There is much anxiety about the state of the Catholic Church in the U.S. as it continues an often-unsuccessful struggle to keep parishes and schools open while attempting to slow the startling exodus of young people from the flock.
Meanwhile, numbers of priests continue to steadily drop, as do the ranks of religious brothers and sisters and sacramental marriages. And the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic has also begun to slip.
There are several possible reasons for what we see. The clergy sex abuse crisis shocked the conscience of nearly every Catholic and turned many away from the church, some never to return.
Others find church teachings on homosexuality, marriage and contraception outdated and even offensive to the ways of thinking that are increasingly promoted by our public schools, universities, business corporations and mass entertainment.
These are some plausible reasons for the decline of the church but something else is going on.
People are less likely to drift away from a church when they know — and personally experience — the difference that being a part of that church makes in their spiritual life.
If a young Catholic reaches adulthood with a poor understanding and personal appreciation of how the sacraments infuse her life with the grace of God, then she will feel little reason to go to regular confession, attend weekly Mass, marry in the church, baptize her children and bury her loved ones with the aid and guidance of the church. The question for many is, “What difference does it make.”
We live in a culture that champions individuality, finding your own path — whatever works for you — and the shunning of all formalities and traditions. Given this challenge, it’s not enough to say (or explain) why the church is important. We must show — experientially — the difference.
This begins with how each sacrament is presented and celebrated. For better or worse, people are less inclined than prior generations to participate in the sacraments unless they see and feel the difference. If it’s merely ritual with no life, don’t expect long confessional lines or full pews on Sunday morning.
In-and-out confessions with little personal touch or individual spiritual guidance probably won’t make much of an impact on many people. It comes across as wrote formality.
On the other hand, young Catholics are drawn to the sacred traditions and sacramental beauty of the church, especially when they are celebrated with great reverence and care. It is a mistake to think that casual informality and light chitchat is what draws people into the life of the church.
It’s interesting that several of the youth surveyed at the recent Alaska Catholic Youth Conference said the thing they most appreciated about the four-day gathering was going to confession and sitting in silence and prayer before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
To humble oneself before God, to ask for and receive his forgiveness, and then bend one’s knees in genuine thanksgiving and adoration — these connect Catholics to their faith and to God.
The church is full of beautiful sacramental treasures. We don’t need to rework or modify these riches, we just need to show how they restore our spirits, feed our souls, and express our deepest longings and highest aspirations. It’s not easy to walk away from a church when you’ve felt these things in your bones.