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Donald W. WuerlFebruary 28, 2011

Not long ago, a parishioner shared a story about an incident that deeply troubled him. His nephew, a Catholic and a junior at a well-regarded liberal arts college, had written a research paper on physician-assisted suicide. He told his uncle and a group of about 15 others, all Catholic, that he had concluded that it is good for people with handicaps and certain illnesses to be able to end their misery whenever they want. It was obvious to him that their quality of life is so minimal that they need that option.

No one said anything. Finally, the parishioner spoke up. He was not willing to let this go by without discussion. He gently challenged the young man to think about the issues of human dignity, the value of life and the reality of truth. The nephew and a niece responded that they believed there is no such thing as absolute truth and that everyone has a right to determine his or her own destiny. The only other person entering the conversation, the young man’s father, proposed they resolve the disagreement by letting people vote on whether assisted suicide should be permitted.

Everyone present was highly educated. Most had attended Catholic colleges. All considered themselves practicing Catholics except one, who had left the Catholic Church while attending a Catholic university because the church’s views differed from her political and social views. Yet none spoke up in defense of the vulnerable.

This conversation could have happened anywhere today, and likely some variation of it has taken place in other Catholic families. Even Catholics raised in Catholic families, who were educated at Catholic institutions and who attend Mass regularly, do not necessarily know or understand their faith or believe it. Many others have left the church altogether. In fact, if the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is correct, approximately 10 percent of all Americans are “former” Catholics.

In spite of the genuine and sometimes heroic efforts of parents and teachers in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs, sometimes the message simply is not heard the first time around. In today’s culture, it cannot be assumed that baptized Catholics will embrace discipleship and become active followers of Christ. Many Catholics are affected by the secularism, materialism and individualism of our society, as are many of their friends, families and neighbors who do not profess the faith. It is difficult for the church to be heard through the pervasive noise.

Many Catholics have embraced a postmodern mentality that rejects belief in a universal and objective truth, leading to a rise in relativism. Many mistrust institutions, including the church, and do not turn to her for guidance. A self-referencing individualism evaluates in terms of what is best for the self rather than what is best for the common good. There may be an interest in spirituality, but it is often without humble submission to truth beyond the self. The sense of individuality is so strong that many have lost a desire for community and living in solidarity with others.

Clearly, many Catholics do not know their faith well, nor have they accepted the invitation from Christ to follow him as disciples. So what can be done? In a recent pastoral letter, Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision, I wrote that Christ still calls us to conversion and discipleship, “but, for many, the invitation has lost its appeal.” It seems that “for some who initially heard this incredible proclamation, the message has become stale. The vision has faded. The promises seem empty or unconnected to their lives.”

A recent survey conducted by the Archdiocese of Washington concluded that nearly 50 percent of Catholics between the ages of 25 and 34 attend Mass no more than a few times a year, if at all. Nearly as many, however, consider prayer and spirituality to be very important in their lives. The hunger is there, but the message of the Gospel has been eclipsed.

At the other end of the spectrum, one sees great signs of vitality. In the past year, as I have met and talked with pastoral leaders across the archdiocese, I can see that the church in Washington, D.C., is doing many things right and well, or at least it is making strides in a positive direction. There is room for improvement and growth, but the spark is there. Each January, for example, 20,000 young people from across the United States gather at the Verizon Center in Washington for a Rally and Mass for Life. This year we added a second venue with space for an additional 10,000 young people to cheer, pray and stand up for the culture of life. The free tickets for both locations—30,000 seats—were claimed within minutes, and requests continued to pour in. School enrollment has stabilized as communities become more engaged with their Catholic schools; a new archdiocesan seminary will open in the fall to accommodate an increased interest in vocations to the priesthood; and groups ranging from those who are a part of the new movements to those with special needs are increasingly engaged with their church. The archdiocese held its first White Mass recently to celebrate the giftedness to our church and society of those who have special needs. At the same time, parishes have started to actively embrace evangelization efforts, including door-to-door invitations to Invite-A-Friend Sunday and visits by parishioners to those members who have stopped coming to Mass, to invite them back.

Reproposing the Gospel

But is this enough? Last year, it became clear that we needed a focus, something to tie all these good things together and to inspire more, to bring back that 50 percent of young adults not in the pews every week. It became apparent that the call of Pope John Paul II and recently Pope Benedict XVI for a “new evangelization” was what we were trying to do already. But by focusing on this in a more intentional and deliberate way, through what Pope Benedict calls a “reproposing” of the faith, we could gain much-needed momentum.

The Holy Spirit is working in our age, as in every age, but there is much to do. I wrote the pastoral letter to awaken anew in the hearts of Catholics that the church exists to evangelize. The Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” quotes Pius XI: “It is necessary never to lose sight of the fact that the objective of the church is to evangelize, not to civilize. If it civilizes, it is for the sake of evangelization.”

The transformation of society begins with conversion, not with another new program. The antidote to our spiritual malaise is for each of us to know and deepen our knowledge of the crucified and risen Jesus. For people to hear the Gospel, the tellers must be credible and alive in their experience of Christ.

