A number of months ago, former president of the Catholic University of America and present bishop of Trenton, NJ David O’Connell commissioned a survey and study of the diocese to find why people have left the Church. The idea was to have professionals conduct “exit interviews” to gain perspective.
A summary of the report, published in America magazine, is definitely worth reading. The entire report may be found here.
What follows are my reflections. (The comment option can certainly receive your own.)
1. There is a basic desire for people to be recognized, heard, and treated warmly. If the Gospel is Good News, it cannot but be humane. Its reception suffers when its ministers are cold and self-absorbed. The Gospel is nothing if it is not an encounter with the person of Christ through his humanity… which is met through that of his incorporated members.
2. The experience of many does not accord with my own. Before becoming a priest (and not hearing too many homilies other than my own now) I don’t think I ever heard a homily about divorce or homosexuality, to cite two issues people surveyed felt excluded by. I wonder how much of this is a holdover from previous generations.
2.1 Consider this anecdote: One time a bunch of us friars were talking over dinner about our experience of confession. All the guys with white hair had multiple stories of having been yelled at in the confessional. Those of us who were younger had not had any such experiences. (Quite the contrary, many younger folk complain to me that they are told too often that their confessional matter is “not sinful.”) Perhaps the healing synthesis of these two trends was well summed up by the advice a popular Dominican Confessor of happy memory would give to young priests in the house, “Be nice in the confessional… Or I’ll punch you!”
3. The moralism and legalism with which the Gospel has traditionally been preached in our country (for historical and cultural reasons that cannot be discussed here, nor are addressed by the survey) has proven itself worse than ineffective. Certainly, the contrary attitude (it’s all good, don’t judge, it’s all up to one’s own “conscience”, etc.) is equally bad. Nevertheless, people want to hear the reasons why the Gospel matters, and why the only way to effectively live the Gospel is through the Church’s sacramental, doctrinal, and hierarchical ministry. We all need to be treated as if our experiences and feelings matter, and that Christianity doesn’t reduce to the following of rules, even while rules are necessary.
4. Generally, people who left their parish left the Church, the study found. There’s an integral connection between local organization of faith life and the universal Church.
4.1 One problem here is that, since the survey essentially follows the model of sociological analysis, there is no consideration of “the faith” as a category to evaluate, or of the parish as something more than a social organization of members with complementary and potentially conflictual expectations.
4.2 For many, the relative lack of opportunity to be involved with parish life led them away. Here, there obviously needs to be creative development. But there also needs to be a greater recognition of what the life of faith is all about: it’s essentially the clinging to Christ in all of one’s activities, for which one is sacramentally and inspirationally energized by parish ministry, to be sure, but which is still about living one’s everyday duties virtuously. Moreover, in a society where neighborhoods are breaking down, where people are more transient and one is less likely to remain in one’s parish for very long, the prospect of seeing the parish as a kind of community center of organized activities will continue, I believe, to grow dimmer. Personally, I think the category here should be in terms of a search for “fellowship and support” rather than “being involved.”
4.3 There was no way of assessing precisely “what” the people surveyed think the Church is.
5. Further, while the survey’s responses suggest the answer, there was no instrument for assessing how respondents measure personal significance and meaning. That is, if I find my priest’s homilies empty, I should be able to articulate what I find otherwise meaningful in the other organizations I have not left.
6. Clearly, sexuality draws the most significant attention, whether its the abuse scandals or Church teaching.
6.1 Also involved is the experience and perception of inequality of rights.
6.2. Related, there clearly needs to be teaching about the nature of priestly ministry, what is changeable and not. Here, I think the experience of priests themselves could be factored in to the conversation.
7. There is the desire to see in people’s ministers evidence of integrity and commitment. I think that the sign of this commitment must be proportionate with the felt aberration of the Church’s expectations. In other words, priests must live lives that manifest a degree of personal commitment and sacrifice that is proportionate with the radicality of what the laity experience in terms of the Church’s challenges. Personally, but also in a way that flows from my own mendicant tradition, I think priests need to live simpler lives, less focused on upper-middle class styles of dress and recreation, which are not appropriate to men who do not draw income and need to support others in the same way as the laity. People need to “see” that the Gospel is truly worth giving up everything, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. And the vision of this sacrifice ought not to be reduced simply to how hard priests work (although idle priests are dangerous). The best priests, in my estimation, are those who pray and love greatly.
8. The celebration of the liturgy didn’t seem to register too much significance. Here, it not only means that relatively few were distressed by lame music and hymnody; conversely, there wasn’t any mention of liturgical rigidity or the use of Latin as being sufficiently offensive to drive people away from Church.
9. The heart of parish life must be Eucharistic. There needs to be evangelical catechesis on transubstantiation and the nature of liturgical worship to be sure. But moreover, the parish must be invited to see how it is the Eucharist builds the Church even as the Church makes the Eucharist.
Well, that’s just some of a young priest’s response. One doesn’t have to agree with it at all. I imagine my own thoughts will continue to change and mature. At the end of the day, I think the target is the personal experience one has with people in Church (and this is not only with priests!). I think of my own standard when working especially with couples: They’ll get what the Church teaches, however hard it may be to hear (and for me to say!); but they’ll get it with a smile, and from someone who believes that their own thoughts and feelings are worth listening to. The Gospel must always affirm the good that is present, if there is any hope to root out what is bad. And here, our Lord’s own question to the disciples is the rule, “What do you seek?”
The article can serve as an intelligent and relevant springboard for conversation. (Here is some other relevant statistical information.) Perhaps you might forward it to some friends and get together to talk about it!