Before Covid, Sunday Mass attendance within Santa Clara County was about 100,000 people of 600,000 registered Catholics. That’s approximately 17%.
That always struck me as surprisingly low.
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 forced everyone home. While the coronavirus is still raging as we close out 2022, it’s not as acute of a crisis for most, thanks to Omicron being less damaging than Delta and the availability of both vaccines and post infection treatments.
Even so, people are continuing to get infected, hospitalized, and dying. The newest variants are immune-evasive. Many people refused to get boosted. China just changed its approach to the pandemic, cases are skyrocketing and new variants are likely coming.
It’s not over. We just wish that it were.
Mass attendance dispensation and the lifting of it
Our local bishop in the Diocese of San Jose thoughtfully provided a dispensation from the Sunday Mass attendance obligation during the worst days of Covid, but removed it once things improved earlier this year. For those of us who are immunocompromised (and that includes me), we are not obligated to go.
To me, that’s common sense. It’s known that immunocompromised people get sick easier and stay sick longer and have more risks associated. Those living with them must also be extra careful to avoid bringing the virus home.
I can tell you first hand that it’s no fun to say no to indoor family get togethers, let alone Mass in person. I miss both of them. It’s isolating, and it’s made worse by comments of well wishers who think that avoiding these things is going too far.
What about everyone else?
Many or perhaps most Roman Catholics in the Diocese of San Jose and elsewhere have not been returning to the weekly liturgies despite the overall improvement and the dispensation being lifted. Why is that? Does Mass attendance not matter anymore?
First, we must remember that our prior Mass attendance level was just 17%. Any discussion of the problem needs to acknowledge that Covid did not empty the pews. They were largely empty before Covid ever hit.
Of course, now it’s worse.
On January 21st, the Valley Catholic ran an article here in the Diocese of San Jose on the laity staying awake during homilies. I can understand the need for this, and have seen people doze off during the sermon, too. There were some good points, but it didn’t go far enough, as it didn’t touch on what the priest ought to do to hold the congregation’s attention. This is, of course, a two-way street.
What preachers can do to help the community with staying away during homilies
- There can be too much of a good thing, so please keep your homilies short. Even the most ardent listener is contending with multiple distractions in Mass – people fidgeting, kids making noises, whatever it might be. Wisely, Pope Francis came out two years ago and said to limit preaching to 10 minutes. ( https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-tells-priests-to-keep-homilies-brief-no-more-than-10-minutes-10753 )
- Please make sure that you can be heard and understood and that your speaking style is not a problem. Some of this is tech support with microphones. Some of it is intonation (don’t monotone!) and projection. Sometimes, though, there’s a problem with accents. This latter issue is absolutely a pastoral one and it can be addressed with some time and effort, but is worth it so that your thoughtful message can be grasped. When the People of God cannot understand you, or cannot hear you, their minds will drift.
- The congregants appreciate absorbing more than what they just heard in the readings, so please don’t re-read the gospel, etc., unless it is just a tiny snippet of your homily. What is helpful is hearing what we don’t know about the context of the reading, and some way to apply it to our daily lives.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of common sense: don’t overdo the jokes, don’t use puppets or props, and please no gimmicks (e.g., do not sing your homily, repeat the same phrase multiple times in a short period, flap your arms wildly). While theatrics may keep people from falling asleep, it won’t nourish them the way a well prepared, well delivered, and concise homily will do.
And finally, thank you too all of the homilists who prepare and preach thoughtfully and prayerfully week in and week out. Once in awhile, a person or two may fall asleep no matter how good your homily is. Chalk it up to infirmity, lack of sleep, or other issues having nothing to do with you or your preaching. You do your best to preach well and concisely, and the vast majority of the people in the pews will be listening to every word.