September 16, 2004
A very recent survey reported that 19,081 parishes are serving 63.4 million Catholics in the 195 dioceses or eparchies of the Catholic Church in the United States. While a typical non-Catholic congregation includes a little over 300 members, the average Catholic parish numbers in the thousands. And the average parish is growing at a rate of about 10% per decade. Jesus spoke about the Church’s growth when He told the parable of the seed that falls on the ground (Mk 4: 1-9). Where the ground is rocky, the seed doesn’t take root. Where the ground is overgrown with weeds and thorns, the growth is cut short. But where the soil is good, there is growth and an abundant harvest. For Jesus the soil is people at a certain point in time and the seed is the Word of God that has power to increase and multiply thirty, sixty and a hundred times over.
In any age, the Church grows when people can hear the Word of God and respond with their lives. But every age is a different soil. Each period of history presents its own challenges for God’s Word to be heard. Today’s culture presents two very specific challenges to those who would proclaim God’s Word to others.
First, we live in a secular culture. Our society still has the signs of Christianity. In America, churches are open and people come to worship. Yet a book published in 1991 entitled
The Day America Told the Truth reports that only 13% of the population still believe in the Ten Commandments. If this is true, it helps explain why too many of our laws have lost their moorings in moral principles. Without the acceptance of even basic moral values, our society makes life and death decisions solely on the basis of pragmatism and comfort. We have drifted into a secular society where objective moral values play less and less a role in shaping our lives, our laws and institutions. It is all too easy for the secular attitude of the age to deafen our ears to God’s Word that calls us to be in this world, but not of this world.
Second, our age is witnessing the breakdown of family in the traditional sense and a lessening of a sense of community. Already in 1971, in the pastoral message
To Teach As Jesus Did, the American bishops expressed serious concern about the pressures on families, the loss of neighborhoods, the widening gulf between rich and poor, and the break-up of the international community by war. The Word of God calls us to community - to be Church. And this call is better heard when we already have an experience of community life at home, in our neighborhood, in our world.
Despite these changes in our society, we still long for the spiritual. In 1999, George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay reported that the percentage of Americans who say they feel the need in their lives to experience spiritual growth has surged twenty-four percentage points from 58% in 1994 to 82% in 1998. A hunger for God’s Word remains in the heart of America. From his many travels around the world, Pope John Paul II recognized this hunger for God’s Word in our day. In 1983, he called for a "new evangelization" and called for lay people to become involved in this evangelization.
By honoring our catechists this week, we celebrate one of the most important ways lay people respond to that call. All of us who accept the Word of God into our life are called to hand on to others the good news we have received from the apostles. Catechists accomplish this mission in a vital way. They share in the Church’s work of catechesis. In his apostolic exhortation
Catechesi tradendae, the Holy Father has described this work as the whole of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help others believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to lead them in this life so as to build up the Body of Christ, the Church (1:2). There is no other apostolate that requires more.
Catechists bear a privileged responsibility to hand on the faith to others. They are very much involved in the life of the Church, especially her growth. Handing on the faith is something more than a classroom exercise. It includes celebrating the sacraments, being living witnesses of the gospel, leading the way in the works of justice and peace, and building up the Church as community. Catechesis is leading others to experience the Lord alive in his Church and the Church as the instrument of salvation for the world.
There is no doubt that our society today influences the way we think in terms of the faith that has been handed down to us. Some look at morality as just a matter of one’s own opinion or personal choice. Theological words that have been part of the Church’s language of faith, such as conscience, sin, grace, words that refer to an objective basis for morality, are not part of our secular culture. The slow erosion of this vocabulary points to the loss of personal awareness of sin. So it’s not surprising, that there has been a loss of appreciation for individual confession and the great gift that is offered in the sacrament when celebrated one on one. With the gradual weakening of community in society, some may begin to think of faith experience as only personal. The sacraments then become simply ways to celebrate special moments in one’s life and are no longer seen as a grace-filled encounter with the Lord in the Church. And it could easily happen that the priesthood instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper as a unique gift to build up the Church becomes marginalized and no longer treasured as essential to the very life of the Church.
But thanks to more than half a million catechists in the parishes, missions and schools of this country, and to the more than 3,000 catechists in our own diocese, our faith is being passed on to another generation and the Church is impacting society. The Word of God is taking root and yielding a good harvest. The Church is growing.
Through the intercession of Mary, Bearer of the Word of God, may each of us continue to receive the Word of God who is Jesus, live that Word in our lives and lead others to the Lord
in His Church.