Over the past 25 years, one of the most common prayer request I hear deals with a son or daughter who has left the church, or a husband or parent who no longer attends Mass, or a grandchild who has drifted from the faith.
I did a conference once and asked a crowd of more than 200 people if anyone had a relative who had left the church. Every hand went up. Regretfully, I suspect that in every parish we would find similar situations.
There are literally millions of parents who are hurting for their kids. They are worried for them and feel they have somehow let them down. They feel hopeless and helpless.
Bishop Robert Barron notes that the most significant challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the attrition of our own people. The church is hemorrhaging young people. Fifty percent of young people raised in the church no longer identify as Catholic today; 79 percent who leave the church leave before age 23, and between six and seven people leave the Catholic Church for each one who enters.
Parishioners have noticed this tragic statistic over the last 20-30 years. Half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed, and half of the couples you’ve seen married in the church are gone. This is an epidemic.
Why are they leaving?
Some dioceses are doing research along with the Pew Research Center. Many just sort of drifted away unintentionally and lost interest. They just didn’t have a reason to stay. What does this say about how we treat our young adults?
For those who are just married or not yet married, do they have a place in our parishes? Do they feel needed?
Some leave because the church does not respond to their spiritual needs, and they end up in evangelical churches where Bible study is emphasized and Christianity is presented as a path that is radically different from popular culture.
Still others leave the Catholic Church because they failed to encounter a deep relationship with Jesus Christ.
Some say science makes faith seem like fiction. Many face this challenge in college when faith is challenged and they began to doubt. Do our parish faith formation programs fail to show how science and faith are partners and don’t contradict each other?
Church teachings are a factor for some who leave, claiming that the church is too stuffy, too old-fashioned, too negative.
Then there is the abuse crisis, which has caused people to lose faith.
What are we doing to stop this hemorrhaging?
Just hoping that they return is not enough. Young people no longer have a Catholic culture that supports them. People are marrying later and don’t have the sacramental connections of previous generations. In 1960 the median age for first marriages was 23 for men and 20 for women. It is now 29 and 27, respectively. Those six-to-seven extra years away from the church make it much harder to return. Young people simply see no need for church.
Many parents I speak to, say their grown children are good kids and they are proud of them. Of course they are good because they have received the faith life and moral upbringing from their parents, I respond. But that is not enough. We have to begin to make some plans to call people back and show them why the church is truly a place of life and salvation.
Parents need other parents to share the quiet pain they harbor. And parishes need to pray together for those who have left. Begin to figure out how to invite people back to the church. Why not a prayer time in which parishioners write down the names of loved ones who have left? Take a month to pray for them — offering them up at Mass. Write a letter to them from the parish — “We are praying for you, and you are missed.”
Yes, prayer is the first answer for anything including a deep crisis like this. The Gospel of Matthew says, “When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ … Jesus looked at them and said, ’With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Conversion is a mystery of the heart, but we know that the Holy Spirit works in human hearts, so prayer is our first and foremost tool for loving our loved ones.
One concrete tool that parishes are using is called, “RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church.” It is put together by Catholic evangelist Brandon Vogt, the content director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He researched the problem, talked with experts and those who have left and returned to the church, all to determine what really works to draw young people back. The result is a collection of resources that pulls together the best tips, tools, speakers and strategies. You can find all the information at helpthemreturn.com.
The program includes professionally filmed video lessons and interviews with Catholic leaders that reveal a complete game plan for drawing your child back. Experts include Dr. Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler, Father Michael Schmitz, and many more. Also included is an online community where parents can join hundreds of others to find encouragement and support as they draw their children back. You can learn more at ReturnGameplan.com.
I believe the Lord will move some hearts. Are you willing to launch a project in your parish? Come Holy Spirit and touch hearts to invite our kids back home.