Signs of hope

Charles Dickens may have written “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but these days I tend to meet people who stop at, “It is the worst of times.”

At a dinner party recently, a group of older Catholics were bemoaning the state of the world and of the Church. Then they turned to me and asked what I thought. Personally, I’m not a big fan of estimating the proximity of the world’s demise, whether by climate change or the Antichrist.

I agree that there is more than enough evidence to support a pessimistic view of our current condition. In her powerful and ultimately uplifting book “Forming Intentional Disciples,” author Sherry Weddell begins with a statistical overview of the state of the Church, and it is not pretty. Rates of religious practice are trending downward. Catholics are walking away from regular practice of their faith.

In society at large, it is no better. As Leonard Cohen sings in his ode to pessimism, “Everybody knows the fight is fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich gets rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.”

So there is a lot to wring our hands about, but I wonder if this has always been the case. Oldsters find some bleak comfort in thinking that after them, the deluge. Youngsters with a pessimistic bent recall golden ages they have only read about on Wikipedia. And the middle-aged, with children to raise and bills to pay, worry most of all.

“Be not afraid,” was the ringing exhortation of Pope St. John Paul II, but much of our pessimism comes from fear. Fear of the future is an emotion of the present, and we tend to forget it once the future is past. Today there are those who think the Church was great until Vatican II came along, but one need only leaf through the pages of Catholic publications like The Priest from the 1930s and 1940s to see what handwringing went on in those “good old days.”

Of course, there have been better times and worse times. But when bad times hit the Church, we often are blessed with the most remarkable saints.

There is another reason I am feeling more optimistic today. I have the honor of sitting on the Our Sunday Visitor Institute Advisory Board. Our Sunday Visitor is a nonprofit company, and we use our earnings to support Catholic organizations, dioceses and projects all around the country. As I review the many worthy applications for funds, I am continually struck by how many wonderful activities are taking place in our Catholic communities, and how the Holy Spirit is nurturing the Church at its base.

For example, there are many lay groups focused on catechizing and ministering to young people, particularly on college campuses. Groups like FOCUS and Evangelical Catholic do this on a systematic basis, and Our Sunday Visitor has supported their efforts. But we recently learned of a single parish in the Midwest that is supporting an outreach to Catholic students at a nearby Protestant college.

And there is more: pro-life efforts to help unwed, frightened mothers-to-be. Apologetics efforts to defend the Church, whether in the media or on street corners. Efforts to minister to both the spiritual and material needs of the poor, or catechize the undocumented. The list goes on and on, and it never ceases to fill me with hope.

Most of these groups don’t attract headlines. Most dioceses don’t have the resources to support them. Yet I think we have saints in our midst, quietly doing the Lord’s work in a hundred different vineyards. Their efforts are making these the best of times.

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Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.