NEW YORK — Catholicism is confronting its biggest crisis since the Protestant Reformation, according to a former Jesuit seminarian turned businessman, and is in desperate need of “holy entrepreneurs” to save the Church.
Chris Lowney, author of Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church and chair of one of America’s largest hospital systems, Catholic Health Initiatives, is calling on all Catholics to “own part of the problem and own part of the solution,” from the tens of millions of Catholics who have left the Church to the shuttering of Catholic parishes and schools in recent decades and a global priest shortage.
At an event last Thursday evening at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture — an initiative of the archdiocese of New York — Lowney was joined by Sister Terry Rickard, president of RENEW International, which focuses on parish revitalization, and Father George Farrell, pastor of St. Joseph’s in North Plainfield, New Jersey whose parish participates in the RENEW programming, for a conversation on how “creativity and commitment” might reenergize the Church from the bottom up.
Deliberately avoiding the neuralgic issues that typically emerge in these types of conversations, the panelists steered clear of debates over women’s leadership and sexual ethics and focused instead on practical concerns.
Rickard ticked off a laundry list of things that she said could be implemented in a period of a few weeks, all of which could make parishes more welcoming, such as: Better signage to let the community know the Church is open, friendlier greetings from the parish receptionist, and cleaner facilities.
The bottom line for Rickard is that parishes should be treated in the same manner as families wanting to make their homes a place of gathering and welcome.
Drawing on eleven years at an ethnically and socio-economically diverse parish, Farrell insisted that pastors should be present at all Sunday masses, even if he isn’t celebrating them, in order to welcome congregants. He also said that priests need to learn to deliver “homilies that matter,” noting that it’s up to the priests not only to learn complex matters of theology, but to translate that knowledge into practical applications for his flock.
Both Rickard and Farrell said the Church would be better served if parishes didn’t make families “earn sacraments,” particularly such as baptism and confirmation, through endless paperwork and lectures offered in unwelcoming environments.
Instead, they both said these opportunities should be seized as “evangelical moments” so that families could have “an opportunity for them to have an encounter with Christ.”
For Lowney, Rickard and Farrell are examples of ways the Church can embrace what Pope Benedict XVI dubbed “co-responsibility” — where leadership in the Catholic Church isn’t focused on merely the hierarchy, but all baptized Catholics.
In an interview with Crux, Lowney said “the Catholic Church really doesn’t have the leadership culture it needs in order for it to tackle the challenges it faces now.”
“When I say that, I don’t mean the top 200 people don’t have the right culture,” he maintained, “but rather, the other billion people presume leadership has nothing to do with them and they just look up to the top.”
Lowney also offered some reflections on the parallels between the call to holiness as articulated in Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate and his own vision of leadership that engages everyone in Church life.
“People typically perceive holiness in a fairly withdrawn, pietistic sense, and from what I’ve seen, the pope is trying to crash through that idea a little bit,” said Lowney.
While he maintains “there’s a deeply prayerful aspect” to holiness, Lowney said that Francis shows that it is also “a call to be in the world.”
At the five-year mark of the Francis papacy, Lowney said that while the pope was elected on a reform mandate — tasked to clean-up the Roman curia — Francis is well aware that “structural and organizational reforms come second,” only after cultural reform.
For Lowney, the overwhelming majority of Catholics are just looking to have a positive experience of the Church, often first encountered at the parish level.
“Millions of people have left the Catholic Church, and none of them left because the Vatican bank was a mess,” he told Crux. “And they’re not going to come back because it gets fixed…the action is always out in the field. And we’ve gotten stuck with people looking back to headquarters.”
In some quarters, Francis has been sharply criticized for either not understanding the world of business or having little use for it. Lowney said that some of those criticisms may be fair, but often miss the mark.
“He’s spent a lot of his time working with and being present to people who are marginalized by the global economy,” Lowney said. “I think he is and was one hundred percent within his rights to say this style of economy is not working for millions and millions of people. And I think that should be a thorn in the side of all Catholic business people and others involved in political economy.”
“If I had as much faith in God as people have in the free market, I’d be a mystic,” he added.
Yet rather than getting caught up in intra-Church politics and inside baseball, Lowney is far more interested in initiatives that engage disaffiliated members of the Church and give them reason to give the Church another chance.
One example — described by Lowney as a “brilliant stroke” — was a March 19-24 meeting of young people ahead of the October Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, where more than 300 young people from around the world came to the Vatican and drafted the document that will eventually set the agenda for the fall gathering.
“The thing that struck me most powerfully…is that it wasn’t like they were complaining,” said Lowney, “Basically the tone of it was ‘give us a little rope here, we can help.’”
“That’s exactly what’s needed,” said Lowney, and “exactly the thing to do.”