WEST CHESTER — It’s been tough for organized religion for quite some time. Whether it’s cases of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests or stories about people such as Bishop Eddie Long, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and of course the tearful Jim Bakker, religion in this modern era has had a rather bumpy go of it.
There were times in our past when the church — whichever one you chose — was the place people went each Saturday or Sunday. It seems that gone are the days of the family piling into the station wagon heading off to a Mass or prayer service — or whatever organized gathering they would attend on a weekly basis. Nowadays organized religious groups — which may meet any day of the week — are more of a full-service support system. From meals to housing to even monetary support, these churches are helping citizens get home repairs as well as repairs to their faith or beliefs.
Things have radically changed; just this year the Catholic Church saw a pope retire. Such odd events and scandals have become fodder for late-night talk shows. But to those involved in religious groups, the changes are no laughing matter.
Over the past few months, the Daily Local News has talked to people from many religious groups trying to get a handle of what’s happening in their circles, what the future holds and where our citizens are with their faith.
Stories for today’s special section — The State of Faith — examine what has happened to religion as part of our daily lives.
Here are some interesting findings:
• For the past decade, the number of registered Catholics in the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined 7 percent.
• During that time period, the number of priests declined by 20 percent, infant baptisms (ages 1 to 6) dropped 24 percent, Catholic Church marriages declined 38 percent, funerals performed dropped 14 percent and the number of Sunday masses dropped 9 percent, according to data provided by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
• And fewer than one out of four of the more than 1.1 million registered Catholics attend Sunday Mass regularly.
But while other areas of the Philadelphia Archdiocese are losing members, Chester County is beating the stats.
• Many Chester County Catholic parishes are seeing an uptick not only in the number of parishioners, but in the number of religious programs being offered. “Our parish population grew by 13 percent in 2012 and by 24 percent since January of 2011,” said Fr. Mike Fitzpatrick, pastor of St. Peter’S Church in West Brandywine. “This may be due to many factors, including the restructuring of parishes in the city of Coatesville.”
• St. Peter’s has 1,690 registered households, about half of which attend regular Sunday Mass.
• St. Joseph’s in Downingtown, which now has 15,000 registered parishioners making it the second largest parish in the Archdiocese, is in the midst of a population boom.
View all the stories from the DLN’s special report by clicking the links below.
Monsignor Joseph C. McLoone attributes the influx of parishioners to more people moving out of Philadelphia.
That’s where the numbers are for Catholics in Chester County. So what about the rest of the religious groups?
For the Jewish population in Chester County, it also has seen steady increases since the late 1970s. For example, Kesher Israel in West Chester has a membership to 350 families. This is more than double the amount since the late 1970s. And that has been a draw for many Jewish families looking to move to the suburbs.
And what about those who don’t believe?
Reporter Michael Rellahan writes that in October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released results of a poll that showed the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans was dramatically on the rise.
In the years since 2000, the number of those who said they had no religious connection in particular increased from 15 percent to just below 20 percent — one-fifth of the public. Likewise, the number of American adults who characterized themselves as either atheists or agnostics was on the rise, to just below 5 percent of the population.
According to Margaret Downey, she believes she knows why.
“When we look at the world today we know that there is no certainty,” said Downey, the Pocopson resident who in 1993 founded the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and began making her mark on the religious conversation in Chester County and the region.
“Churches offer platitudes, and people do not want platitudes anymore,” Downey said in a recent interview from her home. “They are tired of those safe comfort zones. They are looking for real life experiences and solutions, not platitudes.”
The Freethought Society, which recently dropped the Philadelphia reference to reflect a more national scope of its outreach, is poised to offer those nonaffiliated “noners” some form of education and secular direction, Downey said. “We see a rise in the nonaffiliated among young people especially, and they want to meet others of a like mind.” The group caters not only to atheists and agnostics, but also to those who label themselves secular humanists or freethinkers.