By Scott Alessi
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that the Catholic Church has been hit hardest by changes in religious affiliation in the United States. Although Catholicism was found to have a retention rate of 68 percent, a number comparable to or better than other religious groups, the Catholic Church has lost the most members, primarily to Protestant denominations or to the ranks of the unaffiliated. Our Sunday Visitor asked those working in various ministries in the Catholic Church to offer their input on some of the findings in the Pew Forum report, as well as their thoughts on what the Church can do to ensure that Catholics make a lifelong connection to their faith.
Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin.
Sister of Notre Dame Susan Wolf, executive director, Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association.
What this finding tells us about the state of evangelization: Many people who were baptized Catholics grew up with a weak sense of Catholic identity. As adults who live busy lives, they have to make choices about how they will spend their time. It also tells us that our parish communities are not helping people build connections that will keep them coming back.
What can be done to bring more people to the Church: Most of all, I think what we have to do is help those who are active in the faith, who are present, to realize the gift that we have in our faith, to foster a gratitude for that faith and an appreciation for it and to seek ways to share it with others.
Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48 percent) left Catholicism before reaching age 18.
Robert McCarty, executive director, National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
What this says about the Church's ability to meet the needs of youth: When I hear this result, I wonder how many of those kids left because their parents left. I am going to guess that many of these kids were mirroring their parents and if their parents weren't involved in church, I think it is a pretty good bet that the kids are not going to be involved. My take is that we have not engaged our parishioners the way we are challenged to do so.
What the Church can do to retain young people: The Church needs to have a more intentional outreach, not just to teenagers, but to the family. We have to engage parents, because if we engage them, we engage children and then we will retain them into their adult years.
Among people who were raised Catholic, both former Catholics and those who have remained Catholic report similar levels of childhood attendance at religious education classes.
Kathy Kelley, Department of Religious Education representative on the Board of Directors of the National Catholic Education Association.
What this statistic say about the quality of religious education: I think it is unfair to pin people leaving the Church on a person's religious education experience. How effectively we are in drawing young people into a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church is only one piece, though a very important piece.
What can be done to help young people remain part of the Church: I think we are coming back to a recognition that we have got to help our folks look at the traditions of the Church, to recognize how much it is a part of God's plan and help them make those connections.
Among lifelong Catholics, weekly church attendance dropped from 86 percent during childhood to 69 percent during adolescence and continued to decline between adolescence and adulthood (to 42 percent).
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver -- a member of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Divine Worship.
What this finding says about the Church's sacramental life: The drop in attendance should seriously concern bishops, pastors and anyone involved in catechetics and the preparation of the liturgy. Some of the problem, of course, is the result of children leaving their homes and making decisions on their own. Some of it comes from the complexities of our current culture. And some of it, frankly, comes from laziness. But the tepid and even sloppy way our liturgies are too often celebrated drives some people away as well.
What can be done to stop the decline: It's very important that priests and people do all they can to make their parish liturgies times of beauty and prayer worthy of God's presence. This requires good music, good preaching and prayerful participation. Anything short of that gives folks a reason for not attending.
Nearly three-quarters of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated (71 percent) say they drifted away.
Father Robert Barron, Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Mundelein, Ill., and founder of Word on Fire Ministries.
Why Catholics drift away from the Church: The mainstream Protestant churches have kind of acquiesced to the culture too much and stopped being a distinctive voice, and so they just became dull and uninteresting to people. I think, to some degree, that too many Catholic churches and pulpits play the same game. They are trying to be as like the culture as possible, but what that leads to is a strong boredom, where people just kind of drifted away because there was nothing there that was compelling for them.
What can be done to stop people from drifting away: I think we need to be a distinctive, strong, unique voice in the midst of all the cultural cacophony. I think one thing is that you have to preach the Gospel in its distinctiveness, and you preach what makes it unique so people are not hearing in church what they are hearing every place else.
Among reasons for leaving, former Catholics cite dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56 percent) and almost half (48 percent) cite dissatisfaction with Church teachings about birth control.
H. Richard McCord, Executive Director, U.S. Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
What this says about the Church's ability to pass on its moral traditions: I guess the obvious conclusion may be that the teachings have not been particularly well passed on or presented in such a way that people can not only understand them competently and intellectually but also see their value and their relevance to some of the more core beliefs of the Gospel message.
What can be done to help people better understand these teachings: Pope Paul VI pointed out that the value of people who are personal witnesses is oftentimes the most effective way of teaching. So in situations like this, enabling people who have found truth and value and meaning in these particular Catholic teachings to be able to tell that story, to be able to witness to the value of that in their own life, undoubtedly has much more of an impact.
Among former Catholics who are now Protestant, 71 percent say they left Catholicism because their spiritual needs were not being met.
Father Kevin P. Joyce, founder of SpiritSite, The Catholic Spirituality Center, in Santa Clara, Calif.
What spiritual needs people feel are not being met: People don't hear the message of the Gospel on repentance and the need for a deep prayer of meditation. Most people I find are not going to confession and they don't hear much about repentance and examination of conscience. Almost nobody practices meditation and yet almost every Catholic saint practiced it.
What the Church can do to make these spiritual practices more accessible: I think No. 1 is that we need to preach and teach at every parish, to every Catholic, lectio divina. Every day to use the Bible, even for 10 minutes, is enough to get started doing those traditional four steps of the lectio divina process; reading, meditating, praying and contemplation. Contemplation is almost an unknown word and yet it is the highest form of personal prayer and the deepest sense of God's presence.
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.
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