1. What does the future look like?
Both questions have the same answer: only by a new catechesis of baptism and a stress upon the threefold baptismal ministry, especially that of prophecy. However, the targets for prophetic countercultural activity currently chosen by the bishops are profoundly misjudging the concerns and outlook of younger Catholics. Sexual ethics will not fill the pews, but the prophetic/soteriological nexus of Matthew 25 just might. The assumption here is that if the spiritual yearnings of younger people are to be channeled into ecclesial membership, one necessity is that the Church be FOR something that makes sense.
How likely is it that anything like a prophetic catechesis will happen in the short term? That depends quite a bit on how much devolution of leadership is possible.
You would expect devolution to be the movement of a healthy church, just as Vatican II talked a lot about the importance of the local church. But it might also be the result of a weak church at the center. The weaker the center, the stronger the periphery.The whole movement we see in the church today of small worshiping communities is a sign of what can emerge when the center is no longer able to control everything. For the most part it is not happening.
So my suggestion would be that the local church should work to weaken central authority. Vatican II insisted on the rights and responsibilities of the local church, the local bishop, and the lay presence therein. This is not about thumbing our noses at the latest teaching of the pope or the latest nonsense to come from some curial office, but just about going ahead and being the gospel presence in the local community in the way we the local church think fit, and hang the consequences.
As for structures, I think that sooner rather than later the church is going to have to become more flexible about patterns of ministry. In my view it would do well to be open to part-time ordained ministers serving in a team ministry, whether in one local community or a collection, in which their responsibility is primarily for worship and preaching. Everyone else does everything else. Openness to part-time team ministry is the way to prepare for the kind of financial structure that we will need for married clergy, and it will also make possible a return to the practice of finding our candidates for ordained ministry in the communities which they will serve.
Parish or something else? In many ways this is a false problem. "Parish" is just a name for the community gathered in worship.
2. The future of the Catholic Church in Australia
Mass attendance rates in Australia, expressed as the percentage of the Catholic population counted in the national census who attend Mass on a typical weekend, is around 12 or 13 per cent, although among Catholics aged 20-34, only about five or six per cent attend on a typical weekend. Catholics born in non-English speaking countries are over-represented among Mass attenders; whereas they make up around 20 per cent of the Catholic population, they account for over 30 per cent of Mass attenders. Mass attenders, and especially Australian-born Mass attenders, are also typically much older than Catholics in general. Many urban parishes have multiple ethnicities among their parishioners. My own parish in suburban Melbourne is a case in point. We know that the 1,800 or so people who attend Mass in the parish each weekend come from more than 60 different countries, the most established being from Italy, Malta and Holland, and the newest arrivals being from South Sudan and the Pacific Islands. When the late Dean Hoge attended Mass in our parish in 2006, I was able to point out to him people from 15 different countries sitting in our immediate vicinity.
Australia’s priests are also ageing and are diminishing in number and in many dioceses priests, often aged in their late 60s or 70s, are looking after two or three parishes. Most dioceses are supplementing their priest numbers by bringing priests from overseas, especially from India, the Philippines and Africa. The latest Official Directory says that there are 268 students for the priesthood in diocesan seminaries (compared to 1,560 in 1956); very many of these are either immigrants or children of immigrants. The number of religious sisters has plummeted from around 14,000 in the mid 1960s to under 6,000 today, and 86 per cent of them are aged 60 or more.
People are not just ceasing to attend Mass because they are getting old and dying. We know from our research that many Catholics who were once regular Mass attenders stopped going in their 40s, 50s and 60s. We identified ten groups of reasons for this, but the main one reported to us by people who had stopped going was a sense of disconnection between what the Church is concerned about and what matters to them in their lives. In another study, more than half of a large sample of Catholic parents of children attending Catholic schools said they no longer thought it was necessary to attend Mass to be a committed Catholic. Note that word committed. People are redefining what it means to be Catholic, regardless of the Church’s official teaching about the obligations of Catholics.
Another feature of the Catholic Church in Australia is that more than half of all Catholic children, of both primary school age and secondary school age, attend Catholic schools. In fact, Catholic schools educate one-fifth of Australia’s school students, including many non-Catholics. This is one reason why Catholic schools receive a large part of their funding from state and federal governments. Almost every parish has a primary school, and parishes devote much of their energy to supporting them.
