What to do when you find empty pews

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Who is not here? Who is absent from this assembly? If you come to Mass in a small-town parish, it is easy enough to notice who is missing. But even mega-parishes are like large universities. People move in circles of known stories and recognized faces. So ponder, for a moment, who is not here with us.

There are, of course, the temporary absences. Someone is traveling this weekend. There was a reunion or a wedding. Someone else is down with the flu but, if all goes well, will soon be back. When chemotherapy is kind, she is here, but some weeks she just cannot make it. Happy and worrisome reasons mingle among the temporary absences.

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But, let’s ask ourselves: Who is not here because they almost never are? Bring to mind some of those faces and ponder why they are not among us. Who is alienated from us? And why is that so?

Let’s ask ourselves: Who is alienated from us? And why is that so?

Perhaps the problem began in their own lives. Money and pleasure seemed better masters. Arrogance and pride may have had their role. Of course, it could be that some of those who are absent just slipped on the rodent wheel of modern life, and they have never been able to catch up.

Are there some who are absent from us because of shame? Guilt is a work of God; it helps us to grow. But shame is never an action of the Good Spirit. It sets us apart. If someone feels ashamed, is there something that we can do about that?

Are some absent because they have never felt this place to be their spiritual home? They have never found themselves challenged or comforted here. They were never asked to lend a hand. If you feel invisible, sooner or later you just disappear.

Guilt is a work of God; it helps us to grow. But shame is never an action of the Good Spirit.

In the world of the Gospel, leprosy banished its casualties from community. The only way to slow the spread of the disease was to expel its victims from all human contact. Alienated, they became strangers in their own communities. For Jesus to heal lepers was to restore them to the circle of their own humanity.

If to be church is to be baptized into Christ and into his mission, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, isn’t it our duty to look for our lepers? To seek out those who are alienated from us? How will we answer, when the Father of all asks each of us: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Did you not see when they fell? Were you not moved with compassion?”

How will we answer, when the Father of all asks each of us: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”

Contemporary parishes breathe with only one lung because on any given Sunday half of the faithful are not in their pews. How much vitality is lost to a parish that breathes so shallowly? The church is not confined to her pews. If she is, she is truly paralytic. If you share some fellowship with these absent faces, here is what you can do.

  1. Find them and listen. What alienates all of us is having no one who will listen. Don’t enter with your questions. Come to listen. Being befriended and being faithful grow in tandem. Don’t make those who are absent your project. Just be their good friend.
  2. Be yourself. You don’t need talking points. If faith makes a difference in your life, it will show. It will bespeak itself without any calculation on your part. “For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Lk 12:12).
  3. Immerse yourself in Christ so that you become the Christ, finding his own in the world. Be more faithful to your own faith. Volunteer. Learn again to fast. Give yourself to prayer. Choose one of those faces and carry it to the Lord each time that you pray. Having learned something of his or her story, you can share it with the Lord.

Faith is a living thing. It either grows or it dies. If your faith contains no concern for those who are not here, it is not healthy. Imitate the apostle:

Brothers and sisters,
whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).

Who is not here? We know their faces. And in our baptisms we became the Lord’s face, his voice and his hands. Either we become more like Christ each day or we begin to lose him ourselves.

If you need encouragement, if you need help, think of those faces that you have once known around this altar, faces whom you can no longer see because they have gone to be with the Lord. Do you really believe that their union with the Lord means their separation from us? Then you know nothing of the communion of saints.

They still come to this altar, where they prayed on earth. They gather around us each week, unseen yet faithful and mighty. Ask these faces, which have gone to glory, to help you as you seek out those beloved faces that have vanished.

Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 Mark 1:40-45

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Christopher Lochner
10 months 1 week ago

This is the most uplifting, powerful, and truly Christian article I have read in quite some time. Thank you Father. God Bless you.

Jeri Graham
10 months 1 week ago

Exactly what I wanted to say. Food for thought.

Lisa Weber
10 months 1 week ago

And please do not invite people currently in the pews to leave simply because you disagree with them.

