It is Sunday morning again. And we should go to Mass; we really should. We do not have an excuse this week.
Most weeks we have an excuse.
The baby is teething. The toddler had nightmares all night last night. The preschooler has a fever. Mom is coming down with a cold. Dad worked yesterday, and we have not seen him all week. Mom has morning sickness. Mom and Dad are just plain tired. Someone threw up. We are out of town. We have family in town. The weather is bad. The weather is nice.
They are not all good excuses.
The truth is, we do not go to Mass weekly because it is hard. Not hard in a “walk uphill both ways in the snow to fulfill our Christian duty” way. But hard in a “I don’t want to have to wrestle two preschoolers to sit still for an hour while I receive judgmental stares” way. My standards are far more lax than those of my parents, who actually did have us walk uphill in the snow one Sunday morning.
The truth is, we do not go to Mass weekly because it is hard.
While a perfect attendance record may elude us, our twice-monthly attendance at Mass is practically pious by my generation’s standards. Two-thirds of millennial Catholics attend Mass a few times a year or less. I am guessing that for many attendance directly correlates with the number of times their own mom and dad come into town.
Wriggly children are not the only reason my fellow millennials are missing from the pews. The benefits of a church community seem less tangible for young Catholics. The parish simply does not function as the same center of social life that it did for prior generations. Fellowship opportunities are limited for those who are older than youth group age and not quite old enough for the Tuesday morning knitting groups.
But the growing dissatisfaction goes deeper than preferring brunch with friends over stilted coffee and donuts. Millennials, many with a passion for social justice rooted in their Catholic values and upbringing, are dissatisfied with an institution that preaches community and compassion and often practices the opposite. Taught to reach out to the marginalized, young Catholics are typically protective of their L.G.B.T. friends—or feel unwelcome themselves. They do not want to be a part of an organization that has too often been a deep source of pain for the people they love.
Wriggly children are not the only reason my fellow millennials are missing from the pews.
There are other disconnects between the values of millennial Catholics and the church’s practices. They might find the lack of women in positions of leadership unacceptable or consider the church’s emphasis on sexual ethics—birth control, abortion, gay marriage—to be outsized when immigration, health care and climate change feel like far more pressing issues.
Of course, people distance themselves from the faith—or at least the pews—for reasons beyond the doctrinal and political. Young Catholics who have gone through trying, dark times have sometimes found the faith of their childhood did not provide the protection or guidance they needed.
Despite these disappointments, many of my peers have a profound desire to connect with God. But a hard and lonely pew may not be the easiest place to find that connection. Perhaps that is why Jesus is so often found going out and touching those in need, rather than lecturing the crowds, “The temple is open more than just twice a year, you know!”
Those of us who remain in the pews have our work cut out for us.
My family often skips Mass because of the amount of work involved. It is difficult to wrangle toddlers in the pews. It is difficult to give up Sunday mornings we could be spending making pancakes in our pajamas. But the truth is, being a practicing Catholic should be much harder than all of that. If we truly wish to live out the call of the Gospel, those of us who remain in the pews have our work cut out for us.
I dream of a better church. I hope for one that can be a home for all in need, from the L.G.B.T. teenager kicked out of the house by his family to the immigrant in need of protection to the young mother. If I leave the church, I cannot help provide that home for others—at least not in the place that first taught me why serving those on the edges of our society should be my top priority.
Despite my frustrations, despite my children who do not sit still, we will keep going to Mass. We will go not just because of the Catholic guilt that starts eating at me if it has been longer than a few weeks since I spent a homily pacing in the vestibule with a crying child. I go because I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of all that is seen and unseen. What is unseen at the moment is the type of church we will choose to be for future generations.
In all honesty, I do not know how to build a better church. But I am guessing it probably has something to do with showing up a little more often, not ducking out immediately after Communion and doing something more concrete than telling strangers on the internet I think we could do better.
Perhaps I will get some more ideas at Mass this week. Perhaps not. Either way, I am out of excuses.