At the crossroadsKeith F. Pecklers
- 25 October 2008
Articulating the Church's message in a world in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion is a challenge Catholicism must face if it is to have a future. The most effective means of communication may be witness itself
Some years ago I served on an ecumenical chaplaincy team during an international athletic championship in Gothenburg, Sweden - a gathering of 2,700 Olympic athletes who competed there over a period of several weeks. One morning as I approached the coffee machine, I encountered a young Italian who immediately struck up a conversation when he noticed that my credentials read: "Chaplain - Italy." He greeted me in Italian and then continued: "Chaplain ... hmm. Would that mean that you're a priest?" "That's right. I'm a priest," I replied. "Interesting," he said. "I need to tell you that I never go to church." To which I responded, "And I need to tell you that I'm actually here to get a cup of coffee and not to get a progress report on your spiritual life." He shook my hand and with a big laugh insisted that I meet his brother - an Olympic athlete and atheist - and their two friends. They were all positive in their outlook on life and hopeful about the future, but not one had even a tenuous relationship with the Church; none had received the Sacrament of Confirmation even though they were all in their late twenties. When I was eventually invited to visit the family home on Italy's Adriatic coast, I asked the parents if they might direct me to the nearest church for Sunday Mass. "Ah, that's right," they replied. "You're a priest; you have to go to Mass on Sunday."
Several years later, on one Advent Sunday at the Oratory of St Francis Xavier "del Caravita" in Rome where I serve on the pastoral staff, the theme of exile ran through the readings that day, as well as the Advent hope of liberation and returning home. After Mass a visitor approached me and said: "Hi, I'm Paul. I'm in exile." He went on to tell me that it was his first time at Mass in more than 15 years. In fact, he had been away so long that he had forgotten that forgiveness was even possible.
These incidents are no longer exceptional. No wonder, then, that we increasingly speak nowadays of post-Christianity. Indeed, an internet Google search of the term yielded 314,000 results when I last checked. The term, often linked to postmodernism, describes the contemporary cultural attitude of parts of the developed world where Christianity is no longer the dominant religion, where cultural values are becoming more secular, and the world view is no longer shaped by Christian ideals and principles. Of course, the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) spoke powerfully about the role of the Church and its missionary activity within the modern world, of the important relationship between faith and culture, and even of agnosticism and atheism. But the bishops gathered at that council could not have envisaged the cultural and religious transformation within central and northern Europe, North America and Oceania in the postmodern and increasingly post-Christian twenty-first century, and the inherent challenges that this brings to communicating faith. Amsterdam, for example, is one of the most multi-religious cities in Europe and there are now more people frequenting the mosque on Fridays then there are at church on Sundays.
The Church in Australia and New Zealand has encountered similar challenges. In representing Oceania during the Synod on the Word, currently being held in Rome, Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville spoke of Australia as one of the most secularised countries in the world today. More than 22 per cent of the Catholic population in Australia were born overseas and Mass attendance now hovers at just around 14 per cent. Despite those less than encouraging statistics, however, Bishop Putney noted that following World Youth Day last July, "some Australians and New Zealanders have a sense that the promise of a new evangelisation may finally be under way despite the apparent impermeability of the secular culture". But the challenge is to discover new ways to communicate the message; to date, the bishop said that "no one method or even a shared understanding of what is required in practical terms has emerged".
Canada and the United States, of course, are not exempt from such challenges and opportunities as I have experienced first-hand in my work with the media. This was especially evident around the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, the conclave and election of Pope Benedict XVI, and the Holy Father's visit to the United States in April. In covering those various events as a Vatican "on air expert" for ABC News, many of my colleagues were to one degree or another outside the Church. Thus, it was my responsibility to assist ABC news anchors and correspondents in shaping their stories or simply to help them with a basic vocabulary for communicating the Catholic faith to their respective audiences.
The challenge was especially daunting during John Paul II's funeral and the conclave. On the one hand, it was an extraordinary catechetical or even evangelical platform as I sat there with the anchors and without a script during the live coverage for hours on end. But on the other hand, it was a careful balancing act to determine the best strategy for articulating the Church's faith to eight million viewers, many of whom were not Catholic or Christian, some of whom were agnostic or atheist, not to mention those who declare themselves as "former Roman Catholics"- now the largest religious body in the United States. The challenge was to communicate faith and the image of the Church in as hopeful and positive a way as possible - the Church as a sacrament but also as a bridge connecting diverse peoples and cultures.
