In a move that looks like it came straight out of Pope Francis' playbook, the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has asked the faithful to reflect on their experiences in the Roman Catholic Church.
Specifically, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki investigated one crucial question: Why have some Roman Catholics in the diocese stopped attending Mass?
To answer the question, Paprocki enlisted several professors at Benedictine University at Springfield to survey parishioners.
Professors Phillip Hardy, Kelly Kendra and Brian Patterson surveyed 575 lapsed Roman Catholics from November 2012 to March 2013, asking them why they had stopped attending Mass or had left the church altogether; what might motivate them to return; and whether the church's stance on issues like homosexuality and abortion had factored into their decision.
Meanwhile, from February to March 2014, 827 Roman Catholics still active in the church were asked about whether their spiritual needs were being met.
Results from the survey released last week indicate four major reasons why some Roman Catholics stop going to church, among them: Disagreement with church doctrine on birth control, women as priests, homosexuality; A view that there are too many scandals in the church; A feeling parishioners are being judged by the church or are not welcomed.
Here's a sampling of some of the comments left by lapsed Roman Catholics completing the survey:
-- “My daughter came out to me as gay, and I went through a divorce after 28 years of marriage. The Church doesn't want either one of us.”
--“Being divorced they do not let you take communion. Treat you like an outsider. But they allowed priest [sic] that they knew were bad to stay in the church.”
-- “The archaic idea that only men can lead a congregation and be in the clergy, the underlying message of guilt and fear and the lack of diversity and openness to gays.”
-- “I struggle with the way the Catholic Church has not adapted an ever changing world. I also feel sometimes people are looked down upon instead of being lifted up by the church.”
-- “I have visited many parishes in the Springfield community trying to find a priest that seems dedicated to his parishioners and the word of God. All of the priests seem too wrapped up in themselves and the ‘power’ they perceive they hold. They all seem more wrapped up in themselves, much like politicians.”
-- “My parish was a cold place. You could walk in on Sunday, go to mass and walk out without speaking to another soul, I longed for fellowship.”
And here is a sampling of comments left by active Roman Catholics:
-- “I believe in the Catholic Church and this is my parish, born and raised where I raised my family. This parish has supported me thru good times and bad, it is where Our Lord gives me comfort.”
– “I attend to serve Jesus and the people. I attend to be close to Jesus, and partake of the Eucharist. I go to honor God as he has commanded. I enjoy the people around me, I go to be inspired throughout the week.”
– “Our priest is amazing, very down to earth, loves the people. We have a wonderful choir that adds to our masses. There are so many very special people in this parish that work together to make things happen. We have a group of young families that are also very active.”
When asked what the church could do to increase attendance, some suggested a media campaign, others recommended taking full responsibility for the child sexual abuse scandals, while still others pushed for higher-quality priests.
As the survey points out, however, there might not be much that can be done about Roman Catholics who have left the faith because they disagree with the church's teachings -- short of changing that doctrine.
If you're curious to hear more about the survey results and what the Springfield diocese plans to actually do given the responses, Bishop Paprocki is hosting a forum on Monday, November 24 at Benedictine University at Springfield.