Disturbing statistics were sent last December to regional vicars of the archdiocese. Most worrying is the continuing decline of numbers at weekend Mass, down from 17 per cent in 2007 to 14 per cent in 2017, taken in the season of Lent mind you. In so-called ‘Godless’ America, the corresponding figure is 30–35 per cent. We are heading in the direction of France, Holland and Belgium.
The largest percentage decline in numbers at Mass occurred in the southern vicariate which comprises 15 parishes with 43 outlying communities served by 12 priests. The data is quantitative not qualitative; we have figures, but we do not have analysis and hence information as to why trends are the way they are.
Low Mass attendance contributes to low priest morale. Especially under the cluster system, many priests travel long distances on bad roads to celebrate Mass for congregations of 5 to 15 people. They often reach home late at night.
While it is laudable to celebrate Mass no matter how small the numbers, we miss the boat when we fail to realise these symptoms point to a deep systemic dysfunction. Poor homilies are undoubtedly one of the causes of low attendance, but one can hardly give one’s best in the face of a half-empty church or less.
There are other problems that flow from this. Young Mass-goers when looking for a church-going Catholic spouse cannot find one; that prospective spouse is often in the party line, spending time on clothes and entertainment; at pubs, bars and restaurants.
Such faithful Catholics end up getting married to non-Catholics, especially Pentecostals, who are invariably church-going people. There is nothing wrong in interreligious marriage but when it is tending in the direction of the norm, we are looking at a disintegration of the Catholic way of life.
Infant baptism is also in a parlous state. The cry from church-going parents regarding practising Catholics as godparents is: “We can’t find any!” This is understandable for the large majority are in the non-practising category, especially ages 18–30.
Needless to say, faithful parents grieve over this situation. They wonder what they did wrong to cause such widespread abandonment of the tradition in which they proudly grew up their children.
It is a source of anguish for priests, too. This dwindling of numbers also affects Mass at Catholic schools. Here the practising Catholics are so few and the responses at Mass so weak that one wonders if it makes sense celebrating Mass at schools at all.
Yet we cannot give up. On Friday we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation and it is customary to bless candles on that day which can be used for prayer or at the coming Easter Vigil. Light symbolises hope, not only in the religious sphere but the secular one too. Lit candles adorn the premises of mass shootings or bombings of the innocent.
This light will soon be brought to parishes as we discuss, at the behest of our archbishop, five topics: Catholic Education, Clergy and Vocations, the Parish, the Family, and Leadership in Church and Society.
These are our “two turtledoves” or “two young pigeons” and we know, like Noah’s dove, they bear the hope of a new beginning.