Fr. Jim Brinkman was in English class Nov. 22, 1963.
He clearly remembers that day – the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated – and the response in his hometown, New Richmond.
The people prayed.
An ecumenical service was organized, and only Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, capacity 900 people, was large enough to host it.
The service became an annual Thanksgiving tradition, and for decades the faithful of all denominations have gathered to pray.
More than 50 years later, the tradition endures. But, times have changed. The service rotates through many churches in town – seating for 200 is the only requirement – and most of the attendees are older adults who remember the day.
“We all had an insecure sense of our country,” he said. “People who experienced that time are dying off.”
Pastor of Immaculate Conception, Fr. Brinkman uses the ecumenical service to illustrate the decline of religious participation in his hometown, which mirrors a broader decline in religiosity in this and other Western countries.
He pulls out a newspaper clipping from 1966 – a column by Pete Stallcop, Executive Secretary of the Northwest Country Elevator Association, Minneapolis – commenting on the fall of empires.
According to Stallcop, in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” author Edward Gibbon offers five reasons for the fall of Rome:
(1) the undermining of the dignity of the home;
(2) increasingly higher taxes to fund free bread and entertainment;
(3) “the mad craze for pleasure; sports becoming every year more exciting, more brutal, more immoral”;
(4) stockpiling weapons rather than confronting the enemy within – the loss of personal responsibility; and
(5) religion losing its power to guide the people.
In his column, Stallcop traces the empire’s progression from bondage to faith; faith to courage; courage to liberty; liberty to abundance; abundance to selfishness; selfishness to complacency; complacency to apathy; and back to bondage.
Ordained as a delayed vocation 32 years ago, Fr. Brinkman has been around long enough to remember when U.S. priests were being sent throughout the world as missionaries. When he was in the seminary, Ireland was exporting priests to other countries, including this one.
“Look at what we’ve got today,” he said. “We’re short. What does that say? The Third World countries are providing us with vocations.”
Priests from India and the Philippines “are not coming from the land of milk and honey,” he said. If Fr. Brinkman had to peg America’s place in Stallcop’s progression of declining empires, he’d choose one step past selfishness – complacency.
That’s a historical perspective on declining religious participation, he said. The trend can also be viewed from a philosophical angle, its roots traced to the Age of Enlightenment in 17th century Europe, when Western culture started shifting from God-centered to man-centered.
Then, there’s the current loss of attention span.
In popular culture, especially among the young, he observes a need for constant entertainment that trickles into classrooms and churches, now called “communities of believers” in trendy Protestant denominations.
“Is prayer entertaining?” he pondered. “Did Jesus say, ‘Follow me to entertainment’?”
Perhaps not, but the Rebuilt Parish movement has many Catholic churches revising standard procedure in an effort to “make church matter.”
Fr. Brinkman has his own copy of “Rebuilt,” and the follow-up book, “Tools for Rebuilding,” both authored by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran.
“Parish improvement manuals,” Fr. Brinkman calls them.
Following parishes in Hudson and River Falls, New Richmond has begun incorporating community-building tools into the liturgy, he said. Evangelization – and helping stray sheep find their way back – is the goal.
If the Catholic Church’s new evangelization sounds familiar to Fr. Brinkman, it’s because this is the third such effort he’s seen in his years as a priest. He’s learned that true evangelization, the deepening of faith, is not an overnight thing.
“It takes years,” he said.
Despite the growing popularity of the Pentecostal brand of Christianity, Fr. Brinkman doesn’t foresee a simple solution to the communal loss of faith in the U.S.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a resurgence into religion in this country,” he said, unless the country “bottoms out,” or something bad happens.
“We saw kind of a resurgence from 9/11,” he added, “but it was short-lived.”
Whatever happens, Fr. Brinkman believes the church will always be the anchor – in communities and in the world.
“The church has played very important parts in history – in other times it hasn’t – but it has always been there to be a catalyst in the rebuilding,” he said.