Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Seven Key Trends in the Church Today
This year (1998) Catholic Update is celebrating
its 25th anniversary. It started in March 1973 as a small publication
mailed to a few thousand readers. It now reaches well over a half
million readers each month.
This anniversary issue answers the question: Where
are we as a Church at this point in history? What are the major
trends in Catholic thinking and practice today? I lay no claim
to being a learned theologian. Yet, my 25 years as the editor
of this widely circulated monthly have given me a unique vantage
For the past two-and-a-half decades, my co-workers
and I have kept a close eye on which Catholic Update topics
have been in greatest demand in Catholic parishes and schools
around the country. Studying our monthly distribution and listening
to feedback from readers and religious educators has been like
holding a finger on the Church's pulse.
The seven trends briefly explored here all flow from
the Second Vatican Council. From the outset, the aim of Catholic
Update has been to explain faithfully the teachings of Vatican
II (1963-1965) and of the post-Vatican II Church. We pledge to
continue this mission into the third millennium.
Pope John Paul II seems to approve: "The best preparation
for the new millennium," he writes in The Coming Third Millennium,
#20, "can only be expressed by a renewed commitment to apply,
as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the
life of every individual and of the whole Church." Taking a cue
from the Holy Father, we conclude each trend with an "application
for the new millennium."
1. Lay ministry explosion
A familiar scene today in Catholic parishes
is that of lay women and men gathered around the altar at Communion
time as eucharistic ministers. Also observable at Mass are other
lay ministersservers, lectors and music ministers.
These very visible liturgical ministers
are but a reminder of the even wider variety of lay men and women
who minister and serve the Church as catechists, youth ministers,
hospital chaplains, members of bereavement committees, lay administrators
of priestless parishes, outreach workers distributing food to the
Behind this multiplication of lay ministries
within the Church is the growing awareness that all Catholics are
called by their Baptism to engage in ministry or service to the
Catholic community and, indeed, to the world at large.
Though the distinct role of the ordained
minister is not diminished by the expansion of lay ministries, the
Holy Spirit is clearly leading us to a "more inclusive" model of
Church. Women are certainly among those becoming more and more engaged
in Church ministry today. Most women believe that their potential
has not yet been fully tapped. What full ministry for women should
mean in the future is a sensitive question seeking further discernment
under the light of the Spirit.
Other groups awaiting fuller participation
in the Church are ethnic minorities, Catholics with disabilities
and many other groups whose gifts have not been fully respected
2. Enriched liturgies
The liturgical renewal that swept across most parts
of the Catholic world after Vatican II has brought new life and
vigor to the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments
in the majority of our parishes. With the new sacramental rites
initiated by Vatican II and the replacement of Latin with the
local languages, Catholics are generally participating more fully,
actively and joyfully in these rituals.
In the era before Vatican II, the priest celebrated
the Mass in Latin. For the most part, his back was to the people
and the altar seemed far away. Although the style of liturgy conveyed
a rich sense of awe then, it was easier for the faithful to fall
into the role of silent spectators.
Now it is much easier for the assembly to be more
actively engaged and to see that "all of us" are truly celebrating
the Eucharist along with the priest.
Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
supported this development, urging "that all the faithful be led
to...full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations"
Following the lead of Vatican II, the Church has also
been stressing the communal dimension of the sacraments, seeing
them not as private rituals but as "community events."
The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults)
is one of the most dramatic signs of this new approach to the
sacraments and to liturgical renewal in the contemporary Church.
Before the RCIA was reestablished in the Church in 1972 (appearing
in English in 1974), the typical approach to adult Baptism in
the Catholic Church left the candidates quite isolated from the
Preparation often consisted of six or so weeks of
priestly instructions followed by a more or less private Baptism
on a Sunday afternoon in a dim corner of the church, attended
only by a tiny cluster of relatives or friends.
Today, candidates for the RCIA become part of a step-by-step
process that often extends beyond a year and involves sponsors,
catechists and, indeed, the whole parish. It culminates in a public
initiation ceremony at the Easter Vigil. This spirit of communal
involvement is reflected in the other sacraments as well.
