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Fall Ministries

Ministries strive to build a better world


In his massive new biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel repeats a frequent indictment of the Western media in its coverage of Catholicism, namely that the press focuses too narrowly on a “canon of criticism” -- birth control, abortion, women priests, celibacy and so on -- and not on the far richer and more complex reality of what it means to be Catholic in the late 20th century.

The quickest way to get the media spotlight off these issues, of course, would be to satisfy demands for change -- or at least ease up on the censures of those voicing such demands. But that notwithstanding, Weigel has a point: Those of us who tell the story of the church too often are hypnotized by controversy and miss the everyday depth of experience in Catholic parishes and schools and families.

In that light, the contributions from Arthur Jones and Kris Berggren in this fall ministries issue are especially valuable. Jones -- who has probably logged more miles, sat in more pews, met in more church basements for donuts-’n-juice, and taped more conversations than anyone else in search of the soul of contemporary American Catholicism -- offers us several examples of his trademark in-the-trenches approach. Only Arthur Jones could find a place where auto repair counts as an honest-to-God parish ministry!

Unlike most “top-down” approaches in the press -- stories that focus on the pope, the bishops or the latest Catholic group to denounce both -- Jones goes out and finds the small stories that, together, add up to a much more compelling big picture. Jones puts it best himself: “Too often when Catholics look at the church, they see the local and not the aggregate. Parishes are rarely able to stand back and examine their own vital contributions as building blocks for the broader structures of social change.”

Jones brings those building blocks into view, from Blessed Sacrament parish in Sioux City, Iowa, to St. John the Baptist in Silver Springs, Md. In so doing he captures the vitality of Catholic parish life, a vitality that has the potential to transform American culture.

Kris Berggren offers another of these up-close-and-personal stories. She focuses on Pax Christi Parish in Eden Prairie, Minn., and its Leaven Center -- which has set for itself the lofty ambition of becoming nationally recognized as a center for lay ministry and worship, an aim now much closer to realization, thanks to Berggren’s astute reporting (Berggren is familiar to NCR readers through her regular column).

The Leaven Center’s Trish Vanni is an archetype for the successful parish minister in today’s church -- a driven, intelligent layperson using a set of professional skills for the church in creative ways. Fr. Timothy Power says of the transformation the parish is striving for: “That’s tough. It’s messy. We don’t have a lot of track record, but the good old Spirit keeps breaking into our history again and again.”

May the “good old Spirit” visit Eden Prairie often in the days to come.

Finally, we end this ministries package with an important essay from Joseph Harris, who works for the Seattle-area St. Vincent de Paul society and who has carved out a national reputation as an analyst of Catholic data -- membership figures, staffing patterns, income and expenditure flows, and virtually any other aspect of church life that can somehow be displayed in a chart or run through a spreadsheet program. Through careful analysis and ever-sober conclusions, Harris has gained a genuine command of the statistical nuts-and-bolts of American Catholicism.

In his article, Harris gets his hands around the dimensions of the priest shortage in the United States -- both how things stand today and where we are likely to be in 2010. His forecast will strike some as gloomy and others as too optimistic, but anyone wishing to take issue with it will have to deal with the data Harris has marshaled.

The Harris essay leads us back to where we started, because reflection on the priest shortage cannot avoid the question of mandatory celibacy in the Latin church -- and hence we find ourselves once again facing that “canon of criticism.” This progression suggests that controversy is an integral part of the contemporary Catholic picture, and journalists would be remiss to neglect it. At the same time, however, Jones and Berggren remind us that there are more things within American Catholicism than are dreamt of in most reporters’ philosophy.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. He may be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999