J. Calpezzo
10 months 1 week ago

Perhaps the pews are empty due to the church's own failing....its disgraceful handling of the clergy abuse scandal, the marginalization or downright discrimination against the LGBT community, etc. Stiffs like Burke and Law and Mahony.

John R
10 months 1 week ago

Yes!

Paul Kendrick
10 months 1 week ago

It’s the homilies that keep people away. Today’s educated and informed Catholics are bored by the infantile sermons of priests who don’t participate in the real world worries and concerns of the people in the pews; i.e., downsizing’s, layoffs, mortgages, college expense, etc. Priests live in a bubble.

JAMES NAZZAL
10 months 1 week ago

As a Deacon, I hear your voice because I, too, have the same concerns - and lived experiences - of those in the pews (infantile death, parents illness, adult children leaving the church, paying the bills...and the list goes on. I preach not only from the Gospel, from life experiences that are relevant to the readings...as a Deacon, married for 55 years, 3 children, 7 grandchildren, lived through family tragedies, experienced God's mercy, offered healing, peace and blessings...I think I know what the real world worries about, and what the "lived" concerns of my church family in the pews really are living day-to-day. Most priests have a wealth of biblical, theological and seminary training...I don't necessarily agree that priests live in a bubble, but it's LIFE EXPERIENCES that speak authentically to those in the pews. And they get it...

Nora Bolcon
10 months 1 week ago

With all due respect James it is the Permanent Deaconate that has helped to cause the lay folks to go a bit paralytic. You deacons (only men!) often push laity, in particular women out of the few ministries they can serve in, especially the most important ones during liturgy. I have a problem with deacons because they should know more how degrading and debilitating sexism is to women since they are married and many have daughters in their lived experience. However, some of the deacons I have encountered in life and online are the most sexist and conservative men of all. I am at the point that we need to do away with this ministry. At present, this ministry stunts more parish's growth than it enhances. It also consists, currently, and has for the last 40 years, of a population of over 90% white, fairly wealthy, western, married men on a global scale. That scale, for that long a period of time, can't be a coincidence which means this is a ministry that definitely does support clericalism, sexism, wealth disparity, ethnic disparity and race bias on a global scale. Even if we were to ordain women deacons that would not change the other issues with this ministry and if we only ordained women deacons as an excuse to ordain married men priests, then it will become the source of gender segregation and the worst offense against women in our history.

Why do you and your brother deacons refuse to stand up for your wives, daughters, sisters and Sisters in Christ and demand not only women deacons, but also equal ordination and sacraments for all members of our church as Christ taught to treat all the same?

People tell me that if we ordain married men to priesthood, they will help get women equal ordination. I tell them, take a look at our deaconate, and then take a look at the Orthodox Church which has always ordained married men, and then I tell them don't be so easily misled.

James my challenge to you and all deacons is this, have you considered that the greatest Christian effort you could do, as a group, is demand together, equal sacraments for all women and men, and be willing to risk your status to gain it? I was called to priesthood in my teens, and our church's rejection of me as a human being is still the most painful experience of my life, and one I am still healing from 37 years later. However, if the church decided to ordain women priests but said we will no longer be ordaining dark skinned people, I would not only forgo seeking ordination until this changed, I would risk excommunication, to stand by my Christian brothers and sisters who are being attacked and degraded in their humanity.

The parishes and the church overall can and has survived with no permanent deacons for centuries. So you don't have the excuse celibate priests have in that someone must serve until we ordain women and then perhaps married people. No one will be without Holy Eucharist because there is no deacon. Lay men and women in various poor countries worldwide are performing baptism, leading entire parishes with Eucharistic Celebrations and previously consecrated hosts, and preaching and officiating at weddings and funerals.

So why not do the thing that really matters? Take the stand that could change our church back to the Gospels, back to justice for all, and recreate us finally once again as communities of love. If Deacons would do something like this, I would find cause to salute them as Christian Brothers because this would take real bravery and charity of heart.

Currently, I can find little reason to pay deacons much respect since they do harm in many parishes, by pushing clericalism to the lower level ministries, sometimes unintentionally, and because they often more act as a wedge between a parish and it's priest rather than a bridge, at least this has been my lived experience.

