Monday, April 14, 2008


Over the weekend, a Midwestern cleric wrote in to say that, impressive though it is, the PopeTrip "isn't the Second Coming" and that we should all "get a grip."

True enough... but given all the hubbub, the two could be easily confused. Especially when your job involves poring through the press coverage.

Anyone who'd normally maintain that the media is out to destroy Catholicism as we know it would have a hard time keeping that line these days without losing credibility of their own. After the most difficult period in the American church's nearly 400-year history -- a scenario that not a few among the top ranks sought to blame on bias -- the coverage in the run-up to Touchdown Tuesday has been almost uniformly positive, in-depth and running from a host of angles... including assessments of the state of the faith on these shores that might not be the most optimistic, but are refreshingly frank in highlighting the challenges the Stateside church faces.

Two of these have made the cut in tomorrow's lead national broadsheets: first, the NYTimes runs a look at everyday life on the grounds that'll host Saturday's papal "youth rally" for 26,000: St Joseph's, Dunwoodie -- New York's seminary, which now counts but 22 men studying for the Big Apple's 2.5 million-member archdiocese...
[A]lthough six men expect to be ordained in May, none are entering the first-year theology program. While seminary officials attribute the sudden drop to extra preparatory course requirements that went into effect this year, it is nonetheless a jarring development.

“You do what you can, as well as you can, for as long as you can, and hope it works,” said Bishop Gerald Walsh, the seminary’s rector. “I’d be optimistic if we had enough clergy present for young people and willing to talk to them.”

He will have enough — and then some — on Saturday, when Pope Benedict XVI visits the seminary for a prayer service and youth rally. The pope’s mere presence will be a jolt of encouragement to the seminarians. It will also offer them and other priests and nuns the chance to mingle with 20,000 young people and plant a seed for vocations.

There will be flashy videos, with quick cuts, stirring sound tracks and fearless priests on New York streets. Goody bags will include glossy post cards of the pontiff emblazoned with the word “Willkommen!” — and the Web address, the seminary’s recruiting site. In coming weeks, the archdiocese will send its schools posters that announce, “The World Needs Heroes,” including one of black-suited priests crossing an intersection — looking like “Going My Way” meets “Reservoir Dogs.”...

The Rev. Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the archdiocese — which covers the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and seven counties west and north of the city — says the church must make its case if it hopes to reinvigorate a priesthood that is increasingly elderly. “How do we get the ‘cool’ factor back into the priesthood?” Father Sweeney said. “If we don’t sell the priesthood, we can’t legitimately ask a young man to consider the priesthood as a vocation.”

What the seminary lacks in numbers, it may make up for in intensity and eagerness. The seminarians speak of finding a joy and purpose that eluded them in secular careers.

“We live in a very confusing world, a world where there is a lot of evil in it, and good men need to step forward,” said Brian Graebe, a former high school teacher who is finishing his first year. “You can stick your head in the sand, or you can do something to change it. What more heroic life is there than to touch these eternal mysteries?”...

[W]hile enrollment is down, it better reflects the city’s changing demographics, in that there are more Hispanic candidates, both at the seminary and in a program aimed at cultivating high school students for the priesthood. In addition to the 22 seminarians to be ordained for the archdiocese, 14 candidates were sent to Dunwoodie by religious orders.

The biggest change, however, is in the age and backgrounds of seminarians. Decades ago, young men entered the seminary in their teens. Today, many have college degrees and have worked in business, science or even the military — experiences that can give them an added measure of empathy for their congregants.

“They have more experience in the world, more than we had,” Bishop Walsh, the rector, said. “They’re probably a little more secure in their choice.” Among the current seminarians are former teachers, engineers, executives and even a funeral director.
...and USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman goes into the trenches, finding a "church of great vitality -- facing great uncertainty":
If Benedict could visit just three places beyond his six jam-packed days in Washington and New York, he would see — in a struggling urban outpost in Boston, a Phoenix megachurch booming with Hispanics and two stalwart small-town Iowa parishes that share a priest — much of the promise and the problems in U.S. Catholic life today.

