A few weeks ago I wrote two columns about the looming disaster facing our church as we fail to replace the professional leadership generation that’s now retiring and dying off. The young people who were excited by the Second Vatican Council and decided to direct their lives to the work of Christ in the Church as lay Directors of Religious Education, religious sisters and brothers, and diocesan priests (like me) are now in our 50s and 60s; and (as the numbers I provided a few weeks ago show), we’re not being replaced as the Catholic (and ex-Catholic) population continues to grow. (One example: in 1975 there were about 800 Catholics per priest in this country; now there are over 2,800.)
I understand – probably better than you, since I’m on the inside – the difficulties that go with being a priest today. And I know how poorly lay professionals can be treated in the church. (Our salaries for lay professionals are at best about 2/3 of what people could make in an equivalent position in a secular not-for-profit, not even to consider what they’d make in a for-profit business.) I devoutly wish that the church would change a number of things about the way it treats its employees, lay and ordained and vowed. But I don’t see that happening any time soon, and in the meantime if we don’t replace the current generation of pastoral leaders and workers, the organization is going to implode.
But the tragedy won’t be just that an organization fails; it will be that the vital work the church does, serving as an anchor and a compass for individuals and families and society, will cease. We can begin to see it already as regular churchgoing falls off in our society. (Research shows that “spiritual but not religious,” or Ash-Wednesday and Palm Sunday only churchgoing, make no difference in people’s lives. That sort of “religion” may be common, but it’s not enough to be genuinely helpful in helping families and societies cohere.) While there’s no doubt always been corruption in business and government, doesn’t it seem that lying and self-serving financial deals are becoming more “just the way it’s done”? And how many of our current multimillionaires would say (with Andrew Carnegie!), “The man who dies rich dies disgraced”? The lack of religious participation flows over into a lack of religious influence. And there’s still more.
Carl Jung is reported to have said somewhere, “When gods die they return as diseases.” I wonder whether young (and not-so-young) people are especially susceptible to the allure of drugs and other addictions today because, for them, “God has died” – in that they’ve never met Him and found in Him a path to a life filled with meaning. In the Gospel Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd,” and claims that he came so that people could have abundant life [Jn 10:10]. People who experience “abundant life” (despite the troubles that befall everyone) don’t generally look for ways to escape their lives – whether through drugs or even suicide. It’s certainly not true that no dedicated disciple ever succumbs to addiction or suicide – the pain of biologically-caused depression doesn’t respect religious commitments – but I do suspect that on the whole religious commitment is a defense against the sense of meaninglessness that causes self-harm.
Many decades ago the newspaper advice-columnist Ann Landers (remember her?) said something that stuck with me: That when families stopped participating in church or synagogue life (nobody thought of mosques then, but it would be true there as well), the children didn’t suffer too much: religious values are largely passed down to children through the family’s style, and the momentum of an older generation of churchgoers would keep one generation on track; but that generation wouldn’t have the resources to guide its own children, and it’s then – in the grandchildren generation – that lives would unravel. Again, there are certainly exceptions, but I suspect that’s largely true and my experience over the decades of my ministry seems to bear it out.
So our struggle to continue Christ’s work today is certainly about finding young people interested in becoming the professional ministers of the future (lay and vowed and ordained). But it’s also about every disciple’s daily choices. Until next week, peace.