There are enough former Catholics in the United States to make up a large Christian denomination of their own.
According to the Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008, one in 10 American adults identifies as an ex-Catholic. And of the 25 percent of American adults who are still Catholic, only one in four attend mass regularly.
“People are not leaving because of the last crisis or last scandal,” said Katie Pesha, the executive director of communications and planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “The church has been dealing with that for 2,000 years. The church is bigger than that.”
Most of them, she said, are simply drifting away because of time commitments, health or family reasons.
“I think it’s just a matter of just gradually getting out of that routine of getting up and going to mass on Sunday mornings.”
The church is in the midst of a push to reach out to these people. It’s called the New Evangelization. The term New Evangelization originated with Pope John Paul II, back in the 1980s. But this particular push is part of the “Year of Faith,” which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared last year as an initiative for Catholics all over the world to deepen their beliefs. And the New Evangelization a movement to “re-propose the Gospel” to those who have drifted away, or never had too deep of a faith to begin with.
The message is the same as it’s always been. “The New Evangelization is focused on explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ to people,” Pesha said. But some of the techniques for spreading that message are new.
Here in Missouri, the Archdiocese of St. Louis held its first Communication and New Evangelization Conference on Tuesday to help equip parishes and schools for spreading the Gospel message.
Social networks, such as Twitter, are strong assets to evangelization. Pesha said the viral power of the Internet is helpful in spreading a message to a much broader audience than one person could ever reach.
Of course, social media also brings its challenges, such as criticism. One concerned conference attendee asked about how to respond to negative tweets.
“Respond with truth and love,” Archdiocese Web Content Specialist Amanda Lindley said.
She said sometimes, it’s OK to delete tweets, but it’s better to use them as teachable moments – and not let the negative tweets prevent boldness. “St. Paul was not received well,” she said, citing an example from church history who persisted under persecution.
“People are going to be rude,” she said, “but you still need to be bold.”
Building a brand
Criticism toward the church’s image is nothing new. But that image matters.
It might sound strange to think about branding or marketing a church, but that’s an important part of communicating the church’s message, said Elizabeth Westhoff, director of marketing for the archdiocese.
Just as people associate ideas and services with company logos, such as Starbucks, Nike and Apple, people also associate ideas with religious groups. The key is in making sure the right image emerges.
For some, the word “Catholic” stirs up negative images: an archbishop drenched by the feminist group Femen, a mocking image of a pope and signs urging people to “killCatholicism.”
On the positive side, Bing Crosby sometimes comes to mind (he won an Academy Award in the 1940s for his role as Father Chuck O’Malley in “Going My Way”), but even images like this aren’t what the church is about.
What people should see, Westhoff said, is what the church does every day: Feed the hungry, help the sick, clothe the naked.
“We need to show people what we do,” she said. She urged conference attendees to “stand out” and “stay the course.”
Learning, living, spreading
“We live in a very confused and despairing world,” said Patrick Novecosky, an award-winning Catholic journalist. Yet despite the confusion, Catholics need to remain firm in their faith.
Novecosky delivered the keynote address at the archdiocese conference, and he gave his audience tips for learning, living and spreading their faith – all important components of the New Evangelization:
- Read: Read the Bible, the catechism, and good news sources.
- Listen: Listen to Catholic radio, and other uplifting and educational sources.
- Go out: Go to conferences and on pilgrimages that will help enrich your faith.
- Pray: Live a life of prayer and sacraments.
- Practice the virtues: Prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity.
- Serve: “We need to be joyful Catholics, … and our joy comes from Christ,” he said. That includes joy in serving.
- To the closest: Spread the message of Catholicism to those closest to you.
- To the community: Spread the message of Catholicsm to the community, even in little ways, such as “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Easter” and “Bless you.”
- Beyond the confines: Write letters to officials regarding important issues.
In a time of what Novecosky calls "unprecendented cultural hostility" toward Catholicism, these are not always easy to do.
"We need to first be transformed by God's power and God's grace," he said.
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. For more on this subject, read Catholic writer Kelsey Gillespy's reflection on the "brand" of Catholicism.