Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 21

March 1, 2010 A.D.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Here below is an Open Letter I have written to Bishop Robert Harris. I presented it to him on Feb. 20.
The letter concerns the future of our diocese, in the context of the current consultations being held.

I wrote this letter after much prayer and discernment. I felt the Holy Spirit wanted me to speak up
rather boldly and offer my insights into the spiritual condition of our diocesan church. I have tried my
best to articulate what I felt the Lord wanted me to say.

Mine is a tough message. I believe the condition of our church is not at all healthy, and this hard truth
must somehow be said. It will be hard for some to receive this word. If you feel much the same as I do
about the state of things, perhaps you would join me in praying for its good reception.

Some may feel I am unduly critical of the clergy. I love our priests. In my dealings with them, I believe
I have always shown respect and good will, even to those whose behaviour I have found most
offensive. I think the world of anyone who has sacrificed his life to the service of the Lord, as they
have. Theirs is such a high calling. At the same time, that calling comes with a high standard of
conduct. At times we the sheep must hold our shepherds to account: our own bishop said exactly that at
his installation Mass. In my view, this is one of those times.

I believe I understand quite well the subjective struggles of our priests. I empathize with them, even if
my letter may not emphasize that. These are very hard times for our clergy: the world is not
sympathetic, the demands are incessant, and with dwindling vocations the wear and tear mounts. Still,
they have a job to do. How well or poorly they do that job affects us all - and that troubling condition
we find ourselves in is the real concern of my letter. I am sorry for any hurt feelings that may result.

This letter is something of a layman’s cri du coeur. While the shepherds are our leaders, by our
baptism we are all priests, prophets and kings in a certain way (Catholic Catechism, n. 1546). Moreover, as St.
Paul taught (1 Cor 12), we all have particular gifts and the health of the whole body of Christ depends
on everyone using their gifts and playing their part. I believe that at this time in our diocesan church’s
history her well-being is very much dependent upon the gift-guided, faith-filled voice of the laity rising
up. We lay folks have a key role to play in renewing the church. Please God, may this letter play some
useful part in that renewal.

It’s a long letter. I apologize to all those who find that a burden. The subject matter is extremely
serious. An extensive treatment of our church’s condition is, in my view, warranted. At the same time,
I do plan a précis of my letter in the near future, for those who want the essential gist without wading
through all the text.

You may, if you wish, pass this on to others whom you feel might benefit from it. May God bless you
and yours, and our beloved church. May Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception come to our aid.

Your brother in Christ,

Peter Gerard Ryan

816 Charters Sett. Rd.
Charters Settlement NB E3C 1X7
20 February 2011

Most Rev. Robert Harris

Bishop of Saint John

An Open Letter

Dear Bishop,

Warm greetings in the Lord. As you hold consultations on the future of our diocesan church, I
would like to take this opportunity to offer my own views.

Sorry to begin on a note of skepticism. But I must frankly tell you that, when I heard about a
visioning process and a 5 year pastoral plan, my reaction was, “Is this going to be like shuffling
the chairs on the deck of the Titanic?” It was all too easy to imagine the thought process going
like this: “Our numbers are dwindling, we’re all getting older, the young people are not
interested, vocations are few and far between, there’s not a whole lot we can do about any of
this,” therefore the future is all about priestless parishes, church-twinning, and other dreary
scenarios. To me all that is a little too much like planning for your own funeral. Maybe there’s a
point to it all. But aren’t we somehow missing the boat?

When the ship is taking water and in danger of going down, shuffling chairs on the deck
obviously won’t cut it. Maybe someone should organize the lifeboats. But is it really time to
throw in the towel? Shouldn’t we try to get a grip on the actual situation? Should we not ask
questions like these: What is really going on here? Is the ship going down? If so, why on earth is
that? What in heaven’s name went wrong? For goodness sake, isn’t there something we can do
to save the ship? There’s also this testy question: If we have to do something really hard in order
to save the ship, do we have what it takes?

Whatever your consultation process may produce, my concern is with the heart of things. I
wasn’t sure your meetings would lend themselves to an out-of-box approach like mine, hence
this letter.

So let us be real: What is the state of our diocesan ship? What is going on?

My answer is neither pretty nor comforting. My diagnosis of our condition is: We are dying.
Now to say we are dying does not mean we will for sure die. But it does mean we have
contracted a life-threatening illness that, if not checked, will in fact lead to our demise. We are
dying. If we kid ourselves about that - a temptation, as people sometimes prefer a comfortable lie

to an uncomfortable truth, we will fail to seek the appropriate remedy, with fatal consequences.

More and more, our parishes are shadows of their former selves. Churches are emptying. Facile
explanations will not suffice. It is not simply that our people have aged and the young have
moved away in search of employment. It is not just that inner city populations have migrated to
the suburbs. It’s also that for the past several decades our families have under-reproduced.
Where have all the children gone? No children, no future, it’s that simple. Provincial school
enrollments have plummeted. So must parish numbers.

But it’s much more than that. What few children the faithful have had, they have by and large
not passed on their faith to. Most of us who have the faith have it because it was passed on to us
from our parents, and their parents before them, going back generations - going back to our Irish,
French and other ancestors. But in recent decades this handing on has radically broken down.
Who can deny this? If we look within virtually any family, we find ample and painful evidence
of young people - and those now not so young! - who do not practice the faith of their parents.
How prevalent is it that young people go through Confirmation and you never see them again?
How much more common is it now that babies baptized don’t even make it to the other

The failures of our people to transmit both life (physically) and faith to future generations is
huge in scope and has staggering demographic consequences for our church. But there’s still
more to our life-threatening disease. So many of those who grew up as Catholics and once
occupied our pews as adults have also fallen away. How many parishes have hundreds of
Catholics in their boundaries whom you seldom see neither hide nor hair of? And things are
getting seriously worse. A recent survey noted that in the Maritimes - long the most church-
going part of Canada - a majority of Christians now no longer even go to church at Christmas or
Easter. That was not true just a few years ago.

The problem of declining church attendance is Canada-wide, and is acute in what used to be our
country’s bastion of Catholicism, Quebec. More than a third of Canadians now claim no
religious affiliation, a number that has skyrocketed in a short period. Those that do claim
affiliation often practise it rarely or not at all.

