As a Catholic and a priest I remain quite stunned at the decline in Mass attendance during my lifetime. When I was a little child I remember jam packed Masses, get there early or stand. In those days of the early to mid sixties if you put up four walls Catholics would fill them. There were waiting lists for the parochial School, lots of Religious Sisters, and there was not just an associate pastor or curate, there was a first, second, third and fourth curate. Long lines for confession on Saturdays were common then too.
But this is largely gone. Yes there are still some large parishes in suburban areas but even they used to be a lot bigger. Weekly Mass attendance has gone from 80% to less than 30% Vocations are beginning to rebound but the usual experience is empty convents and largely empty rectories. An Associate Pastor is unknown in many parishes and in some parts of the country even a resident pastor is often missing.
There is no other way to describe this than “stunning.” And I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming in my brain. We abandoned tradition! No! Say others, we are not progressive enough!…..There are too many rules! No, say others our problem is that we abandoned all the rules!….I could go on. Everyone has their human explanations and there are lots of disagreements about them.
But what might God be doing or allowing? Now I know I am on difficult ground in attempting to ponder this question. But please be sure, I am merely pondering it, not proposing a complete answer. But I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church?….What has happened Lord?” I do not claim a bolt from heaven came in answer but just a gradual and increasing awareness that what we are experiencing is not really new. There does seem to be a Biblical precedent that in the past God has frequently seen fit to thin his ranks, to prune and purify his people. In the Old Testament as well as the New there seems to be a kind of remnant theology at work. That is to say, of the many followers of God, many if not most fall away and only a small remnant remain to begin again. Perhaps some examples from Scripture will help:
- There were Twelve Tribes in Israel. But ten of them were lost in the Assyrian Conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. The Prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness but a refusal to repent brought the destruction promised. 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.
- Judah too grew wicked and prophets warned of destruction. The Babylonians destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 BC 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, 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 said to him, “Your Army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home.” So Gideon dismissed any of the soldiers who didn’t think they were up for this battle. 20,000 left. Now with 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 had Gideon observe the men at the stream as they drank water. Some drank leisurely and others lapped up the water like dogs! “That’s your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with three hundred 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 big crowds. Some of his most difficult sayings come when there is a big crowd. In fact, anytime you see a mention of a large crowd in the Gospels, fasten your seat belt because I can guarantee you that a hard saying is coming! Once when there was a large crowd, Jesus taught against divorce (Matt 5 & 19, Mark 10). Another time spoke to crowds and declared that no one could be his disciple unless they renounced their possessions took up a cross and followed (e.g. Luke 14). Yet another time Jesus taught on the Eucharist and many left him and would no longer walk in his company (Jn 6).
These are just a few examples of remnant theology in the Scriptures. There are many more. I would like to quote one last one from Zechariah because it also gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is right. First the quote:
“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)
A stunning passage to be sure. But it also show the purpose of God thinning his ranks. There is something very mysterious as to why God allows many to stray and yet it is true that we are free to stay or go. There seem to be times in the History of the Church and Israel that 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. It is currently pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, eight feet tall have been pruned to one foot off the ground. And I had it done on purpose. But if my roses are to thrive next year and be beautiful, the prunings have to be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know of what I do. It is necessary, though painful. And God too knows of what he does and we cannot fathom it any more than my rosebushes fathom me. But he does it. And the 1/3 who remain in this passage must also be purified, refined as in fire. But when it is done: 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 do in fact have a difficult winter we are enduring. But we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church but I already see signs of a great springtime ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the calibre 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 have 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful new and missionary order. They too love the Lord and his Church and want to spread his gospel everywhere. Though our overall numbers of practicing Catholics are 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 adoration, 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 works and many Catholic Radio Stations have begun.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned and is purifying us as Church. There are already many signs of this great work of God. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full springtime sets in. But God never fails. He is renewing his Church and preparing us for whatever lies ahead. I realize 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 they will never return and be grafted on again. We should continue to Evangelize and seek to grow the Church by Christ’s own mandate. We cannot know when spring will set in fully and so we must step out as if it is already here.
Please remember a blog is about discussion so feel free to comment. I do not propose this as a full answer but as a discussion starter: Add subtract, multiply but DON’T divide! 😉