When Pope John Paul II announced a Great Jubilee to mark the dawn of the third Christian millennium, he spoke boldly of a “new springtime of Christian life.” The Jubilee promised to be a crowning moment in a pontificate filled with great achievements. The pope had begun his pontificate by exhorting the Church to “Be not afraid!” He finished the Great Jubilee on a similar theme, echoing the Lord’s command to his disciples: Duc in altum! Put out into the deep! The Great Jubilee came to a close on the Feast of the Epiphany, 2001.
Those were heady days.
On January 6, 2002 – exactly one year after the Great Jubilee concluded – the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team ran a story about a serial child molester who also happened to be a Catholic priest: Fr. John Geoghan. The archdiocese, it turned out, knew of his crimes. Nevertheless, Geoghan was shuffled from parish to parish, leaving a trail of broken lives in his wake. The Long Lent, to use Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s phrase, had begun. In a way, it is still going on.
Meanwhile, we don’t hear very much about a new springtime anymore.
I have been thinking about this juxtaposition lately – the hope of the Great Jubilee and the humiliation of the abuse crisis – in part because of the podcast I have been helping produce for The Catholic Project at Catholic University. But also because a sense of decline has become the hallmark of so much of our common life, not just in the Church but in our careening politics and our vulgar culture. What was supposed to be a new springtime has, two decades on, taken on a Narnian quality: always winter and never Christmas.
Narratives of decline are not hard to find these days. Lots of people seem to think things are getting worse, and want to be reassured that they’re not the only ones who think so. This sense of decline also explains, in part, the appeal of restorationist currents in our politics. (“MAGA” is nothing if not a restorationist slogan.) The pandemic, in case you needed reminding, has exacerbated all these trends.
As a metaphor for the state of our world, this pandemic is almost too obvious. The Church – the world – seems to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next, not knowing quite what to say for fear of making things worse, yet also afraid of remaining silent. Not knowing whether to struggle against a slow suffocation or to remain docile and calm, and to endure whatever will come.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Archbishop of Luxembourg, recently mused that the coronavirus pandemic may accelerate the secularization of Europe by a decade. He is worried that many Catholics, at least in his native Luxembourg, have remained in the Church for “cultural” reasons, and that the Church closures during the pandemic have weakened that already tenuous connection.
There are similar concerns here in the United States. In Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome Listecki recently announced that he was lifting the general dispensation from Sunday obligation for his local churches. Beginning this weekend, Catholics in his archdiocese are expected to fulfill their obligation to attend Mass. It makes sense that, while a bishop might not know what the “new normal” will look like after the pandemic subsides, he will want to do everything he can to make sure Catholics go to Mass.
Of course, most Catholics in the United States couldn’t be bothered to go to Sunday Mass before the pandemic hit. Mass attendance – like Catholic marriages, baptisms, belief in the Real Presence, and so on – is just one more metric that shows the Church declining, slowly but steadily over decades.
The political irrelevance of Catholicism is another sign of the Church’s waning impact on our common life. I say “political irrelevance,” not because the Church doesn’t have something to say about politics or because votes from Catholics don’t matter to politicians – it does and they do – but because the truths of the Faith have so manifestly little to do with how so many millions of Catholics vote.
It is one thing to lament that things are the way they are. As it happens, many things today are lamentable. But disappointment that things have not turned out the way one had hoped – the way they were “supposed” to turn out – can also breed resentment. And our culture, our politics, and our Church are filled with just such resentment.
It may be easy to compare the gloomy world of today to a brighter world as we remember it, and think that we would be better off the way we were. But it is worth remembering that the height of prestige and influence for the Catholic Church in the United States – before the post-Conciliar silly season, when Catholics were unified socially and politically and Masses were as full as the Catholic schools and seminaries – coincided with the decades of greatest institutional rot and corruption.
St. Francis de Sales wrote that, in the spiritual life, we ought to be seeking the God of consolations, not the consolations of God. I think we American Catholics have grown accustomed to seeking the fruits of a healthy Church (and lamenting their absence) – plentiful vocations, widespread devotion among the faithful, solid marriages and families, flourishing ministries to the poor – while taking little care for the spiritual work that makes the Church blossom in the first place.
If we would see the blossoms of spring, that means working the soil and spreading manure in the autumn.
“Be not afraid.” “Put out into the deep.” These are not words for people who have made it safely home. These are not words for a people entering a time of comfort and consolation. But these are words for a people strengthened by faith and willing to count all else as loss. They are, in short, words for our time.
And they are words that will lead us toward spring. . .no matter how long the winter.
*Image: The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808-10 [Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany]