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The Changing Face of the Church
By: Edmund Gordon
My parish is in the city. Seventy-five years ago, the working-class neighborhood was teeming with Catholic families. In the 1950s, Christ Our King provided more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than any other parish in the diocese.
In the 1960s, migration to the suburbs began. Today, our parish school is closed, and our large church is almost empty. There are fewer than 200 households, mostly seniors, keeping the Catholic Church present in this part of the city. Things change.
Recently, my wife and I drove south to visit our daughter, her husband and our two grandchildren. Their parish has a new church, a growing school and many young families. The Catholic Church in the South has seen great growth, spurred by migration from the North and immigration from countries to the South. Things change.
One’s understanding of change is a matter of perspective. If I never leave my city parish, I might think the Church is dying. Likewise, if my daughter never strays from her southern parish, she won’t understand the pain of those who don’t see as bright a future.
Our world has changed in many ways, and so have we. Why should we be surprised that the Church has changed? St. John Newman said, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to change often.” Change doesn’t come without pain, and the Church’s face bears signs of suffering and loss.
It also shows signs of renewed vitality.
Let’s look at some trends and their implications for the U.S. Church:
• The generational thing For more than 20 years, researchers have been studying changes in the practices, beliefs and attitudes of American Catholic adults. They describe four distinct “generations.” Each group has shared particular experiences, giving it a unique way of seeing and interpreting the world. Researchers have identified some trends among the War Generation (born before 1946); Baby Boomers (1946-1964); Generation X (1964-1984) and Millennials (1984-2001).
For example, compared to the generations that follow, the oldest generation attends Mass more frequently and contributes more financially. Members say they’d never think about leaving the Church and that the Church is very important in their lives.
While almost 70% of those over 65 attend Mass regularly, only 24% of young adults attend Mass weekly. Although the trends indicate movement away from attachment to the institutional Church, frequent participation in Sunday liturgy and adherence to some Church teachings, the majority of baptized Catholics still consider themselves Catholic. While this may be seen as a negative, it’s also a positive: They’re still open to the voice of the Church, and we have an opportunity to invite them to more intense practice of the faith and closer adherence to Church teachings. However, most aren’t going to come looking for us. We, like the Good Shepherd, must go looking for them.
• A thinning identity Some researchers say that many changes came about when Catholics moved from their ethnic roots with their Catholic subcultures into the suburbs and the larger American culture.
They began to marry persons of other faith traditions (more than 40% of younger Catholics do so) and adopt the values and attitudes of the broader culture. Their Catholic identity has become thin and must compete with other communities for allegiance. The challenge is to find ways to strengthen their bonds of relationship with the Catholic community.
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• An immigrant Church The U.S. Catholic community has grown through immigration. Immigrants are often poor and not well educated. The U.S. Church offers a system of parishes, schools, universities, clubs and societies that helps move Catholics from the edges to corporate boardrooms, university podiums, Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court.
A new wave of Catholic immigrants, mainly from Latin America and some from Africa and Asia, are coming to the eucharistic table. About 40% of all Catholics in the U.S. and more than 50% of U.S. Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic. The U.S. Church is already looking and sounding very different.
Many of these new immigrants bring deep faith which may help the in-place Church remember its roots and recover some of the spirituality lost in the move to the suburbs. They remind us of the universality of the Church, the needs of the poor and the gospel imperative that we care for the least. Integrating new immigrants into the Church will present great challenges and bring great vitality to the U.S. Church.
• A more humble Church Recent abuse scandals have humbled the Catholic Church. We are humiliated that too many of our clergy abused children and that some bishops covered it up, appearing to care more about protecting the institution than the children. We’re reminded that we’re a Church of sinners.
No one knows what the long-term ramifications of this fall from grace will be. We’re still too close to it, but we should never forget it. The bishops have said that they want the Church to be more transparent and collaborative. One sees glimpses of these changes. The psalmist says that “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). So, the Church in its humility must draw closer to the Lord.
