Thomas F. O'Neill
My parents were devoutly Roman Catholic when I was growing up and they still are. Their devout religious beliefs had a huge impact on my views of the world and in how I interacted with others. I even served as an altar boy in our local church and I was a member of the Newman Center at Lock Haven University during my University years. I later entered and graduated from a Roman Catholic seminary earning a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy. I feel I had a great education and a spiritual foundation.
In 1962 the year I was born few Roman Catholics would have predicted the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church of today. Fifty-seven years ago, when Pope John XXIII headed the Roman Catholic Church there was great optimism about the Church’s future.
Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on the 25th of November in 1881 and died on the 3rd of June in 1963. He was elected Pope on the 28th of October in 1958 and called the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) but did not live to see it to completion due to his death in 1963. He died only four-and-a-half years after his election.
It was fifty-seven years ago in 1962 that Pope John XXIII made the statement “let us open up the windows and let some fresh air in the Church.” He was inviting change which led to the establishment of the second Vatican council. The second Vatican council led to great optimism among Catholics but in the end, it was a huge disappointment. Catholics throughout the world were expecting to see huge changes in the church to address the social changes of the 1960s. Most Catholics in the late 1960s felt the Second Vatican Council did not go far enough and that the Church was out of touch with the times. It also marked the beginning of the decline within the church due to the church hierarchy’s inability to relate to the spiritual needs of its congregation. Pope John XXIII would certainly be disappointed if he was able to witness the problems plaguing today’s Church. There is also a growing number of Catholics who no longer view the church as being relevant in their lives. The US Catholic population is approximately 77.7 million making it the fourth-largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.
Most would agree with me that the majority of Catholics in America are Catholics in name only not practicing Catholics. Most theologians would also agree that one of the main issues facing today’s Roman Catholic Church is its inability to adapt to the changing times. It’s no surprise that the church has difficulties. They are mostly due to a drop in vocations, lower church attendance and a lack of donations. This has resulted in church closings not just in the United States, but globally.
The pedophile priest issues, the cover-ups, and the whispers of a homosexual subculture among today’s catholic priests and seminarians are not helping the church’s credibility issue either. I would never judge a person by their sexual orientation as long as its between two consenting adults. I also admire Pope Francis's statement regarding the issue of homosexuality, “who am I to judge” he said. When I was in the seminary I was one of a few that was [not] a homosexual. I did not care about the other seminarians' sexual orientations nor was I homophobic about their sexual preferences. That being said, it has become more than obvious that the drop in vocations has resulted in the lowering of church standards among Roman Catholic Seminaries throughout the world.
Most Catholics today also believe the church’s teachings are somewhat archaic. They disagree with the patriarchal system and feel women should have authoritative roles. The majority of Catholics also disagree with the Vatican’s position on contraception. According to church statistics, fifty-seven years ago, in 1962, there were approximately 58,000 priests in the U.S. This was mostly due to the influx of immigrants from the previous generation. Since then, the numbers have drastically declined. In a few years, there will be less than 15,000 priests under the age of 70. The lack of viable vocations for the priesthood has also resulted in many seminaries closing.
There were about 180,000 nuns in 1962. They were the backbone of Catholic education, but within the next 10 years, they will be virtually non-existent. Seventy-five percent of Catholics went to Mass on a regular basis in 1962. Today, it’s less than 26 percent. This is mostly due to changing demographics. The younger generations relocate for better employment opportunities. The average person will relocate five times in their lifetime and their parents’ traditional church is no longer their core belief system.
Many theologians describe today’s Catholics as cafeteria Catholics because they pick and choose their beliefs. In 1962, a greater number followed church mandates dogmatically. Most Catholics today believe the church’s teachings are somewhat outdated. They disagree with the patriarchal system and feel women should have authoritative roles. The majority of Catholics also disagree with the Vatican’s position on contraception.
The church’s beacon of light must shine on the spirit of the times, such as allowing women to become priests and priests to marry. According to recent Pew Research Polls, most of today’s Catholics are no longer relying on religious institutions to tell them what they can and cannot believe. Religious institutions have a tendency to give simplistic, black and white answers. The reality of life, however, can be very complex and very gray.
The mystics of old discovered that when the mind draws a blank to the world’s riddles, it turns to the soul for answers, for the soul knows what the mind seeks. As for the church, its spiritual knowledge is only as relevant as its application. Spirituality and religion are useless until properly applied to those in need within the spirit of the times.
I may not be a practicing catholic or a religious person but I am spiritual. Centuries ago, the inward journey was taken by a few privileged souls, but in today’s culture, it has become a healthy trend among the young. Pope Francis once made the statement that he sees a smaller but much stronger church in the future. He also went on to say that the universal church is not ready for a Vatican three. Perhaps the next Pope, whenever that may come about, may see the necessity to reopen the church windows in order to invite the spirit of the times in because in order for the church to survive. It will have to bring about a positive, spiritual change, out of necessity rather than convenience by reaching the hearts of its congregations.
Pope John XIII’s legacy was inviting change but unfortunately, the change did not go far enough. There is a serious disconnect between the spirituality that the average catholic is seeking and the church’s institutional dogma. The Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy might be a little fearful of the changing and progressive times. It has also been said that today’s Z Generation, perhaps lacking in the area of spiritual insights, are still the most knowledgeable and educated of all previous generations. They rarely turn to institutions for answers but that does not mean our era is not ready for a Vatican three. This is a perfect time for the Vatican Council to reach out to those who are Catholic in name only.
Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
Phone: (410) 925-9334
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