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Religion Crosses the Threshold of a New Year

2006 Doesn't Lack Signs of Hope

ROME, JAN. 8, 2006 (Zenit) - The New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on the past and look ahead, and the Church is no exception. At the solemn vespers Dec. 31, Benedict XVI gave thanks to God for his assistance in the past year.

"Yes, it is our duty, as well as a need of our hearts, to praise and thank the eternal One who accompanies us through time, never abandoning us, and who always watches over humanity with the fidelity of his merciful love," the Pope stated in St. Peter's Basilica.

Benedict XVI recalled that Pope John Paul II led the ceremony a year earlier. He also remembered those who are poor, abandoned or in difficulties. Looking ahead to 2006, the Pontiff invoked the intercession of Mary, "who presents to us the eternal Word of the Father, who came to dwell among us."

The current and the previous Popes were the top religion news stories in 2005, according to a poll of members of the Religion Newswriters Association. Of the 100 RNA members who voted, more than two-thirds picked John Paul II as the year's top newsmaker, the Dallas Morning News reported Dec. 31.

In second place, with 21% of the votes, came the new Pope, Benedict XVI. The Religion Newswriters Association is a trade group of journalists writing about faith and values in the mainstream press. It has about 300 members.

In his homily on Jan. 1, the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, Benedict XVI continued with the Marian theme. "At the beginning of a new year," he said, "we are invited, as it were, to attend her school, the school of the faithful disciple of the Lord, in order to learn from her to accept in faith and prayer the salvation God desires to pour out upon those who trust in his merciful love." He also invoked God's blessing on the New Year, especially for world peace.

Looking back at how the new Holy Father performed in 2005, Catholic commentary George Weigel stated: "Pope Benedict XVI has delivered, beautifully, as a papal teacher." Writing the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 30, Weigel contended that Benedict XVI "has been a luminously clear teacher, the kind who gently compels others to think, even to reconsider." Among the highlights he noted are the Pope's sermons, "miniature masterpieces of Christian doctrine."

The new Pope faces a number of challenges, however, among them a possible reform of the Roman Curia, adds Weigel.

Papal appeal

Benedict XVI has also had striking success with the public. In August he held the attention more than 1 million young people in Germany during World Youth Day. And the new Pope has consistently drawn large numbers to his audiences and public celebrations in Rome. There, around 2.85 million people had taken part in the Holy Father's public activities, including 810,000 who attended his first 32 Wednesday general audiences, according to data released Dec. 28 by the Vatican press office.

Despite the impressive numbers in Rome, religious faith and churches in general face difficult situations in many countries.

One sign of this is the growing number of "surplus" churches. On Oct. 17 the National Post newspaper in Canada reported on finding new uses for churches and religious properties in the once fervent province of Quebec.

Ten years ago the provincial government set up the Quebec Religious Heritage Foundation to help preserve ecclesiastical properties, and since then $135 million-Canadian ($117 million-US) has been spent on preserving churches.

In hearings last October the Quebec National Assembly's standing committee on culture was told that half of the 246 Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Montreal can no longer afford to remain open.

Similar problems dog the Anglican Church in Britain. The Anglican St. Paul's Church in the city of Bristol, for instance, is being used by teen-agers training to become circus performers, the Washington Post reported Dec. 25.

According to the Post, hundreds of historic religious buildings are being converted into a variety of uses: apartments, offices, pubs, spas and shops. Faced with ever-declining numbers, the Church of England since 1970 has closed around 1,700 churches. Data cited in the article affirmed that fewer than 7% of Britons now attend church regularly. And out of 24 million baptized Anglicans, only about 1 million go to church on a typical Sunday.

In an increasingly secularized society Christians also face obstacles in preaching their message. On Wednesday, for example, the Associated Press reported that California State University, in San Bernardino, barred a Christian student group from organizing on campus.

The Christian Student Association's proposed constitution included a sexual morality statement and required that members and officers be Christians. Homosexuals were also barred from membership. In rejecting the group's application the university said this would discriminate against non-Christians and homosexuals.

Not all the news is gloomy for Christians. At year's end the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, detected positive trends in 2005. Writing in the Observer newspaper on Dec. 18, he noted signs of "secular wobble."

This is, he explained, "the way faith keeps erupting outside the windows of secularism, interrupting the clear view of human beings as autonomous, selfish beings, with only this life to believe in." The Catholic primate of England and Wales was cautious about talking of a revival of faith, yet added: "But I do see a loss of faith in no-faith."

He explained: "There is a new uncertainty about our certainties, a questioning of the narratives of the Enlightenment which sought to make the individual the ultimate measure and reason the only yardstick."

"We are truth-seeking beings," argued the cardinal, and this means that we cannot continue forever living on the surface of things.

Britain's first black Anglican archbishop, John Sentamu, also defended the importance of religious belief. Just prior to his enthronement as the new archbishop of York, Uganda-born Sentamu criticized attempts to minimize Christianity in the name of multiculturalism, the Times reported Nov. 22.

In an interview with the newspaper, Sentamu described English culture as rooted in Christianity and, in spite of attempts by secularists to marginalize it, the church still had a central role to play. "I think the church in many ways has to be like a midwife, bringing to birth possibilities of what is authentically very good in the English mind."

Shifting south

One challenge facing all churches is the shift in believers from developed nations to the "South," generally countries in the developing world. A report in the January issue of Lausanne World Pulse magazine gives a variety of data on this change.

The report by the Lausanne Researchers' Network noted that in 1900 more than 80% of all Christians were from Europe and North America. By 2005 the proportion had fallen to under 45%.

Within the United States the report found a decline in numbers among the longer-established churches, and a strong rise in the group of those following Pentecostal or charismatic churches. Whereas in 1900 these churches were practically nonexistent, by 2005 they claimed up 26.3% of the population, with 79 million members. Whatever else awaits believers in the new year, those figures give a reason for hope.

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