At a recent Sunday Mass, the priest preached on the Gospel passage where Jesus beckons to his soon-to-be disciples: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 

The priest then asked us to consider the following questions: What kind of “bait” do I use to draw people to Jesus? Do I attract people to the Faith by the way I live? By how I speak? Do I throw stones at those who are approaching, only to scare them away?

Apart from prompting my own examination of conscience, his questions made me think of two recent surveys conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) with the aim of better understanding the stories, experiences, behavior and attitudes of baptized Catholics. 

The first survey, commissioned by America Media, included responses from more than 1,500 American women who self-identify as Catholic. According to Father Matt Malone, SJ, editor-in-chief of America Media, the survey was “but one response” of the Jesuit’s desire to “listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women.”  

The second survey, commissioned by Saint Mary’s Press, was a qualitative survey of young, disaffiliated Catholics — a group previously examined in the 2015 Pew Research Center survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The folks at Saint Mary’s wanted to meet the actual persons behind the Pew statistics and listen to their stories. The result was “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” 

Editors at America Media published a series of essays and articles online before the print edition, detailing the findings they found most significant. The largest takeaway was that the majority of respondents, from differing generations, rarely, if ever, attend Mass on Sundays. 

Many of these same women do not participate in any sacraments, social ministries or faith communities. It also happens that many of these respondents support initiatives or ideas at odds with the Church’s teaching, particularly those related to human sexuality and marriage, along with beliefs and practices related to ordinated ministry. 

Within minutes of the survey’s publication, a flurry of online commentary related to the last point erupted. On the one hand was the predictable cheer, “Change the Church’s teaching!” 

But the other cheer made me wince as much, if not more. That was the chorus that went something like this: “Of course women who don’t attend Mass don’t subscribe to Church teaching. Because the survey results do not reflect Church teaching, the results are not relevant or helpful to the Church.” 

As I kept scrolling, my fear kept increasing that those who have strayed would perceive an attitude of: “Well, we don’t want you anyway.” 

If people aren’t coming into our church buildings, then the Church needs to go out to them, the Holy Father says. This idea is sure to come up during the discussions of the upcoming meeting of the Synod on Young People, Vocation, and Discernment, a meeting of the world’s bishops that Pope Francis has called to be held at the Vatican this October. 

The risk with dismissing the results of these surveys is grave. While they detail many reasons why people stay away — their wounds, their experience of hypocrisy, their rejection of Church teaching or simply their intense apathy — the way to help bring them back is also buried in the same pages.  

The first step to bringing people back into the community of the Church will always be an invitation, offered in the context of a relationship. And that relationship will always require a willingness to sit with someone and listen to his or her experience and personal history. 

The authors of “Going, Going, Gone” offer a few pointed questions to those responsible for the pastoral care of young people: Do we know who the disaffiliated are, and the depths of their life stories? Do we know them by name? Do we miss these individuals now that they are gone? 

Full story at Angelus.