Why are they leaving?


by Michael Pender

Recently Bishop Patrick Dunn has made presentations around the Auckland diocese telling of some of the challenges he perceives our Church to be facing. One theme he developed was to do with the numbers of people in our congregations. He explained that if one looks at census returns then it seems that Catholic numbers are holding up rather than declining as is happening for some other denominations. However, it appears that we in the Auckland diocese are being misled simply because the number of Catholic immigrants gives the impression that our churches are just as full as they have ever been.
Bishop Dunn went on to explain that the phenomenon of people leaving the Church occurs right across the western world; he even used the phrase “collapse of Christendom”. In the United States the decline has been such that the largest denomination is now former Catholic! Pope Benedict spoke on many occasions about decline of belief in Europe. In 2001, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, when he was the Archbishop of the London diocese of Westminster, commented about the diminishing influence of Christian belief in Britain.

In recent issues of NZ Catholic, the bishop’s remarks have been well reported; they have also drawn responses from letter writers.

Why have people departed from the pews? There is probably no simple answer as many factors are likely to have contributed: marriage problems, the scandal of sexual abuse, the way in which a very large organisation can sometimes  seem to be cold and unwelcoming, personality clashes, the seeming irrelevance of religious belief in a materialistic consumer society . . . . But are these issues sufficient cause?

We are blessed with a magnificent life vision. How can it be that some of our fellow Catholics have not been enlivened by this joyful message and so drift away? Evangelisation has been a theme of recent popes. St John Paul II promoted the so-called New Evangelisation with the idea that there would be renewal of Christian commitment to mark the beginning of the new millennium.

Perhaps, given the above information, we need to start with the evangelisation of our own people; that is, in the first instance any evangelistic endeavour should focus on our own community.

Recent popes have emphasised that the key to effective evangelisation is the experience of a personal relationship with Jesus.

I heard talk about a personal relationship with Jesus from non-Catholic evangelical student friends when I was at university but not, until very recently, from Catholic sources. Yet, (according to Popes Benedict and Francis) this idea goes back to at least Bernard of Clairvaux, a French Cistercian who lived in the first half of the 12th century. How surprised my student friends would have been to know that this idea has such a good Catholic pedigree!

“Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally; not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’” (St John Paul II, 1993).

“For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009).

So the question for us is how do we come to this experience, this personal relationship? Pope Francis has a strong statement about the need for the experience in paragraph 264 of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel): “The primary reason for evangelising is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence.”

Thus Francis concurs with his predecessors about the need for this personal experience of Jesus, but he goes further and gives clear instructions about how to obtain it if we lack it.

Of the words from the three most recent popes, these from Francis convey the greatest sense of the need for immediate action — if we don’t feel this urgent desire to share (that is evangelise) we need to pray earnestly for the gift.

An important part of the message inthis exhortation from Francis is that the initiative must come from us; we need to ask, and all we have to do is ask (Francis says ask daily). What he is suggestingwith vigour is that we take to heart the words from Luke’s Gospel (11:9): “. . .ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened . . .”.

Over to you.

Michael Pender, a parishioner at St Michael’s in Remuera, teaches Civil Engineering at the University of Auckland.

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NZ Catholic Staff

Reader Interactions


  1. Daniel Ogrodowski says

    Catholic Church leaders have no one but themselves to blame for the mass exodus of the faithful.

    The all male princes of the church have continually claimed to be superior than those that are not ordained. They claim to be the moral authorities of the free world and demand to be addressed as “Your Eminence” “Your Excellency” or “Your Grace” . They claim that they have the keys to the kingdom of heaven and that only their church can put their followers on the path to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. ……………………………………. Then the sexual assault of children by priests and church leaders coverup became public news in 1985…………………………………………………

    When Church leaders came together and decided to respond to this horrific problem with lies, deceit and unholy treatment of victims and their families , that was the beginning of the downfall. When the media in Boston was like Toto in the Wizard of Oz and pulled the curtain open to expose that church leaders knowingly transferred dangerous pedophile clergy to new and unsuspecting parishes unnecessarily creating many more child victims. The lies and secrets stared to be exposed.

    This organization has had more than 40 years to change the way that they respond to victims and they still to this day fight the release of documents that tell the true story. They fight victims at every turn using the most slimy legal strategies.

    Most Catholics now know that their bishops are not anywhere near an “Excellency” and has shown that they are not a moral authority. They have acted more like lawyers than shepherds or pastors.

    People have figured out that they do not need a bishop, priest or church to have a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. People that have this relationship with Jesus understand that Jesus would not exclude women from clergy and leadership roles in his church and would not discriminate against LGBT people because they understand that Christ welcomed all.

    People have left the church because of the many actions of church leaders which are the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches.

  2. John Whittaker says

    From as early as I can remember we, our family, went to Mass every day.
    We were never told we had to, or we should go went because we wanted to.
    It was along time ago. I am 82

    After Vatican II, when I was married we embraced the new Mass – or tried to
    up until recently.
    But I have felt like just like a spectator for the past 40 years.
    There was a program some years ago, “Worshipping under Southern Skies -Rediscovering the beauty of the Mass”
    Well I did, when I went to a Traditional Mass. It was beautiful.
    In my opinion Vatican II destroyed the Mystery, the Solemnity and most of all the Reverence of the Mass.

    The Encyclical of Pius V “Quo Primum” in 1570 establishing the Latin Mass because of all the variations should be read by all Catholics.
    And the sensibility of that Encyclical come to mind when we were in Singapore
    The church of Our Lady of Lourdes was within walking distance of our hotel and there were listed no fewer than 7 Masses on Sunday in 7 different languages.
    English, Chinese (traditional), Portuguese, Malay, Arabic, Chinese (mandarin), Sri Lankin.
    If it was in Latin then each worshipper would have the Latin and the translation in their own language in the Sunday Missal.

  3. Francis says

    In addition to the comments by John, the Church was growing directly prior to Vatican II and the introduction of the New Mass. Vocations were increasing, and the number of Catholics were increasing worldwide. Then with Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Mass introduced in the 60s, the numbers have dropped dramatically in all areas, Priestly Vocations, Religious Vcations, Mass Attendance, belief the Real Presence, etc….The experiment to water down the Faith and the Liturgy to please the Protestants and the Secular World has been a complete failure. Yet there is still lots of hope. While Churches are being emptied, amalgamated and numbers walk away from the Church, there are quickly growing communities and congregations, seminaries and parishes worldwide which have gone back to the Traditional teachings and the Traditional Latin Mass. And there are many young people at these Masses. So I beg all the Bishops of NZ to open their eyes to this and speed up the restoration of the Faith and help reverse the crisis by returning to the Traditional Catholic teachings taught and lived by all the Saints and Popes over the centuries, and return to the beautiful and reverence and Catholic in every way, Traditional Latin Mass!. For the sake of souls and the glory of God it needs to happen asap!

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