If we continue on the trajectory outlined in the paragraphs above, we as a church are done. Let’s
not kid ourselves. Things are bad, and they are getting worse.

Now some may say: Things may unexpectedly get better and turn out not so bad after all. True.
Sometimes those expected to die suddenly get better. But do want to sit around and gamble on a
maybe? As the ship is teetering, is it wise to adopt the attitude, “Maybe it won’t go down after
all, let’s wait and see”?

Others may point out: With God there is always hope. Very true. But it’s important not to be
misled by false hope. As your diocesan prayer for the consultation notes, Jesus has promised

(Mt. 28:20) to be with us until the end of time. That does mean his Church on earth will never
die. But theologically it does not mean that individual churches - like ours! - cannot wither and
die. For history shows that hundreds of diocesan churches have in fact bit the dust - through vast
regions of the Middle East and North Africa that for centuries were powerhouses of Christian
faith. There is no absolute guarantee that the church of Saint John will go on and on. Our ship
can indeed go down.

We may die a slow death. We may hang around for quite a while yet. But one thing seems clear
to me: Unless we change our present course, we are in deep trouble. We must not naively
assume the pendulum will automatically swing back in our favor. We hear of churches
elsewhere being torn down or sold or turned into museums. We must not imagine it cannot
happen here. And if in a few years the number of active clergy is greatly reduced; if priestless
churches become the norm; if weekday masses are virtually a thing of the past; if even Sunday
mass is doubtful in a parish; if the people are not coming to church anyway, just how many of
the churches we and our forefathers have built can we expect to be maintained? Unless we get
some kind of firm grip on the condition that ails us, the prospects are indeed bleak.

So how did we get in this fix anyway? What went wrong? If we can understand that, perhaps we
can change course and avert the worst.

It is important to recognize that our ailment is spiritual in nature. What has happened in our
church is that, for the last 50 years, our Catholic faith has taken a real drubbing. Many, many of
us have lost our way. We have fallen by the wayside. We no longer practice our faith, or do so
only sporadically. Those of us who have kept the faith seem unable, all to often, to keep it alive
within our own families. As Father Peter Stephen said, in a very poignant New Freeman
interview (21 Jan. 2011), “We simply have not passed our faith along to the next generation.”

The reason we as a church are dying, then, is loss of faith, lack of faith, weakness of faith. In
your prayer for the consultation meetings you state that “we have built and nurtured strong and
vibrant faith communities.” That is a historical fact. But it is no longer the case. Our parish
communities are no longer strong and vibrant.

When the majority of baptized Catholics no longer attend Mass, or do so only at Christmas and
Easter, or only see the inside of a church for a baptism, marriage or funeral, that is not a “strong
and vibrant” community. It is a very wounded community. Or do we not even consider those
who are not with us as part of us? Does “strong and vibrant” only refer to the healthy whilst we
forget about the sick? If so, the assertion is pompously self-centered, bereft of charity, and
theologically out to lunch: it is altogether lacking in the spirit of the Good Shepherd concerned
above all for the lost sheep (Jn 10:1-18; Lk 15:1-7).

I am sorry, Bishop, this is not about making sure you or others feel good about things. It is about

two things: (1) diagnosing things clearly, like a good doctor does, even if it makes the patient
uneasy; (2) based on that accurate diagnosis, prescribing a sound course of treatment that will
address the true needs and result in the best outcome. Ultimately, it is truth-telling based not
only on faith but charity and real hope. Hang with me, the hope will emerge.

I return to my main point here: our Catholic faith is in a very sorry state.

Sometimes the secular world can help us to see problems we are inclined to deny or minimize.
Just think of the clergy scandals. Well, the Globe and Mail recently ran a 5-part series on
Canadians and religion. They documented the sociological decline of religious practice, how so
many young people drift away from the faith of their parents, etc. What I found striking is how
they summed it all up. They cited Jesus’ poignant question, “When the Son of Man comes, will
he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8) The answer these days in Canada, they astutely observed, is
“not much”! This is so terribly sad. But it is also so undeniably true.

The problem is worse in some places than others. I have travelled widely. I know some places
where the situation is worse than here. But I also know a good number - mostly outside the
Maritimes - where the faith of the local church is significantly better. Maritimers used to be
stronger in their faith than many other Canadians (reflected in countless polls). But I would say
we have been in a real downturn in recent years, declining as fast if not faster than other areas.
We are bleeding big-time and very much so in our own church.

I have noted a marked decline just in the 12 years since our return to New Brunswick. Student
Mass attendance at St. Thomas U., for instance, has fallen precipitously. When you attend a
weekday Mass on a campus with several thousand Catholic young people (taking in UNB also),
and you find only a handful of people, of which only one or two are actually students (the rest
outsiders like me); or when you attend on the university’s patronal feast (Jan. 28) and there’s
only a smattering of students, you have to know something is deeply wrong.

We are in a bad way. And in these particular circumstances it is so vital that we look things right
in the eye, and call them by their name: loss of faith. For only then will we be impelled to get on
our knees, and beg God’s mercy. For “a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn”
(Ps 51:10), whereas “Man’s pride shall bring him low” (Ps 29:23).

And that, Bishop, is precisely the spirit we need to have for the renewal of our church, including
our desperate need for vocations! It is not just about praying for vocations, renewal, etc. it is
about praying with the right interior spirit, confessing our weakness and dependence upon the
Lord. So far I don’t hear us confessing that weakness out loud. And the name of that weakness is
not “fewer vocations” but “loss of faith.”

I was struck, and actually puzzled, by your allusion, in the diocesan prayer for the consultation,
to Jer 29:11: “We know well the plans you have in mind for us, plans ‘for a future full of hope.’”
For the historical context for that divine message of hope for God’s people was the great

suffering experienced by the Exile. Did you intend some analogy to our present situation? Did
you imply that we are also in a desperate state not unlike the exiles? If not I urge you to consider
the analogy, for I believe there is one, and reflecting upon it can yield important lessons.

