I often encounter people whose identification with the Catholic faith has seen better days. One gentleman recently cast it almost in terms of a kind of phase he went through. "Oh, I did the whole Catholic thing – I was an altar boy, a lector, and all that." Now, I suppose, he has detached the training wheels, is eating grownup food. A woman whose original parish merged six years ago with the others in her town just "let it go" instead of registering with the new parish. Upon further inquiry, "let it go" meant she stopped going to Mass.
As I sit down to continue this post after a few days, I realize anew how much of a cultural and religious commentator I am not. Just a simple parish priest, who now has a hospital and nursing homes as a parish.
But many of my "parishioners" are unaffiliated Catholics, or more properly put, formerly affiliated Catholics. They had to start somewhere! For some their parish was closed; in other cases they relocated and never returned to regular Mass attendance. Still others participated in a parish for several years and then fell away for whatever reason. I have met people in all of these categories, and listened to their stories.
Only through honest, open, and willing dialogue do full stories surface. I would seek and cite them not merely for an argument, but for a better survey of the religious and spiritual landscape. These recent accounts could happen to any pastoral minister at any time. They prompt questions that admit of no swift and satisfactory response.
A. What is it about people that moves them to jettison their religious identification/practice?
B. What is it about people's religious identification/practice that foments their gradual distancing or precipitous rebellion from it?
A: People (among whom I must include myself!): A priest is a "company man," and one may find it hard to believe that he can lose the sense of being, as St. Augustine said, "a Christian among you." I hope that priests would attend Mass weekly, even daily, if they were not celebrants of Mass. Flowing from the faithful and devout offering of Mass, too, is a "devout life" in every sense of the term, with attentiveness to Our Lady and the Saints, to worthy reading and other diversions. I have not been surprised to learn how the good example of individual priests has been a "selling point" for the Catholic faith. Such was my own experience.
Priests need to cultivate a demeanor that draws people to the Lord. So many people I've met were turned off by a priest because of a sour encounter. Isn't everyone "entitled" to a bad day? It would seem that representatives of God are not, for they are always watched for their choice and tone of words, etc. Actually, nobody is "entitled" to a bad day, but we should not be surprised when one happens. Of course, we must distinguish bad days from bad patterns, and note many examples of the latter, which happens when priests get isolated from people and stop engaging in good pursuits such as prayer and exercise.
But people can be stubborn. They can allow one unfortunate moment to foment a lifetime of practical apostasy (i.e. rejecting the faith by default). But what is practical apostasy if not the dissolution of a relationship--which happens in many parish and family situations because of a misunderstanding, silly argument, or other human foible?
B: People's religious identification and practice: If religion has been reduced for one's lifetime to superstition, "hedging your bets," at a point of genuine enlightenment (or at the suggestion of an unsympathetic cynic or evangelical atheist) the tabernacle of cards may collapse. Misinformation abounds. Get thee to a catechism! Fulton Sheen said that what most foes of Catholicism reject is their mistaken notion of Catholicism and not the real deal; except he didn't use the phrase "real deal."
Some religionists of any stripe can get so caught up in their leader of worship (priest, minister, rabbi, imam...) that when he or she departs, they lose their interest. I have written before on people who turn down (for what?) their faith because Msgr. Pierogie-san looked funny at me in 1972, or took out the altar rail, or put in an altar rail, or railed from the altar on leaving Mass early. While there are many cases of genuinely traumatic instances--more than credit is typically afforded--some people need a sense of perspective (and in my hubris, "I'm just the one to give it to 'em!") and others just might be looking for an excuse.
Yet amid the poor examples who have soured people's experience of Catholicism, there are many good ones. I partially attribute my vocation to them. Longing for the parochial equivalent of Greece's Golden Age, however, does no justice to the present leadership--not to neglect the present parish roll who most fully express the unity of the Mystical Body when all parts are functioning to their utmost.
At the hospital I am daily reminded of Pope Francis' now-famous reference to the Church as a field-hospital for the wounded. That "Model of the Church" belongs right up there with those of Avery Dulles. When I enter someone's room, their sacred space for recuperation and reconsideration, I often find someone for whom the Catholic faith is a thing of their past, but in those moments I want to foster another soul for whom the Catholic Faith can become a thing of their present and future.