Living in a Godless state

Monday 25 April 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Feast of St. Mark, evangelist

You know me, dear readers. For recreational purposes, I study statistics. I find perusing data to be very relaxing. Go figure.

That abruptly changed at (of all places) St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River. The venue has personal significance. It was there that I was ordained a priest and from there sent out to preach, to teach, and to evangelize. 

I was attending a presentation by Deacon Joe Regali, director of the Diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. All of us priests were there. On the screen was projected a series of statistics. One statistic in particular nearly knocked me out of my pew. Here’s that shocking fact: It is scientifically proven that I live in a Godless state. Not me personally, you understand, but all of us in the state of Massachusetts. New England is bad enough in matters of faith, but studies have proven that citizens of Massachusetts value faith less than all the other states in the nation. Sixty percent of the residents of Massachusetts say they don’t even believe in God. When it comes to faith, Massachusetts ranks dead last. I am not making this up. Although the currency we use proclaims “In God We Trust,” more than half of us don’t.

We live in a time in desperate need of a New Evangelization worldwide, but in Massachusetts we happen to be at the epicenter of Godlessness. Who knew? 

I’m of an age to remember the “old evangelization.” I remember the mighty efforts of outreach going on across the Diocese of Fall River: the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, the Sodality of Mary, the Children of Mary, college Newman Centers, Chi-Rho Clubs, ECHO and Emmaus youth retreats, Cursillo adult retreats, the Catholic Youth Organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Holy Name Society, and similar organizations. Each group had a penchant for evangelization. These organizations were (and are) led by highly-motivated lay people. Priests always worked closely with them.

I also vaguely remember a diocesan evangelization effort back in the early 1980s. It was called “We Care/ We Share,” I think. Catholics for the first time were invited to work together across parish lines. The objective was to visit every single home in the neighborhood and to invite every single person to a local event tailored to their own particular social or religious interests. There were neighborhood events for everyone: for the simply curious, for the unchurched Catholics, for other Christians, for non-Christians, for divorced and remarried Catholics. Advanced publicity across the diocese included radio spots, newspaper ads, bumper stickers, massive amounts of printed materials (bilingual), and many organizational sessions. On one Sunday afternoon, 10,000 trained home visitors were sent door-to-door all across the diocese. “We are the Catholic Church. We Care/We Share” — that was the message. “To all our friends and neighbors, come and see” — that was the personal invitation. While we were at it, we also took a census of self-identified Catholics.

Times have changed. The Church must change, too. In this diocese, we have a faithful past, but what about the future?

Here are more statistics on the diocese, based on parish self-reporting over a decade: 

— Baptisms — down 48 percent (nationally, down 25 percent)

— First Communions — down 16 percent (nationally, down 10 percent)

— Confirmations — down 24 percent (nationally, down seven percent)

— Marriages — down 47 percent (nationally, down 28 percent)

In the Diocese of Fall River, over the past five years the number of parishioners has dropped barely five percent but Mass attendance is down 41 percent and Religious Education is off by 27 percent. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors but where are the people? “The only option we don’t have is to do nothing,” observes Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. 

The bishop has asked for feedback from parishioners of all ages throughout the diocese. The project is called “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope.” The purpose is to assist the bishop in leading the diocesan Church into the future. It’s a sort of “virtual town meeting.” Answering the questions online will take an estimated 15 minutes. Printed versions are available for those without Internet access, as are trilingual materials. The questions deal with five areas: Sacramental life, Catholic Faith Formation, community, serving those in need, and effective administration. The data will be reported back to the Parish Core Team. The deadline for input is May 31, 2016.

Every parish has a designated core group to analyze the data received, craft a plan of action, and propose a parish and/or regional strategy for the bishop’s prayerful consideration. This pastoral task force is composed of the pastor, perhaps a ministerial associate, Parish Pastoral Council members, Parish Finance Council members, and other parish lay leaders. 

Then it will be on to a hopeful future. As the bishop puts it, “We will move from maintenance mode to mission mode.” I find these both challenging and exciting times to be a priest.

Come Holy Spirit! Enlighten the hearts of Your faithful! Enkindle in us the fire of Your love.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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