A Catholic zeal for souls?

It wouldn't be a proper baptism rite without someone taking a photograph of the priest and the new members lined up for the service.

Anyone who studies these images from Catholic life during the 1940s and '50s will be struck by an obvious fact, said Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola, Fla. The center aisles in those urban churches were awfully full during baptisms, including rows of adult converts.

Somebody was doing something right.

"It was just expected of a priest in those days that he would bring into the church at least 40 or 50 people a year. It was also the expectation of the parish that this would happen," said Ricard, during this week's conference of the U.S. Catholic bishops. "I know that times have changed, our culture has changed and attitudes have changed, which makes this a great deal more challenging. But, somehow, we need to recapture that spirit that we had in the past. We need to regain that sense of expectation."

There are a lot of Roman Catholics in America already - 61,207,914, according to the 1998 statistics. Last year, 69,894 adults were baptized and 92,155 converted from other churches. But while those numbers are rising, church leaders are wrestling with basic questions of Catholic identity, such as the spiritual health of the faith's schools and why so many Catholics live on the fringes of church life or have joined other flocks.

Thus, Pope John Paul II has called for increased efforts to reach lapsed Catholics and the unchurched. Almost every gathering of the hierarchy will include one report or workshop focusing on what Catholics call "The New Evangelization."

This week's Washington, D.C., conference was no exception. The bishops' evangelization committee said parishes must find creative ways to be more welcoming, to add new outreach ministries and to offer beautiful liturgies with better preaching and "appropriate music."

"There's so much more to do," said Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M. There are "so many people who are spiritually hungry. We must have a kind of renewed enthusiasm for sharing the faith. We need a kind of a good old-fashioned zeal for souls."

Part of the problem is that "evangelization" sounds like "evangelism" and, in this day and age, that word is almost exclusively associated with evangelical Protestants. Plus, if clergy and laity develop a "zeal for souls," this will almost certainly lead to divisive discussions of heaven, hell and saving souls.

This is controversial territory for modern Catholics. During his recent trip to India, the pope upset many religious leaders - including some bishops - by insisting that Jesus is the savior of the whole world and that it isn't enough for Catholics to do good works and dialogue with those in other faiths. John Paul II stressed that "there can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord."

But the pope also said, in a proclamation about mission work in Asia, that non-Christians don't necessarily have to become Christians in order to save their souls.

Echoing the Second Vatican Council's efforts to modernize Catholicism's views of other faiths, he wrote: "From the first minute of time to its end, Jesus is the one universal Mediator. Even for those who do not explicitly profess faith in him as the Savior, salvation comes as a grace from Jesus Christ through the communication of the Holy Spirit."

Thus, Ricard said Catholics no longer believe that the main motivation for evangelization is to save lost souls. But this doesn't mean that priests are supposed to stop reaching out to lapsed Catholics and to non-believers. It is still good to make converts. It is still good to see people lining up in the church during baptism services.

Priests must be taught that this remains part of their vocation, he said.

"I guess that, in your typical suburban parish, we are consuming so much of priest's time in all these ministries with the people we already have," said the bishop. "There's so much for our priests to do already and, most of the time, they are simply not finding the time to lead others into faith in Jesus Christ."