Falling Mass Attendance and the Liturgy

Falling Mass Attendance and the Liturgy
The final report of an Australian Catholics Bishops Conference research project on Catholics who have stopped attending Mass has just been released. The report includes this comment: “they (responders) did not get anything out of going to Mass any more… and came away from Mass feeling angry, frustrated and wondering why they were still attending”.
We need to be honest and admit that in too many places and on too many occasions worship is not the ‘summit and source’ of Christian life that it is intended to be. Scripture readings that are not well proclaimed, homilies that are unprepared or uninspiring, music that is poorly chosen and performed, church buildings that are unattractive and presiding that is unenthusiastic are unfortunately much too prevalent.
People who still consider themselves Catholic despite the fact that they rarely attend Mass frequently claim that they ‘don’t get anything out of it’. A common, and somewhat glib, response to this is ‘Well, you won’t get anything out of it if you don’t put something into it!’.
This reply can often be an excuse for not taking justified criticism on board and evaluating current liturgical practice in the parish to see if it might be improved. The comment about not getting anything out of Mass might, however, point to a problem beyond poor liturgies. Liturgy is an expression of faith.
No matter how well prepared and celebrated a worship service might be, it will be virtually meaningless to someone who has no faith, who is not convinced of the centrality of the paschal mystery in their life. Mass will indeed be boring to anyone who comes along expecting to sit back and be entertained.
In the Catholic Church, we have been inclined put all our ‘liturgical eggs in the Mass basket’. Mass is often enough the only form of liturgical experience that we offer people. The Mass is indeed the high point of our worship, but it was never intended to be the only form of worship. For Mass to be an encounter with the divine, participants need a certain degree of liturgical literacy, of familiarity with the structure, language, and symbolism of the Mass. For seekers, the uncatechised, occasional worshippers, young people, and others, it may not be the most welcoming or relevant style of worship.
Disputes between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘liberals’ in parishes have certainly turned people away from our churches. The hypocrisy of those who preach love one minute and then use the most dishonest and unethical tactics against those they perceive as undermining ‘orthodox faith’ is especially repugnant to young people.
Those who blame Vatican II for all the present problems in the Church claim that the solution to the decline in Mass attendance is simple: go back to Latin Masses, teach kids about their obligation to attend Mass and our churches will once again be overflowing! Most sensible people realise that this diagnosis and remedy are extremely simplistic. Liturgical change is not the sole cause of falling Mass attendance. Massive social changes in the 1960s had the greatest impact on attitudes to religion and to authority in general. In fact, many believe that if the Council had not been held, the Church would be in a worse state at present.
Next week I will look at a liturgical response to the challenge of falling Mass attendance.

Elizabeth Harrington