We have all seen the latest Gallup poll. . . .
What? You missed it, gentle reader? Don’t worry, you’ve heard it all before: attendance is falling in Catholic churches across the USA. It was a huge fall, corresponding temporally to the “Spirit of Vatican II,” but it was steadying out under the restorative pontificates of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Now, for some reason, we are sliding again.
From what I can see, in anecdotes from innumerable reports, the numbers conceal a significant detail. More-or-less all the “New Mass,” adaptive, modernist congregations are declining, with churches closing every day. And more-or-less all the “Old Mass,” rigid, traditionalist churches are growing, in congregations and vocations both. Those “dinosaurs” out there are also having lots of children. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is sorting us out, after all.
A Jewish friend, who long lived in New York, provides an analogy. Only a small minority of Jews were Orthodox in the 1950s, and pretty much everyone else agreed they would soon be extinct. Today, they may be a slight majority, because lo and behold, the liberal, modernizing Jews are disappearing. They don’t go to synagogue, so the synagogues close. They intermarry with the goyim, and neglect to generate children.
In my humble but unanswerable opinion, Modernism is on the shoals.
My modernist friends disagree, however. One who forwarded the Gallup poll to me yesterday morning (which I had already seen) rejected the sidelight I have offered above. He said the traditionalist types are simply switching parishes. And yes, there is a lot of that, judging from my own first-hand experience. And lots of three-year-olds must be doing that, or moving to South Dakota.
They were rather shocked in France, recently, when the Guvmint proposed gay marriage, and the old-school backward Catholics with all these kids put a couple million on the road to Paris, to express their disapproval. The media in Paris were having conniptions: “We had no idea so many dinosaurs were still walking the earth.”
I’m an old dinosaur myself but – Vivat! – the young ones multiply around me. Our total numbers are perhaps no less than they were in the thirteenth century, but our proportion of the general population in the Christian West shrank. Modernism had its moments.
God made fairly plain in Scripture that He isn’t much interested in number crunching; He looks at His people one at a time. I am, myself, especially not interested in statistical projections. We do not know what is coming. God may not be into surprises – He never said He would change with the times – but events can be surprising.
For we are the ones capable of moving, towards or away from fundamental truths. The one I wish to adduce this morning is on the efficacy of prayer.
“I’m praying for you!” can be an irritating remark, in my recollection. I can remember thinking, “What fat use is that?” in my pre-Catholic days. And today, we are constantly reminded not only by secular society but by many of our own priests that we should, “Not just pray but do something.” It is a well-meaning instruction, I am sure, but it reveals a terrible loss of faith. For prayer is, in fact, doing something.
Some years ago, an old Catholic was driving me around Ottawa, pointing to all the old Catholic buildings – so many of them monastic establishments – that were now converted to “other uses,” such as condominiums, and parking lots.
This was easy to explain, in terms of abandonment and betrayal. A once fairly Catholic town had “moved on” to other interests. One thing leads to another, and at some point the wrecking balls arrive. We may consult the economists on supply and demand.
But my friend made a point that went the other way. He mentioned the principal work done in all those old monastic establishments. The inmates were praying for us.
And as they ceased to pray, there was an effect on us, which could almost be demonstrated statistically. We, who ceased to be prayed for, also ceased to pray. The bonds that had held us to the Church were being broken, and the most significant of those had been sacramental prayer. The sustaining prayers of all those invisible religious continued behind the institutional walls.
What happens when your own mother doesn’t care for you anymore? For you are after all just a statistic, and you’re on your own now. It’s not as if you depended on her for money. Really, you only depended on her for prayer. What if the monks and nuns themselves – I think of the nuns, most tearfully – can no longer be bothered? Does it make the slightest difference?
Yes. Or so I say, being a notoriously backward Catholic, who actually believes what the Church always taught, and still teaches in a few places. I pray for others, and I need their prayers, in the mysterious workings of the Divine Economy.
And by all this I do not mean prayer as an attractive form of packaging, rather as the medium of exchange. My vulgar analogy is to a point, and might be enhanced by the observation that, “you get what you pay for.” But this, within an economy of Love.
I have nothing to say about the most recent apostolic exhortation, that tells us among many other things that holiness must be expressed in action, and demeans the silence of monastic retreat, taking little digs at Cardinal Sarah. The pope says what he says, and we hear him.
What I want to say is about monastic prayer, in its utterly specific, traditional form; but also about the silences, and monastic prayers, within each Catholic. Either it is believed to be efficacious, or it is not. If not, the whole Church must continue to empty, except an eccentric remnant who believe.
*Image: Carthusian Monks at prayer, St. Hugh’s Chaterhouse, Parkminster – the only post-Reformation Carthusian monastery in the U.K., located in Cowfold parish, West Sussex [Photo by Roger Bamber]