It’s Christmas Day and it’s Sunday. Do you know where your Catholic friends and family members are?
There’s a good chance they’re not at church.
Parishes all over the United States trimmed the number of Masses they planned to offer on Dec. 25, going from several usual Sunday Masses to perhaps two or three, or even one.
That’s what’s happening at St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, Ind. It’s also happening at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Baltimore.
Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Olathe, Kan., was to have two Masses during the day on Christmas, down from its usual five, and St. Julie Billiart Parish in Tinley Park, Ill., was to have three Masses Christmas, down from five on the typical Sunday.
But in each of those parishes, there were plenty of opportunities for Catholics to meet their Christmas obligation — on Christmas Eve.
“The thing is that people don’t want to come in the morning,” said Kevin Demetroff, the music minister at St. Jude. “This will be the first year that we’ve had one Mass on Christmas Day. There used to be two. It used to be more a balance. But that has shifted.”
Children Mass attraction
Most parishes are happy to accommodate worshippers on Christmas Eve, many of whom are families with young children who want to open gifts on Christmas morning. But some people wonder if Catholics are losing something important by not making time for Mass on Christmas Day.
As in many parishes, the first late afternoon Mass on Christmas Eve is the designated children’s Mass, where a special children’s Christmas choir sings, he said. The choir includes several dozen students both from the parochial school and the religious education program there, and the congregation will include many of their proud parents and grandparents. But that doesn’t really add to the number of people who come to that 5 p.m. Mass, Demetroff said. “My sense is that they would be there anyway.”
So many people want to attend the anticipated Christmas Mass at St. Isaac Jogues in Baltimore that there were two Masses at 4 p.m. Dec. 24, one in the church and one in the hall, and another at 4:15 p.m. in the parish’s Seton Chapel. The parish had to offer multiple Masses at that time, according to staff members, because otherwise it would have to turn people away by order of the fire marshal. The parish was to have two more anticipated Masses Christmas Eve evening before the “midnight” Mass at 11 p.m.
Jesuit Father John Baldovin, a professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College, said that there is nothing wrong with doing Midnight Mass a bit earlier. The roots of Mass in the middle of the night on Christmas go back to the sixth century at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. That church houses what is believed to be a relic of the Savior’s crib.
“Up until 1965, there were three Masses of Christmas,” Father Baldovin said. “On Christmas Eve, they would have had vespers.”
That changed after the Second Vatican Council, which also brought Catholics the possibility of attending Saturday evening vigil Masses to meet their Sunday obligation. People got used to being able to go to Mass the day before a Sunday or other holy day.
A Protestant trend
Now, more people that ever seem to want to take advantage of that on Christmas.
“People have decided more and more that Christmas Day is a family day,” Father Baldovin said. “People want to get up and open their packages that day.”
In doing so, they are joining many of their Protestant brothers and sisters, who traditionally don’t celebrate Christmas at church. A survey of Protestant megachurches conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in 2005 — the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday — showed that several planned to hold no Sunday services that day, and nearly all planned to cut down on their usual Sunday services.
Organizing around Mass
Jesuit Father James Martin thinks Catholics are losing something by moving away from celebrating Christmas Day in church. Father Martin, the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” (HarperCollins, $25.99), last year wrote about the trend in America magazine after hearing someone say they liked going to Mass on Christmas Eve because they could “get it over with.”
Father Martin has two young nephews and sympathizes with the pressure on families to fit presents, dinner, travel to relatives’ homes and everything else into the holiday celebration, and he doesn’t want to come across as a Grinch on this matter. But he remembers as a boy waking up, opening presents and then heading to Mass on Christmas Day.
“The day was organized around the Mass,” he said. “Not the Mass fitting in wherever it was most convenient.”
Making time for Mass on Christmas Day, especially for families, would send a message to children about what’s most important at Christmas.
Plus, he said, going to Mass Christmas Eve, especially when the readings for midnight or Christmas Day Masses are used, cuts into what could be a sacred sense of anticipation.
“Why don’t we just celebrate Easter on Good Friday and get it over with?” he said.
Father Baldovin doesn’t see it as that much of a problem, because, he said, these people are still going to Mass.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “Ideally speaking, it would be good to remember that Christmas itself is the feast, but the way people seem to be doing it is on Christmas Eve. As a realist, I would say better that than not doing it at all.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.