Fr. Jim Tucker of Arlington, Virginia has written a long post in response to the Washington Post article on charismatic Catholics. He made one particularly interesting observation, which I have certainly corroborate - having worked in huge parishes in Fr. Jim's diocese:
"A third thing that contributes to the hemorrhages is the proportion of laymen to minister. In my own parish of 10,000+ parishioners, it's physically impossible for the three priests here to have a meaningful, personal relationship with the vast majority of parishioners. One knows a couple hundred of the people by name, is involved on a more personal basis with a few dozen, and the rest are anonymous faces.
Most of the sects' congregations are much smaller (except for the mega-churches), the pastors are in readier supply due to fewer requirements and a much shorter formation period (if any at all), and so the congregant-to-minister ratio is much more manageable, allowing for a lot of personal interaction. If you go from a place where a nameless Padre is glimpsed for 50 minutes from the crowded pews once a week (if you go that often), to a little storefront place where the pastor and his assistant ministers know your name, your kids, your job, your address, and get involved in your life -- well, quite apart from questions of doctrine, the human appeal is obvious.
For a long time, I've thought that we should come up with a way to get sound, trustworthy lay leaders in our parishes, set up as sort of grass-roots "ministers" for groups of families who want a more personal connection to the Church."
Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa would agree:
“In a 2001 interview with an Italian magazine, the cardinal said: "In my country, Honduras, the church is lay. This may scandalize. We don't even have 400 priests in the entire country, and in a medium-size city of 60,000 inhabitants there is only one priest, who must also care for the faithful spread out in 60 or 80 little villages among the mountains. He simply cannot do it."”
So the Catholic Church in Honduras has trained and deployed 15,000 lay "delegates of the word," who evangelize, catechize, lead Sunday liturgies and distribute Communion, he said.
As I mentioned in my article on Independent Christianity, that is precisely the approach that evangelicals/apostolic Christians in Latin America are taking: systemically "planting" millions of small, neighborhood, evangelizing "churches" - we would call them small Christian communities - with leaders who are part of the community and have come up from the ranks.
And there is an important related issue:
I've been doing a lot of research on grace and specifically "actual grace" for Making Disciples and it has been most illuminating. One of things that the late Fr. John Hardon (famous for his orthodoxy and heroic catechetical efforts) pointed out in his on-line writings on actual grace (to my surprise) is that
"God is the God of the present, and He uses things which move me now. Often His starting point is a prayer, but not always.
God works in many ways. He appeals to people in different ways and to the same person in different ways at different periods of life. We outgrow certain things.
So he calls, draws us in another way.”
What is so attractive about these alternative forms of Christianity?
They emphasize the here and now, personal and experiential aspects of the faith. The sort of things that move and touch the lives of ordinary, working or poor people who are not academics and historians and philosophers and theologians and whose daily life is a constant struggle. Add the promise of the experientially supernatural or miraculous answers to their suffering or struggle and you have an irresistible combination.
The Independents and Pentecostals got it from us, you know. This is exactly how the faith spread throughout ancient Rome.
That’s what Ramsey MacMullen says. (Ramsay MacMullen, the author of Christianizing the Roman Empire, was the Dunham Professor of History and Classics at Yale University. On January 5, of 2001 he was the recipient of a lifetime Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association. The citation begins, "Ramsay MacMullen is the greatest historian of the Roman Empire alive today.")
MacMullen’s thesis? At the end of the first century, the church held a minimal significance in Roman society. It simply "did not count." Within three centuries it included ten percent of the population and had displaced the other religions of the empire. In Christianizing the Roman Empire, MacMullen addresses the factors for this amazing growth. The author demonstrates that these mass conversions first came through the power of miracles and later through the social advantage of becoming a Christian.
Not through reading the apologists and church fathers. Most people were illiterate and in any case, had neither the time or leisure or access to their works. Not primarily through the witness of Christian piety and the martyrs. Most people in the Roman Empire didn’t know of the martyrs. It wasn’t by wandering into a liturgy and being smitten by its beauty and power. The early Church practiced the discipline of the secret and didn’t allow pagans and the non-baptized to attend Mass.
No, in the early days, it was primarily signs and wonders. Healing, exorcisms, prophecy. Often through those considered to be “non-persons” in their culture. Slaves, women. That sort of thing.
MacMullen observed in his book that early sources tell us that is what motivated most people but, as post-enlightenment minded moderns, we have refused to take their word for it. “Miracles” and “healings” must be a metaphor for something else. We could, MacMullen suggests, assume that they are intelligent observers who meant what they said without anachronistically imposing our mental map upon them.
"God is the God of the present, and He uses things which move me now."
Knowing this and acting accordingly is part of being “deep in Catholic history” and in our faith.