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Old faith fading in a Christian twilight

Old faith fading in a Christian twilight

I try not to hype my own stories -- really, I do! -- but wish to draw readers’ attention to this week’s cover story for the following reasons.

Maybe the Catholic church is not at a crossroads after all. A better image might be the bark of Peter drifting more or less smoothly toward a Niagara Falls beyond which lies a religious nothingness.

It is old news now that younger Catholics do not practice Christianity as their elders did and sometimes still do. A great many do not go to Mass or sacraments, to retreats or Sunday school, do not fast or abstain or pray or sweat, when they sin, about the ordeal of confessing. While numbers are elusive, only heads buried in the sand would deny the trend.

It is the church’s hope that, when they get older, especially when they have kids of their own to worry about, these Catholics will return to the practice -- that all-purpose word -- of their religion. In the meantime they are cultural or nominal Catholics, vague terms, too.

Those returning won’t be returning to the same church. There will still be the same Trinity and Holy Family and Eucharist. The same only different. The thinking and practice and attitudes and aspirations will have done somersaults in their absence. There are new questions now to add to the old ones, about who may be a priest, for example, and how to cope with the complicated morality of our technological society. And daunting prospects. What to do and where to go as priests disappear. They are disappearing, and nearly no one is saying it.

But surely, we protest, Catholics won’t just go out of existence after 2,000 years of ups and downs. Just maybe. Assuming people of faith in the historical Jesus and the ideal life he preached and died for -- assuming they want to perpetuate his church, those who are 15 or 20 now, or 30 or even 40, they just don’t know the church or the faith the way their parents did. Even if they came back, will the Christianity of their parents not go out of existence anyway because the “children” will be in no way prepared to carry it on? Because they won’t know it.

Away from the practice of Christianity for a generation, they lack, and will lack even more as time passes, the community consciousness, the tribal memory of their religion that was never just a set of formulas and facts but bred in the bone, an allegiance alive under the skin.

They don’t and won’t know the story. The New Testament story, for starters. The history of the church: the controversies and breakthroughs, the sinners and do-gooders, the big names and epochal events that made us. They won’t know apostles, the popes, won’t know the Council of Nicaea or even Vatican II.

It may be argued that millions of their forebears didn’t know these either. But it was different then. In the past the majority of Christians were uneducated. We often called them the simple faithful, and there’s a load of significance in those two words. But now people are educated and not likely to buy a whole religion, with all its temporal and eternal ramifications, which they do not understand.

That’s why the Helena conference was significant. It pinpointed the problem and pointed to the needs and possibilities. All that history, philosophy, science, theology, all the legends and anecdotes and doctrines -- they’re all fading into some Christian twilight.

If the young members continue to dwindle until only a skeleton of the old faith is left, only a vague cultural memory, then a new story will surely be born because even God abhors a vacuum.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000