COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It's a scenario that will probably play out in thousands of homes across the country this Christmas: A young adult goes home for the holidays and announces that he or she no longer attends Mass.
How parents should respond is the subject of a new book and video series by Brandon Vogt, content director for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and author of the best-selling book, "The Catholic Church and New Media."
He recently was a guest on the radio show "The Joy of the Gospel," hosted by Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs.
Vogt said the inspiration for his new book, "Return" — available at www.returngameplan.com —grew out of his experiences.
"Over the last several years, I've been speaking around the country at Catholic conferences and events, at parishes and in small groups, and I noticed that the most pressing and pervasive problem among many of the people I encountered was that so many were distraught over sons and daughters who have left the church," Vogt told The Colorado Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
"Almost every place I went, I heard some version of, 'My son, my daughter, they went off to college, they came home and they don't go to Mass or believe in God. I'm devastated. What should I do?'"
Recent surveys of religious practice among so-called "millennials" confirmed the need for such a book, said Vogt (pronounced "Vott").
"The second thing which reinforced this anecdotal evidence was the release of the Pew Religious Landscape Survey," he said. "One of the numbers that popped out: 50 percent of young Americans who were raised Catholic no longer call themselves Catholic today. They also found that 79 percent of people who drifted away from Catholicism did so before age 23. So these are predominantly young people who are leaving the church in massive numbers, and I felt like I needed to do something about it."
Although each person's story is unique, fallen-away Catholics typically fall in one of six categories, he said:
• Cultural Catholics: People who still identify as Catholic, but they don't really have a sacramental life. Many researchers have noted that this describes the largest percentage of adult Catholics who don't practice their faith," Vogt said. "The cultural Catholics are vast, and they're the ones sitting on the bench between being in the church and wholly drifting away."
• Shruggers: "A lot of people tell me that the problem with their children is not that they disagree with one of the church's teachings or have issue with the church's liturgy; they just don't care," Vogt said.
• Spiritual but not religious: Described by many researchers as "unaffiliated" or "nones." "The interesting thing about these people is that not all of them disbelieve in God," Vogt said. "In fact, the majority of them still claim to believe in a higher power, to pray and to be interested in spiritual things. They're just leery of the institution of the church."
• Moral movers: People who leave the Catholic Church because they disagree with one of the church's moral teachings, such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or divorce and remarriage.
• Religious switchers: About a quarter of former Catholics who switch from one church to another, usually from the Catholic Church to either an evangelical or nondenominational Protestant tradition.
• Skeptics: Includes atheists, agnostics and anyone skeptical of God and religion. "They make up a relatively small proportion of the population right now; about 3 percent of Americans are atheist and 4 percent identify as agnostic. But those numbers have risen four- to fivefold over the last decade" Vogt said.
While it's important for parents to remain calm and keep the lines of communication open with children who have stopped practicing the faith, they can't be complacent, Vogt said. One of the common myths about fallen-away Catholics is that, once they get married and have children, they will return to church.
"Statistically, there seems to be little or no evidence that this is actually true," Vogt said. "Here's why: In 1960, the average age for getting married was 23 for men and 20 for women. Today it's 29 for men and 27 for women. So young people are waiting longer than ever to get married. That extra time away from church makes it less likely they'll return. And when they do get married, they're not getting married in the church."
When faced with a child who has drifted from the faith, parents must first pray and equip themselves with resources to answer any questions their children might have.
"You need to know where to find the things you don't know," Vogt said.
Also, it is important for parents not to be angry and confrontational, he said.
"Ask lots and lots of questions," he said. "When your child has drifted away from the church, a bad approach is to confront him with lots of assertions about why he's wrong and why he should come back. Ask, 'Why did you leave? What have you found in this other faith?'"
Vogt said that the new evangelization called for by recent popes is largely aimed at people who have been baptized but do not have a personal relationship with Christ.
"The new evangelization — if you were to sum it up in a sentence — is to help people encounter or re-encounter the Lord Jesus," Vogt said. "That encounter is what's missing for so many people. The reason they drift away is that they don't have an anchor holding them to the Catholic Church, and the anchor is that encounter with the Lord Jesus."
Ambuul is assistant editor of The Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.