Renewing the Church: Signs Show Challenges Being Overcome

Hopes for the Future

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In the midst of the news about sexual abuse scandals and falling Mass attendances many are predicting the end of the Catholic Church, or at least arguing for major changes to doctrines.

As Michael Coren explained in his book reviewed here last week, such changes are simply not going to happen.

A similar point was made in the introduction to a recently published book by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White: “Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church,” (Encounter Books).

The book defends orthodoxy and also maintains we are in a time of revitalization in the Catholic Church. In support of this the authors point to a number of encouraging signs.

Among them is media work being done by such priests as Father Robert Barron in his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Then, programs such as Catholics Come Home and Catholic Voices (founded in Britain and now active in a number of countries) have also made a significant impact

A substantial part of the book looks at the situation of priestly vocations and seminaries. Worldwide, they said, there has been an increase of more than 5,000 priests in 2009 compared to a decade previously.

New seminaries

In the United States many dioceses have had to build new seminaries, or add to their current facilities, to make room for the increase in vocations. The book quoted an interview by Cardinal Sean O’Malley in which he said that when he arrived in Boston in 2003 some urged him to shut the seminary, as it only had 25 students. It now has 70 seminarians and they have had to turn away others due to a lack of space.

There are, however, notable differences between dioceses in the number of seminarians and ordinations. The book considered a range of factors, from the percentage of Catholics in a given area, socioeconomic factors and ethnicity.

In the end the most important factor is none of the above, but rather the theological attitude of the bishop and his vocation staff.

The more a bishop defends the teachings of the Church, “the greater the yield in vocations to the priesthood to the diocese led by that bishop,” the authors affirmed.

Another chapter of the book examined the importance of solid formation in seminaries. “Both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are fundamental building blocks for successful seminaries,” the authors explained.

Strong priestly formation is essential in order to ensure that a diocese will have priests to carry out the work of evangelization, they also noted.

The book cited a number of examples where seminaries are flourishing – Washington D.C., Boston, Lincoln, Denver – and again concluded that a common factor in all cases is the loyalty of the bishop to the Magisterium and his direct interest in vocations and his seminarians.

“As each of the bishops continues to create a culture committed to holiness – involving himself personally and directly in the work of nurturing vocations – young men respond to that call,” Hendershott and White observed.

Challenges ahead

In the conclusion to the book they also commented that there remain areas where further efforts are needed to continue the task of renewal in the Church. Many of the great Catholic universities, they noted, “remain trapped in the 1960s and 1970s era progressivism that dominated the academy and the tenure systems.”

Then, the numerous issues related to reproductive technologies present a great challenge in terms of effectively presenting the Church’s teaching and at the same time not turning people away from the Church.

There is also the latest challenge, that of defending religious liberty against the encroachment of government regulations and laws.

We do, however, now have the advantage of a new generation of bishops, priests and laity who are far more inclined to accept the Church’s teachings compared to the older generation of Catholics, they added.

In a chapter on bishops that highlights several who have made a large impact Hendershott and White argued that we need transformational leadership whereby a bishop will engage with his priests and people, support Church teachings and provide a call to holiness.

“John Paul II taught that the Church is not here to impose her beliefs or teachings, but rather to propose a better way that promotes the human flourishing of all people,” the authors stated in their concluding chapter.

This is certainly a message also being proclaimed by Pope Francis. “Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others,” he said in the Apostolic Exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel, par. 9.

No one can doubt that there are some very serious challenges ahead for the Catholic Church, but they can be met and overcome.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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