If you want an example of the rise of the unaffiliated, look no further than many of the traditionally Catholic families in the US. Many of you probably have siblings or cousins who are baptized but not practicing the faith. This is not unusual for the US is rapidly becoming post-Christian, assuming it was Christian in the first place.
Part of the reason for the drop in practicing the faith in the US is that American Catholicism was very much a cultural phenomenon before the 1960s, enforced by institutions that, in many ways, shaped people’s lives. If you happened to be born into a Catholic family, the likelihood that you would be practicing the faith was very high. But once there was an institutional change or institutions no longer upheld Catholicism or any Christianity in general, the practice of the faith greatly declined. This is rather obvious. Institutions shape us. When they change, the faith will only endure if people are intentionally practicing it.
In the West, the Church was, in many different forms, allied to political institutions. Most people want to be seen in society as good members of the community. Such a societal advantage was conducive to people practicing the faith. The Church’s close proximity to political influence has been labeled the “Constantinian Bargain.” Its downside is that once the institution takes away its support of the faith, the practice of the faith begins to sharply decline. But the demise of conventional Catholicism has the promise of encouraging a Catholicism in which intentional discipleship is encouraged.
My grandmothers still attend Mass, if they are able, but, for the most part, their children and grandchildren do not. My grandmothers grew up in the “Constantinian Bargain” when not attending Mass or getting married in the parish could have dire social consequences. The parish was very much the heart of the neighborhood in mid-century Chicago, and having a bad standing in the parish could mean social isolation. It is different today when practicing the faith often means social isolation.
Now that my grandmothers see their grandchildren not getting married in the Church and their great-grandchildren not being baptized, they start to wonder why the faith has not been handed on. They probably assumed it would be handed on automatically. But it wasn’t.
Both sides of my family would probably identify as Catholics on surveys, but I am not sure what being “Catholic” means to them. This is not meant as a judgment, but their worldview is mostly secular. I would not be surprised if they did not know who the pope is, but I am almost certain that they could name most of Bill Murray's movies.
I’m sure my family is like many other families in America. In such a crisis, the pressing concern is what to do about it. But perhaps that is not where we should begin. A better place to start would be with understanding—understanding not only the unaffiliated and their culture but also understanding the Gospel.
The Gospel is not a relic of the past. Jesus Christ is alive today, and each human being cannot suppress his or her restlessness to hear his voice and rest in his love. Immerse yourself in the life of the Church, the life of Christ sacramentally communicated through his Bride. By doing so, you will become a witness to the splendor of the Lord. In Augustine’s little instructional book on catechesis, he instructs catechists to make sure the catechumens know that they have been loved first (vd. 1 Jn. 4:19). Most of the time, people do not turn to Christ and practice the faith because they have not encountered the love of Christ in his Church. Very often the unaffiliated have not associated Catholicism with happiness, so they turn to what they think will make them finally happy. But we know that final happiness lies in the fullness of God revealed in Christ. In contemplating his face, do we participate in the joyful, happy vision. We know this because we have allowed ourselves like St. Matthew to be transfixed and summoned by the gaze of Christ. Our resistance to God's love has been broken, and now we are absorbed in his grace.
In graduate school, one of my favorite teachers was a priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, a priestly order serving Fr. Luigi Giussani's Communio et Liberatione. In his class on the Gospel of St. John, this priest stressed the gaze of Christ. Repeatedly in the Gospel, it says that Christ looked upon a person with love and that was enough for discipleship. Christ, like God vivifying Adam, vivifies the old Adam through his loving gaze, bringing Adam into the life of the New Adam who now partakes in the love of God. Ask for the grace to embody that same gaze of Christ so that when you encounter your fallen-away Catholic brothers and sisters, they may see the life of Christ, the happy life, in you. Trust me, they will see the spark of the divine and that will compel them to make a choice. I am convinced that this is what John Paul II meant by the New Evangelization. It is the good news that comes through encounter. Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit do his work and make you an icon of Christ? Ask and he will get to work.