by Justin Frato
A recent report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (
CARA) indicated that
only 23% of U.S. Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. This
is down 51% from a seventy year high in 1957-1958 of 74%. The CARA report also indicates that weekly
Mass attendance is decreasing with each subsequent generation. This is a sad trend that is even more evident
in other formerly Catholic nations.
Why is this happening? Many theories can be postulated. Some attribute the generational decrease to less of an emphasis on missing Sunday Mass being a mortal sin. Others speculate that the Mass simply does not engage the modern person. Some say that modern people are simply too busy to make time for Mass. While these theories certainly may attribute in part to the decrease, there is one overarching factor that may be forgotten. It is the same reason why so many young Catholic couples live together before marriage and so many young people in religious education are bored at class. Far too many Catholics simply do not have a relationship with the one who is the very center of Catholicism, Jesus Christ. Decreased Mass attendance is just one symptom of a greater problem.
Let’s look at this from another perspective. What if I told you that the only reason I married my wife was because I was afraid of how much she and her family would hate me if I didn’t do this and I then went on to tell you how boring my wedding day was. When you asked me how our relationship has been since our marriage, I mentioned that I am too busy to make my wife a priority and I don’t care to get to know her more anyway. You would probably think I was one of the most unromantic, dispassionate, self-centered people you ever met. What if I then went on to tell you that I come from a culture where there is a very strong tradition of young couples being betrothed to one another? You would probably be more sympathetic to me after hearing about the forces that culture and tradition have in my feelings towards my wife. Now let’s put this in the context on Catholics and their relationship with Christ.
Is it any wonder that there is little enthusiasm about going to Mass and learning more about the Catholic Faith when so many do not have a loving relationship with our divine bridegroom, Jesus? Just as a person who is forced into marriage is not passionately in love with their spouse, so people who are Catholic simply because it is part of their culture will struggle to be passionate about Jesus and the Church he has given us. In both cases the individual needs to fall in love with their spouse before they live out all of the responsibilities and privileges of marriage.
In his Apostolic Exhortation “On Catechesis in Our Times,” Pope John Paul II identifies failure to know and love Jesus as a key problem in the catechesis of young Catholics: “ A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit; and opposition is quickly created by the prejudices of their non-Christian family background or of the positivist spirit of their education.” (Par. 19) He sees this lack of initial proclamation not only occurring among the young but among adults as well. Many Catholics have been sacramentalized and catechized but never evangelized. This is precisely why Pope John Paul II called for the New Evangelization.
Having a relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Protestant thing as the excerpt from Pope John Paul II illustrates. We are all called into a relationship with Christ and his Church. It is only when we fall in love with Jesus that we will truly desire to worship him and receive his Body at
Mass. When we are introduced to Jesus we will want
to know more and more about this captivating man and we will want to invite
others to know Him as well.
But how can this daunting task be accomplished? We must begin to be intentional in all our parish activities in inviting others into this relationship. For example, in an informational session for parents of those children receiving a sacrament, we need to move past making this merely about the logistics of the reception of the Sacrament to inviting these parents and their children to respond to the sacramental graces that may lie dormant in them until they put their faith in Jesus Christ. Facilitating such conversion can also happen through more direct parish programs such as retreats or missions. Catholics must be taught and empowered to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to share their faith by both word and deed in their neighborhoods and workplace. This can be as simple as sharing their own story about how God has transformed their life. Whatever form it takes, we must follow Pope Francis’ lead and just do it!
I guarantee you that if Catholics would heed the Church’s call for a New Evangelization, the solution to much of the stagnancy in the Church would follow. From a relationship with Christ flows a desire to be generous with all that one is and has. When Catholics fall in love with Christ, Mass attendance will skyrocket, there will be better stewardship in parishes, more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a zeal to know the faith and share it with others, and broad reaching social outreach. Catholics in this country do not primarily need better Masses or faith formation programs, they need to know and love the God who has the power to transform every part of their life.