Four corners |  Northeast: A polarized picture of faith

This is the first in Our Sunday Visitor’s “Four Corners” series, which is examining Catholicism throughout the different regions of the United States.

The Church in the Northeast region of the United States is comprised of 32 Latin-rite dioceses across nine states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — and is home to more than 19 million Catholics.

A Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that the Northeast consists of both the state with the highest Catholic percentage (Rhode Island at 42 percent) and the state with the highest percentage of unaffiliated or religious “nones” (Vermont at 37 percent).

Overall, the survey data paint a very polarized picture of faith in the region, with four of the top five Catholic states as well as four of the top five atheist and agnostic states being located in the Northeast.

“The geographic center of Catholicism is shifting,” according to Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. Whereas in 2007, a slim majority (53 percent) of Catholics lived in the Northeast and Midwest, now 53 percent of Catholics live in the South and in the West.

The change is driven by the continuous growth of the Hispanic population, Smith said. Around 75 percent of Hispanics live in the South and in the West, whereas close to 60 percent of non-Hispanics live in the Northeast and Midwest. Among Catholic millennials, nearly half are Hispanic, while 26 percent of Catholic baby boomers are Hispanic.

“You have a situation where the share of Catholics that is Latino is growing quite rapidly, but the data show that the Catholic share of Latinos is declining,” Smith said. “So you could have a situation, and we can’t project when, that at some point in the future where most Catholics in the United States are Latinos, but most Latinos are not Catholic.”

The influence of the immigrant population is not lost on Fran Maier, senior adviser and special assistant to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. The Church there is a product of the founding Catholics, like St. John Neumann, and the immigrant experience. Heritage plays a unique role.

“You’re still going to have a steady decline for the foreseeable future, balanced to some degree by the new movements and new communities and younger people who are on fire,” Maier said.

“Some of the young people are invested because they went to a really good Catholic school, while they may not be connected by any movement,” he added. “There are plenty of good people out there; the Church will persist. But I do think she’ll be smaller, steadily smaller.”

An ‘overbuilt’ Church

The Church in the Northeast isn’t as diverse as other parts of the country, said Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. This region is more likely to have Catholics of European ancestry. In fact, both Eastern-rite archeparchies, and nearly half the eparchies in the United States, are located in the Northeast.

The urban centers in the Northeast have a tradition of neighborhood churches, and many of the dioceses in this region are transitioning to a more regional parish structure. Church leaders say the change isn’t coming easily. Sometimes merged churches combine multiple cultures, which can be a strain on the community.

Gray said Catholics of European descent are having the hardest time adjusting to the changing demographics in the Church.

“You’re almost overbuilt for the 20th century,” Gray said of the Church’s infrastructure in the Northeast, referring to many church buildings that often have low attendance. “That’s led to painful mergers and closures.”

The Diocese of Albany, New York, in 2009 announced it would close 33 worship sites under a plan dubbed “Called to be Church.” The now-retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard closed and merged the parishes after 18 months of consultation with communities.

In almost every case, Bishop Hubbard followed the recommendations of the communities, according to Father Ken Doyle, pastor of Mater Christi in Albany. Father Doyle oversaw the merger of two parishes, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena.

There were two main reasons for the merger: the outward migration of Catholics — mostly younger families — from the city to the suburbs and the shortage of priests. St. Teresa’s, which had as many as 1,500 families, had dwindled to 300 before the merger, with an average age of parishioners at more than 66 years old.

“St. Catherine became the worship site, so it was really difficult for the people of St. Teresa who had been baptized there,” Father Doyle said.

While some dioceses experience parish closures and mergers with ethnic parishes, that wasn’t the case with Mater Christi. Both parishes were multicultural and both had strong Filipino communities. Mater Christi also had the benefit of merging two communities that were in close proximity.

“They shopped at the same places, so it wasn’t like people had to move to a different parish culture,” Father Doyle said. “When a single parish in a town closes and people have to travel a far greater distance, that’s much more difficult. That wasn’t the case here.”

Since 2009, the numbers at Mater Christi have been relatively stable, Father Doyle said.

“People feel that their religious needs are being satisfied on the parish level,” he said. “There is a drop-off of attendance of younger Catholics, and that’s disconcerting. I hope that will at some point reverse itself.”

St. Roch’s Church
After being slated to close, it was announced in July 2015 that St. Roch’s Church in the Staten Island borough of New York would at least temporarily remain open. CNS photo

Older population

Matt Hoffman, 30, has been through two parish mergers and closures. His childhood parish — St. Philip Neri in Rochester, New York — closed in 2003. He was an altar server at the time. The Diocese of Rochester incorporated the community into St. Andrew Parish. But then St. Andrew’s was later closed, and Hoffman joined Annunciation Church, part of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parish cluster.

Hoffman said the closings were hard for his family, who lived three blocks from St. Philip Neri.

“It’s a shame. It feels like, in certain respects, the Church is dismantling,” he said. “That’s not the way it should be.”

Hoffman, who credits the strong witness of his mother and father for keeping him Catholic, still sings at the 10:30 a.m. Mass at Annunciation. When he looks out at the congregation, he said he sees fewer than five people under 18 — and even fewer young adults. Most of the other people in the choir are in their 50s or older.

Hoffman believes the diocese could do more outreach for young adults. He and his Catholic girlfriend attend a nondenominational group every Friday for faith-sharing with other Christians their age.

“We [Catholics] should be focusing on the growing processes instead of how we can save money,” he said.

“Why is it that I have to go to a community fellowship church to have that common faith ... with people in the community when that could be happening with Catholics in particular?”

