March, 2017

From Those Who Have Moved On   It is no longer news that a significant number of people who were once active in the Catholic Church and in their parishes have decided to withdraw their membership and move elsewhere. Over the last few years I have been interviewing some of these people trying to discover why they have made this shift. These findings will eventually lead to a book that will cover not only reasons why people have left the Church but insights from those who have decided to remain active despite struggles and ambiguities with the institution. While all of this information is too lengthy for a newsletter, there is one area worth summarizing. It is contained in a chapter called, Suggestions for Parish Life. It came from those who have left the Church but still offered ideas about what a parish might do to maintain its membership.
What Could A Parish Do     Each inactive person was asked the same question, “What could a parish do that would help others like yourself feel more at home and engaged?” One young adult male responded, “Parishes should have the courage to ask questions without regard to conflicts with the hierarchy. I know of a parish now that is trying to create a welcoming environment for all who wish to join, as well as playing an active part in the surrounding neighborhood. There are still limits to what a pastor and parish can do, but this one is trying its best. Ultimately if the Church is going to change for the better it will have to happen from the ground up.” A woman in her fifties made this suggestion: “What parishes could do is speak more to women. When I was going to the Catholic parish it didn’t speak to me as a woman. Everything was male-oriented. Where was my part in all of this? There are so many contradictions in all that is said and done in the Catholic Church as compared with what Jesus really taught and said.” Another woman who has moved on offered this advice: “The Church needs to welcome people for who they are and where they are at in their life journey. It needs to communicate to people that they do not have to fit a mold. If you are there, you are Catholic. If people think a little left or a little right, that’s o.k. Welcome them in! I would like to remind pastors as they relate to people, ‘Be supportive, be understanding, remember that life is hard for many of us and that people need to be nurtured without feeling judged or dismissed.’”
Eight Steps To Vitality   Drawing all of the comments together from those who have left the Church, the following checklist emerged:  Pastors: Encourage the pastor to be with and among the people, acting in partnership with them and fostering a lay leadership that operates on an equal footing with the pastor.  Listening: Create an attitude in the parish of “We care,” not offering solutions so much as hearing and taking to heart the stories people have to tell.  Dialogue: When conflicts or critical issues arise, engage the whole community in a discussion of what might be the best path to follow rather than making unilateral decisions.  Welcoming: Create a culture of inclusion that is open to all, without judgment or discrimination. Pope Francis has been a model of openness that invites all to come to the table, no questions asked.  Liturgies: Engage the congregation in active communal prayer that stirs in the people an awareness of God’s presence and a hunger to keep returning to the worshiping community.  Small Groups: Gather small clusters of people together, making sure there is a safe environment where people can speak freely, where they can agree to disagree while still affirming one another.  Volunteers: Allow parishioners to share their gifts, keeping all areas of involvement open to new people and new ways of doing things. Reach out to young adults on the margins and ask for their help.  Outreach: Creating a parish-wide reputation of service and acceptance so that anyone who is in need knows that the parish is a place where help and support can be found.

Thomas P. Sweetser, SJ