Boston Herald - April 10, 2011
Prodigal parishioners return to church
Boston Archdiocese reaches out to halt plummeting Mass attendance
By Jessica Fargen
The Boston Archdiocese’s largest effort in a generation to reach lapsed Catholics is drawing wandering souls back to the church’s open arms, but the biggest obstacle could be keeping them, priests and parishioners say.
The archdiocese, still suffering fallout from the clergy sex abuse crisis and parish closings, is hoping to bring back thousands of the formerly faithful through Catholics Come Home, a series of TV ads airing during Lent, coupled with a grass-roots push at parishes. Fewer than 20 percent of Catholics in the Boston area attend Mass each Sunday, down from nearly 80 percent in the 1960s.
With two weeks left in the campaign, there is evidence it’s working.
“I was doing laundry and that stopped me in my tracks, that made me cry,” said Jackeline Rolon, 36, who was so moved by one of the TV ads she started going to Mass at St. Stephen’s in Framingham. She stopped going to church when she was 15. But the ad drew a flood of memories of her grandma, who walked her to church every Sunday in her native Puerto Rico, and her late father, a devout Catholic.
“I know that from heaven he is the one pulling me back to the church,” she said of her dad, Guillermo Rolon.
The most visible components of the $600,000 campaign are the emotional TV ads, lasting up to two minutes and reaching 95 percent of Boston-area TV viewers.
Inside church walls, priests and parishioners are ushering in greeters, welcome tables and a new spirit of acceptance. Parishioners are encouraged to bring a friend or relative who has fallen away.
“Before we just waited for the people to come to the church. Now we see a lot aren’t coming. It behooves us to reach out to them and tell them we want them to be part of our family,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley told the Herald. “My hope is that this effort will help our Catholics to feel more responsible to invite, to welcome, to be an evangelical community.”
The push comes as fewer and fewer Catholics are going to Mass. Only about 300,000 of the 1.7 million Catholics in the archdiocese attend Mass on Sunday. In the 1960s, some 1.3 million of the 1.7 million Catholics in the archdiocese regularly attended.
The archdiocese could see as much as a 10 percent bump in Mass attendance, based on success of similar campaigns across the country. The campaign was launched on Ash Wednesday and runs until Easter.
Tom Groome, director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, applauded the archdiocese, but warned more than TV ads are needed to keep people in the pews.
“The church is failing in many of its responsibilities to provide decent, meaningful liturgies for people and well-crafted and uplifting sermons and a broad perspective on social issues,” Groome said.
The religion is losing followers nationally, too. While nearly one-in-three Americans was raised Catholic, today fewer than one-in-four describes themselves as such, although the religion is still one of the most popular in the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Cardinal O’Malley said he doesn’t expect any “quick fixes.”
“Part of our message is to ask people not to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “We know that sometimes people are disappointed with the homilies or music or some of the message, but we are trying to lead people to Christ and to community.”
Parish priests and staff interviewed for this story say they are seeing new faces at Mass, increases in baptism requests and more people in confessional booths after long lapses.
The Rev. Francisco Anzoategui, believes as many as 20 people have come back to St. Stephen’s.
“You’ll be amazed how many people return because they are just waiting for an invitation to come back. It’s happening,” he said.
“There are certainly people I am seeing who I wasn’t seeing before,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, pastor at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth. “We are not judging anybody. We simply want them to come home.”
Kristopher Spanks, 22, who was sickened by the clergy abuse crisis, has started attending Mass again.
He stopped going three years ago and was skeptical when his brother recently asked him to join him at St. Michael’s in North Andover. “It brought back feelings, nostalgia,” said Spanks, who went to Catholic school. “It feels really good.”
Lee Conlon, 52, who stopped attending regular Mass seven years ago when Sacred Heart in Medford closed, said she finally feels at home at St. Patrick’s in Stoneham.
“I missed the familiarity of going into the church and sitting there and it’s an overall feeling of warmth and comfort,” said Conlon who came to St. Patrick’s last month at the suggestion of a parishioner. “I can be in my darkest gloom and I would go and come out . . . hoping.”
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