For concerts and talks, I travel to more than 150 parishes a year, mostly in the United States. Through my work, I get to see so much good and meet so many saints.
But I’ve also witnessed a disturbing pattern. Where a decade ago I used to see churches filled to standing room at two Sunday Masses, now I see most 50-60 percent full. This breaks my heart. The Dynamic Catholic Institute estimated some years ago that 17 percent of Catholics in America come to Mass regularly. If we counted up all the missing as a separate category, the second-largest denomination in America would be nonpracticing Catholics. There are some 30 million of them. And 50 percent of the people sitting in the seats of the non-Catholic megachurches are nonpracticing Catholics.
I don’t think they go there because they want to get away from the sacraments or solid orthodox teaching. They go because they find engaged worship there. Likewise, Hispanics who come to the United States often find our liturgies unengaging, so they go to the non-Catholic megachurch to find the emotional engagement they are used to in Latin America. This is not emotionalism, but emotional engagement. There is a huge difference, and we desperately need the latter.
But all things are possible with God! We can reverse this trend if we are willing. Pope Francis has issued a summons: “I invite every Christian, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” This happens when the Holy Spirit empowers our faith so that every song, liturgy, word, homily and sacrament comes alive in the Spirit as a means to that personal encounter with Jesus.
But there are some practical things we can do as well.
First, we need better singing. Young folks are leaving the Church in droves to find music that is really engaging. I don’t care if it’s Gregorian chant, traditional hymns or contemporary praise and worship songs, just sing! It’s not only up to the choir. It’s up to us in the pews. If we do not change the musical direction at Masses in America, we will lose most of our youth and some older folks as well.
Second, we need better preaching. Preachers must really share their faith when they preach. If we wanted only information, we could Google it. Faith ignites faith, and preaching is a huge way that we prepare for good participation in the Eucharist. But it is not only up to the preachers. It’s also up to us who listen. We must engage our homilists. Make eye contact. Smile at them. Preaching is like landing a plane. If they only see fog on the faces of the congregants, they will go up, go around and try again. So, if you want shorter homilies, engage and support your preachers. Even give them an occasional “Amen!” But not too loud, and not too often. Remember, they’re Catholic, and you might scare them.
Third, we need a deeper awareness of the reason we go to Mass. We go to Mass to receive Jesus. The singing might be awful and the preaching boring, but Jesus always shows up. In every Eucharist, Jesus comes on a divine rescue mission for each of us. It’s personal, powerful, intimate — and life-changing if we engage with faith. And this reality comes to us in every Mass. His incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and gifts of the Holy Spirit come to us in every Mass. How can we not be stunned in holy awe and wonder? When we come forward, we respond to the greatest altar call any revivalist can give. But it is not a revivalist who calls us. It is Jesus himself, fully present and calling us forward to give our lives fully to him at every Mass. Are we coming forward like liturgical robots, or as Pope Francis says, like “mummies in a museum?” Or are we coming forward to give our lives completely to Jesus?
America needs revival now and so do Catholic parishes. We can either repent and prosper or go on as we are and perish. If we do not change, we will soon become like Western Europe, where big beautiful churches are empty on Sundays. To experience a revival, we must be willing to change — not the Church’s doctrine or liturgy, but our own attitudes and patterns of nonparticipation.
My experience is that most Catholics “want to want” this revival. But do we really want revival? This requires change. We often say, “But I don’t want to be a Protestant!” Neither do I. I was one, but I long ago found my home in the Catholic Church. This is not about becoming Protestant or forgetting the beauty of our faith but about fully entering into the amazing richness of our complete Catholic heritage.
Dare to believe this is possible. Dare to believe that all things are possible with God. Dare to really want Catholic revival in American today. Dare to really repent and prosper. The future of the Church in America depends on it.
John Michael Talbot is a singer, best-selling author, TV host and Catholic evangelist.