More about Falling Mass Attendance and the Liturgy

According to the National Church Life Survey cited last week, very few of those surveyed said that the reason they attended church most recently was to take part in an ordinary Sunday service. The most recent experience of church worship for the majority of people was a wedding, baptism or funeral. The harsh reality is that it is on the basis of these rite-of-passage liturgies that many people make judgements about the Catholic Church and what its worship has to offer them.

Such occasions represent a significant opportunity for contact between the church and those outside parish life.  Yet parishes put most of their time and effort into Sunday Mass and it is unusual for members of the parish to be present at weddings, baptisms and funerals. Often the priest is left to carry the burden as sole representative of the parish community.

Christmas and Easter services are also key times for connecting with those who attend church infrequently.  Parishes need to make the most of the opportunity this provides to offer a good experience of worship and to issue invitations to other parish activities.

A drop in the numbers of people attending Sunday Mass has a significant effect on the liturgy.  It means that fewer people with the necessary skills are available to carry out the tasks of preparing good liturgy and performing a variety of liturgical ministries, thus placing an added burden on those who remain.

A drop in parish income will inevitably result in cut-backs in the liturgy budget, if there is one.  It is very difficult to do liturgy well without access to new music and other liturgical resources.  Furthermore, ensuring that the worship space and the vestments and vessels used in liturgy are attractive and worthy requires an outlay of money on a regular basis for renovation, upgrading and replacement.

A decline in Mass attendance inevitably leads to a review of the parish Mass timetable.  Scheduling fewer Masses is the obvious response but experience shows that this will lead to an even further decline in attendance.  Closing worship centres as a means of making more efficient use of use declining human and financial resources also causes pain for the community and results in further disaffiliation by those who are directly affected.

Some people argue that we should not be concerned with Mass attendance figures as it is not the only indicator of faith and we should be wary of assuming a ‘bums-on-seats’ mentality. There are even some who are happy to see a smaller Church if it means a more committed, “orthodox” membership. On the other hand, we believe that liturgy is the summit and source of the Christian life and understand how essential it is to be nourished regularly at the table of the word and the table of the Eucharist.

There is evidence too that faith weakens over time without the support of a like-minded faith community and without the pastoral care offered by belonging to a parish.  Worshipping with a community of fellow believers takes us beyond ourselves to become part of something bigger.  It enables us to experience Eucharist as participation in a cosmic event which is celebrated by others in every corner of the world and which has been celebrated by men and women of faith for 2000 years.

Elizabeth Harrington