Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Refilling empty pews?

As a young Jesuit preparing for priestly ordination, the future of the Catholic Church naturally interests me a great deal. Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, an erstwhile bastion of a particularly robust brand of cultural Catholicism, I often wonder what the Church in the area where I grew up will look like a few years from now. This concern shows up from time to time in the posts I write for this blog. In the past, I've offered some reflections on the Pew Forum surveys and their data suggesting a sharp decline in the number of New England residents who identify as Catholics; I've also posted some reflections on the future of "B+ Catholics" and the endurance of cultural Catholicism even among Catholics who never go to church. With all of this in mind, I would like to call your attention to an article in today's Boston Globe on a new effort by the Archdiocese of Boston to reach out to lapsed or inactive Catholics. Here are some excerpts:
The Archdiocese of Boston, in an effort to bring lapsed Catholics back to church, is planning a major public relations campaign in the coming year that will use television ads, parish events, and personal invitations to urge inactive Catholics to “come home’’ to their faith.

The campaign is planned as the Catholic Church faces huge challenges. Nationally, 10 percent of all American adults are former Catholics, according to a recent study. In the Boston Archdiocese, weekly Mass attendance has plunged from 376,383 in 2000 to 286,951 last year, according to the church’s own annual count.

“Each time we go to Mass. . . . the pews seem emptier and emptier,’’ said Janet Benestad, secretary for faith formation and evangelization at the archdiocese. The goal of the campaign, she said, “is to say to folks, ‘We are diminished by your absence . . . and we want to issue a genuine invitation to return to the practice of the faith.’ ’’

. . .

Evangelization is a major priority for Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who has already launched programs intended to bring Catholics back to confession and spur small group meetings among Catholics. Now the archdiocese is planning to join with “Catholics Come Home,’’ a national nonprofit organization of Catholic laypeople that says it has helped bring 200,000 people back to church in a dozen US dioceses over the last three years.

. . .

The Boston Archdiocese plans to deploy a variety of strategies to reach people who have left the church, including doorbelling, hosting events, and publishing literature in print and online, said David Thorp, who will run the program. The archdiocese will also field phone calls and online inquiries about the teachings of the faith, including about remarriage and the sexual abuse crisis, two subjects that often prompt questions from Catholics.

The “Catholics Come Home’’ program has won praise elsewhere in the country. The Diocese of Phoenix reported a 12 percent increase in Mass attendance six months after implementing the program; according to the diocese’s calculations, it spent $1.63 on television ads for each person brought back to church.

In Texas, the Diocese of Corpus Christi ran about 2,500 commercials during Lent this year; parishes reported a 17 percent increase in English-speaking Mass attendance and 16 percent in Spanish-speaking Masses.
To read the rest of the article, click here. At first glance, bringing the Catholics Come Home campaign to Boston seems like a good idea. I know very little about Catholics Come Home as an organization, but the campaign website strikes me as very impressive - it provides a lot of information, presented in a user-friendly format, with a fine blend of frankness and tact. Even so, I doubt that media campaigns like this one can work effectively without a strong commitment by individual parishes to actively welcome lapsed Catholics who now want to "come home" to active practice. Thus, I humbly hope and pray that this new initiative includes solid follow-up at the local level.

In case the above paragraphs raise any doubts, I should say that I will write more about my time in Innsbruck. For now I'm busy studying for a Prüfung (that is, a test) on all the material covered during the first two-and-a-half weeks of my German course. After I take the test tomorrow, I hope to have the time to produce some more detailed posts on Innsbruck. Until then, your prayers would be very much appreciated. AMDG.
The above photo of empty church pews may be found on Flickr.


At 7/21/2010 9:34 PM, Blogger steve said...

The Diocese of Providence ran the same campaign in the first half of this year. No idea on how effective it was, other than anecdotal evidence of some individuals making their way back to mass. The campaign was timed unfortunately, though, as it ended just as the sexual abuse crisis in Europe started to explode, so any goodwill fostered by the campaign may have been mitigated with all the other bad press the Church got at that time. I know it has been measurably effective in other diocese, though.

Regardless, the spots are really professional and do a good job highlighting the charitable activities of the Church, which I think is something that many people forget about. That can only be a good thing.

At 7/22/2010 8:47 AM, Blogger Joe said...


I saw one of those commercials while I was home visiting my parents, and I agree with your assessment.

One thing I wonder about is what inactive Catholics who decide to return to practice are expecting to find when they walk into a parish. I fear that a lot of things could go wrong at that stage - if the quality or style of the liturgy isn't what they would like it to be, if other parishioners, are apathetic, hostile or unwelcoming, or if the priest says the wrong thing, the return could be very brief.

My hope is that those who decide to return come in with realistic expectations. The Globe quotes Thomas Groome to the effect that the Church should accept returning Catholics unconditionally. Of course, those who are returning must also accept the Church unconditionally - warts and all, acknowledging the sinfulness and imperfection of its members (even at high levels) and realizing that some aspects of being Catholic will continue to challenge or frustrate them. In other words, I hope that they can learn to love the Church as it is and not as they would like the Church to be.


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