Not to brag, but when people in our area shop for a parish, my parish is the one that wins. At least, that’s what former parish shoppers tell me. Maybe over at our competitors, they hear the same thing from those who fled our parish, but I choose to believe otherwise.
We have four well-attended weekend Masses in a modern, sunlit, semi-circular church that holds about six hundred people. Collections are the envy of parishes several times our size. Baptisms outnumber funerals by a wide margin. Outreach programs attract plenty of volunteers. In recent years, as central New Jersey has changed, so has our parish: Asian and Filipino families mix with the long-established Italian and Irish émigrés from Brooklyn and Jersey City. Every week, seeing these friends and strangers coming forward for the Eucharist, the bond uniting us seems something of a miracle, and I am grateful for the place.
So, on most weekends, it seems to me like the state of Sunday Mass is not so bad. And yet I realize my parish is an unusual and healthy one, and that the more than seventeen thousand other parishes out there include many without the resources and talent we have. In the pages that follow, you’ll see reports on a wide variety of Catholic Sunday experiences on two weekends, one in June and one in July. It’s too small a sample, of course, to draw quantitative conclusions—but not, perhaps, to get an impression of how Catholic Sundays are faring.
All of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what they can with what they have. True, you will see some off-putting curiosities: Stepfordish altar boys in one place, culture war disguised as prayer in another. Still, none of our intrepid correspondents felt like walking out, or saw any true monstrosities: no harangues from the pulpit, no cappae magnae, not a single clown. There are churches with what sound like decent crowds, and even some tears of joy and engagement, and yet also a great deal of what looks, on the surface at least, like routine and indifference. There are multiple reports of many Catholics sitting way in the back, literally and perhaps spiritually near the exit.
Is the current state of things one of “well-intentioned mediocrity,” as J. Peter Nixon writes, or are we somehow muddling through? In a recent authoritative study of parish health, more than 90 percent of Mass-going Catholics said they were satisfied with their parish. But of course, that number is deceptive. My mentor in marketing research taught me that dying products often show high customer satisfaction, since the dissatisfied are long gone. Only 24 percent of Catholics say they went to Mass last week, less than half the rate of fifty years ago. Young adults largely don’t ever go, and haven’t for years. Latino Catholics show losses of Catholic affiliation that rival their Anglo counterparts. The sexual-abuse crisis has, by many reports, weakened attendance still further. A third of all baptized Catholics have left the church.
Looking ahead, even maintaining this status quo is likely to be difficult. An aging and contracting priesthood means that even healthy parishes like mine will face a crisis of leadership sooner rather than later. You’ll see warning signs of that growing, self-inflicted shortage in these reports—a priest driving two hundred miles to visit a rural church, a parish grateful to have half of a pastor’s time, a Spanish Mass said by a priest who doesn’t know Spanish. And in the Northeast and Midwest, diocesan budget cuts and consolidations make those of us in the parish business feel like the manager of the surviving local Sears: it’s only a matter of time before it’s our turn.
So, despite all the dedication and prayer, these are snapshots of a project in desperate need of renewed attention, maybe even innovation. Our editor asked me to write not just as a skeptical Commonweal observer but as, God help me, a liturgical practitioner, a deacon who preaches at my parish regularly and observes things from both sides of the sanctuary, as it were. What can those of us in the parish business possibly do?
Amid all the diversity of culture, taste, and language, the secrets of successful Sunday liturgy are not very secret. The research about what keeps people coming has been clear for years. An atmosphere of respectful, genuine welcome. Good preaching. That’s it. I know there are many other things that have to happen at a liturgy, a thousand matters of rubric and potential conflict. But people seem to be able to overlook all sorts of flaws if you can deliver on those two promises.
Not that either is easy. “Welcome” is a matter of attention over time to subtle details, and the elimination of the wildly mixed signals most churches send. In our parish, architecture helps. As soon as people walk into the gathering area—a large foyer before people get into the church proper—there are usually plenty of conversations going on, staff members talking with parishioners as they walk in, friends catching up, grown children back for a visit. Even if you yourself don’t get a personal greeting as a stranger, it seems as if people like being there. On your way through, you can eavesdrop, decide if you like the way people treat one another, and start figuring out if this is a place where you might fit in.
Sometimes the welcome is much more explicit, and it needs to be. People are told with some regularity, in homilies and at the great gatherings of sometimes-Catholics called Christmas and Easter, that this is where they belong no matter what condition of soul or life or marriage or sexual orientation they find themselves in. And God bless him, the pastor—who over twenty years in the parish has had a long time to indoctrinate his staff in what matters—really believes it.
Don’t people come to Mass needing a glimpse of the divine? Yes, that hasn’t changed. But in the world of Catholics as they are now, the sign of the divine they seem to need first is an imperfect but unconditional human welcome. Only after that can the rite and the Eucharist do the rest of their work, hopefully not too impeded by our failings in execution.
As for preaching, this is unfortunately a matter of luck more than determined parish-wide effort. You have the priests and deacons you have. In my parish not only is the pastor a good preacher but so are the retired priests who are our regular weekend visitors. What seems to touch people in preaching is easy to describe although hard to do: a homily that presents Jesus without dilution or sentimentality, recognizes the existence of doubt and pain, and avoids triteness and condescension. Can preachers also deliver the “learning and wit” Luke Timothy Johnson hoped for (in vain) in his parish visit? I suppose that would be a great bonus.
Music, in these reports from the field, still seems to be a source of as much division and disappointment as joy. Some of us are looking for, as Elizabeth Cahill writes, “beauty, order, balance”; others, me sometimes included, respond to the more openly tacky and emotional. We’re a culturally diverse church, and a musically eclectic liturgy that makes everyone a little dissatisfied is probably inevitable in most parishes. A lot of the popular songs people say they hate, from “Canticle of the Sun” to “Be Not Afraid,” aren’t bad as much as brutally overused. In my parish, I know for a fact there are songs I dislike that are important to others, so I grin and (mostly) bear it. As for me, I’d love to hear more Ola Gjeilo, and sing “For All the Saints” every Sunday. On the other hand, I’d never heard of “Sign Me Up” until John Schwenkler mentioned it below in his report, but having checked it out, I think it’s now on my list.
This is not a time in which the larger church is investing much time or energy in the liturgy. Our bishops’ primary recent activity in this area is their Roman Missal translation, so perhaps we should simply be grateful that is all they have done. Yet at the parish level, there is plenty to try. We could do much, much more to reach out to and reinvite those who have left. Preaching education and formation is available out there, although not on nearly a large enough scale. It’s worth experimenting with liturgies in unusual locations, and at unusual times, to reach the underserved and the parish-allergic. Young adults themselves—and not the way-too-Catholic ones who usually take the lead in such projects—need to define and set the tone for whatever efforts are directed to their peers.
Yet all this assumes that we still have the same goal: churches with people in them. You might think that’s obvious, but one of our problems may be that people aren’t always at the center of the vision. Last year I was studying church websites, and was surprised to notice a frequent pattern in the ones from Catholic parishes: so many of the photographs, whether of church exteriors or interiors, didn’t have a single person in them. It is almost as if we are still tempted to think people might be drawn to an empty church more than a full one, and maybe that God is our audience, not humans. If we are wondering what we can do that will bring people closer to the Mass that has sustained Christians for so long, it starts with realizing that people are both our audience and one of the reasons other people stay. Welcoming imperfect, reluctant people to the table, again and again, is what makes a real Christian jubilee. For that, the song says, people might sign up.