Sherry Weddell is the co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute, creator of the institute’s “Called & Gifted” discernment process and the author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.
This summer in Colorado Springs, I personally met Sherry as well as Dominican Father Michael Sweeney, O.P. (along with Sherry, the co-founder of Catherine of Siena Institute) at their “Forming Intentional Disciples in Parishes” conference. In this week’s article below, Sherry comments on how, in 21st-century USA, Canada and Europe, “God has no grandchildren.” Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen. Therefore, “cultural Catholicism” by itself is dead as a retention strategy. Next week’s article will outline what we are trying to do at St. Monica to address these phenomena and is based on my 20+ years of personal experiences of parish work in Philadelphia, and the work that the “Institute” is trying to do to energize parishes like St. Monica.
When low-profile Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana was chosen to be the 2016 Republican candidate for vice president, one of the first things the public learned about him was that he was a devout, unapologetic Christian … with a twist. Pence was raised in a highly committed Irish-Catholic family, had served as an altar boy, and even considered becoming a priest at one point. But now he considers himself an evangelical Protestant whose faith permeates his life. As a July 20 story in The New York Times recounted, the turning point was the moment when, as an undergrad at Hanover College, Pence said, “I gave my life to Jesus Christ … and that’s changed everything.”
“Mr. Pence came to feel that something was missing from his spiritual life,” the Times said. “The Catholicism of his youth, with its formality and rituals, had not given him the intimacy with God that he now found himself craving.”
“I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “That had not been a part of my experience.”
This is the sort of story that often makes serious Catholics want to tear their hair out. One reason is because some Catholics do experience intimacy with God through the form and rituals.
In my early days as a Catholic, I remember lively conversations with my first pastor, who just couldn’t take in what I was telling him: that many Catholics were leaving the Church for the evangelical world. He was incredulous. How could they leave the Eucharist? Father demanded that I “Tell them to stop it!” I’ve been working on that ever since.
We must grasp that Mike Pence is the 21st-century norm, not the exception. We live in an era in which the majority of Americans raised as Catholics have left the Church at some point in their lives. According to Pew Research in a Sept. 2, 2015, study, 52% of Catholic adults have left the Church; and so far, 11% have come back. The same survey indicates 41% have not yet returned. It is essential that we understand that many think about leaving for months or years before they exit stage right — and that many leave not because their faith in God is declining, but because it is growing; and they honestly believe, based upon what they have experienced, that there is little or no help to be found in the Catholic community.
A friend in parish ministry told me the true story of six men and women – all unrelated to one another — who came to her one at a time in a single month to say, “I’m thinking about leaving the parish for the mega church down the road because I have these questions, and there isn’t anyone in the parish that I can talk to about this.”
My friend was able to talk four of the six out of leaving on the spot, simply by listening and connecting them with someone in the parish who understood that God was at work in these people’s lives. After sustained evangelization had begun to change the parish culture, the two who had chosen to leave came back.
Mike Pence has a lot of company in the evangelical world. The Pew 2014 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey” found that 13% of adults raised Catholic now consider themselves to be evangelicals (roughly 6 million people). And leaving the Church as an undergrad is all too normal. White college-age Millennials (ages 18-24) are 17 times more likely to leave the Catholic Church than to enter it. Young Catholic Millennials are also 10 times more likely to leave the faith of their childhood than a college-age white evangelical, according to the 2012 “Millennial Values Survey” sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute.