Pope Benedict has often been quoted saying that the Church of the future may have to be smaller to remain faithful. A number of critical commentators have picked up on this suggestion as a sign of an inherent conservatism in the new Pontiff but it far more likely marks a vision of a more mature Church, better equipped to engage with the modern world. For too long the Church has been obsessed with the numbers that come through the doors. The health of the Church is often assessed in purely numeric terms, whether it be church attendance, number of priests, number of religious or vocations. This obsession with numbers really does miss the point of what the Church and our faith should be about. Number crunching of this type is for Walmart and Tescos not the Church. The obsession with numbers has over the years had a detrimental effect on our Church. It means continually pandering to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately it also breeds passive congregations that know little about what their faith means or what is demanded of them. It has helped bring a Church where many attend Mass in order to get their children into the local Catholic school. Once that objective has been attained, many walk away. People from other faiths are often staggered at our ignorance of what Catholicism teaches. The understanding of the faith for many, stopped developing in childhood. Education shouild a life-long calling for everyone - so why is it that so many among us do nothing to advance our understanding of our faith? If the only spiritual sustinance many receive comes from the weekly Mass readings, and the very variable attempts made by priests to link them to the real world, how can the objective of grown-up Christians, with deep roots in the faith ever be expected to develop? Over the years in my own church I can recall lots of people who in Church parlance would be said to have' fallen by the wayside.' But it is important in this context that falling away is not simply defined as no longer going to Church. If our faith is to mean anything it must go beyond simply receiving the sacraments and getting a Catholic education. The Church has to mean something real that goes beyond the church door resonating locally and in international communities. There are lessons to be learned here, from initiatives like recent ones in parishes connecting with prodigals who have left the Church. They reveal that many who have fallen away, have done so for the most part because their understanding of their faith was so undeveloped. There was a thirst for a greater understanding that had never been quenched. Historically, there has also been too much coercion going on as part of the Catholic formative process, whch does little to develop faith. I remember being struck by this once at university, when I was getting up on Sunday morning to go to Mass and another guy at the house who was a Catholic told me he never went to Mass, except when he visited his parents. Then he'd have to go, or be kicked out. This type of coercion is still all too commonplace, resulting only in the long term in developing shallow roots that break as soon as the individual becomes freed from the parental clutches. Worse still, it can cause a deep seated dislike of the Church. This type of ritualistic, coercive upbringing with no real understanding of what the faith is about, has led to so many people to walk away. It is a belief built on sand, not with deep roots that can sustain in troubled times. A deeper understanding of the Gospel messages and what it means to be a Catholic needs to be addressed. Faith commitment requires more than passively coming to Church once a week and putting in the plate. The social teachings of the Church offer a dynamic blueprint for involvement in the world and demand that Catholics step forward and play a role in working for the common good. I believe the Church should urgently act to encourage more of the faithful to become active in putting these teachings into practice. Our churches must become beacons for good. They must engage with the vulnerable and marginalised in society. We have a responsibility to act as stewards of the environment. The Church needs to be active in the world of work - where most people spend most of their lives. We need a national voice on issues like war and peace. It is incredible that the Bishops Conference of England and Wales has not made a statement on the situation in Iraq since fighting first broke out in 2003. Pope Benedict was being realistic when he spoke of a smaller church. But what he may have meant was a Church made up of a more mature laity, who are aware what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world. The demands of such a Church would include an adult understanding of the faith and a commitment to work at all levels for the common good of all.
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