Catholicism

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.

The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.

But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.

"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."

It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.

At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online.

Pope Benedict XVI exits, on his own terms

In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V. The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock — on this medieval pope’s tomb, noted theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.

Few noticed Benedict’s actions at the time, wrote Hahn, on his Facebook page. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who, “somewhat against his will,” was elected pope in 1294. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter’s throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.

Looking back, it appears Benedict’s visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were “probably more than pious acts,” argued Hahn. “More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."

This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Blessed John Paul II in 1996.

Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The Vatican Press Office noted these words were consistent with his thoughts in the 2010 book, "Light of the World." While it would be wrong to flee in times of trouble, Benedict said: "When a Pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."

Vatican leaders are planning for the election of a pope by Easter, thus creating a whirlwind of activity. Reactions, so far, have included:

* Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert -- an active Catholic -- quipped that "popes don't quit. God has a way of telling popes when it's time to retire. It's called death." Father James Martin, a Jesuit known as The Colbert Report chaplain, later tweeted that he should have told the comedian, "Pope Benedict XVI is raising the bar when it comes to giving things up for Lent."

* On the far doctrinal left, Catholics United noted: "The Catholic church hierarchy has been seen as an institution overly focused on issues of human sexuality, such as opposition to access to birth control and marriage equality. ... The next pope has a unique opportunity to radically shift the agenda of the church."

* Among journalists, "The Fix" blogger Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post tweeted: "Pope Benedict, following Sarah Palin's lead, resigns."

* This pope's departure drew several tributes from Protestant conservatives. Benedict reminded the world that humans are not mere machines, "collections of nerve endings, that spark with sensation when rubbed together," noted theologian Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The pope defended Down syndrome babies and Alzheimer's patients, as well as those "society wants to dehumanize with language: 'embryo,' 'fetus,' 'anchor baby,' 'illegal alien,' 'collateral damage,' and so on."

* Strategically, the key is that Benedict's "out of the blue" decision will do much to prevent the months or even years of political maneuvering that precede papal elections, wrote Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers. It also helps that Benedict did not act in response to calls for his retirement, such as the campaign aimed at John Paul II.

At the same time, he noted, "advancing medical technology means increasingly long life spans with a longer period of frail health. ... Unless we get really wizard regenerative medical technology really soon, we're likely to have more popes in that kind of situation, and thus there are likely to be more resignations in the future."

Dave Brubeck's long pilgrimage

Dave Brubeck had a problem and, as a short concert intermission turned into a long and mysterious delay, the jazz master sheepishly came back on stage to make a confession. It seemed that his son Chris had locked his electric bass in a dressing room and the Baylor University stage crew couldn't find the right key. Without that bass, the Two Generations of Brubeck ensemble -- pianist Brubeck backed by sons Chris, Dan on drums and Darius on electric keyboards -- was in trouble.

"I really don't know what to do," said Brubeck, on that night in the mid-1970s.

High in the Waco Hall balcony, a voice called out: "Play the piano!"

Brubeck laughed and went to the keyboard. First he played some Bach, which evolved into gentle jazz improvisations that eventually turned into a stomping blues that roared on and on -- until Chris Brubeck finally had his bass.

Afterwards, Brubeck explained that for him music was music and he never could separate the many forms of music that he loved. In later interviews -- four in all, over three decades -- it became clear to me that his religious beliefs followed a similar path down the years. Brubeck died of heart failure on Dec. 5th, the day before he would have been 92.

As a composer, Brubeck was haunted by themes of justice and faith and, even during the glory years of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, he expressed his yearnings in explicitly religious classical works, often with lyrics written with his wife Iola. These compositions continued for the rest of this life.

"Really, I have trouble expressing myself about these things. I still do," he told me, during a 1984 interview that was published in the National Catholic Reporter. "Have you ever seen the notes in 'Light in the Wilderness'? ... I really said it all there. That still says what I believe -- although I guess no one's beliefs ever really stay the same.

"To me it all seems like the same journey."

In the liner notes for that 1968 recording, Brubeck wrote: "Although reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist church, and, although this piece was written with the theological counsel of a Vedanta leader, a Unitarian minister, an Episcopal bishop and several Jesuit priests, I am not affiliated with any church."

In particular, he cited the influence of "three Jewish teachers" -- philosopher Irving Goleman, classical composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus.

"This composition is, I suppose, simply one man's attempt to distill his own thought and to express in his own way the essence of Jesus' teaching," wrote Brubeck.

