It is easy, I know, to critique something we see and either believe or know to be wrong. Within the Church this is especially true. We can see many disturbing developments: fewer and fewer go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, even fewer go to Confession on any kind of regular basis, most Catholics know precious little about the content and purpose of our faith, fewer of our young are retaining their faith, we have nowhere the number or quality of clergy we need, the religious life is in wholesale free fall in many religious communities, more parishes are closing, fewer baptisms, fewer marriages, more Catholics have co-opted worldly sexual mores, and the list goes on and on. There is no shortage of things to bemoan.
It is worth considering that most of this decline is in the 1st world nations (North America, Australia, Europe) (cf. cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html) while the opposite seems to be true for Africa, Asia, and to some degree Central and South America. Were the culprit Vatican II, as so many want to blame, one would expect an across the board free fall. This is not the case. Something is distinctly different in the 1st world that is affecting the Church profoundly. As the overwhelming amount of both laity and clergy in the 1st world are from the 1st world, it is only natural that the clergy of the West would come into seminaries, houses of formations, and religious orders influenced by the culture in which they grew. It has become a downward spiral. So here is my theory...for what it is worth...and perhaps some ways to fix it.
I am only speaking to the church where the decline is in effect. I am a child of the 70's and 80's. I know well the constant message that is continually and feverishly pumped into us: live for yourself! Culturally, we are a rather narcissistic lot. We judge the efficacy of anything by what pleasure it gives me or how I feel about something. Even when we are altruistic, it is because we get a good feeling about ourselves. We are told that life's goal is about comfort, pleasure, and ease. We are used to being so stimulated by outside sources on an ongoing basis, that if outside stimuli fail , we deem whatever we experience as a failure. We become so focused on the individual that we forget that we actually are a social being and that our actions bear directly upon the lives of others. One who lives for themselves will rarely want or believe they need an outside force pressing upon them to restrain themselves, be it government, church, or God. The first real culprit to the decline of Mass attendance is far too many of us simply do not feel we need God or do not want any institution telling us that there is more to life than ease, pleasure, and comfort. We will turn to religion if the world fails to provide, but more often than not, the turning towards quickly becomes a turning away when the individual becomes challenged towards a permanent and profound change of heart. Witness what happened after 9/11.
In our self-centeredness we prefer to be served and not to serve. So many who do come to church have this mentality; I am there to be entertained, to have an emotional response, or to feel accepted no matter how I wish to live. We want all kinds of ministries and programs but want someone else to volunteer. Trying to get volunteers in an average parish is a maddening exercise! God and faith, in this mindset, are supposed to enable behavior and not challenge it. So many times I see people bemoan that priests don't regularly preach about contraception, homosexuality, and such. I willing to bet that these are people who are not themselves struggling with such things. I have noticed what happens when someone touches a spiritual spot they don't want challenged, the reaction is dismissive and derisive! Normally people are happy to hear homilies or sermons that chastise someone else's behavior and leaves them feeling comfortable about their own lives. This is human nature.
We loathe inconvenience in this culture. Everything needs to be quick, effortless, and satisfying. It is why politics has become a collection of skin deep sound bytes. It is why people like the quick to learn slogans (advertisers and politicians count on this). It is why our diets have gone to pot and obesity is on the rise. We want the things we feel of lesser value to be quick so that we may return back to the ease, comfort, and pleasure we so crave. This is very evident in Mass. Last Pentecost, I had a gentleman walk into church, as I was greeting people, who looked me right in the eye and directed me to hurry this thing up. I thought, well, this guy ( not a parishioner of mine, thanks be to God) had picked the wrong feast, the wrong parish, and the wrong pastor to tell that to. We priest often joke to ourselves that we might just as well put a drive through on the side of the church. I was interning in a parish, frequented by tourists, were I saw people in very expensive cars drive up 40 minutes late, get out of their car (leaving it running), getting into the Communion line, receiving Communion, and walking directly back out again and return to their cars and drive away smiling! They never even hit a pew. I see the dismal response we often get in most parishes for adult education, use of the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, weekday Masses, Holy Day masses, youth activities, and such. I know people who will avoid going to a particular Mass because that Mass has the Corpus Christi Procession afterward or some other special thing (really seen in attitudes about Easter Vigil) and "well, that just goes beyond that 1hour (including travel time), Father, that I have allotted to Mass this week." Now, I have been blessed to be in a parish where these attitudes are quickly changing and even were challenged well before I got here. But can we believe for a moment a parish where these attitudes prevail will provoke vocations, conversions, or true worship? If we treated sports like we treat religion, the major leagues of every sport would fold tomorrow! But sports are fun, though...much more fun that religion!
This leads to a deepening in the downward spiral in that so many priests cater to this attitude, many times choosing a safe side to be on. It becomes a matter of which group happens to agree with me or which group will give the lesser grief. As these clerics all sat out in the pews at one time, they have seen their pastors do this, have seen the various sides compete for attention in the pews and then in the seminary, and then have to preach to this same lot as a priest. They have seen priest maligned regularly for saying unpopular things and see priests regularly vilified in the media. I know so many young priest who came out of the gate on fire for our faith only to watch them get bashed about by parishioners who endlessly critique everything about them. It is sad that those who support the faith are not nearly as vocal as the critics of the faith. The temptation to cater what is popular is overwhelming. People forget that every cleric is a human being subject to the same temptations as anyone else and that the temptation towards ease (or at least less grief) can be a powerful thing. I know this because there are days I struggle with this.
We priests also know that most young men and their parents would sooner send themselves or their son to a fiery death rather than see them enter the seminary, let alone get ordained. I have joked that the quickest way to get a teenage or twenty something young man to flee from Church is to ask them if they have ever considered priesthood. Actually it is true. I have seen parents act as if I just asked their son to kill puppies for a living by mentioning priesthood as a possibility. When I re-entered the seminary, many of my friends and family had tried to dissuade me from the seminary because they thought the priesthood was beneath me and a waste of my talents. Think we'll get good strong vocations in that atmosphere? The bottom line is we cannot offer nothing but critiques and expect that anything will change.
Maybe the best place to start about what to do with our faith is to ask the questions: What do I know, actually know, about the Catholic Faith? Where is it I need to change or grow? Where have I resented being told to change? What is it that I positively contribute to helping the Church continue the mission of Jesus Christ? Is my faith too much about me and my personal likes? Am I willing to take wholly unpopular stances in order to do what is right? How do I serve? What is my attitude about worship of God? Do I make a profound effort? Am I willing to endure hardship, inconvenience, sacrifice, or suffering in order to what is right? Conversion of a people starts with one individual conversion at a time. The sooner we learn that God is not to be at our convenience, something that has to fit into our schedule full of more important things, the sooner we will see a wholesale turnaround in our parishes in this country. Nothing changes positively by sitting on the sidelines complaining. Worried about access to the sacraments? When was the last time you spoke to a young man about priesthood or supported a young man who has thought about such things? Have you ever spoke to your children about such things or do the only time they hear about a priest is when someone complains about what a dirt rotten so and so Father is!? These are just a few suggestions, hopefully you are getting the point.
We live in a culture lost in a desert of unfulfillment...a people who are finding the emptiness of living for comfort, pleasure, and ease. WE need to get our act together. The grace of God is there in great abundance, but we have to have to get to the point where it is not just about me and what makes me feel good.