In 1970 Joseph Ratzinger predicted the Church’s declining influence in the world
I bumped into a fellow parishioner when I was lighting candles after Mass on New Year’s Day. He wished me a “Happy New Year" and then mentioned his fears about several potential political crises in the world in 2017. I reminded him (I hope I didn’t sound smug or naively optimistic) that as Christians our hope has to be in Christ who has said “Do not be afraid; I have overcome the world." The fellow parishioner looked slightly startled; after all, Catholics never mention what they believe, especially straight after Mass.
I mention this encounter partly because I am trying to cure myself from the (very English) habit I have referred to above – perhaps it should be my New Year’s resolution? – and partly because I was reminded by this man’s very natural, human anxieties of the profound words of the then Professor Ratzinger, first published in the book Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009.)
“From today’s crisis will emerge a church that has lost a great deal. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will become small and will have to start pretty much over again. It will be a more spiritual church and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute."
Professor Ratzinger was speaking before the abuse scandal rocked the Church, when it was still prosperous and respected. The numbers of practising Catholics in the West had begun to decline, certainly, but the stark prophetic aspect of his words is only obvious in retrospect, as we look back over the last fifty years.
Perhaps we have needed the election of Pope Francis to remind us that “Lady Poverty", along with humility and service, is not meant to be the special charism of a medieval saint but the hallmark of the institution as a whole.
After all, Christ did not promise his followers worldly power, prestige, political influence or wealth. He simply promised them salvation – and the Cross. I foresee a further serious conversation with my fellow-parishioner when I am next lighting candles after Mass.