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The Opportunity of Our Apostolic Age

April 11, 2024 4 min read
Baptism of Augustine

The predominant strain the media tends to sound about Christianity often goes something like this: the number of Christians in the West is dropping. Those who do consider themselves Christian are practicing their faith less and less. Fewer parents are baptizing their children. The Church, in almost every way, is getting smaller, and the culture is becoming a secularized, directionless mess.

Like much else in the media, that narrative takes the extreme as the rule, leaving out other realities also at play. Around the world, this year’s Easter Vigil liturgies brought some surprising statistics, which temper the story that the Church is shrinking with no end in sight: in France and Belgium, the number of adolescent and adult baptisms has “literally soared” over the past handful of years, with the number in France, for instance, having increased by 30% from 2023 to this year. “In almost every diocese in France,” Bishop Olivier Leborgne, head of the French bishops’ department for catechesis, wrote, “people are coming to the Church to ask for baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist, sometimes in a movement of bewildering proportions.”

Taking a step back, we can read the general narrative about the Church’s (apparent) withering, as well as flashpoints such as France and Belgium’s, as useful signs of our times. The secularization story reminds us that we no longer live in a Christendom age: as we’ve often said, ours is an apostolic time, one in which most people have not heard or have grown cynical about the faith, such that our evangelization of the wide world needs to be calibrated accordingly.

But it’s good to remember that that’s not an entirely bad thing – it’s not cause for discouragement and worry, and it’s certainly not cause for bashfulness or reticence about the task at hand. Rather, the times in which we live give us a front row seat for witnessing, and participating in, the timeless, invincible potency of the Gospel. As the Church has grown smaller, it has tended also to grow purer, more convicted of its task being not, firstly, the imposition of laws and rules, but the extension of an invitation into relationship with the living God, who opens up a whole new way of seeing and being that’s filled with joy and purpose. And when presented that way, that’s an invitation that inevitably resonates with the innate, felt need of human hearts – just as it has in these two countries.

Indeed, it’s noteworthy that 80% of French young people “have received no religious education,” according to Father Vincent Breynaert, director of the national Youth and Vocations Service. And yet it’s from among that group – those with no religious background at all – that a larger and larger proportion of the baptism requests are coming.

What’s drawing them? Father Breynaert says that their reasons are as diverse as their huge array of social and geographical origins. “But,” he said, “they have in common that they have had a spiritual experience and a personal encounter with Christ.”

The personality of Jesus does not get old or outgrown or outmoded. The promise that Christianity holds out, of a life drenched in meaning, does not ring hollow. “The beauty of a liturgy, the soothing silence of a Church, a testimony of a friend,” which Father Breynaert also pointed to, do not lose their catching force. The Gospel is always fresh, always potent, and ours is an age that gives us opportunity to see it over again as the vigorous, life-giving, life-saving message it is, captivating people like these 7,135 new French Catholics.

“In a rapidly changing world, often disorientated . . . the Lord has decided to take the lead,” said Bishop Leborgne. Soul by soul, year by year, Jesus still claims us, one person at a time. That sure and steady movement became enough for a small band of apostles to convert the whole Roman empire; and as we’re invited into the work Christ plans for our time, too, we should be assured that it will also be enough for ours. 

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