The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of Judah which Jeremiah announced was a catastrophic
event lasting 70 years in enslavement. Judah was warned that “this whole land shall be a ruin
and a desert” (Jer 25:11), her cities “an object of ridicule and cursing” (25:18); her people’s
“corpses I will give as food to the birds of the air” (19:7). The people were scattered among
nations (9:15) and humiliated in “a time of distress” (30:7), “bitter weaping” (31:15); “a cry of
dismay we hear; fear reigns, not peace (30:5).

And why all that misery? Because the people had fallen away from the Lord. “My people have
forgotten me...they stumble out of their ways, the paths of old, to travel on bypaths, not the
beaten track” (18:15). They were “worshiping and serving strange gods” (22:6). “They are all
adulterers, a faithless band” (9:1), “they go from evil to evil” (9:2), they “refuse to obey my
words” (13:10), they are “like Gomorrah” (23:14), “they sinned and rebelled against me” (33:8).
Therefore, the Lord says, “I will chastise you as you deserve” (30:11). “Because of your great
guilt, your numerous sins, I have done this to you” (30:15).

Harsh judgment was levelled against the leaders - the rulers, priests and prophets (2:26) who
themselves had gone astray and who had led the people astray. “Woe to the shepherds who
mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture...You have scattered my sheep and driven them
away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish you” (23:1-2). “Both priest and
prophet are godless “ (23:11). Among the prophets the Lord finds “adultery, living in lies, siding
with the wicked, so that no one turns from evil” (23:14). The king and his princes are like “bad
figs” who will be cast off (24:8-10). “Howl, you shepherds and wail!” (25:34).

Yes, Jeremiah brings a message of hope and consolation for the end of the Exile. The Lord is
ready to forgive the people their sins and restore them. But that restoration comes about after the
Lord has chastised them “as they deserve” (30:11), after they have been purified by suffering,
after they have humbled themselves and turned back to him in their sorrow. “The sorrow you
have shown shall have its reward” (31:16). It is because of that sorrow and repentance that
“There is hope for your future” (31:17). There is a certain price to be paid for the hope:

I hear, I hear Ephraim pleading:

You chastened me, and I am chastened; I was an untamed calf.
If you allow me, I will return, for you are the Lord, my God.
I turn in repentance; I have come to myself, I strike my breast;
I blush with shame, I bear the disgrace of my youth. (31:18-19)

Hence: “I must show him mercy, says the Lord” (31:20).

Moreover, as a condition of future restoration the Lord calls the exiles now to certain deeds of

faith and righteousness. “Take wives and beget sons and daughters. There must be increase in
number, not decrease. Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to
the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own” (29:6-7).

What are the elements of analogy between the Judah that Jeremiah spoke to and our church of
Saint John that I find relevant? First of all, we too are in a bad way. We have not been banished
beyond our borders. But we are much reduced from what we were. A great part of our people
has been scattered. They have stumbled onto “bypaths” away from the “beaten track” of their
faith. Their lifestyles are often indistinguishable from the immorality of the surrounding society.
They serve “strange gods” whether Mammon, hedonism, or even Moloch (e.g., abortion). More
and more are churches are empty, not quite “deserts” but tending toward them. Our clergy are
found moaning and groaning about how hard things are and getting harder.

Secondly, things are bad and getting worse because collectively we too have fallen away from
the Lord. We have not passed on our faith. Our faith now is in serious recession, and who knows
how far we are from outright depression.

Why is our faith so weak, why have we not been able to pass it on to future generations? As with
the Jewish exiles, two kinds of factors have been at work: external and internal.

External factors: Not only was Judah was laid waste and led into captivity by her external
enemies, she was led into faithlessness by the influence of “strange gods” such as Baal-worship
in her midst (see Jer 3:20-24 especially at v. 24). Similarly, our church has been ravaged by the
forces of secularization, especially since the 1960s but with intellectual underpinnings that flow
largely from the Enlightenment and its influence. Western society has grown increasingly
inhospitable to religion in general and Christianity in particular. Religion is equated with
superstition and bondage, the enemy of personal freedom, social progress and human rights. If
you are a practising Catholic in these times, expect to be mocked and vilified.

Meanwhile, traditional morality, so naturally linked with faith, has been systematically critiqued,
dismantled, and overthrown in the name of autonomy and relativism, and then institutionally
replaced by new norms especially in the realm of sexuality. This moral breakdown, so
powerfully engineered by the omnipresent media, has had a devastating effect upon our youth
and family lives. What used to be considered scandalous is now commonplace. Bad example and
temptation are all around.

In short, conte
mporary society has unleashed myriads of wolves that prowl around preying upon our people,
especially the young, weak and vulnerable. And the various wolves of secularization show no
sign of relenting anytime soon. We now witness the rise of militant atheism. And tales of
persecution of Christians are becoming both more common and more mindboggling.

Internal factors: Jeremiah’s primary concern was not with the external factors that Judah had to

deal with, but how her people and leaders had handled the challenges. He brought the Lord’s
prophetic word against Judah because he was convinced the people and leaders had miserably
failed the test, spiritually and morally. Because of that internal failure, that lapse of faith, God
permitted them to be punished externally in order to humble them and bring them back to him.

We too should not blame our problems all on the external forces of secularization. We should
ask how we have handled these challenges internally. We should even be prepared to ask
whether some of the more physical realities we now must grapple with - empty pews, priestless
churches, etc. - are not equally a form of punishment for our own lapse of faith these past
decades. The upside of that is that, if that is the case, we should learn from the Exile experience
and see this time of chastisement as a way God wants to humble us, purify us, and bring us back
to him, hopefully so that he will then, in his great mercy, bless us again and bring us back to life.

We have not handled our times and its challenges well. Our failures are not unique in the annals
of religious history. Other eras have seen people once strong in faith grow lax and too attached
to comfort, gradually falling prey to the false idols, loose mores and temptations of the
surrounding society. That hardly excuses us.

The heart of our failures has been in the bosoms of our families. The family is the “domestic
Church,” as Pope John Paul II taught. It is the first cell of the parish. As the family goes, so goes
the parish and the whole diocesan church. Within the family, there has been a massive failure in

Uncritically adopting the world’s contraceptive mentality, Catholics have by and large turned
away from the spirit of God’s command to “be fertile and multiply, fill the earth” (Gn 1:28).
Note how critical it was to God’s promise to the Jews in exile that they choose life in order for
his blessings for them to come about!! It’s no less true for our people today.

