By Katie Eskro
According to Pew Research, only 39 percent of Catholics attend Mass at least once a week. A sobering 40 percent attend at the most once a month and 20 percent do not attend at all, or very rarely. Of the 60 percent of self-identified Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly, many likely attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter and maybe a few other times sprinkled in.
These numbers illustrate how quickly modern culture has shifted from religious faith being a central aspect of people’s lives to something many people do every once in a while. Father Andrew Young, pastor at Risen Savior (Brandon) and St. Rose of Lima (Garretson) parishes, says, “We live in a world where there are all kinds of activities and things that compete for our time, especially on the weekends.”
At its heart, the issue is not simply that families are too busy, but rather that they have lost sight or never fully experienced the reality of a relationship with Jesus. They have not experienced or do not believe that a sacramental life is relevant and vital to their happiness and health, regardless of how busy they may be.
“Families are always making choices as to what is the highest priority, and we hope that being with our church community and in the presence of Jesus Christ reigns paramount,” Father Young says.
For those of us who do attend Mass weekly, not out of obligation alone but because we have experienced the love, power and life of Jesus through the sacramental life of the Church, it can be difficult to understand those who come to Mass infrequently. Most of us have family members or close friends who have chosen this path, and talking, listening and engaging with them about the faith can be daunting. Father Young says we should “keep inviting them and praying that they have a profound encounter with Christ.”
We must remember, too, that we are not the only ones working, praying and hoping for people’s return to a fully embraced Catholic life. Jesus’ plan is beyond our comprehension, and while he invites us into his plan in many different ways, ultimately it is his creativity and pursuit of people that will bring them back to his Church. We must discern carefully the role we might play in this.
What we can do
Even though the numbers and the work in front of us can seem daunting, there are many ways we can work to build up the community of believers and directly and indirectly encourage people to come back to Mass.
One way we can work to bring people back to Mass is by our witness at Mass and outside of Mass. By just being ourselves and pursuing a life of charity and humility, we may attract people’s interest and curiosity.
We can also witness by being real about the messiness of our life and not hiding our struggles and our sufferings. We can show compassion when others are going through difficult times and offer to pray for them and help them in practical ways as applicable.
“It is really hard to draw someone to the faith and regular Mass attendance if the witness we give outside of the Church is not compatible with our Christian faith,” Father Young says.
Another way we can have an effect on other people’s choice to go to Mass is through evangelization. This is closely related to witnessing, as witnessing is one way of evangelizing. But evangelization also includes being prepared to defend, share and speak about our beliefs and our faith when invited and called upon.
Evangelization cannot just happen within the church walls. By virtue of our Baptism, we are all called to share our faith with those around us. Our priests and church staff members do not work where you work. They do not know the same people as you; they do not sit next to the same people that you do at sporting events. These are the places where you have a unique opportunity to share life with others.
This sharing of life is both being a witness and a doorway to further evangelization. Pray for these people, and if an opportunity arises and the Holy Spirit nudges, be ready to speak up about your faith practices. Invite them to Mass or a church event.
“Being involved in the local community is important, so people can see us living out our Catholic faith,” Father Young adds. “Words of invitation can be powerful, but the example we give of love and support goes much further than words.”
A third way we can encourage growth in our faith community and regular Mass attendance is through the beauty and sacredness of the liturgy. People are attracted to beauty and joyful solemnity. A well-done liturgy helps people to enter in more fully to the celebration of the Mass and to have an encounter with Jesus.
“My philosophy is that Mass should be prayed reverently by the priest and that [the] faithful [should have] ample opportunities, per Vatican II, to draw the faithful into participation,” Father Young says.
A fourth way we can encourage further Mass attendance is through catechesis. There is always more to learn about our faith and to grow in our relationship with Jesus. Growing in our knowledge and understanding about God, the liturgy and our Church can help us to enter in more deeply to the liturgy. It can also help those who are interested in Mass but desire to understand more about it to have a more full experience and excitement about the liturgy.
Father Young says this catechizing cannot happen only during Mass. “Teaching the faith is important and something that often we do not do a great job at. It is very difficult to teach simply from the pulpit but [it is important to] provide opportunities for the faithful to engage their faith outside of Mass.”
At Risen Savior, Father Young has encouraged this ongoing catechesis–which is always about our relationship with Jesus–by having Theology on Tap regularly and parish missions each year.
Living with trust and hope
For those people whom we see only on Christmas and Easter, and perhaps a few other times sprinkled in, it is important to greet them with a smile and kindness. “You never know how welcoming someone to Mass might help them make it a weekly priority,” Father Young says.
We also can be grateful and joyful that they are coming to share in these great feasts with the larger community, as we pray for them and hope that they eventually will enter into the life of the Church more fully.
“Even if some families make the choice to not go to Mass throughout the year, our Lord still tugs on them to come and celebrate the birth of Jesus and the Resurrection. Our hope is that when they come to worship, they will desire to be with our Lord weekly,” Father Young says.
We can trust that God’s plan is greater than ours. He pursues all those who go astray (including us) and calls us to himself—we have only to listen for his voice and to follow him. In this way, we can have great trust and hope in his plan and in the future of our Church.