Fr John Walter has been parish priest of St Joseph's, Riverwood, Archdiocese of Sydney, for the past 24 years. For ten years he was founding Editor of 'The Priest' for the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy.
This is the first of two articles on the state of the Church. The present one provides a diagnosis and the second (to be published in the December 2004 issue) will offer a suggested remedy.
Currently baffling the Church in the Western World is undoubtedly the nominalism and widespread loss of faith in the Gospel message of so many of its baptised members. This involves two diverse though related forms of rejection. One is best expressed in the word unbelief; the other in the word disbelief.
Before proceeding further we can do no better than re-learn the lesson of Christ's own mission and season our attempted insights into the current foundations of unbelief and disbelief with the fact that the Lord Himself spent some three years after first calling the disciples in carefully preparing them for their final calling.
Even then He had to endure many disappointments and failures. We ought also bear in mind the Gospel truth that, despite the wondrous outreach of God's mercy, not all will be saved.
The Gospel reveals that the scribes, the pharisees, the priests and the lawyers were mostly so proudly self-centred that they were from the outset unbelievers and never open to the Gospel message. However, the 5,000 whom Jesus miraculously fed with the loaves and fishes were, initially at least, intensely interested.
True, at first they followed Him because He fed them with the loaves and the fishes; but this was no act of faith; it was an act of cold, calculating reason. When Jesus subsequently promised to feed them with the Bread of eternal life, His Body and His Blood, reason rebelled and they summarily rejected His invitation to faith: they refused to swallow His proposal. They ended up disbelievers because of the limits they placed on the transcendent unfolding of Christ's call.
Simon Peter was the exception. Responding to the Lord's tantalising invitation to faith on behalf of the Twelve, Simon was inspired to declare, "Lord to whom shall we go. You have the words of everlasting life and we believe ...".
For us this constitutes the classic response of faith and it took the Twelve to a new level in their relationship with the Lord. Even so, Jesus well knew others who did not believe. The final unmasking of Judas is a case in point.
Today unbelief among the baptised mainly affects those nominal Catholics who subsequently were raised in our current secularised environment with very little if any faith input, be it at the level of knowledge or devotion. Generally these families are non-practising, i.e., they don't attend Sunday Mass; they are not prayerful and are preoccupied with worldly concerns.
More commonly we now find parents living in what is euphemistically called "a relationship". These family members are more than sceptical about the Gospel; rather they are oblivious, often rejecting any spiritual dimension to life. They are totally secularised in the sense that they live for the moment, without any thought for the morrow, let alone for eternity.
No wonder the children grow up also to be unbelievers. In spite of that, in many places their youngsters continue to be routinely lined up for First Holy Communion and Confirmation in the annual parish round-up. This is not nearly good enough.
Such nominal Catholics can be likened to goods that have been summarily processed without being changed by the processing. They may have undergone an application of the truths of faith in some superfical fashion through sacramental programs but this has had as much effect as a coat of paint that did not take.
That important element, true Catholic upbringing, was lacking in the first instance and too often the subsequent evangelisation and catechesis were soft, woefully pre-empted of Catholic truth, and totally inadequate.
It is abundantly clear that practising and believing Catholics cannot be automatically produced on an assembly line basis by summarily processing them through such sacramental programs, however well-intentioned we may be.
Whenever personal conviction, that one necessary ingredient which constitutes the individual's embrace of the gift of faith, is lacking, then unbelief triumphs.
The task for the teaching Church is to re-evangelise when the children begin to be involved in a sacramental program by inviting the family to return to regular Sunday Mass attendance, if only as a sign of good will. While at Mass they must be given nourishing spiritual food in the homilies, not cake - an area where many clergy must plead guilty of letting their people down.
The parents should be invited to sit in on the Sunday School sacramental catechesis for their children which often precedes the main Sunday Mass. This will then become a prime opportunity for re-evangelisation of some of the many who are in this category of unbelievers through no fault of their own.
As the Holy Father underlined to the Australian bishops on their 2004 ad limina visit, the sacredness and duty of worship on the Lord's Day, upheld in his Letter Dies Domini, must supplant its current obliteration by the secular weekend.
But what about the much-touted parish-based sacramental programs which promise so much?
They will not produce fruits for these nominal Catholics unless they challenge their ignorance and inform them; so we must be resolute in refusing to pander to that ignorance.
One tried approach requires children to be nominated for the further sacraments of initiation by their parents through a limited series of requests published in the Sunday parish bulletin. Catholic nominalism is uncovered when non-practising parents approach the priest outside of Sunday Mass times for "a form" to fill in.
