What are the signs of the times? I was looking at the Holy Father speaking at the end of the Year for Consecrated life, his words were a little depressing, see for yourself. He had departed from the text prepared for him and decided to speak impromptu, and like many of his impromptu speeches it gives a sense of being deeply depressed and more than a little depressing- see for yourself.
One of my parishioners went to another parish on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the priest who was standing in for the Parish Priest allegedly began his sermon with, "Since V2 of course, we no longer believe that baptism is necessary for salvation...."
Well, of course we have always believed that: the Holy Innocence, the Good Thief, the idea of the Baptism of Desire. It is the novelty of a priest standing in a pulpit and denying an imperative of the Lord that is new, Christ himself said to the Apostles, 'Go and baptise' and 'Unless a man is born of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God'. It would blasphemous to place any restriction on God's mercy but the scriptures are clear Baptism and the Eucharist and membership of the Church are according to the Lord necessities. I can see nowhere the Fathers of Vatican II denied that.
Yes, the Council might well have made the notion of 'Church' a little more fuzzy, in the sense that the Council Fathers anxious that elements of the Church should not be separated from the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are able to say that such things as baptism or the scriptures or even the knowledge of the name of the Jesus unites us in some way to the Church which 'subsists' in the Catholic Church. The vast majority of the Fathers were jealous that those things proper to the Church should not be separated from it.
The problem is that the very notion of 'the Church' and of Christianity can be reduced to ghostly anonymity. This is the Ratzingerian discomfort with Rhaner's idea of the 'anonymous Christian'. The Catholic, and to a great extent the Orthodox, notion of Christianity is pretty hard edged; like pregnancy, either one is one isn't. Either the Eucharist is the Body of Christ or it is simply bread, either God became Man and dwelt among us or he dis not. The Ratzingerians taking the patristic path of bringing clarity, even if it is a 'both and' theology, the Rhannerian (and at the more extreme end Kung) following the 19th century German philosophers delighting in ambiguity and uncertainty, ultimately in the the theology of Doubt, which more than occasionally rears its head in the Pope's off the cuff remarks. The truth is, at least in its effects, that doubtful and anonymous Christianity in the world of creates doubtful and anonymous Christianity in the Church. It is not unusual for people to ask, 'what is a priest for?' or 'what is religious for? perhaps increasingly and rather frighteningly, 'what is a Christian for?' Doubt and uncertainty, Christianity without any knowledge or understanding of Christianity is mark of Christianity in the recent past, like parasitic liberal it simply cannot survive, it is dying and within a generation or two will be completely dead. The attempts of old men to revive it are simply a death rattle.
The problem is that anonymous Christianity, like the theology of doubt is so uninspiring. If one reads 'the signs of the times' we seem to be leaving that period of doubt and anonymity behind. At the time of Vatican II it was possible to be both a Christian and a non-Christian, Graham Greene's novels deal beautifully with this ambiguity, the drunk faithless priest, the devout adulterer, and so forth, but we have moved on, these are images from fifty years ago.
The blood of Christians in the Middle East announces clearly that either you are willing to die for Christ or you are not a Christian at all. In Rome a few weeks ago, with the studied ignoring of the old men of the Vatican. huge crowds who came onto the streets to defend Traditional (Christian) Marriage, they of course mirrored what had happened in France last year. Today in the West increasingly one is either a Christian or else one has barely heard of Christ or his teaching. These, along with mass immigration, are the signs of the times, we ignore them at our peril.
What has changed is that 'ethnic' or 'cultural' Christianity is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Maybe it still exists in Argentina and South America but elsewhere in the Middle East, Western Europe and North America, it is being expunged by violence or government diktat or the various lobbies that oppose it, sometimes replacing it with something quite Satanic. At the peripheries of the Church there is no longer a gentle slope strewn with Christian values and people at least friendly to Christianity and willing to embrace a Christian ethos even if they reject Christ himself but now that is a sheer rocky drop into something which is increasingly anti-Christian and rejecting of Christianity.
As far as vocations are concerned, certainly where religious life is concerned, there is great need for renewal, the models of fifty years, where women religious and to some extent men left off the habit and any regular life to live as leaven in the community, seems to have failed and needs replacing urgently. Such communities though they often did good work, rarely inspired anyone to join them and often the work they started has been taken over by lay people at best but more often by people intent on a secularist agenda.
The Gospels give two models: the idea of leaven lost in the lump or the city on a hill or the lamp on a lamp-stand. I visited the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in Gosport recently. they are perhaps typical of many young religious communities. They had just been joined by a priest Fr George who is probably well over 60 but the other 6 members of the community were all under 40. If we look at other religious communities that are thriving, both of men or women they are all very much committed to a deep and unambiguous spiritual life. They might well be gentle but they are tough and single minded.
The more traditionally minded might well say that the Traditional Mass and Liturgy is key, that might well be so in Europe but in many instances non-traditional congregations like the Franciscans of the Renewal or the various Dominican nuns and brothers are experiencing notable growth. What seems crucial as are our beloved Holy Father's final words remind us prayer. Where religious communities pray and therefore make Christ their centre there is growth, where they choose something else, even if it has the flavour of Christianity it dies.
Either we are for him or against him... a Kingdom divided cannot stand... no-one can serve two masters....