Early in Father William Byron's research into why millions of Americans are leaving Catholic pews, he heard about one woman's tense encounter with a parish receptionist and he's been sharing the horror story ever since.
The woman wanted to tell a priest about her feelings that she had lost "the Catholic church I grew up with." However, she wasn't sure she wanted to share the details with the woman who answered the parish telephone -- who kept pushing for specifics.
The petitioner finally said, "I'd rather not discuss that."
The receptionist responded: "Well look, when you figure out what your problem is, call us back and we'll give you an appointment."
The audience groaned during a recent Catholic University of America forum to discuss findings from the "Empty Pews" study conducted in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
"I'm not making this stuff up," stressed Byron, a Jesuit who teaches business at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
The Trenton study, he explained, grew out of his contacts with a corporate leader who, as a Catholic layman, thought it would be constructive for priests and bishops to start doing "exit interviews" with former Catholics. Someone, Byron said, needed to ask why Catholics drop out or take their spiritual business elsewhere.
The numbers are hard to avoid. A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-in-10 American adults are former Catholics, with four exiting for every one that converts into the church. Meanwhile, weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 75 percent or higher in the 1950s to about 25 percent today.
Researchers know that roughly 70 percent of Catholics who leave simply drift away, while others follow their convictions into liberal mainline Protestantism or into various evangelical flocks. The goal in the Trenton study was to find -- through advertisements in secular and church media -- former Catholics who would volunteer to answer a detailed "exit interview" survey.