Contraception is a serious sin, short-circuiting God’s grace. The spiritual consequences of going
against God’s plan for the family are enormous. Children are God’s means of teaching their
parents to love and be open to him; the choice to contraceptively impede children tends to make
the couple more self-centered and materialistic, and less spiritual. It is no accident that
contracepting couples are more likely to divorce.

Overall, our Catholic parents have greatly failed to hand on the faith to their children. They have
neglected to properly teach their children about God and the difference between right and wrong.
Obedience is a forgotten virtue, though it is indispensable for building good character in
children. Without it, a child learns to be selfish. When what he or she wants is what he or she
gets (and you see this now all the time), mom and dad should be ready for a little tyrant - the
very opposite of the saint God intends.

As they raise their kids, so many parents seem to progressively turn their kids over to the world,
completely failing to protect them from its many moral dangers. Unrestricted TV and internet are

spiritual poisons too often indulged. Although parents are, in God’s plan, the first educators, too
few intellectually and morally equip their young to negotiate the world around them, particularly
when it takes the form of unhealthy peer pressure. What other kids do becomes the norm, with
perilous results as faith and values more and more get eroded.

You see Catholic parents bring their kids to church, maybe get them through Confirmation. Then
the kids disappear from church! How come? This is one of the best illustrations of bad parenting
I know. The kid doesn’t want to come to church (“It’s boring” etc.) and that becomes the end of
the story. That’s how you lose your kid’s soul! The next thing you know, your kid is hanging out
with the wrong crowd, into the wrong behaviour. After that it’s shacking up with someone. So
much for the Catholic faith!

So many parents will say, “There’s nothing we can do. You can’t force them.” That’s an
incredibly mistaken, I’m sorry to also say stupid attitude. The Scriptures say, “Raise your child
up in the way they should go” (Pr 22:6). God’s word is not just a pious ideal. It’s wisdom for all
ages, including this godless one. It’s a norm that is fully possible to put into practice. There is
absolutely no need for a parent to just surrender a kid to their own immature likes and dislikes.
Just don’t expect passing on the faith in our day and age to be easy.

Some of us have learned, by the grace of God and sometimes the hard way of trial and error,
how to do it. Though far from perfect, we have managed to successfully pass on our Catholic
faith to our children, now adult and practising just as we had hoped. This is no mean feat, in
today’s world.

My wife and I have raised seven daughters, now ages 19 to 33. Thanks be to God, each and
every one has personally embraced our Catholic faith, and lives it in exemplary fashion, not just
Sunday Mass attendance but much more. Five have married, and to good Catholic men, and we
now have 8 grandchildren, with many more, we hope, to come. Statistically, the chances of
successfully raising 7 out of 7 children as practising young adult Catholics has to be quite
minuscule. Yet we have done it. Moreover, we know other families who have done it too. In
fact, we have gotten to know of hundreds of families across North America through the years
that have done likewise.

Here is my point: Parents like us have learned much wisdom about how to hand on the faith. We
know what it takes. We know it’s not about just “being nice” to your kids. It’s about caring
about their souls and doing whatever it takes to save them from harm.

Here’s my next point: This wisdom is sorely needed by the families of our diocesan church. And
it’s sorely needed by you and your fellow priests in leading God’s flock toward a much-needed
revival of faith.

Now a larger, related point, still on the topic of “internal factors” for our church’s tragic
deterioration of faith: the parishes have done a very poor job of helping families to live and pass

on the faith.

The religious education programs have been for the birds! We as parents long ago learned they
were pure fluff, without real substance. We learned to make up for it on our own, to seek truly
good resources, as good catechism teachers still are forced to do today. Let me tell you this
categorically: fluff ABSOLUTELY will not cut it for today’s kids. The world is a tough place,
spiritually. The kids need the REAL DEAL, not bland pap. When I consider the latter, I am
reminded of the Lord’s rebuke: “They have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold
no water” (Jer 2:13).

Just as Jeremiah held the leaders of his day accountable for Judah’s lapse of faith, so too we
must hold our pastors responsible for the state of catechetical neglect and the wider malaise
widespread in our parishes. The priests seem often to live in a bubble, disconnected from the
families they are supposed to serve. They seem not to have a clue about what’s involved in
handing on the faith within families. Certainly you rarely hear them talk about it in homilies.
There’s little in the way of guidance about how parents or young people are to deal with the
serious faith challenges that face us daily. They don’t even seem to realize what the challenges

Who, for instance, has ever heard a pastor preach about the persecution couples face from
families, friends, and the community if they dare to have more than two kids in an anti-life
culture? Everyone thinks you are crazy. People will mock you, “Haven’t you heard of the pill?”
“Do you really want another one? What for?” My wife and I faced that numerous times over the
years. It takes deep faith and tremendous courage to withstand it. As far as I can tell, few priests
have a clue what it’s like. If they did, they’d be falling over themselves to congratulate and
encourage people like us. I can tell you: they sure are not.

It’s okay for us personally, because we learned long ago you often can’t look to priests for
meaningful moral or spiritual support. They are just not up to it. It should not be like that. We
the people suffer because of it. (There are, thankfully, some holy and wise men of God among
our priests.)

Under the last bishop strides were made at the diocesan level in pastoral formation and support
to married couples and families. It was a big step backward when the office of marriage and
family was shut down.

The state of preaching in our diocese is deplorable. That has a major negative impact on the state
of our faith. It is a huge internal factor in our church’s decline. For the St. Paul tells us that “faith
comes from what is heard” (Rm 10:17) and “How can they hear without someone to preach?”
(10:14). Thus when the preaching of the word of God is weak, faith too grows weak.

Hebrews tells us that “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged
sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit” (4:12). So too is good preaching, for it is

imbued with that living Word, who is after all Christ himself. But so often the preaching we hear
is dull and lifeless, full of bromides we have all heard so many times before. Rather than being
like a sharp sword, it is more like a dull knife you can’t even slice bread with. The Word of God
in the Scriptures is incredibly rich and interesting, but not often do you hear a preacher break it
open for the people in the Spirit-guided way it can and should be.

