National News

Catholic Media Combats Challenge of Aging Priests

 By Matthew Gambino

WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (CNS) – Catholic news media might be the remedy for three of the greatest challenges facing the church in the United States today, according to a leading Catholic journalist who spoke at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in suburban Philadelphia.

First, an aging priesthood faces a “demographic cliff” that in coming years will not have enough active priests to sustain parish life in the United States as it is structured today.

“Each year an average of about 400 new priests are ordained nationwide, while an average of 1,500 retire or die,” said Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, who delivered the Cardinal John Foley Lecture for about 50 attendees at the seminary, including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

CNS was founded by the U.S. bishops in 1920 and is a partner with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The international news service is based in Washington, with offices at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ headquarters.

In his talk, Erlandson recalled the words of Cardinal Foley that could be considered the mission statement of Catholic communicators. Media professionals, the cardinal said only weeks before his death in 2011, have a “sacred bond” with media consumers.

“They look to you for information, for formation, for inspiration,” the cardinal said at the time, repeating a theme he had offered Catholic journalists many times in his long ministry in the church and in the Catholic press.

The cardinal was editor of The Catholic Standard and Times newspaper in Philadelphia from 1970 to 1984 when he was named to lead what was then the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican.

Cardinal Foley supported and encouraged generations of Catholic journalists, and his words still apply to the issues facing Catholics and journalists today, Erlandson suggested.

He offered context to his talk titled “The Power of the Word: Catholic News Media and Spiritual Formation.”

“My conversations with Catholics around the country suggest that they are unaware … of the challenges we face now and will face ‘in extremis’ in the near future,” Erlandson said.

He cited the decline in sacramental marriage as well as baptism and the reception of other sacraments, driven largely by divorce and remarriage outside the church.

Lastly, Erlandson described the dearth of Catholic faith formation for children and adults. Citing a statistic that only 15 percent of Catholic school-age children attend a Catholic school, and despite valiant efforts of volunteer religious educators in parish programs, “nearly everyone agrees that many Catholic parents are too distracted, undereducated in the faith or broken to assume their role as ‘primary educators’ of their children.”

Putting it bluntly, Erlandson said two generations of parents “have been educated primarily in, at best, 40-minute class sessions 20 or so weeks a year from first through eighth grades or until confirmation, whichever comes first. Too many of them are, in terms of their religious IQ, children inhabiting adult bodies.”

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