3. Deeper love of Scripture
In recent decades, the Church has encouraged its members
to cherish the Scriptures and to make use of new methods of Scripture
study. These attitudes were reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council
and subsequent Church documents.
More and more Catholics are learning to improve their
understanding of the Bible through the benefits of historical
research, literary analysis and the findings of archaeology. Church
documents have wisely steered Catholics away from literal-minded
approaches and from reading the Bible as if it were a scientific
textbook on the origins of the universe.
In short, more Catholics are reading the Bible todayand
with a more solid understandingthan at any other time in
its 2000-year history. More educated in general, the laity are
getting a deeper grounding in Scripture. Lay women and men in
growing numbers are attending theology schools, joining Scripture
study groups or reading an ever-expanding array of good articles
or books on the subject. No longer are priests and religious the
only scriptural experts.
It should also be noted that since Vatican II, Catholics
have been exposed to a much wider variety of Scripture readings
at Sunday Mass through the introduction of a three-year cycle
of readings. In other sacramental rites as well, the use of scriptural
readings has been enhanced.
As more and more Catholics are richly nourished by
the life-giving word of God, they become better instruments of
evangelization and of the world's transformation.
4. Growing hunger for God
Despite the pervasive secularism and materialism of
our timesand maybe because of themmany people today
are hungering and searching for something more profound, for something
spiritual or transcendent. There is a movement toward prayer and
At Catholic Update we have seen that during
the seasons of Lent and Advent there is an unmistakable appetite
for aids to daily prayer, for Updates that nurture spiritual
growth. There is a need to get away from the rat race and the
media bombardment and to withdraw to the quiet places of the heart
where contemplation is possible.
Many people today from all walks of life are seeking
a closer union with God, perhaps by learning the art of centering
prayer or other meditation skills. I know from experience that
there is a long waiting list for people who want to make a retreat
at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Students at St. Bonaventure University
in southwestern New York go regularly for contemplative weekends
to Mt. Irenaeus, a Franciscan mountaintop retreat run by the friars
of the university.
Many Catholics say they have as much a need to deepen
their relationship with God as to learn about a Church doctrine
or point of morality or liturgical innovation. More than information
about God, these Christians want an experience of God through
5. Broader view of salvation
One of the most warmly received notions coming out
of Vatican II is that salvation is not solely concerned with the
saving of souls but with the saving of the whole human person,
body and soul, and all of creation as well.
Many find this holistic view of salvation appealing
because we naturally do not want any genuine part of our human
experience to be lost. The famous formula of St. Irenaeus, often
quoted at the time of the Second Vatican Council, captures this
notion well: "The glory of God is the human person fully alive!"
We began seeing more clearly in the Gospels that Jesus'
mission on this earth was not only to set the human heart free
from sin, as central as that might be, but also to set men and
women free from disease and oppression and everything that hinders
their development as human beings created by God and destined
for eternal life. When we profess our belief in the resurrection
of the body, this kind of integral salvation is implied.
The bishops of Vatican II, in The Church in the
Modern World, tried to foster an intimate bond between the
yearnings of the Church and those of all humanity. This great
document begins with the words: "The joys and hopes, the grief
and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are
poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish
of the followers of Christ. Nothing that is genuinely human fails
to find an echo in their hearts."
Pope John Paul II expressed this attitude very powerfully
during his first visit as pope to the United States in October
of 1979. His very first words in Boston, his first stop, were:
"I want to greet all Americans without distinction. I want to
tell everyone that the pope is your friend and a servant of your
Every authentic dimension of human existence is meant
to be saved and brought to wholeness. As the pope's words suggest,
we are to help all brothers and sisters come to their full humanity
as men and women created in the image and likeness of God and
redeemed by Christ.