Young people hunger for good preaching, they abhor boring homilies. Their hunger in this
diocese is not being met. Their faith withers because of it. So too with adults, after years of
anemic preaching.

What Pope John Paul II called the “anti-Word” is all around us in today’s world. It is the word
that attacks Christian faith, whether directly or indirectly by attacking Christian morality. This
word is often lively and aggressive, showing up in the lyrics of pop songs, the jokes of
comedians, TV shows and other manifestations of contemporary culture. Any Catholic young
person today who is religious or virtuous can expected to be verbally confronted by others who
are often smart and sassy. If the young Catholic cannot handle themselves verbally, they will be
easily eaten up.

This experience of the anti-Word underscores the vital need to form our young people in the
beautiful, rich, wise Word of God’s truth. But they can’t count on getting that formation from
the preaching they hear at church or catechetical programs - which are basically non-existent at
the critical high school level!

Our diocesan university should be playing a vital role in forming and equipping our young
people in God’s truth. Alas, it is doing anything but. I hear of horror stories from parents of how
their son or daughter lost their faith because of STU - because of the anti-Catholic teaching that
comes from various professors. One hears of the worst garbage tolerated by the authorities, like
a hedonistic talk from a notorious, condom-crazed “sexologist.” Good Catholics I know -
including some faith-filled priests - shake their heads about STU: they each seem to have their
own horror stories. Many of us recall a day when the school was genuinely Catholic. That day
has gone. In many ways our young people have been abandoned to the wolves. It pains me to say
that, ultimately, the same dynamic that Jeremiah lamented has been at play: Our shepherds have
not cared for the sheep.

Our Catholic schools of yesteryear, which played such a vital role in sustaining and transmitting
the faith to so many of us, are also largely gone, another considerable factor in our spiritual
decline. When I was at St. Peter’s for Grades 1-9, there were about 1,000 kids in three schools
on site! Now we either have no more kids to populate Catholic schools, or those kids we have
have been almost all turned over to a system increasingly disrespectful of their faith. We have
one large high school that is Catholic in name, but its state of Catholicity seems to be in tatters.
Amid the wasteland, a handful of heroic Catholic families have been forced to rebuild things
from the ground up (Divine Mercy School).

Above I lamented wolves being on the loose at a so-called Catholic institution of higher
learning. Alas, they have been loose even in our parishes. I heard one pastor, from the pulpit,
mock devotions to Divine Mercy and the Church’s feast of Christ the King. That example has
been part of a larger pernicious pattern: some clergy have looked askance at traditional Catholic
devotions, including Eucharistic adoration, as well as those who embrace them. Far from being
welcomed and encouraged, such devotions have frequently been inhibited and discouraged.
Some of the most devout Catholics have been ostracized or given the cold shoulder by pastors,
or worse. I know, it’s happened to me. I was once heatedly upbraided in the sanctuary, in the
presence of parishioners, for wanting to promote Eucharistic adoration - and I had the support of
my bishop!

This kind of persecution means that the faith has actually been suppressed in our parishes!
Scripture warns church leaders, “Do not quench the Spirit” (Th 5:19). Yet that is what has
happened. And as we have sown, so we have reaped (cf. Gal 6:7): parishes have become
spiritually anemic. The decline of faith isn’t just from neglect; it’s been orchestrated (I don’t say
priests have intended harm; only that they have actively caused it.)

Signs of faithlessness abound in the parishes. The center of parish life is the Eucharist. Yet
liturgical abuses abound, so many no one even talks about them let alone does anything about
them. A casual, rather than truly reverent, approach often prevails. Just one instance: When
people waltz up to Communion chewing gum, as they do, and you never, ever hear the pastor
instructing people about receiving worthily, the parish’s faith is in a sorry state. In Paris, France,
I once saw the presiding priest leave communicants standing dumbfounded as he tore down the
aisle, chasuble flying, after this one woman who had received Communion on her hand but had
not yet consumed It as she returned to her pew; he remonstrated with her that she must
immediately do so. Now that was faith!! I might add: that huge basilica (Sacré-Coeur de
Montmartre) was packed with young people, attracted by the whole atmosphere of faith they
found there (the church is famous for having continuous Eucharistic adoration since the 1880's!).

The lack of the sense of the holy at our masses is strongly linked to the collapse in the Sacrament
of Penance. To judge by its non-use on an epic scale, you’d think no one sins anymore! This at
the very time when the state of religion is in such decline and all around us immorality and
temptation abound: do we think ourselves somehow untainted? Prideful smugness seems to

Once again, our pastors have often been part of the problem. Their longstanding practice of
general absolution no doubt much diminished the sense of personal sin. The pastoral practice of
no longer treating contraception as a sin - widespread since the Canadian Bishops’ disastrous
Winnipeg statement on Humanae Vitae - no doubt exacted a heavy toll among the faithful: if
something as serious as interrupting the marriage act is not a sin, what is?

Missing Mass on Sunday used to be another biggy. Now the pews are half-full or less while
legions of Catholics “take it easy” in bed, recreating, etc., but do you even hear a sermon on our

Sunday obligation? And what’s the educative effect of that? Catholics assume it’s not that
important, or it’s a matter of personal preference, or you can worship “in different ways” etc.
And if missing Mass is not that big of a deal, just what is?

A past bishop tried to emphasize the themes of sin and reconciliation, even wrote books about it.
But in this he apparently met resistance from the priests! The Scriptures we hear at Mass are
filled with a call to repentance, but that call is not communicated to the people in convicted
preaching. I can think of one pastor I have had: in several years I do not recall him ever using the
word “sin” (and I assure you, I listened to him very carefully). Can you imagine?

The flock has been left to wander about in great spiritual confusion. The shepherds have not
cared for them. They have not sought out the lost. One cannot help but think of Jeremiah’s
admonition from the Lord, “Woe to the shepherds...”

The problems I have mentioned point to a disturbing malaise among the clergy. The flock are not
being led in the way they should go because the shepherds themselves have lost their way -
whether through bad theology, personal weakness, infidelity to prayer and spiritual discipline,
cumulative pastoral weariness, worldly attitudes, or other factors. Whatever the reasons, the
church is in a bad way because they are in a bad way. Their faith is not strong and vibrant, and
we all pay a price.

