Two stories captured my attention today, the second in my view complementing the first.
The first I hesitate even to bring up because I have loved ones and friends for whom what follows is likely to sound harsh or even insulting:
Cultural trends discouraging marriage are among the biggest challenges to the Church in the U.S., says Cardinal Seán O'Malley, who also sees signs of renewal and hope among young people.
"Concerns about marriage – people not getting married, falloff in Mass attendance, (and the) challenge of catechizing the young Catholics" are some of the more troubling trends facing Catholicism in the U.S., the Archbishop of Boston said to CNA Nov. 11, during the general assembly of the national bishops' conference in Baltimore.
Cardinal O'Malley is a member of the group of eight cardinals whom Pope Francis has asked to help reform the Roman Curia, as well as chairman of the U.S. bishops' committee on pro-life activities.
The cardinal noted that "the whole notion of family is so undercut by the cohabitation mentality," and that these social trends are having a tremendous impact on the working-class communities "who were once the backbone of the Church."
"Half of the children born to that demographic are born out of wedlock," a statistic that Cardinal O'Malley said would have been "inconceivable" a few decades ago.
This shift away from the bearing of children within wedlock is the “biggest threat to marriage.”
Yet the sacrament of marriage is facing other challenges as well, he added.
"Part of the problems are economic" he commented, explaining that "our educational system is so expensive, people graduate from college or graduate school facing huge debts."
"If you have a $150,000 debt when you graduate law school, are you going to marry a girl that has a $130,000 debt and start off your marriage with over a quarter-million dollars' debt?”
“So people are postponing marriage – are postponing a decision to go into the seminary or religious life – because they're saddled under this tremendous debts which former generations didn't have."
In addition, Cardinal O'Malley stated that the Church needs "better marriage preparation" and outreach to help young people recover an understanding of marriage.
The Church needs to "catechize our young people and instill in them a sense of vocation, and also to help them understand what courtship is about."
In combination with the misunderstanding of marriage, lack of attendance at Mass, and the shortcomings in the catechization of young people, the Church also faces many challenges posed by the “secularization of the culture,” he explained.
Despite all this, Cardinal O'Malley said, there remain cultural "signs of hope."
Those signs of hope are chronicled at the link but you can understand how people engaged in the behaviors referenced might take umbrage particularly if the message explaining why the behaviors are problematic isn't being delivered.
What follows then I think is an additional sign of hope, one I believe all of us long for and a sign that might be key to recapturing the hearts of those the first message may have put off:
Pope Francis on Wednesday called on priests to be servants of the Sacrament of Forgiveness.
Speaking to the the faithful during the weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square, the Pope said the Church accompanies us on our journey of conversion for the whole of our lives, calling us to experience reconciliation in its communal and ecclesial dimension.
He said that we receive forgiveness through priests who are the servants of this sacrament, and that they must recognise - he said - that they too are are in need of forgiveness and healing and thus they must excercise their ministry in humilty and mercy.
Below, please find Pope Francis' remarks to English speaking pilgrims, read out in English by an assistant:
Dear Brothers and Sisters: Today I would like to speak again on the forgiveness of sins by reflecting on the power of the keys, which is a biblical symbol of the mission Jesus entrusted to the Apostles. First and foremost, we recall that the source of the forgiveness of sins is the Holy Spirit, whom the Risen Jesus bestowed upon the Apostles. Hence, he made the Church the guardian of the keys, of this power.
The Church, however, is not the master of forgiveness, but its servant. The Church accompanies us on our journey of conversion for the whole of our lives and calls us to experience reconciliation in its communal and ecclesial dimension. We receive forgiveness through the priest. Through his ministry, God has given us a brother to bring us forgiveness in the name of the Church. Priests, who are the servants of this sacrament, must recognize that they also are in need of forgiveness and healing, and so they must exercise their ministry in humility and mercy. Let us then remember always that God never tires of forgiving us. Let us truly value this sacrament and rejoice in the gift of pardon and healing that comes to us through the ministry of priests.
We all need to know that our wrongs, intentional and otherwise, are forgiven. I'm of the opinion, strongly held, that communicating God's love, His forgiveness and mercy, are indeed the keys guarded by the Church.
Think on it loved ones, friends and others.
Think on the fact that your wrongs can be blotted out.
Think on the healing that would bring and the impact that healing will have on your life.
Then act on that thinking.