In the first reading for Wednesday of the 25th week of the Year, Ezra laments the sins of the people that led to their exile in Babylon, but he is also grateful that God has now opened a door to return to the Promised Land and left “a remnant” of the people to rebuild. There is something for us to learn in the biblical theology of the remnant.

As a Catholic and a priest, I am stunned at the decline in Mass attendance that has occurred during my lifetime. When I was a young child, I remember jam-packed Masses: if you didn’t get there early, you’d have to stand. In those days (the 1960s) if you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them. There were long waiting lists for parochial schools. There were lots of religious sisters. There was not just one associate pastor or curate; there were two or three or even four.

Those days are largely gone. While there are still some large parishes in suburban areas, some of them even growing, the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has dropped from about 75 percent to under 25 percent since the 1950s. And although vocations are beginning to rebound, today’s situation is one of largely empty convents and rectories. A parochial vicar is unknown in many parishes, and in some parts of the country there isn’t even a resident pastor in each parish.

There is no way to describe this decline other than stunning. I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming around in my brain: we abandoned tradition; no, we’re not progressive enough; there are too many rules; no, our problem is that we abandoned all the rules. Everyone has an explanation, and there is a lot of disagreement.

What might God be doing? What might He be allowing? I know that I’m skating on thin ice in attempting to consider this question, but please be assured that I am merely pondering it, not proposing a definitive answer. I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church? What has happened?” I don’t claim that I received a bolt from Heaven in answer, rather I came to the gradual conclusion that what we are experiencing is really nothing new. There is a biblical precedent that God has frequently seen fit to thin His ranks, to prune and purify His people. Theologians call this “remnant theology.”

Remnant theology is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. During critical periods, many (if not most) followers of God fell away such that only a remnant remained to begin again. Here are just a few of the many examples that can be found in Scripture:

  • The tribes of Judah and Levi - There were twelve tribes in Israel, but ten of them (the Ten Lost Tribes) were lost in the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness, but they refused to repent, and the foretold destruction came to pass. Those who did not die in the war were deported and assimilated into the peoples around them. Only a remnant, the tribes of Judah and Levi, survived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
  • A remnant of Judah – Judah also grew wicked and prophets warned of its destruction. The Babylonians then destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 B.C. They deported the survivors to Babylon. Eighty years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the Promised Land. Only a remnant went back, however; most chose to stay in the Diaspora, preferring Babylon to the land promised by God.
  • Gideon’s army – Gideon had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianite army of 60,000, yet God told him that his army was too large, and he should send home any soldiers who were afraid. So, Gideon told the soldiers that if they didn’t think they were up for this battle they could leave; 20,000 left. With Gideon’s army down to only 10,000, God said to him that his army was still too big and that he should observe the men as they drank from a nearby stream. Three hundred of them lapped up the water with their tongues like dogs! God told Gideon let all the others go home. Gideon won that day with those 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned His ranks and chose only a remnant as His true soldiers (cfJudges 6 and 7).
  • Jesus and large crowds – Some of Jesus’ most difficult sayings came when there was a large crowd present: He taught against divorce (Matt 5 and 19, Mark 10); He declared that no one could be His disciple unless he renounced his possessions, took up his cross, and followed Him (e.g., Luke 14); He taught on the Eucharist, causing many to leave and no longer walk in His company (Jn 6).
  • The narrow road to salvation – Jesus lamented that the road to destruction is wide and many are on it, while the road to salvation is narrow and only a few find it (cf Mat 7:13-14). Yes, only a few, a remnant.

I would like to quote one last passage from Zechariah because it gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is correct. 

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God’ (Zechariah 13:7-9).

It is a shocking passage to be sure, but it shows God’s purpose in thinning His ranks. Although we are always free to stay or go, there is something very mysterious about why God allows so many to stray. There seem to be times during which God allows many to depart, even “causes” them to depart, as this passage describes. It is a hard mystery to stomach, but I understand one aspect of it when I consider my rose bushes.

In November it is pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, some of them eight feet tall, will be pruned back to just one foot off the ground—and I do it on purpose! If my roses are to thrive next year, the pruning must be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know why I do it. Although it is painful, it is necessary. God, too, knows what He is doing and why. We cannot fathom it any more than my rose bushes can understand why I prune them. In the passage above, the one-third who remain must also be purified, refined as in fire. When it is done, they will be pure gold. Those who remain and who accept purification will call on God’s name. They will be a people, a Church, after His own heart.

To me it seems clear that the Lord is pruning His Church. He is preparing us for spring. We are in fact enduring a difficult winter, but we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church, but I can already see signs of a great spring ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the caliber of men entering the priesthood; they love the Lord and His Church and deeply desire to speak the truth in love. In my own convent, we have more than 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful relatively new missionary order. They, too, love the Lord and His Church and want to spread His Gospel.

Though the number of practicing Catholics has diminished, I see greater fervency in those who remain. In my parish there are many who are devoted to prayer, bible study, and praise of God. Eucharistic piety is stronger in the Church today through Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass. On the Internet there are many signs of excitement and zeal for the faith. Many wonderful blogs and websites are emerging to strengthen Catholics. EWTN is doing wonderful work and many Catholic radio stations have also begun.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned us and is purifying us. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full spring sets in, but God never fails. He is renewing His Church and preparing us for what lies ahead.

It is going to take a stronger and purer Church to endure the cultural tsunami that has been rolling in. The first waves hit in the late 1960s and successive ones look to be even more destructive. Western culture as we have known it is gradually being swept away. The Church will have to be strong and pure in order to endure the days ahead, to rescue those we can, and to help rebuild after the terrible waves have done their damage.