Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
Advent has begun. It’s a short season this year but still enough time for spiritual renewal and growth among all of us. This Advent season falls during the Year of Faith that our Holy Father has asked Catholics to observe. It gives us a wonderful opportunity to respond to the challenge Pope Benedict extends to Catholic people during this very special year. Clearly between Oct. 11 of this year and the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 24, next year, we ourselves need to be strengthened in our friendship with the Lord Jesus. But the greater challenge which confronts us is the work of the New Evangelization, doing what we can to help our relatives, friends and neighbors, whose relationship with the Lord is marginal at best, renew their relationship with Christ and the church.
At the fall assembly of the American bishops in Baltimore last month, Father Thomas Gaunt, S.J., from the Center for Applied Research and the Apostolate, gave a presentation based on some research he and his colleagues had undertaken about the faith life of Catholics. I would like to share with you some portions of this report so that you will have a better understanding of the Pope’s rationale in calling for this Year of Faith. It helps us understand how and why this is a real need at the present time.
Every year pastors are amazed at the contrast in Mass attendance by parishioners on regular Sundays and on days like Christmas and Easter. Many of you will be trying to get to church early to get a seat for Christmas Mass. You may arrive to find that your pew is already occupied! Why is that? Well, 68 percent of adult self-identified Catholics in the USA attend Mass on Christmas and Easter. Only 31 percent attend Mass on any given Saturday Vigil/Sunday. Yes, that means that more than twice as many folks will be there with you to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even Ash Wednesday’s 45 percent attendance is better than the ordinary Sunday. Nearly 97 million people in the United States have identified themselves as Catholic at some point in their lives. But only 75 million currently do so. Among Christian churches, Catholics are second only to the Greek Orthodox among those raised in the faith who remain affiliated with their church as adults, 73 percent of the Greek Orthodox and 68 percent of Catholics. Baptists come in at 60 percent and Lutherans at 59 percent. All other Christian churches fall below that figure. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Congregationalists, the retention rate is only 37 percent. Even though we do better than most, the 68 percent figure is nothing worth bragging about. That leaves 32 percent of folks who once were Catholics but no longer remain affiliated with us.
The survey also attempted to learn why Catholics miss Mass. Only 23 percent of us actually attend Mass every week. Others join us from time to time, but not every Sunday. Interestingly, among those who attend Mass at least once a month, the major excuses for their absence tend to be a busy schedule or lack of time and family responsibilities. For those who attend Mass only a few times a year or less, the excuse is that they simply don’t believe that missing Mass is a sin or they don’t see themselves as very religious persons. Other excuses offered by some folks include health problems or disabilities and conflict with work. Lots of empty nesters worry about their young adult offspring. Many of them no longer attend church nor do they identify themselves as Catholics. Others simply don’t attend church very regularly.
It is interesting to note that there has been a marked increase in the diversity among Catholics. Ninety-six percent of those of us who come from the pre-Vatican II generation are non-Hispanic whites. Among the millennials, (born 1982 or later), only 50 percent are non-Hispanic whites. Forty-five percent are Hispanics. The increasing Hispanic presence is quite obvious whenever we have gatherings of our youth or young adults here in the archdiocese. Among the millennials, 86 percent of the Hispanics look upon being Catholic as an important part of who they are, but only 60 percent of the non-Hispanics feel that way. Again, 86 percent of the Hispanic millennials look upon the sacraments as essential to their relationship with God, but only 60 percent of non-Hispanics. A marked difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic millennials, 82 percent to 50 percent, exists with respect to whether young people view Catholicism as a religion with a greater share of the truth than other religions or not. Seventy-seven percent of the Hispanics can’t imagine being anything but Catholic, but this is true of only 62 percent of the non-Hispanics. And 89 percent of the non-Hispanics view how a person lives as more important than whether he or she is Catholic. Seventy-seven percent of Hispanics feel that way.
Last but not least, the study offered some valuable information about priestly formation and ordinations. Seminary enrollment has definitely declined considerably since 1968. This is true primarily because high school seminaries are practically non-existent these days and college seminaries are in decline. Students in theology, the final years of preparation for priestly ordination, have declined since 1968, but the numbers have leveled off and have even increased since 1992. Ninety-one percent of U.S. priests from the pre-Vatican II era were born in this country, but only 70 percent of the post-Vatican II era.
There is no shortage of interest in vocations among young people age 14 and older. Nearly 1.5 million young males have considered the possibility of a vocation to the ordained ministry or consecrated life. Nearly 1.3 million young women have thought about religious life. On the other hand, 69 percent of Catholics would not encourage a young person to consider life as a priest, brother or religious. But it is quite clear from studies taken among seminarians and religious novices that a suggestion or invitation from an important adult in their lives made a big difference in their willingness to move forward in the discernment of God’s call to ordination or consecration.
The Advent season is a good time for pondering this information and allowing it to prod our efforts to help our wayward sisters and brothers renew their friendship with the Lord and his church. I always find it amazing that, even though most of us think we are the ones who choose to be friends with God, it is God who first seeks a meaningful and friendly relationship with each one of us. In Advent we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ once again, in grace and in glory. May his coming in grace be greater and more widespread during this Year of Faith as we embark with greater fervor upon the good works of the New Evangelization.