Monday, July 9, 2012

The habit of faith

Another Monday, another late blog post--do I even need to apologize any more? :)

Yesterday Rod Dreher had a post on the declining membership of the Episcopal Church:

According to TEC’s figures, only about 700,000 Episcopalians are in church on Sunday morning. There are megachurches in suburban Dallas that have more worshipers on Sunday than most Episcopal dioceses. That’s not hyperbole.

I found this out via the blog of Sherry Weddell, the Catholic lay evangelist, who writes:

To compare, CARA estimates that on a given Sunday, there are about 22 million Catholics in the pews in the US vs. approximately 657,000 Episcopalians. In other words, there are roughly 33 times as many practicing Catholics as practicing Episcopalians.

This is not a time to gloat but to thoughtfully ponder. A group I spoke to recently about evangelization wanted to look to the experience of mainline Protestants to see what they were doing. Seriously?

If we are serious about evangelization, we would far, far better look to the experience of our evangelical brothers and sisters. 49% of American evangelicals weren’t raised as evangelicals while Catholics have the second lowest number of converts of any American religious faith.

Indeed, Putnam & Campbell, sifting the data, found that if not for the large influx of Hispanic immigrants, Catholicism in the US would be declining at a rate comparable to that of mainline Protestantism. [All links in original--E.M.]

The comments' section below Rod's post began as a thoughtful discussion about the overall decline in church attendance among Americans, the problems of family and culture and employment that lead to these sorts of declines, etc. before devolving into the usual sort of shouting match between secularists who think nobody needs religion when we've got science (which is sort of like saying that nobody needs art museums, concert halls or theaters because we have television). But I thought about the claim that people don't go to church anymore because they don't really want to, and it reminded me of a recent experience our family had.

We had to stop at a grocery store after Mass one Sunday, and as we entered the store we passed a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old, and her grandmother. I didn't hear the first words the little girl had asked her grandma when we were approaching, but from the rest of the conversation I heard, it seems clear that she must have asked her grandma why we were all dressed up, and her grandmother must have told her that we had probably just come from church--as we had.

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Little girl: I like going to church. I wish I could go to church.
Grandmother (surprised and delighted): You do?
Little girl: Oh, yes, I love it. But mom and dad say they want to sleep late on Sunday. So we almost never go.
Grandmother: I would love to take you to church with me. Would you like to come?
Little girl: Yes, yes! We could ask mommy when we get home...

At that point, we entered the store, so I didn't hear the rest of the conversation. But the look of hope on the child's face, the utter surprise and gladness of the grandmother, was a revelation.

I'm not judging the child's parents. Perhaps they work odd hours, and rarely get to rest. Perhaps they have had a bad experience at a church or have simply gotten too busy to make Sunday worship a regular part of their lives. Perhaps, like many in my generation, they suffered from poor catechesis and have no idea why the formal worship of God on Sunday is a good thing.

The point is that there was an absolute longing in this child's voice for something she is missing in her life, and a total joy in the grandmother's voice as she replied to the little girl. Grandparents sometimes have it hard in these areas--too much interference, too many kind offers to take the grandchildren to church with them, may be seen as criticism or judgment or general negativity about the way the children are being raised. I think many grandparents are hesitant to offer to take the little ones to worship with them on Sunday mornings.

And yet, if parents or grandparents or someone doesn't instill in a child the habit of faith, how is that habit supposed to take root in later life?

Someday I'd like to see a study--perhaps it has already been done, and I simply haven't seen it--comparing the difference in numbers between those "raised Catholic" (or Episcopalian or Evangelical etc.) who fall away in later life, and those who were actually taken by their families to church every single week unless impeded for serious reasons who later fall away. Too often, I think that the number of those "raised Catholic" who fall away includes people who are taken to Church to be baptized, to make their first holy communion, to be confirmed, to get married, to attend a handful of funerals, and to show up on the CAPE days (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter), but who otherwise live without religion or faith in their daily lives. This is not to say that a share of those who attended Mass every Sunday of their young lives don't fall away, too--the reasons for the loss of faith are many, and complex, and there's no one answer. But if the habit of faith has never formed in the first place, how can it be said to be lost?

I hope that little girl will get to go to church; her expressed longing was sweet to hear, and I know her grandmother was delighted to hear it. But I wish even more that Christian parents, Catholic and otherwise, would take very seriously their duty as the first teachers of their children to form in them those habits of faith that endure through hardship, through doubt, through suffering, and even through the dark night of the soul.


Liz said...

Back in my Protestant days (I'm one of that small number((?)) of Catholic converts) my hairdresser, who happened to belong to the same Protestant congregation, asked me how we managed to make it to church every Sunday. She said that they frequently woke up and Sunday morning and thought about going to church, but it was too big an effort. I asked her how she managed to make it to her shop every day. That of course was her habit and her previously made choice. I pointed out that if we had to decide every week whether to go to church or not that there would be a lot of weeks when it was less convenient. Going was a habit that grew out of a previously made choice. I believe that the Church was absolutely right when it made Sunday Mass attendance an obligation. So often on the very week when I have to drag myself there, God speaks to me through some part of the Mass in a special way.

