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America's Catholics resemble Baltimore's Largely middle class, they favor leadership of pope, not his policies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Memo to Pope John Paul II re Baltimore faithful: Your flock is largely white, middle-class, suburban and steadily growing; likes the church but often skips Mass; joins lay ministries but not the priesthood; favors your leadership but not your policies.

When the pope prays at Camden Yards a week from today, he will be in the heart of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 466,618 members of 154 parishes in Baltimore and nine Maryland counties west of the Chesapeake Bay. They are a sliver of America's 56 million Roman Catholics, the nation's largest denomination, and a speck among the world's 1 billion faithful.

Baltimore is the oldest U.S. diocese, and Maryland is steeped in Catholic history. Yet Catholics are much less a presence in Baltimore and environs than in New England, New York, Louisiana or even California and Wisconsin. About one person in six is Catholic on Cardinal William H. Keeler's turf, roughly the same as in Iowa or Missouri.

Who are America's Catholics? Surveys offer a national profile that generally reflects the Archdiocese's Catholics as well:

* They are solidly middle class on the whole. Catholics are more prosperous and better educated on average than Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists, according to the Gallup Poll, but less so than Jews, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

* They are politically middle of the road, trending conservative. Only 13 percent call themselves "strong Democrats," down from 20 percent two decades ago. "Strong Republicans" among Catholics have more than doubled to 9 percent. Nearly a third say they are conservative; about a quarter are liberals.

* They are religiously ambivalent. Only one in five is a self-described "very strong" Catholic, but 85 percent are at least somewhat satisfied with how the church ministers to their spiritual needs. In general, the younger the Catholic, the weaker the allegiance to the church. But as they raise families, the tie usually binds.

* They are becoming more ethnically diverse. Latin American and Asian immigration is changing the face of the church. American Catholics are now about 14 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 4 percent African-American, according to recent surveys.

Spanish-language Mass

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has been less touched by recent immigration than many dioceses along the country's coasts and southern border. Yet even here Spanish-language Mass is offered in 10 different parishes at least once a month.

In the archdiocese, the most striking trend is Catholics moving en masse to suburbia -- the farther from the city, the faster the growth. Fewer than one Catholic in five now lives in Baltimore itself, the archdiocese's historic, religious and administrative center.

"In the same areas that have experienced explosive population growth, we've experienced explosive church growth -- in schools and parishes. The parking lots don't have enough room in them," said Bill Blaul, a spokesman for Cardinal Keeler.

The number of Catholics in the outer suburbs -- Carroll, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties -- has doubled or tripled since 1975 while Baltimore's Catholic population has dropped by 30 percent. Mega-parishes have sprung up in Bel Air, Clarksville and Westminster.

Thirty-two years ago, the Rev. Francis X. Callahan, then freshly ordained, was assigned to bustling St. Dominic's parish in heavily Catholic Northeast Baltimore. The biggest parishes were the city or nearby Baltimore County.

Today, Father Callahan is pastor of 13,000-member St. Margaret Church in Bel Air, among the archdiocese's largest. In his three decades as a priest, Catholics have streamed out Harford and Belair roads from city to suburbs and from older suburbs to newer suburbs. They have swelled the size of parishes in Overlea, Fullerton, Fallston and Bel Air.

"I get a lot of people I baptized [in Northeast Baltimore], people I married, and they're still coming in," Father Callahan said. "This is a typical, nuclear-family parish. This is suburbia, pure and simple."

St. Margaret has grown in his nine years there from 2,300 to 4,300 families, almost all white. The church had 245 baptisms, 52 weddings and 49 funerals last year. The parish is about to build a mission, which eventually will become a new parish, on 16 acres now planted in corn, hay and winter wheat.

Standing room only

Average weekend Mass attendance is 4,700. On a fall Sunday, 10:30 a.m. Mass is standing room only. Families line the sanctuary walls -- parents with babies in strollers, youngsters in soccer uniforms, teen-agers in whispering clusters. Another 10:30 Mass is held at a nearby high school. The church school has waiting lists for every grade.

Meanwhile, at St. Anthony of Padua in the Gardenville section of Northeast Baltimore, the archdiocese's largest parish when Father Callahan was ordained, membership has decreased from in 1975 to 5,200 today. St. Anthony's was recently "twinned" with the far smaller Most Precious Blood parish on Bowleys Lane.

The archdiocese closed one parish and scaled back 13 others in a February "restructuring" of declining city congregations that worship in big, often beautiful -- and mostly empty -- churches. Average city Mass attendance has dropped from 150,000 in the 1940s to less than 33,000 today.

"I know a lot of people have moved out because of drugs moving closer and the crime. You can't feel as safe as you used to," said Kathleen Bayer, a St. Anthony's parishioner. "But it isn't like it's a dead parish."

