Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Where Have All the Catholics Gone?

Catholics have been leaving the Church in droves for a long time now. At a recent mass at my parish church, St. Mary's in Painesville, Ohio, I asked my wife why the pews are so empty. It's like that almost everywhere we go (except last Sunday at the outdoor mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in Euclid, Ohio, where we attend mass in the summertime). This is such a contrast with church attendance in my childhood.

At St. William's in Euclid in the 1950s and 1960s, there were so many masses: 5:45 AM, 7:00, 8:15, 9:30, 11:00, and 12:15 PM. Later there was a Saturday mass and a Sunday evening mass. The church was so overflowing that there were two basement masses at the same time mass was held in the main church. And Catholics came to church no matter the weather (and I still do!). Even in bitter cold and snow the church would be full. Often people were standing in the aisles and in the back of the church.

So many things have happened in the past 50-60 years that have undermined the authority of the church. The sexual abuse of children, mostly by priests and religious brothers (really a very very small minority of religious--who have done enormous and lasting damage); physical and emotional abuse by some nuns in Catholic schools (again, just a handful were abusive, but I saw the beaqtings with my own eyes); changing conceptions of serious sin (we thought we'd go to hell for missing mass--no kidding).

There are other reasons--no one thing can explain the decline in church attendance. In many ways, the church has failed parishioners. Catholics have put up with bad liturgy and very bad homilies for the longest time--but now people are voting with their feet.

Secular society is often blamed for the decline of the Church. There may be truth in that idea, but I think it's mostly an excuse. Somehow the Church hasn't addressed the wants and needs of people for meaning. Personally, the over-focus on certain sins and the lack of focus on social justice has alienated me from some churches (that's why 10 years ago or so we left our Church in Chardon and started attending St. Mary's in Painesville. The first time there they mentioned their prison ministry, their work with the homeless and hungry, their work with Latino refugees and immigrants--and I was hooked. Four years ago we started actively participating in the Karpos Ministry to the Homeless and Hungry. This cemented our commitment to St. Mary's. We still put up with a lot of poor liturgies and homilies. But we have outstanding music and a vibrant parish life.

People want a deep engagement with the Truth, with the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Our Catholic Churches have to offer this to people. We have to stop being so judgmental about divorce, about birth control. Sometimes the church needs to listen to the voice of the people. We have to give women a much bigger role. I still don't understand the arguments against women in the priesthood. I believe that will change some day, and we'll look back on the old days like we look back on slavery now.

One thing people don't realize is how much will be lost by abandoning the Church. Centuries, millennia, of culture, wisdom, goodness. That can't be replaced by things, by pop culture, by technology. Please don't abandon the Church. Instead, try to make it better. And to the Church: don't abandon the people! Make changes, and do it quickly before another generation of Catholics is lost.

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