The potential for transformation is staggering if all U.S. Catholics could live the faith in each moment
By Deacon Bob Hunt
If you’ve ever read articles or listened to news reports on Catholic demographics, you’ll know that the news has been mostly bad for the last few decades. Reports are that the Catholic Church in the United States is in decline, with fewer people identifying as Catholics and even fewer attending Mass on a regular basis. Many predicted, too, that Catholics wouldn’t return to church after the pandemic was over. I’ve not been able to find much reporting on whether Catholics have returned to church now that COVID restrictions are lifted, but I can report that the two parishes where I serve as deacon are back to their pre-COVID attendance levels, if not having surpassed them. So, that’s good news.
There’s also good news to report on Catholic growth in the United States generally. According to the most recent U.S. Religion Census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the number of Catholics in the United States increased by 2 million over the last 10 years. That isn’t much, but at least it’s in the right direction when a lot of other religious bodies are going in the wrong direction.
The census reports that there are 62 million Catholics in the country. What is unique about the census, and most heartening, is that they don’t base their numbers on those who self-identify as Catholic, as most attempts to grasp religious affiliation do. Instead, the U.S. Religion Census identifies as Catholic only those who have some connection to a Catholic parish. By counting only those Catholics who are at least somewhat involved in the life of the Church, and not including those who identify as Catholic but may not have attended Mass in years, the census gives a more accurate picture of how many active Catholics there are.
I am no Pollyanna. I know well the difficulties in ascertaining religious involvement and commitment, and I know many Catholic stats still paint a dim picture for the Church. Still, 62 million active Catholics is nothing to sneeze at. Research shows that about 10 percent of Catholics are active in the life of their parish at some level above simply attending Mass. Now, consider the potential for growth, not merely in numbers but in spiritual strength, if just a second 10 percent of those 62 million Catholics could be mobilized in efforts toward evangelization. Consider the potential for inspiring Catholics already in the pews to be even more active, or more educated about their faith, or more devoted to spiritual growth. Consider the potential for inspiring inactive Catholics to return to the Church. Consider the potential for capturing many of those who now identify as “nones” or “unaffiliated.”
Too many over the years have insisted that the way toward Catholic growth is to change Church teaching, especially her moral teachings, to make the Church more relevant to the current generation. This is absurd and has resulted only in a lot of wasted energy. It’s also a strategy that doesn’t work, as can be attested by those churches that have changed their teachings and continue to lose members by the millions.
The way to attract people to the faith is to preach and live the faith boldly and with passion. People are attracted to the life of faith when they see that it means something more than just where you spend an hour on Sunday mornings, or on what issues you feel obliged to virtue signal about on Facebook. Lives transformed by the Gospel are and always have been the greatest witness to others and the most effective means of evangelization. It’s all about sincerity, what people of faith are committed to when push comes to shove, and how the faith is lived in the concrete rather than the abstract.
How can each of us who love the faith and desire to share it with others do so in ways that are meaningful and effective? St. Peter recommends, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15b-16a). The first step, then, is to be a person of hope. This alone will catch people off guard. Newspaper headlines don’t give much reason for hope today, so a person of hope will surely garner attention. Second, don’t be ashamed of the Gospel and of declaring your faith in quiet, unaggressive ways, such as wearing a cross or scapular, or crossing yourself when blessing your food at work or in a restaurant. Third, practice the social virtues of kindness, gentleness, and patience. It will be an example to others and good for your own heart. Finally, don’t hesitate to give God the credit when others ask about your worldview, or why you keep your head when others lose theirs, or exude joy in this maddening world. Remember, too, to nourish your own faith with prayer and service.
Imagine the transformation our communities would experience if those 62 million Catholics were conscious of living the faith in each moment. The potential for renewal is staggering. Now there’s a New Year’s resolution worth keeping!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.