Vol 42 No 3
Diminishing mass attendance:
EACH WEEKEND, hundreds of thousands of Catholics gather in parishes and communities around Australia to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy in which Jesus Christ is confessed and encountered as risen and dwelling among us. By participating in this event, believers live out their faith in relationship with one another and are invited to reflect on the implications of God’s gift of self for their daily lives and the needs of the world. This sacramental experience promotes the transformation of a community of disciples, nourishing an ongoing commitment to understand God’s will, as well as a desire to receive and follow his Word.
The centrality and importance of this sacramental encounter renders the contemporary state of religious practice in the Australian Church an alarming statistic. For each weekend, while over 700,000 Catholics gather for thanksgiving, memorial and presence, more than 4 million Catholics opt to stay at home or, at the very least, choose to be elsewhere (ACBC Pastoral Projects Office 2008). If we hold the Eucharist to be fundamental to our Catholic faith, the cornerstone of the Church’s identity and mission, then we must address the stark reality that almost four out of five Australian Catholics do not participate in the primary sacramental event of the Church to which they profess to be members.
As Neil Brown has commented, the absence of an estranged majority from sacramental worship is not without consequence for it impairs the ability of the Church to be that community of faith and praxis that God calls it to be:
…it is only through participation at Sunday mass that the local Church community as a whole exists and establishes its identity as a community of faith, hope and love. To miss Sunday mass without sufficient reason is then to diminish the life of the community, while participation creates it as the Body of Christ. If the obligation is presented then as simply passive attendance to satisfy an obligation or as a private devotional practice, its full moral force is obscured. (Brown 2000, 35).
Thus, there lies an enduring challenge for pastoral workers, and parishes as a whole, to not only affirm participation as a matter of importance but to enable believers to experience and understand their participation as deeply significant, rather than as the mere perfunctory execution of an obligation. As will be suggested, the pressing challenge of diminishing participation awakens us to the need for better pastoral practice in our appeal to the marginalised, alienated and disengaged.
Reasons for Non-Attendance
The reasons for low levels of attendance at Mass are various and many of them are familiar: the perceived irrelevance of the Church to contemporary life, the felt misuse of power and authority in the Church, problems with the parish priest, and the feeling that being a committed Catholic no longer requires attending Mass as frequently, or even at all. Family or household-related issues also figure in this dearth of attendance, including overriding priorities on weekends and the reluctance of other family members to attend weekly liturgy (Dixon et al. 2007, vi).
Apart from these explicit reasons for nonattendance, the challenge of postmodernity has also greatly altered the situation of faith today and further complicated the religious, sociological and psychological barriers that mark our time. A feature of this postmodern milieu is the reactionary abandonment of grand narratives. No common matrix or overarching story is seen to encompass all human experience or is accepted as the measure of life’s meaning or meaninglessness. In this cultural mindset, no single truth separates virtue from vice, distinguishes possibility from diminishment, and no way of life can claim to offer ultimate freedom over enslavement or isolation. The loss of religious imagination also figures with ‘presence’ confined to the physical or psychological. In this demise, much of the disruptive and restorative power of the symbol has been lost. Openness to the company of the transcendent has been diminished; fragmentation, rationalism and acquisitiveness dominate instead. Ultimately, these phenomena have underpinned an aggressive individualism which is mistrustful of history and tradition, dismissive of abiding norms, and resistant to any demand that comes from outside the privatised self. Of course, contemporary Catholics—ambivalent or otherwise—are not immune from these surrounding shifts in perception and perspective. The postmodern age bears upon their openness to spiritual experience and informs their ongoing reflection on the authority of such an experience in their lives.
It is also worth considering whether the popular Catholic imagination has, in fact, lost its sense of the eschatological in faith and practice, its sensitivity to the future consummation which the sacraments anticipate. One suspects that the sacraments are more commonly thought of in episodic, instantaneous terms rather than in terms of lifelong development and growth, let alone with a view to an ultimate eschatological horizon. Compare this to the experience of the early Christian communities in their memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper. The sacred meal was understood not only as creating the identity of the group over time but as the locus of belief in the Resurrection. In communities such as that at Corinth, believers gathered to share the Eucharistic meal ‘until he comes’, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine allowing the community to see the new covenant afresh and to live out of this hope as a sanctified people (1 Cor. 17-34). Additionally, it was precisely at the Eucharistic table that the community’s sense of social equality and justice was tested. It was here that believers of disparate walks of life gathered in common remembrance of the One in whom they had encountered God. It is doubtful whether many confessed Catholics conceive of, or encounter, the Eucharistic liturgy with such bold openness to a new creation, a new form of sociality, and a future consummation. The sacraments have lost their disruptive and evocative potential for many contemporary believers, becoming instead one experience among many, rather than the source and summit of the life of faith most deeply lived.
