Fast forward. Of the 44 percent of Americans who have left the religious tradition of their youth, about 10.1 percent are former Roman Catholics. Their return to the Church is unlikely any time in the near future, according to the findings of the Pew Research Center.
Every year during the Easter Triduum, the Church welcomes thousands into full communion with the Body of Christ. In contrast, large numbers walk out of the Church each year. Some of those who left years ago are prominent figures in public service today and currently in the news: Vice-president hopeful Mike Pence, Gov. John Kasich, Congresswoman Mia Love, and FBI Director James Comey.
“The church in America must face the fact,” writes Fr. William J. Byron, S.J., “that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world” (“On Their Way Out,” America Magazine (January 2, 2011).
Former Catholics may not be able to put their finger on the exact reason for leaving the Church, but it may boil down to a few phrases:
“I don’t get anything out of weekly Mass. Homilies are like dry straw.”
“The Catholic Church is all about dos and don’ts.”
“The clergy abuse scandal and its cover-up have driven me away.”
As if to underscore the sad phenomenon of plummeting numbers, Cardinal Timothy Dolan addressed it in 2011 when he addressed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Perhaps our most pressing pastoral challenge today is to reclaim that truth, to restore the luster, the credibility, the beauty of the Church, ‘ever ancient, ever new,’ renewing her as the face of Jesus, just as He is the face of God. Maybe our most urgent priority is to lead our people to see, meet, and hear anew Jesus in and through His Church.” “Urgent” is the key word.
If the Catholic Church were a business, its leadership would seek every possible means to reverse these untenable losses. And immediately.
The “new evangelization,” beginning with our youth, seeks to reverse course.
The Church Compared to a Symphony Orchestra
The secret of Catholic Christianity lies not so much in the “the outer walls of the Catholic cathedral, with their cracks and crevices and their weather-beaten masonry” but in “the wondrous artistic beauty of the interior hidden from the outer structure” in the mystery of its internal life. (Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, 13).
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The splendor of the Church’s dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Mystical Body of Christ, the beauty of venerating Mary and the saints, and the beauty of the instructions of the Church Fathers on prayer, contemplation, mysticism and morality, on the Church’s effective social teaching—all these expressions of Catholic Christianity can plant the seeds of faith as well as strengthen one’s faith in their beauty.
At its best, Catholic Christianity is a splendid symphony orchestra, an inherently beautiful work of art to behold. The mission of the Church, like a symphony orchestra, is to attract the audience with its deep and expressive beauty. An orchestra without that uplifting spirit and joi de vivre is bound to disappoint its audience. Such an orchestra dies if it ceases to attract through its beauty. And what of the Church?
Can the Church die from within or be destroyed from without? Given the revolving door of converts coming in and cradle Catholics going out, can today’s Church grow and speak as a beautifully persuasive voice?
Didn’t Jesus assure Peter, the rock on which he built the Church, that the powers of death would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18)? Still, the human element, of itself, can become deformed and disfigured. Prayerlessness, the drive for power, worldliness and loss of fervor provide fertile ground for critics eager to brand the Church as corrupt.
We need more apostles like Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the Lord’s resurrection to the disciples. She ran to them in haste and was beside herself with joy to announce the good news.