“Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
I recently hosted a group of parishioners at the St. Patrick rectory. It was a diverse group with long time and new parishioners, empty nesters and families with young children, a variety of ages, experiences, and states in life. During introductions, we shared one word we felt described St. Patrick: community, family, home, memories, welcoming, and dynamic. I’m sure we would come up with similar words at St. Boniface: the group may be a little more diverse, the memories a little longer, and we might highlight tradition and history a little more, but in both parishes, we are able to voice what the parishes mean to us. Neither parish would exist without the work of God in the hearts and lives of our members. The meaning we share is the fruit of the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is not a new story that Catholic parishes are in decline. For decades, we have seen parishes diminish, but that has usually followed demographic shifts (in Louisville, from the urban core to the Southwest part of the county after WWII, from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs in the 70’s and 80’s, and from everywhere to the east end in the 90’s to today). Apart from population moves, people generally left the church because they were judged harshly, the music was awful, the preaching boring, or they couldn’t relate to the priest. After 2002, we started to see some people leave because of the harm done and the trust lost through sexual abuse and failed leadership. While some people stopped attending church altogether, most started going to Protestant churches, especially evangelical ones. For our young people, we understood that many would stop actively practicing their faith after confirmation, but most of those would return when they got married or baptized their children. The growing parishes were usually in areas of increasing population, had a large influx of immigrants, specialized in traditional faith practices, including devotions and possibly the mass in Latin, were strongly engaged in social justice, or followed a model of renewal based on good music, relevant preaching, and the best practices of evangelical churches. Apart from simple population shifts or immigration, the growing parishes were usually successful because of the leadership of the pastor. A lot of good happened in those parishes and God was at work, but they tended to represent a reshuffling of membership and intentional belonging rather than overall growth of the church in a diocese or the United States. If it weren’t for immigration, the Catholic Church in the United States would have been in a slow, but steady, decline of overall members for a long time.
Something new (or relatively new) is happening, however, with the accelerated growth of those who self identify as unaffiliated in relation to religion or faith practice, up to 25% of the population and 40% of younger generations. This is especially true for Catholicism in the United States and I believe it is the key issue of our time. For every one person that makes an adult faith decision to become Catholic, six are deciding to leave. Our young people are no longer returning and the median age for leaving the church is now 13 years old. Although some who leave the Catholic Church still become Protestant, most are now just leaving the practice of faith altogether. None of our models based on the leadership of the pastor, which simply divide a shrinking pie, remain adequate. How do we stem the tide of those leaving? How do we reach out to those who have left? How do we invite those who have never been? It’s not about a program, but about the renewed encounter each of us have with Jesus: our relationship with him and God’s work in our lives. It is about authentically following Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is about who we are and are becoming: what our faith and our communities mean to us. It is the love of God that we experience together and our personal witness to that love. It is up to each of us and it is up to God. Go and tell what you hear and see.