WASHINGTON – What kind of Catholic Church will Pope Benedict XVI find when he arrives in the United States in April? How similar or different will it be from the U.S. church community that greeted Pope John Paul II on his first papal visit in 1979 or his last trip to the U.S. in 1999?
Scholars and experts contacted by Catholic News Service at Catholic universities around the country did not always agree on the answers to those questions, but several themes emerged.
They saw a church dealing with parish consolidations or closings and a declining availability of priests, but also experiencing a new vibrancy in lay ecclesial ministry. They saw what one called “a chastened church” after the clergy sex abuse scandal but a church that has learned important lessons about accountability. And they saw a church already more than one-third Hispanic and still learning how to adapt to the realties of multiculturalism.
There’s no doubt that the United States Pope Benedict will visit has more Catholics than the country to which Pope John Paul came in 1979 or 1999.
The Catholic population in the 50 states was less than 50 million in 1979 but grew to more than 59 million in 1999 and 64.4 million today, according to the Official Catholic Directory. That growth has roughly mirrored the rise in total U.S. population, from 218.6 million in 1979 to 232.4 million in 1999 and 300.7 million in 2007.
The number of U.S. parishes has remained relatively steady over those years, with 18,695 parishes in 1979, a slight rise to 19,186 in 1999 and a drop back down to 18,642 last year. But the number of diocesan and religious-order priests serving U.S. Catholics has sharply declined, from 58,430 in 1979 to 46,355 in 1999 and 41,446 in 2007.
Alan Schreck, chairman of the theology department at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, said the alarming drop in the number of priests also has had a happy consequence in the rising number of Catholic laypeople involved in church ministries.
At Franciscan University alone, there are more than 500 undergraduate theology students, “the vast majority of them laypeople,” he said, and more than 100 graduate each year with the training once given only to clergy.
Mr. Schreck believes Pope Benedict will find “a greater maturity, a greater sense of direction and mission” among American Catholics today than Pope John Paul did 28 years ago.
“For me, the most positive thing in 2008 is that laypeople are immensely more aware of their responsibility for the church present and future,” said Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Mr. Lakeland said the clergy sex abuse crisis had one positive result: It convinced Catholics that “we need to have more of a voice in our church.”
“It didn’t matter if you were on the left or the right,” he added. “You were equally scandalized.”
Michael O’Keeffe, a theology professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago, said he hopes Pope Benedict will acknowledge during his visit that the issues raised by the sex abuse scandal are not over.
“I believe that the pope would be well served by speaking to people about this issue and becoming more engaged in helping the church to heal,” Mr. O’Keeffe said.
“I might also ask the pope to take the time to hear about the health of the American Catholic Church, not simply from the bishops, but from the people, especially those people that feel they have been pushed to the margins,” he said.
Charles Zech, professor of economics at the business school at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Church Management, said the sex abuse scandal brought “pressures at all levels to be more transparent.”
And the decline in the number of priests led more and more laypeople to take on “responsibility for the things priests and nuns used to do,” he said.
Together, those trends have left many laypeople in need of “the skills to run a faith-based nonprofit,” Mr. Zech said, adding that the 2-year-old National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management is working to fill those gaps.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said Pope Benedict will find “a higher awareness of the multicultural reality of the church” than Pope John Paul might have seen on any of his U.S. visits.
Hispanics now make up an estimated 35 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, and more than half of all U.S. Catholics under age 25 are Hispanic or Latino. With Mass celebrated in more than three dozen languages around the United States, “there’s lots of work being done” to promote multiculturalism, “and more that needs to be done,” Monsignor Irwin said.
Eileen C. Burke-Sullivan, director of the master’s program in ministry at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., said she has heard little advance publicity about the upcoming papal trip, in sharp contrast to Pope John Paul’s 1979 visit, “which stirred enthusiasm and excitement all over the country but especially here in the heartland.”
“It strikes me that the gap between the bishops and ordinary Catholics has so widened in this country that even if the bishops are excited about Benedict’s coming they are not in a position to stir up the energy of lay Catholics to care a great deal,” she said.
Although there are some exceptions to “this enduring malaise,” Ms. Burke-Sullivan said, most U.S. Catholics today are “willing to work on their own faith, be loyal to their own local clergy if they feel attended to by them,” and are “somewhat uncaring about the universal expression of the church.”
Mr. Schreck hopes Pope Benedict will inspire “a revitalization” that will help American Catholics resist “the increasing pressure toward secularization, to be part of the mass culture.”
“Catholics in America do need to be reminded we are in a struggle” against the prevailing cultural norms, he said. “They have to understand this is really a battle.”