Part 13: What happened, and what do we do On Mission?

Friday, January 01, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
By Dr. Michel Therrien

Part 13 of a weekly series.

Driving with my daughter recently, we were listening to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" on my smartphone. I was instantly shot back to my early childhood and my great-aunt Marian. She was a friend of Bing Crosby and used to picnic with him and friends while he was a student at Gonzaga University.

Through the enduring heritage of my grandparents and great-aunt I remember the presence of an age that has long since passed. I made the observation to my daughter that I have experienced in my own lifetime three eras, all of which unfolded in rapid succession: the age prior to 1968; the 1970s and 1980s; and now the new millennium, which really began in the mid-90s.

My great-aunt sat in the grass listening to Bing play guitar. Here I sit wirelessly singing along with my millennial daughter to "White Christmas" played through a cell phone!

This long view is so important when we reflect on our current context as church. We cannot go forward as the Church Alive! if we are not clear about where we are now and how we got here.

If we think back to parish life 50 years ago, there were three bonds that held the community together:

• A pious respect for church authority;

• Personal devotion to the tenets of Catholic tradition;

• The cultural association between ethnicity and faith.

These bonds made the Catholic community a vibrant source of faith and a powerful witness, especially here in Pittsburgh.

Since the 1970s we have seen the increasingly rapid decline of faith in our culture. More recently, we can observe a momentous drop in baptisms, participation in Sunday liturgy, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and now even marriage. Many members of our families have drifted from their faith altogether.

So, what happened? Our culture has undergone a seismic shift that has led to a profound loss of the sense of God. We live in a "post-Christian world." The culture of religious piety has been replaced by a culture of personal preference, consumerism and subjective self-expression.

If we return to the bonds noted above, observe how all three have vanished. The source of authority has shifted away from religion toward scientific expertise. The word "tradition" is now equated with a repressive past. Finally, the cultural association of ethnicity and faith has diminished to a twilight for many of our young people. It might still elicit a faint sense of obligation to parents or grandparents, but not to the practice of faith. Simply put, our culture is doing a better job evangelizing our people than we are.

Yet, we always have our greatest strength at hand: the Gospel has not lost any of its relevance or power. For that reason, we can neither retreat into the past nor despair the future. These cultural shifts challenge us to reinvigorate our personal witness and find new ways of proclaiming Jesus Christ today.

The church is an enduring institution within a fast-changing world, and the church has always adapted to the cultural realities of each age. It is no different for us today who are called to be On Mission for the Church Alive!

Therrien is diocesan secretary for evangelization and Catholic education.

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