Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673

Catholic symbols - Sunday Mass attendance, refilling the pewsBefore 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.

Are the people of God cautious because of the pandemic? I’m sure that for some, that is the case. Mass attendance is down due to fears of bringing home the virus (and potentially hurting others, too).

  • The majority of parishioners are unmasked. If we are being careful, it doesn’t seem smart to be packed in with others who aren’t even masking for an hour. And who knows if they have had a recent vaccination or boost.
  • Recently someone complained to me about people skipping Mass but going to the grocery store. I didn’t want to argue, but the situations are different. At the store you’re not within 6′ of the same person for a whole hour. Mass attendane is far more dangerous, especially with unmasked singing!
  • Offering outdoor worship opportunities when the weather is warmer may bring some of the more cautious people back. Some of them may genuinely miss their faith community and being able to receive the Eucharist. Outdoor Masses were available in 2020 but quickly disappeared in 2021. Want to bring people back? Learn if your parish would value an outdoor liturgy.
      • As for me, I would attend those if they were available.

Do they simply not miss being at Church? I suspect for many that is likely.

It begs the question of why, though. Was there not a strong sense of community or being welcome? Was it the music? The preaching? The priest? The congregation, generally?

It would be good, if possible, for the Church to undertake a study of what has happened. Right now we can only speculate. Do we want people to come back? Let’s try to get to the root of it, then.

Is the lack of Mass attendance due to a rejection of the Church broadly?

Is there a deeper discontent due to disgust with the abuse crisis, the moving around of priests and bishops who have been the perpetrators?

For some this is the case. I have several members of my own extended clan (and I don’t mean one or two) who have thrown in the towel on the Catholic faith because of it. One relative said to me “Why should I listen to them? They have nothing to say to me”.

For some in this camp, there’s a crisis of faith in the Church (but perhaps not of faith in God, religious sociologists may be able to sort that out).

We have ministries to all kinds of people and all kinds of situations. How about one for people who’ve lost faith in the Catholic church, specifically?

Most are gone, probably for good. What can we do to get the rest back?

Even if the rest don’t all come back in person right now, how do we reengage the Catholic community?

Never underestimate the compelling power of good preaching

Have you ever heard a homily so intensely good that people whispered about it when it was over? Or seen someone tape record preaching to hear it again?

I have, and I’ve also been present when the presider gave so compelling a homily that the people in attendance spontaneously burst into applause.

Yes, I know, we aren’t supposed to clap in Mass as if it’s a concert of a play. Inappropriate as it may be to some liturgists, it’s communication, endorsement. People are listening and they care. Would that every homily were so moving.

When I’ve had those experiences  it has made recall how St. Augustine preached so movingly that people demanded that he lead them. Imagine! The faithful want to be inspired.

Of course, we all  have different gifts. Priests are expected to be experts at everything from parish finances to help with dying people to counseling married couples whose relationship is on the rocks – when some of them never dated at all. We cannot expect them to be perfect at everything.

For priests who preach really well, a lot of prayer, time, and effort goes into it. It doesn’t just happen. One priest told me that he started on the Monday before to read, meditate, and pray on the readings. He would return to them daily and flesh out his comments.

This was the priest who got the spontaneous applause. I think he was onto something.

Priests aren’t an island

Priests and deacons don’t operate in a vacuum. They need to facilitate their ministry within a community of the faithful who are caring, welcoming, ethical, and do their own jobs with music, catechesis, or whatever the position may be.

That said, I’ve seen healthy parishes that got assigned priests who didn’t seem to be well formed, and the parish then fell apart fairly quickly. That is another discussion entirely.  We need to have healthy parishes and well formed priests to function well. We are interdependent.

The children will lead them

Want to fill the pews again? After good homilies, good music, and a welcome environment, having excellent programs for kids and regular perks like donuts after Mass on some Sundays will do a lot to bring people back.

Most people don’t feel qualified to teach their kids about the faith. They know more than they think they do! The family is truly the first Church. Support them. Maybe have classes on how to talk with your little ones, or your grandkids, about faith.

These programs, beyond Mass attendance, will bring people back to the faith community. From there it’s a smaller step to filling the pews and a higher Mass attendance.

