WASHINGTON — As the Church in the U.S. prepares for the upcoming synod on the family, a new study on Catholic parents shows frequent Mass attendance ties closely with benefits to family life and overall church participation.
According to experts, the study gives a new baseline for parishes, dioceses and apostolates determined to connect with families and evangelize them in the 21st century.
“The more likely you are to go to Mass, the more likely you are to feel it’s important for your kids to celebrate the sacraments, the more likely you are to pray together as a family,” said Mark Gray, a senior research associate with Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and author of a new survey focusing on Catholic parents aged 25 to 45 who are raising minor children.
The CARA survey is different than other surveys, because rather than focusing on the Catholic adult population, it zeroes in on Catholic parents, who are raising the next generation of Catholics. The survey of more than 1,000 Catholic parents found that the 53% of Catholic parents who attended Mass at least once a month or more reported better family life than Catholic parents who went a few times a year, rarely or never.
And parents whose families went to weekly Mass reported the highest rates of engaged family life: such as eating together as a family every night (58%) and also engaging in family activities outside of dinner (74%) — family game night, for example — at least once a week. The rates were only slightly lower for families attending Mass at least once a month.
Among parents who attend Mass rarely or never, however, less than half (43%) reported eating together every night, and only 45% were likely to gather for family activities once a week outside of dinner.
Gray also pointed out that how parents valued the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion for their children was “deeply connected” with their Mass attendance.
Overall, more than six out of 10 Catholics saw these sacraments as “very important” for their children — numbers that Gray said were much lower than what the U.S. bishops would like to see. But among parents who went to Mass at least once a month, their appreciation for these sacraments rose to eight out of 10, and among those who went weekly, more than nine out of 10 viewed these sacraments of initiation as “very important.”
Opportunity for Evangelizers
Gray said the prevailing assumption before this survey of parents, which was taken during the school year, had been that parish-based religious-education programs were educating Catholic children who did not end up in Catholic schools.
“That’s just not the case anymore,” he said.
CARA’s study reported that 68% of Catholic parents did not have their children enrolled in brick-and-mortar formal religious instruction.
Only 21% of parents reported enrolling their children in parish religious-education classes, and only 5% of parents had children involved in youth ministry. A mere 8% attend Catholic grade school, and 3% attend Catholic high school.
Catholic evangelizers say CARA’s data helps inform the conversation taking place in the U.S. Church about evangelization and its potential for great improvement.
Tim Gray (no relation to Mark Gray), president of the Denver-based Augustine Institute, which provides parishes with catechesis programs built on digital platforms, said that while the numbers on the one hand should be a “wake-up call” for the Church, “on the other hand, it’s a great opportunity at the same time.”
“If we can get [parents] engaged and provide them formation, look at how we can transform family life,” he said.
“We’re going to have to create flexible faith formation on demand that is going to fit the busy schedules that parents have,” he said. “It’s where people are, and we have to meet them there.”
According to Sherry Weddell, co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute and editor of the book Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples, the Church in the U.S. has more than 17,400 parishes, and, nationally, the discussion about how to evangelize families more effectively in contemporary America is just getting under way.
“Honestly, a serious conversation about this at a national level has only been going on really for the last three years,” Weddell said. “Now, we have many parishes and whole dioceses grappling with this in a very serious way.”
Weddell said part of the challenge has been that churches are finally jettisoning long-held assumptions, such as the idea that modern Catholic parents would pass on the faith just as the post-World War II generation overwhelmingly did. That has not happened, particularly with the Millennial generation, where parents are now 35 years old or younger.
“We’re evangelizing this younger generation now that most of the time is starting from zero,” Weddell said, adding that Millennials in general are not moved by arguments, institutional authority or guilt, but they do respond to authenticity, such as “older people with lives of integrity.”Weddell said the key is to create a culture of intentional discipleship in the parish by getting at least 20% of adults to become “conscious, intentional disciples.”
One parish Weddell worked with, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Mich., has developed a robust parish life. Its digital outreach — on both its website and social-media platforms — includes videos of the pastor talking about being Jesus’ disciple and parishioners talking about their relationship with Jesus and how it changes their lives.
The parish has put 1,000 Catholics through the Alpha program, and Weddell said half of those coming out of that experience had been spiritually moved to commit to being an intentional disciple of Jesus. She said the parish has made conversion toward greater holiness a normal part of parish culture.
And the parish also provides childcare and babysitting to accommodate parents going through the evangelization program.
Weddell said it is critical for parishes to provide child care — which is not a regular feature seen at most parishes — and offer programs at times that work with parents’ schedules. She pointed to Barna Group research that showed that eight out of 10 mothers felt overwhelmed by stress and seven out of 10 got insufficient rest, but also found that “one-quarter of moms (24%) would like to be more deeply involved in a faith community.”
“Parishes need to take seriously the challenges that adults face to do this,” she said.
Parents and Mass
CARA’s survey showed that parishes are losing parents with infants at weekly Mass. Although the Church obligates Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, less than one out of five parents with infants will be there every Sunday in the pew, while another 35% of parents go at least once a month. However, CARA noted the numbers of weekly Massgoing parents went up to one out of four when their children were teenagers.
Drawing families into evangelization programs can be a way to anchor them into the routine of Sunday Massgoing and more.
Augustine Institute’s Gray said that, from his own experience, adapting to parents’ modern needs will help the Church draw more parents into evangelizing activities alongside of parishioners in their 50s and beyond, who have “time and leisure for church events” since their children are grown or out of the house.
“We’re going to have to learn that in this busy culture parents don’t have the extended family help like they used to. Parishes are going to have to provide that,” he said.
Gray added that his organization started to draw in a large number of mothers to its Bible-study groups after providing childcare.
Teaching How to Pray
One of the starting places for the evangelization of the family will be family prayer. According to CARA, most parents agreed prayer was essential, but more than three out of four parents preferred to pray alone.
“The interesting thing is they were not likely to pray together before meals or together as a family,” CARA’s Mark Gray said.
Only 17% of parents told CARA they prayed both alone and with family equally.
And the Rosary — as personal and family prayer — has been largely forgotten by parents. Just 16% of parent-respondents prayed the Rosary at least once a month, while 64% of parents did not pray the Rosary at all. Among those who pray the Rosary, half pray it with their families, and half do not.
Weddell said evangelizing adults — both parents and non-parents — is key to raising the next generation of Catholic children in the faith. She said the spiritual best practices of parishes that change their parish culture generally involve breaking the silence about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ — such as preaching Jesus Christ and asking people to respond; offering multiple reinforcing, overlapping ways for people to encounter Christ, such as retreats, adoration, field-tested evangelization programs; making conversion a normal experience of the Christian life; and engaging in corporate intentional prayer.
“The point is there is no single tool or silver bullet,” she said. “You make multiple entry points for different people, so that they see something that is attractive and stepping into a spiritual pathway that the parish is intentionally creating, sustaining and making normal.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.