From this brief outline of the situation, you can begin to see for yourself what the Church in Australia will look like in 10 to 20 years: because of the age profile of Mass attenders, attendances are virtually certain to go down in the period we are considering. Congregations will have higher proportions of attenders from non-English speaking backgrounds, and they will increasingly be served by priests whose first language is not English. The age profile of religious sisters means that when the large number who work as parish pastoral associates or leaders of parishes without resident priests retire in the next few years, there will be no sisters to replace them, meaning that there will be a greater need than ever before to involve well-trained lay people in parish leadership.
Perhaps much of this suggests that the outlook for Catholic parishes in Australia is gloomy, and that we’d be better off finding a new way of Church that does away with the traditional parish model. But that is not my view. I believe that parishes have an inbuilt advantage over other forms of Church in that they are ‘stably established’, in the words of Canon Law, and that they are situated in a local community. Research has shown that parishes are powerful creators of social capital, both the bonding variety that holds communities together, and the bridging type that creates links between the parish and the wider community. Social capital theory even shows how those fringe attenders who come to Mass but have little other involvement in the parish can be effective contributors to the parish’s bridging social capital. Without this stability and link to a specific geographic location, many new and experimental forms of church tend to be short-lived.
But this is not to say that parishes can’t be improved. Unfortunately, it is all too obvious that many parishes do not function well. Yet our research tells us that two simple things – things that anyone can do – will enhance the experience of Mass attenders and might even lead people who have stopped attending to return to Mass. These things are to create a welcoming atmosphere and to encourage people to use their gifts and skills in the service of the parish. When people feel welcome, they are more likely to have a positive view of the parish and to feel a part of the community, and when they feel encouraged to contribute their gifts and skills they are much more likely to be involved in parish activities.
Welcome and encouragement are a good start, but clearly there’s more to be done to create a vital and effective parish. There are many parishes in Australia doing a wide variety of creative things to help people live their faith. In order to highlight some of these, we initiated the Building Stronger Parishes project, in which we are doing quite detailed research on around 20 parishes – ten urban and ten rural – that are known to be responding creatively and effectively to current challenges. None of these are ‘perfect’ parishes, but they are all doing things that other parishes can learn from. Our teams of researchers looked for the factors that made these parishes successful. In many of them, it was clear that the leaders were empowering and encouraging. In others, it was the vibrant liturgies and a strong music ministry that made the parish a success. Another had a very active partnership with a parish in the Philippines, another a strong culture of stewardship, yet another, a small inner-city parish, concentrated on family-centred ministry and involvement of all the parishioners in establishing, evaluating and updating the parish pastoral plan. It became clear that there is no one magical recipe for success. Each parish has to respond to its own situation, using the gifts and skills of the parish leaders and the parishioners.
We can never lose sight of the fact that Australian parishes exist as part of Australian society. As in all advanced western societies at the beginning of the 21st century, the basis of legitimate authority has shifted since the 1960s. Two of my Australian colleagues, Gerald Rose and Gary Bouma, have investigated this cultural turn and its implications for the churches in some detail. Gerald’s work is still in preparation, but Gary summarized it this way in his 2006 book Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century in contemporary western societies, ‘ultimate authority … is to be found in the individual’s experiences, senses and feelings’. By and large, the Catholic Church in Australia has not yet recognized this profound change in the culture, let alone responded to it, and continues to assume, or hope, that traditional forms of authority will win the day in the end, thereby contributing to the disconnection between Church and ordinary life experienced by so many Australian Catholics today. The situation calls for a recognition that sometimes the best teaching can only happen after a long period of profound listening.
3. Become holy witnesses
"Catholic" is not a brand name to be managed but a long and deeply ramified tradition. Witnesses teach it most effectively. If the US church is to have a future, more of us need to become holy witnesses to Jesus Christ and the life he brings through the mediation of a wounded church and its sacraments. Communally supported interior lives of prayer that bear fruit in works of mercy will speak of love rather than fear. From a programmatic point of view, such witness might take many forms. No matter how well planned and executed, programs that lack such witness will fail.
Imagine a small Catholic church—ours—in the poorer section of a large city. It is a non-geographical parish, so people come from all over town and from outside the city limits. It is also a non-discriminating parish, welcoming the divorced and remarried, gays and lesbians, former priests and nuns, unmarried couples, and even non-Catholics.
