Where are all the Catholics?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

We often speak about a “vocation crisis” in the Church today, referring to the fact that we need more young men and women to enter the priesthood and religious life. And indeed it is one of the great pastoral needs of the contemporary Church. The fostering of religious vocations is the responsibility of the entire Church and we all have to work and pray harder for an increase of vocations in service to the Church.

But I’ve grown to believe that the real vocation crisis in the Church isn’t about priests, deacons and consecrated religious. The real vocation crisis in the Church is about the laity – that they haven’t yet been completely successful in living-out their primary vocation to assimilate the Gospel of Christ in their daily lives, and then take the Gospel into the world to transform it into the Kingdom of God.

That the lay faithful are called to live the Gospel and change the world is an indisputable part of Catholic teaching. It began with the commission from Christ Himself.

He challenged his disciples to be the “salt of the earth, the light of the world” and make a difference in the world around them. “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Mt 5: 13-16)

St. Paul takes up the theme and reminds Christians of their duty to be different from the world around them, to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world.” (Phil 2: 15)

The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the special vocation of the laity: “It is their task to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city . . . They are to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the human community.” (Gaudium et Spes, #43)

And more recently, Pope John Paul wrote: “The lay faithful should be conscious of their baptismal dignity . . . Thanks to the lay faithful, the presence and mission of the Church in the world is realized in a special way in the variety of charisms and ministries which belong to the laity. . . . Laity strive to evangelize the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural and political life.” (The Church in America, #44)

In light of this testimony, then, I wonder: Where are all the Catholics?

Since arriving in Rhode Island, I’ve been reminded countless times that Rhode Island is the most Catholic State in the nation, comprising over 60 percent of the total population. And that’s all well and good. But it seems to me that “being the most Catholic State” hasn’t really translated into practical actions. For example . . .

If we were really Catholic would we continually elect public officials who promote or allow abortion?

If we were really Catholic would we support medical experimentation on tiny human beings in embryonic stem cell research?

If we were really Catholic wouldn’t we be more determined to protect marriage and family life against the onslaught of “gay marriage” and “civil unions”?

If we were really Catholic wouldn’t we extend a sincere welcome to immigrants coming to this country and work harder to reform our broken immigration laws?

If we were really Catholic wouldn’t our churches be filled to overflowing every Sunday so that weekly Mass attendance would be far above the 25 – 30 percent we experience today?

If we were really Catholic wouldn’t we be more serious about evangelization, more adept at sharing our Faith with others?

As you consider these questions, I hope it doesn’t sound too negative or critical, for that’s really not the intention. We know that there are many Catholics who take their faith very seriously and are doing great things in the world everyday. And we shouldn’t overlook for even one moment the enormous contributions the Catholic Church has made to the State of Rhode Island since its beginning.

But it seems to me we could do so much more to influence public life in positive ways if we took our faith more seriously, if it really was our first priority.

I’m not sure why we’ve fallen short of the mark. Have we your shepherds, your bishops and priests, failed to provide good example for you; have we failed to inspire you? Has the institutional Church failed to give you the resources you need to fulfill your vocation as lay members of the Church? Perhaps you’ve grown too comfortable in the world and taken on a markedly secular lifestyle? Have you failed to see your faith as the primary commitment of your life, a commitment that changes everything?

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)

In the same way, it’s not enough to boast that we’re the most Catholic State in the nation. It has to mean something. It has to make a difference.

In The Church in America, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The renewal of the Church in America will not be possible without the active presence of the laity. . . There are two areas in which lay people live their vocation. The first, and the one best suited to their lay state, is the secular world, which they are called to shape according to God’s will.” (#44)

That’s a clear challenge for us all. May Almighty God help the faithful members of the Church to fulfill the promise of their Baptism and transform the world into His Kingdom.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)