More than 200,000 Catholics attend Mass in the Philadelphia Archdiocese each week. Photo by Jeffrey M. Vinocur/Creative Commons

In Philadelphia, ordinary Catholics keep the faith — despite the church's failings

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) — Catholics in this city and places like it have been through hell in recent decades.

The Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, detailed in Philadelphia in grand jury reports in 2005 and again in 2011, rocked local Catholics – laity and clergy alike — to the core and left them wondering just how much they should continue to trust their beloved church.

About 1 in 5 registered Catholics (19 percent) in the archdiocese attended Mass weekly in 2017, down from 22 percent in 2013.

Still, well over 200,000 Catholics in the archdiocese do go to Mass each week.

Recently, a group of about 30 of them were gathered for a parish event at St. John the Baptist Church in Manayunk — a Philadelphia neighborhood popular with the post-college set. Some talked about why they remained Catholic when others have left the church.

Mostly millennials, they were there for the monthly “Theology on Tap” event. Part meet-and-greet, part Sunday dinner, part religion class, the format is a staple of Catholic young adult ministry, designed to offer up the church in a relaxed way.

Megan Kacenski, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, came to Philadelphia three months ago for her new job as a tree worker.

“Being 22, you question a lot of things,” she said. To leave the church because of scandal would be a result of “putting faith in people, not in God. I try not to do that.”

Like many of the attendees, she said she doesn’t come from a particularly religious family. But she herself had been very involved in interfaith activities in college and came to the Manayunk event looking for a sense of Catholic community in her new town, and a way to add some religious depth beyond Sunday Mass. Her relationship with God brings her to Mass.

“I do love what being Catholic has done to my life,” she said.

A sign welcomes participants to a Theology on Tap event. Photo courtesy of Franciscan Media

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Jillian Buhl, who runs the Theology on Tap program for St. John the Baptist Church, explained why she believes the Catholic Church survives in Philadelphia.

“I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but we’ve been through this,” she said of the nonstop scandal-related headlines. What matters to the Catholics she works with now is the future: “Starting today, this is the church we want to be part of.”

The national outrages continue to crop up in various forms, she said. But the Catholics she knows have confidence in the child-protection protocols the church instituted more than a decade ago. Now, what she hears from local Catholics “over and over again is compassion for the good priests” carrying on amid suspicion and cynicism.

The Rev. Dan Joyce, a Jesuit priest from nearby St. Joseph’s University, led the first of his series of monthly presentations, lacing catechism doctrine with funny stories.

He sought to illuminate for the group Catholic beliefs that might seem “quirky,” even to the initiated. One example, he said, was the church's belief in the resurrection of the body.

"What does that even mean?” he asked.  With plenty of material on the topic of beliefs, the conversation was devoid of scandal talk.

Afterward, nearly all the participants said the clear distinction between faith itself and the human failings of the church allowed them to continue as Catholics.

Michael Trott, a project accountant from Philadelphia, kept one eye on the Eagles game on his phone while chatting about his faith.

Raised Catholic but not practicing, he returned to the church five years ago, driven back to God, he said, by “life events.” He said that by remaining Catholic even in the face of scandal in the church, he helps assure that the faith will be there for others like himself, who have turned to it in time of personal need.

“If I stay a faithful Catholic it helps everybody else,” he said.

He sees Mass not only as a religious obligation, but as a personal offering to God in what can become, he said, a “me-me-me” life.

Sharing Trott’s table was recent college grad Steven Gosselin.

“I’ve definitely thought a lot about this,” he said of his church’s troubles. He, too, feels some responsibility for the future. “My understanding is that in times of deep crisis it is the laity that is going to effect change.”

Meanwhile, he said, he remains steadfast in his conviction that God is in control.

“I still believe the majority of priests are good and holy men,” he added.

Nearby, Dennis Link, a 49-year-old city worker, was one of a handful of nonmillennials in attendance. He came to enrich his own knowledge of the faith and to offer his presence to others. Back at home, he has two children in Catholic school and he believes they deserve answers from him. Though their institution may have failed the faithful, the failures “don’t make me doubt Christ’s message,” he said.

“The faith is what is pure,” he said.

Still, part of his responsibility, as he sees it, is to ask questions — a lot of them — of his pastor and to offer his own support in return.