I offer one telling symbol of the clerical malaise: their anemic support for the cause of life to
which I have given most of my own life. Over 25,000 innocent children have been murdered in
this province since 1969. Has that stirred our clergy? Are they deeply moved by it? Do they
strongly support the efforts to save precious innocents from slaughter? They do not. Like the
priest in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, who passed by “to the other side” rather than
deal with a beaten up man, they largely sit on the sidelines. With few exceptions, they do not
preach about it, they do not come to pro-life events, they offer token and half-hearted support,
they do not even lead the people to pray about it.

A powerful example: St. Dunstan’s is right across the street from the infamous clinic where
some 9,000 children have been aborted. This has been my own parish since 1999. Yet under the
past two pastors that house of death has never once been publicly mentioned, to my knowledge
(I’m sure I would have heard about it if it had!). It’s as if it does not exist! Parishioners have
similarly not heard hardly a peep about our house of life which has saved hundreds of babies
from being snuffed out. Is that not shocking in the extreme? Dealing with rampant child-murder
practically on your doorstep should be your parish’s #1 charitable work - no ifs, ands or buts. But
instead it is hardly even on their radar. What enormous scandal! Parishioners are being taught
through this: murder is no big deal! There is no excuse for this.

Another example: The pathetic financial support from the Pro-Life Sunday diocesan collection.
You called for a collection to aid flood victims in Charlotte County. Over $60,000 was raised.
The annual amount from Pro-Life Sunday has only been $15-20,000. I’m not against helping

flood victims. But it’s not a matter of life and death. Pro-life is. We’re talking the lives of 1,000
innocent children a year here in our own province. The collection should be ten times what it is!!
Why is it so low? Because the priests won’t push it and promote it. Why not? They lack faith!
They either do not believe what the Church teaches about the sanctity of a child’s life before
birth, or they are unwilling to put it into practice the way the Church calls them to.

Abortion is a form of what the Scriptures call child-sacrifice (e.g. Ps 106:37-38). This can never
be a peripheral concern for the church. Pro-life is not just another charity. Stopping innocent
bloodshed is not just something that is “nice to do.” We cannot turn away from the carnage. And
token acts just won’t cut it. We either step up to the plate, and earnestly defend life, or stop
pretending that our faith is strong. Over and over the Prophets linked faithlessness and disregard
for the needy:

“They go their wicked way; justice they do not defend by advancing the claim of the
fatherless or judging the cause of the poor” (Jer 5:28).

“How she [Israel] has turned adulteress...Your princes are rebels...The fatherless they
defend not, and the widow’s plea does not reach them” (Is 1:21, 23).

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the
poor...But they refused to listen” (Zc 7:9-11).

In the same vein, the New Testament teaches that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before
God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction..” (Js 1:27). And
Jesus warns our very souls are imperilled if we fail this test: “whatever you did for one of these
least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40; see vv. 45-46).

The little ones in the womb are truly the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The priests are
shunning them and their grave plight. Their faith, and charity, are not strong.

That is more than enough about our sorry state. The ship is sinking, but is there not something
we can do to save it? I turn now to the needed remedy, and the hope that is still ours - if only we
can find it.

The problem is loss of faith, weakness of faith. The answer is renewal of faith. But there are
several key ingredients for that renewal to come about. Once again, Jeremiah shows us the way.

The first ingredient is repentance, confession, change of heart, contrition. The church must
acknowledge her weakness, her decline of faith, the spiritual mess she now finds herself in. You
must lead us in this. The priests must join in. And the people who still practise the faith must

The Lord through Jeremiah offered the exiled Jews hope. But that hope was linked to their
repentance and sorrow, as I have shown. It is important to note how he also offered hope for
years before the Exile, but that hope too was based on them changing their crooked ways:

“Reform your ways and your deeds, that I may remain with you in this place [the Temple]. Put
not your trust in the deceitful words, ‘This is the temple of the Lord. The temple of the Lord! The
temple of the Lord.’ Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you
deals justly with his neighbour; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the
widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own
harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and
forever” (Jer 7:3-6).

Please note also the Lord’s warning not to cling to something external, institutional - the Temple
- as if that would somehow spare them of divine punishment for not repenting. Likewise, we
should not cling to the thought, “Ours is the church of Christ!” as if that means we need not
worry. Just as the Temple foundered, our church can bite the dust. Like the Jews we need to fess
up and repent.

The Lord warned his pre-Exile people what would happen if they did not repent: “I will cast you
away from me...The land will be turned to rubble (Jer 7:15, 34). Alas, they did not heed the
prophet, with catastrophic consequences.

We have a chance to repent now. If so there is hope. If not we too should expect punishment - in
the form of continued decline in our church, with more and more physical ramifications, e.g.,
church twinnings now, closings later.

What would genuine repentance look like? It would probably take several years. You and your
priests need to acknowledge the need for repentance, and interiorly make peace with God. The
presbyterate needs to talk with the people about the plight of our faith, through statements,
meetings and homilies. The shepherds should lead the people in a prayer of contrition and
dependence, at Mass and even special holy hours of reparation. Steps need to be taken to address
some of the real faith-damaging problems I have mentioned - poor catechesis, poor preaching,
poor support for life, etc.

There is another face of real repentance: respect for truth-tellers. Part of the reason things have
drifted in the wrong direction over many years is that people have not felt free to speak from
their hearts about our church. People say to themselves, “I don’t want to upset Father,” so deep
and important things are left unsaid, or whispered only among friends. Priests, meanwhile, can
play manipulative games to keep certain parishioners at bay who might raise uncomfortable

Our church needs to open up and allow people to tell it like it is - and then have the maturity to
face the issues raised. That will be very hard to realize. Every student of institutions knows that

whistle-blowers are usually unwelcome. And Jesus himself comments that “No prophet is
accepted in his own native place” (Lk 4:24).

I myself am taking a real risk in writing this letter. It will not be well received in some quarters. I
may well be subject to revilement and persecution, and pay a heavy price in my pro-life work,
i.e. loss of the little support we now get. I say what I do because I know it to ring true. It is a hard
truth, but a necessary one for the church to face in order to avert the current downhill slide. I say
it for the love of Christ and his church. I am at his mercy - and hers.

