Why do Catholics leave, and what can be done about it?
FATHER ROBERT BARRON
I saw an advance copy of a survey by William J. Byron and Charles Zech, which will appear in the April 30th edition of America magazine.
It was conducted at the request of David O'Connell, the bishop of Trenton, and its focus was very simple: it endeavored to discover why Catholics have left the church.
No one denies that a rather substantive number of Catholics have taken their leave during the past 20 years, and Byron and Zech wanted to find out why. They did so in the most direct way possible and asked those who had quit.
The answers they got were, in many ways, predictable. Lots of people cited the church's teachings on divorce and re-marriage, gay marriage, contraception, and the ordination of women. These matters, of course, have been exhaustively discussed in the years following Vatican II, and I'd be willing to bet that anyone, even those vaguely connected to the Church, could rehearse the arguments on both sides of those issues.
But there just isn't a lot that the church can do about them. No bishop or pastor could make a policy adjustment and announce that divorced and re-married people can receive communion or that a gay couple can come to the altar to be married or a woman present herself for ordination.
What struck me about the survey, however, was that many of the issues that led people to leave the church are indeed matters that can be addressed.
Many of the respondents commented that they left because of "bad customer relations." One woman said that she felt "undervalued by the church" and found "no mentors." Many more said that their pastors were "arrogant, distant, aloof, and insensitive," and still others said that their experiences over the phone with parish staffers were distinctly negative. Now I fully understand that parish priests and lay ministers are on the front lines and hence are the ones who often have to say "no" when a parishioner asks for something that just can't be granted. Sometimes the recipient of that "no" can all too facilely accuse the one who says it as arrogant or indifferent. Nevertheless, the survey can and should be a wake-up call to church leaders — both clerical and non-clerical — that simple kindness, compassion, and attention go a rather long way.
I distinctly remember the advice that my first pastor — a wonderful and pastorally skillful priest — gave to the parish secretary: "for many people, you are the first contact they have with the Catholic Church; you exercise, therefore, an indispensable ministry." One respondent to the survey observed that whenever he asked a priest about a controversial issue, he "got rules, and not an invitation to sit down and talk."
Unfair? Perhaps. But every priest, even when ultimately he has to say "no," can do so in the context of a relationship predicated upon love and respect.
A second major concern that can and should be addressed is that of bad preaching. Again and again, people said that they left the church because homilies were "boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared," or "delivered in an impenetrable accent." Again, speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation, and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience.
That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: sermons become boring in the measure that they don't propose something like answers to real questions.
When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.
All of the biblical exegesis and oratorical skill in the world will be met with a massive "so what?" if the preacher has not endeavored to correlate the "answers" he provides with the "questions" that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks. Practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person — Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc. — who is questioning, wondering, suffering, or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.
A third eminently correctable problem is one that I will admit I had never thought about before reading this survey. Many of the respondents commented that, after they left the church, no one from the parish contacted them or reached out to them in any way. Now again, I can anticipate and fully understand the objections from pastoral people: many Catholic parishes are huge — upwards of three or four thousand families — and staffs are small.
Yet, just as major corporations, serving millions of people, attend carefully to lost customers, so Catholic parishes should prioritize an outreach to those who have drifted (or stormed) away. A phone call, a note, an e-mail, a pastoral visit — anything that would say, "We've noticed you're not coming to Mass anymore. Can we help? Can you tell us what, if anything, we've done wrong? We'd love to see you back with us."
The problem of Catholics leaving the church is, obviously, serious and complex, and anyone who would suggest an easy solution is naïve. However, having listened to a representative sample of those who have left, parishes, priests, and church administrators might take some relatively simple and direct steps that would go a long way toward ameliorating the situation.
Father Robert Barron, "Why do Catholics leave, and what can be done about it?" Real Clear Religion (April 17, 2012).
