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I know that many of us have had the wind knocked out of our sails a bit by the fairly grim news about the state of American Catholicism revealed in the Pew Forum’s 2014 US Religious Study which was made public yesterday. Nothing that the Pew researchers found came as any surprise as they are what I’ve been predicting for years. But it is different to see it in black and white.
That there are 47 million former adult Christians in the US and 67% are former Catholics. That only 59% of the many millions who were raised Catholic still retain the identity. That 6.5 Americans leave the Catholic Church for every one who enters.
All we have lost are the remnants of our illusions and ecclesial hubris. This is necessary, though, because in our generation, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy. In the postmodern West, God has no grandchildren. He has billions of sons and daughters, but no grandchildren.
The great Catholic revival and the generation of saints in early 17th-century France emerged from circumstances vastly grimmer than our own. Eight religious civil wars in 32 years. Twenty percent of the population of Paris died in a religiously fueled siege. Finally, two generations after Trent, the exhausted survivors looked about them and begin to respond apostolically – collaborating across the generations and categories like bishop, priest, lay man or lay woman.
It was God’s Providence that the greatest figure of the great “generation of saints” was St. Francis de Sales, whose gentleness, and trust in God was proverbial. It was due to his leadership and influence that while the generation that lived through the wars was scarred for life, the next generation turned their energies to heroic systematic charity, evangelization, missionary work, Catholic education and creating the seminary system to form a new kind of clergy. They literally re-invented Catholic life, practice, and spirituality in an evangelical mode.
Not in the image of the pre-Reformation Church, which was two generations gone, and not primarily in reaction to the terrible losses of the past but by really engaging the needs of their time – the early 17th century – out of love and in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Let us see what love will do” was St. Francis’ motto. Heroic love birthed a vast spectrum of creativity, renewal, and transformation whose influence lasted 150 years in France and gave birth to most of the institutions that 1950’s Western Catholics regarded as immemorial and immutable.
Thanks be to God, a new and absolutely crucial American – and increasingly global – conversation on the necessity of calling the already baptized to intentional discipleship has already begun. It is a wonderful thing to be clear about our situation. It is a wonderful thing to be forced to go beyond ecclesial clichés, exhausted insider debates, and instant remedies. Now is the time to respond in intense communal prayer. Now is the time to respond: "Here I am, Lord. Send me."
The great 19th-century American evangelist, Dwight. L. Moody was fond of saying that "The world has not yet seen what God will do through one man or woman wholly committed to him." And he would always add, "By the grace of God, I will be that man." What God has done in and through his Church before, he can easily do again. He is simply looking for men and women who will say "yes" with their whole beings.
What are you asking God for in light of this knowledge of our true situation? What are you believing God for? Do you have a sense of how God is calling you to respond to the needs of our time in your own area of apostolic responsibility?
Sherry Weddell is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Catherine of Siena Institute and author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.