Who are the people we serve?
In what ways has our community changed in the last decade?
Who is here; who is not?
The Catholic Church in the United States has seen tremendous change in the twenty-first century. To capture this change in just one statistic, to tell the story of what has happened, we might consider this ratio: one to six. For every one person who has entered the Catholic Church, more than six have left.
This is not an abstract number. Many of us know from conversations with friends or family members who have left the Church where they stand now and why, what their relationship with God is now, and why they no longer affiliate with the Church. Many catechetical leaders have experienced fathers or grandmothers coming to them and sharing about the challenge of seeing daughters or grandsons not continue their journeys of faith with the Church. For many of us, one to six is a lived reality. The Pew Research Center study in which this statistic is included notes, “No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.” Catholic immigration and cultural diversification in recent decades have raised hopes that immigration would stop or reverse these developments, but in reality, one to six already includes the diversification of the Catholic faithful. The growing disaffiliation with Catholicism in Latin America contributes to this as well.
Grasping the reality of these “phenomena of detachment” is not just a challenge; it is an opportunity as well. It helps us to read the signs of the times and to set off an “aggiornamento,” a “bringing up to date” of the ways of the Church. Historically, the Catholic Church has always responded to new challenges by changing itself. It has brought forth new saints, new movements, new orders, new councils, and new methods. It has started Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities, Catholic schools, and lay movements. It has brought forth catechists, families, and volunteers to tell the story of Christ in ever-new ways. How can we listen to and learn from the people who do not relate to institutional religion anymore? What are we called to set in motion?
These days, our communities are tremendously burdened by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which serves as a further catalyst for the underlying changes already in motion and amplifies their effects through the temporary loss of many parts of Church life. There is no indication that this rapid decline in religiosity was stopping or even slowing down before the pandemic. Religion, in all forms of beliefs, practice, and affiliation, is in decline. The share of the population that answers to the question of religion with “none” is on the rise. Research has not identified a single issue that causes disaffiliation. Those who no longer affiliate with the Church identify a myriad of experiences that lead to disaffiliation. They may demonstrate varying degrees of affiliation and religious belief and practice. Nonetheless, the increasing number of individuals who choose not to identify a religious affiliation is alarming and should not be ignored.
Although disaffiliation is rising in all age groups, it is particularly notable among young people. Further, there is little evidence that those who disaffiliate in their youth will return to practicing religion in adulthood. The millennial generation, widely discussed as being particularly low in religiosity, is an adult generation now. Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996. They make up a large segment of the demographic that is getting married and parenting children and teens. Thus, they are at the heart of sacramental life of the Church—but they are increasingly absent from the celebration of the Sacraments.
Creatively Responding to Change
In your community, who are the people drifting away from faith and religious practice? Why? What do you know about them? What can you learn from them? What data helps you to see them? Who is the typical person in terms of age, gender, income, and family situation in your town? How does that compare to your faith community? How do you minister to them and how do they think about that?
Change is inevitable. The question is, how do we respond to a changing world? What new methods, new ways, new approaches, and new perspectives will we bring forth? What new spaces will we explore? How will we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit guiding us through history? Whatever we do to follow the Holy Spirit through these changes, one thing is certain: the current approach does not work. If we believe that it is not only external factors that are leading to this decline, then we need to look at what we are doing and how we are doing it. If we believe that the most “lopsided ratio of losses to gains” of any religious group has to do not just with the Catholic faith compared to other (Christian) traditions but with the current Catholic way of transmitting faith, then we need to change.
Reading the Signs of the Time
Looking Beyond Our Own Perspectives
- Our own perspectives are always limited by our work, our private lives, the people we meet and do not meet, and the media we consume or do not consume. In what ways can data from surveys or statistics help us to look beyond our own perceptions?
- The challenge in listening to a community lies in the voices as much as in the silence. How can we hear the people who do not speak up or who have left? How can they share their stories?
Understanding the Community Through Connections
- Are you the only Catholic Church in your area? What is the known Catholic presence within your community?
- Do you collaborate with other Christian communities?
- What charitable organizations, academic institutions, and other entities are in your immediate parish community?
- How well do you know the people and their issues?
 See “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (Washington, DC, May 12, 2015).
 “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” 13.
 See “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region,” Pew Research Center (Washington, DC, November 13, 2014).
 DC 38.
 Pope John XXIII, Address to cardinals at Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (January 25, 1959).
 See “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC (October 17, 2019).
 Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins,” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC (January 17, 2019).
 “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” 13.