Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Can Pope Francis bring Catholics home?

People want  leaders who practice what they preach, and Francis seems to be doing just that. Will his charismatic charm and concern for the poor be enough to bring Catholics home?

In my last post, I mentioned that I was on vacation. I had such a relaxing vacation that I completely forgot to post my most recent column. Here it is, with a little preamble not included in print versions.

A few weeks ago, I had a call from a reader, an older gentleman of the Anglican persuasion. He expressed his admiration for Pope Francis, and his hopefulness for change within the Roman Church. We had a lively and interesting conversation, and I was grateful for both his support of my column and for his comments on Catholicism. 

I have been surprised at the amount of interest that people are showing in Francis. He seems to be touching the hearts of people, which brings us to the question of my column: "Will Pope Francis’s charismatic charm and concern for the poor be enough to bring Catholics home?"

Church attendance on the decline
Research surveys support what most people already know.  Church attendance is declining and has been for decades.  In Canada, 28% of Catholics attend Mass at least once a month, compared to 40% in 2004.  In the United States in 2012, 24% of Catholics attended Mass at least once a week compared to 47% in 1974.

While I have no idea what the stats are for Catholics in my little neck of the woods, I can certainly provide anecdotal evidence of declining church attendance.   I have sat through numerous meetings over the years grappling with dwindling finances that correlate with shrinking congregations, and listening to laments about the lack of young people in the pews.  Only a handful of children attend the after school religious education program, and a significant percentage of students enrolled in our Catholic school are non-Catholic.  Sunday after Sunday, the spaces that deceased parishioners formerly occupied remain empty; no one is rushing into fill the gaps. In the last three decades, my family has belonged to three parishes within a ten-mile radius, and our current parish church is next on the local chopping block.

The generalized lack of interest amongst baptized Catholics to practice the faith concerns bishops, priests, religious, pastoral councils, and parents alike.  Dioceses are desperately trying to turn the tide through evangelizing already baptized Catholics.  The Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, launched a sophisticated advertising campaign called “Catholics Come Home” to entice Catholics back to church.  Other dioceses are offering adult faith formation courses, and promoting youth programs modeled on the hip style of evangelical churches.

Opting out of institutional Catholicism
Catholics are opting out of institutional Catholicism for many reasons. Church teaching on sexuality, the treatment of women, and the clergy sexual abuse scandal are among the most often cited reasons for leaving the Church. 

Pope Francis has begun to address the sexual abuse scandal that so rightly outraged Catholics in North America and Europe. Although it remains to be seen how the Vatican will implement the pope’s directive to  “act decisively” to protect minors, help victims, and deal with the guilty, Francis wasted no time in making his views known.

With regard to women in the Church, Francis shocked some Catholics when he included women in the annual Holy Thursday ritual of the washing of the feet. While washing the feet of a woman in detention is a far cry from the ordination of women, Francis’s action demonstrates an inclusive attitude towards women not previously seen from the Vatican.
On matters of sexuality, Pope Francis upholds the teaching of the Church on gay marriage, birth control, divorce and remarriage. I think all that we can realistically expect from Francis in these areas is a compassionate response to individuals who, in the eyes of the Church, do not measure up to its high standards of sexual morality and holiness.

The place where I believe Francis has a real chance for making inroads with Catholics and others is in his genuine concern for the poor. People see a huge disconnect between the suffering of the poor and the wealth of the Vatican with its ostentatious pomp and ceremony. Even though thousands of religious and lay Catholics are walking with the poor, theological speeches about the poor disappoint when there is no visible action from the Vatican: the credibility of the Church suffers.

Our world needs authentic leaders. Catholic or otherwise, we want leaders who practice what they preach, and Francis seems to be doing just that.  Will it be enough to bring Catholics home? Possibly not, but it may be enough to stop the bleed.

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