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In today’s society, the Catholic Church in America is facing a significant challenge. A generation ago, the concern was the large number of uncatechized Catholics sitting in the pews. However, these individuals have now grown up to become Millennials who are not only uncatechized but also unchurched. They rarely attend Mass, and their children are also not exposed to the Catholic faith. This has led to a decline in religious affiliation among this group, making them one of the least religious in American history. The Catholic faith has become as obscure to them as complex scientific concepts like quantum physics or calculus.
The question then arises, is Catholicism in America doomed when the majority of the baptized, around 80%, choose to stay home on Sundays and are unchurched? In previous generations, the transmission of the Catholic faith occurred through a combination of liturgical experiences and educational instruction. The Mass, celebrations of saints, and other religious practices formed the foundation of Catholic culture, which was further reinforced through direct religious education. This Catholic way of living was distinct from the broader American Protestant culture that dominated the nation.
However, today, all the cultural elements that supported the liturgy and education in handing on the faith have disappeared. Secularity has permeated all aspects of American life, and actions once considered immoral are now seen as normal. Catholic culture, which encompassed family prayer, religious practices, and living among other Catholics, has faded away. Catholic art and architecture have been deliberately dismantled, and the parish is no longer the center of Catholic activity. Instead of attending Mass on Sundays, Millennial parents now prioritize taking their children to athletic events. It is evident that the cultural foundation that once supported Catholicism in America has crumbled.
The Current State of Marginal Catholics
Observing the lives of marginal Catholics, particularly in baptism preparation classes, reveals the challenges they face in the absence of a supportive Catholic culture. Most new parents attending these classes, ranging in age from their early thirties to early forties, have a tenuous connection to the institutional Church and my parish. Many of them are new to town and have yet to attend Mass, while others have a faint natal connection to the parish. When entering the church, there is a lack of reverence, with no one genuflecting, and some new fathers even continue wearing their baseball caps.
Given the minimal exposure to Catholicism in their lives, it becomes challenging to spark their faith through a single sixty-minute session. The same can be said for Catholics who attend Mass but have little connection to the broader Catholic culture. It is worrisome to consider what parish attendance will look like in thirty years when these Millennials are collecting Social Security and their children, who were never taken to church but were baptized, become parents themselves.
The Remedy for the Decline of Catholicism
While efforts to evangelize through sacramental preparation must continue, the likelihood of success in leading these individuals to regular Catholic practice is minimal. The Mass alone, without the support of a broader Catholic culture, cannot keep Catholics engaged. Christopher Dawson’s assertion that religion needs culture to grow, like a seed needs good soil, holds true. The current American culture lacks the necessary fertility to support the growth of the Catholic faith, and there are no immediate prospects for its renewal.
To address this situation, a triangular-shaped garden can provide fertile soil for a counterculture to develop. This counterculture can be nurtured through the family, the parish, and the Catholic school. All three elements must work together intentionally, with a shared understanding and a critical perspective on the prevailing secular culture. Young people will be more likely to remain rooted in the countercultural Catholic garden if they recognize the benefits of staying there while also understanding the flaws of the secular culture.
The Family as the Domestic Church
Vatican II referred to the family as the “domestic church” and emphasized that parents should be the first preachers of the faith to their children. It is within the family that the faith given through the Church in baptism takes root. Both the parish and the school should encourage parents and children to nurture their faith development at home. In the absence of a Catholic neighborhood, resources can be provided to supplement their efforts and guide them in living the Catholic faith in daily life. Parents must be aware that they and their children are different from their peers for choosing a distinctly Catholic life and must fortify themselves against peer pressure to conform.
The Role of the Parish
The parish plays a vital role in cultivating a countercultural Catholic garden. It should increase opportunities for adoration, devotion, and processions, inviting parents and children to participate. The impact of involving children in activities like Eucharistic or saint processions, with proper practice and understanding, can be significant. Parish priests should not hesitate to criticize the prevailing secular culture in their homilies and explain the benefits of a countercultural Catholic way of life. By doing so, they can demonstrate that living a Catholic life is healthier, more fulfilling, and more in line with human dignity and flourishing.
The Importance of Catholic Schools
Catholic schools have a unique opportunity to promote Catholic culture and counter the influence of secular culture. They can incorporate the virtues of Catholic culture while exposing the vices of secular culture in various aspects of school life, from marketing to school assemblies and regular classroom instruction. Math and science can be presented in a way that highlights the benevolent Creator God who designed the universe to reflect His love. History and literature courses can include the stories of saints and Catholic writers alongside other influential figures. By integrating religion into culture, students can see the natural connection between the two. Catholic schools can also organize family and religious events that foster a sense of community among Catholics.
The Need for a Countercultural Catholic Garden
The seeds desired for this triangular garden are not the marginal Catholics but those who already have some active ties to the Church, such as attending Mass or being enrolled in Catholic schools. To ensure the growth of the Catholic faith in a hostile American culture, three times the effort must be made to provide countercultural conditions for these individuals. Parishes, schools, and families must work together to create an environment that supports and nurtures the faith.
The challenges faced by Catholicism in America today are significant, with a large portion of the baptized choosing to stay home on Sundays and becoming unchurched. However, by cultivating a countercultural Catholic garden through the family, the parish, and the Catholic school, it is possible to provide fertile soil for the faith to grow. This intentional effort must involve all three elements working together and critically examining the prevailing secular culture. By sowing seeds in this countercultural garden and praying for their growth, the Catholic faith can survive and flourish in America, creating a society that is rooted in the values of the Gospel.