An Encouraging Word — Comings and goings in the church

A remnant shall return. Isaiah 10:21

Recently, I wrote a column (August 30, 2012) bemoaning the fact that one-third of all Americans who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic! As I was grieving over such a high number, I should have asked the question: “How bad is that number compared to other religions?”

The huge losses are certainly nothing to celebrate, but I have discovered that there is more to the story, some facts that might take some of the sting out of those horrible statistics.

Statistics indicate 22.5 million people in the U.S. who were baptized and raised Catholic no longer identify themselves as Catholic. Those figures do not include the fact that we still have a retention rate of 68% which is better than other faiths achieve. (All Protestant denominations fare worse than the Catholic Church). Some of those who’ve left have reported joining other faiths and others report having no religious affiliation.

In addition, today we have 5 million, or 9% of all adult Catholics, who left the church and have returned.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that there are approximately 168,000 in a typical year who were raised Catholic and left the faith, typically in their teens or early 20s, who come back. Part of what keeps the Catholic population so steady, along with immigration, is the number of Catholics returning to the faith.

Who are the Catholic “reverts?” Currently, they are people who are disproportionately between the ages of 25 and 34. A plurality of regular Mass attending Catholic reverts are of the post-Vatican II generation (ages 31-51). Another numerous group of reverts are those in their retirement years (65 or older).

Younger reverts may be coming back as they marry and raise children. Older reverts may be returning to the faith of their youth as they begin to face the autumn of their lives.

Among reverts who are regularly attending Mass, 47% report that they had attended Catholic elementary school, 30% went to a Catholic high school, 89% celebrated the Sacraments of Confirmation and 12% went to a Catholic college or university.

What can we learn from these studies? I would offer several conclusions. Even though our losses are significant, we may not be doing as badly as it is being portrayed in the popular media and in the minds of many Catholics.

Also, we should note how important the impact Catholic education has on our membership numbers.

We ought to pay closer attention to our young adults, especially as they get married. And we ought to have a better outreach to “fallen-away” Catholics who are getting ready to retire.

Those interested in knowing more about the phenomenon of why and how Catholics revert should check out In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice, and Change by Michelle Dillon and Paul Wink. If you are more interested in stories than numbers, check out these profiles at: whyimcatholic.com. For tips on welcoming back reverts go to USCCBLOG “Tips for Welcoming Returning Catholics.”

Father J. Ronald Knott

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