A second and major ingredient of renewal is evangelization, or re-evangelization. In a nutshell,

this is the fresh proclamation of the word of God. It is really what Jeremiah did through his
prophetic preaching, which was key to the eventual renewal of the people’s faith. As mentioned
already, the Church’s foremost evangelist, St. Paul, teaches us that faith comes from hearing the
word of God. When faith is weak, it is time for it to be stirred up again through good faith-filled
preaching. As the Order of Preachers did in the Middle Ages. As the Jesuits and other religious
orders did in the post-Reformation era.

As stated above, the state of preaching in our diocese is poor. It is a leading reason for our faith
decline. Our ship will not be righted unless we can reinvigorate the proclamation of the Gospel,
which the Second Vatican Council after all calls a priest’s first job (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n.
2). The challenge is huge, considering where we are now. But if the clergy face it with a contrite
heart, and determination to serve the real needs of their flock, it can be met.

As you know the proclamation of the Good News involves both kerygma and didache, preaching
and teaching. We need both, but we especially need good preaching now. For kerygma - the
revelation of Jesus as our Lord and Saviour - is designed to stir up faith, while didache - the
explanation of who Jesus is - is aimed more at informing faith. Our people - not just the ones in
church but those who have fallen away - desperately need their faith stirred up.

A psychological stumbling block in the way of good preaching (and teaching) for us Catholics is
that since the Reformation we tend to undervalue the word of truth and overvalue good deeds. In
Protestant churches the pulpit holds primacy of place in the sanctuary, the Word of God and
preaching are the core of their service. In Catholic churches, on the other hand, the altar is central
- the place of sacrifice, Christ’s Ultimate Good Deed giving us the Bread and Blood of Life. The
lectern for the Word and preaching are to the side. That symbolism tends to permeate our attitude
to preaching and the word of God. For Protestants what really counts is the word of truth, the
proclamation of faith. For Catholics what really counts is how you live your faith.

In a great teaching document on evangelization, Pope Paul VI pointed out that for effective
evangelization both word and deed are indispensable (Evangelium Nuntiandi, nn. 21-22). But we
Catholics tend to minimize the role of the word. How many, many times have I heard a homilist,
speaking about how we are to proclaim Christ to others, harp on the theme, “actions speak louder
than words.” Maybe they do. But words are vital too, and speaking truth with love is also a good
deed. But you virtually never, ever hear any priest speak to the congregation about the need to

speak to others about our faith. As long as we have that blind spot, we’ll never get anywhere
with evangelization. St. Paul was not kidding when he said faith comes from hearing. No words,
don’t expect much faith. As Pope Paul VI stated,

The good news proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by
the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the
promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not
proclaimed (Ev. Nuntiandi, n. 22).

The Protestants are good at speaking to other about their Christian faith. They know how to put
on evangelical rallies and media crusades. We Catholics tend sometimes to mock them. We need
to stop doing that. For that is the grace of God at work. And the best proof of that is how, when
you visit almost any Protestant church, you will find former Catholics. How come? Because they
fell away from our church, but then through effective evangelization their faith was stirred up
again. Instead of putting the Protestants down, we need to learn from them.

Our priests need to capture some of the evangelical spirit that is so natural among Protestant
preachers. That means fervently conveying the dynamism of Jesus’ essential message, “Repent
and believe the Good News.” It means a very personalistic approach to preaching: speaking to
the heart of one’s listeners, calling forth their personal response to Jesus Christ. For some priests,
e.g. those used to giving impersonal “reflections” on the readings, that will mean stepping
outside their comfort zones.

The exemplar of good Catholic preaching I have in mind is the annual Catholic mission that used
to be popular in years gone by. Typically a good preacher would give a series of daily homilies
and talks during Lent. It would be all about stirring up our Catholic faith. I have such fond
memories of the Redemptorists that used to come to St. Pius X Parish. Those missions need not
just be a thing of the past. We should bring in evangelists, whether priests, religious or gifted
laity, to preach at rallies, missions, etc.

We need to train our priests to preach better. Send them on courses, whatever it takes. But all
that needs to be supervised, so the end result is vibrant, full-bore Catholic preaching - no flaky
revisionist theology that minimizes sin and the need for conversion; no equivocation about
proclaiming Jesus as THE way to salvation; no soft-pedalling of Catholic doctrine on the Trinity,
the Last Things, the Church, the sacraments and morality, etc.

The essence of good preaching is the spiritual transmission of faith from preacher to hearer. In a
way it’s a heart to heart, spirit to spirit affair. The great theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar used
to say that good preaching radiates “the divine, incarnate, crucified love” of Christ because the
preacher himself has been captured by that love and it shows; and the people will readily discern
the Light of faith and receive it; at the same time they will distinguish authentic and inauthentic
preaching, like sorting the wheat from the chaff (see Jer 23:28). Unless the preacher himself has
undergone a true metanoia himself, he will be unable to transmit the Good News, he will only be
able to communicate himself or his ideas. He may, perhaps, be able to say clever or witty things,

but that is not the Gospel. As Pope VI taught, “It may indeed by said that the only true form of
evangelization is that by which the individual communicates to another those truths of which he
is personally convinced by faith” (Ev. Nuntiandi, n. 46).

It falls to you to utilize well those in our midst who already have a knack for evangelization. At
St. Dunstan’s, for example, the priest in residence, Fr. Peter Cobbina has a marvellous gift for
inspired preaching, and the deacon, Ken Parker, also radiates real faith when he preaches. Yet
the people seldom hear from them. That is a great pity.

At Our Lady of Fatima, Fr. Aaron Knox has a real ability to speak simply heart to heart, with
evangelical fervor. Our diocese needs much, much more of that.

Please bring us more good priests who can evangelize! It was heartbreaking when I heard that in
recent years a religious community with many young priests, and a reputation for orthodoxy and
evangelization, was turned away from the diocese, or themselves turned away, because, it seems,
they were not welcome here by fellow clergy. The people can ill afford to have their spiritual
well-being sacrificed to petty politics.