We live in a very secular culture now. It's altogether possible to spend your Sundays at the mall, on the golf course, at the football game. In order to actually enter into worship in a meaningful fashion or to teach your children to do so, you have to have intent supported by habit. Unfortunately, all too many of the Catholic adults of my acquaintance suffered under horrible catechesis. Even when they were taught the right facts (which they sometimes were not) the whole experience of Catholicism got tangled up with a secular world that knows nothing of the sacred. These adults may have "savoir" knowledge of the faith (to use French terms which are actually more explicit than English ones here), but they lack the "connaitre" knowledge of the faith. Being at Mass from the time you're little gives you at least a ghost of a chance of developing that. Parents have to work really, really hard to bring their kids up in the faith. They have to make Mass attendance an experience that is not painful (which means not demanding more of the little ones than they can achieve), but they also have to make Mass attendance a habit.

None, absolutely none, of the kids who went through that Protestant Sunday School (despite gargantuan efforts on the part of the Sunday School staff to bring them the truths of the faith) whose parents didn't attend church weekly are now practicing Christians. The kids who did attend weekly, with their parents who both attended weekly, are not all still practicing Christians, but most of them are. My kids are no longer practicing Protestants, they both became Catholic, by their own choice before the left their teens.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Anecdote is not data, but--

Both my family and my husband's family were "Mass every week unless you're dying or the only route to church is flooded out" people.

And of the combined 7 kids, only the 2 of us are Catholic anymore.

There's something else going on-- poor catechesis? An anti-church culture? I don't know-- but the odds of kids making it to adulthood as Catholics seem pretty bad.

L. said...

I, too, am from a "Mass every week unless you're dying or the only route to church is flooded out" family -- this meant driving around strange beach towns while on vacation, looking for churches. This meant church on my BIRTHDAY every year, since it's a Holy Day of Obligation.

I still go more often than not, but I would never call myself devout, and most of the time, I leave my kids home.

Rebecca in ID said...

praying for that little girl and her family...

Diamantina da Brescia, aka Gentillylace said...

My father came from a "Mass every week unless you're dying or the only route to church is flooded out" family, but I was brought up unchurched. It was a miracle that I was the only one of the three children of my parents who was baptized in infancy and the only one who ended up becoming a practicing Catholic. I credit in large part my mother, who was brought up Methodist.

When I was 10 years old and was invited to attend a classmate's Church of Christ, Mom told me that I was baptized Catholic and that I should attend a Catholic church. She dropped me off at church before the 10:45 Sunday Mass, went to the grocery store and then picked me up after Mass. Despite poor catechesis, erratic Mass attendance in adolescence and 13 years in the Orthodox Church as a young adult (which I credit for having given me a love of the Psalms and the Mother of God), I am now -- mirabile dictu! -- a practicing Catholic, and a Lay Carmelite to boot. The soul of my devoutly Catholic paternal grandmother, whom I barely knew, would be pleased :-)

Boz said...

This is a really tough issue. I too would instinctively rely on the explanation that these people fall away from the Catholic Church because they haven't been properly catechized but my own personal experience makes it seems that the issue is a bit more complicated than that. I attended an Opus Dei-run high school on the North Shore of Chicago, so the catechesis was certainly well-done and there were regular opportunities for Mass and confession. I lost touch with most of them during college and afterwards but have resumed contact with most of them through facebook. Judging from the number of actively anti-religious comments, it's realistic to say that maybe a handful (5) of the 35 who graduated with me actually practice. Definitely interesting material for a case study in what went wrong (especially compared to other classes, which haven't experienced this sort of drop off). The only explanation I can come up with is that even though religious doctrine and even practice was present, religion was sort of cheapened and reduced by the actual example of their parents and some of the faculty. Religion was part of a constellation of commitments associated North Shore Chicago Catholicism--upwardly mobile, Republican Party politics, etc. So, as they went out into the world and discovered alternatives to this world, they let religion drop by the wayside. All this is to suggest that the fix might not be as easy as simply improving catechesis.

Jean said...

Anecdotal, but please keep in mind that many Evangelical Christians don't attend the same church. When they get bored, feel unwelcome, etc. they look for other churches. I thought this was a local phenomenon, but the out-of-state DJ on one of the Christian radio stations talked about how her family decided to go back to their original church with a different attitude and a Pentacostal minister of my acquaintance brought up this issue with his church in yet another part of the country.

My parents are thrilled that all of us are practicing Catholics, although they are blissfully unaware of how very far astray we went in college. I never breathed a word of my atheism to them, as it would have hurt them. That's why I don't understand the "brights": If there is no afterlife, why waste your life taunting people predisposed to believe in gods or the Detroit Lions or the beauty of Quintin Tarantino films?