Scolding won’t help the situation

Whether it is in the Sunday bulletin or comments from the priest during the Mass, scolding about Mass attendance is not just unhelpful, but it is likely to backfire.

We American Roman Catholics can be a little obsessed with obligation. Grinding about it live or in the bulletin is a great way to make people want to either drop out of all churches or at least decide that being Catholic is not a good fit.

These comments are often offensive, if unintentionally so. A parish employee told me this last year that the chillingly unpleasant comments in the bulletin about the “Sunday Obligation” were due to the bishop’s request that they remind people that they were not fulfilling their Sunday obligation if they stayed home and watched Mass on TV.

Do you think that helps? It doesn’t. And I doubt that the bishop meant for it to come across that way.

Don’t do it. The language of obligation is a turn off. The language of love draws people in.

Additionally, some of the people who are reading or hearing those words will feel more than a little betrayed if they want to go but should not. We don’t know what may be holding others back: a bad experience with a priest, sister, or religion teacher or some other “authority”. Or perhaps they are not well enough that it’s the right thing to do.

Welcoming is a much better approach. Remember that adage, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. Let’s be the honey.

If you cannot or should not go to Mass in person, don’t write the whole thing off.

Some of us cannot or should not go to Mass indoors in person right now. Please remember that St Thomas Aquinas instructed us that in the end, we stand alone, before God, with our conscience.

If our well formed conscience dictates that attending Mass in person is not the most loving and ethical thing to do, then don’t do it.

Please don’t be black and white about this. I know it’s not “the same” to watch from home. But it’s possible to pray live and in person with others even if Mass attendance is not safely possible. There are plenty of Masses that are beautiful, with good preaching, helpful music, and prayer-inspiring.

Do what you can do. Mass attendance is important, but it’s not the only thing.

I’ll list some of my favorite Mass resources next.

For those of us watching the Mass and praying with it from home, there are many wonderful liturgies being shared online. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Bishop Greg Homeming, OCD, Diocese of Lismore, Australia. Watch on the diocesan website, not YouTube (unless you have a paid account) as YouTube will have ads. I know some people who just zoom ahead and listen to his homilies as they also go to Mass in person – he is an inspiring, moving preacher.  Bishop Greg is a Carmelite and at times he weaves into his comments bits about St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Mass is being shared from a Carmelite Monastery. Also, that diocese suffered a terrible flood in Feb 2022. If you can help, there’s a place to donate.
  2. In our own diocese, Fr. Brendan McGuire at St. Simon’s in Los Altos leads a wonderful Mass at 9 a.m. and provides thoughtful and helpful homilies. The 9 a.m. Mass is livestreamed on YouTube and on Facebook.
  3. St. Ignatius in San Francisco does live streaming of a number of Masses. This is a Jesuit parish and there are a variety of presiders / homilists. It’s got a sophisticated audio visual crew, which is helpful. Great preaching, as is typical with Jesuits!
  4. In SoCal, St. Monica in Santa Monica is another vibrant parish community and the times I’ve been there in person (many years ago) or watching online it’s been a wonderful experience. Sunday Mass is livestreamed at 9:30 a.m.

But wait, there’s more!

Being Catholic is more than just attending or watching Mass on Sunday.

  • There are loads of resources online and in print for daily prayer. One is the Jesuit prayer app, which I use most days. I’ve sometimes used a Franciscan and other orders’ prayer apps, too. Go to Google Play or the Apple store and do a search.
  • Prefer paper to apps? Bishop Kenneth Untener created little prayer books that I have found to be  really helpful (he died in 2004 but you can still get these seasonal booklets online).
  • There are opportunities to support your parish and Catholic charities, religious orders, refugees, the homeless, and related causes. Donate – it feels good to help!
  • Many parishes collect goods for the homeless, for unwed mothers needing support, or other causes.
  • Try to stay involved, even if you have to be off-site or remote. We can’t all be in the pews, but we can find ways to be connected and to foster it in others.

It’s a myth that our Churches were all filled to the brim before Covid hit, but they are certainly more empty now than they were. What can we each do to help build up the faithful? As the pandemic hopefully fades, we will find ourselves being a little like St. Francis, of whom God asked “Rebuild my Church“.