At a time when Catholic parishes — like religious participation in general — are suffering from declining popularity, the Rev. Herb Weber wants potential worshipers to experience Catholicism again.
He believes the Catholic Church has something incredibly good to share with people, something people overlook. He leads the newest parish in the Toledo Diocese, St. John XXIII, and his approach appears to be working. The 70-year-old priest arrived in Perrysburg to open the parish in 2005, and has led a faith community that has rapidly grown since then, bucking nationwide trends.
His approach relies on a few core points, start from scratch, and share a vision of acceptance. Let people know there is a place for them.
“Maybe what people are turned off to is not Catholicism per se, it’s maybe the face that they see of it,” he said from his office at St. John XXIII.
Fr. Herb Weber, Pastor, holds hands and prays during Sunday mass at St. John XXIII in Perrysburg on July 2, 2017.
Of parishes its size in the Toledo area — St. John XXIII counted 3,700 members in 2016, and surpassed 4,000 this past summer — no church gets more parishioners to its weekly Masses. Forty percent of members attended Mass during St. John XXIII's October count, a figure measured by counting total attendants at Masses in October, which Church leaders use to track participation.
Average diocesan Mass attendance is just 26 percent for the Toledo Diocese. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an independent research center at Georgetown University that studies the Catholic Church, the national October count found 19 percent of registered parishioners in pews.
In the Toledo area, participation rates tend to decline as parishioner counts rise. All seven parishes in the Toledo area below the national average have at least 3,000 registered parishioners. The area's largest parish, St. Joseph's in Sylvania, draws exactly that national average to its Masses, based on its October count.
A survey of 35,000 Americans released by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found the Christian share of the U.S. population in decline, while the number of adults who do not identify with any organized religion is rising.
Decline among mainline Protestants and Catholics has driven Christianity's overall decline, even as Christianity remains the largest religious group in the United States. Pew Research Center found 70 percent of Americans identified as Christian, with one in five Americans overall identifying as Catholic.
That makes Catholicism the single largest religious denomination in the United States, even as the Catholic share of the population has declined from 25 percent, where it had held steady since the end of World War II.
“When you become the biggest, it’s very typical to become complacent,” said Deacon Joe Malenfant, senior director of Discipleship & Family Life at the Toledo Diocese. “We are huge. We're not as huge as we were and not as huge as we should be.”
The decline is more visible when measuring how many Catholics are at Mass on a weekly basis. In 1965, 55 percent of self-identified Catholics said they went to Mass weekly, but by 2016, that number had dropped to 22 percent.
It is in the midst of those trends that St. John XXIII opened, and continues to grow.
A home in Perrysburg
So why do people go, and why do people stay?
For St. John XXIII, it helps that the parish is in Perrysburg for more than one reason. When it opened in 2005, the city's current parish was thriving. With roughly 8,100 parishioners, St. Rose's historic church building was overflowing.
“They literally could not get people in the building,” Father Weber said. “They had as many Masses as they could do.”
Marie Clark-Phelps accepts the consecrated wine during Sunday mass at St. John XXIII in Perrysburg on July 2, 2017.
Bob Venzel was a lifelong parishioner at St. Rose. His children went to the parish’s K-8 school, and he and his wife, Jackie, had coached cross-country. But then the children graduated and pastors shifted. The Venzels heard about St. John XXIII opening and became some of the new parish’s first parishioners.
They don’t look like typical parishioners there. At St. John XXIII, the median age for parishioners is around 35 years old.
“We have a mix, we still have the old timers that have been around,” Mr. Venzel said. “It makes you feel young because you're around all these young couples.”
Median age is not tracked diocese wide, although Pew Research Center found the median age for an American Catholic is 49 years old.
“It means lots of kids,” Fr. Weber said of his parish. “We really incorporate kids. We don't talk down to kids. They're not the future of the parish — they're the present of the parish.”
And more families are moving into Perrysburg. The school district just built a new intermediate school to accommodate the additional students and has added 637 students in the past five years. An additional 807 homes have been built in Perrysburg since the parish opened, with more still to come.
Celebrating Mass with Music
Quality music and preaching are the two things that set apart growing Catholic churches from stagnant or shrinking ones, and St. John XXIII takes both seriously.
“I think their homilies are really good. I think the music is really good, and every survey you read nationwide will say those are the two really important things,” Deacon Malenfant said.
Michael Puppos has been the music minister at St. John XXIII since day one. He previously played the organ at St. Frances de Sales downtown, but the parish closed just as St. John XXIII opened.
He took on dual roles of leading both the music and youth ministry, which explains how he ended up listening to a presentation on how to talk to children about staying engaged despite listening to music from their church choirs, the sort of music not necessarily popular with young people.
Today St. John XXIII’s music is well-known and well-regarded around the diocese for its contemporary style and worship-band format that stand out from a traditional Catholic Church choir. There is no standard church organ in the parish’s current space, and a new church building under construction won’t have one, either.
“Believing what we believe as Catholics, every time we celebrate Mass it’s a miracle,” Mr. Puppos said. “Heaven meets earth at every single Mass, so I think our music has to hold a standard that is worthy of what takes place in the context of Mass.”
In the Toledo diocese, priests typically serve two six-year terms as pastor before being reassigned elsewhere. This past summer, Father Weber received a third term as pastor. To date, he is the only pastor the church has had.
“Every new parish sort of takes on the character of their first pastor and staff,” Deacon Malenfant said. “Father Herb came here with a vision. He was later in his career, and obviously had learned from things along the way.”
The parishioners credit him for much of what makes St. John XXIII stand out from the typical Catholic church, while he credits them for making the parish a vibrant and lively space.
“We're trying to say we don't want you to come here just to get what you like, but rather to become a part of something,” Father Weber said.
Preserving that is a combination of the pastor and the people, Deacon Malenfant said.
“All these great churches have in common that their pastors are defining a sense of mission to their people,” he said. “We want to belong. We're social, communal animals ... If you walk into a parish and everyone's sitting quietly in their pew and then Mass is over and you beeline out of the church and nobody talks to each other, that's what you do. You conform.”
The new church building is slated to open in about a year and should the vision and practices that have brought 4,000 some parishioners across northwest Ohio to this parish hold, they will be ready.
“It’s going to be a very historic time,” Mr. Puppos said. “We need to be ready for the new people. We need to be ready for them, not just to have a seat for them but know how are we forming them as disciples.”
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