May 11, 2012


Not enough new Catholics

We welcome all the new Catholics who became members of the Church on Holy Saturday in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis—the 470 former catechumens who had not yet been baptized, and the 489 former candidates who were already baptized Christians. They are usually called converts.

On Easter Sunday, our churches also welcomed those who are sometimes called inactive Catholics, those who return on major holy days, often just Christmas and Easter, to the Church into which they received the sacraments of initiation.

Throughout the country, churches were full on Easter. Perhaps our first thought was: Where are all these people the rest of the year?

Pope Benedict XVI probably wondered the same thing when he decided it was time to stress “the new evangelization.” We will be hearing much about that this year since a worldwide synod of bishops will meet on Oct. 7-28 to discuss “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”

But why don’t we get started now, while the full churches of Easter are still fresh in our memories?

There have been other periods in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States when evangelization was deemed important and brought in many converts. In the 1950s, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (later Archbishop) was responsible for thousands of converts, especially as a result of his Emmy-award winning TV show.

This was a time, too, when Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton was conducting Rosary Crusades throughout the country and, later, throughout the world, attracting millions of people.

There was a similar evangelization effort several decades earlier, although it happened in England. This was an intellectual revival that resulted in the conversion of such great writers as G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers. C.S. Lewis should be in that group because he converted from atheism to Christianity, but he never quite made it to the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church in this country grew considerably after World War II as Catholics began to participate more thoroughly in society as a result of being able to go to college because of the G.I. Bill. The ignorance about the Catholic Church, and prejudice against it, that existed up to that time were slowly eroded as Catholics talked about their faith to non-Catholics.

Things improved so much that a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was even elected president.

We don’t seem to have that kind of religious fervor today. Despite all those new Catholics, the number of Catholics is barely staying even. The Church is no longer growing as it once was.

In fact, according to the National Council of Churches 2012 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, last year the Catholic Church had a 0.44 percent decrease in membership. It is still the largest Church, with 68.2 million people. The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.1 million, is in second place.

One reason that the Church isn’t growing is because so many Catholics have dropped out. They may be inactive Catholics, have joined other Christian traditions, or have become completely secularized and no longer practice any faith.

We believe that we could all do a better job of evangelization. As we welcome those new Catholics, we should also realize that there should have been many more of them. How many of us actually did something to bring someone into the Church?

Surely, many of us know good people who might be great Catholics. Often, all it takes is for someone to invite them to accompany them to Mass. They might even have thought about Catholicism, but were hesitant to go to Mass by themselves.

Perhaps a neighbor has asked questions about Catholic beliefs. Maybe it is about our devotion to Mary, or our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or any number of other things. The best response might be to invite him or her to the RCIA classes when they resume this fall.

Next year, let us have many more new Catholics to welcome.

—John F. Fink

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