Falling Mass Attendance and the Liturgy

In his pastoral letter “Through Doors Wide Open” for the final weeks of the Year of Grace and Faith, Archbishop Mark Coleridge speaks of the “many Catholics who no longer walk through the door of the Church”. Exploring why people stop attending Mass may be helpful in devising strategies for encouraging them to return to communal worship.

A 2007 report of a research project on Catholics who have stopped attending Mass included this: “they (responders) did not get anything out of going to Mass any more… and came away from Mass feeling angry and frustrated”.

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, music that is poorly chosen and led, church buildings that are unattractive, and presiding that is lifeless do not encourage commitment to regular worship.

When Catholics who rarely if ever come to Mass say that it is because they don’t get anything out of it, a common response is “Well, you won’t get anything out of it if you don’t put something into it”. This reply can be an excuse for not taking justified criticism on board and evaluating parish liturgies to see if they 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.

Mass is often enough the only form of liturgical experience that we offer people. While Mass is indeed the high point of our worship, it was never intended to be the only form. 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 some people away from our churches. The hypocrisy of those who preach love one minute and the next use derogatory language and unethical tactics against those they perceive as undermining Church teachings or doctrine 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 people realise that this diagnosis and remedy are simplistic in the extreme. 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, more people would have fallen away from the practice of the faith.


Elizabeth Harrington