The sad decline in the figures of those who are practising Catholics (see here and here) continues to hover over the Church in this country and many others in the Western world but we never seem to have a sense of crisis about then. Like an elephant crouching in every sacristy, cathedral and curial office - a rather large and important fact that we choose to ignore. After all, who is going to take on the task of doing something about it? The trouble is, we don't know what to do about the falling figures and they are ignored or excuses are made - "We have fewer people but they are better quality." Really? No doubt due to the excellent catechetics in our schools.
Conversions to the Faith peaked in 1959 with 15,794 (5,809 in 2010).
Baptisms rose to a peak of 137,673 in 1964 (falling to 63,962 in 2010.)
The decline in elephant populations due to poaching by unscrupulous criminals eerily mirrors the decline in the Catholic population due to poaching by the Devil since about he mid-1960's.
More of the same watered-down and laissez faire approach to the Faith since the falling numbers became a landslide is surely not the answer. Could it be that the only other alternative is to become more orthodox, more challenging, more traditional and less modern? This, of course, doesn't appeal to many people in the Church as it would signal a volte-face to the trend since the 1960's, so heavily invested in by so many.
The elephant is getting bigger!
I'm not convinced by the argument that the recent scandals in the Church are to blame. My own experience tells me that most ordinary Catholics are not put off their own parish or their own priest by such things (despite the horror of them). I think that position is only put out by those outside the Church and those within it who have particular agendas - such as abolishing celibacy and "ordaining" women. After all, the fall off in numbers started several decades ago, long before those particular scandals broke.
Fortunately, having just sent in the Mass attendance figures for my own little parish, our numbers are pretty stable - the same as two years ago. Not that they leave any room for complacency. I don't know what to do to evangelise all the lapsed - and no real attempt is allowed to be made through our schools, the last place we now have access to these crowds of the unchurched. But surely offering less and less of the Faith can't be the answer.
The Church of England, statistically in a more perilous state than we are, at least acknowledges the problem and tries to do something about it. Starting faith groups in pubs and other unlikely places certainly takes courage and a particular sort of leader - although I can only think that such groups must act as a bridge to a more complete membership, rather than the only locus of activity. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, such groups now account numerically for a whole extra diocese in the C of E.
It seems that elephants are more readily acknowledged in a pub setting than in church.
(This is quite a nice one in Kensington.)
The Blind Men and the Elephant
by: John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me!--but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: "Ho!--what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 't is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!