For a true renewal of our church, we need more than good preaching from our priests. We also
need our priests to inspire and form the laity to evangelize others - in their families,
neighbourhoods, work and study places. For the lay people are best positioned to seek out the
lost and bring them back to the fold. But right now they do not know how to do that. Tall order?
Absolutely. Out of reach? Not at all.

In considering the prospect of lay evangelists, we must be mindful that the Holy Spirit himself
inspires all of Christ’s followers to want to share their faith with others; the Gospel is inherently
outbound. Moreover, faith-filled Christians care about others spiritually, beginning with their
families and friends; they don’t like to see them missing the boat. But lay people do need
guidance and encouragement. Let’s give it to them. I would love, for instance, to see
evangelization schools for that purpose, as some other bishops have already established.

The laity have spiritual gifts that are underutilized in our parishes. This includes the higher gifts,
like prophecy and teaching (1 Cor 12:28), that can greatly aid the renewal of our church. But we
need a climate of openness from pastors to welcoming these gifts within the community. The
fact that there are so few lay-led adult education groups in our parishes suggests a certain lid has
been put on the Holy Spirit. It’s high time that changed.

A final ingredient of renewal I would mention is that our people must be led to choose life and
all that entails. As I pointed out earlier, God’s promise of liberation and restoration for the
Jewish exiles was predicated on their choosing life in accordance with his command to “be
fertile and multiply” (Gn 1:28). Our people will never be well blessed with life spiritually while
spurning the divine gift of life physically. In biblical Jewish culture, sterility was a curse (see Gn
30:1, Lk 1:25), fertility a blessing from God. It remains true today that to impede God’s gift of
life by choosing sterility is to reject the Author of life, and create a blockage to his grace in our


In a certain sense, the collective nonbearing of children over just the last two generations has
already brought a curse upon our church, as manifested in emptying churches. To be resigned to
the continuation of this state of barrenness is folly.

Anti-life practices - contraception, sterilization, abortion - are a moral and spiritual sickness
whose wages, if unchecked, are the death of a people (cf. Rm 6:23). Our faith has the cure for
this illness. It needs to be applied.

The prophets repeatedly condemned the people’s uncritical adoption of godless ways from the
surrounding world. Anti-life practices are like false idols that command the allegiance of many
of our people. That allegiance cannot go unchallenged.

At a time of spiritual poverty - which is our sorry condition presently - in which we need so
much to turn to God’s mercy, for us as church to say, in effect, to God, “Please bless us, Lord,”
while adamantly refusing to tackle one of the elephants in the room that most displeases him, is
not faith; it’s trying to serve two masters. And we know God does not like that: see Mt 6:24.

On a more positive note, if we want our church to flourish, we need bodies as well as souls.
Vocations come from people having children! If there are no children, or precious few, there will
be no vocations either!

For anyone to be resigned to a future church with barely any priestly vocations is to capitulate to
the prince of this world. We desperately need vocations. But it is only possible to imagine a
healthy vocation level if can also imagine a pro-life culture among our people. For the love of
God, let us please try to imagine both!

How to transition toward that pro-life culture is very challenging, I know full well. I have done
specialized advance studies in this whole area, and have taught the Church’s full teaching at the
university level. I would love to offer insights and suggestions.

In closing, I very much agree with you that there is hope for our church. At the same time, the
forces that are at work pulling us toward depleting clerical ranks, disappearing congregations,
etc. are very real. To suppose that these forces will just go away on their own is not wisdom. To
suppose, on the other hand, that God will just take care of it all without any help on our part is

Tweaking and baby steps will hardly do. The problems are deep. Deep answers are called for.
We are dying! We need to choose life, wholeheartedly, with everything we’ve got!

I think it was providential that your prayer for the consultations cited Jer 29:11. As I have tried to
explain, that book offers not only a basis for our hope but also something of a spiritual and moral
roadmap for how to realize that hope and elicit God’s favour.

In line with Jeremiah, the single most important thing called for is a spirit of humility, of
confessing our weakness, of allowing ourselves to feel broken. For only then do we create the
right spiritual space for God to come to our aid.

The second most important thing is to acknowledge that the reason for our brokenness is that we,
collectively, have fallen away from the Lord. Our faith has taken a battering. The sheep, to a
great extent, have scattered. The world’s ways have become our ways. We have sinned. We have
made stupid mistakes (see the use of that word in Jer 10:21).

That second step will test our step one humility. We will tend to stubbornly deny that things are
really that bad or that we ourselves had any part in bringing the present crisis about. We need a
second dose of humility.

The third thing is to realize that the answer to the crisis is to wholeheartedly turn to the Lord,
first of all embracing our faith in the fullness of its integrity, and secondly proclaiming this faith
with vigor. This is turn implies a new evangelization. That will take courage and zeal.

Finally, we must choose life, not only spiritually but life in its fullness. Another dose of courage
and zeal needed.

These four things will not come easy. Do we have what it takes to do them? Frankly, I am not
sure. But I continue to hope that we do. Otherwise I would not be writing this.

If we are willing to undertake these things, to live them out to the best of our ability, there is
every reason to hope for a bright future. If, on the other hand, we are not so willing, then if I
were a betting man I would not put a lot of hope in the outcome.

With prayers and best wishes,

Yours in the Lord,

Peter Ryan

About the Author

I have spent most of my life in this diocese. My family roots are here: my Irish ancestors on both sides
settled in St. Francis Xavier parish in Sussex. My parents were teachers in Saint John Catholic schools. I
was baptized at St. Joachim’s; took the sacraments of initiation at St. Peter’s, grew up mostly in St. Pius
X, and have since lived in various parishes, most recently St. Dunstan’s. I now attend Our Lady of
Fatima in Fredericton.

I have been married 35 years, with 7 grown children, 5 son in laws, and 8 grandchildren (one with the

I had 12 years of education in Saint John Catholic schools (St. Peter’s, St. Malachy’s). I have four
university degrees, including two advanced degrees in Catholic theology. I am a licensed school teacher,
and have a license to teach theology at the seminary level.

After meeting Jean Vanier, I spent several years living with and serving disabled persons. Then, for some
33 years, I have worked full-time in the pro-life cause. I have founded and / or worked for numerous pro-
life organizations and services in New Brunswick and across Canada.

I am a 4th degree member of the Knights of Columbus.


Похожие интересы