Tom Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers, a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register and a Contributor for Catholic World Report. Tom formerly served as a Theology Advisor at EWTN and is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church (Incarnate Word Media) and The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Sophia Institute Press). He is also a Regular Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Given that the NFL playoffs begin on Saturday, and Alabama and Clemson are getting ready to square off again Monday Night in the College Football Playoff Championship, I thought it apropos to address how the Catholic Church can get disaffected or former Catholic men reconnected with the Church.
A Pew Research Center survey published in 2015 noted a significant decline of Christians in general in America and of Catholics in particular from 2007 to 2014. The number of Catholics dipped by 3.1 million, and that’s despite a significant influx of Hispanic Catholics. And almost 13 percent of all Americans identify themselves as former Catholics. So there is definitely a lot of New Evangelization work to do.
Some Church leaders have argued that Hispanics were seriously undercounted in the Pew Survey, while population declines have contributed to a decline in Mass participation rates in places like the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Still, the Steel City has suffered a Sunday Mass participation rate downturn of 40 percent since the year 2000. And other traditional Catholic mainstays like Philadelphia and have experienced similar declines (38 percent). Fallout from the clerical sexual abuse scandal no doubt has played a part, as has our general cultural decline in America, where we’ve seen marriage legally redefined in recent years and also observed a decline in actual marriages, including in the Church (a 44 percent dip from 2000 to 2016).
As St. John Paul II said so well, “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family.” And that’s for “better or worse,” no pun intended, in excerpting from the traditional marriage vows. And men play a key role in this saga. A Swiss survey noted the great importance that fathers play in a family’s religious practice. The survey was done in 1994 and published in 2000, and it would be helpful to see a follow-up survey in Switzerland, and similar studies done in America and elsewhere. In short, as Robbie Low, an Anglican pastor noted, “It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” Adds Low, regarding the Swiss survey:
In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally.
A non-practicing mother with a regular father will see a minimum of two-thirds of her children ending up at church. In contrast, a non-practicing father with a regular mother will see two-thirds of his children never darken the church door. If his wife is similarly negligent that figure rises to 80 percent!
There is a reason why fathers are called the heads of households (cf. Eph. 5:22-24), and this survey affirms that reality. And so the Church needs to encourage fathers to lead their families well, i.e., laying down their lives in love as Christ did for his mystical bride, the Church, if they expect their families to emulate their example (cf. Eph. 5:25-27).
Which bring us back to football. A lot of men like to watch football, so I suggest pastors could periodically host big-screen viewings of games of local interest, whether professional or college, as a means to reconnect with men who don’t regularly participate in Mass, have lapsed completely or have converted to another faith. Parishioners who are sports fans could collaborate with their pastors to coordinate the event and invite relevant men they know. The viewing could take place at the parish hall, a Knights of Columbus (K of C) hall, or a large room at a local restaurant or tavern. The event could be for men only, men and their sons, or possibly whole families. There could be an associated meal, e.g., potluck dinner, and the pastor could offer to hear confessions during the event, or make appointments for Confession with the relevant men attending. The Super Bowl could be an ideal time to host such an event.
If you can get a man to go to Confession, that’s a huge first step toward full participation in the Church. And once he realizes that the Mass is “the source and summit of the Christian life,” because “it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1324 and 1330, collectively affirm—well, then you have a saint in the making, a real soldier for Christ. When a man also learns about heroic saints likes Maximilian Kolbe and Thomas More, and he contemplates the Sacrifice our Lord made for our redemption, then he’ll increasingly realize that there’s no greater and fulfilling a challenge for a man than to be a Catholic.
Or perhaps a summer art fair or other festival. You never know what seeds you can plant in making such efforts. Or handing out Catholic information outside major sporting events. Or buying or leasing space at a busy mall. The St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center in Boston, which is staffed well by the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is an excellent example of literally meeting people where they’re at, instead of hoping they’re gonna come back home to the Church without an invitation.
Bottom line, we need to reach out to Catholic men who have strayed from the Church in varying degrees. Like Christ himself, we need to seek out these wayward or lost sheep (cf. Mt. 18:10-14). It’s of vital importance to the Church’s mission here in the United States, and truly indispensable for renewing America.