(RNS1-may11) The interior of St. Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York is seen between Sunday morning Masses on Nov. 2, 2014. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Decline in Catholic Numbers is a Call to Action

By Matthew Sewell

A survey is an interesting thing.

Though valuable in its ability to grasp the perspective of vast groups of people, a survey nevertheless holds no bearing on the inherent truth of something – it exacts precisely zero influence over the rightness or wrongness of a particular issue.

For example, if the Pew Research Institute existed in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, a poll of religious beliefs about whether or not Christ was divine would have resulted in a two-thirds majority among bishops of the day in denying the divinity of Jesus. That information, though giving the reader a sound testament of the persuasive capabilities of the chief evangelist of such a belief (Arius), stands in direct contrast of the truth of that particular matter; for Jesus is, always has been, and always will be, the begotten Son of God, who is both fully divine and fully human.

And so, as a Catholic, the 2014 Pew study on America’s religious landscape, while interesting and informative in a certain respect, wasn’t terribly troubling to me on the whole.

I wasn’t surprised to see the continued decline in religious practice and belief on a generational level. From my own experience in the Catholic world, I know that those in my parents’ generation were taught the motions and the rules by their parents, but weren’t often taught why those motions and rules mattered; they were catechized, but not evangelized. They knew Jesus’ church, but they didn’t know Jesus.

And so, it’s no surprise that their children have sniffed out something that’s not being done out of a place of understanding and intentionality. Doing something “because that’s what we do” is rarely good enough for kids, because kids want answers to their questions. So, when no good answers are offered — and when the Sunday practice often contradicts the rest of week’s activities — they’ll call B.S. faster than you can say “transubstantiation”.

But the story isn’t over, and the last thing the church is doing is giving up. So, what that survey does do is reaffirm the call to action and identified priority on evangelization that we’ve heard for decades, first from the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”), from Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now from Pope Francis.

Despite the fact that Pew’s study showed that Catholicism is hemorrhaging 6.5 members to each person who joins, the efforts of the church to actively evangelize Catholics and non-Catholics alike are far from paltry, and many are seeing great success.

Apostolates like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (focus.org), Catholic Answers (catholic.com), and Word on Fire Ministries (wordonfire.org) — to name just a few — have been not only been reawakening a fire that had shrunk to a smoulder among American Catholics, but they’ve also sparked a new flame in the lives of many who had never before met Jesus or encountered his church.

What’s more, initiatives like FOCUS and Word on Fire, who are seeing the most success in creating intentional disciples, all have something in common: they preach a complete, authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they do so with great love and great zeal.

What they’re doing is working, and that’s no coincidence.

The reason it’s working, I suspect, is because in a society and culture where everything is fighting for our attention and our dollar, people are looking for something concrete, something they can surrender to that won’t just use them, something that can stand mighty amidst the greatest storm. And because “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as the author of Hebrews writes (13:8), people are finding over and over again that He is that something.

Even further, what people find when they examine Catholicism objectively and intentionally is something equally timeless and strong: that Christ left a way to know him in Scripture and the sacraments, a place to worship him on earth in the great churches and cathedrals, and a model to follow in his Mother and the great saints, all led by the successor of St. Peter, whose lineage has been unbroken for 2,000 years.

Yes, the church houses broken, sinful people. Sadly, at many times throughout history some of the most sinful and broken have been her leaders. No honest Catholic will deny that. BUT, nevertheless, as I wrote earlier this year, sinful leaders are something the church will always be able to survive.

It meant something when Jesus said “the gates of hell will never prevail” against his church, because when Jesus speaks, his words have power. The same power that healed the sick and rose the dead are the very same which guarantees the church’s survival until He comes again.

Sure, the “heavenly chariot” gets battered about and hit on all sides in every era, but she, in the words of Chesterton, “flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

So we charge on, we take our losses, and we revisit as a church – as individuals and as a whole – where we’ve fallen short of the reason for our existence as Catholic Christians. And then, we get back on the horse, announcing Jesus as Lord and Redeemer with confidence and with clarity, that more might come to know the joy he offers.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “The Changing Religious Landscape” at 10 a.m., Dec. 5 at Indaba Coffee, 1425 W Broadway. Sewell is a panelist.


