Knights of Columbus States Deputies Meeting
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 13, 2021
Growth and Decline
Growing up in the 1950’s, I assumed that the Church would never shrink, but instead grow rapidly, as was the case in my hometown, New Albany, Indiana. Back then, we had two recently established parishes, each with elementary schools, as well as a brand new Catholic high school, while the two older parishes in town continued to flourish. Churches were crowded; except for the front rows, it was hard to find a seat. As was the case everywhere, approximately 75% of Catholics went to Mass weekly. In nearby Louisville, a minor seminary was under construction, and less than 50 miles away, St. Meinrad Archabbey and Seminary was packed. Hearing Jesus’ parables in which he compared the growth of God’s Kingdom to that of a productive field or to a rapidly growing tree, made all the sense in world. We did indeed assume that the Church would continue to grow, and to grow rapidly.
Today, the picture has changed. In many places, parishes are merging and Catholic schools are closing. Even prior to COVID, only about 25% of U.S. Catholics attended Holy Mass regularly, the mirror opposite of estimates from the mid-1950’s. While some dioceses are blessed with many priestly and religious vocations, many others are struggling, and everywhere the shortage of priests is felt. In the face of such decline, what are we to make of today’s Gospel images – the productive field and the mustard seed that sprouts into a large shrub?
Clearly, we should take a second look at what Jesus is really telling us. Let me suggest three possible lessons we might draw from these two parables in these times when the Church in North America seems to be shrinking, not growing: First, whether times are good or bad, favorable or unfavorable, the Church must grow. Second, the Church’s growth occurs in places and in ways, we do not expect. Third, God it is who ultimately gives the growth… Allow me to offer a word about each of these points.
Point #1: The Church Must Grow:
One thing to notice about Jesus’ parables in today’s Gospel reading is that they say nothing about managing the decline of the Church. Unfortunately, we sometimes get the impression that the church leaders like myself are totally immersed in managing decline … not pruning the bush to make it sprout with new growth, but simply planning for a much smaller church with a smaller evangelical footprint. Sometimes, an air of defeatism marks decisions to merge parishes and close schools, a sense that the culture and the scandals have gotten the better of us, and that we had all better hunker down and get used to a church stuck in survival mode. There is none of that in the parable about the productive field or the mustard bush. Nor is there even of whiff of defeatism in Jesus’ command to his apostles to evangelize and baptize all nations, and to bear abundant good fruit that will last.
Clearly, the Lord wants us to be neither defeatists nor managers of decline, whether one is a bishop or a priest or a lay leader or a leader in our Order. Even in the worst of times, even in the most unfavorable conditions, and even when every metric seems to seems to be trending against us, the Church, as the sacrament of the Kingdom of God, must continue its mission. How this is so may become clearer in the next point we are about to consider.
Point #2: The Church Grows in Ways and in Places We Do Not Expect:
In the first half of today’s Gospel, the parable of the productive field, the Evangelist St. Mark makes a point of telling us that even a skilled farmer does not understand how the growth of crops takes place. The farmer knows that it occurs and what it looks like but cannot explain it. Even today, it remains baffling that a tiny mustard seed not only grows into a very large bush, some six feet tall, but also tends to spread easily, quickly taking over one’s garden or one’s yard. So too we may not fully understand how or where the Kingdom of God grows, for often it does so in some very unlikely circumstances.
For example, when I asked a young priest to serve as Rector of the Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore, I urged him to attract young adults to that venerable church, America’s First Cathedral. Some told me that such a thing would never work. Three years later, young adults – singles and married couples – populate the Basilica, many of them young people who are highly educated and skilled – and a few weeks ago, the Rector launched perpetual Eucharistic adoration, right in the heart of Baltimore. The Basilica is also blessed with urban missionaries, young adults, women and men, whose lives are rooted in the Eucharist, and who go out from the Basilica to work with the homeless and the poor. The Church, the sacrament of the Kingdom, is growing where few thought it could.
Take another example, this one much starker: a torture chamber at Auschwitz in 1942. The place was full of Jews and Christians rounded up by the Nazis and slated to die. A Capuchin priest, Maximillian Kolbe, offered to take the place of a married man who was about to be tortured to death, and the Nazi guards complied with his wishes. Maximillian Kolbe laid down his life for a perfect stranger, and in the moment of his excruciating suffering and death, the Church, the harbinger and sign of God’s Kingdom, grew. As Tertullian said in the 3rd century, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Especially in the darkest, direst situations, opportunities for evangelization abound, if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hearts to respond.
Point #3: God Gives the Growth:
The seeds of faith we plant, water, and otherwise tend, germinate in God’s good time. What one plants, and another tends, someone else may harvest. Reflecting on this dynamic, St. Paul simply adds, “God it is who gives the growth.” This gives us no excuse for complacency, as if to say, ‘Why bother, God will do it!’ On the contrary, this dynamic brings us face to face with the stunning truth that in the Eucharist, you and I share deeply in the invincible love of the Risen Lord, who overcame sin and death by his Cross and Resurrection – and in the power of his love, we are to be productive agents of the new evangelization.
If we are deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, through prayer, penance, and Eucharist, then we share in that love which conquers all things and makes us fruitful. This is what gives us confidence and boldness in bearing witness to the Gospel. This is what gives us the steadiness and perseverance of a Bl. Michael McGivney. This is what enables us as Knights of Columbus to return to our jurisdictions filled confidence that the Lord works through us and that our efforts will be productive. God indeed will give the growth!
When the Lord spoke of the mustard seed, he knew what he was talking about. Our Savior announced the Kingdom to flawed and unlettered men, and entrusted to them his Church and her universal mission. The faith of that small apostolic band was tested as Jesus died on the Cross, but when filled with the power of the Risen Lord by the gift of the Spirit, they brought the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.
God has provided ‘that spring and harvest should not cease’, and one of the ways he does so is the Knights of Columbus. Through the intercession of Bl. Michael McGivney, may our efforts on behalf of the Gospel produce a rich harvest, such that the Church, the great sacrament of salvation, will flourish, not only in our day but even until the end of time. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love! Vivat Jesus!