Urgent tasks for church renewal

by Peter C. Phan

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Author’s proposals may be vital for future of Catholicism

By Pierre Hegy
Published by iUniverse, $22.95

Let me state up front and categorically: This is by any standard the best book on church renewal I’ve read, especially on renewal for the Roman Catholic church. Pierre Hegy, who has a doctorate from the University of Paris, with his thesis on authority in the Catholic church after the Second Vatican Council, is professor emeritus of sociology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and the founder of a highly successful book review Web site. His earlier publications deal with post-Vatican II Catholicism and feminist thought. This volume is part of Hegy’s ongoing research on the contemporary Catholic church.

The book’s provocative title refers, of course, to the Johannine account of the resurrection of Lazarus, but its immediate origin is traced to “Operation Lazarus,” started by Fr. Peter Chiara. Chiara, pastor of St. Mary Church in East Islip, N.Y., decided in the early 1970s to revive his parish. Personal letters were sent to all the 6,400 families with “The church is dead” on the envelope. “Operation Lazarus” called for four evening discussions on how to resurrect the church. About 1,200 people showed up every evening. They were divided into groups to discuss what should be done, especially in the areas of religious education, the liturgy and service to the poor. They wanted to have more input on what the parish should do. Twenty people were elected to serve as an advisory group. Unfortunately, shortly afterward Chiara got sick and ceased to be pastor of the parish. (He died in October 2010.) The parish revival seems not to have a long-lasting effect. In 2007 Mass attendance was again very low.

The Lazarus metaphor is particularly apt for the current state of the Roman Catholic church in the West, including the American Catholic church. As a social institution it is moribund if not dead. Like Lazarus, however, it can be revived, not by a divine miracle and fiat, or “cheap grace,” but only through long-term and thoroughgoing church renewal -- certainly not by restoration, or “the reform of the reform.” But how to bring about this Catholic church renewal? It is here that Hegy’s book makes its unique contribution.

Most current writings advocating church reforms remain at the abstract theological level, at times with pious invocations of the Holy Spirit as the agent of change. While ecclesiology and pneumatology still furnish the foundations for church renewal, they need to be informed by accurate and up-to-date social data. With vast expertise in what he calls “pastoral sociology,” Hegy provides, in the first three chapters, the “inconvenient statistics” (the title of chapter one); and the three main reasons why Christianity in general (chapter two) and the U.S. Catholic church in particular (chapter three) are experiencing a catastrophic decline.

Surveys document beyond doubt the precipitous loss of membership in mainline churches and the rapid growth of conservative evangelical churches. Some 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics; one-third of Americans born Catholic have left the church -- and almost half of these former Catholics joined Protestant, mostly evangelical, churches. The book is replete with tables and statistics, but readers should not be daunted by them. Hegy supplies lucid and helpful summaries of the findings, and persons (like me) with scant knowledge of sociology can easily understand them.

Of greater importance are the factors that Hegy derives from sociological surveys to account for the spiritual decline of U.S. Christianity in general and of the U.S. Catholic church in particular. These factors will not be music to either conservative or liberal ears. They include the retreat of Christian churches from the public square, their losing battle against omnipresent consumerism, and their failure to transmit religious and moral values amid cafeteria-style religion. The Catholic church in particular suffers from church-centeredness rather than Christ-centeredness, a deficient sacramental theology and practice with focus on the external elements, ritualism, a decline in popular devotions, an emphasis on the Eucharist as sacrifice rather than as community celebration, and the lack of a Catholic subculture.

If these are the reasons for the decline of the Catholic church, then, Hegy argues, “renewal is much more than the reformation of church structures and changes in priestly ordination. ... To the extent that the post-Vatican II liberal agenda concentrated on these two items, it failed and has little future -- which does not make the reform of church structures any less desirable. Clearly what is needed is spiritual (i.e., evangelical) renewal, not just structural reform.” On the other hand, Hegy gives little comfort to conservatives, since his prescriptions for church renewal are diametrically opposed to their restorationist agenda that insists on loyalty and obedience to the hierarchy, especially the pope, and total orthodoxy.

Hegy provides snapshots into two flourishing American Christian communities, one a nondenominational church, the other a Catholic parish. The vitality of the first church, with the pseudonym of “the Bayville Community Church,” is part of the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. It is built on “neither doctrinal innovation nor charismatic communities ... but on assiduous prayer and a sense of mission.” The Catholic parish is “St. Mary Star of Hope,” a pseudonym for a parish in the suburb of Chicago, with 3,800 families and only one resident priest. It is a laity-driven parish, with all ministries carried out by the laity. Its vibrancy derives from its structure as “a community of communities” consisting of “scores of small Christian communities meeting weekly” and as “a community of ministries.” (The chapter describing the history and life of St. Mary’s is worth its pages in gold!)

On the basis of these sociological studies, Hegy proposes a long-term plan for renewing the Catholic church. He first reviews various church reform programs, from the 1992 document of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States” to the RENEW movement. He examines the evangelical “purpose-driven church” founded by Rick Warren in Saddleback Valley, Calif., with its emphasis on missions, and the Willow Creek Community Church founded by Bill Hybels in a Chicago suburb, with its emphasis on Christ-centeredness and spiritual growth.

From these reform initiatives Hegy lists six urgent tasks that comprise his church renewal plan:

End the exodus of young Catholics and the non-transmission of values;
Propose paths of spiritual growth rather than ideological programs;
Devise concrete ways for the church to be in the world but not of the world, using new forms of renunciation, rejecting consumerism, and countercultural ways of life;
Act as a servant church rather than a power structure;
Support a moral culture rather than a moral theology;
Develop a celebration of sacraments as moments of spiritual transformation of the individual and the community rather than rites of passage.

A tall order indeed, but how to achieve it?

In his important, challenging, and insightful closing chapter, Hegy lays out in great detail the three steps of his plan for church renewal.

There are detailed proposals on how to make passive attendees at Sunday Mass (including the priest himself!) into active participants in the celebration of the Eucharist, from beginning to end, in every single part of the Mass. Next come proposals on how to transform the active Mass attendees into involved members of the local church or parish through the four forms of ministry communities -- worship, service, formation and missions. Here, Hegy offers extremely rich insights into the role of the choir (not performance but facilitating prayer), religious education (not information but community formation), devotions (not private piety but structured forms of discipleship), and eucharistic spirituality. The final step is leading the involved members into totally committed discipleship, especially through spiritual growth and missionary/evangelizing activities.

If you have no time to read the entire book, read at least Pages 231-275, every single one of them, slowly and meditatively, and let Hegy’s ideas and proposals sink in. You need not agree with his every thought and proposal, but do take them extremely seriously; the very life of the Catholic church may well depend on them.

[Fr. Peter C. Phan is the inaugural holder of the Ignacio Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University in Washington.]

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