Sunday, May 17, 2015

Irrelevant Numbers

We shared the news with parishioners at Masses this Sunday that Fr. Justin Thomas has been reassigned after just one year with us.  He'll become the parochial vicar at St. Mary's  Cathedral and Notre Dame Church in Ogdensburg on July 1.  Fr. Scott Belina, currently assigned to the Cathedral and the Chancery, will become the new parochial vicar here at St. André's.  Please pray for both of them and all of our priests in transition.

   Seventh Sunday of Easter   B 

This week, the Pew Research Center
The numbers are quite sobering.
There are almost 8% fewer Christians in this country
than there were just seven years ago.
For many years,
the largest single religious group in the U.S. has been Catholics;
we’ve now been surpassed…
…by those who have no religious affiliation at all—
nearly 23% of the population,
and they’re the fastest growing group.
13% of all Americans used to be Catholic, but aren’t anymore.

Looking up some sacramental records a few days ago
brought the numbers close to home.
50 years ago—in 1965—196 children
received their First Holy Communion in Malone and Chasm Falls;
this May, we had just 30.
Since St. André’s Parish was officially founded on July 1st,
we’ve had 97 deaths, but only 8 baptisms.
You can see smaller collection numbers in the bulletins.
You can see the empty pews.

Now, I know that locally some folks are saying
that numbers are down because we’ve changed Mass schedules
and realigned or closed churches.
(You should know that,
among the changes Bishop LaValley made on Wednesday,
there will now be one pastor for Chateaugay, Burke,
Constable, Westville, Bombay, and Fort Covington.)
To a point, what folks are saying may be true.
Change is almost always hard to swallow—
and, as many constantly remind me,
that’s especially hard for older folks,
who make up the majority of active Catholics in the North Country.
But let’s be honest:
while a few people leave because of such changes,
the fact of the matter is we simply have to make these changes
because so many have already left.

By this point you’re probably thinking,
“Fr. Joe, aren’t you supposed be preaching the good news?”
True enough!
But this is the reality we must reckon with,
and pretending things are otherwise won’t make it so.

This past Wednesday evening
there was a meeting in Constable for the Catholics of our deanery
concerning pastoral planning in the Diocese.
Several who got up spoke about the need
for the Catholic Church to be more “relevant.”
The Church needs to get with the times, we were told,
to adapt and change a bunch of things.
Church music should sound more like what kids listen to these days.
We should lower our expectations of those receiving the sacraments
so nobody feels left out.
Sermons should be based more on what’s on YouTube,
and less on what’s in the Bible.
Some of the things proposed went so far
that the Church being described
couldn’t be considered Catholic any more.

The great yet unspoken paradox is:
people say that too much change is the problem…
…but more and radical change is the solution!

Should the Church become more like the surrounding world?
Do we like the direction the world is going?
Is the world today in such good shape
that we should take it as a model to follow?

Let’s not forget that this approach has been tried…and failed.
Do you remember the Folk Masses,
back when hip cats still thought folk music was groovy?
The Catholic Church in the U.S.
has made many accommodations to the prevailing culture
in the last fifty years;
if they’d worked as well as some thought they would,
we'd be starting new parishes these days, 
not consolidating old ones.
If we keep trying to play the “relevant” game,
the Church will always be a few steps behind.
Not to mention it gives a dangerously mixed message:
yes, it says, “We’ll do anything to get and keep you”…
…but it also says, “We’re desperate.”
And telling the world you’re desperate
doesn’t exactly communicate that you’ve put your trust in God;
instead, it says you’ve lost your faith.

Certainly, the Church needs to speak in our times and to our times
in a way that our times can understand.
The Church needs to respond in love
to the real needs and concerns of people today.
But while our language and methods can be adapted,
the message can never be altered.
The Church didn’t write the Gospel; she received it.
We don’t, then, get to revise or rework it
to better suit our contemporary tastes.

Still at table with his Apostles the very night before he died,
we hear Jesus fervently, urgently praying for them,
praying for all of his disciples—praying for you and for me.
“Holy Father,” he says, “I gave them your word
and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world,
but that you keep them from the evil one.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a prayer
for accommodation to the world or relevance to the times!
At that first Eucharist, Jesus does not beg the Father
to consecrate his followers in public opinion—
to set them apart for what’s most popular or convenient.
No, Jesus prays, “Consecrate them in the truth.”

My friends, the pressing issue for our times—
the pressing issue in every age—
is not that the Church ought to conform herself to the world;
it’s that the members of the Church must conform themselves to Christ.
It’s the world that needs changing,
and Christ has given his Church the power to make all things new.
But that power can’t be unleashed until we’re clear
about who’s actually at the center of this enterprise.
Is it all about us, or is it all about Christ?
Where’s the focus?  Who answers to whom?
Who or what do we really worship?
Are we trying hard to be
the “church of what’s happening now”?
Or are we a Church truly striving
for holiness now, and heaven for ever?

A priest driving through the countryside
landed his car in the ditch.
Luckily, a farmer came by to help
with his big, strong horse named Buddy.
The farmer hitched Buddy to the car
and yelled, “Pull, Clover, pull!”
Buddy didn’t move
Then the farmer hollered, “Pull, Prancer, pull!”
Again, Buddy didn’t respond.
Now the farmer shouted, “Pull, Rosebud, pull!”
Still, nothing.
Then the farmer gently said, “Pull, Buddy, pull,”
and the horse easily dragged the car up out of the ditch.
The priest was grateful, but also quite curious,
so he asked the farmer
why he called the horse by the wrong name three times.
“Oh,” the farmer answered, 
“that’s because Buddy is blind
and if he thought he was the only one pulling,
he wouldn’t have even tried.”

The Apostles clearly understood
that there could be no going it alone.
As we find them looking for a twelfth Apostle
to take the place of Judas,
it’s clear that the Christian project isn’t a solo effort.
It requires a shared vision. 
It’s a matter of a common mission.
They must make every effort to be one, as they had heard Jesus pray.
And so, like them, we must stick together.
We must put our energy into making sure we’re on the same page,
rather than attempting to change the script.
We must avoid the temptation to go chasing after the spirit of the age,
and instead relentlessly run after the Spirit of Christ.
“We know that we remain in God and God in us
by the Spirit he has given us.”
The load may be heavy, but we never pull alone.
The Lord Jesus has ascended to his throne in heaven,
but he has not abandoned his Church.
He has given us the Holy Spirit,
who sets the agenda and gives us the strength to fulfill it.

The numbers sure get our attention these days.
But, my friends—it’s not about the numbers!
It’s not about being relevant!
It’s about being faithful.
That’s the only thing that has ever mattered.
That’s the only thing that will ever work.


Unknown said...

The truth is always relevant. Thank you for filling your homilies with so much truth. Some day, we'll be back to first Communion classes like that, but it won't be done by making the church more like the rest of the world.

Unknown said...
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