As Conclave Begins, Louisville’s Catholics Struggle With ‘Waning’ Numbers

It’s rare when a decision made thousands of miles—across the Atlantic Ocean—has an affect on the lives of Louisvillians, but the Conclave in Vatican City is just that.

The Conclave to choose the next pope begins this morning. Unlike in 2005, the cardinals choosing the Roman Catholic Church’s next leader have no obvious frontrunner. Still, the challenges for the church worldwide have been much discussed—dropping church participation, a lack of priests, the sex abuse scandal that continues to dog church leaders.

In Louisville, the greatest challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church are similar—attracting adherents while keeping those who grew up in the church and dealing with the effects of the sex abuse scandal, for starters. 

“Active involvement in a church has waned in lots of communities,” said Brian Reynolds, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Louisville “Oftentimes it’s not by people rejecting the faith or disconnecting with God, but it’s a matter of being part of an active community within a busy life.”

These days, people are busier and their church involvement has been sacrificed, he said. The Archdiocese of Louisville counts about 200,000 people within their ranks, though that’s an estimate that includes active Catholics as well as those who are not practicing.

The problem with getting Catholics into the pews is particularly difficult for younger people, who studies have shown are generally less interested than their parents in organized religion.

That’s an issue for perhaps the most organized religious institution in the world, Reynolds concedes.

The next pope can help with these issues, said Greg Hillis, a theology professor at Bellarmine University.

A charismatic pope like John Paul II—the now-retired Benedict XVI’s predecessor—can be helpful, Hillis said.

People, including the young, can be affected by a pope who can connect with them. 

“That said, charisma can only go so far,” Hillis added.

Hillis said he’s hopeful the next pope will be able to discuss unity among the world’s Christians and who can convey what, precisely, the church stands for.

But, he added, don’t expect the next pope to much change the church’s stances.  

Instead, Hillis said the church can help itself by talking more about what it’s for than what it’s against.

Reynolds said he’s hopeful the church can do something similar—demonstrating what it’s capable of doing. He added that young people, in particular, are attuned to hipocracy and notice when the church isn’t living up its own standards.

“How do we reach out an connect?, Reynolds said. “I think I like to see it as what the church says yes to, reclaiming the missionary spirit of the church. In fact, around the world where ever the church is in a missionary activity, we’re growing. And where we’re not, we’re not growing.”

Both Hillis and Reynolds said that ensuring that instances of sex abuse within the church, should they arise again, are properly dealt with must be a priority.

The next pope will surely have some affect on Louisville Catholics. For starters, he’ll choose the next leader of the Archdiocese of Louisville should Archbishop Joseph Kurtz leaves while the next pope is in office.

But, in terms of major policy changes,  Hillis said the only shift he sees possible from the next pope is on the issue of married priests—that is, allow them to exist.

This Conclave beginning today is unlike any other in recent history, Hillis notes. Unlike in 2005, there is no deceased pope to mourn—and the cardinals and Catholics worldwide have had plenty of time from Benedict’s Feb.  11 resignation to today to discuss the issues facing the church.

With that, Hillis said that a quick decision is unlikely.

But you never know in the secretive Conclave, he added.

“I’m going to tell you that it’ll probably last a long time and it’ll probably last a day,” Hillis said.

Note: Say you’re really, really interested in the Conclave. The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen Jr. has written short profiles and pro, con arguments for several plausible candidates to be the next pope. You can reach them all here.

Joseph Lord

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

@joseph_Lord

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