A recent article in The New York Times began on a familiar note: “It is not a good time for the Roman Catholic Church in America.” The list of its problems is all too familiar: sex abuse scandals, school closings, financial shortfalls, and the ongoing drop-off in the number of priests and religious to serve the faithful.
In addition, attendance at weekly Mass has dipped across the country. Many young people raised as Catholics are leaving the church. It is almost a cliche to say that the second largest Christian denomination in the United States is made up of lapsed Catholics.
There is no getting around it: The Catholic Church confronts momentous challenges today, perhaps greater than at any time since the Reformation. But despite all this, the proportion of Catholics in the U.S. population has remained steady at around 25 percent for decades, and it is still the largest membership of any religion in America.
Focusing only on the bad news gives a skewed picture of the Church today, and overlooks emerging trends which should be a source of real encouragement, trends that point to a renewed spiritual vitality in the Church.
The enhanced role of the laity in Church life is one such salutary trend. When I was growing up back in the 1950s, the adage was that faithful Catholics needed only to “pray, pay and obey.” Happily, this is far from the case today, and in recent decades, the doors have swung open to much greater lay involvement in myriad areas of service.
Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI has stated the laity “must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators' of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible' for the Church's being and action.” Lay persons — women as well as men — now serve as parish life directors (the equivalent of a parish's CEO), finance directors, members of parish councils, and in numerous other capacities. A 2011 study found that the number of lay ecclesial ministers, defined as those working at least 20 hours a week in paid parish employment, has nearly doubled in the past 20 years to over 38,000.
What does this increased involvement on the part of the laity mean for the Church? Obviously, more gets done, and parishes benefit from the diverse accomplishments and expertise of their congregations. But also, in my view, God has turned demographic necessity into a means of grace, as Catholics who are truly engaged in their communities are happier and experience greater spiritual growth — particularly if they are doing tasks for which they are gifted.
In this regard, parish renewal increasingly means helping congregations to identify their innate talents so they can serve more effectively and joyfully in tasks that really suit them. Based on 40 years of research by the Gallup Organization, the “StrengthsFinder” assessment is the foundation of one such program which gives people a powerful sense of purpose as they discern how to make the most of the ways in which they naturally think, feel and behave. Given the opportunity to deploy their unique combination of God-given talents in their parishes, they feel more motivated and experience a greater sense of belonging. They also report higher levels of empathy and tolerance for others whose different gifts they can better appreciate.
Hundreds of parishes have undertaken this program to date, many of which now form part of a new organization, the Catholic Strengths and Engagement Community (CSEC), an online network of ministry leaders who are sharing information about “best practices” that lead Catholics to become more deeply engaged in their faith communities. CSEC promises to be a vital center of discussion for all the variegated parishes across the country, and is just one example of a new culture of grassroots innovation in the Church.
According to Paul Wilkes, author of “Excellent Catholic Parishes,” American Catholics are looking for “a transcendent connection to God and guidance for their life's journey, a place where they will be at once nurtured and prodded.” Involving people in roles that really “fit” them is one aspect of this, but of course successful churches engage their congregations in other ways. The most important of these, and the key to authentic Catholic renewal, is growing individuals' relationship with Christ.
Successful parishes put this goal at the center of all that they do. The good news is that more and more churches are asking themselves anew how they can help their congregations see the beauty of Christ and desire to trust and follow Him. These churches are willing to change, to find new ways to be relevant, to be hospitable to all, to be faithful to Catholic teaching without being hidebound. Taking a cue from Evangelical churches, they offer Bible studies and fellowship groups tailored to the various demographics in the church, recognizing that one size does not fit all.
Our own family church in the Los Angeles area, St. Monica's, has intentionally fostered a welcoming environment and encouraged parishioners to find their place in our many ministries and faith groups. As a consequence, St. Monica's has grown from 2,500 families in 1994, when the Northridge earthquake leveled our building, to 9,000 households today. There are hundreds of parishes around the country which are growing and thriving in the same way, transforming the lives of their communities through their powerful witness to the uniqueness of Jesus.
God works His purposes out in history, and as St. Paul writes, His power is made perfect in weakness. The recent travails of the Catholic Church can be crucibles of transformation as we rebound to greater strength. Catholics need to take courage in the power of God's love and sovereignty, and persevere with confidence and hope, because we already know the end of the story.
William E. Simon, Jr. is the co-author with Michael Novak of “Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation” (Encounter Books 2011).