In ten years there will be half as many Catholic priests in the United States than there are today. Yes, you read that correctly – in 2024 there will be 50% few priests in active ministry in the U.S. than there are now. That comes as a shocker! A real wake-up call. Some cynics might cite this as evidence that the Church truly is going down the tubes. Traditionalists might revert to ever more fervent prayer for vocations. A more appropriate and faith-filled response would be to acknowledge this portends huge changes ahead (and change always carries an element of loss, upheaval and fear) but to see it all with hope-filled curiosity.
It all comes down to how we view the church, who’s in charge and the nature of our faith. Is the church essentially hierarchical and dependent on ordained clergy? Is celibacy a prerequisite for priesthood? What is ordination and, more critically, need it be gender-specific? What if the church really is “the People of God” as consistently reaffirmed – for Catholics at least – fifty years ago by Vatican II? What if we take Baptism and Eucharist as the foundational sacraments on which the whole edifice is founded? Rather than burying our heads in denial of reality or interpreting this reality as proof that the world is going to hell, there is another option – the option of faith, trust, yielding to God’s initiative, wide-eyed curiosity about what God might be up to now! Imagine God still engaged, the Spirit still active, the Risen Christ still alive.
Much has been made this week about the first year anniversary of Pope Francis. Analyses, op-ed pieces, bloggers and pundits have all weighed in with amazement, gratitude and high praise for the refreshing change this old man is bringing to a seemingly moribund institution. Some of us would say it’s about time! I’m squarely among this later group. But it’s ultimately not about how many priests will be active in ten years, what Vatican II said fifty years ago or even what Francis has brought to a lumbering bureaucracy in only one year. All are pieces of a bigger drama that Francis would be the first to say is not about him at all.
Christopher J. Hale and Ashley McGuire in the current issue of Time, an icon of American culture with no mission to evangelize, observe correctly: Francis has reminded us that the faith is not simply a set of rules, regulations and procedures, but a complex human drama about the goodness of creation, the pain of sin and brokenness, and the power of God’s redeeming love. E.J. Dionne incisively captures the essence of the man in the Washington Post: [Francis] declared that the church’s main mission would no longer be as a lead combatant in the culture wars. It would stand primarily with and for the neediest.” Francis would be the first to say that all the hoopla must not be about him! Ultimately, it’s all about us — about all of us loving others and the merciful love of the Holy Other for all creation.
We need not fret about ten years hence, appeal to exhortations fifty-years past nor fixate on the vitality of a single year. Michael Sean Winters summons us in the National Catholic Reporter to live in this God-given moment: “We are to preach the Gospel and, it turns out, people are still hungry for the Gospel. We are to walk humbly with Jesus Christ and, it turns out, people are still encouraged and comforted and ennobled by the companionship of their savior. We are to reach out to the poor and the marginalized and, it turns out, people in this highly self-referential age are still capable of self-transcendence with a bit of inspiration and encouragement.” Francis has been extemplary in offering that encouragement. But, we miss the whole point if we assume this is about the Pope. It is the vocation of the whole People of God and of each and every one of the Baptized, all who are gathered at Eucharist.
Imagine God still engaged, the Spirit still active, the Risen Christ still alive. How might this change and transform us …and our world?
You may find the entire articles at the following sites:
Christopher J. Hale and Ashley McGuire [here]
E.J. Dionne [here]
Michael Sean Winters [here]