Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Inviting Catholics to Parish Life

Jack Rakosky has an informative post on the PrayTell blog, "CARA's Parish Data [and] the New Evangelization:  A Social Network Approach." Using his own experience with what I call "mediating structures," -- in his case, the delivery of public mental health services -- he breaks down a recent report by CARA on parish demographics into useful categories, and then presents his own sociological analysis of these groups as well as some suggestions for evangelization that analysis generates.  The parish data is drawn from a recent post by Mark Gray on his 1964 blog. 

Rakosky's contribution here is that he points out the strengths and pitfalls of trying to reach the various groups that comprise the Catholic population of a given parish, making a helpful point about the potential tension between those who are entrenched in parish life and those who would like to be more involved but can't seem to crack the code for engagement there -- or simply get sidelined by the entrenched structure.  He also suggests that there is life at the margins of a parish (Catholics who are less likely to be actively practicing) if the parish wants to reach out to these Catholics in a decentralized, small group fashion. 

But that outreach relies on the goods offered.  Anyone who does this will need to make a pitch for the Catholic story, the good of which might not be all that evident to those "lukewarm" and "weak practicing" Catholics. The problem isn't that their faith is weak, the problem is that there are more compelling stories out there -- from other Christian groups, from a more private spirituality gleaned from and nurtured by the internet, from a cultural story about "family life" that doesn't connect to community outside of PTA, sports/music fans, recycling club, etc.

These marginal Catholics are probably not going to be lured back by the "New Evangelization" project of the U.S. bishops, although the bishops are right on one point:  people really don't know a lot about the Catholic faith.  To be fair, of course, it's not just the Catholics who are uncatechized, many people don't know much about any specific Christian tradition, thus the rise of the non-denominational churches. [Increasingly, in the popular mind, these traditions are often treated in the same way that scripture is seen in the general culture:  as collections of helpful maxims gleaned over the centuries, rather than as centuries-long engagements with the question of the human person before God.]

And it's not just the gang in the pews.  Those who train Protestant ministers (according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) observe the same thing that is sometimes found in recent Catholic seminary applicants:  Students who feel called to ministry are often fairly recent converts themselves, they are full of "faith" but lack a deep understanding of the religious community they wish to lead. 

That deep understanding will be necessary to reach out to the "lukewarm" and "weak practicing" Catholics.  These may not know the tradition well, but that doesn't mean that the catechism in bullet form will help.  We need to be able to hear the tendrils of their tenuous connection, in order to offer, from 'the storehouse of old and new,' an insight, a toehold, a word that will give a large context to those tendrils -- and connect them to a social network that will help them to find a home in the sprawling story that is Catholicism.