Changing church awaits the pope Catholics increase, but not in declining Baltimore parishes


Memo to Pope John Paul II re Baltimore faithful: Your flock is largely white, middle-class, suburban and steadily growing; likes the church but often skips Mass; joins lay ministries but not the priesthood; favors your leadership but not your policies.

When the pope prays at Camden Yards a week from today, he will be in the heart of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 466,618 members of 154 parishes in Baltimore and nine Maryland counties west of the Chesapeake Bay. They are a sliver of America's 56 million Roman Catholics, the nation's largest denomination, and a speck among the world's 1 billion faithful.

Baltimore is the oldest U.S. diocese, and Maryland is steeped in Catholic history. Yet Catholics are much less a presence in Baltimore and environs than in New England, New York, Louisiana or even California and Wisconsin. About one person in six is Catholic on Cardinal William H. Keeler's turf, roughly the same as in Iowa or Missouri.

Who are America's Catholics? Surveys offer a national profile that generally reflects the Archdiocese's Catholics as well:

* They are solidly middle class on the whole. Catholics are more prosperous and better educated on average than Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists, according to the Gallup Poll, but less so than Jews, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

* They are politically middle of the road, trending conservative. Only 13 percent call themselves "strong Democrats," down from 20 percent two decades ago. "Strong Republicans" among Catholics have more than doubled to 9 percent. Nearly a third say they are conservative; about a quarter are liberals.

* They are religiously ambivalent. Only one in five is a self-described "very strong" Catholic, but 85 percent are at least somewhat satisfied with how the church ministers to their spiritual needs. In general, the younger the Catholic, the weaker the allegiance to the church. But as they raise families, the tie usually binds.

* They are becoming more ethnically diverse. Latin American and Asian immigration is changing the face of the church. American Catholics are now about 14 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 4 percent African-American, according to recent surveys.

Spanish-language Mass

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has been less touched by recent immigration than many dioceses along the country's coasts and southern border. Yet even here Spanish-language Mass is offered in 10 different parishes at least once a month.

In the archdiocese, the most striking trend is Catholics moving en masse to suburbia -- the farther from the city, the faster the growth. Fewer than one Catholic in five now lives in Baltimore itself, the archdiocese's historic, religious and administrative center.

"In the same areas that have experienced explosive population growth, we've experienced explosive church growth -- in schools and parishes. The parking lots don't have enough room in them," said Bill Blaul, a spokesman for Cardinal Keeler.

The number of Catholics in the outer suburbs -- Carroll, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties -- has doubled or tripled since 1975 while Baltimore's Catholic population has dropped by 30 percent. Mega-parishes have sprung up in Bel Air, Clarksville and Westminster.

Thirty-two years ago, the Rev. Francis X. Callahan, then freshly ordained, was assigned to bustling St. Dominic's parish in heavily Catholic Northeast Baltimore. The biggest parishes were the city or nearby Baltimore County.

Today, Father Callahan is pastor of 13,000-member St. Margaret Church in Bel Air, among the archdiocese's largest. In his three decades as a priest, Catholics have streamed out Harford and Belair roads from city to suburbs and from older suburbs to newer suburbs. They have swelled the size of parishes in Overlea, Fullerton, Fallston and Bel Air.

"I get a lot of people I baptized [in Northeast Baltimore], people I married, and they're still coming in," Father Callahan said. "This is a typical, nuclear-family parish. This is suburbia, pure and simple."

St. Margaret has grown in his nine years there from 2,300 to 4,300 families, almost all white. The church had 245 baptisms, 52 weddings and 49 funerals last year. The parish is about to build a mission, which eventually will become a new parish, on 16 acres now planted in corn, hay and winter wheat.

Standing room only

Average weekend Mass attendance is 4,700. On a fall Sunday, 10:30 a.m. Mass is standing room only. Families line the sanctuary walls -- parents with babies in strollers, youngsters in soccer uniforms, teen-agers in whispering clusters. Another 10:30 Mass is held at a nearby high school. The church school has waiting lists for every grade.

Meanwhile, at St. Anthony of Padua in the Gardenville section of Northeast Baltimore, the archdiocese's largest parish when Father Callahan was ordained, membership has decreased from in 1975 to 5,200 today. St. Anthony's was recently "twinned" with the far smaller Most Precious Blood parish on Bowleys Lane.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.