Pentecost and the crisis of faith

Tomorrow the Church in the west celebrated Pentecost, the birth of the Church and the promise that the Holy Spirit will be with and in the Church until the end of time. Yet this weekend I have come across two sets of statistics that suggest that church attendance in general in the UK has plummeted, a crisis acutely felt by the Catholic Church. One set comes from the UK national census returns, the second from research carried out by the Latin Mass Society.

Christianity is a missionary faith, that is it seeks actively to persuade others to join and to find salvation there. Thus any decline in membership is a crisis, as it suggests a Church not truly being herself. When this is a crisis of massive proportions it demands attention and serious Church reform.

Historical precedents are patchy. The conquest of Byzantium has eventually led to the complete erosion of the faith in Turkey and north Africa, while Spain rebounded and became the powerhouse of the most prolific expansion of Christianity through the evangelisation of Latin America and the Philipines. Even Catholic Italy had a crisis in vocations during the mid 1800's but rebounded and while Russia is again affirming its Orthodox identity, East Germany and the Czech republic remain deeply secular.

The UK census figures point to a minority of British young people now stating their religion as even nominally Christian, which doesn't come as a massive surprise given that last year a survey presented most English children believing Easter was about the birth of the Easter bunny. Quite frankly, given that, would you expect that the children would grow up to profess belief in the Christian faith? And given the crisis is one especially of a collapse of youth belief in Christ its should come as no surprise that the rate of people being ordained or entering religious life is at the point of almost extinction. After all, who would give their life to proclaim the survival of the Easter bunny?

Sadly this ties in with my own anecdotal experience. My niece and nephew, 20 and 18, are professed Christians, though my nephew is quite vague and tangential, while my niece does go to church when home from university. However, when at school at the local comprehensive, they were the only ones in their respective classes going to church at all.

Another example are two guys in their 20s, both of whom I have known since they were children and regularly and enthusiastically serving Mass. Both have now floated away from the church, retaining belief and valuing the church to some degree, but fundamentally unconnected at a personal level with the church as an institution which has any authority over their lives. For both of them it was sex that was the breaking point - finding girlfriends, getting intimate and living together.  The Church said they were wrong to do that, and by implication that they were bad and so... not really welcome. Maybe they are the sort who will eventually make it back when they get married, or if they have their own children.

But if they do then venture back, knock on the presbytery door, what sort of reaction will there be? From my inside experience of clergy views, a certain rigorous affirmation of the wonders of the Church mask a veiled sniffle of disapproval. And if they don't make it quick for baptism, and its nearing time for starting school, then the response is likely to be tough. demanding and down right rejection with the underlying message being that they have failed and they, and their children, unworthy, failures who should hold their heads in shame before the worthy who man the pews week by week.

This unwillingness to show empathy, understanding, compassion...let alone JOY at their return points to such a depth of rupture between those who have the faith in some measure but are unable to negotiate the malaise of modern life, and those who see themselves as the guardians of the faith and who don't want the Church to be taken as a soft touch, who want to uphold standards and press sinners for repentance and salvation. The whole gay issue is another case in point, where a closet gay cardinal lambasts other gay people who simply want to have a stable, committed lifestyle. Now whether the Church should or shouldn't change her attitude to gay relationships is another question, but when its own most senior prelates are so mixed up about the issue, and so harsh in their language about it, it destroys the fragile confidence that those still practising their faith have in the whole leadership, while for those whose lives has floated away it simply confirms their sense of alienation. And in the midst of all this froth and 'stiffneckedness', the voice of Christ is lost, and the Holy Spirit is excluded.

The Catholic Church in the west is very hierarchical, and until recently held rather too tightly to the power and prestige of princes and courts. Indeed, Pope Benedict, with his return to a rather grander style of liturgy and papal costume seemed to underline his belief in a much smaller, leaner Church of the committed, one where those drifting silently away we to be left further and further from the altar and Christ. I admire pope Benedict, and his clarity of basic teaching and renewal of a more reverent liturgy were singular achievements, but on this idea of a rump Church of enthusiasts I am less than enthusiastic, and find pope Francis's stress of pastoral mercy and dynamic, sacrificial outreach to the very poor and marginalised much more appropriate, though perhaps a decade too late. In particular his rebuke to some of his priests for turning away unmarried mothers from baptism for their children gives real hope that the voice of Christ will be heard in some of the most demanding of pastoral situations, ones where the Church's credibility as the instrument of a God who is love, mercy and compassion is made or broken. This isn't the same as condoning, it is the same as Jesus' response to those who would have Him cast out the woman caught in adultery.


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