Wednesday, July 13, 2011

History in the Making: More Reasons Why Catholics Do (or Don't) Attend Mass

Mass is the center of a Catholic Community
but its Mission is what gives it authenticity
The next point to bring up in people attending mass regularly is that a sense of mission binds them to a particular worshipping community.  When I asked people in the parish where I attend mass why they come to mass they told me that the primary reason is that they experience a sense of community with this particular parish, but as the conversations unfolded I realized that it is not only a sense of belonging or an emotional sense of being “home” or “among family,” but that they are anchored into this parish because of their involvement in the parish’s sense of mission.  This particular community has over one hundred ministries ranging from providing luncheons after funerals to preparing parents of children who are to be baptized; from developing senior citizen housing and day care to signing for the hearing impaired during mass.  There are teams for adult education, bible study, faith formation as well as for caring for the vestments, organizing Religious Education, and serving pancake breakfasts between the masses once a month. There is a foodbank for those who need help feeding their families.  There is choir, altar servers, ministers of hospitality, wedding coordinators, the bereavement team, and countless other ways to be involved.  There is Little Rock Bible Study, Lay Spirituality groups, Just Faith, Cursillo and other groups.  Every year the parish has a huge festival with ethnic foods, music, entertainment, amusements for the children, garden shop, white elephant, and other activities.  The festival recruits hundreds of parishioners for all the organization, and revenues all go to parish outreach programs. In addition the parish tithes its income for various outreach programs in the area.   All this goes to build an incredible sense of community and that draws parishioners to Mass because they feel invested in the parish and its mission.  Frankly, I have been to places with better liturgy and better preaching, but I have not seen places with  a stronger sense of community-in-mission.  As a result the parish draws people from 72 different zip codes, some people driving over fifty miles on Sunday to come to Mass. 
This sense of Mission in this parish is something that was developed and is still maintained by the laity.  The pastor is free for celebrating Mass, preparing his homilies, hearing confessions, and being available for the pastoral needs of his parishioners because he trusts the laity to take responsibility for the mission of the parish.  While there is only the pastor and the parochial vicar for the Hispanic Community and no other priests, the parish staff includes over a dozen full-time lay ministers for youth, religious education, social concerns, liturgy/music, adult faith formation, etc.  In addition there is a full time administrator who looks after the finances and maintenance issues.  In many ways it is an ideal ecclesial community and a healthy parish draws healthy parishioners.   Granted its emphasis on social concerns and the “Social Gospel” has caused some people to go to more “traditional” parishes, those who choose this particular church make a choice and that  choice is precisely what gives people a sense of investment and belonging that draws them to fuller participation.  This is not an easy place to “just go to Mass;” go to Mass and you will want to become more and more invested in the community.  
My experience is that this is the sort of parish that was envisioned in the Reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  It is an active community whose mission finds its purpose in the Word of God and its strength in the Eucharist and whose Eucharistic Celebrations not only empower its members for service but are themselves enriched by the experience of the parishioners sharing in the mission of Jesus.  While many of the other parishes around have sufficient Masses for their needs, as well as Holy Hours, Benediction, Rosaries, and Novenas they lack the spiritual vitality of this parish because they limit the expression of their faith to devotional practices (and have reduced the Mass to the level of a “super-devotion”) instead of providing the opportunity for their members to lead lives of discipleship.  My only fear is that as the Second Vatican Council is stripped from the memory of today’s Catholics and replaced by a reconstruction of the preconciliar American Immigrant Catholicism the Catholic Church in our country will lose not only its energy but what credibility it still has as a harbinger of the Gospel.   

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