As we go about our sessions today, we're barely 10 months from the beginning of the Great Jubilee, the end of the century, and the turn of the Year 2000. That's a little sobering. I think many of us tend to deal with the new millennium by not thinking very deeply about it. But the Holy Father has been preaching about it for 20 years, and of course that's exactly what we should all be doing thinking, preparing and praying deeply about the future. And that brings us to the final idea in our theme for this morning. What exactly does it mean to form disciples for the third millennium?
I have two answers, and both are true.
Here's the first: Forming disciples for the third millennium is going to demand exactly the same missionary spirit and missionary skills it took for the first 2,000 years. The human predicament on January 1, 2000, will probably look pretty much the same as it did on January 1, 1990, and pretty much the same as it will on January 1, 2010.
There's nothing secret or magic or frightening or radically new, or even particularly dramatic, about New Year's Eve 1999 unless you're looking for an excuse to party. Or unless you believe in Jesus Christ as the center and meaning of history. God is still God. We're still made of the same stone. And most people in the world have still not heard the Gospel preached to them.
For 70 percent of the people on this planet, the "new millennium" is no more than a convenient standard for measuring time. It has no religious content whatsoever. For me, that's much more troubling than the hands on any clock. If the world does not know Jesus Christ, it's because of us: our lack of missionary zeal, our lack of sacrifice, our lack of love. And that problem isn't solved by new tools or new information. It's solved by our own conversion and discipleship which is pretty much the same story as every generation since the cross.
But we are entering an age which will have its own unique challenges, and this is my second answer that we need to form disciples in the decades ahead who are prepared for a world drastically different from anything in American memory. Physics is changing the way we articulate the structure of the universe. Genetics is changing the way we articulate the structure of the human person. And in the midst of this accelerating power and knowledge, Western societies many of them constituting the Christian world as we once knew it are removing themselves from the future.
What I mean is this: In today's developed countries, one in seven persons has an age of 65 or older. But in 30 years, that number will grow to one in four. In other the words, over the next three decades, the percentage of older people in our population will nearly double.
Here are some other statistics: In 1950, the developed countries had about 24 percent of the world's population. By 2050, they will account for barely 10 percent. Over the next half century, more than 30 developed countries, from Austria, to Russia to Spain to the United Kingdom, will actually lose population in real numbers. The fertility rate in every developed country has already fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1. By 2050, the 12 most populous nations in the world will include only one of today's developed countries. That will be the United States, which will sustain its population on immigration. These data come from Peter Peterson's new book, Gray Dawn (Times Books), but they're widely available from other reliable sources as well.
The implications for people in the developed countries are pretty obvious. As lifespans increase and fertility drops, pension and healthcare expenses will go up. Unfortunately, the workforce supporting those expenses by taxes will shrink. Therefore, the tax burden on each younger worker will grow. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that euthanasia, to name just one example, will look more and more cost effective in the coming decades. At a minimum, friction between the old and the young in developed countries will increase. And it will have a huge impact on social welfare policies. Population growth in the less developed countries, meanwhile, is likely to continue. This is why governments like our own are forcing population control on the more fertile developing countries it's now seen as a matter of urgent national security in many of the aging, industrialized states.
I mention these projections because the assumptions which we've made, for most of our lives, about the shape of the future . . . well, they're going to be wrong. Drastically wrong. The human story will remain the same, but the organizational terrain of human societies and institutions will not. And we can't avoid much of what's coming, both the good and the bad. If the entire developed world woke up from its death wish tomorrow and began restoring its fertility rate, it would take decades to have any effect. More importantly though, if a society has freely chosen against life, does it make any sense to mourn it? Beyond a certain critical threshold, the human family might be better without such a society.
In Deuteronomy, God reminds His Chosen People that "I call Heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for that means life to you and length of days" (30:19-20).
I began my remarks today by saying that alarmism is the wrong path for Catholics, and that separating ourselves from today's culture accomplishes very little beyond isolating us from others. I want to say that even more strongly as I conclude. Whatever lies ahead, the world doesn't need more anger, more fear and more enclaves. It needs seeds of renewal, and the leaven of Christian hope. That means us, and those whom we teach. The work each of you does today as a Catholic educator is the most important enterprise in the world. Forming disciples for the third millennium boils down, finally, to preaching, teaching and building the culture of life which flows from the cross of Jesus Christ.
"Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live." Amen, and God bless you all.