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home : from the bishop : from the bishop November 15, 2018

Lapsed Catholics: Where did everybody go?

When I first learned through the “Diocesan Parish Headcounts” within the 111 parishes of the Diocese of Trenton in 2010 and 2011 that weekend Mass attendance accounted for only about 25 percent of registered parishioners, I became concerned as the Diocesan Bishop.  Participation in Sunday Mass, of course, is the primary way the Church regularly preaches the Gospel to the Catholic faithful.  “Diocesan Parish Headcounts” are conducted in October to provide some sense of regular attendance among our 850,000 baptized Catholics within the parishes of the diocese.  They are a “snapshot” of our Church’s “outreach” to the Catholic faithful.  Although our percentage was not much different – actually a little better – than the reported national average, no bishop would consider the number “good news.”

In January 2011, I read an article in America magazine entitled “On Their Way Out: What Exit Interviews Could Tell Us About Lapsed Catholics” by Father William J. Byron, S.J.  Father Byron was my predecessor as president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is a regular columnist for Catholic publications.  His name naturally caught my attention and the subject of his essay intrigued me, most significantly because of the emphasis the Catholic Church has been placing on what is being referred to as the “new evangelization.”

The question posed by Father Byron is an important one: “Does anyone know why the ranks are thinning at Catholic weekend worship?”  He suggested that “taking a page from the business world and employing exit interviews” might be a helpful initiative toward finding an answer to the question.

I thought a great deal about his article and decided to contact him.  He offered to conduct such an interview in survey form within the Diocese of Trenton, in cooperation with Professor Charles Zech of Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management.  Both gentlemen then came to our  Presbyteral Council and made a presentation and proposal, which the council readily accepted.

After reviewing and editing a draft questionnaire with the pastors and priests, Father Byron noted in a March 26, 2012 article, “We got in touch with registered parishioners who are no longer showing up by placing articles in the secular and diocesan press, as well as notices in parish bulletins and requests for contact information from pastors. The survey was also offered in Spanish, sent to all the parishes with Spanish-language populations and advertised in a Spanish-language newspaper (America, March 26, 2012).”

Two hundred ninety-eight people responded to the questionnaire.  Father Byron and Professor Zech collated the responses and sent me a report, the results of which I read carefully.  They provided an analysis of the replies which I then shared with diocesan officials and the Presbyteral Council.  Their report served as the basis of one of the presentations given at a symposium at The Catholic University of America entitled “Lapsed Catholics: Old and New Theories, Contemporary Voices, and the New Evangelization”

I was not really surprised by the results.  Some of the responses focused upon Church teachings and law and the response of some Catholics to their understanding of both.  The indissolubility of marriage and the inability of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist; birth control; homosexuality and the experience of homosexuals not feeling welcome in the Church; the crisis in the Church of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the inability of the hierarchy to respond to or handle such abuse in a transparent way; the issue of the  ordination of women to the priesthood were among the most common broader Church-related themes of concern voiced by many respondents. 

One thing seemed clear to me: the Church in the Diocese of Trenton needs to do a better job at presenting Catholic Church teaching to our people even when there is disagreement.  Similarly, attitudes toward the celebration of the Eucharist need to be examined and addressed.

There were also many local concerns expressed that related to perceived attitudes of the clergy toward the laity; ineffective or insufficient preaching; competing political ideologies in the Church; unenthusiastic liturgies; lack of sufficient engagement of the laity in decision making; perceived over-emphasis on finances; the use of Church resources and so forth.  These were among areas noted where improvement can certainly be made as they are addressed. And there were also individual experiences with Church personnel within parishes that were shared as contributing to Catholics feeling unwelcome or unwanted.

The final question on the survey was: “would you like to be contacted by a priest or another member of the diocesan staff?”  Twenty-eight respondents indicated some interest in being contacted and, so, I personally wrote to those who provided addresses.  

Developing and distributing a questionnaire is not an “exact science.”  No survey is perfect and responses need to be studied, analyzed and evaluated.  With this type of instrument, academics or social scientists may give one interpretation, theologians another, pastors, yet another, and respondents themselves, still another.

The subject matter of this particular survey – life and participation in the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith – is a bit more complicated and personal than mere “exit interviews” conducted regarding losing or leaving jobs in the business world might be.   After all, the Catholic Church is dealing with more than “marketing” or “branding” a product or performance.  The Catholic Church is dealing with peoples’ lives at their deepest and most profound level, that of faith.  The “stakes” are much higher and, therefore, much more important and enduring, at least for those of us who exercise some level of responsibility for and within the Catholic Church.  And the results of such a survey are much less precise or exact and much more personal.

The challenge for us in the Catholic Church is never to close the door, or worse, to slam it shut on our Catholic people, whatever their status.  At the same time, we must balance openness to peoples’ daily lives and their struggles in faith with the demands of the Gospel and the claims that truth makes on all of us.  Truth isn’t truth because we believe it; truth is truth whether we believe it or not. 

The Catholic Church is a community of faith, worship and law.  There are some “non-negotiables” in what the Catholic Church believes and teaches that are simply not dependent upon personal preference.  The Catholic Church conducts its official prayer in a certain communal way in accordance with its communal faith.  And the laws of the Catholic Church are designed to support what the Catholic Church believes, teaches and practices, the same way the laws of any nation, state or organization do.

In the Profession of Faith recited by the faithful each Sunday, the community of faith expresses its communal and consistently held belief that the Church is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”  And that community of faith – all the baptized – is composed of human beings, saints and sinners, struggling and imperfect, on both sides of the altar and on “both sides of the aisle.” 

We are – all of the baptized – “works in progress” needing understanding, teaching, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, healing and, ultimately, redemption.  The “good news” is that what we are all about or should be in the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ and his Gospel.  That realization is at the heart of the “new evangelization,” nothing more but, truly, nothing less.  Jesus reminded us that “in the world you will have troubles but take courage: I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”  And in another place, he said “behold I am with you always, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).” 

All of us in the Catholic Church – all the baptized, the active as well as the “lapsed,” the lay faithful as well as the clergy – need to remember and believe that if membership in the Catholic Church is going to mean anything at all.

The Irish author James Joyce once defined the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody.”  In these days, when weekly participation at Mass hovers around 25 percent, the bishops and pastors of the Catholic Church, indeed, all the baptized should be asking “Where did everybody go?” and working to invite and welcome them back home.

Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton

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