Life Changes

You never know what you will find. A friend found in his parents’ attic a program from the great 1939 World’s Fair in New York and gave it to me. Was it revealing?

For example, the French exhibit celebrated the magnificent Normandie, the luxurious ocean liner that raced every week between France and this country. The British exhibit, gleaming with scenes from the empire upon which the sun never set, countered with the greatness of its Queen Mary, the Normandie’s big competitor. The Union Pacific Railroad boasted about its splendid City of San Francisco, the fastest way from Chicago to the Pacific coast, offering services that rivaled the finest hotels.

Nobody was foolish enough to think that trans-Atlantic steamships and transcontinental streamlined trains had no future, but air transport was iffy. To begin with, no one could build an airport runway long enough for any plane, even if one were constructed, that would be large enough to accommodate enough passengers to make money. No plane could carry enough fuel for a long flight.

No one preferred traveling long distance by automobile. The narrow highways, meandering along, slowed travel and got old quick. Cars were apt to break down. Everybody had to be prepared to change flat tires, which were inevitable.

In 1942, the Normandie was gone, after burning at her pier in New York harbor. By 1960, all the great ocean liners were living on borrowed time. Surviving the war, the Queen Mary soldiered on for a while until being sold to be a floating hotel in Long Beach, Calif. In the early 1970s, the City of San Francisco, by then a shadow of its former self, stopped running.

In the intervening years, the Second World War came. Aircraft development was rapid. Both the Allies and the Axis powers needed the advantage that aerial warfare could provide. Runways indeed were built on land, adequate even for the largest, heaviest planes. Aircraft were built with the capacity of flying long distances, German bombers to Britain, allied bombers to Germany, and returning to base.

Allied scientists found a way to create better, more reliable tires. Necessity was the mother of invention; the war effort needed reliable tires. Japanese occupation of then British Malaya and the then Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia, ended delivery of rubber from those places to this country.

In the war in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the German autobahns, and he was impressed. As U.S. president he pressed for the interstate highway system. The system came, and in its turn it revolutionized travel. Highway travel by car came to be the norm, not the exception.

Just five years after the New York fair, basic suppositions involving travel radically changed, or the handwriting was vivid on the wall.

Looking back to American Church history, thinking about change, something similar happened with regard to Catholic elementary and secondary education. When John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1960, his argument with the American bishops was not about abortion (abortion was illegal in every state, and he was opposed to abortion), but rather the difference of opinion was about public aid to parochial schools. He was against it on constitutional grounds. The bishops read the Constitution another way, and they demanded public funds for their schools.

No one, however, in the most far-fetched dreams, thought that the massive Catholic elementary and secondary system was in trouble. Even without public assistance, the schools would survive, and moreover they would thrive. In fact, in 1960, dozens of new Catholic schools opened across the country.

Dioceses and parishes had programs to educate youth not in Catholic schools, but these youth were in the minority, and by and large the programs were not, well, a priority anywhere.

Then, as with long-distance travel, everything changed before most realized what was happening. A recent study indicated that less than one-fifth of the Catholic young people in this country are studying in Church-affiliated grade or high schools.

Many factors contributed to this significant, and in a sense sudden, change. The bottom line has been economics. It has boiled down to that. The number of women religious, once the mainstay of Catholic education — God bless those nuns who gave their lives to instruct the young in the wonder of knowing Christ — plummeted. Building and maintaining facilities became much more expensive.

Actually, as the tables have turned, and as many more Catholic children attend public or non-sectarian schools than parochial schools, the Church in this country, speaking broadly, has met the challenge rather commendably. Dioceses and parishes have instituted programs and systems. Support facilities, such as providers of texts and resources, have come forward. An army of religious educators, overwhelmingly lay, have entered the picture — and they have done so with conspicuous dedication and the eagerness to give their best to their students.

So, the American Catholic community has adjusted. Still, the future is ahead.

How and what to do in any long-range pastoral strategy can be a daunting thought.

Nevertheless, certain compelling factors in contemporary American life that call all Catholics in this country, and especially priests, are immediately upon us. Addressing them, first of all, responds to critical present realities and, at least, responding to current matters energetically creates a mindset useful now, but also for looking ahead.

The statisticians say that among the major institutional religious bodies in the United States, the Catholic Church is holding its own if not increasing its numbers. Given the plunge in interest in institutional religion, this is good news.

The news is not all good. Statistics also indicate that a massive group of Americans say they once were Catholics, or that they are inactive Catholics. Every person has his or her own story, and priests reach people individually when opportunity presents itself.

Still, there is a collective dimension. Reaching fallen-aways or persons disgruntled with the Church first and foremost, it appears to me anyway, involves many things such as assertive outreach, concentration upon bringing the wayward sheep back, and using modern media. Reflecting on the brilliant writings of Pope Benedict XVI, and the electrifying personal example of Pope Francis, the old fact re-emerges with force. We convince, priests especially convince people, when lives are bright with a deep, secure and fulfilling sense of being one with Christ.

Long ago, Pope St. Pius X was quoted as saying that 10 holy priests could convert the world. He was on to something. It is a challenge to priests today.

The Church always has faced challenges, reversals, obstacles and surprises. Nothing stays the same. Quite possibly, as was the case shortly after 1939, the best-laid plans of today will be rendered useless by an unexpected change tomorrow. Patterns will change. Structures will change. Attitudes will change. It is the way of human history.

Hardly to argue against careful and diligent planning, never suggesting that no attention be given to the best opportunities in the future, or to improvement, the bottom line is that if priests are holy, if their eyes are fixed on their calling to follow Christ, and to love Christ in priestly ministry more than anything else, then the future will be assured.

The Church, through all levels of leadership and ministry, is obliged to plan and to consider well what it has, and where its attention should go. It would be unworthy of the Lord, of the call to spread the kingdom, and of the souls committed to it, were it not to think long and hard about where it is, and where it should go.

Whatever circumstances to bear, whatever pressures stand before the Church, whatever possibilities are opened in the future, however, priests must be in persona Christi. This is constant. This is essential. This is the key to success in any setting, now or in the future.

Some say that shadows loom over the future. It is in a manner of speaking. The future will be bright, and can be anticipated as being bright, if priests are what they should be. TP 

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.