Confounding Times

I was surprised. On occasion I was somewhat stunned. I am referring to the questions, or statements, spoken, or written, to me in the aftermath of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling regarding same-sex marriage and the encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment.

At times I found puzzling the details in a letter, email or telephone call. At other times it was the mood behind what was being conveyed.

For example:

— A reader, a good Catholic I was told emphatically blasted me personally for agreeing in print with the archbishop of Dublin last May when, during the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage, he said that it was not about basic rights but, in his view, about redefining marriage. However, especially as a priest, could I not affirm that same-gender marriage is not all about human rights and equality?

— Bishops and priests should keep their noses and mouths out of public affairs. Public affairs are neither bad or good in terms of morality. Where is the principle of “separation of church and state”?

— By the same token, who does Pope Francis think he is when he speaks about climate, or for that matter about same-gender marriage?

— The forthcoming Synod on the Family will be a waste of time. The bishops attending the synod are not husbands. What do they know? For that matter, the pope is not married. He is not a father of a child. What does he know?

— The pope is no scientist, yet he presumes to speak about the environment.

— Why did not any bishop or any priest in this country condemn same-sex marriage? Is it not because most of them, or very many of them, in fact are homosexuals? The clergy sex-abuse scandal confirmed this fact.

— If the bishops were not so firm in questioning same-sex marriage, people would not be leaving the Church.

— If the bishops would just say something about same-sex marriage, people would not be leaving the Church.

— The Church has its nerve in criticizing same-sex marriage. Most nuns are lesbians.

Hard to believe? My emails and letters contained all these remarks.

The point here is not to take each statement quoted above and refute it, although this is tempting. Rather, it tells us priests that we have before us a considerable task in catechetics.

Certainly, an important audience to remember in terms of catechetics is that of youths.

Once upon a time, I was a deanery director of religious education in the Diocese of Nashville. My job was to oversee religious education in programs in a number of parishes. The diocese even sent me to The Catholic University of America as a graduate student to study catechetics. I took enough professional education courses in the process to be certified to teach not only by the diocese but by the state of Tennessee.

The point is that I saw plenty of religious education undertakings, and I heard many things.

For many reasons, religious education can be daunting when pastors organize their programs and write the checks. Yet, nothing is more critical for the future of the Church. It is not about numbers, about making sure that the pews are full in 2045. It is about sharing with young people the Good News to refresh their lives and set their eyes on the goals in life that produce true spiritual fulfillment.

Every parish is different. Each parish has its own resources and needs. Still, I appeal to all priests to leave no stone unturned in making religious education a genuine priority.

Then there are the adults, the parents. Pastors, however, are not the principal figures in religious education for the young. It is the parents, and we cannot drag parents into the picture as they kick and scream. We must in a sense sell to parents the notion that their offspring need to know about God, about morality, and about life in the Christian perspective.

This becomes an additionally difficult effort as, increasingly for Catholic adults, presence at the parish churches is now and then, hit or miss.

Still, we must search for strategies to inspire parents, and, as noted, every place is different.

This having been said about parental responsibility to educate youths, if any great failing exists in the current American Catholic culture, at least in my opinion, it is the widespread unfamiliarity with Church teaching among adults, and, did the chicken or the egg come first, the growing distance between Catholic adults and the institutional Church.

Serious within this last phenomenon is the distance between priests and people. I know of no priest who seeks to keep his people at a distance. Different opinions may be in the way, and this may return to the point just made. Different personalities may be a problem.

Shortage in numbers, plus more demand, raise their ugly heads. There are not enough priests to go around, and priests have so many calls for time. We all involve ourselves in a certain pastoral triage.

(A person only recently complained that his pastor never showed for coffee and doughnuts after Mass the Sunday before. By chance, this same priest had told me that he slept very little that Saturday night, being called to the local hospital’s ER three times. If people only knew! The poor guy may have been trying to rest between the Masses. The priest is 68 years of age, by the way.)

Face the facts. The people in so many instances are not with us on many important matters.

It takes no Gallup or Pew to see that the Church here is in more trouble than we may admit or certainly than we wish to admit. People are simply walking away from institutional religion. It shows in many things — for example, the sense of obligation on the part of parents to educate their children in the faith, and in the lack of thirst for religious information among adults.

People say that this is true, this disinterest in the Church, so where are the priests?

The priests work long hours, dark-to-dark. I know of no priest who dismisses the lofty urgings to cast the nets far and wide, but 24 hours is 24 hours, and none is without its demands.

Getting back to education, if we do not reach more people, young or old, we will find that we get more and more comments such as those that I quoted above.

When he wrote his brilliant apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi over 40 years ago, Pope Blessed Paul VI stated that evangelization is not conquest, it is service. It is taking Christ to people, and giving Christ to people, and nothing could be a more wonderful gift.

At the time of my ordination, I found these papal words so compelling that I had them printed on the holy cards distributed to the people attending my first Mass. They inspire me still.

It has a special message for priests, but it is also for lay Catholics.

I wonder if the apostles ever wished that they possessed a magic formula. Quite likely, such was their wish. They did have a magic formula, however, whether they realized it or not. It was their utter faith in the Lord Jesus and their absolute belief that in Jesus was every answer and every reward.

Be strong in this faith and in this belief today, reverend brothers. It is key. It is the magic formula.

In the meantime, preach the Good News. Listen carefully and with open hearts when Pope Francis addresses Congress and the United States in the next few weeks. He will get opposition. Give him the benefit of the doubt, at least.

Follow the Synod in October. The late Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, a wise man, made this point about the Second Vatican Council, of which he was a part. He urged people to follow the Council, not what was said about the Council, or on the outside of the Council, or even at random during the Council, but by the Council.

These are interesting, even confounding times, at least in some respects. The Church, and its priests, have seen confounding times before, and always the Church has emerged in victory, because it is of Christ. We must be of Christ.

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.