When I began my blog now many years ago, I was inspired by lines from T.S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding” – For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.
I was convinced we needed to change how we observe and speak about our cultural and church experiences. That need is just as true today as it was back then. I am not so certain I have always done a good job moving ahead with another voice but I continue my reflection and efforts.
A few days ago, in fact, in a discussion with friends about contemporary church issues, it stuck me how easily we can slip into simply repeating the same old stuff we have been saying again and again. That is just reiterating “last year’s words.” Older people do that. But younger people as well. We all need to change the conversation. Changing the conversation requires a new focus – a changed perspective – about what is really important.
Since the 1990s, large numbers of U.S. Americans have left Christianity to join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” The Catholic Church has lost the most members in the unchurching process. According to Gallup the percentage of Catholics who say they are a “member” of a church has dropped by nearly 20 points since the year 2000.
The conversation? The perspective? In November 2021 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a three year Eucharistic revival initiative, which will culminate with a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in 2024. The goal is to have 80,000 people or more at the national congress. The revival includes the development of new teaching materials, the training of diocesan and parish leaders, the launch of a revival website, and the deployment of a special team of 50 priests who will travel the country to preach about the Eucharist. So far the price tag is $28,000,000.
The U.S. bishops were shaken by the revelation that only about 30% of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence. One of the patron saints for their Eucharistic revival is the Spanish bishop, Manuel González García (1877 – 1940), who was known as the “Bishop of the Tabernacle.” He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. Garcia described Jesus calling to Catholics from the tabernacle: “Are you going to come for a visit? Will you look at me? Will you spend time with me?”
Is the Catholic Eucharistic revival a good contemporary focus? The bishops believe that, by emphasizing the Real Presence in the consecrated bread, fallen-away Catholics will be brought back to church. I would rather see our bishops emphasizing the Eucharistic community, gathered around the Table of the Lord as a compassionate and supportive group of caring friends. In Eucharistic celebrations, they – we – are encouraged and sustained by the presence of the Lord as Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.”
Changing the conversation, I suggest, means looking at and questioning past and present in new ways and developing new strategies and new patterns for church life. For today and for tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking deeper questions. It means last year’s words don’t necessarily work today, when they are locked in last year’s mentality and language.
Some proposals for contemporary refection and action:
(1) Look less at the church as an institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? What does it mean for you to experience God today? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the women and men in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? My wife and I once belonged to a parish like that. We met in small groups in our homes for prayer meetings, Bible study, and discussion groups. Our son, like all the children in our parish, made his first communion in our home with the local neighborhood parish group. Later all first communicants gathered in church with the entire parish community for their solemn first communion celebration. We all recalled the early Christian household communities in which the heads of the households – women and men — presided over informal Eucharistic liturgies. We can make it happen again.
(2) Look deeper than the shortage of priests and the questions about women deacons and priests. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have qualified graduate students, with short-term ordained ministry, helping out in university parishes? Why not ordain women and men for small or large group parish ministry? Perhaps a parish could have many part-time ordained ministers who also have “regular” jobs? In the past fifteen years, many “progressive” seminaries have been closed by conservative retro-minded bishops. Are today’s seminaries in touch with contemporary life? Perhaps such old-style seminaries are not the best structures for the formation and education of contemporary ministers?
(3) And why not elect diocesan leaders for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms for bishops, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? In fact, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical leadership responsibilities to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (woman or man) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared ministry and decision-making is great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.
(4) Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of knowledge and belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. More likely dark brown. What about all of those very white, blue-eyed, and rather androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was Jesus God? Early Hebrew Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. They understood Jesus as the revelation of God’s graciousness and love. The revelation of God’s intimate link with humankind. Didn’t Jesus reveal as well authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our religious language tries to point to his uniqueness. The most important thing we do know about Jesus is that his ministry and his message was about love and compassion and not at all about power over people.
(5) Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t, for example, ordained ministry “valid” in all Christian traditions? What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? The goal of ecumenical collaboration today must be forgetting the old denigrating stereotypes of “other churches” and growing in our respect and appreciation for “the other” and learning from all traditions.
(6) Seven sacraments. Today we know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the Christian community not the historical Jesus. I have just written a little book about this. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers really “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official witness. OK, so what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? In earlier days non-ordained people did most of the anointing of the sick for centuries. Maybe today’s lay ministers should just start doing it?
(7) Moving beyond the old worn-out on-and-on discussion. It is time to act. Changing the conversation can also mean moving from conversation to change. And we must realize today that change rarely comes from the top. In the RCC tradition, for example, change starts at the grassroots level. People see the need and make the change. Women’s ordination is a good example. The change begins. Institutional leaders at the top complain and condemn. Nevertheless, the old pattern is proven historically: change is made; change is condemned by leadership; change endures; leadership allows the change as a limited “experiment;” change becomes more widespread; and finally leadership allows it as “part of our tradition.”
These are just a few thought-starters… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life, because it brings a new focus, new conversation, and a new change.