By Sean O'Leary
I tried googling “good news about Catholicism” just to see how many results I’d get. In the blink of an eye, Google helpfully replied ‘10 results’ - that’s 10 results for the entire globe. So, it appears that good news and Catholicism aren’t a readily available combination on internet search engines.
Just to put this into context, if you do the same thing but replace Catholicism with divorce, you get over 12,000 results. Replace Catholicism with drugs and you’ll get an astonishing 77,300 results. Even if you do the same search for pollution, you’ll get over 3000 results. Something is very wrong but what?
There have been numerous articles, research papers and opinion pieces written about the problems of Catholicism. In fact, a search for the “problems of Catholicism” will give you over 130,000 results. Indeed, focusing overtly on the “problems of Catholicism” has itself become a problem. Sadly, this seems to be the case within and without - for those who belong to the Church and those who cheer for the demise of Catholicism.
If nothing else, this is good reason to raise the prophet’s cry.
In the Western world, Catholicism in the public square has become associated with decline, scandal, inefficiency, outdated modes of thinking and anti-progress. It is well publicized that parishioners are thinner on the ground, ageing and nostalgic about their faith.
From the Catholic perspective, society is less nurturing of faith and many media outlets don’t do justice to the richness of faith. Western countries increasingly foster dependency and self-absorption. It may not be unrelated that there is also an increase in mental health problems particularly those relating to feelings of powerlessness and isolation.
There are many initiatives and projects that aim to keep Catholicism alive in the culture. While these are essential and good, there is also a need to perceive faith as more of a pilgrimage than a project. For Catholics, this is our shared endeavour. Our mission is life itself and we cannot let ourselves, our community or our Church be defined by the short-sighted worldview of a rudderless culture. This is a sure path to despair.
During our local synod, ‘People discussed the difficulties of adapting to a volatile world of increasing uncertainty in terms of disease, family breakdown, climate change, increasing poverty, food shortages, migration, loss of biodiversity, conflict, the misuse of technology, the availability of illegal drugs, mental health concerns, a growing lack of respect for life, a politics of division, diminishing moral values, the alienation of people from the Church, an indifferent and sometimes biased media and the decline of religious practice in society. (Diocese of Ferns Synthesis)’. Anybody of a Christian sensibility must surely conclude: What the world needs is – hope – and God gifts it to us in abundance.
There is much to admire about Catholicism - its ability to grow, its ability to meet challenges through two millennia of history, its ability to balance continuity with change, its concern for the education and health of humanity, its ability to unite partial truths into a greater whole, its care for creation and its well-grounded understanding of human nature. All of this exists because we know who we place our hope in. It is through our relationship with Christ and His Church that we become willing partners in hope.
God is the constant and ever-present source of our passionate hope.
While the number of priests has remained largely unchanged (at just over 400,000) in the world for the past 50 years, the number of Catholics has doubled (from 0.65 billion to 1.3 billion today). The good news is that millions of Catholics are doing extraordinary things all around the world. These deeds are no less extraordinary because secular culture ignores them. It is almost as if the dominant Western culture is blind to any deep intimation of real hope.
Faith is always relational and it is through our relationships that we will help people to see God’s beloved world the way it really is and the way it could be as we journey together in the magnificent vision of God’s kingdom. While Christianity is no longer a predominantly Western religion, God’s grace is still very much present. Familiar models of religious practice may change but new patterns of faith will always emerge with new branches and new shoots. In the words of St Theresa of Avila: ‘To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that’.
So, there is plenty of good news about Catholicism. Certainly, much more than the 10 results revealed by Google. Just try thinking about how Catholicism helps us to receive God’s message of meaning, freedom and hope in our daily struggles towards reconciliation and redemption. There are millions of profoundly personal good news stories represented within this one sentence.
It is also good news that we receive the gift of hope from God in baptism. Maybe we’ve misplaced this gift amidst the clutter and turmoil of our lives, but it remains within us, ready to be reopened with God’s help. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13).