In a recent blog post titled “The Numbers” Don’t Look Good—What Should the Church Do?, Msgr. Charles Pope reflected on the drop in Mass attendance and reception of the Sacraments over the past several decades. And the numbers don’t look good. One example: in 1970, 54.9% of Catholics went to Mass weekly; that percentage dropped to 21.1% by 2018. The other statistics are just as bad. For some, this decline may be shocking. But for most of us who work in ministry they come as no surprise.
What, then, does Msgr. Pope propose that the Church do? He says:
“We are to preach the truth….We must preach the full gospel, whether it is in season or out of season. And when it is out of season (as it certainly is today) it is all the more important that we reprove, encourage, and rebuke while patiently enduring any hardship or persecution that may result.”
This proposal, is woefully inadequate. Msgr. Pope’s solution to the mass exodus the Church has seen in past decades is that we just need to preach the truth regardless of how out of season it may be. (And the more it is out of season the more we need to reprove, encourage, and rebuke others.) This proposal falls flat.
The Apostles and the early Church should be the model for a solution here. Their evangelical efforts have three key pillars that we can emulate now.
The first is empowerment in the Holy Spirit. The Apostles, and really all baptized Christians for the first few centuries of the Church, evangelized with signs and wonders. Miraculous healings gave their message attention and credibility. If we want to evangelize we need to go out with the divine life we’ve received from our baptisms and confirmations and pray for signs and wonders.
The second pillar is the message itself. It wasn’t simply the idea of truth; but the kerygma, that is, “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (Catechesi Tradendae 25). Pope Francis says:
“In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. The kerygma is trinitarian. The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment” (Evangelii Gaudium 164).
This message is the heart of all truth. The power of the kerygma is in the message itself. Even if the Church has no credibility left due to abuse, clericalism, and corruption, the kerygma itself still has power.
There’s an order to how the gospel truth is proclaimed. Too often, as Bishop Barron likes to point out, we lead with the moral truth rather than with Jesus, the kerygma. So the particular truth we need to be preaching first isn’t what the Church says about the moral life, but about the love of the Father, the saving work of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Father puts it this way:
“All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching (Evangelii Gaudium 36).
The third pillar of Acts evangelization was care for the poor and those on the periphery of society. Again, the message being preached by the early Church was given credibility by their commitment to the poor. As Julian the Apostate famously wrote to another pagan in the 4th century, the Christians “support not only their poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” Few things are more attractive to the unevangelized than the Mother Teresas and Jean Vaniers in the Church.
Msgr. Pope seems especially concerned with not deviating from the truth of the Gospel. This is laudable, but mere adherence to doctrine isn’t enough. Pope Francis calls this preoccupation with pure doctrine above evangelisation a kind of “spiritual worldliness, saying:
“A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.
This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of “taking over the space of the Church”. In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few” (Evangelii Gaudium 94-95).
Museum pieces. Isn’t that precisely what empty churches are? Faithfulness to the Church’s teaching is essential, but it’s the kerygma preached by those inflamed with love for the poor and walking in the power of the Spirit that will radically transform the Church and the world. That is what the Church should do.
[Photo credit: Marion Basilio at One Secret Mission]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.