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"Vibrancy" and Discipleship: Milwaukee Style PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 19 September 2007 05:52
Amy Welborn sent me this link to a blog called The Provincial Emails yesterday about a planning process going on in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

It seems that there has been an 18% drop in Mass attendance in the Archdiocese between 1999 and 2006 and Archbishop Dolan understandably wants to know why and what to do about it. (For more details, read this piece in the local Catholic Herald.)

The Archdiocese has requested that every parish come up with a way to increase attendance by 20% and has hired a priest consultant. In July, Fr. James Connell published and distributed to about 500 people a document called “Energizing Our Vibrancy” in which he posed what he termed “starter questions” about the present and future of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The "vibrancy" in question is not just fewer people, but fewer young people.

Of course, the first thing that the report tries to scotch is the idea that the drop is a reaction to the Scandal. But, in fact, the statistics from CARA about national attendance can't tell us what is at work in a particular diocese which may differ significantly from the nation as a whole. And as The Provincial Emails points out, the people who left aren't being asked why. The 500 people to whom the document is being distributed are apparently all ecclesial insiders.

Listen folks. It is so much larger than the Scandal. We already know that only 20% of Gen X'ers (late 20's to early 40's adults) Catholics attend Mass nationally. That means 80% do not. And it didn't start in 2001.

The famed "JP II generation" only comprises 20% of their age cohort. Unless Milwaukee is uniquely immune, they should (along with nearly every diocese in the country) expect to see a huge drop in the attendance of younger people.

The sacraments aren't bringing them back. They aren't coming back to marry. Catholic marriages have dropped 50% nationally since 1970 even though our Catholic population has risen 350%. Out of wedlock births now make up 40% of all births in the US.

And now the final frontier has been reached: they aren't even baptizing their babies. The number of infant baptisms is starting to fall - down 60,000 from 1995. Cultural Catholicism among Gen Xer's is really and truly dead with the exception of recent immigrant groups (Vietnamese, Hispanic, etc.) and it is most unlikely that it will survive another generation in those groups.

The really startling thing is not that attendance is dropping. The really startling thing is that both the original post and the article in the Catholic Herald talk in vague terms about a crisis of "identity" and "commitment" to the institution.

“If fewer people are coming, we are falling down on our Eucharistic commitment,” Welte said. “Each of us who calls ourselves Catholic must first be critical of ourselves and ask what kind of a member am I and if I am not a good member, can I commit to being one? If I am a so-so member, what can I do to improve? Our whole community is impacted whenever someone doesn’t show up.”

“Our Catholic identity stays with us,” she said. “But when someone dies, will there be a church to provide a Christian burial? There are huge implications here.”

But neither post and article mention Jesus. They never use the word Christ. They never mention God. And that, gentle readers, is our real problem in 21st century America.

Christianity cannot survive without Christ. It is Christ who is the center, the head, the life, the Lord of his Church. The Church is his Body, not an independent end in herself. As the Council of Trent taught so clearly 5 centuries ago, the sacraments are not magic.

Without personal faith and response to God's mercy and grace, the sacraments do not save; do not justify. Without personal faith and response to God's grace, there is no living faith to hand on to the next generation. Without personal faith and response, loyalty, identity, and commitment vanish. Without living faith, catechesis, which is intended to foster the Christian maturity of those who are already disciples, is without effect.

Christian culture is not self-sustaining. Christian culture is the fruit of personal faith. Without the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion which is the source of renewal in every generation, Christian culture ultimately withers away and dies.

The New Evangelization that Pope John Paul the Great spoke about so constantly and with such fervor is the only fruitful response. We have to realize that for this generation, we cannot assume anything. Gen Xer's are post-Christian and post-modern to their toes. It is the air they breathe.

The vast majority will not come to us. We will have to seek them out, gain their trust, articulate the kergyma, and challenge them to believe and to follow Christ in communion with his Church. In other words, we will have to be pioneer missionary evangelists in the midst of a "Christian" country. And then we may well see attendance grow, not because of "institutional" loyalty but because a whole new generation is seeking to follow Christ. They will be in our midst with love in their hearts and fire in their eyes.

This is exactly what we deal in our new seminar Making Disciples. How to call post-modern Americans to intentional discipleship in the midst of the Church. Our next MD will be November 4 -8 in Faulkner, Maryland. Come join us.

Or if summer works better for you, consider attending our June, 2008 seminar.

In the archdiocese of Milwaukee.

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