“The Church will become small and will have to start afresh …”

Back in 1969 theologian Joseph Ratzinger made some comments about our Catholic future.  They were included in his  Faith and the Future published by Ignatius Press in 2009.

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

Biretta tip to Catholic Education Resource Center.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Four Last Things, Modern Martyrs, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Religious Liberty, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. priest up north says:

    Thanks for posting this, especially as we commemorate Sts. Perpetua and Felicity.

  2. irishgirl says:

    How prophetic are these words of the future Holy Father!
    Yes, thank you for posting this, Father Z!

  3. JPManning says:

    If you are crystallising a chemical solution and you want one big crystal rather than many small ones then you cycle the temperature up and down. At high temperatures the small crystals dissolve faster than the big ones and disappear. When you cool the solution down again the molecules re-crystallise on the larger crystal. After many cycles you can achieve a single large crystal.

    When I was studying this process I couldn’t help but think about the the process that is happening to the other ‘ecclesial bodies’ and the Catholic Church.

  4. GregH says:

    This contrasts sharply with how the great Servant of God Frank Duff saw the future of the Church in his last public speech in 1980. He was much more optimistic and hopeful…he was also at heart a much more apostolic man than Cardinal Ratzinger

  5. Pingback: Amazingly prophetic and encouraging comments made by Joseph Ratzinger in 1969 on the future of the Church | eChurch Blog

  6. filioque says:

    This is more detailed than similar remarks made 30 years later in Salt of the Earth. So far, nothing has happened to show he is wrong, just the opposite. But isn’t this what we should expect? On the way to Calvary, Jesus said to the weeping women of Jerusalem, “If in the case of green wood they do these things, what is to happen in the case of dry?” (Luke 23:31) There are many other warnings that we should not expect to be externally triumphant in this world. Instead we are told to fast and pray and be vigilant. The process is well-advanced in Europe and North America.

    Thank God that Cardinal Ratzinger spent his life using his talents to speak clearly to all of us, not just in the rarefied atmosphere of the theology classroom.

  7. Stuart James says:

    What amazing prophetic and encouraging words for our day.

    Truly remarkable; blown me away!

    Yes, thank you for posting this.

  8. The interesting thing to note is how similar Ratzinger’s vision for the future of the Church was to the perplexing mix of pessimism and optimism in the prophetic writings of Hildegard of Bingen, whom he is preparing to declare a Doctor of the Church later this year. He surely came into contact with Hildegard while working on her near-contemporary, Joachim of Fiore, and Joachim’s influence on Bonaventure’s theology of history (in his Habilitationsschrift, defended in 1959).

    Hildegard’s words of castigation against corruption in the Church grew ever more fiery in the last decades of her life, as schism again broke out between Church and Empire. In a sermon to the clergy at Trier in 1160, she declared that, “Magistri quoque et prelati, relicta iustitia, dormiunt,” “The masters and prelates sleep, for justice has been abandoned.” After recalling the persecutions the Church had suffered because her own ministers had failed her, however, Hildegard declares that the Church shall be reformed and renewed:

    Tunc iustitie et iudicia Dei surgent, et disciplina ac timor Dei in populo erunt, et iusti et boni homines in spiritali populo fient, qui tamen in paruo numero propter humilitatem manebunt et in primam auroram sicut eremite reuertentur.

    Then the justice and judgment of God shall arise, and the people shall have discipline and the fear of God. Men good and just shall be found amongst a spiritual people, but they shall remain small in number for the sake of humility. To the first dawn [i.e. the example of the Apostolic age] shall they return, like hermits.

    (Source: Ep. 223r, in CCCM 91a).

  9. smmclaug says:

    GregH, I am totally perplexed that you do not find Pope Benedict’s words–“she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death”–to be full of hope. It is like believing that the Easter season is not a hopeful one because it is preceded by 40 days of penitence, or that the Resurrection is not hopeful because it is preceded by the Crucifixion.

    Anyway, it is a serious confusion to believe that the “optimistic” Christian is the one who anticipates great temporal power and influence for the Church in the near term.

