Why young people and women leave the Church, and how to bring them back
Elise Italiano Feb. 24, 2018
We need to take seriously the questions raised by two recent studies
At a recent Sunday Mass, the priest preached on the Gospel passage where Jesus beckons to his soon-to-be disciples: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Some Gospels stir our imagination to the location of the Gospel scene, the priest said, before admitting his mind was brought back to a little lake in Northern Ireland where his father would bring him and his brothers to go fishing when they were children.
He recounted one occasion in which he and his brothers jumped out of the car, ran down to the lake and began to skip small stones across the water. Eventually, they worked their way up to bigger stones and ended by catapulting large rocks into the water.
Their father, disgruntled, sighed, “We might as well go home.”
“But why?” the boys asked.
“You’ve scared all of the fish away,” he replied.
The priest then asked us to consider the following questions: What kind of “bait” do I use to draw people to Jesus? Do I attract people to the Faith by the way I live? By how I speak? Do I throw stones at those who are approaching, only to scare them away?
Apart from prompting my own examination of conscience, his questions made me think of two recent surveys conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) with the aim of better understanding the stories, experiences, behavior and attitudes of baptized Catholics.
The first survey, commissioned by America Media, included responses from more than 1,500 American women who self-identify as Catholic. According to Father Matt Malone, SJ, editor-in-chief of America Media, the survey was “but one response” of the Jesuit’s desire to “listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women.”
The second survey, commissioned by Saint Mary’s Press, was a qualitative survey of young, disaffiliated Catholics — a group previously examined in the 2015 Pew Research Center survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The folks at Saint Mary’s wanted to meet the actual persons behind the Pew statistics and listen to their stories. The result was “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.”
Both surveys were released on the same day.
Editors at America Media published a series of essays and articles online before the print edition, detailing the findings they found most significant. The largest takeaway was that the majority of respondents, from differing generations, rarely, if ever, attend Mass on Sundays.
Many of these same women do not participate in any sacraments, social ministries or faith communities. It also happens that many of these respondents support initiatives or ideas at odds with the Church’s teaching, particularly those related to human sexuality and marriage, along with beliefs and practices related to ordinated ministry.
Within minutes of the survey’s publication, a flurry of online commentary related to the last point erupted. On the one hand was the predictable cheer, “Change the Church’s teaching!”
But the other cheer made me wince as much, if not more. That was the chorus that went something like this: “Of course women who don’t attend Mass don’t subscribe to Church teaching. Because the survey results do not reflect Church teaching, the results are not relevant or helpful to the Church.”
As I kept scrolling, my fear kept increasing that those who have strayed would perceive an attitude of: “Well, we don’t want you anyway.”
This attitude of dismissal is not lost on young Catholics who have “disaffiliated” from the Church. The Saint Mary’s study cited author Andrea Syverson who said the saddest part about her process of disaffiliation was the feeling that “no one cared that [she] had left.”
Another responder said, at the end of his interview about why he had left the Church, “I’m glad to actually finally tell my story. I have never really sat down and told anyone. Thank you for listening.”
Pope Francis has called for a Church defined by a spirit of accompaniment, and one that listens to the lived experience of its members — which includes all of the baptized. He’s instructed the Church to “open its doors” and “let Jesus out.”
If people aren’t coming into our church buildings, then the Church needs to go out to them, the Holy Father says. This idea is sure to come up during the discussions of the upcoming meeting of the Synod on Young People, Vocation, and Discernment, a meeting of the world’s bishops that Pope Francis has called to be held at the Vatican this October.
The risk with dismissing the results of these surveys is grave. While they detail many reasons why people stay away — their wounds, their experience of hypocrisy, their rejection of Church teaching or simply their intense apathy — the way to help bring them back is also buried in the same pages.
The first step to bringing people back into the community of the Church will always be an invitation, offered in the context of a relationship. And that relationship will always require a willingness to sit with someone and listen to his or her experience and personal history.
The authors of “Going, Going, Gone” offer a few pointed questions to those responsible for the pastoral care of young people: Do we know who the disaffiliated are, and the depths of their life stories? Do we know them by name? Do we miss these individuals now that they are gone?
These are worthwhile questions to consider. But if we are to take the gospel seriously, these questions need to be followed with a strategy for how to effectively go fishing. It would be best if we keep the stones and rocks on the shore.
Elise Italiano is the founding executive director of the Given Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to activating the gifts of women for the Church and the culture.
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