of marriage, is now virtually the norm. This practice, of course, has important moral considerations, but sociology suggests, all religious values aside, that it is not a good thing. It will leave scars all too often on those persons involved, and as it is condoned, or actually preferred more and more, young people will feel great pressure to forget any inhibitions and go with the flow.

Pornography, so easily located online, is another problem, and I use the word problem casually. And its harmful effects are growing by leaps and bounds. Popular entertainment, music and cinema do not help, to say the least. All these factors, and others, entrap our youth.

A Catholic asked me not long ago, “Cannot the Church do something about all this?” Well, the Church is trying to do something about it, but it is easy to feel that we are swimming upstream.

Nobody has the silver bullet to kill all these villains, it is easy to say. Or do we Catholics, we priests?

The Gospel will prevail. It brings life and joy that proceed from nothing else. So, the first step in molding that silver bullet is faith.

The second is to look beyond the holy people seated in our church pews week after week, at times day after day. Of course, priests must minister to these good souls, from a variety of perspectives. Not many of the priests I know these days can complain of having too much time on their hands. The opposite is true. But we priests must look outward and away from what is familiar. As Pope St. John Paul II urged, we must cast the nets wide.

This will require stamina and creativity, alertness and thought. Here is where faith, nourished by prayer, is the tonic that changes work for the sake of work into a cause.

Next, practically speaking, we must look directly at parish educational programs. Many forms are needed, schooling for youth, parochial schooling in some cases, religious education for the young, training to receive the sacraments, and so on. This must be organized and funded.

My pet peeve is that we priests relent, albeit unthinkingly, when it comes to adult Catholic education. Maybe the answer is a parish program. Maybe it is encouraging readership of the Catholic press. Maybe it is promoting Catholic radio and television. Maybe it is developing an effective use of social media. The possibilities are many. Just make adult education a priority. These potential processes are steps toward an end.

Constantly, I am convinced that while all our techniques must be well considered and well presented, and in this effort priests cannot be slow or halfhearted, the best lesson of the majesty of Christianity is in the example of believers.

Here priests have a chance, frankly unavailable to others or at best to a few. The very structure of Church communities makes it so. Still, despite all the pressure the other way, people are apt to see priests as bearing the message of something good or well intentioned, if nothing else.

One result of this culture, however, is that this image of priests is not automatic. We must earn trust and regard. We do this only by being priests, by being in persona Christi.

Lord, your kingdom come!

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.