Catholics across the U.S. are preparing for next week's visit of Pope Francis although, when he gets here the Pontiff will find a religion in decline. Fewer Americans than ever are identifying themselves as Catholics, with many joining Protestant faiths or becoming '''religiously unaffiliated''. Vanessa Johnston reports.
When he arrives in the U.S. next week, Pope Francis will be entering an extremely diverse religious and spiritual landscape. NATS -- "If you love Jesus put your hands in the air!" This may look like a rock concert... But it's just an ordinary Sunday for worshippers at Hillsong's Pentecostal mega-church in Los Angeles. Former Catholics say it's a far cry from the religious teachings of their childhood. (SOUNDBITE) (English) VICTOR MORALES, A FORMER CATHOLIC, SAYING: "It's more free. More freedom. More free will. Like, it's all about you. It's not about, 'Oh, my God, what would they think?' It's more about you and God." (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARICELA MOYA, A FORMER CATHOLIC, SAYING: "There's no other way to live. I'm not going back." While Christianity as a whole is on the decline in the United States -- dropping by roughly 8 percent since 2007 -- Roman Catholicism has seen one of the sharpest declines, according to the latest Pew survey. Hillsong's founder, Pastor Brian Houston, says worshippers are looking for new ways to connect. (SOUNDBITE) (English) BRIAN HOUSTON, SENIOR PASTOR OF HILLSONG CHURCH, SAYING: "I feel like sometimes the method is what's wrong; not the message. The message is beautiful, the Christ message. But the method: sometimes it's unrelatable. Sometimes, I think, people are just too rigid and religious and not authentic, it doesn't have that sense of connection with people." But a growing number of Americans are turning away from religious institutions altogether in their quest for spiritual nourishment. At the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York...Sister Peace says the number of people attending so-called "mindfulness" retreats has skyrocketed. (SOUNDBITE) (English) AN NGHIEM, A VISITING MONK WHO CALLS HERSELF SISTER PEACE, SAYING: "People are recognizing that there is a need to slow down, to stop, things get to be a little bit much. And so you can do that, but then what do you do when you stop? And how do you stop? So helping people to train in this way is very attractive." In fact, a recent National Institutes of Health study found some 18 million Americans now meditate. One of them is interfaith minister Deborah Darlington, who says retreats help her guide the religiously unaffiliated. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DEBORAH DARLINGTON, RETREAT ATTENDEE AND INTERFAITH MINISTER, SAYING: "There's a growing number of people within the United States right now who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. And so my question is, who's ministering to them? Who's serving them? Who's helping, who's walking with them through their challenges." But in the diverse American marketplace of religion and spirituality, people like Kathy Galleher, a practicing Catholic, say they don't feel necessarily confined to a single practice. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KATHY GALLEHER, RETREAT ATTENDEE AND PRACTICING CATHOLIC, SAYING: "I have a prayer room in my house, and you know, there's a crucifix and there are also pictures both of Pope Francis and Thich Naht Hahn there, so just teachers that I've had. I'll sit on a cushion and breathe and follow my breath, and I also pray to God...both streams of spiritual teaching are there for me." For Pope Francis, it may be food for thought…as he prepares to spread his own message of faith to America.