The greatest challenge was to communicate that message effectively in a culture that has become increasingly secularised and post-Christian. However one reads the tea leaves, whether in North America, Oceania or Western Europe, that secularism affects Christians of all denominations as we attempt to bear witness to the paschal mystery of Christ. Indeed, the future of the Church's mission in those secularised parts of the world will be determined by its capacity to discern new pastoral strategies for communicating the message.
I would suggest several ways that might help communicate faith in this post-Christian age. First, if we take the example of Christ himself as a starting point, we need to look beyond the confines of the parish or diocese. Back in the 1980s the New York Jesuits opened an office on Wall Street to minister to the needs of brokers and traders, financial investment managers and corporate executives. Spiritual direction was offered and retreats were organized along with seminars on business ethics and how Christian moral principles should influence decision-making within a global economy. That Jesuit venture was, unfortunately, short-lived, but it offers a good example, I believe, about the ways in which the Church can more effectively communicate its message within the secular world. (Indeed, given the current global financial roller coaster triggered by the US markets, I suspect that the Jesuit staff on Wall Street would be working around the clock today if the office were still there.) The Church's corporate response to global warming and the environmental threat created by climate change; its centres for those living with HIV/Aids; its assistance to refugees and displaced persons in finding lodging and employment all offer further examples and important opportunities for ecumenical collaboration, as well.
Another important example of intersection between faith and secular culture is found in the ecumenical organisation Bread for the World, founded in 1972 to lobby the US Government and influence policies that address the causes of world hunger. It is not insignificant that the organisation's president, David Beckmann, is both an ordained Lutheran pastor and an alumnus of the London School of Economics. Prior to assuming the presidency of Bread for the World, Beckmann played a leading role within the World Bank where he served for 15 years. Projects like these, I believe, offer cause for hope as we consider the future of the Christian message within a society which is increasingly secularised and, again, post-Christian.
Prior to his election as Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger co-authored a book in 2004 with the professor of philosophy and atheist Marcello Pera, then President of the Italian Senate. They managed respectfully to disagree on their fundamental differences regarding faith and religion, and to focus their energies on what they were able to do in common. As both Ratzinger and Pera were especially concerned about the current crisis in values rocking Western Europe, and the "moral relativism" that is damaging the fabric of European society, they wrote their book as a joint response to the crisis. As a professor himself, Pope Benedict has noted in his writings that secularists are often very dedicated individuals who live generous lives, are passionate in their search of beauty and truth, and care deeply about justice, even as they do not feel the need to claim a religious identity. My hunch is that too often within the Church we can be eager to draw clear lines of demarcation between those on the inside and those on the outside. But the Gospel of Christ impels us to continually seek opportunities for bridge-building and collaboration as evidenced in the Ratzinger-Pera text.
Secondly, we need to learn the new language of dialogue - a reinterpretation of the sacramentality of the Word in light of the ever-changing social and religious landscape. But if we are to learn this new language which is born in contemplation, then it will also mean dying to past structures and religious systems, as Bishop Claude Champagne of Halifax, Nova Scotia noted several years ago in an address he gave to the Canadian Episcopal Conference. A missionary Church, he remarked, must not nourish nostalgia for the past but must be willing to die to a certain identity so that something new can emerge. Over the past few years, for example, the Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has spoken consistently of the ways in which Belgium has indeed become a post-Christian country. Despite that, the cardinal remains the most respected figure in post-Christian Belgian society, precisely because he has learned that new language of dialogue. When he speaks, he does so with credibility, and people listen whether they are believers or not.
Thirdly, in this post-Christian world of ours, the communication of faith may well be done more effectively through deeds rather than words - the witness and example that we give by our actions in the service of the human family and the entire planet. While Mongolian society can hardly be called post-Christian since the first Catholics only arrived there in 1992, the young Church of Mongolia has done an extraordinary job of communicating the Christian message largely through the works of mercy which it has initiated. The former Communist government's initial resistance to a Catholic presence in Mongolia was rapidly transformed when it observed the Church's work in health care, education and employment training, and its response to social problems such as alcoholism, depression and unwanted pregnancy. Plans are now under way for the opening of a Jesuit secondary school in Ulaanbaatar. This will further support the Church's efforts in forming future leaders of that country which boasts a literacy rate of 93 per cent. As church membership in Mongolia continues to grow, the numerous catechumens and candidates attest to the fact that what attracted them was largely the Church's witness through its social outreach.
As we seek to navigate these troubled waters, there are no quick solutions and no easy answers. But it is important that we do not cease to ask the fundamental questions in the hope that more and more, our eyes might be opened to what God is doing in the world - even despite the current challenges or perhaps because of them. And it is equally important that the witness of our own lives engenders hope in others, so that a more effective communication of faith might actually become a catalyst for social reconstruction in postmodern and post-Christian twenty-first century society.