Obstacles. Opportunities. Hope. Discouragement.

Interpretation of the numbers associated with seven trends (see box, Page 10) in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee culled from data the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) collected last summer and by information from the Glenmary Research Center will determine how one views the future of the Catholic Church in southeastern Wisconsin.

During 10 district meetings focused on Archdiocesan Synod implementation held throughout February, the approximately 1,100 participants were asked to choose which trend they viewed as most hopeful and which one was most concerning.

Nearly 49 percent found the growing number of those who identified themselves as Catholics but who did not belong to a parish as most hopeful. Nearly 35 percent said the unclaimed population fit that category.

“This ties right in with what the synod held up as top priority – evangelizing,” Randy Nohl, director of the Archdiocesan Synod implementation, told the Catholic Herald March 6. “These are the people you are trying to reach.”

Michelle Nemer, associate director for archdiocese’s Office for Planning and Councils, said the fact they identify themselves as Catholics indicates they are already attracted to Catholicism.

“The question then is how do we help them root themselves in a parish? What is it that is going to attract people to us?” she said.

Mark Kemmeter, director for the archdiocese’s Office for Planning and Councils, referenced a study done in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, in noting the “complexity of this population.”

“You can get them to come back by saying, ‘We’re doing something new and different,’ but if things haven’t changed, they won’t stay,” he said. “People find hope that they’re still Catholic, but there’s not the understanding they don’t like where the church is right now, so that’s why they are where they are (self identifying). They’re hopeful the church will change.”

‘They’re not joiners’

Nohl said in examining the large number of self-identifying Catholics who don’t belong to parishes, they learned people feel their attendance at a parish’s Masses make them members, or “no one has ever asked us to join.”

“In some communities, for example, the Hispanic/Latino communities, people go to Mass, but they just don’t join,” he said. “We also see that with young adults. They will go to church, but not join. There’s also a group that says, ‘We’re only going to be here for five years so we’re not going to make a commitment to the parish.’ In general, they’re not joiners.”

Nohl noted that nationally, according to CARA, 23 percent of parishioners attend Mass weekly; 40 percent once a month.
“What we often hear is a third go to Mass. What we’re saying is that in a month’s time you have come in contact with 63 percent of your parishioners,” he said.

Kemmeter added, “The ‘occasional’ group is a new pattern. They go to Mass, but occasionally.”

Strategies for parishes, clusters

Nohl is clear that there is no easy method for reaching the self-identifying and the unclaimed.

“There’s no silver bullet, there’s no one way that if everybody is going to do this, it will work,” he said. “Or if you read the book ‘Rebuilt’ (a popular guide about one Maryland parish’s revival), it’s not like you can just pick up ‘Rebuilt’ and put it in your parish and make it work.”

Between now and September, parish leadership will be asked to examine what they could be doing in evangelization and how would they connect it to the Sunday Mass. At the same time, Nohl is forming a team that will look at national resources and trends. The ideas culled from the parish discussions and national research will be shared with all parishes.

“We did not want to tell parishes, ‘This is what everybody should be doing’ because, first of all, it won’t work, because every situation is different,” he said. “Instead, we’re taking a longer range approach. We’re going to work at this as a partnership.”

Kemmeter added, “Our overall strategy is the best practices one. Let’s get everybody working on this, let’s give our best though to it, let’s put our best ideas on the table, and then let’s see what works and let’s learn from each other in the process.”

He noted that “evangelization is something Catholics aren’t well prepared to do…. We have never had to do it before. People came to us.”

Declining membership

After the unclaimed population, declining membership was the greatest concern among those participating in district meetings.

One of the causes for the decline, according to Kemmeter, is “self-inflicted.”  

“Some of it is people are not satisfied with what they are finding in their parishes, particularly with the experience of Sunday worship. That was ‘Rebuilt’s’ point. Start with Sunday Mass,” he said. “You can do all kinds of other things in the parish, but if people don’t find nourishment in the eucharistic liturgy they’re not even going to connect with any of the other things.”

“You would think after all these years, especially coming out of the Second Vatican Council, that we would have gotten that message, but we still don’t,” Kemmeter added.

Nemer, a convert to Catholicism, said Mass is key.

“’This isn’t what I expected. This isn’t what I experienced before.’ I’ve heard all of these things (from people who have attended good liturgies),” she said.

 Kemmeter said the decline could also be attributed to the changes in the Catholic population.

“Our parents went to Mass even if you had the biggest SOB up there who couldn’t do anything but damn you to hell in a sermon or homily, but they were there. But Catholics (today) are not in the same place,” he said.

Attraction through discipleship

Nohl noted that those undertaking evangelization need to embrace five habits of discipleship – prayer, Scripture reading, reception of the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, service and community.

Nemer and Kemmeter said that if individuals and parishes are not living those habits, people will not be attracted to their parishes.

“If I look at the thriving parishes, they’re probably doing these things,” she said.

“We are asking to change the culture of the parish, of the archdiocese, and saying it all begins with mission, it all begins with are we proclaiming Christ, are we making disciples, are we doing it through the sacraments?” he said. “That is a shift.”

Nohl said that during the district gatherings, Kemmeter would explain that the archdiocese’s 2020 plan is a vision for structural change, i.e., the commitment to have Mass, Eucharist, Sunday Mass in every cluster, in every parish throughout the archdiocese.

“Then you need the vision change. And that’s the mission. That’s why it’s hard to say, ‘Here’s a program to make that work,’” Nohl said. “It’s really are we making disciples of ourselves, and of others? If we do that, then we’ll be more attractive and people will see that.”

Kemmeter termed the process taking place in parishes and clusters “monumental.”

“We were really asking them to change a lot of thinking about what a parish is, how a parish functions, and what the mission is. It’s mind boggling when you think about the amount of change we’re asking people to embrace,” he said. “Yet, I came out of those really excited because there weren’t people that got depressed about the numbers they saw. They got excited about it. They said we can do something about it. There were all kinds of dynamics going on.”

Nohl concurred.

“There was a lot of energy, of ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. We’re ready,’” he said.