Where have all the churchgoers gone?

One afternoon when I smelled spring in the air, I took the dog for a long walk around the neighborhood, and as we passed house after house, it occurred to me that we’re surrounded by a lot of caring, generous neighbors … who don’t go to church.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times. If your own family members don’t go, why should you expect your neighbors to?

On Sunday morning when I return from Mass, I see the usual suburban activity—people riding lawn tractors, brandishing leaf blowers, washing cars, puttering in the garden, going to soccer practice and shopping at Whole Foods. Sadly, church isn’t on the Sunday To-Do list.

Just to be clear, I’m not taking anyone’s inventory, although I probably should be taking my own more often. Even without doing an analysis, I’m pretty sure that except for a couple of families, the others have abandoned organized religion and became statistics in the annual Pew survey that’s always telling us about the increase in “nones,” also known as “the religiously unaffiliated.”

We’ve all seen polls that indicate organized religion has been suffering a serious decline and that the so-called “nones” are the fastest growing segment in America.

So much has changed since I was a kid, when our neighbors were Baptists, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and just about every other denomination, who headed to their respective houses of worship on the Sabbath.

When I got home from my walk, I asked my wife, “Are we the only ones who go to church?” She nodded solemnly. (OK, maybe we need it more than the others, but still.)

Our neighbors include a few lapsed Catholics, some Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, a Jewish family or two, a sprinkling of atheists and agnostics, and a whole lot of people who put politics before faith, which is probably a larger demographic than “nones” and “non-nones” combined.

Many of them share a common characteristic. They’re indifferent when it comes to Jesus, and their credo is probably something like: “He was a really nice guy who did good things, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.”

Our own return to the Catholic faith took a while, but we were young and still had enough years to get it right, at least in theory because you don’t know how much time you have left, and it’s never wise to wait.

Since then, we both realized we’ve been magnificently blessed and that we made it back because —to quote the popular spiritual —“Somebody Prayed for Me.” I don’t know who it was, but someday I want to thank those people when I meet them in the next life.

I’ve talked to many of my fallen-away Catholic friends, and everyone has a convenient excuse: A nun whacked their knuckles with a 16-inch ruler in fifth grade, they heard a boring sermon, was too much to take, the grandkids have soccer games etc. etc. The reality is they have a thousand excuses but not one good reason.

This year, in an effort to share the spiritual wealth, we kept our outdoor nativity up until Ash Wednesday. If that wasn’t a sign we’re religious fanatics, I don’t know what is. We also put an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the living room window and one of the Divine Mercy in the dining room window. No wonder the neighbors cross to the other side of the street when they walk their dogs. They probably think we’ll accost them and start preaching.

The truth is we’re really grateful because we know what it’s like living without faith. We wish everyone had the same gift, because it is a gift, and all you have to do is ask for it, and then God will be right there to fulfill your request, faster than the Amazon deliveryman.

Faith is better than hitting the Connecticut Lottery. It’s better than a promotion to the executive suite. It’s better than the grandkids winning the state soccer championship.

Sad to say, the world is suffering a pandemic of religious indifference. Can you imagine how Jesus must feel as he looks at us with the infinite love in his Sacred Heart — and sees us responding to that love with a yawn?

It’s a dark world out there, but you and I, however imperfect, are called to be the light. So let’s get to it.