Thursday, July 7, 2011

History in the Making: Why Mass Attendance is Falling 3

Sunday Mass at a Mission Station in Kenya
An Appreciation of the Preached Word
Well, we have looked at two reasons that draw people to Mass—a sense of community and well prepared liturgies.  Today let’s look at a third reason why people come to Mass—or, more likely, one of the key reasons why those who have stopped attending Mass regularly, have stopped.  And that is good preaching or the lack thereof. 
I mentioned in the previous two entries that I have spoken to countless parishioners at the parish where I most regularly worship.  (Given the frequency of my travel, I can’t say that I am there for Mass every Sunday.)  This parish draws people, between thirty-five hundred and four thousand, from a wide radius—some from over forty miles away—to one or another of its eight Sunday Masses, while many other parishes in our metropolitan areas have only three or four masses a weekend, and none of them full.  The most common reply I received in asking people why they attend Mass is that they find a sense of community in this particular parish.  The second most common reply was that they find the liturgies spiritually enriching.  The third reason—the one we will look at today—is that they find the homilies deepen their faith. 
There are four priests regularly associated with the parish—the pastor, a Spanish speaking associate who ministers almost exclusively to the Hispanic Community, and two regular weekend “rent-a-priests.”  One of the weekenders does do some adult education in the parish and occasionally helps out with funerals or weddings as needed.  There are several other priests who occasionally fill in when needed, but none are there enough that I could comment on their preaching style.  As I mentioned in the last posting, each of the regulars has a very distinct style and all three are appreciated.  There are some common denominators among them.
Each of them seems to know the difference between preaching and teaching.  One of the weekenders is a seminary professor, but even he doesn’t mix preaching and teaching.  Teaching is informational.  Preaching is motivational.  The homily is not the time to explain doctrines unless it is also clearly explained what relevance that doctrinal presentation has to do with the way we live our lives in the everyday world.  (The professor is particularly good on this.)  We do not need Father to show-off in the pulpit about how much he knows.  We need to have practical guidance for living our Christian faith in the everyday world.
None of these preachers presume that we are stupid.  This particular parish is well-to-do and highly educated.  It contains a fair number of military and retired military, State Department, Government employees, lawyers, health-care professionals, and a cadre of Internationals who live in our area.  The priests are all well-read, informed and articulate.  They neither talk “above our heads” or “down” to us.  In conversation they respect our experience in our various fields and show a willingness to learn from the experience of parishioners.  They don’t tell us how to think or act, but supply us with philosophical, theological, and magisterial information to help us form enlightened opinions and determine moral courses of action on our own as thinking adults.  They listen respectfully to our comments on their homilies and do not become angry when we disagree with them.    They do not pretend to have expertise in areas about which they know little or nothing.
Each of these men speaks clearly and with sufficient volume.  (One might be somewhat hard of hearing as I think he is actually too loud and seems unaware of it himself.)
They are all prepared when they come into the pulpit.  Their homilies do not wander and they do not try to cover every subject under the sun.  One of the priests tends to preach about fifteen minutes, but frankly most people would not care if he went even longer as he is well spoken, thought-provoking, and is blessed with a wonderful voice.  The other two, equally fine speakers, rarely preach more than ten to twelve minutes.   
While each of them has certain topics or approaches to which they seem to return with some regularity, none of them “has only one string on his violin.”  Homilies almost always draw their point from the scripture readings of the day and each preacher speaks on a wide variety of subjects over the course of the liturgical year.  One of the preachers has a strong tendency towards “peace and justice” topics, another on spirituality and prayer, and a third on what might be called “every day discipleship;” you can’t say that any one of them is a single issue preacher. 
Finally, I think each of the three seems to be a man of spiritual depth and prayer as their homilies reflect a deep personal commitment to Christ and his Gospel.  They don’t talk theory but speak from their own experience—and not their experience as priests so much as their common experience with their listeners, as disciples of Jesus.  This brings up the final point—one I had not thought of until I was writing this.  They preach the Gospel.   They show respect to the Church, but they don’t preach Catholicism per se; they preach the Message of Jesus.  A Baptist or an Episcopalian sitting in the pews would find as much to take home with them as the most devout Catholic.   Christ is the center of their message. 
Now as I have written in other entries, my speaking engagements take me into Protestant as well as Catholic circles and I have asked former Catholics why they have left the Church and probably the single most common answer I have received is that the preaching has driven them out.  Some complain that the preaching wasn’t “bible based.”  They complain that the Catechism is quote, the pope is quoted, some saint or other is quoted, but never the scripture.  Other say that all they ever heard was about money or abortion or gay marriage and while they might agree on abortion or same-sex unions, and while they know that the Church needs money (and they are giving more to their new Church than they ever gave as Catholics) the preaching just was not giving them what they needed to live on.  “It was the same message every Sunday” is a frequent complaint.  “You know, I know more about life than that guy in the pulpit and he was always trying to tell me how to think”…”or how to vote”…”or how to raise my children.”  
I would like to say that the Catholic Church has come a long way since Vatican II, at least as regards preaching.  It was pretty bad in the “old days.”  Many priests rarely preached, and none ever preached between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  The “sermon” was a frill—and usually an unwanted one at that—at Mass.  I’d like to say that we have come a long way, but I think it would be more honest to say that those priests and deacons who do preach well have come a long way, but as a Church we are still failing to preach the Word effectively in most situations.    

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