When I arrived in Australia from Israel on December 15, 1953, the Catholic churches were packed every Sunday for Mass (about 74 per cent attended on a weekly basis), whereas the traditional Protestant churches (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist and Baptist) had already started to show a decline in numbers at their Sunday services, although they were still relatively well attended.
Nowadays, however, in Western Europe, Australia and the United States, the churches are largely empty: barely 10 per cent attend Catholic churches in many places in Australia, and even fewer in Protestant churches (although the Pentecostal churches are a distinct exception, being very well attended).
In England, for example, the official established state church, the Church of England (or as we call it in Australia, where it is not established, the Anglican Church), has on average only 1 per cent of worshippers per Sunday! Thus, for all intents and purposes the “C of E” is dead.
Even at our little church on Queensland’s Magnetic Island, named after “the Maid of Orleans”, St Joan of Arc, we are fortunate to get about 25 “regulars” (locals), plus a few tourists at the Vigil Mass on Saturday evenings (our only Mass).
That is pathetic, since the island has a permanent population of about 2,500 people, of whom, statistically, at least 25 per cent are Catholic (namely, about 625). So, where are the other 600 Catholics?
Obviously, they are only nominal. I am told that the Protestants don’t do any better.
I think this catastrophic decline is caused by modern secularism, which for all intents and purposes makes people live their lives as if God did not exist.
Interestingly enough, the Protestants will be celebrating the beginning of the Reformation next year: 2017, 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg castle church door on October 31, 1517.
The question is, will there be anyone to attend church after the festivities are over?
Even in Luther’s day, the “rot” had started to set in with his stand for individual interpretation of the Bible (no doubt he meant that we should accept his interpretation.)
This has led to the current presence of thousands upon thousands of denominations in the U.S. alone, all presumably claiming to be the “true” church of Jesus.
Luther often disagreed with fellow reformers, especially with Frenchman John Calvin and Swiss Ulrich Zwingli, but also with lesser “lights”, such as fellow German reformer Andreas (Andrew) Karlstadt (true name: Bodenstein), about whom Luther said: “One more such argument, and he [Karlstadt] will swallow the Holy Spirit, feathers and all!”
At least Luther had a sense of humour, whereas the other major reformers were a dour lot.
I recall my visit in 1965 to the “Reformation Wall” in Geneva, where their statues are set up in a row (“Idolatry!” no doubt they would say).
What I found noteworthy was that all, other than Luther, had extremely serious, unsmiling faces: John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox.
Interestingly enough, only John Calvin was not a former Catholic cleric: he was a lawyer; the others were all diocesan priests or friars (Luther was an Augustinian monk).
Yet, even before Luther precipitated the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Czech Jan Hus in the 14th century had demanded, among other things, the restoration of the cup to the laity at Holy Communion.
This was not restored until Vatican II in the 1960s: even to this day, Communion “under both kinds” is not universal in the Catholic Church, although our late Bishop Michael Putney always insisted in the Diocese of Townsville that the cup be offered to the laity (of course, there cannot be compulsion).
So, where are we now in the Church? We are but a remnant. Yet this is far from new: the prophets of old Israel spoke of this “remnant” often. The Hebrew word used was usually sherit, from the verb nishar, “to remain”, in the sense of “to be left over”.
In the Bible there are at least 92 references to the “remnant”: 86 in the Old Testament, but only six in the New Testament. Incidentally, the Book of Jeremiah has the largest number of references to the “remnant” (19), and Isaiah has 16 references.
Thus, in Isaiah 46: 3–4 we read: “Listen to me, House of Jacob, all you who remain of the House of Israel … In your old age I shall be still the same, I shall still support and deliver you.”
Likewise, in Jeremiah 23: 3–4 we read: “But the remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their pastures: they shall be fruitful and increase in numbers.
“I will raise up shepherds to look after them and pasture them; no fear, no terror for them any more; not one shall be lost – it is the Lord who speaks!”
Now, what does the New Testament say about the “remnant”?
In Romans 9:27, St Paul quotes Isaiah 10:22: “Israel, your people may be like the sand on the seashore, but only a remnant will return.” St Paul in fact says in verse 27 that “only a remnant will be saved”.
In Romans 11: 5–6, St Paul says: “Today the same thing has happened: there is a remnant, chosen by grace. By grace, you notice, nothing therefore to do with good deeds, or grace would not be grace at all!”
However, I believe it is in the Book of Revelation that we come face to face with the real remnant of the Church, where it is written in Chapter 12, verse 17: “Then the dragon was enraged with the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, that is all who obey God’s commandments and bear witness for Jesus.”
Now, in the Catholic Church we have always spoken of the “dragon” as Satan, although it is unfashionable to talk of him nowadays. Also, we always held the “woman” to be the Mother of Jesus, Mary Most Holy.
Notice, Scripture says that we, the “remnant”, are “her children”: not surprising then that the Catholic Church called her “our Mother”. And why are we the “remnant”? Because we try to “obey God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus”.
(Andrew Sholl is co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics, which aims to end the alienation of Catholics of Jewish origin and background from their historical heritage. It conducts regular monthly meetings in cities where its numbers make this possible.)