Energizing the Catholics
By Robert Barron
CHICAGO, March 24 — When the Rev. Robert Barron talks about why he thinks Jesus is the answer to what is missing in people's lives, he mentions St. Augustine's writings about the restlessness of the human heart. He also evokes less common figures in Roman Catholic sermons: Mick Jagger and Bono.
One sings about not getting satisfaction and the other about not finding what he was looking for, but both rock stars address the same sense of longing, said Father Barron, 46, a theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.
"This is what Billy Graham has always done," said Father Barron, the host of an evangelical Catholic radio program and the author of seven books. "To show, you're not satisfied, are you? I've got what can satisfy you."
Father Barron was called by Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago, to "jump-start" evangelization in the archdiocese with a focus on energizing Catholics about their faith and drawing inactive Roman Catholics back to the church. Chicago, with 2.3 million Catholics, is the third-largest diocese in the United States.
The yearlong endeavor, called Mission Chicago 2006, has included a three-day Festival of Faith at a convention center, a day of round-the-clock confessions with 70 priests on hand, a series of six sermons by Father Barron and the distribution of 2,500 motivational DVD's.
Chicago is the largest archdiocese to organize such wide-ranging events focused on evangelization and re-energizing Catholics.
The church faces steadily declining attendance at Mass, a priest shortage, the aftermath of sexual abuse scandals and the lure of other religions. In response, dioceses, parishes and individuals nationwide have been emphasizing evangelization to help Catholics connect their faith with their daily lives.
The Catholic population in the United States grew to 64.8 million last year, from 45.6 million in 1965. The increase is due in large part to growth in the number of Latino Catholics, 39 percent of the nation's Catholic population.
But the percentage of Catholics who say they attend Mass weekly fell to 45 percent in 2004, from 74 percent in 1955, according to a Gallup poll. The number of priests has dropped by 27 percent, and the number of graduate-level seminarians has dropped by 60 percent in the past 40 years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Criticism over how the archdiocese handled recent accusations of sexual abuse of children against the Rev. Daniel McCormack, a priest in Chicago, have stirred suspicions of the church and have made Mission Chicago 2006 especially relevant, Father Barron said.
"We've been so defensive," he said. "Part of my goal is to say, We're still here and we're still doing what we have to do."
The changing demographics of churchgoers and competition from other churches have also contributed to the effort to reach out to Catholics in creative ways.
"You just can't assume that people will be Catholic because of cultural influences," said the Rev. Kenneth Boyack, president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association. "This is one of the elements that leads to this sort of urgency of evangelization."
Some of the efforts are taking a cue from evangelical Protestants.
"A good percentage of people who are in the megachurches are former Catholics," Father Boyack said. "They're really attentive to try to connect to people exactly where they are. And the language they're using is not great theological language."
Megachurches, experts say, effectively use sermons that link Scripture with everyday problems. They also use pop music, social events, the Internet, informal settings and small-group fellowship to foster a sense of community.
"They're not leaving because they don't like the Catholic Church," said Tim Kruse, executive director of the Evangelical Catholic, a group in Madison, Wis., that helps campus ministries develop programs to foster evangelical life. "They're leaving because Protestant evangelicals have communicated the Gospel to them in a meaningful way."
"Protestant Eye for the Catholic Guy" is a workshop at the St. Paul's Institute of Evangelical Catholic Ministry next weekend in Madison that is expecting about 300 representatives from campus ministries, dioceses and parishes. In the workshop, an evangelical Protestant pastor will talk about how to make sermons more vibrant. In Iowa, the third annual Martha & Mary Women's Conference — aimed at filling a religious void among Catholic women — this year drew 450 women, almost three times the number it drew the first year.
In 2004, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit became the first seminary in the world to offer a postgraduate degree on "new evangelization," said Ralph Martin, director of graduate theology programs in the new evangelization. New evangelization, an idea promoted by Pope John Paul II, is aimed at taking into account globalization and an increasingly secular culture when devising strategies to connect people to the Catholic faith.
John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said young Catholics were drifting away from the church but not returning as adults, as was common 50 years ago.
"There needs to be a good bit of concentration on the Catholic community itself," Mr. Green said. "They have some difficulty keeping children from Catholic families in the faith."
In Chicago, thousands flocked last month to the Catholic Festival of Faith, which featured concerts and workshops in English, Spanish and Polish. At one parish, 400 people turned out this month for the round-the-clock confession initiative.
Some priests use Father Barron's sermons, which are on DVD and can be found on the Internet, to inspire their own sermons. Father Barron said he wanted to take religious messages "back to basics," and he incorporates saints, literary figures, theologians, Bible references and philosophers in his talks. He even uses a religious twist on a Bob Dylan classic.
"It's about being stoned in the sense of people throwing stones at you," Father Barron said. "The same Bob Dylan that said, 'Everybody must get stoned,' said a lot of wonderful things."
Published in the New York Times.