Shortly after Vatican II, the pews were taken out and replaced with chairs, and the altar is now a large table that is usually in the middle of the nave, but it can be moved for different arrangements of the assembly. Where the old altar once stood is now a platform for a music ensemble and chorus of paid and volunteer musicians.
In the 1970s the parish began buying run-down properties in the neighborhood, fixing them up, and then renting them at fair prices. It also saw a need to help people on welfare and disability manage their money and rebuild their lives, so it started a counseling service in what used to be the sacristy. In the 1980s the parish joined the Sanctuary movement, sheltering political refugees from El Salvador trying to reach freedom in Canada. It also started a fair trade market for Latin American crafts, and this has since become a not-for-profit store.
Through an American missionary, it established a close relationship with a rural parish in Nicaragua, and it now provides funds for a community health clinic there, it helps women grow vegetables for their families, and it supports and organic farming cooperative. Every year or so, the parish sends a delegation to visit that parish, and it pays for a delegation to come from Nicaragua to meet the parishioners here and report on progress there. The old parochial school is now a minimum security jail that provides men to do janitorial work in the church and allows them to come for worship on Sunday. The former rectory is now a retreat center for high school and college students who are interested in spiritual growth through inner city immersions. A number of small groups meet regularly for prayer and Bible study, and during Advent and Lent additional groups are formed for short-term reading and sharing.
There is only one liturgy every Sunday, which is planned and executed entirely by parishioners, with a priest from a neighboring parish as the usual sacramental minister. Children’s church is held during the adults’ Liturgy of the Word, divided into different age groups and led by parents of the children themselves. Besides the worship committee and the parish council, there are about a dozen committees that meet weekly or monthly, many having to do with social justice concerns. The parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference distributes food to and pays utility bills for needy families in the neighborhood, most of whom are not Catholic. Of the 300 or so households in the parish directory, two-thirds are engaged in some form of parish ministry. The rest just come on Sunday for the experience of worshiping with people who sing their hearts out. During the kiss of peace before communion, it takes more than five minutes for everyone to greet and hug most of the people that they know in church. The Mass always ends with applause.
The energy that gets expressed in the single Sunday liturgy comes from the effort that gets put into parish life during the rest of the week. Members who have been in the parish for decades share years of worshiping and working together, working not just on committees but also on projects such as rehabbing nearby houses and going on disaster relief missions. They share mostly liberal ideas about the church and the hierarchy, the Second Vatican Council, human rights, and social justice, and they are very aware of having decided to remain Catholic despite their disagreement with Rome on many issues. For those who are newer to the parish, there is a collective memory of what the parish has done and what it stands for, as expressed in the mission statement posted in the vestibule. They make many similar decisions about volunteering their time and being very generous with their money.
5. A Baptist perspective
Within the broad diversity of belief and liturgy that characterizes Baptists, where do I see, generally, the threats and promises? (please know I am over simplifying almost everything here.)
I'll begin with the promise. Baptists will, I believe, thrive where they, by the power of the Spirit, embody the life of Christ in their places for their times. Many of the more prominent expressions of the so-called "new monasticism" have actually arisen among Baptists. And yet out of this local embodiment, there can and should be prophetic critique of and witness to the structures of the societal contexts in which the churches find themselves. The school where I teach numbers among its alumni Walter Rauschenbusch. His "social gospel" thought was first focused through his ministry in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work began focused very much on the city of Montgomery. Of course, both of these Baptists were aware of the national and even global scope of the problems they were confronting. The same could be said about Clarence Jordan. Of course, this dynamic of local ministry and broader witness is "Christian" not "Baptist." For example, a seventeenth century Baptist named Benjamin Keach, wrote that the glory of the true church is that it, "sympathize with the Afflicted, Succour the Tempted, and Relieving the Poor and Distressed; Rejoicing with them that Rejoice, and Mourning with them that Mourn.” I remember thinking when I first read that how it resonates with the vision in the opening words of Gaudium et spes.
In reading through some of the other responses, the lines that really caught my attention were in Bill's second paragraph. "'Catholic' is not a brand name to be managed but a long and deeply ramified tradition. Witnesses teach it most effectively. If the US church is to have a future, more of us need to become holy witnesses to Jesus Christ and the life he brings through the mediation of a wounded church and its sacraments."