Others have suggested that the Second Vatican Council, in its one-sided acclaim of the human condition, its failure to present unbelief as a serious obstacle to salvation, and its failure to acknowledge the reality of evil, contributed something to this general laxity in Catholic practice (Lamont 2007, 87-99). Is it possible that the brief mention of sin in the documents of the Council, an evasion which continued under the bishops that sanctioned it, the less than explicit relation between belief, practice, and salvation, and the comforting prospect of universal salvation have led to the marginalisation of the distinctive features of Catholic faith, including participation in weekly Mass? Has the Catholic experience of faith been reduced to a sentimental and vague theism with little distinctive moral content or impetus to change through action? It is certainly a prospect worth our consideration. One wonders, however, whether a more intense focus on human sinfulness would yield greater rates of participation in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly among many Catholics who already feel marginal, alienated, and who do not, as it is, find the invitation of the Church to be credible, attractive, or deeply connected to life.
The Search for a Response
While the reasons for nonparticipation are becoming more apparent with the aid of research, the ecclesial responses we might offer to this situation are less clear. Certainly, ‘megaphone diplomacy’ from the pulpit would seem a doubtful approach. It would be fair to say that many Catholics who choose not to participate in the sacramental life of the Church would be only too aware of their ecclesial obligation to do so. The invocation to attend Mass weekly is well-known and made often. In actual fact, it may well be the case that the Church’s explicit exhortation to its members to observe this practice is a very ground on which many justify their nonparticipation. After all, individuals who perceive the Church to lack credibility, relevance and moral authority are likely to ignore or dismiss the urgings of that same Church to participate in its life, above all by command on high.
Adding to this reluctance is the reality that many Catholics continue to locate themselves as ‘outsiders’ looking in on the Church rather than as forming the Church from within by their faith and spirituality. It is also apparent by the often-heard criticism of the ‘institutional Church’ that many have collapsed the reality of Church negatively to the realm of office-holders alone. As a result, calls to attend Mass and to participate in community can seem unreal and inauthentic. Such expressions of alienation suggest a larger ecclesial task for communities of faith—a repositioning of the Church in the minds and hearts of the disappointed and disillusioned. However, this shift in perception cannot be achieved simply by intellectual appeal but must involve the ability of communities to witness to the deepest reality of the Church as a people ultimately concerned with justice and prayer, with activity and contemplation, with living in faith, hope and love. It is apparent that we need recognise, articulate and witness to motivations for fuller participation in the sacramental life of the Church that go far beyond ecclesial obligation or authoritative command, for without a vocabulary of spirituality and concrete example the alienation and nonidentification with the ecclesial dimensions of faith will only continue to increase.
The current decline in Mass attendance affirms as well that religious practice outside the context of living relationship soon becomes emptied of its meaning, its intentional character, and loses its very purpose. Without encouraging reflection on the life of faith outside the context of liturgy, involvement can remain only at the level of ‘attendance’ but never begin to take on the quality of ‘participation’. The sacramental life, therefore, calls for a life of faith which develops deep roots, a genuine spirituality, for the essence of Christian life is not a particular method or practice but a living encounter with a person and a community of believers. If decline is not to remain the overriding story of the Church then ongoing catechesis will be essential in nurturing these relationships. It must provide opportunities for Catholics to enter into an apprenticeship in the spiritual life, an apprenticeship by which believers learn, over time and by their attentiveness, to ‘see’, ‘taste’ and respond to the goodness of God. More than ever, our communities need to centre themselves on these projects of catechesis and spiritual formation, becoming what John Paul II described as ‘genuine schools of prayer’ (Novo Millennio Inuente 34). This promotes a variety of Catholic spiritualities and multiple opportunities for believers to participate in, and contribute to, the spiritual momentum of their faith communities and the wider contexts in which they live.
