Recently on the blog we examined a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that reported a decrease in the number of Catholics in America. The good news is that as many as 45% of Americans indicated some affiliation with Catholicism. That does not mean that they are all Catholics. Sometimes it means that they have a Catholic spouse or were once Catholic themselves but have fallen away, etc. What does remain sadly and soberly true is that only 20-25% of Catholics attend Mass weekly (as we are required to do).
Frankly, as a Catholic and a priest, I am stunned at the decline in Mass attendance that has occurred during my lifetime. When I was a young child, I remember jam-packed Masses: if you didn’t get there early you’d have to stand. In those days (the sixties) if you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them. There were waiting lists for the local parochial school. There were lots of religious sisters. There was not just one associate pastor or curate, there were two, or three, or even four.
But those days are largely gone. Yes, there are still some large parishes in suburban areas; some of them are even growing. But during my lifetime, weekly Mass attendance has gone from 70-80% down to 20-25%. And although vocations are beginning to rebound, the usual situation these days is empty convents and largely empty rectories. A parochial vicar is unknown in many parishes. In some parts of the country there isn’t even a resident pastor in each parish.
There is no way to describe this decline other than “stunning.” And I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming around in my brain: We abandoned tradition! No, say others, we’re not progressive enough! There are too many rules! No, say others, our problem is that we abandoned all the rules! I could go on and on. Everyone has an explanation and there are lots of disagreements about them.
But what might God be doing? What might He be allowing? Now I know that I am walking on thin ice in attempting to consider this question, but please be assured that I am merely pondering it, not proposing a complete, definitive answer. I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church? What has happened, Lord?” Now I don’t claim that I received a bolt from Heaven in answer, rather I just came to a gradual and increasing awareness that what we are experiencing is really not new. There does seem to be a biblical precedent that God has frequently seen fit to thin His ranks, to prune and purify His people. Theologians call this “remnant theology,” since a remnant refers to a smaller portion of a much larger thing.
Remnant theology is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. The phrase refers to the fact that, of the many followers of God, many (if not most) fell away at critical periods, such that only a small remnant remained to begin again. Here are some examples from Scripture:
- There were Twelve Tribes in Israel. But ten of them were lost in the Assyrian Conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness, but the refusal to repent brought the foretold destruction. Those who did not die in the war were deported and disappeared by assimilating into the peoples around then. They are known as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Only a remnant, the Tribes of Judah and Levi, survived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
- A remnant of Judah – Judah also grew wicked and prophets warned of its destruction. The Babylonians then destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 B.C. They deported the survivors to Babylon. Eighty years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the Promised Land. But only a remnant went back; most chose to stay in the Diaspora, preferring Babylon to the Land promised by God.
- Gideon had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianites, who had 60,000. But God said to him, “Your army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home.” So Gideon told the soldiers that if they didn’t think they were up for this battle they could leave; 20,000 left. With Gideon’s arm down to only 10,000, God said to Gideon, “Your army is still too large, lest you think you would win this battle on your own.” So God told Gideon to observe the men at the stream as they drank water. Most drank leisurely, but 300 of them lapped up the water like dogs! “That is your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned His ranks and chose only a remnant as His true soldiers (cf Judges 6 & 7).
- Jesus, too, didn’t seem to trust large crowds. Some of His most difficult sayings came when there was a large crowd. In fact, anytime you hear mention of a large crowd in the gospels, fasten your seat belt, because it’s practically guaranteed that a hard saying is coming! Once when there was a large crowd, Jesus taught against divorce (Matt 5 & 19, Mark 10). Another time He spoke to crowds He declared that no one could be His disciple unless he renounced his possessions, took up his cross, and followed Him (e.g., Luke 14). Yet another time, Jesus taught on the Eucharist, causing many to leave Him and no longer walk in His company (Jn 6).
- And surely we cannot forget Jesus’ sad lament that the road to destruction is wide and many are on it, while the road to salvation is narrow and only a few find it (cf Mat 7:13-14). Yes, only a few, a remnant.
These are just a few examples of remnant theology in the Scriptures. There are many more. I would like to quote one last passage from Zechariah because it also gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is correct.
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God’” (Zech 13:6-9).
It is a stunning passage to be sure. But it also shows God’s purpose in thinning His ranks. There is something very mysterious about why God allows so many to stray. And yet it is true that we are always free to stay or go. There seem to be times in the history of the Church and Israel during which God allows many to depart, even “causes” them to depart as this passage describes it. It is a hard mystery to stomach. But I suppose I understand one aspect of it.
An Image of why – In November it is pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, some eight feet tall, will be pruned back to just one foot off the ground. And I do it on purpose! But if my roses are to thrive next year, the pruning has to be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know why I do it. It is necessary, though painful. And God, too, knows what He is doing. And we cannot fathom it any more than my rosebushes can understand why I prune them. But God does it. In the passage above, the one-third who remain must also be purified, refined as in fire. But when it is done, they will be pure gold. Those who remain and accept purification will call on God’s name. They will be a people, a Church, after His own heart.
To me it has become clear that the Lord is pruning His Church. He is preparing us for spring. And we are in fact enduring a difficult winter. But we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church, but I can already see signs of a great spring ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the caliber of men entering the priesthood. These are men who love the Lord and His Church and who deeply desire to speak the truth in love. In my own convent, we had 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful new and missionary order. They had to leave to find a larger convent because they were growing so much. They, too, love the Lord and His Church and want to spread His Gospel everywhere.
Though the number of practicing Catholics has diminished, I see greater fervency in those who remain. In my own parish there are many who are devoted to prayer, bible study, and praise of God. Eucharistic piety is stronger in the Church today through Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass. On the Internet there are many signs of excitement and zeal for the faith. Many wonderful blogs and websites are emerging to strengthen Catholics. EWTN is doing wonderful work and many Catholic radio stations have also begun.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned and is purifying us. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full spring sets in. But God never fails. He is renewing His Church and preparing us for whatever lies ahead.
Frankly, it is going to take a stronger and purer Church to endure the cultural tsunami that has been rolling in. The first waves hit in the late 1960s and successive waves look to be even more destructive, as Western culture is gradually being swept away. The Church will have to be strong and pure in order to endure the days ahead, to rescue those we can, and to help rebuild when the terrible waves have worked their last destruction.
I realize that this post will not be without controversy. I do not propose it as the only answer to the times. Neither do I claim that fallen-away Catholics have simply been pruned, as though we could know for certain that they will never return and be grafted on again. We should continue to evangelize and to seek to grow the Church by Christ’s own mandate. We cannot know the size that the Lord wants us to be, nor should we ever stifle the Spirit of Christ’s mandate: Go and make disciples of all the nations.