  10. Cathy says:

    This is an amazing and timely insight as we see the many seeking a political savior in these times. It breaks my heart to see clearly the past where the Church and her institutions were served, not by grants from the government, but by the faithful in the pews. My mother’s generation, she is 73, was taught by nuns who lived in a convent at the school. The laborers were plenty, the people in the pews were plenty, and the tuition was modest. In our modern age, so many of our religious are barely perceivable and in contrast to the new religious orders who find beauty and continuity in what was hailed as archaic, unprogressive and irrelevant in modern times, have become the necessary and attractive beacon, the lilies in the field. Whether we sight them in service, or simply by sight, they bring with them a public witness of not simply being people of prayer, but of being living prayer. It is these, the priests in cassocks, the monks and nuns in habits that are the evidence of the springtime of faith. These are the souls who resound the Eternal Truth above the clang of talking heads.

  11. q7swallows says:

    Case in point to illustrate the good cardinal’s words: How many of us can say that the majority of our family—immediate and extended—is solid, practicing, ready-to-die-for-the-Faith Catholics? We can see in microcosm–in our own families–the beginning of the world Card. Ratzinger depicts. His prediction totally resonates with me. God help us.

  12. Sixupman says:

    It is happening before our very eyes, but is masked by the number of clerics and laity who have created their own version of Mother Church as camouflage of the real situation.

  13. heway says:

    Such prophetic words! Glad that someone posted re: Hildegarde and Joachim. We have been warned for years and have ignored the warnings – will we be ready?

  14. Pingback: Pope Benedict’s thoughts on the Church from 1969 | ourladyofgracemonastery

  15. rodin says:

    For a very long time it has seemed that the”real” Church is very tiny. Too many call themselves Catholic who are only kathlick. They approve of masses where the priests ideal of the words for the consecration are “Change them.” They do not accept the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception, nor do they comprehend the purpose of the Mass. Too often even some bishops and cardinals are loathe to discipline those who are blatantly in opposition to Church teachings. Indeed, the Church has already shrunk, but the schism has not been formally recognized. The Holy Father needs many prayers and much penance to help him in his task to rectify this.

  16. Joe Magarac says:

    For a very long time it has seemed that the”real” Church is very tiny.

    This was true from the beginning. Judas betrayed Christ, Peter denied Him, and the others abandoned Him in His hour of need.

    How many of us can say that the majority of our family—immediate and extended—is solid, practicing, ready-to-die-for-the-Faith Catholics?

    How many of us can say that we, ourselves, are solid, ready-to-die-for-the-Faith Catholics? Peter said the same; but he denied Christ when the choice was upon him.

    While I love Ratzinger’s/BXVI’s words here, I wonder how he would address the fact that the Church has always been bigger than it “should” be. As Christ said:

    Another parable he proposed to them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is likened to a man that sowed good seeds in his field. [25] But while men were asleep, his enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat and went his way.

    [26] And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the cockle. [27] And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? [28] And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? [29] And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it. [30] Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.

  17. Jim says:

    Thats exactly what came to mind as I listened to today’s Gospel reading:

    “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
    Matt 20:18:19

    If that was so for the Lord, why should his bride expect anything different. The first part is scary, but the “and he will be raised on the third day” part gives hope and makes the former worth it.

  18. servusmariaen says:

    “Catholics who remain faithful to TRADITION even if they are reduced to but a handful, they are the True Church of Jesus Christ”
    St. Athanasius

    One needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to see that the faithful remnant has become just that.


  19. chantgirl says:

    This process sounds like it is going to be about as fun as having a broken bone that has healed wrong reset, but afterward the bone is always stronger. We need to be roused from our sleep.

  20. Singing Mum says:

    How painful it will be to see entire branches of one’s family falling to the ground, as many of us already have. And what of all the souls who will fall to confusion and coercion? God’s great mercy must be our hope, for that is all that is left to a world that ignorantly and blithely denies Him. I cling to the knowledge that God is faithful even when we are not, and Jesus promised the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.

    What will the Church in our (once?) free country look like 25-50 years from now? Political forces set the stage for a national ‘church’, and so many of our people are uncatechized and left with little resistance. I love my country, and this possibility breaks my heart. At least are bishops seem united- God keep them strong!

    Still, the words in this post are strangely consoling. We can’t know how far into this purification process we already are. But we can pick up our cross with joy in our hearts, remember the martyrs, pray for grace, and be faithful to the One who accepted His cross for us. No political bully, no regime, no cultural indifference or malice can take away His Abiding Love!

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