Rev. Anthony Dosen, C.M., heads the Mission Office for the Congregation of the Mission Western Province. This is the first in a series of monthly articles he is producing on the subject of evangelization in the modern Church. 

The American Scene:

The COVID crisis is entering its third year of wreaking havoc in the United States. A common concern of many pastors has been, will the people return to church once the crisis has passed. This is not an idle concern. Long before COVID knocked on the American door, church attendance had been slipping in the United States and throughout Europe, especially Western Europe. An article, “Changes in Worldwide Church Statistics,” states that Catholic Church membership had a one-year increase of 5.7% from December 31, 2018, to December 31, 2019. The increase may surprise some, but when the reader considers that most of the increase in Catholic population took place in the global south, it begins to make more sense. Examining the growth of Catholicism by continent from 2014 to 2019, things begin to come into clearer focus.

Continent Percentage (Increase / Decrease)
Africa +17.1%
Oceana +8.5%
Asia 6.7%
Central America (including Mexico and the Caribbean) 5.1%
South America 4.2%
North America +3.3%
Europe -0.5%

Percentage of growth of Catholic Population by Continent. (“Changes in Worldwide Church,” 6).

When the populations are compared with the number of priests available for ministry, the story takes an interesting turn. The global south while having a large increase in membership in the Catholic Church, still struggles with vocations. The Church in North America and Europe seem to have a favorable priest to Catholics ratio. However, the statistics fail to see that while the ratio is good, the graying of the European and North American clergy masks the real shortage. An additional problem with the statistics as they stand is that the very minimal rise in the Catholic population in North America is due to the immigration of Catholics from the global south. Even with the influx of immigrants, the American church still is hemorrhaging membership, both from our youth who have chosen, for a series of reasons, to leave the church (a topic to be discussed later) and the death of the long-time Catholic parishioners who were the last generation of the great immigration from Central and Eastern Europe.

Region Catholics per priest:  2014 Catholics per priest: 2019
Africa 5,004 5,086
North America (excluding Mexico) 1,844 2,025
Central America (including Mexico and the Caribbean) 7,011 7,146
South America 7,098 7,282
Asia 2,198 2,123
Europe 1,158 1,697
Oceania 2,175 2,378
WORLDWIDE 3,060 3,245

Ratio of Catholics to one priest by region (“Changes in Worldwide Church…”, 7).

Chris Lowney (2017), a former Jesuit scholastic, left the Jesuits and became a successful manager of J. P. Morgan. He currently chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives. He has written several books, the latest he authored is Everyone Leads. In this book he addresses the “Church’s worst crisis in five centuries” (2). The crisis is the diminution of Catholicism in the United States. Pulling no punches, Lowney lays out his argument.

In one after another of the world’s economically developed countries, church attendance has plummeted to historic lows, and tens of millions of adults have deserted Catholicism entirely. Not since the Protestant Reform, five centuries ago, has Catholicism suffered defections on so devastating a scale. And the future looks even grimmer: young adults show little interest in Catholicism (and in organized religion generally). Thousands of Catholic schools and parishes have been shuttered in the past few decades. The population of priests has been falling in multiple countries and is projected to shrink by almost another third in coming decades in the United States. And, at this worst possible moment, the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility remains wounded by damaging pedophilia scandals (2-3).

Lowney calls for a new type of leadership in the Church, one where the leadership is shared by all members. This is not a call for women’s ordination or an expanding of the College of Cardinals to include laity. Rather, it is a grassroots level of leadership that allows pastor and parishioners to share leadership. It calls for working together on our common mission. It is a movement to first century Christianity. Apostles and disciples, numbering around one hundred, worked together in tandem to proclaim the Gospel.

So, what has happened to the Church? In 313 CE, the Edict of Milan allowed the Christian church to be free of persecution and protected under the law. Later, the Edict of Constantine (321 CE) gave the church prominence of place in the Byzantine Empire. These two edicts moved the church from being a persecuted body to being integral to the life of the empire. The Edict of Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state, and thus ushered in the transition from Apostolic mission to the foundation of Christendom.

