An impression that’s become fashionable in recent years is that Catholics are leaving their Church in droves. Is the Catholic Church in the United States really declining? The answers: Yes, no and it depends.

Statistically, no: the Catholic Church is growing. It showed a 1.5 percent increase in membership last year, according to information from the National Council of Churches USA. Boosting the numbers are immigrants from Latin America and other areas of the globe, who bring their Catholic faith with them to strengthen the Church in America. {{more}}

But a Pew Forum poll showed that adults raised in the Catholic Church or in Christian denominations shift from one faith tradition to another during their lives. So yes, one church may show a decline, but another may show a gain.

Some people cease identifying with any religious congregation altogether. Unknown is how many people return in later life to the faith in which they were raised.

The movement of people from one church to perhaps none and maybe back to where they began begs the question, what exactly does one mean by “leaving” the Catholic Church? If a person attends Mass twice a year (Christmas and Easter) or once every few years (weddings and funerals) are they Catholic or not?

They identify themselves as Catholic. While not fully living in the Church as they are invited to do through their baptism and other sacraments, they have not fully “left” the Church either. The door for them remains open.

And since it is, a great deal of effort is expended to invite them in, usually around Advent. Programs in parishes and dioceses around the country with such titles as “Come home for Christmas” seek to mobilize Catholics who practice their faith regularly to welcome back their brothers and sisters who may have been away for a while.

The popular picture of the disgruntled former Catholic is not as clear as it may appear. Some Catholics have walked away from the Church, at least for a time. Others have joined the Church or become full members through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process – more than 21,000 over the past 12 years just in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

This Advent is a good time for Catholics to invite their Catholic friend or relative to participate in one of the many penance services celebrated in parishes. We can help our Catholic brothers and sisters experience Christ in the Eucharist at Mass more than occasionally, and live fully in the Church they never really left.