My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Twenty-five years ago, on the weekend on Feb. 10-11, 1996, I gave a homily on “Reforming the Reform” at St. René Goupil Church and at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, where I used to assist with weekend Masses when I was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago. My words drew strong reactions pro and con at the time, so I think they are worth revisiting now.
In my homily, I spoke about how the City of Chicago had spent $17 million in 1979 to turn State Street, the city’s main north-south thoroughfare in the Loop, into a downtown shopping mall. Four lanes were reduced to two on which cars were banned and traffic was restricted to buses only. Narrowing the street made it possible to widen the sidewalks from 22 feet to 40. Sidewalk planters, greenery and bubble-topped bus shelters were added to make the Great Street more enticing to shoppers. Instead, the exact opposite happened.
With the arrival of the State Street Mall, the crowds disappeared from what was once the world’s busiest intersection at State and Madison. Major department stores folded up and left State Street within eight years of the renovation. Instead of attracting more customers to the Loop, the new mall apparently drove people away.
So it was not a total surprise when the Greater State Street Council and the City’s Department of Transportation announced in 1996 that $24.5 million would be spent to renovate the renovation. A nine-block stretch of State Street between Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway would be restored to four lanes, traffic would be reopened to cars and taxis, and sidewalks would be narrowed to their original 22-foot width. In making this announcement, the City was making a stunning admission: the 1979 renovation was a disastrous failure, and the City would spend $24.5 million to undo a $17 million mistake.
My point in this homily was simply this: if politicians and corporate executives can admit mistakes and try to correct them, could not the leaders of the Catholic Church be willing to do as much? Recognizing mistakes takes wisdom; admitting them takes humility; correcting them takes prudence, fortitude and courage.
I said in 1996, “In many ways the State Street renovation of the renovation is analogous to the situation now facing the Catholic Church, namely, that what is needed is a reform of the reform. Let me explain by going back 30 years. In 1966, the Second Vatican Council was recently ended with its optimistic promise of reforming the liturgy and life of the Catholic Church in the modern world. At a young age I had felt the call to be a priest, so in 1966 I began high school at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South with almost 200 classmates. Four years later, at Niles College Seminary of Loyola University, our student body was almost 400. In 1978 I was ordained a priest with 28 other young men. There seemed to be vocations galore. Surely with the reforms and innovations of the Second Vatican Council the future could only get brighter.
“What happened? Instead of building on what we had, the bottom fell out. Over the years and across North America and Western Europe, priests and nuns by the thousands abandoned their religious commitments; seminaries and convents emptied and closed; schools, hospitals and parishes have closed, and churches have been torn down as regular Sunday Mass attendance plummeted to 25 percent of baptized Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago and as low as 10 percent in some places, such as in France. This May [of 1996], with a Catholic population of 2.3 million people, only six men will be ordained!”
Observing that astute government leaders or corporate executives would look at the situation and realize that they had a disaster on their hands, I said, “Certainly our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, realized this some time ago as he has repeatedly and courageously been trying to keep the church faithful to revealed truth, the deposit of faith, and moral integrity. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a theologian who possesses one of the most brilliant minds in the church, himself has called for a ‘reform of the reform.’ Unfortunately, there are those who dismiss their wise leadership as old-fashioned and out-of-touch with contemporary needs and realities. As a result, the church is languishing and will continue to decline until people are willing to recognize and admit that the successor of St. Peter and his advisors are right in calling for a reform of the reform.”
I noted that “the Holy Spirit guided the work of Vatican II with tremendous benefit for the church in many ways, but not everything that has been introduced into the church in the past 30 years [1966-1996] under the guise of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ can authentically be attributed to that Council. Much has been mere human innovation and indeed experimentation, and it is this which is subject to human error.”
Twenty-five years after I wrote that in 1996, recent sociological research has verified much of what I said. In his book, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2019), Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University, London, noted that the Second Vatican Council was “specifically intended to meet the challenges of the present and future. … On the basis of fifty years’ evidence from Britain and America — the only ground on which this book is qualified to pass comment — one has to say that the reforms failed” (p. 298).
Professor Bullivant backs up his conclusions with these statistics: “Prior to the Council, for example, church-going among American Catholics was significantly higher than among Protestants. According to a 1955 Gallup poll, 75 percent of self-identified Catholics said they had attended church in the past seven days, compared to only 42 percent of Protestants. In the sixty years since then, Protestant church-going has remained fairly steady, while Catholic attendance has roughly halved. It is now slightly below the Protestant rate. On these and several other types of measure, it is clear that the Catholic Church fared much worse than other denominations” (p. 303).
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, our October Count of weekend Mass attendance in our parishes has shown a consistent decline from 1996, when 84,408 people attended Mass, to 44,016 in 2019 (pre-COVID), for a decrease of 48 percent — almost half the number — over the past 23 years. These numbers should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about spreading the Gospel. Our diocesan synod in 2017 was specifically focused on increasing the number of people who are committed followers of Jesus Christ. We all need to intensify our efforts to turn things around and make this vision of discipleship and stewardship a reality.
May God give us this grace. Amen.