Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Poring Over the Pew

It wasn't so much the findings of February's now-ubiquitous "Pew Report" on the nation's religious landscape that made for its greatest shock, but the jarring reality of seeing in black-and-white what's long been no anecdotal secret: that a full 10% of the entire American population has left the church.

In what'll likely be the most noteworthy portion of their Spring Meeting (underway tomorrow in Orlando), the US bishops will discuss the report, along with an April CARA survey on the faith and practices of those who've remained.

Sure, a steady, significant dropoff isn't the case in every place -- a good few locales on these shores are basking in rapid, exponential growth -- but it's worth reminding that, for most of US Catholicism, finding and reaching out to its lapsed, disaffected and disappeared only becomes a more urgent Priority #1 as ever more time passes and, with it, ever more of its own drift away.

Then again, said impetus has often gone least heeded where it's been most needed: the once-great Northeast, where it was no accident that Pope Benedict sought to call down a "New Pentecost" for the American church (...which the ever-faithful retainers promptly greeted ...with an arsenal of fire extinguishers).

With an eye to the discussion on the Pew and the (empty) pews, today's St Louis Post-Dispatch takes a snapshot of the situation in the place once known as the "Rome of the West":
From as long ago as he can remember, Josey Baker's mom took him to Mass each Sunday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Columbia, Ill. From kindergarten through fifth grade, he went to Mass with his classmates every day at Immaculate Conception's school. From first grade through his senior year at Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo, Baker took religious education classes alongside math and English.

But as he grew into adulthood, the church became less important to his faith. "A lot of people say, 'You're not Catholic because you don't abide by the pope's every rule,'" said Baker, who is now 27. "But I don't feel like just because I don't go to church I'm going to hell. I can have my own relationship with God without going to church every week."

Baker said "the majority" of his friends from grade school and high school feel the same way....

Pew's survey found that more than a quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised, either for another religion or no religion at all. Catholicism, according to the study, has lost the most members. While nearly one in three Americans was raised in the Catholic church, today fewer than one in four describes himself or herself as Catholic. According to the Pew survey, about 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics.

The Georgetown researchers pointed out that among Christian denominations and other faith groups, the Pew survey showed that Catholics had the third best retention rate, after Jews and Mormons, in the country.

The survey also found that an influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly Hispanic, has kept the church membership numbers nationwide relatively flat in recent years.

That's not true for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, however. According to the U.S. Census, in 2006, Hispanics made up 2.6 percent of the St. Louis population and just 1.9 percent of the population of St. Louis County. Those numbers are low compared with other Midwestern cities. In Kansas City's Jackson County, for instance, Hispanics made up 7.1 percent of the population. Indianapolis' Marion County counted Hispanics as 6.6 percent of the population.

It's unclear exactly how many Catholics there are in the archdiocese here, which includes the city and 10 Missouri counties.

On its website, the archdiocese lists the number of Catholics at 555,750, a figure it attributes to the 2007 Official Catholic Directory.

The Official Catholic Directory reports its numbers based on questionnaires completed by each parish then collected by dioceses and forwarded to the directory's offices.

The new 2008 directory says there are 476,477 Catholics within the archdiocese, and another census on the website, this one compiled by the archdiocese's finance council, gives a total Catholic population of 388,912.

Dan Henroid, the director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, said the finance council census does not reflect the total Catholic population and that the differing totals do not necessarily reflect a loss of Catholics but rather inconsistent reporting methods from parish to parish.

The 2008 Official Catholic Directory lists 100,000 Catholics in the Belleville Diocese, or a little less than 12 percent of the population covered by the geographical boundaries of the Illinois diocese.

Pedro Moreno, director of the Archdiocese of St. Louis' office of Hispanic Ministry, said the church "is gearing up for the reality of an increased Hispanic presence." The archdiocese does not keep official numbers on Hispanic members, but Moreno said that while there were only three or four parishes with some kind of Hispanic ministry five years ago, today there are 10.

Sister Cecilia Hellmann, coordinator of the Belleville Diocese's Hispanic Ministry department, said there were more than 13,000 Hispanics in the diocese, though church officials do not know how many are Catholic or attend church. She said the larger communities of Hispanic Catholics are in Fairmont City and Carbondale, Ill., and that a weekly Mass in Spanish at St. Damian in Damiansville regularly draws about 70 Hispanic Catholics.

In the St. Louis Archdiocese, church leaders are reaching out to lapsed Catholics.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke established the archdiocese's office of the new evangelization last July. Its director, Hector Molina, said he has spent the last year talking to parishes about how to evangelize — something he said doesn't come easily to many Catholics.

"Unfortunately, for many Catholics, (evangelism) has a negative association," he said.

Tom Peterson, a former Phoenix advertising executive, is the president and founder of Catholics Come Home. Peterson test-marketed the nonprofit this spring, and the success of its website and slick television ads caught the attention of bishops around the country.

Peterson said officials at about 30 dioceses, including St. Louis, have contacted him about the ads in the last two months....

The local effort to bring lapsed Catholics back to church has been going on quietly for years. Monsignor Francis Blood, director of the archdiocese's Propagation of the Faith office, said many pastors take advantage of large crowds on Easter and Christmas to try to entice Catholics who attend church only on those holidays to come regularly.

Monsignor Patrick Hambrough, pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church in south St. Louis, does just that. St. Mark's "Catholics Returning Home" program invites lapsed Catholics, during the Easter and Christmas seasons, to try the church again. For five Mondays after each of the holidays, those who have left can come back and try to get comfortable with church again.

"Some stay for the entire program and get active again," Hambrough said, "and some struggle still and don't continue."

He said: "There are a lot of people out there not coming to Mass on Sunday, and sometimes it's not a real serious thing that's keeping them away. They just need to be prodded a little, or invited, or encouraged. And once they get there, it's like coming home again. There's something about it they miss."