For decades, priests recognized that people would stop attending Church regularly in their late teens and 20s, but the thought was that they would always come back to get married, to baptize their children, and to send them to parish religious education or a Catholic school. So, you’d have a chance to bring them back into the Church and get them actively participating, going to Mass, and growing in their faith. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Statistically, there are more people calling themselves Catholics than ever before in the United States, but fewer of them are participating in the life of the Church.
Since 1970, the US population has increased from 205.1 million to 327.2 million, and the Catholic population has likewise increased from 54.1 million to 76.3 million. In 1970, about 26% of the US population considered themselves Catholic and by 2018 that fell to about 23%. However, while the number of Catholics has increased, the number of Catholics participating in the life of the Church and receiving the Sacraments has decreased, in some cases dramatically. The number of Children of elementary and high school age receiving religious education, either in a Catholic school or parish program, has decreased from 9.9 million in 1970 to 4.7 million in 2018, just under half. The number of infant baptisms was 1.09 million in 1970 and 615,119 in 2018. The number of Catholic marriages dropped from 426,309 in 1970 to 143,082 in 2018. Confirmations went from 419,360 in 1970 to 630,465 in 2000, then decreased steadily to 556,418 in 2018. Similarly, first communions increased from 849,919 in 1970 to 881,321 in 2000, before dropping to 685,595 in 2018. This is all bad enough, but there are two more changes that are even more disturbing to me. The percent of Catholics attending Mass weekly has dropped from 54.9% in 1970 to 21.1% in 2018, and the percent attending monthly has dropped from 71.36% in 1970 to 45.3% in 2018. There was a greater percent of Catholics going to Mass every week in 1970 than there are going to Mass once a month now. Finally, even the number of Catholic funerals has begun to drop, from 417,779 in 1970 to 472,789 in 2000, then down to 392,277 in 2018. The one rule of Catholic life that we could count on was that people always came back for their funerals, but even that is starting to change.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing article. The Lord comes to bring us life and true and lasting joy. Jesus Christ is the Price of Peace who brings hope to the world, and we should always be filled with hope in the Lord, knowing that the Holy Spirit is still with us. However, we also need to do our part. We need to teach the fullness of the faith. In the 1960s and 70s the faith was watered down in many places. I remember my mom telling me that the only thing she learned in religious education was “to be a good Catholic, you just need to go to Church and be nice to people.” If we don’t take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously, how can we expect anyone else to? We also need to treat the Eucharist with the reverence it deserves. The Mass shouldn’t look like everything else in our lives. When we enter Church, we should be immediately aware that we are in God’s house. It should look, and smell, and sound different, and it should feel different, more reverent and more holy. If the Church and Mass aren’t obviously places of holiness, then how can the holiness of God be translated into the rest of our lives. The Spirit of God is present in His Church, let’s work to make sure that His Presence has an impact in the way we worship and in the way we live our lives.
Belief in God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is central to Christianity and, amazingly, all of the mainstream Christian and evangelical Christian denominations believe in God as the Trinity. Christians disagree about almost everything, including the books that make up the Bible, how to interpret the Bible, how one is saved, morality, spirituality, heaven, hell, and purgatory, the Church, the Sacraments, grace, and more, but we agree about the Holy Trinity even though the word Trinity is never used in the Bible.
The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one God, with the three persons of God united in one Divine nature. God the Father is fully God, God the Son is fully God, and God the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they are all united as the one true God. There are many ways to try to explain the Trinity, like the three leaf clover or the image of God as a family, but they all fall short of the reality and fail to explain some aspect of the Trinity. In reality God is an infinite sharing of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity, without beginning or ending. This is a great mystery, one that we will never fully comprehend on earth, and probably not even in heaven.
We can’t fully comprehend the Trinity because God is truly infinite. He’s not infinite like we say the universe is infinite. The universe is unimaginably large, but matter and energy can never be truly created or destroyed naturally, so there must be a certain amount of stuff in the universe. God is truly infinite, without limit. You could sooner explore every planet in the universe than explore the depths of the mystery of God. You can never fully comprehend God, but you can gain more understanding of Him through prayer and meditation. God is a mystery not in the sense of being incomprehensible but in the sense that there is always more to explore.
We don’t believe in some immaterial force of the universe or some distant clockmaker God who started the universe but wants nothing to do with it. We believe in a personal God, a God of infinite love, who has invited each one of us into His inner life, the love shared between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So spend some time this Trinity Sunday contemplating who God is, how He’s been at work in your life, and how He might be calling you to share in His life.
Fr. Bryan Howard
Pentecost – 9 June 2019
Today we wait in anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit, even as the apostles spent ten days in prayer in the upper room from the time of the Ascension of the Lord, not sure what they were supposed to do next or how to go about doing it. Then, suddenly, with the sound of a strong driving wind, the Holy Spirit appeared to them as fire, which divided and came to rest on each one of them. From that moment on they fearlessly preached the Gospel, until the Good News of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has been spread to the entire world. This moment was, in a way, the true birth of the Church.
Just like a human body is given life by its soul, so the Church is like a body, with Christ as the head, us as the members, and the Holy Spirit as the soul. Our head, or more specifically our brain, gives direction to the body, sometimes even without us realizing it. The brain keeps the heart pumping and the various organs functioning, but it also consciously controls the body when we flex a muscle to stand up, sit down, run or walk, etc. Jesus Christ directs the Church in so many ways that we don’t see through His grace and power, but He also directs the Church in ways that are more obvious, through the moral laws that He gave us, through the commands to love God and neighbor, and through setting our destination, heaven, and the direction we need to take to get there, the Way of the Cross.
