We all know that the word “catholic” means “universal.” And, as Catholics, we are proud that Catholics can be found on every continent, sharing a common faith. But, while we know this in our heads, sometimes we forget it in practice as we wrestle with our own issues and concerns. When that happens, we can become very “parochial” in our vision. I think there is value in remembering some basic things about the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church in America has about 67 million members. While that makes us the country with the fourth largest Catholic population, it still means that we represent only about 6% of all Roman Catholics in the world. While we are rightly concerned about reduction in the number of priests in our country in recent decades, it is good to remember that, while we are only 6% of the world’s Catholics, we have 41,000 priests, about 14% of the world’s priests. So by world standards, we still have about double the number of priests the rest of the world has per Catholic. In fact, we have more priests in the United States than in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines put together. I chose those three countries for a reason: they are the countries with respectively the first, second and third largest Catholic populations. Together these three countries have five times the number of Catholics as we have, but fewer total priests. That makes it very doubtful that we will solve our vocation “crisis” by importing priests from countries with even greater need than we have.
The concerns of the Church in America and Western Europe are generally not the concerns of the Church in the fastest growing Catholic churches of the world. In America, Catholics argue about birth control, gay marriage and women in the Church. But these are not the concerns of these brother and sister Catholics who are much more concerned about poverty, development, hunger, war, third world debt, trade and reform of the world’s economic system. And, on the issues we American Catholics fret about, Catholics in the developing world are much more conservative than we often are. If we are truly “catholic” we cannot simply dismiss their views.
So there is a price to be paid for our catholicity. We have to be willing to listen to and learn from the wisdom of others who speak from their culture and their concerns. It is not all just about us. We cannot impose our solutions and our agendas on others. When change is appropriate it must come gradually.
There are many blessings to being a member of a great communion of churches, united with one another through our communion in, through and with the Church of Rome. There are also certain pains. But isn’t that the message and mystery of the cross? Our love for one another is both pain and joy.
Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal