Over the past several months, I have been writing about social forces and cultural factors in the contemporary milieu which have contributed to the decline of faith practice in the United States.

This decline has been well-documented: The PEW Forum on Religion and Politics finds that 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, and the decline is especially notable among adolescents and young adults.

Factors I have cited include loss of a sense of sin, individualism, rampant consumerism, narcissism, secularism, scientism and atheism.

I have not suggested that these influences are solely accountable for the fact that nearly 18 million Catholics have stopped practicing their faith. Rather, in conjunction with our "Amazing God" evangelization initiative in the Albany Diocese, I have sought to highlight the cultural and social landscape in which we find ourselves.

I believe that, if our efforts at evangelization are to be successful, we must constructively address the religious and spiritual dimensions of people's lives. In order to do this, we must be knowledgeable about those societal influences which help shape and form attitudes, perspectives and values.

In response to these articles, I received some feedback, noting that I neglected to acknowledge ways in which the Church itself has contributed to the alienation of many of its members and to its lack of appeal, especially to younger people.

Many of these observations are well taken, including insights offered by Dr. Katherine Menard based upon her experience as the coordinator of our "Renew 2000" program and a leader in outreach ministry to inactive Catholics.

Thus, in this column, I would like to cite some of the Church's failings which respondents have noted, along with some of my own views about how the Church itself may be contributing to the alienation of Catholics.

CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE
The scandal of clergy sexual abuse is not only that a number of priests betrayed the sacred bond of trust by sexually abusing minors but, more significantly, there is a disillusionment and loss of faith created by the way we bishops engaged in negligent retention and placed the image of the Church before the protection and well-being of children and vulnerable youth.

Many Catholics, both practicing and alienated, as well as seekers, have been appalled by the fact that Church leaders have not acknowledged sincerely and convincingly the reality of what happened, assumed responsibility for it and brought about the conversion of mind and heart which alone can rectify it.

Typically, as Dr. Menard observes, what bishops and other Church leaders offer on this issue are "justifications, self-absolving expressions of regret and lists of corrective efforts that have been undertaken in the last decade."

Truly, clergy sexual abuse and its handling by the hierarchy are self-inflicted wounds - born of clericalism, power and secrecy - that will take a long time to heal.

PARISH CLOSURES
There is anger, hurt, pain and bitterness experienced by parishioners who have lost their spiritual home as a result of the closures and mergers of the "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process in the Albany Diocese.

ANEMIC PARISH LIFE
Parishes are meant to be places where people feel a sense of belonging and spiritual kinship; where theology comes alive; where the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection are regularly celebrated; where sacramental moments multiply as mysteriously as the bread and the fishes; where people are being nourished into an earthly image of the Body of Christ.

Yet many find parishes to be clique-ish. An insider crowd can develop, and some may feel that parish ministries are not open to them - especially newcomers, youth and young adults.

Some Catholics relocating from one area to another find it hard to connect and be accepted. Even long-time, active parishioners frequently find themselves being taken for granted, frozen out or ignored.

One woman wrote that she attended Mass regularly and was active in several parish ministries, including the parish's faith formation program. However, she became disillusioned with the Church's lack of strong opposition to the war in Iraq and, as a consequence, stopped attending Mass.

What stunned her was that, despite all of her active parish involvement, not one member of the parish staff or any parishioner ever reached out to acknowledge her absence, to ask if anything was wrong or to discuss the reasons for her non-attendance.

Another new parishioner had been attending weekly Mass for some time, yet no one ever welcomed or even spoke to him. One Sunday, he wore a hat and deliberately kept it on throughout the Mass. At one point, the celebrant sent the altar server to ask the usher to instruct the gentleman to remove his hat.

"Thank God," the man replied to the usher. "I've been coming to this parish every week for the past six months, and it's taken this ploy with the hat to get someone to acknowledge my presence."

Many long-term parishioners understandably and appropriately treasure their parish roots, even using the term "family." But surely inclusiveness and hospitality should be high priorities in a parish without an erosion of this cherished identity and connectedness.

PASTORAL INSENSITIVITY
A number of readers mentioned that they or family members have left the Church because of the manner in which they were treated by a priest, deacon or lay representative of the parish.

Frequently, this rejection or perception thereof centers around the reception of the sacraments: parents whose child is refused baptism because they are not regular church attendees; couples who are denied marriage because they are not registered parishioners; long-time parishioners in hospitals or nursing homes who become upset when the parish priest does not visit or celebrate with them the sacrament of the anointing of the sick; family members who are angered by the failure of the celebrant at the funeral liturgy to speak personally about the deceased, or by being prohibited from offering a eulogy at the end of the liturgy of Christian burial.