TAMPA GREEK FESTIVAL 2012 Our 2011 Festival was a resounding success! Festival profit for 2011 was $75,000! That was a $20,000 increase over the previous year! Let’s challenge ourselves, as a community, the break that record and increase another $20,000!
Last year’s Festival ushered in many changes that were happily received by our guests and our community. Last year’s OPA! Tent added much needed additional seating and a great entertainment venue which added new energy to the event. Guests and workers alike enjoyed the outside party atmosphere. Our food and hospitality were at its best.
It takes a lot of hands and hearts to put on an event like this. Our Festival committee is made up of dedicated volunteers who spend countless hours preparing for the event. Our committee this year is:
FESTIVAL CHAIRMAN – Katherine Sakkis firstname.lastname@example.org
THE FESTIVAL IS MORE THAN JUST THE COMMITTEE. WE STILL NEED LOTS OF HANDS AND HELP IN MANY AREAS. PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO READ THE TIME AND TALENTS PLEDGE FORM; FILL IT OUT AND RETURN ASAP. THERE ARE STILL MANY LEADERSHIP POSITIONS NEEDED ALONG WITH MANY OTHER OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE. FEEL FREE TO CONTACT OUR MANPOWER CHAIR, OURANIA STEPHANIDES, WITH ANY QUESTIONS. YOU MAY ALSO CONTACT ANY OF THE ABOVE COMMITTEE CHAIRS DIRECTLY.
America is suffering from an identity crisis. We have lost our rightful Judeo-Christian identity by those who emphasize diversity and tolerance, while marginalizing our sacred heritage. Our world today had removed any form or remnant of the “divine imprint” in its decrees and policies. We have, due in part to ignorance and part apathy, permitted our Faith to be asphyxiated and extinguished in the society around us. It is us as Orthodox Christians, which have failed our true calling to be “light bearers” suffering Christ’s image within us becoming icons of this world instead. We have subconsciously been led astray by the ever so gentle undertows of our time and been swept away from our Heavenly Father’s embrace. We have found a new home, a new father a new destiny, and God is not welcome. We continue to make excuses why His invitation to our lives has been lost in the mail as did those who chose not to attend the marriage feast in the Gospels.
Several poets of antiquity tell a charming but frightening tale about a young man who saw his own reflection in a pool and become so infatuated that he vowed never to marry. He even ignored the lovely nymph, Echo, who had followed him to that place, leaving her to wander off alone until she at last pined away to nothing but a faint, whispering voice. The young man’s name was Narcissus, and he has become the image of the excess of self-love. When we say that a person is narcissistic, or that we live in an age of narcissism, we are alluding to the self-absorbed young man who sat, day after day, staring at his own reflection while ignoring the rest of the world around him. The story is of course, a parable of one of the many pitfalls to which humans are susceptible – self-absorption.
As Orthodox Christians we must remember the warnings of St. Chrysostom who began his lessons on the education of children with stern admonitions against this self-absorbed condition. Anticipating the question as to why such a young man would grow up to follow only the precepts of his appetites, St. John asked, “Did you not marvel at him? Did you not sing his praise? Did you not lead him on to his present state by applause and flattery?” As human beings we all share the image of God planted in us from creation. We all share in fact this divine identity and stamp, but under sin, God’s face is covered in us and we become, at least outwardly, someone else. Through sin we lose our resemblance with God and we take the appearance that the godless world around has painted on us. The world itself has long lost its identity. It ceased to be a vehicle for man’s edification in God and was transformed in a purpose to itself, an apple of discord and enmity between people. The devil, the greatest identity thief, diabolos, the deceiver, has succeeded to sell us, starting with Adam and Eve a reality that has nothing to do with the true reality of God, but it pleases the senses and promises everything and beyond. We got hooked by his promises and now we live in this world with the illusion that it can fulfill us, we struggle every day to achieve meaningless goals, missing completely our true purpose and destiny.
