Not surprisingly, one major finding of the WCR's recent readership survey is that our readers say the main challenge facing the Church is passing on the faith to the next generation. One should go even further and say the challenge includes passing on the faith to the current generation.
Theologian Walter Kasper, now a cardinal, is one of many who have noted the difficulty of presenting the faith in a society where the capacity for experience is "limited to what can be grasped by the senses, to what can be counted and produced."
The problem of passing on the faith, Kasper says, is not one of enabling people to understand one or more of the truths of revelation. It is to restore the lost dimension of faith, the dimension of sacred mystery (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 65).
The problem is not so much the militant atheists. At least they keep the "God question" alive. The problem is religious indifference, the deafness, the blindness to any sense of the sacred. One cannot commit one's life to a dimension of reality whose existence does not even enter one's awareness.
The consequences for humanity of this deafness are calamitous. Without a sensitivity to the central place of the transcendent Trinitarian God, we can only descend into a dark age of violence and barbarism. This violence will not be so much that of nation against nation as that of the individual with an overblown sense of entitlement. The violence will include the physical violence of the dispossessed, but also the refined violence of gated communities and excessive corporate power and privilege.
Resistance to the dark age may emerge in the form of the higher culture of philosophy, music, art, literature, rational debate and even acts of charity. But unless these are explicitly rooted in a commitment to the transcendent God, they will be of little consequence.
How is the Church to respond, both now and in the future? Surely not with a defiant, take-it-or-leave-it proclamation of the faith. Such a response would only solidify an image of the Church as rigid, reactionary and repressive.
One step in the way forward is that of respectful dialogue — dialogue not only with those outside the Church, but also with those in the Church who have not yet found the full beauty of the truth she proclaims.
Another step is the nurturing of religious experience. But such "experience" is not an inner event. A person needs a religious understanding in order to interpret subjective events. As never before, the Church is in need of solid faith formation.
The Church, Pope Benedict said in his new book-length interview, is "on the verge of a new dynamic." For that dynamic to be effective in the 21st century, it must include faith formation that has both dialogue and teaching. It must accept people where they are now and provide the means for them to better apprehend the mystery of God.