This conversion essentially involves discernment. Each of us Catholics must stop and see where the Lord is working and where there is room for growth. Following this basic principle, and understanding that parish life is at the heart of the church experience, the Archdiocese of Washington is introducing a new tool to help parishes discern where they are most vital and where the Spirit is calling them to grow. The “Indicators of Vitality” make up a self-assessment tool that gives pastors and parish leaders a way to plan for the future by looking at the health and vitality of their parishes in five areas: worship, education, community life, service and administration (which includes the leadership, stewardship, management and decision-making processes of the parish).

The process of parish self-assessment brings pastoral planning to a level where it is going to be lived. Parishes self-identify their vision and their needs. The staff of the archdiocese is available to help the parishes achieve their goals, not to impose a new program. This vision implicitly recognizes that the people and their pastors are the experts on their parish, and diocesan support must be oriented to supporting pastors, not the other way around.

This vision of evangelization recognizes that listening is inherent to preaching. When those who preach know how the world is listening, they can, in the words of Pope John Paul II, preach the unchanging truth with “new ardor, new methods and new expression.” That truth needs to be proclaimed in a way that the world can comprehend, whether from the pulpit, in conversation or through contemporary music or social media.

Encounter With the Risen Christ

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI teach that, especially in this culture, the faith must still be taught in all its fullness, richness and transforming power. Entry into this truth brings entry into the life and love of God.

If there is anything we Christians should know, it is that human beings yearn for life and love and will turn just about anywhere to find it. The church ministers this life and love in the most beautiful and complete way. Many today are not open to the message the church teaches because it is often presented in a way that does not penetrate the postmodern mentality. But there is and has always been power to transform lives in the love of God, the truth of Christ and the gentle work of the Holy Spirit. This is the heart of our message, and it does not change.

An encounter with Christ makes all the difference, which we cannot forget. This is the ageless message of the saints, and it continues to inspire and challenge in our own day. In encountering Christ, we share in God’s life and love in a dynamic way and are enlivened by the Holy Spirit to share this message with others. Our primary encounters with Christ come in the Eucharist and the other sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation. We meet him, too, in reading Scripture, in our prayer and in the community of believers, including when we reach out to those around us, especially the poor and vulnerable, through works of charity and justice.

That is why, as we repropose the Gospel through the new evangelization, we are called to do even better what we already do. Good liturgy is important. Prayer is important. Reading Scripture is important. Our life in community is important, especially as manifested in our social ministries. As Pope John Paul taught, “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves; they must proclaim him” (“Novo Millennio Ineunte,” No. 49).

This is the heart and challenge of the new evangelization: reinvigorating our own faith so we then can invite others to rediscover Christ.

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13 years ago
Thank you, Cardinal Wuerl for your insights.  Several articles in this issue of America speak about the problems of Catholics, their faith, and their church.  This seems to agree with your statement that "Church teaching does not penetrate postmodern mentality".  So, who needs to change?
Several years ago the Ohio Bishops in their annual letter said that it is time for us to "proclaim the person of Jesus" and not "it" (the Church).  You seem to agree with this idea.  However, were the processes you suggest used in the development of the new translation that is found in the new Roman Missal?  Will this Roman Missal help us in "reinvigorating our own faith so we then can invite others to rediscover Christ"?
It seems that the Spirit has a lot of work to do in the Church and in all of us in the coming days. 
ed gleason
13 years ago
Good reflection. I came of age in the late forties and early fifties. The Catholic marching band was the biggest and loudest on the streets and Catholic Action told us now that we were better educated, more ambitious and ready to leave the ghetto we should  go out into the [secular] world and bring it to Christ. We did... and the world changed us. we became them, more affluent, more CEOs more elected Pols etc etc. Need New marching orders?
Craig McKee
13 years ago
"Good liturgy is important."
"A recent survey conducted by the Archdiocese of Washington concluded that nearly 50 percent of Catholics between the ages of 25 and 34 attend Mass no more than a few times a year, if at all."

With the impending release of the "New Liturgical Movement's" new English translation of the Mass, it will be interesting to analyze the results of a followup survey to see if and how the 25-34 demographic numbers change.
Michael Olson
13 years ago
Your paragraph below, Cardinal Wuerl, is very important, as far as it goes.  Listening, however, to be listening, has to be a two way street.  The Church needs to learn to listen humbly to what intelligent, honest, sincere people are experiencing, have experined and have written and are writing and talking about concerning their relationship and encounters with God, with Christ, with Jesus and, yes, with Mary and with many others.  There should also be an openness to learn from those in other times, places and traditions, from the East, from indigenous peoples including native Americans, and from American mystics and philosophers, scientists and those we meet in our daily lives. 

"This vision of evangelization recognizes that listening is inherent to preaching. When those who preach know how the world is listening, they can, in the words of Pope John Paul II, preach the unchanging truth with “new ardor, new methods and new expression.” That truth needs to be proclaimed in a way that the world can comprehend, whether from the pulpit, in conversation or through contemporary music or social media."