The soaring, chant-like theme from that oratorio's most famous piece, "Forty Days," became the hook for jazz improvisations in Brubeck concerts for decades to come. In the choral version, the verses cry out: "Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair. Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert? Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role. …"

Eventually, Brubeck -- who had never been baptized as a child -- stunned his family by making the leap from his liberal Protestant background to Catholicism. The decision grew directly out of his experiences composing a Mass, completed in 1979, at the request of the Our Sunday Visitor publishing company.

Brubeck wrote "To Hope! A Celebration" in stages and, once it was complete, discovered that he had failed to write an "Our Father" anthem. During a family vacation in the Caribbean, he dreamed the entire missing piece -- jumping out of bed to sketch parts for chorus and orchestra.

The experience left Brubeck so shaken that he decided to be baptized as a Catholic, at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Wilton, Conn. While many insisted on calling him a convert, he always resisted that term and repeatedly explained that he found it impossible to describe precisely what he was "converting from" when he decided to enter Catholicism.

"You could say I was a lot of things or you could say I was nothing in particular" before becoming a Catholic, said Brubeck, the last time I interviewed him. "My wife and my kids didn't understand why I wanted to join the Catholic church. I'm not even sure I completely understood what happened. ... It was a calling."

Soulful voice on a Capitol Hill sidewalk

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill's brick sidewalks stays frosty year round as the power-walking professionals rush along in suits of wool-blend armor, their earphones in place, smartphones loaded and eyes focused dead ahead.

But things changed at the corner of Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE. That's where streams of pedestrians converge near Union Station, the U.S. Senate office buildings, the Federal Judiciary Center, the Heritage Foundation and other buildings packed with prestige and power.

For the past decade, this was where the late Peter Bis kept his office, sitting on a blue plastic crate under an oak tree, sharing cigarettes, coffee and conspiracy theories with whoever passed by, greeting most of them by name. He was the friendly homeless man with his own website, business cards and a life story that -- even when warped by schizophrenia -- touched thousands.

"Hey professor! Happy Easter," he shouted a few years ago. I nodded and returned the greeting.

A few paces later, Bis hailed me again. "Wait a minute," he said. "Orthodox Easter isn't 'til next week this year, right?"

He was right, of course. Had I shared that personal detail with him or did he glean that tidbit of liturgical minutia from one of the newspapers he read, day after day? Anyone who knew him could describe similar mysterious encounters.

That precisely what people have been doing lately at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a block from that oak. The parish held a memorial Mass for Bis last week, a month after he died of a heart attack at age 61. Worshippers entering the quiet sanctuary passed a copy of a painting of Bis called "The Contemplation of Justice."

Over the years, many people offered advice about how he could get off the street and put his savant-like memory to good use, said Deacon Gary Bockweg, who delivered the homily. At one point, Bockweg suggested that he work as a Wal-Mart greeter, but Bis said he was over-qualified for that job.

Bis often said he had a doctorate and once taught at a university. Was that true? After all, he also volunteered memories about a romance with Princess Diana, his years working as a spy, clashes with Vatican leaders and his origins as an extraterrestrial. There was lots of evidence that he really had worked in a shipyard in Oregon.

In his own way, Bis truly was a teacher, stressed Bockweg.

"He taught us that everyone we walk past deserves to be recognized as a real person, even if their appearance is deceiving," said the deacon, in his sermon. "If Pete had sat in silence, looking down at the sidewalk, or if he'd called for our attention with less friendly, less charming words, we would probably never have gotten to know the Pete inside there. ...

"We've been walking past his vacant spot under the tree for a few weeks now ... each day growing a little more accustomed to the emptiness there, and that unheard greeting. Over the years we had come to take Pete's presence for granted. And now, we're reminded that we're all just passing through this life."

When Bis first visited St. Joseph's, he was neatly dressed and well groomed. He took Communion in Mass and seemed in control of his life, although he remained quiet.

Things were different when he returned months later, limping and "using an empty wheel chair for a walker," said Bockweg. "Then the wheelchair started to fill up with bags and books. And then suitcases piled on top of that. ... He also grew more talkative, and we got to know him."

His friends remember him fondly, but with a touch of guilt. It's hard to know how to help the homeless, especially those fierce in their resolve to go their own way.

That was Peter Bis.

Yet something also drove him to reach out, to accept some gifts and offer others the gift of his memory and attention, said parishioner Joe Jones, who sang the Irish lament "Danny Boy" at the end of the Mass in honor of his friend.

