As we work our way through Lent 2009, we need to rejoice in the turning tide. Though there has been much negative news about the Catholic Church this past decade, much of the negative news had its roots in actions taken during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the seeds of the good news planted during the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI is just now seeing its shoots and blossoms become visible to the naked eye.
What are the shoots and blossoms? They can be seen in increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the strong orthodox nature of these new, young priests. A new crop of Catholic bishops is also boldly showing their orthodoxy, which often befuddles and mystifies the mainstream media and the secular culture in which we live. In addition to this, many in the laity have for years now been writing and blogging about the desperate need for Catholic orthodoxy in a world full of hurt and self absorption. Many ask how can the Church possibly grow when the Church’s active laity, especially the young along with those who serve her in ordained and professed ministries, are so different from the culture in which they live? It is that culture in which they live that causes them to see the wisdom in Christ’s words and the Church He started through the first pope, the Apostle Saint Peter.
There were fewer shoots and blossoms in the 1970s when the seriousness of the Catholicism was questioned after the Church seemed to be trying to be relative, whether it was related or not, thousands of priests and nuns left their vocations. However, starting in 1978 with the election of Pope John Paul II, the tide began to turn. All of the Polish pontiff’s hard work began to be seen in the shoots and blossoms of events like World Youth Day 1993, which was held in Denver. Later in his pontificate thanks to events like World Youth Day, vocations to the priesthood and religious life began to increase.
Since perhaps the first pope (Saint Peter,) no other pontiff had traveled so extensively and taken so many risks as did Pope John Paul II. With those risks came dividends, specifically with clergy and laity seeing the tireless efforts of this Polish successor to Saint Peter. Back home in Vatican City, Pope John Paul II also took risks and with the help of his future successor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Polish Pontiff began to clear the air and sweep away the Smoke of Satan that Pope Paul VI (who famously made this remark in 1972) said had entered the Vatican.
The fruits of Pope John Paul II’s leadership were clearly evident in 2005 during his momentous funeral. Perhaps no funeral in human history saw the display of momentous outpouring as was witnessed in St Peter’s Square. It was estimated that upwards of seven million came to Rome in April of 2005, who knows how many more never made it to the city as their plane, train or automobile could get no closer than tens or hundreds of miles from the city’s edge, due to the huge crowds that had engulfed the eternal city.
Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church He established and though there have been many ups and downs in the course of the Church’s 2,000 years, many wondered if it were possible that the next pontiff following Pope John Paul II could possibly continue his momentum.
When the Conclave gathered to elect the next pontiff, Cardinal Ratzinger gave a stirring homily in which he spoke of the need to avoid the “Dictatorship of Relativism.” The mainstream media scoffed and CBS News special analyst Father Richard McBrien mused that there was no way the German cardinal would be elected pontiff, for many Catholics would surely “head to the margins of the Church” if this occurred. Well Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pontiff, taking the name of Pope Benedict XVI, and far from heading to the margins of the Church, Catholics embraced his orthodoxy. Despite a souring worldwide economy, the Vatican audiences of Pope Benedict XVI were larger than that gathered for Pope John Paul II.
Large crowds have also gathered for the German pontiff’s foreign travels, much to the bewilderment of the likes of CBS News anchor Katie Couric, ABC Weekend Anchor Dan Harris, and other mainstream media glitterati. Many Church dissidents howled when Pope Benedict XVI loosened the constraints of the Latin Mass. Yet, as more and more orthodox minded bishops came to their Episcopal Sees and embraced the Holy Father’s call for recognizing the Church’s traditions, more and more young people were exploring vocational calls. Not only was this seen in diocesan seminaries, but especially in more conservative oriented orders. Many young men were embracing the Latin Mass while many young women were once again donning the habit.
This could be unequivocally seen in the breakdown of numbers. Though the liberal onslaught has caused much anguish, the future of the Catholic Church can be seen in her youth, those 30 and younger who attend Mass regularly are not only the most pro life of any age group but also the most supportive of the Church’s teachings, more so than even their grandparents.
As I noted before, all of this seems to culminate in ordination numbers. 64 to 6 and 14 to 4 stand out. What does this mean? In 2006 when writing my book, The Tide is Turning Toward Catholicism, I noted that even though the Diocese of Rochester had more Catholics than the dioceses of Lincoln and Omaha combined, Rochester had 6 men studying for the priesthood while Lincoln and Omaha had 64. That same year of 2006 Denver had 14 young men ordained to the priesthood (eleven in May and three earlier in the academic year) while Los Angeles had four; a staggering statistic when one considers that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has 4,300,000 Catholic residents compared to 385,000 Catholics for the Archdiocese of Denver. Los Angeles and Rochester are led by two of the most liberal prelates in the Church, while Omaha, Lincoln and Denver are led by three of the more conservative bishops in the US, a revelatory statistic to say the least.