So the issue is not just how the world is listening, but how the Church is listening. To preach "the unchagning truth" requires an understanding that while the truth, if it is truth, is not changing, yet it can always be more deeply understood and seen as much more expanded, more immanent, more extensive, more immediate and more personal and, at the same time more universal than has been expected. 

I could name many names worth investigating, but, in this short space, perhaps it is just best to mention some advice that came to me while studing with the Jesuits in my  younger days, "Never be afraid of the truth." Along with that was a strong encouragement to work very hard at trying to understanding what others are trying to tell you. 

David Smith
13 years ago
While trying to make the face of the Church more attractive to the post-modern mind, don't overlook the fact that people are diverse and respond differently.  One new face won't appeal equally well to all, and it may turn off many.

I think a model worth trying is a central Church with groups of like-minded, like-oriented individuals living quasi-separately within it.  This already exists, of course, but not so much at the parish level, where it may be needed most.  Rather than try to force everybody to be on the same page, let them, instead, be on their own separate pages.  Same book, different chapters.
Richard T Rodriguez
13 years ago
Most people I know are seeking nourishment from the Catholic Church.  Many seem to find lots of renewed dust.  The fact that we live in an evolving universe seems to surround so much of what they experience.  Yet, rather than face this reality, the Church seems entrapped by the very dogma it seeks to teach. Can we (Church) honestly discuss all the wonderful things St Augustine wrote about, and his very faulty knowledge of reproductive matters that has unfortunately influenced so much of our supposed morality on  all sexual issues.  The official Catholic Church seems eager to avoid these realities and rush into the past.  Nourishment?   Send our roots rain!
Karen Anne Stone
13 years ago
I think one of the problems here is that you said that many Catholics do not know their faith.  Faith is just that.  A belief.  How can one not know what one believes?  The problem really is that your definition of what you believe in... is different from my definition of what I believe in.

If we are to believe that the Holy Spirit "informs" us, it is also possible that this "informing" is done that in a way that is specific to us.  None of us has a firm knowledge of exactly how the Holy Spirit works in others.
13 years ago
I am just as Catholic as Cardinal Wuerl. I don't agree at all with him on anything. I am for gay marriage, contraception, living together outside of marriage and I am pro choice.  I also think celibacy is destructive. I believe women should be ordained. With Cardinal Wuerl, I do believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, etc. but I am very saddened that our hierarchy are all Republicans, and are mute on  things that matter most to me: poverty, human rights and war. The Church is mine as much as it is his. It's just that I have had a better education than he has had. 
12 years 12 months ago
I have no doubt regarding Archbishop Wuerl's competency as a teacher of the faith and his zeal for evangelizing. Nevertheless, I do have questions about his perception and understanding of the problems that Catholics are having in trying to keep the faith and passing it on.  

He notes several impediments for all of us in the Church who are intent on renewing our faith and advancing evangelization: secularism, materialism, individualism, relativism.  These may all be valid obstacles.  However, in talking to my adult children (all professionals in various fields and practicing Catholics, except for one-law, engineering, nursing-and friends who are practicing Catholics as well as family members who have left the Church, the major issue is not the message but with the messengers.  What Archbishop Wuerl omitted from his list of impediments is another ism, the most important ism in my opinion: clericalism.

Not sure what the he and his colleagues in the hierarchy can do about a culture saturated with secularism, materialism, individualism, and relativism.  There is a great deal they could do about clericalism and the lack of modesty (humility) they seem to have regarding "truth claims"-e.g., the bishop of Phoenix.

Until the issue of clericalism is dealt with, I predict that the next Pew survey will advise us that number of "former" Catholics will be much greater than the 10% reported by the most recent Pew Forum survey.

12 years 12 months ago
I challenge the hierarcy of the Church to listen, listen and listen some more.  How can the Church address the needs of its people if it concerns itself only with control and legalism and doesn't hear the desperation of its needy members?  How many pastors feel responsible for the the homolies delivered to the faithful who are hungry for spiritual renewal?  What a waste most of them are and what a lose!  Another suggestion is to follow Christ who relinquished managerial matters so that he could wholeheartedly engage in curing, preaching and converting.  His gentle, loving presence was his gift.  Can you find time to follow his lead?  I beg you to wholeheartedly embrace the people God has entrusted to your care.  Lead us in love. 
12 years 12 months ago
Thank you, Cardinal Wuerl. Is there a way we can get our hands on the parish vitality self-assessment? 
12 years 10 months ago
"An encounter with Crist makes all the difference, which we canot forget".  Cardinal Wuerl is on the mark here, giving people of faith a truism shown in many ways from Gospel stories to the lives of the saints.  Yet, the road to that encounter bifucates as the hierarchy favors one direction.   The large number of Catholics who, in this present day and time,  have left our ranks bespeaks of the need to formulate a Catholic identity for this age.  It doesn't involve a new proclamation but uncluttering what is essential.  I fear that even the hierarchy would shy away from this task as
some of the old ways can't be held as essential by us who live in this postmodern age. 
All must listen and take an honewst look at how we can best can back on track of having that encounter.

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