The sad news from Pew Research Associates that the percentage of Rhode Islanders who claim to be Catholic has diminished to 42% is matched by the equally distressing information that the number of Rhode Islanders who have no religious affiliation at all has increased to 20 percent.
The drop in Christian affiliation generally is particularly pronounced among young adults, but it is occurring among Americans of all ages. Religious leaders and active Catholics are right to be concerned about this falling away from the faith -- in fact, the falling away from all faiths. But Church history indicates that the rise and fall of Christianity has varied vastly from century to century. Christianity experienced a phenomenal growth both during the years of Roman persecution and during the era of Imperial favoritism. Southern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Empire stretching towards India and China welcomed vast number of believers into the fold through the seventh century. But then the arrival of Islam witnessed the falling away of much of that Christian population. To this day North Africa, Turkey and much of old Persia register a minority of Christians.
But while the Church was declining in the Near East, missionaries were being sent to the now be-calmed barbarian regions of Northern Europe. St. Augustine went to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain; St. Boniface to the Germanic tribes; Ss. Cyril and Methodius to the Balkan regions and St. Ansgar to Scandinavia. Their success was matched by the political support the Church received from Charlemagne and his newly formed Holy Roman Empire. The cathedrals, universities and monasteries of Europe grew apace. Some began to think they grew too much. Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and Knox among others, spurred a mass exodus from Catholic Christianity in much of Europe. The Catholic/Protestant divide, largely along ethnic lines, remains to this day. But as Northern Europe forsook the sacraments for the Scriptures, Catholic Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans brought the faith to North and South America, to the Far East and to the South Sea Islands. Later, nineteenth century Europe would be no friend to the Catholic Church. Otto van Bismarck did his best to squeeze, literally, Catholicism out of Germany, erecting buildings in front of churches to hide them from view. France became very anti-clerical during this era, expelling legions of religious orders and congregations from French territory, many of whom sought refuge in England, Ireland and eventually the USA. In spite of troubles at home, the Church thrived in Europe’s colonial empire, introducing the faith to sub-Saharan Africa, where this ministry is bearing much fruit today.
The Church has always understood hard times to be more a challenge than a defeat. The blood of martyrs was the seed of Christians in the Church’s first era and testing has always proven fruitful in the long run. The two mini-parables in this coming Sunday’s Gospel -- the seed growing secretly and the sprouting mustard tree -- are among Jesus’ several parables of confidence, labeled such by students of Scripture since they have the common theme of hazardous beginnings but rewarding conclusions. How inert seeds placed in lifeless dirt somehow manage to bring forth abundant crops to feed mankind year after year must have been quite a mystery for early civilizations. And how tiny specks could grow into large bushes was a similar mystery for ancient man. Yet somehow, century after century, seeds did sprout, stems did grow, fruits ripened and humanity was fed. All that was needed was confidence. The Church must never lose heart.
Jesus wisely knew that his early Church, his twelve apostles, would need all the confidence, all the assurance, all the certitude they could muster to see themselves and the first Christian communities through the prejudice, ill-will, betrayal and persecutions that would lie ahead. Parables like the sprouting seed and the mustard bush certainly helped illustrate Jesus’ point. But the experience of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection – the Paschal Mystery – was the Savior’s own vivid, personal testimony of victory after defeat. The apparent disaster of Calvary was more than matched by the triumph of the empty tomb. Modern Christians are just as much in need of Christ’s re-assurance as preceding generations of believers were. If Jesus can overcome the power of sin and the permanence of death, today’s Church can certainly surmount distressing statistics.