A saintly person, on the other hand, is a person that has uncovered the image of God in him and has found his place in the world by acting according to His likeness. A saintly person shows to the world his true identity, imitating Christ almost to the point of confusion. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20). We are not ourselves and we are not truly living until we are with Christ. Don’t let the world tell you otherwise; our identity is fulfilled only by being Christians. Christians don’t just believe differently than others, they exist in a different reality; a genuine reality in which God becomes man and man becomes divine. This is God’s edition of reality, the only one true and original.
When someone asks “What is your identity?” most of us immediately think of our name, our associations, our vocation etc. But is there more? The “more” has to do with our “spiritual identity”. A spiritual identity is a given reality at Baptism. The water itself reveals the creative activity of God to bring forth something new. The waters of Baptism are also a rite of passage, as in the case of Noah, a passage from the former Adam to the New Adam, Christ. In this new identity we find ourselves in the community of the Triune God because personhood is “being in community,” this new relationship invites us to find our true humanity and identity with God and others. In short, spiritual identity is not a “thing of our own choosing.” It is not a psychological experience of “getting in touch with the inner self”. Rather, it is instead a union with Christ Jesus (Romans 6) signified through Baptism.
If we are not good Orthodox it is not because we are Orthodox; it is more likely because our Orthodoxy is for some individuals a formal affiliation, rather than a way of life. A German theologian, Konrad Onash, himself a Protestant, stated that the supreme goal of Orthodoxy is “Christ-likeness.” Do we, Orthodox Christians in general really strive to attain some likeness to Christ? I could spend hours, even days, citing examples showing a tragic disparity between our professed faith and our way of life. I believe we suffer from a lack of the sense of the holy. Although sermons may be preached about God’s absolute holiness and incompatibility with any form of impurity in churches today, Americans have a noticeably casual approach to God. Many churches today deliberately avoid any suggestion that approaching God ought to be paramount in our lives and placing a line in the sand for which our value stand. But when we look back to the Old Testament sources of our worship, we find an entirely different scenario. During the years of the Exodus, when the plans for the Tabernacle were revealed, the specifications wee exacting. Why? Because the Tabernacle was a holy pave: it was where God dwelt with his people (Ex 25:21-22). What is this abode? Where is this Tabernacle? What is the temple? It is none other than the womb of the Virgin Mary the Theotokos. As we approach in a couple of weeks the beginning commemoration of her Dormition, we again are challenged to be born inwardly. Upon her Entrance to the Temple Feast it is here that we see clearly, how the Temple goes to the Temple. The one temple is made of stone, the other, prepared by God Himself to dwell. The womb is revealed as a sacred and holy place that our Lord calls all of us to be created in ourselves so He may dwell.
It then begs the question, “How our current awareness of the world around us is an illusion, and how can we be receptive to the indwelling of the true reality of Christ? When we contemplate upon the upcoming Feast of the Dormition it would serve us well to be reminded of the person of the Theotokos, who, embodies the living temple of God and herself became His temple. Our need today is to form obedience in the womb of our hearts and discover our true calling as Christians. Martha and Mary stand for two kinds of this calling: the call to the active life and the call to the contemplative life. Mary the Mother of God fulfilled both of these as her response to God’s call. He Who is love came down to earth and was born of the Virgin as a child in her so that we too may become receptacles of His divine indwelling.
Our churches today can resemble many things. More often than not in spite of all our efforts, they tend to resemble more secular goals than spiritual. We have a great challenge before us, to challenge the very hearts and souls of our flocks to first and foremost discover the importance of a shift towards the divine. The more our faithful discover their true identity in Christ the more fruitful our ministries become and the more God will bless our endeavors. The abundant life promised us by Christ so many lack; I pray we may use every effort possible to be vehicles so God may transform our lives and our churches to beacons of light for the world to see the true reality.
Fr. Robert Archon is the Proistamenos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Portsmouth,NH.
Editor’s Note: I read this article recently on the Fox News Website—Please pass it along to teenagers and young adults—it is a very important issue! Waiting till the wedding night – getting married the right way