I think that the Baptist past has within it that which can shape and inform this kind of witness. But here is the key—Baptists of European descent in the US have tended to reject tradition of all sorts for about 200 years. Baptists can be "exhibit A" for Jaroslav Pelikan's declaration, "the only alternative to tradition is bad tradition." This is, in all its facets, our gravest threat, I believe. Many Baptists, with their truncated liturgy and at times rather pointed anti-sacramentalism, their anti-creedalism, their anti-traditionalism, don't give God much with which to work sometimes.
There are some Baptist churches seeking to recover their awareness of standing within the catholic faith. God grant them increase! They are few and far between. But I know of some. And I'm grateful for that.
6. What future for the American church?
I see the future of the local community of Roman Catholic Christians dependent upon its ability to attract members who see the world as they do, and to find the proper means to convey that vision generationally. It is not “my” future that is important here but “our” future from generation to generation. How many of you and your friends have children who no longer envision their spiritual life as necessarily played out among Roman Catholic Christians? The answer to that question suggests the generational future. How many of you see new parishes being built or house churches being attended? The answer to that question suggests the ability of the RC vision to attract new members.
But the future of any institution is dependent not only upon whether it has many members, clients, or consumers but what the characteristics of those people are: education, creativity, gender, age, dedication, ethnic background etc. But you know this.
Let me put it another way. In the late 80s and early 90s I was interested in the development of RC in Quebec. Church attendance and membership had dropped significantly. Why? I think it was because the former members were well educated, had smaller families, no longer used the English Canadians as scapegoats, and felt free to think for themselves. They were Québécois without the religion that previously was inherent to their identity. I would suggest that what happened in Quebec has happened in Ireland and Poland. It is now happening in the United States among European immigrant Catholics.
Future of the Church? It depends where you look and who you want as members.
No matter how I try to rid myself of it I still see the RC Christian church as international in scope and organization (I’m one of the older Catholics). No matter how much theological intellectualization I do that definition of “church” always ends up as my dominant (not necessarily sole) definition of the church. And within that definition my way of describing that international church is that of colonialism. Both this paradigm (colonialism) and this definition (institutional world church) are seen through the lens of a foundational experience while I was in Rome in the early 60’s. That experience was that many of my fellow Roman Catholics did not actually like American Roman Catholics. How naive I was to think that the religious belief, worship, moral norms, and polity would triumph over nationalism and birth-culture. Not true. At that time American democracy was seen as chaotic and simplistic; American manners of dress and Christmas celebrations were seen as materialistic; American male-female relationships, dancing, etc., were seen as promiscuous and American theological acumen as non-existent. I could go on but, hopefully, you get the picture. American Catholics were not seen as really Catholic and were treated as such by the institutional powers. I think that is still so today. That’s why we need to learn to obey as one of the bishops recently put it. Or, as another said just the other day: get out of it if you don’t want to follow what the central authority says.
So what is the future of our American Roman Catholic church within an institutional church centered in Rome that does not approve of the American lifestyle? It will all depend on what happens to the colonial power housed in Rome. They have effectively and programmatically guaranteed the continuance of their beliefs, ideals, and polity. Vatican II and its dominant American interpretations were a brief moment in time—much like the Council of Constance. This colonial church is defensive, is united, and is organized. I cannot see significant change in that church for the next thirty years. Let me re-phrase the future question: “Where will The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its members be in thirty years? What you see happening to these wonderful, creative, dedicated, women will happen to the Church in the United States. Their future, as always, is tied up with our future.
7. My experience of the Anglo church in the U.S. and Australia
Catholics do not attend their local parish anymore if they find a better option down the road. What are the two things that feed people and bring them to church (apart from the Eucharist)? It is homilies and music. One has to be a very devoted Catholic to withstand poor homilies, poor music and poor leadership if a better option is available down the road.
The Australian church is also facing a new future of immigrants and change. The church leadership in Australia does not represent its people. How many Vietnamese or Asian priests and bishops does Australia have? How many non-Anglo bishops does Australia (and the US) have?
Our church needs to face the isolation felt by many who cannot participate fully in the Eucharist. Think those divorced and who have remarried without an annulment. How many of them see the church teachings as irrelevant and/or receive communion each week anyway. Teachings on sexuality, divorce, remarriage and contraception need to face honest discussions that are not "father knows best" conversations. It has saddened me to no end to see in Australia front page press of church sex scandals, just like in the US I left behind.
