In a recent event about next year’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Cardinal Kevin Farrell – the head of the Vatican’s new office on Laity, Family, and Life said that the Catholic Church needs to go out to the peripheries, reach out to those “who don’t listen to us” or don’t go to Mass anymore.

The cardinal added this is not the responsibility “of a few priests or a few sisters,” but of the whole Church.

Farrell is completely right. Our Church is facing multiple, chronic, wrenching challenges, from declining participation in the sacraments to dwindling interest among young adults to worsening priest shortages to you name it. All this is happening not in one country but in dozens of countries.

In this short statement, Farrell pinpointed a massive disconnect that is hobbling the Catholic Church; and if it’s fixed, we’ll fix lots of other problems.

Against such vast challenges, the Church must do what any other challenged organization must do: make sure to tap all the talent at its disposal. The message to everyone in the pews needs to be: We have profound challenges; we don’t have all the answers; it’s all hands on deck; we need your talent, ideas, imagination, initiative, and dedicated work.

The trouble is, the Church is suffering terribly because that message isn’t being delivered, and, therefore, that message is not getting heard.

Less than half of parishioners, for example, feel invited and encouraged to participate in parish ministry, and only a third understand clearly how to become more involved, and fewer than 20% feel they have a role in parish decision making. (Those stats come from research by Mark Gray and colleagues at the Catholic Church research group CARA; I’ve cited the percentage of Catholics who “strongly agree” on each point).

Those are horrific statistics. 100% of parishioners should feel encouraged to participate in ministry, especially in times when we have so many challenges. And parishioners can only be “co-responsible” if they feel involved in the major decisions that affect their parishes.

Hence the massive disconnect that Farrrell has highlighted. It does little good to point out that all Catholics are co-responsible for the Church unless Catholics actually hear that message, and feel empowered to act upon it.

In my just published book, Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church, I point out many simple ways to fix this disconnect. Here are three concrete solutions that could be implemented immediately:

  1. Starting this Sunday, and regularly thereafter, our pastors and parish council leaders should stand in the pulpit to invite every parishioner to proactively involve themselves in parish ministries. And it won’t just be about delivering the message, but welcoming real initiative on the part of the laity. Once we sound a clearer, more forceful call to action, and many Catholics of goodwill respond, we can’t allow their action ideas to be stalled or smothered under endless layers of bureaucracy.
  2. At least twice a year, parishes should invite all parishioners to “brainstorming” meetings around key challenges that face our churches: How can we get better at engaging young adults? Re-engaging those who have walked away? Becoming more proactive in service to the poor? We should solicit ideas widely and take a proactive, entrepreneurial stance on the best ones to emerge. We need to experiment with creative new ideas, and most importantly accept the risk that some will invariably fail.
  3. Each parish should immediately take steps toward becoming more welcoming. Everyone who walks in the church door on Sunday morning should be greeted; those of us in the pews should greet those seated nearby who don’t appear to be parish regulars; welcome messages should be conveyed from the pulpit, on the website, in the bulletin, and elsewhere; and we should have processes to help any who want to learn more about the parish or Catholic beliefs. Research shows that many regular mass-attendees are even more attracted by a parish’s welcoming spirit than by the quality of its liturgy. We ignore such research at our peril.

Farrell, echoing Pope Benedict XVI, articulated a vital theological principle: All are co-responsible. But now that principle needs to be heard and implemented.

Unless we involve more of our talent in the game, we will not successfully tackle our challenges. It’s just that simple.

Fortunately, equally simple are the first steps in the right direction. This coming Sunday offers an opportunity to turn our billion strong church onto a better trajectory by making sure that everyone in the pews feels invited to help lead the Church forward in addressing our challenges. 

Chris Lowney is the author of Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church