Is American society moving toward the European and Japanese model of low religious faith? Or will we continue to stand out as different among highly developed, modern societies? The trend here suggests Yes and No answers to those questions — unless the “New Evangelization” really becomes something effectively new; unless religious faith finds new ways into the common culture.
New Evangelization was the subject for a Synod of Bishops held at the Vatican last month. That meeting brought together bishops from around the world to discuss a situation that exists mainly in societies of the rich and powerful. That’s where religious faith is fading from the culture and dropping out of people’s lives.
Europe, once the heartland of Christianity, is now a relatively prosperous, secularized religious wasteland of nearly empty churches. For the most part, Europeans don’t feel a need to look beyond the immediate comfort and safety of their life. At the moment it feels a little less secure because of economic conditions, but the hidden presence of God isn’t likely to be seen in a business recession.
Just as the presence of God isn’t found behind Hurricane Sandy’s knock on our door. That isn’t the way modern humanity relates to events. There are no ghosts, no enchantment, no mystery in reality, nothing beyond what we can see and measure. Life is only a flat here-and-now puzzle to be manipulated and solved. Death is the end.
The Christian Gospel declares a contrary reality but is taken seriously by ever fewer people in the world’s comfort zone. We can get by without God, it seems, so why go looking for him, or her? It may be good for children, but we grow out of childish needs.
The latest Pew Survey of religious affiliation in the United States found the fastest growing group to be “nones,” people with no church membership. Self-identified Catholics are still around 24 percent of the country only because of Latino immigration. American Catholics of white European ancestry are declining rapidly. These trends are especially strong among youth, suggesting that the future for church affiliation, even here in the relatively religious U.S., looks bleak. What can be done?
The recent synod on evangelization, and Pope Benedict XVI, ask for a fresh look at the Gospel in order to meet Jesus Christ perhaps in a way we never have. Our faith may have been too much about dogma and rules; not enough about meeting the person of Jesus and absorbing his spirit. This meeting, this relationship, is what changes our inner world, opening us to absolute, infinite life. The exciting possibility beyond imagining, the open-ended hope, the draw of all-forgiving love found in that meeting must be passed on if we want a living faith for our children and their society.
A little more missionary spirit resembling Francis of Assisi would go a long way. That, and more attention to holiness as our universal vocation. Most of us avoid thinking about the holy. It’s a thing for specialists like priests and nuns, not those of us in the grubby business of the world. But what might happen if we begin to believe that holiness makes a better manager, a better waitress, clerk, cook, salesman, trucker or teacher? What if holiness means a better, more complete human being?
All Catholics were reminded by the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago that holiness is meant for each of us. Every one of us can be the complete person, have the wholeness, that we see in Jesus in the Gospel. That is the destiny we are designed for, and it is far beyond the little that we can see and measure at any time. The reality that truly fits us is the Kingdom of God. That is the proper aim for our pursuit of happiness. Everything else then falls into place.
We get on that track by hanging around the Gospel, tasting it often, praying with it, getting its flavor into our blood and becoming new throughout life.