While liberal convents are strapped for cash because they haven’t had a postulant in years, more conservative orders like the Sister of Mary in Ann Arbor, Michigan are running out of room due to the large number of young professional women coming their way. They are not the only conservative order growing, the Nashville Dominicans among others and are also experiencing growing pains.
If the liberal idea of religion were the truth than certainly the 1970s should have seen a boom in vocations instead of a bust. If one still doubts this premise than look at the freefall of the liberal mainline Protestant Churches. Take for example the worldwide Anglican Church; it should have seen skyrocketing numbers, rather than an implosion, which has caused many Anglicans, clergy and laity to Come Home to Rome. During the heyday of Anglicanism in the 1950s when CS Lewis was the epitome of Anglican intellectuality, England once had one of the highest percentages of church attendance in the western world. Now with the Anglican Church’s liberal theological and social agenda, it has one of the lowest. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that in England more people attend Friday prayers at their local mosque than attend Anglican Church services on Sunday morning.
Starting with the US midterm elections in 2006, some liberal religious writers and commentators spoke of a coming resurgence in liberal Christianity and specifically Catholicism. One would have thought that after the stunning leftward turn in the US General Elections of 2008, a veritable liberal religious renaissance would have been seen. In actuality, just the opposite occurred. The faithful were mocked for clinging to their guns and religion. There were no increases in those expressing an interest in a vocation who claimed to espouse liberal views. In fact, just the opposite happened, those entering seminaries and mother houses became even more conservative.
Several seminary rectors expressed the above view to me. One priest told me that when he was ordained in his diocese six years ago, some liberal oriented priests voiced the belief to him that he was the most conservative priest ordained in that diocese for many years. Recently this same priest told me that now those same liberal priests call him a moderate in relation to those priests ordained since he was six years ago. It does seem that the country as a whole is beginning to regret the liberal direction it opened up with the election of 2008, which can only mean an even more conservative path for the future, including that of the Church. Religious oriented people tend to be more conservative, a fact demonstrated by the United States itself. Despite the more liberal oriented mainstream media that has been prevalent for decades, the United States is still a center right country. Despite the best efforts of the liberals, the Catholic Church is returning to her orthodox roots, and with this promises more growth but also certainly more liberal outrage.
Despite powerful forces allied against her can the Catholic Church still grow, and can the laity of the Church continue the conservative momentum begun by the new younger more orthodox priests, bishops and women religious? Perhaps this can best be seen via the internet. The Catholic blogosphere has but a handful of liberal websites and blogs, as a matter of fact those of import could be counted on one hand compared to the hundreds of orthodox oriented websites and blogs that are widely read. Sites like Jimmy Akin, American Catholic, Jay Anderson’s Pro Ecclesia, The Chocolate Heart Blog, Creative Minority Report, Cvstos Fidei, Father Tim Finigan’s Hermeneutic of Continuity Blog, Inside Catholic, Rich Leonardi, Father Dwight Longenecker, Jeff Miller (The Curt Jester Blog) Per Christum(the Bennett brothers blog, Pewsitter, Mark Shea, Spirit Daily, Damian Thompson’s blog, Amy Welborn, Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia and Father John Zulsdorf What Does Prayer Say are where serious Catholic writers and commentators like John Allen and George Weigel turn when they want to take the pulse of the Church.
Lest one thinks, I am being naïve or forgetting a large chunk of the Church’s History, I am well aware of the many bumps on the road, both recent and ancient, but there can be no doubt that the tide is turning. (To read more about the bumps along the way, you may want to read the following articles I wrote outlining the many problems the Church has faced, both recently and centuries ago;
The Construct of Rebellion, If You Want The Political Left To Run Governments, Look At What The Religious Left Has Done To Religion (Left It In Tatters,) As Our Western Culture Continues To Implode, The Catholic Church Is The Last Best Hope and finally The Coming Open Rebellion Against God In addition to the internet, the increasing popularity of Church devotions specifically Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary are a powerful tool in the Church’s growth. The revived interest in these devotions along with the Blessed Mother herself shows the Church in stark contrast to an increasingly militant secular society as well as the entertainment oriented churches that promise their congregations joy and happiness for merely attending. The Church’s message of service and even suffering may seem at first a theological no go in a society that wants comfort and prosperity.
However, this isn’t very different than the Early Church when the Roman world was all about the pleasure principle and the Church’s message seemed as enticing as being one of the poor bedraggled souls left to fight the well armed gladiator on the coliseum floor. However, in the end the bedraggled became the mighty and so it will be again. The tide is turning!