JAMES NAZZAL
10 months ago

My, oh my...Trumpism and the trolls are alive and (well...) active. You began "With all due respect James" (which I doubt you have any)...then went into a lather destroying the messenger rather than addressing the message. Nora (if that is your real name), you know absolutely NOTHING about me. You do not know the journey i have traveled. You know NOTHING about my family history. You know NOTHING about the stands I have taken for the sake of those in the pews. You know NOTHING of the blood I have lost for the cause of the greater good of what is right. You know NOTHING of the "reassignments" I have endured by speaking out against the selfishness of the "chosen". You know NOTHING but contempt. You are a very sad, bitter person "Nora"

Nora Bolcon
10 months ago

Well, I voted for Clinton so where you get Trumpism, I will never know. The same goes with your trolling accusation. My comment was perfectly reasonable and the facts in it accurate. Your not liking the facts about the deaconate, which is what I was critiquing most, does not make me wrong or bitter in pointing out the negative realities that have arisen from this ministry. The point of the article is missing people from our pews and many men and women have left our pews permanently due to our poor and lesser treatment of women so it was not off message but spot on.

James, I never said I don't respect you as a person. However, there is no doubt that you and all of the other men who chose (no one made any of you) to become ordained deacons, did this knowing this would only support further sexism in our church, as it can't help but push those excluded from this ministry to a lower position in our church, and you all still sought this ordination without regard for the women who would be oppressed from your action. This is what I stated and it is true.

No one needs to know your life story to know that you supported and still support sexism in this church because you have declared it by choosing to be ordained to the permanent deaconate. You clearly want respect above the regular lay person on this thread even since you went out of your way to use your title deacon in your name-you could have just used no title. Do I respect this choice of yours and others to be ordained deacons knowing the damage it does to women's dignity in our church? No. You are absolutely correct on that.
Am I bitter? No - I was called to priesthood not the permanent deaconate.
Am I angry? Yes, I am. I am angry like the black person who was kept from a job (or vocation) they were equally or better qualified for than the white guy who applied, but was not chosen, obviously, for reason of his skin color alone. It is appropriate to be angry when people abuse you or support others who abuse you. Even Christ reproved those who treated others as less.

I offered a way, quite frankly, the only way deacons can help to rectify the sexism in this church which their ministry has worsened. I did not judge you alone but all those who sought to enter a ministry that clearly supports clerical sexism and seems to have no other real purpose. It is acceptable to state all people who join the Nazi Party are wrong in this choice since no one joins a Nazi Party except to join in on the ongoing oppression of others.

Are you saying you have spoken out for women in our church to our leaders? I don't know what "I have spoken against the selfishness of the "chosen". represents. Have you claimed publicly that women should be ordained priests and equally ordained to men? These are specific questions, about a specific, and most self-destructive bias which our church promulgates. Are you openly denouncing this bias? If not, there is nothing in my first comment that was not completely accurate about who you are, and what you stand for in our church. Pretending to be injured when you've earned the critique does not make the critique false.

However, if you have fought for justice for women in our church and real equality, just say so.

Also, Yes, James, my real name is Nora Bolcon. I have never gone on any thread claiming an alias nor do I ever intend to. I have written the Pope, bishops, cardinals, various faith groups, I have taken public stands in Boston seeking change and justice for women in our church. If you are on the side of justice, I am starting small groups hopefully, both online and off, to protest against this oppression more aggressively - I always have extra signs and petitions for those willing to volunteer for the cause - just let me know what to send you and where to send it.

Peace,
Your Sister In Christ,
Nora Bolcon

Henry George
10 months ago

Nora, Nora, Nora,

Where do you meet all these Deacons and Priests that so dissapoint you ?

Most of the Deacons and Priests that I meet are kind, gentle and thoughtful Christians.

Lisa Noname
10 months 1 week ago

When I don't see someone who is usually in church I automatically wonder why. I ask could they have been insulted, are they ill, were they bored? I don't have to wonder why I am not drawing people to the church I know it is because the people I come into contact with are not impressed with my life. Does my life come across as boring or petty? Is that what I bring to church with me? What am I doing or not doing how am I going to take responsibility for the whole body that I am a part of? Why am I not concerned about one of my body parts?

