THE CHANGING CATHOLIC CHURCH
6:00 am
Mon February 25, 2013

Church Trying to Bring Lapsed Catholics Home

Father Brian Clary of St. Mary's in Brookline
Credit Anne Mostue / WGBH

Catholicism in America can be described in various ways: in numbers, movements and emotion.

“I go every holy day of obligation,” said one area Catholic. “It means a lot to me, to take part in the sacraments.”

But approximately one third of those who say they were raised Catholic are no longer practicing the religion. That’s according to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. “Disconnect” is one word used by Jim Crowley, a 62-year-old Brighton resident, who says he’s drifted from the parish of his childhood.

“Twelve years of schooling right over there, St. Columbkille’s,” Crowley said.

Crowley stopped going to Church in high school, but still went through the sacraments of confirmation and marriage in the church.

“I became over the years more spiritual than religious, so I don’t follow a lot of the orchestrated dictates and I don’t agree with a lot of their policies and procedures,” he said. “Not allowing women, not allowing priests to marry. So I never became angry at God, I just became fed up with the people he left in charge.”

Crowley said he isn’t referring to the sex abuse scandal, just leadership and dogma in general. He, along with many Catholics, are questioning whether the church is relevant in a country that’s increasingly accepting gay marriage, divorce, and women in positions of power. In fact, Pew research shows that the sex abuse crisis has little to do with Catholics leaving the faith. Seventy-one percent of those interviewed in 2007 said they drifted away from the church because it wasn't meeting their spiritual needs. That is precisely the target audience of Catholics Come Home, a campaign started by Catholic lay people.

The campaign was started in 2008 by Tom Peterson, a practicing Catholic and former ad executive. It’s funded by other practicing Catholics. The campaign consists of a combination of television ads, a website, social media and a forthcoming book.

“I’m a lay person and Catholics Come Home is largely run as a lay apostolate of thousands of people across the United States who pray for and continue our mission of the new evangelization, work toward helping more of our loved ones home to the church,” Peterson said.

The campaign’s main messages: the Catholic Church teaches the truth, families should have a foundation of faith, the sacraments are sacred, and so is forgiveness. Peterson said it’s difficult to tell how effective it has been, but individual dioceses are trying to monitor attendance.

“They were able to compare the results before and after the campaign by counting people in the pews,” he said. “They had representative Sundays they were able to count. And we had dioceses tell us that they had an increase in Mass attendance as high as 17.7 percent, and at some diocese as low as 4 percent.”

But the campaign faces scrutiny, especially from those who want the Vatican and church leaders to take more responsibility for the ongoing sexual abuse crisis.

“Apologies have been made,” said Terry McKiernan, founder of the website BishopAccountability.org, and a practicing Catholic himself. “But if you look at the CatholicsComeHome.org website, or if you go to most of the diocesan websites and look at how they’re trying to entice people to come home, the sexual abuse crisis is for the most part invisible. Their approach has been to pretend that it’s all over, it’s been dealt with, move along, it will be fine. And I think they’re making a huge mistake.”

Father Brian Clary, pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Brookline, said he’s reconsidered every aspect of his Church’s culture -- from how he greets new faces at Mass to the length of his sermons.

“When I first hear about the Catholics Come Home campaign, the question that arose in my mind was what are we asking them to come home to?” Clary said. “People in their 60s and 70s are the backbone of the parish, so to speak. The second group of people are in their 20s and 30s and they say, ‘Well, I  haven’t been to church in many years, haven’t been to confession since the first time.’ And I say ‘Welcome, and what brings you here today? What’s going on?’ And they get into it. Perhaps there’s a big moment of transition in my life. A relationship, employment. They feel a little adrift.”

Clary said he continues to hear lapsed Catholics occasionally voice anger and frustration about the sex abuse scandal.

“How could the church be a part of such awful sin and crime and evil?” he said. “A fair question. I question about that all the time. But still, how far we’ve come in ensuring that the parishes and schools are safe havens for children and vulnerable adults. Every year each employee -- from the cardinal down to a volunteer -- we get CORI’d, background checks, we go through child protection training.”

That may be reassuring to Catholics such as Michael Mack of Cambridge, who says he left the Church after he was molested by a priest when he was 11 and living in North Carolina. Forty-two years later, in 2008, he returned to the church, for a variety of reasons.

“I explored a lot of different faiths, a lot of beautiful faiths, over the years, but the church is where I came from,” Mack said.

Mack said his return has been a healing process. He’s even written a play about it, called “Conversations with my Molester, A Journey of Faith.” And while not necessarily prompted by the Catholics Come Home campaign, he said it has been a homecoming of sorts.

“I would see the banners, I would see the advertisements on some Churches,” he said. “It was really more after the fact because I already had my own personal campaign in process. The church that I go to, now the churches that I go to, because in all of them I find something very special, very unique in each of their different Masses, but even more importantly it’s the people there. My church is my people.”

The Catholics Come Home campaign won’t slow down with the transition of the new pope, organizers said. If anything, they emphasize renewed energy and evolution in church leadership

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