By Matt Keppel
It was a minor ripple in the onslaught of news this week, but the Catholic Church’s CARA report came out. It’s something that some dioceses live and die over; numbers and interpretations that intend to take the pulse of the Church in the United States. Upon reading it, much of it was more of the same: seminaries can’t produce enough priests, parishes are closing, changing ethnic demographics. Much of it screams gloom and doom to American Catholics clinging to the old order. And they are right, by the numbers things are changing, but I’m not sure it’s the doom we’ve been told.
The reality is that the tide is turning. Lay ministers were once the ones who used to have the time and money to earn degrees or certificates in theology. They were the soccer moms whose children had grown, or former religious who had left orders. This was the first generation of religion teachers, DRE’s, and pastoral associates to answer the call to lay ministry by the Second Vatican Council. Yet, between 2002 and 2005 the Church lost nearly half of its lay students (from 36,048 to 18,847) in certificate and degree programs for ministry. Yet, what has developed out of this despair is cause for great hope in the Church.
No longer are the ranks of lay ministry swollen with second-career-minded individuals, though they still make up a significant portion of ministers. Now, our theology departments are growing. We have already been disillusioned. Our hearts have already been broken. However, we are aware of the Church in which we have come of age. We know its flaws, and we also know what it could be. That’s why we are here. That’s why I have hope! No, we do not have the numbers we once did, but those here now are here as their vocation. This generation of lay ministers is coming of age in a time of greatest need within the Church. These men and women are answering a call in a time of distress, not out of a desire to fill holes, but because they are truly called by God to do so.
When I look at the CARA report I do not despair. I, we, have lived through a difficult time in the life of the Church and survived. The numbers tell us this, and they also tell us that we are not out of the woods. More importantly, our faith tells us that won’t be out of the woods! We must continually strive to grow closer to God, for if we do not we will be doomed to the sins of our past. As lay ministers we are not called to fill holes but to answer our vocation of bringing to Christ. These numbers and charts need to serve as that reminder. We ought to be reminded daily of that voice crying out in the wilderness. It is a voice of comfort and hope, releasing the captive, and calling the broken-hearted home
Link to the Cara Report: http://cara.georgetown.edu/Overview201314.pdf