Pope Francis left the United States more than two months ago. The subsequent Synod of Bishops on the Family concluded in the Vatican more than a month ago. The world has continued spinning, which means the attention-deficit disorder that afflicts members of the secular media has caused journalists to shift a primary spotlight from the Catholic Church to a myriad of worldly pressing events and issues.
Before long, however, their attention will return to whatever the pontiff has to say to wrap up the Synod process, probably in an apostolic exhortation on the family.
“I imagine that it won’t take long because usually these things should be done in a relatively short time, otherwise it loses its strength a bit, its impact,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, told Vatican Radio on Oct. 28. “I think if the pope decides to do it, he will do it relatively quickly.”
Here’s a prediction: Writers, broadcasters, pundits and media moguls will miss the most important aspects of the “story” whenever it breaks. That’s because the world largely doesn’t understand the basis of Christianity in general, Catholicism in particular.
No surprise. The secular (and religious) world didn’t get Jesus almost 2,000 years ago, and it doesn’t get him now.
Not that Christianity will be out of the news in the coming month, primarily around December 25. In case you haven’t noticed, major news worldwide always turns somewhat thin the closer we get to the end of the year.
There will be obligatory stories written and told about serving the homeless in soup kitchens, providing toys for needy children, helping pay utility bills for people struggling financially. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we will see pictures and images of Pope Francis celebrating Mass at the Vatican as well as pilgrims from around the world descending on the Holy Land.
If you pay close enough attention, some reporter might mention Jesus. If you really listen, someone might let it slip that Christmas recalls the greatest event in human history: the Son of God born as a baby on earth.
Alas, that vital aspect of the story will be ignored almost completely, barely mentioned at best, as the secular world has co-opted the holiday as its own, virtually devoid of Jesus. But at least the “event” of Christmas will have a presence in secular newspaper, website and broadcast reports.
I’ll be curious if those outlets will give much more than a cursory nod – if even that much recognition – to the official beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8, when Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the beginning of this special year. Will any secular journalists spend more than a few minutes talking about the importance of mercy in the Church? Will anyone mention the significance of December 8 in the Church or spend much time explaining the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary?
Neither of those story lines – God Made Man and a woman conceived without sin — appeals to the secular world.
No, there’s a good chance that the next major headlines from the Catholic Church will come from whatever document Pope Francis produces. And there won’t be much talk of Jesus Christ in those headlines, the lead paragraphs of those stories or perhaps anywhere else. Instead, these will be the talking points:
- Can divorced and remarried Catholics receive communion?
- Will the Catholic Church recognize so-called “same-sex marriages?”
- How can the Catholic Church capture – or recapture – the hearts and attention of about 20 percent of Americans (largely young) who consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion?
- Will the role of women in the Catholic Church be increased to a more prominent position of leadership, perhaps including clerical positions?
- And somehow, some way, the topic of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, as well as a cover-up by certain bishops, will provide fodder for conversation as well.
Sadly, all of this will be the focus of many reports even among Catholic journalists. I have a feeling Pope Francis will have something to say about some issues that speak to the very heart of Catholic relevance in the world today. Here are some numbers gleaned from Matthew Kelly’s “Dynamic Catholic” initiative:
- About 1.7 million Americans are baptized into the Catholic Church each year.
- About 1.5 million of those people eventually will make their First Communion.
- About 1 million Catholic boys and girls will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
- Of that 1 million Catholics, only 150,000 will be practicing the faith within 10 years of their confirmation.
In my academic career, a 15-percent success rate – less than 9 percent relative to the baptisms – received a big red “F” on an exam or essay. And those numbers deserve a dreadful failing grade for all of us whom Jesus commissioned to “therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
And the ability to share Catholicism with an ever-wider group of believers figures to get more difficult in the near future. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed Catholic parents and, in results released in June, showed that only two-thirds of parents consider it “very important” that their children celebrate their First Communion. Even fewer, 61 percent, think it is “very important”that their children being receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
More recently, a Pew Research Center survey revealed that 25 percent of Catholic adults have gone through a divorce and 10 percent of Catholic adults have married for at least a second time. Another 10 percent are living with a “significant other”without benefit of a wedding, and another 40 percent have done that in the past.
“The New Testament example of the Christian experience is that of a personal, passionate devotion to the Person of Jesus Christ. There is only the idea that He is our pattern. In the New Testament Jesus Christ is the Savior long before He is the pattern. Today He is being portrayed as the figurehead of a religion— a mere example.”
(the late Protestant evangelist Oswald Chambers)
I don’t agree with much of the theology Chambers shared in his famous devotional “My Utmost For His Highest,” but he nailed it in those three sentences. The reason so many Christians – especially Catholics – are fleeing or simply ignoring their faith is because they see no opportunity to make Jesus relevant and meaningful in their world. They look at political issues, economic issues, gender issues, sexual issues and just about any other issue that crosses their minds and just can’t see where Jesus fits.
Just as in the four Gospels, Jesus doesn’t “fit” as the solution to a political or economic or any other “issue.” Relevance comes only after relationship. This is from “Decision Point,” the textbook for confirmation preparation produced by Kelly and “Dynamic Catholic,” in a chapter called “The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus?”
“Every time I start thinking seriously about Jesus, I come to the same conclusion: I don’t know him anywhere near as well as I should. Jesus is the one who changed everything. Lots of people talk about changing the world, but Jesus did. All of human history revolves around him. It is impossible to measure his impact on the world. And your life will never really make sense until you place Jesus at the center of it. …
“Jesus is the friend you have been yearning for your whole life.”
Some people will say they want a leader to give meaning to their lives. Or they will pledge allegiance to a cause that inspires with its nobility. They might embrace working for the poor or marginalized or disenfranchised because something has moved their heart toward selflessness and sacrifice. But leaders and causes eventually fall out of favor.
“It is possible to be so active in the service of Christ,” said the late P.T. Forsyth, a Scottish Protestant theologian, “as to forget to love him.”
When the secular media tries to dissect whatever Pope Francis might say in response to the Synod of Bishops, they likely won’t get it right because they likely won’t ask the truly pertinent question. And I’m afraid most well-meaning, good-hearted Catholic Christians won’t head down that path, either, including many bishops and priests who have been distracted by the hot-button topics.
Let’s refocus the conversation to ask this of every man and woman, girl and boy, ordained and religious and laity: Who is Jesus? That was the question almost 2,000 years ago. It will be the question that matters most until Christ returns.
If you want change, help them to know Jesus.