Last month, in preparation for meeting with Bishop Barres, I invited comments from parishioners who had returned to the practice of the faith. Today I want to offer to all of you a brief report on what I received, along with thanks to the dozen or so people who shared their stories with me. Here’s a brief summary of what I heard.
First, the bishop had asked us specifically about what worked in bringing people back to the practice of the faith. The responses I received were varied in their details, but most made reference in some way to one or more these things:
To me that’s not surprising. As you’ve heard me say again and again, “Belonging leads to believing.” The welcome we offer (mostly one-on-one, not through formal programs) is the best way to bring non-practicing Catholics back to the practice of the faith.
The second question the bishop asked was how parishes could increase the number of seminarians. Here, the few answers I received had to do not with solutions but with a particular roadblock: the celibacy requirement. Dealing with that is beyond my pay-grade.
But I have one comment, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to you. My sense is that celibacy is just one of a variety of structural factors that make the life of priests seem unattractive (from outside and, truth be told, from inside). The way to increase interest in this vocation among young people is to reduce barriers (most of which come from a lifestyle that may have made sense in an earlier culture, but no longer do so today).
Reducing barriers is probably the wisest solution to bringing some people back to the practice of the faith too. If wrong information drives people away, get good information to them. But the key ingredient isn’t information – it’s welcome.
The most frequent response non-practicing Catholics give when asked in surveys why they haven’t returned to church is, “Because nobody invited me”! That’s something we can change.
I can do my part, but of necessity it’s somewhat impersonal. I invite in the letters I send every parish household before Easter and before Christmas. I invite when talking to groups who are here for other purposes (e.g., Faith Formation programs). But only you can do the personal inviting – of your non-practicing friends and neighbors and family members. Ask them to come to Mass for Easter (or any Sunday) with you, and have breakfast afterward to talk about what they experienced and about what Mass means to you. When Jesus wanted disciples he didn’t give them a textbook: He said, “Come and see.” That’s inviting. And when people are welcomed at church, they find that they want to become a part of it.
Update: Two days before the meeting with the bishop was to take place I was subpoenaed to testify about a matter of civil litigation only marginally involving the parish, and of course the court date conflicted with the meeting with the bishop. That’s the world we live in these days. So my thanks, again, to those who wrote me. I’ll be trying to communicate a summary of your insights to the bishop in some other appropriate way. Until next week, prayer; fasting; and almsgiving. Peace.