Then is the time to explain with conviction and sensitivity that the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation are not what they have largely become, simply "rites of passage" that need only the filling in of the appropriate form which, once completed, can then be forgotten. This not only performs a "reality check" on their faith it can prove to be a moment of grace
Nonetheless, the trendy, unbalanced accent on "celebration" - just having fun - in much sacramental catechesis needs to yield place to the imparting of Catholic doctrine and the engendering of true devotion. As with the New Testament Corinthians in their celebration of the eucharistic agape there has been too much partying and not enough thankful remembering.
Forgetfulness inevitably follows on failure to focus on why and what we should remember. Tragically, too many priests have fallen into the error that the Eucharist is all about the community celebrating itself. Its corollary, no community, no Mass, is already with us. It was Cardinal Ratzinger who has remarked on a wider stage that this age has been engaged in one great act of forgetting.
Then there are those who, owing to humanistic rationalism and/or peer group pressure, have fallen away from the practice of the faith and joined the pick-and-choose brigade of nominal Catholics or gone over to pentecostal Protestantism. They too are deficient in personal conviction. Though they are the product of a mostly Catholic upbringing - often their parents are pillars of the Church and exemplary Catholics - in their case the beginnings of a response to embrace the gift of faith have been eroded and never matured. They remain superficial.
Where these are concerned we are often guilty of labouring under the false presumption that because they have been raised in practising Catholic families and have attended Catholic schools they have also embraced the gift of faith with personal conviction.
What actually has been happening is that all too many have accepted what John Paul II has dubbed the "soft options" of the Gospel. They have accepted these as reasonable, but they have rejected the "hard options", not just because they are hard, but because they require something they individually lack - an act of personal faith commitment.
Oftentimes the schooling they have received - and here the problem is most evident at high school, college and tertiary level - has been so secularised that they no longer have any realisation of what faith in Christ entails.
Instead they regress to assume a veneer of Catholicism which is at best an external observance that quickly wears thin making them easy prey either to the overtures of a pentecostal Protestantism or, ultimately, to graduate to total unbelief.
The time is therefore overdue to promote strenuously the fundamental work of the teaching Church which is to evangelise each new generation in the faith in its entirety and its integrity.
The earlier comments about the need to implement parish-based sacramental programs appropriately apply here too. But while these will work fairly well at the primary school level, what is badly lacking at the secondary and tertiary level is faith reinforcement by a well-directed apologetic for the faith. The problem we encounter here is that a sizeable contingent of disbelievers and unbelievers are teaching in our schools and lecturing on our university campuses.
What is more, widespread adoption of Gabriel Moran's "ongoing revelation" theories and of Thomas Groome's "hermenutic of suspicion" by religious education professionals have wreaked great havoc on the maturing faith of many young Catholics.
If nothing else, theories such as these have been eminently successful in sidelining the precious gift of faith; in the one case, there is no need for a teaching Church; and in the other, rationalistic scepticism leads to complete unbelief.
Moral relativism has triumphed in an age where the secular ethic reigns. Propelled by the need for popular acceptance, secular humanism proposes readily compliant, pragmatic outcomes which choose to ignore the objective reality of good and evil in living a human life. We have only to observe the erosion of life and death moral issues into private personal issues; this is the ultimate fate of "soft option" Christianity.
Before all else we must also come to terms with the nature of the Church as revealed by Christ - be it today's, yesterday's or tomorrow's Church. The undeniable fact is that the Church by its very nature is a refuge of sinners. It has, does and always will contain tares and wheat; good and bad fish. Therefore, we must do more than simply offer it Christ, the Word of Life.
It is necessary first in the Gospel sense to prepare the soil in which the seed of faith is sown wherever, whenever and however we can. Otherwise the proffered gift of faith will never take firm root when sown on the path, in the brambles or where the soil is shallow or gravelly - for such is the condition of our secularised world.
Since God's grace is always a free gift it should go without saying that it will only be effective in those who don't choose to reject it.
Therefore a major effort must be made to re-evangelise nominal Catholic parents - many so commonly nowadays living in "a relationship" - who continue to bring their children for Baptism and who routinely present their children for the further sacraments of initiation.
This needs to be bolstered by a firm insistence on a minimum for a genuine Catholic, i.e., the blessing of Christian marriage, regular and prayerful Sunday Mass attendance, and readiness for personal involvement in the appropriate parish-based catechetical programs.
Similarly, unless we take effective steps to remove the faith-destroying elements from inept religious programs in Catholic high schools and Catholic tertiary institutes, and see that the faith is properly taught, it will continue not to be caught. We will instead continue to witness an accelerating loss of faith which is already the obligatory flavour of this secularised age.
To mix two Gospel metaphors: if we continue to fail to be a leaven in the dough we risk being justly condemned for sitting by and watching a few bad apples ruin the crop. Well did pagan Cicero tersely lament of his own day and age: "O tempora, O mores."