By Jeff Brumley
Catholicism faces major challenges but is by no means powerless against the cultural trends and scandals arrayed against it.
That was the message of Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of the Archdiocese of Ottowa, Canada, in his March 30 keynote address to the 2019 Florida Eucharistic Congress in Jacksonville.
The future of the Roman Catholic Church is one of hope and opportunity if dioceses and parishes embrace Eucharist-infused evangelization to reach inactive Catholics, younger generations and those outside the faith, the archbishop told a packed exhibition hall at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
But the challenges are serious, Archbishop Prendergast said.
They include a failure by many in the church to understand the transformative power of the Eucharist and to see in it the roots and inspiration for evangelistic outreach. In this way, he said, the modern-day faithful mirror Christ’s disciples when they failed to comprehend the reality and power of his presence in their lives.
Persistent revelations of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups also do much to undermine trust in the church, its bishops and priests, he said.
Generational factors also are eroding the standing of the faith. Research shows that younger Catholics are giving up on Catholicism, either by renouncing their faith or simply drifting away, the archbishop shared.
He noted that Pope Francis has observed that the breakdown of the family has contributed to the faith not being transmitted to the young.
Millennials, especially, and other oncoming generations are known for being skeptical and untrusting of all matters relating to religion. Young people also are heavily distracted by influences related to the digital age, the archbishop said.
Many of those raised and confirmed in the church are often “sacramentalized but have not entered into a relationship with God.” Some two-thirds claim faith but do not attend church.
Often dissuading them are the “four toxins to faith,” which are hypocrisy, exclusivity, failure, and judgment, Archbishop Prendergast said.
Despite these daunting challenges and even more, the archbishop said, there is evidence that positive, creative actions can transform these trends.
Dioceses and parishes can present the message of a loving, relevant Catholic faith by directing evangelization efforts to the “hinge ages” for the church: 12-14 and 18-25.
One theme to promote among them is that science and faith are mutually supporting – an especially important message for generations who value experience over authority and tradition, he said.
Many of them view Catholic teaching on sexuality and same-sex marriage as unjust, the archbishop said. They also have come to believe, incorrectly, that Catholicism is a system of rules and moralism that, if followed, elicit God’s love and acceptance.
This presents an opportunity for the church to communicate that God loves people from the beginning and from that love calls them into a harmonious relationship with him.
“The theology of the body is not saying ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ to something beautiful,” Archbishop Prendergast said.
“Young adults must find the church relevant,” he added. “They want to see and touch and feel God. Many young people want to be engaged.”
Diocesan and parish ministries must become more evangelistic in format, he said. New methods in serving youth and family life must be explored and adopted. Those approaches should emphasize experiences with God and be devoid of any hint of condescension.
Parents, too, must be more deliberate in transmitting Catholicism to their children. They cannot assume Catholic schools will do the job for them, he said.
Youth must not be the only focus. Catholics who have drifted away from the faith and those who have never been part of the church also need to be evangelized.
And through it all, the Body and Blood of Christ must be central, he said.
Parishes must “plan for overarching evangelization” that emphasizes the centrality of the Eucharist, which is the central mystery of – and attraction to – the church.
Whatever the approaches, they must communicate why Jesus matters and provide opportunities to encounter him, including through the Eucharist and fellowship, he said. The Ignatian spiritual exercises, the Stations of the Cross and other practices can also contribute to outreach in these ways.
“We have to rethink everything,” Archbishop Prendergast added.
If Catholics hold to their convictions, trust in the Holy Spirit and the mystery of the Eucharist, he said, they can “purify our church” and “draw others to our church.”
Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine urged laity and clergy to take Archbishop Prendergast’s insights to heart, describing him as “a leader” in evangelization practices globally.