Clearly, a declining level of participation challenges the Church to make adaptations in its approach to the re-evangelisation of its members. As David Tacey suggests, we must move from a preaching stance to one which embraces the demands and promise of listening to the alienated, lapsed, and even the seemingly impassive. In a time of darkness, religion must shift its emphases,
[T]o survive these new conditions, religion must become prophetic and use its prophetic resources and imagination. It must play down its authority, its desire to impose, preach, or import and instead it must listen to people’s stories, to their pain, their hopes and dreams, their failures and despair. A destitute time is a time for listening and being attentive—but this is no ordinary listening. It means intuiting a sense of the beyond, even if the words themselves do not convey this sense. It means listening to what has not been said. (Tacey 2007, 54).
This approach places trust in the untapped wells of spiritual vitality that lie within each individual, a seed of genuine desire and possibility that awaits to be nurtured and brought to the surface. It sets a task for the Church to engage in dialogue and reciprocity, a style of commitment that the Second Vatican Council, in its documents and enduring spirit, models and promotes itself (O’Malley 2005, 79). Indeed, without listening there can be no genuine communion; nor can there be longevity or vitality in the life of the Church for lasting participation and involvement cannot be imposed from without but must spring from within. It must be asked if the Church has the courage to undertake and commit itself to this course, a pathway of deep listening and patient availability that stands at the centre of our Gospel spirituality. In light of the current decline in participation within the Church, the words of the evangelist resound with a striking significance for our communities today, ‘take care how well you listen; for anyone who has will be given more; from anyone who has not, even what they think they have will be taken away’ (Luke 8:18).
The most recent statistics with regards to Mass attendance within the Australian Church cannot be ignored. They paint a picture of growing disengagement with the sacramental life of the Church and confirm that the context of faith has shifted significantly. Apart from Church-centred and family or household factors, we have recognised the challenges of postmodernity which resists the very notion that any one account, or encounter, can hold life together and draw it to its depths. Yet, for Catholic faith, a sacramental life is precisely the recognition and experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the definitive and abiding event of the world. What is more, the sacraments affirm and concretise the intimate availability of this gift throughout life’s journey while participation expresses and realises personal relationships and mutuality, with God and with one another as fellow travellers on the way.
The contemporary decline in participation challenges us as Church to reassess our response to those who feel themselves on the margins of the Church’s life or who are no longer engaged with the life of faith. The reality of diminishing Mass attendance advances us with urgency to the activity of prophetic listening, of ‘tuning in’ to the deepest desires, fears, ambivalences, and aspirations of flesh-and-blood people with sincerity, charity and goodwill. By this project, we might begin to close the chasm which exists between the often unarticulated yearning and hope of ordinary people and their perceptions of what is ‘going on’ in churches. Unless we find the courage to undertake such a project, declining participation in the Church’s life will remain the story of our community for the foreseeable future.
Daniel Ang, editor of Terra Spiritus, an online Christian spirit-uality magazine, is Marketing Officer for Pauline Electronic Publishing. He studies at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and is invol-ved in youth ministry and adult education.
ACBC Pastoral Projects Office (2008), ‘Media Release: Profile of Catholics in Australia’. Available at www.ppo.catholic.org.au/pdf/MediaReleaseCatholicPopulation _5June2008.pdf.
Brown, N. (2000), ‘Falling Mass Attendance—A Pastoral Response’, Australasian Catholic Record 77 (1), 32-43.
Dixon, R. et al. (2007), ‘Research Project on Catholics Who Have Stopped Attending Mass: Final Report February 2007’. Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Fitzroy. Available at http://www.ppo.catholic.org.au/pdf/DCReport.pdf.
John Paul II. (2001), Novo Millennio Ineunte. St Pauls Publications, Strathfield.
Lamont, J.R.T. (2007), ‘What was wrong with Vatican II?’, New Blackfriars 88 (1013), 87-99.
O’Malley, J.W. (2005), ‘Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?’ Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? Ed. David G. Schultenover. Continuum, New York, 52-91.
Tacey, D. (2007), ‘What is Religion For? Drawing out the Sacred in Secular Times’, Reimagining God and Mission, ed. Ross Langmead. ATF Press, Adelaide, 45-62.