Michael Seredick
10 months 1 week ago

My list of why I'm seldom in the pews would be too long, but I'll start with being an altar boy in the 50's. A host fell from the mouth of a communicant onto my patton, and ultimately to the floor At age 13, in shock, I picked the host up from the floor and gave it to the priest who looked at me in horror as if I were the devil. He scolded me in a whisper "go to the sacristy where I'll deal with you later." He spent an eternity cleaning the floor with holy oils as the entire school watched in silence. I touched Jesus, was dismissed from the altar boys, the entire school knew my disgrace and avoided me on the playground. Then, a few years later, everyone could touch the host. I've never been able to receive communion again without thinking of how I was treated that day. Ultimately, I married a Methodist woman during my University years. My parish priest at Cana discouraged the marriage, saying it would fail for sure. We recently celebrated anniversary 50. I receive communion in her church and many other Protestant denominations where everyone is invited to the table of the Lord, who simply said "do this in memory of me." That's an explanation of one factor. The church abuse COVERUP is another big factor I stay away. Enough!

Randal Agostini
10 months 1 week ago

I wonder if it is possible to go through life avoiding the foibles of humanity - probably not. There is a reason that you were able to read this article, which is a good one, for many. Everyone needs to recognize the The Church is a vehicle, a resource filled with other humans like ourselves that provides us with the tools to have an encounter with Jesus, with God. The Holy Eucharist is not a memorialization - it is Christ himself, humbled to be part of us, so that he may change us from within - if we recognize him and let him.

Michael Seredick
10 months ago

You totally miss the point of my post. The priest abused me as a young boy. The "never touch a host" moment disgraced me in front of ALL STUDENTS at the school mass. I was shunned in the Church of my Baptism over a LIE! Rejoice that you never had my miserable experience as an innocent child, about age 13

Nora Bolcon
10 months ago

Thank you for sharing what you went thru. I know that is not always easy. Kudos to you for your wonderful 50 years of marriage brother. I hope you do come back one day. I have been hurt in our church too but am staying because God has led me to believe that change must come from within. Peace to you Michael.

Michael Seredick
10 months ago

Dear Nora - Thank you for your kind reply. I take no comfort knowing you have also been hurt, and am sorry for your experience as well. I'm not sure the point of my post is clear. It is not possible for me to focus on Jesus Christ in the Eucharist post my altar boy, dropping host, being disgraced experience. That's all I think about, so receiving communion became meaningless based on abuse by a priest. Ultimately, the "don't touch the host" issue was a LIE. Again, thanks for your kind reply.

Nora Bolcon
10 months ago

I am so sorry Michael. I understand. I know Jesus also understands. I wish you a Blessed Lent Brother.

Monica Trojniak
10 months 1 week ago

In order to find them you must know who they are. Priests/Deacons are familiar those in the "inner circle." The people outside of the group are often the ones who need the encouragement to return. Ministers need to find a way to reach all those who draw away from the Church.

Monica Trojniak
10 months 1 week ago

In order to find them you must know who they are. Priests/Deacons are familiar those in the "inner circle." The people outside of the group are often the ones who need the encouragement to return. Ministers need to find a way to reach all those who draw away from the Church.

Monica Trojniak
10 months 1 week ago

Please delete one of my replies. I sent it twice in error. Thank you

Nora Bolcon
10 months ago

Well, until our Pope stops treating women and men who seek real equality for everyone as lepers - i.e. no more closed door on any kind of ordination or ministry to women, I don't see us growing but instead continually losing youth.

That being said, I do pray for my old parish and the two communities I go to mass in regularly for increase. I go out of my way to be friendly to new people that I see come into these communities and I believe this helps defend against greater losses of people.

