Fallen-Away Catholics

Some years ago, priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley announced that the largest Christian community in the United States was the Catholic Church with 60 million members and the second largest Christian group was made up of the 30 million fallen-away Catholics. That means there are about 90 million baptized Catholics and only two-thirds are calling themselves Catholics. Accurate statistics are hard to come by and are always shifting, but there seems to be a general consensus that only 27% of the remaining 60 million Catholics in this country are practicing their faith regularly, that is, at least going regularly to Sunday Mass. Among those over the age of 60, the percentage of practicing Catholics is higher, perhaps 60-70%, whereas among those ages 20-40, the percentage of those attending Mass regularly is probably closer to 20%. According to a recent Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, most Catholics have left the Church by age 23. The CARA Report says that 15% of Gen X Catholics (age 30s-40s) and 17% of Millennial Catholics (teens-20s) attend Mass regularly.

Some Catholics who fall away, the more religious ones, are attending evangelical protestant communities where they claim to find a more personal relationship with God. The majority of those who have left the Church simply sink into secular society without any meaningful affiliation with organized Christianity. Surveys have found that the most important factor in either changing churches or in remaining in one’s own church is finding a personal relationship with God. This is true for both Caucasians and Hispanics. 90% of the 3.78 million Hispanics who have left the Catholic Church said they did so because they desired “a more direct, personal relationship with God.” 70% of Hispanic Catholics who became evangelicals said they did not find the Catholic liturgy “lively and exciting.” The evangelical and pentecostal churches are growing because they actively evangelize and recruit new members, promising above all this personal relationship with the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Do we care that the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere is hemorrhaging? We do if we believe that:

  • Christ is the only Savior whom God has sent to rescue humanity from sin and death.
  • The Fullness of Faith and the means of salvation that Christ gave resides in the Catholic Church.
  • Our eternal life will be spent in either heaven or hell depending on whether we know and do God’s will during our time on earth.

We know that God cares. That is why He sent His Son to live, suffer and die for us. We know that Christ cares because we see Him constantly pursuing every person He can. For example, the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4), the alienated tax collector, Zaccheus (Lk. 19) and the single lost sheep (Lk. 15). Jesus wept over Jerusalem and the Jewish nation that refused to accept Him, prophesying that their destruction would be the result (Lk. 19:41-44). In these days, Tucson and the nation are rightly grieving the tragic killing of innocent civilians and public servants. But do we care, or even realize that not only are mortal lives being cut short, but eternal souls are being lost everyday and every moment, picked off by the deranged snipers called the world, the flesh and the devil–all because they do not have the love of God in them which Christ imparts?

As a priest, I encounter countless Catholics who are grieving the loss of the Faith of children or grandchildren. “How did we fail them?”, so many ask. “What can we do to bring them back?”

What can we Catholics do to attract and invite searching people to the Church Christ founded? Pray first! But here are also some suggestions:

  • Most importantly, we must grow in personal holiness ourselves. Holiness attracts by its joy, goodness and courage. The holy person leads others to Christ because he or she radiates Christ. We cannot give to or want for others what we do not have ourselves. Google John Paul II’s exhortation Novo Millenio Ineunte and read especially chapter 29 and following. The whole of Vatican II finds its kernel and meaning in chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, The Universal Call to Holiness. Google and ponder prayerfully!
  • Most leave us out of ignorance of the faith. I am convinced that no person could abandon the Mass and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, if they truly understood what it is: Christ bringing us into the historical and yet timeless event of His death and resurrection and then feeding us with His true Body and Blood, human and divine. I recommend three books that will help: Fr. Driscoll’s “What Happens at Mass?”, Fr. Jean Corbon’s “Wellspring of Worship”, and Fr. Lukefahr’s “We Worship: A Guide to the Catholic Mass.”
  • Evangelicals and other protestants who are converted to the Catholic Church are often led home to their Mother by studying Church History, reading the early Fathers of the Church and studying the Catholic Catechism. They come to realize as Blessed Cardinal Newman did, that only the Catholic Church still believes and practices the same faith as our early forebearers–for example, the Eucharist, the ordained priesthood and apostolic succession, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, prayer to Mary and the saints, prayers for the departed and so on. Get Mike Aquilina’s “The Fathers of the Church” and read Alan Shreck’s “A Compact History of the Church.”
  • Go to the website: www.catholicscomehome.org. Watch helpful programs on EWTN. Listen to and give away inspiring CDs such as those by Lighthouse, available in many Catholic Churches. Visit many solid Catholic news and blog sites such as Zenit and EWTN news. Read Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscovering Catholicism.”
  • Equip yourself as an apologist, that is, someone who can explain and defend the truths of the faith. Find help in such books as Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism and Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth. Invite folks to come to Church with you. Share with them what God has done for you in your life. Above all, give the witness and example of a person on fire with the love of Christ! And be sure to make a list of people for whom you will pray daily–that they might be given the grace of true Catholic faith and come home.


In addition to being a noted theologian, speaker and writer, Fr. Tomasek served as Director of Spiritual Formation at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome.