If something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't. That's what came to mind when a friend told me on the eve of my return to the United States after 12 years of study and pastoral service in Europe that things have improved enormously for the Church in America.
Really? I asked myself. What about the shortage of vocations? The aging clergy? The Catholic identity crisis? Religious indifference? The breakdown of the family? Just to mention a few challenges American Catholics face. I wasn't expecting to encounter the Garden of Eden on my arrival home. Despite my reservations concerning the state of the Church, I tried to keep an open mind.
Last summer, I began a tour of parishes across the country to promote missionary activities and was able to see firsthand how things were going for the Church. What I discovered was that my friend's optimistic appraisal of the States was fairly accurate. Why? Let's look at a few facts.
Take the Church of St. Boniface in Cleveland, the first stop on my missionary tour. I arrived to celebrate the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass. The pastor asked me to be there 45 minutes beforehand for confession. Forty-five minutes? That's a lot of time, I thought, considering that confession has fallen almost into extinction.
Yet on my arrival at the confessional, I saw at least 10 people waiting in line. Is it possible that confession is making a comeback? I think so. This experience repeated itself in other parishes I visited during my mission appeal. Father Augustine Nguyen, St. Boniface's pastor, told me over dinner that “people are searching to experience Christ in the sacraments. It's no longer something mechanical, but personal.”
Fine. But perhaps this renewed interest in the faith was an old-folks thing. I didn't want to be a doubting Thomas, but piety does appear to increase in many with the passing of time. I knew one woman who didn't start praying regularly until she was 70.
The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lancaster, Pa., shattered my senior-citizen theory. I refer to this stop as the “youth connection.” When I stepped into the sacristy to prepare for Mass, I met young, smiling faces. The readers, altar servers and extraordinary eucharistic ministers were all under 30. What a difference from the chapel I worked at in Switzerland, where the youngest person in the community was 68 and the person who normally did the reading was 80. Maybe this was the youth Mass, I told myself. But youth participation was heavy at all the Masses I celebrated in this parish that weekend.
This would be a trend I noticed in other places as well. Despite the devastating effects of secularization in American society, many young people want to know Christ. Our young people are searching for serious values. So who's motivating this reform effort among the Catholic young of America?
Nearly everywhere I went, I ran into someone who was thinking about the priesthood or religious life.
The Pope, says Deacon Robert Weaver. Deacon Bob, as he likes to be called, points out that the Holy Father's youth encounters are working wonders. “Kids want to get involved and do something positive for others and themselves by following Christ,” he said.
I think he's right. Young people perceive that they are John Paul's special friends. As one young woman put it: “We love him and he loves us.” John Paul's friends are making a difference. They offer hope for the present and leadership for the future.
The Holy Father seems to be turning the tide in another important area as well: vocations. Nearly everywhere I went, I ran into someone who was thinking about the priesthood or religious life. In a parish in Ohio, when I asked a young man what he wanted to do after high school, he readily responded: “I'm thinking about going to the seminary.”
In Rhode Island, I teach dogmatic theology to a group of young consecrated women who are dedicated to promoting the new evangelization. Their example demonstrates that young people aren't afraid of commitment. When I first inquired how many would be attending my lectures, I was told around 30. Incredible! I wasn't expecting so many. All my students are between the ages of 18 and 30.
All this explains another phenomenon: younger priests and religious. No one can deny that the vocation shortage represents a serious challenge for the Church. But there are signs of hope. One is my priestly ordination class of 1997 — 31 religious, all of them under the age of 40. It seems just a matter of time before we begin seeing many younger priests in our parishes. To ensure that this momentum continues, many parishes across the country are promoting eucharistic adoration for vocations. There's a long way to go yet, but things are clearly getting better.
Does all this sound too good to be true? Maybe. But that's the way God works: making the impossible possible.
Father Andrew McNair teaches at the Mater Ecclesiae international center for studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.