In the latter half of the 20th century when I was ordained in Belgium to the Catholic priesthood, the church in the United States seemed to be enjoying halcyon days of growth, prosperity, and an unspoken sense of triumphalism. There were no apparent obstacles to even greater progress toward the kingdom of God—on earth.
Back on US soil, my first assignment sent me to an inner-city parish. The grand church was an imposing brownstone structure built in the mid-19th century, neo-gothic, graced with glorious stained-glass windows, housing a great Austin pipe organ—all that a person searching for a warm spiritual feeling could hope for in a house of worship at that time. The rectory (which I prefer to call the parish house) was impressive: three stories of beautifully carved woodwork, high ceilings, enormous windows, and plenty of suites of rooms to house the seven priests who called it home. In addition to the three floors of suites, there were adjunct apartments for the kitchen and cleaning staff.
Together with the church and parish house, there was a quality elementary school and a spacious convent for the Sisters of Mercy who staffed every grade. In those days there was no need for laypersons to teach, except perhaps one or two for special work in art or music.
Those were the balmy, respected, and enviable days of apparent growth and progress for the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, more so in the United States since Europe was already on a path toward dechristianization. It was the hope-filled pontificate of Pope John XXIII and Vatican Council II. In the broad expanse of the Catholic Church in America, how true were the lyrics Mary Hopkin intoned in her 1968 top-of-the-charts song: “Those were the days, my friend / We thought they’d never end . . . .”
They ended, and the surreptitious decline began perhaps as early as the late ’60s. Why the disenchantment in the midst of manifest growth and success? Was the seeming progress and momentum of the church just a chimera without depth and substance, a mere offering of bread and circuses for the faithful in order to retain their allegiance? Perhaps there was much more happening, sociologically and culturally, that made all organized religions begin to fall out of favor among the general populace.
Isolate that season of triumphalism and it becomes a period piece, something to look at and reflect on as a particular time in the church’s history, but one that was not destined to continue unabated. It would end, albeit not abruptly, and become a matter for deep concern, an historical moment worth hours of reflection on what might have been at the roots of the decline and what, in fact, may have been evolving.
In spite of the reality that whispered and occasionally shouted to us that such a prosperous period in the church’s history was dying, ecclesiastical life by those in positions of authority continued on and even today stays the course in a state of denial, as if to say, “It’s okay. So what if the esprit in the church at large appears to have wilted into passive indifference? So what that multitudes have forsaken their religious inheritance? So what that there is no longer an enthusiasm, an ‘Adelante!’ ever forward, on the part of the faithful? So what that those who are leading the ecclesial barque of Peter are still thinking and acting as if nothing has changed? So what that the people who are hanging on to the remnants no longer feel that they can mesh their real lives with what the church is presently offering? So what that the whole process seems to be leading nowhere instead of to the reign of God through Jesus on earth? So what?”
What happened? The fact is that nothing was happening. The process was bound and determined to fail because there was little obvious engagement with the real world; the languages of the secular and spiritual worlds were gradually drifting apart into Babel so that one language could no longer understand or work with the other. The language of the world was becoming ego-centric, superficial, and distant while the church kept on, slowly and steadily droning personal salvation as if nothing was changing, nothing was different, as if nobody was disillusioned, disappointed, and unable to connect their lives-in-the-world with the prohibitive, unbending, doctrine- and dogma-detailed life of the Roman Catholic Church.
Historically speaking, however, the church, through its beliefs and practices, still is not responding to the need to grow and adjust with the times. It is apparently content with membership, belonging, fidelity to doctrines and dogmas, yet deaf to the voices of the faithful shouting in a vacuum, “I want to believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We stand at the epitome of complacency because earthly and material success are convincing our weak natures that happiness and fulfillment reside in these terrestrial realities.
