I have just read an article in the English Tablet (December 13, 2014) about a survey made by Benedictine University in Springfield, IL, USA about why people are leaving the Church. They are:

1.     Disagreement with certain Church doctrines.

2.     Lack of “connection”, feeling spiritual needs not met.

3.     A “perceived lack of Christian values” i.e. non-welcoming, judgmental experiences.

4.     Scandals in the Church

5.     Too much politics in the pulpit.

I would have liked to have seen the whole article since this doesn’t give us much to go on. You need to use your imagination to expand on what is said. But I can compare them with what other people who have given up going to church have told me.

These are very general statements, and one parish differs from another, and one diocese differs from another. So there is not much to go on!

What I think is that we do have one very strong point of reference or principle on which to judge this or that church. And that is: to what degree do we Catholics try to imitate the behavior and the teaching of Jesus. He gave some powerful principles by which we can compare ourselves.

There is a debate going on at the moment with the Synod on the Family. Having met for the first session there is a division amongst leaders of the Church about whether we need to be a more doctrinal church or a pastoral church. The first group would like us to be demanding about rules – if they are not kept then people should be excluded from receiving the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The second would say we need to imitate Jesus and the Church seen as a church of mercy and forgiveness. This is obviously the way Pope Francis is looking at the future church. And it is my opinion too for what that is worth!

If you look at the Church from this standpoint, obviously the first issue about disagreement with Church doctrines is very important. People must believe or they cannot be members! But then we are faced with a huge issue – major and minor Church doctrines. “I believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches.” We are opposed to “relativism” – whatever that means. But there are huge differences between believing in Jesus being God, and the teaching about artificial means of birth control. The Bishops are talking about “Gradual” Catholics as a way around “Relativism”. As far as I can see that means we are on the way to becoming good, or even perfect. “I’d like to believe in everything, but I still have a long way to go!” If we look at this from the point of view of Pope Francis, it seems that many more people would be welcomed, and feel welcomed!

The second point about spiritual needs not being met is one which I have experienced too. But here again, there is a huge variety of personalities within the Church, and people’s individual spiritual needs are very different. I presume they are talking about the celebration of the liturgy. Some need silence, others conversation.  Some want classical music, others again folk music, country music or even rock. There is a radio station for every taste, why not a liturgy! I think we have come a long way since “one size fits all”! I also know as a priest that I can more easily get my own needs met, but don’t always accept the responsibility to be sensitive to others. I never know the mood of people at Mass, and at every celebration there can be a mixture of old, young and in-between. There are people who are happy at home, people who are sad, people who live alone and people who wished they did. I try to think before I preach, “Who will be touched by what I have to say today? Who shall I aim at pleasing?”

And then we have to look at the prayers we say. The new translation of the Missal is very controversial, some of the sentences so long you need to break them up. The language is so formal we would never use it for normal conversation. My spiritual needs certainly haven’t been met by the translation and I hope for change – soon!

Priests do not spend enough time trying to relate the Eucharistic Prayers to the audience and the theme of the scripture used. Very few priests think of the people who are attending, or seek their opinion.

There are also people who simply don’t want to be there! It would be impossible to meet their needs! So, meeting people’s spiritual needs is impossible! Maybe we are asking the wrong question – are God’s needs being met! After all it seems that we go to church because God asks it of us. Does God only hear the prayers that are formal or well thought out? I can categorically say that isn’t true! God hears us, “before there is even word on our lips” as the Psalms tell us. It is the thought that counts as far as God is concerned.

So this is a huge issue, and there are no answers, except more sensitive celebrants and liturgical ministers.

The same can be said about: “A perceived lack of Christian values i.e. non-welcoming, judgmental experiences.”  A priest friend went out of his way to welcome everyone and invite people to come to his church. He went to a mobile home village and started tapping on doors. One person simply stated: “We wouldn’t be welcome at your church!” He then asked “Why would that be?” and the woman said, “We are not dressed well enough!” Next Sunday, Peter looked at those coming to church and had to admit that even in these days of casual dress, people do dress carefully and so he told the people at church what had been said, and asked them to dress down! I know a few who would love that invitation!

The ushers and Communion Ministers have an important function too. It is so easy to forget you are ministering to people. How important it is to look them in the eye, to smile and grin – you never know their needs or suffering. I can remember being taken to church as a young boy, and being told, “Don’t forget you are in the presence of God!” Now I would say that God is saying to us, “don’t forget you are in the presence of the needy.”!

Timothy Radcliffe who was the Master General of the Dominicans also emphasizes that we are a church of sinners. I cannot judge others and their worthiness without asking whether I am worthy to be there myself. At Christmas we easily think of people being only Christmas Catholics, when we should be thrilled that they are there at all, and think how proud their parents, grandparents, husbands, wives are that they have come together.

There have always been scandals in the church. I am reading a novel about the Borgias, undoubtedly an embarrassing part of our history. We have to acknowledge the present day scandals and the damage that has been done by the unconscionable behavior of some of our priests and bishops. I also know how necessary it is to say sorry to those who have suffered, especially the young. I can remember a priest telling a group of us that he kept a morally good lifestyle because of the fear that he would be caught out! Public scandal is something that none of us want for ourselves.

I also feel that the innocence of children is something precious to those of us who have become hardened by life. In the movie of the opera “The Magic Flute”, the director, Ingmar Bergman spent most of the overture just looking at the eyes of the children who were in the audience. Their delight was catching!

I have also heard countless men saying that their wives’ innocence was their greatest motivation for going to church themselves.

The church leaders have to look at this issue. Elizabeth Johnson writes about “Icons of Jesus” as being the ones who should be ordained ministers. Who are our icons, and are they ever considered for leadership? I am sure God would prefer them too!

Lastly, too much politics in the pulpit! Personally I would say not enough politics in the pulpit! We live in a society that fails badly to live the Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and goats. The homily ought to be on the scriptural readings of the day but most of us a scared to preach on the tough teachings. Politics and religion do mix! Or they ought to! One of the reasons I like Facebook is that it gives me the opportunity to say what I think. But I have been shocked to read what many think! There is a need for adult education I am afraid. But you have to be brave in order to do this, and I am too afraid of reaction to be honest to the truths of the Gospel.

Instead of driving people out of the church, it might actually bring people in!

There are many issues not raised like the fact that the practice of religion is not popular these days. And people can be too busy for religion – or think they are! And indifference will always make people find an excuse for not going to church.

But we can look at the bright side, and that is that when Jesus went to the Cross, the majority were against him and wanted him killed.!