Can Pope Francis bring Catholics home?

"Research surveys support what most people already know. Church attendance is declining and has been for decades."

Will Pope Francis’s charismatic charm and concern for the poor be enough to bring Catholics home?

Research surveys support what most people already know.  Church attendance is declining and has been for decades.  In Canada, 28% of Catholics attend Mass at least once a month, compared to 40 per cent in 2004.  In the United States in 2012, 24 per cent of Catholics attended Mass at least once a week compared to 47% in 1974.

While I have no idea what the stats are for Catholics in our little neck of the woods, I can certainly provide anecdotal evidence of declining church attendance.   I have sat through numerous meetings over the years grappling with dwindling finances that correlate with shrinking congregations, and listening to laments about the lack of young people in the pews.  I am very familiar with church closings. In the last three decades, my family has belonged to three parishes, and our current parish church is slated for closure.

The generalized lack of interest amongst baptized Catholics to practice the faith concerns bishops, priests, religious, pastoral councils, and parents alike.  Dioceses are desperately trying to turn the tide through evangelizing already baptized Catholics.  The Archdiocese of Vancouver, for example, launched a sophisticated advertising campaign called “Catholics Come Home” to entice Catholics back to church. Other dioceses are offering adult faith formation courses, and promoting hip youth programs.

Catholics are opting out of institutional Catholicism for many reasons. Church teaching on sexuality, the treatment of women, and the clergy sexual abuse scandal are the most often cited reasons for leaving the Church.

Francis has put the wheels in motion to deal with sexual abuse, although it remains to be seen how the Vatican will implement his directive to “act decisively”. We can expect Francis to hold the line on sexual issues, but we may see a more compassionate response to individuals who, in the eyes of the Church, don’t measure up to its high standards of sexual morality. With regard to women, Francis shocked some Catholics when he washed the feet of a woman in detention on Holy Thursday. Though this is a far cry from the ordination of women, it may signal a new attitude towards women not previously seen from the Vatican.

The place where I believe Francis has a real chance for making inroads with Catholics and others is in his genuine concern for the poor. People see a huge disconnect between the suffering of the world’s poor and the wealth of the Vatican with its ostentatious pomp and ceremony. Even though thousands of religious and lay Catholics are walking with the poor, theological speeches about the poor disappoint when visible action is lacking from the Vatican: the credibility of the Church suffers.

Our world needs authentic leaders. Catholic or otherwise, we want leaders who practice what they preach, and Francis seems to be doing just that.  Will it be enough to bring Catholics home? Possibly not, but it may be enough to stop the bleed.

Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com.