Vol 42 No 3
The empty pews:
IN THIS ISSUE of Compass we survey the empty pews and ask questions. Where has everyone gone? Why have they gone? And, above all, what ought we be doing about it?
In the pages that follow our contributors point out that the experience of being a Catholic now is different from what it was even a generation or two ago. And that is not all good: the vitality of our tradition is in danger as we become more and more like everyone else. So we are reminded of what is essential for a local ecclesial community, or parish, the challenges it meets and the opportunities it has. Faced with the widespread disengagement from participation in the sacramental life of the community we must be ever more attentive to fostering the life of the local church. We may also take some heart from the ‘untapped wells of spiritual vitality’ of nominal Catholics—in other words, from the power of the Spirit of God.
Our own experience of contemporary Catholicism in Australia fully supports all that we read in these articles—our contributors articulate our experience for us. It has never been easier than now to withdraw from the parish community because there is so little pressure put on one to stay. We are left to ourselves fairly much to decide for ourselves whether regular participation in the life of the faith community is important. Consequently, if life gets to be ‘too busy’, or church gets to be ‘boring’, or the effort to get there simply gets to be a bit much, then that is all it takes for many to wander off.
We who hang in there, on the other hand, are left to ask ourselves if somehow it is our fault that so many drift away. It is a question we need to ask because we need to test the pulse of our community from time to time. Is our community life deficient in some way—not a family spirit? Or, are our celebrations boring and lifeless?
However, if after due consideration we can say that we believe we have a reasonably good community spirit, and that we normally do our best to avoid being boring, and that we are a welcoming community—even if we know that we need to do better in all these areas—then we need not blame ourselves if many no longer walk with us.
Most of all, we must resist the temptation to turn ourselves inside out, to make ourselves over in some way, in order to try to appeal to the absent ones. That way lies the danger of trivializing who we are and why we come together, and of letting ourselves be distracted from our main business by the absentees and their agendas.
Let us Remember Who We Are
Faced with the empty pews we need to remind ourselves of who we are and why we come together as a community. We need to ponder the gift that is ours in the Church, the treasure God has entrusted to us.
The Church community is from God, a gift and a blessing from God that we need to appreciate and celebrate. Our Church has been instituted by and is fully sustained by Christ, the Son of God. ‘You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church’: note the ‘I will build’ and ‘my Church’—the Church is not of human origin. And this Church has been built to last: ‘the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it’. All the destructive forces that there are will not destroy this building. Further, this Church is equipped to interpret and teach God’s will authoritatively in the changing circumstances it finds itself in down the centuries: ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven…what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’.
The Church community is God’s building. The weaknesses and failings of human beings in the community notwithstanding, it has the divine guarantee for its survival and for the reliability of its guidance.
Our response to this gift should be similar to the response commanded by the Father at Jesus’ baptism: ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’—except that now the command is ‘Listen to my Church’. And our response should be like that of the disciples when Jesus asked them if they, too, would go away: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life’—where else can we go to get what we receive through the Church? We can confidently look to the Church Christ established and sustains in order to receive all the goodness and love of God for our support, guidance, nourishment and safe journeying on our pilgrim way.
In the Church we hold a treasure. In the Church we enjoy and are entrusted with the blessings of God for humanity. It is foolish in the extreme, therefore, to go elsewhere, to construct some alternative for and by ourselves, or to just drop out, go nowhere and do without all that God is offering us.
Above all, in our parish communities we are not offering entertainment. We come to listen to God’s Word and respond with thanksgiving and worship. In Church we learn God’s will and are given the strength to do his will. It is serious business! Joyful, but serious.
Our task, then, and our challenge, faced with the empty pews, is to be more truly what we have been established to be, the Church that Christ instituted. By remaining focused in this way on our reason for being we will serve the rest of the population, and be there when, hopefully, some of the wanderers come home.
Has World Youth Day Helped?
World Youth Day was a wonderful timeof celebration and serious reflection and prayer. Our parish hosted some three hundred francophone pilgrims who were a delight to have amongst us. The same spirit was manifested throughout the city. Young and old were caught up in the joyous atmosphere.
A survey conducted by the Australian Catholic University and Monash University has revealed some heartening facts. Entitled Pilgrims Progress 2008 it studies the experiences of pilgrims before, during and after WYD08 (cf. www.wyd2008.org and click on ‘Latest News’). The aim of the survey is to gain a better understanding of the spirituality of the pilgrims ‘as a foundation on which improved ministry to them and to other Catholic young people can be constructed’.
Fr Michael Mason and the other researchers found that the pilgrims most wanted a spiritual experience and, in that context, to see and listen to the Holy Father. ‘They said they wanted a closer relationship with God and Jesus, they wanted to really live what they believe, and to have a stronger sense of what it means to be Catholic.’
The older pilgrims especially—those aged 20 to 35—were focussed on spiritual values, seeing WYD08 as a sacred time. And the researchers were somewhat surprised to find that nearly half of the teenagers were ‘regular churchgoers, have a strong faith and a firm sense of Catholic identity’.
So, perhaps the Catholic scene is not so dire as the empty pews might suggest. But, if there is so much Catholic religious spirit abroad, the parish communities must feel themselves challenged to put still more effort into their ministry to the younger members of the congregation. To quote from an email from Paul Monkerud, one of our contributors in this issue, ‘Pastoral Planning through a post WYD window would throw up many challenges as well as opportunities for the Church.’
Hopefully, more on that in a later issue. For the moment we have, in the next two pages, the testimonies of two young Australians who were deeply touched by WYD08.
- Barry Brundell MSC, Editor.