There are obviously problems with the church. Whether it is Protestant or Catholic, Evangelical Protestant or Mainline Protestant, the retention rate of youth is something like 15 – 17%. Catholic worry that their losses are going to Protestant churches, particularly large evangelical ones, while Protestants worry their their losses are either going to Mainline Protestant churches, such as Anglican or Episcopal Churches, or, simply dropping out of church altogether. Surveys show that the “nones” are now about 25% of society and the “spiritual but not religious” are a larger percentage than that. And everyone is looking for solutions.
The Protestant world has the best developed Church Growth movement, so their solutions are being brought into the Catholic world as well as being applied in the Protestant world. Perhaps the key is to fix the service (or the mass) by making it more entertaining or enticing: the sermon/homily should be improved and the music is key (which usually means that it should be modern). Multimedia displays are certainly important. And then one should have a vibrant youth ministry. Of course, these solutions leave out the average church, for the average church is a small church without the resources for such fixes. Furthermore, there research shows that the two most significant reasons why people join a (Protestant) church is (1) that they are greeted warmly at the door (and especially if the greeter recognizes them the second week) and (2) they feel safe in leaving their children in the children’s ministry (safe was the term used, not that they felt that their children would have an encounter with Jesus). Relationship and safety are key, while sermons and music are somewhere down the line.
Still, that makes life difficult for Catholic Churches, for many of them have little formal greeting and less chit-chat. The idea is that once one enters the church one is silent and spends time in prayer and adoration before the mass begins. It is certainly important that one feels that one’s children are safe, if one has any, but CCC only runs part of the year and usually one brings the children into the mass and sits with them. When it comes to music, it is true that beauty is an important aspect of church along with the good and the true, but music is not so much the focus of the mass as Jesus is. Certainly the point is not to have a great choir or band, but to participate in the music and thereby be part of the mass. When it comes to the homily, it is clearly the place for good catechesis, but the average priest has at least one homily to write daily and sometimes two or more, unlike the typical evangelical pastor who has two or three per week and can spend 6 to 8 hours per sermon. I am all for doing homilies well (I have taught homiletics, so I am invested in this), but few Catholic priests have the time for long preparations. If they are invested in something other than multiple masses (with funerals and the like), they are spending time in prayer: liturgy of the hours, among other things. I worked as a biblical scholar for 40 years, so I could and can look at the reading, know the issues in the passage, and “see” an outline: rare is the priest who has such advantages. But on the other hand, the typical Protestant pastor spends something like 15 minutes per week in prayer (other than prayer during services). Many Catholics have tried to focus on relationship with priests dressing informally much of the time and trying to be “one of the people” (especially in the post-Vatican II world, which misunderstood Vatican II).
Catholics often try to import the evangelical Protestant crisis mentality by calling for the faithful to have a “personal encounter” with Jesus. Now there is an authentic Catholic or historic way to encourage this, but that is more a process of increasing devotion that will probably have moments of special awareness of the presence of Jesus. The “asking Jesus into your heart” thing is an induced crisis only known since the time of Charles Finny and not known at all in the New Testament (check out the 10 evangelistic “sermons” in Acts or Paul’s gospel in Rom 10:8b-10, for example). Protestants are finding that without spiritual direction the “crisis” wears off the further it recedes into the past. They are exploring Catholic spirituality which is more process oriented and developmental with crisis experiences happening only when it is felt that God sovereignly intervenes. The two camps seem to be passing each other in the night. Meanwhile, the people keep falling away.
What I note is that some of the most creative thinkers are calling for a different approach. Perhaps the priest should start thinking of himself as a monastic, as a man of prayer. He can do that more easily because he is celibate. So there is a call to return to prayer, refocus on celibacy, dress traditionally so people can see that the man is a priest, and to focus on the holiness expected of priests. This is what one will find in the works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Robert Cardinal Sarah, and a host of others. The anonymous work In Sinu Jesu calls on priests to spend significant time in adoration, to be priests, men of prayer and the altar rather than administrators or engaging in other ministries – or rather these other ministries should take a second place to the primary ones of prayer and the ministry of the word, as it is put in Acts, with the Mass being the source and summit of all prayer.
The other approach is to turn from “dumbed down” Catholicism to clear, honest, thoughtful Catholicism, an approach found in Word on Fire Ministries. But this also calls the priest to an engagement with theology in a spiritual way. Thomas Aquinas did have a good head, but in the end he was a Dominican friar, for his head was subordinated to and in the service of his devotion to Christ. It is no accident that a number of great saints are part of those studied by Word on Fire.
The above are miscellaneous thoughts for difficult times. What is clear is that the solution to problems in the church is not primarily Protestant Church Growth strategies that are not working for most Protestant Churches. It is certainly not watering down truth so that what one believes and what one seeks ethically is less important than whether it is meaningful to one, makes one feel good. It may indeed be that the reachable solution for Catholics is godly priests, priests who know that they are at their roots monks, and that their focus is prayer. This is not without its hardships, but it would seem to be in tune with renewal movements down the ages and points towards a unity of liturgy and life with the priest leading the way by example.