Attracting families will lure Catholics back to pews

By 
  • October 19, 2007
{mosimage}CORNWALL, Ont. - Offer better ministry to families and baptized Catholics who no longer attend church will come back, sociologist Reginald Bibby told the annual plenary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Oct. 15.

The University of Lethbridge professor said Catholics make up 44 per cent of the population in Canada — about 14 million people, seven million of whom live in the province of Quebec. Those numbers are the envy of other groups, but “to whom much is given, much also is expected,” he said.

“The emphasis on the new evangelization is precisely what is needed in Canada today,” he told the bishops, noting that entire groups of baptized Catholics have “lost a living sense of faith.”

Bibby, who charted the downward plunge in church attendance since the 1960s, said he has a “new story to tell” that shows that God is still at work in culture, despite the movement towards secularization. In fact, secularization has not led to the end of organized religion, because people “continue to have needs that only religion can address.”

His studies have shown a slight upward trend in weekly church attendance from 20 per cent to 25 per cent in the last five to seven years, the highest levels since the early 1980s. While baby-boomers are the least likely to attend church, they are discovering their children are more likely to attend than they are.

Research also shows that those who identify as Catholics have not been open to switching traditions and “large numbers of less involved Catholics are open to greater participation in churches.”

If churches respond to the spiritual interests and needs of these people, “it will be just a matter of time before the established groups experience numerical revitalization,” he said.

The idea that people who aren’t involved don’t want to be is not supported by the research, he said.

“People are receptive to greater involvement if they find it to be worthwhile.”

Among adults, 62 per cent who attended church less than once a month and 40 per cent of teenagers would be receptive to greater involvement, he said. People are not looking for a good church, they are looking for ministry, he said, and practical ways in which faith can touch their lives.

Studies show 93 per cent of Canadians believe in God or are open to believe; 80 per cent positively believe in God and two in four people pray privately at least once a week. One in two maintain they have “experienced the presence of God.” Atheists make up only seven per cent of the population, Bibby said.

Spiritual needs — to help people understand what happens to a loved one after death, for example — remain. So do personal needs.

“The things people are asking for are so minimal,” he said, noting they are hoping to find something in a homily that will better help them live their lives. They hope their children will enjoy going to church. They are looking for relationships.

“If you want to touch people’s lives, touch their families,” he said, noting how much something simple like visiting someone’s father in a nursing home sends a positive message.

On Oct. 16, Halifax Auxiliary Bishop Claude Champagne followed Bibby’s talk with a theological reflection on the new evangelization. Champagne stressed the link between the Risen God and a commitment to justice and love.

We are all called to be symbols and artisans of the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus and we are called to make visible what the Spirit of God is doing, he said.

Champagne spoke of the universal action of the Spirit of the Risen Christ in the world, noting the Holy Spirit was at work always and everywhere. If we are witnesses of the free and unconditional love of Christ, we make the Kingdom of Heaven visible.

He said the mission of Christ cannot be centred on driving up the membership rolls in the church. Today we understand better the church is at the service of the Kingdom of God, he said. This means welcoming and re-integrating all marginalized people, the way Jesus welcomed sinners, publicans and women.

Certain groups — women, ethnic minorities, the poor and homosexuals — feel invisible in our churches, he said.

“They need to be regarded with the love they so fervently desire.”

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