“‘Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.’
Simon said in reply,
‘Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.’
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’
...Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.’
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.”
We can feel it. Family members have left the church. Friends who had been very active rarely come to mass or volunteer at the parish any more. Children or grandchildren have no time or interest in traditional faith or practice. Many studies from a variety of organizations such as Gallup, Pew, the Barna Group, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Notre Dame, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), and Dynamic Catholic confirm it. More people are leaving the church: some become Protestant, but a growing number simply disaffiliate from religion all together. This is especially true for younger generations where 39% or more claim no religious affiliation. Among those who remain affiliated, fewer are going to mass weekly or monthly by nearly a percentage point per year. Engagement is down and less than 7% of Catholics account for 80% of volunteer time and financial contributions. Taken as a whole, few fish are in our nets and more and more are jumping out of the boat.
There are plenty of reasons: mean or incompetent priests, hypocritical or judgmental parishioners, shallow or irrelevant worship, betrayal of trust by leadership, lack of family commitment (not passing on the faith), poor religious instruction, and many other issues have been cited. The recent data shows, however, that something bigger is at work. Most people who leave have stopped believing in the teachings of the church (including the biggies like the existence of God). Participation statistics are beginning to more clearly reflect a lack of belief. In one sense, people are acting with greater integrity, which is good, but it should still break our hearts. As a recent song lyric put it, “If you love someone and you’re not afraid to lose them, you’ve never loved someone like I do.” Out of love, I am afraid to lose those who are leaving.
Is there a solution? We have tried and are trying many things. Fishing all night, if you will. Some have been successful. In assessing success, however, we have to be mindful that some success has simply been increasing a slice of the pie for a particular parish when the overall pie continues to get smaller. Some success has catered to those who remain and fostered a sense of consumerism among us. It has met our needs, but not the needs of those who are leaving. True success is not magic or easy. It is relational and consuming and, ultimately, the solution is God’s.
Here’s my thought: put out into the deep. First, go deep in each of our own relationships with God. Encounter Jesus where he makes us uncomfortable. Seek an authentic experience of the divine and an authentic living faith. Love until it hurts. Second, go deep in our relationships with each other. Recognize Jesus in each other. Don’t be satisfied to have plastic encounters, but go beyond our facades and share our hearts. Share our lives together. Third, go deep in service to the world. Remember, Jesus’s victory was death on a cross. Move beyond self interest to a generous and open hearted response to real need. Our net, if you will, is authentic faith, genuine community, and loving service, but the real work, in us and trough us, is God’s. May we be renewed and place our trust in him, put out into the deep and follow him. Duc In Altum.