I was ordained just over 21 years ago. In those days, I used to have a lot more marriages and baptisms. In fact, my calendar was usually quite full from May – July with weddings. Sometimes I would have two weddings on one Saturday. There was real competition for a bride to get her date. And, as for baptisms, I remember that sometimes doing 15 at a time on a Sunday afternoon was not uncommon. Even in those days the older priests all said business was way down.
These days the decline in marriage is very evident. In some of the smaller parishes there hasn’t been a wedding for several years. Even in the larger ones, as few as four or five a year isn’t uncommon.
Most of my information on this has been anecdotal until now. However, I was introduced to a great blog by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The Blog is Here: CARA Blog. There is lots of good data available and plenty of graphs and charts that paint a statistical picture of the Church. Some of the pictures are troubling indeed. Consider this one that depicts the decline in marraige and baptisms over the past 50 years:
You can click on the Chart to get a clearer picture. The chart depicts the number of marriages and baptisms per 1000 Catholics in the USA. As you can see, the number of baptisms has really plummeted from over 36 in the 1950s to just over 12 in 2009. That’s a drop of 76%! Marriage has shown a similar and steady decline from about 12 in 1950 to just under 3 in 2009. That too is a drop of almost 75%
This depicts a major crisis in marriage and the family and I don’t think I am exaggerating to say that trends like these are civilization killers. Conditions are far worse in Europe it would seem, though I do not have statistics to present here.
The CARA Blog is more sanguine than I and states:
Despite these trends, the absolute number of Catholics in the United States continues to grow because the number of children born and raised Catholic has been generally sufficient to replace previous generations (life expectancies have risen as well) and other Catholics are added to the population through adult conversion from other faiths and through immigration of Catholics from other countries (even as some who are raised Catholic leave the faith at some point). Since the 1940s, the percentage of the U.S. population self-identifying as Catholic has remained remarkably stable at about 22% to 24%. 
In other words, thank God for immigrants. Without them the Church here would be in a far worse crisis. But even with them, it appears we are in a rather significant crisis and will likely see Churches and schools continue to close and consolidate in the years ahead.
More than ever, we the clergy and and Catholic families need to powerfully re-evangelize on the vocation of marriage emphasizing its high calling and dignity. It is absolutely essential that marriage become a frequent focus of preaching, teaching and parish celebrations. Marriage should be encouraged among the young, taught of soberly and realistically, but also in a way that emphasizes its dignity and high calling. Much celebration can and should accompany a wedding in the wider parish. Perhaps the old custom of announcing banns of marriage can be reintroduced. Newly married couples returning from honeymoons might be publicly blessed at a Sunday Mass and a yearly recognition of married couples at Masses should be considered.
A second facet of this should include a re-evangelization on the value of larger families. I ask the couples I prepare to consider having a larger family. I remind them that we are depending on them in very important ways to bring forth children and raise them Catholic. I remind them that the Scriptures say to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:18), not just to replace yourself. Hence three or more children is an expectation that seems implied by the Biblical text. Some of the couples think I’m crazy, but, little by little, my parish is getting used to hearing about larger families again.
And there is some good news on this front statistically. The percentage of people considering three or more children to be an ideal family size is going up again. This number reached its low in 1998 when only 36% of respondents considered three or more children ideal. But the number is rising steadily since then and last year 43% of respondents considered three or more children ideal .
So, here is a worthy task: recovering respect for the gifts of marriage and children. We may not see sudden reversals, but we can chip away at it. Even to get young people used to hearing of the blessings of marriage and children is a start. I have often joshed with my parishioners that one of the pillars of my evangelization plan is have our young people get married (FIRST), have lots of babies and raise them Catholic. They often laugh though they know I am not merely joshing. They’re getting used to hearing of large families again. To some extent that is going to have to be the first step: reintroducing concepts as rational and normal which had been discarded as crazy and out of date. Little by little, this tide can change. Little by little, brick by brick. The first step to making a 1000 mile journey is to put one foot in front of the other and just keep doing it.
Here’s a little sermon clip of mine that I posted originally back in January: