In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI spoke prophetically about a diminishing profile for the Western Church. “The Church will become small,” he wrote, “and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” His words seem especially eerie given recent trends in declining Mass attendance and fewer receptions of the Sacraments. Benedict writes, “The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals.”
As disheartening as this might sound, especially for the aged parishioner who grew up in the golden age of American Catholicism, Benedict offers hope: “The Church may well no longer be the dominant social power … but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” From the ashes of a bygone era, the Church will rise, not as a political powerhouse, but in its fundamental identity as the instrument of salvation destined from all eternity. One should take ease, then, at Benedict’s foresight. In times of trial, God never abandons his people. On the contrary, he raises up saints. And those saints set the world ablaze.
Even if the secular world might falsely see in the Church nothing more than an arcane skeleton of her former self, she survives — indeed, flourishes — in moments of tribulation. There, she is united most with her Bridegroom. So, yes, numbers will continue to fall in what amounts to a bleak receptivity to Catholicism in a religiously vapid world. But this should not alarm us entirely. When the Church seems to be weakest, she is strongest. Not because of her members, but because of Christ. He still provides life and hope beyond death.