• Broader understanding of ministry Today, when there are fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the U.S. than in recent decades, there are more than 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers and about 16,000 deacons in the U.S. Many other Catholics are active in their parishes in liturgical, catechetical and social-concern ministries.
Some Catholics read the lack of religious and priestly vocations as a sign of selfishness in our culture. Others see it as a work of the Holy Spirit, calling us to a new way of being Church—one that’s more collaborative, more willing to engage the gifts of all its members for the building up of the community and the spread of the gospel.
History shows that the Church has been changing since its beginning. We are living in a period of rapid change which can be frightening. Pope John Paul II often quoted Jesus’ command to the apostles, “Do not be afraid.” If we believe that the Holy Spirit guides and constantly renews the Church, then we have nothing to fear from change. Change, life and growth are signs of the Spirit.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “The Changing Face of the Church,” by Edmund Gordon, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 8-10-2009.
By: Frank Frost
Whale Rider earned a host of international awards when it was released, including the prestigious 2003 Humanitas Award. Set in New Zealand, it’s the story of a Maori seaside community that is experiencing cultural change and the impact this has—especially on a Maori chief and his granddaughter.
■ What changes in the Church are you currently experiencing?
■ How open have you been to these changes? Have you been more critical or accepting of them? Why?
■ How will you work to become more open to changes in the Church and help others who struggle to embrace change?
Paikea (Academy Award-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a 12-year-old girl whose mother and male twin died in childbirth. Her twin had been destined to succeed their grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) as chief, since their father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), refuses to accept this responsibility.
Porourangi leaves Paikea in the care of her grandparents in order to pursue a career as an artist in Europe. His brother, once a champion warrior, has become dissolute and unfit to be chief. None of the young men in the village demonstrates the potential for leadership. Paikea, beloved by her grandfather, exhibits a deep love and respect for the ancient traditions but is excluded from leadership consideration because of her gender. The culture and tradition of the village are in crisis.
Whale Rider is a reverent and visually beautiful movie; its haunting soundtrack helps to inspire a sense of spirituality and appreciation for an unfamiliar culture. Although Koro is rigid in his traditional beliefs, there are no villains in the story. As Paikea says in a key scene in a school presentation, no one is to blame, but things went wrong. Through Paikea’s heroic effort to be accepted by her grandfather and honor her ancestors, the whole village comes together to save a herd of beached whales and celebrate their ancient heritage. A lesson we are meant to draw is that, while change is difficult, it need not be divisive.
Next time you watch Whale Rider, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
“Cultural differences aren’t problems to be dealt with; they’re gifts to be celebrated. Music can be a bridge between cultures,” says Brother Rufino Zaragoza of training ministers to work with the different cultures that make up their communities.
■ What indicators early in the film show that the traditional heritage of the Maori village is in crisis? What are the corresponding signs in the final sequence that show positive change in the principal characters?
■ To what degree does acceptance of change in the story require rejection of traditional beliefs?
Franciscan Brother Rufino, a third-generation Mexican American, was raised in Los Angeles, California, an area of great cultural diversity. Rufino holds degrees in theology, liturgy, liturgical music and multicultural ministry, yet claims his most important education is “meeting face-to-face with people of other cultures.”
Rufino, a musician and composer, had a “transforming experience” when asked to coordinate music for an ordination. He tells Every Day Catholic, “I was to work with a Vietnamese choir—something I had no experience with. I met with Vietnamese choir directors who had translated English songs into Vietnamese and I discovered a gold mine of repertoire, chant traditions and devotions. The choir members were the most lovely, wonderful people. I loved their music and chant.”
Feeling inspired, Rufino says, “I went to Vietnam and fell in love with the people and the music. I approached Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) with a proposal for creating resources offering Vietnamese songs in English and English songs in Vietnamese. OCP is a leader in the U.S. for providing churches and music directors with resources for multicultural worship.” This led to development of Thánh Ca Dân Chúa (Hymnal of God’s People), Cho.n Ngài (Contemporary Songs of Faith) and other resources. Rufino now works part-time for OCP in Saigon as project coordinator for bilingual (Vietnamese/English) resources. He also offers presentations and training workshops to help U.S. parish ministers grow in competency for cross-cultural ministry, offering them “awareness, skills and resources.”