At a nearby table, third-year medical student Elizabeth Ciccocioppo, said that faith is a central part of her life. Part of a large Catholic family, she is active in church ministries and often goes to daily Mass.

“I go to Mass to worship God and to receive him in the Eucharist,” she said. “It’s good to be around people as well, but I go to Mass (primarily) to receive the sacrament.”

In life and work, the faith that God is with her physically is crucial, said Ciccocioppo.

“The strength that I don’t have myself, I get there, and I don’t get it anywhere else."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that Catholic church protocols to protect against sex abuse have been in place for more than a decade, not nearly a decade as originally stated. 


  1. This is my experience as well. The faithful will carry on; waiting for Rome and the episcopate to catch up. The problem is that Rome and the episcopate have ulterior motives….

  2. 1) The Church’s sole reason for existence should be to teach what is proper behavior for salvation. Taken as a whole, those charged with being the teachers of that behavior have been found to not follow those behavioral guidelines themselves, which leaves the legitimacy of the prescribed behaviors open to debate.

    If the prescribed behaviors are not adhered to by the teachers (clerics) individually nor by the institution (the RCC) as an entity, then the students (parishioners) are right, and smart, to look elsewhere for guidance.

    2) The laity is not going to be the agent of change as long as they continue to fund the status-quo. The fact is that the Church, like all institutions, exists only because of money. No money? — no buildings, no employees, no payroll, no plush chanceries, no gold candelabras, no nothing. Want things to change? Then control the purse strings.

  3. “Taken as a whole” overstates the problem.

    Numerous dioceses have never been sued, have reacted properly and rapidly to abuse, and have growing congregations.

    The problems arose with two distinct and identifiable groups:

    – The Fifth Column like Theodore McCarrick and Rembert Weakland, wolves in sheep’s clothing. McCarrick undermined the responses to male-on-male abuse and violations of celibacy, “Catholic” politicians voting pro-abortion, and holding bishops accountable. Rembert Weakland left the Milwaukee diocese with operating predatory homosexual priests, few young people, and a wreckovated cathedral.

    – The bishops for whom the Good News became the Good Living. Donald Wuerl is the poster boy for this group; an inveterate bureaucratic infighter, he talked the talk, but avoided the walk. Promotions under Wuerl were predicated on docility, “team playing”, and proper reverence for his authority.

    Both groups pointed the barque in the wrong direction and blunted the efforts of bishops who actually wanted to follow Canon Law and get the bad eggs out.

  4. Catholics may believe as they please, but they should cut way back on their financial support for the church until the Vatican and the bishops –1. Clean up the sexual abuse and coverup mess, 2. Reverse the bans on contraception and abortion, 3. Quit trying to get government to compel all taxpayers to support Catholic private schools, which US voters in 30 state referenda have made clear that they oppose by 2 to 1. – Edd Doerr

  5. Perhaps if these folks studied other churches, they would discover just as fulfilling or even a more fulfilling experience without the corruption of the Roman Church. But then again, there are those who still believe in Russia in Joseph Stalin and the Communist party no matter what the facts are.

  6. THANK YOU, Mary Beth McCauley for this article’s demonstration of “the clear distinction between faith itself and the human failings of the church”! Well done!

  7. it is not supposed to be, about being true to any church or religion. It is, supposed to be about being true to ELOHEEM and/or Son here in THEIR Physical Seven Day Story again. and untrue diversity, is the real killer.

  8. Nothing illustrates the evil of childhood indoctrination better than this article.

  9. Your solution? It’s much, much worse:


    Plus “[BASHING] MUSLIMS” !!!!!!!!!!

    “twinbeech2 2 years ago … 3 years ago … 4 years ago … The thinking skills to allow us to be reasonable and logical … can certainly be taught if funds were available to establish institutions to teach them. … [That’s the] reason Muslims have only won 7 Nobel prizes since 1901 … yet Jews have won 170 Nobel prizes since 1901. Jewish children are encouraged to ask questions and education is a high priority in their culture. … If Muslims had the courage to wait until their children’s brains had matured by the age of 25 or so, and then told them their founding prophet rode a white winged horse on a night trip to heaven and back, none of their children would believe it.”

  10. Or perhaps they’d read your comment as the ranting of an anti-Catholic, and pay no attention to it all.

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