"We have to close parishes.” “Many of our young priests are very conservative.” “So many couples who come to be married in church or to have their babies baptized don’t have a clue about the faith. People call themselves Catholic but have nothing to do with the Church or the sacraments.” Such comments could be heard almost anywhere about the United States. But these were not. They are remarks made by knowledgeable people, clergy and laity, reflecting on the situation of the church in the Czech Republic.
I’ve visited the Czech Republic five times—twice while it was under Communist rule, twice within a few years after the collapse of Communism and once very recently. During these visits, I have been able to spend time with members of the Czech hierarchy, with priests and seminarians and with active Catholic families who succeeded in keeping the faith even during the days of severe oppression. What is most striking is that our two countries, so different in history, both religious and secular, mirror each other in many significant ways.
The most dangerous common enemy in both the United States and the Czech Republic is consumerism. The Czechs are emerging from the darkness of atheistic Communism into a society ablaze with the lights of the great god Stuff, the deity of consumerism, and have joined many Americans at that shrine. Americans have also passed from a kind of civic religion, Christian in its broad outlines, to “expressive individualism,” a cult of the self. Czechs, after 15 years of freedom, are becoming eager converts to the same ideology. In the confusion, some believers and younger priests in both countries search for certainty in an imagined past golden age.
In both countries, there is widespread ignorance of the faith. Most younger Czech families never knew the church or its life. They are the products of two generations of suppression of Catholic practice and teaching. When the generation of grandmothers who passed on the religious traditions died out, there was no one to take their place. Many younger Americans likewise have grown up without any real knowledge of Jesus and their faith and with minimal participation in the sacramental and social life of the church.
Of course, everything in the Czech Republic is on a different scale. A pastor in a city of 50,000 spoke of the two parishes that serve the city; they count a total Mass attendance of 1,000. In a town of 11,000, a mother and daughter are the whole catechetical staff for the 14 children who come for religious instruction from the congregation of 100 people. In one diocese, parishes are vulnerable to closing if Sunday Mass attendance is less than 25.
The commonalities between the church in the Czech Republic and in the United States have led me to four conclusions about the practice of the faith today. First, the faith continues to be lived by smaller but very committed groups of people. In our Diocese of Rockville Centre, I am always impressed by the women and men who are very active in parish life: in social ministry, in religious formation of people of all ages, in sacramental and liturgical life. Similarly, in the Czech Republic families who supported one another during the difficult times continue to do so now in movements like Focolare, which works to unify Christians and deepen Christian life through reflection on the Scriptures. In one city I met four Catholic women who are part of the social service agency. They gather with a few of their believing colleagues each week to reflect on how they might bring true principles of justice to their work.
Second, the family is crucial. An hour a week of religious instruction or even attendance at Catholic school mean little to children unless they grow up in families where religious belief and practice are unashamedly a part of life. One Czech priest told me that he refuses to open a parish school, even though the state would pay the teachers’ salaries. He said he cannot find enough people of faith to create a Catholic atmosphere in such a school. We are fortunate in the United States to have a dedicated corps of Catholic teachers and catechists, but their good efforts cannot make up for homes empty of lived faith.
Third, the church must make even greater efforts to educate its people. It has been my experience and that of other teachers that even interested adults who participate eagerly in ongoing spiritual formation have less basic religious knowledge than their predecessors of 15 or 20 years ago. Likewise, the European values survey indicates that the Czechs are among the most religion-less people in Europe, a consequence of the general absence of religion for two generations. Those who are looking for sound teaching are entitled to it; but they must know enough to root their beliefs in what is really essential.
Fourth, it must be made clear that our faith is not “God and me.” American social scientists describe great numbers of our people as “spiritual but not religious.” Any priest or active parishioner can verify this from personal experience. We’ve all heard, “I believe in God. I pray by myself. I see no need to belong to a church or get involved with ‘sacraments.’”
There is a similar ethos in the Czech Republic. This may be in part a carryover from the days of repression. People did not want to attract attention by overt religious practice. The children of believing families did not have access to higher education, and their parents never got promoted. Religion for many of those who believed was thus very private and individualistic. After the fall of Communism, members of the clergy commented on how difficult it was for believers to break that mind-set and assume higher profile leadership roles.
We have to recognize the personal dimension of our relationship with God. But that relationship is stunted if it does not go hand in hand with a deep sense of being part of a larger community called to join in worship and to witness to God’s kingdom of peace and justice in our world.
There are 43 parishes in the vicariate I serve. I am on my fifth round of weekend pastoral visits to those parishes. I meet with the pastoral council, the finance committee, the pastoral staff, representatives of various parish ministries and activities, and I preach at all the weekend Masses. Almost all the active Catholics I listen to give the same reasons for their participation and satisfaction in parish life. They have found a warm and welcoming community that cares both for them and for others outside itself. They are inspired and nourished by the liturgical celebrations. They are able to continue their spiritual and intellectual formation.
In the end, perhaps the church in the United States and in the Czech Republic are so clearly a part of the same small world because an ancient description of church still rings true: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).