There‘s more to be said than I have time for in my State of the Parish Report from the pulpit this week. Here I want to address briefly two threads that connect us to the larger church and culture; we have to remember that we don’t live in a vacuum.
The first is the trend in religious participation generally, across denominations. It’s down. There are occasional congregations that are growing, but that’s usually because there is either a growing population (such as some churches in retirement destinations) or a charismatic leader (such as some nondenominational churches). But those are both local (and temporary) aberrations.
Here’s some recent data from Gallup:
From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955. … After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days — so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly. Further, given that young Catholics are even less devout, it appears the decline in church attendance will only continue.
Our culture is becoming pagan (about which I hope to have more to say in a few weeks), and the children and grandchildren of faithful Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Jews, and all the rest just aren’t joining congregations in large numbers any more. Our parish is like a cork floating on the ocean of this growing paganism, and the empty pews (and perhaps your own family) demonstrate that. It’s tragic, but there isn’t a lot we can do. As Saint Teresa of Calcutta said, our job is not to be successful but to be faithful.
And then there’s the ongoing sex-abuse and cover-up scandal, which is driving people away from participating in Catholic parishes. This is too recent to have good polling data, but I can tell you that there are families who have stopped participating here for exactly this reason. Read the Catholic blogs and you’ll see cold fury toward church leadership, along with people – some notable like The Week’s columnist Damon Linker – leaving Catholicism completely. With just about every media report about the Catholic Church now a negative one, it’s hardly surprising that young people in particular want nothing to do with church membership or participation. Pope Francis himself has said as much.
If you’re reading this you’re probably the exception to the trends. You think there’s still value in being a Catholic and practicing the faith. You need to understand: we are now a minority in this culture, and will likely be one for the foreseeable future. The “good old days” of full churches and “automatic” Catholic practice for children and grandchildren are gone. We cannot rely on the trend of the culture to hand on the faith – culture is working against us.
If our parish is to thrive in this environment we can’t count on outside help from the culture, or from the public posture of the larger church. Our help will come from the Risen Christ, through prayer, study of the wisdom of the saints and sages of our tradition, and the practice of the faith: weekly Sunday Mass, daily prayer, constant charity and forgiveness. Encouragement of one another to persist despite obstacles. Appreciation for one another’s generosity. Kind words when they’re needed. Practical help when we can meet a need. In short, the state of our parish depends on you. Until next week, peace.