By Dr. Michel Therrien
Part 18 of a weekly series
When I was a young child, my family never missed Sunday Mass. If we went to our summer cabin, we packed up our church clothes and made the nearly hour-long drive to St. Nicholas Church in Tacoma, Washington. But I also distinctly remember when my parents didn’t think we needed to do that anymore. It would suffice to attend Monday evening Mass instead.
As my school years passed in the 1970s and ‘80s, I recall how liturgy became very relaxed and the religious education I received spoke increasingly about topics not directly related to faith. It seemed much more about my self-esteem, and the message I heard was “we don’t believe that anymore,” or “the Church doesn’t do those things anymore.”
The past several weeks of this series has dealt with some very painful statistical data that indicates a downward trend of participation in the church. While it is true that every number tells a story, no number tells the whole story. The Church is always a fountain of living water because she is always joined to her spouse, Jesus. In fact, if we observe closely we see how the Church continues to move upstream against the currents of our times. No dead thing can ever do that.
The Church is Alive! What’s been happening though is that many of our people are getting swept downstream with our culture. Why?
There are many reasons. But I want to focus on some of the internal issues that have contributed to where we are today, especially as they relate to the practice of faith.
First, keep in mind that following Vatican II (1962-65) there was a period of deep confusion about the faith. While the idea of “change” was in the air, not every change, or alleged change, was fruitful for the church. What the council called for, in a nutshell, was a deeper conversion to our baptismal vocation to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ on mission to the world. We were called to leave behind a church culture that had become shut up within her institutions and structures.
Despite the good intentions and the many sacrifices of those serving in the church during those years after the council, the people of God became distracted by the cultural whirlwind of the 1960s and ‘70s. This deeper conversion — which requires extensive evangelization, catechesis and spiritual formation — did not occur for most of our people. But let me be clear. This wasn’t the fault of Vatican II. The council gave us only a vision for renewal. There was no instruction manual or plan for implementing that vision.
As is true of any major church council, it takes time to implement. In the meantime, we have to come to terms with the fact that, during those years, many adults brought up between the 1960s and 1980s either left or fell away from the practice of the Catholic faith. And the generation they raised has largely drifted away.
We now feel, deeply, the impact this is having on the Church today. Couple this with the rapid and aggressive advance of secularism and we can see why the Church now finds herself in a challenging spot. It is Bishop David Zubik’s dream for On Mission for The Church Alive! to develop a plan to evangelize and lead our people to a deeper realization of their baptismal vocation to be disciples on mission. By its very nature, this process of transformation must be a death and resurrection event for us.
Death and resurrection is a great mystery that stands at the heart of Christianity. Jesus redeemed us by dying and rising from the dead. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” he says, “it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
When the seed dies in the ground it is transformed into a plant capable of generating a multitude of grains. Growth only comes through transformation, the passing away of the old self for the rising of the new.
As Bishop Zubik calls us to be On Mission for The Church Alive! he is asking us to consider what needs to die in us in order for new life to arise. What is holding us back from carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ today? Is it fear? Is it a tired clinging to false ideas or ineffective pastoral strategies? Is it personal despair of salvation? Or is it plain old sinfulness, busyness and distraction?
Whatever it is, this Lent leave it at the foot of the cross and descend with Christ into his death. What awaits us on the other side is the glory of new life and our risen Lord.
Therrien is diocesan secretary for evangelization and Catholic education.