Best way to bring ex-Catholics back to church? Just ask them

September 24, 2014

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Lisle, Illinois ~ Catholics continue to abandon the Church at an alarming rate. It is estimated that if ex-Catholics were considered a denomination on their own, they would comprise the second-largest denomination in the United States with more than 22 million members.

But according to a study conducted by researchers at Benedictine University in Lisle, there is a simple way to bring many former Catholics back to the Church – ask them.

A personal invitation from a parish priest or parishioner was the most frequent response given by 575 lapsed and drifting parishioners who were the subject of a survey that also asked why they had stopped attending Mass, what changes could their parish make to prompt them to return, and what would they like to say if they could communicate directly with their bishop.

The survey was conducted at the request of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, which serves more than 140,000 Catholics from 28 counties in Central Illinois through 130 predominately English-speaking parishes, 43 Catholic elementary schools and six Catholic secondary schools.

The survey was conducted by Benedictine University faculty members Brian Patterson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychology, Kelly Kandra, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology, and Phil Hardy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Political Science and acting director of the University's Center for Civic Leadership.

The three faculty members will present the results from the survey at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, November 24 at Angela Hall on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield. The event is open to the public, but seating is limited.

The diocese has experienced a significant decline in attendance at Mass during the last decade. Official diocesan attendance counts for the period 1996-2011 reveal that although some of the 130 parishes in this diocese have not lost parishioners or Mass attendees, others have seen drops by as much as 30 percent.

The study was conducted in two phases.

The first phase of the study involved a confidential online survey that was distributed to a volunteer sample of 575 lapsed and drifting parishioners in the Springfield area. The sample was asked to rate their level of agreement on whether such factors as work schedule or unfriendly pastoral staff caused them to stop attending Mass or leave the Church entirely, and whether the Church's views on abortion, homosexuality and other social issues were contributing factors.

Respondents cited disagreements on social issues, including the Church's doctrine on birth control, the ordination of women to priestly office, divorce and remarriage, use of fertility treatments and homosexuality; a lack of personal connection; Church scandals and the belief that Church leadership has not dealt with these problems in an appropriate manner; and a perceived lack of Christian values represented in the parish among priests and the Church as reasons for leaving.

"I think clarifying some beliefs of the Catholic Church would be helpful," one respondent said. "Many people have a preconceived idea that Catholics are rigid and traditional and don't understand all the 'rules' and parts of the Mass. They see other churches as more modern, meaningful and relevant to their life today."

Although many of the 574 responses indicated Springfield parishioners had no suggestions for how the Diocese could bring lapsed Catholics back, the most frequently given response indicated that a personal invitation, either from a parish priest or parishioners themselves, would be their recommendation.

"A priest making personal, friendly contact and being very careful when and how to judge the person involved (would be one way to bring a lapsed Catholic back to church)," one respondent said. "The personal contact needs to be loving, understanding and sympathetic. Slow to judge and full of sympathy and understanding for the cause of the person leaving the Church in the first place and not returning on their own."

The second phase sought input from a volunteer sample of 827 active parishioners about their experiences, the general atmosphere and environment of their parish, and their level of satisfaction with pastoral staff and priests, indicating whether they felt their individual spiritual and religious needs were being met.

They were also queried about Church issues and policies including abortion, gay marriage, divorce, priest celibacy, capital punishment and whether they had ever separated or considered separating from their parish or the Church.

Most of the respondents indicated sense of community was the most important reason why they attend Mass and what they like most about their parish. Issues with Church doctrine, especially birth control, were indicated by many respondents as Catholic beliefs or practices that they find most troubling.

Although overall extremely satisfied with their parish experience, some respondents suggested more welcoming or approachable priests would improve their parish experience. Parish priests or pastors were the most frequently given responses for what parishioners liked least about their parish and for those considering separating.

"These results suggest a large number of people have left the Catholic Church because they object to its doctrinal positions and it may be difficult to bring these individuals back to this faith community," Hardy said. "Some current, active Catholics also share these objections and they have considered separating from their parish or the Church.

"However, there is some evidence indicating parishes and pastors may have opportunities to attract and retain their parishioners, not least of which would be the continued pursuit of a welcoming and friendly atmosphere in their church and extending the human community that so many seek through group worship," he added.

The diocese has indicated that Bishop Thomas John Paprocki plans to incorporate some of the suggestions offered by survey respondents into his leadership planning and communications with parishioners this fall.

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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