And yes, our church does more good than possibly any other institution on earth. So what does the future hold? At first glance, the future is that of an ageing church that resists change. Our time looks like a second reformation and we are responding to the crisis as we did after Luther left the church.
Let me sum it up by quoting one of my children, "Daddy, why don't people go to church anymore?" How would you answer that?
8. THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCH OF MILWAUKEE BY 2020 OR 2030
1. The completion and implementation of a parish cluster configuration and priest allocation plan – this plan is intended to prepare for a reduction of up to 40% of the current presbyterate by 2020.
2. The formation of evangelization teams and the initiation of specific evangelization activity in every parish/cluster.
3. An Archdiocesan Synod – the Synod will focus on the future direction of the mission and ministry of the Archdiocese and parishes.
4.The financial reorganization of the Archdiocese – the bankruptcy proceedings should be concluded within the next several years at the maximum. It is difficult to plan for the future without knowing what assets the Archdiocese will have and how its revenues will be used.
In my opinion, the Archdiocese will be prepared for a reduction in clergy for the next decade and one-half. There is a general sense among clergy and laity that the plan is workable and will provide a map for the assignment of priests and parish directors (when a priest is not available for assignment).
Pastors and parish directors who are serving larger parish configurations will increasingly require qualified pastoral staffs. A recent survey of parish staff members in the Archdiocese revealed some disturbing trends: the average staff member is in his or her 50’s, the education level of staff is decreasing, and there are few funds for continuing formation.
The clustering of most parishes should result in collaborative structures. The challenge will be how these parishes can generate a sense of personal belonging.
Mass attendance and parish membership have been declining steadily since 2000. Last year, 1,000 fewer people attended Mass than the previous year. There is need for a strong internal and external evangelization effort. For the past two years, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council has been studying parish evangelization efforts. There has been some activity but few identifiable results. While we should greatly increase and improve our evangelization activity, we need to do more to stop or slow the great exodus.
The Synod is going to be critical for the future of the Archdiocese. It is an introspective/evaluative time and also a moment to envision the new and the different. We need to face the realities that we are losing members and not attracting the young. Intention and effort will not be enough.
In summary, the Archdiocese is preparing well for the future. People will not come back to the church that they left unless there is something to come back to – something different. The one initiative the church needs to launch is an emphasis on discipleship spirituality or the holiness of the faithful..
15. A question to Mark
But is the “something different” simply greater attention to people’s spiritual lives, or does it also point back to the church's (read: the hierarchy's) use and abuse of power, its failure to present the people of God as a model for the church, and its unwillingness to recognize questioning as a healthy part of any spiritual journey – the very things which push people away in the first place? Perhaps most pointedly, is there ever any intent of speaking to real people about their real disappointments with their experience of church?
16. What will the Church look like in twenty years?
Priests and bishops, as moral authorities and ritual specialists, will be increasingly ignored by the majority of their "subjects." They will continue to "govern" a Church that, in Western societies (at least) no longer exists. Over the next twenty years I image that this trend will continue.
Catholic schools (see the recent CARDUS study) have shown themselves unable to instill or revitalize faith in the younger Catholics nor do parish CCD programmes reach the majority of Catholic kids or have any greater impact than the Catholic schools.
Much of the future shape of the Church in North America depends on how the clergy interpret this situation and react to it. Many don't see it. They are overworked pastors of large parishes with multiple ministries, too few clergy but many lay volunteers, a healthy giving-program, future construction projects (a new parking lot?), and 600 baptisms every year. Others see it and throw up their arms in despair in the face of the coercive power of what they see as "secular culture."
A danger here is that pastors will not do enough to maintain and renew the spiritual and religious lives of those Catholics who continue to attend Mass, turn to the Church for sacraments, and take part in the communal life of the parish. In my experience, pastors often try to appease these folk, giving them what they (pastors) think they want in terms of devotions and Catholic associations.
I appreciate and value those situations that have been reported of vibrant communities and living faith groups. Although they are anecdotal, they must be integral to a discussion of the Church of the future. The Spirit of God will continue to blow and be a refreshing breath in the lives of many. But the "Church" as that body governed by the Pope, etc. will become more detached from what it considers its members.
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