‘Ad limina’ report reveals challenges for the local church

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Tomorrow, I travel to Rome with the U.S. bishops from Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska to make our “ad limina” visit.

These visits are supposed to occur every five years but, because popes get behind in their schedules, it is almost eight years since the previous “ad limina.”

The “ad limina” visit has several purposes. The name itself is Latin for “to the threshold.” One concrete objective of each “ad limina” visit is to pray at the threshold of the tombs of the great apostles St. Peter and St. Paul.

As successors of the apostles, we pray that we might have the same zeal and courage as Peter and Paul in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. During the visit, we will also have the opportunity to celebrate Mass at the four major Roman basilicas — St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

We will also meet with Pope Francis to receive his encouragement and counsel. I anticipate our meeting with the Holy Father will be a dialogue — allowing the pope to communicate what he considers most important for our ministry in the United States as well as an opportunity for bishops to ask questions and offer our insights to the successor of St. Peter.

In preparation for the “ad limina” visit, each bishop prepares a report for the Holy Father describing the state of the church in our part of the United States.

I am grateful to Father John Riley, our chancellor, for coordinating the formulation of our report, as well as all our archdiocesan staff who assisted in providing information in their specific areas of expertise.

The Holy Father shares sections of the report pertinent to different dicasteries (offices) in Rome — e.g., education, clergy, religious, evangelization, family life, etc. These meetings with the prefect and staffs of the Vatican dicasteries are an important part of the “ad limina” experience. 

One of the benefits of the “ad limina” process is it provides an occasion to compare current data and analysis with previous “ad limina” reports. Our previous 2012 “ad limina” report was based on data from the calendar year 2011.

Similarly, the data for this “ad limina” report is based on data from 2018. This comparison of current data with the past brings into focus the challenges the archdiocese faces. In many ways, I found the report quite sobering.

In this week’s column, I will share with you some of the hard cold facts and some of their implications for the future of the church in the archdiocese. It is important that we look squarely at the reality of where we are and where we have failed in recent years in order to plan for a path forward that will lead to the renewal and strengthening of the church.

In 2018, we had 1,039 children in Catholic preschools; in 2011, there were only 821. In 2018, we had 9,520 students enrolled in our kindergarten through eighth-grade elementary schools — a significant decrease from the 10,097 in our grade schools in 2011.

In 2018, we had 3,452 students enrolled in our Catholic secondary schools; in 2011, we had 3,556 students. In this eight-year period, our Catholic preschools increased enrollment by 218 students.

During that same period, however, our Catholic grade school enrollment declined by 577 and our Catholic high schools by 104. On average from 2011-18, we lost 72 students per year in our Catholic elementary schools and 13 students per year in our Catholic high schools.

The reasons for these declines are multifaceted. The inevitable rising cost of Catholic education is certainly a factor, but so is a low birth rate and a decrease in overall Catholic population. The choice of an increasing number of parents to home school their children also is a factor.

These numbers underline the importance of the Catholic Education Foundation and its successful efforts to raise scholarship money to assist qualifying families. These statistics also make clear the importance of the development efforts of our Catholic high schools and elementary schools to provide financial aid to families.

I shudder to think what our enrollment numbers would be without the development efforts of our schools and the success of the Catholic Education Foundation.

The data also reveals an important opportunity. If we can capture the increased numbers in our Catholic preschools, we can reverse the current negative trend. It also challenges us to make the case to parents of the tremendous value of our Catholic schools in assisting them with the spiritual and moral formation of their children.

There are many reasons why parents choose to send their children to public schools.

As already noted, financial cost is one important factor. There are parts of the archdiocese where Catholic schools are not geographically accessible. Sometimes, because of our limited resources, our schools are not always equipped to address the special educational needs of some children.

Many of our recent immigrants from Central and South America come from societies where Catholic schools were only available to the wealthy. With Hispanics making up a large portion of our youth, we need to make special efforts to encourage and make it possible for Hispanic parents to choose Catholic schools for their children.

A comparison of sacramental data from 2011 to 2018 highlights even more significant negative trends for our church. The number of infant baptisms in 2018 (2,821) was 862 fewer than in 2011 (3,683). The number of adult baptisms — 760 in 2018 — declined from the 930 in 2011. First Communions numbered 2,946 in 2018, a decline of almost 1,000 from the 3,937 in 2011.

Similarly, there were 50 fewer Catholic marriages in 2018 (573) than in 2011 (623). Interfaith marriages declined even more sharply. In 2018, there were 217 interfaith marriages compared to 353 in 2011 — a difference of 136, an almost 40% decline.

While these declines may not be nearly as dramatic as in other parts of the country, this provides little comfort. The stark reality is that there are fewer individuals who are registered members of our parishes — 206,334 in 2011 compared to 190,624 in 2018. Sadly, the decline in those actively participating in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church is even more dramatic.

In many ways, these reflect the overall cultural trends of millennials and successive generations of being less religious than their predecessors. In light of these realities, complacency is not an option.

The epidemic of loneliness, depression and high suicide rates among youth and young adults is in part a consequence of not only weakened family life but also the loss of being part of a faith community.

Our Catholic faith has the antidote to the many toxic elements of our society. We have a responsibility to do our best to share the beauty and richness of our Catholic faith with everyone.

The scandals within the church and the failure of those entrusted with leadership —bishops — has certainly contributed to the negative trends.

We, bishops, must acknowledge and own our responsibility. At the same time, we are facing a new cultural reality. We are living in what many have termed a post-Christian culture.

Moreover, for the first time in human history, there are powerful cultural forces, such as mass media and social media, influencing young people to embrace ideas and values that are not consistent with those being nurtured in the family.

In the coming months, I will be reviewing this data with the Presbyteral Council as well as our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, soliciting their advice on how we best respond to these realities and reverse these negative trends.

We know Jesus is faithful to his promises. Our Lord and the Holy Spirit remain with the church. We need to be supple to their guidance to renew the church and, in the process, renew society. Next week, I will write about some of the positive elements in the comparison of the 2012 and 2019 “ad limina” reports. There are indeed rays of hope.

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