Changes in Religious Identification

A Call to Reconciliation During Lent

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 15, 2009 ( The map of religious observance is changing in the United States according to a survey just published.

On Mar. 8 the results of a study, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), were released. The survey was carried out between February and November of last year and included results from 54,461 adults.

One notable finding was the increase in the numbers who claim no religion. In 1990, only 8.2% declared themselves as having no religion. That jumped to 14.2% in 2001, and by 2008 it increased to 15%.

The survey also gave information on geographical changes. Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country. Some 34% of those polled in Vermont reported they do not adhere to any religion, far in front of other states.

The Northeast of America has also seen changes for the Catholic Church. According to the ARIS results, the Catholic population of the United States has shifted away from the Northeast and toward the Southwest.

Between 1990 and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50% to 36%, and in New York it fell from 44% to 37%, while it rose in California from 29% to 37% and in Texas from 23% to 32%.

«The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,» said Barry Kosmin, a principal investigator for the survey. «Thanks to immigration and natural increase among Latinos, California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England,” he noted.

The survey found that if the Hispanic population, which is the most Catholic, had not expanded, then the Catholic population nationally would have significantly eroded. In fact, one feature of the white population today, according to the findings, is the large number of ex-Catholics, who are now found among those who profess no religion and who have helped that group to grow.


Overall, the survey found that the percentage of Christians in America, which had already declined in the 1990s from 86.2% to 76.7%, has now fallen down a bit more to 76%.

The decline is, however, not distributed equally. While Catholics may have lost numbers, the ARIS results show that 90% of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, mainly from churches such as the Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians.

These denominations had already shrunk from 18.7% in 1990 to 17.2% in 2001, and have now plummeted to just 12.9%.

The survey found that most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as «Christian,» «Evangelical/Born Again,» or «non-denominational Christian.»

These groups grew from 5% of the population in 1990 to 8.5% in 2001, and to 11.8% in 2008.

Confession campaign

One of the ways the Catholic Church hopes to reverse its losing trend is to revitalize parish life and the practice of the sacraments.

In past days the New York Times dedicated two lengthy articles to efforts in promoting the sacrament of reconciliation during this time of Lent. At one church in Connecticut, St John the Evangelist, Monsignor Stephen DiGiovanni in the last few years has extended the hours when confessions are heard, the paper mentioned in its Feb. 21 article.

As a result around 450 people go there for confession each week.

The New York Times also mentioned that this Lent the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is promoting a «Lenten Confession Campaign.» At each of the diocese’s 87 churches, confession will be available during more hours each week.

On March 9, the paper returned to the theme of confession, this time with a home town example. The article spoke about the efforts of Father Gilbert Luis Centina, who in his church in East Harlem is opening up for confessions throughout the night.

In fact, during Lent, 21 Catholic churches in Manhattan are offering confession during the nights of Friday and Saturday in a campaign called «24 Hours of Confession.»

The young adult group of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is coordinating the campaign. Mario Bruschi who directs the group, told the New York Times that they were basing themselves on a similar effort in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which in recent years has held an event called «24 Hours of Grace.»

Turning on the light

A number of local diocesan Catholic papers have published articles about the promotion of confessions during Lent. An article in the March 9 edition of the Diocese of Baltimore’s newspaper, The Catholic Review, describes the archdiocesan campaign called «The Light Is On for You.»

In Baltimore priests will be available to hear confessions at parishes during the evenings of every Wednesday.

Father Christopher Whatley, parish priest of St. Mark in Catonsville, told the Catholic Review that reconciliation is “one of the most remarkable treasures of our faith.”

From the other side of America, Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon, wrote about the importance of the sacrament in the March 5 issue the Catholic Sentinel.

He mentioned that during this Lent he has asked parish priests to dedicate more time to making the sacrament of confession available.

The 40 days of Lent, Archbishop Vlazny noted, are a special time in which to seek the strength to renounce evil and to center our lives more on Christ. In this personal encounter with Christ in confession we ask God’s mercy and renew our conversion to the way of the Gospel, he explained.

Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, the Stamford Advocate also published an article, on Feb. 25, about the promotion of confession. The efforts are supported by the Knights of Columbus, who are financing a publicity effort that includes ads on city buses and at train stations, as well as TV and radio commercials.

The campaign is taking its inspiration from the words of St. Paul — «Be reconciled to God» — during this jubilee year dedicated to him, explained Bishop William Lori in his pastoral letter on the sacrament of Penance.


The United States is far from being alone in its promotion of confession this Lent. In Melbourne, Australia, Archbishop Denis Hart dedicated his column in the March 8 issue of the diocesan magazine, Kairos, to the theme of reconciliation.

He commented that in this year’s Lenten message he cited the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians: “You must be renewed by a spiritual revolution, so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:23-24).

Lent, in fact, is a period of rejoicing, Archbishop Hart said. A rejoicing that follows from that change of heart that is brought about through prayer, fasting and acts of mercy that reconcile us to God, Melbourne’s archbishop commented.

This spiritual revolution, however, he continued, cannot be brought about only through our own efforts as we need the power of the Holy Spirit that comes to us through the sacrament of reconciliation.

This Lent is therefore a time for the renewal of this sacrament in parish life, he concluded.

“In the sacrament of penance, the Crucified and Risen Christ purifies us through his ministers with his infinite mercy, restores us to communion with the heavenly Father and with our brothers and makes us a gift of his love, his joy and his peace,” said Benedict XVI in his Angelus message Feb. 15.

The Pope urged those listening “to have frequent recourse to the sacrament of confession, the sacrament of forgiveness, whose value and importance for our Christian life must be rediscovered today.” A recommendation that churches throughout the world are echoing during this time of Lent.

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