Spreading the Joy Within
How Can We Reach Out to Catholics on the Outer Edges of Our Own Church?
Throughout his first year of service, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to share the joy of the Gospel with every person they meet, especially those on the periphery of society. Since, as the saying goes, charity begins at home, what can we do to reach out to fellow Catholics on the outer edges of our own Church? My granduncle, Jesuit pioneer sociologist Fr. Joseph Fichter, wrote a landmark book sixty years ago: Social Relations in the Urban Parish (University of Chicago Press, 1954). In it, he presented the first analysis of the variety of people who belong to United States Catholic churches. As a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, I’m following in his footsteps. Sociologists love to categorize—develop what we call typologies . The process, which is akin to drawing a map, allows us to analyze complicated human realities more easily and explain them more readily. In his book, Uncle Joe divided Catholics into four groups. The graphic on the next page illustrates this concept with four concentric circles. At the core of any parish are the nuclear Catholics—the servant leaders of our faith communities, the pillars of our parishes. They volunteer for everything, serve on our councils, and attend almost all church-sponsored events. Their parish priests know them by first and last name. (If you’re reading this article, you probably belong to this group. If not, you’ll almost surely identify with the next one.) The second circle consists of people Uncle Joe labeled modal Catholics—“ordinary” Catholics not involved enough in the parish to be considered nuclear Catholics but who fulfill the expected Catholic behaviors. They attend Mass weekly, support their parish financially, and participate in most parish events. Pastors know their faces and the exact pews they sit in each week, but probably not their full names. They’re rank-and-file Catholics. In the third circle are marginal Catholics. They may not worship regularly and aren’t as committed as the nuclear and modals, but they still check the “Catholic” box when surveyed about their religion.