Many times, there are legitimate pastoral or canonical explanations for these sacramental decisions; but, unfortunately, too frequently there is the failure to accept people where they are in their faith understanding and practice, and too little listening, explaining or effort made to find mutually acceptable solutions.

POOR PREACHING/LITURGIES
Some priests and deacons rely too heavily on "canned homilies" or preach on topics unrelated to the Scriptures of the day or to the daily realities of their hearers. Frequently, the music selected does not reinforce the liturgical theme of the Sunday or elicit congregational participation.

Effective antidotes to these failings can be homiletic reflection groups conducted earlier in the week where a priest or deacon receives insights from the laity, or a functioning parish liturgy committee which seeks creative ways to enhance the liturgy through art, music and community follow-up - especially by offering opportunities to respond to the needs of the poor and vulnerable.

Unless there is such diligent attention given to preaching and liturgical practice, then - as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., notes in his pastoral letter, "Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision" - "the message becomes stale; the vision falters and loses its appeal. The promises seem empty and unconnected to peoples' lives."

DEFICIENCY IN TECHNOLOGY
In his new book, "Rewired," Larry D. Rosen points out that half of American teenagers send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100; many sleep with cell phones at their sides.

Rosen suggests that the "I" generation is incapable of unitasking and that this is a reality we must learn to appreciate. He writes: "Literally their minds are changed - they have been rewired."

Further, most young adults (and many not so young) are on Facebook and get their information not from the traditional media, but from tweets, blogs and websites. It is this group which has been deemed the "lost generation" to the Church.

That is why Rev. James Martin, SJ, opines that "an up-to-date website is as much a necessity for today as a weekly parish bulletin is (or used to be)." (See The Evangelist's newly-redesigned website at www.evangelist.org.)

The bad news, he points out, is that many Catholic sites, both diocesan and parish, are un-imaginative, difficult to navigate, full of dead links and look like they have not been redesigned in the past decade.

Father Martin concludes that "if Church organizations do not maintain a fresh website or blogs, fewer people - especially those who get their information digitally - are going to visit these sites and hear the Church's message, or even care the Church is speaking." (The priests of our Diocese and members of our diocesan Pastoral Center will be astonished that I am citing this assessment, the technological Neanderthal that I am.)

FEELING UNACCEPTED/ EXPLOITED
This is often true of women, the separated or divorced, the single parent, the gay or lesbian person or those who may not accept fully the moral leadership, teaching, doctrine and practices of the Church.

Earlier this year, Rev. William Byron, SJ, wrote an article for America magazine wherein he suggested that the Church apply management principles by doing "exit interviews" in order to learn what is driving so many Catholics away from the practice of the faith.

Some of the responses he received were:

• failure to implement the reforms of the 1960s' Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of collegiality and lay participation;

• dissatisfaction with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its subsequent moral, social, ecumenical and interfaith teachings;

• too little connection between the Scriptures and the Eucharist and their relevance to the issues of poverty and to environmental, immigration and criminal justice reform;

• not enough emphasis on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and other traditional devotions;

• bishops interfering in elections by politicizing the Eucharist: for example, refusing communion to elected officials who vote for abortion funding or same-sex marriage;

• public relations disasters like the Vatican document linking women's aspirations to the priesthood with sexual abuse, citing both as guilty of a "grave delict;"

• faith formation programs which are either too superficial or too academic, but not transformative of the heart;

• forthcoming liturgical translations which seem too esoteric, non-inclusive, and do not sing; and

• institutions, systems and rules which have little or no relation to what people read in the Gospel or experience in their own lives.

CONCLUSION
These insights point out the diversity of people's needs and expectations related to Church membership. Some people find the Church too traditional; others too progressive. Some want strong leadership; others feel they are being overly controlled and denied a voice.

Our Church is indeed a jumble of inconsistencies, shortcomings, flaws and complexities. Yet we share a commitment as followers of the Gospel and disciples of Jesus, and that is our strength.

In light of these responses, I am conscious of an address that Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former master general of the Dominicans, delivered to a group of priests.

He noted that "we must rejoice in the very existence of people with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married, divorced or single; whether they are straight or gay; whether their lives are in accord with the Church or not. The Church should be a community in which people discover God delights in them."

Let us pray that a better understanding of the cultural climate in which we live and a better addressing of the above-mentioned and other pastoral issues will enable our Amazing God initiative to respond to the deep, spiritual hunger in our midst.