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Riff Mattre

Hi Matthew, THANK YOU for speaking a voice far too rare on FāVS! While yours and my relationships with Chritianity arrive from very different roads (I was not raised of any ‘faith’), I have deep love, respect and appreciation for the Catholic Church. If you don’t mind my asking, do you ever imagine PRACTICAL (compared to scriptural) means by which multitudes of Christian denominations might eventually return to Catholic Folds?

Myself, I cannot ponder such possibility without imagining the first encounters of free, uninitiated minds with formal Christianity in comparison to Islam or other faiths. It is my belief the many faiths exist today to call upon Christianity to streamline the language of its Heart. Free thinking comparisons between foundational ideas like sacraments and pillars highlight the SIMPLICITY by which a practice attracts new devotion. Do you ever consider this?

Matthew Sewell

Hey Riff, thanks for reading and for your kind words! I really appreciate them.

To your question, I really like the idea presented by Bishop Robert Barron (from Wordonfire.org) who talks a lot about the “way of beauty” in drawing people to the Catholic faith either for the first time or back from a fallen-away state. It’s the idea that instead of starting with the “true” or the “good” (which is often balked at in a relativistic society) pointing and saying “just look/watch/listen” to something as beautiful as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, to a beautiful sunset, or to a symphony by Bach. Leading with the beautiful has a way, for the objective seeker of truth, to ask questions about how such things could be created, the nature of that Creator, and how else that Creator may have revealed himself in the world.

Other than that, I think an appeal to history is eminently helpful as well. It’s simply a matter of history that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, and that a small group of his followers all affirmed the very same thing about him (namely that he rose from the dead) and went to their martyred deaths affirming it. Not only that, but the practices and beliefs of the Catholic faith we know today — the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, apostolic succession, devotion to Mary — are seen written about as early as 90s A.D., before the death of St. John (that being Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians). As John Henry Newman wrote, “to be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

I hope that addresses what you were getting at. Thanks again!

Riff Mattre

Nice. Focusing on beauty is brilliant. Yes, I too find beauty as central in conveying the message of Christ. While I lean with you on history’s note, I’ve found ready consensus here a quagmire of perceptions. Without need for further elaboration, I think what I was getting at was how COMPLICATED is it to be Catholic compared to simply Christian or other faiths for that matter? This is obviously a rich question to explore. I’m a fan of distinguishing between the words ‘complicated’ and ‘complex.’ While God’s Beauty is infinitely ‘complex’ it is never ‘complicated.’ In other words, our human minds complicate, whereas, complexity is never more than the sum of simple parts. Often I question if the Church hasn’t become unnecessarily complicated?

Matthew Sewell

Oh, I see what you mean now! I’m glad to speak to the complex/complicated issue too:

On the one hand, Catholic faith itself really is very simple once one becomes familiar with it — Mass is pretty much the same literally everywhere in the world. Each Mass has the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist, along with universal daily readings save for regional feast days and such. The prayers said at Mass by the priest and the faithful are all ordered and regular.

I think of the words you present, the faith — being of God — is complex, because it demands attention and devotion from the believer — In other words, a person who is authentically Catholic understands that Catholicism is a religion of *action* which requires a person to engage all of the faculties given to them by God — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. It isn’t complicated, because the faith herself is easily learned and isn’t hidden from one who seeks it.

Now, all that said, where I DO think Catholicism has become too complicated is in its bureaucracy and day-to-day interactions of running a church or a diocese. What I’ve seen often is that Catholic Churches have forgotten their essential mission — that of evangelizing and making disciples for Christ — in favor of the everyday minutiae. We’ve become, in large part, a church of meetings instead of mission. But thankfully that’s changing, and in fact that’s a lot of what I do in my job at Flocknote (flocknote.com) — helping churches remember what’s important and take steps to more simply and effectively connect with their parishioners.

I hope that answers your question a little better!

Riff Mattre

You remind me of the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword AND deeds are greater than words; well thought AND well said. Bringing meaning to our choices, actions and commitments is something for which our society has great hunger. Much appreciated! I look forward to Saturday.

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