Rev. Paul Sullins , associate professor, sociology, was quoted in an April 29 Medill News Service article and video interview about the increase in Catholic conversions and church attendance after Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. To see the interview, click on the link below.

Catholicism stages mini-comeback

From: Medill News Service Date: April 29, 2009 Author: Liam MartinWASHINGTON -- Call it an aberration. Or chalk it up to a "Pope bump."

Bottom line, Catholicism in Washington, D.C. - and indeed across the U.S. - is showing signs of a recovery, with healthy gains in conversion and attendance rates over the last year.

"We saw at Easter this year that not only do we have more people becoming Catholic, we had more people in the churches," said Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.

The Washington area will draw almost 2,000 new members in 2009, its highest number of confirmations in six years.

It's a welcome trend for a church wracked over the last seven years by the priest sex-abuse scandal.

"People were hurt by it. They were confused," Gibbs said, noting that Mass attendance both in the D.C. area and across the country slumped significantly in 2002 and 2003, when the scandal first leaked. In Boston, the archdiocese has been forced to shutter more than 60 churches and pay out some $85 million in settlements to victims.

The cure? A mix, religion experts say, of a variety of factors.

"The papal [Pope Benedict XVI] visit a year ago," said Father Paul Sullins, an associate professor of sociology at Catholic University of America. "That produced a lot of positive publicity and a sense of pride in being Catholic," a phenomenon now referred to in Catholic circles as the "Pope bump."

Young adults, too, have taken on a more central role in the faith. After growing up in an increasingly secularized American society, some youths are seeking out religion once they've passed into adulthood.

"That's an area where we're seeing a lot of climb," Gibbs said. "People about 19 to 35 are looking very closely at religion, and a lot of the people either have never been brought up in a faith or are here from a country that doesn't have Christianity."

Yes, even that pesky recession has played a role, charging faith into a nation steeped in joblessness and dwindling savings.

"It forces people to think more," said Jeannine Marino, coordinator of adult Faith Formation at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. "They may be worried about the economy, but they seem to place their faith and their hope in God."

Still, those gains shouldn't overshadow a much broader trend across U.S. society: Organized religion is on the decline.

As Father Sullins notes, fewer Americans now identify with a religious group, and those who still do are practicing less - or not at all.

"Just 40 years ago, 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Catholic attended Mass regularly," Sullins said. "That number's now 25."

The American Religious Identification Survey, released March 9, noted the percentage of people who call themselves Christian declined more than 11 percent in a generation, while 15 percent now claim no religion at all, an ever-more accepted statement in a once deeply religious society.

Does the recent bump, be it from the Pope, recession or otherwise, offer promise of a change in that trend?

"I'm afraid not," Sullins said. "The upside, though, is that the people who do stay in the faith are generally much more committed. From that perspective, it's actually quite an exciting time."

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