There was a time, growing up, when I suggested to my mother I might want to be a priest.
This no doubt made her smile. My mother believed there wasn’t a problem in the world that a Hail Mary couldn’t solve. Our family never set out on a road trip without everyone in the car being forced to say the Act of Contrition.
Christ looked down on me and my four siblings from crosses that hung throughout our house. Our baptisms were as big a deal as bar mitzvahs. For years while attending St. Joseph’s Catholic Elementary in Sarnia, I’d get up early so I could help our local priest celebrate mass. I wasn’t the greatest altar boy in the world, but I was dependable.
Once when the priest was reciting Latin while washing his hands from a bowl I was holding, I thought he was mumbling instructions in English to me instead. “I’m sorry, Father,” I kept repeating. “But I don’t understand what you’re saying.” I’m lucky I wasn’t fired on the spot.
Eventually, I gave up the altar boy gig. Once I got to our Catholic high school, I wasn’t attending Sunday mass regularly, either. By university, I’d pretty much stopped going altogether. Over the next few years, I’d make an exception around Christmas, but, in due course, I didn’t even go then. Many of the friends I grew up with would fade away from the church in much the same manner.
Now the church wants us back.
The Archdiocese of Vancouver has become the first in Canada to participate in a controversial campaign to get lost members of the flock to return home. Catholics Come Home, Inc. is an American-based organization that began the crusade to convince lapsed churchgoers that the pews they once filled waited for them without judgment.
In Vancouver, the archdiocese has been running Catholics Come Home television ads at a cost of about $500,000. There are three of them: one that promotes the many good things the church has been responsible for (hospitals, orphanages, schools); one that amounts to a testimonial by those who have returned to the church and found happiness; and one, if I might sum it up, that suggests people who have led a life of sin may want to reconcile with their maker just in case their checkout date arrives unexpectedly.
It’s this ad, in particular, I could see enjoying some success in exploiting that sense of guilt and fear that Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, carry with them a lifetime.
“I would estimate one-quarter million baptized Catholics among us [in the archdiocese] are no longer practising their faith with any regularity,” Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller was quoted in The Vancouver Sun as saying.
And if the archbishop could get even 10 per cent of those who have abandoned the church to return, that’s nearly 25,000 new(ish) parishioners and a far heavier collection plate. And you’d certainly have to think that declining revenue is playing some sort of role in this membership drive.
Fact is, it’s not just numbers in the Catholic Church that are down but those in most organized religions, even ones with a far more liberal-minded orthodoxy than the comparably strict tenets overseen by the Pope.
We live in a far more secularized world than we once did, particularly in North America. British Columbia is especially notorious for the great numbers of resident non-believers. For years, the Vatican has tried to put a finger on why people who were baptized in the church have left. There’s no simple answer. But there are plenty of reasons that Rome has stubbornly refused to acknowledge.
For many people, the church is simply not relevant to their lives. They find Catholicism, and its teachings, desperately out of sync with the times. The church’s uncompromising stand on abortion, homosexuality, contraception and divorce, among other issues, has alienated millions of churchgoers. The rise of busy dual-income families has also eroded church attendance. And we haven’t even mentioned the incalculable damage abuse scandals have done.
I wish the Vancouver archdiocese well in its recruitment efforts. But I also sympathize with those who have left their Catholic past behind because they’ve become more spiritual than religious and because they can no longer align themselves with an institution whose ideology, on many fronts, is in such conflict with their own.
All these years later, I think of my Catholic upbringing and imagine a priest speaking a language I don’t understand.