Thursday, July 14, 2011

History in the Making: Mass attendance--The Reasons Why People Come to Mass (or don't)

Sunday Mass in a vibrant Catholic Parish
The final point I want to make about the reasons for people attending Mass—or drifting away from mass—depends in great part on the personality of the clergy.  We may argue that it should not make a difference, we come to Church to worship God not because of Father So-and-so.  But the single most common reason that Catholics will give as to why they no longer attend church depends on their interaction with a particular priest.   Some priest at some time said something cruel, or failed to be present at a key pastoral moment, or did something offputting in the liturgy or in some other way gave scandal or offense. 
     I have used the parish where I regularly attend mass as an example of an active and vibrant congregation.  Approximately three thousand people attend one of eight weekend liturgies, some coming from as far away as fifty miles, because they find something in this particular parish.  I have already mentioned the sense of community, the quality of the liturgy and the preaching, the sense of mission, but a significant number of people feel drawn by the priests here in the parish.  There are two priests assigned to the parish—the pastor and the parochial vicar.  The Parochial Vicar is a native Spanish speaker, his English is weak, and most of his work is with the Hispanic community in the Parish.  We recently, within the last two months, have had a change of pastors and are just coming to know our new pastor.  He is not a total stranger: far from it.  His family lives in the parish and he himself has “filled in” various weekends over the years when we needed some auxiliary help.  There is a third priest who lives in the rectory while pursuing a graduate degree and who helps out.  And there are two religious order priests who help out as needed. 
      We have been fortunate in the personalities of each of these priests.  Each one is a very unique person with different gifts and talents but they have certain common denominators.  First they are all good preachers—not necessarily great preachers, but good preachers.  One of them is quite outspoken but handles disagreement well—he always says  “I don’t want you to agree with me; I just want you to think!”  Each of them brings his spirituality to bear in his homilies and they all, each in his own way, is candid about his own faults and failings.  None of them talk down to us.  We find something worth grasping and taking home in their homilies.  Secondly, they are all reverent in their celebration—again each in a somewhat different style.  Some are a bit more formal than others; others perhaps warmer in their style.  But they are all prayerful.
       And they are friendly.  They have time for parishioners.  They stand outside church after mass to greet people.  If someone wants to talk—or needs to talk—they make themselves available.  If there is a social they come—and the religious priests don’t live on campus and have to come some distance—but they are generous with their time.  Most parishioners call the various priests “Father” but they each seem comfortable when they are addressed by their given name.  One of the religious priests is quite humorous and makes everyone laugh whether in a one-to-one conversation or when speaking with a group.  They all bring a sense of joy in their priesthood and are an advertisement for vocations. 
      Too often I hear about other situations where priests are very remote from their parishioners and are not available to them except in sacramental roles.   The priest pontificates both at the altar—mistaking pomp for reverence—and in the pulpit, declaiming about things of which he knows little or nothing.  Many priests presume to tell their parishioners how to think or for whom to vote as if we were incapable of making good moral decisions on our own.  Few priests seem to know much about the life of the laity.  They speak in ideals as if  they had a congregation of Ozzie and Harrietts (that dates me) or the Cleavers.  Some speak about complex medical or psychological issues as if all wisdom lie digested in their bellies. 
       One of the real weaknesses today in the Church is the effeminacy of so many of the clergy.  Some priests argue that men are put off by the presence of so many women in the sanctuary as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, servers, etc.  I don’t think so.   But many men are made uncomfortable by the effeminate vesture and mannerisms of the priest saying mass.  This is not to say that vestments are somewhat “drag” but lace and pompoms and fussiness don’t lend themselves to the Sunday afternoon beer and football crowd.  Priests should be simply and with dignity vested, but avoid the self-aggrandizement of  decking themselves out conspicuously ornate robes.  Similarly they should walk like a man and not mince around the altar like a ballerina with a weak ankle.  There was a guide-book some years ago to teach priests good manners and handsome mannerisms at the altar and it was entitled Strong, Loving, and Wise.  These many years later that is still what we are looking for in our priests. 

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