The move of Christianity from a persecuted sect to an international faith movement came with both advantages and disadvantages. While Christians were able to worship without fear of persecution, now became a regulation for government jobs. The level of commitment to Christianity became considerably less when citizens were forced to convert to hold a political position in the state.

Christendom had other deleterious effects on the Church. Bishops were not only religious leaders but also members of the ruling class. The church of Christendom promoted a distinct class system, following the governing structures of the old Roman and Byzantine empires. Moral law and civil law converged in some highly irregular ways. Heresy was an offense punishable by death; however the state would perform the executions after guilt was determined by the clergy. The result was that Christian commitment through baptism was no longer a life and death commitment for every person, but a compromise of some catechumens to achieve the societal status quo.

The first chink in the armor of Christendom occurred during the time of the Protestant Reformation. While Christendom was torn apart by the reformation, Christendom did not entirely disappear. In Western Catholicism, Christendom held sway with a hierarchical structure, a papal state that extended its authority to Catholic territories, and a reactionary response to compromise. However, according to Charles Taylor (2007), the Protestant Reformation and the burgeoning Enlightenment began a series of changes that opened western society to multiple facets of living a religious, spiritual, or anti-religious life.

Under the unified worldview of Christendom, people lived in an enchanted world. According to Taylor (2007), the enchanted world is made up of the union of the spiritual and this world. God interacts with the Christian people. Miracles, interventions, and supplications are heard, and God responds to them through his angels and saints. The Reformation and Enlightenment introduced a different type of intervention into the worldview, disenchantment. Taylor uses the term disenchantment to indicate that the sense of the world of the spirit is not experienced. The austerity of the Protestant liturgy was one factor in the disenchantment. The scientific achievements of the Enlightenment and the attendant movement of epistemology to that which is perceived also added to the countermovement to enchantment.

Taylor (2007) interprets the secularization of the early 21st Century not as the end of religious thought and belief but rather as an expansion of options: religious, spiritual, and anti-religious. Thus, providing several alternatives to interpreting reality. He posits that a strong religious attitude, without acceptance of the possibility of the other two attitudes, has become the source of the culture wars in Christianity, including the Catholic Church, and jihad in elements of Islam. Thus, the question becomes, how might we engage contemporary peoples in dialogue between their beliefs and our beliefs.

Weddell (2012) and Marron (2014) offer alternative visions of living the Christian apostolic mission. Both uphold a movement of conversation, both inside our congregations and beyond them. Both promote a proclamation of the kerygma as a starting point in evangelization, rather than an intellectual study of the dogmas, moral imperatives, and history of the liturgy that is the meat and potatoes of many K-12, adult education and RCIA catechetical programs. The purpose of the kerygma is to bring the individual into a possible relationship with the Christ. In entering into this kerygmatic relationship, one enters into an experience of experiencing the love of God, in Christ, and forming a personal relationship with the Lord. The traditional catechetical content (the intellectual part) then is contextualized within the context of one’s relationship with the living and loving Christ.

In earlier attempts after the Second Vatican Council at promoting the affective side of faith development, it was dismissed by many as inferior to the old Baltimore Catechism model. However, the insights of Weddell and Marron seem to have taken hold in the Church of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The recently published Director for Catechesis (USCCB, 2020) speaks of the connection that needs to be made in every form of catechesis between the head and the heart. This is a direction that has come to blossom about 55 years after the Second Vatican Council. It is significant, because it is the first time that the USCCB has even mentioned the heart as an integral part of the catechetical / evangelical process.

For Reflection and / or Discussion

  1. How do you see the role of “the heart” in the experience of Evangelization?
  2. What is the role of “the heart” in your own experience of Christ?
  3. What would it mean for the evangelizing mission of the Congregation of the Mission to move in the direction of apostolic mission, rather than maintaining the ecclesial status quo?

Works Cited:

___________ . (2021). “Changes in Worldwide Church Statistics.”  CARA. 27,2. Pp 6-11.

Lowney, Chris. (2017). Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Mallon, James. (2014). Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish. Toronto: Novalis Publishing Inc.

Taylor, Charles. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

USCCB. (2020). Directory for Catechesis: New Edition. Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Weddell, Sherry. (2012). Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.