“Liturgical ministers can be border-crossers if they move out of their comfort zones, move across and come back to be bridge-builders between groups. Crossing a border means that they learn about the history and hopes of another people and try to understand their faith expressions,” says Rufino.
He goes on to say, “One difficulty about multicultural liturgy is that no formula works for all. It requires conversion of the heart of the minister. It starts with relationship, by being touched by something in the culture. At no point can we stop and say we’ve done it. It’s continual communication and growth. It’s dynamic. It’s awareness, transformation and growth—in an ongoing spiral.”
What do parishioners gain from a multicultural experience of Church? Rufino says, “They grow in understanding that there’s more to Church than my parish, that we’re part of an international, diverse community. It helps them to embrace the catholicity of our Church and practice Christian hospitality. The richness of music from other cultures enriches our liturgy.”
Why must we open ourselves to the diverse cultures in the Church? “We’re called to be one as God is one. We’re called to be in relationship and community just as God in the Trinity is in relationship and community,” says Rufino. As for himself, he says, “I hunger for the face of God and embrace the multicultural face of God.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Dolores was raised at St. Bruno’s. The tabernacle, windows—everything—seem like her own. It’s the most sacred place on earth to her. In her eighties, she likes to sit in God’s presence after daily Mass. Now, tears run down her wrinkled cheeks as she learns that her beloved St. Bruno’s will close because it cannot sustain itself financially or with membership. What do they mean by membership? she wonders. Where will I go to meet God? She always thought she would be buried from this holy house of God. Now what?
Many dioceses are closing parishes which cannot sustain membership or be financially viable. As these parishes merge with others, many faithful souls lose their bearings.
The building, fixtures and worn wooden pews are sacred and silently tell a story of faith. Change is difficult, and the loss of a spiritual home is something to grieve.
As parishioners in closing or merging parishes, we should offer our positive support and ideas to the pastoral staff. A sudden declaration may cause us to feel abandoned and lost, so we need to share those feelings with others in the parish. Perhaps we can attend the closing ceremonies as a group, share our memories and mourn together.
As in all things we do as Church, it’s our rituals that speak to the movement of God. In that painful time we cannot just turn the key and walk away. We must invite God to lead us out the door for the last time. If your parish is merging with another parish, plan to join with friends and attend the same Sunday liturgy together. If you need to find a parish on your own, spend some time visiting other area parishes and prayerfully choose the one that feels most like a spiritual home.
Dolores and her friends have been crying all month over St. Bruno’s. Millie, Betty and Henrietta asked Dolores to join them in a good old-fashioned wake. They told their stories with much laughter and tears. They went to the St. Bruno’s “funeral,” as they called it, and marched their beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother to its new home, St. Bernadette’s. That next Sunday at Mass, the ladies of St. Bruno’s received Eucharist for the first time at St. Bernadette’s. Dolores whispered in Millie’s ear, “It’s the same Jesus...just a different dining room.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: On a prayer table, place an open Bible, a lighted candle, a parish history, pictures from parish events, a small crucifix and a card on which is clearly written: “Be Christ to others as they have been Christ to you.”
Heavenly Father, your people of ______________ Parish are ending a chapter and beginning a new one. What lies before us is unknown. Yet we place our trust in you. You lead us into places unknown, so take our hands and help us press on, confident in your care. Amen.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (or other song)
Isaiah 41:10, 13
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand….For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’”
(Play some quiet music.)
God’s hands are all around us. It is in taking God’s hand that we come to know his loving care and assistance. God sends support, reassurance and love through the hands of others.
I invite you to be the hands of Christ for each other as we face this change.
I will offer the crucifix to one of you saying, “Be Christ to others as they have been Christ to you.” Then I ask you to offer the crucifix to the next person, repeating the prayer. Let us receive and offer this pledge with hope. (The crucifix is passed.)
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand. Amen.