Who will be left to speak and hear?
Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States marks a time of celebrations and challenges for the church.
The pope is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, and spendthree days in New York before returning to Rome. He will turn 81 onWednesday.
Today, Cardinal Justin Rigali will mark the close of the Archdiocese ofPhiladelphia's 200th anniversary celebration with a Mass at VillanovaUniversity.
The celebrations affirm the roots and impact of the church here, but also signal the challenges at hand.
The pope has a hard act to follow in John Paul II. The late pope wascharismatic, assertive and beloved, and deeply influenced worldaffairs. Benedict, by contrast, has maintained a lower-profile, workinginstead behind the scenes to put his own stamp on church affairs.
In America, the church holds a puzzling position. It remains large andrespected, but is withering and weathering attacks from both outsideand within.
In many older, urban areas, parishes and schools are closing ormerging. Bishop Joseph Galante just announced a big restructuring ofthe Camden Diocese that will probably close parishes in six SouthJersey counties.
In Philadelphia, three Catholic parish schools in Port Richmond plan tomerge into one. At the same time, the archdiocese is adapting topopulation shifts with plans to build two high schools in Bucks andMontgomery Counties.
Maybe the biggest challenge of all is this: What does it mean to be a Catholic in the United States of 2008?
The Catholic Church is the largest single faith in the country and inthe world. Locally, as in many areas throughout the country, there aremany Catholics, but too many of them no longer attend church regularly.And Catholic high schools and universities everywhere soft-pedalreligion and hard-peddle "values" as a branding strategy.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at GeorgetownUniversity says that nearly 700 parishes closed across the country from1995 to 2007, with more cutbacks coming. The numbers of priests andsisters continue to decline. In South Jersey, it's estimated that by2015 there will be only 85 active priests to serve 450,000 Catholics.Nationwide, in the next 20 years, the number of active diocesan priestswill drop in half to 11,500. There are about 19,000 parishes, so thattranslates to a huge gap.
The church has helped create this crisis by insisting on ancientdisciplines such as priestly celibacy (including its refusal to allowpriests to marry) and the bar against women in the clergy. None ofthese practices was expressly enjoined by Jesus. All were localtraditions that ossified into doctrine. Now, they're helping strangleit.
Sexual-abuse scandals have destroyed trust in the institution and itsministers. Church leaders have contributed to this fiasco in being slowto react; hiding or minimizing the problem; or stonewalling. True, thePhiladelphia Archdiocese has overhauled its prevention andvictim-assistance program (for a reported 144 victims), devoting $1million since January 2007 on counseling and other services. On theother hand, generally it refuses to say where the disgraced anddefrocked perps are now.
Yet many people love the Catholic Church, and not just Catholics. Itretains an authority earned by long, loyal and often dangerousadherence to a high standard of belief and conduct. (There's much to beashamed of, too, including the Inquisition and an often ambiguousresponse to Nazism in World War II.)
Church leaders regularly weigh in on public policy (the death penalty),ethical debate (stem-cell research), and personal morality. Mostvisible of all is the pope, father of the church.
In a world of violence, environmental degradation, and lack of coherentvalues, it's comforting that somewhere there's a family that, inspiredby the holiest of lives, seeks to emulate that life and spread itsmessage of peace, responsibility, moral clarity - and above all, belief.
Today, the debate (at least in the journals and op-ed pages) betweenbelief and unbelief rages afresh. Still, hundreds of millions all overthe world, and millions and millions to come, will come to believe in aGod in the universe and a Christ that intervenes in human history tospread understanding and love. And they will learn that and live thatthrough this church.
You could have a worse message. The challenge for all Catholics, though, remains: Who will tell this message, and who will hear?