The grim statistics shared in the Rhode Island Catholic a few weeks back as well as commentary on the state of religion in the northeastern United States in the recent past is certainly cause for concern for Church leaders and Church faithful alike. The plea of the disciples in this coming Sunday’s Gospel, “Increase our faith!” should be found on the lips of every believer not only locally but in fact throughout the Western world. The faith of our fathers — both the Deistic faith of America’s Founding Fathers as well as the immigrant Catholic faith of our own forebears — has declined greatly within a single generation: 65 percent Catholic Mass attendance in 1965 versus 17 percent Catholic Mass attendance in 2015. Yes, these are shocking figures.
The 21st century believer is clearly not the first follower of God’s Word to be discouraged by a back-sliding experience in the life of the Church. The first reading at the coming Sunday’s Mass is taken from the obscure prophet Habakkuk. The desperate conditions in Judea during his lifetime, arising from internal and external threats to the Jewish people, provoked Habakkuk’s struggle with the difficult and important theological question of God’s Divine Providence. Modern believers can sympathize with Habakkuk’s lament: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” These words could be found on the lips of any Catholic bishop, priest, or layperson in this present age of ours when increasing scandals and diminishing numbers give even the most fervent apostle some pause.
Yet, Habakkuk’s bleak outlook in the face of threats from Babylon’s armies along with disappointments from Jerusalem’s leaders is countered by some reassuring words from God himself: “Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
The 2,000-year history of Christianity has been a chronology of victories and defeats, advances and reverses. The early Church faced three centuries of periodic Roman persecution only then to be endorsed by Constantine’s imperial decree of favor and approval. No sooner had the Church taken advantage of lordly favor than barbarians from the East laid Western Europe waste. While missionaries were sent out to re-evangelize Europe, the Church struggled internally and broadly with Arianism, a movement that denied the Divinity of Christ. Hard times produced a flowering of the monastic life, as believers sheltered themselves from barbarism but celebrated the ancient rituals and pondered intensely the ancient texts. Medieval universities and the preaching orders spawned a flowering of Christian culture even as the Church wrestled with the Albigensians, a puritanical sect despising the material world, and with the Muslims, who crept halfway up France. The Church of course lost much ground — half of Europe — contesting with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer but at the same time spread the faith to the Americas and to Asia. Revolution in France and secularization in Germany drove many religious congregations into exile who, in turn, brought their Catholic faith to England and America.
In this present day agnosticism and atheism, irreligion and sensuality, have sadly been enshrined into law, favored in business, influential in education, and completely embraced by entertainment. Well might the words of Habakkuk be uttered by today’s weary believer, “How long, O Lord!”
This Sunday’s readings from the New Testament are quite a bit more strengthening. For his part St. Paul writes: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” And St. Luke’s Gospel reminds believers that even Christ’s disciples felt in need of some assurance regarding the Good News of Salvation: “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” So now here recall the reassuring words of Habakkuk: “The just one, because of his faith, shall live!” Yes, faith in the Providence of God, in the Fatherhood of God, in the Wisdom of God, is earnestly needed today.