A large proportion of Australian Catholics (up to 90 percent) no longer practise the faith, as is the case in most Western countries.
We who appreciate, cherish and love our Catholic faith would call this a monumental tragedy and today we can identify with the late Cardinal Danielou who shortly after Vatican II lamented, "The crisis of faith inside the Church is the gravest problem which torments the heart of Pope Paul VI."
What makes it more tragic is that we have largely neglected to minister to those fellow Catholics whom we previously called "former", "lapsed", or "fallen away".
When did we last hear or read anything in any Catholic quarter about the spiritual needs of these people? Do we recall ever being moved by impassioned pleas to pray and work for the return of these Catholics to the love of God and to the practice of the Catholic Faith?
To their credit, in 2007 the Australian Catholic Bishops incorporated the ministry to inactive Catholics into the core ministry of the Catholic Inquiry Centre under the heading, "Assisting Catholics seeking a return to the practice of their faith".
The priests who minister to us in our parish in the Archdiocese of Melbourne ceaselessly encourage parents of children who are being baptised or receiving First Communion to bring them to Mass every Sunday.
The Church has many ministries which present Catholic teachings to the faithful as well as to non-Catholics, the Godless and those searching for God. And rightly so, for this is the Divinely-appointed mission of the Catholic Church, to preach the Gospel of Christ and to lead humanity to salvation.
Secular issues such as peace and social justice, relief from poverty and hunger, or concern for refugees, are rightly brought to our attention by the Church.
In the name of unity the Church engages in inter-religious dialogue while during the Prayers of the Faithful we include petitions for the sick, the unemployed or people suffering persecution. And we have Missions Sunday, Vocations Sunday and Social Justice Sunday.
All of these are well and good, but ought not be at the expense of solving the most pressing problem facing the Catholic Church in Australia.
Meanwhile most inactive Catholics are hurting because of life's bad breaks, with their rejection of the Church sometimes a smokescreen to their cry for help: "If God loves me so much why did He do this to me?" They feel the need to blame someone for their pain and they find the Catholic Church an easy target.
Yet, despite their resentment, many inactives long to return to the Church community where they hope to find reassurance, comfort and compassion.
"An attitude of compassion towards inactives can work miracles," said American Redemptorist, Fr William McKee, who spent years ministering to them. "It can open thick doors of anger and hurt and free those who are captive.
"It is not too surprising. After all, it is the power of Jesus' own compassion working through you and me that does the job."
The urgency to minister to this group of Catholics stems not from some self-serving desire to see our Catholic churches full again. It arises, rather, from the profound truth that each one of them has a soul to save.
The time is ripe for us to gather this great harvest and the best way to start is through prayer.
St Monica prayed for years for her son Augustine to turn to God. Equally as ardent in her prayers for her son was the mother of EWTN's Fr John Corapi of whom Fr Corapi said: "My mother had long given up her preaching career but never her praying career." Like St Augustine, Fr Corapi returned to God after a misspent youth.
We should ask our Australian Catholic Bishops to nominate the Sunday closest to the feasts of Saints Monica and Augustine (27 and 28 August respectively) as "Inactive Catholics Sunday", when we pray for the conversion of these Catholics.
In the meantime each of us could make every Sunday our own "Inactive Catholics Sunday". Next time we are at Mass, observe the empty seats and feel our hearts shrink. Where are the young mothers and fathers and their children? Where are all our teenagers? Indeed, where are all those senior Catholics who still present hardened hearts or cold shoulders to Christ and the Catholic Church?
During the month of February it would be good if parishioners were offered the opportunity to place the names of inactives in a special book so that they are prayed for during Mass. At the same time, Catholic Inquiry Centres might promote widely within the Church their ministry to inactive Catholics.
At the parish level, committed teams could undertake the task of aiding inactives who are seeking a return to the Church.
Finally, inactives need to be invited to consider a return to full participation in Church life. As Fr McKee puts it: "Most inactives long for the Church to take the first step for them. I wondered what would happen if we asked every inactive Catholic we met if they wanted to come back. I started asking. I couldn't believe the results. I found them to be the most fertile field imaginable for evangelisation."
It is the salvation of souls which motivates this ministry for, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, "Unless souls are saved nothing is saved."
Joseph (Joe) Agius is an active Melbourne Catholic concerned for the Church to connect more with "inactives".