Yet, in spite of all this, there is the gnawing awareness in every soul that there is more, there must be more to life and love than the bankrupt condition of life in the 21st century. There is something determinedly perennial and timeless in each and all of us. Something spiritual. There is an inner need to rise above the fray which is the superficial and ever-changing values of life in our present society. Our human spirit wants to escape to a greater reality that subtly haunts us. It is at the roots of religion and how it all came about in the first place. We have stifled that fundamental instinct and we are having trouble reclaiming it.
I believe that the church was and still is capable of responding to that inner need and desire, a longing which may be a longing for God, the spirit that drove Jesus into the desert and ultimately into the arms of his accusers in the garden on The Night.
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I contemplate two trends that are happening simultaneously in our time relative to spiritual life: they are thesis and antithesis, positive and negative, yin and yang. One is only apparently negative and the other is very positive and hopeful. The awakening of religion, I want to believe, lies in the time-tested process of devolution and evolution. The church is devolving, which I understand to mean coming apart. It is coming into a post-Christian, post-church moment when the incredible leaps and bounds of science and technology are taking us further and further away from matters of the spirit. At the same time, I dare to believe that the church is painfully evolving into something new, yet keeping with and at the same time precipitated by the progress of the times.
Like a Phoenix, new life will arise from the ashes. That is our hope. “The phoenix is an immortal bird associated with Greek mythology (with analogs [sic] in many cultures) that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again,” says Wikipedia. “Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Some legends say it dies in a show of flames and combustion, others that it simply dies and decomposes before being born again.” I quote the complete citation because I see elements in it which relate well to what I envision as the destiny of the church.
Pope Francis sees this. I think that is the message he was trying to convey in his first apostolic exhortation after he was elected pope in 2013. It is entitled Evangelii Gaudium—to find joy in the gospel message.
In the past, many exhortations and encyclicals that came forth from the Vatican amounted to so much verbiage, to the extent that one would have to plow through them to get to the heart of the matter. However, this exhortation of Pope Francis presents the inner workings of the mind of a Saint Francis (or a pope of the same name) who is going to live by certain basic principles that are part and parcel of who he is. The message is that the church has to go outside of itself, to stop caring so much about its image and its self-righteousness, its status in the world and how it appears relative to secular powers. The message of the church is to evangelize, to teach and preach Jesus, the way he lived and the lifestyle that he taught by example.
One of the most thought-provoking phrases emphasizing the realistic and down-to-earth character of this exhortation is Francis’s expression “the globalization of indifference” (§54). To me that phrase speaks volumes. Indifference covers the world in this historical period, especially by the rich and powerful, the elites who rule in our time. Who cares? Is that not the subtle characteristic of our age? If it means money or power as the goal and epitome of progress and success, then who cares about the other 95 percent, the poor, the starving, the wretched humans who want nothing more than to live humanely? The Jesus message that Francis extols evokes that modest desire. But who is listening?
We who claim religion are certainly in the process of devolving, but there is the hope of evolution. Often, as we know from life experiences, we may have to touch bottom before we can begin to rise. As we Catholics have lived with what we thought was good and prosperous but was nothing but fool’s gold, the journey may have to get even more treacherous before we rise again. But we will rise again.
With this hope and optimism in mind, I am reminded of two poems, both of which contain elements of hope but from diverse perspectives. The first one is from Walt Whitman, a pantheist, a deist, one who believed in the godliness of creation but who had a negative attitude about the direction and destiny of all of God’s goodness. As a true deist, he believed that God is remote and disinterested in God’s creation: now it is all in our hands. Many, many people today relate to this theology, unwittingly. Whitman holds on to a thread of hope in his final stanza. It speaks to his belief that all things are shot through with divinity, but it is our task to make that goodness shine through.
Oh Me: Oh Life!
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
The second poem professes the epitome of hope rhapsodized by a Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, composed at the end of the last century. This is what we ought to be about as “Jesus people” who believe that somehow God is still with us. But it is not entirely in our hands. This is Pentecost. At this point in our history, more than ever before, we must be “Pentecost people”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
We live in hope. Devolution will blossom into evolution and the promise of Jesus will prevail: “Behold, I am with you all days.” ♦
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.