Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

the shape of the Church to come

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 28, 2010

Take a moment, if you would, to look back at the top CWN headline stories from the past two days:

Monday: Pope to establish new Council for New Evangelization?   

Tuesday: Africa's Catholic population soaring since 2000

In 1622 (the same year that Paris was elevated to the status of an archdiocese, just to give some historical perspective) the Propagande Fide office was established at the Vatican. Today generally known as the Congregation for Evangelization, this office is responsible for supervising the spread of the Gospel in mission territories, such as Africa.

Now Pope Benedict has reportedly decided that a new office is needed, to coordinate the re-introduction of the Gospel into secularized societies in Western Europe and North America. Meanwhile in countries that we have traditionally classified as "mission territories," most notably in Africa, the Church is growing at a dizzying pace.

So where are missionaries really needed most urgently today: In Africa or in Europe? In Africa or in North America?

Since the turn of the 21st century the Catholic population of Africa has grown by 33%. Has your diocese, or your parish, grown by one-third over that same span? Mine certainly hasn't.

Well, why not? Is it because the Church in Africa has more financial resources? No. More access to the means of modern communication? No. More political influence? More parochial schools? More Catholic colleges? More historical identification with the culture? No, No, No, and No. We're the Catholics with all the obvious material advantages. They're the ones who are getting results.

Maybe it's an oversimplification, but I think the main reason for the African success, and the European/American slump, is a question of attitude. African Catholics expect the Church to grow, whereas European and American Catholics are just hoping to hold on to territories that were won for the faith long ago.

But that defensive approach won't-- can't-- succeed. In the field of evangelization, as in the individual's spiritual life, you can't idle in neutral. If you're not moving forward, you'll surely move backward. And once the societal momentum shifts, once the trend toward secularization really takes hold, that principle becomes even more evident. If you're in a stream with a fast-moving current, you can't just tread water and hope to stay in the same place; you have to swim against the stream, just to hold your ground.

Swimming against the stream: If it's true that the Pope plans to launch a Congregation for the New Evangelization, that might serve as its mission statement.  

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2010 11:02 PM ET USA

    Phil. I've been involved with the Anglican Church for a long time. And with significant contact with its African clergy and diocese. A similar thing is happening in Anglican (and in non-denom I believe). I understand your analogy, that we can't just go with the flow of culture, but rather must work to counter. However, it perhaps illustrates another approach: fighting the flow usually doesn't work. Rather, swim to the side, and get out of the flow, onto the rocks. Show another way.

  • Posted by: Lilacs2me - Apr. 30, 2010 9:39 PM ET USA

    All I know is this: We had an African priest in our parish for a while. He was unbelievably holy & preached powerful sermons. All of a sudden, people I hadn't seen in a while started coming to daily mass! They were attracted by The Truth he spoke in a very practical way. I miss him terribly.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2010 6:36 PM ET USA

    Part of what the church in the US needs to do is quit worrying about "relevant" liturgies, and focus on God; quit trying to discern the latest dissenting theologian and listen to the Mgisterium; and follow the prophet: "But as for me and my house...". Unless we can show our fellow Americans - fallen away Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and everyone else - that we have something worth dying for, few others will try to live it.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Apr. 30, 2010 4:56 PM ET USA

    When the Church starts boldly proclaiming the Truth rather than watering down homilies and making it seem like God will save everyone no matter what they do or what false religion they follow, then Europe and the US will see the church grow. False ecumenism, religious indifferentism and a lack of boldness is what is holding the Church back.

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Apr. 29, 2010 5:45 PM ET USA

    Don't know what the problem/solution could be here in America. I know we lay Carmelites (OCDS) are called to be little & to be good, so as to draw people to the Church & to Heaven. We like to quote St. Francis, who said, "Go out and preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words." Don't know if that will really help here.

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Apr. 28, 2010 6:57 PM ET USA

    "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." ~ GK Chesterton