It's not like the Catholic church in Europe, with its empty pews, or the Third World, where one in four parishes has no priest, or in Islamic countries, where Catholics can't build churches.

The USA's 67 million Catholics live in a vibrant world of faith and service, rooted in nearly 19,900 parishes. Lay people, particularly women, have risen to new heights of participation and leadership. Where priests are scarce and overburdened, they keep the lights on.

Yet this is a church under duress.

It's challenged by intense competition from secular culture and other religions. About 10% of people born Catholic say they're no longer Catholic, according to a February study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Of Catholics, 55% say they practice their religion, and 61% say sacraments are "essential to my faith," finds another study, released Sunday by Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

The number of priests has declined for decades.

And faith in the leadership of the bishops was shaken by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which exploded into the headlines in 2002 in Boston and reverberated nationwide.

"The church is on its heels in this society — divided and demoralized and damaged. It really needs this pope to come and talk about the good things — to America's witness for life, its rich parishes and ministries, its remarkable efforts for social justice," says R. Scott Appleby, a professor of Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame.

He hopes the pope will "offer a powerful, charismatic, healing word about the abuse crisis to the laity, who need to hear this, and hear that the work of the Holy Spirit continues to be good and give life."

That's a message Catholics can take home to their parishes, the heart of the church....

Of U.S adults, 24% say they are Catholic. But 46% of immigrants say they are Catholic, compared with 21% of native-born U.S. adults, according to the Pew Forum.

The real numbers may be higher. Hispanic Catholics are less likely, culturally, to register with a parish, says St. Catherine's pastor, the Rev. David Sanfilippo.

This week, 96 of his parishioners, including Ramon and Rosa Ramirez and eight of their children, plan to be in Washington, and 71 will follow Benedict to New York. Most of these pilgrims don't even have tickets to the public events: They just hope to catch a glimpse of their pope.

"The Vicar of Christ is coming to us. The least we can do is be present for him," says Rosa Ramirez, 42. "We are concerned about people who suffer spiritually, who lose hope, whose lives can be meaningless. We worry about Catholics slipping away."

Most Catholics say they are proud to be Catholic. But only 43% say church teachings, the pope or bishops guide them in "deciding what's morally acceptable," according to the CARA survey.

"We need Benedict to address our real crisis. It's not the priest shortage or the sex abuse crisis. It's education," says Greg Erlandson, publisher of the Catholic weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor.

"Young Catholics today don't know the basics, and, often, their parents don't, either," he says. "How are we handing down the faith?"...

More than 30,000 lay people are specially trained in ministry, and 80% are women, Garcia says.

Almost half of diocesan administrative posts (48%) are filled by women, according to a 2003 study, the most recent available, by the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators.

Their numbers climbed sharply after 1983, when revisions in canon law, which are the laws that govern the church, permitted laity to take on roles once reserved for priests.

Lay people can now take on positions from becoming chancellors, which are similar to chief operating officers for dioceses, to reading Scripture during Mass, says Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., since 1990.

Not everyone is satisfied with this progress. Some fear that female lay leaders will be barely seen and not at all heard by Benedict.

"I'm glad he's coming to see a world beyond the Vatican," says author Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister in Erie, Pa. "But if he's not here to learn from the nature of the church, its needs and questions, then what good will it do? If half the Catholic world, the women, are left out of the discussions, what can he learn?"

Many protest groups are clamoring for Benedict's attention. Calls will ring out from various Catholic groups for more transparency in church governance, greater acceptance for gays within the church, ordination for women, permission for priests to marry, punishment for bishops who failed to protect young people from abuse, and stronger opposition to the Iraq war.

However, administrators Tully and Schettler have no complaints for Benedict. Neither could break away to see him. Neither seeks his acknowledgment.

"I don't do this because I'm looking for thanks," Schettler says. "I do it because I'm serving the people of God. I always assume I'm in the pope's prayers on a daily basis."
Which leads us back to the reminder that, no, this isn't the Second Coming. But even so, the coverage and the attention all this has brought about is far from a bad thing.

Remember, we don't have to look too far back to realize that it could be worse.

PHOTOS: Todd Heisler/The New York Times(1); Reuters(2)