Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Live from the Metroplex

Before all else, with the Stateside bench's first ad limina of this pontificate drawing ever closer, it's worth noting that the bishops of the world's fourth largest Catholic country -- the Philippines, home to some 60 million of the faithful -- are currently in Rome for their first taste of the "Benedict treatment."

Slated to make the now seven-yearly pilgrimage in three groups between now and March, Monday saw the first papal address to the influential Pinoy prelates -- its focus on the church as "leaven in the world" -- which conspicuously included the following passage:
A specific area in which the Church must always find her proper voice comes in the field of social communications and the media. The task set before the whole Catholic community is to convey a hope-filled vision of faith and virtue so that Filipinos may find encouragement and guidance on their path to a full life in Christ. A unified and positive voice needs to be presented to the public in forms of media both old and new, so that the Gospel message may have an ever more powerful impact on the people of the nation. It is important that the Catholic laity proficient in social communications take their proper place in proposing the Christian message in a convincing and attractive way. If the Gospel of Christ is to be a leaven in Filipino society, then the entire Catholic community must be attentive to the force of the truth proclaimed with love.
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Along those lines, even before the USCCB heard its latest presentation on digital media at this month's Fall Classic, the bench's uptake of various platforms was already becoming ever more impressive, a trajectory topped by a reality -- unthinkable not all that long ago -- that's seen the heads of three of American Catholicism's four largest outposts now take on blogs of their own, not to mention multiple others of distinction from locales further afield.

And now, at the start of the new church year, another entry's come, yet again from the booming heart of Texas, where Catholics surpassed Evangelicals as the state's largest religious group midway through the last decade.

Joining his blogging confrere in the Dallas Metroplex -- now the nation's fourth-largest metro area... and, in time, likely to become the hub of a third province in the Lone Star State -- Bishop Kevin Vann has launched his contribution, Shepherd of Fort Worth, both in English... y espaƱol.

A career pastor before becoming B16's first diocesan appointee on these shores, beyond the 630,000-member church -- spread across 28 counties of North Texas -- Vann's page is especially worth keeping up on the wider scene as the 59 year-old prelate is currently engaged in two key USCCB initiatives on the national front.

In light of the area's long history as a hotbed of Rome-bound Episcopalians -- their pioneer parish located in the Fort Worth diocese -- Vann serves on the three-bishop commission dealing with the implementation of Anglicanorum coetibus in the States (led, of course, by the newly-elevated Cardinal Wuerl), as well as the bench's effort to repair ties with the Catholic Health Association, which famously broke with the conference earlier this year on throwing its support behind the Federal health care reform package, defying the bishops' well-noted concerns over the final bill's opening to public funding of abortions.

Sure, the side-assignments might get the chattering classes' blood pumping, but not even the K.Vann's committee work can outshine the growth and vitality he gets to preside over at home; nearly quadrupled in size since 1990, parishes are bursting at the seams in the Fort Worth church, the diocese now counts 30 seminarians (a figure that, per capita, LA would need 250 men in formation to match, and New York 125 -- and neither come close)... and last month, in conjunction with its 1.2 million-member counterpart in Dallas, the twin dioceses marked the US' designated World Youth Day with a crowd of some 7,000 young people for a Sunday Funday at the local Six Flags, capped with an open-air Mass... whose homily the newly-blogging prelate preached on his iPad.

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On a personal note, your narrator got to see all this up close a couple months back, on a trip South to speak at the annual Ministry Conference arranged by the University of Dallas, in conjunction with the two dioceses -- who, it must be said, arguably enjoy the closest working relationship of any local churches on these shores.

As if the above wasn't impressive, there's more: restricted to 67 churches due to a scarcity of priests -- so much so that, as one cleric put it, "we're forbidden to die" -- the average parish-size by registration in the Dallas church runs just shy of 20,000; such is the shortage that the long-awaited two auxiliaries named earlier this year have been pressed into emergency service as pastors.

During the days, another priest of the Plex reported a turnout of 1,700 for his parish's largest Sunday Mass, with over 300 kids preparing for First Communion; just off the UD campus, Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving has seen its enrollment double in the last three years, and San Antonio's bi-lingual Assumption Sem can now boast over 100 students for the first time in a half-century; the Dallas church alone welcomed over 3,000 adults at Easter... and at the Conference itself, what began as a gathering of 800 attendees in 2007 has rapidly ballooned, this year's drawing a crowd of some 6,000, most of whom memorably (and movingly) dropped to their knees on a hard arena floor during the two-day event's closing liturgy (above).

However you cut it, the boom is impressive. In the context of four centuries of the faith on these shores, though, the Southern shift is nothing short of revolutionary. And fittingly enough, this year's Dallas keynoter was the watershed figure of the church's Lone Star ascent (and, all around, the "face" of B16's remaking of the American bench): the Cardinal of the South....

(Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)

These days, it doesn't take much looking around to find no shortage of talk about no shortage of things, most of which are claimed to have some epochal degree of importance.

Yet when the books are written on ecclesial life in this time and place (and, in spades, they will be), odds are that, at best, today's "headlines" will be relegated to footnotes in the face of the dominant reality of this moment in the American Catholic journey: an age when scandals and politics raged, a complacent Old Guard fled, feuded and, most of all, faded, and a dominant "empire" -- once celebrated far and wide for its ability to regiment everything -- suddenly became powerless at reversing its own decline...

...while far from the historic hotspots, over the course of decades, the new spirit brought by an even older faithful quietly took root and believed, set to work and grew, and watched their welcome and witness transform what, not all that long ago, was an oft-persecuted and misunderstood minority into an energetic force in the public square and the ecclesial realm alike.

And as its fruit, a half-century in the making, the tide has turned -- as never before, the South and West stand at center stage in the life of the Stateside church.

Of course, much more about this to come over the next Ten Days as, under cover of night, the next generation of the nation's faithful return for another edition what's become US Catholicism's "Super Bowl."

PHOTOS: Reuters(1); Edward A. Ornelas/San Antonio Express-News