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Seven Key Trends in the Church Today

by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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 point.

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 ministers—servers, 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 poor.

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 or utilized.

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" (#14).

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 parish community.

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 today—and with a more solid understanding—than 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 times—and maybe because of them—many people today are hungering and searching for something more profound, for something spiritual or transcendent. There is a movement toward prayer and contemplation.

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 prayer.

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 humanity."

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 matters.

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 brothers.

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 the gospel."

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 are.

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 itself—to 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 another Pentecost!"

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is editor of Catholic Update and editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. He is also the author of the inspirational book Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press).


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