August 17, 2007


We’re a universal Church

(Listen to this editorial being read)

For Catholics, the Church should not end with our parish. That’s where we begin our life in the Church, but we should think globally. The word “catholic” itself means universal, and that’s how we should think about our faith.

The archdiocese encourages us to think about our faith throughout the world by sending missionaries into our parishes to tell about their work in foreign countries, or priests from Third World countries who acquaint us with the conditions that they face in their ministries. Parishioners are usually generous in their support of those ministries.

In recent years, it’s become somewhat easier to think globally in parishes where the administrators or associate pastors have come from Nigeria, India or other foreign lands. Because of our priest shortage, missionaries from other countries are coming here. There are currently more than 5,000 priests from other countries serving in U.S. parishes.

Of course, priests from other countries served here during most of U.S. history.

The Vatican considered the United States mission country until the first decade of the 20th century. Many of the U.S. Church’s greatest leaders—Bishop John England of Charleston, Archbishop John Hughes of New York, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul—were born in Ireland.

The first four bishops of what would later become the Archdiocese of Indianapolis were born in France. Of our country’s canonized saints, only Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katharine Drexel were born in America. One of those saints, John Neumann, came to the United States because there were too many priests in his diocese in Bohemia.

The Catholic Church in the United States matured during the 20th century. Catholics moved out of the ghettos after World War II, became the largest Christian denomination in the country, and began to send missionaries to other countries.

So the story of the Catholic Church in the United States is a success story. From a tiny minority, we have grown to 70 million people, about a quarter of the U.S. population.

But let’s put that in perspective. That number is only a little more than 6 percent of the 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide!

John Allen, a Vatican correspondent and author, thinks it’s important for American Catholics to understand that figure.

In his forthcoming book, Catholic Mega Trends, he says, “That means that 94 percent of Catholics in the world are not like us. But American Catholics often struggle to understand that. We assume Catholics in the rest of the world are having the same conversation, debating the same issues, and if they’re not, they should be. That breeds a kind of intentional indifference to the Catholic conversation in the rest of the world.”

We know that many people around the world consider Americans to be somewhat arrogant. We’re used to getting our way.

That attitude might have spilled over to American Catholics, too. We assume that what we consider important religious issues are so considered everywhere, or should be. It should be obvious that the Vatican can’t think that way. There are many more Catholics in South America and Africa than there are here, and projections are that that will be even truer in the future.

Of course, just as the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, so are American Catholics. It would be wrong to think that the Vatican should pay more attention to us than to other places because that’s where the money is, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to think that, because of our relative wealth, it’s our obligation to do more for our poorer brothers and sisters in the faith.

It’s coincidental that Catholics in the United States began to become part of the mainstream at about the same time as the country dropped its historic isolationism—in the 1940s. Catholics cannot have an isolationist attitude.

As the Catholic weekly, Our Sunday Visitor, said when editorializing on this subject, “For U.S. Catholics, ­acknowledging that we are all parts of one body—African, Asian, Latin American, European, Eastern rite and Roman rite, immigrant and native born—is an absolutely critical awareness if we are not to be blinded by our own pride, power and wealth.”

That’s what it means to be Catholic.

— John F. Fink

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