Monday, September 21, 2015

On Eve of Pope Francis’s Visit, U.S. Catholic Church Grapples With Growth and Decline


As the population of the U.S. Catholic church grows in some areas and declines in others, Can Pope Francis and the American clergy bring balance to the church?

A Sunday morning mass in August at Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Riverside, Calif., was a packed. PHOTO: STUART PALLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Sept. 20, 2015 8:00 a.m. ET

RIVERSIDE, Calif.—Father Miguel Ruiz, a charismatic Argentinian known for his homemade mango jam, rushed across his bustling church campus 60 miles east of Los Angeles, smiling and shaking hands before slipping into the back of a hall packed with families.

His day had started at 7 a.m., checking the progress of construction on the new Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church—its steel frame towering over the current sanctuary that has grown too small after its congregation tripled in a decade. After morning Mass, he squeezed in a trip to Home Depot for supplies to repair a broken bathroom tile. Now, well past sunset on a recent Wednesday night, he had night classes to teach.

“It’s always like this,” said Father Miguel, whose parish holds 8 to 12 masses a weekend. “A lot of life, lot of activity.”

A new larger Queen of Angels Catholic Church was under construction in August near the original church in Riverside. PHOTO: STUART PALLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The U.S. Catholic Church is expanding quickly in the South and West, largely driven by immigrants from Latin America filling pews in Atlanta, Houston and in Southern California.

Meanwhile, the church is contracting in the East and upper Midwest, where historic Catholic strongholds like Boston, Detroit and New York City are closing parishes as population or attendance declines.

The result: Old-line dioceses are battling to keep their doors open, even as fast-growing ones are scrambling to meet the needs of the growing faithful.

The Diocese of San Bernardino, which includes Queen of Angels, has grown by 400,000 in eight years to 1.6 million Catholics.

“It’s like they all decided to come at the same time,” said Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino Diocese, which includes two Southern California counties and stretches to Arizona. “It’s a tremendous blessing and a challenge.”

The once-sleepy rural diocese of San Bernardino is now the country’s 6th largest. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Detroit, which includes six counties in southeastern Michigan, slipped from 8th to 11th largest, with 1.3 million Catholics—down nearly 15% since 2000.

In more recent years, some Detroit-area Catholics headed south and west for jobs, adding to the burgeoning Catholic populations there.

St. Patrick Church in Detroit held its last Sunday Mass earlier this year amid declining parish membership. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

“There’s a natural question every pastor asks: Where is everybody?” said Father Joe Horn,who serves two parishes in a farm community outside Detroit that once supported four parishes. Only about a quarter of the 1,600 registered families regularly participate in church life, leaving a small group of dedicated Catholics running Sunday schools and other activities.

“We’re all exhausted spinning our wheels,” Father Horn said.

In 2007, just over half of American Catholics lived in the Northeast and Midwest, according to a Pew Research Center study. By 2014, just over half of American Catholics were living in the South and West.

The demographic shift is transforming the U.S. Catholic Church from one that is largely European, white and middle class, to one that is Hispanic and Asian, younger and poorer. The result is a shift in emphasis by the church, with immigration, for instance, assuming greater importance.

“The center of gravity and influence in the church is shifting from the East to the West, and from the North to the South,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, who heads the largest dioceses in the U.S., with around 4.5 million Catholics. Last year, the archdiocese baptized almost 70,000 babies, Archbishop Gomez said, more infant baptisms than New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., combined.


Pope Francis is making for his first trip to the U.S. as the Holy Father from September 22 to 27. He’ll make stops in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. How will he be spending those six days? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer.

The population tilt is straining resources on both sides: Dioceses with fast-growing populations struggle with a shortage of priests and cash to build churches and provide services.

Meanwhile, shrinking dioceses are fighting to keep churches running, pay off debt and replace aging priests.

“In the West and South, they’re saying ‘I need a bigger church…the church can’t catch up fast enough,’ ” said Mark Gray, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “In the Midwest and Northeast, they’re thinking about paying the heating bill, the air conditioning bill, the parish staff, and their old parish might need a new roof. They have a lot of needs and too few parishoners.”

The boom and rapid expansion in the South and West mirrors Detroit Catholicism—60 years ago. There, Catholicism was fueled by waves of European immigrants, many Polish and Italian. Drawn by the auto industry, they tapped healthy union wages to build churches and schools. Some parishes were separated by less than 10 miles.

“If they needed it, they built it, and with cash,” said Father Joe Mallia, the priest for St.Frances Cabrini, outside Detroit, where he had his first communion in the 1970s, shortly after it was built to replace the smaller church. When he was a kid, masses were often “standing room only.” Now, the most popular Mass will be around 75% full, he said. At a thriving Catholic school next door, students rarely attend weekend Mass.

Indeed, engaging youth has become a critical priority for the archdiocese. A new young adult and campus ministry liaison, Christopher Gawel, 32, hosts events geared toward young Catholics. Recently, around 70 young Catholics showed up to a bar for a discussion on abortion, he said. He’s thinking about holding Masses, confessions and social gatherings in spaces such as including storefronts, coffee houses, or gyms.

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Archbishop Allen Vigneron says Catholics will have to be open to such changes. He tried street evangelization for the first time, speaking to passers-by on a street corner in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb.

“I’m by temperament a pretty shy guy,” he said of the experience. But “I found it easy to be engaged.”

The street evangelization was led by lay people— an encouraging sign, he said, that lay Catholics are becoming more active in taking leadership roles.

San Bernardino’s Bishop Barnes has also leaned on laity. “We don’t have enough priests, but I think this is the way church is meant to live,” he said.

To attract lay people, Father Horn, in the farm community outside Detroit, last month launched “Operation Olive Branch,” an evangelization drive “to welcome back those who have gone away from us.”

A seminarian and church intern used a parish database to identify Catholics who hadn’t had contact with the church for three years. They were mailed cards to let them know Catholic volunteers would be visiting soon. The parish trained around 60 volunteers with basic techniques for door-to-door evangelization (introduce yourself, smile, stand a respectable distance from the door).

For three Saturdays in August, volunteers visited the homes of lapsed Catholics, praying with them on front porches. They left cards with parish information that said “Come back home!”

Father Mallia, from Frances Cabrini outside Detroit, rides his bike through town wearing his priestly collar, stopping to chat with locals in their yards or at lemonade stands, seeking to be a visible reminder that the church lives in their community. “If you sit in your office waiting for people to come to you, you’ll be a very lonely priest and your parish will die,” he said.

Rev. Miguel Ruiz delivers his sermon at Sunday Mass to an overflow crowd. PHOTO: STUART PALLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Not so in Riverside, where Father Ruiz runs packed meetings for those with drugs and alcohol problems, and counsels families with immigration issues. He struggles with integrating the shrinking number of non-Hispanic parishoners with his overwhelmingly Hispanic congregation. “It’s difficult to maintain unity between them,” he said. The parish buzzes with construction during the day, and parents and children come and go all afternoon and evening. Weekend masses are typically overflowing.

“You’ve got to get here early to even get a seat. If you’re late, forget it,” said Christian Castellanos, 12. He and his mother help raise money for the church selling toys and candy after religious education classes.

Father Ruiz said the congregation has raised “90% of the money” for construction of the new church. For his part, he has sold 1,000 jars of his mango jam ($4 per jar) and raised $150,000 running in the Los Angeles Marathon this year. “At first the idea to build a church was a nice idea,” said Father Ruiz. “Now it’s urgent.”

Write to Tamara Audi at


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