I do also believe we could do some things to keep regular church goers coming. I go regularly to mass and have stepped away from my regular parish of 22 years with my husband and children, and now go to a nearby religious community instead most Sundays. I did this because I was a lector for many years, and we got in a new pastor, who tended to be very legalistic in his approach, and after a few years, he started changing what the lectors could or could not do, and decreased their work by either dropping certain things altogether, or by giving the work to the Deacon that the lectors used to do, and arranged things so that the lectors could be kicked off the altar the second they were done the two readings. When I approached our pastor and said that we, lectors, would like to go back to how things were, and that some of the lectors, and myself too, felt this new way of his presented a lessening of the work we had enjoyed doing and we did not know why no one even asked us about the change first. I got the typical, this is the way the directions state in the rules on liturgy so we are not going back. I said but we have been doing this for over 2o years and our other previous pastors saw no conflict with the rules so why is this a big deal now? He said, the pastor holds final say with how the liturgy will be done. I told him that I was no longer interested in being a lector and I stopped serving at our parish on that day.

A year later we got a new pastor and he was far more of the attitude "Its my way or the highway" than even the one before him. So when I asked him would he consider our returning to the old way we did some of the ministries, to how we did them for over 20 years, in our parish, and the way most of our ministers preferred, he gave the authoritarian response, "Mrs. Bolcon, your previous pastor followed the rules and I am not going to change anything back." I replied to him, "You know Father our parish is decreasing, it might be a good idea to have a liturgy committee created to advise you so the people have some voice." He promptly replied, "I don't think you are going to be very happy in this parish, I don't think you will find it satisfactory to what you want."

I then had my son stop serving as an altar server, and told him I hope you understand that we need to look around and find another parish at least until this one has a priest who treats his ministers and parishioners a bit better.

We go once a month maybe to this old parish, pay a small amount of money and do no service but because we still care for many of the parishioners we decided to keep a foot in the door to see if it changes. Since we started casual attendance, my husband has witnessed another man who saw something on the altar and got angry and said to his wife behind us "That is it - we are out of here!" He did not know what he was mad about but obviously it must have been something to do with liturgy as that is what was going on at the time.

I believe this experience explains that if current church goers were treated with greater respect and every parish had a liturgy committee that was respected by their pastors, there are some people who would not leave. Lay Ministers need to be respected too, not just told to go shove off if the pastor does not like their suggestions, and they should be consulted before changes take place in their ministry.

Also, of note this parish has a full time pastor, not a shared pastor, and even so this parish is diminishing visibly every year. It does not only matter that we have priests. It matters that priests are loving, kind, cheerful, and flexible pastors, and willing to dialogue on liturgy as well as other parish issues.

Michael Seredick
10 months ago

Nora - I read your experience after I posted my "thank you for your kindness" reply above. I'm unable to offer the proper words of comfort, other than to say you have no idea how many people I know have similar stories. To balance the discussion, there have been good priests in my life as well. We errantly hold them up on a pedestal, as if their priesthood accomplishment dispels their human errors. I've wondered if they see themselves as being humanly, and spiritually above all who occupy the pews? I learned otherwise. Each priest is to judged as an individual. That's that same for all of God's creatures. Best to you.

Nora Bolcon
10 months ago

Blessings and thanks to you too Michael.

Charles Monsen
10 months ago

Sometimes I feel like a complete dinosaur. Here is why I go to mass. As a matter of faith, I believe ours is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ. I believe as a matter of faith, that once that is known, it is the Church of my salvation. I believe, as a matter of faith that mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. I believe at mass I am invited to sit at the foot of the Cross. I believe only an ordained Catholic priest acting In Persona Christi can consecrate bread and wine. I believe as a matter of faith, that I am able to receive the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I go to mass to be with Christ.

I don’t go for fellowship, although if it is there - great. I don’t go there specifically to hear the sermon , although if it is a good thought provoking one - great. I don’t go to hear music , but if it actually enhances the Mass – great.

I don’t think we need to hire a marketing team to do focus groups. I don’t think we should be trying to out protestant the Protestants like it is some type of competition. As a matter of fact, by doing so we may be actually making people think they are similar things. That it is not mass – just another service. I don’t think growing a congregation is a particularly good objective. I think completely and clearly teaching the truths of the Church is the objective.

In a sentence, I think you properly fill the pews, by being properly Catholic.

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