Gray of CARA said demographics show the population of the Church in the Northeast tends to consist of older Catholics. He also noted that reaching teenagers and young adults is probably the biggest challenge the Church faces, and that millennials tend to be far less religious than their parents.

Marie Strnad, a 32-year-old living in Queens, New York, regularly attends one of several Catholic churches in her area. Other than her friends, she sees relatively few young adults.

“People who aren’t deep in their faith aren’t only looking for prayer; they’re looking for people to relate and talk to,” said Strnad, who noted that some Protestant churches do a better job in the social, communal aspect of faith.

Erica and Thomas Demaria are parents and parishioners at St. Joseph in Garden City, New York, in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. They know of other communities where the parishioners tend be older, but they said their parish is full of families.

“Part of challenge with young Catholics may be that they’re getting their community needs met through social media,” Thomas said. “We see parents bring their kids, but we don’t see teenagers coming on their own.”

Erica said she sees parents and their children juggling multiple commitments, including music, sports and the demands of school. When the local soccer league scheduled games during Mass times, Catholic parents banded together to get the league to reschedule.

“We strongly believe that church reorients us,” Thomas said of why their family makes the time for Mass. He called it a “reset button” that helps the family focus on priorities.

Catholic History in the Northeast
In 1634, Cecil Calvert established a Catholic colony in Maryland, setting up a church and school as settlers arrived. Yet, once colonists from the Church of England crossed the Atlantic, they took control of the colony and denied Catholics the right to vote.

‘Half museum curator’

Fran Maier in Philadelphia said Archbishop Chaput has been telling “whoever would listen” about the upcoming challenge the Church will face with the aging population — a problem Maier said needs to be dealt with by priests but also by the laity, whose vital role in the Church going forward is a core message of Archbishop Chaput.

Fran Maier

Maier said the archbishop respects the roles of pastors but encourages a healthy collaboration with the laity. That can be an uncomfortable cultural shift in parishes, where pastors are used to doing things on their own, and where the laity, at times, like being co-dependent and not taking responsibility for the future of the Church, Maier said.

“Mission runs on finances and resources. You can put too much emphasis on financial health, but if you don’t have basic resources, nothing gets done,” he said, adding that the Church needs to be scrupulous with its financial resources in order to be trusted by the faithful.

Part of being resourceful, however, has led to the closings and mergers of parishes. Maier said that in the past, the Philadelphia archdiocese spent a lot of money maintaining parishes and schools that were not viable. The younger Catholic population makes less money and aren’t in the habit of giving, and much of the Church’s resources are tied up in places no longer in use, Maier said.

“The archbishop would say many people have strong faith, and they can be reignited. But the real Church, the believing and acting Church, is much smaller than even many bishops think,” Maier said.

“Waking people up to that and making them choose, ‘Do you really want to be Catholic?’ ­— obviously [Archbishop Chaput] wants them to choose to be Catholic, but at least be alert to what they’re doing and take responsibility for the choices they make,” he added.

It’s especially challenging in the Northeast, Maier said, because of the memories of neighborhood parishes, some of which the Church may or may not have the means to maintain.

“People ... feel an obligation to keep things running,” he said. “Every bishop is half radical revolutionary and half museum curator.”

Rise of the ‘nones’

As the Catholic population shifts away from the Northeast, the Pew Research Center has also found a growth of the religious “nones” — Americans who claim no religious affiliation. The share of Americans who are agnostic, atheist or of no religion has been growing rapidly over the last 25 years, Greg Smith said.

Part of the decline in religion is generational, he said, as the share of millennials who say they have no religion is far higher than for baby boomers. Smith also noted that most Catholics who leave the Church do so gradually. There isn’t a single reason; it’s generally more of a fading away from faith.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, cited the Pew Research data that shows the Northeast has four of the top states in the nation for nonreligious affiliation: New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Bishop Coyne said his diocese tends to be less ethnically diverse than other parts of the country and has seen a significant drop in the number of Catholics participating in parish life.

Immigrants were integral to the building of Catholicism in the region. They brought what Bishop Coyne called “cultural Catholicism.” Their traditions kept them coming to Mass, but through the generations, their descendants were less fervent in the Faith.

Bishop Coyne
Bishop Coyne

“The Faith needs to be established on a formative relationship with Jesus Christ,” Bishop Coyne said. “We have to really engage people who have never been a part of the Church, seeing them as the object of missionary outreach.”

Bishop Coyne encourages Vermont Catholics to be salt and leaven in communities. That includes volunteering in outreach efforts to the needy that aren’t part of the Church. Being a witness of service among non-Catholics can help evangelize. Bishop Coyne also noted that atheists and agnostics are the group most likely to change their mind.

“I see that as an opportunity,” he said. “They’re Catholics waiting to happen.”

Despite the trend toward a more secular culture in the Northeast, R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, a journal on religion and public life, said he remains hopeful.

“We’re reverting to this anti-Catholic sentiment,” Reno said. “But I’m optimistic. I think that bishops and clergy today have a clear sense of what they’re up against. They have no illusions. What Catholicism proposes as a way of life is countercultural.”

The Church has the potential to become stronger through greater clarity of vision, he said.

“I’m not remotely pessimistic. Not at all,” he said. “Young people, but all of us, struggle with a sickness. The secular world has very little to offer, and the Church has a great deal to offer.”

Reno sees vitality in the Northeast, though he acknowledged a shift away from the traditional churches built by the Irish, the Italian and Hungarian immigrants.

“We need to get out of the business of church maintenance,” he said, “and into the business of church renewal.”

J.D. Long-Garcia writes from California.

Schools merge to form Pope Francis High School
St. Roch’s Church
A rendering of Pope Francis High School, slated to open in 2018 in Springfield, Mass. Courtesy photo photo