This is the second in a series of letters reflecting on the 12 years we have spent together with me as your pastor. My topic this time is the dramatic change we have all lived through during these past 12 years. If there is any one word to describe the era in which we all live, it has to be "change". Think of the changes ushered in by 9/11. Or the two wars our nation has gotten into during these years. Or concepts of what is right and what is wrong. Or how much, though slowly, we have become more aware of the need for all of humanity to be better stewards of the earth and more conscious of how our choices impact the planet.
From a specifically Catholic point of view I find there to be a major change happening that is profoundly affecting all of us. It's the shift from being a Counter-Reformation kind of Catholic Church to becoming a Gospel-Centered kind of Catholic Church.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door back in 1517, the religious revolution that was started (called the Reformation), the Catholic Church, which was indeed in need of being reformed, slowly began to address the issues the Reformation raised. "Slowly" might be a good word to describe how the Catholic Church tends to deal with things. The council of bishops that was called together (the Council of Trent, 1545 to 1563) took 18 years to accomplish their review of what needed to be corrected. Compare that to the 3 years it took to accomplish the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965). It was a tumultuous time and the threat to the Catholic Church was seen as so severe that the process begun after Trent came to be called the Counter-Reformation. It was a process that "battened down the hatches" and set up strict rules on what could be taught, what could be done and what could not be done, and very strict measures of ensuring compliance. This produced a style of church that emphasized close adherence to doctrine, obedience to the rules, regular confession of sins, personal piety, memorization of catechism answers to religious questions, a very popular embrace of religious life vocations, and a zeal that produced the greatest expansion of the church through a missionary movement to all parts of the globe.
This Counter-Reformation style of church lasted until it began to break down in the 1960's. As that style began to collapse, much confusion began to reign, religious sisters and priests and brothers abandoned their teaching ministries, and religious education became a victim of this confusion. The very basics of the Catholic faith were not adequately passed on to new generations. The loss of faith has been stunning. Grievously complicating it was that during that very unsettling time of confusion most of the sexual abuse cases were happening, the extent of which did not come to light until 2002. This era of scandal had an even more stunning impact on the faith of Catholics who had been taught to live by the rules and not to question authority.
However, during these 12 years you and I have journeyed together towards the Kingdom of God, there has been some very good news, despite how bleak the condition of the Catholic Church seemed. Perhaps we can say that the Lord, knowing what kind of secularization was going to come upon the world, provided us with the Second Vatican Council to correct us even more than the Council of Trent corrected the medieval church. The depths of the correction needed was such that it would take years for us to begin to understand what God has done through Vatican II.
Most of us who grew up in the Counter-Reformation church did not know the Bible, really, at all. But for 50 years now, we have heard the Word of God proclaimed every Sunday; and if we have attended weekday Mass then over a three year cycle we have heard almost the entire Bible. Slowly (remember how "slowly" typifies how God works with us) we are becoming more and more attuned to the Word of God, particularly the Gospel.
As the Counter-Reformation church passes away, we are slowly moving into a Gospel-Centered kind of Catholic Church. No longer focused on doing things just because of the rules, we are more and more focused on being in relationship with Christ, being in love with Christ, knowing Christ as friend as well as Master and Lord. During the Counter-Reformation era, the relationship with Christ was presumed. It should not have been, because to many people being Catholic was all about the rules.
To put it succinctly, rules no longer keep us Catholic. Head knowledge, as necessary as it is, no longer satisfies. "Shoulds" and "should nots" no longer motivate people to be virtuous and to stay faithful to the Gospel. Only a lively relationship with the Lord Jesus convinces people today. Only a strong love relationship with Christ can give us the courage to be faithful to Christ and truly live the values and teachings of Jesus Christ.
So, my friends, what we have embarked on in our 12 year odyssey towards the Kingdom of God has been a slow maturation of us into a Church of the New Evangelization, a Gospel-based church, a church of being faithful to Jesus Christ because we want to be faithful to the One whom our heart loves.
For more on this shift away from the Counter-Reformation style of Church, read George Weigle's new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century.