“It is not often that someone at a New York dinner party calls for a count of religious affiliations, and I cannot recall exactly what led to it. But one guest suddenly said he had the impression that many of those present were Catholics. “Can we have a show of hands?” he asked.
Two of us raised our hands. A third person, who once wrote frequently in the Catholic press, said “no longer,” though as a conservative he continued to sympathize with the church. A fourth person, with whom my wife and I have sometimes worshipped on Easter, Christmas, and other occasions, chose not to make any declaration at all. Finally, the man who asked the question avowed that he had been raised Catholic, “and I hate everything about it.”
I've been to the same dinner party. At least, I've participated in similar conversations in the past few years. They've been exceedingly painful moments, not at all like unlike the crises that assault us in the wake of a death of a loved one. People's attachment to their parish was of a character that resembled an affection for a cherished friend or family member more than just an enrolment in an institution. In recognizing this early in my priesthood I found the key to assisting many to recover the practice of their faith.
Without being boastful, I can say that throughout my 20+ years as a priest that I have been successful where ever I have ministered. I have taken once moribund parishes, and with the aid of others there, we brought the community back to life. If I were to boast, I would point out that I've once experienced the need to more than double the size of a church to accommodate the numbers of the faithful who returned to the practice of their faith. In every assignment, we experienced a need to at least increase the number of masses needed to serve the community. I know how to 'build a church' in the evangelical sense of the phrase.
I was in the midst of doing so again here in Mattawa when the sex abuse scandal touched our region for the first time with the revelation of a priest who served here who was charged with a number of sex offenses. It was like a 'bunker-busting' bomb went off in the middle of the parish. The drop-off of participation in mass has been precipitous. Worryingly it has been among individuals heretofore constant in the exercise of their faith for the past number of years. MANY have spoken to me on the street, in their homes and in my office to assure me that I am still welcome in their lives. They are appreciative of my efforts, but they are so angry with the 'CHURCH' that they no longer want to be associated with it.
Is my experience here unique? This article would suggest that it is not.
Are we truly past a point of no return and have lost these souls or will the constant effective ministry of individual priests win them back? I know that I am working hard now and making little progress. I very much fear that in this too, I am not unique.
So what are the Church leaders (Bishops, Pastors and laity) going to do about it?
Steinhels offers the following suggestions. “What exactly should the bishops do? .... I have emphasized very concrete, practical items—a quantum leap in the quality of Sunday liturgies, including preaching; a massive, all-out mobilization of talent and treasure to catechize the young, bring adolescents into church life, and engage young adults in ongoing faith formation; and regular, systematic assessments of all these activities—as well as theologically more complex and controversial matters like expanding the pool of those eligible for ordination and revisiting some aspects of the church’s teaching on sexuality.
What matters is not this set of proposals—or any other. What matters is merely some kind of acknowledgment from the hierarchy, or even leading individuals within the hierarchy, of the seriousness of the situation. What matters is a sign of determination to address these losses honestly and openly, to absorb the existing data, to gather more if necessary, and to entertain and evaluate a wide range of views about causes and remedies. Is it possible some bishop might mention this at their November meeting?
Perhaps the same question can be asked of the Canadian Catholic Bishops who begin their annual plenary sessions together in Cornwall, Ontario this week.