There are 22 million lapsed Catholics in the United States of America.
After practising Catholics and Baptists, they constitute the third largest “denomination”. One in every three US Americans who were raised as Catholic has now left the Church.
Personal experience suggests the statistics for New Zealand are probably similar.
The current secular environment is no doubt one key factor for this, but secularised thought is nothing new. There have always been agnostics and atheists.
St Thérèse of Lisieux in late 19th century France went through a phase where she felt her faith briefly undermined by such thinking. New Zealand has always had parents who sent their children to Sunday schools or Church schools, but otherwise had little religious commitment.
For many decades in both the United States of America and NZ the subculture of immigrant Catholicism often shielded Catholics against these trends.
But, starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s, Catholics, instead of reforming and updating their subculture, began dismantling the infrastructure of distinctively Catholic institutions and organisations that had long served them so well.
Access to higher education, economic prosperity and suburbanisation meant that Catholics, like other minorities, began to assimilate into mainstream secular culture.
Many young Catholics now have little sense of being in any way different from other New Zealanders.
But if there is no difference, why bother being Christian, let alone Catholic?
The Church thrives when Catholics are conscious that they are called to be different from the mainstream, and there are indications that a new generation is beginning to appreciate this.
The motto for Hamilton diocese calls us to be Proud to be Catholic.
We see this pride at World Youth Day celebrations, at our own Hearts Aflame Summer School, and in the hundreds of thousands of mostly young people who gather in growing numbers each January in Washington for the annual March for Life.
Russell Shaw, who worked at one time for the United States of America Catholic bishops, has suggested that we Catholics need to reconstruct a new subculture.
Not an inward-looking, self-serving, old-style ghetto, but a new, vibrant, dynamic subculture that is specifically designed to be a source of creative energy for preaching the Gospel far and wide, paying special attention to former Catholics, or nominal Catholics who are now teetering on the brink.
The bishops in the United Kingdom have suggested that Catholics should reconsider abstaining from meat on Fridays, both to mark the day of our Lord’s death, but also to remind ourselves that we are called to stand slightly outside the mainstream if we are to be salt to the earth.
This too is why faithful attendance at Sunday Mass is so important. It is our way of showing ourselves, and others, that for us this is the Lord’s Day.
Lent each year provides an opportune moment to reflect on ways in which we can make changes in our lives to show we dare to be different.
It is still okay to give up chocolates, go without alcohol, support the Caritas appeal, pray the rosary, attend daily Mass, stop smoking, say grace before meals, or cut back on desserts.
If the challenge of the New Evangelisation is to gain any traction in our lives, we must first show we are proud to be Catholic and not afraid to show it.
— Patrick Dunn is the Bishop of Auckland diocese and the publisher of NZ Catholic.