In the aftermath of the tragedies in Boston and West, Texas, many churches saw their congregations swell with Americans seeking to mourn, to pray and to find solace in God. Although Americans have grown progressively secular as a culture, the tragedies have awakened in many a need for God.
But if past is prologue, as the impact of these crises fade, so will church attendance.
Flocking to services
The Sunday after the April 15 terrorist bombing that claimed the lives of three and injured more than 170 people at the Boston Marathon saw the people of Boston fill the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Other Boston churches reported the same: People shaken by the horror and evil of the event were turning toward God for solace and solidarity.
“This is the best place to be right now if you’re from here and want to support Boston,” Maria Fernandez, one worshipper at Holy Cross, told CNN.
News outlets also reported a similar outpouring in West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant explosion on April 17 killed 14 and injured more than 200. The Dallas Morning News reported that people packed the pews at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in West on April 21. Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of the Diocese of Austin presided over the Mass for a Catholic community that counts a number of brave firefighters who responded to the blaze among its dead.
“As you think about these days, some of you may say, ‘this all seems like a dream, a nightmare, something that has come and gone and we haven’t yet been able to take it in,’” Bishop Vásquez said, before adding, “Let the Lord carry you on his shoulders ... [and] sustain you in this tragic and terrible time. Let the Lord heal you.”
No long-term effect
Overall faith and belief in religion continues to decline every year in the United States, as secularism continues to advance in the culture. A 2012 Gallup poll found that more than 68 percent of Americans believed religion was important to them, and 40.1 percent of Americans report themselves as going to church on a weekly or almost weekly basis. It’s a rate better than most developed nations, especially European nations such as France, where the rate of church attendance has hovered around 15 percent.
But if Americans’ past performance is any guide, catastrophic events have a temporary effect on their return to church. Gregory Popcak, a nationally known expert in Catholic pastoral counseling, and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, told Our Sunday Visitor that for most people, “after a month or so, when the shock wears off, things go back to baseline.”
“That moment where our world is rocked makes us realize that our resources are not enough. When we’re at the end of our power, that’s when we draw on our social network,” he says. “And so a tragedy like 9/11 or what happened in Boston, exhausts our psychological and relational resources very quickly. We seek deeper meaning.”
The same scenario played out in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when churches were flooded with people trying to cope with the horror of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Pastors and regular churchgoers discovered the following Sunday that their sanctuaries were standing-room only.
Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Canandaigua, a city in upstate New York, recalled that on the day of Sept. 11 attacks, 400 people gathered for Tuesday’s 12:10 p.m. daily Mass. Later that evening, more than 700 people arrived at his church for a prayer service. All gathered through word of mouth.
“Part of it was that people needed to pray, part of it was that people needed to gather today just to talk,” Father Mull told OSV. “There seemed to be a rediscovery for the need for God, so for several weeks after that the Sunday attendance was also greater.”
Across the nation, as Americans sought to get back to normal, so did the church attendance. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that American church attendance in March 2001 (43 percent) was statistically the same by November 2001 (42 percent). After one year, other researchers came to the same conclusion: that 9/11 made no long-term cultural impact on Americans’ religious faith.
Innate drive for faith
Popcak, however, explained that Americans’ short-lived return to church after a crisis can’t be explained either as a simple knee-jerk reaction or “a need to seek the comforting rituals of my childhood.” Even people with no experience of a church, he said, are going to these churches to reach out for something greater than themselves. Instead, the tragedy becomes a catalyst that kicks in a person’s innate drive for faith, because he feels vulnerable and no longer protected by his own “psychological security net.”
“Faith is basically that innate drive to search for meaning, for something beyond me and bigger than me. Everybody has that, because a human person is born to seek meaning,” he said. “When we’re in control, we think we have it all figured out. We have all the answers we need. But when we’re all of a sudden presented with all sorts of questions that defy everything we think we knew, then that [faith] drive kicks in.”
Popcak explained that the drop-off in church attendance happens when people fill up “their intimacy tank” and no longer feel the need to respond to God’s invitation for a relationship with him.
“They don’t think to ask, ‘is there more?’” he said. “But in order to really seek God, I have to realize that no matter how much I draw close to people there still is that God-shaped hole, like St. Augustine’s restless heart.”
Many people will then seek the church in the midst of crisis to carry them through until life returns to normal. But Popcak said the crisis also gives them an opportunity to experience a new life that is changed by having a full relationship with God.
“It’s an invitation for people to reach out personally, to God as a person, and say, ‘I want you in my life. I want more than this,’” he said. “But it always takes that extra step of inviting God in.”
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.