We are the members of the body, each one with our own role and function within the body of the Church. In Sunday’s second reading, from the letter to the Corinthians, we read, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”No one member of the Church has all of the spiritual gifts that the Church needs to accomplish her mission. We have those who serve the Church through a life of celibacy, and those who serve the Church through bearing and raising children in the faith. Some dedicated to a life of prayer for the Church, and some dedicated to active ministries of serving the poor, teaching, evangelization, administration, liturgy, and much more. All of these gifts and offerings have to be directed towards our common goal, eternal life in heaven with God, and they all have to be united in one Spirit.
I’ve been using the analogy of a body, since that’s the analogy that St. Paul uses, but another good analogy is a factory. I used to think of a factory as a bunch of people each separately doing their individual parts, until I spent a summer working at a printing factory on one of the cutting machines. It took the printers, the cutting machine, and the binders to make a single product, but we weren’t all isolated doing our own thing. We had to actively cooperate with each other for it to come out right. If the printing was slightly off, then I might cut off part of the text, and if the cut is slightly off, then it might not bind properly. The Spirit is what binds the Church together, so that we’re not all doing our own thing but working together to bring all of us to heaven. We may be judged on our own individual actions, but no one is saved as an individual; you are saved as a member of the Church.
The story of the Tower of Babel shows us what happens when we deny the Spirit of God and seek to glorify ourselves instead. They weren’t just building a tower, but a ziggurat, a Temple, but it’s obviously not meant to glorify God but themselves, so God confuses their languages and the people are scattered. This symbolizes human pride. When we seek to glorify ourselves over God and over one another, we aren’t united but torn apart. The way of Jesus is the way of service, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.”If the Tower of Babel confused the languages and scattered the people, then the Holy Spirit at Pentecost overcame the separation of languages and united the people in Christ. After the Apostles received the Spirit, they went out to preach and everyone heard them speaking in their own native language, and 3000 people came to believe in Jesus that day.
In the Church, heresy, denying the teachings of the Church, and schism, denying the authority of the Church, tear the Church apart. And what happens to Christian groups that separate from the Church? They continue to splinter, so that today there are tens of thousands of protestant denominations. The same thing happens in parish Churches. We must not let disagreements between one another pull us apart. Even in our disagreements we can be united in love, and even when we’ve hurt one another we can ask for and give forgiveness. Should we defend the truths of the faith? To our last breaths, but always in love and charity. It’s certainly not easy. In fact, St. Paul says that we are “groaning in labor pains”as we wait for“the redemption of our bodies.”
In just a few moments we’ll experience the Holy Spirit come down and transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. We call this Communion, because through it we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and are united as one body with Christ. When you receive Communion today, pray for the unity and growth of the universal Church and the continued unity and growth of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
Pentecost is the final day of the Easter season and is, in a way, the birthday of the Church, since on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they began to preach the Gospel to the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the holy festival. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that 3000 people were converted on that day. The Church has continued that mission to preach the Gospel of the death and Resurrection of Jesus in every age and on every continent and in every nation. As Catholic Christians we are also required to support the mission of the Church not only through giving to the Church, but, first, through preaching the Gospel ourselves.
We believe that Truth is important. Some, with Pontius Pilate, ask, “What is truth?” They say that it’s impossible to know the truth, and that the best we can do are educated guesses. Or they say that there is not truth, as they believe what’s true for one person isn’t necessarily true for other people. People say things like, “That’s my truth.” Well, opinions, like where to get the best boiled crawfish, aren’t right or wrong, but truth is true for everyone.
Today we celebrate the Spirit of Truth come into the world. God the Father sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and, after His ascension, Father and Son together sent the Spirit of God into the world. Jesus said to the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit reveals to us the truth about God, about the world, about ourselves, and about life.
Some people think that we’re just trying to stop them from living the way they want to. They see the truth as limiting and enslaving them. However, Jesus tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). If you try to play a piano without following the rule of music you’ll end up just making noise, and if you try to climb a mountain with your eyes closed you’ll probably slip and fall, maybe to your death. However, if you open your eyes you’ll see the light, and if you let the Spirit of Truth guide you, He’ll bring you to the top of the mountain.
The Feast of the Assumption was last Thursday, although we celebrate it on the Sunday in the US and many other places to make it easier for people to participate. On the Ascension Jesus ascended to heaven in His body. Of course, as God, Jesus was never not in heaven, because God is everywhere. Jesus didn’t stop being God when He became a man. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, was baptized in the Jordan River, suffered on the Cross, and descended to the realm of the dead, He was also everywhere else in the universe as the second person of the Trinity. God is not limited by anything, even by space and time. However, Jesus is also human, and so, in His humanity, He is limited by space and time, and it was in His humanity, His human body, that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven.
Think about the fact that Jesus, and Mary, His mother, are physically in heaven. When the saints die and go to heaven, they go to heaven spiritually, not in their bodies. We bury the body as a sign of faith that, where Jesus has gone before, the faithful will follow after. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and publicly proclaimed as the Son of God, so we are baptized and become children of God. Jesus died, and so we die. Jesus rose from the dead, and so we believe that we will rise from the dead at the end of time when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead and the world. Jesus ascended to heaven in His body, and so we believe that we will be brought into heaven in our bodies.
There are many people who, for one reason or another, can’t be buried in Christian ground. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be resurrected in the body and raised to heaven; God will be able to find our bodies wherever they end up. However, burial in holy ground is a powerful symbol of trust in Jesus. When we bury someone we are professing our faith that Jesus will raise them up again. The Church even asks us to bury the remains after a cremation, which is allowed as long as it’s not done as a rejection of faith in the Resurrection; after all, we all end up as dust and ashes anyway. Still, Jesus Himself was buried, but He overcame the grave. May God give us a stronger faith in the Resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that we may be confident that He will overcome our graves, too.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.