I vividly remember attending Mass as a child at my hometown parish of St. Mary’s. There was a large upper church and a substantial lower church as well. For many of the Masses, both spaces were packed with the faithful and at the same time. If you were even just a few minutes late, you had to stand the entire time and though my brothers and I weren’t inclined to race to Mass in those days, standing for over an hour was enough of a deterrent. So, we lined up and were standing by the car in the driveway early every Sunday morning in order to get there on time.
I recall older gentlemen sitting by the church doors in front of dark wooden desks with neatly stacked rows of quarters placed carefully across the top. My father would lay down a few coins as we entered and then we would proceed into the packed building, hoping for enough seats to accommodate all of us. It was a frequent occurrence that my family needed to be separated across multiple rows in order to be seated. Ushers made sure we were well tended to as we went through this entire process. They were the highly organized ringleaders of an efficient, well-oiled machine. The sheer number of people in two big churches required such attention to detail.
But things have changed.
There are less Catholics attending Mass these days. Survey data indicates that the largest growing faith segment are the “Nones”, who are unaffiliated yet who consider themselves spiritual in some way. Many will note: “I believe in God, but I’m not very religious”. We live in an age of institutional distrust and so this is not at all surprising.
As an evangelizing Church with a mission of continuing the work of Jesus and because of the very human instinct to measure success by sheer numbers, less churchgoers these days feels like a defeat of some sort. Empty pews suggests that perhaps we are not fulfilling our mission. Many of us have friends and family members who have turned away, who count themselves as a None, or who have felt some measure of disappointment with the Church… and so they have departed. This certainly feels like a defeat, and on a very personal level.
Scripture offers us insight into how Jesus approached this same issue in his time. When he healed ten lepers, only one returned to him to acknowledge what had happened. That’s a 10% success rate. And during what is referred to as “The Bread of Life Discourse”, Jesus allowed those who could not accept his Eucharistic message to simply depart. It seems that Jesus himself was looking for quality over quantity.
A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting with a large group of Jewish health care executives who were discussing the challenges that their faith-based organizations are facing. During one of the meetings, my colleagues were describing the important differences between “spiritual Jews” and “cultural Jews” with the former more drawn to the religious facets of the faith while the latter were more inclined to identify with the cultural components. I was fascinated by this because I thought back to the packed churches of St. Mary’s that I experienced as a child. Were some of the people there spiritual Catholics while others were cultural Catholics? So many people who I knew back then were Catholic and it was simply part of the weekly routine to attend Mass on Sunday mornings. Many of us did that largely because it was the accepted thing to do, because it’s what most other people we knew were doing, and because it felt natural. In those days, I was a cultural Catholic and I was going through the motions not only because my parents forced me to but also because it just seemed normal.
Over time, I became a spiritual Catholic… and this changed my life. For the better. I come to Mass not because anyone is forcing me and certainly not because others believe it’s normal. I come to Mass because I want to. Perhaps like the ten lepers, only 10% are, in the end, hoping to follow Jesus to the edge of time.
I’m not trying to turn lemons into lemonade here, but I do think it’s worth reassessing our view of what it means to be Catholic. And it’s worth thinking less about sheer numbers and more about deep faith, true belief, and whether like that one saved leper, we too are willing to follow Jesus to the edge of time.
I guess I’d rather walk that path with just a few who are committed to the task than a huge crowd who are only going through the motions.