Saturday, July 2, 2011

History in the Making: Reflections on Declining Mass Attendance 1

Last Saturday evening I went to mass at a Church in the Hyde Park section of Chicago.  It is a beautiful old Church, probably built about ninety years ago and well maintained.  It has been adapted minimally to the requirements of the current liturgy which is to say that an altar facing the people has been installed but otherwise the original plan has been maintained—and appropriately so as much of the art and interior decoration is of a superior quality and the overall affect of the architectural layout is just short of breathtaking.  The liturgy itself was somewhat bland but carefully prepared.  Other than the exceptional quality of the pipe organ and its playing there was nothing to recommend it.  The hymns were well chosen for the feast but quite staid.  The readers read well enough but without a sense of proclamation.  The presider was kindly but I though lacked a sense of gravitas.  I don’t think the priest should be particularly formal, much less pompous, but I do think there is a proper decorum in his words and the way he carries himself, but then this is the Midwest and he may have been sufficiently decorous by those standards.  As a homilist—well, he preached three fine homilies, one after the other.  He seems to be naturally well-spoken but was obviously unprepared, and for such an important feast!   I don’t mean to be negative; I think I am being quite objective.  What was startling, at the least, was that there were less than a hundred people at the Saturday evening mass.  I was told Sunday morning was better but there are only three masses on the weekend in this particular parish which is in a high-density neighborhood in a very populous city.  I had heard about the declining number of mass going Catholics but this brought it home.  It has not been my previous experience
I would like to contrast that with the parish where I usually worship on Sunday mornings (and occasionally on a Saturday evening).  This parish is a suburban parish in a well-to do neighborhood in a medium sized east coast metropolitan area.  There are two Saturday evening masses—one in English, one in Spanish.  There are four English language and one Spanish language mass on Sunday mornings and early afternoon. There is yet another English language mass on Sunday evening.  I would estimate there to be three thousand worshippers at the English language masses, and perhaps eight hundred to a thousand at the two Spanish language masses.  The liturgies are well prepared but not particularly creative.  The readers—at least at the English language masses (I can’t comment on the Spanish language masses) proclaim well.  The music as the Spanish language masses is enthusiastic and sound wonderful; at the English language masses I think the music isn’t bad but could be much better.  To its enhancement, however, various parishioners often bring a variety of instruments—trumpet, violin, guitar, flute, cello—and play with the pianist/organist.  They have a decent organ and I think they could use it more often to the overall betterment of the liturgy.   The building itself is late twentieth century.  It is aesthetically harmonious but without particular charm.  The preaching is consistently good, the various priests who preside there each having his own style, but all well thought of by the parishioners.  I have been asking parishioners why they attend mass there.  (Parishioners come from a wide area—some coming from forty miles away on a Sunday.)   
The strongest response, by far, is that there is a strong sense of community.  People say that they feel invested in the relationships that center around the parish.  They know one another, are concerned about one another, and feel that they belong to one another.  I have noticed that when there is a funeral many parishioners become involved in the various ministries—serving the mass in the various ministries, visiting the family to ascertain their needs at the time, helping with whatever luncheon or reception the family wants after the mass. Coffee and donut socials or pancake breakfasts (provided monthly by the Knights of Columbus) draw a good crowd.  People come early and stay afterwards as well as participate in a variety of activities through the week.  They seem to be able to tell the difference between “Going to Church” and “going to Mass” and while they are faithful to mass, they see the Mass, not as Church but as the Church at prayer.  They know that going to Church is much more than attending Mass.  In our next entry we will look at four other reasons why this Church is filled when so many other Catholic churches are emptying.

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