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Some weeks ago, I mentioned that while e-mail allows folks to directly contact reporters and columnists, the downside is that the paper can miss out on the wit and wisdom of the readers. An example is the recent reaction to columnist Tim Unsworth’s “A ruling that would sicken a Pharisee.” Unsworth was commenting on the story about Jenny Richardson, the 5-year-old whose family left the church after church officials refused to make an accommodation to her need for wheat-free hosts because she suffered from celiac disease.

Unsworth recently sent along a pile of e-mail printouts, fully a half-inch thick, from more than 50 readers. We’ll check in with some of them to see if they’ll allow us to print their comments as letters to the editor. In the meantime, a few samples:

From Australia, a reader writes, “Sad to relate for the Richardsons, but gluten free hosts are readily available ‘downunder.’ … Don’t tell the USA bishops.”

From a compassionate pastor somewhere: “I have a 40-year-old blind man who is gluten restricted. Every weekend he brings me a cracker-like hunk, which I consecrate and give to him. My eucharistic ministers know where he sits, and they willingly give him his special bread. This goes on all over our diocese. We don’t make a fuss; we just keep bringing the Lord to the hungry.”

Often those who want to turn back the renewal and reforms that followed the 1960s Second Vatican Council claim the church is falling apart, that people no longer find the level of devotion and purpose that they found in the pre-Vatican II church. I just uncovered a buried copy of an e-mail that came my way some months ago that contains statistics that seem to dispel that gloomy analysis.

According to figures released by the Center for Applied Research into the Apostolate, a goldmine of Catholic church data, in the area represented by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands) the church is not only not falling apart but, quite the contrary, growing rather nicely. For instance, despite the painful closing of many urban parishes, the total number of parishes has risen between 1950 and June 2000 by 26 percent, from 15,295 to 19,338. During that same period, the number of Catholics has risen 108 percent, from 28.8 million to 59.9 million, with the average number of Catholics per parish jumping from 1,881 to 3,097. During that same time, of course, the number of priests has dropped steadily, but the number of laypeople exercising important ministry in the church has skyrocketed.

Whatever the gripe, it is difficult to make the case that the church does not hold an attraction for people or that it is not vibrant.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001