6. Rise of the social gospel
In 1983 the bishops of the United States
issued a pastoral letter on war and peace entitled The Challenge
of Peace. In it they discussed the morality of war and of nuclear
weapons. In 1986 they issued another major pastoral letter on the
U.S. economy to help Catholics form their conscience on economic
The bishops have published many other
statements touching on political and social issues. Increasingly,
these statements are being read by conscientious Catholics. When
Catholic Update published condensed versions of the peace
pastoral and the economic pastoral, requests poured in for more
than a million extra copies in each instance. This is a clear sign
that Catholics today are attuned to Catholic social teaching and
to what is called the "social gospel."
Some sectors of the Christian community,
however, are not always comfortable with the Church's involvement
in public issues of this kind. They sometimes criticize the Church
for "meddling in politics." Perhaps, as Catholics, we need a better
understanding of the true nature of Jesus' saving mission (as conveyed
in trend five above). On the whole, however, today's Catholics are
coming to see that the mission of the Church is to heal unjust political
structures and laws as well as unjust hearts.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once shed light
on this point during a civil-rights speech in 1964. He said: "The
law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching
me!" King helped his generation to see that Christian evangelization
seeks to transform not only sinful hearts but also the sinful laws
and customs of society that oppress and dehumanize our sisters and
This way of thinking was officially adopted
by the World Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in 1971 . In their
statement Justice in the World, the bishops declared: "Action
on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of
the world fully appear to us as an essential dimension of preaching
Catholic social teaching reminds us that
it is not sufficient to passively await the arrival of God's final
Kingdom in the next life where all tears and oppression will be
wiped away. Awaiting the final Kingdom is very important, but we
are also called to help make that Kingdom present now, by
working as God's instruments to remove injustice, discrimination,
poverty, disease from our midst.
7. Integration and new growth
What is happening today in our Church
as we start entering a new millennium? We seem like passengers in
an airplane circling the airport in a holding pattern waiting for
the weather to clear so we can see where we will ultimately land.
What happened to the fast rate of change we experienced in those
first years after the Council?
The pace has certainly slowed down a
bit. The Vatican and the world's bishops seem to have decided that
the Church needs to take a break after so much turbulence and change.
However one explains it, we seem to find ourselves in a process
of consolidation and integration, as if taking stock of where we
Perhaps the Church can be compared to
an individual going through an identity crisis or a time of confusing
personal change. Such individuals need time to reflect and get their
act together before moving on. Maybe the Church leaders sensed that
it was time for the whole Church to catch up with itselfto
step back a bit and to put all the pieces of our fragmented vision
into a new whole. To some degree, this need was satisfied when the
bishops put together the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
published in 1992 (appearing in English in 1994).
For many Catholics around the world who
were asking "What is happening to us and to our identity?" the publication
of the new catechism was like holding up a mirror for us and showing
us a safe, orderly reflection of who we are. It helped us as a Church
to understand where we were at this point in our journey, shoring
up our sense of self and giving us strength for our next stage of
growth and a new flowering of the gospel. At the same time, a number
of Catholics, including theologians, are not convinced that the
full brunt and scope of Vatican II teachings have been adequately
reflected in the catechism.
According to Pope John Paul II, the new
catechism has given us a "new synthesis" of the "richness of the
teaching of the Church following the Second Vatican Council" (Crossing
the Threshold of Hope, p. 164). Catholics agree by and large
that the catechism is a valuable resource for the Church and for
religious educators today. Surely, it has helped the Church integrate
insights from Vatican II with traditional Catholic teaching.
Other theologians and religious educators
are also helping the Church put the teachings of Catholicism (those
before, during and after the Council) into a comprehensive system.
In its own way, I believe, the Catholic Update series has
been helping Catholics understand how the teachings of the Church
have been enriched by insights of Vatican II.
But no matter how carefully we try to
put all the truths of the Church into an orderly arrangement, we
know that we must remain open to new questions needing new answers
and to new challenges of growth from the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, we have been taught,
is like the wind. It cannot be boxed in or held in place. We have
no idea when the Holy Spirit might tap some new follower of Christ
on the shoulder, as happened to Pope John XXIII, and say, "Brother
John or Sister Joan, it's time to open more windows; get ready for