Will people ever come back?
Father Raymond de Souza has some less-than-consoling thoughts in the National Catholic Register:
For many years now, the Sunday obligation — observed by a minority of Catholics — was in the intensive care unit. It died this past pandemic year. A resurrection is not on the horizon.
The Code of Canon Law is clear enough: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (1247). A minority of baptized Catholics observe that; in many countries, it is a tiny minority.
Leave aside those of the baptized who have had no religious upbringing or formation; it is likely they do not even know of the Sunday obligation. Yet many of those who would consider themselves practicing Catholics do not consider Sunday Mass to be a canonical obligation, much less mandated by the Third Commandment, which ranks higher in importance than “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Before the pandemic, the Sunday obligation was in poor shape. Then, for good reason, bishops the world over suspended the Sunday obligation. It could hardly be otherwise; with public Masses canceled, churches closed or operating at much-reduced capacity, the obligation would not have been in force anyway. Canon law does not oblige the impossible, which is why, for example, the sick, hospitalized and homebound are not obliged by Canon 1247.
The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation thus changed very little. Yet the experience of the pandemic changed the default settings. Whereas before the default for an observant Catholic would have been to go to Sunday Mass, the pandemic changed that default toward not going, especially in those areas where people were encouraged not to come to church if they were elderly, sick, caring for the sick, in contact with the sick or worried about becoming sick themselves.
It followed, then, that parish priests reported, after the churches reopened, that parishioners who had come to daily Mass for decades were remaining at home to watch Mass online. Churches limited to 50%, 30% or 20% capacity had plenty of room left over on Sundays. Many pastors who were worried about how to register people for Mass to abide by the reduced-capacity requirements quickly realized that it was not going to be a problem. While public controversy focused on whether the government considered worship an “essential activity,” the far more important question is whether the Catholic faithful consider Sunday Mass as “essential activity.” The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation promoted, unintentionally, a shift in the default setting toward Sunday Mass as not essential, or optional.
In my parish in Queens, attendance is been gradually improving. We have four Masses on a weekend that, in years past, they would attract 400 or more at each liturgy. Over the summer, after the lockdown was lifted, we started at about 75 people per Mass. It was hovering between 175-200 before Thanksgiving. We were hopeful for Christmas, so the pastor scheduled six Masses between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But the turnout was less-than-expected — 100-150 per Mass, even for the “Mass at Night” on Christmas Eve.
They just weren’t there. (The picture above shows the 1 p.m. Mass on Christmas Day.)
Will that change after the vaccine becomes widely available?
Stay tuned. But honestly? Don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE: My friend Msgr. Eric Barr alerted me to this post of his from over the summer. He has a few thoughts of his own:
It may seem simplistic to once again explain to Catholics why a real, attended Mass is necessary for their spiritual health, but that’s exactly what we have to do. For some people, the pandemic has made them stronger in their faith, but take a look at the last major plague to ravage to earth–the Black Death. That seriously weakened the Church, and it did not have a good response to encourage and spiritually direct Catholics to a firmer faith. Instead, we swung in a pendulum motion of mediocrity towards the Reformation.
Now is the time to review what our liturgies look like, how good the preaching is, and how we encourage the laity to evangelize. Music, preaching, and evangelization by the laity for the laity will truly help jump start a return to the Eucharist. But that takes such a will from the established authorities whether that be bishops or pastors. It takes real work. And I’m just not sure the Church is ready with that energy.
Some of our priests have come up with such creative ways to keep the faith frontmost in their parishioners’ minds. That creativity needs to be harnessed in an organized, diocesan way so that the word can get out to all Catholics that the Church is not simply resuming activity, but is recharged, renewed and endowed with the Spirit to actively go out and bring back not only our ordinary Mass-going Catholics but those who long ago absented themselves from the Eucharist. The Pope’s outreach to those in invalid marriages as well as the Church’s outreach to minorities who suffer racism or discrimination would be a crucial part in this effort. While all of us priests can sure use help preaching, this is a perfect time for dioceses to help retool priest’s preaching abilities, particularly when when parishes still have a ways to be fully open. And of course, music. Since the hymnals have disappeared, perhaps a new appreciation for good liturgical music could be sought. (I’m afraid I’m going to lose this one. “Gather Us In”, “All Are Welcome”, “You Are Mine” are Covid-19 immune I think).
Check out the rest.