Philadelphia Enquirer April 13, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States marks a time of celebrations and challenges for the church.
The pope is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, and spend three days in New York before returning to Rome. He will turn 81 on Wednesday.
Today, Cardinal Justin Rigali will mark the close of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 200th anniversary celebration with a Mass at Villanova University.
The celebrations affirm the roots and impact of the church here, but also signal the challenges at hand.
The pope has a hard act to follow in John Paul II. The late pope was charismatic, assertive and beloved, and deeply influenced world affairs. Benedict, by contrast, has maintained a lower-profile, working instead behind the scenes to put his own stamp on church affairs.
In America, the church holds a puzzling position. It remains large and respected, but is withering and weathering attacks from both outside and within.
In many older, urban areas, parishes and schools are closing or merging. Bishop Joseph Galante just announced a big restructuring of the Camden Diocese that will probably close parishes in six South Jersey counties.
In Philadelphia, three Catholic parish schools in Port Richmond plan to merge into one. At the same time, the archdiocese is adapting to population shifts with plans to build two high schools in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
Maybe the biggest challenge of all is this: What does it mean to be a Catholic in the United States of 2008?
The Catholic Church is the largest single faith in the country and in the world. Locally, as in many areas throughout the country, there are many Catholics, but too many of them no longer attend church regularly. And Catholic high schools and universities everywhere soft-pedal religion and hard-peddle "values" as a branding strategy.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University says that nearly 700 parishes closed across the country from 1995 to 2007, with more cutbacks coming. The numbers of priests and sisters continue to decline. In South Jersey, it's estimated that by 2015 there will be only 85 active priests to serve 450,000 Catholics. Nationwide, in the next 20 years, the number of active diocesan priests will drop in half to 11,500. There are about 19,000 parishes, so that translates to a huge gap.
The church has helped create this crisis by insisting on ancient disciplines such as priestly celibacy (including its refusal to allow priests to marry) and the bar against women in the clergy. None of these practices was expressly enjoined by Jesus. All were local traditions that ossified into doctrine. Now, they're helping strangle it.
Sexual-abuse scandals have destroyed trust in the institution and its ministers. Church leaders have contributed to this fiasco in being slow to react; hiding or minimizing the problem; or stonewalling. True, the Philadelphia Archdiocese has overhauled its prevention and victim-assistance program (for a reported 144 victims), devoting $1 million since January 2007 on counseling and other services. On the other hand, generally it refuses to say where the disgraced and defrocked perps are now.
Yet many people love the Catholic Church, and not just Catholics. It retains an authority earned by long, loyal and often dangerous adherence to a high standard of belief and conduct. (There's much to be ashamed of, too, including the Inquisition and an often ambiguous response to Nazism in World War II.)
Church leaders regularly weigh in on public policy (the death penalty), ethical debate (stem-cell research), and personal morality. Most visible of all is the pope, father of the church.
In a world of violence, environmental degradation, and lack of coherent values, it's comforting that somewhere there's a family that, inspired by the holiest of lives, seeks to emulate that life and spread its message of peace, responsibility, moral clarity - and above all, belief.
Today, the debate (at least in the journals and op-ed pages) between belief and unbelief rages afresh. Still, hundreds of millions all over the world, and millions and millions to come, will come to believe in a God in the universe and a Christ that intervenes in human history to spread understanding and love. And they will learn that and live that through this church.
You could have a worse message. The challenge for all Catholics, though, remains: Who will tell this message, and who will hear?