"Peter Bis was a gentle soul. ... There was certainly much more there than a grunt and a curse word," said Jones. "The last thing people do today when talking to a stranger is call them by name. That's how Pete connected. ... He called us by name and that slowed us down. That made Pete real to us."

Prof. Benedict addresses Catholic academia

In his latest address to American bishops visiting Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that Catholic educators should remain true to the faith -- a reminder issued just in time for another tense season of commencement addresses. No, the pope did not mention Georgetown University by name, when discussing the Catholic campus culture wars.

Yes, he did mention the law requiring professors who teach Catholic theology to obtain a Canon 812 "mandatum (mandate)" document from their bishops to certify that they are truly Catholic theologians.

Many American bishops have cited a "growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church's mission. ... Much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines," said Benedict, who taught theology at the university level in Germany.

"The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church's educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church's pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church's witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."

Benedict's remarks to the bishops of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming came during the fourth of five Vatican visits by Americans reporting on life in their dioceses. His January address, to the bishops of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services, made news with its focus on threats to religious liberty. It came shortly before Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration would not withdraw its rules requiring the majority of religious institutions to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception in health-insurance plans offered to employees, as well as to students.

Now, the pope has emphasized the need for Catholic educators to remain faithful in the same timeframe as Georgetown University's announcement that one featured speaker during its commencement rites will be none other than Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic who last year warned abortion-rights activists that "we are in a war" to protect women from conservatives.

Conservative Catholics protested -- see GeorgetownScandal.com -- claiming that the Jesuit school's invitation represented yet another violation of the 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy stating: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." The University of Notre Dame ignited a 2009 firestorm by granting President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree.

While it's easy to focus on this new commencement controversy, Benedict's address represents another skirmish in more than two decades of conflict between Rome and liberal Catholics entrenched on many college and university campuses. At the heart of the conflict is a 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

That document contains numerous statements that trouble American academics, including this one: "Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity."

"That captures pretty much everything," noted Patrick J. Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society.

Thus, in his address to the visiting American bishops, the pope stressed that Catholic universities are supposed to be helping the church defend its teachings, in an age in which they are constantly be under attack.

The goal, said Benedict, is for Catholic schools to provide a "bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue. ...

"Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church's educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord's dominion over all creation."

Shriver and God's big family

If someone truly wants to understand R. Sargent Shriver, all they need to do is reflect on his last public appearance three months before his death at age 95. Although weakened by his long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, the founder of the Peace Corps and other projects for the needy attended the first Archdiocese of Washington "White Mass" for children and adults with disabilities. One last time, he stood with those touched by the Special Olympics and the work of his wife, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"Sarge's knowledge of God's love ... was the structure that supported his public life. From this faith, hope and love flowed his thirst for justice and peace and the courage to speak for those who had no voice," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, at Shriver's funeral Mass last week in Potomac, Md. "He spoke not from political expediency or correctness, but from an abiding sense of conviction."

The statesman's life was shaped by many of the 20th century's most powerful forces, from the Great Depression in his childhood to World War II combat at Guadalcanal. His marriage took him deep into the Kennedy family, which launched his work, yet limited his political career.

Shriver took on global poverty for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and helped lead the domestic War on Poverty for President Lyndon Johnson. Many of the projects he helped launch live on -- such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Legal Services, Foster Grandparents and Upward Bound.

Those who worked with Shriver, noted former President Bill Clinton at the funeral, were left asking this question: "Could anybody be as good as he seemed to be? Come on now. ... Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now."

Where did Shriver's drive come from? Son Mark Shriver stressed that his father's motivations were never strictly political, but were rooted in the first item on the daily calendar of his life. Wherever he went, whether with family or on business, the first question he asked upon arrival was the time and location of the nearest morning Mass. The Shriver patriarch was buried with his rosary in his fingers.

"Daddy was joyful 'til the day he died and I think that joy was deeply rooted in his love affair with God," said Mark Shriver. "Daddy loved God and God loved him right back. ... Daddy let go. God was in control and, oh, what a relationship they had."

While his Catholicism helped Shriver as an activist and volunteer, it marginalized him in some politic circles. As the years passed, son Timothy Shriver said he could see that his father's commitments made many people uncomfortable. At times, his faith "made him an outlier. He was too public with all of that spirituality."

In 1972, Shriver stepped in and became his party's emergency choice as Sen. George McGovern's running mate in a long-shot run race for the White House. It helped that Shriver was a political progressive and a traditional Catholic. Still, there hasn't been another pro-life Democrat on the national ticket since Shriver.

