Depending on who you ask, America is considered one of the more religious countries in the world today. But a 2012 Gallup survey found that, as it is in the rest of the world, secularization in America is on the rise.
This is particularly so in the Northeast. That same survey found that Vermont was the most "unchurched" state in the union, with only 19% of residents indicating that they were "very religious."
In addition, the survey found that five of the six most unchurched states were in the Northeast: After Vermont came New Hampshire (only 23% were very religious), Maine (24%), Massachusetts (27%) and Rhode Island (29%). Oregon tied with Rhode Island, at 29%.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most religious states were Utah and the Southern states, with Mississippi leading the way at the head of the group, with 58%.
To celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church (June 8), the Register recently spoke to representatives from four dioceses to ask them what they’re doing to reach out to the "unchurched" souls in predominantly secular regions of the country.
In Vermont, the Diocese of Burlington is in transition, as its ordinary was appointed to another diocese at the end of 2013. Msgr. John McDermott is serving as apostolic administrator. The state, the country’s least religious, according to the 2012 Gallup survey, is home to more than 100,000 Catholics.
Msgr. McDermott pointed to a number of factors causing the decline of religious practice, including low birth rates. In fact, over the past five years, there have been 3,000 more Catholic funerals than baptisms in Burlington.
"It’s a symptom of the entire Northeast," he said. "There is a general secularization of the culture and an indifference towards religion."
The former bishop, Salvatore Matano, attempted to "stem the tide" by making sure "the sacraments, especially the Mass, were reverent and beautiful and that we had good music and preaching," the monsignor said.
"Back to basics" catechetical programs have also been part of the evangelization initiative, as well as the work of groups like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus), which is active at the University of Vermont. Focus was invited to the diocese by the bishop, and it has led to "many students catching on fire with the faith, looking to live it and share it with others."
"It has been a challenge in Vermont, as it has been throughout the Northeast," Msgr. McDermott said. "It’s not our Church, but Christ’s Church. Our job is to be faithful and let him work through us."
In New Hampshire, the Diocese of Manchester is home to 88 Catholic parishes and more than 400,000 Catholics. Eileen Smith, diocesan director of the Office of the Catechumenate, said of the survey, "That’s a sad fact to hear. I don’t really have a good answer as to why that’s true, but we’re constantly looking for opportunities to evangelize."
Smith believes one effective way to evangelize is to use material that connects with the everyday person: "We need to stop making [only] scholars and make disciples. We need to teach people to have a relationship with Christ."
Some of New Hampshire’s parishes have outstanding evangelization programs, she noted. At St. André Bessette parish in Laconia, for example, Father Marc Drouin offers a "Discovering Christ" program for the unchurched.
"He invites people to come and talks to them about the basics: What is the meaning of life, why does Jesus matter, what does Jesus want us to know, and why do I need a Savior?" Smith explained.
"He gets them to the point where they want more. Some people don’t realize that they can have a relationship with Christ."
Participants then become active in the parish and take successive courses to deepen their newfound faith.
Father Drouin tutored a former associate, Father Matthew Mason, in the program. He has since been assigned as pastor at another parish, Gate of Heaven, in Lancaster, N.H., and is using the same program in his new parish.
Smith pointed to a similarly successful program led by Father Gary Belliveau, pastor of Corpus Christi in Portsmouth, N.H.
Challenges for the Manchester Diocese, Smith said, include motivating more parishes to actively engage in evangelizing and to further remove the stigma from the word "evangelism."
"When I first arrived on this job, people feared the word ‘evangelism,’" she recalled.
"They thought it meant standing on a street corner and preaching. But we need to promote effective evangelism and make it a part of everything we do."
Out West, the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., is home to 124 parishes, 22 missions and 400,000 Catholics.
Deacon Thomas Gornick, who has served as archdiocesan director of evangelization since 1999, bristles at the term "unchurched," asserting that Portland is religious but not affiliated with traditional denominations.
For many in Portland, he said, one’s religion consists of quiet time in the wilderness. "They have a strong attachment to something greater than themselves, but their religion is not experienced in a faith community," he explained.
The Catholic Church in the region, he believes, gets its most positive attention when it "reaches out to the poor, to those on the fringes."
The archdiocese’s new ordinary, Alexander Sample, has been a boost to evangelism in Portland, the deacon believes. Archbishop Sample has brought a lot of "new energy" to his role as the archdiocese’s chief teacher and "is a man committed to his faith and shares what he believes in a robust, clear manner," the deacon said.
A recent event, for example, saw him distributing religious emblems to boy and girl scouts at the archdiocesan cathedral.
The deacon observed, "He was totally engaged, sharing his journey of faith and having a huge impact on the families who met him."
The archdiocese has launched a pilot evangelism program, using materials by Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries. They’ve also been approached about using Tom Peterson’s "Catholics Come Home" (CatholicsComeHome.org) television advertisements, which encourage Catholics to come back and invite non-Catholics to consider the Church.
For such a program to be effective, Deacon Gornick believes Portland parishes must first brush up on their hospitality skills, noting that non-Catholics or inactive Catholics who visit a parish are often initially influenced by whether or not they have a positive emotional experience when they first visit. A positive initial experience can lead to follow-up visits and, ultimately, a deeper level of commitment to the Church.
Non-Catholic Christians are often much more savvy about welcoming and winning converts than Catholics, Deacon Gornick said.
The deacon said that the blessing of bikes at the archdiocesan cathedral has brought positive attention to the Church. Portland is known as a bike-riding city, so the archdiocese launched a blessing ceremony a few years ago. It attracts many non-Catholics, who participate in a half-hour ceremony, have a chance to tour the cathedral and enjoy refreshments afterward. Additionally, the bells are tolled for any riders who have died.
"I’m vested as a deacon, I use holy water, and we ring the bells. It’s a fun, non-threatening half hour that can give non-Catholics a quick introduction to the Church," Deacon Gornick explained.
Back East, Lisa Gulino is director of evangelization and faith formation for the Diocese of Providence, R.I. Its 147 parishes serve 500,000 Catholics.
Although the state has the highest number of residents who identify themselves as Catholic (54%), Gulino concedes that secular attitudes are widespread in Rhode Island: "What we’re witnessing is the collapse of cultural Catholicism. Catholicism was once part of the culture, but more people are moving away from it."
"It’s not unique to Rhode Island, however," she continued. "It’s a trend we’re seeing nationally, as well as in Europe."
Under the leadership of Bishop Thomas Tobin, Providence is making a variety of efforts to "reignite its faith tradition," she said.
These include corporal works of mercy, which will hopefully spark an interest from those in the community to become involved in the Church.
"We want people to understand that faith is not a luxury, but a necessity," Gulino said.
Bishop Tobin, for example, launched the "Keep the Heat On" program, which helps the needy with heating assistance so they can survive Rhode Island’s cold winters.
The diocese has also opened shelters for the poor and handed out food and clothing to the needy at the diocesan cathedral.
During the financial downturn of 2008, when many were laid off from their jobs, the diocese handed out bus passes to the poor.
"The diocese is doing concrete things to help the poor," Gulino said. "When people see these corporal works of mercy, they’ll take a closer look at the Church."
In addition, the diocese has launched a pilot program, "Evangelizing Parish: Answering the Call."
There are also five priests who participate in a "Grill the Priest" program, in which people can ask questions they have about the Catholic faith.
Bishop Tobin has made evangelism a priority in the diocese, Gulino noted, and is an outstanding witness of the Catholic faith himself.
Gulino concluded, "With the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, as well as the Eucharist, at the forefront, we want to help families recoup our great spiritual traditions."
Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.