Like Mrs. Bayer, her sister, Lorraine Rollo, was baptized, schooled and married at St. Anthony's. Mrs. Rollo is now a church organist at St. Margaret's in Bel Air. The Gardenville-to-Bel Air migration route is so well worn that some parishioners call St. Margaret's "Little St. Anthony's."

The Catholic church is closing, merging and twinning parishes across the United States partly because there aren't priests to staff them. The number of active diocesan priests is projected to drop by 40 percent between 1966 and 2005 while the number of Catholics grows by 65 percent. Almost half the remaining priests will be 55 or older.

Seminary enrollments plunged a quarter-century ago and never recovered. In 1965, 718 archdiocese men were seminarians; now only 27 are. The few who choose the priesthood tend to do so at an older age.

Lay people do work

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, there was one priest per 598 Catholics in 1975. Now there is one priest per 1,003. "There is little chance of reversing this trend in the lifetime of the current generation of churchgoers," wrote Richard A. Schoenherr and Laurence A. Young in "Full Pews and Empty Altars," a pioneering study of the priest shortage.

The ranks of nuns have been halved nationwide since 1965 and show no sign of rebounding.

As a result, lay Catholics in many parishes do everything except administer the sacraments. Ordained permanent deacons, men whose numbers have grown rapidly since the mid-1970s, can baptize, perform weddings and preach. They cannot consecrate wafers and wine for Mass, anoint the sick or hear confessions.

Nonpriests, often women, administer more than 300 parishes.

"It's sort of like women in World War II who went to factories because of the shortage of manpower," said Ruth Wallace, a George Washington University sociologist. "The difference is that when the war was over, the men came back. This war won't be over, and the men won't come back."

Lay people now hold almost 90 percent of teaching jobs in the archdiocese's Catholic schools and nationally. Most teachers were priests, nuns and brothers as recently as 1960.

Joan Venanzi, another migrant from St. Anthony's to St. Margaret's, and her husband, Pat, are typical of the lay people who do the parish's work: They lead Marriage Encounter groups, counsel young couples, visit the sick, work with the school PTA.

L "You need to bloom where you're planted," Mrs. Venanzi said.

The first step to getting lay people involved, of course, is luring them to Mass. Despite the growing number of Catholics, Mass attendance has declined steadily since the archdiocese started tracking it in 1975.

"The average Catholic attends Mass, but not as frequently as they should or church law states, which is once a week. People here are regular monthly, but not weekly," said the Rev. Thomas L. Phillips of St. Francis de Sales Church in Abingdon.

Vatican II effect

Before Vatican II, "people accepted the directives of the church for better or worse. They considered themselves good, marginal or bad Catholics according to how they responded to church law. After the Second Vatican Council, they saw the laws could be interpreted according to one's situation," the priest said.

One thing is clear: If agreement with Pope John Paul II's policies were a prerequisite for church attendance, the pews would be almost empty. More than 75 percent of U.S. Catholics disagree with his prohibitions against artificial means of birth control, ordination of women and married priests, polls show. But a similar majority approves of his performance.

Catholics have consistently told the Gallup Poll that half of them go to Mass every week, but researchers suspect they're fibbing. Weekly attendance is actually about 27 percent of people who call themselves Catholics nationwide (26 percent in the archdiocese), said Mark Chaves, a University of Notre Dame sociologist.

Just how many Americans are Catholic is a matter of debate, but scholars do agree that the number is growing.

Catholics are younger on average than members of any U.S. denomination except Pentecostals and Mormons. Birth rates are high. In the archdiocese, Catholic school enrollment has been on the rise since 1990. The nearly 34,000 students last year were more diverse than ever: 14 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and Asian-American -- and 23 percent non-Catholic.

Immigrants are remaking the church in some areas. Mass is said in 45 different languages in Los Angeles and 20 in New York.

More than 40 percent of first- and second-generation Americans are Catholics. They include children of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants who have found success, as well as newly arrived Mexicans, Haitians and Vietnamese who need jobs and English lessons.

Yet few priests are Hispanic, Asian or black or speak the languages of recent immigrants. Only about 30 priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore speak Spanish.

Mass in Spanish

Harford County's Hispanic Catholics gather one Sunday a month at St. Francis de Sales to worship in Spanish.

"It's an opportunity for us to celebrate our faith in the language taught when we were kids," said Juan D. Lopez, an environmental engineer born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico. "A lot of first-generation Hispanics in the county are passing the legacy to their children."

But on a recent Sunday when the regular priest was unavailable, Mr. Lopez was forced to drive to Washington to find a Spanish-speaking priest to salvage the Mass.

Hispanics are leaving the church for Protestant denominations at a rate that troubles Catholic leaders. Only two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics identify themselves as Catholics, according to the National Opinion Research Center.

"The whole American Catholic church needs to pay more attention to being of general spiritual help to immigrants," said Dean R. Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist, "or millions and millions will become Protestant fundamentalists."

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