At the encouragement of my wife and one of our very faithful Café readers, I rose early this morning for something of a dry run in preparation for our trip to Virginia and hike along the Appalachian Trail later this spring. As it turns out, there is a very rugged trail about 20 miles from my house where a half-dozen of us intrepid souls met at the trail head to see what we were made of. I should quickly point out that I was the novice of this crew, which has logged a lot of hours over the years. My wife, in fact, has completed the Camino in Spain, at least 200 miles of it. It was my wife's idea today that I load up an empty back-back with ballast to test my endurance, and not having a bound series of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I jammed it full with sweatshirts from every college in Division I football.
My Fitbit tells me that in 3.5 hours we covered over 7.5 miles of challenging terrain, which translates into 19,191 steps. I can only guess how many tree roots I circumvented--and in one case failed to--but I did complete the entire route without having to discard Michigan or Penn State from my back pack. Of course, after pounding my chest and bragging I could do two more circumlocutions, once we were alone in the car I said to my wife, "Quick, the Tylenol--in the glove compartment." My plantar fasciitis is boiling and I dread to think of how the rest of me will feel tomorrow. I am lucky in one respect--the Monday blog is ready for posting if I can raise my arms to the keyboard.
Long walks and hikes have their rhythm of communication--periods of talk and periods of silence. Rarely does anything happen that socially distracts--except, I guess, the day Margaret said to me, "there's a wild boar right there." I recommended we stand still and maybe he wouldn't notice us (though later I read that boars can smell humans from 5 to 8 miles away.) Today during a relatively smooth stretch of trail I mentioned that our church bulletin last night had posted the returns of our Catholic Charities fund drive for the first two weeks. Our goal or "assessment" was about $800,000; after two weeks of in-church and on-line pledging and donating, our current amount stands at about 50% of target, or $402,000. I did not think we would reach our goal this year, but I have to admit I am surprised by how much we missed the goal. It is hard to analyze the numbers; I can safely say that there are no current internal parish issues, or at least none I am aware of, and I doubt that there is any sort of "protest" in play. In fact, my Catholic friend Joan remarked on the trail that $400,000 was actually a very good return, and I have to agree with her. Margaret added that our parish has never failed to meet its goal, and as a result the target gets raised every year. "Just like the military," someone chimed in.
Purely by chance I had walked the day before in a 5K charity event for one of our local Catholic schools. I am past the age of running, so I had a pleasant hour's walk with the principal's husband, a good friend for about 25 years now. He is just a few years behind me in age, and he remarked on Saturday that he had attended an early Sunday Mass on the road a few weeks earlier; he quipped that he was the youngest member of the congregation. It has been my impression, too, that church participation is greying and decreasing. I checked in with a retired priest, another longtime friend, and asked if he had seen a decline in Mass attendance in the last decade or so. He answered emphatically in the affirmative. His take was that the abuse scandals were cutting into both attendance and financial support.
I can't argue with that, though my guess is that the impact of priestly pedophilia and its attendant scandals is regional; our diocese has not had the problem to the degree of Boston or, currently, Altoona-Johnstown. My own take is that American Catholicism is having major difficulty connecting with college educated adults who are now coming into their better earning years. If the current presidential campaign has taught us anything, it is that the American public has a lot on its mind and a strong Catholic intellectual contribution to the national debates is long overdue. But at the present moment the Catholicism I experience is burdened with a movement toward yesterday's piety and the public embarrassment of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. A week or so ago the Archbishop of St. Louis urged cutting ties with the Girl Scouts. Aside from the public wonderment (and even humor) over such peculiar public action--is it now a sin to buy Girl Scout cookies?--the entire Church suffers from the fallout. Our own bishop here, who demonstrates remarkably good sense in the public arena, must still contend with such national matters of another bishop pasted on every internet news site.
So it may be that our diocesan Catholic Charities drive and this year's response is the new normal after all. The professional wage earners now coming into center stage of the Church may be asking themselves: to what and why am I cutting a big check? Is my money better spent elsewhere, to causes and institutions I understand, to causes with immediacy to American life and charitable needs, and where transparency and communication are the norm? The millennial Catholic may find few or no points of connection with the official Catholic "personality." This is not 1890 when most U.S. Catholics were immigrant and poor. This is 2016 when Catholics are the best educated of any denomination in the country. It would be great if the Church talked to its adults that way.
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