It is the elephant in the middle of the room. Among Catholics, and indeed all American Christians, regular church attendance is declining, plunging in more than rare instances.
I wonder. What will this mean for the Catholic Church in the United States in 10 years? In 20 years? If the present trend continues, it will mean that fewer and fewer people will associate themselves with the Church. Then, if experience is a guide, fewer will identify themselves as Catholics.
Fewer and fewer will see the Church as a part of their lives, and then attachment to Catholic values will fade. It will be a new day, but it will be an unhappy development. Forget the Church and forgetting God follows. It always happens.
Without thinking about the future, what is happening now? Why are so many Catholics just slipping away from regular church attendance?
Cases are different. It is not always simple. Many factors occur — marriage problems, the clergy sex scandal and others — but the Pew Research Center recently published a sampling of Catholic popular opinion revealing what draws many Catholics in this country to Mass.
First, so many Catholics say that they want to see friendliness at church, to be welcomed and to feel that they are part of a caring community. Once, Catholics entered churches without so much as whispering to anyone, spent the entire Mass in silence, and then left without noticing anybody.
Every pastor in my acquaintance already knows what the recent Pew study showed. Every pastor whom I know now absolutely arranges to stand at the church’s door, smiling and shaking hands, as people exit the church after Mass. No priest would have seen this as his priority not that long ago.
Today, so many parishes have “gathering spaces” for people to mingle. Doughnuts and coffee after Masses are routine.
Catholics say that they want music that appeals to them and what they describe as good sermons.
Finally, I have observed that Catholics prefer churches that they can admire. The glorified bus stations with their bare walls, once so popular among church architects, now more and more are eyesores.
Pastors try to meet the demands. One good pastor told me that he considers the music director the most important person hired by the parish, and the choir is indispensable. So many people tell him they must hear music that they like.
Another priest said that he now spends more time preparing homilies than he ever spent seriously contemplating a sermon when he studied preaching in the seminary.
It all is a reaction. Our culture promotes loneliness and disregard, or disdain, for others. Furthermore, we are obsessed with sounds and sights.
We are made to love, and to be loved, by God who is love. God gave us senses, to hear and to see, to understand and to be uplifted. Still, the most critical question asks: Why go to Mass at all?
Personally, I have attended Mass, or celebrated Mass, in the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in a musty old Victorian Era church in rural Tennessee, in a log cabin beside the Bering Strait in Alaska, and on an open field with teenage campers.
Every time, thank God, I left the Mass feeling that I had been with God, whether the choir was composed of Julliard alumni or was a little group of well-intentioned amateurs, or even if the homily put me to sleep.
At any Mass, we meet God. A devout old Irish-American woman, who was at Mass every Sunday, and every day in fact, told me, “Father, the Mass is the Mass is the Mass.”
How wonderful to see the Holy Mass as she saw it!
“The Mass is the Mass is the Mass.”
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.