Editor’s Note: In “Why Go to Mass?” (4/13), Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., wrote, “To evoke lively conversations, ask why so many Catholics no longer go to Mass.” We did that, and because of the volume of responses, this week’s Reply All is dedicated to that topic.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently reported: “What has held steadier [than Mass attendance] is the frequency with which Catholics have their own conversations with God in their daily lives. Just fewer than six in ten Catholics pray daily, and this has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1980s.”
So the question should be rephrased: Why do most Catholics who pray daily also not go to Mass weekly, or even monthly? They certainly connect with God on a daily basis in prayer. Why do they not connect with the church at worship? This connection with God and prayer should be the starting place of an affirmative approach. Churches should have large signs that read, “Do you pray daily? Come worship with us this weekend!”
The Vibrant Parish Life Survey of the Diocese of Cleveland, published in April 2003 with 129 participating parishes and 46,241 responses, found that “Masses that are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving” ranked first among 39 items in importance but only 21st in being well done. “The parish as a supportive, caring community” ranked second in importance but, again, only 18th in being well done.
In the same study, “Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners” ranked seventh in importance but was 29th in being well done; this was the largest importance/well done gap in the whole survey. Bottom line: parish leaders need to stop talking and begin listening.
In response to those who say they “don’t get anything out of Mass,” Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., writes, “They were expecting good feelings? The right numbers for the lottery? Feeling all good inside?”
But these people do not say they want to feel “all good inside.” Sister Walsh interpreted their words for them. And that is supposed to bring people back? Has the author paid attention to the debate on the so-called Dones? These are people who have gone to church for decades and are just done. Many church leaders say exactly what Sister Walsh is saying. Others are saying what I am saying: “Take our concerns seriously, and do not put words in our mouths.”
As Sister Walsh at least mentions, people feel marginalized. The church must listen to these people and take their reasons seriously. Isn’t that what Pope Francis is saying?
Give and Take
When I hear people say that they get little out of Mass, it gives me the impression that the church is a place one goes to get her or his ticket punched, or that Mass is one leg of the three-legged stool (pray, pay, obey) concept that some people have.
For me, the phrase “skin in the game” comes to mind. I have to ask myself: What is my investment in my church? Am I only in for the take and not for the give? Msgr. Romano Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass has helped me to understand what my role is, not only when participating in Mass but when assisting in the mission of the greater church.
I am rather surprised not to see a common complaint among the comments. Frankly, many priests lack public speaking skills and conviction when celebrating the Mass. Nothing turns off people faster than having a priest read a sermon to the faithful from a script. There is a huge difference between a priest talking and engaging with the faithful and reading a sermon he wrote three years ago or in haste the previous night. I see few priests these days behaving as if they’re turning bread and wine into the body and blood of God the Son. Instead it’s done by rote, with a minimum of reverence instead of awe and humility. Only when this joy and enthusiasm are the norm, rather than the exception, will the fallen-away return.
I did not see in “Why Go to Mass” the two reasons I attend Sunday Mass. I want to stay out of mortal sin, and I want to receive Jesus Christ. Absent those two reasons, I would not go. Fellowship I find at the barbershop, where homilies abound and there’s only one collection.
I am concerned with Sister Walsh’s statement about “homilies against what they are at their very core,” referring to the divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics. I must argue that what one is at his or her “very core” is beautifully and simply a child of God. While one’s life choices and innate tendencies certainly shape a person’s circumstances, and may at times feel like one’s identity (especially when, in my personal experience, something is off track in the relationship with God), choices do not make the person. We follow Christ because we recognize his voice.
Maybe when we don’t follow, it’s because choices that we have no intention of changing make us uncomfortable in the presence of the Lord. Maybe we need to get better at being in the discomfort and letting the Lord speak to us. I am a faithful Mass attendee and often feel uncomfortable at Mass when I have been making poor choices. But I always find that if I ask the Lord to speak to me through the word and heal me through the Eucharist, he never fails.
Sister Walsh does not mention in her analysis the legitimate, unfulfilled desires Catholics may have when they come to church. How about a carefully prepared sermon by a well-educated priest, a homily that explains the Scripture readings and applies them to our lives? How about some spiritual instruction that offers guidance for the week to come? How about a sense that the entire congregation is engaged in worship, rather than simply watching a priest do “transubstantiation,” a term that is meaningful only to medieval metaphysicians?
When I talk to Catholics who have left to go to non-Catholic churches, I always hear the same thing: that every Sunday they learn something and come to understand the Bible better. Instead of criticizing Catholics who are absent on Sunday, the church has to ask if they are offered any real reason to come.
I attend a parish in the mid-Atlantic region. The homilies are generally good, sometimes even great. Easter found me in New England at a parish run by the same order of priests. I found the experience much more vibrant and the homily, while brief, was masterful.
The experience led me to understand that people need the readings to be applied to their daily lives. Generally I find that most priests either speak in a historical-catechetical context rather than in a way that leads to the application of the Scripture passage to a person’s heart and life. Great homiletics are critical to people going to Mass. If the homily speaks to people’s hearts, they will keep coming back. When we as church cease to speak to the heart—well, we see the results of that all around us.