Song leader Sophia Santiago stood to the right of the altar of St. Gertrude Church in Chicago and invited those in the crowded pews and in folding chairs to greet their neighbors. "All are welcome," she proclaimed.The occasion of the piece is the pontificate of Francis, but the world it imagines draws nothing from the Church in the developing world, so close to the heart of Pope Francis and rapidly growing while the number of Catholics in first world nations is falling due to apostasy and low fertility. Rather, the author imagines that the future which was ushered in by Francis is pretty much like the future that Catholic progressives imagined back in 1980, just delayed by 33 years.
To the simple notes of a single piano, the parish choir and the congregation sang a sweet, lilting version of "Come to the Water" as liturgical dancers, altar servers, ministers of the word, parish chancellor Emma Okere and pastor Fr. Antonio Fitzgerald processed up the center aisle. The song filled the soaring interior of the 131-year-old structure. On a banner high behind the altar, in large, easily readable lettering, was a quotation from Pope Francis: "Who am I to judge?"
This was one of thousands of celebrations across the globe marking 50 years of rejuvenation and renewal dating from the election of Pope Francis in 2013, popularly called "refreshment of the faith."
It's easy to laugh at the afflicted, and I've done my share over this article, but it strikes me that it also points to a more general problem that people have when thinking about the future. Since I've spent a lot of my week at work doing PowerPoint presentations to help executives understand various concepts, I though I'd pull out my trusty PowerPoint and provide you with a visualization.
Human societies tend to oscillate according to the spirit of the moment, but they're also anchored by fundamental realities of human nature. The Church is an institution which is both human and divine. It is the Body of Christ and it is guided by the Holy Spirit, but it is also populated by all too human people, and like any human institution the Church goes through intellectual, spiritual, and cultural fads. However, both human nature and divine guidance anchor the Church to a certain center, the truth, and so while we may veer first one way, then another, according to the spirit of the moment (age is too dignified a term, I think, in this case), we tend to revert to that center point to which we are anchored -- before overshooting it in some other direction.
And yet, wherever we are in the oscillation tends to seem like the most important point, and the spirit of the moment is easily confused with the truth -- or at least, we often see the truth through a filter tinged with the spirit of the moment. We may know at some intellectual level that there have been changes before, but it's easy to either see them as part of some overall arc of history leading up to the trend we see as most important now, or to minimize those past changes because they really don't seem so very important now. As such, when people think about the future they tend to take the spirit of the moment (as they perceive it) and project it out into the future indefinitely.
And this is one of the (various) embarrassing ways in which the National Catholic Reporter piece falls down. The author takes what he (based on a frame of reference which is arguably already thirty years out of date) thinks are the most important trends, and then projects them out in a straight line for the next fifty years. As a vision of the future, it's out of date even before it's done, and to see this it's only necessary to do a semi-serious job of thinking about what issues seemed most absolutely current and important 100 or even 50 years ago and trying to imagine today through the lens of people who thought that would always be the thing of the moment.