Four-month-old Ida Jane Betzner doesn’t realize it now, but her parents are laying the foundation for what will, hopefully, be lifelong membership in the Catholic Church.
Her parents, Sarah and Will Betzner, made a pact to attend Mass weekly while she was still in utero, and the trio has not missed a Sunday liturgy at Christ the King Church in Little Rock since.
“Mass has taken on a different meaning now because we want to expose our daughter to our faith,” Sarah said. “I want it to be a part of our lives and her life growing up. Being consistent in coming to church is a really great way to grow closer to God. It’s our set time each week to devote just a little bit of our time to him.”
As a new father, Will Betzner, agreed.
“We have to continue to feed our faith and grow in our faith,” he said “We want to set the example for her that faith is important. It's an everyday aspect of our lives. Even when things get crazy, faith is still the priority. We want to show her that we have to put God in everything that we do.”
The Betzner family is just one example of the hope the Catholic Church has at the parish, diocesan, national and global levels. The family is committed to the faith, regularly attending Mass and passing on its importance to the next generation.
At all levels, the Church is facing an alarming trend of the faithful falling away from the flock. It’s no different in Arkansas, where Catholics make up approximately 4 percent of the population, or around 120,400 in the state. Beginning in 2010, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor instituted annual October Mass attendance counts in churches across the state. Since then, attendance rates have dropped in all but four years.
In October, 45,855 people attended weekend Masses across the state, according to figures released by the diocese. That is an 11-percent decrease from 2019, the year before the pandemic, and a 23-percent decrease since 2010.
Bishop Taylor said diocesan officials are aware of the numbers and the potential for crisis should the trend continue, and they are actively working with pastors and laity across the state to reverse it. Increasing Mass attendance will mean changing culture, and he pointed to Pope Francis’ focus of journeying together through the Synod of Synodality, the National Eucharistic Revival and improving diocesan and parish faith formation as ways the Church is adapting on multiple levels.
While Sarah Betzner has been a lifelong member of Christ the King, which had the fourth highest attendance rate in the diocese last year, she and her husband could have picked any church or parish to attend as adults. She said familiarity as much as her church’s friendly environment kept her in the parish.
“It just provides a very comforting feeling,” she said. “The priests and deacons want to get to know you, the people are welcoming and the church offers lots of different ways to connect with others and get involved with different programs.”
Father Juan Guido, pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Little Italy, said Catholics need to improve their hospitality and simply inviting a friend or a family member to join them at Mass can have a profound impact.
“We have to have personal connections,” he said. “Do not be afraid to invite people to church. It's going to take somebody reaching out, person to person, to make those connections. I think every family should be responsible for bringing another family to Mass. If we all do that imagine how much the Church will grow.”
“It's actually very efficient,” Father Stephen Gadberry, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Little Rock, said. “I've done a very similar thing here in challenging people at the Masses to just find one person. Every single person in the Church is aware of at least one other person from their own family who is not coming.”
Jeff Hines, director of the diocese’s Faith Formation Office, agreed that parishes — especially small and mission churches — can take a more localized approach to attract not only those who have fallen-away but those who are looking for a church home.
“As Americans, we tend to want to create big, flashy programs, but we simply need to make friends, share Christ and what he has done in our lives.”
While he just arrived in July, Father Gadberry said he is following the path of his predecessors Father Mark Wood and Father Nelson Rubio at St. Theresa, which had the sixth highest attendance rate in the diocese in October.
“They did a fabulous job of welcoming people here and just opening doors and finding a way to give a space to anybody that wanted to do something to assist or engage the parish,” he said. “Since I've been here, I and Father Jaime (Nieto, associate pastor) have been giving some structure and guidance to all the things they began. The people like that welcoming aspect, but they want to be engaged and challenged.”
The way religious and laity carry themselves, especially at Mass, is also a little thing that makes a big difference, Father Gadberry said.
“It seems so simple, but another big thing is just joy. I think we underestimate the power of joy,” he said. “Like Pope Francis has said, ‘Too many Catholics look like they've just left a funeral day in and day out. Whenever we're joyful, it's clear that the Lord has given us that joy and others want that.”
The last quarter century has been contentious politically in the United States and the world is coming out of a major pandemic, he said.
“People are looking for something uplifting, a positive message, and we can give them that,” Father Gadberry said.
Bishop Taylor said one of the biggest demographic trends facing the diocese is the number of young adults who have left the Church. Keeping future generations engaged and active will be of utmost importance.
Emery Horras, 18, a member of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church and senior at Mount St. Mary Academy, both in Little Rock, said there was a time when she began to drift from the Church, but found attending Mass has too many positive aspects to give up on it.
“As I get older, I feel more called to go to Mass. I used to be forced to go with my parents, but now I actually want to go,” she said. “I feel really satisfied and happy when I go. It's a good way to start my week.”
Father Gadberry said he often hears from people that their spouse or children have stopped going to church, and they are looking for advice on how to bring them back. He said the best way to get them interested is to explain your reason for going and what attending Mass does for you.
“It’s going to be a lot more efficient and effective,” he said.
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