During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, both Sargent and Eunice Shriver joined several other prominent Democrats in signing a public document that openly rejected their party's stance on abortion.

"To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license," it stated. "What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth. ... We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn."

Thus, Shriver's human family included the unborn and the mentally handicapped, AIDS patients in Africa and the urban poor, abandoned children and the elderly who need medical care.

"No one can deny that his liberal Catholicism was a Christian politics: Admirable, comprehensive, and at the test, consistent," noted Catholic writer Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist and blogger for the New York Times.

"That test was abortion, where Shriver was one of the few Great Society liberals to remain a pro-life liberal as well. ... Together with his wife, Eunice, he endured as the embodiment of a liberal road not taken on that issue. For that, as for everything he did in public life, he will be sorely missed."

Yes, Catholics need more priests

As a regular part of his ministry, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore says Masses on behalf of Catholics who have left the church. The unique element of these rites is that he offers his prayers for anyone he has -- during his 45 years as a priest, with or without knowing it -- driven away from Catholic pews and altars.

This isn't the kind of ecclesiastical issue that makes headlines.

Nevertheless, this is a quiet kind of crisis that priests must take seriously, said O'Brien, in a Franciscan University forum that included current and potential seminarians. How many lapsed or former Catholics, he asked, slipped away because they felt "talked down to or lectured at by preachers or confessors who don't really know them or who appreciate how difficult their struggles are just to get through life?"

How many, he added, are haunted by a clergy comment, "often at an emotional time in their lives," that wounded them so deeply they became convinced that it justified leaving the church? How many drifted away to Protestant megachurches because of "our dull, lifeless and irrelevant homilies."

The priesthood has faced many crises during the past generation or two and O'Brien offered no easy solutions.

Obviously, he couldn't ignore three decades of scandals caused by the sexual abuse of thousands of children and young people by priests and bishops. O'Brien also discussed the hierarchy's problems finding new priests, yet avoided the stark statistics that are so familiar to American Catholics. In 1965 they had 58,000 priests. Now there are about 40,000 and, if trends stay the same, there will be 31,000 in a decade, with most over 65 years of age.

While these crises dominate the news, O'Brien stressed that Catholic leaders cannot overlook the personal challenge of helping potential seminarians struggle with this timeless question: Does God want me to be a priest? As a former seminary leader, in the New York archdiocese and in Rome, O'Brien said he has added a more nuanced set of follow-up questions.

"Why are you living your life here and now?", he asked the audience at his late-2010 lecture on the Steubenville, Ohio, campus. "What is your radical motivation? Are you here on this earth to give or to get?"

The cultural changes that rocked Catholicism after the 1960s made it even more of a challenge to answer these kinds of questions. O'Brien saw this era up close, since he was ordained in 1965 and, as an Army chaplain with the rank of captain, served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

In the "heady years" after the Second Vatican Council it seemed that Catholics "saw almost everything go up for grabs" in their parishes and "in Western Culture in general." Priests were "leaving by the droves" and at times, he noted, it seemed as if "follow your conscience" stood alone as the "only criterion for morality, heedless of any objective moral truth." Many seminaries lowered their admissions requirements in an attempt to find more priests.

O'Brien offered a blunt analysis of that decision: "Many of the horrendous sexual scandals, I think, can be traced to the breakdown of seminary formation from 1965 to the early 1980s."

The continuing aftershocks are familiar to priests who keep trying to defend church teachings and traditions. The archbishop noted that a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 45 percent of Catholics didn't know that their church believes that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are not mere symbols, but become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. A survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found that 82 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative, that is, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody."

This is sobering, but Catholics must not lose hope, said O'Brien. God will raise up priests who are willing to wrestle with ancient and modern questions while serving in what the archbishop called a "post-Christian" culture.

A missionary bishop in an earlier era, he noted, stated the challenge this way: "The task of a missionary is to go to a place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to a people who are determined not to accept it -- even as a gift."

Celebrate Christmas -- gasp! -- in Christmas?

Father Dino Bottino didn't expect to spark a firestorm several years ago when he delivered his sermon about the true meaning of Christmas. Still, it didn't take long for outraged parents to leak one crucial statement -- that Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus, isn't real -- to the Italian press. Headline writers around the world immediately felt a great disturbance in the Holiday Force, as if millions of tiny nonsectarian voices had cried out in terror.

Clearly, this priest had committed blasphemy.

Now, the Catholic shepherd of Salt Lake City has bravely ventured into similar territory. Bishop John C. Wester has asked those in his flock to observe the Advent season during the four weeks before Christmas and then -- readers may need to sit down -- to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th and during the season that follows.

"Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. ... You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December," noted Wester, in a pastoral letter (.pdf) released on Nov. 24.

"What is the rush? ... Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the 'holiday season' as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out."

To be perfectly blunt about it, he added, the secular season called "The Holidays" has been hyped to the point that, in the end, "Christmas has become anticlimactic."

The bishop's letter has generated a surprising amount of buzz in a short time, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a veteran journalist who directs the online news programming (NetNY.net) for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. In effect, Wester has issued a call for countercultural revolt against the principalities and powers that shape the American calendar, he said.

For starters, the bishop is trying "to remind people -- through the pulpit and through education -- that just because they are hearing Christmas music doesn't mean that it's really Christmas," said Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who has won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards.

"As everyone knows, most of this is rooted in commercialism. But just because we have Black Friday and people are stampeding through the malls doesn't mean that is what Christmas is really about."

After throwing down his gauntlet, Wester offered practical examples of what he would like to see in the parishes and schools of his diocese.

Rather than leap straight to Christmas trees early in December, the bishop urged Catholic families to embrace Advent prayer wreathes -- with candles marking the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Families could have "Jesse Trees" that are decorated in Advent purple and symbols of the ancestors of Jesus, before adding Christmas decorations at the proper time.

Rather than hold premature Christmas parties, the bishop suggested that Catholic schools plan "Gaudete" parties -- Latin for "rejoice" -- that are linked to the third Sunday in Advent. Facilities could be decorated with simple wreaths and greenery, with the full Christmas decorations in place as students return after New Year's Day. Full Christmas decor should remain in place in churches, schools and homes through the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the 9th of January.

By all means, said Wester, Catholics should hold parties throughout this entire Christmas season, which begins -- following centuries of tradition -- with Christmas Day.

The goal is for Advent to be a period of "waiting in joyful hope," a time of preparation, reflection and prayer. At least, that's what the church's calendar says.

"It is so easy to ... decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived," said Wester. "I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do."

However, he added, "As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently."

A social media Reformation?

As every avid Twitter user knows, there are only 140 characters in a "tweet" and that includes the empty spaces. The bishops gathered at the ancient Council of Nicea didn't face that kind of communications challenge and, thus, produced an old-fashioned creed that in English is at least 1,161 characters long.

No wonder so many of the gray-haired administrators in black suits in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struggle with life online. It's hard to take seriously the frivolous-sounding words -- "blog" and "tweet" leap to mind -- that define reality among the natives on what Pope Benedict XVI calls the "Digital Continent."

"In the past, the church would often build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, 'If you build it, they will come' does not hold true," said Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, La., in a report from the body's communications committee.

"We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have to be enculturated. It's more than just learning how to create a Facebook account."

This is important news in an era in which recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the Catholic Church was retaining 68 percent of its members who, as children, were raised in the fold. While the church is making converts, those who have left Catholicism in recent years outnumber those who have joined by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio.

Almost half of those who left Catholicism and did not join another church exited before the age of 18, as did one-third of those who chose to join another church. Another 30 percent of young Catholics left the church by the age of 24. At that point, the departure rate slowed down.

Truth is, it is almost impossible to talk about the lives of teens and young adults without discussion the growing power of their social-media networks. For young people worldwide, social media and their mobile devices have become the "first point of reference" in daily life, warned Herzog.

"The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn't exist."

As recently as a similar report in 2007, it was clear the bishops were hesitant to discuss the digital world because they feared its power when used by the church's critics, said Rocco Palmo, who produces the influential "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog about Catholic news and trends.

The Herzog report was a step forward, primarily because the bishops seem to realize this is a subject that they cannot ignore. That's significant in an era in which many Vatican officials still cling to their fax machines and struggle to keep up with their email. During the recent Baltimore meetings, said Palmo, there were more iPads in the hands of younger bishops "than you would find at your local Apple store."

"In the old days, that stone church on the corner was a sign of the presence of God in your community. Well, that's what a church website is today," he said. If bishops and priests cannot grasp "that one-dimensional reality in our culture, how are they supposed to grasp the two-dimensional, interactive world of social media?"

The theoretical stakes are high, noted Herzog, but it has also become impossible to ignore the raw numbers. For example, if the 500 million active Facebook users became their own nation, it would be the world's third largest -- behind China and India.

The bottom line: Catholicism may be "facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation," said the bishop.

"Anyone can create a blog. Everyone's opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation," said Herzog. "We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church's credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives. ...

"This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it."